Post-apocalyptic rebuild in Station Eleven by¬†Emily St John Mandel

As you all know, I’m a sucker for an end-of-the-world dystopia but not for a while have I found one quite so compelling and so real. We start out at the theatre, where a movie star named Arthur dies in a shocking ‘tragedy’, just before the Georgian flu starts to spread, a global pandemic with a rapid, 99% death rate. It makes you think: what sort of death is tragic?  What really matters? What is humanity without its trappings? How lucky was Arthur to die when the world was still in order?

I’ve seen reviews criticising the ‘world building’ in this dystopia but in my opinion that is part of its beauty: we never really get an overview of what’s happened to the world. Instead we experience this new world order, or disorder, from very personal, provincial points of view, flitting between people with tenuous links to Arthur, in a way that emphasises how small the world might feel without mass communications and long distance connections. We know we’re only hearing about a tiny snapshot of the post-flu civilisation. And that’s okay. 

If I have two criticisms about the realism of this world, I wonder at remaining humankind’s lack of capitalist tendencies and practical skills. But in general this felt real, I felt in the action, I loved several of the characters and after reading quite a lot of gung ho action dystopias of late, it was nice to find such a nuanced balance of compelling plot, charismatic characters, contemplative thoughtfulness, and a healthy helping of nuanced symbolism (the book title refers to the art that eschews mass replication, yet outlasts both technology and superficial celebrity and touches the hearts of two key characters). The book is really more philosophy than action – but don’t let that put you off.

In conclusion, I’m not sure I’d do well at the end of this particular world, but I rather hope I end up in an airport with my wife. This is one of my top reads of the year so far.

Rating: 5/5 shoes

Review: Fram

Fram
Fram by Steve Himmer

It’s not often I read a book and think ‘hmmm, that was quite odd.’ And yet with Fram I couldn’t quite figure out what to make of it. It is very much a book of two halves. I developed huge fondness for the main character, Oscar, a man whose obsessive love of the concept of the north pole (charmingly abbreviated by his longsuffering wife to PF, or Polar Fever), and his unquestioning bureaucratic dedication mean that Oscar has his dream government job at the bizarre Bureau of Ice Prognostication, complete with its ridiculous, meticulous processes and shroud of secrecy. He has a dream marriage too; however it is at risk of going sour. But then Oscar finds himself sent north on a secret, inexplicable mission fraught with peril that anyone with less bureaucratic dedication might find perturbing… Oscar is brilliant. I loved the first half of this book. But with his bizarre mission to the north pole, or somewhere like that, I started to love it a bit less. I got impatient reading it. There were questions that were never answered. I flicked through some bits about a hunter that I didn’t quite get. It all turned into a strange sort of adventure which was entertaining, a bit inexplicable, and ultimately either hopeful or hopeless. I heard Steve Himmer speak about the book (and he was brilliant) and when asked about how it ended, he refused to reveal his intent. So whether pessimism or optimism… apparently that depends on the reader. Having heard him speak just before I finished it, and knowing his intent, this left me in a state of angsty lack of resolution.

Rating: 3/5 shoes

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Three coming of age books ‘beyond the rye’

What exactly is a coming of age book? A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued to attend a discussion class at Politics and Prose (lovely independent bookshop in Washington DC) to consider three ‘coming of age’ books ‘beyond the rye’, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and The Wanderers by Richard Price. The class was run by author James Grady. 

I have a massive soft spot for coming of age books, so proved a feisty student. We had an interesting discussion about whether ‘coming of age book’ and ‘novel about children’ were synonymous and indeed whether we adults favor the more pretentious-sounding genre to justify our childish reading choices… In fact other than books where the kids are frozen in eternal youth, like the Famous Five, I personally find it hard to think of many novels starring a child character which couldn’t be characterized as ‘coming of age’ – can you? That transition phase as a child experiences and learns things that mould them from innocence and simplicity into their grown up selves is to me the most fascinating time of life to read about – that pluripotent time where anything could happen, when their life could still take any direction. I love how such a universal process always feels so unique and yet resonant. There’s rarely a coming of age book I don’t manage to enjoy (especially, I confess, if it takes place in a dystopia). 

And yet, my experience at this class made it clear to me that I very much prefer the coming of age stories that focus on girls, or gay boys (of which I’ve probably read hundreds), to the violent, posturing, and foreign-feeling boyhood world in which these three set books took place (one of my few forrays into this domain). I admit I didn’t enjoy any of them much except Black Swan Green which was wonderful. There was indeed that horrible stereotypical schoolboy violence but there was a fascinating backdrop, sensitively-rendered relationships, a stammer which almost felt like a character in its own right, and there was charm and joy and quirk. The English countryside was well-depicted but still, gender simplification as it may be, I finished it thinking “gosh, I’m so glad I’m not a boy!”

Next I read The Wanderers, about gangs in the Bronx, and I had the same thought a thousand times over. It was so infused with violence I almost found it too stressful to read, even though I could tell it was very well done, in a sort of West Side Story way. 

I’d been particularly looking forward to Dandelion Wine as I always have high hopes of Ray Bradbury,  but then found it so self-consciously dull I soon ended up skipping it altogether. 

A strange little batch of reading but sometimes it’s nice to find myself obliged to read something I otherwise wouldn’t. I think it’s good to know what else is going on in the land of coming of age before I settle down with my beloved The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild – which, on three thousandth reading, is a glorious antidote to gang warfare. Even though the characters don’t change all that much, I’m still calling The Painted Garden a ‘coming of age book’ to comfort me that I’m not just reading a children’s story. Ahem… Anyone want to stop me?

The Silo Series by Hugh Howey

One sentence plot: The world’s air has been poisoned long ago; the only survivors live underground in a silo. 

In the mood for a nice new dystopia for holiday reading, I happened across Hugh Howey’s Silo series (Wool, Shift and Dust) and I was hooked. Each of these books is over 400 pages making this a real epic read, but very much an easy read, and pretty consistently compelling (though some friends disagree!). 

Essentially we have the standard dystopia formula of people living in some socially very different evolution from our present day society following an unspecified disaster with the population going along with the rules enforced by those in charge, til some lone person wants the truth, and a better life, and starts asking questions. What is fun about this trilogy is that after the first book it’s told from two different sides, the dystopic world we have met, and another dystopic world that’s linked in fascinating ways… 

I felt the world of the silo was very well crafted and full of great detail. The characters were interesting and relatable and generally well drawn. At times this was a compulsive page turner. I particularly enjoyed one of the main characters, Juliette, and liked that gender is a fairly irrelevant fact in this world. There are a lot of very good characters, some less compelling. The writing is more than competent (though not expecting a Booker Prize nomination for this one). But really I most appreciated the well-imagined plot. Despite being written in serial form, it comes together very well. I admit to pulling a couple of very late nights just to find out what happened next. 

I could find out, because there’s a sequel, Sand. Can’t decide if I like the sound of it, but I expect I’ll cave and not regret it. Good dystopia, Howey!

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

One sentence plot summary: A Mexican family move to Delaware after their daughter has an accident that leaves her with brain damage, and they find a community in this foreign country. 

Do you ever feel you’ve had a run of reading things that were… just okay? Well thank goodness for The Book of Unknown Americans for breaking my rut of pleasant mediocrity. 

Maribel’s parents reluctantly leave their lovely Mexican home behind in hope of accessing the special education they hope will help their daughter after an accident that leaves her with brain damage. They end up living in a depressing apartment block in Delaware where Maribel’s father braves a depressing job while Maribel’s mother Alma tries to make a life for them all. 

The book is primarily about this family’s story, but interwoven is the story of the other immigrant families living in the apartments. The narrative, which is beautifully done, moves between Maribel’s family members and, as Maribel makes a friend of Mayor, those of his family across the hall. Their voices are charming and compelling and real. Every so often a short chapter flits to another apartment dweller, building up a sensitive, nuanced, happy and sad and very human picture of how each individual ended up converging in that Delaware building that they’ve all unexpectedly found themselves calling home. It’s smart and reflective. 

Don’t relax, because worse things happen than you might expect. But the message of the book seems to be that life isn’t about blame, recriminations, or dwelling on the might-have-beens and what-ifs. And ultimately, that’s an uplifting, hopeful thought. This book is very well done. 

Rating: 4/5

Among Others by Jo Walton

One sentence summary: After surviving an incident involving magic, that killed her twin sister, 15-year-old Morwenna’s love of science fiction books help survive her boarding school and build a new life. 

I like coming of age books set in boarding schools. I like books about reading. But I’m not sure I like books about fairies and magic… This book is a combination of these, and in the end I did quite enjoy it. But would I recommend it? Not sure. 

When we meet her, Morwenna has fled her home in Wales, where her mother was mentally/magically dangerous, and is placed with her estranged father in a posh English boarding school. They bond over a shared love of sci fi, but thanks to his never-explained bizarre social situation, she finds herself sent to a boarding school where she overcomes the town/gown divide to make friends who also love science fiction books. Oh, and some talking to fairies, and a bit of magical peril. 

What was confusing about this book to me was the seemingly random magical bits inserted amidst a fairly standard and enjoyable coming of age story. Some parts are all a bit too neat (the people she meets become perfect friends); other parts are insufficiently neat (OMG the aunts may be trying to steal her magic by piercing her ears, you say? Errr… Why? Are they magical too? Mysterious family suicide… Why are there no answers or elaboration?) And then the end: eh?!

I kept wondering if the magic bits were supposed to be metaphors but I’m not convinced – I think they were intended to be taken as read. Maybe… I liked Morwenna, I enjoyed her detailed book enthusiasm (if I knew more about 70s science fiction literature it would have been even better, but not necessary to enjoy). I even enjoyed the relationships she made between the other characters. But I found it hard to suspend disbelief and embrace the magic, personally. 

Rating: 3/5

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

One-sentence synopsis: The world has ended, and Hana happily lives aboard the Noah, a giant spaceship transporting the remainder of humanity on a hundreds-of-years journey to a distant planet – until she discovers there’s a grisly secret.

It’s a bad sign when you go to write a review of a book finished a couple of days ago and think: “gosh, what was that about again?” The Forever Watch was recommended to me by a friend, and as a dystopia enthusiast, I was excited about reading it. I was partly rewarded, but mostly left unfulfilled.

First, I will say that this is an ambitious and well realised sci fi world. The author sets up a meticulously detailed civilisation inside the massive spaceship Noah where a whole population lives and works together to keep the spaceship running as efficiently as possible on its long journey to the distant planet where humanity will eventually repopulate. Everyone has a role according to their talents, and everyone’s talents are somehow augmented. There is a complicated, cool system of tapping into humans’ powers to achieve different things and to communicate in a way that is fascinating and compelling (and explained with slightly too much detail).

Descriptions of life onboard the Noah take up the first third of the book, and this was my favorite part – though I’ve read other reviews complaining that this part dragged. It clearly depends on whether the reader’s taste is for daily life in a dystopia (me) or murder mystery hijinks and peril (really not me). The last two thirds of the book involves a complicated hunt for the truth, involving a certain amount of highly complicated technology use. This was done reasonably well though I kept getting confused about what was happening.

The element of the book that put me off the most was Hanna’s relationship with ‘my man’, ‘my lion’, ‘my beast’, aka her unconventional boyfriend, a policeman with a mission to uncover a secret, which he draws her into. Every time she spoke about him like that, it made me cringe, and like both of them less.

There were all sorts of fascinating questions explored in this book, and the dystopia was well realized. Other than her sloppy soppy way of referring to her boyfriend, I liked Hanna a lot as a main character. Plus the ending is good.

The reviews I’ve read have mostly been glowing. Personally, I can name about 30 sci fi books I’ve enjoyed more. Nevertheless, an interesting read. But one I nearly ditched with a third of the book to go due to boredom, irritation, and lack of taste for murder mysteries…

Rating: 3/5 shoes