Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Image result for station eleven book

Review #102

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains of North America.

Everyone loves a good post-apocalyptic novel! Station Eleven has been on my to-read list for over a year and I finally got a chance to read it after finishing my 100th book review last week.

The first thing I enjoyed about this novel was that Emily St. John Mandel has taken pains to ground her apocalypse firmly in the real world. This is not The Walking Dead where gasoline never goes bad and everyone has perfectly tweezed eyebrows. The merry troupe of the Traveling Symphony is unwashed and their horse-drawn caravan is worn. Young people are growing up hearing about extinct and mythic wonders such as electricity and internet.

The added element of the twisting, meandering timeline works well in Station Eleven, giving the scenes set in the past a dreamy, nostalgic feel. Since the main plot revolves around a character who dies in the first chapter, we view him from a multitude of perspectives. The people whose lives the actor touched weave together and interlock throughout the novel.

In a way, this was the most loving post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. Not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the way that Mandel paints such a sentimental portrait of everyday items. Characters often glance longingly at light switches, air conditioners, and iPhones and I found myself appreciating all the many small conveniences that my small apartment affords me.

Most end-of-the-world novels have some sort of all-powerful antagonist that has driven humanity to the brink of extinction. Nuclear weapons, zombies, aliens have all played this role in the past. Station Eleven felt very different because it lacked a primary villain. The closest thing to a looming threat would be a cult of religious fanatics lead by a power-hungry prophet, but even they lack any real sense of menace. Almost as if the events of Stephen King’s The Stand had occurred without the dueling battling between Good and Evil. As if Randall Flagg had never walked the Earth and instead the lonely remnants of a barren new world live by one simple motivation. Survival is insufficient.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Station Eleven here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (2011)

Image result for anna dressed in blood

Review #101

For a high-schooler, Cas Lockwood has an unusual after-school job. He tracks down and kills ghosts, like his father before him. Folklore and rumors have brought Cas, his mother, and their ghost-detecting cat to Thunder Bay, Ontario to hunt down a spirit known as Anna Dressed in Blood.

I found the exposition and rising action of Anna Dressed in Blood to be wonderfully fun and creepy. Cas operates a bit like a one-man Winchester brother, roaming from small town to small town across North America in pursuit of evil spirits and malicious ghosts. Instead of a cool and competent older brother, Cas instead travels with his mother, who insists on cleaning his demon-killing knife after he returns home every evening from battling the undead.

Cas also evokes a memory of Buffy, in that he is often accompanied by his faithful Scooby Gang. There’s the newly hatched witch, the beautiful but down-to- earth popular girl, her testosterone-driven boyfriend, and the wise teacher who shows them the way. Despite all this, Anna Dressed in Blood managed to avoid feeling like a tired re-tread of old themes, but was often fresh and funny. Unlike some novels I have reviewed for this site, Kendare Blake understands how teenagers speak and act amongst themselves, which gives this novel a grounding in reality as a comfortable jumping-off point into the paranormal.

I went into this book expecting a ghost story, and I guess that’s what I got. The Supernatural vibe dies off after the first hundred pages or so, and is replaced by a rather generic “catch the monster” second act which plays it pretty much by-the-numbers. I enjoyed the overall writing style, but ultimately it failed to as expected. Namely, to scare me.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Anna Dressed in Blood here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

Image result for the clockmakers daughter

Review #100

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Kate Morton has been on my shortlist of favorite authors since I first discovered The Forgotten Garden way back in 2011. All of her novels merge historical fiction with mystery, often spanning decades and generations. Morton stays true to form with her latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, and manages to throw in a few surprises along the way.

Morton loves writing about crumbling English manor homes and her settings often serve as characters unto themselves. The majority of The Clockmaker’s Daughter takes place in isolated and empty Birchwood Manor, but far from the gloomy, neglected halls that characterized Morton’s The Distant Hours, Birchwood is haunted by a ghost of a different sort. The presence which roams the halls of Birchwood Manor is filled with curiosity and kindness for the occasional visitors that come to her home, which has been turned into a museum and historical site. When a new visitor by the name of Elodie Winslow turns up looking for answers that lead back to a long ago summer when a group of artists descended upon the manor, the spirit of Birchwood Manor realizes that secrets are about to be uncovered that have been buried for centuries.

The wonderful thing about Kate Morton’s writing is that it flows so smoothly from time period to time period. The bulk of the narrative follows a group of young artists who venture into the country for a summer of nature and inspiration. The technological and social changes that embody Victorian England are present here; it was interesting to read about the introduction of photography, which would bring about major changes to the art world as the popularity of portraiture faded.

The rest of the novel is set in the present day. It is partly narrated by Elodie, a young archivist who stumbles upon a sketchbook that has been hidden away for decades. The spirit of Birchwood Manor has its own voice as well, detailing the events that have occurred in the house in the long years since its arrival. This is the first novel by Morton to contain a solid supernatural element. There were whispers of fairies and magic in some of her previous works, but the ghost in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a defined presence with real wishes and desires.

If I had a critique of this novel, it would be the title. While one of the main characters is the daughter of a clockmaker, that fact has no real bearing on the overall storyline. Too many novels are “The _____’s Daughter” or “The _____’s Wife”. It is often is used in fiction to give a different perspective on historical events; however, it is unnecessary in this case. Instead it serves to undermine a strong female character by forcing her to be named only under the title of a male who is not even terribly relevant to the plot. It just felt lazy.

Overall, this was another highly enjoyable novel by a woman who remains at the top of my list for favorite authors. My only disappointment is that I have to settle in for a long wait until her next novel.

My Rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Clockmaker’s Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!