“Station Eleven” then read “Before the Fall”

As I was reading the June-released Before the Fall  by Noah Hawley (yes, the one you’ve seen in the book store) I was trying to remember where I’d read something like it: the give and take narrative, everything explained in backstory. The myriad of characters. The slow unspooling of storytelling.

I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel this past winter and was immediately entranced by the no-rush-here writing. You’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic world, but just as important is theater, and art, and what makes us human.

Before the Fall is not post-apocalyptic in the usual sense: unlike Station Eleven, there is no mass outbreak of disease that kills 99% of the population. And yet the books have a similar feel, perhaps, because the tragedy of a plane crash separates like into “before” and “after,” in the same way a apocalypse must have a similar line of demarcation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.18593543

Hell is the absence of the people you long for

Station Eleven takes its name from a comic book one of the main characters is writing and illustrating, the story of people who left a ruined earth on a starship that is slightly broken, so they live in a world of perpetual twilight (pictured above.) But that’s not what the book is about: it’s about a theater troupe, traveling between towns in a post-biological disaster North America.

stationelevenhcus2But that’s not really what it’s about either, since half the book takes place before the disaster ever happened. So Station Eleven is really about what it means to be an actor, or the wife of an actor.

It’s also about how different people react to tragedy, and power. It’s about finding yourself adrift in a new life and making yourself anew.

One of the best things about this novel is that it’s about a whole lot of things. It’s a new take on dystopia. Rather than focus on the President of the United States, or the Person Who Discovered The Imminent Tragedy, this is not a book about people trying to prevent an apocalypse from happening. This is about Joe Schmoes (and very rich Joe Schmoes) who have to deal with life before and after the world ends.

And it switches focus a lot (though, if I remember correctly, it always stays in omniscient?) Every chapter you’re with someone new, and it may be before or after the world has ended. So this is not in chronological order, but maybe it’s in emotional order? Operating on train of thought, rather than the rigidity of calendar dates.

Life is a series of decisions and reactions. It is the things you do and the things that are done to you. And then it’s over.

And then there’s Before the Fall, which focuses on a plane crash, and about how one man
who shouldn’t have been on the plane swims to shore with a little boy on his back, and what happens afterwards. It’s about tragedy porn. And the twenty-four-h26245850our news cycle. And about human beings having lives that happen to mesh on one airplane, or around one airplane, or because of one airplane.

Like Station Eleven, it’s about a lot of things. This one does involve the FBI, the people in charge. The billionaires. But it’s also about art, and the meaning of art and the meaning of being an artist, and what it takes to be a hero.

This one definitely is omniscient–you can bounce from the point of view of the artist who swam to shore with the little boy, to the FBI agent in charge of finding the plane, to a jealous ex-husband, to a television star, all in one chapter. You bounce between the investigation to one of the characters, twenty years before. Again, this is in emotional, not chronological, order.

There’s more of a conclusion to Before the Fall than in Station Eleven. After reading, you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen after the book closes. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but after Station Eleven I felt like I needed another book to explain the ending. One leaves you wondering, the other leaves you guessing.



Hunger Games then read Fire

Yes, okay, I know I already made a suggestion for Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, but I figure a lot of people read the book and want something to read after, so here’s another (completely different) suggestion. No, Fire by Kristin Cashore is not dystopian. It’s one of those kings-and-castles books set in a vague medieval-ish time on a different world. But Fire is very much like the world we live in, except they have monsters.

Fire, of the novel Fire
Fire, of the novel Fire

Let’s back up, though. What exactly are the reasons The Hunger Games is so appealing? It should be appalling. The idea of children being forced to kill one and other should not generate interest or support. Yet we like it because we like Katniss, we like Peeta, we want them to win.

I have a pet theory that books are about characters and books that are not about characters are much, much, much harder to get into. Just like tv shows. If you don’t have a favorite character you care enough about to tune in every week, you’re going to drop the show. But if there’s even one person you like…well, that’s what makes even Glee get picked up for a fifth season.

So this recommendation, unlike Stephen King’s The Long Walk, isn’t about the setting or the plot. There’s no dystopia in fire, no strange competition to be taken part in. But if you boil everything down, the characters that made you want to keep reading The Hunger Games are all present and accounted for.

Archer vs. Archer

Why are we so fascinated by bows-and-arrows? From Robin Hood to Legolas to Hawkeye in Avengers, everyone seems to need their own archer in order to be a legitamate team. The Hunger Games had Katniss. Fire  actually has a character named Archer, he’s that good with a bow. And our protagonist, Fire, isn’t too shabby either, though she prefers to save her plucking for the violin.

Katniss's bow skills
Katniss’s bow skills

But that’s what you get in Fire. Fire is not Katniss. She’s no one’s idea of a badass. She’s a monster, which here means someone born incredibly beautiful and incredibly deadly. She can read minds, influence thoughts, and she hates it. Her father, also a monster, was the badass in the family, and he drove the kingdom to ruin.

Even though Fire isn’t angsty Katniss, she has her own…well…fire. Archer, her childhood friend and sometimes-lover, is getting more and more jealous by the day, and asks for Fire’s hand in marriage weekly. But she doesn’t chose her friend, who she does love, and the life she knows int he secluded mountains. Even though Fire is afraid of becoming her father, she shows her own badass-ness when she agrees to go to the heart of the kingdom to help the royal family stay the royal family.

So the main similarity here is the strong female protagonist. And where Katniss is so frickin strong that you kind of want her to shut up about it all ready, Fire has a quiet inner strength that makes her impossible not to like. And I hate female characters, as a rule.

But Wait! There’s More!

Your favorite character in The Hunger Games (that reason you tuned in every week) might have been Katniss, but Peeta and Gale and Fire-Novel-199x300Prim and Finnick were all great too. Personally, I loved Haymitch. Fire has those great side characters, too. There’s Archer, the jealous but good-hearted childhood friend. There’s Brigan, the dark, intelligent, loyal prince. There’s Nash, the king who can’t stop himself from falling in love with Fire over and over again. There’s the royal twins and Fire’s two father’s and a kingdom of intrigue. Basically, if you’re here for the great relationships, you won’t be disappointed.

And did I mention the writing? I don’t usually notice prose, especially in a YA-fantasy book. But every time I real Fire I’m impressed by the quality of writing, which is sad without being melodramatic and beautiful without detracting from the plot.

Here’s the last thing I have to say about this book: I’ve bought it for my two best friends for their birthdays, because if I give it to them they’ll usually read it, and I want the whole world to read this book so we can all talk about it together.

Hunger Games then read The Long Walk

We’ll start this off with a book that’s very popular right now. So you’ve just finished Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, that not-so-

Katniss Everdeen about to enter the arena in The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen about to enter the arena in The Hunger Games

fun trilogy about a warped, dystopian America where kids compete in the annual “Games” where they fight to the death.

There’s a lot to love about these books. Katniss Everdeen is a fairly bad-ass female protagonist, her love interests of Peeta and Gale are just different enough for rabid fangirls to go back to the tried-but-true ‘Team’ system (I’m Team Peeta all the way.) The tension is present throughout, making The Hunger Games easy to read, though not always easy to stomach.

If something about this world makes it hard to let go after just three books, then venture a little down the bookshelf to the Stephen King section (it’s massive, I know. Eventually I will suggest you read most of these books.) Under a tiny sub-section known as the Bachman Books is The Long Walk.

About the Bachman Books

First, a background. Stephen King, with that whole shelf of books, was such a prolific author that in the late 1970s he wanted to

Picture of "Richard Bachman" -- actually Richard Manuel, the insurance agent of King's editor
Picture of “Richard Bachman” — actually Richard Manuel, the insurance agent of King’s editor

produce more than one book a year, something that publishing companies advise against because it oversaturates bookshelves with one particular author. So instead of releasing two books a year under Stephen King, he came up with the idea of a pseudonym: Richard Bachman, a darker, crueler person who wasn’t limited to the things Stephen King had already branded himself as — namely, the king of horror.

So the same year The Shining was released under the name of Stephen King, an unknown author called Richard Bachman released a dark semi-horror book called Rage. 

Eventually, the connection between the two “different” authors was discovered by Steve Brown bookstore clerk from Washington, D.C. who noticed the similarities in King and Bachman’s writings. A thorough look at publishing documents in the Library of Congress included a page that listed King as the author of one of the Bachman books. Brown contacted King’s publishers with his findings. Two weeks later, an article in the Washington Post announced Bachman’s “death” — the diagnosis was “cancer of the pseudonym.” This was in 1985, when King was working on Misery, which he’d intended to release as a Bachman book.

After Bachman’s “death,” King wrote The Dark Half, a novel about the relationship between an author and the pseudonym that consumes him. Later, The Regulators  was released under Bachman’s name in conjunction with King’s Desperation, with the claim that the manuscript had “been found among Bachman’s things.” The character of Richard Bachman also appears in the Dark Tower series.

Why Participate in The Walk after playing the Games?

The Long Walk, like The Hunger Games, is about a competition that only those under the age of eighteen can participate in. There are some notable distances — only boys can sign up, and participating in the Walk is completely voluntary. The lure of the prize at the end — anything you want, anything at all — is enough to get a hundred boys to join every year.

ImageThis Walk takes place in Maine (if you’re a King fan, you’re nodding and going ‘of course it does’) and goes on for as long as it needs to. There’s friendships formed, and villains named, but mostly we just learn more about Ray Garraty, our main character. Like The Hunger Games, this is a coming-of-age story, as Garraty recalls what made him participate in the Walk and tries to think of how he can go on with his life after it’s all over.

But the thing to remember is that, unlike The Hunger Games, this was not billed as a Young Adult novel, even if our main character technically is one. The things that happen during the Walk are brutal and cruel and, as Garraty slowly figures out, completely senseless.

The Long Walk is a Hunger Games without the twist of fantasy to make everything seem all right. While the America it takes place in is dystopian, it is not so far gone as Panem and nearly unrecognizable. In fact, most everything seems the same, except instead of the Super Bowl or March Madness being the sporting event of the year, adults all bet on the outcome of the Walk, on which of these 100 boys will win. It’s gritty. It’s real. If you thought children participating in the annual Hunger Games was bad, the circumstances behind the Walk will completely throw you.

But this short book — just under 400 pages paperback — is worth a read. If you’re fascinated by the actual Games in  The Hunger Games, you will enjoy everything about The Long Walk.