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: 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.

Canadian Book Challenge and other Miscellany

No book review today, unfortunately, the last few days have been more chaotic than I was expecting. But next week I’ll be reviewing The Crown’s Fate, the sequel to The Crown’s Game, a duology about Russian enchanters serving the Tsar. Spoiler: The Crown’s Game was absolutely amazing, and so far, Fate is turning out to be a worthy successor!

I have signed up for The 11th annual Canadian Book Challenge! I’m really excited to expand my reading outside of my normal comfort zone (urban fantasy, high fantasy, etc) and try to read more multiculturally. I’ve been researching books by First Nations authors, but the hard part seems to be finding books my library actually has! It’s supposed to be 13 Canadian books (set in Canada/about Canada/written by Canadians) in the next year. (Canada Day to Canada Day.) So if all goes well, one of my book reviews each month should be about a Canadian book!

20170708_141810In other news, my husband and I helped a friend vend at Anthrocon in Pittsburgh last weekend, and that was an extraordinary amount of fun! I got a little bit of reading time in the hotel room while she was at parties, but I spent the largest amount of my weekend selling leather masks to people. She had a record weekend, so it was pretty awesome. All of the hotels and restaurants near the conference center go all out for the Con – our hotel keys have original art of a derpy-looking unicorn! I got a couple of chances to walk around the vendor room, and there were a couple of small publishing houses there, but (and this makes perfect sense, it’s Anthrocon, after all) they catered exclusively to Anthro writing. I thought about picking up a book anyway, but I just didn’t see anything that called to me. I don’t mind fantasy whose world involves anthro animals – I loved Redwall, after all – but all of the blurbs felt much more like “this book is about anthropomorphic animals doing stuff because they’re anthropomorphic” than “they just happen to be humanoid animals doing things.” It’s a small distinction, I suppose. And for the main audience at the Con, not an important one. (I’m obviously not the target audience.)

I have a lot of interesting books heading my way in my local library system, including a biography of Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show fame), a memoir by an abortion doctor, and a retelling of Captain Hook’s origin story. Exciting things to come!