Books In Brief

Today I'm reviving a series that I haven't visited since last autumn (gulp)! I feel that this little space doesn't adequately reflect how much time I devote to reading, and wanted to share three books that I've particularly loved recently. If you're looking for a read that will grab you and force you to feverishly relinquish your loved ones and duties until you resurface days later, glassy-eyed and unwilling to let go of the book, look no further. These three are well-written, blessed with fantastic plots and characters, and you'll find yourself reluctant to leave their worlds behind: the hallmark of a truly good book for me. 

Station Eleven (2014) - Emily St. John Mandel 

"What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot."

Station Eleven begins one wintry night in a theatre in Toronto. A rapt audience watches a performance of King Lear, unaware that the world's population is on the brink of being crushed by a deadly strain of swine flu. Mandel doesn't dwell on the horrors of this disease but rather places her focus on the human reactions and relationships before, during and especially in the aftermath of the apocalypse, weaving a host of seemingly disparate storylines around this central event, the last night of the world as we know it. What I love about this novel is that although you might expect life to be rendered unrecognisable by the plague, the remainder of society continues to cling to the threads of our collapsed former civilisation. Shakespeare, classical music and literature are adapted to the needs of the new world - even Sartre's famous 'Hell is other people' gets a rewrite: 'Hell is the absence of the people you long for' -  and chillingly, a museum memorialises laptops and mobile phones, technology forced into obsolescence by the plague. This is a perfectly crafted, touching piece of apocalyptic fiction, well worth the cloud of hype that's surrounded it over the past year. 

The Little Friend (2002) - Donna Tartt

'It was the last picture that they had of him. Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him - almost visible - in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree.'  

This is the Donna Tartt novel that most people haven't heard of - her second after The Secret History, preceding The Goldfinch. The novel opens with the murder of a little boy (named Robin - hence the title) but isn't centred around the event. Instead, the focus here is about the people it affects, years later. The story revolves around the escapades of his sibling, the twelve-year-old Harriet, in a sleepy backwater town in Tartt's home state of Mississippi. Harriet, a baby at the time of Robin's death, is fiercely determined to avenge her brother, and impervious to the fact that her vendetta may be misdirected. Hijinks ensue, including one very memorable moment with a king cobra. As usual, I can't help but approach Tartt's writing as if spinning out a particularly delicious ice cream - her plots and characters are beautifully crafted, her prose so eminently readable (yet not self-indulgent), and I never want her books to end. Luckily, they're quite long, so there's lots to enjoy! Next up, The Goldfinch - I can only hope it's as good as Tartt's first two novels.

The Circle (2013) - Dave Eggers

“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” 

When one of the most exciting tech behemoths in the world offers small-town Mae a job,  it feels like a miracle. Her new company, The Circle, is an unholy mash-up of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, and its 'campus' comes with all the perks you might expect at the coolest social media company in the world: an in-house GP, rooms of free products to test and borrow, theatres and nightclubs, and a space for the hottest musicians, comedians and writers to perform their material for The Circle's employees. Hell, if they advertised a grad scheme I'd probably sign up in a heartbeat. But of course, in fiction, if you're presented with a utopia, it's always too good to be true. As a social media company, the Circle encourages sharing everything online - doing so increases one's online rank and thus celebrity. As her sharing levels spiral out of control, Mae finds herself propelled closer and closer to the dark truth at the heart of the Circle. As a blogger and someone who shares fairly extensively on social media channels, I found Eggers' writing a fascinating comment on our computer age - and how our obsession with online transparency might easily morph into a 21st century Big Brother state.

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