Book Review: The Last Neanderthal

neanderthalThe Last Neanderthal
Claire Cameron
Historical/Literary Fiction
272 pages
Published 2017

Maybe I need to stop trying to read the more literary types of fiction. I’m always left with this vague mixture of “what the hell did I just read?” and “why did I just read that?” Like – I don’t know what I’m supposed to have gotten out of this book. It’s another Canadian author, it’s apparently an International Bestseller and one of the most highly anticipated Canadian books of 2017 – but it just wasn’t that good.

The book covers two parallel storylines – the last neanderthal girl struggling to survive, and the archaeologist, 40,000 years later, uncovering her bones in a cave with those of a modern human. The first storyline, of the neanderthal girl, requires a complete suspension of disbelief. We just don’t know enough about neanderthals or how they lived to make a story of it. It’s complete fabrication, presented as a plausible reconstruction. And the second set of bones is never remotely explained. I agree with several other reviewers – the book feels like it’s missing its second half!

I’m really disappointed in this book. All the lists made it seem like this book was spectacular, from a proven author, and that it would explore the “ultimate question of what it means to be truly ‘human.'” But I’m just left wondering what point was supposed to be made. The book did NOT live up to its description. The Neanderthals had more character depth than the modern day people did, and I find the assumption that this was the last Neanderthal to be weird. Almost nothing of the Neanderthal’s story is verified by the modern-day dig. Maybe if they’d mentioned some weirdness like “these bones were dated later than any other bones we’ve found” or SOMETHING.

Don’t bother with this book. I kind of wish I’d spent my time on something better.

From the cover of The Last Neanderthal:

Forty thousand years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard season, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate. Before long, though, the unforgiving landscape takes its toll and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling, even as she sets out to discover what remains of her kind. With the dangers of winter quickly approaching, Girl realizes she has one chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself. 

In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of birth and early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women’s lives.

Drawing on the latest science to explore a misunderstood people, acclaimed author Claire Cameron has penned a haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving novel that asks us to consider what it means to be human.

 

This is Book #5 for my Read Canadian Challenge.

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter Trilogy
#3 – Station Eleven
#4 – The Courier

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Book Review: The Courier

courierThe Courier
Gerald Brandt
Dystopia/Sci-fi
297 pages
Published 2016

Oh this was good. This was rocketing sci-fi action reminiscient of Shadowrun – the corporations control everything, and everything is taped, tracked, and monitored. Cities have merged into giant, sprawling, multi-level megaliths, where only the top level is open to the sky, and the lower you get, the more squalor people live in. (And the lower the ceiling gets, too. Level one is a somewhat claustrophobic 5 stories high, and then a ceiling.)

Trigger warning for the book:

The main character has flashbacks of being sexually abused as a young teen, and they are fairly detailed. Perhaps too detailed – but they do give good motivation for why she fights so hard to avoid becoming a victim again. (There’s also a constant threat of injury, death, and torture, if she gets caught.) The sexual abuse wasn’t even hinted at by anything else I’ve read, so I wanted to make sure I pointed it out.

That aside, and even that is handled fairly well, it just took me by surprise – The Courier is pretty great writing. It’s the first of three books, currently – I don’t know if it’s a trilogy, or if there are more planned. The author is also Canadian and lives in Winnipeg, making this the fourth book for my Read Canadian Challenge! The Courier was actually on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s list of the 10 Canadian Science Fiction Books You Should Read.

I like that the main character evolved through the book – from a gruff courier who thought she was doing pretty well, but not really thinking beyond the end of the day and a shower, back slightly to running and licking her wounds while wondering why the world hates her, to “No, fuck this, and fuck these people, I WILL FIGHT YOU.” It was all a very believable reaction to some extraordinary events. There’s an excerpt in the back of the book for the second book, and the third book comes out in November. I will definitely be trying to get my hands on those. Unfortunately, my library only has the second book as an audio book. I’ll have to check the Enoch Pratt catalog.

From the cover of The Courier:

Kris Ballard is a motorcycle courier. A nobody. Level 2 trash in a multileve city that stretches from San Francisco to the Mexican border – a land where corporations make all the rules. A runaway since the age of fourteen, Kris struggles to make a life for herself, barely scraping by, working hard to survive without anyone’s help.

But a late day delivery changes everything when she walks in on the murder of one of her clients. Now she’s stuck with a mysterious package that everyone wants. It looks like the corporations want Kris gone, and are willing to go to almost any length to make it happen.

Hunted, scared, and alone, she retreats to the only place she knows she can hide: the Level 1 streets. Fleeing from people who seem to know her every move, Kris is almost out of options when she’s rescued by Miller – a member of an underground resistance group – only to be pulled deeper into a world she doesn’t understand.

Together Kris and Miller barely manage to stay one step ahead of the corporate killers, but it’s only a matter of time until Miller’s resources and their luck run out…

 

This is #4 for my Read Canadian Challenge!

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter Trilogy
#3 – Station Eleven

Book Review: Station Eleven

St11

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Dystopia/Post Apocalypse
333 pages
Published 2014

This was marketed as a dystopia, but it’s really more post-Apocalypse fiction. There’s a fine line between the two – and sometimes things can straddle it – but I wouldn’t call this a dystopia. So I’m a little disappointed there. Otherwise, it was good. I’m left not really sure how I should feel about it, though. I prefer books that make me feel a certain way – romances make me happy, non-fiction usually makes me feel smarter, like I’ve learned something, graphic novels make me nostalgic. I’m even okay with books like The Fault in Our Stars, or The Crown’s Game, that left me a weeping mess. Station Eleven just left me with an “…o-kay?” Like, what am I supposed to do with this? Unlike most dystopias, I don’t feel like it was a social commentary because it’s post-apocalyptic. (In this case, a virus swept through and killed about 99% of Earth’s population.) But at the same time, because it details events both before and after the apocalypse, I feel like it was trying to be?

The book focuses on how Arthur Leander, a famous actor, touches lives both before and after the apocalypse. It’s a little ironic that it focuses so much on him since he died before it happened. Well. As it started to happen, really, but of a heart attack, not the virus. It rotates between a few different perspectives, but the one used most often is that of Kirsten, who was a child actor in Arthur’s last performance. She survives the apocalypse and ends up traveling with “The Traveling Symphony,” a band of actors and musicians who travel between far-flung settlements around the Great Lakes. The name refers to a comic book drawn by Arthur’s first wife. There’s a dozen little coincidences in the book, leading to people who knew Arthur meeting or almost meeting, but affecting each others’ lives. There are also flashbacks showing Arthur’s life before the apocalypse, and how those people knew him.

I don’t know. It didn’t jump around as much as Oryx and Crake did, it was much easier to follow, but it just left me – meh? It wasn’t a bad book, but I don’t think I’d recommend it. I know other people have given it glowing reviews, so I might just be the odd person out.

A large part of the book takes place in Toronto and British Columbia, and the author is Canadian, so this book is my #3 for the Read Canadian Challenge!

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter trilogy

From the cover of Station Eleven:

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One 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.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Book Review: Red Winter Trilogy

RW1Red Winter
Dark Tempest
Immortal Fire
Annette Marie
Fantasy
About 350 pages each
Published 2016, 2017, 2017

So I didn’t actually realize this series was written by a Canadian author until the end of the first book, when I skimmed the “about the author” section! I picked up the first book on a whim – the entire trilogy is free on Kindle Unlimited – and I am so, SO GLAD I DID. This trilogy is amazing. It’s a little anime-like – the illustrations are definitely drawn in anime style and there’s about ten per book – but it’s simply beautiful writing, blending elements of Japanese mythology with a beautifully sweet romance and an epic fantasy task. (Release trapped gods and goddesses and stop a goddess.) The main character was likeable, sweet, and a little naive, but she realizes why she is naive and consciously works to overcome that.

The first book starts with a revelation – Emi has been training for ten years to receive her goddess into her body, with the expectation that their personalities will meld – only to discover that the goddess’s divine energy will instead destroy Emi’s mind and personality. She will be dead while the goddess inhabits her body. Which will be happening two months from the book’s beginning, so she doesn’t have much time to change her fate. The goddess herself is not unsympathetic, and wishes it could be different. I loved the interaction between Emi and her goddess. The compassion, love, and regret shown by Amaterasu means it’s impossible to dislike her, even though we know she’ll be the agent of our protagonist’s death.

RW3But all is not as it seems among the gods, and Emi is attacked by someone who should be an ally, and defended by those who should want her dead. Conspiracies unravel in the second book, as Emi and her friends race to finish the task set them by Amaterasu – a task that must be finished before the winter solstice, when Amaterasu will descend into Emi’s body and destroy her mind. Dark Tempest ends with the task still uncompleted, and Immortal Fire picks up immediately. (I read almost the entire trilogy in one sitting – I finally set the third book aside and got some sleep before the final confrontation.)

RW2I don’t want to say too much, and I’m only going to include the description on the first book, because I don’t want to spoil anything. I liked Emi, I absolutely loved Yumei, the dark, standoffish Crow Lord, and Shiro the kitsune was an amazing character. Reveals and pacing and dialogue and action and exposition were all excellently done. This is a gorgeous, absorbing trilogy and I highly recommend it.

 

From the back of Red Winter:

In a few short months, Emi’s mortal life will end when she becomes the human host of an immortal goddess. Carefully hidden from those who would destroy her, she has prepared her mind, body, and soul to unite with the goddess–and not once has she doubted her chosen fate.

Shiro is a spirit of the earth and an enemy of the goddess Emi will soon host. Mystery shrouds his every move and his ruby eyes shine with cunning she can’t match and dares not trust. But she saved his life, and until his debt is paid, he is hers to command–whether she wants him or not.

On the day they meet, everything Emi believes comes undone, swept away like snow upon the winter wind. For the first time, she wants to change her fate–but how can she erase a destiny already wrought in stone? Against the power of the gods, Shiro is her only hope … and hope is all she has left.

 

About the author:

Annette Marie is the author of the Amazon best-selling YA urban fantasy series Steel & Stone, which includes the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award nominee Yield the Night. Her first love is fantasy, a limitless realm of creativity where she can break all the boring rules of real life, but fast-paced urban fantasy, bold heroines, and tantalizing forbidden romances are her guilty pleasures. She proudly admits she has a thing for dragons, and her editor has politely inquired as to whether she intends to include them in every single book.

Annette lives in the frozen winter wasteland of northern Alberta, Canada (okay, it’s not quite that bad). She shares her life with her remarkably patient, comparatively sensible husband and their furry minion of darkness — sorry, cat — Caesar. When not writing, she can be found elbow-deep in one art project or another while blissfully ignoring all adult responsibilities.

To find out more about Annette and her books, visit her website at www.authorannettemarie.com.

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

astroAn Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Colonel Chris Hadfield
Memoir
284 pages
Published 2013

Wow. Just wow. I woke up far earlier than I wanted to this morning, so I picked up one of the nonfiction books I had from the library, expecting it to put me back to sleep. Three hours later I was still awake, nearly done with the book, and absolutely enthralled. I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise – I’d been one of the millions fascinated with Hadfield’s videos and tweets when he was Commander of the ISS. His particular voice is very clear throughout this book. In 284 pages he takes us from his childhood, through his career path to becoming an astronaut, to his 5 months in the International Space Station, and back home. Nothing felt rushed, nothing felt like it didn’t get the attention it deserved. I’m pretty sure this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2017 – I have several months to read more things, but this book just absolutely blew me away.

It does appeal to how I like to read about science, though. I love reading about scientists. How they worked, how they made their discoveries, the paths they took. Who they were. I’m less interested in the actual science. (As opposed to my husband, who cares only about the science, and isn’t interested in hearing much about the scientists.) This is part of why I loved A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, so much. I borrowed that book from the library and read it cover to cover, fascinated. Finally had to buy my own copy.

Hadfield took space exploration and made it accessible to everyone. According to the book, he didn’t even quite realize how big of an impact he was making at first. But between tweeting pictures from the ISS, making videos of how different life was in space, and making music videos, he really did become the most well-known astronaut of our generation. I remember putting his video of I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing) on repeat when it came out – and it STILL gives me chills today.

He only briefly talked about this video in the book, which I found surprising, given it was the one that hit me the hardest. He spent more time talking about filming and recording Space Oddity – which does have 36 million views, to I.S.S.’s 2 million. So I suppose that makes sense!

One thing he keeps coming back to in his book is his philosophy of trying to be a zero. That doesn’t sound very ambitious on the surface – but what he means is you can be one of three things in a group. You can be a negative impact (a -1) a neutral impact (a zero) or a positive impact (a +1). If you try to be a +1, it’s far likelier that you’ll try too hard, fuck up, and instead become a negative impact. So aim to be a zero. And most of the time you’ll wind up as a positive impact. I thought that was a very unique philosophy.

He’s also written a children’s book, The Darkest Dark, about a kid who wants to be an astronaut but is afraid of the dark.

This is the second book I’ve read for the Canadian Book Challenge, and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. (It’s the first one I’m reviewing, though, the first book I read I’ll be reviewing in August.)

From the cover of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth:

Col. Chris Hadfield has spend decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly four thousand hours in space. During this time he has broken into a space station with a Swiss Army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield’s success – and survival – is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: Prepare for the worst – and enjoy every moment of it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Col. Hadfield takes readers deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible. Through eye-opening, entertaining stories that convey the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of space walks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement – and happiness. His own extraordinary education in space has taught him some counterintuitive lessons: Don’t visualize success, do care what others think, and always sweat the small stuff. 

You may never be able to build a robot, pilot a spacecraft, make a music video, or perform basic surgery in zero gravity like Col. Hadfield. But his vivid and refreshing insights will teach you how to think like an astronaut and will change, completely, the way you view life on earth – especially your own.