Great American Read challenge update: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Reason five billion and eleven (approximately) to love my book group: Because this year, we’re doing a reading challenge based on PBS’s Great American Read — and I’m loving the books I’ve read for it.

For our challenge, we each put together a list of five books (from the list of 100) that we hadn’t read yet, and committed to reading them (or possibly alternates) during 2019. It’s a choose-your-own approach to a reading challenge, and while I don’t usually jump on the challenge bandwagon, this one is low-key enough (and with enough options and room for mind-changing) that I decided to go for it.

My newest read — finished in one sitting on a long flight — is…

 

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Published 1986

Synopsis:

Brian is on his way to Canada to visit his estranged father when the pilot of his small prop plane suffers a heart attack. Brian is forced to crash-land the plane in a lake–and finds himself stranded in the remote Canadian wilderness with only his clothing and the hatchet his mother gave him as a present before his departure.

Brian had been distraught over his parents’ impending divorce and the secret he carries about his mother, but now he is truly desolate and alone. Exhausted, terrified, and hungry, Brian struggles to find food and make a shelter for himself. He has no special knowledge of the woods, and he must find a new kind of awareness and patience as he meets each day’s challenges. Is the water safe to drink? Are the berries he finds poisonous?

Slowly, Brian learns to turn adversity to his advantage–an invading porcupine unexpectedly shows him how to make fire, a devastating tornado shows him how to retrieve supplies from the submerged airplane. Most of all, Brian leaves behind the self-pity he has felt about his predicament as he summons the courage to stay alive.

A story of survival and of transformation, this riveting book has sparked many a reader’s interest in venturing into the wild.

I do love a good survival story, and this one is terrific. Brian is a 13-year-old dealing with his anger and sadness over his parents’ divorce. He may think he’s dealt with traumatic events, but those are nothing compared to what he faces when his plane crashes and he’s forced to face the reality of being alone in the wilderness. He has no idea where he is, although he suspects that the plane veered off-course when the pilot’s heart attack struck. Brian realizes that rescue teams wouldn’t know where to search, and that he may be on his own for quite some time. He can give up, or he can find a way to survive.

Based on his own inner strength, as well as lessons learned from his parents, his reading, and his teachers, Brian finds a way to dig deep, face the immediate dangers of his situation, and find a way to live. With only the clothes on his back and his hatchet, Brian teaches himself to observe, learn, and use the resources around him to get food, make a shelter, and live through each day.

I really enjoyed reading Hatchet. I’d bought a copy several years ago, hoping the subject matter would inspire my son to pick up a book. It didn’t — but it was great to find the copy and finally read it myself.

After finishing the book, I went on Goodreads to learn more, and saw that there are four more books about Brian. Hatchet feels like a standalone (and was probably written that way originally), but I’m curious about the sequels. Have you read any of the other books about Brian? If so, do you recommend them?

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As for my Great American Read challenge, so far I’ve read:

  1. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  2. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
  3. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

(My reaction to the first two books: here)

From my original target list of five, I’ve yet to read:

  1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  2. Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This is fun! I’m having a blast discovering books I probably should have read years ago… and it’s nice to have these books to weave into my reading life, in between all the new books and ARCs staring me in the face constantly.

Have you read many of the Great American Read books? Which do you consider must-reads?

Please share your thoughts!

Book Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

 

When the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, one teen is forced to make life and death decisions for her family in this harrowing story of survival from New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman.

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

This father/son-written novel starts at a point not so foreign to our world today — a drought in California that’s gone from bad to worse. Water restrictions have been in place for a while. Lawns are brown, swimming pools are empty, and the Central Valley, California’s agricultural hub, has become a new Dust Bowl.

As the story opens in a Southern California suburb, Alyssa’s mother turns on the kitchen faucet, and nothing comes out. Is this the result of yet another plumbing mishap on the part of Alyssa’s father? When the family turns on the news, they discover it’s the Tap-Out — there is no more water. Outside of California, the situation is slow to draw attention, as there’s a major hurricane wreaking havoc on the East Coast. It doesn’t seem so dire at first. Surely, the water will be back soon.

A visit to stock up at Costco that afternoon reveals the panic already setting in. The bottled water shelves are already empty. So are the shelves of Gatorade, juices, and anything else to drink. People are intense and possessive, in competition for the remaining liquids. Alyssa and her brother fill a cart with bagged ice, which they then need to fiercely protect from predatory adults. It’s only been a few hours, and already kindness is evaporating along with the water supply.

Alyssa’s next door neighbor Kelton and his family are “preppers” — survivalists in suburbia, with a well-stocked safe room, an armory, and all sorts of defensive perimeter booby traps, as well as a bug-out location in the mountains. But as the neighborhood becomes more and more tense, even this well-guarded and provisioned home won’t remain safe for long.

As is typical for a YA adventure/survival tale, we eventually end up with the teens cut off from their parents and forced to make life-or-death decisions if they’re to have any chance of survival. Things get violent and scary very quickly. Panic leads to riots and death. Martial law is declared and people are herded into evacuation camps — but even there, there’s only enough water for about a tenth of the people cramming into the centers. As people get more and more desperate, safety becomes even more elusive. Finally, Alyssa and Kelton, joined by two other teens, are on the run with Alyssa’s younger brother, seeking hydration and safety from the masses, just looking for a place to hole up and wait out the Tap-Out. It can’t last forever… can it?

Of course, the danger isn’t only from desperate mob violence and panic. Dehydration sets in quickly. People find all sorts of inventive ways to find sips of water, just trying to stay alive — but reading about the early and then more advanced stages of dehydration is plenty horrifying.

Dry takes place over little more than a week, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly society disintegrates in the face of such a catastrophe. Alyssa’s brother Garrett refers to the people so desperate for water that they’ll do anything as “water-zombies” — and it’s no surprise that some scenes reminded me of The Walking Dead, as normal life and the moral standards of civilization break down in the face of a very basic threat to survival. I was also reminded in many ways of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall series, in which a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions leads to this same type of societal collapse.

Dry is a quick, pulse-pounding read — I finished it over a day and a half of intense reading. I was drawn to this book because I’d just read Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman over the summer, and found those books deep and thought-provoking (as well as being outstanding adventures). Dry doesn’t provoke the same sort of queries about life and purpose as those books, and it lacks the character development I found so engaging in Scythe. I was absolutely caught up in the story of Dry, but didn’t find myself caring deeply about any of the specific characters, who all sort of blended together as the POV shifted from chapter to chapter.

An additional minor quibble is that reasons and consequences are glossed over for the sake of moving the action forward. I would have liked to learn more about the events that led to the Tap-Out, and how the water was able to be restored finally. Reading Dry, we just have to accept these developments as fact, but more detail would have helped make it all seem more real.

I do recommend Dry. It’s a scary, intense adventure, as well as a cautionary tale about climate change and the need to pay attention, NOW, before things get so much worse.

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The details:

Title: Dry
Author: Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

unbrokenI just finished listening to the audiobook of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and it blew me away. I haven’t been this mesmerized by any book — much less a non-fiction book — in a long time.

In this true story, we follow the amazing life of Louis Zamperini – childhood troublemaker, Olympic runner, WWII bombadier, and POW camp survivor. Louis’s story is so incredible that if it were fiction, I’d have complained, “Come on. How much can one person go through? This is beyond belief.”

Louis’s war-era ordeal began when his B-24 bomber crashed during a search flight for a missing plane in the Pacific. Louis then spent 47 days adrift on a life raft with no food or rations except what he and his companions could somehow catch or collect. Rescue finally came from a Japanese ship, and Louis then spent the next two years in a series of Japanese POW camps, suffering horrible brutality and inhumane, degrading conditions.

And yet, this remarkable man survived, spirit intact. He managed to hang on through one long period of deprivation and physical hardship after another, maintaining his hope and courage, supported by memories of his family’s love as well as the friendship of the other prisoners by his side.

I am so glad that I finally read (heard) this book. The narration is no-frills, but quite good. I was afraid that a non-fiction audiobook would be too dry to hold my interest, since my attention does tend to wander quite easily when I listen to books. No worries needed, in the case of Unbroken. I was as fascinated by this book as I’ve ever been by any suspense novel, and found myself both breathless with anticipation and moved to tears at times.

With the movie release scheduled for Christmas day, Unbroken is getting a renewed burst of media coverage — although as far as I can tell, it’s been on the the bestseller list continuously since it was published. (According to the New York Times, it’s been on the list for 181 weeks!). If you’re thinking of seeing the movie but haven’t read the book, I’d say read it first. I loved all the little details of Louis’s life, the quotes from letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, the interviews with family members and friends, and the historical context in which his story takes place.

Unbroken is a rich and moving story, and I just can’t recommend it highly enough. Whether in print or via audio, it should not be missed.

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The details:

Title: Unbroken
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: First published 2010
Length: 406 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/History
Source: Purchased

Audiobook info:
Narrated by Edward Herrmann
Length: 14 hours