Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic

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: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away WorldThe end of the world has never looked quite like this. In Nick Harkaway’s novel The Gone-Away World, a pipeline filled with a miraculous substance known as FOX is the only thing standing between the last remnants of civilization and the “Stuff,” a mysterious and dangerous threat. The story begins post-catastrophe, as the narrator heads off on a job with his team, then restarts when he is a crying child in a sandbox, at the moment his pivotal friendship with Gonzo Lubitsch begins.

I was a bit disconcerted by the sudden leap backward into childhood, especially when our unnamed hero begins studying gong fu with Master Wu Shenyang, head of the School of the Voiceless Dragon. I didn’t expect this to be the type of book where ninjas might launch a secret attack, and yet, there they were. While this book is filled with what appear to be a series of digressions, these episodes are leading to a point. It wasn’t obvious or predictable, but it shifted the entire story and made everything leading up to it more meaningful in retrospect.

A wacky light-heartedness characterizes the tone throughout much of the novel, yet it was punctuated with moments of real grief and pain. It reminded me of Neal Stephenson with a dash of Jasper Fforde. I most enjoyed the profound existential questions The Gone-Away World raises, even if it did raise them in the context of mimes, ninjas and an entire taxonomy of pencil necks.

Genre: Post-apocalyptic existential fiction.

Read it if: You think you’ve read every possible way the world could end (you haven’t!); you love twists that don’t feel like gimmicks; you prefer the long and winding road to the straight and narrow path.

Skip it if: You have a strong antipathy toward mimes and/or ninjas; you like novels that get to the point; you are uncomfortable with the sense of growing unease that comes with an impending plot twist.

Movie-worthy: I could maybe imagine a Terry Gilliam version of this book, but otherwise it’s hard to picture.



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 Walking Dead (Compendium One)

The Walking Dead: Compendium OneFor the last few months, The Walking Dead has been my obsession. I binge watched all four and a half seasons on DVD and then on iTunes, until I ran out of new episodes. So imagine my delight when I opened one of my Christmas presents and found this gigantic book, a collection of the first 48 issues of The Walking Dead comic.

Although this graphic novel is the source material for the AMC TV series of the same name, they are very different. To my surprise, the comics are much darker with regard to human nature. Terrible acts that are only threatened or suggested on the show are carried out remorselessly on the page. Many of the characters lack that spark of hope and humanity that make the series so compelling, and the series also does a much better job of exploring the nature of leadership and how it shapes the evolving post-apocalyptic societies of an essentially lawless world.


A few big differences stood out for me:

1. No Daryl. One of my absolute favorite characters on the show doesn’t exist in the original comics. Apparently, the show creators loved Norman Reedus so much when he auditioned for Merle that they created the character of Daryl just for him. Without Daryl and his crossbow, The Walking Dead just isn’t the same.

2. Lori & Rick. On the show, it’s clear that Lori and Rick had a troubled relationship before the whole undead epidemic. It makes sense that when Shane told Lori Rick was dead, she would turn to him for comfort. In the comic, Lori and Rick are happily married, but Lori leaves her comatose husband behind to flee for Atlanta, indulging in a one-night stand with Shane along the way. Although I was never a big Lori fan, her character on the show is much more interesting.

3. Kentucky. In the comic, Rick, Lori and Shane are from Cynthiana, Kentucky. I like that because I’m also from Kentucky, but on the other hand, that’s a long way to go to get to Atlanta. It makes it even more wildly improbable that Rick would ever find his family. I get why they relocated Rick’s hometown to Georgia.

4. Dale and Andrea. Dale is a bit of a busybody in both the original comic and the show, but his humanity kept him grounded on the series. In the graphic novel, he is a cranky curmudgeon, which makes his love affair with Andrea (!) all the creepier.

5. Decapitations and dismemberment. As anyone who’s watched the show knows, there is a lot of gore. Somehow, in the comic, there are even more decapitations and people lose limbs like I lose sunglasses. It’s crazy. And gross.

6. The Governor and Michonne. The Governor is so much skeevier and more horrifying in the comic. It was pretty awful. When Michonne takes her revenge on him, I had to skim through the pages because, yikes. The TV show was considerably more tasteful, believe it or not. Also, Michonne is one of my favorite characters on the show, while in the comic she was just scary.

7. Character development and arcs. In general, the TV show takes the time to really develop characters. Their behavior may change over time, but it makes sense psychologically and feels fairly true. In the comic, people did some weird things (hello, Carol!) and felt generally less real to me.

In short, I’m glad I had the chance to read the graphic novel but I won’t be hunting down Compendium Two anytime soon. Instead, I’ll just wait for my next fix of the series, returning in February. Hooray!

Genre: Post-apocalyptic survival horror comic.

Read it if: You would like to see the original inspiration for one of the most gripping and gruesome shows on TV.

Skip it if: You watch The Walking Dead for the sociological complexities and character arcs, not for the gore.

Movie-worthy: Right now I just want season five to start back up!