Station Eleven

st11As a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, I was excited by the premise of Emily St John Mandel’s latest work. With a killer flu, crowded hospitals full of the dead, and a prophet who wants to recreate the human race, many of the great tropes of the genre were already in place.

But Station Eleven does something different, too. Because it isn’t just post-apocalyptic, it is also pre and during-apocalyptic (I don’t think they’re real terms, but I’m using them.) Starting on the actual night that the pandemic hits America, the novel jumps in time; from the early aftermath, to twenty years or so later, and back to various plot points in the days and months leading up to the end of the world.

For once in the genre, we have all the answers. The whos, the whats, the whys, and the wheres. Margaret Attwood did something similar with her recent trilogy, but three books gives you a lot more scope to cover the end of days from so many angles.

It’s quite an achievement. A few characters link the three time periods. Jeevan is on hand to give mouth-to-mouth to the dying Arthur in the opening scene, and it his him we follow through the early days of the apocalypse. But it is back to Arthur in the pre-dstruction period. Well, him and the three wives he collects throughout the book. And one of those wives will play a crucial role in the far future sections, as she teaches her son that the apocalypse must’ve come about because of humanity’s ignorance of the bible.

But it is perhaps Kirsten who most works as the heartbeat of the novel. She is a child actress in the opening scenes, present when Jeevan tries to save Arthur’s life. And in those far future sections, she is leading a group of travelling actors and musicians through the barren landscape. They perform Shakespeare plays to towns and villages with few survivors.

And therein lies the main point of the novel. In a very clever way, Mandel is highlighting all of the things that are at risk in an age when we take the world for granted. Shakespeare and high art is one thing, but in jumping back and forth as she does, she makes it clear that it is not just these big things that we might one day miss. One section particularly highlights her point:

You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone.

Those are the things future generations might have to do without, and those are the things Mandel highlights as important in the days when everyone continues as normal.

In focusing on the simple things, Mandel makes this novel all the more unsettling. In showing us how the world might function if you take away our daily habits and technology, she creates a work that’s chilling, disturbing, and more believable than much of its genre.

Blogging the Booker Part 7: Final thoughts

So, the end is near. In a few hours we’ll find out who takes down the big money prize and sees their sales figures rise for at least a couple of months. The Booker is still one of the biggest names in literary prizes, and there’ll undoubtedly be some celebrations tonight.

But what of the shortlist? I have to say, I’ve been pretty impressed. Yes, there are a couple of stinkers, but compared to previous lists that’s an improvement. Last year we had one great novel in Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and one pretty good one from Jhumpa Lahiri. The others, for me at least, ranged from pretty decent to bloody appalling.  And the most appalling won.

This year, I’d say that both the Fowler and Flanagan are absolutely outstanding novels. The Ali Smith is very, very good, even if one half is not quite up to the same standard as the other. And the Ferris is bloody enjoyable, too. I’ve been harsh on the Mukherjee on here, but it is good in parts. The less said about the Jacobson, the better.

That’s not a bad effort. Two thirds of the shortlist are great or close to it, and without their shortlisting I probably would have only read the Smith.

The Booker gets a somewhat raw deal in my eyes. When the shortlist was announced, Twitter was awash with naysayers who bemoaned a safe list that didn’t include their favourite books. I don’t think anyone can argue with half of this year’s finalists.

Having said that, I am kind of dreading the announcement. The problem with reading the shortlist is that I now care. There are three novels that would be deserving winners, although I have to say I’m holding out for Fowler. But something tells me that I’m going to be disappointed when 9.30 comes. If Mukherjee wins it will be a shame, if Jacobson wins it will be a joke.

Blogging the Booker Part 6: Richard Flanagan

That’s it. I made it. With only a few hours until the winner is announced, I just put down Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-richard-flanaganNorth and with it I completed the 2014 Booker Prize Shortlist. And I may just have found a new contender. Okay, it’s not as instantly enjoyable and accessible as Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, but it does seem more likely to curry favour with the judges.

Flanagan’s novel is exactly what Mukherjee’s wanted to be. It’s a weighty work of literature that focuses on an important period of history while also trying to shed light on how historical events affect the families, friends, and lives of those involved. In The Lives of Others we had the Naxalbari uprisings. Here, we have POWs building the Burma Death Railway.

One major difference between the works is this; Flanagan manages to represent the true savagery and horror of events at the same time as giving us a tender and devastating story of one man’s life and lost loves. Mukherjee mixes his many stories awkwardly, and subsequently dilutes the meaning of all of them.

But even without a similar shortlistee with which to compare it, Flanagan’s novel would be a fantastic and worthy winner. We watch protagonist Dorrigo Evans grow up, go to war, save lives, fall in and out of love, and survive the brutalities of a POW camp. But even when writing of such horror, Flanagan’s way with words make this a beautiful and poetic novel. There’s a quote from Evie Wyld on the back of the book which sums up everything I want to say:

Not just a great novel but an important book in its ability to look at terrible things and create something beautiful. Everyone should read it.

Well said, Evie.

Can it win? You may have read my gushing reaction to Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. My view hasn’t changed. But listening to the opinions of others and the bookies, it seems Fowler is unlikely to take down the prize. Flanagan has a better chance. And there could be no doubting the quality of the winner if he were to do so.

Blogging the Booker Part 5: Joshua Ferris

When I first saw the shortlist, Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was the novel that least appealed. That’s not to sayTo Rise Again At A Decent Hour cover - Copy that I saw anything inherently wrong with the book or its premise but, compared to the rest of the list, there was little that piqued my interest. This could be partly due to the fact that I’m not a big fan of dentists, and protagonist Paul O’Rourke is a leading light of the profession. It could also be down to my slight phobia of comic novels. Yes, I prefer novels that border on the miserable – but I also find that many comic novels make me laugh less often than an episode of The Big Bang Theory. (Which isn’t much, in case you missed that.)

But Ferris’s novel is a pleasant surprise. Focusing on O’Rourke and his dental practice as they both come under attack from a internet menace, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour manages to make some insightful comments about today’s society while also having a bloody good laugh about it.

O’Rourke is not a fan of the internet and social media, but when this unknown menace creates a website for his dental practice and begins posting as him on Facebook, Twitter, and in baseball forums, he is forced to confront a world he has long ignored. Soon, his new namesake is posting questionable diatribes in his name and forwarding the agenda of a lost people known only as the Ulms.

Admittedly, the novel does get a little lost as it moves further and further into the world of the Ulms. Ferris is making a point about the way anything can be made to seem real in the age of the internet, but this work is at its best when focusing on the lonely life of the protagonist rather than the power of the world wide web. When at its best, though, it is hilarious. Not many books have made me laugh out loud as much as this one – but that could be largely because I’m a miserable git.

Can it win? Despite enjoying the book much more than I expected to, it would be the most surprising winner. A better book than both and The Lives of Others, it doesn’t have their loftiness. That could count against it in the judges’ eyes. And as enjoyable as it is, it can’t quite live with How to be Both and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it comes to writing and storytelling. With one book left to finish, there’s still a clear winner in my eyes.

 

 

Blogging the Booker Part 4: Neel Mukherjee

nmtlooLet me start by saying that I can see exactly why The Lives of Others made this year’s shortlist. It deals with heavy historical material in the shape of Calcutta’s Naxalbari risings in the late 1960s, a theme that also featured on the shortlist last year in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It also offers an involved investigation of the Indian family system, something that Booker judges have turned to again and again since Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things in 1997.

So no, it isn’t at all surprising to see that Mukherjee’s second novel made the shortlist. But it is surprising to see that it’s currently the favourite to win.

Because, despite being based on one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history, it doesn’t tell much of a story. Attempting to give almost equal weight to seventeen members of the Ghosh family, we actually don’t find out as much as we’d like about any of them. Except maybe Supratik. But, as the family member who joins the Naxalites, his story just doesn’t grab in the way that it should.

Much more interesting are the tales of Somnath, a rebellious and violent teenager, and Priyo and Chhaya, a brother and sister pairing that share a strange encounter in a bathroom that will haunt both of their lives. When these characters are involved, the novel comes to life. But they are involved too rarely to drag The Lives of Others from the doldrums.

Can it win? If you believe the bookies, then yes. It would be a shame, though. It would be a victory based on the novel’s weighty subject and not the way it’s written or the actual story it tells. It’s by no means an awful novel, but it brings nothing new to its genre and leaves too many of its interesting strands unfinished.

You can read more in my Bookmunch review.

Blogging the Booker Part 3: Karen Joy Fowler

Let me just warn you all, I’m about to gush.

If you are uncomfortable with humans expressing romantic feelings for a book then you might not want to read any further.

Karen-Joy-Fowler-We-Are-All-Completely-Beside-Ourselves-hbBut anyway, I’m going to try and tell you just how much I adored this book without spoiling it for you. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will take hold of your life and refuse to give it back for as long as you’re reading. I finished it in less than two days and got pretty close to falling out with somebody for trying to make me leave the flat while I was halfway through an important chapter.

This is a special book. But part of the reason it is so special is the surprises that lurk within its pages. In fact, on page 77 of the book, I was met with possibly the biggest surprise I’ve ever found in a novel. And it’s a good surprise. It turns a well written but conventional family drama into something astonishing, original, heartbreaking, funny, and unique. Some people may say there were clues to this surprise, but either I was too slow on the uptake, or Fowler pitched them absolutely perfectly. I’m going to go with the second option.

If you can help it, avoid spoilers. I just did a Google search for the image on the left and found out that spoilers are already everywhere. That’s a shame.

There’s a hell of a lot I could say about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. And I have said a bit more in my Bookmunch review. But most of all, I just want to say that it reminded me just why I love fiction so much. I connected with every character, believed every twist and turn, and had to wipe a few tears from my eyes during the closing forty pages. It’s a novel about family, about grief, about psychology, childhood, and memory. And it’s all these serious things while also being bloody hilarious.

Can it win? With apologies to my ideal aunty Ali Smith, I hope so. The Booker receives a lot of criticism from literary types for its sometimes safe choices, but if this was to win there could be no arguments. Up there with the very best.

Blogging the Booker Part 2: Howard Jacobson

by Howard Jacobson originally sounded like one of the most intriguing novels on the shortlist. As a big fan of post-apocalyptic the-road-cormac-mccarthy1fiction in general (think The Road, 28 Days Later, The Stand, Oryx and Crake, and Riddley Walker) I was excited to read a new member of the genre that had been deemed good enough for Booker recognition.

Jacobson’s post-apocalyptic landscape is disappointingly different to all of those listed above. Instead of ravaged lands and mutant animals, lost souls and livid zombies, we have a few people who live in a rather nice sounding village. Instead of people forced to eat babies or kill their friends to survive, we have characters who are no longer allowed to listen to Ray Charles and have to have fake versions of their favourite furniture. Or, in a really dramatic twist, they might try and disguise the real furniture as fake.

Shocking, isn’t it?

No. Not really.

jacobsonIn all honesty, this isn’t a vision of the future that will have you scrambling with fear. But the book does highlight some interesting issues. The current ‘crisis’ has been caused by the eradication of a race or religion of people, and much of their downfall was down to talk on social media. That seems believable. Jacobson obviously had some important issues in his mind when he started J, it’s just a shame he didn’t give them the respect they deserve.

You can read my full review on Bookmunch.

Should it win? No. No no no. Although it promises a lot, it delivers little. If you read my previous Booker post, you’ll know I wasn’t a big fan of last year’s winner The Luminaries. For that reason, I have a lingering fear that will take down the prize this year. Both novels delivered good ideas with poor execution. Both wittered on and left me bored. So both will probably win. I strongly hope not, though. Two novels in to the shortlist and Ali Smith’s How to be Both is ahead by quite a distance.

Blogging the Booker Part 1: Ali Smith

man-booker-prize-2014_0After somehow finding four of the shortlisted novels on my review pile, I decided to buy the other two and present you with my somewhat pointless opinions on the prize-giving proceedings.

Last year I read the entire shortlist, but only after the winner had been announced. There were some good novels on there, but only the Colm Toibin came close to actually being great. For me, eventual winner The Luminaries was one of the biggest wastes of time I remember enduring. And that includes the years where I played Championship Manager for roughly 6 hours a day.

This year’s shortlist looked a little more exciting. I was intrigued by the premise of Howard Jacobson’s J. I was happy to see that yet another novel based in India was in contention. And, most of all, one of my absolute favourite authors in existence was on the list.

Ali Smith. What is there to say about her. Having met her on several occassions, I can say that she’s not only an incredible, daring, witty, and original writer, but she is also one of the nicest and most encouraging people on the planet. I kind of wish she was my aunty. But she isn’t.

And for that reason, I’ll be completely honest about her shortlisted work How to be Both. It isn’t my favourite of her novels. It’s howtobebothan interesting and playful piece of literature, split into two separate stories that can be read in either order. But unfortunately, one of the stories (that of adolescent, grief-stricken George) is so much stronger than the other (which focuses on the life of Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking paintings in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.)

You can read my full review on Bookmunch.

Should it win? Despite this not being Ali’s best work, it is still much better than most of last year’s contenders. It certainly does more in 300-something pages than The Luminaries did in its 3 and half million or so. I wouldn’t be upset, or surprised, to see Ali take down the prize. The book is unique and original, and that is what the Booker is supposed to be about. Some of her previous novels may have been more obvious winners, but there isn’t a writer today who deserves the recognition more.

The Gamal Pop-up Library (#gampoplib)

9781408843529A while ago I read and reviewed  a debut novel by Ciaran Collins.  That novel was called The Gamal. Five months after closing the book I still can’t get it out of my mind. I’m still unsure if I drew the right conclusion at the end, and I’m still astounded by the power, originality, and inventiveness that I met in those pages. But I still haven’t met anyone else who’s read it. You know the feeling everyone got when Breaking Bad was ending, when they just had to find somebody who’d seen the latest episode so they could try and figure it out between them? Well that’s how I’ve felt about The Gamal for five months. Other people need to read this book. For my sake and theirs.

Randomly, I recently struck up a conversation with Ciaran’s agent on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, he shares my belief that The Gamal deserves a wider audience. We batted around a few ideas and, once we’d decided that standing in city centres waving copies of the book above my head and shouting wouldn’t work, we came up with The Gamal’s Pop-up Library.

Intriguing, yes? But how would it work? Basically, there’s going to be three copies of Ciaran’s outstanding debut circulating around London (sorry Manchester friends, maybe in the future.) (I hate brackets, but do need to tell you that one copy is now circulating Manchester!) You can get hold of one of these books by simply finding me on Twitter (@Fran_Slater), following me, and sending me a Direct Message. The only condition is that once you’ve read the book, you need to provide a review. This can be on your blog, on Amazon, or on Goodreads. When you’ve finished, let me know, and Ciaran’s agent will get on his pushbike to collect the book from your very hands. Try not to keep it for too long – this will only work if we can circulate the books quickly.

The Gamal is a very experimental piece of literature. In the pages you’ll find pictures and song lyrics alongside the prose. In some instances, the protagonist Charlie has left space for you to fill in these lyrics yourself. This is something we encourage you to do. We want to use these three copies to not only spread the word about The Gamal, but to also let readers converse through the pages. So fill in the lyrics, write a message to the next reader on the inside cover, or stick a post-it note on your favourite parts.  Reading can sometimes be an isolating hobby, but stories were invented to bring people together. This experiment gives us the opportunity to do just that. And please, if you’re discussing The Gamal Pop-up Library on Twitter, use the hashtag #gampoplib.

I can’t explain how much I think you should all read this book. It’s been called a Catcher in the Rye for the modern age. For me, it’s better than that. You have an opportunity to read it for free – all you have to do is get in touch with me on Twitter.

(Now available in Manchester – follow up post coming soon.)

Iain Banks

thewaspfactoryIf I was ever to create some kind of cult, like the one Iain Banks wrote about in Whit, then all of my Gods would be writers. Banks would be one of the most worshipped. As grandiose as it sounds, the man was, to me at least, a kind of saviour. He was one of the two writers who pulled me back to literature in my late teenage years and led me towards the life I lead today. I suppose I ought to thank him.

In my childhood I read avidly. The books of Dickens, the Point Horror Series, anything with a dragon, an elf, a werewolf, or a vampire. Then, I found football, beer, girls, various other recreational activities that pulled me away from my love of reading and writing. For my sixteenth birthday I was bought The Wasp Factory. I read it. And suddenly I was picking up books again. They were mainly books by Banks and Stephen King (the result of another present for that same birthday, in the shape of The Tommyknockers). Nowadays, I carry a book in my jacket pocket everywhere I go in case there’s a second in which I might get to read a line of it. I studied English Literature and then Creative Writing at university. And I genuinely don’t think any of this would’ve ever been the case if I hadn’t read The Wasp Factory when I did. People talk about books that changed their life. This was mine.

I followed it with The Bridge, Canal Dreams, Complicity, and my two personal favourites Espedair Street and The Crow Road. Each of these novels differs wildly, from the fantasy esque The Bridge, to the mock-rockumentary of Espedair Street, and the wickedly funny and unerringly haunting account of a disintegrating family that is The Crow Road. Each of them is fantastic. Each of them is so vivid that I can still see parts of the story now, years, and in some cases even a full decade after I read them. Other novels I read later, having being delayed due to the wider readership reading Banks led me to. Dead Air stands out for me as one of the most underrated novels I’ve ever read. It’s hilarious, disturbing, and very, very real, as is nearly everything I’ve ever read by him.

I was shocked and distressed when Banks released details of his illness earlier this year and if I hadn’t been at my desk at work I think I might’ve cried. I read of his death in a tiny column in a paper I found on the back of a bus last Monday. I was on my way home from a festival. I was delicate from a weekend of drinking wine in the sun, and I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I sat on the back seat of that bumpy double decker and shed more than a single tear. Some great memories are tied up with Iain Banks. I was travelling through India when that first period of obsession with his work hit me, so when I think of him it is often with the Indian deserts in the back of my mind, or a ride on an elephant, or hallucinations bought about through severe food poisoning from manky chicken. He was also one of the only writers I could persuade friends and exes to read, so was often the solitary source of literary conversation I had to hand. The tributes that flooded in when he announced his illness prove that I’m far from the only person who felt a real connection with this legendary author, and I’m glad that he got to read the thoughts of his many fans before his sad passing last week.

One of the many upsetting things about his death is that, despite the best efforts of his publishers, Banks will not be about to see the publication of his latest novel in a few days times. He passed on the 9th, the novel will see the light of day on the 22nd. That the book is about disease, about cancer, and about a void that suddenly opens underneath a life, means fans may be set for a harrowing and poignant read. But whenever Banks has been harrowing before, he’s also been funny. When he’s been poignant, he’s been insightful. When menacing, he was always enjoyable. So despite the sadness that will inevitably accompany the reading of The Quarry, I’m expecting to enjoy it all the more because of the news of last Monday.