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Books in Brief: Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman; Small Spaces by Katherine Arden


Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman; Simon & Schuster, 390 pages ($18.99) Ages 12 and up.


This harrowing, page-turner of a novel of teens struggling to survive apocalypse – a catastrophic drought in Southern California –   is dedicated "to all those struggling to undo the disastrous effects of climate change" and has already been optioned by Paramount Pictures.

From the first page, the authors maintain unrelenting suspense and a growing sense of dread, effectively using multiple narrators including even such minor players as a TV reporter or a chopper pilot and shifting to "snapshots" of other scenes including frantic people trying to get flights out of the airport. (Neal Shusterman, the acclaimed author of many YA novels including "Challenger Deep" which won the National Book Award, has written movie and TV screenplays; Jarrod Shusterman also writes for film and TV.)

The novel opens with a mom trying to fill the dog's water bowl, only to have nothing come from the tap. (Her 16-year-old daughter Alyssa muses: Our faucet has coded, and no amount of resuscitation will bring it back. I note the time, like they do in the emergency room. 1:32 p.m, June 4th. "Everyone's going to remember where they were when the taps went dry," I think, "Like when a president is assassinated.") A TV broadcast reveals that Arizona and Nevada have backed out of a reservoir relief pact and the Colorado River won't be supply water to Southern California any more. The kids go with their uncle to buy water at the local Costco, jammed with people who have already bought all the water, and fill a cart with bags of ice, only to almost lose it to an aggressive man who offers to "help" them wheel it to the checkout counter, a grim foretaste of the escalating nature of the crisis.

After losing contact with their parents and seeing their neighbors transformed into violent marauders,  Alyssa and her 10-year-old brother Garrett join forces with nerdy neighbor Kelton,  son of wacky survivalists (who no longer seem so wacky); a tough, smart, hostile girl named Jacqui; and Henry, a manipulative rich kid who forces himself on them. They set off in their uncle's truck on a dangerous odyssey to reach a survival shelter Kelton's parents have stocked with food and water and concealed in a forest. All have their unique skill sets that come in handy as they navigate the considerable hazards along the way: Garrett knows how to access the concrete aqueducts, popular with skateboarders, that snake all over L.A.; Kelton knows everything about survival and has a gun; Jacqui knows how to drive; Alyssa is a shrewd judge of character; Henry is a wheeler-dealer who can talk them out of a tight spot.  The authors offer a terrifying, apocalyptic landscape of riots, pillaged houses and stores, freeways full of abandoned cars, wildfires. In one bright spot, the group happens upon an encampment of people sharing what they have to make it through. Throughout, the teens find themselves tested: just what are they willing to do to save themselves at the expense of others? When you're dying of thirst, are you going to share your last gulp of water with your brother? Their journey comes to an end in a super-charged climactic finale just perfect for a movie.

There are many excellent dystopian novels out there for teens; this one's power lies in the very real possibility that such a "Tap-Out" could conceivably happen in the not-too-far distant future.


Small Spaces by Katherine Arden; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 216 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.


Eleven-year-old Olivia Adler makes for a brave, smart heroine in this page-turner of a creepy tale, of disaster befalling a bus of sixth graders during a fall field trip to a farm. Olivia is grieving her mother's death and tired of teachers and classmates acting weird about it when she meets a weeping woman who is about to throw a book into the river. Ollie starts to read the book, titled "Small Spaces," set on a local farm hundreds of years before, and featuring a girl, two boys who loved her, and a deal made with the Smiling Man.

She's still reading the book on the bus during a field trip to the local farm the next day when she finds out the farm is run by the weeping woman and a cemetery on the property contains the graves of the people mentioned in the book. When the school bus breaks down on the way home on a foggy road, and the teachers go for help, the driver warns the kids something is coming for them. Ollie and two classmates take off, careful to stick to "small spaces" to avoid whatever is coming.

In her first book for young readers, the author of adult best-seller "The Bear and the Nightingale" offers a sublimely creepy tale with middle-school drama, spooky fairy-tale references,  a heart-stopping finale – and a poignant tale of mother and daughter love at its heart.

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