Every so often I like to read a good post-apocalyptic novel – among other things, it makes me appreciate all the more the life I have now. This book, though – whew! It hits a little too close to the here and now for my comfort, but I put it right up there with King’s The Stand in my post-apocalypse Hall of Fame. Publisher’s Weekly wrote “Wendig pulls no punches in this blockbuster apocalyptic novel, which confronts some of the darkest and most divisive aspects of present-day America with urgency, humanity, and hope. The day after a comet blazes over the west coast of North America, Benji Ray, a disgraced former CDC epidemiologist, is summoned to meet Black Swan, a superintelligent computer designed to predict and prevent disasters, which has determined that Benji must treat an upcoming pandemic. That same morning, Shana wakes up to find her little sister, Nessie, sleepwalking down the driveway and off toward an unknown goal, one of a growing number of similar travelers who are unable to stop or to wake. Shana in turn becomes one of many shepherds, protecting the travelers from a crumbling American society that’s ravaged by fear, dogma, disease, and the effects of climate change, while Benji grapples with his daunting assignment and questions about Black Swan’s nature and agenda. Wendig challenges readers with twists and revelations that probe issues of faith and free will while crafting a fast-paced narrative with deeply real characters. His politics are unabashed-characters include a populist president brought to power by neo-Nazis, as well as murderous religious zealots-but not simplistic, and he tackles many moral questions while eschewing easy answers. This career-defining epic deserves its inevitable comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand, easily rising above the many recent novels of pandemic and societal collapse.”
This story begins where the familiar one ends – with two ugly stepsisters, each rejected by the prince, each missing pieces of a foot in a last, desperate effort to fit themselves into a shape that isn’t their own, and a life they only think they should want.
Isabelle, Tavi, and Ella used to be friends, like sisters are, until they realized that the world, and their mother, saw them in very different lights. With moonbeam hair and a quiet smile, and a little help from the fairy queen, Ella is destined to sit on a throne, despite all her stepmother’s maneuverings. Isabelle, more interested in riding her wild stallion Nero in the fields with her best friend Felix, reading about famous generals, and fighting pirate battles with a mop handle for a sword than she is in dresses, parties, and flirtations, and Tavi, who rarely emerges from her beloved books, numbers, and scientific experiments, have never fit the the mold of what their mother, and the village, believes girls should be. Girls like Isabelle are too hungry, too fierce, and too strong. Girls like Isabelle are destined for dark endings in grim tales. Girls like Isabelle are not meant to be at all. So when the prince comes to the door, searching for a girl to make his queen, Maman orders Isabelle to lock Ella away while they try on the shoe. Already having cut away so many pieces of their hearts to become who they think they have long been told they should be, it is, really, no more difficult to cut off a heel or some toes. We, of course, know how the story ends – Ella is freed and her lovely foot fits the dainty slipper perfectly – but what becomes of the stepsisters?
Her family outcasts, decried by all for their ugliness, Isabelle knows that, in trying to reshape herself into someone she is not, she has become what everyone calls her – ugly. Still, she does her best to keep things going for her mother and sister – shopping, gathering eggs, caring for their one remaining old horse, Martin, and protecting what little they have left. But war looms close on the horizon – a marauding army draws closer to her village every day, led by bloodthirsty general Volkmar. Lovely Queen Ella works to spirit away orphans to safe houses, while the prince fights in the fields. Refugees and wounded soldiers fill the roads, and Isabelle does not know what she, only a girl, an ugly stepsister, can do. But with a little help from a wish, a quest, new friends, Fate, Chance, a fairy queen, and the lost pieces of her heart, she begins to believe that perhaps being beautiful is more than what everyone has always told her it is.
Fairy tale retellings are some of my absolute favorite books to read, and Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister did not disappoint! Isabelle is one tough cookie, and I loved how everyone from the fairy tale is fully rounded out into real people with many faults – even the lovely Ella (and the prince even gets a name that isn’t Charming!). There are new characters and old, an age-old battle between Chance and Fate, some seriously smelly cheese, brave steeds, daring deeds, pearl-stealing monkeys, a lot of cabbage, and plenty of magic to go around. If you love Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, binge-watched Once Upon a Time on Netflix, or can’t stop singing “Into the Woods,” then this one’s for you!
Coyote and her dad, Rodeo, are always on the move. It’s just the two of them and their retro-fitted school bus, Yager, rolling down highways and back country roads, heading wherever the mood strikes them. Never looking back, only forward to the next truck stop, gas station, campground, or sandwich shop. Sometimes they stop long enough for Coyote to take swimming lessons or make a new sort-of friend, but they never stay anywhere for long. It’s open road, all kinds of sunshine, and freedom – but it’s also kinda lonely.
So when Coyote sees the box of free kittens in the gas station parking lot, and the smallest one, the quietest one, looks at her just so, she just knows he’s coming with her, no matter what Rodeo has to say about the matter. She names her new kitten Ivan, after her favorite book, and after a rough start, even Rodeo’s in love. But the thing is, Ivan is only the beginning of the story.
A few days later, when Coyote learns that the park in her home town is being torn down – the same park where she, her mom, and her two sisters, Ava and Rose, buried a memory box five years ago – she knows she has to figure out a way to get Rodeo, Yager, and Ivan from Florida to Washington State before the park, and the box, disappear forever. Even if there is no way, no how Rodeo is going to agree to hit the trail home on his own. But sometimes, fate has its own way of bringing you home. With the help of a whole host of new folks, including an unlucky-in-love blues musician, a rescuer-from-overly-well-intentioned-people and maybe-best friend and his mom, and one very loyal goat, Coyote and Rodeo are on the road to Washington – because sometimes, going back is the only way to move forward.
This book broke my heart and stitched it back together again in all the best ways. Reading this is like settling in with a big box of fortune cookies, where each one holds a small but profound truth – and just the right amount of sweetness. With big and small adventures, kindnesses, misunderstandings, stories, and plenty of love, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is a middle grade must-read this summer. Author Dan Gemeinhart has a number of other books, and you better believe I’ll be adding them to my reading list too!