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.

Circe by Madeline Miller

“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 419 pages.
Read from June 15, 2020 to June 17, 2020.

This book was on my library waiting list for such a long time but let me tell you, it was worth the wait. This book popped up on my radar on Goodreads and a few book sites I follow with raving reviews for its unique and accessible approach to some classic characters of Greek mythology. Madeline Miller holds an MA in Classics and teaches high school ages students Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare. A feat, that is is no easy task. I would not call Circe a young adult novel because it’s truly a piece of literature that is accessible to all ages.

Circe is the daughter of the titan, Helios. She is considered unremarkable in comparison to her family as she bares no talents, powers or abilities worthy of her heritage. Always under the watchful and wrathful eye of the gods, Circe finds herself interested in and drawn to mortals, and even falls in love with one. Her love allowed her to do something not even the Gods thought was possible as she turned her lover into a god. Circe soon learns that she is actually a sorceress with remarkable transformative abilities that are capable of feats that make even the gods uncomfortable. After a regretful transformation made out of jealousy, Zeus banishes Circe to a remote island near the mortal realm for eternity. On this island, Circe comes of age, as grows and hones her skill as a witch. She sees the unfairness of her sex and the treatment she endures as a result. She also comes to distance herself further from the gods as she cannot understand the lack of empathy the immortal and powerful gods have towards mortals. During her time on the island, she encounters some of the most famous figures mentioned in Greek mythology.  Unfortunately for Circe, a woman alone, especially one of power with disdain for the gods will not go unnoticed for long.

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

Circe is a story of choice, accountability, and empowerment. Circe starts a naive and passive woman who grows and comes into her own. She makes mistakes but owns them and stands for what she believes in against immeasurable odds. Circe’s struggle is relatable and it brings to life classic stories and characters from mythology whose original publications may feel unattainable or unenjoyable for the average reader. Circe also gives a different perspective on these characters as well as interesting interpretations for some of the things that each character did in the original Greek stories.

“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”

The writing is gorgeous and intelligent, showcasing Madeline Miller’s feats as an accomplished academic and storyteller. I’m thrilled that she has published other books meaning I have a chance to enjoy more of her thoughtful writing style and character work. I can 100% say, that this book is absolutely worth all the hype and accolades. If you enjoy historical fiction, mythology, fantasy, classics, or feminism I think you will absolutely devour this book.

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

You finally get the back story on the elusive Sheepman.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 300 pages.
Read from April 20, 2020 to May 5 2020.

You finally get the back story on the elusive Sheepman in this book. Despite being a major focal point throughout the whole Rat series, little was known about him and he made few appearances through the series. The Sheepman even turns up in a book outside of the series in another one of Murakami’s works outside of this series but was published around the same time, The Strange Library, in a connection I have yet to determine.

If you’ve not read Murakami or a book in this series before you may be wondering how the heck a Sheepman fits into any story, even an absurdist reality as this one, well, it does. Strange, yes but that’s what Murakami does best.

Here’s an image of the Sheepman directly from the 1989 version of A Wild Sheep Chase.

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Why a sheep? I honestly couldn’t say but the title of this book is quite literal as the main unnamed male protagonist is blackmailed by a strange man representing a company that threatens him with losing everything if he doesn’t go and find this sheep that is in a photograph he published with his advertising company. The image, which he received from the Rat, his friend that disappeared a few years back and is detailed in the two previous books in this series, Hear the Wind Sing (The Rat #1) and Pinball 1973 (The Rat #2), is somehow tied to all of of this. On his search, much to his surprise, the protagonist finds others along the way who are obsessed with the concept of this Sheepman as well.  In the midst of all of this, the main character is going through the process of a divorce with his wife and meets a call girl with a strange allure. By all appearances she is very average, that is until you get a glimpse of her irresistible ears. While the story of his girlfriend trails off in this novel, it resumes in the fourth and final instalment of his series Dance Dance DanceDoes the protagonist find this Sheepman? And what will happen when he does find him? What will it all mean for him in the end?

Superior to the first two novels of the series, this story was by far more interesting and captivating. I really didn’t care much for the first two books, if I’m honest, but this one reads well and lends itself well to the final instalment of the series as well. I’d say this book is my favourite of the four because as a reader, you’re more connected to the protagonist in this story and you start to see the full spectrum of the story with the Rat the protagonist and the coming of age story that it really becomes. This novel, in a way, is like a peculiar vision quest that the protagonist takes with all the people he meets along the way playing a part in its conclusion and shaping who he becomes.

The Rat series is not one I would recommend a newbie of Murakami to. The first two books are some of the first he ever published and I feel he really comes into his craft a little later. For Murakami lovers, however, I feel that this an essential series to read to really get a feel for Murakami’s writing style and progress. The protagonist feels familiar because many of the other books Murakami write have similar characteristics to the one in this series, whether that’s with age, being a divorcee, and other personality traits and similarities. I feel that this series was likely the first one to establish this character that we, as Murakami readers, have come to love.