Book Reviews

End of Summer: A Post-Apocalyptic Shit Storm That Hit A Little Too Close to Home

S.M. Anderson’s End of Summer is one of those books that happened to come out at a very appropriate time. The premise of the book is that an air-borne virus with a 7-10 day incubation period (sound familiar??) kills 97% of the human population.

End of Summer was published in August of 2019, which means it rolled out a few months prior to the pandemic we’re all in. That said, reading a post-apocalyptic book with this premise while in the midst of a pandemic caused by an airborne virus definitely made the material hit closer to home than it might have otherwise. 

A Believable Apocalypse

Generally, when I read post-apocalyptic novels or books that take place in a dystopian future, the premise seems either wildly improbable (read: zombies) or so far from our current technological capabilities as to be not worth worrying about (a la the Giver). 

Not so with End of Summer. Not only does our current pandemic make the concept of an airborne pathogen hit close to home, but Anderson clearly did his research. The opening chapter of End of Summer takes place in the lab where the deadly virus was cultivated, and Anderson crafts an all-too-believable tale of an intern’s ineptitude and refusal to follow directions causing the virus’s escape from the lab and ultimate infection of humanity. 

This is why we can’t have nice things

The fall-out from the virus is equally believable. Some people try to flee town while others gather supplies, but ultimately, personal immunity is the only thing that saves the 3% of the human population that remains. 

The Best and Worst of Humanity

One of Anderson’s skills when writing End of Summer lay in the fact that he knew that no one would be left unscathed by the end of the world. Moral ambiguity is a major underlying theme in this novel, and the so-called “good guys” are really just “better than the worst guys.” This doesn’t make them any less likeable. Rather, the absence of any Ned Stark-esque naivety in the face of the apocalypse feels very real.

Besides, we vote for this guy.

People are trying to survive in terrible circumstances with no warning and little-to-no training. In light of that, it’s no wonder that some of the shit they do to survive is less than ideal. 

Many post-apocalyptic novels have the survivors spread out into different pockets, wandering desert wastelands. Anderson went the other way, choosing to have the vast majority of survivors in End of Summer gathered in one location. Led by a former police chief who seems to have lost his mind after the end of the world, the mall contains what’s left of “civilization,” led by the very worst of humanity.

The strong have taken control here, forming a militia of “soldiers” that rule through fear and through complete control of weapons. Women, children, and any men who don’t agree with how the soldiers are running things are treated as slaves (dubbed “sheep”) and forced to complete any menial labor that needs doing. They’re not allowed to leave the camp, and any attempts to escape are met with a painful and public execution. The soldiers, meanwhile, continue to sweep through the city, gathering supplies and survivors while killing anyone they think is too old or too young to serve a purpose in their twisted new society. 

Within this setting, the “best” of humanity–as depicted by Anderson–is filled with their own set of grievances. Here’s a quick rundown of the main players:

  • Jason: An ex-marine, Jason’s only reason for staying alive is to fulfill the promise he made to his dying wife that he’d help the survivors. So far, he’s been helping by killing soldiers any chance he gets. Only after running into Pro does it even cross his mind that some of the soldiers might not be pure evil, and may only be doing what it takes to survive their circumstances. 
  • Pro: When we meet Pro, he’s very much still a boy, baseball-obsessed and hiding in his apartment with the bodies of his dead mother and sister, whom he’s too terrified to bury. Like any survivor, he learns to spend his days hiding from soldiers and his nights gathering supplies to survive. Early in the book, he’s captured by the soldiers. He spends some time surviving in their camp, but when he’s nearly raped by a soldier and murders the man in self defense, he finds himself fleeing into a blizzard to escape. By the time he and Jason are together, Pro has grown into someone who is no longer afraid of death and is happy to do just about anything to take down the soldiers who held him captive. 
  • Daniel: AKA Sleepy. This high-ranking soldier lost his way in the post-apocalyptic months and did some things he seriously regrets. Throughout the novel, he tries to account for his past misdeeds by infiltrating the soldiers ranks from the inside. 
  • Michelle: Daniel’s girlfriend and one of the “sheep,” she’s been somewhat protected from the other soldiers since she and Daniel got together. However, months spent passed from man to man without her consent before she and Daniel hooked up have taken a toll, and she is thoroughly eager to take down the soldiers. 
  • Rachel: Found by Jason and Pro tied up with a girl named Elsa in the back of a clothing store, Rachel has some serious PTSD going on. Her story is told mostly through allusion, but you can garner that the guy who’d tied her and Elsa up was pretty effed in the head. She legitimately enjoys killing the men from the mall. 

Master of “Show, Don’t Tell”

Lit teachers, take note: when you’re trying to explain the concept of “show, don’t tell,” to your students, S.M. Anderson is a prime example of what writers should be aiming for. Dialogue and setting combine to tell you more about characters than a million Dickensian descriptions. 

The only words TRULY needed to describe Ebenezer Scrooge.

For example, Anderson doesn’t ever come out and say that Pro is from an underprivileged immigrant family. You get that impression, however, from pieces of dialogue–a smarmy lady who tells Pro that he “speaks really well” and a snide comment about how he’s probably never stayed in a hotel because his family couldn’t afford it gives us these details without slowing the pacing of the story to describe them outright.

Of course, that writing technique has some flaws–Pro’s age in my head jumped up and down several times before it was finally revealed that he was about 15–but I was happy to do the occasional mental gymnastics in return for tight writing that felt natural. 

A Lackluster Ending

If there’s one flaw with End of Summer, it comes at the end of the book. (Note: Spoilers ahead). 

First of all, there’s a weird romance added between Rachel and Jason that had minimal–if any–set-up. This seemed especially trite since I know that End of Summer is the first book in a series. It would have been easy enough to have Rachel sit by Jason’s bed as he was recovering from his injuries and for them to share a smile and squeeze each other’s hands at the end of the book, alluding to something more down the road, without coming out and saying everything

Instead, this was the one place where Anderson really told us what was happening instead of showing it naturally, and I wasn’t a fan. Suddenly, in the last couple of chapters, you have Pro commenting that Rachel is in love with Jason, and then you have Michelle calling her out on it, and then you have Jason’s dead wife giving him permission to be with her… 

It was all a bit heavy-handed for me. 

It would have been one thing if there had been a hint of a spark between the two characters throughout the novel. Instead, it felt like Anderson’s editors told him that he needed a love story, and he shoved it into the last two chapters of the novel.

I’m not anti Rachel/Jason… but it could have been saved for book two.

And speaking of things that could have waited for book two, the weird field trip we took to Antarctica in the middle of the last chapter slowed the pacing down waaaaay too much. That storyline either needed to be sprinkled throughout the novel, saved for an epilogue, or excluded entirely and saved for book two.

How I feel about new characters introduced in the last chapter of a book.

My complaints about the ending of the book aside, Anderson did a nice job wrapping up the plot lines. In fact, while I absolutely plan to give this writer another go—I loved this novel and want to read more by him—I’m not actually sure I’ll read the rest of this series. I liked where the characters were at the end of this book, and while I didn’t like the neat bow he placed on the Rachel/Jason plot, since he put it there, I’m not compelled to read the next book to see if they maybe get together. Cuz, you know, it already happened.

Worth the Price of Admission

Overall, I’m glad I invested both my time and money in the End of Summer. It wasn’t what I’d call a LIGHT read—the material gets a little heavy at times—but it was a relatively quick read with a good amount of payoff. For my first experience with this writer, I’m calling it a win, and I definitely intend to see what else Anderson has up his sleeve… even if I likely won’t follow this particular series any further.

I’m giving End of Summer a more-than-respectable 8.5/10 for solid characters, down-to-earth writing, and an engaging plot. And, honestly, that last point and a half was killed in the final 3 chapters, not because the ending sucked, but because it dragged longer than it needed to and tied Rachel & Jason’s story up a little too neatly for a book that’s supposed to have a sequel. 

Book Reviews

Horns: Hell Hath No Fury Like a MAN Scorned

Two years ago, when Vuk and I had our daughter and I made the decision to become a full-time work-at-home parent, I suddenly found myself with a gaping chasm in my social calendar. I’d always considered myself an introvert, but spending days on end with no one to talk to except for our scowling pink blob was–shockingly–not great for my mental health. As one of our strategies to combat my postpartum depression, Vuk and I agreed that I should find some ways to interact with other stay-at-home and work-at-home parents. I joined an organization called MOPS (Moms of Preschoolers), I started taking Babyvore to Toddler Time at our local library, and (the actual point of this whole rambly introduction), I joined a monthly book club. 

Book club consists of four of us. Each month, one of us chooses two books–one mystery and one fantasy or science fiction book–to read, and then, at the end of the month, we get together to discuss them. This month, it was my turn to choose. For my fantasy book, I chose Horns by Joe Hill. I had not read this book, but I had seen the movie, and I thought it would be interesting to see how similar (or dissimilar) the two turned out to be. 

Basically, this.

I was right. It was interesting. At times, Horns seemed to be in line with the movie almost word-for-word, while at others, the two were so dissimilar that it was like a punch to the throat. In this review, I’ll go over Horns (the book) in detail, while at times also mentioning similarities and differences to Horns the movie. 

The Horns of Battle

Horns is about Iggy Parish, whom everyone in town believes raped and murdered his girlfriend, Merrin. One day, Iggy wakes up with horns growing out of the top of his head. The horns make people behave strangely around him: they begin telling Iggy their most terrible, intimate desires; if Iggy touches people, he can see glimpses of sins they’ve committed in their lives; and he can influence people to commit sins (providing they already have a desire to do so). 

Like this, but with more horns. And less sex-appeal.

As Iggy uncovers the truth about what actually happened to Merrin on the night she died, he has to decide whether to use his new powers to avenge her death–and, if so, what he’s willing to sacrifice to bring her killer down. 

Jigga-what-now? 

The first thing I noticed when reading Horns was how gut-punchingly offensive the material was.

Of course, when the plot of a book is that you literally bring out the worst in people, being offensive is sort of the point. But I have to say, seeing it on TV was different from reading it. Shows like The Purge and The Boys have already leaned into that shock-and-awe trope, and I found myself somewhat desensitized to it on the big screen. 

Not so when I was reading it. 

When Iggy, the main character, touched a woman, and she referred to her black golf instructor as a “jiggaboo,” I found myself literally sick to my stomach at the casual racism.  

Me, the whole time I was reading the book

Hill never once pulled his punches when it came to showcasing the absolute worst vestiges of humanity. It made the book simultaneously hard to read and impossible to put down. But more importantly, it made the moments when characters were behaving kindly all the more beautiful in contrast to the evil that was so apparent in the rest of the book. 

The Devil is in the Details

Symbolism of heaven and hell played major roles in Horns. One of the reasons Iggy was able to make a deal with the devil and grow horns in the first place was that he grew angry with God after Merrin’s death, frustrated that a devout Christian could be allowed to be killed in such a brutal fashion. 

It’s an anger that’s recognizable to anyone who has lost a loved one, and it rang true throughout the book. His continued struggle to understand his relationship with God, the Devil, and religion as a whole was emphasized by the chapters that discussed his childhood in the church, as well as the chapter where he tried to go to his priest for help and got painfully rebuffed. 

Thusly.

As Iggy Parrish played judge, jury, and executioner to all the people who’d wronged him in his life, Joe Hill repeatedly asked the reader to make their own judgements about heaven, hell, and morality. For example, did the 80-year-old woman who was faking a hip injury and silently thought of her daughter as a whore deserve to crash into a fence going 40 miles an hour? 

As the story came to a close, you had to wonder if Iggy was still a victim, or if he had become the devil that everyone in his town had assumed he was. 

A (Nearly) Soulless Dimension

One issue with Horns was that the majority of the characters were two-dimensional in nature. Of course, for the most part, we were seeing a snapshot of characters on their very worst days as they provided Iggy with the worst parts of themselves. But even in the chapters where we looked back on Iggy’s childhood growing up with some of these same characters, the presentation we got was far from multi-faceted. 

Merrin was presented as Lily Potter-levels of perfect. Even when she broke Iggy’s heart, it turned out to be for a completely noble reason. Bullies were brutish and thickheaded, with no redeeming qualities. Even Lee Tourneau, who was clearly supposed to be a complex character, gave off so many bright red warning flags that Iggy’s blindness to his faults was a little hard to believe. 

There were a few signs…

The one exception to the rule of flat characters came in the form of Iggy’s brother, Terry. Throughout the book, Terry showed a level of character growth that far exceeded any other character in the story–Iggy included. He had compassion not only for his brother, but also for other characters in the story. This included Glenna, who was repeatedly treated poorly by both Iggy and Lee. Terry was also the only character in the book who was able to fight off the influence of Iggy’s horns, symbolizing that he was the only character in the book who was able to resist the pull of the devil and do the truly good thing. 

In fact, you could almost call Horns Terry’s story, rather than Iggy’s story. It’s Terry, not Iggy, who grows throughout the novel, and it’s Terry who is given a shot at redemption and a happy ending when the novel concludes.

This is where the book was really different from the movie. The movie’s version of Terry was impossible to like, shown as a drugged-out nobody who cared only for himself, whereas the Terry in the book made some questionable choices but ultimately tried to do the right thing and take care of his little brother. 

Beyond Fire and Brimstone

Horns went beyond your usual novel about the torments of hell. Although there were some allusions to the traditional devil, including the use of a pitchfork and Iggy’s eventual ability to communicate with snakes, Hill bypassed the seven layers of Hell made popular by Dante and managed to create something truly unique. 

For these reasons, I’m giving Horns a 7/10. It was a captivating read, and I’m glad to have read it. However, flat characters and the poorly-conceptualized treehouse of the mind prevented this book from making it onto my list of all-time favorites.