When most people find out I did an English degree and that my Master's degree is in Book History, one of the first things they'll say is 'so you like reading then!'. And they're right - partly. I love books, and I love the escape reading offers, but when your entire academic life and career path revolves around a serious amount of reading, it's sometimes easy to end up choosing to do other things in your spare time. For a while, the thought of picking up another book for fun after ten hours of studying made my brain want to escape through my ears. After my first degree, I let myself have some time off and then worked back into reading through my gateway book drug of choice: post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction (I clearly don't like to give myself too easy a time).
This novel is one of my favourites of all time, and I don't have many. A driver at a traffic light goes blind; the ophthalmologist who is treating him goes blind before he can work out what is causing the unusual 'white' blindness. Quickly, the mysterious illness spreads through the population, and the authorities try to contain the epidemic by shutting the sick into a mental asylum. Saramago makes this scenario frighteningly real - I felt like he really captured how society could break down so rapidly in a situation like this. The prose style is a little unusual, but I found that it really adds to the sense of tension and confusion which builds throughout the novel. Amongst the horror, though, you'll find beauty too.
THE DOG STARS
Hig lives with his dog under the watchful eyes of his survivalist next door neighbour Bangley, who counters Hig's flying skills with his watchtower and stock of ammunition. A kind of influenza has wiped out most of the world, with a blood disease soon following. Hig's existence is comfortable - or as comfortable as it might be at the end of the world, whilst mourning the loss of mostly everything you've known - but a random radio transmission compels him to seek out the possibility of other survivors. The Dog Stars had me in tears several times. Some of the prose is a little laboured (the sex scenes, for example), but overall it's heartfelt, simple, and beautifully written. A lovely reflection of the human need for something 'more' than survival.
The first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation deals with the twelfth expedition into Area X, a strange area cut off from the rest of civilization and seemingly with a whole new set of biological and physical rules. Few of the team members from the previous expeditions have returned, and those which have have been irreparably changed by mental trauma, some with a kind of cancer. The novel follows 'the biologist', part of an all female team, and the rapid deterioration of the group as they explore Area X. I found the characters a little lacklustre and spent some time slogging through this book, though I was quite drawn in by the need to find out more about Area X despite its slightly contrived name. Vandermeer's prose has some serious beauty in places, but it just didn't quite do it for me. I'm currently reading Authority, the second in the trilogy, and though I'm not finding it as engaging so far, my curiosity is keeping me going.
Emily St John Mandel
I was recommended this book by several people on Twitter, and they were right to do so! Station Eleven is quite a different approach to writing in the post-apocalyptic genre. The format seems at first to fit the standard world-after-disaster story: the Georgia Flu wipes out 99% of humanity, the people left behind deal with the fall out as best they can; cults and 'ferals' roam the landscape. However, Station Eleven strays both forward and backwards in time, weaving a narrative between the before and after, slowly connecting the dots. Mainly the novel follows a group of performers, the Travelling Symphony, as they move through the new world with the motto 'survival is not insufficient'. It's a beautiful exploration of art, memory and meaning.
THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR
Sandra Newman's novel rests on the usual premise: a post-epidemic world populated by warring factions. The twist is that these factions are made up of self-sufficient children, who will be killed by an inherited condition ('Posies') before they are twenty - one is our heroine, Ice Cream Star. It's not always easy going. There's six hundred pages to wade through, and I did get bogged down in the middle. I felt the narrative could have done with some whittling down - but overall, the world-building was strong and I felt for the characters. The whole of Country is built on language - Newman's prose is lyrical, intensely layered and unapologetic (don't hope for a glossary) - and this is what I feel is its most powerful aspect.