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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Birthmarked Awakens My Inner Annie Wilkes (Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Of the 68 books I've read so far this year, guess how many had me frantically turning pages until the wee, wee hours of the morning? One. Guess how many kept my heart pumping, my pulse racing and my breath trapped in my lungs for paragraph after paragraph after paragraph? One. Guess how many made me want to go all Misery on an author and demand a sequel at gunpoint? Okay, more than one. All I know is this: as I turned the last page of Caragh M. O'Brien's Birthmarked, I wanted to scream. I just couldn't decide whether to yell "Yes!" because my beloved heroine was finally safe (albeit temporarily) or "No!" because the book was over. Of course, I didn't scream anything since it was 1 in the morning, but I really, really wanted to. Birthmarked is that intense.

The story takes place 300 years after the world as we know it has been fried by severe heat. On the shores of what used to be Lake Superior, people eke out a life as best they can. Outside the wall, they live like pioneers, using candles for light, building open fires for cooking, and collecting rainwater for bathing and drinking. It's a hard, dirty existence, but the people make do. Occasionally, the laborers receive precious Travaltar passes. The tickets allow them into a theater to view movies about the people inside the wall. Although it's just up the hill, the Enclave is as foreign as the moon - its residents grow fat from abundant food; glide through carpeted hallways; bathe in water that comes from a faucet; and dress themselves in clean clothing. Naturally, the gleaming city is protected by armed guards. Outsiders are not allowed in and insiders don't care to leave.

Gaia Stone's scarred face guarantees that the closest she'll ever get to the glittering inside is the north entrance guard tower. She's a freak, but one useful to the Enclave. Like her mother, she's a midwife. Like her mother, she's required to hand over the first three babies she delivers every month to the Protectorat. Ripping newborns from their mothers' arms isn't easy - even if it's a woman's duty, even if they're bound by law, even knowing the children will want for nothing as they mature inside the Enclave, even then, it isn't easy. But Gaia knows her job, knows she'll be rewarded for her loyalty.

Everything changes one night when the Protectorat's soldiers come for Gaia's parents. Jasper and Bonnie Stone are hardly radicals - she's a hardworking midwife, he's a simple tailor. Gaia can't imagine either one angering anybody at all. Then, the unsettling Capt. Grey comes to interrogate her. His queries startle her into questioning everything she's ever known about her family, herself and her devotion to the Enclave. One thing is clear: Her parents have information, something valuable enough to scare the Protectorat. And they aren't talking. If Gaia doesn't uncover their secrets soon, it will be the noose for all of them.

Gaia knows she should flee into the wasteland, save herself, but she can't leave her parents to rot in prison. She has to get inside the Enclave. Doing so means breaking every law in the book, but she has no choice. It doesn't take long for Gaia to become the most hunted fugitive in the land. With guards on her tail and outraged citizens searching for her everywhere, Gaia must unscramble her parents' ciphers to uncover the truth the Protectorat's so desperate to find. Only armed with this knowledge can she save her family, herself, and every mother who ever lost a child to the Enclave. Now Gaia, whose imperfections have earned her a lifetime of mockery, could be the one to save them all.

See what I mean? From its very first sentence, Birthmarked gallops along at a furious pace. It's gripping, it's horrifying, it's completely absorbing. And the plot's not even what makes the story most memorable. The characters demand attention with their subtle complexity, their world comes alive in acute detail, and the ethics of their situation makes for a completely riveting story. This is an absolutely stunning debut from an author I'm now stalking. Just call me Annie Wilkes - Caragh M. O'Brien, I'm your biggest fan. Feel free to run.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of The Line by Teri Hall and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence, intensity and some sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find


  1. I haven't read your review as I picked up this book just last week. I see that you loved it and so I am super excited!

  2. I bought this book for my Kindle. Looking forward to reading it. I skimmed your review and will go back to it after I've read BIRTHMARKED. Thanks for sharing, Susan!

  3. WOW! Sounds fabulous, my library has it on order so I added it to my wish list.

  4. Fabulous review! Birthmarked is at the top of my to buy list. I’m so glad you loved it!

  5. Yes, Yes, Yes! I felt the same way. Now I need the sequel. No, really, NOW!

  6. This sounds like some perfect summer reading. I love a page turner!

    How are you handling the beginning of summer??

  7. I immediately put this book on hold at the library and will read it, well, this week probably.

    I thought you'd be pleased to know that, so far, you're ahead of me on books. I've only read 61 so far this year. :)

  8. I have the book, but, as I'm down for my brother's wedding, let my mother get her hands on it first. She has until tomorrow evening to finish it or she'll be waiting for her name to top the list at her local library. Too bad she's the mother of the groom....


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