The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver

I think we have established by now that I do love a good apocalypse. There is something irresistible, for me, in seeing how a society breaks down and, consequently, how it attempts to rebuild itself. Of course we have been schooled to see apocalypses (apocoli? this is an issue which has concerned greater minds than mine…) as something, well, explosive. We think of radioactive fall-out, incurable and exotic diseases, zombies but what if the world ended with more of a whimper than a bang? What if the end of days is slow, gradual and rather prosaic?

9780007560769Lionel Shriver’s tale of how one family, the Mandibles, copes during such an event is fascinating. And it is mostly so because it is just so plausible being based on an economic system we can see at work today. High national levels of debt, a reliance on the transfer of money rather than the cash itself and an almost total disconnect from manufacturing or manual labour. And of course all the generations following on from the Baby Boomers who are relying on inheriting the fortune their parents have built up to cover their debts and losses. The Mandible fortune has been built up first by the manufacture of diesel engines, then in the generation of the current patriarch, Douglas, in publishing. Subsequent generations are journalists, writers, academics – the move away from the making of actual physical stuff is there. When the American economy goes into free fall – wiping out the fortune which the whole family was anticipating (yet trying not to – there is a feeling that wishing for the death of the grandfather is in poor taste and the Mandibles are, if nothing else, tasteful). It is a gripping arc to the story where we see the family, in a country which is rapidly falling apart, realising that things are going to go beyond having to give up luxuries like imported wine, meat or holidays. We even go beyond the point where essentials like a decently paid police force, basic medication like laxatives or even toilet paper are available. Don’t think that just because there are no zombies or wars this is not a very, very grim affair.

For me this book contains my apocalypse – the death of books. Not just of publishing or print books – bad as that would be – but of authorship itself. A generation raised to expect that, once they have paid for a device (like an e-reader or a smart phone), they can get unlimited content for free leads gradually to the end of paid writing. I have a number of writer friends who self-publish and who, occasionally, produce work which is low-cost or even free but they do need to make money from their work. Although this whole book was, frankly, terrifying at times I think I’m most afraid that this is the part which will come true first…



Last of Us – Rob Ewing

A part of my job which I really, really enjoy (aside from the reading and the cake) is recommending books to customers. You get kind of a warm glow when customers come back in and tell you how much they enjoyed the book you suggested to them – although sometimes they do return to tell me off for getting them hooked on a new author/series. I tell them I’m not just a bookseller, I’m an enabler for book addicts.  But, of course, someone has to put books in my hand too – I read fast but I can’t get to everything which is published/reissued/promoted because of a film or tv adaptation each month. Not and actually go to work anyway. So, who do I turn to when I want a book recommendation?

The very clever people at our Head Office – the buyers and all-round geniuses who select things like our Books of the Month and Book Club titles – are a great source. Obviously I can’t love absolutely everything but they have set up some wonderful titles recently: the Reader on the 6.27, for example, as fiction book of the month, or Enchanted April as our monthly Forgotten Classic. Customers are also a great source of inspiration, whether they are regulars, tourists or a class of seven-year-olds, and publishers too. Of course, when publishers send out advance information they try to make everything sound amazing but often they are right (and a lot of the reps know just what sort of thing I like). But recently I’ve been getting an awful lot of heads-up on forthcoming books from friends and colleagues on social media. It helps that on both Facebook and Twitter I’m in contact with some inspirational booksellers (like @Leilah_Makes and @ShinraAlpha) and authors (who, contrary to popular belief, always seem to be hugely generous in their praise for other author’s work). And of course most of my friends in real life are big readers too…

9780008149581.jpg.pagespeed.ce.8oqvpiIdnEAll this is leading up to the fact that most of the people I admire in the world of books and reading have been suggesting (sometimes in the strongest possible terms) that I read Rob Ewing’s The Last of Us – and, dagnabbit, they were right. The plot centres around a small group of children, aged from 5 to early teens, who survive an outbreak of a virulent (and fatal) illness and particularly features eight year old Rona. They are the last survivors on a remote Hebridean island and the story explores the dynamics of the group as they come to terms with the fact that the adults are, probably, never coming back. There have been some comparisons to Lord of the Flies but I think it is probably more realistic than that (while, obviously, being about a very unreal if plausible situation). These are real children – some angry, some confused, some trying their hardest to be sensible and grown-up – and they are upset, brave, spiteful and loving in the way that real children are. The plot moves backwards and forwards from the time before, when parents were around but the panic of the epidemic itself made everything very confusing for Rona and the others, to a couple of weeks when things come to a head.

The story was absolutely gripping (thanks for the late nights there, Rob…) and the characters were so realistic. It was heartbreaking to see these children, these incredibly real children, suffer so – but it was also uplifting to realise that each of them, in their own way, could be brave and funny and selfless. This is Ewing’s first novel – I really hope it won’t be his last.


Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel & Girl With All The Gifts – M. R. Carey

Apocalypses are everywhere these days, hadn’t you noticed? It seems that every other book, film or must-see tv series features the aftermath of a zombie plague, an alien invasion or some other disaster and I, for one, love it! Well, mostly the books – I’ve still never seen an episode of The Walking Dead. What I’ve come to really appreciate is a post-apocalyptic novel which doesn’t quite follow the usual pattern. I enjoyed the fact that Warm Bodies was a love story, a Romeo and Juliet crossing the dead/undead family lines and The Passage blew me away with its sheer scope and entwined storylines. Until the last few months, however, I’d not found anything quite so off beat so imagine my delight when I came across not one but two ( featured in the most recent and the forthcoming Waterstones Book Club selections respectively) – The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.

station-eleven-978144726897001Station Eleven is slightly unusual in the fact that it gives a great deal of attention to the immediate aftermath of its world-ending event (in this case a flu-like epidemic which decimates the population). It is especially chilling in the fact that such a disease is not a matter of science-fiction but something which has happened, in 1918 for example, with just the severity increased. The story moves around from this time of loss and change to about 20 years on and centres, unusually, on the art and culture which lives on in human hearts. A child who witnessed the original epidemic has survived to form part of a travelling group presenting classical music and theatre to the remaining isolated pockets of population. The fact that, in this brave new world, Shakespeare still speaks to men, women and children is quite heartening. And this makes the book, at heart, hugely optimistic. Although we do see a darker side – after all, not only the virtuous and cultured survive, and isolation can twist the sanest mind – you do feel, at the end, that there is still hope for the human race.

17235026In The Girl With All The Gifts we are once again in the middle of the end of the world – the novel begins at a research facility where scientists are working on a cure for or protections against the zombie hordes outside their gates while teachers work with a group of children who are, oddly, restrained at almost all times. The children seem to be innocent orphans, being given what education is still going to be useful to them, but you quickly realise that things are not what they seem.

The book is described as a thriller. Not horror. Not science-fiction. And, on the whole I think this is an accurate description. My in store book group have told me on a number of occasions that they don’t particularly enjoy speculative fiction. They have, however, read and enjoyed The Passage, Wool and Handmaid’s Tale – I think I may be suggesting this to them as it is another is the same mould: post-apocalyptic fiction in a literary thriller’s clothing.