Back to Reality: A Novel (Audiobook) by Mark Stay & Mark Oliver, Kim Bretton: A Parallel Universe/Body Swap Story Story Full of Laughs and Heart


Back to Reality

Back to Reality

by Mark Stay & Mark Oliver, Kim Bretton (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 6 Min.
The Bestseller Experiment, 2019

Read: March 19-25, 2020


Oh, boy… how do I talk about this? I thought about calling this a bundle of joy, but that means something else. A bundle of audio joy, maybe? This was just so much fun that I want to start with that. If you’re looking to have a good time, this is a book for you.

If you read the Book Spotlight I just posted, you’ve got a good idea about the plot (and if you haven’t read the Spotlight, why not?). But for the sake of completeness here’s the gist: connected by something across the multiple parallel universes, two versions (one 18 and one almost 2 decades older) of one woman swap bodies for a few days. The older version works in PR, is the mother of a teen who can’t stand her, with marriage problems. The younger version is a pop star on the verge of breaking through in the ’90s. If they don’t swap back, there’s every sign that they won’t survive in this new world. But how can they do that?

That sounds sort of intriguing, I hope. But the book never really feels like that kind of Fringe-inspired take on a Back to the Future/Freaky Friday mashup, because of the voice, the style and approach of Stay and Oliver—which is characterized by humor and heart. It’s like early-Rainbow Rowell/Jennifer Weiner/Emily Giffin/Sophie Kinsella. These are strong women in very strange circumstances, surrounded by interesting characters responding to unbelievable situations.

We meet Jo on a night out with people from the office, which turns into an alcohol-fueled karaoke sensation (Jo has a fantastic voice, but a lot of stage fright). I enjoyed this chapter so much that I probably could’ve written 3-4 paragraphs about it alone and would’ve read an entire book about this woman’s life (especially because what happens to her in the next couple of chapters deserved a complete novel to see her respond to). It took me a little longer to get invested in “Yolo” (the 90’s version), but I came around and started rooting for her, too.

I am not the target audience for this (note the authors I mentioned above—some of which I only know through my wife’s description). And there were a few times I asked myself why I was listening to this—each time, I decided I was enjoying myself enough that I didn’t care if this was my typical read or not. There’s just a hint of SF, a dollop of Time Travel (more like jumping between parallel universes), and a healthy amount of “women’s commercial fiction.” This is a recipe for a wonderful literary dessert.

I’ll frequently (maybe too frequently?) talk about an audiobook narrator bringing the text to life. And Kim Bretton does that. But she does more than that—she fills it with life. Dynamic, energetic, vibrant…are just some of the adjectives that spring to mind. I was very happy when I just looked over her other audiobook credits and saw a couple of titles I was already thinking about—if she’s doing them, I’m giving them a try. (although, if I never hear her do another American male accent, I’d be more than okay).

Funny, sweet, amusing, heartfelt, laugh-inducing, touching, comic, imaginative—and did I mention humorous? This is 606 minutes of pure entertainment. I really encourage you to put this in your ear-holes. It’d probably work almost as well in print—Bretton’s great, but she has to have something to work with—but in audio? It’s close to a must-listen.


4 Stars

My thanks to Overview Media for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Back to Reality: A Novel (Audiobook) by Mark Stay & Mark Oliver, Kim Bretton

Today I’m pleased to welcome the Book Tour for the delightful audiobook of Back to Reality by Mark Stay & Mark Oliver, Kim Bretton (Narrator). Following this spotlight post, I’ll be giving my take on the novel here in a bit. But let’s start by learning a little about this here book, okay?


Book Details:

Book Title: Back to Reality by Mark Stay & Mark Oliver, Kim Bretton (Narrator)
Release date: September 25, 2019
Format: Audiobook
Publisher: The Bestseller Experiment
Length: 10 hours and 6 minutes

Book Blurb:

The bestselling ’90s nostalgia time travel comedy

Jo’s world is about to change forever, and it’s about time

Her marriage is on auto-pilot, daughter hates her, job sucks and it’s not even Tuesday.

As Jo’s life implodes, a freak event hurls her back to ‘90s Los Angeles where, in a parallel universe, she’s about to hit the big time as a rock star.

Jo has to choose between her dreams and her family in an adventure that propels her from London to Hollywood then Glastonbury, the world’s greatest music festival.

Jo encounters a disgraced guru, a movie star with a fetish for double-decker buses, and the biggest pop star in the world… who just happens to want to kill her.

Back to Reality is a funny, heartwarming story about second chances, with a heroine to rival Bridget Jones and the rock n roll nostalgia of Keith A Pearson.

The novel from the Bestseller Experiment podcast presenters Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux. The Two Marks went to more gigs in the ’90s than in any other decade and are currently working on a time machine to see Prince in concert.


Praise for Back to Reality

“Like if Nick Hornby wrote a time travel, body swap adventure!”—New York Times bestselling author Mimi Strong

“Everything the world loves about British comedy. For those who wished Simon Pegg wrote novels, you now have the Two Marks.”USA Today bestselling author Shannon Mayer

“Written with an authentic touch and plenty of good humour. A tough book to put down.”—Mark Dawson, USA Today bestselling author of the million-selling John Milton series

“A compelling story where the comedy compliments the drama and keeps you turning the page… A delight.”—Bestselling author of The Dublin Trilogy, Caimh McDonnell

“I LOVE IT! It’s Back to the Future meets Freaky Friday.”—#1 Kindle bestselling author of Hot Mess, Lucy Vine

“Crackles with all the addictive energy of a pop hit, and the heart of a soul classic.”—Samantha King, bestselling author of The Choice

“Like a book version of Hot Tub Time Machine with fabulous female characters and great music.”—Kate Harrison, author of the bestselling 5:2 series

“If you love time travel and rock and roll, you’ll love this book!”—Julie Cohen, author of Together

Sliding Doors meets Back to the Future in a story to make you sing with joy.”—Karen Ball, Speckled Pen

“A magnificent book! Loved every page. Beautifully written.”—Callan McAuliffe, actor The Walking Dead


What Amazon readers are saying:

★★★★★ ‘A real page-turner overflowing with humour.’
★★★★★ ‘All kinds of funny, from laugh out loud to quiet snorts of recognition.’
★★★★★ ‘I miss the characters so much I think I’ll start reading it again!’
★★★★★ ‘Pure pleasure to read. You won’t put it down until you reach the last page.’
★★★★★ ‘An absolutely cracking read. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s heartwarming, and completely impossible to put down.’
★★★★★ ‘It’s —Spinal Tap meets —Back to the Future meets —Freaky Friday.’
★★★★★ ‘Funny, fast and massively entertaining. Hugely recommend.’
★★★★★ ‘—Back To Reality has it all; It’s funny, it’s thrilling, its thought-provoking and inspiring, but be warned, once you start reading this book you won’t want to put it down.’
★★★★★ ‘Think —Peggy Sue Got Married meets MTV. Funny and warmhearted. Highly Recommended.’
★★★★★ ‘This book reads like the best comedy movies. Great pace, humour and loads of action. Recommended for fans of Douglas Adams and Helen Fielding.’
★★★★★ ‘Belts along at a cracking pace, at times reminding me of Douglas Adams.’

About the Authors:

Mark Stay

Mark StayMark Stay co-wrote the screenplay for Robot Overlords which became a movie with Sir Ben Kingsley and Gillian Anderson, and premiered at the 58th London Film Festival. Author of the fantasy novel The End of Magic, he is also co-presenter of the Bestseller Experiment podcast and worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty-five years. He lives in Kent, England, with his family and a trio of retired chickens. He blogs and humblebrags over at markstaywrites.com

Mark Oliver

Mark OliverMark Desvaux writes fiction as Mark Oliver. He also authors inspirational non-fiction and online courses, and is a professional speaker in the fields of self-development and spiritual growth. He is chairman and co-founder of the charity Foodshare. As a bestselling recording artist (Urban Myth Club), Mark’s two critically-acclaimed albums have led to appearances at festivals such as Glastonbury (which he tries to mention on every podcast). He lives on Vancouver Island with his family, surrounded by the beautiful mountains and seas, with chickens, bees and very tall trees.

Purchase Links

Amazon UK ~ Amazon US

My thanks to Overview Media for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

BOOK BLITZ: Bobby Robot by Michael Hilton

Young Adult Science Fiction
Release Date: 3-20-20
Publisher: INtense Publications LLC
 photo add-to-goodreads-button_zpsc7b3c634.png
Sixteen-year-old Bobby is the only human on a robot-inhabited planet. Aided by LINC, his cybernetic haywire task assistant, he must prove to the bots that the human race is worth restarting bypassing his Programming, the training he receives to think and act in perfect precision—and without emotion. Failure will force him to upload his mind into the Tether, a robotic host, stripping him of his humanity and terminating his species’ last chance for survival. As he repeatedly falls short of the bots’ rigorous standards, he begins to question if the human race is even worth reviving. But when a beautiful girl named Jen crash-lands on his planet, she makes him question everything the bots have told him, including what it means to be human.
About the Author
Michael Hilton is a time traveler from the future who’s come back to warn us of the impending literary apocalypse. An avid reader of Young Adult science fiction and fantasy, he writes to stave off the coming wasteland of soulless fiction. One day his Wikipedia page will describe his warnings as “mildly prophetic” and “wildly exaggerated.” He lives in Irving, Texas, working as a chiropractor by day, a vigilante by night, and a writer all of the time.
Michael Hilton is a nerd. Like, a big one. Using a right brain filled with stories of adventure, mystery, and romance and a left brain stocked with experience in the fields of biology, neurology, and engineering, he writes science fiction and fantasy worlds worth geeking out over. When he’s imagining battles in a far-off galaxy, he’s usually treating patients as a chiropractor, working out, writing music, or watching too much TV. He currently lives on Earth but is thinking about moving soon.
Contact Links
Purchase Links
RABT Book Tours & PR

The In Between (Audiobook) by Michael Landweber, Brittany Pressley (Narrator), Mark Boyett (Narrator): When the Unthinkable Happens, What’s a Parent to Do?

A quick Q&A with the author, Michael Landweber, is coming later this morning—be sure to come back and check it out!

The In Between

The In Between

by Michael Landweber, Brittany Pressley (Narrator), Mark Boyett (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 7 min.
Audible Original, 2020

Read: February 28-March 3, 2020


A couple of years ago, when mystery writer Brad Parks wrote his first stand-alone thriller, in more than a couple of interviews I heard/read him talk about the struggle getting going. A friend gave him some advice to “write the book that scares you,” which would likely scare his readers. He ended up deciding that as a parent, the thing that scared him the most was something involving trauma to one of his kids. Which resulted in at least two different novels (Say Nothing and Closer than You Know), both of which provided me with a level of fear I don’t usually get from thrillers. I couldn’t stop thinking about that anecdote and those two books while I listened to this, did someone give Landweber similar advice?

We start off meeting Lillian, who works in the PR department of Teleportation Services International. She’s taking her son’s class on a tour of TSIsomething she and his teacher had arranged to help him deal with his anxiety about their upcoming trip via Teleportation. Cole is shy, nervous, and not really assured by this exercisealthough the rest of his class has a blast (and it sounded pretty fun to me, too).

Then we meet her husband, Jackson. Jackson is one of the few drivers around in 2047his clientele is primarily made up of the elderly who won’t trust self-driving cars (and, yeah, it occurred to me that I’d be one of his client base on both of those counts) and those whose mental health or anxiety issues won’t allow them to trust the cars, either. He augments this income by teaching super-rich teens how to drive the smattering of sports cars still around so they can go on joyrides.

TSI gives one employee’s family a month a free week’s vacation to anywhere in the worldand then milks their experience for publicity. They’ve picked Tokyoand none of the family have ever teleported before. This will be a new experience for them all. Lillian steps through the portal in Omaha and stumbles out in Tokyo (the first trip is typically difficult on the destination side). There’s a strange delay that worries her, but before long, Jackson comes out in worse shape than her. But where’s Cole?

No one has an answer. Cole is missing and no one has an explanation. No one can even begin to hazard a guess about what happened.

Not at all surprisingly, Lillian and Jackson are devastated. Heartbroken. Inconsolable. And their individual reactions are so different that they can’t even be there for each other in this time.

Lillian, whose own childhood was marked by tragedy, directs her grief into work. If she can be busy, she can cope. Quickly, her energies are directed into investigating (on her own) what happened that day, and what can be done to prevent it from happening againand maybe finding a little vengeance along the way.

Jackson’s reaction is two-fold. First, he’s an alcoholic who hasn’t taken a drink in six years. He’s not in recovery in any sense, he just stopped drinking to be a father. With Cole gone, he returns to the bottleany bottle. Before taking that first drinkand after ithis question was, “My son is missing, why isn’t anyone looking for him?” For Jackson, Cole isn’t dead, he’s lost. Jackson knowshe can’t convince anyone, but he knowsthat he saw somethingsome place?in between Omaha and Tokyo. He spends his days going back and forth between the two cities, trying to find that In Between again, before crawling back into a bottle.

They haven’t just lost their son, they’ve lost each other. The love is still there. But they just don’t understand the other’s reaction. She can’t cope with his drinking or his denial. He can’t understand why she’s given up on Cole. While he hunts for Cole and she hunts for an explanation, they’re both burdened, distracted and shaped by this other pain. It is heartbreaking to watch their marriage crumbleas with the Parks thrillers, what happens to Cole is terrifying to this parent. But that feeling was frequently overshadowed by my reaction to his parent’s relationship.

Now that I’ve gone on longer than I intended to about the plot (not that I’m cutting any of it), let’s talk about the setting. This is not quite a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s one where the apocalypse could be just around the corner. Environmental changes have impacted coastal cities around the worldmany of what we know as coastal cities no longer exist. We all know that the Midwest gets hit by huge storms throughout the year, their frequency and intensity have grown. There are changes to transportation (air travel as well as the automobile changes mentioned above) in efforts to reduce pollution. New–and deadly–flu strains crop up with a regularity that makes them seem routine, and everyone knows how to react when one comes along.

There’s a lot that could be said about the government (governments?) in this future. Not that Landweber talks about politics at allbut there’s a tremendous lack of civil liberties on the one hand, and yet a very laissez-faire stance when it comes to TSI (at least as evidenced by TSI who really only seem to care about customer perception, not any kind of reulatory oversight). There’s a benevolent totalitarianism at work when it comes to the storms (and reactions to them) in Nebraska, as well as the medical response to new flu strains.

I want to stress here that these environmental and health elements are just parts of the story, and the government observations are only my impressions, and nothing I could really provide footnotes about. Landweber doesn’t take the opportunity to get on a soapbox about any of it, they’re just part of the world he’s describing. Much in the same way that someone writing a book set in 2020 would talk about current cultural trends, technologies or current events. He doesn’t indulge in any real explanation of his world-building, there are no big info dumpsit’s all just the setting.

This is an Audible Originaland I should talk about the audio aspect of this. It’s a gripping listen and wonderfully performed. As you may have guessed Brittany Pressley narrates the chapters from Lillian’s point of view, and Mark Boyett takes Jackson’s. I don’t think I’d heard anything by either of them beforebut I’ll keep my eyes peeled for their names when I browse for audiobooks in the future. They truly did wonderful jobs. They got the emotion of the moment, the tensionand occasional moments of fun, joy, or reliefas well as giving a real sense of the characters. It didn’t happen often, but even when a character usually only seen in a Lillian chapter showed up in a Jackson, you could recognize them (and vice versa)which was nice. Landweber wrote a great story but Boyett and Pressley brought it to life.

The last time I listened to an Audible Original, I had trouble with a couple of the SF-y terms usedmostly because I couldn’t be sure exactly what the narrator was saying (e.g., was that a “d” or a “b”or a “g”in the middle of that word?) It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the narrator, they were just terms the author invented that was hard to get my head around. Landweber didn’t do any of that, which was a reliefalthough there were a couple of Japanese names I wouldn’t be able to repeat (in print or voice), but I knew what Pressley and Boyett were saying.

Another pair of books that came to mind while I was listening to this were Mike Chen’s novels. Like Chen, Landweber creates a wonderful Science Fiction world, and then tells a gripping family drama. Yes, the science fiction elements are thereand are incredibly well-executedbut the heart of this novel is about parenting, marriage, love. Fans of Chen would do well to check this book out. Fans of this book should give Chen a chance.

I read and enjoyed Landweber’s last novel, Thursday, 1:17 PM, but this is a much better showcase for his talents (not to knock his earlier work). There’s so much to commend about this Audiobook that I have only begun to scratch the surface (truly, I can think of a half-dozen characters I should’ve profiled*, a couple of themes I could have talked about, and other plotlines I should have addressed). There’s something for everyone in this bookan element of a thriller, some great SF Technology, some conspiracy elements, the environmental setting, some media commentary, some Big Business critique, a lot of focus on people with anxiety issues and/or mental health diagnosis, ethical quandaries, parent/child stories, and a touching love story, too.

* There’s a hacker character that I’m going to kick myself for not talking about, for example. He’s one of the most entertaining characters I’ve encountered this year—Top 3 for 2020.

Get this into your ears, folks, you won’t regret ityou may not like it as much as I did, but I can’t imagine you won’t like it.

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook from Audible in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Thanks to them for the book and Laura Blackman for approaching me.


4 1/2 Stars

Top 5 Saturday: Trilogies


The Top 5 Saturday weekly meme was created by Amanda at Devouring Books.

Rules!

  • Share your top 5 books of the current topic—these can be books that you want to read, have read and loved, have read and hated, you can do it any way you want.
  • Tag the original post (This one!)
  • Tag 5 people (I probably won’t do this bit, play along if you want)

This week’s topic is: Trilogies. I immediately wrote down three of these, and then thought a bit and came up with 8 more. I whittled those down to five—the ones that had the biggest impact on me/my development as a reader. I left a lot of good candidates out, but at the end of the day, these are the biggies for me. I’ve read them all multiple times (except #4, honestly—only read that twice), and would gladly do so again tomorrow (well, okay, in three weeks, am too busy in the meantime).


The Foundation Trilogy
by
Isaac Asimov

Hari Seldon, uber-mathematician, creates a new science combining mathematics and social sciences to predict (and shape) how humanity will react to the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire. He uses this science to come up with a way to shape the future, helping humanity survive the challenges on their way. I read this sooo many times in high school—for years it served as the ruler by which I judged all SF. Also, other than his Black Widowers mysteries, my favorite works by Asimov.

Yeah, there were a couple of sequels (not nearly as good) and other related works, but these were a trilogy for so many years, I have no problem ignoring the others.


The Deed of Paksenarrion
by
Elizabeth Moon

Wow. This is just…wow. Rather than submit to the arranged marriage her father has planned, Paksenarrion, takes off and joins the army. Eventually is trained and recognized as a Paladin. A fantastic hero’s journey that I wish I remembered more of. I remember being blown away by it and hating that the trilogy ended.


The Barrytown Trilogy
by
Roddy Doyle

Can I talk about these in less than 1500 words? These books focus on the Rabbitte family in Dublin. The first chronicles the oldest son’s attempts to launch his career as the manager of The Commitments, the second is about the very unplanned pregnancy of the eldest daughter (and her father’s struggle to accept it—followed by his outrageous pride for the kid), and the last focuses on the father’s attempt to provide for his family after he becomes unemployed by opening a chip van (a precursor to today’s food truck obsession). They’re all as funny as you could hope, full of hope, sadness, and love. I’m getting excited just by writing this snipped about them.


The Dragonlance Chronicles
by
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning were my obsession in eighth grade—one I shared with as many people as I could. I’m pretty sure the fantasy I respond to today is the fruit of these books. And I’m totally okay with that. Say what you will about the quality of these, they hold a special place in my heart (right above the cockles, near the blockage on the right)


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy
by
Douglas Adams

Was there any doubt? I can’t stop talking about Adams/This Trilogy (see my Annual Towel Day posts, for example). From the moment I read the first chapter (three or four times before I moved on to Chapter 2) to the point when I heard the radio series to getting the planet icon tattooed on my arm to today and all points between. This Trilogy has been at or near the top of my list, and will stay there for a long time to come.

I maybe should’ve added Colfer’s 6th volume, but…I decided to go old school.

A Beginning At The End by Mike Chen: Love, Uh, Finds a Way in this Optimistic Dystopian Novel

A Beginning At The End

A Beginning At The End

by Mike Chen

Hardcover, 391 pg.
Mira Books, 2020

Read: January 28-February 4, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“Mommy’s not coming home.”

“No! Mama now! Want Mama!” Desperation had taken over the child’s face, eyes pooling With the Whiplash turn of raw emotions. She tossed the plastic spoon across the prison-cell-turned-living-space, her voice ramping up in volume and intensity. His arms wrapped around his daughter, even though she punched at his thigh in frustration; he held her as if she was the last thing in the world.

Rob blinked as the realization came to him. She was.

His home, his old life was gone. His parents and brother, killed by MGS. Their friends, their community, scattered and ravaged. And now Elena gone too.

Sunny was all he had left.

Well, I really painted myself into a corner with my In Medias Res post about this book a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure what else there is to say! Oops.

I was more right than I was wrong about where Chen was taking some of the story—but while I had the destination correct the route he took totally caught me off-guard (and it was so good!). The parts of the story I was wrong about, however. I could not have been further off the mark if I’d tried. Both of those results are so satisfying to me, Chen nailed the nuts and bolts bits of plotting—conclusions that seem right and expected (and earned) while being very unexpected.

While Chen knows how to plot a book, characters are his strength (see also Here and Now and Then).
I could absolutely see where Moira was coming from and understood (and applauded) what she did to change her life. I felt like I got Krista’s pain and the way she reacted to her mother and uncle made sense to me (I’m not sure she was fair to her college boyfriend, even if he should’ve known better than to do what he did). And Sunny should win over even the most jaded reader. But Rob? The way Chen wrote him made me empathize with Rob to a degree that I wasn’t prepared for. That sentence I quoted above, “She was,” just about broke me.

I assume that other readers will gravitate to other characters (and Moira is probably my favorite in the novel), and they should. But Rob is going to stick around in my subconscious for a while.

All of this happens against the backdrop of a world trying to recover from a global pandemic that wiped out an unimaginable number of people. Sure, other apocalyptic scenarios seem worse (zombies, whatever lead to Panem, the First-through-Fifth Waves, etc.)—but what makes this scenario chilling is just how possible it really seems. And I’m not just saying that with one of my sister’s kids dealing with being quarantined in Asia around the time I read this.

Nevertheless, Chen’s novel is optimistic. Human beings, human society, human families prevail. Like Dr. Ian Malcolm famously said, “Life, Uh, Finds a Way.” So does humanity in Chen’s world.

Like all good Science Fiction, this is more about our present than it is our future. In a survivor’s group, Rob has a lot to say about living in fear with the source of the past hanging over is and letting the two dictate our lives. Without trying I could think of a dozen ways that could be applied to pre-apocalyptic Americans (who knows how large the number would be with some effort).

There’s more I feel like I should say, if only just to flesh out some of what I’ve put down—but at this point, I think I’ve said enough about this book over the two posts, so I’m going to stop here (so much for that corner I painted myself into). I want to do 400-600 words on the title alone (many of which would be devoted to the indefinite article).

A Beginning at The End is the kind of SF that should appeal to SF readers. It’s the kind of SF that should make non-SF readers (including those antagonistic to genre fiction) think there’s something to the genre after all. Because this isn’t “just” a SF novel. It’s a novel about humans being very human, with hopes, fears, loves, joys, sorrows, failures, and successes—it just happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic future. Chen’s first novel was among the best I read in 2019. I fully expect that this will be among the best I read in 2020. I’m going to jump on whatever Chen has coming in 2021 without bothering to note the title or even skim the blurb. He’s earned an auto-read from me for at least the next two novels.


4 1/2 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

In Medias Res: A Beginning At The End by Mike Chen

As the title implies, I’m in the middle of this book, so this is not a review, just some thoughts mid-way through.

—–

A Beginning At The End
A Beginning At The End

by Mike Chen

Book Blurb:

Six years after a global pandemic wiped out most of the planet’s population, the survivors are rebuilding the country, split between self-governing cities, hippie communes and wasteland gangs.

In postapocalyptic San Francisco, former pop star Moira has created a new identity to finally escape her past—until her domineering father launches a sweeping public search to track her down. Desperate for a fresh start herself, jaded event planner Krista navigates the world on behalf of those too traumatized to go outside, determined to help everyone move on—even if they don’t want to. Rob survived the catastrophe with his daughter, Sunny, but lost his wife. When strict government rules threaten to separate parent and child, Rob needs to prove himself worthy in the city’s eyes by connecting with people again.

Krista, Moira, Rob and Sunny are brought together by circumstance, and their lives begin to twine together. But when reports of another outbreak throw the fragile society into panic, the friends are forced to finally face everything that came before—and everything they still stand to lose. Because sometimes having one person is enough to keep the world going.

I’m a couple of chapters shy of the halfway point, but I’m pretty excited about this book and want to get something out there about it—also, I have to take a break because I forgot about a book tour I have next week, and I really should read that book first.

So, like last year’s Here and Now and Then, Chen uses SF trappings to tell the kind of story that you don’t normally associate with Science Fiction (especially if you’re an anti-genre fiction snob).

I’m a chapter or two past a Speed Dating scene. On the one hand, it’s like every other Speed Dating scene you’ve seen from TV or the movies and/or read before. On the other hand, this is after most of the population of the earth is gone and people are trying to rebuild a facsimile of their lives in the midst of tragedy, so you’ve got the awkwardness, the insanity of the whole speed dating thing, and people dealing with unspeakable trauma at the same time. Chen makes this feel incredibly familiar and incredibly alien (yet relatable) at the same time, mildly humorous and miserable, tinged with hope and despair. And that’s just one scene. The book is full of stuff like this.

At its core (I think), this is a novel about how our past defines us, even after the apocalypse. Two characters here want to redefine themselves from the pre-pandemic lives, and somehow still can’t (at least not totally). Two characters need to redefine themselves from their post-pandemic past, and can’t seem to find the will to. It’ll take no time at all before you’re invested in these characters—you’ll want what the former two want, and hope that the latter two can somehow make things work.

Also, you’ll find you have some pretty strong feelings about Moira’s father. And they won’t be at all positive. But that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I have a few ideas where the stories are going/may end up, yet I’m reasonably certain that Chen’s ideas are better. Regardless, these are all building toward a satisfying pay-off or three. Maybe late next week I’ll have a chance to talk about this more, but for now, let me say I’m digging this and expect that about 80% of the people who read this blog on a semi-regular basis will, too.