Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a haunting novel about the end of the world as we know it. SARS has come and gone but a virus called the Georgian Flu starts in Russia and rapidly makes its way around the world. People get flu-like symptoms and are dead within 3-4 hours. This means that families are separated. Parents fall ill at work and never return home. Kids are left to their own devices. There is mass panic as people try to flee—but where can they go? Highway on/off ramps are backed up, traffic is at a standstill, people walk and fall along the road or manage to survive and set up small settlements. There’s no one around to refuel gas stations. The existing gas stores eventually expire. The internet fails, electrical grids turn off, generator power dies. There are no more medicines, no more processed foods, no more new clothes or soaps or other commonplace items. The few people left ransack buildings for food, shelter and other necessities.
Station Eleven is told mostly 20 years after the collapse of the world as we know it. There are small settlements around Lake Michigan and we follow a travelling symphony that performs Shakespeare around the area. Members of the symphony are separate by a maundering group intent on stockpiling food and weapons. The story line is a mix of how they get separate, whether they’ll reunite, and flashbacks to the before the flu and the first years after the collapse. It’s fascinating.
As a thought exercise, this book is a terrible look at what could happen to us when we have to do without. There are friendships, partnerships, and strong group dynamics. But there’s also greed, melancholy and the type of strife that undermines us even today.
I recommend having a little taste of this sci-fi, apocalyptic world full of Shakespeare, music, and the plague.
Slade House by David Mitchell is a fast-paced, gripping ghost story about two immortals who prey on visitors to Slade House. Norah and Jonah Grayer are twins who learn the secret of eternal life. Yet the magic that sustains them requires the soul of a particular type of person, who they elaborately lure into their web every nine years. The novel spans from 1979 to 2015 with each episode taking place on the last Saturday in October (close to, or on, Halloween) when a secret entrance to Slade House is revealed to its intended victim.
Each episode is narrated by the newest victim, which lets Mitchell experiment with the tone of each era and the social and political dynamics of the scenes.
Slade House is a clever, creepy tale that started as a series of tweets. In some ways it is a companion to Mitchell’s previous novel The Bone Clocks, but really it is a continuation of the great uber-novel he has been writing for the last 15 years. Each of his novels has references to characters, settings or background details from the previous works. And although each novel stands alone, together they construct a sprawling universe.
This side gate at Powerscourt reminded me of Slade House.
Julian Barnes’ latest novel is a fictionalized account of how composer Dmitri Shostakovich survived Stalin. The Noise of Time is perfectly titled. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is described as “muddle instead of music.” Just noise. The problem with this bad review is that it’s Stalin condemning not only the opera but also the man. From then on Shostakovich lives in fear of execution but his punishment is worse. He instead lives through the noise of time. The noise created by inferior composers who are willing to tow the party line. The noise he must make himself to protect his family, all the while losing his sense of integrity. Shostakovich is brought to America to praise the Soviet system, to denounce composers he wholeheartedly admires, to compose music that gets approved. It’s a crushing experience beautifully articulated by Barnes.
The Guardian review (Jan 22) offers a fantastic description of the “conversations with Power” that Shostakovich is subjected to throughout his life. As a reader unfamiliar with Shostakovich, Barnes provides a well-researched, and very intimate, perspective on the systematic pressures put on artists in the Soviet Union and the propaganda machine that influenced art.
In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.
A slim and powerful novel. A story about the collision of Art and Power, about human compromise, human cowardice and human courage, it is the work of a true master.
Chosen for the 2016 Citywide Reading for Children Campaign run by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature and Dublin City Council’s Libraries Services.
The Book of Learning is the first in a trilogy from ER Murray about 12-year-old Ebony Smart. It seems that Ebony has had nine lives. She doesn’t discover that until her Grandpa dies. The strange circumstances of her Grandpa’s death push her into the arms of family that she doesn’t know and doesn’t trust. Are they responsible for her beloved Grandpa’s death? Why did he never mention them? It’s a mystery and poor Ebony only has her wits, her pet rat and a riddle-filled Book of Learning to guide her way. Who’s on her side? Were there really eight other Ebony Smart’s? Ebony needs to find her Grandpa’s murderer before it’s too late. http://www.mercierpress.ie/irish-books/book_of_learning/
This adventure book is set in Dublin and is full of mystery and wonder. There’s obviously more story brewing as it’s the first of three novels. If you’re looking for strong, defiant characters, a good story and a bit of magic then this is a great read for 8-12 year olds. Younger readers might find some of the scenes scary but that shouldn’t deter parents from reading it with under 8s. And I enjoyed it as an adult reader so it would be fun for over 12s as well.
The Rathmines library had stacks of this book on display and I’ve seen bus posters and promos around Dublin. There’s good coverage of this campaign.
Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life, is one of those novelists whose writing is very clever yet it comes off naturally. Where Life After Life explored infinite chances, as lived by Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins is the life lived by her younger brother Teddy.
Teddy is a pilot with Bomber Command during World War II and his story is wonderfully told in the most non-chronological way. This is the cleverness I speak of. Atkinson tells the story in this patchwork fashion where the reader comes to understand the whole story but the characters often seem well ahead of the game, it being their life and all. Atkinson moves the reader back and forth between a present time and a past. It reminded me of The Time Traveller’s Wife in that way, which I enjoyed very much.
I was fascinated by the details of the air raids because of the first-hand accounts I have from James’ grandfather. Of the 120,000 who served, 55,573 were killed including over 10,000 Canadians. Teddy is British, which doesn’t get him extra luck one way or the other. We know early on that Teddy survives the war because we know that he has a wife and child. But his wife dies. We don’t know why, but we do know that his daughter is a bit of a terror, and probably was from birth anyway.
There are lovely repeated references throughout the book, like the exaltation of skylarks (the lifting of birds/planes), quips about whether a certain character believes in reincarnation (which is funny if you’ve read the previous title), lucky charms, and references to poetry and novels that offer opportunities to think deeper if you so desire.
Although the setting is during the war, or the present day is seen through that lens, it’s not a war novel. It’s more about the mystery and revelation we have throughout our life. The knowledge we gain after the fact, and how we choose to respond or not respond.
This novel is a strong contender for favourite read of 2016.
If you liked John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, then you’ll like this Romeo and Juliet story of two star-crossed lovers in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s 1986 and Eleanor and Park go to the same high school. Eleanor is joining mid term and her first day on the bus establishes the dynamics between all the characters. Tina and Steve sit at the back. Tina is the popular girl. Steve is the loud mouth. Park is half Korean, but nobody in Omaha really gets that. His mother Min Dae (Mindy) married his father when he served in Korea. Park is the skinny Asian kid, but is relatively free of the bullying that the kids save for Eleanor. All the high school antics are detailed in this novel, including the hiding of someone’s clothes during gym class.
When Eleanor gets on the bus on her first day, she is an immediate draw for the bullies, especially Tina. Her clothes are patchworked and from the charity store. She has big bushy red hair and is defiant. Nobody will let her sit with them. Finally, Park, embarrassed for her, demands that she sit. He moves over for her.
What follows are dual narratives by Eleanor and Park and their differing perspectives on the intersecting aspects of their high school days. It’s a cute, he said/she said, look at typical teenager inner thoughts. The insights into Eleanor’s situation depict a troubled home life, poverty and life with an abusive parent, in this case a short-tempered stepfather who is an alcoholic, drug user.
Eleanor and Park fall for each other over Watchmen comics and mixed tapes traded in secret on the bus. What starts as a simple gesture of giving up a seat moves to public displays of affection on the bus and dating in secret.
In broad terms, the novel is a tragic tale of young love in a poor neighbourhood. It’s not so much the Romeo and Juliet story in that there is only one family not keen on the relationship. Eleanor’s stepfather has already kicked her out of the house once. She is back on probation. There are 5 kids in all, the stepfather is abusing the mom and she is too exhausted to run. They are all stuck. Park is Eleanor’s salvation in the way that first loves are game changers. In the end the two are driven apart but there is still a redemptive ending, which I won’t spoil.
A funny, heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant read about an ordinary woman going through the typical phases of life in an atypical fashion. Whether it’s school, career, marriage, kids, divorce, re-marriage or all the little things in between, Miji Campbell’s story shows how these phases that can strengthen your character or derail you. What I liked especially is the flair in her writing style. She’s depressed, she has anxiety, I sympathize with her, but it doesn’t debilitate me as a reader. One of the best memoirs I’ve read.
I cheered Miji on throughout the book and was interested in what would happen next. This is the type of memoir that makes you feel like you’re reading your bestfriend’s diary. It’s personal, you know enough backstory to fill in the gaps, yet it has a universal feel in that I know many women just like her. Separation Anxiety is best described as a venn diagram of Mindy Kaling meets Tina Fey meets middle-age Canadian girl next door.
Miji’s story of growing up in a middle-class Calgary neighbourhood in the 60s and 70s, going to university, getting married, having kids, getting divorced and finding her way is not a run of the mill story. She’s funny, offbeat and insightful in her observations of the dynamic between her parents, between her and her sisters, and herself and the world at large. Controlling depression and anxiety get away from her but Miji’s story is still triumphant, even when she hits bottom. A great read. I can’t say it enough. I would recommend this tilte to all my female friends 30-50. Of course I’d recommend it more broadly as well but I think the closer you are to 45, the more cultural references you’ll get and the more social cues you’ll recognize in our own life.
Possible book club discussions:
• What are the small moments that define your life?
• What was it like when you grew up, was it similar to how Miji describes Alberta in the 60s and 70s?
• What social norms do moms and divorcees struggle against?
• What do you understand about your parents? Yourself?
Miji Campbell is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Today’s Parent Magazine, The Edmonton Journal, The Calgary Herald and Women’s Words: An Anthology, and has been broadcast on CBC Radio. Miji has received two National Magazine Award nominations and a literary arts grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. She owns Write Where You Are, a business that offers writing workshops to individuals, schools, community and corporate organizations. Born and raised in Calgary, Miji lives in Red Deer, Alberta. Separation Anxiety is her first book.
In celebration of Canadian poetry, and to mark Brick Books’ 40th anniversary, they are featuring articles each week about different Canadian poets. This week my article about poet Dennis Cooley is up on the site!
I am a big fan of Cooley and, as I say in my intro, readers of Dennis Cooley know how difficult it is to talk about Dennis Cooley.
First off, one tends to talk of Cooley in Cooley’s voice. His sing-song cadence worms its way into your head and you can’t read his poems any other way, or at least I can’t. Second, one attempts to be more clever than one ought to be. Being clever is Cooley’s job.
His recent collection abecedarium is a perfect example of his musicality, linguistic wit and technical dexterity. Cooley’s take on language is joyful. He manipulates the sound of the words, and the words themselves, the way a master musician plays an instrument. Each poem is a play on words, or even a play upon a play upon words. How meta, as the kids say today. Back in the day when I was studying with Cooley, we would have said, how po-mo.
(Maybe I was the only nerd who said po-mo instead of postmodern.)
Please have a look at the great collection of praise and celebration of Canadian poetry that Brick Books is compiling. I love it. And, even if you’re not a poetry buff, check out Dennis Cooley’s abecedarium.
Patrick deWitt, the bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers, delivers another knockout novel. Undermajordomo Minor is about Lucien (Lucy) Minor and his absurd employment at Castle Von Aux. The deranged castle master, Baron Von Aux, rambles around in the dark eating rats. The Baroness has disappeared. Nearby soldiers are at war over an unidentified idea. And the villagers Lucy meets are thick as thieves, figuratively and literally. Oh, and he falls in love.
Whereas The Sisters Brothers was a darkly comic, Western-inspired novel, Undermajordomo Minor is a darkly comic, orphan story/Gothic romance. Lucy leaves home shortly after his father’s death, and although he had two parents growing up, it seems they were lacking in parental affections. Lucy sets out on his own to make his fortune, or at least to turn his fortunes. He’s cheated death and been given the chance to do something interesting. It’s Oliver Twist meets Harry Potter (without the magic). Castle Von Aux and Lucy’s love interest Klara provide the Gothic romance elements. There’s a spooky castle with a general curse about the place, inclement weather and downtrodden villagers, a few marginally threatening mysteries (like what happened to Lucy’s predecessor Mr Broom), and Lucy himself as the fainting heroine.
One of my favourite scenes is between Lucy and his boss Mr Olderglough. They need to locate the Baron, tidy him up and make him suitably presentable to the Baroness and her guests. Mr Olderglough believes that trapping the Baron and knocking him on the head is the best solution. Lucy counters.
“And what next, I wonder?”
“After he’s been knocked unconscious, then shall we bring him to his chambers and manacle him to his bed. Next we will force-feed him, and bathe him, and shave him, and cut his hair and strive to resurrect his interest in sophisticated society.” Mr Olderglough rubbed his hands together. “Now, what do you think of it?”
Lucy said, “I think it is somewhat far-fetched, sir.”
“Are you not up for it?”
“I’m not, actually, no. And to be frank, sir, I don’t believe you are, either.”
“What sort of attitude is that? Let us rally, boy.”
“Let us come up with another plan.”
“Let us look within ourselves and search out the dormant warrior.”
“Mine is dormant to the point of non-existence, sir. There is no part of me that wishes to lay nakedly abed and await that man’s arrival.”
“I tell you you will not be alone.”
“And yet I shall surely feel alone, sir.”
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. “May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy.”
“You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest. But I highly doubt there will be anything written within those pages which will alter my dissatisfaction with the scheme.”
I remember The Sisters Brothers being funny and engaging right from page 1 but it took me a bit longer to get into Undermajordomo MInor. That said, this novel is just as crazy as the last. It’s very hard to stop turning the pages once you’re into it. I hope it secures as many well-deserved awards and honours as his last novel. Watch for this title!
You’ll like Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt if you liked his previous titles Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers, or if you enjoy the humour of tv shows and movies like Father Ted and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There’s something wonderful and absurd about it all.
A new literary thriller from the acclaimed author of Resistance. In I Saw a Man, journalist Caroline Marshall dies on assignment in Pakistan, leaving her husband, writer Michael Turner, widowed and grieving. To help his recovery, Michael moves house and befriends his neighbours Josh and Samantha Nelson and their two young daughters. But tragedy strikes Michael again. He must decide if the weight of his guilt and grief are going to anchor him to his present home or drive him away again.
Overall this is a fun, summer read. Great for fall, of course. The writing itself is fun in that it’s easy to read, a good page turner. The subject matter is darker. Michael is widowed and living next door to the Nelsons. He comes over to retrieve his screwdriver that he lent them the night before. The back door is open. This is odd because the wife Samantha is away and Josh and his two daughters don’t seem to be in the house. Michael enters the quiet family home and calls out but gets no reply. He hesitates then enters in search of his screwdriver. Readers don’t find out for a long time what’s happened to that screwdriver and Owen Sheers builds in a lot of good tension.
There’s also the background story of Michael and his wife Caroline Marshall. Caroline was a free-spirited female reporter who broke a few international stories and wasn’t adverse to dangerous assignments. Caroline had removed herself from field work and had settled down with Michael in a quaint cottage in Wales where she was doing some producer work until an assignment crossed her desk that she couldn’t refuse. Next thing Michael knows, she is off to Pakistan to report on the story of a Welsh boy who joined a terrorist group there.
Owen Sheers creates great tension in this background story. He brings Michael and Caroline together, almost like two moths to a flame. They are an unlikely couple who are pulled together by something unexplained and also both aware that something is going to pull them apart. How Caroline dies is also a secret that Owen Sheers keeps from his reader for much of the book.
The novel isn’t really plot driven in the way that thrillers are. Instead it’s intellectual and emotional. There’s emotional tension in each of the relationships. There are lies and betrayals that either create alliances or ruptures. And it’s the nature of love, loss and secrets that is at the heart of this book.
Four distinct voices tell the tale of one family’s attempt to transcend the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Each seeks enlightenment. Each failure has a lesson. This is a debut novel about faith, family and finding meaning from an accomplished writer, editor and playwright.
The Mystics of Mile End is set in Montreal’s Mile End, a mashup of Hasidic Jew and hipster cultures. Brother and sister, Lev and Samara Meyer, are at a loss after the death of their mother. They seek refuge in their faith and retaliate against their father David’s denial of that faith. David, for his part, is uncertain about his own faith and seeks the meaning of life in self-destructive ways. He’s a professor of Jewish mysticism, yet not any more enlightened, and his research into the Kabbalah Tree of Life, discovered posthumously by Samara, might be the one thing that finally connects the family.
The Torah is the five books of Moses, so I thought that there would be five books in The Mystics of Mile End but there are only four: Lev, David, Samara and Mile End.
I guess Mile End really is a character in the book. But beyond a geographical place, it’s where Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman lives (in silence) with his wife. It’s where Mr Katz is assembling lemons and wired-up tin cans in his giant oak tree, and where Lev’s star-gazing friend Alex falls in love with Samara and then learns his own lessons and break throughs.
The novel is about what happens when we search for signs instead of living, and when we are silent instead of talking. It’s a strong debut novel.
One of my favourite discussions was about the 1970s cultural references in the novel. Here’s what I said:
Until our conversation last week, I did not pick up on the fact that the book is set in the 1970s because there are so many hipster trends today that allude to that period. It’s obvious now, and so overt, that it’s embarrassing to admit that I glazed over this aspect of the novel. As I started compiling a list of the cultural references, I couldn’t stop so this is not an exhaustive list, just want sprang to mind.
First off, I loved the Napolean-Dynamite visual I got when reading about Boo or Johnny wearing the white and blue striped gym socks and sweat bands. That alone brought levity to the underlying story of two boys dead in a school shooting. The peace symbol and style of clothes really do set the story in the 70s for me but Town/Heaven is presented as Salvation Army so, again, I didn’t initially understand the setting to be the 1970s. My assumption then, since there are no computers or video games, is that Town’s culture is that of America in current day.
The clothes especially made me laugh and Boo’s criticism of the cashmere sweater and egotism of 13-year-old girls reminded me of that all-about-me phase. It’s funny, especially, if the 70s was the Me decade, to end up in town with generations of 13 year old Americans. You would not feel so unique, which is maybe why some townies identify as gommers, or portal seekers, or find other ways of segmenting themselves off.
The other prominent 70s references for me were the Hardy Boys references, especially the building named Frank and Joe, the music references, and I immediately thought of the do-good council as the Brady Bunch.
I wonder if there are no cars in Town because 13 year olds can’t drive, or if that’s a reference to the oil crisis? Likely the former. And I don’t know enough about the history of the periodic table but there’s obviously an interesting study of those elements and their function within the storytelling.
What I don’t recall are references to Star Wars. But Boo is certainly aware of the starscape and Zig only changes it on occasion. I wonder for people who saw the moon landing first hand, if it was underwhelming. It’s cool, but there’s nothing there. Was that a letdown and made people wonder about heaven? If you imagined the moon as this great place then saw its pocked surface, did you question what you’d imagined about heaven?
The mental health building, Johnny’s behaviour, and the sense of being in purgatory or sentenced to 50 years in town reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were several places in the novel when I wondered who the crazy actually was.
I discovered this book in the Rathmines Public Library, displayed in a section for nominees of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It’s billed as a smart novel, and it unveils the aspirations, and vanity, of three unnamed authors competing for a prestigious, unnamed prize. I enjoyed the irony of that. For background, this is Italian Filippo Bologna’s second novel and the first was well regarded. Indeed he may be one, or all, of the characters in the book.
It’s important to note that the characters live in Rome and there’s a dark undertone to the competition and the vote rigging or schmoozing required by authors in order to win. And winning is important as it increases sales and can firmly establish an author. So how far is each willing to go?
The three men are The Beginner, The Writer and The Master. The Beginner is the hot, young thing. He’s good looking and loved by the critics. A win means instant fame. Neither the Master or Writer want to be beaten by the novice. Plus they both deem his novel unreadable. The Writer assumes he’s the sure win, but he is the most nervous of the lot. His last book wasn’t very good. He is onto The Second Wife already and needs to win to not be dumped by The Publisher as the lost could strip him of his fabricated identity and posh lifestyle. The Writer has everything to lose. For him the win is security.
As I mentioned, the dark satire throughout the novel is about how far each author is willing to go to win. The Master is the most disheartened. He’s stuck with a small press throughout his career and has never quite got the recognition he deserves. A win means money. Plus he now has prostate cancer. Will he lose his dignity and use his cancer diagnosis to get the sympathy vote or is he above it all? The other two have their own twists of fate but I don’t want to spoil the read for you.
The novel is black, in a sullen artisty way. There’s a thread of humour throughout. And overall it was an enjoyable read. Not a page turner but I did want to see it through to the end. You’ll like this novel if you’re also a fan of The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, caustic humour and insider look at fame in the art world, or The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a satirical look at an English-language newspaper in Rome.
Oh, and what’s with the title, The Parrots? Well there is a rather nasty parrot that taunts the Beginner. Also there is a parrot at the end with the Writer. It’s unclear whether this is the same parrot or not. But as soon as I read the title and the opening scene with the parrot and the Beginner, I thought we were dealing with Flaubert’s Parrot, and surely there’s a connection. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia on Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes:
One of the central themes of the novel is subjectivism. The novel provides three sequential chronologies of Flaubert’s life: the first is optimistic (citing his successes, conquests, etc.), the second is negative (citing the deaths of his friends/lovers, his failures, illnesses etc.) and the third compiles quotations written by Flaubert in his journal at various points in his life. The attempts to find the real Flaubert mirror the attempt to find his parrot, i.e. apparent futility.
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name…
And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions ...
to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah.
In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Haroun is upset that his mother has run away with the weasly clerk from next door and his father, the famous storyteller, seems to have no more stories to tell. The latter being a result of the former. When Rashid, the most famous storyteller of the land, is called into service by a gangster politician, Haroun is beyond worried that his father’s dried up gift for gab is going to get them imprisoned.
A sleepless night in a peacock bed result in Haroun riding a mechanical bird right into a story war. He’s accompanied by a water genie, a floating gardener, some talking fish, the mechanical bird and a host of other magical creatures. Of course Haroun is the hero of this tale and is awarded a happy ending.
I bought this book in the ancient book market in Argeliers, France, while looking for a happy ending. The Shad of Blah certainly delivered a delightful holiday read. He knows how to spin a frown upside down.
If you liked Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or any other quirky tale then give this one a go.
79-year-old Martha Andersson dreams of escaping her care home and robbing a bank.
Well I was worried about taking this book cover through customs but Martha Andersson’s luck was on my side. This old bird is a spring chicken when it comes to planning the perfect crime. Martha and her cronies are fed up with budget cuts in their retirement home that have led to reductions in the amount of coffee they can have per day and the elimination of biscuits with their tea. It’s simply outrageous and, what is even more insulting, the prisons in Sweden look like luxury accommodation in comparison. Something must be done.
When the old foggies can’t get improvements at home, they form the League of Pensioners and rob an art gallery. It’s the perfect crime. Even the police and newspapers make that claim. But what these seniors want is time in prison so they turn themselves in and figure out a way to keep the ransom money, return the paintings and be the Robin Hoods of their day.