The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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38 thoughts on “The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

  1. Yes, it’s a fine line between too much and too little description…enough to give a clear picture but as you say, too much will just take you out of the story. Sounds like it would be excellent with a little tweaking.

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    • His descriptions were really excellent but sometimes you just don’t need to know about the coffee marks on a table, you know? Especially when you’re desperate to find out if the heroine is just about to be killed… 😉 But seriously, it’s very good – it’ll be interesting to see how he develops… 😀

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  2. This sounds excellent, pacing issues notwithstanding – I read another novel with the earth slowing premise many years ago (can’t remember the name), and I enjoyed it but didn’t feel like there was enough focus on the science, so I’m pleased that there is more of it in this novel. I’ve enjoyed Murray’s journalism for a while now, but had missed the fact that he had a book coming out – I’ll definitely be picking this up!

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    • I honestly can’t vouch for the realism of the science because I’m not science-minded, but I found it convincing enough for me. I’d be interested to see a review from someone who knows whether it’s all feasible, just out of interest. This was a great debut despite the over-wordiness – I’ll be looking forward to seeing how he develops in the future… 😀

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  3. This does have to go on my list, I think apocalypse and conspiracy are a draw card for me and as it’s well written, I’ll think I’ll have patience with the other issues you mention. Thanks for the alert, FF!

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    • As you know, it’s a general complaint of mine that contemporary books are too long for their content, so I’m sure loads of people will find the pacing fine – hopefully it won’t be too slow for you! I thought it was well worth reading though – interesting and well written… very well written, in fact. I’ll be intrigued to see how he develops as an author…

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  4. Seems like your gamble on this one paid off overall. I’m not entirely sure it’s for me, mostly because of the slow pace you mention. These days I really need something that starts with a bang and erm … keeps on banging to the very end. Should probably have worded that differently. 🤔

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    • Yes, it was well worth taking a chance on – nice to read something a bit different form my usual too! Hahaha – hmm, fortunately I know what you mean… 😉 I do think it’s kinda important that a thriller should be fast-paced, though.

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  5. Those do sound like interesting characters, FictionFan. I’m with you about characters who are strong, but who do have their vulnerabilities and flaws. It’s not easy to write them (trust me!), but they are the best kind of characters. And that’s an interesting premise for a novel. I like the mix of social commentary and sci-fi. As far as the editing? Yes, sometimes it’s a lot better to be ruthless with the ‘delete’ key. Not easy, but in the end, it can make for a better story.

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    • I think it’s especially hard at the moment because so many authors seem to feel they need to address all kinds of contemporary social issues in their characterisation and it usually just makes the book feel like a political pamphlet. There’s a place for that, of course, but I’m never convinced thrillers are that place! Ha – yes, the delete key should be automated, perhaps, allowing only every third description to make it through… 😉

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    • It makes such a difference when the female character is believable and actually for me gives a much more truly feminist message than the type of woman who can beat up six strong men while still looking gorgeous… 😉

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  6. I’m glad you liked this one, despite its too-slow pace. The writer in me sincerely wishes publishing houses would do a better job editing and tightening an author’s copy. I can’t help wondering how many long-ago authors would measure up if their stories had been tossed to the world without scrutiny. Most of us NEED extra pairs of eyes on what we write! Now, off my soapbox and scurrying away….

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    • I really feel editors often let debut authors down – they either don’t give them guidance on the whole “less is sometimes more” thing, or they don’t enforce it ruthlessly enough. Most more experienced authors learn to go back and delete all the bits that might sound good but just slow the story down, but new authors deserve experienced editors who’ll tell them when they’re waffling – otherwise, readers will do it on Goodreads!

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  7. The pros you list definitely outweigh the cons for me, so this will remain in the TBR in my library app. I’m glad to know, despite its drawbacks, that it worked for you!

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    • I thought the writing was great, especially the descriptive stuff although there was far too much of it. Definitely worth reading! I’ll be intrigued to see how he develops as an author in future books… 😀

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  8. It sounds as if the editing process on this one wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but I think I would still potentially read it, despite the fact that speculative fiction is not something I would automatically go for. I would read anything with female characters who feel like flesh and blood human beings, rather than saints or super women.

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    • I do think debut authors are often let down by editors these days – I suspect they don’t like to sound too critical! But really, what’s an editor for if not to tell an author where the weaknesses are? But this is well worth reading, and the female lead was refreshingly credible – makes such a difference!

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  9. I think I’ll skip this one as I don’t usually enjoy books with slow pace and too many words. Debuts are always hard though and it sounds like this author still did well 🙂

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    • Yes, I get frustrated when the words get in the way of the story, especially in a thriller! But it really is a strong debut and I’ll be intrigued to see how he develops in the future. 😀

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  10. I loved this despite the lengthy descriptions, although didn’t actually bother me too much. I’m not a scientist either but I was rather sceptical that gravity would still function – that puzzled me.

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    • He did kinda explain the gravity – that the earth would have the same mass even if it wasn’t moving or something along those lines – but my scientific understanding is so poor I just had to accept that. I was more concerned about the atmosphere – I’d have thought it might have just, sort of, evaporated, or something! But maybe not… 😂

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  11. Arrgh, as soon as you mentioned the passing white dwarf and the rotation of earth you made my head spin and I could barely concentrate enough to read the rest of the review. 🤔 If earth stops rotating around its axis, you still get sunlight in different parts of the world, as long as earth moves around the sun. The only way you get the same area facing the sun is if the earth and the sun reaches synchronous rotation, like the earth and the moon. Or perhaps earth stops moving completely and just hangs there? No idea if such an equilibrium is possible, at least it would require the white dwarf to be caught in by our solar system instead of passing by.

    Sorry, just ignore my babbling, but I can’t stand, when I don’t understand things relating to science (and trust me, that happens a lot 😉 ). Perhaps, I need to read the book, just to figure it out. To me the story sounds pretty good, I’m not even sure, I would be bothered by all the descriptions.

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    • Hahahaha! Your scientific knowledge is light years ahead of mine! It’s my fault, not his! He did in fact say that the earth and the sun were in synchronous rotation, like the earth and the moon – I just didn’t have a scooby what that meant, so I interpreted it as “the earth stopped going round”… 😂 The white dwarf definitely just passed by (though I did wonder why it didn’t do anything else, like shift the moon…) I think you do need to read it and then tell me if the science makes any sense. I was deeply concerned about the atmosphere – wouldn’t it be affected?? I don’t know… 😂

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      • Hahaha, I see, that actually makes sense 😀 . I am now curious about how the science pans out in this one, I probably do have to read it. Even if I don’t understand the science part, I kind of like books, that make my head spin! Oh, and synchronous rotation is just a fancy way of saying that the moon rotates around its axis with the same speed as it moves around the earth, hence always having the same side facing earth. The atmosphere? Who knows (not me) 😂 I suppose the main criteria (distance from sun, i.e. temperature, and mass of the earth, i.e. ability to hang on to the molecules) are still there, but no clue how the temperature difference between the two halves, not to mention the white dwarf, affects things.

        Ok, this was a bit off-topic for a book blog discussion! If any of your followers can answer the atmosphere question, I would love to know, though! 🙂

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        • No disrespect to any of them, but I’m pretty sure none of my followers would have a clue! You must read it – you’re the nearest to an expert we’ve found! 😉 I’ll wait a couple of months and then check out the Goodreads 1-star reviews – they’re bound to be from scientists snorting about how it would all be impossible. How well I remember the reviews ridiculing the potatoes in The Martian… 😀

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          • Haha, I remember those potatoes well… Honestly, authors of fiction should be allowed creative freedom, if everything had to be realistic, we would miss out on a lot of amazing books. That doesn’t mean, I don’t enjoy spotting the flaws, though 😉

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            • Yes, I think sci-fi has got too bogged down in fact in recent years – it used to be all about imagination and who cared if there weren’t really intelligent insects on the moon! Of course, maybe there are… on the dark side… 😉

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  12. This sounds fascinating. Anytime an author has to create an entirely new and different world, wandering into too much description territory is a danger. Sounds like a good editor would have made a huge difference – here’s hoping Murray has one next time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can understand why they become fascinated by their own creation and feel the need to share every aspect of it, but it does all slow the thing down too much after a bit. However, he has plenty of imagination and real writing talent, so I look forward to seeing him develop!

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