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 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.



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.)

The City Fox

foxThe City Fox is a new literary e-zine based in Yorkshire. It was founded, and is edited, by the very talented trio of Kathy Halliday, Vicki Bartram, and Evie Johnson and it is wonderfully illustrated by Nicola Spencer. The first issue is out now and it looks fantastic. You can check it out here:

As much as I am very impressed with this new publication, I’m not plugging it for the goodness of my health. My story This Man Alone has been chosen for the first issue, and has been illustrated with a suitably creepy drawing of some human ribs. That probably tells you a fair bit about the story’s theme.

Anyone who read The Long Goodbye, published in Nib Magazine earlier this year, will recognise that This Man Alone tells part of the same story, but from a different perspective. I’ve started to create a series based around that first story, which I hope will one day turn into a collection. So far I’ve sent two of them out and they’ve both been picked up, so it’s so far so good. I hope you enjoy This Man Alone, and that you’ll all support The City Fox.

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.