Follow by Email

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Review: Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

A post-apocalyptic world with a difference.

This isn't about kids fighting each other to the death at the mercy of the small, powerful elite, nor is it about challenging in the system while hiding within it.

This novel begs the timeless question about what it means to be human.

Arthur Leander, an ageing Hollywood actor, dies on stage while performing King Lear. That same night, a virus arrives in Toronto and, within a few weeks, 99% of the world's population have died. The story is constructed through flashbacks and present day, following the lives of a few different characters, whom are connected in fragile ways, but nonetheless their stories are in part bound up with each other.

There is the Travelling Symphony, consisting of musicians and actors, who travel from place to place to perform for free. While it might not seem much of a priority to keep up a culture from a world now dead while there are more important concerns - namely food, water and shelter - their reasons for doing so are summed up in a Star Trek quote: "Survival is insufficient." This group is the main focus of the present day storyline, where time is now measured in years that begin from the outbreak of the virus - e.g. 20th October Year 1. They come to a settlement which they have visited before, except now it is run by a man whom only refers to himself as the Prophet, convinced that they have been saved for some higher purpose.

The flashbacks follow the story of the actor, Arthur, whom works his way steadily from small-island boy to blockbuster Hollywood hero, and in large part his first wife, Miranda, who spends years working on her own comic book series, Station Eleven, after which the novel is named.

At first it seemed strange why so much of the novel tells the story of Arthur, and the world before by extension, but when a huge focus of the novel is on what it means to be human, and what it means to live rather than just survive, it's a harrowing and moving component. The difficulties and trials of the before and after are physically different but they still face the deep questions that humanity have sought for thousands of years to answer.

The writing is beautiful, mournful, even lyrical. It is philosophical without being pretentious, and the cast of complex characters drive the plot extremely well. You are caught up in their journeys, you mourn with them and understand - at least with the older characters - their wistfulness and grief for their former world. There isn't so much a longing to be back in the data driven world, with technology at your fingertips, so much as a trying to understand the senselessness of the situation they find themselves in. There is also the need to deal with how very small and helpless they are and were in the face of so great and deadly a virus that was impossible to survive.

When I was reading the inside jacket before starting the story, I was struck by what Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist) said, that it left her  'wistful for a world where I still live'.  That was true of my experience reading the book. I would look around the living room where I was reading, or out the window, and feel profound relief at my safe surroundings while not quite believing it was real. The novel reached that level of immersion.

Read it. It's an extraordinary story.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Review: Rarity from the Hollow, Robert Eggleton

Note: I received an ebook copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Blurb from author:

"Lacy Dawn is a true daughter of Appalachia, and then some. She lives in a hollow with her worn-out mom, her Iraq War disabled dad, and her mutt Brownie, a dog who's very skilled at laying fiber optic cable. Lacy Dawn's android boyfriend has come to the hollow with a mission. His equipment includes infomercial videos of Earth's earliest proto-humans from millennia ago. He was sent by the Manager of the Mall on planet Shptiludrp (Shop 'till You Drop): he must recruit Lacy Dawn to save the Universe in exchange for the designation of Earth as a planet which is eligible for continued existence within a universal economic structure that exploits underdeveloped planets for their mineral content. Lacy Dawn’s magic enables her to save the universe, Earth, and, most importantly, her own family."

Rarity from the Hollow is unlike any book I have come across before. If one were to put it into a genre it would probably be classed as Science Fiction but that is too simple. There is a lot of social commentary in the book, provided through the way Lacy Dawn's family live. Her father is a veteran with PTSD and her mother is (at first) submissive, walking on eggshells because of her husband's condition, careful not to provoke his rages, and does not have enough social capacity to mother her daughter like she needs to. Consequently, Lacy Dawn is much more complex - and more messed up - than others of her age. Thanks to the 'plug in' sessions with her android boyfriend, who seems to want to download all of human knowledge into her brain, she acts as kind of a psychotherapist to the kids at school, all of whom seem far too aware for their age what is wrong with them and why. One of her best friends we soon find out to be a ghost, and Lacy Dawn regularly talks with the trees near her house who try to help her navigate this tricky stage of life. All Lacy Dawn wants to do is to save her family and make it into sixth grade.

That's just the stuff on earth. When DotCom (the android boyfriend) takes Lacy Dawn and her father to Shptiludrp, they find out that part of Lacy Dawn's mission to save the universe involves a huge amount of shopping, by taking things to sell on earth, in order to save earth from exploitation of its minerals and other precious resources. Lacy Dawn gets into tough negotiations with the Manager of the Mall on Shptiludrp, in order to protect earth, before finding out the real danger to Earth, and consequently, the universe (spoiler alert....................a mammoth infestation of roaches).

This book won't be for everyone. It certainly isn't easy reading, but it is very interesting, and a lot of what happens that seems pretty painful and messed up is authentic and tugs on the heartstrings, its authenticity no doubt due to the author's social work background. Eggleton certainly has a flair for the complex and weaving in many issues without a plot overload. It works because he gets the characters right. 

In summary, if you're up for a challenging read, and are prepared to face some hard questions and - maybe like me - tough it out through some bits, then give it a try. It'll certainly be like nothing you've tried before. 

Author info:

Public Author Contacts:

Monday, 10 August 2015

Review: The Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen

Shortly after her nineteenth birthday Kelsea Raleigh Glynn waits on her doorstep for a troop of Queen's Guard from the Royal Keep. They have come to bring her back to the city and claim the throne. The journey, however, is fraught with danger. Her uncle, the Regent, has placed a bounty on her head and sent the Caden, infamous and skilled assassins, to kill her before she has chance to claim her birthright.

The Tearling was founded as a socialist Utopia but quickly fell into a feudal-style class system, complete with a thriving Black Market and a slave trade - a shipment of slaves is sent every month to the neighbouring Mortmesne, presided over by the Red Queen. Kelsea decides to put an end to this as soon as she arrives at the Keep, pleasing the masses but angering the few yet decidedly powerful, particularly Arlen Thorne, the head of the Census. Meanwhile, the Red Queen tries to keep a watchful eye over the goings on in the Tearling but is unable to see Kelsea herself, much to her chagrin and (though she wouldn't admit it) growing fear.

This is a brilliant fantasy read with a Dystopian undercurrent, with a host of interesting and absorbing characters. Kelsea is a fantastic heroine. She does not shy away from danger, meets the threats to her life head on, and has an acute sense of social justice. Her nemesis, the Red Queen, is alluring but dark and ruthless, her mystery enhanced by the fact that we do not know her name or much of her background apart from that she carried out a coup to become Queen of Mortmesne and quickly conquered the neighbouring lands. The Captain of Kelsea's guard, Lazarus, is fierce, perceptive, smart and unflinchingly loyal. And Carlin and Barty, Kelsea's foster parents, though not seen much on the page are shown to be extremely brave, clever, wise and insightful.

The main moral dilemmas in the story manifest in a man called Javel, a gate guard, whose wife was taken in the shipment some years previously, and who has to decide whether he will do business with Thorne to get his wife back despite knowing that there will be a heavy price to pay in terms of humanity.

All at once this novel is an adventurous fantasy, social commentary, a challenge to belief systems, examinations of different forms of evil, and uncomfortable moral questioning. It's a story that absorbs you and forces you to think deeply about the questions it poses. It is well-paced and structured, with viewpoints of different characters showing the reader the different parts of the Tearling and Mortmesne. Through the different character perspectives we see a range of motivations, fears and hopes of those who live in the Tearling. It's a highly accomplished debut that promises future literary gold from Johansen. The Queen of the Tearling and its sequels certainly promise to be an obsession, and probably one of the best trilogies of recent times.