Station Eleven: Survival is Insufficient

20170404Typically, I don’t trust my reading habits to Amazon’s automatically generated algorithms, but when the book cover for Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven appeared in the “Science Fiction” section of my recommendations, I was struck. The glowing tents camped out under a vast sky caught my eye, and the title drew me in. What is Station Eleven? What does it have to do with tents and stars? I clicked the link to the book, intrigued. The first paragraph of its description (which is also the description on the back of the book) sealed the deal:

From Amazon:

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

I am really into post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels (ie: The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, and other works of that ilk), so I was in.

I agree with Allison, who also reviewed this book back in June, that the book moves slowly. Like her, I tend to be drawn toward more fast-paced, action-oriented books that leave me on the edge of my seat while I blast through them in a couple of sittings. But, as Allison said, Station Eleven is not like that. The pace is slow (almost agonizingly at times), but the payoff for sticking through to the end is worth the delayed gratification.

It’s worth it because, unlike many other dystopic future novels I’ve read, the setting bounces around to encapsulate a longer period of time and looks more intimately at the lives of the characters and how they are all connected. For instance, The Walking Dead is mostly focused on the events during and immediately after the zombie apocalypse, and The Hunger Games and Divergent center on a time several decades after the fall of the previous civilization and the rise of the new one. But Station Eleven gives a different perspective. It shows readers the very beginning of a pandemic, the lives of a few characters in the years, weeks, and days before it, and the lives of a few more characters two decades later. In other words, we get to revel in our civilization at its peak, watch in horror as it begins to crumble, and observe as it begins to redefine and rebuild itself. Station Eleven shows us the resilience of humanity when it is forced to undergo a change at the end of life as we know it.

But more importantly, while Emily St. John Mandel shows us this change, she infuses in us an appreciation for the world we have while also assuring us that humans will find a way to not only survive but also to thrive, no matter the circumstances. As the Travelling Symphony (quoting Star Trek) puts it, “Survival is insufficient.”

Erika is working on her dissertation. This statement is equivalent to “Erika has gone temporarily insane.”


My Drunk Kitchen by Hannah Hart

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Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen is a new twist on an old genre: it’s a cookbook, but really the focus is less on making food and more on bolstering self-esteem and inspiring readers to do great things, much like Hannah’s YouTube show.

For the uninitiated, Hannah has been making us all feel better about ourselves and laugh at her shenanigans for over four years with the original My Drunk Kitchen (MDK). See for yourself how Hannah expertly juggles both making a delicious gazpacho while discussing gender roles.

Like her show, Hannah’s book balances good food and good fun to make one feel-good cookbook. She includes recipes like Layzagna, Encurrygement Curry, Tear…Ah Miss You, and Enmeshed Potatoes (did I mention she’s really into puns and wordplay? Because she is and it’s delightful).

Each recipe begins with an oftentimes inspirational quote from someone famous, like Rumi, Epictetus, and Mary Shelley. Except the recipe for Compound Butters on page 25. That one begins with Hannah quoting herself raving about how good Orange Is the New Black is (I mean, she isn’t wrong).

Then Hannah lists the recipe for making the dish du jour, often interrupting herself to go on a humorous tangent or to give general advice. In her Guaca-Hole-y recipe on page 118, she begins her instructions by justifying why you would want to make the dish in the first place: “And right now you don’t want to take the time to dice some onions and let them soak for ten minutes in fresh-squeezed lime juice as the base. That’s my trick. Shh. Don’t tell anybody. Now you know though. But that’s okay, because I trust you. We trust each other.”

After the instructions, Hannah ends each recipe with a Life Lesson that ranges from the absurd–“Always have tiny plastic spoons” (Latke Shotkes, 17-18)–to the silly but uplifting –“You might not be at the standard of living that you aspire to achieve. But be patient. And sometimes eat some comfort food that you’ve sliced into a sushi shape” (Crunchy Roll, 71-73)–to the genuinely inspirational–“Trust me. You look good. Try to focus on the things that you do have instead of obsessing over the things you don’t” (Sloppy Jane, 92-93).

If you are looking for a guide to eating, drinking & going with your gut, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking & Going with Your Gut is your next book. I blasted through this thing in an afternoon because it was just so hilarious I couldn’t put it down, but it’s also good for a slow read. And I mean, it actually is a cookbook, so you can make real food with it. It’s both a culinary learning experience and a life learning experience. And you will laugh. Mostly at Hannah, but sometimes even at yourself.


Historical Fantasy: Virginia Boecker’s The Witch Hunter

Yay, this day has come at last! I’ve been waiting for six months to recommend Virginia Boecker‘s thrilling alternate history YA fantasy debut, The Witch Hunter, which will be published next month. I am always eager to read books about witches, and I was ecstatic when a digital review copy of The Witch Hunter became available on Edelweiss in late October. It’s a page-turner that I practically finished in one day (back in November) and read again a few days ago.

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The Witch Hunter has everything I look for in fantasy. Elizabeth Grey is a feisty and fierce heroine, who is also complex, conflicted and flawed. The plot is fast-paced, action-driven, addictive, and full of twists and turns. There’s high-stakes adventure and romance, mystery, dark magic, a deadly curse, unlikely alliances, betrayal, and sacrifice.

The Witch Hunter brilliantly reimagines an alternate 16h century England (Anglia) where magic is real and forbidden. The kingdom has always been divided by Reformists (magic supporters and practitioners) and Persecutors (magic opposers). Until recently, however, magic was not only permitted in Anglia but was also welcomed. Wanting Reformists and Persecutors to coexist peacefully, Anglia’s previous king (Malcolm’s father) appointed the most powerful wizard and leader of the Reformists, Nicholas Perevil, to his council. That was a big mistake. A magic-induced plague, which Perevil is accused of creating, killed half of Anglia’s population (including the king and Elizabeth’s parents). Wanting desperately to capture Perevil and put an end to sorcery, the Inquisitor, Lord Blackwell, formed the anti-magic laws that witch hunters enforce.

The Witch Hunter‘s first-person, present-tense narration immediately threw me into Elizabeth’s contentious world. The book opens with her standing at the edge of a crowded square on a burning day. She and her best friend Caleb watch four witches and three wizards burn at the stake, before embarking on their own risky witch hunt. She is the only female witch hunter in King Malcolm’s elite group, led by Blackwell, and one of the best at capturing magic-users. Witch hunters are branded with stigmas that protect them from injury, and she is a kick-ass heroine. Witch hunting is becoming more precarious, however. Reformist rebellions are on the rise, and to avoid being targeted, she and Caleb must hide their witch hunter identities and live at the king’s main residence, Ravenscourt, disguised as his servants. Also a terrible secret distracts her from doing her best witch hunting: she is at the mercy of King Malcolm, whose sexual advances she can not refuse.

The first plot turn happens quickly. When Elizabeth is caught with contraceptive herbs, she is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death…before being saved by her greatest enemies. What happens next? I’m not going to tell you. Preorder The Witch Hunter now and find out for yourself on June 2nd.

Alyssa Raymond reviews books for the Boulder Book Store (where she worked as a bookseller for ten years). She also blogs about new and upcoming MG and YA releases at Coven Book Club and its recently-launched sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, the publisher and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with a DRC of this book for review purposes; her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding Books on Twitter and Tumblr.


New Fairy Tale Retellings: Echo, Nightbird, Monstrous

Last week I recommended my favorite YA epic fantasy books published this month. Now I will share with you a few of my favorite new releases in another subgenre of fantasy/science fiction: fairy tale retellings.

You would think by now that reading classic fairy tales and their many adaptations and retellings would get old. But, amazingly enough, many writers have used familiar fairy tale elements to create surprisingly inventive and complex narratives. Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird, and MarcyKate Connolly’s Monstrous employ fairy tales in their narratives in very diverse ways.

Echo, a breathtaking novel of interconnected stories, begins with an original fairy tale involving a magical harmonica that unites two boys and a girl growing up before and during World War II. They live in different worlds, strangers to one another, but they all experience prejudice and share a love of music.

The first story features Friedrich, an aspiring conductor who is called “Monster Boy” because of his birthmark and labeled an undesirable in Nazi Germany. In the second story, set in Pennsylvania, Mike and his brother desperately try to escape from an orphanage and their musical talent may be their best hope. In the final story, which takes place in California, Ivy struggles with her school system’s segregation of Mexicans (including those American-born like her) and discrimination against Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbor bombing. By uniting these individual stories, Echo not only emphasizes their common experiences of injustice but their love of music—an enduring source of hope and resilience during dark times.

Nightbird, which will be released in March, also employs magical realism and is a fairy tale set in contemporary times. In 12-year-old Twig’s small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts, a winged monster is rumored to come out at night and is believed to be responsible for strange incidents of theft and graffiti. Twig is a keen observer of what goes on in the town, but she also stays separate, and Nightbird fuses fairy tale elements with everyday life to bring more meaning to her isolation. She is not just a lonely and awkward 12-year-old who has difficulty making friends and feeling normal. A family secret—more specifically, a witch’s ancient curse—keeps her and her mother in self-imposed isolation. That is until Twig befriends their new neighbors who have ties to her family secret, and she starts to believe that breaking the curse is possible.

Monstrous also features a magical creature that humans fear and a curse the characters struggle to overcome. Fairy tale fantasy combines with a Frankenstein motif, as Kymera is brought back to life by her father, but without her original human body and memories of her previous life. A year ago she was killed, along with her mother, by the evil wizard who abducts and murders girls, using their young blood as a powerful ingredient in his magic spells. After many experiments joining his daughter’s human parts with multiple animal parts, her father has finally succeeded in recreating her as a hybrid with patchwork skin, cat eyes, claws, wings, and a barbed tail.

Monstrous’ fantasy world mirrors Kymera’s beloved volume of fairy tales, which she and her father read together during their seclusion in a hidden cottage outside of the city of Bryre. Her father wants to keep them safe from the evil wizard’s magic and from humans who would feel threatened by her appearance. Humans would see her as a monster, he explains, and not as his perfect creation and their salvation.

The wizard has cursed Bryre with a spreading deadly briar and a disease that sickens girls who he imprisons before using them for his dark magic spells. Bryre’s salvation depends on Kymera: her hybrid form is ideal for rescuing the girls from the wizard’s prison and bringing them to her father who cures and protects them. Her rescue missions become more complicated, however, as memories of her former life slowly resurface and her friendships with a mysterious boy and a rare dragon cause her to question what she believes to be true.

Although written for middle grade and young adult readers, I recommend these books for all ages—especially if you like fairy tale retellings. I love how they apply fairy tale magic to universal experiences of loneliness, prejudice, and finding hope and love in a damaged world. Older readers may find plot twists predictable, but I hope that doesn’t prevent anyone from picking up these enchanting reads. I also recommend Bird and Beastkeeper if you are looking for comparable books.

Perhaps what I love most about these novels and about many fairy tale retellings is that so-called monsters (who are alienated, judged, feared, and threatened because they are different in appearance or status from people considered normal and acceptable) demonstrate extraordinary humanity and don’t stop fighting for justice.

If you want a sense of just how many YA fairy tale retellings there are, check out this wonderful infographic.

Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books–thanks to her many years as a bookseller. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new releases and thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and the publishers for providing her with advanced readers copies in exchange for her honest reviews.