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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

What I'm Reading: Survivor Song and Jesus and John

The May 1, 2020 issue of Booklist is now available online, and per my usual procedure, I am posting my draft reviews form that issue here on the blog. These blog reviews include more more information about the appeal of the book, more talking points for you to use with patrons, and more readalikes.

First up, what I predict will be one of the most popular books this summer:

Survivor Song.

Tremblay, Paul (author).July 2020. 336p. Morrow, $27.99 (9780062679161); e-book (9780062679185)
First published May 1, 2020 (Booklist).

Tremblay [Cabin at the End of the World] has become one of the most critically acclaimed horror authors in the world precisely because he is able to seamlessly combine reality with speculative elements, creating an immersive and terrifying reading experience. However, his newest tale may be his most prescient outing yet. An extremely virulent and fast acting form of rabies is spreading in Massachusetts, hospitals are overrun, and basic society is falling apart. Pediatrician, Dr Ramola “Rams” Sherman is called into action when her pregnant best friend, Natalie, flees her home after her husband was attacked and killed by an infected neighbor and she is bitten. Together they embark on a desperate journey to try to save Natalie and her baby. But it is in how Tremblay tells this story that it rises above. The novel is framed as a folk song, a song of friendship, a song of love [not the romantic kind], and a song of hope despite it all. It is a fast paced tale, told with a compressed time frame, full of dread, violence, fear, and panic, and yet, it also has moments of clarity, beauty, and lyricism. Gorgeously written about terrible things, Tremblay has captured our moment in history perfectly. Despite its shorter length, Survivor Song is a good choice for fans of epics in the pandemic pantheon like The Fireman by Hill, but also consider novels like The Rust Maidens by Kiste or The Only Good Indians by Jones which probe similar themes of friendship, family, and social commentary amidst chillingly realistic horror.
Further Appeal: This book is just as good as Tremblay's others, but I do want to point out a few differences in appeal, differences which I do not think will turn away fans, but will definitely attract new fans. 

First, there is no confusion here about whether or not there is a speculative element in the novel. In most of Tremblay's books there is a real world explanation for what is going on AND a supernatural one, he leaves clues that either could be the correct answer, and allows the reader to drawn their own conclusions. With Survivor Song, the speculative event, a super infectious rabies virus, is a given. There is no question it exists in this world. Everything leads from that "fact."

Second, the ending of this book is definitive, and there is an epilogue to see what happens in the future. Tremblay's previous horror novels all have open endings, something many readers [like myself] love, but others hate. Everyone will know what happens in Survivor Song.

The main thing to communicate to readers about the way this story is told is that this is a book framed as a song. It is an ode to friendship more than anything else. Multiple friendships, not just the 2 main characters. It is about non romantic love and the importance of that in the world.

Like a song, certain themes, lines, experiences repeat, but also like a song, especially the very best ones, certain scenes and lines will stay with you, forever.

I cannot stress enough how gorgeous and lyrical the words here are. Gruesome and awful things happen, but every action rings true, and the beauty that underlies it all is undeniable.

Three Words That Describe This Book: compressed time frame, lyrical, ode to friendship

Readalikes: Look, any pandemic epic would work for many readers, but Survivor Song does not have an apocalyptic angle. The entire world is not at risk, but for those in the "zone" things are desperate. I mentioned The Fireman as an example of these apocalyptic contagious disease epics because the main characters in both are pregnant. The Wanderers is also a great choice. But both of those are very long and most people die, while the Tremblay is short, fast paced, and hopeful.

I think the friendship focus of the Jones and Kiste titles listed above, hit more on the general appeal of the story even though they are NOT about a contagious disease in any way. You can use the links in the review above to access more readalikes.

Jesus and John.

McOmber, Adam (author).
June 2020. 226p. Lethe, paper, $15 (9781590216736)
First published May 1, 2020 (Booklist).
Terror and religion collide in McOmber’s atmospheric, thought provoking, and unapologetically queer exploration of true devotion in a retelling of the resurrection as a horror allegory. When Jesus’ risen body is found outside of its crypt, able to move with purpose but in a mute, fugue state, the Apostle Peter asks Jesus’ lover in life, the fisherman John, to keep watch over Jesus, while he spins the message of the missing body. What follows is an emotional story of their journey as John follows Jesus to a mysterious mansion in the center of Rome, the Grey Palace. Upon entering John finds few inhabitants, talk of an upcoming “celebration,” and a realization that they are trapped in a nightmare. John needs to find a way out and keep Jesus safe, but in a house that is impossibly larger and more menacing on the inside than its plain appearance belies, that goal may be unattainable. Both beautifully honoring the message of the New Testament while also consciously and actively challenging its application, this is a tale of love, honor, and belief; it is about hope amidst darkness, but it is also undeniably a horror tale, firmly rooted in the tradition of weird fiction, full of unsettling situations, strange and menacing creatures, and unearthly phenomenon. It is a short, compelling, and immersive read for people of all faiths, and a great option for fans of the cult classic House of Leaves by Danielewski or the psychological tumult, allegory and lyricism of Fever Dream by Schweblin.
Further Appeal: I want to get this out of the way, you do not have to be religious or even Christian to appreciate this book. I am not Christian but I really liked it. It was an honest and thought provoking look at the meaning of devotion. And man was it a great example of weird fiction.

Now, there will be some who think this book is heretical, but I would disagree. There is an underlying love for the teachings of Jesus here with an active challenge to how we apply these teachings in the real work today.

That all being said, you can also remove all of the religion from this book and it is still an awesome horror story of people trying to out run disorientation, menace, and threats, as they seek safety.

Three Words That Describe this Book: disorientation, allegory, immersive

Readalikes: I have so many more to list than the 2 above. Although those 2 are an excellent starting point.

Books I have read that I thought of immediately with links to the reviews with longer explanations:
Also, this is unabashedly a gay horror story, so some readers might be looking for more on that front. A Lamda Literary nominated author in the category of SF/F/H who I think writes with a similar appeal is Matthew Bright. I would also suggest the excellent The Seep by Chana Porter, a weird fiction tale that is also LGBTQ.

Finally, one of my ALL-TIME favorite books is another speculative retelling of the Jesus story, The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov

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