The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer: C+

deadandthegoneFrom the back cover:
When life as Alex Morales had known it changed forever, he was working behind the counter at Joey’s Pizza. He was worried about getting elected as senior class president and making the grades to land him in a good college. He never expected that an asteroid would hit the moon, knocking it closer in orbit to the earth and catastrophically altering the earth’s climate. He never expected to be fighting just to stay alive. And when Alex’s parents disappear in the aftermath of the tidal waves, he must care for his two younger sisters, even as Manhattan becomes a deadly wasteland.

Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It enthralled and devastated readers with its look at an apocalyptic event from a small-town perspective. Now this harrowing companion book examines the same events as they unfold in New York City, revealed through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican New Yorker.

With haunting themes of family, faith, personal change, and courage, this powerful novel explores how a young man takes on unimaginable responsibilities.

Seeing as how The Dead and the Gone is a companion book to Life As We Knew It, I expected that they’d have fundamentally the same plot. Apparently, I should’ve anticipated they’d have the same pitfalls, as well.

The story this time focuses on ambitious teenager Alex Morales, whose dreams of a bright academic future are cut short when an asteroid knocks the moon much closer to Earth, sending everyone into panic and claiming the lives of both of Alex’s parents. Forced to care for his two sisters, he does some awful things in order to survive and tries to make the best decisions he can, though sometimes ends up making mistakes. Faith is important to the Morales family, especially to super-pious Briana, who believes that her parents aren’t really dead but just stricken with amnesia from which they will miraculously recover someday.

One of the most annoying things about Life As We Knew It was its whiny protagonist and how she’d seem to improve, only to backslide. The same thing happens in this book with Alex’s younger sister, Julie, though eventually I realized Alex himself is a large part of the problem there. I’ve read three of Pfeffer’s books by now and have noticed that she tends to repeat things. This book is no exception, since a large part of it is taken up by variations on the following scene, repeated at least five or six times:

Alex: *accuses Julie of something*
Julie: I hate you! *runs off, slams door*
Alex: *goes in to talk to Julie and apologize*

After a while, I ended up sympathizing with Julie because Alex kept blaming everything on her! I was also irritated by the open-ended conclusion, predicted something waaaaaay in advance about Briana, and literally laughed out loud at the ridiculous fever dream Alex has while he’s sick with the flu.

That said, I do tend to like these apocalyptic YA books, so at least I enjoyed the basic plot even if the Morales family got on my nerves. I think I’ve learned by now, though, that Pfeffer’s books just aren’t my thing.

The Year Without Michael by Susan Beth Pfeffer: C

From the back cover:
Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people. But somewhere between home and the softball field, 16-year-old Jody Chapman’s younger brother disappeared, and now the family is falling apart. Her parents hardly speak to each other, her younger sister is angry and bitter, and Jody’s friends, always so important to her, are slowly slipping away. It seems that all anyone can do is wait. Wait—for Michael to walk in the door. Wait—to stop missing him. Wait—to stop waiting. When a private detective can’t uncover a single clue about Michael’s disappearance, Jody’s urgent need to find him drives her to make a last desperate attempt to hold her family together.

Having mostly enjoyed Life As We Knew It, I decided to check out something else by Pfeffer. The subject matter is different but the general idea of a family in crisis still remains. I don’t think Pfeffer handled it as well in this earlier book, however.

The major issue is the terrible dialogue. Though the back cover promises “honest dialogue,” in reality it is anything but. I think the problem is that there is seldom any indication of tone or delivery. It’s just ____ said, ____ replied, ____ declared. Even when a character is supposed to be having an outburst, the text doesn’t bring the idea across. Here’s an example:

“I hate all of you. You’re all crazy and I hate you all, and I wish you’d all just leave me alone and die.”

Not even one exclamation mark in all of that? I can’t help but read it in the blandest possible monotone.

The dialogue problems really undercut anything else that Pfeffer might’ve achieved. For all I know, this is an accurate portrayal of the kind of upheaval a family goes through after a child goes missing—oft-repeated hopeful speculation and empty promises giving way to tantrums and irrational blame games—but it just doesn’t seem genuine.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer: B-

From the back cover:
When Miranda first hears the warnings that a meteor is headed on a collision path with the moon, they just sound like an excuse for extra homework assignments. But her disbelief turns to fear in a split second as the entire world witnesses a lunar impact that knocks the moon closer in orbit, catastrophically altering the earth’s climate.

Everything else in Miranda’s life fades away as supermarkets run out of food, gas goes up to more than ten dollars a gallon, and school is closed indefinitely. But what Miranda and her family don’t realize is that the worst is yet to come.

Told in Miranda’s diary entries, this is a heart-pounding account of her struggle to hold on to the most important resource of all—hope—in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar time.

This book is like a cross between The Princess Diaries and Parable of the Sower, only the average likability factor of Mia and Lauren (the protagonists of those books) far exceeds that of Life As We Knew It‘s Miranda. Mix in a generous dollop of a whiny and grating teen (I must admit that Dawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer would fit the bill) and it’ll be about right.

The plot involves an asteroid that is due to impact the moon. Astronomers encourage folks to go outside and watch this rare phenomenon, but nobody realizes there was an error in the calculations. The moon ends up knocked scarily close to earth, and causes all kinds of environmental repercussions, like tsunamis and volcanic explosions. Millions die. Conditions for the survivors worsen and, like Parable of the Sower, folks figure off “anywhere is better than here,” and so head off to supposedly better places, never to be heard from again.

Miranda’s world gradually shrinks throughout this ordeal until she and her family are living huddled up in the one room of their house with a wood stove. She begins the book (told in a series of journal entries) by complaining about tests and drama with her friends, passes through a period where she inanely prattles on about kissing, and finally, with agonizing slowness, (mostly) stops being so self-pitying and resolves to be more appreciative of what she has, since her family is better off than most. I figured such character growth would be occurring, but was annoyed that at several points she appeared to be on the verge of improvement, only to lapse and instigate petty and annoying arguments with her mother. I suppose this cycle of progress and regression is normal, but that doesn’t make it fun to read about.

While I might not have liked Miranda for the majority of the book, I still really liked hearing about the creepy and disturbing deterioration of civilization that the lunar disaster caused. Part of me is a little unnerved that I seem to enjoy details like that, but when I hear a newscaster announce that the Statue of Liberty has been washed out to sea, I think, “Cool!” Pfeffer also does a good job at conveying the family’s sense of isolation as well as the monotony of having canned tuna and string beans day after day. I like the ending, too.

There’s a not-quite sequel to this book, The Dead and the Gone, which recounts the same events from a different character’s perspective. I plan to check it out.