Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick

Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. BickDrowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick
Narrator: Kathleen McInerney
Published by Audible, Inc. on 3/5/12
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

This is a very good book that takes an in-depth but never gratuitous look at quite a few issues which, if less skillfully done, might be considered cheap fodder for driving a YA novel. It’s the immediacy of Jenna’s first person narrative and the lack of moralizing that combines with the tension of the no “black and white” answers and uncertainty about what’s going to happen (and what has already happened) to create a story that should capture and hold the attention of almost any reader. The audiobook narration is well done and captures the emotional intent of the story and the very distinct ‘voice’ of Jenna as the storyteller.

The Plot:

I often think including a plot summary in a review is an excellent way to a) refresh my memory of what I want to talk about and b) include events from the book I found relevant that may not be part of the publisher’s blurb or jacket copy while also giving someone reading the review an idea of what my focus in the book was. In the case of Drowning Instinct, not only is there a slow unwinding of the story that shouldn’t be spoiled but I also just can’t beat the back cover copy from the hardback:

I’m beating around the bush. I know I am. I don’t want to tell this story, and you know why? Because this is a fairy tale with teeth and claws, and here’s what completely sucks: you’re going to want black and white, right and wrong. I’m not sure I can give that to you. That’s the problem with the truth. Sometimes the truth is ambiguous, or a really bad cliché.

But this is the truth: I’m a liar.

I am lucky, a liar, a good girl, a princess, a thief —
and a killer.

And my reality —
my story —
begins with Mr. Anderson.

My Thoughts:

As Jenna uses a police detective’s voice recorder to detail the events leading up to her admittance to the emergency room, it quickly becomes clear that there are a lot of issues at play in this story. By the time the story starts, Jenna has been through a significant amount of trauma but she’s a young woman with a lot of resilience. Her story is compelling and the mental make-up of her character drew and held my interest but I did have a minor complaint: that degree of resilience in a sixteen year-old without allowing me direct observation of the back-story that details how it was acquired served to put her at one-remove from me in terms of establishing an emotional connection. The dysfunctional dynamics in Jenna’s family are clear but knowing about her alcoholic mother and controlling father and seeing how her childhood made her who she is are two different things. There’s a bit of sophistry in that comment though because complaining about the one layer of distance that caused is like skipping a third piece of cheesecake and pretending that’ll prevent weight gain – really, the investment was been made before that third piece.

Moving from psych ward patient to private “techie-science” school student is a bit of an adjustment for Jenna but as she settles in to her new school, she finds her way somewhat smoothed by her chemistry teacher. As her home life begins to slowly slide into greater disarray, Mr. Anderson becomes a touchstone for her. At this point, you may be thinking (as I was) I know how this is going to end but there were several surprises in store for me and the ending was only one of them. While most of the social/family issues in this story are subtly handled, it’s worth mentioning that Jenna’s struggles with cutting are front and center if that’s a topic you prefer to avoid.

This story is character-driven and part of what makes it so gripping is the gradual reveal of the psychological make-up and moral complexity of the characters. None of them are one-dimensional and they feel very true-to-life. The dynamics between Mr. Anderson and Jenna can whipsaw the reader’s emotions from one extreme to the other and as the threads of this story begin to wind together it’s like watching a disaster unfold. Not only was I not sure how the story would end though, I wasn’t even sure how I wanted it to end. The title represents only one of the metaphors in play in this book and I found it to be a particularly a powerful one. This is a story about family, where we find safety in our lives, how we navigate tragedy, and how we survive all of that. Jenna is most certainly a survivor but watching her get there was quite a ride.

The Narration:

Kathleen McInerney has an excellent read on the character of Jenna. She gives her an appropriately youthful voice and it morphs over the course of the story to reflect Jenna’s emotional changes. She is also one of the best narrators I’ve listened to in terms of differentiating male/female characters using only subtle tone or pitch changes. Although the listener is aware that the story structure is Jenna narrating past events, the sense of immediacy and “here and now” in the tale is fully realized. The emotions resonate through the narration and are never overdone, making them all the more powerful.

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Ashes by Ilsa J. BickAshes by Ilsa J. Bick
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Series: Ashes #1
Published by Audible, Inc. on 9/6/11
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: B

Alex is a terminally ill seventeen year-old girl who has ditched school, left the home of her aunt in Illinois, and headed for the woods of upper Michigan in an effort to make peace with her past and what’s left of her future. Her trek to spread the ashes of her parents at Lake Superior is interrupted: first by her encounter with an old man and his eight year-old granddaughter and then by an initially unexplained event that kills the old man and briefly disables Alex and young Ellie. As Alex and Ellie struggle to reach help they encounter Tom, a soldier in his early twenties who is on leave from a tour in Afghanistan. As the trio begins to make their way towards civilization they determine that the event that changed their lives was an electromagnetic pulse attack. That attack and the resultant nuclear explosions have irrevocably altered not just their world, but also the people in it.

Despite some issues with the structure of the story and the discovery that the narration didn’t align with my preferred style, I enjoyed this audiobook quite a bit. The descriptions, while not lyrical, are evocative and avoid the common mash of overused similes and descriptors. Ms. Brick has done an excellent job creating events and characters that, although neatly skirting probability, certainly contain the seeds of possibility.  Either her life-experience or solid research makes for a story where the possible is made more believable by a solid grounding in facts.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the EMP was deadly to most people between the ages of (roughly) thirteen and sixty and the teenagers/younger people who did survive have been turned into almost-mindless creatures ruled by hunger and violence.  As we see the “brain zapped” in action, there is a decent amount of gore in the descriptions. For me, it came across as horrible but not true horror. It is described in such a way that it feels more like flipping by The Learning Channel and seeing a surgery in progress: gross, but in a “yep, that’s what it would look like” kind of way rather than scenes written to squeeze the maximum amount of “ewwww!” from events. Additional information is worked into the story in a very organic manner that explains the why, how, and who of those who survived the EMP and I enjoyed the gradual development of the hypotheses.  Alex also finds herself changed but, refreshingly, she doesn’t suddenly develop superpowers. Instead, she gradually comes to understand what is different about her while leaving a lot of room for her new skills to bloom into a larger part of the story.

The characters are well-developed and very human in their mix of positive and negative characteristics and actions. The dangers that Alex, Tom, and Ellie encounter drive action scenes that are well written and very effective at ratcheting up the tension for the reader. In addition to physical drama, Alex’s emotional struggles make her more sympathetic than I might otherwise find her. When Alex reaches the community of Rule, the divide between old and young generates some interesting dynamics. Generation Z (which in this book may as well stand for zombie) is almost completely reviled by the older generation that she encounters on the road. They are viewed as a universally dangerous group and because of her age, Alex faces as much threat from the unchanged survivors as she does from her altered peers. When the community of Rule takes her in, Alex is torn between the seductive lure of safety and a rebellion against the level of control the community and its elders want to exert over her. The cult-like aspects of the community and Alex’s increasing awareness of how she has been changed by the EMP are just two aspects of the story that I would have liked to see developed further in this book.

That segues into what bothered me structurally about the story. Alex and her struggle to navigate through a changed world makes up the core structure of the story but there are several well-developed characters and the start of some very interesting ideas that travel along with her and add their own framework to the plot. There were several times it felt like that framework was stripped away and we once again start with Alex and have to add additional structural components. It was as if the story line that was driving the book forward was shifted off course by new events. Then, rather than moving on to a new section that continues to build tension in anticipation of returning to the previous plot threads with a resolution, new situations and new information is introduced. These new plot lines start building, needing their own resolution, and I lost the narrative tension for resolving the first issue. Then the plot would fracture again. The fact that the tension immediately starts to build again for the new situation is a mark of effective writing but after a while, plotus interruptus becomes frustrating.

I don’t mean to imply that the story is episodic, only that there are quite a few storylines that are unresolved and a lot of really great ideas that aren’t expounded upon. The ending is, in fact, a huge cliff-hanger. Overall, that gave me a certain sense of dissatisfaction although I also have the feeling that if the author can bring it all together and finish building on what is present in the first book of this trilogy, the whole will be significantly more than the sum of its parts (and the first part is pretty darn good).

I find myself very conflicted in rating the narration. Objectively I can recognize the tremendous amount of skill Katherine Kellgren brings to the story. Fully voiced characters, a pleasing voice overall, a nice cadence to the delivery, and the ability to voice the tension that permeates the story were all strong aspects of her delivery but it is that last aspect that tripped me up. There’s room in my listening tastes for narration other than subtle but I found Ms. Kellgren’s to contain a theatrical element that didn’t suit me. Theatrical in this case isn’t meant as a pejorative but simply that it seemed better suited to a stage or radio drama than an intimate listening experience coming through my earphones. During dramatic scenes there was tremendous energy poured into the delivery and I could hear how the building inhalations and exhalations had to be worked into the lines, leaving me expecting a vocal explosion at the end. Representative of that is the last vocally dramatic scene in the story that suddenly sounds muted and actually has a waveform that looks like it had to be artificially modified to lower the decibel level.

My analysis is more a reflection of my personal tastes in narration because I certainly don’t regret going with the audio version over the text version. Consider it my recommendation, if your listening tastes are similar to mine, to listen to this audiobook in the car or at least via speakers rather than earphones. If your preferences aren’t similar, I think the narration will probably wow you.

I found this to be a very good post-apocalyptic story with narration that, for most listeners, will significantly enhance the story. I’d argue that the category of Young Adult applied to this book is done more because of the age of the protagonist than the writing or content.