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 One by John Marrs

While I’d heard of many of John Marrs’ other books, I hadn’t yet read one. It was a recommendation from a bookshop that encouraged me to buy and read this one, and I’m really glad I did.

The story centres on the notion that out there in the world, somewhere, there is “The One” for each of us – not in the Romcom, Disney, Mills and Boon way so much – but someone who is genetically programmed to be our perfect match. The only problem is that you have to be willing to hand over your DNA and pay for the result and a little more for information on who The One is.

This is the premise underpinning the story, which not only follows a series of individuals and their experiences in finding (or failing to) their “perfect match”, but also the level of cynicism and doubt levelled at such an idea, especially by those already in relationships without having resorted to science to inform them if they’re with Mr or Ms Right.

But such an invention as “The One” is not without dire problems as an increasing divorce rate, misery of those yet to find a match or who are stuck with someone they’re not matched with, and the desire of the media to paint its recluse of a creator as some sort of Machiavellian scientist, responsible for all relationship/family woes indicates.

The short, fast-paced chapters are a roller-coaster as the reader follows the lives and loves, disasters and triumphs, emotional discord and joy of a number of different men and women who choose (or not) to be Matched and the consequences of what they do with that knowledge once they possess it.

While I felt that sometimes the scenarios stretched credibility a tad too much and the emotional heft was occasionally lagging, I also found the book hard to put down. I wanted to know the outcome of each person’s choices – would they get their “happy ever after” that finding “The One” implicitly promises, or would they be making the biggest mistake of their lives?

Marr throws in some twists and turns I didn’t see coming and which certainly kept me turning the pages.

Overall, I really enjoyed this almost satirical take on society’s long-held fascination for finding our “other half”. Stretching back as far as Socrates and The Symposium, it’s a desire that’s almost coded into us (through popular cultural representations (think of even old shows like Blind Date or Perfect Match, The Bachelor/Bachelorette and those mind of modern dating shows, Tinder, Grindr, and all the other Cyber dating services which promise so much and yet do they deliver? And fairy and folk tales, novels and films, all of which spin yarns about romance and finding the right person). You can’t help but ask, what would you do if you knew you could find out who the perfect person for you was, your other half, with little to no risk? What would you do if you were already in a stable relationship? If you shared children? If it’s relatively easy to find The One, does that mean you don’t have to work at a relationship anymore? Can one take The One for granted? What changes will the right person instigate in you if any? What will you transform about each other? The ethical/emotional/moral conundrums the book raises are certainly interesting and, towards the end, are thrown back at us in a credible way as well.

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Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

I adore Marian Keyes’ books. They are the perfect holiday escape which is exactly why the release of this novel was such terrific timing. I devoured it while flying overseas (luckily when Covid-19 was still in its early stages – little did we know what lay ahead or what solace books would offer – something readers have always known and I hope others learn too through these really difficult times). 

This is the tale of the Casey family. A large sprawling Irish family who are constantly brought together through the largesse of the most successful of their siblings: Jessie. Re-married after the death of her beloved first husband, to his best friend, Jessie has since been estranged from her first husband’s family – a family she bonded with and adored. The wound of their rejection, of their assumption she had his best friend on the “side”, hurts deeply. But Jessie has other secrets and worries that she keeps from those she loves best.

She is not alone. There is infidelity, debt, obligation, control, passion, hatred, depths and shallows, and so much more. When the popular daughter-in-law, Cara, gets serious concussion and starts to spill family secrets at one of their big get togethers, things start to unravel swiftly. But is this what’s needed or the worst thing that could have happened to the Caseys?

Fast-moving, loads of characters who are alternately utterly believable and then only convincing within the world Keyes has created (which is fine), the dialogue crackles, you laugh, cringe, and, as the title suggests, wish they’d either all grow up or that the grown-ups would step up and start adulting.

Another great snapshot of family life that makes literary strengths out of weaknesses, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Jane in Love by Rachel Givney

I didn’t expect to love this book so much! I know that’s a strange way to start a review, but bear with me. I really love Jane Austen’s work and tend to be a bit of a purist. There are so many books (and TV shows and films) that draw on her world, the characters she created and the plots she crafted to launch spin-offs and, while some are very good, many are not. I mostly resist them – and likely to my own detriment (an early disappointment warned me away). But it was reading a glowing review, that lead me to buy this book. 

I am so glad I did.

It opens in Jane Austen’s time and with Jane at the centre of the story, being courted by a young man when, all she really wants to do is write. When her heart is – not broken, shaken might be a better description – Jane takes an extraordinary step and, in doing so, finds herself catapulted into Bath in the Twenty-First Century and onto a film set where, believe it or not, the crew and actors are filming a Jane Austen adaptation. 

When Jane left her time, she’d never been published – in our time, she is a literary heroine. As she learns to navigate our world, befriending a fading film star and her rather unfriendly brother, she not only discovers how popular she is, but learns to follow her heart. 

The more she immerses herself in our time, the less impact she starts to make as her works fade from history and thus the here and now, rendering her work and their profound impact immaterial. Which raises the question the book poses: if Jane Austen had the choice between heart and pen, what do you think she would do?

Givney answers this, and allows the reader to ask and seek their own answer as well – what would they do in Jane’s shoes? What would they want her to do? It’s this part of the book that I simultaneously enjoyed, but as a feminist and writer, also found frustrating – which, let me tell you, I loved as well! I so appreciate books that make me really ponder, question my ideals, the impositions and roles imposed upon the sexes – now and then – and how we navigate these. As a writer, I struggled with the idea there had to be a choice between heart and head. Why writers are perceived as having to emotionally suffer (the starving artist in the garret trope jumps to mind) to produce worthwhile work. That whole, ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’ mantra – or the fact the best art comes from pain. But I think Givney pays tribute to these notions and explores them in a believable way.

Overall, this is a book that I’m still thinking about and recommend for lovers of Austen, all things “Jane”, and who like to be both frustrated and challenged and enjoy a damn fine read. 

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Sunshine by Kim Kelly

This beautifully crafted novel set in rural Australia in the aftermath of WWI, is an incredibly moving story of loss, betrayal, masculinity, and terrible and entrenched bigotry. The story is told from three perspectives – that of two returned servicemen, Snow and Jack, and explores the expectations placed on them by themselves, others and especially patriarchal and white society – and a British nurse, the appropriately named Grace, who, married to an Australian returned serviceman, the eccentric and damaged Arthur, travels with him when he returns to his homeland and takes up the grant of land offered to all white soldiers. Only Jack, an Indigenous former Light Horseman is not given the opportunity to either own (by white laws) or work the land which is his anyway. Accustomed to being treated as if he has no rights, his service and sacrifice for his country so swiftly forgotten, Jack remains a drifter on the soil that is his.

Like Jack, both Arthur and Snow – the latter who most people give a wide berth – carry the internal wounds of their experiences and actions, the horrors to which they bore witness and played a part in – unable to quite readjust to their survival and the role that the land and the government now demands of them – never mind others. But what none of the men, who prefer to keep others at a distance anticipated is firstly, Grace, and the ability she has to recognise their pain and seek ways to heal them and herself, but also the land and the capacity it has to regenerate – not just what’s grown but those who work it. The land and each other.

I found this book achingly beautiful. Sparse yet so rich in its descriptions I found myself lingering on the words, the richness of the characters, the setting (which is marvellously represented), their memories and current interactions long after I’d finished the tale. The writing is sublime and the story that is told so important. It’s one that makes you squirm at the way the men, especially Jack, are treated – feel a deep shame that this happened – and the knowledge that it still does in parts. But it’s also such an important and unknown part of our history that needs to have a light shone on it. Kim Kelly does that and more and in relaying such a tragically-beautiful story, infuses not just sunshine on a dark past but imbues it with hope for the future. Simply superb.

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