Contained is S. L. Harpel’s debut novel. It is a young adult, science-fiction tale built around a young girl, Ella, who finds herself torn between two worlds. Ella was born in the Outskirts, the barren wasteland that covers most of the planet after man has destroyed it with biological weapons. While still a small child, she is chosen by a wealthy couple and taken into one of the Communities. There are nine Communities and each is dome-protected and full of life and abundance, but very few humans have the chance to live in one.
Ella faces a difficult choice because she wants to be loyal to her sister, Beaunca, who stayed behind in the Outskirts. However, there are many, many good things to life in the Community, from good food to advanced medical care, and Ella starts to be able to see the world from two points of view.
Contained is told from Ella’s first-person point of view. The writing style allows you to feel what Ella feels and do some self-examination as you decide which choices you might make in a similar situation. The book is reminiscent of the time when social standing and civil liberties were determined on where you were born. Had she not been chosen, Ella would not have the options now before her. She must choose to support the Community, find a way to elevate the lower classes, or find a positive middle-ground between the two.
The dystopian nature of the book is a possible future that is all too likely. Seeing a glimpse of how the world could evolve if we continue to destroy the planet was both fascinating and chilling.
What I Liked
Contained has a fast pace with rich characters. Since it is told from the first-person perspective, you feel what Ella feels as she faces each choice and decision. Ella faces a struggle with not only the world she has been forced to live in but a secret that she is forced to keep hidden inside. The story does a good job of not getting bogged down in unnecessary details and tells you what you need to know when you need to know it.
The character development was also well done. Each main character is a solid and fully fleshed out individual. Well not too much time is spent describing each character, you are given enough to see the whole person and their personality.
The only thing I had a hard time with in Contained was the abundance of characters. So many characters were described and named that I had a hard time keeping them all straight. At times, I was a little confused as to whether I really needed to know about a character or not. The plethora of characters introduced is the only reason I did not give this book a five-star review. That said, for the most part, the story sticks to the important characters and you learn who they are and what’s important about them. This minor negative did not detract from the excellent storytelling.
To me, Contained was a quick read that I had a hard time putting down. I was drawn in from the first few lines and am looking forward to reading Book Two. There were a few minor imperfections in the book, but none so much as to interfere with your reading enjoyment. The only reason I am not giving this book a five-star review is that I got confused more than a few times due to the sheer number of characters that are introduced and developed.
In conclusion, if you like dystopian science fiction and/or young adult literature, you will enjoy Contained. The book builds believable worlds that draw you in, and you find yourself invested as to which world or social group will or should prosper. There is definitely plenty of substance for this series to go on, possible through many more books. I highly recommend this book.
It was a bright room. I knew that before I opened my eyes. I hoped I was back with Sam and Max and Menton. I knew that I was not.
My first attempt at opening my eyes, all I saw was white. White light, white ceiling, white walls, white everywhere. I closed my eyes again. It was too much.
Several minutes later I tried again. It still was way too bright. I was in a bed. White rails, white sheets, white blanket. My arms were tied down with white wooly cuffs around my wrists. I could not see them, but my ankles also seemed to be strapped. The room was large enough that I could not see all of it. Still, I was certain I was not back in the bunker. This was another new place.
Not willing to leave me alone and awake for long, moments later I heard the door open. In walked Vann with a young, dark haired woman at his side.
“Why am I tied down?” I growled through gritted teeth.
“Relax, my friend,” Vann cooed with his fake smile. “You are not well. Our aim is to correct that. We cannot have you harming yourself in the meantime.”
“What is this place?”
“This?” Vann glanced around the room. “You are in our Core, the reconditioning center. Everything is fine. Just relax and you will be yourself in no time.”
“I am myself now!”
“I know you feel that way.” Vann patted my shoulder. Had my hand been free I would have ripped his arm off his body.
Turning to the young woman, he continued, “I think a level four will fix the problem. Are you capable or should I remain?” He did not even fake cordiality with the woman. He was cold and demeaning.
She, in turn, kept her gaze fixed downward, never making eye contact with him. “I am capable.” She spoke barely above a whisper.
“Good. I will be back to check on your progress.”
The young woman did not move until the door had closed again. She moved closer and adjusted the blanket around me.
“Are you comfortable?” she asked in a much louder voice than she had used with Vann.
“Seriously?” Now I wanted to hit her.
She continued straightening the blanket around me. “They are listening.” The words came out so softly that I almost did not hear them.
“Who?” I asked her.
“Please be silent,” she whispered. “Blink once for yes, twice for no.”
I was confused.
Louder again she said, “This process only takes a short time. Then you will be allowed to rest again. You may be back in your own room yet tonight.”
I did not understand anything, but I remained silent.
“Do you know me?” The whisper came again, so quiet it could easily be missed. Her mouth did not move at all. I blinked twice in response.
“I know you,” she continued. “General Pierce. They consider it a great victory to have you here.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but she grabbed my hand tightly. Her eyes told me that silence was the only option.
“My name is Jasmine. You saved my father. I will help you, but you must do everything exactly as I say. Do you understand.”
I blinked once.
“Good.” Then louder she continued, “It is best if you can lie very still. Things will go much quicker if you do. Any movement sometimes stops the reconditioning probes.”
She walked away and came back pushing a machine that looked like it had a light on an extending arm coming from the top. The end of the arm was an open circle with three rows of tiny blues lights. She positioned the circle above my forehead.
“I need you to close your eyes,” she was whispering again. “You should be unconscious for this part. It’s important that they do not see any movement or reactions.”
I blinked once my understanding.
Jasmine pushed a few buttons on the machine and it started to hum. The lights got much brighter. I closed my eyes obediently.
“We have about fifteen minutes.” Her whisper was a little louder but not much. “The light from the reconditioner messes with their viewing displays so they cannot clearly see your mouth move. It is important that you move as little as possible and barely open your mouth.”
I opened my mouth barely a crack and whispered, “I understand.”
“Good. I am sure you have questions. I will try to tell you what I can.”
“What is this place?”
“We are in their core,” she told me. “Primarily they do reconditioning here, but they can also heal physical wounds if someone is injured.”
“What is reconditioning?”
“You don’t remember?” She seemed momentarily surprised. “I suppose that makes sense. Reconditioning in the way they control our minds. They can delete or change memories and completely alter our personality.”
It was hard for me to keep my eyes closed.
“You are not reconditioned?” I asked her.
“No, here in the core they do not need the pretense. Those of us who work here know what they are.”
“What they are?”
“They are Plax. Surely you remember Plax if you remember anything.”
“Vann and the other.”
“No.” That could not be right. “I just saw a Plax. They have four silver eyes and can run on the ceiling.”
“You have seen one? Not many of us have. Not in their true form, that is.”
“Yes. You saw what they really look like. They are shape shifters. They can make themselves look like almost any creature. In some of the mods I hear they look like animals from Earth.”
Dozens of questions flooded in to my head. I struggled to remain still.
“Why are you working with them?”
“Not by choice. They have my little brother and sisters. They have all the children. We work to keep the others safe. Though once we turn eighteen we are not allowed to see them again. I work to keep them safe and I hope they really are.”
“How long has it been?”
“I am twenty-one now. I have not seen anyone under eighteen since I turned.”
A little bell rang out on the machine.
“I have to turn up the brightness. This may be uncomfortable.”
She was right it was.
“Try not to squint. I do not think they can see but we must be careful.”
“I’ll do my best.” The lights were so bright that my eyelids offered almost no protection. Reflex was trying to make me turn away or cover my face.
“Tell me about the mods.” I thought the distraction might make it easier.
“We do not have much time left,” she told me. “When I am done I am going to give you a mild sedative. I have to give you something because they will check. You should remain alert enough to know what is going on. It is very important that you act like everyone else going forward. They must think that the reconditioning worked. It would be very bad if they knew what I was doing.”
“I will,” I assured her.
“I’m sure it will be hard,” she went on. “You must smile and interact with the others. They want the appearance of paradise and harmony. That includes Vann. You must act genuinely happy to see him.”
“That will be more of a struggle.”
“It is important. There is much more at stake than just you and me. You are special, General. You have a gift they did not think possible.”
“Gift? What do you mean?”
I heard the door open again and Jasmine quit speaking.
“Just a few more minutes,” she called out.
The little bell on the machine rang again and the lights turned off. Jasmine leaned in very close. “Act like them,” she whispered. She pressed something against my neck. I felt myself slipping away. Things did not go completely dark, though. I could still hear and comprehend what was going on. I heard footsteps and knew that Jasmine had left the room.
“They should leave them alert enough to walk.” It was Gregg’s voice. “I hate touching them.”
“I carried the last one.” Todd was there too.
“Very well,” Gregg exhaled. He slid his arms under me and picked me up. I was able to open one eye slightly and hoped they would not notice. They carried me out of the room into a hallway. Without turning my head, I could not get much of a view. There were several other doors. At the end of the hallway two doors opened. They stepped into a small room. I guessed it was an elevator though I did not sense any movement. A small display appeared, and Todd pressed his hand against it. Then a single door appeared and opened. Moving through the door, I could see we were outside and it was nearing dusk. Outside I recognized the little building with the locked door. I was right. It did lead somewhere important.
They carried me back to my room and put me in my bed. Gregg laid down on the other bed and Todd left.
I wanted to sleep but could not get my mind to quiet. I had not learned enough. Something sinister was happening and people were expecting me to be part of the solution. If only I could somehow restore my memories, so I would at least know what battle I was fighting. I did take solace in meeting Jasmine. I was not alone. Paul may not be himself, but now I had him and Jasmine. If no one else in the compound was real, at least I knew they were.
At the first glimpse of light I hopped out of bed. Gregg was awake and watching me.
“Good morning,” I called out to him. I forced a smile even though it felt unnatural.
“Good morning.” There might have been a bit of suspicion in his voice. It was best I not oversell it.
I showered and changed into a new outfit and headed out to the dining area. Gregg stayed at my side until we were approaching the dining area. Todd and Vann were waiting near the entrance.
“Good morning, friends,” I greeted them.
“Good morning,” Vann replied. “Are you feeling better?”
“I feel great,” I told them. “Was I unwell?”
Vann studied me closely for a moment. I stood strong with my beaming smile.
“No, I guess I was mistaken,” he finally said. “Please forgive me.”
I continued on to one of the tables while the three of them remained at the entrance. I had passed the first test.
Gregg stayed with me another two nights. Now that I knew what he was, I found it impossible to sleep with him in the room. He did not sleep either. Every time I glanced his way, his eyes were open and fixed on me.
The third night I came back from the vineyards and only my bed was in the room. I had passed the next test.
Even with Gregg gone, I found it difficult to sleep. Was it possible that what Jasmine said was true? And if so, what was the dream about the bunker? I needed more answers.
It was several more days until I dreamt of the bunker again. I decided that exploring was temporarily out of the question and that Paul should probably be left alone for a while. I did not want to do anything to put either of us under further scrutiny. I poured my strength into working in the vineyard. The vineyard did not seem very large but amazingly, each day I went out there were always grapes to be picked and new vines to be tied up.
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What if zombies weren’t bad? How might the world change if they could be trained to work and be useful members of society? What would that world look like? Scott Bell’s Working Stiffs gives you a glimpse into that possible dystopian future.
Scott Bell’sWorking Stiffsis a new twist on the dystopian zombie genre. Rather than being created from the bite of another zombie, these zombies, called Revivants, are created by injected nanobots as a scientific solution to cheap and endless labor. Bodies of the recently deceased are reanimated to serve an abundance of manual labor tasks. The year 2051 is dark and gritty and not one you will want to live in but will enjoy visiting.
The book revolves around two characters, everyday man Joseph “Joe” Warren and Homeland Security Agent, Angel Ramirez.
Joe’s story is told from the first person. In his mid-twenties, Joe is a bit down on his luck. Due to the abundance of Revivants, he has been unable to find work for more than two years. Living in ratty government housing with his ailing girlfriend is a less than ideal life. In an attempt to better their situation, Joe is inadvertently tossed onto a whole new and often violent path.
Agent Ramirez is a corrupt and sadistic Homeland Agent. His tale unfolds in the third-person. Like most of the government, he is intent on keeping the country’s narrative away from the true happenings of everyday life and instead on what is beneficial to the government. Morally bankrupt, he is not afraid to hurt or kill anyone in the path to his goal.
The words flow easily with realistic dialogue and phonetically written accents. Though I did not always understand every word of some of the characters, I was able to hear the individual accents of characters from different ethnicities.
Many of the characters, Millie, John and Alex, to name a few, are lovable and unique. The world of the book is created with enough detail to create a clear image in your mind’s eye without so much as to be exhaustive.
The 80’s child in me enjoyed a lot of the one-liners and quips echoing the bygone decade, such as, “Rodents of Unusual Size.” Additional notations to more recent years are equally enjoyable. I guess I am a bit of a pop culture junkie myself.
Joe’s humor, though more than a bit snarky and often crude and juvenile, did lead to some laugh-out-loud moments. In the beginning, one of the zombies, named Larry, was programed with a little of a sense of humor and repeatedly says, “Braaains!” much to Joe’s annoyance. A bit later someone sarcastically refers to hiring a comedian and Joe says, “You should meet Larry.”
The Not So Good
There was some difficulty on my part in getting through the plethora of expletives, especially in the first third or so of the book. In one section, I noted curse words or vulgar references in almost every line.
Every good book should have color in its dialogue and narrative, but the superabundance in Working Stiffs was a little overwhelming at time for this reader. Had I not agreed to write a review, I may have stopped reading altogether.
I also had a little trouble with many of the pop culture references. While I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, I did find it a bit hard to believe that today’s references would still be as relevant in 2051, especially to someone then in their twenties.
I enjoyed the second half of the book much better than the first and am glad I continued reading. The story really seems to find its way and smooth out the rough edges felt in the opening chapters. Joe becomes the friend you love to hate, and Agent Ramirez the malicious villain that grows worse with each chapter.
Even though there were aspects that I did not enjoy, in the endWorking Stiffsis well-written and easy to read. Despite myself, I was not ready for it to end. If there is a sequel, and a big part of me sincerely hopes there will be, it will be added to my reading queue.
To rate this title on a five-point scale, I would give it 3.75.
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