Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ashes Ashes by Jo Treggiara

Cover of Ashes, Ashes Audiobook

Global warming has wrecked havoc on New York City.  Streets and highways have been turned to rivers and Central Park now has an ocean view.  Four years later, a virulent plague strikes and wipes out much of the world's population, leaving a remnant of less than one percent living.
Lucy is the sole survivor of her family; everyone she knows has died.  Now she makes her home in the wilds of Central Park.  For a while she lived in a city shelter, but the Sweepers kept abducting people for some unknown reason.  She was scared and fled.  Thankfully she had a survival manual and the gumption to make it on her own.  One of her survival techniques was to avoid other survivors .  This worked well until the day when she was surrounded by a pack of vicious dogs with no obvious escape. 

Aidan to the rescue.   He has been living with a large group of survivors a few miles away, and he has been keeping an eye on Lucy.  Lucky for her, as he helps her escape the dogs.  A few days later, when disaster strikes yet again, Lucy has no choice but to seek out Aidan and the community he lives in.
This book started with a plausible premise.  The population of the world has been decimated and there is an ongoing threat that the plague will re-surface.  Where it fell apart was due to several factual errors.  These were so distracting that I couldn't enjoy the rest of the book.  I started by listening to the Oasis Audio book version of this story.  It was read by Cassandra Campbell.  She did a wonderful job; it was easy to differentiate between the different characters and to feel their excitement and anxiety as the story progressed.  Nine hours 46 minutes.  While listening to the book, I was driving on the highway and thought that I had mis-heard a passage.  I was under the impression that there was still a large remnant population:
it was the resurgence of a killer disease that had reduced the global population to less than 1 percent of what it had been within three short months.  page 4
This would mean that there was approximately 70 million population of the world, of that 5 million in the United States.   A few chapters later:
most people had contracted the plague in the first wave of contagion.  Out of every one million people, 999,999 had died.  Most of the survivors were picked off by the second wave.  page 53
This means that from a population of 500 million (I don't know the dates when this story starts nor what the actual population of the United States would be on that date, so I am making an assumption), there would be less than 500 people surviving the first wave in the United States, and that  most of them would die in the second wave.  To be generous, lets say 20 % of them survived, that leaves 100 survivors in all of the United States. I'm being really generous as on page 140 we are told that "Of those who contracted the mutated hemorrhagic smallpox in the second wave, maybe one in a million survived."  Well, there are now no survivors.

Having been told on page 39 that "People had left the cities in droves" it seems unlikely that almost all of those survivors would be living in the area of Central Park.  On page 126 we learn that "There were close to seventy-five when I first came," living in Aidan's settlement.  Add to this the number living in the shelter that Lucy had been living in, that would be all the remnant population for the entire country.  This doesn't include the Sweepers and anyone else that are living with them.

As I said, I was listening to the audio book while driving and figured that I must have misheard the survival rate and that instead of one in a million people surviving, it must have been one in a hundred thousand.  I borrowed the book from my local library to check the facts.  That is where I obtained the above quotes.  From this point on, the story was ruined for me.  Two more factual errors turned the story into a poorly researched and written book.  Where was the editor and the fact checker?

Anyone who has ever used a mercury based thermometer knows that you shake the thermometer before you put the instrument in the mouth.  Well, not in this book, they must have used some new style thermometer that no one I spoke with has ever heard of:
When he turned around again, he held a thermometer. "Open again." She opened her mouth and he placed it beneath her tongue....and removed the thermometer.  He shook it a couple of times and, squinted at it, trying to read the numbers."  pages 105-106
 According to the dozen or so mothers that I consulted, the shaking would have moved the mercury back to the bulb and there would have been a very low temperature to read, yet Lucy's reading was normal.  The teens that I spoke with had no idea what a mercury thermometer was.

Later the same day in the story, Lucy is helping to cook dinner.  She has chopped up several rabbits for the soup pot.  The onions and carrots are already cooking in the bottom of a huge pot over an open fire.  They are feeding approximately 40 people, thus a lot of soup is required.
He led her to where the others were standing around a large pot on the fire....About forty pounds of carrots and onions simmered in the bottom  page 145
They added the rabbit, chopped potatoes and then a large bucket of water.
The good smells were making Lucy woozy.  She sat down on a bench and closed her eyes, letting the fragrant steam wash over her.  Aidan sat down beside her.  "About fifteen minutes,"  page 146
There is no apparent lapse of time between when the rabbit, potatoes and water go in the pot and when Aidan tells her dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes.  There is not sufficient time for the water to come to a boil, let alone for the potatoes to cook.  As any cook will know, after the water comes to a boil, it will take at least 20 minutes for the potatoes to cook.  I consulted several home cooks and The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, and they stated that at least 1 hours, but more often 1 1/2 to 2 hours is required to safely cook rabbit.  It must be cooked long enough to kill the medium causing tularemia and trichinosis.

I admit that teens reading this book will mostly miss the information about the thermometer and the rabbit cooking, but there is no reason that they should not be baffled by the survival statistics.  I have read dozens of reviews of this book, and only one other reader has commented on this confusion.  I can't understand how the editor missed these factual errors.    The book copy that I checked this with is a first edition, it is possible that corrections have been made in subsequent printings.

I find it disturbing that this book has been selected for the Forest of Reading program in the White Pine category in Ontario.  This means it is widely promoted in the schools and public libraries.  Yes, I will be sending an email to the Chair of the Selection Committee responsible for selecting this title.

Update: April 17, 2012

I did write to the chair of the White Pines book selection committee and she sent a very helpful response. She stated that in the case of fictional novels, they do allow for the authors to create their own worlds, giving them a certain amount of leeway to depart from the 'rules' of our world. She said that the books are selected by the committe with consideration to "literary quality, audience appeal, accuracy and relevance, and balance". Judging by the comments from my local librarian, this book defintiely has audience appeal.

Thank-you to the various committee members for their hard work in organizing The Forest of Books reading program. My children participated many times during their school years and read many enjoyable books.

How are you affected when you find factual errors in books.  Do you contact the author or publisher.

Author Jo Treggiara's website.

Thank-you to Oasis Audio for use of the cover image.


Rebecca Clayton said...

I thought I was the only person bothered by this sort of thing. I don't read sci-fi as a proofreader, but when errors like this "jump out" at me, I just can't "willingly suspend disbelief" anymore.

There are several much-admired sci-fi classics (Jerry Pournelle's "Lucifer's Hammer" comes to mind immediately) that I couldn't finish because of ignorant errors about everyday life (like how long it takes to cook rabbit stew).

Thanks for pointing this out. It's a shame editors are an endangered species.

(Love your blog--books, knitting, crochet and quilts--my favorite things!)

Martha @ Hey, I want to read that said...

Boy, you can really tell this difference when a book isn't edited well. This would drive me crazy. I think I'll be giving this one a big pass.

John Mutford said...

Yeah, that would be pretty intolerable. A novel I read recently briefly mentioned one of the characters seeing Porky Pig at Disneyland, though Disney doesn't own, and has never owned, rights to that character. Lucky for me, it's the only slip-up that I noticed and didn't distract too much from the story.