3.16.2011

Book Review: Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen & Bruce Coville

EXTRA: Alz is also guest-blogging over at the fantabulous Ms. Sophia's blog today about getting an MFA in Creative Writing Fantasy. Go check it out!

I bought this book from the library for 25 cents and then discovered that due to a printing error, the book skipped directly from page 202 to 235, out of a total 266. (See #3 in this post for details.) When my Amazon order arrived, I finally got to read those last freaking 64 pages.

Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen & Bruce Coville

Pros: Emotionally and intellectually complex story, down-to-earth yet full of questions of faith, alternately funny and very serious.
Cons: Emily Dickinson? Really?

Intellectual Rating: 9 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: A

Book Blurb: The world will end on July 27.

Marina's mom is a Believer. So is Jed's dad. That's why they've dragged Marina and Jed to a mountain retreat with the rest of Reverend Beelson's flock. From the mountaintop the Believers will watch the Righteous Conflagration that will scour the world clean—and then they will descend to begin God's world anew.

But this world has only just begun for Jed and Marina, two teenagers who aren't sure they believe in anything, let alone that everything they've ever known will soon vanish in a blaze of fire. Why should the world end now, when Marina and Jed have just fallen in love for the first time in their lives?

Alz's Take: Given the way the book blurb runs, I feel obliged to point out right now that this book is not primarily a romance, although romance does have a large part to play—and it feels like a pretty realistic tentative hey-that-girl-is-kind-of-pretty hey-that-boy-is-kind-of-cute fourteen-year-old first-love scenario, complete with awkward moments and gradually getting to know each other. It was quite nicely done, actually.

Moving on to the nitty-gritty: The book is told from two first-person POVs—Marina's and Jed's, usually alternating between chapters and occasionally not, making for a natural and well-paced narrative progression. Every now and then between chapters is brief supplementary material in the form of letters, dialogue transcripts, schedules, sermon excerpts, etc. I quite enjoyed this creative touch, as the information gives extra insight into both the external and internal activities of various characters and what the rest of the world is up to.

Marina and Jed are immensely well-developed characters, individual and real and either identifiable or understandable depending on the circumstances. Their voices are distinct and strong, and though I know nothing about how the book was written, I'd bet that Jane Yolen wrote the Marina sections and Bruce Coville wrote the Jed sections, given what I know of the authors' interests and writing styles. I liked Jed better than Marina because Jed is funny—totally a pragmatic and sometimes slightly stupid but quite self-aware 14-year-old-boy, who wouldn't have any truck with his dad's sudden bout of religion except that his dad needs looking after.

Which is not to say that I didn't like Marina. I ended up mostly liking her except for one important trait that I'll get to later. I admit that when I started reading, I had steeled myself in case Marina turned out to be either a soppy heroine or a stereotyped religious one. (Considering the authors involved, I should have known better.) Life has thrown a lot of crap on Marina's plate: struggling with her faith, the responsibility of looking after her five younger brothers, and dealing with a father who may be having an affair and a mother who is turning into someone unrecognizable due to sudden induction into a religious cult.

The cult is the main focus of the book—a cult complete with a leader who takes his chosen ones to camp out on a mountain where they will be the only ones saved from the end of the world, and this means they have to set up camp by storing supplies, building an electric fence, and patrolling the premises with large firearms.

But it's not just a crazy camp, as Jed first believes. A good many of the Believers seem like pretty normal decent people, except for their belief in Reverend Beelson's preaching. Reverend Beelson himself appears to be a man who truly believes the end is coming, and it is his duty to see to it that the right souls are saved. But he's not some crazy old man—he's a gentle and considerate one, who speaks reasonably and kindly to Jed, such that even Jed, a non-Believer immersed in their ranks, begins to feel like he's a part of something bigger than himself and maybe, maybe to Believe.

In this manner, the book shows how reasonable something can seem when everyone around you is passionate about it, and the psychological effects of peer pressure via group fervency—the sheer force of dozens of people whom you know, and like, and trust all believing fiercely, with you there in the thick of it. It's quite superbly subtly done—shown rather than told, experienced and felt by Jed and Marina without heavy-handedness.

There's one primary thing that kept me from giving this book 10 stars, and it's the fact that Marina is an Emily Dickinson fangirl. While I'm not saying it's unrealistic for there to be a 14-year-old girl who's read her copy of the collected works of Emily D. so many times that she actually thinks random lines of poetry to herself relatable to her current situation that—

Wait, what the hell am I saying? That is damnedly unrealistic. No 14-year-old girl is going to sit, awkwardly and nervously, beside the new attractive boy on hill at night where they're not really supposed to be, and think, "Whose cheek is this? What rosy face Has lost a blush today?" (Incidentally, the citation part of my MLA soul screams that there should be some /'s in there to denote line breaks, though I guess I'll forgive the lack of line citations.)

Marina busts out the Emily Dickinson poetry so often that I'm sure if she had a car, her bumper sticker would read, "WWEDD—What Would Emily Dickinson Do?" Marina lives and breathes by the poetry of good ol' Em, reads it to her baby brothers, treasures her poetry book, turns to Emily Dickinson for life inspiration and advice. It's just such a weird thing for a young teenage girl to obsess over. I apologize to any current and former real-life 14-year-old Emily Dickinson fangirls, but I mean come on, Marina's level of obsession is just too absurd when she starts thinking lines of poetry in the face of her increasingly neglectful and abusive mother, the cute boy who moved next door, and the fact that the world is doomed to end on fire on her birthday—no. Just no.

It felt like the result of a writing exercise wherein one must incorporate Emily Dickinson and her poetry into a current unrelated project. Emily Dickinson becomes a deliberate and obvious theme that detracts from everything else because I'd really rather be concentrating on Marina's feelings and not which poem best fits the situation.

Another thing I didn't quite like so much was how the book ended—not the events themselves, which were everything a dramatic climactic ending should be, but rather how the aftermath/falling action proceeded. While I understand that the authors probably wanted to maintain a sense of narrative balance, I felt like the book ended three times: once for each of the last three chapters/sections. I did, however, appreciate the explanation of certain things. I just wish it had been done in a slightly less clunky Here-Is-the-Resolution fashion.

Alz's Conclusion: Armageddon Summer is a fast, fascinating read providing insight into the mentality and organization of religious cults through the eyes of two young teens of differing levels of faith, family, and background. Jed is a wiseass who gradually begins to doubt his belief as well as his disbelief at the same time, while Marina is trying hard to be a good believer and a good Believer, despite her overbearing fangirlishness for Emily Dickinson. Despite an overbearing poetry theme and a wee bit of finessing in the end, the story is solid. This book is a journey through the formation of a cult and how divisions of thought and belief can tear families apart—and how quickly bonds of friendship and trust can form regardless of circumstance.

5 comments:

Lydia K said...

Ooh, very good review. I've thought of incorporating a book into the thoughts of a character, and this is making me think about how it could be done well, and not so well.
Another great one!

Angela Felsted said...

Fabulous review. Maybe the main female character had aspergers and Dickinson was her special interest.

Sophia the Writer said...

That's kind of a hilarious thing to have happen. And weird.

Coville and Yolen? Dang...those are heavyweights. The Alien teacher series scared the crap out of me as a kid. But everything scared the crap out of me then. And now.

Hmn...maybe I need to pick this book up.

Alz said...

Lydia - Yeah, it can definitely be done well, though at the moment I can't for the life of me think of any examples even though I KNOW I've read books where it was all well and good. In Armageddon Summer, it bugged me more and more as the book went on because it was just so weirdly intrusive and unrealistic.

Angela - See! That would have made sense and maybe it wouldn't have bothered me so much if that had been explored as an issue! But instead it was annoyingly implausible and inexplicable.

Sophia - I loved Coville's Aliens series as well as his Magic Shop and Into the Land of the Unicorn series. And I loved Yolen's Pit Dragon trilogy-that's-now-got-four-books. That's why I was so excited to read this and was not disappointed (despite the Dickinson thing).

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