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Reviewletts: ‘Station Eleven’ and ‘The Paying Guests’

One of the unexpected benefits of slowing down my blogging pace this year is that I’ve only been reviewing books that I really feel compelled to talk about. Today I’ve got two books that I want to shout about from the rooftops and that, I’m almost certain, will make my favorite fiction of the year list.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station elevenOne snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

I love it when a book grabs you at the first page and refuses to let go. That was my experience with Station Eleven, the second book I picked up during this fall’s Readathon. I was just mesmerized by it from the first page. Emily St. John Mandel sets the scene just beautifully, opening the story with a production of King Lear. After the lead actor collapses on stage, Mandel spends time with some of the nameless crew members, getting a drink and wrapping their heads around the evening. That scene ends with this startling paragraph– “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” How amazingly dark and wonderful is that?

But what really makes the book wonderful, I think, is that it’s not a story about apocalypse. It’s a story about survival and civilization and what we as humans need to thrive after we learn how to survive. That question is complicated and also optimistic and loving and addicting. It’s a book about being human and what humans will do to and for each other. I dunno, I just adored it – one of my favorites of all time, I think.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

the paying guestsIt is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa—a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants—life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

A bunch of people who are more articulate than me have already raved about this book, so I’ll keep it short: The Paying Guests is a really amazing read. Each of the three sections reads like a distinct type of story – a Victorian story of manners, a sexy romance novel, and a murder thriller – but the whole is held together by an intriguing and wonderful main character. This was exactly the book I needed to kick a terrible reading slump to the curb.

Disclosure: I purchased a copy of Station Eleven and checked out The Paying Guests from the library. Part of this post originally appeared at Book Riot.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes December 4, 2014, 7:46 am

    I just finished Station Eleven yesterday and loved it so much. After a month of slumping pretty hard, I read it in two days — a slump buster if I’ve ever seen one!

    I liked The Paying Guests but didn’t quite love it.

    • Kim December 7, 2014, 8:02 pm

      I remember finishing the first short chapter and thinking, “Yes. This book is going to be great.” And it totally was.

  • Beth December 4, 2014, 8:57 am

    I have Stations Eleven out from the library right now and I’m hoping to get a chance to dig in it by next week. I’ve heard only good things!

  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) December 4, 2014, 9:42 am

    The synopsis of Station Eleven doesn’t sound like something I’d like but so many people have loved it I feel like I’ve got to give it a try.

    • Kim December 7, 2014, 8:04 pm

      The summary doesn’t really do it justice, it really just sums up the first few pages. After that, the story spins out in some really interesting directions. I loved it.

  • Sarah @ Sarah's Book Shelves December 4, 2014, 11:26 am

    I posted my review of Station Eleven today too…and I loved it. I avoided reading it for so long b/c I’m usually not into post apocalyptic stuff, but this was fantastic. And what a first chapter! It’s going on my Best of the Year list also…

  • Sandy December 4, 2014, 11:34 am

    I absolutely LOVED Station Eleven. She is just a wonderful little thing, sort of under-appreciated I think until now. I hope this book gives her the fame she deserves, and causes everyone to read all of her other equally amazing books. The Paying Guests is still brewing in my head. Waters’ books do that, they are subtle. Still I didn’t fall madly in love with it the way I have some of her others.

    • Kim December 7, 2014, 8:06 pm

      It made me really excited to dive into her backlist — I’m on the hunt when i visit bookstores.

  • Andi (@estellasrevenge) December 4, 2014, 12:14 pm

    I’m glad you liked these! I have Station Eleven waiting for me, and of course I enjoyed The Paying Guests. Because Sarah Waters!

  • Belle Wong December 4, 2014, 3:30 pm

    Both of these sound so good. I don’t think I would have normally picked up The Paying Guests but your description of each of it’s sections being like three distinct stories is so intriguing!

    • Kim December 7, 2014, 8:07 pm

      That part surprised me, in a good way. The book is pretty typical for Sarah Waters (historical fiction, lesbian romance, etc.), but the structure seemed unique. I was struck by it.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End December 4, 2014, 7:43 pm

    I was so happy to see you loved both of these. They’re favorites of mine in 2014 too — The Paying Guests I always expected to be great, but Station Eleven was a lovely surprise. I’m excited to see what Emily St. John Mandel does next.

    • Kim December 7, 2014, 8:08 pm

      I’m excited too! And I’m glad she has some backlist to dig into.

  • Shweta December 4, 2014, 11:55 pm

    I so loved Station Eleven. I have been recommending it to everyone. The fact that it deals with human emotions rather than dwelling on the apocalypse per se makes it more attractive.

  • Jennine G. December 6, 2014, 2:56 pm

    Station Eleven is popping up everywhere I turn. And even the comments in the reviews are full of people who loved the book. Definitely in my list for 2015.

  • Trisha December 7, 2014, 8:18 am

    Both of these are on my to-read list. Christmas break, it is coming….

    • Kim December 7, 2014, 8:09 pm

      The more I think about my short Christmas Break, the more confident I am that I am going to have almost no time to actually read… sad!

  • Sheila (Book Journey) December 7, 2014, 8:32 am

    I clearly need to get my hands on Station Eleven.

  • Kelly December 7, 2014, 9:52 pm

    I read Station Eleven on your glowing first reaction and didn’t regret it though it was definitely out of my comfort zone. The Paying Guests looks so wonderful – right in my wheelhouse – but I’m afraid to read it and be disappointed! I’ve been putting it off because my hopes are so high.

    • Kim December 21, 2014, 9:12 am

      I do that sometimes, wait on books until the hype dies down so I can read them with fresh eyes. I like to do that. If you’re worried, wait!

  • susan December 9, 2014, 7:39 pm

    Okay okay okay. Station Eleven. I’ll get with the program soon.

  • Jeanne December 14, 2014, 8:45 pm

    I’ve bought a copy of Station Eleven for almost everyone on my Christmas gift list!