Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

In the last decade, pop culture has embraced the coming apocalypse with open arms. It’s inevitable; the only question left is how. Is it the flu? Zombies? Nuclear explosion? Asteroid?* Because clearly, regardless of which method, it’s coming. Personally, I love zombies. I don’t care that (nearly) everyone else loves zombies too.  Through the brilliance of The Walking Dead,  Pontypool Changes Everything, and Warm Bodies, the undead have earned my vote. To date, the most insidious method of population extermination is insomnia. Alarmingly plausible, a plague whose sole symptom is sleeplessness is both simple and effective. Without sleep, the world would go mad.

And that’s exactly what happens in Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon. In the novel, an infectious plague slowly works its way through the population. Leaving the vast majority of people insomniacs, it starts out harmless enough. They infected are tired. Eventually they become irritable. Then irrational. Delusional. And finally murderous. The trigger? Seeing someone sleep. To see a sleeper sends them into an endless rage. The novel alternates between several characters. Biggs is a (rather arrogant) man who is searching for his wife. He is still capable of sleep, she is not. He still searches for her after she tries to murder him. Lila, a teenage girl who had to flee her home after her parents tried to kill her. Chase and Jordan are an unlikely pair of friends who drive throughout the country trying to escape the coming plague. And finally there is Felicia, Chase’s ex-high school sweetheart and sleep researcher.  The cause of the plague remains a mystery.

Maybe it was the death of an artist at the hands of a zealot. Maybe it was the preachers howling on the subways, or the political lies that hit us like the vibrating hand, killing us years later. Maybe it was the particles made to collide.  Maybe it was a return to slavery. Maybe, like the nuts say, it was the chemtrails scarring the sky, the black helicopters, the UFOs hovering over sacred sites. Maybe it was the rewiring of our minds. Maybe the mapping of the genome. Maybe the blowing up of Buddhas. Maybe it was the death scream of dolphins ringing in our ears. Maybe it was the clash of gods, the tug-of-war over our souls, not one of them refusing to let go, instead opting to see us sliced in two by Solomon’s sword.

The premise of Black Moon is brilliant and enthralling. As the plague begins, the mystery and suspense of the sickness kept me glued to the book. This continued for the first third of the story. As Calhoun strives to show the precarious balance between dreams and reality, the narrative becomes increasingly muddled and confusing. To a point, I imagine, this is intentional, but the book suffers because of it. Somewhere near the middle, two tangentially connected characters are introduced and quickly disposed of. Separately, this would have been a brilliant short story, but when flippantly thrown in to the middle of a novel, it signaled the beginning of the end. And subsequently, the novel became a chore to finish.

Aside from Lila, the characters are wretched. I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a novel, but I do have to care about them in some way. Unfortunately, in Black Moon, I don’t. Even attempts to throw in absurd humor fell flat for me. Take Chase for example, he might be gay or he might not, but either way he could not maintain an erection. As the apocalypse ensues, he steals Viagra from a pharmacy and swallows the whole package. He spends the rest of the novel (and the majority of his narrative) with an erection that just won’t quit, locked inside the cab of a truck full of sheep. He seeks out Felicia to “show” her what he is capable of now.

Black Moon and Vegan Shake

Black Moon has a brilliant premise and lovely prose. Outside of that, I did not enjoy it. For such a short novel, there were too many characters with too many stories – many of which were underdeveloped with no real conclusion. It was incredibly frustrating and felt unfinished. It’s rare that I think a novel should be longer, but this is one such book. However, based on the strength and lyricism of the writing, I would give the author another chance. Unfortunately I won’t be recommending this one to anyone. Ultimately Black Moon is an interesting idea with poor execution, 1.5/5 (the extra .5 was earned by quoting a Wilco song – Black Moon). This novel is the equivalent of a food desert. However, there was mention of an ice cream date in one of Chase’s flashbacks. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day (as you may of guessed, I’m Irish), I’m pairing Black Moon with a Shamrock Shake (via The Sweet Life).

Oddly enough, this is the first negative review I’ve written. Normally, I simply don’t write about something I don’t enjoy, but I found the premise of this one so promising, that the disappointment was overwhelming and worth discussing. And trust me, despite what the blurb says, this one is not for fans of The Dog Stars and The Age of Miracles. If you’re interested in apocalyptic fiction, you may want to consider checking this one out (NPR liked it, even if I did not). In the meantime, I would recommend Zone One, The Flame Alphabet, The Missing, The Stand, or The Dog Stars.

How do you handle books you don’t enjoy? Do you still review them? Also, speaking of the zombie apocalypse, did anyone see tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead (let’s call it the Lizzie episode)? Because I found this funny (contains spoiler).

*The Stand, The Walking Dead, Above, Melancholia, respectively.
**I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.


18 thoughts on “Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

  1. The premise of this book is definitely plausible–I feel a bit murderous when I have insomnia and it takes Eric all of .5 seconds to fall asleep. Ugh. Haha!

    And yes, I saw TWD. Holy crap. I’ve been calling her Little Lizzie Borden for awhile now–I knew she was going to do something like that sooner or later. A friend and I had also already correctly guessed that she was the one feeding the zombies rats at the prison.


    1. I’m pretty sure I resemble the walking dead when I get less than 4 hours of sleep.

      I also correctly guessed about Lizzie and the rats. I felt quite a bit of satisfaction with the episode and then felt like maybe I should question my moral code or something. I felt the same way as I was cheering for Andrea’s demise (and Lori’s too).


  2. I have to say, this is what I look for in a book review! (Oops, I realize this makes me sound like a spammer, but I promise that I’m not! 🙂 ) You’ve convinced me not to read it, but at the same time really outlined what I might find interesting and what the problems are. As someone who loved The Dog Stars, I appreciate knowing that this one just doesn’t compare! Too bad — the premise does sound interesting, and I’ve definitely had the experience of finding a book’s concept fascinating but the execution poor.

    As for writing negative reviews: For me, it depends why. If the book just didn’t interest me, chances are I’ll put it down and move on without feeling the need to write about it. But cases like this one would make me want to write a review, where I had high expectations, or even liked quite a bit of a book, but something happens to just really ruin it for me.

    Anyway, great job!


    1. Thanks! The premise was fantastic and the first 20% was really good too. After that it seemed like the author really couldn’t follow through with the story. As silly as it sounds there were a few storylines that were completely unresolved, so I was left wondering what happened with “x” character.


  3. Aww, that really sucks. It does sound like a great premise; who among us doesn’t know what it’s like to get a little sleep deprived? I appreciate the negative review because this is one I probably would have added to my TBR if I’d just come across the title and summary. But the things that didn’t work for you wouldn’t have worked for me either.


    1. The only thing that makes me crankier than not having eaten is not sleeping well consistently.

      There was a lot to theoretically like about this book, but it just didn’t work. I even liked the cover.


  4. Too bad the book wasn’t good, because it sounds like a great idea! Totally believable, too. Loved that you reviewed this anyway, so I can decide whether to avoid it or not. And, it’s great that you also pointed out what you liked about it. I always think that just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean someone else won’t. It’s amazing to me what some people like to read!


    1. Zombie plagues are usually so unexplained. This one was too, but it made it clear that the insomnia was causing the madness. And there was no craving for brains, which was nice change.

      It always amazes me what interests people. Recently, I discovered a book called Captive in the Dark and was shocked that that book had no only been written, but people were raving about it. Not for me…


  5. What a shame. It sounds really interesting. Even though zombies seem to be everywhere, I always appreciate when an overworked concept might have new life (so to speak).

    When it comes to professional reviews, sometimes it can’t be helped reviewing a novel I didn’t like. If there were parts I did enjoy, I point to those and then include its failings (but always in a respectable way). But these days, I only review books that I pitch, instead of being assigned by an editor.

    For the blog, I still won’t do a flat out negative review. If it had me on the fence or perhaps the writing was stellar but the plot lacking, I’ll still review it.


    1. The concept was good, everything else…not so much. Of all the overdone ideas out there, I do enjoy a good zombie novel. I can’t say the same about vampire romance, which makes me want to gag.

      I’ve finally gotten brave enough to not review all of the unsolicited books I receive. I now review only what interests me, which felt like a huge step in the right direction.

      I had a policy of no negative reviews. I removed that a while ago but still hadn’t posted anything. I finally did with Black Moon because I WANTED to love it. It sounds exactly like something I would like – such a let down…


      1. Gag me with a spoon the next time I see a teen vampire romance! In regards to zombies, have you seen the French TV series, The Returned? This is excellent and a totally different iteration of the walking dead. It might be up your alley.


      2. I take it you won’t be getting a Twilight inspired tattoo (I saw one the other day, that’s the only reason I mention it)?

        Oddly enough, you are the second person to recommend the French version of The Returned in the last week. I have to check it out now.


  6. Please keep writing about books you didn’t enjoy, because this is exactly what I hope to read in a negative review. It’s thoughtful and specific without being nasty in any way whatsoever (of course! I can’t even imagine you being that way). I can totally see someone reading this and possibly thinking that the points you didn’t like wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for them, and giving the book a try anyhow. 🙂

    I do write negative reviews *if* I finish the book (but I’m liberal with DNF’s too haha). I try to point out something good, though, and figure out what kind of audience might enjoy it more. Sometimes I’ll link to a more positive review for a different perspective.


    1. Thanks! I am not a person who can be snarky or mean (even in a funny way), but sometimes I admire those who can.

      I actually want someone else to read it to see if it’s just me, or if the book really wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. So far, I don’t know anyone else who read it.


  7. Lol That bit about Chase was quite humorous. I am so very glad you wrote this (negative or not) because I was intrigued by this one (mostly because of the recommendation for The Age of Miracle fans). Think I’ll be skipping this one though.

    For me, I write reviews (negative or not) for all review books. If it’s a library book/book I purchased and it’s a negative review I’ll only do so if I REALLY need to talk about it. And as far as Walking Dead holy crap but that girl is a nutcase. I found that to be one of the most shocking episodes yet.


    1. I’d advise skipping, but I do sort of wish someone I knew read it so I could discuss it. I want to know if I’m being too harsh or if the characters really were as horrible as they seemed.

      Little Lizzie Borden (I’m stealing that from Heather @ Between the Covers)… That girl was a total psycho.


    1. I think it’s somehow more disappointing to read a book that was compared to something I love (like The Dog Stars or The Age of Miracles). I probably went in with my hopes too high.


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