Book Review: The Unfamiliar Garden (The Comet Cycle, #2) by Benjamin Percy

Title: The Unfamiliar Garden
Series: The Comet Cycle
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publication date: January 4, 2022
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The night the sky fell, Jack and Nora Abernathy’s daughter vanished in the woods. And Mia’s disappearance broke her parents’ already fragile marriage. Unable to solve her own daughter’s case, Nora lost herself in her work as a homicide detective. Jack became a shell of a man; his promising career as a biologist crumbling alongside the meteor strikes that altered weather patterns and caused a massive drought.

It isn’t until five years later that the rains finally return to nourish Seattle. In this period of sudden growth, Jack uncovers evidence of a new parasitic fungus, while Nora investigates several brutal, ritualistic murders. Soon they will be drawn together by a horrifying connection between their discoveries—partnering to fight a deadly contagion as well as the government forces that know the truth about the fate of their daughter.

Award-winning author Benjamin Percy delivers both a gripping science fiction thriller and a dazzling examination of a planet—and a marriage—that have broken. 

The Comet Cycle, a three-part look at the effects of a devastating meteor fall, began with the 2021 release of The Ninth Metal (reviewed here). The premise of this trilogy is chilling: A comet passes by earth, close enough that people around the globe gather to celebrate and enjoy the beautiful sight. But… a year later, Earth’s orbit takes the planet through the comet’s debris field, and it’s here that things go terribly wrong.

Earth is inundated with meteors and meteorites, and beyond the immediate destruction of the massive impacts, the biology and chemical makeup of the planet is forever changed.

In The Ninth Metal, we see the effect of the introduction of a strange, never-before-seen metal into the world of humans. Known as omnimetal, this element has strange properties that change the world in terms of huge leaps forward in technology as well as changing the economy, power balances, and in some cases, humans themselves.

In the 2nd book, The Unfamiliar Garden, the action moves from the Minnesota setting of the 1st book to the Seattle and Northwest rainforest area. The main characters are Jack, a professor of biology specializing in mycology, and Nora, Jack’s ex-wife, a neuro-atypical detective with the Seattle PD. Five years earlier, as the meteorites were striking Earth, their 8-year-old daughter Mia disappeared while out in the forest with Jack. No trace was ever found.

Now, after a long drought, rains have returned to the area, and with the rain comes a huge growth spurt for fungi and other plant matter. Also, and maybe not coincidentally, Nora’s department faces a rash of gruesome murders and seemingly ordinary people having sudden psychotic breaks.

As their work overlaps, Jack and Nora have to join forces to try to understand what’s causing this outbreak of violence, and along the way, may finally get answers to the mystery of their daughter’s disappearance.

The Unfamiliar Garden is a fast-paced, tautly-written thriller with sinister government agents, alien organisms, and a wave of bizarre illness and madness. Through Jack and Nora, we see the way the baffling clues start to form patterns, while also getting a sense of the horror of finding oneself in the midst of what’s actually happening.

Without giving too much away, let me just say… fungi = ewwwwww. I’ve now read several books in which fungi in some way or another basically spell the end of human life as we know it, and honestly, it’s terrifying!!

There are some scenes that are pretty gross, so this book may not be for you if you have a weak stomach and a low tolerance for an ick factor.

I found it fascinating, and I loved the relatively short length, which meant that the storytelling stays lean and propulsive throughout. I also love how each book in this trilogy focuses on a different geographic area and a different aspect of the comet’s aftermath.

Book #3, The Sky Vault, will be released in June 2022. I can’t wait!

Book Review: The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Book Review: The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Shade of the Moon (The Last Survivors, #4)

The Shade of the Moon is a continuation of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Last Survivors series, which began with Life As We Knew It, The Dead and the Gone, and This World We Live In.

In the first three books in the series, the Evans family is the primary focus as they live through a horrific global disaster. When an asteroid strikes the moon and knocks it closer to Earth, “life as we knew it” comes to an end, as the changed gravitational forces lead to tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions — which in turn lead to an ash layer blocking the sun and causing world-wide winter. Agriculture fails, civilization begins to fall apart, and day-to-day survival is constantly a struggle.

The Shade of the Moon picks up four years after the original asteroid strike, and three years after the end of the original trilogy of books. The first three books revolved around teen daughter Miranda; in The Shade of the Moon, Miranda is a background character as the focus is now on her younger brother Jon. Jon was always the baby of the family, but as the story opens, he is now 17 years old, living in an enclave of the privileged — people deemed so important to the future of mankind that they live in guarded communities with access to food, clean air, nice homes, and health care. The not-so-fortunate live outside the enclave but work as laborers — although the “clavers” refer to the laborer population as “grubs”, which gives you a pretty good idea of the esteem in which they hold them.

Jon is a “claver” because he is a “slip” — through a connection, he was able to get a pass to live in the enclave, even though he doesn’t come from an important family or have the status of true clavers. Because he’s a slip, he has to constantly be on guard not to mess up, not to go against the grain. Protesting the treatment of grubs, especially as a slip, is a sure way to get himself, and probably his loved ones too, thrown out of the enclave and sent to the mines, or worse.

My question as I began reading The Shade of the Moon was: When did my disaster book turn into a dystopian novel?? This was not exactly what I’d expected, and not really what I was looking for. What I found so compelling in the first three books was the story of a family’s struggle for survival. It was quite a human story, with parents sacrificing for their children, children forced to grow up too quickly, people coming together in adversity and wondering whether a future would exist for any of them.

In The Shade of the Moon, life has moved on, but the survivors now live in a caste-based society in which human life has little or no value, at least if the humans in question are grubs. Claver boys are encouraged to go raise hell in the grubber town — and it’s clear that their version of fun involves random beatings, arson, and even rape. Clavers debate whether the grubs should have a clinic in their town — why waste resources on them? The grubs may have had lives of note before (Jon’s housekeeper is a former professor of philosophy), but that doesn’t matter. Clavers have domestics to manage their households, and domestics can be beaten, starved, and mistreated in myriad ways, so long as their productivity isn’t compromised.

In reading the Last Survivors books, I accepted the premise even if I wasn’t sure whether the science of the global disaster was at all realistic. In The Shade of the Moon, it’s not the science, but the sociology, that has me puzzled. I’ve certainly read plenty of books set in dystopian societies; that’s not the problem. The issue for me in The Shade of the Moon is how quickly this new dystopia has become the norm. It’s only been four years since the initial disaster, and less than that since the enclaves were set up and developed. Frankly, that just doesn’t seem like enough time for such a dramatic change in beliefs and attitudes to have become so strongly internalized by the people in this world. The members of the enclave don’t just enforce the caste system as a means of self-preservation — they truly believe that “grubs” are less, are not fully human, and are not worthy of adequate food or even a decent burial. Ultimately, I didn’t buy it, and my inability to suspend my disbelief was a constant distraction from the story itself.

That said, The Shade of the Moon is fast-paced, and once I got past the early chapters, it was compelling enough to make me keep going and to want to know how it would all turn out. Author Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t pull any punches, and she certainly isn’t kind to the characters we come to care about. The members of the extended Evans family are all wonderful and rich characters, but that doesn’t protect them from the very bad things that come their way in this book. I understand that young adult fiction needs a teen lead character, but Jon is less interesting to me than the rest of his family — and after spending the previous books with Miranda, I missed her throughout The Shade of the Moon, in which she’s older and therefore only relevant to the story as she relates to Jon and his struggles. The Shade of the Moon is also yet another YA book that features an “insta-love” relationship, and I just didn’t buy that either.

If you’ve read the first three books, should you read The Shade of the Moon? Mixed feelings on this question. This new book isn’t so much a continuation of the previous story as a new direction entirely. You’re not necessarily missing out if you don’t continue — but if dystopian settings appeal to you, then you might want to give The Shade of the Moon a try.

In fact, The Shade of the Moon may even work (possibly better) as a stand-alone. Once you understand the backstory, it can be read as a novel of a dystopian world, and while the family connections may not be as clear or powerful, the plot itself works along the lines of all the other “dystopians” in the market — a cruel, divided society with harsh rules, a courageous young person or two willing to risk their own safety in order to make a stand, and hey, even a love story!

It was unclear to me at the end whether there will be more books in the series, although I suspect that there will be. I suppose I’d like to know what happens to the characters and whether their lives improve, but I’m not sure that I’d feel all that compelled to continue. I’d recommend The Shade of the Moon for those who particularly enjoy the dystopian society genre — but if “dystopians” aren’t your thing, I’d say this one is not a must-read.

__________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Shade of the Moon
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication date: August 13, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss, in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin

Book Review: Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin

Ashen Winter is the second book in Mike Mullin’s natural disaster trilogy, following the author’s powerful debut novel, Ashfall. SPOILER ALERT: This review will, by necessity, contain mild spoilers for book one. Stop here if you just don’t want to know!

In Ashfall, teen protagonist Alex is forced to grow up in a hurry when life as he knows it comes to an end following a massive supervolcano eruption which causes widespread environmental catastrophe. At the beginning of Ashen Winter, ten months have passed since the eruption. Alex and girlfriend Darla are living at his uncle’s farm in Illinois, struggling to survive the freezing temperatures brought on by the ash-induced climate change. Alex is determined to find his parents, who returned to Iowa to find Alex at the same time that Alex was fleeing Iowa to reunite with his family. Alex and Darla, bound by a soul-deep love, leave on their quest early in Ashen Winter, and immediately encounter one disastrous turn of events after another. The two escape death, barely and not without injury, time and time again, as they face physical danger, loss of food and supplies, freezing conditions, corrupt government contractors, and bands of cannibals who prey upon anyone they can capture.

Alex shoulders tremendous burdens and feels a crushing sense of guilt and responsibility as each carefully laid plan turns ruinous. Alex and Darla are separated early on, and Alex faces one obstacle after another as his quest to find his parents turns into a rescue mission: Find Darla before she is killed or brutalized by the rampaging gangs of armed thugs who prey upon the weak and alone. Alex is not without resources, however. In the first book, we saw Alex repeatedly struggle to do what he could to help others, even when doing so meant his own survival might be jeopardized. In Ashen Winter, we see a kind of pay-off for Alex’s earlier choices, as the people he’s helped or rescued along the way become valuable allies.

An ongoing motif throughout both books is the meaning of adulthood. By Ashen Winter, Alex is sixteen, and the adults he meets along the way continue to try to control him and make decisions in what they think is his best interest. Repeatedly, well-meaning adults discount his absolute commitment to Darla and try to dissuade him from his rescue mission. Alex, despite his age, must prove to himself and to those around him, over and over again, that he is strong, capable, and yes, in love — not a fleeting, teen romance, but a connection and a commitment that means that he must find Darla, no matter the danger or the very real possibility that she’s already dead. Alex’s opponents are not only the gangs and corrupt officials who threaten him, but also the adults he trusts and loves. All of them stand in his way; all of them underestimate him; to all of them, he has to stand up and proclaim that he is an adult to be reckoned with.

Ashen Winter is like paper crack. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. Here’s a random sampling of a few last lines from various chapters:

“What really caught my attention was the machine pistol he had trained on Darla.”

“A line of men popped into view one by one, their heads and shoulders above the low log gate. Every one of them was pointing a rifle at us.”

“Then I heard an engine rumble behind us.”

“The bike fell sidways, trapping Darla’s leg and dragging her ina rush toward the deadly, roiling water at the base of the dam.”

“I slipped — and suddenly I was dangling, my feet clawing futilely at the air.”

“When the body quits shivering, it’s preparing to die.”

I could provide many more examples, but you get the idea. No wonder I’ve been bleary-eyed all week — with ending sentences like these, it was simply impossible to put this book down at the end of a chapter and call it a night.

In other reviews, I’ve referred to 2nd books in trilogies as middle children — not the first, leading the way, not the last, to be cherished and savored. The middle book has to keep the momentum going, provide a link between beginning and end, but not actually allow the story to move too close to a conclusion. When not done well, a reader is left feeling like he or she is treading water, waiting for the action to resume in the final book. I’m happy to report that Ashen Winter is a terrific example of a middle book that accomplishes its mission and then some. It not only moves the story forward and leaves the reader hungry for the final installment, but it contains a compelling plot, filled with twists and turns, memorable characters, action aplenty, and convincing character development. In other words, it’s a good book in its own right, which is really quite rare for a middle book.

Of course, it would be foolish to pick up Ashen Winter without having read the first book and expect to understand what’s going on. But if you want an action story with heart, pick up Ashfall and dive in. I dare you to stop after just one book.

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

ageofmiracles

It’s a little daunting to sit down to write a book review when the book’s jacket is covered with high praise from authors such as Nathan Englander, Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, and Amy Bloom. I have to wonder — did they see something in The Age of Miracles that I missed?

The Age of Miracles is a tale of global catastrophe. For reasons unknown, the earth’s rotation has slowed. The slowing, as people call it, starts as a small thing, as scientists announce that a full rotation of the earth is now 56 minutes longer than it should be. Days lengthen, with the rate of slowing increasing inexorably. The sun sets later and later; longer periods of daylight are followed by longer periods of night. People panic, adapt, panic, adapt some more. And life goes on.

Narrator Julia is 11 years old as these events unfold, but is narrating the story from some time later. The Age of Miracles often reads like a nostalgia piece, in many ways a typical coming of age story, where the young person at its center has her eyes opened to some of the harsh truths of life. Best friends don’t necessarily stay BFFs. Grown-ups aren’t always reliable or honest. Parents disappoint their children and fail to be enough to shelter their children from life’s dangers.

The author makes use of the 2nd person plural throughout, so that Julia is telling not only her own story, but the story of the end of civilization as it was.

In the hours that followed, we would worry and wait. We would guess and wonder and speculate. We would learn new words and new ways from the scientists and officials who paraded in and out of our living room through the television screen and the Internet. We would stalk the sun across our sky as we never had before.

Each new day, each further bit of slowing, brings new changes and challenges. World governments announce a commitment to staying on “clock-time”, continuing to structure human lives around a 24-hour cycle. Soon everyone has black-out curtains so they can sleep while the sun is shining, and school children line up for the bus as the first stars are still appearing in the night sky. A rift in the community forms as some people decide to live in “real-time”, waking and sleeping by the rising and setting of the sun. Real-timers are viewed as anarchists, hippies, throw-backs to a wild past, and are shunned or worse. Suicide cults blossom. People hoard perishables… and then they wait.

To an extent, although The Age of Miracles takes place over the course of a year, we never do see the full impact of the disaster. The effects become more and more dramatic as time passes, but life is still manageable, at least in Julia’s little world. Her mother comes down with slowing syndrome, a common condition caused by changes in gravity, with symptoms such as fainting, dizziness, and nausea. Coastal homes are evacuated and within weeks, are completely flooded, as the slowing causes worldwide changes in currents and tides. There is a massive bird die-out, as the gravitational changes wreak havoc with birds’ internal systems. All agriculture must eventually move into indoor, artificially lit environments, as nothing can grow with the extreme periods of heat and sun followed by long hours of darkness and cold.

And yet, Julia goes to school every day, worries about being friendless and not fitting in, crushes on a cute boy, and tries to figure out what really matters to her. She worries about puberty and growing up, worries about appearing childish next to her make-up and high heel-wearing classmates, and frets about the strain in her parents’ marriage. She begins to see her parents’ flaws, and reflects often on their physical signs of aging — her former-model mother has gray roots, her physician father, always perfectly put together, has wrinkles around his eyes.

The writing is often lovely and lyrical. The author has a keen eye for description of the every day, and evokes a particular time and place with many small details that add up to a complete portrait of life in a small southern California town on the brink of permanent change.

I didn’t quite buy Julia’s voice or perspective in The Age of Miracles. Julia’s experiences, at age 11, seemed out of place. The issues with boys, social status, and cliques, as written, would have felt more authentic to me if the children involved were at least two or three years older. It’s a neat trick to have Julia tell her own story as a 20-something-year-old looking back, but I couldn’t believe many of the observations attributed to 11-year-old Julia as truly coming from a girl that age.

The other flaw with this narrative choice is the diminution of the drama — we know that Julia survives, because she makes it clear that she’s telling us about events from her past. Much has changed, and things look pretty grim, but as a point of fact, Julia’s life has gone on, and so has much of the world’s. Nothing ever feels that immediate or urgent, as it’s all presented as a memory.

This is one of several global disaster/end of the world books that I’ve read lately. In The Age of Miracles, the disaster is almost background, as the main story is about Julia saying good-bye to her childhood and moving forward into a brand new world. An interesting choice, but not entirely convincing or satisying for me.

I would recommend The Age of Miracles, but can’t say that I loved it.

For another take, check out the io9 review here, which questions whether The Age of Miracles works as a science fiction novel.

Book Review: The Last Survivors series by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Reading Ashfall by Mike Mullin this week brought to mind another powerful young adult series about a global natural disaster and its aftermath. I read The Last Survivors series (by Susan Beth Pfeffer) last year. This trilogy also deals with teens struggling for survival in the wake of a catastrophe. I have no idea if the science of this series makes any sense whatsoever, but despite that, the books are gripping and well-written, and I thought I’d pass along these mini-reviews for any YA fans who missed the books when they came out:

Book 1: Life As We Knew It

This young adult novel starts on familiar ground — the diary of a teen-aged girl, with the not-too-unusual interests of boys, high school, figure skating, and the internet. Miranda’s world quickly changes when an asteroid collides with the moon, knocking its orbit out of whack, and creating worldwide catastrophe. Tsunamis, floods, volcanoes, and earthquakes destroy life as it once existed, and Miranda’s world narrows to the singular focus of survival. Miranda and her family struggle to stretch their meager food supply and to survive the ghastly winter once the sun has been blocked by volcanic ash, and it’s a mesmerizing peek into a life of desperation. The author does a masterful job of portraying the bleakness, the suffering, and the despair of the family as they count the few remaining cans in the pantry and realize how many days they have left before they starve. I could feel the piercing cold in my bones as I read Life As We Knew It, and couldn’t put it down. Well done!

Book 2: The Dead and the Gone

The Dead and The Gone is a companion book rather than a sequel to Life As We Knew It. The same events unfold in this book as in Life As We Knew It, but this time around the story centers on Alex Morales, a 17-year-old boy living in Manhattan with his large, Catholic, Puerto Rican family. As the disaster unfolds in the city, the horror is magnified by the lack of resources and lack of compassion in the metropolitan setting. Alex struggles to care for his two younger sisters, not knowing if their parents have survived, and must barter and “body shop” (stripping sellable goods off the dead) in order to bring home the precious cans of food he needs to keep his sisters fed. Throughout their ordeal, their faith and love sustain them, and Alex’s bravery is quite remarkable. This book does not dwell quite so much on the events involving the moon, so that a reader who hasn’t read Life As We Knew It might find the narrative a bit abrupt. However, reading it as a second book in a series, The Dead and The Gone was a moving story which left me eager for the third.

Book 3: This World We Live In

I was probably least moved by This World We Live In, in which the lives of the main characters from books one and two intersect. I found Miranda and Alex quite compelling on their own in the earlier books, but their mingled story in the third book felt overly contrived to me. In This World We Live In, Miranda’s father and his new family arrive on Miranda’s doorstep with Alex in tow, and the struggle for survival continues. New hope is found, lost, and found. The blended families have to deal with even more tragedy, and must set out in search of long-lasting solutions yet again. I suppose the author felt a need to wrap up the trilogy by bringing the storylines together, but this third book seemed a bit superfluous to me. Am I glad I read it? I suppose so — I’m a “completist”, so it would have irritated me to know there was a third book out there and not read it. Still, I was much more captivated by the stories in the first two books, and I could see reading them as stand-alone novels.

All in all, I think the author did a terrific job of conveying the terror of living through disaster, the overwhelming fear experienced by young people who must grow up too fast and shoulder adult responsibilities, and the helplessness of trying to hold a family together when the world has fallen apart. I recommend this series, either as individual novels or as a trilogy, and look forward to reading more by this author.

Book Review: Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Book Review: Ashfall by Mike Mullin

In the world of young adult fiction, the sub-genre of global natural disasters is one I find particularly intriguing. When life as we know it is suddenly wrenched away from us, what’s left, and how do we survive? In the best of these types of YA novels, we follow a sympathetic main character on a trajectory from childhood to unexpected early adulthood, as physical survival and the struggle to retain human morality force the character to shoulder responsibility and find his or her untapped strengths and determination.

I’m happy to place Ashfall in the “best of” category. Ashfall is the story of 15-year-old Alex, a normal, somewhat sullen suburban teen boy whose world is swept out from under him:

I was home alone on that Friday evening. Those who survived know exactly which Friday I mean. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, in the same way my parents remembered 9/11, but more so. Together we lost the old world, slipping from that cocoon of mechanized comfort into the hellish land we inhabit now. The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones, and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness, and hunger.

Alex has refused to go on a family visit to cousins in Illinois and is therefore home alone in Cedar Falls, Iowa when all hell breaks loose – more specifically, when the long-inactive supervolcano located under Yellowstone erupts with spectacular and devasting impact. Civilization dissolves practically immediately as the world is inexorably coated with a heavy layer of ash. Scavenging, looting, mistrust, and violence are rampant among the survivors of the initial disaster, and starvation is lurking right around the corner. Within days, Alex begins to shrug off the last vestiges of his childhood, leaving the questionable safety of his neighbors’ protection and striking out cross-country through a ruined, nightmarish landscape on a quest to reunite with his parents and younger sister.

Along the way, Alex is forced, time and again, to choose between self-interest and doing the right thing. He receives help when he expects none, and chooses to help others, even when doing so imperils his own meager supply of food and water and could mean the difference between life and death. What’s interesting here is that Alex is not portrayed as a selfless hero. The author shows us Alex’s internal struggle, his thought processes, and his decision to be a person who tries to do right. It’s not easy for him, but it’s a sign of Alex’s maturation that he realizes that securing food and shelter will not be enough for him if he has to shed his essential goodness; physical survival without the survival of his humanity will not suffice.

We follow Alex along a difficult and sometimes gruesome path. He meets Darla, a strong-willed, feisty, talented farm girl with her own tragedies to confront and accept. Darla becomes Alex’s travel companion and soul mate, and their deepening trust and affection for one another help give Ashfall much of its heart. What could have been merely an exciting adventure story becomes a much more personal journey toward love, family, and adulthood.

When I picked up Ashfall, I had expected to read a story about physical survival in a nightmarish, post-disaster world. I’m pleased to be able to say that Ashfall provides a deeper, more moving experience than expected.

The sequel to Ashfall, Ashen Winter, is due out in October 2012, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve become quite fond of Alex and Darla, and I can’t wait to see how their story continues to unfold.