Books Read in 2020: Three-Star Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror

 First, Maggie asked if picking a favourite book for the year was like picking a favourite child. I have given it a bit of a think and, as much as I tend to agree with Maggie, no, Maggie, no it's not. I love my two children equally (omg, I just remembered when I was in Nova Scotia for my best friend's wedding and I told her sister-in-law that her little boy was really cute and she casually said "yeah, he's my favourite - and Tory is my husband's" RIGHT OUT LOUD.) Some books are a little bit bad and some books are a lot bad and some books are irredeemably dismally awful and I would NOT bail them out of jail if their youthful exuberance got out of hand and they ended up in the drunk tank (this has not happened with either of my children, to be clear). 

Three stars is always a bit of a confusing rating. Nominally it means "I liked it" - practically I usually use it to mean there was more good than bad, or for whatever reason I just felt like two stars was too mean. Yes, very scientific. 

Three-Star Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror

Null Set by S.L. Huang: Synopsis from Goodreads: Math-genius mercenary Cas Russell has decided to Fight Crime(tm). After all, with her extraordinary mathematical ability, she can neuter bombs or out-shoot an army. And the recent outbreak of violence in the world’s cities is Cas’s own fault—she’s the one who crushed the organization of telepaths keeping the world’s worst offenders under control. But Cas’s own power also has a history, one she can’t remember—or control. One that's creeping into her mind and fracturing her sanity...just when she’s gotten herself on the hit list of every crime lord on the West Coast. And her best, only, sociopathic friend. Cas won’t be able to save the world. She might not even be able to save herself.

To be perfectly honest, the three stars was a lie. I hated most of this book, but I was hesitant to blame the book because my mood was so off. The first book fleshed out the concept of Cas as a super-human calculator so well - great characters, a nice chewy sinister organization plotting to take over the world by nefarious means, a winning pair of protagonists who are humorously grumpy and pretend to hate each other but don't. Instead of building on that, this one gets stuck in a rut lamenting the fallout from the events of the first book and repeating the same dialogue over and over - oh no, Cas is remembering something momentous. Oh no, she shouldn't remember. Or maybe she should. No, she shouldn't. I wanted to fling the book across the room. I will probably try the third book on the strength of the first, but I will be peeved, PEEVED, I say, if it isn't a considerable improvement over this. 

City of Cain by Kate Wilhelm: Synopsis from Goodreads: "My lover, my protector, my friend, my doctor, my brother - they're all killing me."Peter Roos cannot help knowing the thoughts of those around him. A rare physical condition has given him that power. Now he has "heard" about the government's secret plan to give up control of America to the military - to build an underground city for themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. Unfortunately for Roos, the government knows he knows. And the project's sponsors - including his senator brother - have no choice.They must get him out of the way - permanently!

Kate Wilhelm was a giant in the science-fiction publishing, lived ninety years and published over fifty books, from what I can tell. I discovered her first through her Charlie and Constance mysteries, about a married couple who investigated cases with a supernatural thread running through them. They were fantastic - the relationship between Charlie and Constance, the inventive plots, the delicious sense of the fantastic and the possible. I then read most of her Barbara Holloway mysteries, most of which were run-of-the-mill mysteries, and then some of her older stuff. I have to say, I found the quality to be wildly uneven, and nothing else really lived up to the wonder of Charlie and Constance for me. This was published in 1974 and was very much of its time (I mean, just look at that cover) - nuclear paranoia, government conspiracies, a hint of misogyny. It was kind of neat, but hard to really get into.


Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks: Synopsis from Goodreads: The #1 bestselling author of World War Z takes on the Bigfoot legend with a tale that blurs the lines between human and beast--and asks what we are capable of in the face of the unimaginable.As the ash and chaos from Mount Rainier's eruption swirled and finally settled, the story of the Greenloop massacre has passed unnoticed, unexamined . . . until now.But the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town's bloody wreckage, capture a tale too harrowing--and too earth-shattering in its implications--to be forgotten.In these pages, Max Brooks brings Kate's extraordinary account to light for the first time, faithfully reproducing her words alongside his own extensive investigations into the massacre and the legendary beasts behind it.Kate's is a tale of unexpected strength and resilience, of humanity's defiance in the face of a terrible predator's gaze, and inevitably, of savagery and death.Yet it is also far more than that.Because if what Kate Holland saw in those days is real, then we must accept the impossible. We must accept that the creature known as Bigfoot walks among us--and that it is a beast of terrible strength and ferocity.Part survival narrative, part bloody horror tale, part scientific journey into the boundaries between truth and fiction, this is a Bigfoot story as only Max Brooks could chronicle it--and like none you've ever read before. 

I started out really liking this, and there are definitely good things. I liked that it was an amalgam of accounts from different sources, similar to World War Z, with the main part being Katie's journal, and the focus on character development was cool. I really liked the parts discussing the 'living in nature with all modern conveniences' movement, and the Mostar environmentally-conscious high-tech genius character. The pacing was off, though, so it seemed like animals were starving after only a couple of days of trouble finding food. Some of the Greenloop people were just too much like caricatures, with their sappy belief that all creatures must be greeted with friendship. I would have liked more backstory about Katie and Dan - why he was like he was at the beginning and exactly what prompted the change. I enjoyed it well enough, but it wasn't as good as World War Z, and could have been much better. 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: Synopsis from Goodreads: A very young woman's first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate...An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls...But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil. For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

I read this years ago when I was in university, because I'd heard it was an early example of horror literature. I did not find it the least bit scary, and the whole reading experience was honestly quite tedious. After watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, which was extremely loosely based on The Turn of the Screw, I decided to see if revisiting the novella with more mature eyes would yield a more rewarding experience. I have read some other James in the meantime, and I did enjoy this slightly more this go-round, relaxing more into the fact that sometimes you just have to really settle into a sentence and accept that you're not going to understand the beginning until you get all the way to the end. But I still did not find it the least bit scary, and I still occasionally felt exasperated with how very many words he took to say absolutely everything - there was one sentence that I read at least a dozen times and and never did figure out exactly what it was trying to say. As far as horror goes, I'm definitely a more modern girl. Plus, the book doesn't have Hannah and Owen, so what's even the point?



The Shadows by Alex North: Synopsis from Goodreads: You knew a teenager like Charlie Crabtree. A dark imagination, a sinister smile--always on the outside of the group. Some part of you suspected he might be capable of doing something awful. Twenty-five years ago, Crabtree did just that, committing a murder so shocking that it’s attracted that strange kind of infamy that only exists on the darkest corners of the internet--and inspired more than one copycat.Paul Adams remembers the case all too well: Crabtree--and his victim--were Paul’s friends. Paul has slowly put his life back together. But now his mother, old and senile, has taken a turn for the worse. Though every inch of him resists, it is time to come home.It's not long before things start to go wrong. Reading the news, Paul learns another copycat has struck. His mother is distressed, insistent that there's something in the house. And someone is following him. Which reminds him of the most unsettling thing about that awful day twenty-five years ago.It wasn't just the murder.It was the fact that afterward, Charlie Crabtree was never seen again...The haunting new thriller from Alex North, author of the New York Times bestseller The Whisper Man.


So I read The Whisper Man AND this book by this author this year and gave The Whisper Man four stars and this one three stars. Honestly, if I'd read this one first, the ratings might be reversed. They were both quite good, but very similar - both feature a man returning to his home town after years away (or maybe moving to a small town), a town where something horrible happened years before. That said, the setting was impeccably done - I can see that small town in my mind right now if I think about it. The sense of nostalgia, regret and past trauma is also really good. The evolution of this writer has been interesting and I will keep reading.


Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage: Synopsis from Goodreads: Meet Hanna.She’s the sweet-but-silent angel in the adoring eyes of her Daddy. He’s the only person who understands her, and all Hanna wants is to live happily ever after with him. But Mommy stands in her way, and she’ll try any trick she can think of to get rid of her. Ideally for good.Meet Suzette.She loves her daughter, really, but after years of expulsions and strained home schooling, her precarious health and sanity are weakening day by day. As Hanna’s tricks become increasingly sophisticated, and Suzette's husband remains blind to the failing family dynamics, Suzette starts to fear that there’s something seriously wrong, and that maybe home isn’t the best place for their baby girl after all.

HOLY CRAP this was BLEAH, horrible. I don't know why I gave it three stars. Why did I give it three stars? I sure as hell didn't like it. I guess because it clearly set out to do a thing, and it did in fact do that thing. That thing was repugnant to me, but frankly, reading the summary should have made that clear. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and, well, 'enjoyed' isn't the right word, but it was a good book. This was not that. There was no subtlety or slowly-building suspense or anything but in-your-face extreme unpleasantness. I can do dark and twisted with the weirdest of them, but this was a homicidal Electra complex too far. 

Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay: Synopsis from Goodreads: From global catastrophe to the demons inside our heads, Tremblay illuminates our primal fears and darkest dreams in startlingly original fiction that leaves us unmoored. As he lowers the sky and yanks the ground from beneath our feet, we are compelled to contemplate the darkness inside our own hearts and minds.

Growing green things in a forest or your garden is good. Growing green things taking over the world and growing up through the bottom of your house is bad. There is also a really cool story about four men after a robbery who don't quite get away. I mean, what can I say? It's a book of scary stories. They are stories. They are scary. Sorry, I didn't sleep well last night.


Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore: Synopsis from Goodreads: A remarkably inventive novel that explores what it means to live a life fully in the moment, even if those moments are out of order.It’s New Year’s Eve 1982, and Oona Lockhart has her whole life before her. At the stroke of midnight she will turn nineteen, and the year ahead promises to be one of consequence. Should she go to London to study economics, or remain at home in Brooklyn to pursue her passion for music and be with her boyfriend? As the countdown to the New Year begins, Oona faints and awakens thirty-two years in the future in her fifty-one-year-old body. Greeted by a friendly stranger in a beautiful house she’s told is her own, Oona learns that with each passing year she will leap to another age at random. And so begins Oona Out of Order...Hopping through decades, pop culture fads, and much-needed stock tips, Oona is still a young woman on the inside but ever changing on the outside. Who will she be next year? Philanthropist? Club Kid? World traveler? Wife to a man she’s never met? Surprising, magical, and heart-wrenching, Margarita Montimore has crafted an unforgettable story about the burdens of time, the endurance of love, and the power of family.

Remember Sliding Doors? I liked it but I complained to my sister that it revolved a bit too much around Helen's love life. My sister snorted and said "have you met women that age? Everything IS about their love life". I was 28 in 1998 which means I'd been married for two years, and I don't think I had many single friends. Anyway, this isn't quite Sliding Doors. I was really excited about this, and it was fun but didn't quite live up to my expectations. It was interesting seeing Oona wake up and try to figure out her new body and environment. The letters she wrote to herself were a bit laboured and (this is on me) I kept having trouble figuring out exactly how the whole deal worked. Sometimes she does idiotic things upon waking up, which just seems dumb to me - wouldn't you eventually figure out that you shouldn't do anything drastic until you get a better feel for how things are at this point? Her relationship with her mother is lovely and added a strong element to the story. 

Cemetery Dance Select Kealan Patrick Burke: Synopsis from Goodreads: The Cemetery Dance Select series invites some of our favorite authors to spotlight a sampling of their own short fiction: award-winners, stories they consider their best or that had the most impact on their career—or neglected favorites they feel deserve a second look.Long-time fans will enjoy revisiting some classic tales. New readers will find this series a handy introduction to each author’s best work.Each CD Select mini-collection includes an exclusive Afterword where the author explains the reasoning behind each selection, and provides insights into the writing of each story.

The Cemetery Dance Select series is excellent - if you like horror, definitely check it out. These were all great stories. There is the kind of horror where the characters are sweet and good and it seems a crime against nature to have horrible things happen to them. Then there is the kind of horror where the characters are flawed and broken and it seems almost worse when they run afoul of whatever mechanism brings down hell on their heads. This is the latter kind. Snowmen is short and punchy and chilling (ha ha, sorry), The Tent is more of a classic lost-in-the-woods tale, and The Witch is a devastating story involving a small-town cop and it chilled me to my bones. Also, cool aside, this author has written a horror story about a child's blanky, gonna have to check that out.

 Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky: Synopsis from Goodreads: Christopher is seven years old.Christopher is the new kid in town.Christopher has an imaginary friend.We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.Single mother Kate Reese is on the run. Determined to improve life for her and her son, Christopher, she flees an abusive relationship in the middle of the night with her child. Together, they find themselves drawn to the tight-knit community of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. It's as far off the beaten track as they can get. Just one highway in, one highway out.At first, it seems like the perfect place to finally settle down. Then Christopher vanishes. For six long days, no one can find him. Until Christopher emerges from the woods at the edge of town, unharmed but not unchanged. He returns with a voice in his head only he can hear, with a mission only he can complete: Build a treehouse in the woods by Christmas, or his mother and everyone in the town will never be the same again.

Man, this is a long long way away from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Started out SO promisingly, with Stephen King overtones, then devolved into a hellacious mess. The author seems to have no idea about the mental and physical capabilities of seven-year-old boys, no matter how "special" they are, and the religious stuff was a bit whack-a-doodle, and I never did figure out if the itch was a good thing or a bad thing, because people were scratching their skin off but then if you pushed the itch into someone else you could, I dunno, get them to do stuff for you.... needed a way tougher editor. And it was LONG, yo. I should have stopped reading. Why didn't I stop reading? Curse my dogged perseverance. 

Comments

Ernie said…
Wait, is this 3 stars out of 10? Kidding, but I feel like you didn't really care for most of these. I'm not typically into sci-fi although I am enjoying the Netflix series Stranger Things. Maybe because so much of it is unrelated to sci-fi. Or because my kids are watching it and it's fun to discuss. Yes, I'm way behind the general public because we just got Netflix.
Nicole said…
I also read the Turn of the Screw in university and I remember being super bored with it. Maybe I'll try it again, I still have all my old anthologies. The Oona book looks like something I might like for a weekend read, I'll put it on my list.
StephLove said…

We will have to agree to disagree about Turn of the Screw. I really liked it, but it's been so long since I read it (high school, maybe?) I can't defend my opinion.

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