Terrifying two-fer: Our War and Wanderers, two all-too-believable versions of our world (and its future)

Over the past two weeks, I read two gripping, enthralling, un-put-downable books that scared the pants off me. These two books are quite different, but each presents a vision of our world that’s utterly terrifying because it’s so utterly possible.

Title: Our War
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher 

A prescient and gripping novel of a second American civil war, and the children caught in the conflict, forced to fight.

When the president of the United States is impeached, but refuses to leave office, the country erupts into civil war.

10-year-old Hannah Miller, an orphan living in besieged Indianapolis, has joined a citizen’s militia. She had nowhere else to go. And after seeing the firsthand horrors of war, she’s determined to fight with the Free Women militia.

Hannah’s older brother, Alex, is a soldier too. But he’s loyal to the other side. After being separated from Hannah, he finds a home in a group calling themselves The Liberty Tree militia.

When a UNICEF worker and a reporter discover that both sides are using child soldiers, they set out to shine a light on something they thought could never happen in the United States. But it may be too late because even the most gentle children can find that they’re capable of horrific acts.

Where to even start describing this powerful and upsetting book? It feels all too real, as an increasingly factionalized and radicalized America is plunged into a brutal civil war. Sides are drawn — and armed. It’s deadly serious, and as is sadly the norm in armed conflicts, children are the ones who are caught in the middle, starving, orphaned, witnessing death and brutality that no child should have to see,

Hannah is one of several POV characters; others include a hard-charging journalist pursuing her next great story, an inexperienced but determined UNICEF representative, the militia leader who takes in Hannah’s bother Alex, and Alex himself. Each shares their unique viewpoint on the war and its impact, and through each, we see the futility of the armed conflict and the seeming hopelessness of any attempt to find a resolution.

The political situation in Our War is, honestly, not so far different from our own current situation. It’s scarily easy to imagine these events evolving from where we stand today.

As a reporter, Aubrey had always been shocked by the right wing’s war on facts. They regularly vilified anybody in fact-based professions, from scientists to doctors. They generated and consumed propaganda and called anything else fake. For them, reality wasn’t as interesting as a good simple narrative that had them righteously and perpetually enraged.

At first, I found it confusing to keep track of which side was which, but I think that’s part of the point. After all, your view of whether someone is a patriot or a rebel may depend very much on which side of the line you yourself are standing on.

The writing here is raw and shocking and immediate, and makes for a completely gripping read. Above all, the children caught in the middle are the ultimate victims here, and seeing the war through Hannah’s eyes is truly gut-wrenching.

Title: Wanderers
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 800 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

This massive, 800 page book seemed like a huge reading undertaking… but once I started, I savored every word, paragraph, and chapter. Did it need to be this huge? Why, yes. Yes, it did.

Wanderers is truly epic in scope. What starts as a weird local event — a sleepwalking girl who can’t be woken or stopped — turns into something huge and eerie (and to some, horribly frightening) as Nessie is joined by more and more sleepwalkers in her journey across America. Escorted by family members and friends who look after them, the flock moves endlessly forward. Meanwhile, the CDC scrambles to find out why, and right-wing militiamen, politicians, and conservative rabblerousers see the flock as a harbinger of end-times, and use their existence as an excuse to ramp up their hateful, violent rhetoric, whipping their public into a frenzy.

Just what is causing the sleepwalking phenomenon is revealed over time, as is the connection to a money-hungry tycoon’s mysterious death. The weirdness of the sleepwalking is leavened by the beauty of the human interactions and interconnectedness as we get to know the various shepherds, their motivations and fears, and their own sense of running out of time.

Parts of this book are terrifying. Strangely (or not), I was much more disturbed by the human evil and hate-mongering than by the pandemic threat to all of humanity. Nature, science, possible extinction — these just are, without good or evil. Instead, it’s the people of Wanderers who inspire admiration for their bravery, sacrifice, and wisdom, as well as despair over the cruelty that people display toward one another.

This book takes our current crises related to climate change, increasingly drug-resistant bacteria and viruses, and hate-filled politics, and spins these into a tale that feels prophetic, cautionary, and disturbingly real. Wanderers forces the reader to ask “what if”… and then see how the scenario plays out in full, grisly, technicolor detail.

I suppose I should add, if not already clear, that this book contains violence and cruelty and should be approached cautiously (or not at all) by anyone who may find themselves triggered.

That said, I just loved so many of the characters, felt completely invested in their journeys and ordeals, and could not stop reading. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, reading Wanderers made me feel like I’d been on a journey too. A terrific read.

I want to note that Craig DiLouie and Chuck Wendig are both new-to-me authors, although they’ve been on my radar for a while now thanks to friends’ recommendations. Having read these two books, I definitely want more! Please let me know if you have suggestions for me!

Side note: I have so much more I’d love to say about both of these books, but with my arm and hand in a cast for several more weeks, typing is a challenge — so I’m keeping this on the short side. Bottom line: Both of these books are 5-star reads for me. I can’t recommend them highly enough!

Take A Peek Book Review: The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From the national bestselling author of Alice comes a postapocalyptic take on the perennial classic “Little Red Riding Hood”…about a woman who isn’t as defenseless as she seems.

It’s not safe for anyone alone in the woods. There are predators that come out at night: critters and coyotes, snakes and wolves. But the woman in the red jacket has no choice. Not since the Crisis came, decimated the population, and sent those who survived fleeing into quarantine camps that serve as breeding grounds for death, destruction, and disease. She is just a woman trying not to get killed in a world that doesn’t look anything like the one she grew up in, the one that was perfectly sane and normal and boring until three months ago.

There are worse threats in the woods than the things that stalk their prey at night. Sometimes, there are men. Men with dark desires, weak wills, and evil intents. Men in uniform with classified information, deadly secrets, and unforgiving orders. And sometimes, just sometimes, there’s something worse than all of the horrible people and vicious beasts combined.

Red doesn’t like to think of herself as a killer, but she isn’t about to let herself get eaten up just because she is a woman alone in the woods….

My Thoughts:

The Girl in Red brings together so many elements that I absolutely love in books. Pandemic? Check. Breakdown of civilization? Check. Woman having to survive on her own? Check, check, check.

Red, in her earlier years, was an avid consumer of horror and disaster films, and so she knows the rules. Be prepared. Always have your weapon and pack ready. Never split up. Don’t do the stupid things that movie characters always do, because that leads to very bad things. And if you want to survive, you’ve got to learn fast and do whatever it takes.

I loved Red. She’s smart, strong, and determined. Left alone suddenly and tragically, her only hope is to avoid what she’s sure will be certain death in a quarantine camp by making her way to her grandmother’s isolated home in the woods, which means trekking through hundreds of miles of forest and defending herself along the way, all without being discovered or captured or exposed to the deadly disease that’s ravaged the world. Also, as a biracial, bisexual, disabled woman, Red is a breath of fresh air as a main character, especially since she’s a survivor who never lets anything, including her prosthetic leg, keep her from her path.

The plot is exciting and filled with danger. I love how the author flashes between present day, as Red progresses on her journey and uncovers all sorts of disturbing secrets, and the past, as she and her family prepare their escape and have their plans fall apart as the crisis escalates.

My only quibble here is that the end comes much too soon, and there are so many plot threads left untied. What happens next? What caused all the bad things (being vague here…)? I certainly hope there’s a next book, because I’m dying to know more. (I just wish this book was clearly marked as book #1 in a series, so I’d have been prepared to feel left hanging at the end.)

The Girl in Red is a great read, and I want more! I haven’t read anything else by this author yet, but that’s clearly got to change.

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The details:

Title: The Girl in Red
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 18, 2019
Length: 308 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Fields & Fantasies presents… Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Welcome to the January/February pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel:

station elevenSynopsis (Goodreads):

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

My two cents:

It’s always such a terrific gift when a book surprises you in all the right ways. Such was the case for me with Station Eleven. I’d seen some reviews, I’d seen it on many of the “Best of” lists for 2014, and I’d heard the hype. At the same time, the initial synopses I’d read all focused on a traveling Shakespeare company in a post-apocalyptic world. For whatever reason, I assumed the Shakespearean framework would shape the entire novel, so that we’d follow the company from settlement to settlement, seeing their performances and making some sort of symbolic connection between the classic plays and the new world.

It was really a thrill for me to discover that Station Eleven is so much more. Station Eleven takes a truly frightening tale of a global pandemic that kills off most of humanity, and weaves into it a story about human connection, random meaning, and the elusive nature of relationships.

The Georgia flu wipes out human life on Earth almost instantly. In this age of international travel, we’re all only one contaminated airline passenger away from disaster, and Station Eleven lets the pandemic play out to its awful, inevitable conclusion. The narrative of the novel jumps in time between the outbreak of the pandemic, the path of the Traveling Symphony twenty years later, and the earlier history of Arthur Leander, possibly the last man on Earth to attract attention for his death prior to the catastrophe.

It’s hard to explain just what’s so wonderful about Station Eleven. The plotting is elegant, with connections between characters and events that only become apparent later on. The descriptions of the post-apocalyptic world are chilling, and yet the mixed sense of wonder and boredom that the new generations feel toward old stuff (electronics, phones, and all the other pieces of our technology that twenty years later are dusty museum pieces) is almost funny to read about, with a hint of the bittersweet as well. The writer is able to convey a sense of nostalgia for our own times by showing how little so much of what we have now will matter later on. There’s horror for the death and destruction, as well as an edge of mystery as we try to see just how all the different story threads are intertwined.

Above all, Station Eleven is filled with beautiful writing.

Miranda opened her eyes in time to see the sunrise. A wash of violent color, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and the water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo sea. The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.

In little moments, we see the awe-inspiring vision of a world without people and what the death of our civilization might look like. No alien invasion, no nuclear war, no second ice age — just a disease working its deadly way through the entire population of the planet over the course of a few short weeks.

Despite the end of life as we know it, life goes on, and the book seems to emphasize above all the way the people’s lives, woven together, form something that’s greater than just the individual. There’s still hope and beauty, and those who understand that are the ones who manage to keep hold of an idea of a future that means something. Station Eleven is sad and gorgeous and, oddly, not depressing. There’s a strange sense of nobility and purpose folded into the survivors’ determination to keep going, to remember, and to grow again.

If you like your post-apocalyptic novels full of explosions, zombies, and mayhem, this may not be the book for you. But if you appreciate a more thoughtful approach to matters of connection and survival and what it means to be human, definitely give Station Eleven a try.

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The Fields & Fantasies chat:

I’ll add a link to Diana’s review shortly. Meanwhile — a Q&A between Diana and me.

Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!

Lisa: Did Station Eleven match your expectations?
Diana: I think so. I don’t think I was expecting a whole heck of a lot but I heard that this book was pretty good and I think it lives up to my basic expectations.
Lisa: Did any images from the post-apocalyptic world make a big impression? What sorts of thing really stand out for you?
Diana: Just the way that everything seemed to be so Mad Max-esque with just a touch of Walking Dead. Did you find the premise to be believable?
Lisa: I really did! We have so many health-crisis scares and the media seems to really overreact… and yet, I think it’s really plausible that if there were a bad enough virus, like the flu in Station Eleven, there’s nothing to stop it from spreading globally within days or weeks. The speed of the pandemic in this book was really scary. I loved the descriptions of the world afterward, how quickly everything reverts back to nature and the people become nomads and survivalists.
Lisa: Who were your favorite characters, and why?
Diana: I really loved Kirsten. I liked how resilient she was and how much she loved Shakespeare. She had that good combination of being able to kick ass but yet was still personable. I also really liked Jeevan but I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get a whole lot of time with him.
Lisa: I loved those two too! I also really liked Miranda — I just found her story so sad, a poor girl who never fit in with the life she ended up with, who spent her whole life working on a comic book that almost no one ever saw. (And which I wish I could see! It sounded amazing.) Also, Arthur’s friend Clark was very cool and understated.
Lisa: Which storylines were you most interested in?
Diana: All of them. She does this wonderful job of starting us at one point spreading out to other various points then bringing it back around into one fantastic place. Was there a storyline that you really liked or that you weren’t too fond of?
Lisa: I thought the whole idea of people stranded at an airport and just staying there for another twenty years was really inventive! I was so entertained by that concept and all the details the author provided to make it feel so real. I wasn’t crazy about the prophet storyline — I didn’t actually think the story needed it, other than for the dramatic element of danger.
Lisa:  Were there any storylines or plot points that you thought were unnecessary or less interesting?
Diana: There wasn’t one that i didn’t like but I would have liked to see more with Jeevan. I really really liked the character but i feel like his story just wasn’t in there enough.
Lisa: What else would you want to know about the world of the future, as portrayed in Station Eleven?
Diana: Were the people who survived just immune to the virus or did they just get lucky enough to not get it. Is there any major attempt to regain civilization. Also did any of the other greats survive?

Lisa: Very good question — was there a reason that the survivors were immune, or did they just not to encounter the virus? I wonder. And we’re left hanging a bit at the end, with the possibility that there could be a return to some of what was lost.

Lisa: How would you describe Station Eleven to someone who hasn’t read it yet?
Diana: It’s far more intellectual than i thought it would be. It’s also more of a drama about the human spirit.

 

And that wraps it up! Thanks, Diana! It’s a pleasure talking books with you! Let’s do this again next month…

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The details:

Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Length: 333 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Next for Fields & Fantasies:

9476337Our April book will be Bossypants by Tina Fey.