The hush at the end of the world

Good Morning, Midnight ★★★★
by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Random House
Available: August 9th 2016

goodmorningGood Morning, Midnight is the quietest apocalypse book you’re ever likely to read. From the stark, icy silences of the vast Arctic, to the soundless black infinity of outer space, this introspective book is about loneliness and isolation, not bombs, or germs or zombies and fighting like a dog over the last can of beans.

If your reader’s desire is to immerse yourself in a well-constructed and deftly explored end of the world scenario then you just might be disappointed here. Getting into the nitty gritty details of an apocalypse — the whys and wherefores — that’s not this book.

Instead what we have here is a thoughtful and poignantly written contemplation on the ways humans can cut themselves off from other humans, can so easily become trapped in their own inability to connect and build lasting relationships, moving through life untethered — on the outside of everything, apart from everyone. The two vividly described settings — the Arctic and outer space — are perfect metaphors for our disconnected protagonists to move in. Our genius astronomer Augustine is stationed at the top of the world in a remote Arctic research station when the world ends. Our intrepid female astronaut Sullivan (or Sully) is on a round trip back to Earth from the outer reaches of Jupiter, confined in tight quarters with the rest of her crew.

Each is struggling with a loneliness they can’t quite define, a torment that only becomes amplified and more crushing as the terrifying realization begins to crystallize that the world might just have ended. From space, Sully and her crew are disturbed at the utter hush of zero communication coming from Earth. What sort of cataclysmic, inexplicable event could have happened to the home planet they are speeding toward? Augustine’s Arctic life is just as silent, save for the company of a mysterious young girl left behind after the research station is evacuated.

The real strength of this book (especially considering its modest length) is the striking descriptions (at times breathtakingly rendered) of life in space and in an Arctic research facility. The attention to detail put me RIGHT THERE, I could see, taste, touch everything. I lived on the Aether and experienced the excitement, the boredom, the claustrophobia, the anxiety, the fear. The challenge of meals, and going to the bathroom, and sleeping, and staying in shape. I came to know the frigid wind of the Arctic wanting to rip my face off, and the despair of feeling swallowed up by a white frozen landscape void of humans and seemingly hope. Until the sun rises. And the descriptions — often eloquent — are not plodding or heavy. No word is wasted. The prose is so sharp and so observant.

Our protagonists Augustine and Sully — though they keep themselves busy and strive for ways to normalize a far from normal situation — will have a lot of time on their hands, empty hours that will torment them, and force them to confront painful truths about themselves and the life choices they’ve made. What lies on the other side of the apocalyptic silence is a mystery that won’t be solved, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t answers to be found.

An advanced reading copy was provided through Netgalley.

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What’s in the box?!

Bird Box ★★★★
Josh Malerman
Ecco, 2014

Something is out there . . .

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, Malorie has long dreamed of fleeing to a place where her family might be safe. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

4.5 stars

bird boxWhoah. This is some really good shit. Color me very impressed. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked this one up, but it totally delivered on tension and suspense, a palpable dread, and a suffocating sense of doom.

Just as a launching off point I’m going to throw two pop culture references at you that I couldn’t stop thinking about while reading this book. The first is the music video “Just” by Radiohead. Remember that’s the one where there’s this guy who just lies down in the street for no apparent reason and when this other guy starts screaming for a reason why he’s done this and when the man finally tells him, everyone who is in earshot lies down too, as if whatever he’s said is just too huge and overwhelming for the mind to process that the only human response is to collapse.

The second reference I’m going to throw at you is a Twilight Zone episode from the ’80s called “Need to Know” where everyone starts going insane in this small town and it’s eventually discovered that the source of the problem is not a physical disease, but an idea, a single short phrase, that is being passed from person to person by word of mouth. That horrible phrase is nothing more or less than the purpose and meaning of existence; the moral of the story being — Knowledge we are not ready to receive will drive us mad.

I freaking love that Radiohead video and I was twelve years old when I saw that Twilight Zone episode and it scared the crap out of me (which is Trudi speak for I loved it). So in a lot of ways I was already primed to love this book where a mysterious pandemic plague is causing the “infected” to go on homicidal killing sprees before killing themselves. In the escalating chaos and confusion, the source of the infection is identified as having seen something the human mind cannot fathom, a creature that is so beyond our comprehension we are literally driven mad by it. But who is to know for sure, since no one has survived to confirm what it is that they saw.

Your only defence is to close your eyes, and keep them closed.

Humans hide in houses behind windows that are painted, covered with blankets or boarded up. They dare not venture outside for water or food unless they are blindfolded. If you thought surviving the end of days was tough with all of your faculties and sight, try doing it completely blind and feeling hunted and watched the entire time.

I love survival stories of all kinds: but an apocalypse scenario where the group must survive together is my favorite. And it’s done so well here, I really can’t stress that enough. The way the tension builds gradually as the unknowable threat outside the doors of the safe house becomes more menacing and tangible. How so much is implied rather than relying on big gushy scenes of gore and explicit violence. How the daily trek to the well blindfolded to get fresh water becomes an exercise in exquisite pulse-pounding suspense to unnerve the most steely-nerved of all readers.

Did you hear that? Sssshhhhh. I think it came from behind you. Whatever you do, don’t open your eyes.

Readers who have a perpetual desire for answers and reasons may find the lack of explanation here troubling. I didn’t. I was okay that we really don’t know what the hell is going on and can only guess (and imagine our worst fears). If something like this ever goes down for real we’ll be just as much in the dark as the characters in Bird Box discovering we are as much at the mercy of our ignorance and fear of the unknown as anything that may or may not be hunting us.

On Goodreads’ newly revised ‘gag order’

How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann CoulterHow to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter

Thanks to Goodreads’revised reviewing policy, I can no longer share with fellow members my thoughts and feelings about “author” Ann Coulter and the horrible, sanctimonious, self-righteous, ignorant bilge she peddles daily in mass media and in her useless life. Ann Coulter hates Canadians — well guess what, Ann? In the words of Jesse Pinkman: The feeling is mutual, bitch. Let it be said I would rather lick a donkey’s balls than fork over any money to you supporting your brand of hatred, racism and overall suckitude.

This public service message has been brought to you in violation of Goodreads Article 11.4 – You Write What You’re Told. Thank you Goodreads for ensuring a brighter, better tomorrow for readers everywhere!

 

Ambiguity is not my friend

The Uninvited ★★
Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury USA, 2013
Available Now

I’m going to tell you two things that made me want to read this book:

1) The cover – I mean, c’mon…how kick-ass creepy is this?

uninvited

2) The first sentence of the book jacket description: “A seven-year-old girl puts a nail gun to her grandmother’s neck and fires.”

Creepy, evil kids doing creepy evil things is usually a win for me. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would dive into this book with abandon.

First of all — it isn’t horror, despite the cover and the book jacket description. It’s more a mash-up of mystery sci-fi with a philosophical bent to it. There are creepy parts, but those are almost incidental to the book’s defined purpose. And what is that purpose?

The writing is great. Liz Jensen knows what to do with words. Hesketh Lock is a remarkable character study of a person living with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m no expert by any means (and maybe it’s a terribly erroneous portrait), nevertheless I appreciated the attention to detail. I found Hesketh’s way of looking at the world and interacting with it endlessly fascinating.

The book opens with Hesketh being sent to different countries on various continents to investigate cases of industrial sabotage. It’s not entirely clear how these financially devastating actions by valued employees are even related to the other disturbing cases occurring at the same time of children murdering their caregivers. Hence the mystery. But Hesketh is on the case and with his very unusual brain and the aid of Venn diagrams moves closer to the truth with each passing day.

Even up to the three-quarter mark I was still chomping at the bit to uncover what the hell was really going on. I needed to know. Things were going from bad to worse. What could be behind it all? Demons? Aliens? Time-traveling scientists? So many cryptic clues, hinting at something universally “big” in a space-time-evolutionary way.

I was ready for it. I believed in the author. It felt like she had a plan. I trusted her. Even with a mere 10 pages left and no definitive climax or resolution in sight, I was only slightly worried and concerned.

Ever watch an overwrought, existential and confused piece of French cinema replete with embedded themes and imagery and allegory that you were supposed to “get” but didn’t, and then the end title comes up and looks like this:

fin1

And then you shout at the screen and shake your fist: What the bleep?! You fume and even cry real tears. Because you realize no one’s going to tell you the answer. Oh no. You will have to guess, extrapolate, surmise and theorize, with your friends, or worse still, with the obnoxious douche you have to work with every day.

Well piss on that. If that’s what I wanted to spend my time doing I would have gotten my PhD in goddam philosophy. I can tolerate some ambiguity, but by and large I don’t like it. It aggravates me. I’m reading for answers and resolution, not for more questions and uncertainty. Ambiguity stinks. Ambiguity is not my friend. Which is also probably why David Lynch movies make me want to stab somebody, him mostly.

So for a horror novel, that turned out to be a mysterious sci-fi piece that turned out to be an exercise in pointless philosophy showcasing an excruciatingly ambiguous ending — two stars.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

Kirkman, how could you?!

walking dead 17
The Walking Dead, Vol. 17: Something to Fear ★★★★
Kirkman, Adlard, Rathburn
Image Comics, 2012

***Warning: The following review contains spoilers!!!***

Holy moses, I just knew I was being set up in the last volume. I knew it!!! My momma didn’t raise no fools.

But that hurt. A lot. You’d think I’d be so numb by now that nothing would really get past my defenses anymore but apparently I can still be shivved right in the back and fall to my knees screaming. Watching Glenn go out like that was brutal. It really tore me up. So prolonged. So bloody. And that final guttural scream for Maggie. Do_Not_Want_-_300::clutches chest::[Watching Glen go out like that was brutal. It really tore me up. (hide spoiler)]

This new baddie Negan is a real piece of psychotic work. He makes the Governor look like a misunderstood, tree-hugging hippie who just wishes the kids these days would stay off his damn lawn.

Where can the story possibly go from here? Watching Rick break was tough. I know he’s told the community they’re rolling over…for now, but he’s obviously got something else planned. That last panel when he sends Jesus to follow the baddie back to Negan’s camp to spy and gather intelligence tells us that.

Living as slaves is no option. Something has to be done, and you can bet it’s going to involve A LOT more bloodshed. Even if Rick’s group triumphs against all odds over these animals, what would they have really won? Won’t there always be another Governor or Negan around the corner? Wiping the zombies off the planet is an easier task I figure than neutralizing all the psychos.[Watching Rick break was tough. I know he’s told the community they’re rolling over…for now, but he’s obviously got something else planned. That last panel when he sends Jesus to follow the baddie back to Negan’s camp to spy and gather intelligence tells us that. Living as slaves is no option. Something has to be done, and you can bet it’s going to involve A LOT more bloodshed. Even if Rick’s group triumphs against all odds over these animals, what would they have really won? Won’t there always be another Governor or Negan around the corner? Wiping the zombies off the planet is an easier task I figure than neutralizing all the psychos. (hide spoiler)]

Can’t get enough Walking Dead? Stay tuned. I’m working on a project with fellow blogger and Goodreads compadre  Kemper where we weigh in on the unrelenting darkness of the series and talk about whether or not Kirkman has gone too far with this latest volume and Glenn’s awful death. It will be appearing exclusively on Shelf Inflicted and I will link to it here when it becomes available.

A quieter, more contemplative apocalypse…with bite.

White Horse ★ ★ ★
Alex Adams
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2012

white horseBottom line, this book has a lot to recommend it: it is a dark, dream-like, post-apocalyptic landscape with sharp turns and compelling plot twists. I experienced a few moments of genuine shock (remarkable for a jaded reader like myself) and not once did I ever want to stop reading. I just had to know how it was all going to come out. The only way to really know if this book is for you is to go on this journey with Zoe, our narrator, and see for yourself.

This is one of those books that when I finished it, I sat for a moment and didn’t know quite what to do with myself, pondering “what the hell did I just read?”

Zoe is a difficult narrator to get to know. She speaks and thinks in metaphors and similes (more on that later). Part of her story is constructed of remembrances of things past — the THEN — the other half is told in urgent tones of events unfolding in the moment — the NOW. While Zoe’s story is sympathetic, it took me a long while to warm up to her, even when the only religion she has in this dead and deformed new world is to hold on to the last remnants of her humanity. This means rushing in to “do the right thing” even when the choice to do so is stupid, dangerous or even meaningless.

But her compulsion brings some interesting people into her fractured life, and some monsters as well.

About those metaphors and similes? This is probably what irritated me the most about the book, for if a strong-willed editor had cut half of the flowery phrases from the myriad of thousands to choose from I could see myself giving the novel four stars no problem. Unfortunately, all of the “like a” and “as a” sentences often took me right out of the story, standing out like heavy oak coffee tables that you stub your toe on in the middle of the night (see what I did there?)

Not all of the language in this book makes you want to howl and curse in pain. Some of it is quite beautiful, poetic, startling even. It creates a pall over the story, a tension and a mystery. Zoe’s dreamlike narration made me feel like I was moving through heavy water. When the jolts come (and they do, trust me), they really bite you because you’ve been lulled into a state of complacency.

I did warm up to Zoe eventually, and I keened for a happy ending. White Horse is the first book of a planned trilogy, but the good news is, it ably stands as a complete and satisfying story for those readers wary of committing to yet another series. I’ve also just discovered that the sequel – Red Horse – follows the story of a completely different character.

This review can also be found on Goodreads.

WOOL by Hugh Howey

Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool #1-5) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
by Hugh Howey
Broad Reach Publishing (Kobo edition), 2012

Outstanding!

woolWOOL began its life as a self-published short novella in July of 2011. That’s hard to believe. I feel like I’ve been hearing about this thing for ages and ages.

So I’m late to the party, but not that late. Due to excited reader response over WOOL 1, author Hugh Howey quickly released the next four parts in the series. Then came along this Omnibus which collects Parts 1-5. There is now a 2013 edition with a great new cover that features a blurb by none other than Justin Cronin, author of The Passage.

In a few short years, Howey has given all struggling writers out there toiling away at their craft in obscurity real hope. Word of mouth among bloggers and enthusiastic readers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads has the potential to lift the curse of invisibility from self-published works so that they may find their way to audiences who will love them. Never before have the barriers between author and reader been so few, the access so direct. No longer are authors strictly dependent on big publishing houses to discover them and deem their work important enough to go to market accompanied by a sexy publicity campaign. Authors and readers are doing it for themselves, and I for one think it’s a beautiful thing.

I love everything about this story — I love the details of the world-building, I love the characters, I love the shifting points of view, I love the slow burn when you’re not sure what is going on. When it became clear to me exactly what was going on I love that I wasn’t disappointed. For a post-apocalyptic story trodding very familiar science fiction territory, it still feels fresh. The author definitely gives it his own spin.

I love that the stakes are so high. I love that the author is patient and in control of his narrative. That he doesn’t reveal too much too soon. That he understands the relationship between tension and release. All of that to say, I love that the writing is so strong and capable (I’ve read too much self-published stuff where the prose is inexcusably sloppy). Howey’s writing is the exact opposite of sloppy. It’s polished. Its engine hums. The shoes are shiny and it’s wearing a tie. It’s ready to take home to mom.

Finally, I love Juliette. She’s Ellen Ripley, Katniss Everdeen, and Dana Scully all rolled up into one. She’s got brains and courage. Her heart is huge, her will made of iron.

There’s a lot of under-developed, underwhelming dystopian fiction kicking around out there these days. WOOL leaves those attempts in its dust. It’s worth your time. Trust me.

Find out more about the author and his on-going writing projects here.

Book trailer available here

This review can also be found on Goodreads.

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