by Kirsten Hubbard
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
The signs are everywhere, Jory's stepfather, Caleb, says. Red leaves in the springtime. Pages torn from a library book. All the fish in the aquarium facing the same way. A cracked egg with twin yolks. Everywhere and anywhere. And because of them Jory's life is far from ordinary. He must follow a very specific set of rules: don't trust anyone outside the family, have your works at the ready just in case, and always, always watch out for the signs. The end is coming, and they must be prepared.
School is Jory's only escape from Caleb's tight grasp, and with the help of new friends Jory begins to explore a world beyond his family's farm. As Jory's friendships grow, Caleb notifies Jory's mother and siblings that the time has come for final preparations.
They begin an exhausting schedule digging a mysterious tunnel in anticipation of the disaster. But as the hold gets deeper, so does the family's doubt about whether Caleb's prophecy is true. When the stark reality of his stepfather's plans becomes clear, Jory must choose between living his own life or following Caleb, shutting his eyes to the bright world he's just begun to see.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
I had hoped this would be an interesting middle-grade story with a survivalist theme. Unfortunately, like some other books in this vein, it veered off into unbelievable scenarios and unrealistic characters.
Please, dear author, I want some more...
For me, the best part about this book was its premise. I thought Jory's stepfather sounded intriguing, with all his talk of signs, and I figured he must've had a good reason for believing what he did and convincing his family to go along with it. There was a bit of insight into what made Caleb tick (though perhaps not as much as I'd hoped), and some backstory that partially helped to explain why Jory's mother was so dependent upon her new husband. However, I would have liked to see these parts of the story developed a little better and a little more; had they been, then the conclusion might have seemed more organic and a little less like it came out of nowhere.
It's all a matter of taste...
My main issues with this book were related to the characters. I didn't really like any of them. Jory, even though he's the main character, is kind of blank and boring. I spent the whole book in his head, and yet I still don't feel like I know him that well. That may have been intentional, since he was somewhat stunted by Caleb's demands that he remain isolated, physically and socially. He comes across as bookish and studious, though I thought someone who enjoyed learning as much as he did would not have kept insisting that his family did not live on a farm (despite the fact that they grew copious amounts of cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash in their expansive fields). Jory's foster sister, Kit, is basically just a miniature Manic Pixie Dream Girl (without any of the romantic elements); while she's more interesting than Jory, she seems to be there mostly for the sake of creating conflict, showing what kind of a man Caleb really is. Jory's little half-brother, Ansel, is one of the most unrealistic baby characters I've ever read; despite not being able to talk that well (he's only about a year old), he can apparently count to ten and understand everything that's going on around him. Alice and Erik, Jory's friends from school, are also not very realistic; they use words and turns of phrase that I doubt eleven-year-old kids would ever use in 2015. In fact, all of the child characters in this book are weak, and I was left wondering why the author chose to make this a middle-grade story if she couldn't write child characters.
But there's a reason this book needed to be middle grade and not young adult: teenagers simply would not have gone along with Caleb's nonsense without questioning everything. This is probably why Jory's mother really annoyed me. She comes across as an abused woman, viewing Caleb as her saviour, even knowing what he has planned for her and her family. I was never quite sure if she believed what Caleb was saying was true; some of her comments made me suspect she didn't... but then that just left me wondering why she was meekly going along with her husband's madness.
Caleb himself is a strange character. A former soldier, he may have been suffering from PTSD, though his behaviour suggests something more like a complete disassociation from reality. He seems to relish having control over people, and treats those who don't worship him as unworthy. His treatment of Kit is particularly appalling. He also has some fairly sexist ideas, too.
All of these issues make me question the suitability of this book for middle-grade readers. While Jory does eventually decide to question everything and stand up for himself, it isn't until almost the very last minute. Before that, I felt distinctly uncomfortable while reading this book, and I don't know if I would want actual middle graders to read it without a lot of accompanying discussion. I would hate for anyone to come away from a story like this with the impression that the adults' actions and attitudes were normal or positive.
Let's get technical...
I received a copy of this book for review from NetGalley. As it is an ARC, there are a few typos throughout the text. Aside from that, the writing is fairly solid and mostly technically correct. There are a few passages that are quite pretty without getting too flowery. All in all, there's not much to complain about from a technical standpoint. The book design itself is also pretty cute; the house on the front is mirrored throughout the text with little house drawings at the beginning of each chapter.
While I did like the overall premise of the story, I thought it could have been handled a little better. I also would have liked to see the characters more developed and the child characters come across as actual children.
Jory followed her inside the house, battling not to glance back. His stomach swarmed with butterflies, angry hornets, miniature dragons with fiery sighs. He felt upset with everybody--Sam and Randall, Erik and Alice, Mom and especially himself.
But he also felt loyal to them. All of them. His family, but also his friends. It wasn't their fault they didn't know any better. It wasn't their fault they had nobody to warn them of the danger.
Overall Rating: 2.63 out of 5 ladybugs