Kate’s Review: “Ghoster”

31934011Book: “Ghoster” by Jason Arnopp

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: Jason Arnopp – author of acclaimed cult hit The Last Days of Jack Sparks – returns with a razor-sharp thriller for a social-media obsessed world. Prepare to never look at your phone the same way again . . .

Kate Collins has been ghosted. She was supposed to be moving in with her new boyfriend Scott, but all she finds after relocating to Brighton is an empty apartment. Scott has vanished. His possessions have all disappeared. Except for his mobile phone. Kate knows she shouldn’t hack into Scott’s phone. She shouldn’t look at his Tinder, his calls, his social media. But she can’t quite help herself. That’s when the trouble starts. Strange, whispering phone calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize. Scratch marks on the walls that she can’t explain. And the growing feeling that she’s being watched. Kate refuses to leave the apartment – she’s not going anywhere until she’s discovered what happened to Scott. But the deeper she dives into Scott’s digital history the more Kate realizes just how little she really knows about the man she loves.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me an ARC of this novel!

Back in 2017 I was flying back from New Zealand and was totally enthralled by “The Last Days of Jack Sparks” by Jason Arnopp. While I am not usually super into nor affected by possession and exorcist stories, the uniqueness and genuine creepiness of this novel completely blew me away and was one of my favorite reads of the year. I waited anxiously for a new book by Arnopp to drop, and when I saw that he had a new book called “Ghoster” coming out, I was ecstatic. I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of “Ghoster”, and once I had finished a couple other books that took precedent, I dove right in. “Ghoster” isn’t a possession story. At least, not in the way that we normally think about them. But it is a story about obsession, and how things can seemingly take you over in unexpected, and dangerous ways. 

Oh, and we once again get some creepy and unsettling imagery that freaked me the hell out.

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Sometimes I just had to step away. (source)

Kate, or protagonist, is a bit of a complex and unreliable character. We know that she has had obsessive issues with social media and romance in the past, and after her lover Scott seemingly disappears on the eve of them moving in together, you wonder if her need to find him is based on worry for his safety, or a dark jealousy that is hinted at from her previous relationships and actions. It’s first person, so we get into her mind and how quirky and obsessive it can be. She is convinced that Scott has left her, or has tricked her, and since it isn’t often that she stops to think that maybe something bad happened to him it makes you question a lot about her mental state. Is she a woman with a legitimate beef, or is she a bit more unstable than she’d like us to think?  It sets a tone that is already uneasy and makes it all the more jarring. I felt bad for Kate, but I also wasn’t sure if I could totally trust her and her perceptions, or the story that she was telling us. It’s true that there were a couple of times where I thought that her strangeness was laid on a little thick, but for the most part it was well done and a great way to make the reader question even more about the story than they already may have been. It also makes it so that when the very strange things start happening, we have to wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wouldn’t say that Kate is likable, but she sure doesn’t have to be. It’s not like Jack Sparks was a likable character, after all, so why can’t Kate also be that way? It didn’t make me any less invested in her story.

The creepy elements and plot of this book aren’t as amped as Arnopp’s previous novel, but they are still there and they are still done in a way that left an impression. As Kate slowly tries to trace Scott’s steps and whereabouts, she finds more and more things that suggest something is afoot. She has his cell phone, and is able to see his browsing history, which implies that he may not have been the person he said he is. There is a missing woman that may have a connection to him. And on top of that, as she stays in Scott’s apartment and her obsession with his phone and social media footprint intensifies, she starts to see things that shouldn’t be possible. I don’t want to go into specifics, but I will say this: one of the things that gets me really freaked out in movies and books are the images and descriptions of people and things moving in ways that they shouldn’t be moving. Be it jerky motions or weird contorted moving, it’s going to mess me up every single time. Arnopp does something like that in this book, and boy did it hit all the nerves. Arnopp has always been very good at describing an incredibly visual medium and making it work on the page and within the reader’s imagination. All that said, I did think that the metaphors about technology and social media having a malevolent hold on people are pretty well played out at this point, so that wasn’t as strong as I had hoped it would be, commentary wise.

“Ghoster” was another satisfying and spooky read from Jason Arnopp. It’s a great one to pick up right in time for Halloween, and now that I’ve read it I’m back to square one and not at all patiently waiting to see what he comes out with next! 

Rating 8: A spine tingling and tense horror story about relationships, social media, and obsession.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghoster” is new and isn’t on many relevant/specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Fiction Involving The Internet”.

Find “Ghoster” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “White Tears”

30780283Book: “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru

Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From one of the most talented fiction writers at work today: two ambitious young musicians are drawn into the dark underworld of blues record collecting, haunted by the ghosts of a repressive past.

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is glamorous and the heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

Review: There has been a strange narrative that has come out lately that I’ve had a hard time swallowing when it comes to the horror genre, and that is the idea of ‘elevating’ horror. While I think that there has been a healthy respect from creators of newer horror movies that manage to gather more from the story than just jump scares or cliches (Jordan Peele, for example), there are others that seem to think that they can ‘improve’ the genre by being more artistic or surrealistic. For example, while I liked aspects of the new “Suspiria”, I definitely felt like it had a very high opinion of itself, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would because it took itself almost too seriously. It’s not really something you see as much in literature, so I don’t go into horror stories with these worries. But I will say that I was a LITTLE worried about “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru, if only because a few people who I know who really liked it seemed to be saying that this was superior to genre horror specifically because of the literary style. That said, I was definitely interested in the themes of social justice and cultural appropriation and violence, and decided that it was finally time to pick it up. I will admit that the horror elements weren’t very horror based, at least for this fan. But everything else was executed wonderfully.

I will actually start with the weaker points in this review, just to get them out of the way. This is advertised as a horror novel, and while it absolutely has horror themes that involve possession, ghosts, and slow descents into instability, none of these themes or moments really made me feel scared, nor did they instill much dread in me. I think that part of this was the writing style choices that Kunzru made, be it the way the dialog was written or the way that sometimes things would jump around. This made it so that the scares couldn’t build up as much as they might have were the beats written in other ways. I tend to have a harder time with literary horror because of these kinds of things, and while I can appreciate authors experimenting and doing their own thing, it didn’t make the action as exciting or ‘unputdownable’ as I wanted. Even moments that could have felt merely unsettling as opposed to outright scary didn’t quite get to that level.

But honestly, the strengths of this book outweigh those issues, specifically the commentary about cultural appropriation, violence, and racism in American culture and society. Our protagonists are Seth and Carter, two white college students who think that because they study and have a fascination with American Blues that they have ownership over it. Seth isn’t nearly as entitled as Carter, whose wealth and status has really inflated his ego, but Seth definitely shares similar views when it comes to music. It’s an entitlement that is seen in American culture as white audiences consume and repackage facets from Black culture and market it to wider audiences and profit off of it. The idea that these two men think that they create a unique song and performer, only to find out that this person and his music was real, is very reminiscent of this view (even if there is something a bit supernatural about this specific instance within the story). I liked the contrast between Carter and Seth, as while Carter is clearly toxic from the get go, Seth is almost more damaging because he thinks that he is immune to these critiques because he doesn’t think he has the privileges that Carter has. Which is, of course, flagrantly ignoring his White privilege. You see a lot of White entitlement in this story, and when we finally start to see the voices of African American characters, specifically Charlie Shaw, the hypocrisy and scumbaggery of Seth, Carter, and others is highlighted and really punctuates the overall violence that artists like Shaw had to endure. I liked how Kunzru did a good job of applying the ideas of possession and haunting to the idea of cultural appropriation and the damages and injustices that it can foster. This is the kind of ‘horror elevation’ that I greatly enjoy, specifically because horror fiction, be it movies or literature, has always had some political and social commentary elements to it. “White Tears” knows how to weave those messages into this story seamlessly.

While I wish that “White Tears” had done a little bit more to scare me, I really enjoyed it for everything else that it had to offer! I should be more adventurous when it comes to literary horror, because this had some serious chops.

Rating 8: While the story wasn’t as horror centric as I had hoped, the social commentary more than made up for that.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Tears” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books White People Need To Read”, and “Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction”.

Find “White Tears” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Turn of the Screw”

12948._sy475_Book: “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

Publishing Info: The Macmillan Company, October 1898

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

Review: I’ve mentioned in the past that I have a huge gap in my literature experience when it come to ‘the classics’. I took a rather unconventional load of English and Lit courses in high school and college, and because of that a number of stories have been left behind. The horror genre is no exception, surprisingly enough. I have had “The Turn of the Screw” in the back of my mind since I was a teenager, and it sat on my Kindle for a few years after I purchased a few old school horror reads that then just sat there. My motivation to finally read this book came from two places; I read “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware and knew I was probably missing less known references, and the next Mike Flanagan “Haunting” series is going to be based on this Henry James ghost story. It was obviously time to dive in and read the tale of terror that has influenced so much of the genre.

“The Turn of the Screw” was one of those game changing tales that pushed the ideas of horror and what you could do within the genre itself. There is no denying that Henry James paved the way for modern haunted house tales like “The Haunting of Hill House” and movies like “The Others” when he took ideas of unreliable narrators and unsettling ghosts vs over the top ghosts and put them on the page. Some of the things that I really liked about this book were because of these tweaks and experimentations. “The Turn of the Screw” takes great Gothic elements and completely acknowledges the influence from Gothic stories, be it references to “Jane Eyre” or “The Mysteries of Udolpho”. Bly is isolated and distant, and the unnamed Governess is left there with two strange children, another servant, and no head of house for guidance or direction. As she falls more and more into physical isolation, so too does her mind fall into mental isolation, which is really what you need for a Gothic theme to really have a punch. I also really appreciate how James wrote this story in a way that makes the Governess a completely unreliable narrator, and that we can’t quite figure out whether or not there are actual ghosts and Bly that want to take the children, or if she is slowly descending into madness and she is the actual threat the whole time. It’s left up to interpretation, and arguments can be made for either scenario. I honestly don’t know where I fall on the ‘was it ghosts or insanity’ argument, James was so convincing of both. And frankly, I don’t know which would be the worse answer, given how the story ends. Along with that, in my mild bit of research into the background of this story, James was one of the first people to write ghosts in an unsettling way as opposed to over the top and melodramatic. And that really stands out in this story, as the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel are more inclined to move through the grounds or appear in dark hallways and merely stand there as opposed to rattling chains and wailing. And for me, that’s far more creepy and disturbing. There were moments of imagery in this book that sent chills up my spine.

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Was it a mistake to read this book after dark while my husband was out of town? Almost assuredly. (source)

However, the reason that I am giving “The Turn of the Screw” a lower rating than one might expect from my praise is because of the writing style of the time period. This almost always knocks me off my game and distracts me when it comes to ‘classic’ stories, and “The Turn of the Screw” definitely fell into the trap of a lot of flowery language and slogging scenes with not as much action as I would have liked. When comparing it to another classic haunted house story like “The Haunting of Hill House”, I felt like it didn’t have the kind of pacing where the stakes were being repeatedly raised and the dread was building after every incident. I appreciate how this would have been groundbreaking for the time and how much it has done for the ghost stories that came after it. But for me, it was more of a slog to get through than I would have liked.

I think that reading “The Turn of the Screw” was ultimately a good choice, as I see how it works as a foundation for so many stories that I love. But it’s not one that I see myself revisiting as time goes on, as I might with “The Haunting of Hill House” or other classics like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

Rating 6: A classic horror story that paved the way for many themes within a genre, “The Turn of the Screw” has moments of dread, but sometimes is held back by the style it was written in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Turn of the Screw” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books With Unreliable Narrators”, and “Quick Books”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Full Throttle”

43801817Book: “Full Throttle” by Joe Hill

Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2019

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

Book Description: In this masterful collection of short fiction, Joe Hill dissects timeless human struggles in thirteen relentless tales of supernatural suspense, including “In The Tall Grass,” one of two stories co-written with Stephen King, basis for the terrifying feature film from Netflix.

A little door that opens to a world of fairy tale wonders becomes the blood-drenched stomping ground for a gang of hunters in “Faun.” A grief-stricken librarian climbs behind the wheel of an antique Bookmobile to deliver fresh reads to the dead in “Late Returns.” In “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain,” two young friends stumble on the corpse of a plesiosaur at the water’s edge, a discovery that forces them to confront the inescapable truth of their own mortality . . . and other horrors that lurk in the water’s shivery depths. And tension shimmers in the sweltering heat of the Nevada desert as a faceless trucker finds himself caught in a sinister dance with a tribe of motorcycle outlaws in “Throttle,” co-written with Stephen King.

Featuring two previously unpublished stories, and a brace of shocking chillers, Full Throttle is a darkly imagined odyssey through the complexities of the human psyche. Hypnotic and disquieting, it mines our tormented secrets, hidden vulnerabilities, and basest fears, and demonstrates this exceptional talent at his very best.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending my an eARC of this book!

Happy Horrorpalooza 2019 everyone! As you may know, in October I try to stick to books that have horror based or Halloween-y themes, as this is absolutely my favorite time of the year and I like to inundate myself with all things scary and spooky. So how lucky are we that we get to kick off the month with a book from one of my favorite horror authors, Joe Hill. Hill is one of those authors that I will always swear my devotion to, and so when I found out that he had a new short stories collection coming out I was stoked as heck. Granted, I had already read a few of the tales in “Full Throttle”, his new collection, as they had been published previously with other collections or in collaboration with his father, Stephen King. But a majority of the tales were new to me, and I couldn’t wait to tackle them all. As per usual with short stories collections, I’ll talk about my favorites, and then give an overall review of the series as a whole. And I have lots to say about my favorites.

“Dark Carousel”

This story is one of the most blatantly horror-centric tales in the collection, and it has a good amount of winking and nudging towards well loved tropes and stories in the genre. With nods towards “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, I took great delight in this creepy tale. Four friends attend a carnival and take a ride on the carousel. After they accuse the carousel operator of wrongdoing, they decide to have some fun and take their revenge on him. But little do they know that they are being watched by non-human eyes, and that their misdeeds will have dire consequences. I really, really loved this story, from the characterizations of our protagonists to the slow build of dread at the carnival and afterwards, and the come down that has ambiguity and a sense of inevitability. The loving references to “Something Wicked This Way Comes” were fun to spot, and the overall wrongness of the carnival and the carousel made for an eerie and unsettling, yet never over the top, scary story. The story isn’t terribly complicated, but it is very effective in what it is trying to achieve. The best horror story in the collection for me, hands down.

“By The Silver Waters of Lake Champlain”

This was one of the stories I had read previously before picking up this book, but given how much I loved it the first time I was excited (and apprehensive) to read it again. But on a second go through, my love for the story only grew, and it is probably my favorite story in the collection. Friends Gail and Joel are visiting Lake Champlain on vacation, and one lazy Sunday morning the two of them find the body of what looks to be a plesiosaur-like reptile. Convinced it’s the famed lake monster Champ, they have dreams that their discovery will make them rich and famous. But instead of fame and glory, they have to confront the hard truths of growing up, loss, and mortality. I first read this story a few years ago, and it blew me away and left me crying. Reading it this time and knowing how it all ends made the experience all the more bittersweet. Hill has the ability to capture tween and teenage voices in authentic ways, and he also knows how to give hints to his characters realities without being explicit. We can surmise that Gail and Joel are both a bit lonely at home, and that their parents, at least during this story, are more focused on nursing vacation hangovers than on their children and what they are getting up to on a foggy morning by the lake. Gail and Joel are probably friends more based on circumstance than anything else, but that doesn’t make their friendship any less valid, nor does it cheapen the ultimate ending this story has. They are connected by interest in the Lake Champlain Monster as well, and honestly anything that shows weird and funny friendship obsessions with cryptids is going to resonate with me, given my past (and present) fascinations with similar topics. But on top of that, for me this is one of the most emotionally charged stories in the bunch (one of the others will be addressed in a moment). Hill is so good at writing grief and trauma, and the last paragraphs are still haunting and incredibly emotional. This is a story that I would LOVE to see expanded into a novel, where Gail goes back to the lake to try to get answers and closure. And even on the second read through I was left a bit emotionally compromised. Nay, extremely emotionally compromised.

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Actual footage of my emotions at the end. (source)

“Late Returns”

I will wholeheartedly own up to the fact that as a librarian I was no doubt going to be biased towards this story. A new librarian, trying to escape his own grief and loss, takes over the Bookmobile job in hopes of spreading the love of reading to people who can’t necessarily make it into the actual library. As he makes the rounds, he starts to encounter people from other times, who may need to read books that were published after their deaths in order to feel complete. This is one of the less creepy or scary stories from the collection, and the unabashed love of reading and the testament to the power of a book is so sublime and wholesome. Hill also tinkers and plays with the idea of time and space continuums in this story in really unique ways. For example, should one of these ‘late returns’ (the name given to the out of time patrons) pick up a book that was published after their death, it may be indecipherable to them if they shouldn’t be reading it. But it will also morph it’s design to fit the design of the era the person was from. It’s little details like these that feel original and incredibly clever. On top of that, we get more emotional moments for some of the characters, from our protagonist processing his own grief to one late return whose son is fighting in Vietnam, and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Again, while I love the scares and thrills that Hill creates, it’s how he taps into the human condition and all its complexities that makes him stand out.

As for the rest of the collection, most if the stories are strong in their own ways. The two collaborations with his Dad show how well they work together, though I will say that “In The Tall Grass” (another I’d read previously) sort of makes me feel like they were trying to one up each other in the shocks department (and I ultimately didn’t really care for it when all was said and done). It is a good balance of a number of genres, and they all fit together even if they aren’t explicitly connected. At the end he has little background notes about how each came to be written, and I thought that gave them even more context which enhanced the reading experience.

“Full Throttle” is a perfectly compiled collection of Hill’s various offerings, and if you want a taste of what he can do, you have a smorgasbord to choose from.

Rating 8: A solid collection of horror, thriller, and dark fantasy, “Full Throttle” has scares and heart and confirms Joe Hill’s prowess as an author of many genres.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Full Throttle” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2019”.

Find “Full Throttle” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Five Midnights”

41555950Book: “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?

Five Midnights is a “wickedly thrilling” (William Alexander) novel based on the el Cuco myth set against the backdrop of modern day Puerto Rico.

Review: The first time I encountered the el Cuco folktale was in Stephen King’s book “The Outsider”. While I really liked what he did with it and REALLY liked “The Outsider”, I did see how it could be a little problematic that a white guy was taking a Latinix/Portuguese mythology and twisting it to his own needs. Because of this, when I heard about “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal, I definitely wanted to give it a whirl, given that she is of Puerto Rican descent and sets her story about el Cuco in modern day Puerto Rico. Luckily my local library system had some copies checked in despite its new status, and it didn’t take long to arrive.

“Five Midnights” has a lot of strong points and a lot of potential for YA horror fans. The story is both unique but also timely. You have an old school ‘boogeyman’ story that blends with social themes that are affecting Puerto Rico of the 21st century, such as poverty, the drug trade, and wealthy (read: white) developers coming in and creating further divides between the haves and have nots. You have two perspectives you are seeing within this story: there is Lupe, a Vermont based teenager whose father is Puerto Rican who is visiting her policeman uncle, and Javier, a local who has fought against poverty and drug addiction and is now in recovery. It is mostly Javier and those in his group that reflect the struggles that his community is facing, as he and his friends have fallen into dangerous behaviors due to desperation and circumstance. It is also Javier’s friend group that has started to end up dead, one by one, the targets of a potential murderer, or perhaps supernatural being based in the folklore they grew up with (el Cuco!). Along with Javier is a girl named Marisol, the sister of one of Javier’s dead friends, whose rage and resentment towards their circumstances is channeled towards Lupe, an outsider from America who is also white passing. I really liked that Cardinal took these social issues and not only put them into the narrative, but was able to show how the story of el Cuco could be tied to them, given that it is said el Cuco targets misbehaving children. And honestly, I really like the el Cuco myth, and since it’s still kind of new to me I liked seeing a new interpretation that is based more on what the original folklore is as opposed to Stephen King’s version of it. It makes me want to go out and learn more about the mythology as a whole.

That said, there were definitely some weaker aspects of this book as well. The mystery itself wasn’t REALLY a mystery, as it’s clear from the get go that this isn’t a serial killer or human antagonist, but el Cuco committing the murders. The reasons are sound, and I liked the reveal of the origins, but I never really got completely invested in whether or not Javier and his friends were going to make it out alive or not. I think this is in part because the characterizations weren’t as strong as I would have liked. Javier was fine, but he wasn’t very fleshed out. And Lupe, while the other protagonist, was a bit harder to like, if only because she never really tried to understand nor was totally called out on her privileges, be it that she is an American citizen or that she is white passing. For me the most interesting character was Marisol, but even she never really got past being a two dimensional quasi-antagonist, especially since her antagonism is based in a very understandable anger about her disenfranchised circumstances. On top of that, she and Lupe could have very easily had an interesting relationship where they could have learned a lot from each other. Instead, it was merely two strong willed girls butting heads, which was disappointing. 

The negatives aside, I definitely appreciated “Five Midnights” and the story that it told from perspectives we don’t see as much in YA literature. It has some well done scary moments, and some relevant themes interwoven with the scares.

Rating 6: A compelling and original horror story with some well done social commentary. While the characters weren’t as fascinating as I had hoped, the el Cuco myth was a true strength of this novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Five Midnights” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Set in Puerto Rico”.

Find “Five Midnights” at your library using WorldCat!

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”.

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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..”

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