books

OFF THE BOOKSHELF: Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’

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I’m a fairly quick reader and even as a kid, there were times I’d pick out a book purely for its extraordinary length. A well-written epic is an experience like riding one of those escalator walkways at the airport. You get onto it, enjoy the smooth journey and then before you know it you’re at the end, trying to get off without falling flat on your face from the unexpected speed. ‘The Passage’ certainly has all of the facets of an epic with an unsettling realism that makes time slip away very quickly as you read.

“And then she knew, knew it for a fact. They were in danger, terrible danger. Something was coming. She didn’t know what. Some dark force had come loose in the world, and it was sweeping towards them, coming for them all.”

Cronin is a professor of English and clearly a master craftsman of the ‘journey’ form of writing. ‘The Passage’ begins with the backstory of a little girl named Amy, whose single mother leaves her at a convent after murdering a man. Sister Lacey takes it as her charge from God to protect the mysterious and friendless little girl. It then jumps to the emails from a man on a research project in the middle of a jungle, who not only encounters a strange interest from the military in his project but is suddenly put into an extremely dangerous situation that not many of his research party survive. Again, the story then catapults the reader into the lives of Agents Doyle and Wolgast of the F.B.I. who are given instructions to bring several death row inmates to a remote testing facility, where it is revealed that they will spend their lives being human guinea pigs for a viral vaccine that the fatal research project has left as a lasting legacy into medical examination. Wolgast and Doyle are also charged with the job of delivering the six-year-old Amy as a new test subject for this facility – a task Wolgast in particular finds does not sit well with his conscience.

Without giving away too much more of the storyline, which trails and twists and turns in all sorts of directions, jumping forward and backward through time as it wills, the resulting breakout of the virus from this facility transforms America into a post-apocalyptic world battling creatures reminiscent of vampires for survival. Little Amy becomes frightfully important to the survivors many years later, as she holds the key to answers the human race desperately needs.

So then, what is this book like? Well, creepy to begin with. Cronin is extremely gifted at revealing tiny pieces of the plot to you one morsel at a time – enough to keep the ball rolling but in small fragments that leave you wanting more. It’s word heavy; I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who wasn’t keen on a hearty novel and wasn’t willing to invest some serious time in it. But dear lord, some of it reads just like poetry and it’s a dreamy kind of prose that wraps around the descriptive language like the chocolate coating on an ice cream.

‘The Passage’ is definitely along the vein of ‘The Walking Dead’ and all those other zombie survival horror stories everyone seems to be fascinated with this year. I’d have to say the most similar novel I’ve come across to this would be Stephen King’s ‘The Stand,’ right down to the vague underpinnings of religious themes. Other similar books include ‘Wool’ by Hugh Howey and ‘World War Z’ written by Max Brooks. They’re almost a study in human nature under extremely testing conditions – what we as a race will and won’t do to live, to love and to keep doing what we want to do all the way into the future. And it’s an intense study of the ferociousness of our fears, the depth of our desires and the simple kindness that we can give when we’re not being selfish idiots. Survival stories (‘The Passage’ definitely qualifies as one of these) have grittiness to them and make up a bunch of rules that are supposedly necessary under the brave new world of the novel, which is an interesting feat of imagination versus reality. Cronin walks along this thin line very well and creates a remarkable post-apocalyptic regime which I can only just imagine using the darkest, dankest corner of my mind’s eye.

Overall it is a sweet piece of literature, catering to an older audience of serious readers with intents of committing to the series. It does have a sequel published, ‘The Twelve,’ which details the evolution of the infected and draws even more characters into the main plot of Amy’s fight to save humanity. Be aware that there are a heap of characters in this series and it is at times difficult to keep track of them all, as the story spreads out into a kind of spider’s web determined to encompass the whole of America and stretch across a vast expanse of time. You have to be a fan of complexity and able to juggle multiple storylines well for the book to have its full effect but keep at it. Trek the journey with all those voices. The ending is nowhere in sight for this series yet, so expect some more books in future. All I can say is, bring it on. But please let me know your thoughts. I love comments, I love other opinions and the purpose of this blog is to get you to try something and see what you think of it. SophA

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OFF THE BOOKSHELF: Matthew Reilly’s ‘Jack West Jr. Series – Seven Ancient Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones, The Five Greatest Warriors’

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There is an unmistakable intrigue with all things ancient and largely unexplained; it is a skilled author who can mesh what is known about antiquity across many countries and timespans with their imagination, filling in the gaps. This type of creative history is becoming increasingly popular, what with writers such as Dan Brown and Phillippa Gregory even transforming their version of history into spin-off movies and television series (if you haven’t seen them, they currently include ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Angels and Demons’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, television series ‘The White Queen’). There is a staggering amount of similar bodies of work and Reilly has cleverly constructed a distinct, military and archaeologically-heavy story around a more modern version of Indiana Jones – that being Jack West Jnr or as he is also known, the Huntsman (after the Australian spider). 

“From the pyramids of Egypt to the swamps of Sudan, to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the boulevards of Paris: the desperate race begins for a prize without equal.” – Seven Ancient Wonders

Without spoiling the story for you, the series currently encompasses three novels ‘Seven Ancient Wonders’ (also sometimes known as ‘Seven Deadly Wonders’), ‘The Six Sacred Stones’ and ‘The Five Greatest Warriors’. Jack is depicted as a elite Australian ex-special forces officer who has instead devoted his life to the preservation and protection of ancient artefacts, stories and the solving of long-lost riddles in dead languages. His colleague and mentor – Max Epper otherwise aptly known as ‘The Wizard’ – discovers dangers to the planet that only the ancients hold solutions to and the stories are typically a race against vastly superiorly equipped foes with only wits, team spirit and courage to locate and unlock long-forgotten secrets. Literally, that is the beginning of every single one of these books, with the two sequels linked with past books so I wouldn’t recommend skipping in the series. The premise for the entire series lies interestingly in the history of a young girl named Lily whom Jack is charged with protecting due to language abilities she inherited at birth.

 “And so life went on for Lily – at the farm with Jack… until that fine summer’s day when the sky above the farm filled with parachutes.” – The Six Sacred Stones.

What are these books like? Well, if you enjoy stories that cleverly combine fact with fiction into a scarily blurred line than you will love this series. It covers the old favourites such as ancient Egypt and Greece, but delves into the Hanging Gardens, Genghis Khan, Jesus Christ, Stonehenge, ancient China and other, more obscure, historical notables. There is a very strong military bent to all of Reilly’s work but compared to his other series it is lighter and much less of a focus. Indiana Jones-type traps and obstacle courses while solving riddles and symbols is much more in the spotlight with Jack West Jnr. With Reilly there is a very slim romantic subplot but the focus is on the family dynamic and friendship, with the team saving the day as a combined effort. Reilly has a simplistic, forward action-packed style that drives the book at a punishing pace and I did stop several time to take in what had just happened, as the sequences read like a Hollywood movie; they’re huge, bullet-saturated, energetic fights and races and car chases. It’s not subtle and it’s not very in depth but when a gigantic, cataclysmic fight is being conducted on the peak of a historical wonder it’s certainly effective. And enjoyable. 

“He’d uncovered many ancient things in his time: the scrolls from the library of Alexandria, most of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the tomb of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. But this was something else. This was something more.” – The Five Greatest Warriors.

So if you are a fan of the more swashbuckling, history-rich adventure novels these are for you. It does delve a little into war history but only insofar as to provide background on villains and heroes. It is the ancient times, full of riches and monuments and rituals that command the most respect in these books. Very light supernatural-mystical elements are in the story, but for the majority it is believable, if highly unlikely. Think of Indiana Jones on steroids and you have the series. I’d probably encourage those from the young adult upwards to read it, only due to the slightly gruesome nature of some parts of the book but it isn’t a total gore-fest, it just addresses some slightly disturbing methods of warfare. High stakes are involved and where there are high stakes, Reilly delivers intensity. If you’ve read and loved ‘Atlantis’ by David Gibbins or other works by Matthew Reilly or Paul Sussman’s style of writing, I’d have to say that this series incorporates elements of all of these. Bear in mind it is probably not suited to people who enjoy meandering and complex plot lines or excessive character development or a story without details about the tools of warfare.

Let me know what you think, if this was helpful and what you’d recommend in the comments. Have a look at my gaming reviews if that’s also your thing; I’d have to say if you’re a fan of the Uncharted series of games you’ll also enjoy these novels. Follow me on twitter too @sophmidget for updates or to pester me about continuing to update this blog. SophA

BOOKS AND WRITERS AND REVIEWS, OH MY!

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books

As a reader, a writer and a bibliophile (it’s not as dirty as it sounds, look it up) I detest the ‘review’ of a book or a specific body of works. It makes my skin crawl and I find myself making an involuntary growling sounds, like an angry puppy.

You see, I understand that certain books are not for everyone and some people may not enjoy them. I get it. But the thing to understand is that when you walk into a bookshop, shop online or download an ebook, you are only looking for yourself. It isn’t possible to stand back and objectively critique a novel because you will always be searching for that inexplicable grip that pulls you in.

I detest some novels, I’ll admit that. Fifty Shades of Grey or anything else will never make it on my ‘must read’ list on Goodreads. It ain’t gonna happen. But I can appreciate that there are readers out there who will forth and gasp and thoroughly enjoy the series. It’s just not for me and I respect the people who have different tastes. I’m certainly not about to review the book that you love and bag the hell out of it simply because it’s not to my tastes. There are trends and there are favourites and there are the so-called ‘classics’, but at the end of the day it is up to the reader’s tastes. To this end I find the only helpful reviews (ones that aren’t selling or nonsensically tearing the thing to shreds) are the ones that tell me if I might like this book if I love another similar series.

Therefore, as an insatiable writer and reader, I’m going to try something different with your permission. Every week I will write a summary of a series or a novel that will attempt not to sell it, not to critique the writing or the characters or the plot development, but instead I will tell you what this book is like and who may enjoy it. I will in essence give you the ingredients of the book and you can decide whether you devour it in one gulp or you approach hesitantly, knowing there’s something in there you haven’t tried but are willing to give a go. I’m going to try and jump genres, age groups, fiction and non-fiction as much as possible.

With that said, leave me a comment or send me a message on Twitter if you have suggestions.

Sopha Out.