The End of the World (For Adults)

The end of the world is popular, apparently, considering all the dystopian novels glutting the book world. I love a good doom and gloom story one in a while myself, but I prefer the adult versions rather than all the YA blockbusters out there (sorry, Hunger Games and Divergent fans, but it’s not for me). In no particular order, here are my favorites:

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2

I loved this novel of the world decimated by a flu-like virus, leaving pockets of humanity behind to fend for themselves and try to stitch a meaningful life back together. Kirsten is a performer in an entertainment troupe called The Travelling Symphony (“Because survival is not enough”) that performs Shakespeare and plays classical music. They travel from town to town, trying to bring a bit of civilization back to the ragged bit of survivors. There is some trouble and a sense of menace from someone called The Prophet, but this is more than a good guys vs. villain story. It switches back and forth in time, beginning with Arthur Leander, an actor performing King Lear on what is to be the last day of the known world, and who suffers a heart attack on stage. The story spins out from this moment, and many of the characters are linked to Arthur and his legacy. This is what I’d call a “literary” dystopian novel, about the fleeting nature of fame, the meaning of art, and what human beings require not just to survive, but to live.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

the road

This Pulitzer prize-winning book is the darkest of this group, telling the story of a man who wanders a post-apocalyptic world with his young son, heading south on foot to a warmer place, and basically just trying to stay alive–searching for food and shelter, and trying to avoid cannibalistic marauders. No one knows what caused the catastrophe (and so neither do we), but the man is determined to survive and to protect his son, whom he tells they are “carrying the fire”. An amazing read, but be warned: it pulls you into a dark, dark place. The 2009 film starring Viggo Mortensen is excellent, capturing both the darkness and the spark of hope the man clings to for the future of mankind.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

the passage book

This is the first book of a trilogy (The Twelve and City of Mirrors completes the trio), about our world devoured by another virus, this time man-made, an experiment gone terribly wrong. This virus causes some victims to become vampire-like creatures, with an insatiable desire for human blood. This book also toggles back and forth in time, from one hundred years after the catastrophe, to the time leading up to it, and centers around a special little girl named Amy who is somehow linked to the virus. A complex, absorbing story that was a page-turner for me. I’ve heard rumors of a movie, but haven’t seen any evidence yet.

The Stand, by Stephen King

the stand book

Arguably King’s most famous (and favorite among fans), The Stand remains the benchmark among end-of-the-world novels. Yet another virus has been unleashed upon the unsuspecting world, and its survivors have organized into two groups that will ultimately face each other in a showdown between good and evil: those who flock under the guidance of Mother Abigail, and those who follow the devilish Randall Flagg. King’s cast of characters are always vivid and relatable, his attention to detail prodigious, and his plots (and subplots) compelling. The 1994 TV series with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald is watchable and fairly true to the book, but do yourself a favor and just read it instead.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

handmaid's tale book

The most political of this group, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a woman in the near future who serves as a “handmaid” in a world where women have been subjugated to serve their patriarchal  masters. The U.S. government has been overthrown by a Christian theonomy (which posits that Biblical Law is applicable to Civil Law). Women’s rights have been denied, and their primary function is to bear offspring to their masters. Not strictly “end of the world” material (though it probably would be for me and most women I know), but it’s certainly dystopian. I’m chomping at the bit to watch the new Hulu series based on the book, which has received rave reviews.

Have you read these books? What’s your favorite dystopian novel? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

 

 

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Steeped in Story

Here’s what’s been entertaining me lately:

king dark tower

The past few months have seen me steeped in Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. It’s the tale of Roland of Gilead, a gunslinger in a world that’s moved on, in search of the Dark Tower, the center of all worlds.

I haven’t read a series in a long time, since my fantasy days in my twenties with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire in my thirties, neither of which I finished, mostly because I got bored waiting around for the next book. By the time I got to this one, it was complete, and I could download the next one on my Kindle right away.

What I love about this series, besides King’s obvious storytelling skills, is that it covers a range of genres: fantasy, science fiction, horror, western. It’s got it all. In lesser hands, that blending would only create a big mess, but here it’s simply wonderful.

intolerably stupid

I’m also reading Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen. My library is putting on a Jane Austen book discussion over the coming year, and though I’ve done this before several years ago, I’m eagerly coming aboard this time, too. Austen’s books are those that beg to be reread an indefinite number of times over one’s lifetime, and you carry something different away from them each and every time. Northanger Abbey is my least favorite, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It will be followed by Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. I’m planning on writing a review for the blog as I finish each book.

As for TV, I’ve been casting around for a new show to watch for some time now. I began watching the new season of X-files in January, but only got through the first two shows before giving up in disgust. I couldn’t keep up with the lightning-speed, rat-a-tat-tat scenes and felt plunged into confusion as I tried to remember what happened in the series twenty years ago. No thanks.

alienist

Fortunately, I found The Alienist, on TNT. This series is based on a book by Caleb Carr I read just as long ago, mid-nineties or so. It takes place in 1896 New York, where Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is an “alienist”,  a precursor to what we now call a psychologist or psychiatrist. At the time, those who studied the mentally ill considered them to be alienated from their true natures, hence the name. Pyschology was just beginning to emerge as a science at this time, but there were still plenty of people who dismissed the idea as quackery.

Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) uses his knowledge of human nature to solve criminal cases, and here he is on the trail of a serial killer who murders and mutilates boy prostitutes. He has help in the form of his illustrator friend John Moore (Luke Evans) and Sara Howland (Dakota Fanning), the first woman to work in the New York police department, and secretary to Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt.

This show is dark, creepy, and gruesome–right up my alley.  The characters are complex and intriguing. Kreizler is soft-spoken and analytical, some might say callous, but underneath his calm, unruffled demeanor is a passionate man with a heart. John Moore is your typical Victorian gentleman who is going to have quite a few of his assumptions cut to ribbons. Sarah, underneath her cold exterior, is an ambitious woman trying to succeed in a man’s world. And Roosevelt has his work cut out for him cleaning up the corruption in the NY police department, whose officers routinely take bribes from the Mob. All have painful pasts and hidden struggles.

The backdrop of the city scales the lush, glittering heights of the very rich, down to the horrific underbelly of the very poor, mostly immigrant communities. I’m mesmerized by every aspect of the show, from the setting to the storyline to the relationships between the characters; but especially by Laszlo’s obsessive investigation into the heart of a human monster. Bravo.

 

 

 

 

A Fun Form of Research

books and science

I’ve been spending the last few months working on the first draft of what is turning out to be a novel. It began as an idea for a short story based on a prompt I came across in Writer’s Digest magazine: Your character hears a knock on the door. When he/she answers it, the person who knocked says, “I’m from the future. I’m here to save your life.”

I loved that prompt, and thought I could do something with it. As I worked on the idea I had for the short story, I realized I wanted to know more about that person who knocked on the door. I wanted to know more about that future he was allegedly from. So I started digging, and wrote some more. And more, and more. Soon enough, it was clear I was writing a novel.

Not what I had planned, but okay. It turns out this particular future–without going into too many details right now–is heavily science-oriented, and science has solved a lot of the world’s problems. Awesome. But because of this, books are rare, and reading literature is not particularly encouraged. My character, named Benjamin, nevertheless discovers the joy of reading. Here’s a sampling of the books he reads in the story:

  • The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Since Benjamin is from “the future”, then a time machine must figure in the story somewhere. This book excites him when he reads it as a child.
  • Antigone, by Sophocles. Benjamin has a good friend named Ellen, who aspires to be an actress (which is considered another subversive activity, besides reading literature). She puts on one-woman plays for him, including this one, playing all the characters.
  • Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. Benjamin is studying law enforcement (considered a second-rate occupation, far beneath the hard sciences–that, and the fact that there’s not much crime to begin with). He discovers a fondness for murder mysteries; though murder is a rare occasion in his world, it becomes horribly real for him later on.
  • 1984, by George Orwell. Benjamin reads this when he is unfairly persecuted simply for being different. He becomes marked and is always being watched. The book mirrors the tyranny that is beginning to bloom in his society.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Neither Ben, nor my present day character, Brooke, has read this book, but it plays a small, though key, role in the story. And I like the title–there’s a love story in here somewhere, and there is a terrible illness that threatens the future.

I have to confess that either a) it’s been a long time since I’ve read some of these books, or b) I haven’t read some of them at all. If I’m going to mention any of these books in my story, I better have read them and be very familiar with them.

Reading books–what a totally painless form of research! Because I also have to look into sciencey-related things (NOT my strong point), including writing about time travel in a way that doesn’t make a physicist roll her eyes.

I’ve always been a bit lazy about research (or at least whiny about it), but this I can do.

If you’re a writer, do you like research as part of your writing process? Or does it fill you with dread? Any subjects you like better than others? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

What’s Been on My Kindle

Here are a few books I’ve been enjoying lately:

See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt.

see what I have done

When I saw there was a novelization on the story of Lizzie Borden, I knew I had to read it. I wasn’t disappointed. Schmidt speculates on what might have gone through the mind of 32-year old Lizzie, during the days leading up to her father and stepmother’s ax murders in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. The result is appropriately creepy and mesmerizing, alternating between Lizzie’s point of view with that of her sister Emma, as well as that of a possible intruder on that fateful day. What emerges is a claustrophobic tale of rage and jealousy that culminated in murder.

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King.

sleeping beauties

I’m not the kind of King fan that reads every single novel he puts out, but every once in a while I’ll read one that stands out for me for whatever reason. And when I do, I’m reminded of why he is, indeed, the King. He wrote this one with his son, Owen, and I loved it. What if the women of the world fell asleep and didn’t wake up? That’s the premise of this story, which takes place in the small Appalachian town of Dooley. Women all around the world are falling asleep, presumably from what is being called the “Aurora virus”, and becoming cocooned in a white, web-like substance. Any attempt at unwrapping the women and waking them up leads to the sleepers becoming violent, with fatal results. In Dooley, a woman called Evie appears, the only woman who can sleep and wake again, and who seems to possess supernatural powers. How is she connected to the Aurora phenomenon? As the men left behind become increasingly desperate to wake their women up, Evie polarizes them into two factions who will fight either to protect her or threaten her. In the meantime, the sleeping women of Dooley find themselves in an alternate world with no men (and doing quite fine on their own, thank you), and must eventually make a fateful decision whether to stay and make a go of it, or go back to what was. This is a timely, fascinating story on the essential natures of men and women, wrapped up in a riveting supernatural tale that I found impossible to put down.

The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman.

rules of magic

I read Hoffman’s Practical Magic years ago (and watched the movie, of course) and enjoyed both. Even though my recollection of the story was vague, I was ready to read this prequel. Practical Magic was about the two Owen sisters, Sally and Gillian; this book centers on the youth of their elderly aunts, Frannie and Jet, as well as a heretofore unknown brother, Vincent. The setting is 1960’s New York City, for the most part, and the iconic events of that decade as a backdrop for the formative years of the Owens siblings. Frannie, the eldest, is practical and logical, and plans on becoming a scientist; Jet is sweet and a great beauty, and Vincent is independent and headstrong. All three of them have witchy powers, and all must contend with the “Owen curse” which dooms any person they fall in love with. I’ve always enjoyed Hoffman’s magical realism, and this one is no exception.

 

Have you read any of these books? What have you been reading lately? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

Another Book Roundup

I haven’t been keeping up with full-length book reviews here, so I thought I’d just jot down a few lines about the books I’ve been reading lately.

  • The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva. A woman competes in a Survivor-like reality show, only to find the line between show and reality beginning to blur. As her Solo Challenge progresses, it becomes clear to the reader that something terrible has happened in the outside world, but Zoo thinks it’s part of the game-or refuses to see it. An interesting tale on how we can blind ourselves to the truth.
  • the-last-one
  • Low  Country Bribe, by Hope C. Clark. A Department of Agriculture employee finds herself mixed up with bribes and murder. Not my usual cup of tea, but I love Clark’s website Funds for Writers, and thought I’d give her fiction a whirl.
  • The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson. A woman dreams an alternate life in 1963 Denver. By day, she’s Kitty, a single woman who runs a bookstore with her friend. When she goes to sleep at night, she’s Katharine, wife to perfect husband Lars and mother to two beautiful children. But it turns out that perfect life isn’t so perfect, and Kitty struggles to make sense of the two lives she’s living.
  • bookseller

 

What I’m reading now:

  • The Light Between the Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. I’m reading this one for the book club, about a couple living on a lighthouse island in 1926 Australia, who decide to keep a baby washed up onshore in a boat. Like that won’t have devastating repercussions.
  • light oceans
  • Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is my favorite fantasy author, and I’m finally reading his latest. Opening up one of his books is like coming home.
  • Children

So that’s what’s been going on in my reading world. Have you read any of these books? What are you reading these days? Let me know and we’ll talk about it!

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

peculiar-children

I’ve been intrigued by the strange photo on the cover of this book for awhile now, but probably would never have picked it up if my book club members hadn’t suggested it. My sister didn’t realize it was a YA novel, though in the end it didn’t matter-this is a delightfully “peculiar” book no matter what the genre.

As a child, Jacob Portman loved his grandfather Abraham’s stories about the house of peculiar children he’d been sent to as a child-in order to protect him from the “monsters”. The children who lived there had odd powers or peculiarities-an invisible boy, a levitating girl, a boy who had bees living inside of him-peculiarities that were backed up by some old photos that his grandfather had shown him over the years.

As he grew older, Jacob realized his grandfather had probably been telling tall tales, and that the “monsters” were actually the Nazis during World War II. His parents had likely sent him to an orphanage in England to protect him, while the rest of his family was slaughtered. And the pictures? Weird camera tricks.

But then his grandfather is killed, supposedly by a wild animal; Jacob is sent to check on him that day, and his grandfather dies in his arms with some enigmatic words: “Go to the island, it’s not safe here. Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September 3, 1940.” And then Jacob sees something in the underbrush nearby, something decidedly monstrous.

Afterward, he suffers nightmares and anxiety, and his parents send him to a psychiatrist. Dr. Golan suggests that he look into his grandfather’s stories, if only to find some kind of closure. When his aunt gives him a book from his grandfather’s house, an Emerson book with Jacob’s name on  it, he finds a letter inside written to Abe from Headmistress Alma LeFay Peregrine, with a postmark from Cairnholm Island, Cymru (Wales), UK.

From this and various other clues, Jacob pieces together that his grandfather wanted him to find this Miss Peregrine and her home for peculiar children-and realizes that if he did, maybe they could shed some light on his grandfather’s secrets.

The book takes off from there, with Jacob and his father travelling to Wales, the discovery of the bombed-out house, and Jacob’s initiation into the world of the peculiar. The weird photos only add to the story; they’re old pictures the author has found through tag sales and private collections over the years. I find it an ingenious way to tell a story-in the author interview at the end of the book, Riggs says that he both made up a story around some of the pictures, and tried to weave others into the narrative as he went along. It’s inspired me to more frequently use pictures as story prompts; one might get a best-seller out of it!

Going in, we thought this book would be a creepy, kind of freaky read, but it was actually more on the whimsical side, and the recent previews for the movie version only reinforces this. It’s a fun, adventurous read, for YA readers, as well as those who have a taste for the peculiar.

The Wonder

the-wonder

Lib Wright is a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse who is called upon to keep watch over a girl in 1959 Ireland who supposedly can live without eating.

Lib arrives from England ignorant of this country’s culture and Roman Catholic faith, as well as with her own prejudices and assumption. She meets Anna, the girl who allegedly hasn’t eaten since her eleventh birthday, which was four months before. The girl is clearly alive and spirited, but the nurse in Lib sees troubling symptoms: swollen feet and hands, distended belly, fine hair growing on the girl’s skin, bleeding gums.

Lib has been hired by a committee of local men, including the parish priest Mr. Thaddeus and Anna’s own physician, Dr. McBrearty, to determine if Anna is somehow secretly getting food, or if she is indeed a living miracle. Lib shares her two-week watch with Sister Michael, a taciturn nun who alternates 8 hour shifts with Lib.

Convinced that the whole thing is a hoax, Lib keeps a strict watch over Anna and writes her symptoms down everyday in her memorandum book. But very soon, Anna begins to get worse, and Lib fears the girl will die soon. She brings her concerns to Dr. McBrearty, but the man is too delusional to listen to her-he’s either hopeful that Anna is truly miraculous, or is convinced that she is(“scientifically” adapting to life without food. There is no help with Anna’s parents, either her inappropriately cheery mother or her resigned, fatalistic father. Everyone’s too wrapped up in religious fervor. Even Sister Michael, a fellow nurse, is determined to just do the job she was hired for: to watch.

As Lib gets to know the girl even as she deteriorates, she cannot simply stand by and watch her die. She finds an unlikely ally in William Byrne, an Irish journalist who is seeking a story on Anna, a man who stirs Lib’s emotions as well as the secrets she carries inside. But what are Anna’s secrets? Lib is convinced the answers lie within the girl herself, and the crux of the story is the mystery of why Anna won’t eat. The answer is shocking and heartrending, but the ending satisfied when I wasn’t so sure it would.

I’d call this book a psychological mystery; it kept me turning the pages, puzzling out the mystery of Anna.