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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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Now, thirty years after it all ended, the Slow seemed the most natural thing in the world. It felt quaint to imagine people reacting to it with shock.
….Hopper knew she was one of the last ‘before’ children: born four years before the planet’s rotation finally stopped. She was a rarity. There had been plenty born since, of course, but the birth rate had plummeted in those final years. The world had paused, waiting for the cataclysm, and those children already young had been treated like royalty – fed well, treated whenever possible, as if in premature apology for a spoiled planet their parents could not mend.
….But during those years, new children were perceived at best as an extravagance, at worst as a cruelty. Why bring a child into a world winding itself down? The chaos and shortages at the end of the Slow had kept the planet’s libido in check.

~The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

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….Mrs. Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs. Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed. A premonitory shiver went down the spine, a turn of the head, and there she was – tall, gaunt and usually disapproving. Her dresses were severe and tubular. She wore them with the air of a prison wardress. If Sam’s theatrical guests, in a general sense, be looked upon as Royalists, then Mrs. Dreed was without question the Roundhead in their midst.

~Death in White Pyjamas by John Bude

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….The divisiveness of the new ideologies could turn brothers into faceless strangers and trade unionists or shop owners into class enemies. Normal human instincts were overridden. In the tense spring of 1936, on his way to Madrid University, Julián Marías, a disciple of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, never forgot the hatred in the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down onto the pavement. ‘We’ve really had it,’ Marías said to himself. ‘When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.’

~The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

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….His wife replied very emotionally, “No man has ever seen either of my daughters since they stopped going to school when they were little girls.”
….He struck his hands together and shouted at her, “Not so fast…. Slow down. Do you think I have any doubts about that, woman? If I did, not even murder would satisfy me. I’m just talking about what will go through the minds of some people who don’t know us. ‘No man has ever seen either of my daughters…’ God’s will be done. Would you have wanted a man to see them? What a crazy prattler you are. I’m repeating what might be rumoured by fools. Yes… he’s an officer in the area. He walks along our streets morning and evening. So it’s not out of the question that people, if they learned he was marrying one of the girls, would suspect that he might have seen one of them. I would despise giving my daughter to someone if that meant stirring up doubts about my honour. No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to me… me… me… me…”

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

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….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

~Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 227…

Episode 227

Hurrah! The awful rise in the TBR has been reversed this week due to me finally finishing a few books – down three to 213! I’m sure success is finally within my sights…

Here are a few more I’ll be banging into soon…

Fiction

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

I’ve already been to Moscow for my Around the World challenge, but given the size of Russia and the fact that both Moscow and St Petersburg/Leningrad have been considered capital cities, sometimes simultaneously, with Moscow looking east while St Petersburg looked west, I wanted to visit both. Doctor Zhivago took me back to the Revolution; this one is set during WW2.  

The Blurb says: Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…

The Siege is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.

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Classic American Fiction

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

One from my Classics Club list. I must admit I’m dreading this one – the blurb and reviews make it sound quite awful. But I know many people love it so (despite the fact that many people also love Gone with the Wind and East of Eden, making me doubtful about whether many people were reading the same versions as me 😉 ) I’ll give it a go. If it surprises me, it can only be in a good way…

The Blurb says: Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine. 

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Historical Fiction

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Courtesy of John Murray Press via NetGalley. Hmm, this sounds good but early reviews have been very mixed. Still, maybe the many people who didn’t like it are Steinbeck fans, so there’s still hope…

The Blurb says: In 1815, a supervolcanic eruption led to the extraordinary ‘Year Without Summer’ in 1816: a massive climate disruption causing famine, poverty and riots. Lives, both ordinary and privileged, changed forever.

1815, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
Mount Tambora explodes in a cataclysmic eruption, killing thousands. Sent to investigate, ship surgeon Henry Hogg can barely believe his eyes. Once a paradise, the island is now solid ash, the surrounding sea turned to stone. But worse is yet to come: as the ash cloud rises and covers the sun, the seasons will fail.

1816.
In Switzerland, Mary Shelley finds dark inspiration. Confined inside by the unseasonable weather, thousands of famine refugees stream past her door. In Vermont, preacher Charles Whitlock begs his followers to keep faith as drought dries their wells and their livestock starve. In Britain, the ambitious and lovesick painter John Constable struggles to reconcile the idyllic England he paints with the misery that surrounds him. In the Fens, farm labourer Sarah Hobbs has had enough of going hungry while the farmers flaunt their wealth. And Hope Peter, returned from Napoleonic war, finds his family home demolished and a fence gone up in its place. He flees to London, where he falls in with a group of revolutionaries who speak of a better life, whatever the cost. As desperation sets in, Britain becomes racked with riots – rebellion is in the air.

The Year Without Summer is the story of the books written, the art made; of the journeys taken, of the love longed for and the lives lost during that fateful year. Six separate lives, connected only by an event many thousands of miles away. Few had heard of Tambora – but none could escape its effects.

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Science Fiction

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I don’t know anything about either book or author – I just took a fancy to try some contemporary sci-fi for a change…  

The Blurb says: The Last Day is set 40 years into the future after the planet’s rotation has slowed to a halt, resulting in half the earth facing the constant light of the sun while the other half lives in an endless, frozen night. The plot centres on a young scientist who is called back to London from the frozen Atlantic and begins to uncover a truth which could change the future of the human race.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?