Station Eleven (and, um. Hi.)

Well, that was an unscheduled hiatus.

Let’s get back to it, shall we?

(By ‘get back to it’ I mean posting at random intervals and vanishing for long periods without explanation. Mm’kay?)

When your jumper matches your book…

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

Pretty much as soon as I started reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel it became clear that this was going to make it onto my favourites list. A gripping, multi-linear masterpiece about life after the end of the world, it’s a novel that is poetic, bittersweet and haunting in all of the best ways.

The narrative seamlessly weaves between characters, times and locations to piece together an expansive tale of a group of people, all connected by interactions big and small with a once famous actor called Arthur Leander – who might have been remembered most for his dramatic on-stage death had it not coincided with the night that the apocalypse began in earnest.

The ex-wife, the ex-best friend, the child actress and the former paparazzo turned paramedic who tried and failed to save his life populate Mandel’s beautiful and brutal world filled with Shakespeare and music in the form of the Travelling Symphony, a group of cut-throat actors and musicians walking what remains of North America performing for the people left; two issues of a comic called Dr. Eleven about a physicist who lives on a space station; a prophet – or, at least, a man who believes himself to be one; and the Museum of Civilisation in an airport at the end of the world.

It’s not very often while reading that I find myself thinking I really haven’t read anything quite like this before, but I was astounded by the uniqueness of Station Eleven throughout.

Mandel crafts moments of total beauty and frailty that constantly push up against abject horror – like the Museum of Civilisation, a beacon of hope, really, but within sight of an aeroplane that landed but never opened its doors. The people living at the Museum know that is filled with corpses, people killed by the same virus that took down most of the rest of the world. The question of what their last moments must have been – and whoever made the decision not to open the doors of the plane – hangs heavy over the entire enterprise.

At the same time though, far from a vision of the end of the world driven by the breakdown of decency – the idea that the loss of the basic structure of society would see the end of kindness and human decency – the end of the world Mandel paints is driven by community. From the Travelling Symphony to the Museum of Civilization, far from wanting to destroy the little of the world that’s left, Mandel’s characters want to come together, to build. At least, most of them do.

I’ve moved into a period of my life where I don’t make as much time for reading as I used to. I want to make more, but there are only so many hours in the day, so I’m trying not to beat myself up about it. In the moments I did make time – on trains, on those long Sundays where I had no plans – it was so easy to instantly lose myself in the world of Station Eleven. The past few months I’ve been finding that harder, too, to bury myself in an imaginary thing like I always used to. Reading Station Eleven was like reclaiming a quiet part of myself and I am so, so grateful for it.

The Everlasting Rose

What would you do to be beautiful? Camellia and her sisters are Belles. Only they can be beautiful.
All our lives, my sisters and I have served the people of Orleans.
For years, they’ve held their abilities over us. Not anymore.
Now the queen hunts us, because we know the truth about the rightful heir.
Camellia murdered our princess and fled with her sisters.
The princess is still alive, and we’ll help her take back the throne.
Together, we will return the Belles to their rightful place.
The queen wants us caged. But we will not go quietly.
Then they will give us what we deserve: beauty, everlasting.
We demand our freedom. No matter what the cost.

I was a MASSIVE fan of The Belles from Dhonielle Clayton. I became pretty obsessed with it when it came out and was all over again when I reread it in anticipation of The Everlasting Rose, the sequel. The rich and complexly imagined world; the complicated dynamics between the women who loved each other but, regardless, had been raised to compete; the stark ridiculousness and horror of the way that the beauty industry overtook the importance of any other single thing in Orleans; the way the Belles had been raised to believe they were basically Goddesses on earth so they didn’t notice they were actually slaves – all of his came together in a fantastic slow burn novel that utterly captivated me. Also, Remy – sigh – the stern and watchful but also adorable with his younger sisters sexy soldier of my dreams.

So, when I picked up The Everlasting Rose, obviously my expectations were high, as were my fear levels – I knew not everybody was getting out of this situation alive.

I was right about the latter*, if not the former.

*Come on – barely a spoiler. Someone always bites the dust in a series like this.

Unfortunately, where its predecessor completely took over my brain and immersed me in its strange and morally bankrupt world, The Everlasting Rose was comparatively a little… all over the place. For a start the romance with Remy goes from nought to one hundred in, like, the first chapter. Which was fine – as I have mentioned, I am a big fan of Remy – but it felt a little rushed. And rushed, as it turns out, would be the theme for this entire novel.

The pacing just felt off. Admittedly I hadn’t understood it was a duology, so had assumed this book would be the middle of the series rather than the end. Even putting that aside, though, you get to the last 50 pages or so and everything looks terrible and you have that moment you always have – or, at least, I always have – where you think wow this writer is clearly planning on pulling off something pretty amazing so this ending isn’t a disappointing clusterfuck and then, they don’t. The Everlasting Rose, I’m genuinely really sad to say, was one of those.

There were a lot of things in the book that I really liked – Dhonielle Clayton continues to take complex ideas and live in the grey with them through her characters. It just felt like those moments weren’t as fully developed as they were before. The Everlasting Rose is a lot about complicity – it’s a reckoning, really, for those people in Orleans that have held up the system for so long, the people whose various acts of passivity or wrong in the hope of gain had paved the way for a monster like Sophia, the main villain of the piece, to be born. Perhaps most intriguingly – and I can’t get too far into this because spoilers – she looks at how the Belles themselves can be complicit in their own imprisonment by the state. How a person can grab for power wherever they find it – even if it isn’t truly power at all – rather than seeking to dismantle the system that oppresses them. Can you blame that person? It’s hard to say, and it’s a major aspect of the book I would have liked to see explored further.

Like so many series like this built around a single female lead – ‘the special one’ – I wanted more development from the side characters. The Belles were separated for most of book one, but even in that time you had a sense of their love for each other, even when that was complicated by the competition to be the best they had been forced to play in their entire lives. In The Everlasting Rose, we finally had some time for these women to actually be together and that sense of the depth of their relationships kind of vanished. Particularly between Camellia and her best friend Amber – what could have been one of the most complex dynamics in the book – there is no time or real detail given to the situation. I know Amber isn’t a likeable or even good person most of the time, but I was intrigued by her (as we know I love a mean girl), and at the end of book one really interested to see what she would be like once she was thrown back into the mix. She never really gets her moment though, and I was disappointed by that.

Overall, still love Dhonielle, but a little confused by what happened here. I don’t know if it’s that this should have been three books rather than two – something I would very rarely advocate for – or something else, but The Everlasting Rose just fell flat for me. Underdeveloped and rushed – if ultimately somewhat saved by how much we love the characters because of an absolutely fantastic book one – this was still ultimately an enjoyable read, if not the experience I was hoping to have.  

August favourites

Oh no, I forgot to blog (nearly) all month. (Again).

I have not left this blog, despite appearances. I just have a lot less time than I did before. Or, perhaps I have the exact same amount of time but I’m allocating it to different things.

I think most likely it’s a combination of both.

But today I’m here and next week I’m determined to write a proper review of The Everlasting Rose, the second part of The Belles duology. I was pretty disappointed by it and I really, really didn’t want to be. I’m still sad about it. This is why I so rarely read series. They burn me (almost) every time.

But today is not for bemoaning disappointments. It’s favourites time.

To listen: Lover

I mean obviously. My unapologetic love for Taylor Swift will never end. The vulnerability and unabashed look at the ways you can be insecure and difficult and brilliant in this set of songs draws me in every single time I listen. I love her, especially the way she has developed over the years into a politically active, nuanced and private figure who is clearly prepared to grow as a person.

Love her.

To listen: WTF with Betty Gilpin

Probably the most regular feature on my favourites, I know, but these conversations bring so much to my life. Especially this one. I adore Betty Gilpin. She’s an amazing and unusual actress and the way she talks about insecurity, mental health and dealing with ‘life in the vestibule’ speaks to me on a very personal level. This conversation felt like listening to two people take a stroll through my brain – it was so comforting and validating on basically every level.

The read: The Gentlewoman

This magazine is one of those £8, comes out quarterly, only available to purchase in pretentious shops-type deals but it is worth the investment of your pennies. It’s packed with creative, subversive and fascinating women from across the feminist, political and artistic spectrum. The writing is stunning and thoughtful, with truly some of the best celebrity profiles I’ve ever read. If you don’t believe me, you can read some of them online here.

(I particularly recommend Alison Janney and Sandra Oh)

Person: Carolyn off Killing Eve

Will you make sure that Pointless is recording, Kenny?

It is easy to be so distracted by Jodie and Sandra that you don’t realise Fiona Shaw is one of the best characters on Killing Eve – at least, that’s what I found during season 1. Season 2 though, for me, was dominated by Fiona Shaw – or, I should say, Carolyn. Did she say anything that wasn’t completely weird and utterly perfectly delivered? No – no she did not.

How was YOUR August? I hope everyone has had a lovely summer, depending on which hemisphere you happen to live in.

The Book Thief

Here is a small fact: you are going to die.

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

Some important information: this novel is narrated by Death. It’s a small story about a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, A Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Another thing you should know: Death will visit the book thief three times.

I can’t really get into why, because it’s a massive spoiler, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is without question one of the most traumatic experiences I have put myself through by choice in recent history.

If you have read it, I have only one question for you. And it is this: what the fuck?

For everyone else, The Book Thief is one of those very famous international best seller types that you think you should read, but put off for ages because it’s long and it’s about Nazi Germany, so you know it’s going to be traumatic (but how traumatic you truly cannot imagine. Okay, I did only finish it yesterday, so I’m still in the first phase of my response but what. The. Fuck.), but eventually someone in your life pushes you (in this instance my housemate) and you finally pick it up, because It’s Time.

And you know what, trauma aside, it is an incredible book. Told by Death, in combination with the Nazi Germany of it all, means there is a constant sense of impermanence, of the looming end of it all that we all do our best to ignore day-to-day. That sense of something looming grows in time with the hate and aggression life under Hitler brings to the community. From Jewish-owned shops destroyed before closing down completely – and their keepers vanished – to the lady in the corner shop who will only sell you food after you first Heil Hitler, the bubbling fanaticism and anti-Semitism form a sinister undertone to Liesel’s every day – but as a nine-year-old it’s not something she thinks about a ton. Mostly, she’s concerned with where she and her best friend Rudy are going to go steal some extra food because her foster mother has been cooking nothing but pea soup for months.

But a normal childhood isn’t a luxury children in Nazi Germany get to experience, and there is something uniquely harrowing about the ways Liesel and Rudy lose their innocence as the war wages on, gradually wending its way toward their homes on Himmel Street. From Liesel, hiding the secret of the hidden Jew in the basement to Rudy, fighting the war with the Nazi Youth but actually fighting the war against the Nazi Youth, both children have a strong sense of justice instilled in them that the misery of their circumstances never quite manages to beat out. Their actions aren’t exactly powerful – reading to a huddled group inside a bomb shelter, standing up for your friend the Nazi Youth would call weak – but small as they are, in the depths of the despair of the situation, they mean everything.

The Book Thief is really a book about changing the world in small ways: saving the life of one Jewish man, even if only for a time; protecting one kid from the fists of the Nazi Youth bullies; leaving the window open so a young girl can sneak inside and steal your books; giving a dying man a teddy bear. It’s about one small street in Nazi Germany and how its inhabitants survived the hatred – and how they didn’t. People can change each other’s lives in ways large and small, and you see all of them throughout the scope of this expansive novel. When one person loses hope for a while another person picks it up and runs with it until they can do so again, and so on and so forth, until Death comes to visit.

July favourites

Another month has flown by. I realised the other day that I’ve been telling people I’ve been living in my new city for about a month for so long that it’s suddenly turned into two.

I am not reading enough – but I think that’s standard during transitional phases of life.

(please say it’s not just me)

I just haven’t chunked out the time lately. I’ve been prioritising other things. But I’m going to get back to it. I’m about half way through The Book Thief right now, a tome of a novel I’ve been meaning to read for years but finally am now due to one of my housemates, who pretty much holds it up as the standard that all books should meet.

I’m liking it, so far. It’s one of those where the narrator (literally Death) tells you the worst before it happens, but it makes it no less painful when it arrives, despite all the warnings.

Anyway: some favourites

To watch: Jessica Jones, the final season

I will be bitter about the abrupt and unfair killing of these Marvel shows maybe forever (I hold an excellent grudge.) Netflix has a lot to answer for! After a season two that I had some mixed feelings about, season three was so STRONG. From crazy psychopaths to sisters on the edge and “I know you don’t want to die alone, but you’re going to”, this show packed a serious emotional punch as it hurtled toward a cathartic, if slightly hurried, finish.

Jessica Jones has always been a show that feels a lot like Veronica Mars, and with Benjamin Walker as Erik who reminded me SO MUCH of a hangdog Logan Echolls it was ridiculous – basically I had everything I wanted. And I felt somewhat justified in my feelings about Trish, which even in the best of times have never been especially warm.

Low key I am in love with this man.

While it’s great that JJ and Daredevil got to go out on such a high note, what I really want is a fourth season.

Grumble grumble grumble.

Also, potentially unpopular opinion, but I feel like as much as we all want cameos to happen they only ever feel awkward and unnecessary and afterwards you wonder if maybe it would be better if none of the superheroes of New York knew each other, even though that doesn’t quite make sense either because while it’s big, it’s not that big.

Also also, how do they choose who gets to fight which evil? I’ve always wondered about that.

To wear: jumpsuits

Okay, clearly we’re a little thin on the ground for favourites this month. But I just want everyone to know that I purchased a jumpsuit and now I honestly don’t know how I lived before it was in my wardrobe. Just saying.

To do: Museums!

As I have mentioned around 10,000 times, I recently moved to a new city. It’s a big tourist spot in the UK, and while that comes with many annoying things (tourists. Dear god tourists are annoying and why do they all walk so slowly and why do they not realise that people live here and sometimes just need to get from A to B without having to practically parkour over them so they don’t ruin their selfies?!), what it does mean is that we’re totally spoilt for choice when it comes to museums and I have to say I love it. I don’t really know anything about art, there are huge swathes of history I’m utterly clueless about and I don’t usually pay for the audio guides that explain it because ANOTHER £5? Are you kidding me? But going in and just allowing myself the time and space to respond to what I’m seeing, read the free information they have and try to resist the urge to Instagram it engages a totally different part of my brain. It’s difficult to feel stress inside a museum. It’s another world where all that’s required from you is your attention and whatever intellectual engagement you have to offer, and I have concluded that wandering around them is good for my soul. I highly recommend it.

To do: the gym

I became an exercise person a few years ago when, as I was coming out of a truly horrifying time in my personal life, a friend asked me whether I wanted to do a sponsored run with her for charity. For the first time in my life, I approached exercise not as some all-or-nothing event that I had to be amazing at right away or what’s the point, but as something I could build up little by little, and in the five-or-so years since it has become a really central part of how I try and keep myself mentally healthy. In the past few weeks as my life has changed in ways big and small it’s the one ritual I have managed to keep up pretty consistently, and it’s honestly keeping me sane.

How is your summer? I hope you didn’t melt in the heat. Me and the family of baby seagulls currently living directly outside my window (who are causing me equal levels of irritation and anxiety) struggled up here in the attic, but we just about made it through.

The Girls

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/coercion

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.

Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?

I know I need to find another space to take a photo, but I’m short on options in my new house

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with The Girls by Emma Cline.

It was about 100 foreboding pages in. I was waiting for a late-running train back to Devon for the weekend. I had resentfully purchased a £5 pasty from Bristol Temple Meads train station because my just under two-hour journey had suddenly become much longer – so long that there wasn’t even a projected arrival time – and I was hungry. The signs read only: delayed.

But me and my pasty-greasy fingers were utterly absorbed in this creepy, gut-wrenching, cult-joining, sexuality-exploring, absolutely gripping read.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Girls if you want to feel comfortable.

“’You ever hear anything about Russell?’
The question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand that she was trying to gauge how many of the rumours I’d heard: about orgies, about frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men. Dogs scarified on moonlit beaches, goat heads rotting in the sand. If I’d had friends besides Connie, I might’ve heard chatter of Russell at parties, some hushed gossip in the kitchen. Might’ve known to be wary.
But I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.”

The Girls is about bored teen Evie Boyd. Apathetic about her friends, her upcoming transfer to boarding school, her parents’ recent divorce and well… just about everything. She mostly hangs out by herself, masturbating and thinking about all of the sex and excitement – though to her those things are one and the same – that are yet to come into her life.

Despite the madness of the scenario – charismatic cult leader, Manson family-style murder – everything that happens in The Girls feels grounded in reality. For however crazy her situation becomes – and it really does – Evie’s experiences and her thoughts about them never felt anything short of authentic.

Cline takes a razor sharp (read: painful) look at emerging sexuality and how it is so often experienced by teenage girls. A whole mess of influences like patriarchy, gender roles, coercion and the drive to always be pleasing play out in upsetting ways as Evie begins her sexual life. There is a sense that she is passive in her sexual experiences, manipulated by older men and complicit women in ways she isn’t yet able to understand. Won’t understand, in fact, until years later, when she is in her middle age and forced see the toxic patterns playing out again for another young girl. A tale as old as time – and a super fucking depressing one.

As so many cult reads (by that I mean literal cult), The Girls is a book preoccupied with power. Who has it – but more, really, about who doesn’t. It looks at the way masculinity can be wielded like a weapon – men who want to take advantage, men who think they know best, men who just want you to feel uncomfortable in the world, for no reason other than it makes them feel good. Men who really don’t care whether you want to have sex with them or not, so long as they get to have sex.

Watching Evie navigate that, from her teen girl summer to the snatches of her life as an adult we’re offered hurt to read, because it felt so familiar.

But this book isn’t all about men – it’s called The Girls, after all. Ultimately, though he is the sun around which everyone else orbits, cult reader Russell doesn’t really do it for Evie. He never did. What brought Evie into the fold was the unreachable Suzanne, who Evie wants in complex and ever-changing ways. From the beginning where she wants to be her – or at least the thing that she appears to be – Evie falls hard for a woman so deep in the cult that she is unable to love her back. Suzanne is too far gone, and watching Evie come to terms with that is a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love as cringe-inducingly familiar as everything else Cline writes in this novel.

“I was happy to twist the meanings, wilfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted me for.”

Evie enters a bad world from one where the word’s previous definition came with an air of unreality. She says it herself at various points in the book: nothing bad ever really happens. That’s why she waltzes oddly thoughtlessly on in this never-ending investigating-the-noise-in-the-cellar book. We spend the entire time waiting for a monster, as yet invisible, to appear – and consume her.

It’s hard to get this one out of your head.

How To Stop Time

How many lifetimes does it take to learn how to live?

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can stay one step ahead of his past – and stay alive.

The only thing he must not do is fall in love…

When I picked up How To Stop Time by Matt Haig, I was totally ready – unlike poor old Tom Hazard – to fall in love. Haig is such a popular author, and I’ve always really valued his perspective about mental health.

Sadly though, How To Stop Time just didn’t do it for me.

I really didn’t like it. The pacing was off, the characters under-developed, the twist so obvious as to be guessed from almost the first chapter, and the plot never more than hinted at in passing.

But I’ll get back to that.

Because for the sake of balance, I feel I should get into the parts I liked.

Structurally, it was an interesting read. Tom Hazard, as the summary says, has a rare and unusual condition that means he ages very slowly. At the beginning of How To Stop Time, Tom is “well over 400 years old”, and world-weary in a way I suppose unique to people who have lived for more than four centuries.

Following some terrible event in his life – the exact nature of which we never find out, unless I blinked and missed it – Tom has decided to start life over as a history teacher in a London secondary school. The plot jumps in time between his history lessons and the memories his classes inspire – from his experiences with witch trials in the fifteenth century to the time he met Shakespeare. It’s kind of like Slumdog Millionaire if Dev Patel were a school teacher.

Tom’s fluctuating mental health over the centuries, too, felt very realistic to me. It’s pretty easy to feel a certain level of despondency about the world – that the level you’d feel that would be amplified by hundreds of years of seeing the same patterns repeat themselves made a lot of sense. When you’re doomed to outlive (almost) everyone you care about, isolating would seem like the most sensible option to protect yourself from the pain of that.

“This is the chief comfort of being four hundred and thirty nine years old. You understand quite completely that the main lesson of history is: humans don’t learn from history. The twenty-first century could still turn out to be a bad cover version of the twentieth, but what could we do?”

The rest of it, however, I just could not get behind. From the twist you could see coming from pretty much the first chapter, to the ending in which Haig attempts to squash an entire plot into a matter of pages – the result being that most things aren’t satisfactorily tied up, and things that are, are done so far too neatly – it was quite a disappointment to me all around. It was just weak, and I’m sad about that because the premise was so promising.

His approach to his subject matter of hope, existential dread and anxiety about the future also felt heavy handed, and awkward. How To Stop Time made universal worries peculiarly unengaging – by having Tom realise the meaning of life – essentially to live in the moment – through a very underdeveloped relationship with his Freda Pinto, a sexy French teacher with epilepsy (who teaches Tom life lessons by saying things like “who knows anything about the future? I don’t know if I’ll make it through the afternoon!” (I might be paraphrasing)).

So, How To Stop Time was kind of a dud for me, but I’m glad to have ticked Haig off the to-read list.