Reviews: Contagion & Immunity by Erin Bowman – Biological Space Horror and Maple Walnut Ice Cream

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Title: Contagion (Contagion 1)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 432 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could have possibly decimated an entire project, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

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This is one of those “I liked it! The end!” books, so the review is going to be obscenely short.

Contagion offers something I desperately want to see more of in sci-fi: biological space horror. Bowman combines the fear of outer space with that of alien biological entities–all the more scary because they’re microscopic–and creates a entertaining, claustrophobic tale with breakneck pacing and moments that are genuinely creepy.

It also boasts a fairly large cast and multiple PoVs, with an intern named Thea being the central character. I loved the fact that Thea’s not a leader–not your typical confident SFF hero with a smart tongue. She’s introverted yet resourceful and, being the youngest of the crew, feels she has something to prove. Some of the other characters aren’t as developed as she is, but Bowman gives you just enough information to keep you interested in their well-being (or demise).

I do wish the effect of the contagion was less…mundane than what it turned out to be. Something a little more visceral and insidious. Because after the reveal of the “monsters” (space zombies, essentially) a lot of the initial horror was lost. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and tension leading up to that moment so much that I’m mostly willing to forgive it.

And…that’s all you need to know, really. Go read it. You’ll have fun.

And, hey, Netflix? Get on it. I needed a movie adaptation yesterday.

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Title:
Immunity (Contagion 2)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Thea, Coen, and Nova have escaped from Achlys, only to find themselves imprisoned on a ship they thought was their ticket to safety. Now the nightmare they thought they’d left behind is about to be unleashed as an act of political warfare, putting the entire galaxy at risk.

To prevent an interstellar catastrophe, they’ll have to harness the evil of the deadly Achlys contagion and deploy the only weapons they have left: themselves.

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Immunity is a completely different beast to Contagion in terms of genre and plot focus. So much that I got mental whiplash reading them back-to-back.

Here, the biological horror slips away into space politics and human-on-human horror. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping we’d get to explore more of the contagion, and instead it’s relegated to the role of a side charactera chess piece in the conflict between the Radicals and the Union–and in the process some of what made Contagion interesting.

I don’t want to rag on an author for choosing to take a story in a completely different direction from what I was expecting because it’s ultimately their creative vision, but I can’t say I’m not nursing a spot of disappointment. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and asking for Strawberry Cheesecake but getting Maple Walnut instead. I have nothing against Maple Walnut; it’s still a great flavour and life is too short to be prejudiced against any flavour of ice cream (except Bubblegum which is a devil’s concoction and not in a sinfully good way). But it’s no Strawberry Cheesecake, is it?

That being said, I still had fun with it. The characters are bigger focus in this sequel and we get to learn more about the three characters and see their relationship develop into something more solid. A new member also joins the cast: a medic-in-training named Amber who surprised me in the best way. Give me all the soft characters who seem meek at first glance but reveal themselves to have nerves of steel. And there’s no denying Bowman is a great storyteller. She knows how to balance action with intrigue and quiet character moments, and the ending wraps everything up neatly.

Overall, this is a fun, addictive duology that I recommend to anyone with an interest in microbiology and space thriller/horror, and doesn’t mind a bit of genre-swapping.

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Thank you to Wunderkind PR for providing the review copies. All opinions are my own.

Mini Review: The Wolf and the Watchman – The Literary Equivalent of Repeatedly Punching a Wall (AKA Not fun)

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Title: The Wolf and the Watchman
Author: Niklas Natt och Dag
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: March 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Crime
Page Count: 384 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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It is 1793. Four years after the storming of the Bastille in France and more than a year after the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, paranoia and whispered conspiracies are Stockholm’s daily bread. A promise of violence crackles in the air as ordinary citizens feel increasingly vulnerable to the whims of those in power.

When Mickel Cardell, a crippled ex-solider and former night watchman, finds a mutilated body floating in the city’s malodorous lake, he feels compelled to give the unidentifiable man a proper burial. For Cecil Winge, a brilliant lawyer turned consulting detective to the Stockholm police, a body with no arms, legs, or eyes is a formidable puzzle and one last chance to set things right before he loses his battle to consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell scour Stockholm to discover the body’s identity, encountering the sordid underbelly of the city’s elite.

Meanwhile, Kristofer Blix—the handsome son of a farmer—leaves rural life for the alluring charms of the capital and ambitions of becoming a doctor. His letters to his sister chronicle his wild good times and terrible misfortunes, which lead him down a treacherous path.

In another corner of the city, a young woman—Anna-Stina—is consigned to the workhouse after she upsets her parish priest. Her unlikely escape plan takes on new urgency when a sadistic guard marks her as his next victim.

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This was definitely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me,” because if you break down the book’s individual elements–setting, character, plot–what you get isn’t anything bad. Far from it, really. Eighteenth century Stockholm was fascinating to read about, the characters were peripherally interesting, and while the mystery took some time to get going (part two especially makes things confusing) it kept my interest for the most part.

My problem lies with just how utterly grey, dour, and joyless the whole experience was. The two main characters are a well-written but unlikable bunch: Winge is the genius not-quite-detective who suffers from a case of consumption and a cold, manipulative personality, and Cardell is the embittered war-vet-turned-watchman who suffers from anger management issues. It’s reminiscent of True Detective S1–all the dour grimness and a slew of underlying thematic messages, but minus the chemistry between the lead characters which would have made the story more bearable.

If you’re craving a gritty and gruesome historical murder mystery and can stomach stark depictions of human depravity, then I’d recommend it. Not to be for me, sadly.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Mini Review: Sadie (Audiobook) – Invisible Girls, Gone Girls, Dead Girls

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Title: Sadie
Author: Courtney Summers
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: September 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Abuse
Page Count: 320 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

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Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

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Giving a rating for this book feels…strange.

It’s like listening to someone sing a heartfelt ballad at a funeral and afterwards turning to your neighbour and saying, “Oof, it got a bit sharp at the end there, eh? What a shame.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want the infamy of being the person who went all Simon Cowell on a group of mourners–however novel it may be.

But here we are.

First of all, massive, massive kudos to all the voice actors who worked on the audiobook. Their performances made me forget I was listening to a book and not a fiction podcast. Sadie’s VA, especially, was phenomenal. I mean, I would have loved the character regardless; she’s an incredible mix of affection and awkwardness and rage (so much rage–I will never stop waxing poetic about authors who give their young female characters leeway to be angry and vengeful, and not in a pretty, Hollywood-approved way) and it’s impossible to not fall for her, but the performance lends her an extra layer of complexity. There are scenes near the end that are dizzingly raw and had me breathless in turn.

As much I loved Sadie’s narrative voice, I did find her chapters inconsistently paced and that had my attention drifting in places. I actually enjoyed West’s podcast chapters more. They’re more tightly structured and they give us an outside perspective of Sadie, through the side characters’ interpretation of her, and her relationship with her family.

In terms of the plot, one might also complain that it turned out to be a straightforward revenge story rather than a thriller with twists and turns.

But….child abuse is straightforward. Missing girls are straightforward. They are painfully straightforward things that occur every day in real life.

Doesn’t make them any less important.

Sadie is a harrowing account of a young woman who will grab you by the heart and twist it into knots. I may not have loved it as much as I thought I would, but there’s no doubt that this is an important piece of work worthy of all the attention and future awards.

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If you’re looking for stories of similar subject matter (but in a different media), I highly recommend Netflix’s docuseries The Keepers. Just keep some pillows nearby because it’ll make you want to scream into something.

Review: Someone Like Me – Genre-Bending Thriller Feat. Anthropomorphic Fox in Armour

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Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M.R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: November 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse
Page Count: 512 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

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Liz Kendall wouldn’t hurt a fly. Even when times get tough, she’s devoted to bringing up her two kids in a loving home.

But there’s another side to Liz—one that’s dark and malicious. She will do anything to get her way, no matter how extreme.

And when this other side of her takes control, the consequences are devastating.

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I feel like most of this review will boil down to “A lot of cool things happen in this book but I can’t really discuss them because spoilers. But I swear the cool things do happen!” So I won’t go into details about the plot, but I will wink and nudge and say that this is no ordinary psychological thriller.

I can most definitely talk about the characters, though!

The story swaps back and forth between Liz, a mother of two children and the ex-wife of an abusive husband, and Fran, a teenage girl who had been kidnapped as a child and is still dealing with the aftereffects of the incident. With Liz’s storyline we explore the horrors of domestic abuse and the lasting scars it leaves on a person, all of which Carey portrays with poise and care.

Both characters are dealing with mental health issues–or, at least, what they believe to be mental health issues. Liz has discovered that there’s an angrier, more volatile side of her that surfaces during stressful moments. And Fran has been dealing with the fact that physical properties of the world randomly changes for her and only her (the colour of a bedroom wall, for example).

Fran was my favourite of the two, however, and a large part of that is because of Lady Jinx, her “imaginary” anthropomorphic fox companion who wields a sword called Oathkeeper. That sentence alone should have you reaching for this book. Jinx is an awesome, awesome character–hands-down my favourite of the story. I also quite loved Fran’s interaction with her father, who is just the most supportive, protective, goofy parent you could ask for (can I get an “Amen” for positive parent-child relationships in speculative stories?) and Zac, Liz’s empathetic teenage son, who becomes Fran’s partner-in-crime as she tries to unravel the mystery surrounding her kidnapping.

While I found the two main characters (and the orbiting side characters) interesting, I did find the main villain a bit too campy, especially towards the end. I also feel like the book could have been shorter. Carey’s writing is meaty and introspective and there are scenes that have you completely engaged, but there are also scenes that feel overly dense and not all too necessary. As a result, my interest rose and waned in waves.

Overall, though, Someone Like Me is an entertaining genre-bender that successfully juggles many heavy topics and has you exclaiming “Oh!” as it slowly reveals its many fantastical secrets.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Wicker King – Stifling and Mesmerizing

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Title:
The Wicker King
Author: Kayla Ancrum
Publisher: Imprint
Release Date: October 31st, 2017
Genre(s): Young Adult, Psychological Thriller
Page Count: 320 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10

 

This book is dedicated to all the kids whose arms are filled with too much for them to hold, but who are trying their best not to drop a single thing.

The Wicker King is a story about the dangers of codependency. But it’s also about the neglect and casual abuse that children face at the the hands of adults, which lead to such dangers in the first place. Most people would write this kind of story as a contemporary in normal prose.

Not Kayla Ancrum.

Ancrum tells this story through the eyes of two teenage boys. Jack, who believes he can see into a fantasy world that overlaps our own, in which he is the king of. And August, Jack’s best friend, who is also his one true knight. According to Jack, the two of them are tasked with a dangerous quest. And if they can fulfill this prophecy, the Wicker King and his Champion, then maybe–just maybe– this other world would disappear and Jack would be free. On top of all this, the story is told in microfiction and multimedia form; very short “chapters” are interspersed with various notes, documents, photos, and even recipes. Even the pages themselves add to the story–as Jack’s fantasy world becomes progressively more dominant, the pages become more and more stained, eventually turning into a solid black. The result is an astoundingly unique and psychologically immersive experience.

August and Jack’s relationship is as suffocating as it is heartbreaking. August wants to care for Jack like he (August) has never been. And Jack wants the love and devotion that was always missing from his own life. Both of their families have largely abandoned them and so they try to find the missing pieces in one another. It’s difficult stuff to read through but it helps explain so much of their unhealthy behaviour.

August and Jack start off acting like normal teenagers. Then, as Jack’s other world becomes clearer and more prevalent, their relationship begins to oscillate. From teenagers to medieval king and knight. And then back to teenagers again. It’s strange. It’s jarring. And a little frightening. But most of all, it’s compelling. Like a burning house whose destructive beauty you can’t take your eyes off of.

And the writing is just stunning. It’s as erratic as the boys’ relationship, alternating between casual teenager speech to formal, stylized dialogue that so often took my breath away.

“Do they still sing songs of my victory?” August choked.

“They do. And they’ll crescendo like beacons to the farthest reaches. With every new breath of life that forms in a world without darkness that came at the price of your hands and your mind.”

But the last 50 pages are what truly makes this book–filled with poetry and heartrending exploration of mental illness and the fine divide between love and obsession. And Ancrum gets the distinction of writing the only Author’s Note that has ever made me tear up.

The Wicker King is a book that defies genres. One that blurs the line between realism and fantasy to explore the story of two children who have taken on so much of life’s  burdens. And for those who worry that this is another one of those books where queer characters don’t get a happy ending, I assure you that isn’t the case here. While August and Jack’s journey isn’t an easy one by any means, Ancrum breathes life to the phrase, “It is always darkest just before dawn.”

 

Review: Obscura – Space Murders and the Persistence of Memory

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Title: Obscura
Author: Joe Hart
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Release Date: May 8th, 2018
Genre(s): Thriller, Mystery, Science Fiction
Page Count: TBA
Goodreads

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

A claustrophobic story of paranoia and murder in space that didn’t meet my expectations.

Obscura is set in the near future that’s more or less identical to our own, excepting a few advancements in technology and the appearance of a new neurological disorder called “Losians.” It is a severe form of dementia, and the affected not only experience memory loss, but also trance-states and outbursts of uncharacteristic anger. 

Dr. Gillian Ryan has lost her husband to it and her daughter is beginning to exhibit some of the more severe symptoms. So now she dedicates all her hours into researching a cure. Then, one day, she’s offered an interesting proposition from NASA. It turns out NASA has been developing teleportation devices in secret and their human testers have started exhibiting symptoms that eerily echo Losian’s. So Gillian is asked to join their space station as the lead researcher and get to the bottom of this mystery. As an incentive, they will provide funding for her research. But things don’t go at all like Gillian thought it would and, before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a murder investigation in which she is the main suspect.

This is the second thriller I’ve read this month that feature narrators with addiction problems. Obscura shares other similarities with Woman in the Window. The prose is simple and digestible. It’s feels very claustrophobic, there’s lots of isolation for the main character, and the narration is introspective. With Obscura, the spaceship sets the stage for paranoia and tension; reality begins to blur, and Gillian begins to question her sanity. I quite enjoyed these bits and found them genuinely creepy.

The science is, however, rather sparse. This is definitely more of a thriller/mystery set in a sciency environment with a scientist protagonist. I would have liked better details on how the teleporters worked, beyond “Meh, quantum computers.” A deeper exploration of Losian’s would also have been welcome.

The setting feels incredibly hazy and mundane. They’re in a glorified metal can for most of the book, sure, but it’s still a space ship/station from the (albeit, very near) future! And they get to go down to Mars! That’s pretty cool stuff, and I wanted to see some excitement and wonder seep into the narration. Instead, what I got was more or less along the lines of:

It was red, but not the bleeding color she’d seen from space. Up close it was muted, an orange-and-tan composite dotted with rocks. Past a house-size boulder twenty yards away was another biosphere half the dimensions of the one they stood in now, its rounded skin alabaster against the Martian landscape.

I mean, that’s not terribly awe-inspiring. This is her first close look at Mars but they may as well be in a bunker out in a random stretch of desert on Earth for all the lukewarm descriptions Gillian gives.

The big revelation at the end isn’t as revelatory as I wanted it to be, though the events that lead from it are pretty intense and crazy. The ending also feels abrupt, like the tension fizzled out just as it was building up to something big. Things get wrapped up too neatly and quickly, and the whole story feels…incomplete.

I also found it hard to connect with any of the characters apart from Gillian.

All in all, the story did not meet the expectations that I had from reading the summary. There were good moments and interesting ideas, interspersed with an uninspired setting, bland characters, and a disappointing finish.

Thank you to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for providing an ARC.