Kate’s Review: “Clueless: One Last Summer”

38926467Book: “Clueless: One Last Summer” by Amber Benson, Sarah Kuhn, and Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, December 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Cher, Dionne, and Tai set off for one last summer of footloose and fancy-free fashion and fun before college starts! 

The class of 1997 has left Bronson Alcott High School for good, and as the weather heats up, Cher and besties Dionne and Tai head off for their last summer vacation adventure together before, ugh, REAL LIFE! 

Picking up after Clueless: Senior Year, head back to the ’90s for summer fun and fashion from superstar writers Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex) and Amber Benson (The Witches of Echo Park), and illustrator Siobhan Keenan.

Review: It took a little while for my library to get this book in their catalog, but they did and I got it right in time for summer! As I mentioned in my review of “Clueless: Senior Year” (linked at the bottom of the post), “Clueless” is one of my favorite movies and no matter how many times I watch it I will never get sick of it. I was very excited for the next comic when I heard that it was coming out, and the sort of long wait was absolutely worth it. Just like “Senior Year” before it, “One Last Summer” brings back Cher, Dionne, Tai, and more, and gives them worthy stories of their fabulous characters. On top of that, we got some focus on characters we hadn’t even seen yet (still no Elton though. I get it, but I love that creep so much that I can’t help but be bitter).

Cher, Dionne, and Tai are the primary focuses of the story, as they all have their own conundrums to solve, while trying not to think about how things are going to be changing in their lives. Cher has taken on a summer internship as an assistant to an advice columnist (who is not a very good or honest person, much to Cher’s chagrin), Dionne is in charge of planning a beach party that her parents are helming, and Tai is preparing for her favorite aunt to come to town, and introducing her to Travis. On top of that, all three of them are hoping to solve a mystery for their friend Summer, who has a secret admirer. The stories are kind of simplistic to be sure, but the characters were just so in character and absolutely on point that I highly enjoyed every foray that they went on. I also enjoyed that for some of the characters, especially Dionne, the worries and anxieties about having to go to a new environment and leave people behind make things all the more stressful, even if they don’t totally get why. I found Dionne’s storyline to be especially compelling, as she and Murray are going to different schools across countries from each other. The anxiety and fear of a long distance relationship after high school was captured perfectly, and as someone who knows from experience hers was the story that I most related to. It’s also great seeing the spotlight being shared between these three girls once again, as they all are so endearing and different from each other.

But as mentioned above, “One Last Summer” also brings more attention to other characters that didn’t get as much last time. The biggest one is Summer, a character from the movie who is probably best remembering for her shining moments at the Valley Party, where she initiated a game of Suck and Blow, and snagged a lawn snowman for no discernible reason. I liked seeing her being brought into the main three friend group, and I liked how well she fit in. Benson and Kuhn made her a distinct and fun character who is similar enough to fit in with Cher, Dionne, and Tai, but different enough that she felt like she had her own complexities. And I mean, fine, if we can’t get Elton I was totally happy getting another awesome lady character. Along with Summer we did see a little more focus on other characters, like Josh, Murray, and Travis. And on top of that, they got to play roles that usually are reserved for female characters, which felt like a bit of a subversion and I REALLY liked it. For Josh, we got to see his own insecurities when it comes to his relationship with Cher and his worries that she still may judge him when he’s a bit of a geek. For Murray, it’s his fears about the long distance relationship, and not being sure of how to deal with Dionne when her anxiety turns into anger. And for Travis, HE IS JUST SO SUPPORTIVE AND ADORABLE AND SWEET, just there to love Tai like she’s the goddamn best thing ever. HOW WONDERFUL IS THAT?

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While Josh and Cher are my favorite couple, THESE TWO MELT MY HEART TOO. (source)

And the art continues to be very bubblegum and perfect for the tone. The characters look enough like their counterparts that it feels like the actors and actresses, but also show off Keenan’s unique style.

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Awww. (source)

“Clueless: One Last Summer” was a bittersweet but lovely story for the characters from “Clueless”. I understand that Benson and Kuhn might stop here, but honestly they could keep telling these stories with these characters and I would be filled with joy.

Rating 8: Another fun and nostalgic story featuring some of my favorite movie characters, “Clueless: One Last Summer” brings back some classic characters, brings in new ones, and serves some cute summer stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clueless: One Last Summer” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Summer Break Books for YA”, and “Comics & Graphic Novels by Women”.

Find “Clueless: One Last Summer” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Clueless: Senior Year”.

Kate’s Review: “The Last Astronaut”

40881567._sy475_Book: “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the publisher.

Book Description: Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me a paperback copy of this book!

Perhaps you are all looking at the title and the primary genre of “The Last Astronaut” and are thinking to yourself ‘well hey now, isn’t Sci Fi Serena’s literary wheelhouse?’ And you’d be right. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid Science Fiction unless it meets very specific characteristics. But when I was reading about “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington, my interest was piqued. For one thing, a few of the early reviews used words like ‘terrifying’ to describe it. When you do that and throw around phrases like ‘large alien object’, something about ‘transmissions’, and ‘the future of humanity’, my mind is going to go to one place.

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Did he have the special? (source)

It turns out that “Alien” this is not, but ultimately that wasn’t a bad thing.

“The Last Astronaut” does mix some elements of horror in with sci-fi and character study, and it comes together to be an entertaining tale of slow burn suspense. We have the familiar scenario of a crew of different people with different motivations coming together for the purpose of investigating an alien object heading towards Earth, but the person at the forefront is astronaut Sally Jansen. Jansen was supposed to be the head of a mission going to Mars years before, but disaster struck and left other astronauts dead and Jansen in disgrace. Now she is hoping for redemption, and another chance at discovery. Jansen is a complex and strong protagonist, and has many layers that we slowly get to peel back as the story goes on and the stakes get higher and higher. She is competent and determined, but she is also headstrong and hard to trust, at least for the other crew members. Her actions had severe consequences for NASA and space exploration, but her talent is undeniable, even if her trauma and fall from grace is still haunting her. Her dynamic with the other crew members as they have to board the object is rife with tension, and their inherent mistrust of her makes for emotional conflict on top of the slow revealing other environmental conflict. While there were certainly other compelling characters, specifically ship scientist Parminder Rao who is elated at the prospect of alien life, this is Jansen’s story, and she is well centered and well developed.

The plot, while not as heavy on the horror as I had hoped, is still filled with suspense and tension, which made it an engrossing read for me in spite of the genre clash. The Alien Object is reminiscent of the recent space object ‘Oumuamua (and it is referenced in the book as well), but is larger and seems to have a clear path, heading straight for Earth. When the NASA crew finally encounters it in hopes of learning more, not only have they been beaten by the private company KSpace, but that the crew from the KSpace mission isn’t answering attempts at communication. And once they board the object, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that they are in way over their heads, and that this object isn’t what it seems. I really don’t want to spoil anything in this review, as the slow reveal is effectively creepy and well done. What I will say is that the alien being in “The Last Astronaut” is effective because it feels like something we haven’t really seen before. If you take elements from space horror classics like “Annihilation” and “Event Horizon”, you might be part way there, but Wellington has created a mythos that feels original, at least to this reader.

You may be wondering why this isn’t rated higher, as it seems that I liked a lot about it. And the reason is solely based on personal preference. At the end of the day, “The Last Astronaut” is still pretty heavy on the sci-fi, and it’s done in a way that didn’t really connect with me as much as I had hoped it would. I think that had the horror elements been ramped up more it would have left more of an impression, but as it was, this ultimately isn’t my genre. That said, I really do believe that sci-fi fans would probably find a lot to like about this book, as even I can appreciate the trajectory and story elements that it had. It may not achieve genre crossover as much as I thought it would, but don’t let my words discourage you from giving it a try if it has grabbed your attention!

Rating 7: While the story was more sci-fi than horror and therefore not my usual wheelhouse, I liked the originality that came with “The Last Astronaut” and its main character, and think sci-fi aficionados will find a lot to enjoy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Astronaut” is included on the Goodreads lists “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads or Co-Leads”, and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2019”.

Find “The Last Astronaut” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bloom”

29225589._sx318_Book: “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Now that high school is over, Ari is dying to move to the big city with his ultra-hip band―if he can just persuade his dad to let him quit his job at their struggling family bakery. Though he loved working there as a kid, Ari cannot fathom a life wasting away over rising dough and hot ovens. But while interviewing candidates for his replacement, Ari meets Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking as much as Ari wants to escape it. As they become closer over batches of bread, love is ready to bloom . . . that is, if Ari doesn’t ruin everything.

Writer Kevin Panetta and artist Savanna Ganucheau concoct a delicious recipe of intricately illustrated baking scenes and blushing young love, in which the choices we make can have terrible consequences, but the people who love us can help us grow.

Review: We’re getting near the end of summer (kind of?), and on the hot days sometimes you just need to have a cute, sweet, comfort read that you can enjoy in the sun… or air conditioning in my case. I saw “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau on a display at the library I was working at, and decided to pick it up on a whim. It had been a bit since I’d read a one shot graphic novel, and the look of it and the summer feeling the cover gave me stood out to me. I hadn’t heard of “Bloom” until I picked it up, and after reading it I wish I’d found it sooner. I really, really enjoyed “Bloom”!

The story involves two young adults who are both looking for some self discovery and paths for their future. Ari is determined to move away from his home and his family bakery to become a music star with his friends, while Hector is trying to wrap up his late grandmother’s affairs and move on from a needy relationship. While they are both starkly different, you can’t help but love both of them for what they are. Ari is over emotional and a little bit self centered, but also wrapped up in insecurities about those around him. You understand why he wants to go out and make his own life, but can’t help but feel for his parents, who want him to join the family bakery business. Panetta did a really good job of showing how people can be torn between by their individual dreams, and their familial expectations. Ari is complex and at times very frustrating, but he also is a character I think a lot of people can see themselves in. Hector, too, is a fascinating character, as while he isn’t as conflicted as Ari, he has his own insecurities, but is better at navigating them. That said, I liked the foil that he played, as his kindness and patience has led him to troubles in the past because of his compassion and empathy for people. I loved them both for who they were, and I loved seeing them interact with each other. The side characters were a bit more hit or miss for me. On the one hand you have Ari’s parents, who I really liked. Ari’s father was the strict and singleminded parent you tend to see in stories like this, who could have easily fallen into the box of being the ‘out of touch parent who doesn’t care about what their kid wants’. But instead, Panetta does a fantastic job of showing complexities there, and his worries and fears regarding his business, his livelihood, and his relationship with his son were definitely well defined, and brought tears to my eyes. Ari’s mother was a bit more of the supportive parent of the two parent dynamic, but I also liked that she had moments of stepping out of that box too and being stern and realistic. But while Ari’s parents were great and spot on, I thought that Ari’s and Hector’s friend groups were a little two dimensional. They tended to check off a lot of trope boxes (the aggressively quirky, the jerk, the snarky, etc), and while I didn’t mind seeing them I didn’t really get much interesting from them.

The romance and overall plot of this book was very sweet and rewarding. Ari and Hector get closer because of baking, and Panetta focuses as much on the slow burn of the love story as much as he focuses on the intricacies and art of baking. Passion, be it romantic passion of passions for hobbies, are a huge theme in this book, and you can see the passion of a number of characters, and how it drives them, and sometimes makes them forget about the potential consequences of said passions. You can’t help but root for Ari and Hector as their romance slowly blooms and comes to life. And you can’t help but think about the metaphors of baking and the patience that it takes, the time and care it can require, and how sometimes you have to restart when unanticipated problems arise. I loved every panel and every moment, and savored the story as it unfolded. And as I mentioned above, I definitely cried as I was reading it.

The artwork is understated and lovely. I loved the blue hues and the sketches, and how the art not only brings the people to life, but the food as well. The style sometimes looks like sketches that aren’t quite finished (with arrows denoting movement and bare boned sketches occasionally making appearances), but it only added to the charm of the story. Also, the occasional large splash panel would showcase both the people and their emotions, as well as the food that they were making.

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(source)

“Bloom” is an adorable and touching summer romance about finding yourself, finding love, and finding your passions. If you want a cute and satisfying love story, look no further than Ari and Hector!

Rating 9: A sweet, emotional, and mouth watering romance that has delightful characters, a lovely romance, and some tasty looking baked goods!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bloom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Pride Month! The Teen Essentials List”, and “Graphic Novels Centered Around Food”.

Find “Bloom” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Turn of the Key”

40489648._sy475_Book: “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, August 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway comes Ruth Ware’s highly anticipated fifth novel.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

For the most part, I have enjoyed all of the books that Ruth Ware has published since I discovered “In a Dark, Dark Wood”. True, “The Lying Game” was the weakest of the bunch, but I still liked it overall. I enjoy her mix of suspense and Agatha Christie-esque plots, and at this point she is someone I will always want to read whenever she writes a new novel. I was lucky enough to receive an eARC of “The Turn of the Key” from NetGalley, and I sat down one afternoon merely expecting to start the book. Little did I know that I would read it all in one go. “The Turn of the Key” has officially displaced “In a Dark, Dark Wood” as my favorite Ruth Ware story, which is something I thought would never happen.

While it isn’t exactly new for Ware to explore the Gothic elements of thrillers within her stories, “The Turn of the Key” goes full force, paying straight homage to Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”. Rowan is our new governess, hired to watch over three children at an isolated country estate in Scotland called Heatherbrae House. You slowly get a sense of who Rowan is as a person, as the story is told through her POV as she writes to a lawyer while she awaits trail for the murder of one of her charges. It’s clear why she’s on edge as she’s writing, but those nerves were there long before her experiences at the job began to take their toll. Because of this, we have two mysteries to solve: what is going on at Heatherbrae House, and what is the deal with Rowan? I enjoyed both of the mysteries as they unfolded, and I thought that Ware did a good job of slowly building up the tension for both. Heatherbrae House already has a number of unsettling ‘quirks’, from a couple of bratty children, to the hyper Alexa-esque ‘smart’ capabilities of the house, to a grumpy housekeeper and a mysterious groundskeeper. Throw in strange noises at night, and a hidden room, and you have all the components for an effective Gothic story, but updated for a modern audience.

However, like “The Turn of the Screw”, Rowan may not be the most reliable of characters. She’s constantly on edge, putting up a facade for those around her to hide her anxiety and anger issues, and her desperation is palpable, desperation as she awaits her trial, and desperation as she hopes to do well at her new job. As she slowly tells the lawyer everything that happens, we get a very complex and unhinged character who could be capable of anything, even the murder of a child. I liked that I was kept guessing about her throughout the narrative. In terms of the other characters, I felt like Ware achieved the goal of making most of them interesting and well conceived. Mrs. Elincourt was saccharine and aloof, and while you get the sense that she does love and care for her children that she doesn’t feel a need to connect with them or bond with them. Jack Grant the handyman is charming and a calming presence for Rowan, but through small moments and actions you wonder if he has something he may be hiding. And as for the children, Maddie, the oldest of the three that Rowan is watching, is properly venomous and sociopathic, while still having a sense of the tragic around her personality so that she isn’t limited to “The Bad Seed” trope. While it may be the easy way out to just make her terrible, Ware decides to give her more, and to show her as a victim in her own right even when she’s going after Rowan in the most malicious ways.

“The Turn of the Key” is another home run for Ruth Ware. While it will probably please fans of old school Gothic themes, it is also a fresh and updated look at well worn territory. It’s the perfect read for the end of summer.

Rating 9: A tense and fun gothic thriller that has become my favorite book by Ware! The perfect read for the end of summer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Turn of the Key” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery and Thriller 2019”, and “2019 Most Anticipated Releases – No YA”.

Find “The Turn of the Key” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Patron Saints of Nothing”

42166429._sy475_Book: “Patron Saints of Nothing” by Randy Ribay

Publishing Info: Kokila, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A powerful coming-of-age story about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder. 

Jay Reguero plans to spend the last semester of his senior year playing video games before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall. But when he discovers that his Filipino cousin Jun was murdered as part of President Duterte’s war on drugs, and no one in the family wants to talk about what happened, Jay travels to the Philippines to find out the real story.

Hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death, Jay is forced to reckon with the many sides of his cousin before he can face the whole horrible truth — and the part he played in it.

As gripping as it is lyrical, Patron Saints of Nothing is a page-turning portrayal of the struggle to reconcile faith, family, and immigrant identity.

Review: There are some days that I open up my news feed and just feel utter despondency. There are so many horrible things going on in the world right now that they sometimes blur together for me, and then I become peripherally aware of some but not as knowledgeable about others. This is representative of my general awareness/lack of knowledge about Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, and his human rights record, specifically the fact that his ‘war on drugs’ has led to numerous murders and deaths of drug addicts and dealers all under government approval. Given that I knew a little bit about his policies (and how much they horrify me), my knowledge of Filipino society, culture, and history, both before and during his rule, is scant. So I was very interested in reading “Patron Saints of Nothing”  by Randy Ribay, as it focuses on these themes yet is written for an audience who may be unfamiliar. I buckled up for an emotional ride.

“Patron Saints of Nothing” approaches the controversial Duterte regime and its policies through the eyes of a Filipino-American teenager whose cousin Jun was killed, supposedly because of drugs. Jay is a good way for the audience to connect to the story, as while he himself was raised by a Filipino father, his American experience (and his father’s personal need to assimilate) has superseded his Filipino culture. But guilt and sadness over his cousin’s death is the perfect motivator to send him on this personal journey where he will learn about himself and also the culture that he hasn’t paid much attention to, or has taken for granted. As Jay learns about the society that Jun lived and died in, we are presented with a crash course of information about the modern day Philippines and the policies of the Duterte regime. Jay sees Duterte and his policies through American/Western eyes and values, and while he talks about the violence and the human rights violations that are incredibly disturbing, there is a stark contrast to how many Filipinos feel about said policies. I really liked how Ribay definitely addressed how brutal and corrupt this dictatorship is, and addresses the Marcos dictatorship as well, but also doesn’t pass judgement on those who live there who may not feel the same way. One really good example of this is Jay’s uncle Tito Maning, who is a government official and is incredibly loyal to Duterte, so loyal that he sees his own son’s death as justified. Ribay isn’t hesitant to show what kind of environment this man has fostered within his own family, and is absolutely critical of his blind loyalty and its consequences. But at the same time, Tito Maning isn’t a moustache twirling villain. Ribay makes sure to show how someone like him could still be loyal, in spite of his loyalty costing him is son, and how his choices aren’t as black and white as our own personal experience might perceive them to be.

The mystery about what happened to Jun is also well done and well paced. Jay has to make connections with family members, friends, and activists to figure out just what happened to his cousin, and I greatly enjoyed following him as he tries to find the puzzle pieces. You get the sense that there is more to the story than that which is presented to Jay, and themes of social justice and activism, and the dangers it can put you in within a dictatorship, are added into the drug war at hand. I didn’t feel much suspense when following this story, but I liked that the stakes were high regardless. What added to this is the epistolary aspect of this book, through letters that Jun sent to Jay over the years. It helps you get a sense of who Jun was outside of a victim of violence, and it helps you understand Jay’s own need to understand what happened to him. There is a lot of sadness permeating this story, sadness about what happened to a young person like Jun, sadness over the injustices of the society he was living in, and sadness for Jay and his own residual guilt, be it earned or not. The mystery also helps Jay learn about himself, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel forced or in bad taste. As he learns and connects to his heritage, so too does the reader. 

I really enjoyed “Patron Saints of Nothing”. I felt like it told a unique and needed story, and gave context and voice to realities that are easy to ignore when it comes to human rights issues around the world. I am going to keep my eye on Randy Ribay, because I feel like this is the start of a storied and rich writing career.

Rating 8: A powerful and eye opening story about identity, loss, and standing up for what’s right, “Patron Saints of Nothing” casts a spotlight on a less talked about human rights issue and the complexities that surround it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Patron Saints of Nothing” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Best Asian-American Teen Fiction”.

Find “Patron Saints of Nothing” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Wanderers”

32603079Book: “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley

Book Description: A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I have been totally enthralled by post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my Dad handed me his copy of “The Stand” when I was thirteen years old and told me to read it. While I have a whole lot of anxieties about the potential ways that the world could end, the genre itself has always thrilled me, be it pandemic fiction, nuclear holocaust, zombies, or what have you. “The Stand” has always been the crown jewel of the genre for me, and so when I heard about “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig, and saw that comparisons to that masterpiece, I requested an eARC from NetGalley and was lucky enough to be sent one. The comparisons were apparent straight away: not only is the book a story about a devastating pandemic, it’s also a deep character study of a huge cast, AND it’s a LONG book (though at 800 pages it’s still only roughly half as long as the uncut version of “the Stand”, which is a mighty beast unto itself). Having this comparison in my head did a weird thing, where it both made me enjoy “Wanderers” more, and also made me more critical than I think I would have been had it not been there. Buckle up, everyone. A long book means a lot of dissemination.

The pacing and content of the plot immediately sucked me in. It’s told when the ‘sleepwalker’ phenomenon starts, and then slowly builds and builds until we have met the big, actual threat, which is a fungal-based disease that has already infected enough people to take out the world population. We have a number of different perspectives we follow, all of which show different group factions as society starts to panic and slowly break down. My favorite perspective, both in terms of characters and approach, was that of Benji, a former CDC scientist whose brilliance was overshadowed by a scandal. I was deeply invested and interested in the science aspect of this novel, and being able to see Benji and his colleagues, which include access to an AI called Black Swan that has been predicting numerous outcomes to the various situations, kept me enthralled and interested as the pandemic began to unfold. Benji is complex and nuanced, and his determination mixed with his anxieties, be it regarding his past, the AI aspect, or the very real catastrophe unfolding, made him very appealing as a character.

I also liked seeing other consequences and cause and effects that you might see in this society as it starts to deteriorate, and especially liked Wendig’s take on how white supremacist and other racist nationalist movements prey on fear and uncertainty. While it did feel heavy handed at times, this plot was mostly seen through Matthew, a preacher in a small town who gets caught up with a charismatic, and incredibly dangerous, militia man named Ozark Stover. While the pandemic is the main driving conflict in this book, it’s Stover, his militia, and the ideas that they hold dear (which are being elevated by a far right and opportunistic Presidential Candidate) that were the scariest by far. Matthew tries to look past the way Stover, and the other right wing groups, use the Bible to promote fear and hate, and you see Matthew fall for his own elevated hype as he becomes a ‘moderate’ voice for their radical views, which in turn promotes violence against the ‘sleepwalkers’ and those around them. Apt and timely, these parts really kept me interested and on the edge of my seat. It was probably also a little heavy handed, but given how these groups and voices just seem to be getting louder and more violent I can’t really fault the non-subtle portrayals of them as dangerous and fanatical.

That said, in terms of characterization, Benji and those in his sections were really the only people I found myself caring about in this book. I wanted to like Shana, the teenage girl whose sister was the first ‘sleepwalker’, but I found her inability to see nuance in many situations to be frustrating, and it made me not care for her too much. I also wanted to like Pete Corey, a nearly has-been rock star who gets caught up in protecting the ‘sleepwalkers’ and their companions (aka shepherds) initially just to get attention for himself before making a true connection. But unfortunately he fit the trope of ‘he’s closeted and therefore pushes everyone away and embraces a hedonistic lifestyle’, and it’s well worn, almost overdone, territory now. And while I enjoyed and was invested in the content with Matthew and Ozark, I had a very hard time with Matthew as a person, and found no one in that arc very sympathetic either. And this is where the comparisons to “The Stand” hindered this book (and given that the narrative itself makes reference to “The Stand”, I feel that the door has been opened to compare the two). Say what you will about the ending of that book, but it is hard to deny that King really knows how to write a multitude of different characters, and to give all of them complex, multifaceted things to do within their character arcs. While some characters are definitely more black and white than others in that book, for the most part you get into the head and motivations of almost every member of that ensemble, for the good and the bad. In “Wanderers”, I felt that Wendig sometimes got lost with his balancing, and because of this the characterization suffered, and therefore so did my ability to care about them.

On top of all this, the ending (and I won’t go into why or how) had a big final ‘gotcha’ twist that felt unnecessary. Sure, it was set up in a way that I could track out and map, so it didn’t feel completely out of nowhere. But when it was revealed I did kind of wonder what it added to the overall story, outside of confirming other well-worn tropes that I had thought we’d left behind.

Finally, there’s one more thing that I really need to address within this novel. This ties in with the HUGE content warning that I want to give it, AND along with that I’m going to be talking about plot points in no uncertain terms. Therefore, we are getting a

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Chuck Wendig used to write “Star Wars” content for Marvel so I had to use this. (source)

There are many characters within this book, and all of them touch upon certain themes such as bigotry, racism, white supremacy, and using religion as a weapon and how these things can all go hand in hand. Matthew, our preacher who lets his own ego get him caught up with a white supremacist movement, becomes friends with the aforementioned Ozark Stover. After Matthew stops towing the line for Stover and white supremacist Presidential Candidate Creel, Ozark beats him, tortures him, and locks him in his bunker on his property. He also violently rapes him. I had no idea that this was coming, and when it did I had to put the book down for awhile and go do something else. While I am never going to be a ‘fan’ of sexual violence in books I read, as how could one be, if I can see a reason behind it or if it’s done in a responsible way I can be more forgiving of that plot choice, even if I’m going to be upset about it. In “Wanderers”, I felt that there was absolutely no reason for it to be there outside of sensationalism. We already know that Ozark Stover is an evil motherfucker. He’s manipulative, he’s violent, he incites hatred and violent actions amongst his followers, and he’s a murderous, misogynistic white supremacist who uses religion as a way to froth up his following. WE KNOW HE IS HORRIBLE. It felt like this scene was just a ‘and how can we REALLY hit the point home that he’s a bad guy?’ when we have rounded the bases of badness MULTIPLE times. On top of that, I didn’t like the framing of it. Matthew is a piece of shit in his own way, and while I know that we were supposed to feel bad for him and see him as more ‘flawed’ than anything else, I personally couldn’t abide him. BUT ALL OF THAT SAID, making him a victim of a graphic and violent sexual assault made me feel sick, because to me it felt like a ‘and now you know why you never should have gotten tangled up with this guy in the first place’ moment, which to me is unnecessary. Like I’ve said, I am NEVER going to be fully on board with a scene like this, but I think that there are ways that it can be done with sensitivity and with responsibility. This felt like it was for shock value, and I didn’t like that.

Overall, “Wanderers” is definitely a worthy contribution to the ‘post-apocalyptic pandemic’ genre, and I think that it’s going to stand the test of time. There were aspects that I greatly enjoyed, and aspects that fell flat, but I definitely can see myself as recommending it to people who like this kind of thing. I am very curious to see what Wendig does next.

Rating 7: While the world building, pacing, and downfall of humanity ticked all my boxes, I had problems with some characterization, a final GOTCHA twist, and a scene of exploitative sexual violence.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wanderers” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Books for a Pandemic”, and “This Is The End..”

Find “Wanderers” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “A Stranger on the Beach”

41150430Book: “A Stranger on the Beach” by Michele Campbell

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: There is a stranger outside Caroline’s house.

Her spectacular new beach house, built for hosting expensive parties and vacationing with the family she thought she’d have. But her husband is lying to her and everything in her life is upside down, so when the stranger, Aiden, shows up as a bartender at the same party where Caroline and her husband have a very public fight, it doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.

As her marriage collapses around her and the lavish lifestyle she’s built for herself starts to crumble, Caroline turns to Aiden for comfort…and revenge. After a brief and desperate fling that means nothing to Caroline and everything to him, Aiden’s obsession with Caroline, her family, and her house grows more and more disturbing. And when Caroline’s husband goes missing, her life descends into a nightmare that leaves her accused of her own husband’s murder.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I kind of stumbled upon Michele Campbell’s books a year or so ago, picking up “It’s Always The Husband” on a whim and listening to it on eAudiobook. I was immediately taken in by the suspense, the plot twists, and the complex characters. I also enjoyed “She Was The Quiet One”, and at that point I decided that Campbell was going to be one of my go to requests when it comes to authors. I was lucky enough that NetGalley granted my request to read her newest novel “A Stranger on the Beach”. The plot enticed me straight away. A scorned woman decides to get revenge against her potentially cheating husband by having one night stand with a handsome younger man, and it goes terribly awry with secrets, sex, lies, and murder?

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Go on. (source)

It became pretty clear that Campbell had more in store for her readers than the simplicity of this tried and true plot line. The problem is that with “A Stranger on the Beach” she didn’t do a good enough job of keeping her cards close to her vest.

I’ll start with what did work for me, as there was a fair amount that did. I am a huge sucker for lurid and soapy thrillers, and “A Stranger on the Beach” is definitely that. The elements of a wealthy woman getting caught up with a man from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ has a lot of potential for fun and quick thrills, and because of that I breezed through “A Stranger on the Beach” pretty quickly. Caroline’s chapters were first person, and gave you a sense of what was inside her head and what was driving her emotions, and while Aidan’s were from a third person perspective you still knew who he was and what he was about. I also liked the power dynamics that Campbell brought into the story, with Caroline being part of the wealthy tourist population that spends summers in beach houses, and Aidan being a townie struggling to make ends meet and having to see the entitled hoi polloi throw their weight around. This made it so their interactions always had an added tension to them, beyond the tension that is already there because of their uneven affections for each other. It also brought in the questions of who is more trustworthy to the reader, Caroline or Aidan, based on gender, class, and what you know about the two of them and their personal lives. You know that Caroline is a potentially scorned wife, and you know that Aidan has had past run ins with the law. But what do you actually know about them when it comes down to it? I will say that it was fun seeing things get turned sideways.

That said, unlike Campbell’s previous novels, I found pretty much no one to root for in this story, as everyone was pretty much terrible, even if they were all pretty complex. In previous works by Campbell I feel like while there are rotten characters, there are at least some people to root for, and even some who buck the trend. But in “A Stranger on the Beach”, I couldn’t find one character with any redeeming qualities, and that made it very hard to connect to any of them. They weren’t even terribly fun villains that you love to hate, just unpalatable and frustrating to follow. Even the law enforcement officials who are trying to see the best in everyone came off as complete rubes. On top of that, while the plot was well paced and kept me going, I figured out almost all of the big surprises and plot twists very early on, far earlier than I should have been able to do so. I’m not sure if it’s another instance of knowing the clues and the devices and what to look for, or if it was a little too obvious. But even if it was an instance of being a huge thriller reader, given that I imagine thriller readers would be one of the main demographics for this series, it’s not a huge leap to say that I probably wouldn’t be the only person with this problem.

“A Stranger on the Beach” was a bit of a let down. I’m not about to write off Michele Campbell as an author, but I do hope that whatever she comes out with next is a return to form that we saw in her previous novels. 

Rating 5: While I found the read to be addicting and pleasantly fast, I didn’t care for many of the characters and called the big twists a long time before the reveals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Stranger on the Beach” is included on the Goodreads lists “So You Love An Unreliable Narrator”, and “Down By The Sea”.

Find “A Stranger on the Beach” at your library using WorldCat!