The Last Kingdom is the last time I’ll think a book is worth reading just because it’s a Netflix series—

Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom is a tale of Viking campaigns with an accompanying Netflix show to its pedigree, and prior to reading struck me as a fun historical departure from the usual suspects of my reading given that the Danish conquests, medieval culture, and the war craft of the period in general has fascinated me since I was a kid. If you’d asked me—shortly after I’d found a Norseman coloring book (lots of red crayon)—what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said I wanted to be a Viking.

            Contrary to my childhood fantasies, The Last Kingdom fell short of my expectations for two major reasons which both find their root in my contention that authors who consistently write in a specific genre are able to manifest a novel of out of leftover dross from previous works:  

            1) The story is narrated in first person point-of-view (POV) by Uhtred of Bebbanburg. I have zero issue with first person POV, but in the case of a sweeping epic, first person POV cannot leave its teller’s body and so becomes small. Also known as, less epic. The result is a structural paradox which reading experience has proven doesn’t often work. Alternatively, when a story can move around and go into different characters’ heads, it is able to cover a wider, more epic scope which is why so many major epic tales such as Lord of the Rings, Dune, Le Morte D’Arthur, The Wheel of Time, Narnia, Beowulf (a Danish mythology, no less) are all told in the third person POV. As with everything, there are exceptions, but the first person POV fails The Last Kingdom in another way.

The inherent strength of first person POV is that while the outside world narrows, the reader becomes privy to the widening introspective world—witness to the emotions, thoughts, of the narrator. Well, either Uhtred is a psychopath (not improbable based on some textual evidence), or Cornwell forgot to include any emotion because it’s not there. As a nine year old, Uhtred watches his brother, then his father be slaughtered (it’s not a spoiler), and then expresses the equivalent amount of grief that I would have if someone told me my pet rock died. And he’s not compartmentalizing. His motivations are constantly unclear because he doesn’t think, only acts, which makes for a one-dimensional, unsympathetic protagonist.

            2) When you read a newspaper article you (are supposed to) get a reporting of the facts. Because facts are to the point, they are sparse. This can make the reading dry, but it is not intended to entertain, only to inform. Conversely, sweeping epics are supposed to sweep, to sprawl, to somersault and get stuck in the minutia briar patch as the author gets lost in the world he or she has created—and all the while entertain.

            Uhtred (via Cornwell) does not sweep, sprawl, or somersault. Apart from the final 6-8 pages, the story reads as if Cornwell submitted a thorough outline to his publisher and they told him, “Hey, know what? You have a big enough fan base. Why fritter away another six months fleshing out this outline when we can publish as-is and have the second installment released by then?” There’s no meat, no depth, no stewing over minor details to build a world worth spending more time in. The whole thing reads like a cobbled summary from the research of other projects.

            In rare form, maybe the show is better than the book? For me, however, the epic of Uhtred ends here. 1.5/5 stars.

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Walking Plants and Cannibal Bats is How I’ll Remember 2020…oh, and the alien invasion a little later in the year—

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I’ve been a sucker for stories about survival dating all the way back to My Side of the Mountain and Slake’s Limbo in elementary school. I mean, what kid—and possibly what adult—wouldn’t want to eek out a modest but endlessly innovative life in a hollowed out tree or the crevice of an unfinished New York City subway tunnel? Especially in the year of 2020, both of these options feel like viable ways to escape the present onslaught of disasters.

More than simply running away, however, what I appreciate most in these kinds of stories is how character(s) survive in the midst of the terrors as Bill Masen does in John Wyndham’s classic pulp novel The Day of the Triffids. When most of the world goes blind after watching a cosmic light show, the semi-sentient Triffid plant life steps (they can walk) to center stage to assert its dominion. Bill Masen is one of the few to escape with his sight and he, any others that can see, and so many scores who can’t are forced to plot, plan, and engineer the survival of the human race in the age of the triffid.

Did anyone except me ever see that campy horror movie Bats? The premise was largely the same: bloodthirsty and genetically-mutated-way-smarter-than-your-average bats decide to go on a rampage and it’s up some bat expert and local authorities to quell the uprising. It was not good. I don’t even like horror movies and yet my adolescent-self loved this movie. In the penultimate scene, the cast bunkers down in a school to await the bat-battalion. To prevent the bats from smashing through the pane glass and devouring every human within, the cast wraps chain-link fences over the windows, clips on jumper cables, and plugs them into the generator. Voila! Time to electrocute bats. Let me say, my excitement was not about abusing winged mammals, but about the innovation requisite for survival: I think about this scene, from twenty years ago, regularly.

To that end, I predict I would be one of the first people dead in any of these situations because I’m not that clever. And maybe that’s another reason I enjoy books like this—there’s a vicarious relationship. I could also say, in the case of Triffids, Wyndham is pointing a subtler finger at humanities’ propensity to revert back to primitive and barbaric modes reminiscent of Darwin (survival of the fittest, kill or be killed, only the strong survive) and alluding to the uncaring, compassionless animal nature imbedded in us which, unleashed at a moment’s notice will gladly dispense with the life of a fellow human if only it means I can eat for one more day.

But… I still like the survival angle. I’ve also had occasion to think the 1930s-50s pulp mag content was fun but poorly written, but not true here. Fun and well-written. So when you need someone else’s life to be worse off than your own for a little perspective on how good—in spite of all the circumstances we find ourselves currently enduring—you might still have it, definitely check out Triffids. 4/5 stars.

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A Chasm Within Sanderson’s Elantris Causes a Fissure of Confusion

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Brandon Sanderson is the hottest thing going in fantasy right now. Patrick Rothfuss might be if he ever released the third installment of the Kingkiller Chronicle, but since we’d all be dead if we were holding our breaths, I’ll stay with Sanderson. I’ve made previous claims to my aversion of series due to the commitment finishing one takes, so his standalone Elantris was an easy choice.

A locus of magic and authority possessed by its occupants, Elantris was once the city of the gods. Now, a decade after their aonic (rune) power has fled—the city is in ruins and the gods turned to wretches. Anyone displaying the mottled stain of Reod (a perverse Elantrian appearance) is considered cursed and cast out from civilization. The three intertwining stories of Prince Raoden, Princess Sarene, and Gyorn Hrathen tell the story of how Elantris fell, the consequences it has wrought, and the eventual hope of its return (or destruction) to bring about salvation.

To ensure I don’t ramble too much, I’d like to make several cogent points and then allow anyone who wants to weigh in do so. That said, this is probably for people who have already read the book. So *SPOILER ALERT* on #5 and #6!:

1) Based on the popular opinion of other works by Sanderson, he is most known for his world building. That is the case here. He creates a diverse civilization and several cultures complete with their own unique religions, politics, and histories.

2) The story alternates between the point of views of three characters. This method told the story more completely—it would be a different story (or the understanding of it would be different if only told from one character’s POV). Despite knowing that, I sometimes felt it made the narrative a little jarring and possibly garrulous. This leads into point number three.

3) I’ve stated on many occasions that few books deserve to be longer than 500 pages. In the case of Elantris, the rule holds. There were places in the alternating point of views where there was little progression in the story (and basically a rehash of what the previous POV character had already understood). My argument is that more crucial elements could have been explained. For this reason I will concede that the page count could have exceeded 500 pages but within those pages greater tension was needed. A disclaimer: I am aware this was Sanderson’s first book, and he’s published about 50 in 13-14 years. If my math is correct, that’s 50 more than I’ve published. So. I get it.

4) Banter. Good banter can distinguish a novel in memory. I still recall lines of delectable quips from previous novels. However, certain banter can make me groan in its hokey childishness. It attempts to channel a kind of teenage awkwardness, but draws more attention to itself as an author trying to channel teenage awkwardness (and not succeeding). This happens a lot.

5) *Possible Spoiler Alert* The Pool. I didn’t have anything against its existence nor that when you threw an Elantrian in, he melted. But then Raoden trips in, and the water is somehow subservient to his will? Still nothing entirely wrong with this. But. Then. What was its purpose? Why did it exist? If there was a sequel to Elantris I would allow Sanderson the grace to explain then. But since there isn’t one (an e-book novella in a completely different part of the world doesn’t count) I’m not satisfied. Even if somebody says “oh well that’s explained in the greater scope of his Cosmere universe,” I retort that such an explanation is insufficient. But I would like answers if you have them!

6) *Possible Spoiler Alert* As Raoden is attempting to use the aons, he discovers that the aons match up with the physical landscape of the world, but an earthquake changed the landscape (creating a large chasm) and therefore changing how the power of the aons is activated. He begins adding in the “chasm” to his aon drawings and minimal power exudes. Then, at the book’s climax, he drags a branch across the landscape—and that somehow makes the chasm more defined to allow the full power of the aons to be used? A couple of things: first, wasn’t the chasm line already there due to the earthquake? And second, how can dragging a branch through the dirt be significant enough to “open” the totality of aonic power? Wheels on a horse drawn carriage could cause the same degree of markings and thus screw up the Elantrian power indefinitely and constantly for all time. What have I overlooked?

Let me end here because I want to make it clear Sanderson is a good writer. He’s a sincere talent in the world of SFF. But, also, I guess wanted more from him. Maybe that’s an unfair expectation, but I’m sticking to it.

3/5 stars (3.5 or higher is a recommend).

 

 

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Dine on Dandelion Wine

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One of his earliest novels, yet one of his best. Loosely autobiographical, Dandelion Wine also supports Bradbury’s rejection of his identity as a science fiction author, and instead focuses on the “fantastical and unreal.”

For Douglas Spaulding, 12, and his brother Tom, 9, summer vacation has just arrived in the quiet hamlet of Greentown, Illinois. The town, the world, the universe is theirs for the taking. And take it they do. In a dozen closely connected and episodic tales, the boys, their family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers, all partake in the fantastical, surreal, and altogether marvelous imaginations of young boys.

The boys insist that their neighbor built a happiness machine…

Another elderly veteran takes the boys for a spin in his time machine…

A gypsy fortune teller toy in the arcade is an imprisoned princess in need of rescue…

The mysterious junk man whistles into town and tells folks they can have whatever they want from his cart, so long as they “want it with all their heart”…

And meanwhile Grandma’s in the kitchen making the best meal in the history of eating.

A phantasmagoria of color and childhood wonder so prescient and so visceral, I’m confusing it with my own memories of a similar variety.

And boy do I want a swig of that dandelion wine. An absolutely refreshing read. And then some. 4.5/5 stars.

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A River of Five Stars for this Review

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Most of the time, you know you’re reading a good book because of how quickly you consume its pages. You’re enthralled with the mystery and tension. The search for answers keeps your eyes sprinting through the narrative.

But then, there are books like Leif Engel’s Peace Like a River which are—and I say this after consulting with several sources—unrivaled in excellence and yet do not contain any of the sprint-like qualities. In fact, so unlike a sprint is Enger’s characterization that the Peace Like a River reads far more like a hot bath after a marathon. The kind you want to stay in for days. Like, maybe, a peaceful river.

Often, I will look at my progress in a book and rate my satisfaction by how rigorously I’m working through it. Conversely, with Peace Like a River, I took my sweet time. I couldn’t read fast because Enger’s language demanded that I slow down to fully absorb his extraordinary work. When it did become evident that an ending was in sight, I lamented. My only comparison in the audacity and command of language is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead—which won a Pulitzer.

There’s little more that can be said. A summary is insufficient. Instead, as always, I leave you with my five-star exhortation: Just read it. And if a whole new novel feels untenable at the moment, I beseech you to read only the first chapter. It will leave you (perhaps quite literally) breathless. Consequently, you will have received all the persuasion necessary. 5/5 stars.

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Even Frank Sinatra is Staying North of the Border for this Review

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In my first year of undergrad, I read one of Haruki Murakami’s Rat Trilogy books. I found the novel so unremarkable that I don’t recall which one it was. Having announced this judgment to several Murakami advocates over the years since, they implored me to give him another chance. A dozen years later, I relented.

Picking up a copy of South of the Border, West of the Sun, I was surprised with what I found: it was even worse. Sorry not sorry.

The entire novel follows a pre-pubescent Hijame through his middle-age, and more specifically, follows his Odysseus-sized hubris and unrelenting, lust-crazed hormones toward a childhood flame he eventually discovers and—surprise!—has sex with. The end.

Can someone please explain the point? Maybe there’s someone I’m missing due to translation. Maybe. I respect Murakami’s craft (as I understand it, he wrote too floridly in Japanese and so to be more succinct he learned English, wrote his manuscripts in English, and translated them back into Japanese in order to have a more limited—and thus concise—sentence structure), but no amount of pith can save this story from a one star review.

Not much else to say. Stay north of the border, stay east of the sun on this one. 1/5 stars.

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Chandler’s The Big Sleep Will Keep You Wide Awake—

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A preface: In my quest for Year of the Big Books, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment had at last risen to the top of my list. I eased it from the bookshelf and resolved to dig in for the long haul. Several reading sessions (days) and many hours later, I closed the novel and checked my progress by noting the depth of the bookmark through the book’s pages. What! Is something wrong with me? I bemoaned. No, seriously. How could I have only read this many pages so far? Is my reading speed regressing?

Fearing for my future literary life, I did something I hardly ever do: started a new book in between the one I’m currently reading. An hour later, I was halfway through the new book and consequently my reading crisis had been averted with the added benefit of a valuable lesson: some books cannot be read straight through. Crime and Punishment is one such book.

The new book, as the title of this review has surely intimated was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Sassy, brash, quick-witted, and sure-footed, protagonist Philip Marlowe isn’t just a private investigator; he’s the genre’s mold. Every detective since is only a die-cast.

Nowadays mystery and thriller novels are a dime a dozen (or at least a dollar each since that’s what we often sell them for at the bookstore). Crime-related entertainment has saturated the media. Just think about how many scores of television shows fall into that category. Or, furthermore, what gets the most news coverage? Yeah, it’s not a new idea. But what sticks out about Philip Marlow’s character, and separates him from the deluge of imitators, is his attitude. To steal a quote Margot Livesey in her essay “Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars,” Livesey states: “The crucial thing that brings [Marlow] to life, though, is no single attribute or detail, no action or remark, but the overwhelming sense we get, as we read these lines, of how [Marlowe] regards himself and the world: his attitude.”

I don’t know what more I can, or want, to add to that. Normally, I don’t say “just read it” unless I consider a book to be of 5-star merit, but to understand what makes Philip Marlowe—the man, the myth, the original P.I.—and his one-of-a-kind attitude, you do have to read the book. In Marlowe, Raymond Chandler may present what a first appears to be a typical bad boy who can’t obey the law enough himself to be a cop, but simmering beneath his cynical exterior is Chandler’s precise prose, plotting, and observation that it’s obvious why Marlowe’s character has, in fact, endured. Had me wide-eyed from the first. 4/5 stars.

…and maybe a C&P review next week. But probably not.

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Take a Walk on The Wolf Road

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There has been a boom in post-apocalyptic fiction and Beth Lewis’ debut novel The Wolf Road is no exception. However, unlike many of her predecessors’ contributions to end-of-the-world-literature, Lewis shies away from the reasons and whys precipitating earth’s demise and instead the protagonist dismissively calls the event “The Damn Stupid.” Somebody did something, and now we’re here. That’s it. But where is here?

An indistinct war has erased all technology before the 1880s (a saw mill is about as advanced as it gets) and most of civilization has reverted to colonial America. After a super storm destroys her home, seven-year-old Elka is raised by a hermit hunter she calls Trapper to his face and Daddy when he can’t hear her. They live off the grid and she learns all the tricks of hunting and creating a sustainable lifestyle. Now seventeen, Elka learns that things aren’t as they’ve seemed; the man she’s called Daddy hasn’t ever been who he says. A journey to escape the life she knows to find one she doesn’t takes her to unexpected places and revelations.

I came into this novel expecting to find similarities to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but became pleasantly surprised that Lewis does not take that path—or at least goes at it in a roundabout way. McCarthy underscores the relationship between father and son (or parent and child), but Lewis goes a step further to acknowledge that when assumed parental love is absent or dissolved, family can sometimes come in a different form.

Before I praise the book, I do want to make a note of a pervasive theme in literature that has lately caused me much consternation. I’ll ruffle a few coattails with this, but I’m going to say it. The theme is “down deep, I’m a good person.” The invisible internet reader now says Huh? What? Well yeah, of course I am! I disagree. Vehemently. If you’ll humor me, I have an anecdote to illustrate my point. Over the course of approximately five years I embarked on a quasi-social experiment where I asked strangers “Do you think you’re a good person?” I estimate I asked 2000 people across the width of the social spectrum. Not a single person—not one—answered in the pejorative. The consensus is this: Each one of us will justify our way into being a “good person” no matter what the reality of our actions proves. Just to emphasize this point, I spoke with a neo-Nazi covered in swastika tattoos who believed he was a good person because of his racist proclivities. When we’re the judge, we always rule in our favor. I could go on, but the summation is that we need to stop deluding ourselves about so-called inherent goodness and that includes fictional personalities.

Now for some accolades:

The writing is strong throughout—even the jangly county bumpkin syntax stays consistent and readable, but what I appreciate most about The Wolf Road is its plotting. This is not a spoiler alert: The first chapter is the book’s climax. The rest of the book until we arrive at the climax again is a breathless trek to discover how Elka arrives. It takes a brave author to show her cards from the first and pray she’s got enough gusto in the rest of the narrative to keep us reading. Lewis succeeds with aplomb. From a pure craft perspective, it’s worth a study. So take a walk on the Wolf Road and survey the sights. 3.5/5 stars.

 

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You’d Be Safe (to) Hold Off Armageddon Reef—

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The ‘Year of Big Books’ continued this past week with Off Armageddon Reef, the first installment of David Weber’s Safehold series. Originally, the series clocked in at four volumes. Then swelled to eight. But I checked the ever-helpful FantasticFiction.com and Weber already released tome number nine with a tenth volume forthcoming in 2019. I guess you could stay the series is a bit bloated. That might be a good angle to bring into this review.

With each novel teasing on or about 600 pages, Weber’s Safehold world is massive. A literal planet, in point of fact. Give or take a millennium into the future, Earth and all her colonized planets have been wiped about by an invading alien race lured by technology. As a last ditch effort to save humanity, the last Terran fleet hides away on a remote planet—and sets up a primitive infrastructure with certain rules in place to ensure that innovation is discouraged, even illegal. Fast-forward another 800 years, and the planet Safehold is basically medieval Europe 2.0 with 16th century Man-of-War frigate ships. But wait, there’s more. A select few of the original colonists in charge of setting up the way of life—so-called Angels—also made provisions for themselves and their future heirs to the detriment of everyone else. But wait, there’s still more. Other, less sinister members of the original colonists—before they were destroyed—created a cyborg-esque superhuman with the complete memories of one of the original members. This robot, named Merlin Athrawes or Nimue Alban, depending on who you ask, decides to use his (or her) knowledge of the future to bring an industrial revolution to Safehold with the eventual hopes of staging—we think?—an assault against the original original original alien invaders.

The above summary scrapes at the surface of a succinct synopsis, but I’m in a mood to critique. I like that Weber’s world is big and complicated. However, I have a nag. My nag is this: If you’re going to do big things well, you must also do little things well. Weber skimped on the little things. Some examples:

  1. The religious institution on the planet of Safehold refers several times to “tithes.” To a reader unfamiliar with what exactly tithes are, the word’s relationship to a religious sect and the giving of money sounds about right. To someone (me) familiar with tithing, its use in the book is repeatedly and indisputably incorrect. The word tithe explicitly means a tenth (10%). So when a character says—“Their tithes are only twenty percent this month,”—that sentence is a non-sequitur. If it’s twenty percent, it’s not a tenth. Period. What Weber means, I gather, is “their tribute is only twenty percent this month” except that he wanted to sound ‘religious’ and no editors picked up on his error.
  2. The first time a character’s eyebrow “quirked” I said aloud—Nice verb! I’m definitely going to use that!—the 214th time a character’s eyebrow “quirked,” I said aloud, “URGAHHHHH!” because my face had a violent muscle spasm.
  3. The word-overuse alert also applies to “To speak frankly,” and “To be honest.” If a specific character possessed a penchant for reminding everyone of his honesty, the abundant use of these phrases would be appropriate (if not tolerable). When everyone, in every conversation is so utterly frank and honest about things that have little relevance as to their felicity—sigh, it’s a drag man.
  4. This is a kind of #3.5. I’m a stickler for characterization, so apply grains of salt where necessary: characters should be different from one another. Besides most conversations being long-winded (read: a piece of character dialogue the length my summary followed by its response which is of equal length. And repeat), the speeches didn’t excel in creating the friction necessary to promote distinct characterization. AKA, our two pals, Frank and Honest.
  5. There is a reasonably detailed world map on the end pages of the book. These are always helpful keeping a reader grounded in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. Except when most of the climatic action, and the respective locations that accompany it, isn’t identified on the map!
  6. Merlin Athrawes/Nimue Alban is basically Iron-Man dressed in synthetic skin. This isn’t a problem. I’m even willing to forgo a subtle Mary Sue Complex (look it up). What troubles me—and this is the little things cropping up once more—is that we’re approximately in the year 4,000, okay? And you’re telling me (spoiler alert), that Merlin has been carrying a vibrating pager around all these years!? I cannot think of a think person I know who owns one right now. This book was published in 2007 and they were long out of fashion by then. So…?

In closing, I underscore my aforementioned claim to say that I like big worlds, but, as an author, do the little things right first. Otherwise you will receive benedictions like this one: Needs a little more polish and a little less prose. The Year of Big Books will press on, but not with another Safehold novel. 2/5 stars.

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Take a Stop at Station Eleven—

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All I’d heard about Station Eleven was that the setting was post-apocalyptic and people were raving about it. But I thought, don’t we have enough post-apocalypse books already? The answer is No. We do not. After reading Emily St John Mandel’s breakout novel, I can safety say that human ingenuity can almost always find a way to take what’s been beaten like a dead horse (like that phrase) and do some heavy duty necromancy to reanimate the equine corpse (see what I did there?)

A summary is almost unnecessary as the overarching conflict resembles most other books of the genre. A deadly virus with an incubation period of mere hours effectively wipes out 99% of humanity within weeks. Civilization is decimated. Yet life goes on. Now, twenty years later—and here’s where Mandel begins to make this narrative her own—a colorful cast characters who all had the apparent coincidence of crossing paths at theater performance of King Lear just hours before the plague hit are again finding their paths, lives, histories, and humanities intersecting once again.

I’ve said this already, but it’s worth restating the genre similarities in order to point out how well Mandel diverges from them. She’s doing very little different from every other post-apocalyptic book. But she’s doing it tenfold times better. The writing is better, the characterization, the language, the webbing, the tension, the arc, the beautiful intermingled way in which she stitches the tattered lives of humanity together into a tapestry called family. Even now, as I’m on to reading other books, I find myself questioning why certain descriptions and world-building can’t look like Mandel’s does.

This is no doubt augmented by my acute synesthesia, but Station Eleven is one of those books whose pages glitter with color. When not thinking of specific plot points, I see the verdant greens of Michigan forests, the margarine light of fluorescents glaring over a muted stage, the suffocating black of a world in terror, and the bright, warmth—the color of hope.

So stay a while at Station Eleven, your imagination will thank you. 4/5 stars.

 

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