The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

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The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Science fiction, insofar as the future-set Lord of the Flies once was, but this lively debut has a much warmer idea about the nature of mankind surviving a disaster.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 9780755392599

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We are in North America in a near but post-Apocalyptic future. Those few humans to survive a pandemic have to be treated as carriers, and/or armed and desperate, and so are particularly of note to military-minded survivalist Bangley. And climate and eco-problems have killed off many common species, something closer to narrator Hig's heart, as he's a more placid, huntin', shootin' and fishin' guy. These two solitary men are an unlikely partnership, but both look out for each other in complementary ways. Bangley has his watch-tower, while Hig takes off in his Cessna to get away from it all, and his flights act as a first line of defense. But is it all life could be, for Hig and his dog and Bangley? What is Hig still to make of the last inviting contact he heard on his plane's radio - even if that was three years ago?

What we have here is one of those rare books that can succeed, and succeed thoroughly, in being literary yet very readable, while also having more than a toe in the waters of genre fiction. Like all good disaster stories, it's about something greater than its plot and setting - in this case the balance we all must face between settling for family and the comfortable and known, and the urge to strike out on your own, crossing over fences to seek greener grass, and possibly leaving us with no return.

As a result this has to be classed as sci-fi, but not by any means as only sci-fi. Here are hard facts of the world this is set in, as well as very internal considerations of character. A very pacey and finely-crafted action scene, where Bangley is only present by radio, is straddled by very dreamlike, meditative spells courtesy of Hig's occupations, that are no less satisfying.

You also have to laud the way Heller brings this to us through his own type of futuristic narrative. Hig's grammar has suffered the most in the Apocalpyse, it seems at times, so much so that just And. on its own can become a sentence in its own right, but I doubt if there has been a better or more successfully readable attempt at this unique, distressed, individual redesign of English. The dialogue has no speechmarks or regular attributing indicators, but it's nigh-on a hundred percent clear who is addressing whom and how. The double spacing between every paragraph completes the ways in which this looks fresh and original, but is not the only way in which this becomes a rapid page-turner.

All, then, comes to us with a certain clarity, and it's both an engrossing fiction and a finely-realised world. It's just that missing couple of percent again that can count as a bit of a shame. It takes some time to work out north from south, and in which direction the future might quite literally be. So much so, Heller gets it wrong in the action scene, and his right-to-left should be left-to-right. I'm not mentioning this as a major gripe - but more to point out that in something this good flaws can stand out. As a debut novel this is very noteworthy indeed, with fine literary ideas, and very strong plotting with a warm, alive heart. I'll leave you to find out whether it sides with staying put or flying off exploring, but the invite to go on this journey is not one to be easily dismissed.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

I would consider this alongside Far North by Marcel Theroux as the best in well-written, moody, dramatic yet intelligent literary reads.

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