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Robin Wasserman

REVIEW:  The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

REVIEW: The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman


Dear Ms. Wasserman,

Even though there are so many YA novels coming out every month, I personally think there is a dearth of books in the horror subgenre. Yes, I know. Horror is out of fashion, having peaked in the late 80s and early 90s. But I loved Anna Dressed in Blood and wished there were more novels like that one. Alas, I didn’t even have much luck, not even with its sequel. So even though I was lukewarm on your previous novel, I decided to give your latest effort a try. It sounded like the kind of horror I grew up on and have missed all these years.

Oleander is a small Kansas town. It’s the kind of town where families have lived for generations and everyone knows your business. That all changes one day when, without explanation, five people go on homicidal rampages. We’re talking opening fire on the customers in a drugstore, running someone down with a car, and crucifying a parishioner and setting a church on fire. Four of those people killed themselves. The fifth tried but failed. She’s now locked up in what she believes to be a high-security mental institution.

One year after that fateful day, Oleandar has settled back into a — while not entirely normal — regular routine. Unfortunately the events of that infamous day come back to haunt them when a tornado tears through town and reveals its secrets. As Oleander descends into madness, only five teenagers are left unscathed, wondering what is happening to their relatives and neighbors. What do they have in common? Four of them are each the sole survivor of the rampages from one year ago, and the last is the lone perpetrator who survived.

Readers who love Stephen King and his brand horror and are interested in a YA take should absolutely pick up this book. The storytelling style is strongly informed by his books, right down to the retrospective narration of the characters:

Later, after he’d trashed his bloody clothes, and stood under the cold shower long enough that the water circling the drain had gone from red to pink to clear, Daniel Ghent would wonder if some part of him had known what was to come — or should have. If there had been something false, something crafty, in Gathers’ crookedly welcoming smile, or some too-still quality in the air, like the pressure drop before a storm. He would wonder if there was some reason he had walked into the store on exactly that day, at precisely that time, if despite all previous indications to the contrary, he had been meant to be a hero and save the day. He would wonder whether, if he had seen it coming, he could have done something to stop it, or whether he would simply have backed out of the store and run away. But that was later.

For me, this is what horror is. It’s not the violence and gore — though that certainly can be present. It’s the dread of what’s to come. It’s the tension that increases with each second as you wait for the axe to fall.

The classic staples are all here. Small town. Ragtag band of unlikely allies who, in each their own way, are outcasts even if it’s not immediately obvious. An inexplicable madness sweeping over a town, changing its inhabitants — or revealing their true natures. A mysterious government agency who may or may not be involved. In another book, these elements could have been cliche but they worked well here.

People used to the deep introspective characterization of many YA novels might be taken aback by the distant POV here. It’s not entirely omniscient but it’s close. Again, I thought it was well-done and suited the style and tone, but it’s not every reader’s bag. Subtle, multilayered characterization is not this novel’s strength but it’s also not the point. I wouldn’t call the character’s shallowly characterized because the way everyone changed after That Day and when the tornado tore up the town, told me a lot about these people.

At its heart, The Waking Dark is a novel about the darkness that lurks within all of us, just waiting to come out. In many ways, I thought the concrete explanation behind Oleander’s disintegration was a little too neat, a little too handwavy. Part of that is because up until that reveal, the novel had been grounded in solid reality, with everyday mundane explanations for the horrible things that happened. Everything was possible in real life without the help of any outside paranormal force, so the true cause jerked me out of the book.

But as Jule, one of the core group of teens, says: It’s easy to blame that outside cause. To place entire blame at its feet. In that way, people can absolve themselves of their guilt and pretend they bear no responsibility for their actions. But what if that cause doesn’t make people do terrible things? What if, instead, it simply lifts the inhibitions and morality that prevent people from doing awful things? In the end, it’s still your finger that pulls the trigger, not some mysterious paranormal force. That’s the question. Which is stronger? Impulse or morality?

Having been disappointed by recent YA horror before, I approached The Waking Dark with cautious hope. I’m glad to say it exceeded my expectations. Because of this book, I’m looking forward to future novels and excited to see what the future may bring. I recommend The Waking Dark to all horror fans and especially to lovers of Stephen King. There’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this one. Oh, and don’t worry. Despite what I said earlier about gore and violence not necessarily being the defining traits of horror, like many Stephen King novels, the body count is very high. B

My regards,

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What Jia Read in March and April

What Jia Read in March and April

Wow, has it been a long time since I last put one of these lists together! And I think I promised to be better about it in my previous post too. Obviously I need to learn not to jinx myself.

The Scholomance by R. Lee Smith.
Since lots of people were talking about Smith, I decided to give one of her books a try. While I definitely agree her work isn’t for everyone, I really enjoyed my first foray into her works. It had an intensity to it that I feel has been lacking in other books, and I liked that the demons read and acted like aliens. They were pretty inhuman for the most part. After I finished this one, I remember not reading anything else for a week because everything seemed so bland by comparison. I’ll probably give Heat a try at some point later this year.


A Temptation of Angels by Michelle Zink.
Such a frustrating read! It was vague on every front that mattered and there were quite a few logic fails. Full review here.


The Kingdom by Amanda Stevens.
I have no idea what happened. I really enjoyed the first book in this trilogy and I did like the first part of this installment. But then things started getting weird and nonsensical and I wanted off the ride. I had the final book in the trilogy in my TBR pile but after reading the first chapter, I decided it was time for me to get off the bus permanently. Sad when that happens. Full review here.


The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman.
What an odd book. There were parts of it I really enjoyed, and parts of it that I wished had been done differently. Maybe I was expecting more of a breakneck thriller pace than what I got. Full review here.


Doubletake by Rob Thurman.
The Leandros boys never fail to cheer me up. This book covers all sorts of (awkward) family reunions. We learn why there are only male pucks (and what that means when it comes to procreation), and we finally meet Niko’s dad. There’s a development regarding the auphe that tells me we’re launching into the next thematic arc for the series. If the previous book was sort of a breather, this one is a preview of what’s to come. I’m really intrigued by what we glimpsed. (And for those readers like me who’ve missed her, Georgie makes a brief cameo.)


The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks.
A YA mystery thriller about a girl looking into the death of her former best friend. Nice interweaving of social media and outward appearances versus secret lives. Full review here.


Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin.
So disappointing! I was so thrilled to read a book that references Edgar Allan Poe. Unfortunately the reality doesn’t live up to the promise. The heroine makes some ridiculous choices. The love triangle makes it painfully obvious who the ultimate choice will be, and of course that choice is the asshole. Honestly, it read like someone trying to be edgy but had no actual experience with the topics at hand. Review to come.


Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris.
I enjoyed this one a lot. I’m hoping books like this one means we’re moving away from the YA dystopian trend and more towards YA thrillers. The heroine reminded me of Veronica Mars in many respects. Actually, the book itself is something like a cross between Veronica Mars, 24, and X-Files. It is a big book, I suppose, but it reads extremely fast. Loved that the insta-love romance plot here made sense to me. Review here.


Shadows of the Moon by Zoe Marriott.
Kind of like a Cinderella story set in a fantasy world loosely based on (what I think is) Heian era Japan. The heroine, Suzume, survived the slaughter of her family, and I thought it was a pretty realistic depiction of that sort of trauma. Her mother also survived (she was away when the attack came) and eventually remarries, taking Suzume with her. But then Suzume discovers that her new stepfather is the one responsible for the murder of her family and soon embarks on a quest for revenge. I liked how the book interwove all the different guises and lives Suzume adopts for herself, and blended the original Cinderella story with the culture and Suzume’s revenge tale. Review to come.


What about you guys? Read any of these? What did you think? What are you reading now? I’m currently reading Spirit’s Princess by Esther Friesner, which portrays the story of the Japanese shaman-queen, Himiko.