Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review: Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield

Title: Aftertime
Author: Sophie Littlefield
Genre: Zombies, Horror, Post Apocalyptic, Dystopia

Publisher: Luna
Publishing Date: February 22nd 2011
Paperback: 384 pages

Stand Alone or series: Book 1 in the Aftertime trilogy

Someone once said that all apocalypses are experienced locally. In the case of Cass Dollar, the nightmare occurred with the violent abduction of two-year-old Ruthie, which she vividly remembers. Only later is young Cass assaulted also by the vague, twisting memories of a much wider conflagration that she herself only narrowly survived. A government experiment had turned the entire California landscape into the hunting grounds of zombie Beaters, but Cass can only think of the helpless toddler she is missing.

Like most post-apocalyptic zombie books, this story takes place in a world gone to pieces. In California people are struggling to survive in a landscape that has been decimated by bio-warfare. In response to the destruction of most plants and domesticated animals, the government came up with a lab-engineered crop called kaysev. Kaysev was intended to provide all the nutrition a person needs in one plant, but something unexpected happened. It appears some of the plant mutated into a second plant called blueleaf. As people ate blueleaf they came down with blue-leaf fever and those unlucky enough to survive were transformed into flesh eating zombies, commonly referred to as Beaters. With the onslaught of Beaters and the breakdown of organized government, each person was left to look out for themselves. Aftertime is about one woman's struggle, Cass, to survive in this new world and find the only thing that really matters to her: her two year old daughter.

Right away I need to clarify that this is NOT a YA book. I've seen it marked as such, but it really isn't. This book contains lots of cursing, sex, drug use, sexual assault, and all kinds of other ugliness. And while I think these are all themes that teens should read about, calling this book 'young adult' is still a stretch. After being smacked in the face by Tender Morsels I wanted to throw that out there so there would be no surprises. This book felt very 'adult' to me. There's really no other way to explain it.

Now that that's out of the way, I want to say upfront that is one of the best zombie books I've read in a while.

There's a quiet desperation to Cass that I think a lot of readers will connect with. Her struggles with addiction and the way she used sex as a both a weapon and a way to hide from herself were written in a way that really resonated with me. I actually felt for Cass and her struggle and this is testament to Littlefield's ability as a writer. I loved that Litterfield wasn't afraid to make Cass ugly in a lot of ways. Because of this Cass breaks the mold and becomes someone you can root for. Maybe it's because I read so dang much, but I have a hard time getting emotionally invested in books sometimes. Other times I cry like a baby. And while that can wreck havoc on my mascara, I love a book all the more for it. In this story I wanted Cass to succeed and every piece of hope for her was a little bit of hope for me too. She's not a bad ass zombie hunter looking to save the world. All she wants is her daughter and she'll do whatever it takes to find her.

This book also made me think about how a lot of people already live their lives as if the wider world doesn't really exist. As the reader we're slowly shown a lot of Cass' struggle, but surprisingly most of that struggle took place before the zombie outbreak. In setting the story up this way Littlefield made her world more realistic and made me question the way we live our lives. While a book like Warm Bodies attempts to get readers to do the same thing by hitting them over the head with THE MESSAGE, Aftertime does it effortlessly. In this book horrors are real but Littlefield never lets the reader forget that there are also horrors in today's world. All the zombies did was shake things up and the power structures in the story felt genuine to me. In a world full of different people you'd expect everyone to handle the zombie apocalypse in different ways, but a lot of books don't seem to reflect this. Instead everyone lives pretty much the same, if not with different power structures. In Aftertime I liked that some people lived alone, some together, some started a power hunger group, some turned to religious fanaticism, and some are just looking for an escape.

And that brings us to the zombies themselves. A lot of zombie books suffer from not enough zombie. Instead the zombies are a tool used to examine socio-political themes in our societies. This is the very reason I love zombie books in fact (and dystopia and post-apocalyptic), but I also read zombie books because I want to be scared. I want to be horrified. That's where a lot of books seem to fall short for me. Aftertime on the other hand, had truly interesting zombies. The way they feed (no brains here) and the idea of outliers was brilliant while also a bit terrifying.

My only complaint about this book is the ending. While I think the ending was actually perfect, the flow of the story was off. There's a frantic bit of action and then one paragraph later the book ends. This felt wrong to me. It'd be like the seventh Harry Potter book ending with the fight with Voldemort. While I liked why the story ended where it did, an extra paragraph about what's to come or I don't know something could have helped. As it is it felt disjointed.

Notable Quotes/ Parts: You can read more here.
That it was summer was not in doubt. The nights were much too short and the days too long. Something about the color of the sky said August to Cass. Maybe the blue was bluer. Hadn't autumn signaled itself that way Before, a gradual intensifying of colors as summer trailed into September?

Once, Cass would have been able to tell from the wild-flowers growing in the foothills where she ran. In August petals fell from the wild orange poppies, the stonecrop darkened to purplish brown, and butterweed puffs drifted in lazy breezes. Deer grew bold, drinking from the creek that ran along the road. The earth dried and cracked, and lizards and beetles stared out from their hiding places among the weeds.

But that was two lives ago, so far back that it was like a story that had once been told to Cass, a story maybe whispered by a lover as she drifted off to sleep after one too many Jack and Cokes, ephemeral and hazy at the edges. She might not believe it at all, except for Ruthie. Ruthie had loved the way butterweed silk floated in the air when she blew on the puffs.

Ruthie, who she couldn't see or touch or hold in her arms. Ruthie, who screamed when the social workers dragged her away, her legs kicking desperately at nothing. Mim and Byrn wouldn't even look at Cass as she collapsed to the dirty floor of the trailer and wished she was dead.

Ruthie had been two.

Cass pushed herself to go faster, her strides long and sure up over a gentle rise in the road. She was barely out of breath. This was nothing, less than nothing. She dug her hard, sharp nails into the calluses of her thumbs. Hard, harder, hardest. The skin there was built up against her abuse and refused to bleed. To break it she would need something sharper than her nail. Teeth might work, but Cass would not use her teeth. It was enough to use her nails until the pain found an opening into her mind. The pain was enough.

She had covered a lot of ground this moon-bright night. Now it was almost dawn, the light from the rising sun creeping up over the black-blue forest skeletons, a crescent aura of orange glow in the sky. When the first slice of sun was visible she'd leave the road and melt into what was left of the trees. There was cover to be found—some of the native shrubs had survived. Greasewood and creosote still grew neck high in some places.

And it was easy to spot them. You saw them before they saw you, and then you hid, and you prayed. If they saw you at all, if they came close enough to smell you, you were worse than dead.

Cass stayed to the edge of the cracked pavement of what had been Highway 161, weaving around the occasional abandoned car, forcing herself not to look inside. You never knew what you would see. Often nothing, but…it was just better not to look. Chunks of the asphalt had been pushed aside by squat kaysev plants that had managed to root in the cracks. Past the shoulder great drifts of it grew, the dark glossy leaves hiding clusters of pods. The plants were smooth-stemmed without burrs or thorns. Walking among them was not difficult. But walking on pavement allowed Cass, now and then—and never when she was trying—to let her mind go back to another time…and when she was really lucky, to pretend all the way back two lifetimes ago.

Taking Ruthie, barely walking, down the sidewalk to the 7-Eleven, buying her a blue raspberry Slurpee, because Ruthie loved to stick out her blue tongue and look at herself in the mirror. Cutting across the school parking lot on the way home, jumping over the yellow lines, lifting Ruthie's slight body and swinging her, laughing, through the air.

Yes, pavement was nice. Cass had good shoes, though she didn't remember where she got them. They seemed like they might have been men's shoes, plain brown lace-up walking shoes, but they fit her feet. A small man, then. How she'd got the shoes from him…it didn't bear thinking about. The shoes were good, they were comfortable and hadn't given her blisters or sores despite the many days of walking.

A movement caught her eye, off in the spiky remains of the woods. Cass stopped abruptly and scanned the tree skeletons and shrubs. A flash of white, was it? Or was it only the way the light was rising in the sky, reflected off…what, though? There were only the bare trunks of the dead cypress and pine trees, a stand of dead manzanita, the low thick growth of kaysev, a few of the boulder formations that dotted the Sierra Foothills.


Cass whipped her head around and saw the flash again, a fast-moving blur of fabric and oh God it was white, a slip of a little dark-haired girl in a dirty white shirt who was sprinting toward her at a speed that Cass could not imagine anyone moving, Cass who had run thousands of desperate blacktop miles one life ago, trying to erase everything, running until her legs ached and her lungs felt like tearing paper and her mind was almost but never quite empty.

But even Cass had never run like this girl.

She was twelve or thirteen. Maybe even fourteen, it was hard to tell now. Before, the fourteen-year-olds looked like twenty-year-olds, with their push-up bras and eyeliner. But hardly anyone dressed like that anymore.

The girl held the blade the way they taught the kids now, firmly in front of her where it would have the best chance of slicing through a Beater's flesh. Because that's what she thought Cass was, a Beater, and the thought hit Cass in the gut and nearly knocked her over with revulsion. Her hands went to her hairline where the hair was just growing back in, soft tufts, an inch at most. She knew how her arms looked, covered with scabs, almost worse now that they were healing, the patches of flesh falling away as the healthy skin pushed to the surface. But that was nothing compared to the ruin of her back.

She hadn't been able to clean herself in days, and she knew she carried the smell. The long hair on the back of her head, the hair she hadn't pulled out, was knotted and tangled. Her nails were blackened and broken. Real Beaters usually had no nails left, but how could the girl be expected to notice a detail like that?

In the second or two it took the girl to cross the last dozen yards of scrubby land, Cass considered standing firm, wrists out, chin up, giving her an easy target. They were taught well; any child over the age of five could find the jugular, the femoral, the carotid, the ulnar. They practiced on dummies rigged from dolls and clothes stuffed with straw. Sometimes, they practiced on the dead.

At the last minute Cass stepped out of the way.

She didn't know why. It would have been easier, so much easier, to welcome the blade, to let it find its path to her vital core and feel the blessed release of her blood, still hot and red despite everything, bubbling over the slice in her flesh, falling to the hardened earth. Maybe her blood would help the land heal faster. Maybe on the spot where her blood fell, one of the plants from Before would return. A delicate mountain bluebell; they had been her favorite, the tiny blossoms shading from pale sky blue to deep lilac.

But Cass stepped out of the way.

Damn her soul.

Three times now it had refused to die, when death would have been so much easier.

I don't want to ramble on forever about this book, but this is a must read for zombie lovers.

Rating: 9. Damn near perfection

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