Klara, who narrates this introspective story set in the near future, is an Artificial Friend, designed to be an empathetic companion for a human child or teen. The beginning chapters relate her experience in a city department store, where she and other AFs wait to be chosen and long for their time in the front window, where they can soak up the sun’s rays and see the activity on the street. Happily, young teen Josie and her mother take Klara home to their house in the country. Josie has a friend, Rick, who lives nearby, but only sees other teens at scheduled parties. Everyone has remote instruction, on their tablets. Josie isn’t well, and Klara hopes that the rays of the sun will help heal her. Housekeeper Melania isn’t very welcoming to Klara, but they share responsibility for looking after Josie.
Many people are now unemployed, having lost their jobs to robots. And there is visible smog, which upsets Klara, who reasonably supposes the pollution is affecting Josie’s health. Klara sees the world differently, in a series of boxes, and her speech is very formal, deliberately machine-like. But in the end, Klara has a bigger heart than some of the humans she comes to admire and will do almost anything to help Josie grow and thrive. Described as literary science fiction, this is another thought-provoking novel by the Nobel award-winning author of The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and The Buried Giant.
Robert Harris has written books set in ancient Rome (Pompeii), in 1938 (Munich), and in the near future (Conclave), so I was intrigued to see a medieval setting. Young priest Christopher Fairfax travels to a small town to bury their priest, but all is not as it seems, for Christopher or for the reader. Very hard to put down, with plenty of unpredictable plot twists. An antiquarian society is deemed heretical by the Church in this often dark, thought-provoking thriller.
Bestselling romance and fantasy novelist Roberts goes in a new direction with this first book in a post-apocalyptic trilogy. A pandemic sweeps the globe from its start near a stone circle in Scotland. Returning home from a family holiday, Ross MacLeod and his wife bring the sickness to New York City. Their pregnant daughter Katie later continues the story. While many people die, some are immune and others, known as the Uncanny, develop paranormal powers. Reporter Arlys finished her final television broadcast, then heads west through the subway tunnels with intern Freddy, an Uncanny. Paramedic Jonah delivers Katie’s babies, and they head southwest with some others, ending up in New Hope, Virginia, where the small community thrives until challenged by enemies with paranormal powers. Several appealing characters and a fast-paced story showcase the author’s storytelling skills. While this isn’t the best post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read recently, it’s very good. For readalikes without the paranormal elements, try When the English Fall, by David Williams or Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. For post-apocalyptic novels with paranormal elements, check out Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling, the first book in The Change series.
Edgar’s not much of a father or husband. When news of the end-of-the-world crisis comes, he’s drunk. But he’s mentally prepared, and helps Beth and their two little kids survive. Later, the family gets separated and Ed is left behind in Edinburgh with a small group. He needs to get to Cornwall in a hurry to find his family again, but the roads are mostly impassable. Surprisingly, Ed won’t ever give up, and the group starts running southwest through the bleak landscape, where they have encounters alternately charming and malevolent. I found the completely ordinary Ed appealing and memorable, and the story very compelling reading.
A dystopian thriller set in the near future that’s sure to be popular. A group of residents of the southeast zone have paid a large fee to spend a few weeks enjoying nature beyond the salt line. The salt line is a ring of scorched earth and garbage dumps intended to protect the privileged zone residents from ticks carrying deadly diseases. The group’s guide, Andy, makes them practice using a cauterizing stamp that works to prevent disease if used right after a tick bite, and cautions them to stay close to their assigned stamp partner. Somehow the group, which includes tech entrepreneur Wes, middle-aged mom Marta, pop star Jesse and his girlfriend Edie, end up in Ruby City, where June and the other residents, including scarred Violet, no longer live in fear of ticks, though at a price. Adventure and danger follow the group, and they have to decide what kind of life they’ll choose in the future, if they survive. This is another September pick by Library Reads.
A beautiful book about isolation and connectedness at what may be the end of the world. Astronomer Augustine, in his seventies, is the last scientist left at an observatory on Ellesemere Island, in the Canadian high arctic. It’s midnight all the time in the Arctic winter, but that also makes for spectacular views of the Northern Lights. After a rumor of war, when the other scientists were evacuated, he finds young Iris hiding in the observatory. Augustine has always put his career first and his relationships with his colleagues and family a distant second, so it’s a big adjustment to relate to the mostly silent girl. Together, they wait for spring and sunrise to arrive, and then journey to a well-stocked camp at Lake Hazen. During the long arctic nights and later the long summer days, Augustine scans the radio bands, looking to connect with someone, anyone else. Eventually he hears the voice of Sully, an astronaut in the spaceship Aether, on the way home from a voyage to Jupiter and its moons. Sully has also put her family second in her quest for the stars, and she and her shipmates are haunted by the continued radio silence from Mission Control. Augustine has two bouts with fever, and suffers from arthritis. He worries about what will happen to Iris, but doesn’t seem that interested in the rest of the world, unlike the crew on Aether, anxious about what they will find as they approach earth, and how to live in a world gone dark and quiet. This is one of those novels likely to stay with the reader well after the book is finished, with vividly drawn settings, complex characters, and thought-provoking scenarios. Readalikes include Station Eleven by Hilary St. John Mandel, and The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, although these two books are very different from each other.
The author of the dystopian trilogy The Last Policeman takes a different approach to contemporary fiction: alternate history. The Civil War never happened, slavery is still legal in several southern states, and free does not mean equal. Victor is a free black man on assignment in Indianapolis for the U.S. Marshals Service, on the trail of a runaway bonded person known as Jackdaw. Victor infiltrates a cell of the underground airline, a master of disguise. In flashbacks, we learn that Victor spent his childhood as a bonded person, so why is he tracking down runaways now? Is it just that he enjoys the privileges of his job and situation, from air-conditioning to a car to the music of Michael Jackson? And yet he befriends Martha Flowers, a young white woman with a biracial son. As Victor travels between free and slave states, the world is a fascinating one, as the economy doesn’t seem to be thriving and technology lags behind ours. Laptops, cell phones, and GPS exist, but most cars are older and foreign. This novel is not light reading, but the world-building and storytelling skills of Winters make this book very hard to put down.
Twelve reality show contestants walk into the woods and up a mountain to face solo and group challenges. They all have nicknames, including Tracker, Biologist, Airforce, Carpenter Chick, and Zoo. The challenges are probably familiar to watchers of any wilderness survival show, but some of the contestants are totally unprepared to survive in the wilderness, which is unusual. Caffeine withdrawal, insufficient clothing, and inability to read a map or compass are unexpected. An expert, along with Tracker, shows the contestants some of the skills they need, but no one will be prepared for the real challenge they face: a fast-moving epidemic. One morning Zoo wakes up alone, without a cameraman in sight. Zoo is married, and wanted one last adventure before starting a family. Following her blue markers, she doesn’t see anyone for many days, although some gruesome dummies are unsettling. After a coyote encounter leaves her with broken glasses, her blurry vision makes it hard to tell reality from the game. She is joined by a young teenage boy, who tries to tell her about the epidemic. They head out on a final quest, and the result is completely unpredictable. Fast-paced, very suspenseful, and moving, this first novel is sure to be a hit this summer.
To begin with, this is a massive book that feels like two different novels. Most of the book is set in the near future, with an epilogue at the end set 5,000 years in the future. At the start of the book, Earth’s moon breaks apart into seven massive pieces. Scientists don’t know why, but soon realize that the rocks will start colliding with each other, forming smaller and smaller boulders that will eventually result in a destructive hard rain of debris. Estimated time to the hard rain is two years. Stephenson has put a lot of thought into what might happen if we had two years to prepare for disaster, including the political, social, and technological challenges, and puts most of these thoughts in the book. His readers are used to these info dumps, but they are unusual. What happens is that the International Space Station gets a lot bigger and busier, with Earth trying to send as many people into space as possible. These challenges take up most of the book, with an intriguing glimpse at a new civilization in a marvelous setting in and around Earth 5,000 years later. The characters, settings, and plot are all compelling reading, but a few events seemed forced to me, unrealistic even for ambitious science fiction. I really would like to read more about the people of the future, and hope Stephenson writes more about their world.
LibraryReads is a monthly list of the top ten new books nominated by librarians around the country. As a librarian I can request digital copies of books before they are published, and I am one of the librarians who read and nominated Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Finally, a hard to put down post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t bleak and violent. I don’t always enjoy books with multiple points of view that also move back and forward in time, but I loved this book. The main characters are all connected to Arthur Leander, who is performing as King Lear in Toronto as a flu epidemic is spreading around the globe. Later, we encounter the Symphony, a traveling orchestra and Shakespeare troupe traveling around western Michigan.
Lists from the last year are also available, making LibraryReads a great place to look for reading suggestions.