The Last One – Alexandra Oliva

I don’t really like reality tv. To be honest, I don’t find it very, well, realistic. The situations that contestants are placed in are often very unnatural, the type of characters chosen by production companies to take part in the programmes can seem deeply unpleasant and the way that audiences can forget that the people they are watching are actually people too (with feelings and a right to dignity) is, frankly, scary. Although what is most worrying is that if I do find myself forced to watch celebrities eating bugs and unmentionable kangaroo parts in the jungle or unknowns pretending they are business hot-shots I find myself being drawn in against my will…I’m only comfortable with the kind of ‘reality’ show which involves cakes or dancing (although not both at once – that would either be very silly or absolute genius). But would a novel about a reality show be any better for me?  I’d had a good experience with the Terranauts so would the Last One work too?

last-oneThe show in The Last One sounds like the mother of all reality shows, to be fair. A dozen carefully selected contestants surviving in the wilderness, completing tasks as teams and as individuals. The selection process seems to be as cynical as it was calculated – the producers making sure that there were those who were going to contribute sex-appeal, brains, medical and wilderness know-how and, of course, one person that everyone would hate (or love to hate). We concentrate, however, on a young woman the audience know as Zoo. She seems to be relatively normal – a real person – and, like the producers, the audience seem to like her. So far, so Bear Grylls, but then things get darker. In fact they get downright dystopian (yay!) and we realise that no one is watching – but Zoo doesn’t…Slight Spoiler alert. The contestants have been told that there are cameras everywhere, in places they wouldn’t suspect, so when Zoo finds bodies she is sure they are just props. She doesn’t realise that the world has far bigger problems than who is going to win a reality tv show.

I really enjoyed this book. It certainly made me realise that there could be situations which make us question what reality actually is. Zoo’s experience is, in part, to do with her quest to find out who she is, to have one last adventure before she settles to life as a wife and mother. But it is also an exploration of how the human mind can resist admitting that what it sees is the truth.


P.S. If you enjoy this sort of book but also like something a bit historical then, when you finish this, try one of my favourite books ever, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Same thing, different century…


Wolf Road – Beth Lewis

My house is full of books. I mean really, really full. Rob and I both buy books, we both had a bit of library each when we met (with surprisingly few duplications – a couple of Pratchetts and English dictionaries and that’s about it) and, though work, I get a lot of proofs (advance reading copies). And, to make things worse, with the ARCs I can’t pass them on to charity shops for resale when I’ve read them. I can donate them to schools, hospitals and the like but anything I don’t want to keep ends up being put in the recycling. I’ll leave you to think about that for a moment. If I don’t love a book enough to give it permanent shelf room I have to send it to be destroyed. After a particularly heavy clearing-out session I usually feel like a mass book-murderer – more than a little unclean…So that is why I have a Kindle – I can get most of my proofs as e-books and, within a few months of getting mine, I could almost feel my house getting a little lighter. If it weren’t for publishers tempting me with actual books sent to the store and having the occasional roadshow there is almost a risk of a repeat of the film Up. So, thank goodness for the lovely people at Harper Collins for inviting us booksellers to an evening of books, wine and nibbles recently over in Manchester. I came away with an almost embarrassing amount of books (three tote bags – it is an addiction…), a signed copy of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep and lots of good intentions to read them all and make sure I tag the publisher. And I’m going to start with Wolf Road.

wolf roadI’ll confess. When I got my copy from the Manchester event I already had a copy lined up on my Kindle. This meant that I was reading it without referring back to the plot outline or a blurb on the back of a physical copy and, initially, I was pretty sure I was reading a book set in late 19th century America. Think John Wayne films or Stef Penney’s Tenderness of Wolves. Think guns, bleak winters, trapping for furs and candlelight.Elka lives with her rather strict grandmother after her parents went North in search of gold but, when a big storm hits, she is taken in by a man she calls Trapper (and who, as the years go by, she thinks of as ‘Daddy’). Years pass and she learns to hunt and survive in their remote cabin  with only infrequent trips to the nearby town. It is on one of these trips that she meets Magistrate Lyons and discovers that Trapper is, in fact, a wanted killer called Kreager Hallet. The story then follows Elka as she heads North herself – away from Kreager and in search of her parents. It becomes more and more apparent that the setting is actually a postapocalyptic near future – set after something Elka herself refers to as the Damn Stupid – and that Elka herself is a remarkable woman. We get the whole story from her point of view and in her voice – everything is written in a way I can only describe as a really bleak Little House on the Prairie accent – and we discover the secrets of her past as she does. Her life seems to be nothing but hardship, sorrow and loss and yet we see her growing and developing her relationships with both people and her environment.

What I loved most about this book – aside from the plot, the voice of Elka and the wonderful descriptions of the world she lives in – was the fact that almost every character I cared about and admired was female. Some of the villains are women too but in Elka, Lyons and Penelope we are treated to three strong, flawed and very admirable females.



City of Mirrors – Justin Cronin

Every now and again you read a book which electrifies you. It is so different from anything you’ve read before, it has characters who make their way into your heart and mind or it is just so well-written that you can’t look away. The most memorable example for me, quite possibly, was way back in 2010 with The Passage. The jumps from storyline to storyline in the opening chapters and then the leap forward in time to a post-apocalypse community under siege from ‘virals’ were intriguing; the characters, and especially Amy, were engaging and the whole premise of the virals themselves (something between zombies and vampires and totally terrifying) was fascinating. To be honest this was probably my first post-apocalyptic novel and I didn’t realise they could be this good…Oddly I couldn’t settle to the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve. It was almost certainly not the fault of the book itself – 2013 was quite a busy year for me and I was not the reading machine that I am today. However, this did give me a bit of a quandary. I was happy not to re-read The Passage before starting on City of Mirrors as it was a book which has made a deep impression on me but what to do about The Twelve? In the end I picked up the final book in the trilogy deciding that I’d give it a try and if I found I needed to go back and finish The Twelve then so be it. Luckily for me, however, this book is particularly good at reminding the reader of what happened in previous volumes – my gamble paid off!

9780752897899In the first book we see the disastrous events unfold and then jump forward nearly 100 years to a community living as best it can in California. In the second volume (*rapidly checks plot outline on back of book*), we see a little more of the Twelve originally infected virals and build up to a climactic battle which sees them and Amy herself apparently destroyed. What impresses me about this trilogy is that it isn’t just about fighting the bad guys – both virals and the dregs of humanity who take advantage of the breakdown of normal society – but about how people try, and succeed, to make some sense of the new world they find themselves in.  And this is how City of Mirrors opens – with no sign of virals for years what was effectively martial law is being lifted and people are starting to move out beyond the enclosed townships they have lived in for a generation.

Of course things aren’t that simple. Because we, unlike the survivors, know that as well as the twelve there was not only Amy but also Zero – the original carrier of the virus. This book is, essentially, the story of Zero (formerly known as Tim Fanning) and how a doomed love led him to the jungle in Bolivia where he was first infected. In fact, my impression of the whole book, the whole trilogy, is that it is about love. Love going right, love going wrong, the love of children for their parents and the love men and women feel for each other. And above all it is about the love that parents, and other family, feel for the children whose task it is to be the future. If this sounds maudlin and sentimental it really isn’t – there is plenty of action, death and destruction but there is also, at the end, hope.


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.