The Blackbird Season, by Kate Moretti*****

theblackbird seasonBy now you’ve heard the buzz about Kate Moretti’s newest novel, and it’s true; this is one you shouldn’t miss. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book is for sale today.

Nate Winters is in big trouble. He’s the math teacher; he’s the coach; he’s everyone’s favorite guy in this small Pennsylvania town. “They all think he’s God. He’s like the God of Mt. Oanoke.”  He has charisma, and he makes you feel as if you are the only person in the world when his eyes latch onto you. But Nate has relied on his charm too heavily and pushed the envelope a bit too far, and now all hell is breaking loose.

Alecia, his wife, is miserable. She is home almost all of the time with their autistic preschooler. Gabe makes progress, but oh so slowly. Not the private tutor, not the special horse camp, nothing, nothing, nothing will get him ready for a mainstreamed kindergarten class. His mom has tried her hardest, and goodness knows she can’t take her eyes off him for a minute; he’s a danger to himself in no time at all, fearless, reckless, and without the filters that children usually develop. His communications skills are nowhere near that of other children his age. Poor Alecia is a nervous wreck, and his father screens the whole thing out by being gone, gone, gone.

I want to smack that man.

When the reporter turns up with a photograph of Nate embracing high school student Lucia Hamm, Alecia learns just how few boundaries Nate has honored. He has social media accounts, priding himself on knowing all of the social issues that his students are thinking about in class. He follows them. He meets them away from school, away from their families. And when Lucia goes missing, everyone wonders if Nate is behind it. The town is polarized between those that call Lucia “That poor girl” and those in Nate’s camp, who warn against undue haste. Alecia isn’t entirely sure what to think. Best thing to do, she figures, is to go back in the house with Gabe and close the door…and have Nate go elsewhere. Just for now.

The things that set this mystery apart are its déjà vu settings, each rendered so well that I feel as if I have already been there; its impressive character development and allegory; and a credible ending that is surprising, yet doesn’t cheat the reader. I checked Moretti’s author blurb three times because I couldn’t believe she had not taught public high school; authors never get this right, but Moretti does. I admire her bang on facility for developing teen characters internally and externally, and for giving them voice.  Moretti has done good work before, but this book advances her work into the realm of literary mystery.

One word of warning: in order to heighten suspense, the point of view jumps between four characters, and it also jumps around in time. Those that ignore chapter headings are going to be confused. That’s why those headings are there.

The Blackbird Season is the perfect Halloween book, and teens will want to read it too—but read it yourself before dropping it onto the classroom shelf. It will doubtless excite controversy.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and that relish good writing.

The Hatching, by Ezekiel Boone****

thehatching I was never afraid of spiders until I read this book. Thanks to Boone’s monstrous, boisterous, hair-raising new novel, I now eye the ceiling for wolf spiders that hunt at night just before I fall asleep…and I usually find one. I received this DRC in advance thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books, in exchange for this honest review. This book goes up for sale July 5, 2016 and frankly, I don’t know how you’re going to wait that long!

Right at the start, something has gone very wrong.  In Peru, a shadow falls upon a group of helpless tourists and devours them with breathtaking speed. Soon thereafter, China tells the world that it has inadvertently nuked one of its own villages. Just an accident; terribly sorry. Please don’t push that button, because we aren’t gunning for you, oh mighty imperialist powers.

When a bizarre package arrives at the laboratory of Melanie Guyer, she immediately tucks its contents into an glass tank where it can be watched in a secure environment. There. See now, that’s sensible. And yet…

Clear on the other side of the continent, the greater Los Angeles area finds itself under quarantine. With a finger to the wind, one soldier in charge of the containment eyes the razor wire and holding pens springing up and decides to make a break for it while he can. He powers the hell through the closed gate, because there’s a time to sacrifice for one’s country, but there’s also a time to save yourself first:

    He took the last few steps to the truck and had his hand on the door handle  when  he  heard the sound.  It was a sort of scraping…and he noticed there was something wrong …with the shadows. Over there, maybe twenty paces away, one of the shadows seemed to be moving a little, pulsing. He watched it, fascinated, and it wasn’t until a thread of black seemed to fall out of the shadow and unspool toward him that he broke from his reverie.

Uh oh.

However, survivalists in Desperation, California aren’t panicked; they’re gloating. All that preparation for doomsday, and now it’s here. Let’s have a party! The doors are sealed against radiation, against spiders, against whatever. The dog has even been trained to go potty on a little piece of Astroturf. They are so ready.

I wasn’t sure I liked this book at first. The moment when the first spider popped out of the first human host, I made a note in my e-reader saying this is just another version of the 1970’s movie Alien, but with spiders. Still, I continued to read.

When the president of the United States asks quite seriously whether zombies are involved, right around the halfway mark, I wanted to throw my kindle across the bedroom. If it had been a library book, I would have slammed it shut and put it in my tote bag to return first thing in the morning. But it wasn’t a library book, it was a DRC, and so I had an obligation, and I gritted my teeth (president. Zombies! My ass,) and continued reading. And I am really glad I did, friends, because it got so much better.

Let’s go back to the movie Alien. For those unacquainted with this cult classic, the story devolves around aliens that seek human hosts. The setting of Alien is a space ship, so they’re a very long way from home and help; yet they are also contained.  And as I read on, I realized that in Boone’s setting—the entire planet—there are so many more possibilities. I hit about the sixty percent mark and had to munch my way through the rest, if you’ll pardon the expression, until the very last page was done.

I found myself pondering the possibility of a sequel.

I nearly tacked on the fifth star, because this was tremendously entertaining, and Boone breaks up the horror with odd places, few and unexpected, that are laugh-out-loud funny. But then I reflected on the fact that I rated every single thing Michael Crichton ever wrote as four stars, and I see this quirky, horrifying, delicious novel as on a par with Crichton. Rather than hustle back and re-rate everything Crichton ever wrote, which would be a bit impulsive, I stuck to the four star standard.

There’s no explicit sex here, but there’s plenty of gore. Those that love good horror and science fiction should snap this book up right away. And if one is looking for a summer read to keep your nerdy teen out of trouble for a hot minute over the summer, this is a good choice for that set also.

But you’ll never see a spider web in quite the same way once you’ve read it!

Huge fun for anyone not already genuinely afraid of spiders.

 

Dr. Sleep, by Stephen King *****

Dr.SleepFirst of all, let’s give credit to a writer well past the age of official retirement, who not only writes a bad-ass, award-winning sequel to The Shining, but calls it #2 in the series and is obviously planning at least one more volume. I am not the first to salute Stephen King for his outstanding writing and his unstoppable imagination, but I do so anyway.

Next, let me get this off my chest: I’ve heard more than one person inquire whether they “have to” read The Shining in order to read Dr. Sleep. My admittedly caustic reply here is that if you are willing to read 600 pages of a complex novel and not entirely understand the multiple references he makes to the original novel, then go right on ahead. If it weren’t a series, he would not name it #2. Get it? Go. Read. The Shining. First. Or fuggeddaboudit.

One thing that always strikes me when I read King’s horror novels is that though they deal with seriously spooky material, at their foundation is a bedrock sense of decency. In fact, maybe they work better that way, because they remind us that there is something really excellent in the human spirit that is worth defending.

In this case, we have a group of oldsters that look like senior citizens, to the casual human observer, but who are actually over a hundred years old, and who live off the “steam” emitted by the death of young people that have The Shine. It’s much better if the young folks die slowly and painfully; there’s more steam to breathe in. They call themselves The True Knot. They travel in motor homes, roaming the country much of the year in search of…uh…sustenance.

Abra is thirteen years old, and her family has known for a long time, in an uneasy, back-of-the-mind way, that she has special abilities. It all started when she was an infant, and it freaked them out, but they loved their little daughter, and her uncanny abilities included reading the responses of others. And so, as she grew toward adolescence, she let them think she had outgrown The Shining, because they wanted it to be true.

But things have changed. Abra’s Shine is so powerful that Rose, the leader of the True, can sense her far, far away. Rose wants Abra’s steam, and she intends to have it.

But it cuts both ways, because Abra knows that Rose and her evil cadre have killed children, and she wants them to see justice. Not cop justice; you can’t take something like this to criminal court, even if cops will believe your story. No, she wants, if you’ll pardon the pun, True justice. But to get it, she’s going to need help, and Tony–the “ghostie” boy who once helped young Danny Torrence through a very rough spell at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado–can hook her up with the man he assisted, now a middle-aged hospice worker in New England. Dan helps those who have to pass to the other side. He eases their suffering, and he lets them go. But now it is more urgent that he help Abra, to defend her from the True, and avenge the deaths of the children they have murdered.

And within this tale we have the ultimate question about mortality. If I were going to guess, I would say King has made his peace, at least to some degree, with death, and maybe he even used his own writing to work through it. Because most of us that aren’t convinced that Jesus  or some other supernatural deity is there to provide us with a whole second, even better life have a somewhat panicky response to the notion of our own death. It’s so damn final.

But in an oblique way, King reminds us that when we leave, we make room for someone else to be born. If science could unlock a cure for death, find a way for the Boomer generation (or another) to stick around forever, the population of the Earth would grow too large for the newbies to thrive.

I don’t mean to frighten King’s readers–and those considering reading him who have not yet done so–into thinking this novel is some hectoring lecture. It isn’t. It is a tautly paced thriller with supernatural components. Nobody receives this many awards as a fix or a fluke. He earned them all.

Yet for those of us on the downhill slope of middle age and beyond, the underlying message resonates: at some point, we have to get off the merry-go-round and give someone else a turn.

Once in awhile people ask me to name my favorite Stephen King novel. It has been impossible for a long time, and just got even harder! All I can say to you is that if you have read The Shining, you just can’t miss this one. I found mine in a used bookstore, and it was still a bit pricey for me, but as a source of recreation, I knew it would be a great investment…and I was correct.

Brilliant!