Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

At first glance, this doorstep sized novel (over 900 pages) might appear to be a daunting read. The blurb warns of an apocalypse and hints at the role that a special little girl would play afterwards. She is Amy Harper Bellafonte and she is the key to something. And that something is the reason the FBI abducts her from the convent her biological mother left her with, and take her to a secret testing facility. Without giving too much away, it seems that her immune system is special and they wish to investigate her in conjunction with another project involving death row inmates at the same facility. Shortly after her arrival, hell literally breaks loose leaving Amy and her abductor running for their lives. The Vampire Apocalypse is here…

As a young girl, it is without doubt that I would compare her to Ayla (the heroine of Earth’s Children) and Lyra (His Dark Materials); Amy is no Ayla but she’s no Lyra either. As a girl who grew up alone she lacks the social skills, keeps a childhood innocence yet is wise despite her years. I loathe to elaborate further because I wouldn’t want to spoil her development as a character which is revealed with deliberate caution. She is an enigma and Cronin wants us to experience this along with the people she encounters. But I will say that she is a walking metaphor and I am still trying to piece together everything I think Cronin was trying to say in this book.

Cronin proves that plot and characterisation need not be mortal enemies. Despite its length the story moves quickly and for literary work it flows well. Most of all it has great atmosphere. The tagline of the novel is Something is coming… and that is how the narrative flows, the hint of a threat of what is going to happen next and that’s what keeps you turning the page. It is a book about portents and fate.

This is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

Umberton Eco: “Readers want to be challenged”

Umberto Eco gave this interview to The Guardian to promote his new book The Prague Cemetery (mobile link).

I’m not sure I agree that in general people want to read complex ideas. I know I do and I would say that a typical avid reader probably does. The biggest seller of the moment is Twilight. Having endured the first film but not read any of the books, I can’t say it strikes me as being particularly conducive to exploring big concepts of the nature of humanity. Stephen King put it succinctly when he said “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”.

But all joking aside, Harry Potter was also a big seller and it did wrestle with complex issues of growing up and, being true to yourself, standing firm in the face of evil and most importantly putting honour and honesty first (amusing that the religious right are largely against it). Dumbledore remarks to Potter the time will soon come where you must choose between doing what is right and doing what is easy. Many of the books play on this theme and it is an important theme for people growing up, that age group especially to stand up against injustice.

The other point of interest in the interview for me is his remarks on the anti-intellectualism of Berlusconi and on conspiracies in general. A couple of weeks ago I was on a train heading into London and I started to jot down some ideas for blog posts for next year (yes sometimes I do plan that far ahead). One of the themes I want to discuss in 2012 is the power of words. I want to look at misinformation and conspiracies as well as anti-intellectual movements and the sort of language and wording they use to achieve specific emotional responses (some of which I will schedule for Banned Books Week in September). And it’s a very apt year to do it considering 2012 is apparently the year that we all die. Words are powerful and language can sometimes be a deadly weapon (look at how pervasive the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have become, still influencing anti-semitism. Look also at climate change denialists stirring up the notion that the global scientific community are anti-capitalist conspirators). I look forward to exploring these issues next year but for now, please read the fascinating interview with Umberto Eco.

Site of the Week: Scirus

If you know of any useful websites or perhaps run one yourself, feel free to recommend it. If I find your site suitable for my weekly feature then I will do my utmost to accommodate it. In return I might merely ask that you link to my blog. But please (and I mean this in the politest possible terms) do not ask me to advertise your commercial service.

Most people will probably use Google Scholar anyway but this week’s offering is Scirus, an online scholarly search engine-cum research tool. Unlike Google scholar (I think) it also links to course material, scientist’s personal websites and institutional archives. This is an invaluable tool to anybody who ever needed to research anything but didn’t just want to take information from the first website they found, didn’t want to (understandably) pay for journal access and don’t have the patience to spend days and days looking for open-access papers that might not exist.

One alternative to Google Scholar anyway.

Thoughts on “The Passage”

This is not a review. I’m expecting to finish this book in the next few days and I will publish a full review then. I’m also piecing together an essay on vampires in fiction. Both should be up by this time next week. I’ve been itching to write about this book while I am still reading it though; something is niggling me to comment on it.

That’s the sort of book that it is. There is something about it that really gets under the skin, a haunting presence throughout that constantly hints that something is about to go horribly wrong. It is long (over 900 pages) and generally quite slow paced so the sense of foreboding is integrated into the style. When something does happen it becomes a real page-turner.

Comparisons with King’s The Stand and McCarthy’s The Road were inevitable. But it is more character driven than The Stand and more eventful than The Road and not as bleak. Fans of either will no doubt like this.

Because it is literary, there is undoubtedly a lot of metaphor and I have found the need to stop at times to ponder what I have just read.

No sex please, we’re writers!

It seems we are an unimaginative bunch when it comes to writing the sex scene. The standard is apparently so bad that it is necessart to give out awards for the worst examples. Yes, its the time for the Bad Sex Awards!

Going by examples in the genres I’ve read, there have been many very good and very bad sex scenes. When they are bad, they are really bad and more likely to get the reader to burst out into fits of laughter than the desired effect of titillation.

The article mentions Stephen King. I can’t really say I’m shocked, I’ve yet to see an example of good sex scenes in his work. Neither am I surprised to see Jean M. Auel on there. Having read three of her Earth’s Children books, I have commented that there is a lot of it. Overall, most of it is very good but there are some examples, particularly in The Plains of Passage, that are just awful. It seems that the final book in the series The Land of Painted Caves is ripe with bad sex.

Details of last year’s winner (loser?) is here.

Bad sex scenes usually contain the following:
* cheesy metaphor
* bizarre similes
* unrealistic dialogue
* little actual description of the human body
* athletic abilities that most Olympic gymnasts would struggle to achieve

I’ve yet to write any sex scenes, I have so far not felt the need and haven’t had the opportunity to test my erotica skills. I do plan to put at least one in the sequel to my complete novel but that is some time away yet as next year I want to do a serious rewrite of the original.

I’ve made a mental note that when I do write a sex scene, not to compare the physical act to mechanical processes (unless of course I’m writing steampunk, lol) or to erupting volcanoes, caves or to overuse the very unerotic word “member”.

I will revisit the subject in the near future when I’ve had the chance to experiment writing sex scenes.

Site of the Week: Books Mirror

If you know of any useful websites or perhaps run one yourself, feel free to recommend it. If I find your site suitable for my weekly feature then I will do my utmost to accommodate it. In return I might merely ask that you link to my blog. But please (and I mean this in the politest possible terms) do not ask me to advertise your commercial service.

Its getting cold, the nights are drawing in. Some days are wet, some are windy, some are both. Not always nice weather to go out in (even if you are a cold-weather lover like me) so what further excuse to sit in and read a good book?

Ever told yourself “I must read more classics”? Now you can with this website full of links to free books all over the web. Each title has several translations / editions to find the right version for you. It’s a pretty basic website compared to some other ebook archives I’ve promoted but pretty extensive.

H dd n c ara te s

Another interesting article in The Guardian, this time on hidden characters (mobile link).

I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days and here is the list from my own reading:

Voldemort in Harry Potter: Though he makes an appearance in book one as a hijacker Prof Quirrell’s body, for the first four books of Harry Potter, he is a spectre. He-who-must-not-be-named is always a background threat as the spectre, an image of a darkness that once tried and failed and might one day return again.

Similar to Sauron in the article…

Metatron in His Dark Materials: Another figure who works in the background summoning the dark forces for the war that is coming. We hear much about what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do if he succeeds. We know that the dark powers, the control freaks and the tyrants gravitate toward him. The church (the visible enemy) is his tool. We see him toward the end when he and Lord Asriel have a mighty punch-up.

Guild Navigators in Dune: We know what they do, what they are and toward the end of the book we know what they look like. We know they are a politically neutral force concerned only with the continuation of the market network. They want only order and for the spice to continue its flow. They are mostly an invisble force, sometimes crossing the line that they promise not to cross. This theme continues through Messiah and into Childrem.

The Auditors in Hogfather : I know this is not the only Discworld novel they appear in and I know their motives become clear elsewhere but taking Hogfather as a standalone work, they are behind the plot to assassinate Discworld’s answer to Father Christmas. They commission Lord Downey to find somebody capable and willing. They are the reason for the sum total of events in the novel ands yet they make (if I recall correctly) just two appearances, before and after the main events have taken place.


Nothing too substantial but I’ve updated my ‘About’ page tonight, including a recent picture from my holiday in Malta.

I’ve also tweeked the ‘web resources’ page, taken down some links that aren’t up any more or for which there are better examples and added a few useful finds from StumbleUpon.

Finally, I’ve added Angel’s Mass to my Red Room account. It hasn’t yet been approved but when it is I’ll take it off of Elfwood.

History Boys (and Girls)

I talk a lot about science fiction books on here and I realise that despite posting quite a few book reviews on the genre, I’ve neglected discussion of novels set in the past.

I have read quite a few set across a diverse range of periods with different approaches and ranging in quality. Looking at my book collection and my book shelf I realise that my genre reading can be broken down into two sub-genres: war and crime. I have also read some novels that might be classified as fictionalised biographies (novels about real people but containing a degree of artistic license of fictional characters and events added).

My first real introduction to historical novels began with Christian Jacq, a French author who writes about ancient Egypt. The superb Ramses series still stands as his best work but I grew bored quickly with his formula and passionless style of writing.

A few years later I read Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series about the life of Gaius Julius Caesar. This was a different experience, well-researched, more substantial and slower paced. I have yet to read his current series on the life of Genghis Khan.

After this I started to read a lot more historical fiction. It was around this time that I was introduced to the work of Lindsey Davis. I’ve read the first nine of the Falco series (20 published to date) and I cannot recommend them highly enough. The main character is Marcus Didius Falco, a private investigator who ends up the only person capable of investigating the crime of the moment. With a whole host of amusing characters, Davis’ writing works on three levels: as gripping crime thrillers, amusing and light-hearted reads and as educational. Each novel centres around one particular element of 1st century Roman life. For example, the most recent I’ve read is The Iron Hand of Mars is a fascinating look at typical military life on the German frontier. Falco is an amusing character. You laugh at him – a lot – and you laugh with him as he laments that Emperor Vespasian keeps asking him to do jobs but never quite gets around to settling the bill.

More substantial if you prefer a heavier read (though no less informative), C.J. Sansom might be for you. Set during the last ten years of Henry VIII’s life, the protagonist Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer investigating murders against the backdrop of this intense and tumultuous period of England’s history. Slower paced than Davis’ work, it is excellently researched with gripping plots and fascinating characters.

On the military side, I’m currently reading three series. Warrior of Rome by Harry Sidebottom. Long-time readers of this blog might remember me gushing over how amazing the first book in this series is. Set in The Third Century Crisis, it is about a (real life) German born Roman officer sent to defend the eastern frontier against the Sassanids. It is amazing for the detail which is even better for the excellent flow. Some of the characters are a little stereotypical. Rough rugged officer raised from the ranks, check. A surprisingly emancipated (and irresistibly attractive wannabe nymphomaniac) woman for the third century, check. Thuggish soldiers, check. A dastardly noble, check. Weasly officials, check.

Sticking with Rome, I’ve also read two of Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series. It’s ok so far but as I started reading it about the same time as Warrior of Rome, it has, perhaps unfairly, become quite forgettable in my mind. I know I will read more eventually.

The final series is Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, a period of England’s history that I’m really fascinated with. It’s also a period I studied while at University. It’s a great series mostly because it dispels the myths about the Vikings. They have a bad press because of the Christian writers of the time painting them in the most negative light they could imagine but in reality they were no more or less brutal, no more or less likely to attack unarmed civilians than the Saxons. Uhtred is a fascinating character despite being similar to Sharpe. A Northumbrian pagan in Christian Wessex working for a pious Christian king (Alfred – interesting exploration of his character too) comes up against all sorts of problems as he seeks to reclaim his Northumbrian castle from the usurper.

I’m also four books into the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel, with two books remaining I feel the sequels have failed to live up to the first superb entry in the series as the focus has moved away from survival in the ice age and to soapy love triangles, non-stop sexual aerobics and the social anxieties of a girl genius single-handedly taking humanity toward industrialisation.

Aside from the above series, I have read numerous one-off novels and trilogies, some of which I have published book reviews for, some excellent, some mediocre and some just forgettable.

I’ve never read Sharpe but I have read some Patrick O’Brien. Generally the Napoleonic era is of little interest to me. Undoubtedly I will read Sharpe but I won’t be proceeding with O’Brien (reasons previously stated).