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Reading this book in a post-pandemic 2022, I can see why it created such a buzz when it was released. The End of Men was written before Covid-19, and the story revolves around a global pandemic with a 90% mortality rate, which came to be known as The Plague. In this story, only men became ill or died with the virus, although women could be carriers. The book begins in 2025, with a Doctor first realising that there is a common link between a very small number of patients who are all mysteriously dying of an unknown cause, with the same symptoms. As the virus takes hold and spreads around the world, there is widespread panic – there were riots, protests, a race for a vaccine. People were told to stay home, shops were closed, public transport was grounded, and families were divided for fear of transmitting the disease. Of course in the real world this now all feels very familiar.

The book is written from the points of view of several characters, the vast majority of which are women. Some only occupy a couple of chapters, while others are main characters which drive the narrative. Despite the large amount of narrators, I did not find it difficult to keep track of who was who, and each character was clearly drawn and believable. There were also a few newspaper articles and blog posts which made up chapters of their own, again all of which added to the story.

As for whether I liked the book – put it this way, I started this book on a long haul flight; I had downloaded a couple of films to watch during the journey but I didn’t get to them, because I could NOT put this book down. I would have found it very uncomfortable reading in 2020, but felt able to tackle it now, and I found it utterly absorbing, with every page and every character drawing me in, whether I liked them or not. It actually made me cry on a number of occasions when people were discussing their sorrow and grief, either for the people they had lost or the lives that they had planned and now would never had. Not all of the characters were likable, and some of them did some pretty awful things, but these were people dealing with a situation they never could have envisioned.

I stayed up late one night (I was jet-lagged but that wasn’t going to stop me) to finish it, and when I had read the last page, I thought it was one of the best books I have read in recent years. If I could read all books with the urgency I read this one, I would triple my reading output!

Anyway, I highly recommend this book (although beware that it may be triggering to people who are suffering emotionally with the fallout from Covid-19), and will definitely be buying anything else that Christina Sweeney-Baird writes.

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I wasn’t entirely sure that I had picked the best time to read this book – after all it is about a global pandemic which brings about the collapse of civilisation and changes life as we know it for ever. And I read it during the current Covid-19 pandemic, just as the world was made aware of a new variant of the Coronavirus that is certain to become the dominant strain.

Nonetheless, I decided to give Station Eleven a go, having heard so many good things about it. The play opens in the present day, in a theatre in Toronto. Famous film star Arthur Leander is on stage playing King Lear, when he collapses and dies in front of the audience. On the same night, a deadly flu virus which comes to be known as the Georgia Flu, due to where it originated, starts sweeping the world, wiping out thousands of people every day.

Twenty years later, civilisation has collapsed. There is no electricity, there are no computers or mobile phones, cars and aeroplanes have become obsolete, and the world is no longer a safe place to live.

Kirsten, a child actor in Arthur’s King Lear play, who saw him die on stage, is now part of a travelling symphony – a group of musicians and actors who travel around the country performing Shakespeare plays and musical concerts. They face the possibility of danger and hostility at every turn but they are determined to survive.

The book alternates between the lives of Kirsten and the symphony, and Arthur’s life and rise to fame as well as his complicated love life. There are also several chapters centering on Arthur’s old friend Clark, who is determined to preserve the memories of the old world.

I’ll be honest, that when I started this book I was not at all sure I was going to enjoy it, and not just because of the reasons I mentioned at the start of this review. I initially found it difficult to invest in the descriptions of life 20 years after the pandemic; however, this story took hold of me and I ended up getting really drawn in, and I would say that this is definitely one of my favourite reads of 2021.

There are a large cast of characters, who we read about and then come back to later on in the story, and they were all so realistically drawn that I really cared about what happened to them. My favourite two characters were probably Jeevan (a somewhat peripheral character, maybe almost unnecessary character, but his part definitely added something for me) and Clark, who initially seemed like he would just be a background player, but ended up becoming central to the story.

Science fiction fans should be aware that this book does not fall into that genre. It’s definitely a dystopian novel, but it’s much more than that. It’s a book about appreciating what we have, remembering the beautiful things in life, and trying to remain humane to others during catastrophic times. It’s desperately sad in parts, but curiously uplifting at times.

I loved it, and highly recommend it.

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Synopsis

This novel is set in present-day London during a global pandemic. People are suffering from what is being called ‘The Sweats’ and there is no cure. In the  midst of this, TV saleswoman Stevie Flint discovers her boyfriend Simon Sharkey dead in bed. Soon after, she herself starts suffering from the sweats but unlike most others, she recovers.

Stevie works out that Simon’s death was not due to the illness, but that he was in fact murdered, and she starts investigating who killed Simon and why, but when people are dying all around, it’s hard to get anyone else to care about one single death.

As social order collapses, and crime rates soar, Stevie finds herself alone and afraid, but determined to uncover the truth about her boyfriend.

My thoughts

I am really in two minds about this one. On the one hand I love dystopian fiction and I did enjoy the parts of this book that dealt with the aftermath of the pandemic – people’s terror on the one hand, and their abandonment of all societal norms on the other. However, the murder mystery aspect became the greater story with the pandemic more of a backdrop, and the mystery itself did not really grab my attention. For all that, it was still a quick read and the sort of story I could imagine being adapted for a tv mini series. I’m not entirely sure that I liked Stevie – she seemed devoid of emotion for a large part of the story – but I did kind of grudgingly admire her determination and courage.

I didn’t think it was particularly well written (in contrast to the last book of Louise Welsh’s I read, The Bullet Trick, which I thought was very well written) – Simon was supposed to be in his early 40s and reference is made to a schoolfriend in the same year who now has a son of 29. Not beyond the realms of possibility, but there is nothing to suggest that the man was particularly young when he had his son, although he would have had to have been. A lot of the story seemed to be ‘Stevie did this and then she did that’, and unfortunately the final part was something of an anti-climax.

For all that though, I did race through it quickly and while it wasn’t exactly a can’t-put-down book, it also wasn’t a can’t-bear-to-pick-up book. So a bit of a middling read for me. It has garnered very mixed reviews, with some people loving it and others absolutely hating it. I’m not sure I would recommend it to others, but I would still probably give this author another look if she brought out another book with an interesting subject.

 

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