29 March 2010

10-10-10 Reading Challenge: Living Hell by Catherine Jinks

Okay--let's make one thing perfectly clear: I really hate the title of this book. It's schlocky and reminiscent of bad teenage slasher films. Having read the book, I understand why it's used. But.....truthfully....ick.

However, let's make something else perfectly clear; if we're going to sink to dodgy terminology...this book kicks ASS! And I am so glad I read it, because it was a breathless ride from start to finish that grabbed me by the throat and never let go.

I read this book for a number of reasons. 1) I snagged the ARC at ALA, so there was the thrill of reading something before anyone else had a chance (except, that is, for the citizens of Australia, where this book has already been released.) Catherine Jinks has been a popular author in the YA stacks at work. I thought this might be a good intro. 2) It's a sci-fi title, so it was suitable to read for the 10-10-10 Reading Challenge. 3) I brought it with me on holiday, and didn't expect to love it as I did, and had every intention of leaving it behind, thus lightening the return luggage load. Needless to say, it is in my possession still.

Here's the story in brief. The action takes place on board the Plexus, a space ship which left Earth years ago (few on board still remember the place.) The Plexus is more than just a ship; it is an intricately balanced vessel which doubles as the humans' life support system. Everything on board is finely tuned to care for the needs of the people, who exist in four year shifts, taking turns out of stasis to live and breed while they seek out a suitable planet on which to live. The protagonist of the story is Cheney, a 17 year old Second Shifter--although his body is really 33--who narrates the events leading up to and following the Plexus' fateful encounter with a stray radiation wave. The nine seconds in which it takes the Plexus to pass through that wave changes life on board the ship irreversibly. I don't want to reveal too much about what happens, because it's quite dramatic, but I will mention that the ship turns on the humans faster than you can say, "Frankenstein."

One of the strengths of this book, aside from the gripping storyline, is its cinematic feel. Jinks has described the action in such a way that is very easy to visualize. The sequence where the inhabitants of the Plexus are preparing for the encounter with the radiation wave reads like a screenplay, as each agonizing minute is counted down. The cast of characters is initially difficult to keep track of, but their systematic demise helps whittle them down for the reader. Cheney's crash-course maturity from teenager to leader of the human race is believable and heartbreaking. And written in glorious, gory technicolor. Seriously, someone make this a movie (just change the title, please.)

Like all good science fiction, this book is at its smartest when it tells us something about humanity. Our desire to play God never turns out well. In this case, it is more of a necessity than a whim, but the end result is the same. Themes of destiny and survival play out against the backdrop of disaster, much to the delight of this reader. Teens who like their sci-fi to be aggressive rather than cerebral will gravitate to this thriller, hellish title and all. And they won't be disappointed.

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