Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Night Parade

The Night Parade by Ronald Malfi
Kensington: 7/26/16
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781496703866

The Night Parade by Ronald Malfi  is a highly recommended apocalyptic end-of-the-world-as -we-know-it novel.

"Was this how the world was to end? Not with a bang and not even with a whimper, but with the slow deterioration of everything good and beautiful and kind? With a sky absent of birds, a world overrun by insects, of droning cicadas and kaiju spiders...."

All the birds have died, or they are gone. It's the middle of the night and David and his 8 year-old-daughter Ellie are on the run, specifically from the government and doctors at the CDC. They killed Ellie's mother, Kathy, and David fears Ellie will be next. It seems that Kathy had a natural immunity to the disease that is sweeping the land and will likely wipe out humanity. Kathy was imprisoned in a hospital as they used her blood to try and find a cure for the disease they call "Wanderers Folly." Wanderer's Folly is much more gruesome than people simply aimlessly wandering around. It seems that Ellie's blood contains the same natural immunity as her mom and the CDC wants her, now that her mom is gone. David is not going to let that happen, so they are on the run in a stolen car, headed west.

"They’re not looking for me, baby," he said. "They’re looking for you. That special thing about your mom, that one-in-a-trillion resistance she had against the disease that made her immune... you’ve got it, too. It’s in you, too. You’re immune, Ellie." He pulled her close to him so that their foreheads touched. "But I’m not going to let them take you. I’m not going to let them find you."

Ellie is mature beyond her years and she may have some special abilities beyond her immunity. As she clutches the shoe box that never leaves her side, she knows her dad is not telling her the whole truth.

Chapters in the narrative alternate between what is happening in the present and, starting two years ago, the backstory about what happened that lead up the David and Ellie's flight for safety. The disease is cruel and humanity may be on the verge of ending. Classified as a horror novel, there are scary parts and some creepy things that happen, but nothing shocking. Any horror is found in what people can do to each other, the progression of Wanderer's Folly, and, for me, the thought of insects taking over (and spiders growing huge). The tone is dark and hopeless. David and Ellie's safety is not guaranteed.

With great story telling combined with good writing, The Night Parade will capture your attention quickly. The narrative is easy to follow and you'll find yourself wanting to gallop through the novel quickly. The ice cream truck story is especially ominous. The Night Parade has similarities to several other novels but doesn't reach their level of terror/horror or the depth and completeness of the storytelling (King's The Stand and Firestarter; McCammon's Swan Song).

The significance of the title of The Night Parade to the characters is explained several different times. For some reason, the explanation felt forced to me, like the title came first and then an explanation for it was needed. This doesn't affect the plot in any way; it was just something I noted when reading. Additionally, I totally understand the cornfield on the cover, but the crow is out of place.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Sunlight Pilgrims

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
Crown/Archetype: 7/19/16
advanced reading copy; 310 pages
ISBN-13: 9780553418873

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~ Robert Frost

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan is a highly recommended frigid and prophetic character study set in 2020. The polar caps are melting, cooling the oceans, stopping the warm Gulf Stream and the world is being thrust into a new ice age. In this new increasingly dangerously frozen world, the illusion of three suns, commonly called Sun Dogs, or Parhelia, is common. In November of 2020 it is -6 degrees. As the months go on, the temperature continues to drop... -19...-38...-56. It is going to be a record breaking winter as snow is falling across the world places where snow never falls.

Dylan MacRae leaves London with the ashes of his beloved grandmother and mother in tow after the art house cinema his family has owned for 60 years goes bankrupt. He heads north to the Scottish harbor town of Clachan Fells where his mother left him a caravan. He is planning to eventually spread their ashes in the nearby Orkney Islands where his grandmother was born.

Living next door to Dylan's caravan is 12 year old Stella and her mother Constance. Dylan quickly becomes infatuated with Constance and friends with Stella. Thirteen months ago Stella used to be a boy named Cael, but having always realized she was meant to be a girl, her name is now Estella. Constance's goal is to stop the bullying of her trans daughter and survive the worsening weather. Once Dylan, Stella, and Constance become friends, they begin to work together to survive both Stella's journey and the worsening weather. And then there is the huge iceberg that is heading for the Clachan Fells Harbor.

It's helpful for the USA audience to mark that if the temperatures given are in Celsius, -6 C is 21.2 Fahrenheit, -19 C is -2.2 F;  -38 C is -36.4 F, and -56 C is -68.8 F. It's also interesting to note in passing that in the 1970's, rather than global warming, a coming ice age was the global weather prediction, so I've kind of been waiting for this end to the world, although perhaps not with the tie in to melting icecaps, but we'll go with it for the story rather than debate the science, cause I'm all about a good story. And, in all reality, the world is probably ending, but the focus is more on the lives of these three alienated people and Stella's struggles as a transexual. The weather is also a character, a beautiful and cruel character.

This is an extremely well written novel. It is not a science fiction novel, even though it has sci-fi elements as a consequence of the weather and coming ice age. It is more a character study of these people who chose to try and survive the deteriorating weather in an even crueler northern climate. The characters and their interaction are what make this novel.

Finally, you need to be mindful of the fact that, at least in my advanced reading copy, dialogue is denoted by a dash, as:
 - Do you really know who is talking?
- It's me. Aren't you paying attention?

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher via Library Thing for review purposes.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Stranger, Father, Beloved

Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen
Gallery Books: 7/12/16
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501124754

Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen is a recommended debut novel featuring a family falling apart.

The James family is wealthy, living in a very nice Cape-style home on the Rhode Island peninsula. Michael James, his wife, Nancy, teenage daughter Ryan and young son Max should be content, but that isn't the case. Michael has a diagnosed mental illness, neurotic paranoia, and has been on medication for it for years. Now it seems that his medication isn't working as well as it should, probably due to Michael's drinking. That combined with his chronic insomnia is affecting his thought processes. When he sees his wife smiling and laughing with a stranger at a party, Michael decides that this man should be the one Nancy is married to and also the father to his children. Michael makes friends with the man, John, and sets his delusional plan into motion.

Stranger, Father, Beloved is told in the third person. Each chapter reflects the viewpoints of either Michael or Ryan, occasionally Nancy. It is all introspection, personal experiences, and thoughts. Michael is unlikable and looks at everything as something that could have been better had he made the right choice - the right choice being not his current life. Ryan, their teenage daughter, stays away from their home for days at a time, yet neither parent stops her. She is going through her own struggles with self-identity. Nancy is the long-suffering wife who loves Michael.

This is a very well written novel; however, it is unrelentingly sad. While I didn't find it particularly compelling, it does capture the slow demise of a family and Michael's paranoia. Ryan is actually the more interesting character, but the focus is on Michael, who is the most irritating.

Michael's constant looking to the past was tiresome for me. I know he has a mental illness, but he also sought out and craved sadness and dissatisfaction. His elevated opinion of his great mental prowess compared to lowly Nancy's lack of any intellectual ability was annoying. Ryan's actions and her freedom to basically do as she pleased because she is unhappy at home were startling. These parents are immersed into self-contemplation and yet so fearful of her reaction that they did not try to talk to her to find out where she has been for the past week?

Finally, the big startling revealing insight at the end felt contrived and opportunistic. Yes, Stranger, Father, Beloved is technically very well written and I stayed with it to the end. I just don't buy it.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

All Is Not Forgotten

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
St. Martin's Press: 7/12/16
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250097910

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker is a very highly recommended psychological thriller.

Jenny Kramer, 15, is drunk when she wandered into the woods at a teenage party in Fairview, Connecticut. In the woods she is brutally raped for an hour. The rapist wore a condom and shaved all his body hair. When she is at the hospital her parents, Tom and Barbara, consent to the doctors giving her a new drug that will erase her memory of the attack. While Jenny's body heals, she won't have to deal with the psychological trauma. The problem is that the attack left scars, emotional and physical. Jenny is in pain emotionally but because she doesn't remember the attack she has nothing to fight against, except, perhaps, herself.

At the same time Tom is on a vendetta and is determined to find Jenny's rapist and bring him to justice. Barbara, on the other hand, is a master at splitting her personality into two people. She wants their lives to all continue as if nothing happened. Barbara has never dealt well with the pain from her childhood and she is unable to see/accept Jenny's pain. Jenny is angry, and emotionally distraught. She knows something happened to her, but she can't remember it. The town knows something happened to her and they do remember.

The narrator of the novel is Dr. Alan Forrester, the family's psychiatrist. He eventually has Jenny and both of her parents under treatment. He also shares some of the stories of other patients he has had that shed some light on their circumstances - or his involvement. He is a rather smug, self-important man and, for at least half of the novel you can't tell if he is a reliable narrator or not. He is nonjudgmental as he discusses events. His main stated goal is to help Jenny.

This dark psychological thriller will slowly surround and ensnare you. There is more going on than it appears, and secrets are slowly revealed. Even after you think you have something figured out, trust me, you don't. You really won't know the whole story right until the end. All Is Not Forgotten required slow, careful reading. I was actually surprised it wasn't a longer novel when I noticed the number of pages. It is a page turner, but it is a dense, complicated novel too.

The writing is outstanding. Walker presents an intelligent plot that is carefully crafted to slowly release just enough information. The narration by Dr. Alan Forrester is pitch-perfect. He's egotistical, kind of creepy, and a didactic know-it-all. He's the professional with the inside information of each individual and he's the one who is going to slowly tell you what he wants you to know when he thinks it is time. By the end I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this dark thriller and its twists and turns.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Scribner: 7/12/16
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501121890

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is a highly recommended debut novel featuring two ten year old girls who decide to look for God and solve a mystery.

It is the summer of 1976 and a heat wave has swept England. What is really troublesome is that Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the cul-de-sac and no one knows why. Friends Grace and Tilly decide, after a casual conversation with the vicar, to search for God and Mrs. Creasy at the same time. Interestingly enough, the girls figure out that the adults around them aren't all being completely honest when answering their questions and it seems that the adults around them are hiding something. What all the adults seem to agree on is that Grace and Tilly should stay away from #11.

The title of the novel refers to a parable where Jesus is separating good from evil, explaining it as separating the sheep from the goats. The novel almost acts like a parable itself, showing how the truth will eventually be revealed and the hypocrisy of judging others without acknowledging your own involvement in wrong doing. (See the parable "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" Matthew 7:3) The citizens on the cul-de-sac firmly believe all their actions are just and they blame Walter Bishop in #11 (their goat, or scapegoat) for all manner of crimes.

Chapters alternate between the present day, 1976, and events occurring 9 years earlier, in 1967.
It seems to Grace and Till that the adults are hiding some secrets from that time and apparently Mrs. Creasy had begun to figure out some of the lies. The events of 1967 begin to explain some of the events of 1976. Each chapter begins with the date and address, making it clear which neighbor is narrating that piece of the puzzle. This is a very engaging story and  you will want to figure out what exactly happened in 1967 that has all these people blaming Walter Bishop for, well, everything.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a well written debut novel that combines a mystery with a coming-of-age story. Grace sounds much older than ten, so I simply mentally made her a couple years older and went on with the story. Admittedly, finding the image of Christ on a drainpipe was a bit of an eye-roller for me. It felt like it sent things too far over the top and made what was allegorical and symbolic into more of a farce. The end was a surprise.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Last One

The Last One by Alexandra Oliva
Random House: 7/12/16
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101965085

The Last One by Alexandra Oliva is a very, very good debut novel about a contestant in a survival reality TV show during an apocalyptic plague. It is a brilliant, shrewd, clever, astute novel.  Very highly recommended.

In the opening of The Last One, you know that people are going to be dying from an unknown illness.  As a new survival reality TV show is starting, people behind the scenes are dying. They try to get everyone out, but the contestants are on solo challenges and spread out across the wilderness area. The first chapter goes to a female contestant nicknamed Zoo. She is alone and trying to find the next clue during what she believes is a long solo challenge. She has been sick for several days, she thinks from bad water, so she knows she must be behind the others. Zoo is sure that the signs of destruction and distress she encounters are staged for the TV show.

Alternate chapters show the beginning of the show, introduce the characters for the program and their nicknames. These chapters go through the first week of filming for the program, during group challenges. In-between the chapters that cover the early action in the show, are the present day chapters where Zoo is looking for anything marked with light blue, the color for her clues in the show. She is trying to make her way to the next clue and sure that everything she encounters is tied into the show and are props - including bodies. Also included in the narrative are snippets from a fan forum for the TV show, which become important.

This is one intelligent, insightful post-apocalyptic novel. The world has changed, but we are viewing it through Zoo's eyes - and she is sure bodies are props and the things she encounters are staged. It's all for the production. We see in the early show chapters how encounters and actions are edited out or edited to change the viewers perception. Zoo is competitive enough to stay in the game and keep playing by the rules. The rules and the idea that she is still in a survival game cloud her judgement and undermine her intuition. The only way out of the show is to quit, and Zoo is determined to stay in the game and win the million dollars. She can explain away everything she sees as being part of the game.

The writing is incredible. Olivia's novel becomes reality and it is easy to see why Zoo believes the show is still ongoing, even when the surroundings seem to scream something is wrong. At the same time, the insights into Zoo's character are perceptive, discerning, and adroit. Zoo lets us know more about her inner most thoughts as the novel progresses. She is a fully developed character placed in an unbelievable situation that she encounters while thinking on some level that it is all staged.
This is likely to be on my top ten list for the year.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Neon Green

Neon Green by Margaret Wappler
The Unnamed Press: 7/12/16
eBook review copy; 246 pages
ISBN-13: 9781939419712

Neon Green by Margaret Wappler is a highly recommended alternate history novel set in 1994 in Prairie Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and follows the Allen Family, Ernest and Cynthia, and their two teenagers Alison and Gabe. In this 1994, you can enter a sweepstakes to have a spaceship from Jupiter land in your backyard for 9 months, give or take a few weeks. Everything else is the 1994 you remember.

Ernest Allen, environmental activist and family patriarch, is indignant that Gabe entered the contest and actually won. Once the spaceship lands in their backyard, he is outraged and immediately corners Gabe, the only person over 16 who would have dared enter the sweepstakes. He then starts calling New World Enterprises, the company sponsoring the spaceships. First he wants them to remove it because he is sure that the ship is not environmentally safe and is dumping toxins into their yard every time it dumps gallons of neon green fluid onto his lawn. The EPA has declared it is safe, and Ernest has now real recourse, except to nag New World with phone calls. What kind of environmental footprint is this thing leaving?

He also has his family start a journal to record everything the spaceship does, including it's almost nightly show of lights and beeps and any discharge of the green liquid. They do this, but they also record other, less serious things, much to Ernest's consternation. He is very serious about the log. Ernest becomes increasingly obsessed and paranoid, inflicting his family with his daily preoccupations and diatribes. He really thinks that everyone should feel the same way he does. This obsessing is an on-going pattern for Ernest.

Ultimately, this is not a novel about the spaceship or aliens. It's a dysfunctional family saga. It's about how one man's obsession is affecting his whole family, and making them all suffer needlessly because he needs to blame something. Ernest may be freaking out over the spaceship, but he could just as easily be obsessing over the effect high voltage power lines and/or electromagnetic fields could have on his family's health.

Wappler's story is quite funny at times, especially Gabe and Alison reactions, but it is also heartbreaking. I really grew to dislike Ernest and felt that if he was really that serious, he should have tried to move. I would imagine there would be some kind of real estate market for a home with a spaceship in the backyard. He was so focused on it that he completely lost track of what he claimed to care about - his family - until it was too late to save what was left. My heart broke for Cynthia. She still loved him, but she deserved better from Ernest.

Neon Green is well written, but it also seemed to move slowly. This is a novel for those who like literary fiction involving a dysfunctional family in a unique setting. It isn't a novel for fans of science fiction. The spaceship is there, but it's simple a large visual representation of Ernest's character trait of obsessing over various subjects. Gabe and Alison were highlights. Neon Green could be a good choice for a book club because I imagine there are alternate views. Based on your devotion to environmental causes, you might appreciate Ernest much more than I did, and accept his flaws much easier.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.