Tag Archives: plague

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

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Where did I get this book? I bought it. It’s a keeper!

Harper is a school nurse when the first cases of Dragonscale appear. The deadly fungal infection spreads rapidly through the population, and the infected have a terrifying tendency to burst into flames. While many seek to ostracize those with Dragonscale, Harper volunteers to work in a hospital dedicated to their care, where her caring and kindness first attract the attention of the titular Fireman, John Rookwood.

When Harper develops the strangely beautiful gold-flecked black markings that herald a Dragonscale infection, her husband Jakob turns on her, convinced she’s responsible for infecting him as well. Fleeing Jakob’s increasingly erratic and violent behavior, Harper, now pregnant, finds refuge with a group of infected who claim to have discovered a way to live with Dragonscale. Instead of spontaneously combusting, they seek communion with each other and with the fungus that has invaded them. Although the Fireman leads Harper to this refuge, he holds himself strangely apart, until events force both John and Harper to choose sides if they want to survive.

In this extraordinary novel, Joe Hill explores the ways that social groups can elevate or destroy us, the heightened sense of connection that can be attained in both communal prayer and communal violence. It was a spectacular read, deeply moving, suspenseful, and ultimately as compassionate as Harper herself.

Genre: Thrilling dystopian SF awesomeness.

Read it if: You love end times books like The Stand, The Road, The Passage, etc.; you love dystopian speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale; you love tense, vivid storytelling.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about violence and/or profanity; you try to avoid big giant books that temporarily take over your life; or you have a pathological fear of spontaneous combustion.

Movie-worthy: This would make an amazing movie, or maybe even a series. It’s stunningly visual.  David Tennant would be perfect as the Fireman. Someone make this happen!

Best enjoyed with: A nice pot of lapsang souchong for that wood smoke flavor, or alternately, a generous portion of Tennessee Fire whiskey.

Review: Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

Find Me by Laura Van Den BergIn Find Me, a 19-year-old grocery store clerk named Joy Jones survives a terrible plague that ravages the memory before killing its victims. She is invited to join others in a hospital where they can be observed and tested in hopes of uncovering the secret to their immunity.

Joy, whose name can only be intended ironically, was abandoned as a baby and grew up in foster care and group homes, where terrible things happened to her. She has repressed some of her early childhood memories, and speculates that this sealed-off corner of her mind is the source of her immunity to the memory disease. Joy relied on stolen cough syrup to get her through her tedious days before the plague hit; her time in the hospital hardly seems better or worse than her prior existence.

Joy tells the story in first-person present tense, and at least to me it felt like being trapped in someone else’s ongoing nightmare. The hospital is founded on lies. A childhood companion with a penchant for animal masks and clairvoyance suddently reappears. She finds herself traveling on buses that are going in the wrong direction, lost at night, driving through hellish landscapes, abandoned on the roadside.

On a quest to find the mother who abandoned her, Joy encounters rundown locations populated by disturbed and broken people. A junkie lying prone on a bathroom floor. A damaged girl wearing angel wings who eats the dirt from beneath her fingernails.

I love a post-apocalyptic dystopia as much as anyone, but I have to admit this unsettling story left me feeling queasy. When Joy’s surreal journey finally ended, I was more than happy to wake up.

Genre: Surreal post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Read it if: You don’t require clear boundaries between reality and nightmare; you are okay with ambiguous outcomes; you’ve read a lot of Kafka while high on cough syrup.

Skip it if: You prefer to avoid reading about child abuse; you are currently in the hospital; or you are looking for a light read and think the pretty blue cover looks cheerful.

Movie-worthy: If Ingmar Bergman were still alive, sure.


Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

DSCN0093Where to start with this book? I am going to try hard not to gush love for Station Eleven all over the screen, but I’m warning you now: it could get messy.

The opening scene in Station Eleven takes place in Toronto, where an actor playing King Lear collapses mid-performance. This actor is a flawed and talented man named Arthur Leander and, while his death kicks off the story, his life connects every other significant character in the book. By framing the plague in terms of Arthur’s life, the life of a man who dies of cardiac arrest before anyone understands the world is coming to an end, the author ingeniously grounds global, catastrophic devastation in loss on a scale we can comprehend.

Twenty years after the initial outbreak, survivors cling to life in tiny towns formed in the ruins of the past. The Traveling Symphony, a motley collection of actors and musicians, travels among these outposts of civilization performing classical music and Shakespeare’s plays. Their motto, borrowed from a Star Trek: Voyager episode, is painted on one of the wagons in their caravan: “Because survival is insufficient.”

This is the recurrent theme of Station Eleven: finding meaning in life beyond mere survival. A former member of the paparazzi trains as a paramedic; a management consultant recognizes his own sleepwalking existence while compiling a 360 report on a target executive; a woman lives half her life in the world of her graphic novel, where Captain Eleven longs for his lost home and fends off attacks from the Undersea. The graphic novelist, Miranda, is the first wife of Arthur Leander. She creates the world of Station Eleven and its Captain solely for herself, with no expectation that readers will ever see or understand her work. Yet, twenty years after her death, the art she created retains its power.

No question, Station Eleven is going on my keeper shelf. I feel lucky to have read it.

Genre: Brilliant post-apocalyptic literary novel

Read it if: You loved Far North by Marcel Theroux or The Dog Stars by Peter Heller; you enjoy novels that explore human connection and the yearning for art in life; or you think the whole end-of-the-world genre is totally played out and would like to be proven wrong.

Skip it if: You are a doomsday prepper looking for survival tips; you thought The Road by Cormac McCarthy was a little too optimistic; or you have anxiety dreams about being trapped in an airport forever.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please!

Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

The Flame AlphabetThe Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus imagines a world in which speech has become toxic, in which the words of children sicken the adults around them. The idea sounds far-fetched; yet after finishing the book I knew from personal experience that words can nauseate their audience. That seemed to be not only The Flame Alphabet’s plot, but also its goal.

Sam, the narrator of this profoundly disturbing tale, once lived a life of smugly satisfied marriage and humbly defeated fatherhood. When he and his wife Claire become ill, they initially assume it has nothing to do with their daughter Esther and the words she routinely hurls at them like so many stones. As it turns out, the content of her speech is completely beside the point; even the sweetest words are ultimately lethal to the adult who hears them. Words kill and only children are immune.

Sam attempts all sorts of implausible home remedies, urged on by the mysterious voices he hears together with his wife in their “synagogue hut.” They belong to a secret sect of Judaism which holds that faith should not be practiced or discussed with any other person. The rituals of this particular sect are bizarre and organic, involving a pit in the ground, orange cables, and a device called a Listener, or Moses Mouth, described in terms that make it sound like a living thing.

Meanwhile, a man who calls himself Murphy skulks around the community and it appears he is involved in the perpetuation of rumors about the sickening. He knows more than he should about the synagogue huts and their purpose, and seems to believe the cables connecting them hold the link to a deeper truth. He is obviously a manipulative liar, yet Sam encounters him repeatedly throughout the events of the novel, and seems unable to resist the force of Murphy’s personality.

The story grows increasingly nightmarish as Sam describes in visceral detail the symptoms of his and Claire’s illness, his strange interactions with Murphy, and his passive responses to the bizarre events around him. Reality has no footing; there are only rumors and speculations, absurd experiments designed to cure or at least alleviate the symptoms of the sickness, Kafkaesque attempts to devise and test an alphabet or script that can be perceived without harm. Without language, the surviving adults behave like mindless cattle, treating each other with cruel indifference, while the children run wild in quarantine zones.

The method ultimately devised to allow speech for at least short periods of time seemed to deliberately echo the horrific accusation of blood libel, which frankly creeped me out. In fact, the entire novel made me think of the alienation effect of Bertolt Brecht’s plays (assuming I’m remembering it right; it’s been a while since college.) Sam is not a narrator who evokes empathy or sympathy or any human warmth whatsoever. His reactions to events appalled and repelled me, so often it felt deliberate. Similarly, it was impossible to slip into the story and flow with it, because the author constantly turned the familiar on its head, usually in a nausea-inducing manner. For example, people keep eating “lobes.” What the heck is a lobe in this case? I had shudder-inducing visions of families sitting around the dinner table with a quarter brain on their plate. Maybe the whole disease is a bizarre form of kuru.

Coincidentally, I saw a thread on Quora the other day that discussed whether you should keep reading a book you’re not enjoying. I was curious to see how people answered because I’ve always had a hard time putting down a book once I’d become sufficiently invested (although I’m getting better about this as I get older.) Most people said life is too short to read a book you don’t enjoy, or suggested that the only reason someone might persist is to earn imaginary points for reading some critically acclaimed tome or essential classic work.

In this case, while I can honestly say I did not enjoy The Flame Alphabet, I suspect that wasn’t exactly the point of the book in the first place. Something else was going on in the dark heart of this twisted novel, something powerful and deeply unsettling. It took words and made them toxic, imagined communication as a form of weapon, comprehension as a curse. Although a similar theme was explored in a much more accessible and high-concept manner in Max Barry’s recent thriller Lexicon, The Flame Alphabet had a significantly more ambitious and sinister message.

In the end, when Sam is utterly alone, he wishes more than anything that consciousness had been extinguished along with the ability to speak, to read, to write, to convey something from that strange and lonely universe within the individual. If communication is no longer possible, the interior monologue becomes a burden, a hated voice that never stops. It is just about as bleak a book as I have ever read. Seriously, The Road seems kind of hopeful by comparison. But it also seared itself into my brain in a way that few books do.

Genre: Surreal literary horror

Read it if: You enjoy a challenge, you’re not put off by a little vomit, or you have always secretly envied children their blissful lack of comprehension.

Skip it if: You dislike feeling seasick while reading; you can’t stand reading about bad things happening to children; or you strongly feel that protagonists should be likable, relatable, etc.

Movie-worthy: No, thank you.

Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

The 5th WaveIf aliens decided to invade Earth, would they come down in spaceships with lasers blasting? In Rick Yancey’s powerful end-of-the-world thriller, the invasion comes in waves, beginning with an EMP blast that wipes out a huge swath of human communications, transport and weaponry in one blow. Cassie, a teenage girl, has survived at great cost to her humanity. She yearns for the days when her biggest problem was trying to get a cute boy to notice her. She mourns the death of her parents, and the loss of her five-year-old brother Sam–who may still be alive.

Having previously read Yancey’s YA horror novel The Monstrumologist, I knew going in that The 5th Wave was unlikely to be all sunshine and rainbows. I had no idea. The fear, grief and loss of innocence described in The 5th Wave felt tragically, brutally real. Cassie, unable to trust anyone, faces situations where she must kill or be killed. Her strong survival instincts and excellent reflexes have saved her so far, but ultimately there has to be a reason to keep living. She makes the decision to go in search of her brother, even if it ultimately costs her own life.

Meanwhile, she is not the last human to have survived the 4th Wave, a terrible plague that has killed billions. Ben Parrish, her high school crush, is infected and struggling to survive in a refugee camp. Crippled by survivor’s guilt, Ben is also looking for a reason to keep going, and finds it in an armed resistance movement. The soldiers are children; watching as they train and arm for war is genuinely horrifying.

The tension and terror in this book are relentless. No one is safe, not even when they appear to have found a temporary haven from the war for the planet; no one is innocent, not if they’ve managed to survive. This gripping survival story refuses to pull any punches or downplay the effects of violence. As Yancey allows the reader to understand the true nature of the 5th Wave, it is impossible to look away.

Genre: YA science fiction survival thriller

Read it if: You like books that grab you right from the opening page and never let go; you think the TV show Revolution would be way better with aliens.

Skip it if: You think The Hunger Games was too violent; you have a five-year-old and don’t want to burst into tears (not that I’m admitting I did that!); you think love is the seventh wave.

Movie-worthy: As long as it’s not the people who made I Am Number Four. Yikes.


Review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Spoiler Alert! MaddAddam is the third book in the series that began with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood, and it would be more or less impossible to discuss it without revealing key plot points of both those novels. If you haven’t read them yet, stop reading now, go immediately to your bookstore/library/e-reader and read them first. Because they are brilliant examples of speculative fiction!

I normally don’t get so crazy with the exclamation points, but this book means a great deal more to me than your average new release. Oryx and Crake ranks among my favorite novels of all time. I loved that The Year of the Flood didn’t pick up where Oryx and Crake left off, with fever-addled Jimmy pointing a gun at what might be the last humans on Earth; instead, it went back to the start, to show the influence of an environmental survivalist group called God’s Gardeners, and how they were uniquely positioned to survive the engineered plague Crake ultimately set loose upon the world.

MaddAddam explores yet more connections between the characters introduced in the previous two novels, but also moves the story forward. Previously, Toby and Ren had set out in search of Amanda, who had been kidnapped and brutally used by two Painballers. When Jimmy wanders deliriously onto the scene, armed and hallucinating, the two strands of the first two novels connect and continue as one.

The remnants of God’s Gardeners and the MaddAddam underground network have formed a small community and, when the bioengineered beings designed and raised by Oryx and Crake follow Toby home, the humans begin to educate them, both intentionally and otherwise, in the ways of humankind. It turns out that Crake’s children have developed in ways their creator could not have predicted, and their interaction with the pre-plague humans will have unanticipated consequences for everyone.

Much of the action in this novel is related by one character telling a story to another. Toby takes over Jimmy’s role as storyteller to the Crakers, attempting to explain the mysteries of human emotions and actions in a mythical context her listeners can comprehend or at least accept. Zeb tells his life story to Toby at her request, partly so she can craft stories for her rapt audience, but mostly because she wants to know everything about him.

In the process, we learn how Zeb and Adam’s horrific childhood and their subsequent escape triggered the events that shaped Crake’s plan. Zeb knew Crake when he was just a very intelligent kid named Glenn, happy to beat him at chess and learn some of Zeb’s extensive hacking skills. Zeb also knew Pilar, long before she instructed Toby on the gifts of the garden.

Atwood skillfully weaves the many threads of these stories, while in the meantime Toby, Zeb and the others try to secure their small community against the Painballers still lurking somewhere beyond their fence line. And always there is the question: where is Adam? Did he survive the plague?

In many ways, Zeb’s relationship with Adam is not unlike Jimmy’s with Crake: both Zeb and Jimmy rely on direction from their leader and neither has a clear idea what the overall goal really is; both Adam and Crake are visionaries, one step ahead of everyone around them. And it is disturbing to realize that both Adam and Crake may have been in agreement that humanity, in its greed, blindness and wanton destruction, had to go in order to save the Earth. Crake may have made it happen, but perhaps Adam chose not to stand in his way.

MaddAddam provides a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the story that began with Oryx and Crake. Hopeful, that is, for the remnant of humanity that remains and the new sentient beings that coexist with them.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Read it if: You read and loved Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Skip it if: You haven’t read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Go read those first!

Movie-worthy: I’m not sure cinema is ready for this one. Wagging blue penises, for one thing.