The Fifth Wave

A podcast that I was listening to recently (Extra Hot Great, which I mentioned in my post) was dividing post-apocalyptic/end-of-world stories into two categories: those that focus on what it’s like as the world is falling apart and those that focus on how people live after things have fallen apart. I had never quite thought of it this way before, but it is a great way to describe the differences and it helped me figure out why I love some end-of-the-world novels and find others way too stressful. Apparently, I like reading about post-disaster life and how people keep going–Station Eleven and The Hunger Games are examples, where most of the story is about people living in the “new normal” of a world after life as we know it has ended. I guess these books feel far enough removed from my own life that I can maintain some emotional distance? But I am an anxious enough person that I find stories that show the process of civilization breaking down to be almost unbearable–when the author’s goal is to show you how close we are to this new post-apocalyptic word, that’s too close for me! I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but there was one section of it that so powerfully described a world in which the Internet had gone down and international borders were closed . . . I don’t even like to think about it too much.

All of this to say that The Fifth Wave is one of those as-the-world-is-falling apart books that I found really anxiety-inducing, but may be right up your alley! This is the first in a YA trilogy in which aliens have come to earth and are in the process of exterminating humans/cleaning up the planet. The story follows a couple of different teenagers who are trying to survive on their own in a world where virtually all other humans are dead. There’s a teeny bit of teen romance that I found somewhat unrealistic (I think all these kids would have too much PTSD to do much other than huddle in a ball on the floor, but whatever) but most of the book is about them fighting, running, and trying to figure out the right next step in a world where everything seems doomed. The main story is set a few weeks/months after the aliens have arrived, but there are lots of flashbacks to them arriving and starting the whole “no humans” process, so you really see the whole process play out. It’s a plot-intense book–the action moves fast and I was frantically turning pages to find out what happens. And while this is definitely not my preferred type of end-of-the-world story, it was compelling enough that requested the next book in series from the library.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Immediate post-apocalyptic adventure

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 Any of the books I mentioned above, or the movie Children of Men, if you feel the need for a little cry about the state of the world. But we’ve all seen enough depressing things–go read something funny! Some of my laugh-out-loud books include Let’s Pretend this Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella, and I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron.

Station Eleven

It’s still early in 2015, but I feel pretty confident saying that Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel will be on my list of the year’s best. I just loved this book. And I think that almost everyone could love this book, because it is so cleverly structured and covers so many kinds of stories without being too dense or 1000 pages long.

The short plot summary is that at some point much like today a pandemic swept the planet and killed 99.9% of the population. Twenty years later, a traveling symphony/theater company tours around the Great Lakes, playing music and performing Shakespeare for small settlements of survivors. This makes it sound very grim and futuristic, but it isn’t. The story jumps around in time and from character to character, so there are bits of stories happening long before the pandemic hits, and then during it, and at different points in the years afterwards. Which means that part of the book is “what you do when the world is falling apart” and part is “how we live in the new normal,” but another big piece of the story is about actors and artists trying to balance fame and creation and marriage in current-day Hollywood. The brilliant Swistle called the shifts in time and characters a relief, and that’s the perfect word–just when I would start to think I couldn’t handle what was happening in a particular story, the narrative would move forward or back and let me take a deep breath and keep reading.

In general, I appreciated that the story wasn’t unbearably dark. While the pandemic certainly doesn’t sound like any fun, Mandel focuses mainly on the very beginning as people are realizing what is happening, and then on life years later as people have adapted to to world post-pandemic. Maybe some people want the realism of The Road, but I am a delicate flower who can’t handle reading that sort of thing. And I was much more interested in hearing about how even with all the losses, there is still beauty in the world (painted on the side of the traveling symphony’s caravans is the motto “Because survival is insufficient”). I also loved the question that came up over and over of whether it was better/easier to remember what once was, or to have been raised only knowing what is possible now.

I always joke that my plan for the zombie apocalypse is to die in the first wave and not have to try to survive, and I stand by that. But this is one of the first books I’ve read that managed to make me incredibly grateful for air travel and refrigerator lights and antibiotics, while also making me feel like the World After might have some hope after all.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Graceful, sad, and hopeful.

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This book has the DNA of about 12 different books–it reminds me of everything. If you like the world-falling-apart bits, I’d recommend reading the Susan Beth Pfeffer Life As We Knew It trilogy, the The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, or How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (one of my favorite books of all time, although it’s so sad I’ve never been able to reread it). For more of the how-society-rebuilds pieces, try The Passage by Justin Cronin (actually mentioned by Mandel in Station Eleven). But if you like the traveling band of actors/Shakespeare parts the most, you might try The Great Night by Chris Adrian or the Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows. And while Could Atlas is a hard book to recommend–long and dense and people tend to love it or hate it–it has a similar “a bit of everything” feeling to it.