Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 352 pages.
Read from August 24, 2020 to August 31, 2020. 

This book is what you get when you combine brilliant writing with an end-of-the world-based plot, a dash of Shakespeare, theatre/band nerds, celebrity gossip, religious cults, and the occasional Star Trek reference. It’s a collaboration that no one knew they needed and this was so close to being a 5-star rating for me.

A pandemic hits the world and wipes out 99% of the population within a very short period of time. It’s so contagious and deadly that those who catch the flu-like virus are dead within 48 hours. Each chapter is narrated by characters who will eventually be connected at one point or another throughout the book. The opening chapter begins with a famous actor, Arthur Leander, who has a heart attack while performing King Lear. An in-training EMT in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, who once was a paparazzi who followed Leander around in his previous career, jumps to stage to try and resuscitate him. A child actress, playing one of King Lear’s daughters, is comforted by Jeevan as Leander passes away. Outside, the outbreak was making its rounds in the city. Later that evening, Jeevan, having been given warning from a friend who works at a hospital, locks himself up with his paraplegic brother in his apartment as the world as we know it, ends.

Fast forward to the future where the few remaining humans barely survive in small stationed camps. The once child actress, Kristen is now with a travelling troupe of actors and musicians who travel from camp to camp performing Shakespeare. A lost art from a lost time that brings comfort. Kristen remembers very little of the time prior to the pandemic but holds onto a collection of comic books Leander gave her titled, Captain Eleven. After losing a few members of their troupe, Kristen and her fellow performers find themselves contending with a self-proclaimed religious prophet who kills those who don’t follow.

The Earth is a barren landscape of what humanity used to be and there are now generations of children who have never used electricity, the internet, or been inside a moving car or aeroplane. As each chapter of the book goes back and forth in time, you start to learn more about each of the character’s lives before the pandemic and how each of them is connected to Station Eleven.

This story had me from the opening chapter. The author artfully encompasses an end-of-the-world story that includes Shakespeare, so I was immediately hooked. What was peculiar about reading this book was the timing since I was in lockdown for the COVID pandemic. Probably not a good idea to read about a virus that wipes out the world in the middle of a real worldwide pandemic.

I didn’t want to put this book down but what stopped me from giving this book a 5-star rating was the ending. The ending left me wanting more, a lot more. I was expecting a bigger conclusion with some larger connection between all the characters. After some fast-paced action, the ending is happy and one in which all the characters can breathe a collective sigh of relief, of which I did enjoy immensely, it’s just that I was just hoping for more a twist or larger piece of the puzzle. Jeevan and his character felt completely dropped shortly after the pandemic and he didn’t play a relevant part in any of the character’s lives through the book and that was a huge disappointment. The ending felt like there was a lot left unsaid and after immensely enjoying the whole book I felt ending was dissatisfying.

This book will be a contender for the top book I’ve read in 2020, of that I have no doubt. I would strongly encourage you to pick up this book if any of the above topics interest you. The ending may not have been what I wanted but it was probably because I didn’t want it to end.

Monstress, Vol 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu

“To quote the poets… we’re fucked.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 208 pages.
Read from July 8, 2020 to July 9, 2020.

After some high praise and recommendations from many avid readers, I waited patiently for this stunning graphic novel to become available at my library. It took about a year but my library finally added this series.

In the steampunk setting of the glamorous city of  Zamora, Maika, a young teen is looking for answers and revenge. The Cumaea fear the magical Arcanics and the war has taken inhumane turns against the Arcanics as a result of this fear. Maika is Arcanic but looks human, not that it stopped her from being persecuted, enslaved and worse during the peak of the war. Maika is a hardened survivor of war, trauma, and abuse, who also happens to share a mysterious link to an ancient demon making her immensely powerful, feared, and wanted. Maika struggles to control this entity within her as she also struggles to cope with the trauma that this war has left her and the relationships she may have sabotaged.  As you learn more about what has shaped Maika, you come to see how deep her trauma is and how hardened to emotion is she has become.

Monstress is one of the most imaginative stories I’ve ever read, especially when accompanied with the stunning artwork that is both gorgeous and at times shockingly gruesome. Trauma, which is a central part of Monstress, was inspired by the author’s grandmother, who escaped Japanese occupation during WWII. This additional personal detail really adds a further layer of depth to this already emotional plot. The artwork is perfectly paired with this story as the images are emotional, raw, dark and brutal, just like war. The story also emboldens women and feminine strength with both the protagonist and antagonists of the stories, the society that Maika lives in is also matriarchal.

My one complaint with this story is there is a lot of detail to take in for a graphic novel. It was difficult to get the full scope of the world that Maika and her companions live in as it’s of a lot of details to take in at one time. I often found myself back tracking to go over a detail I missed or didn’t retain. In some ways I wish that this graphic novel had been written as novel with accompanying images. Yes, it would have made the book a lot longer but I think it would have helped to make it easier to digest the world and history Zamora. It was clever to have the Professor delve out these history lessons as interludes between chapters but they were long and winded at times which is what made me think a proper novel might have lent itself better to the story, with the images as well, of course. The artwork is just as central to this story as the plot itself.

I’m thrilled to have such a unique series to read and can’t wait to see what is next for Maika and how the rest of the story will unfold. I would highly recommend this to anyone who loves graphic novels, fantasy, war stories, or just an appreciation for moving, beautiful and brutal artwork.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

“Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 528 pages.
Read from June 23, 2020 to June 28, 2020.

I was surprised at how little hype this book generated considering the popularity of The Hunger Games series. I saw it pop up on Goodreads and thought to myself, how did I only hear about this book now?! The book is a prequel The Hunger Game series and is meant to answer many of the questions fans had about the Hunger Games themselves and the world created by the author. Questions like how The Hunger Games came to be, how the war shaped the districts and how Coriolanus Snow came to be the awful man that is depicted in the series.

The war has recently ended and The Hunger Games is the new punishment that the Capitol has come up with for the uprise of the districts. In its infancy, the contestants of The Hunger Games are not celebrities like they are in the games of Katniss’ era. They are starved and tortured and as a result, the districts care little to watch their friends and neighbours suffer on television. Coriolanus Snow is just 18 years old and his family is out of money after the war despite his family’s long and illustrious history within the Capitol. He is, however, an excellent student and has been selected to help mentor this year’s Hunger Games, something that has never been done before. Coriolanus is initially disappointed as he is given the district 12 girl, Lucy, of which he initially believes that she will have no chance of winning thus effecting his placement and potential scholarship into further schooling as well as the future of his family. However, there is something about this girl as she manages to capture the media’s attention with a snake mishap and when she sings and performs a song after her selection. Her ability to win the crowd is intriguing and Coriolanus is nothing if not adaptable and seizes the opportunity to use this to his advantage. He eventually comes to care deeply for his tribute and begins to question the essence of the games and their moral purpose.

I mostly enjoyed this novel. It was interesting to get the back story on The Hunger Games and the growth of Coriolanus Snow however, this book was way too long. It’s clear the author was able to get away with a longer novel due to the success of her previous novels. I believe this novel would have been more successful had the story been halved. Further, the characters were not as robust as they were in the other books. Lucy could have been an extremely interesting character but she just fell flat for me and I didn’t feel as invested in her as I did with, say, Katniss. I was unsure of her motives and how she was able to trust Coriolanus the way she did. I just did not feel as invested in Lucy’s story or in that of Coriolanus’ since he true character started to show fairly quickly and if you’ve read the remainder of the series, you already know what type of person he becomes which steals some of the intrigue this story could have had.

I think the fans of The Hunger Games series were hoping for something that was equally as good and exciting and I, unfortunately, don’t think this novel quite met that need. If you are a fan of the series, however, this book is still worth reading especially if you had questions or wanted to know more about the history around The Hunger Games.