The Loop – Jeremy Robert Johnson

There was the world behind them, and the world ahead of them, and all of it wanted them dead.

Lucy, Bucket and Brewer are about to have a really bad couple of days. IMTECH, a medical supply manufacturer that employs most of their classmates’ parents, have been working on something new. Even the workers who have contributed pieces to this puzzle haven’t been told what the final picture will look like. All these teens know is that there’s been a recent string of tragedies in their usually quiet desert hometown of Turner Falls: a murder-suicide, a day to end the school year unlike any other and now a missing teen.

“We are all going to be okay.”

I’m having trouble figuring out what to say about this book and that’s not a problem I usually have. The thing is, for much of the first quarter I was dragging myself through the pages, tempted to DNF every time anything that I’ll politely call ‘locker room talk’ happened. I found the way that specific girls were spoken about, as if it was funny and as if it was appropriate to say at all, was disgusting. Call me a prude if you want but detailing derogatory sexual behaviour is not something that I want to see flimsily disguised as banter.

Then there’s the body horror, which is pretty intense in this book. If the thought of anything touching your eyes makes you squeamish, prepare yourself for exposure therapy on steroids. Most of the time the crunching bones and gallons of blood that no longer live inside veins belonged to humans. I’m personally all good with this type of horror, when the victims are human. However, not all of the casualties in this book were human and I am never going to be okay with reading about the abuse of animals, even in fiction.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who can help us.”

The overall feel of the book gave me ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ vibes so it may be helpful if you don’t decide on a favourite character. Chances are pretty high that you’re going to see what their insides look like at some point. I didn’t connect with anyone so I wasn’t invested in anyone’s survival.

Class and racism were both mentioned throughout the book. The action remained fairly constant, although I didn’t experience the dread of the classroom scene anywhere else in the book. The descriptions of the bloodshed were easy to imagine and I liked the inclusion of the podcast transcripts.

Content warnings include abuse of an animal, alcoholism, body horror, bullying, drug use, graphic deaths of animals and humans, and racism.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Titan Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Stranger Things meets The X-Files in this heart-racing conspiracy thriller as a lonely young woman teams up with a group of fellow outcasts to survive the night in a town overcome by a science experiment gone wrong.

Something sinister lurks beneath the sleepy tourist town of Turner Falls nestled in the hills of central Oregon. A growing spate of mysterious disappearances and frenzied outbursts threaten the town’s idyllic reputation until an inexplicable epidemic of violence spills out over the unsuspecting city.

When the teenage children of several executives from the local biotech firm become ill and hyper-aggressive, the strange signal they can hear starts to spread from person to person, sending anyone who hears it into a murderous rage. Lucy and her outcast friends must fight to survive the night and get the hell out of town, before the loop gets them too.

Survivor Song – Paul Tremblay

Have you ever given any thought to pre-exposure rabies vaccination? As you travel at a safe distance alongside Ramola and Natalie it may very well cross your mind, probably more than once. You see, this timeline is pretty bitey.

Natalie is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. She’s 38 weeks pregnant. Her husband has just been murdered. By a zombie. She’s been bitten by the zombie. And that’s just the beginning of her story.

Natalie, A.K.A., Nats, A.K.A., Rabies Yoda

Strengths:

  • Has read all YA novels featuring an apocalypse, so she’s probably absorbed some useful survival tips
  • Fluent in sarcasm

Weaknesses:

  • Was very recently bitten by an infected person
  • Grieving the death of her husband, so there’s potential for distraction

Pre-apocalypse attitude to apocalyptic scenarios: the system will definitely fail.

Now Ramola, a paediatrician and Natalie’s friend, is in a race against time to seek medical treatment for Natalie and her unborn child before it’s too late. If it’s not already.

Ramola, A.K.A, Rams, A.K.A., Doctor Who

Strengths:

  • Doctor
  • Loyal to her friends

Weaknesses:

  • Bad liar
  • She’s consistently within biting range of someone who is infected

Pre-apocalypse attitude to apocalyptic scenarios: “Life finds a way.”

With the story more The Walking Dead than Zombieland, you know early on that you’re not here for the laughs. There’s going to be blood, gore and frothing at the mouth.

The first kill happens early; props to the author for killing off their namesake! Poor Paul never had a chance (not a spoiler – it’s in the blurb) and “from here on out, anything can and will happen.”

This is a stressful read. The kind of stressful where, whenever Natalie wanted to check her temperature I wanted to check my blood pressure. What can I say? Paul Tremblay books are stressful.

Okay, so maybe this is only the second one I’ve read but the first one I read was The Cabin at the End of the World and I own the rest, so that counts as somewhere adjacent to being an authority on the subject, doesn’t it? It’s like how I intuitively know that John Marrs is going to bring terrifying women into my life and Courtney Summers is going to devastate me with the ugliest of ugly cries.

These zombies –

“There are no zombies! This is not the apocalypse! You must stop saying that. It’s not helping.”

Okay, technically not zombies. Even though that’s what they’re called for most of the story. They’re infected with rabies, but not your garden variety rabies. This strain has seriously levelled up!

All of the biting aside, this is a story about friendship. Doctor Who struggles to maintain her confidence in her ability to save her friend but she’s going to do everything in her power to ensure Rabies Yoda survives the worst day of her life. Rabies Yoda trusts Doctor Who with her life (literally) and that of her soon to be born child.

I found it interesting to observe, from far enough away that I couldn’t be bitten, the different ways characters coped with what may or may not be the apocalypse. Some were determined and focused on their goal and some were more emotional. Conspiracy theorists came out to play while others tried to sort through misinformation for snippets of facts that could mean the difference between life and death. Then there was this stellar coping mechanism …

It would be easier to pretend they are in a zombie movie. He will still pretend.

I’m with denial guy! Even though there’s a lot of ‘everything’s going to hell in a hand basket’ going on, there’s still enough time left to discuss the important things in life. Like what movie everyone loved but you and what Disney’s problem is with mothers.

I found Josh and Luis fairly interchangeable but really warmed to them, despite their insistence on annoying me with their constant companion, the catchphrase “You are the bad.” I actually became more emotionally invested in their lives than with Doctor Who and Rabies Yoda’s.

I absolutely loved the inclusion of an asexual character; this was never going to be the focus of the story but its mere mention made my heart happy.

For those who need to know ahead of time, rabid animals were most definitely harmed within the pages of this story. So were rabid humans. It was bound to happen and although I usually avoid stories where animals die, this story wouldn’t have been believable if it wasn’t included.

On reading about a potential apocalypse during our own apocalypse pandemic: It’s weird. Some passages are so prescient that they could easily be written about our current reality. If I’d read this book in 2019 I would have had an entirely different reading experience:

  • I would have had to Google what an N95 was. Pre-COVID I was blissfully unaware of both their name and importance.
  • I wouldn’t have nodded at some of the scenarios that now feel familiar rather than fiction.
  • I wouldn’t have been wondering if the people I met here also encountered toilet paper hoarders.

To add to the ambience of my reading experience today, the sounds outside (or lack thereof) were eerily appropriate. The birds that usually chatter and chase one another through the neighbourhood almost entirely disappeared. It was hard not to wonder if they might know something I don’t. Hopefully they’ll come back tomorrow and their behaviour today isn’t actually a harbinger of doom.

Sassafras and lullabies.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Titan Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a matter of weeks, Massachusetts has been overrun by an insidious rabies-like virus that is spread by saliva. But unlike rabies, the disease has a terrifyingly short incubation period of an hour or less. Those infected quickly lose their minds and are driven to bite and infect as many others as they can before they inevitably succumb. Hospitals are inundated with the sick and dying, and hysteria has taken hold. To try to limit its spread, the commonwealth is under quarantine and curfew. But society is breaking down and the government’s emergency protocols are faltering.

Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman, a soft-spoken pediatrician in her mid-thirties, receives a frantic phone call from Natalie, a friend who is eight months pregnant. Natalie’s husband has been killed – viciously attacked by an infected neighbour – and in a failed attempt to save him, Natalie, too, was bitten. Natalie’s only chance of survival is to get to a hospital as quickly as possible to receive a rabies vaccine. The clock is ticking for her and for her unborn child.

Natalie’s fight for life becomes a desperate odyssey as she and Rams make their way through a hostile landscape filled with dangers beyond their worst nightmares – terrifying, strange, and sometimes deadly challenges that push them to the brink. 

Paul Tremblay once again demonstrates his mastery in this chilling and all-too-plausible novel that will leave readers racing through the pages … and shake them to their core.

A Cosmology of Monsters – Shaun Hamill

Spoilers Ahead!

skritch-skritch-skritch

This book is a difficult one for me to review. It’s been on my radar for nearly a year and I loved the writing style and how well I felt I knew many of the characters, but it also had some problematic moments for me.

I loved hearing all about the history of this family, tragedy and all. I liked getting a feel for the dynamics between its members and the ways they individually coped with the pain that they’d experienced. The more I learned about their complexities as individuals and as a whole, the more I wanted to delve deeper. The unlikeable parts of certain characters made them even more real to me.

“How often do I get a chance to live out a true-life nightmare?”

I couldn’t get enough information about the Tomb and The Wandering Dark. I could easily visualise each room and I was eager to experience them for myself. I was even plotting new rooms that I could add to those the family had created and wondered how I could get involved behind the scenes to bring the scares to life.

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I even loved it when the monster was introduced. I love monster stories so I was looking forward to getting to know this one but certain aspects of the monster’s behaviour didn’t work for me at all. Now, this is where my review becomes a spoilery rant, so you may want to skip the next four paragraphs. Sorry, my rants get kinda wordy.

Okay, if you’re still with me, I’ll assume you have either read the book already or spoilers don’t bother you. So, the monster. As Noah started spending more time with the monster I wondered about its why, how and what. When some vital information about the monster was revealed my curiosity quickly turned to ‘I no longer want to read this book’ and I would have DNF’ed at this point if I hadn’t committed to reviewing it.

The monster had been grooming Noah since he was six years old. This meant that when they eventually began having sex (apparently fairly regularly), my brain immediately went to ‘ewww!’ and I felt decidedly icky reading about it. If these scenes had involved a female child and male monster/adult, there would likely be an uproar and I don’t see why it should be any less abhorrent because the genders have been switched here. Thankfully, this is eventually called out for what it was by a minor character. Briefly.

Then there was Sydney, who thought she was having a relationship with a man, but there was a huge power imbalance as he was her teacher. Depending on where you live, legally this may or may not be called statutory rape, but even if it isn’t the power balance alone is enough to make alarm bells echo in my head. This whole thing is effectively silenced. Noah keeps the secret. Sydney gets put out that her ‘relationship’ is over. It’s never called out for what is really is. Even near the end of the book it’s described as a man who fell in love with a teenager.

I acknowledge that my experience of sexual assault could be colouring my perceptions of both Noah and Sydney’s experiences to a certain degree, but I still can’t imagine ever being okay with either situation. I do need to say that the minor character naming Noah’s experience redeemed that part of the narrative for me to an extent, although it will never be anything but icky to me. Sydney didn’t have anyone dismantling the truth she’d lived with and that wound up tainting some of my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

“It’s seen us. It has our scent.”

While I don’t generally have a problem with endings where the bows aren’t all tied, I did want to know more about the City and the history of the monsters. I was fine with not knowing exactly what was next for some of the human characters, although I could see the way the story resolved for Noah a mile off.

Loss, grief and the experiences that haunt us are central to this book. In exploring those through Noah’s story, the horror in part becomes about the parts of yourself that you hide and those that feed on your pain. I didn’t have to work at all to get into this book and the characters became real almost immediately. It wasn’t the horror I was expecting but I was sucked in and am interested in reading more books by this author.

“Noah, there is no such thing as a happy ending. There are only good stopping places.”

Content warnings include mention of abortion, cancer, death of loved ones, grooming and sexual assault, homophobia, mental health, suicidal ideation, attempted suicide and death by suicide.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Titan Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Noah Turner’s family are haunted by monsters that are all too real, strange creatures that visit them all: His bookish mother Margaret; Lovecraft-obsessed father Harry; eldest sister Sydney, born for the spotlight; the brilliant but awkward Eunice, a gifted writer and storyteller – the Turners each face their demons alone.

When his terminally-ill father becomes obsessed with the construction of an elaborate haunted house – the Wandering Dark – the family grant his last wish, creating themselves a legacy, and a new family business in their grief. But families don’t talk about the important things, and they try to shield baby Noah from horrors, both staged and real.

As the family falls apart, fighting demons of poverty, loss and sickness, the real monsters grow ever closer. Unbeknownst to them, Noah is being visited by a wolfish beast with glowing orange eyes. Noah is not the first of the Turners to meet the monster, but he is the first to let it into his room …