The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe…

Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down.

Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even progress, it reminded me a little of the power and impact of Max Brooks’s Word War Z (which I also loved). The immediacy draws you in and doesn’t let you go and you long to discover the story arc of a person you’ve just been introduced to, learn what happens to them, their experiences. Do they survive? What about those they love? And so the story develops from the start of the pandemic to its aftermath. It’s an intoxicating and breathless ride. 

World War Z (reprint) (paperback) By Max Brooks : Target

Yes, it is a feminist take on the end of the world, written with such searing intellect and a huge heart. It’s political, social, moral, psychological, economical, cultural and so much more besides. It is completely thought-provoking and I am so in need of people to talk to about some of the notions raised, I am pressing my partner and close friends to read it just so we can debate and discuss. If that’s not a sign of a great book, I don’t know what is. Book clubs will love this. And what of my second concern, that it might be a man-hating treatise? On the contrary, while there are some hateful men (and women) in it, it’s a realistic take on patriarchy, how it has shaped the world – for better and worse – and what the loss of 90% of one sex – those who essentially built it – might do. What changes would be wrought? Would life as we know it continue? (and, of course, you have to ask, what if the virus had killed 90% of the women? Would men have handled the situation the way the women in this novel have? I think we all know the answer to that… but what a discussion is to be had right there!). Far from loathing men, the novel portrays the multiple roles they play in relationships, families, professional spheres – including trades, medicine and politics – and what their loss signifies and the changes that must be wrought to compensate. In so many ways it points to how we (mostly) need each other – regardless of sex.

I am not going to say too much more except to recommend this over and over in the highest possible terms. It’s not so much an end of the world narrative as, to borrow from the song, an “end of the world as we know it” book. I think I have to call it now and say, this is one of my all-time favorite reads. Not just the story, the way its told, but for the fact it is so plausible and that it makes you think and feel and ask, “what if?”… and then wonder… 

Absolutely sensational. A ripper of a read. 

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The Phone Box at the Edge of the World Laura Imai Messina

This exquisite book, set after the shocking Tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 and took so many lives, wreaking havoc upon the people and land, tells the story of how some survivors handled their overwhelming grief in the aftermath.  While the book focuses mainly on Yui (whose mother and daughter were swept away) and Takeshi, a doctor whose wife died of cancer and whose young daughter has fallen into silence ever since, we’re introduced to a host of other characters who find solace, not just in each other (though not in the sense you’d usually expect – they don’t console one another in the ways we traditionally understand this), but in their memories, actions and choices and, through a special place. In a garden by the ocean, Bell Gardia, an elderly couple have a disused phone box which houses the “Wind Phone.” Here, people who are grieving, are welcomed to come and speak into the hand piece, communicate with those who’ve died or who are no longer present in their lives. In expressing their pain, dreams, love, rage etc and sharing with those they’ve lost, these people find ways to connect their past, their sorrow, and reconcile their present. That this place and the phone and its purpose really exist (how wonderful!) gives the tale a special frisson. 

I admit, I was a little concerned that a book that focuses so much on such tragedy, on death and its impact on the living, would be bleak and miserable. Far from it. This heart-achingly lovely book has moments that do explore the depths of sadness, but it’s done with such beauty and thoughtfulness, imbuing even the smallest actions and thoughts with deep meaning. Yes, I ached, I cried, but I also felt a warm bud of happiness that grew as the tale progressed and finally blossomed. Through exploring grief, the ways in which we live with it and finally understand the role it plays in life, and the ways in which it irrevocably changes those experiencing it, the main characters and, indeed, the reader, flow into the future. A future that offers cause for optimism. A lovely, unexpectedly calming and even enchanting read that will linger in your heart and soul, especially if you’ve felt the loss of a loved one and raged against the fates, long after the last page. 

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Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Let me start this review by saying how much I love Liane Moriarty’s books. I have read every single one with responses ranging from incredible (Big Little Lies), to yes, I quite enjoyed that – and not in a “damning with faint praise” way, but yes, I liked it. Nine Perfect Strangers, strangely enough, hovers between these two responses with a dash of disappointment added in as well. Let me explain…

After an opening scene that sets up a back story, the action moves ten years forward as the nine strangers in the title  – though less than perfect – descend upon a Wellness retreat called Tranquilium to change their lives. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular point of view – including those of some of the staff and the rather remote, exotic and passionate owner of the retreat, a Russian expatriate who has managed to transform her own life and is committed to doing that for others.

The reader is taken on the transformative “journey” these nine people are asked to share. A journey that involves a great deal of trust on their behalf and a sacrificing of the various pleasures their real world lives afford them. Slowly – and not so slowly- we learn what has brought them to a point in their lives where they felt they need to escape and change. The revelations are heart-aching, humorous, deeply felt, clever and the characters are brought to life through their back stories, insecurities, desires and flaws. But what they find at the retreat as the ten days begin to pass is not what they expected. As more and more is asked of them they begin to wonder, is change worth it, even if it means saving a life, marriage, relationship, mental health and well-being?

The first fifty percent of this book had me hooked. I engaged with the characters, felt compassion for them, laughed and cried alongside them and was drawn into the motivations of their lives past and present. I believed in them and their reasons for taking such an extreme option. I also enjoyed the gentle cynicism around the whole notion of “wellness” retreats and the expectations/demands of staff  and how these collide with and undermine those of the clients. But, at the halfway point, the story suddenly ventures into unexpected territory when one of the central characters becomes almost a caricature replete with accent. The reader is asked, along with the nine strangers, to suspend their disbelief as the tale and the clients’ experiences, descend into what is akin to a farce. My credibility was strained and I became frustrated as I was so enjoying the ride up until this point.

Moriarty is a beautiful writer and her insights into human nature and relationships are deep and shiny. Little pearls that pop and make you sigh, cry and laugh in recognition. This is what kept me reading and saved the latter part of the book  – to a point – for me. Threaded through this were still moments of incredulity (on my part – eg. there is an extended sequence where the characters “trip” and I found it unrealistic, too convenient from a narrative perspective and such a stretch, I found it uncomfortable) which undermined a persuasive and deeply felt story of the desire to transform, the pressures to do this, and why some people both feel they have to and resist. How in contemporary times so few people are content with who and what they are. The moral core of the story is sound, but the frame becomes frail and, in my humble opinion, came close to snapping. Never mind the fact some characters remain two-dimensional – sometimes so much so, they simply walk off the page with very little explanation.

Overall, this is a quite good read that contains some fabulous characters but, at times, a thin plot. That was, for me, the disappointing part. It’s wonderful prose which contains some searing insights into human nature and relationships, all explored with a deft and kind hand. I really love Moriarty’s work and will look forward to her next book even while I feel a little ambivalent about this one.

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Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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The Break by Marian Keyes

Never having read a Marian Keyes book before I was uncertain what to expect. However, a glowing review about The Break from a friend (who’s also a huge fan of Keye’s work) made me keen to start. Well, what a glorious, heart-wrenching, warm, funny and fundamentally human novel this is. I found it so hard to tear myself away from and then felt bereft when I’d finished.

Ostensibly the story of the happily married Amy and Hugh who experience a relationship crisis when Hugh decides that though he loves Amy, he wants a “break”, it’s also a great deal more than that. Striding into middle age and all its cosy familiarity, for some people, this stage of life can also breed contempt – mostly for the self. Wondering if we’ve reached our potential or if this is indeed “it” for whatever more time we’re granted, it’s easy to understand why middle age can sometimes be the autumn of so many people’s discontent.

Thus it is with Hugh. A decent, good man (and Amy’s second husband), he nonetheless feels the need to take a hiatus from what he’s become and may yet be becoming. Shocked, horrified and in disbelief by what Hugh intends and unable to prevent him (even if she really wanted to), Amy struggles with the cliché her marriage is turning into. Trying to understand Hugh while feeling a mixture of grief, anger, loathing and every other emotion there is, as well as trying to balance her professional life with the wreck of her personal and the unwelcome return of her narcissistic her ex-husband and his claims, Amy undergoes her own sort of crisis. Juggling her wonderfully messy family and their demands, catastrophes and triumphs, and the chaos that ensues in Hugh’s departure’s wake, Amy’s enforced break almost becomes a breakdown.

The characters are so real, their emotions raw, complex and simple. You ache for them all – Hugh, Amy, the children they share, the mad grandmother and curmudgeonly father and the rainbow of brothers and sisters Amy possesses as well as her business partners. Slowly, Amy realises that if Hugh is on a break, then it means she is as well – with all the liberties and restrictions, difficulties and pleasures, painful memories and daring hopes that entails.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh, cry, think deeply and look afresh at your own life and choices, that features witty, authentic and flawed people and mad Irish humour, then don’t go past this sensitively explored, thoroughly entertaining and downright marvellous book.

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