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The Passage
The Passage
by Justin Cronin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars big book, but worth the effort, 13 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Passage (Paperback)
I'd seen this book all over the place over the previous few weeks; on tubes, on buses, being read on park benches. The eerie front cover of an evil looking girl kept catching my eye.

So, I grabbed it, felt its weight and judged it to be a good 600 pages or so- great as a pillow on the beach if it turns out to be dross. I headed to the plane just in time and settled back with my travel cushion and started reading.

The book is not the 600 pages I thought it was, but a mammoth 960 pages. But I have to say, I really enjoyed it.

Had I know that this book concerns a young girl called Amy who has been experimented on, making her the potential saviour of the world (in essence) when a virus breaks out that destroys the population. I might not have bought it had I known it was another novel that taps in to the `bitegeist', with vampires taking over the world. I might not have bought it had I known at the start that it was part one of a trilogy- committing to 3 thousand pages of anything is a pretty big ask. But I'm very glad I did.

The first half of the book (a good 400 pages) looks at the young girl's early life and the shady going's on at a secret government lab, where experiments on longevity, `Project Noah' have been underway. The protagonist in this section is a kind hearted FBI agent, called Wolgast, who has been commissioned by the army/ shady government agency, to recruit death-row inmates for human trials.

This first half slowly introduces you to a host of interesting characters, each with their own detailed back story and it's only when you hit the halfway mark that you realise very little has happened. It is testament to Cronin's delicate use of language that despite this, I was still swiftly turning the pages, keen to hear more from these fascinating characters.

So far, so Syfy Channel. Yes, on paper, the story seems pretty hackneyed. But the way Cronin builds up the tension is excellent, the characterisation and the broad sweep of the story, as well as his attention to the finer details (creating a vocabulary of slang for whole communities for example) is great.

As you start to engage totally with these characters, the tone, characters and pace suddenly shifts. at I actually found myself missing some of the characters. And from a slower pace, it becomes a rollicking actioner, totally immersing you in a bizarre and detailed world where humanity is on the brink of extinction.

It's not a book that is easy to write about without giving away much of the plot. What I will say is that Cronin's prose is elegant, his character's surprisingly sympathetic (even some of the beastly ones) and the action is top notch.

It isn't a book that will change the world, and it isn't even one that has any strong message about the way we live our lives (thought there is much room for it) but it kept me flicking through the pages at a rate of knots. Cronin has carved a distinct niche here: the character-driven-post-apocalyptic-vampire-epic. As a holiday read, this one had me reading half of it in one sitting and getting me pretty damn sun burnt in the process.

Have a read of this one. You'll know within 50 pages if it's for you.

The Old Man and the Sea
The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.79

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perfect book, 13 Jan. 2012
I'm going to keep this review directly proportional to the size of this book. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is wonderful, brilliant, moving, profound, riveting and noble. It's 100 pages of beautiful, robust writing, where every word counts.

From reading an epic like War and Peace (still ongoing) this was a revelation as an exercise in how to convey so much emotion and meaning with so very few words.

I've read it five times, and it never loses any of it's charm or magic. Hemingway has written some amazing novels; full of powerful, hardy and noble characters, but none for me come close to Santiago the fisherman and his struggle against nature in this lyrical and poetic little book.

I'll say no more. Read this book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 1, 2013 6:54 PM GMT

A Visit From the Goon Squad
A Visit From the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Totally unique, totally brilliant, 13 Jan. 2012
A Visit From the Goon Squad is like reading a series of fascinating vignettes, that, had they been printed separately and sold as little pamphlets (Volume One: Bennie; Volume Two: Sasha) they would still stand on their own as fascinating character studies. But, with a thread of connection that joins every separate story together, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts-a brilliant story about how people live together, fall in love, fight, and communicate.

Before starting this review, I looked through the book and was reminded how brilliantly Egan pulls you in to the narrative and makes you care for these characters. Within a few lines of a new story, you urge these characters to succeed, or to survive a moment of torment intact. And not one character feels weaker than the rest; each one has their own arc, their own goals and a unique view of the world, making every chapter feel fresh. And this structure, dedicating a chapter to a new character, helps Egan show off what seem to be her key themes; how people communicate, interact and how lives intersect.

Egan expects the reader to pay attention to the minor characters as these chapters progress. Someone who is incidental in one person's life can become the focus of the next story, with every chapter holding the kernel of the next. But it is Bennie Salazar and his PA, Sasha, who form the backbone of the story, as we watch them working in the music industry in the 1970's to the present day (and beyond) with a wide assortment of colourful characters, who they marry, fight, cheat on, steal from (a lot) and, amid the chaos of their lives and those they cross paths with, try to find something like happiness.

The consequences of so many seemingly minor incidents (though they never feel like it) over the course of the book are dramatic, and the sense of loss and loneliness is palpable, particularly as the book reaches the present day. This perhaps isn't a coincidence, as Egan comments on the rise in technology, the all powerful online community; `T'ing- eerily realistic- as people sit next to each other and communicate via text; toddlers have major buying influence and musicians perform children's lullaby's to tap into the lucrative market share.

It doesn't pay to expect a traditional plot from this one and once you accept this is unlike anything else you've read, it becomes impossible to put down. It's a slipperly one, but in a great way.

And it won the Pulitzer Prize, so read it now before they film it and it gets ruined....(though Jim Jarmusch could probably do a pretty good job)

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics)
Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Geoff Wilkes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a surefire masterpiece, 13 Jan. 2012
I've recommended Alone In Berlin to at least a dozen people in the last few weeks, so I felt it was only right to post a review on one of my favourite books, which was only translated into English in the last few years (2009 I think). It's a powerhouse of a book, written in 1947, only a few years after the end of the Second World War, that brings to life the shocking, gritty, harrowing and unbearable reality that millions of German's endured during the Nazi's rule.

Hans Fallada crafted this masterpiece in prison in 1947, scrawling the text on any paper he could find, writing in the margins and the turning the book upside down, ramming as many of his blistering opinions on the Nazi's as he could. And it was all written in a month. The consequence of this writing frenzy is a novel full of anger, written in a breathless style that loads every paragraph with emotion and energy.

It is impossible to read it and not feel a knot in your stomach, or indeed a lump in your throat as you chart the story of Otto Quangel and his wife Anna, who, on hearing that their son has been killed on the frontline fighting the Allies, decide to write postcards opposing Hitler's rule, dropping them randomly across Berlin.

This small act of defiance has huge repercussions for the Quangel's and those around them, as the Gestapo begin to investigate who has been creating such inflammatory slogans, such as "why suffer war and death for the Hitler plutocracy?" Among many others. This story of a middle aged factory worker's defiance is noble and heart wrenching - all the more so for being rooted in fact, based on the real life Otto and Elise Hampel, who lived in Berlin during the war.

The true success of Fallada's novel is not the riveting story of a defiant German opposing an appalling regime (though it is fascinating), but the detail, grounded in his experiences as a German living through the paranoia and fear that so many of his countrymen experienced. Every expression, every movement, every twitch interpreted in the wrong way can mean imprisonment, death, or at the very least, suspicion and social exclusion.

A wide assortment of character's, from factory workers, alcoholics and pet shop owners to Gestapo Inspectors and Nazi Generals are all crafted to show them as more than caricatures, more than faceless workers or vague symbols of evil. The personalities Fallada gives them make their actions all the more tragic or wicked.

It's no surprise that this book reads like a raw text, which would have been corrected for grammar and use of tense had it been seen by an editor. But these flaws make it feel more urgent and real, and I would never want to see a text with those changes corrected(kudos Penguin). The language has no trouble jumping off the page and grabbing your attention totally.

The story of the Quangel's is the perfect way for Fallada to vent his disgust and rage at the meaningless loss of life in Germany. You finish it breathless and morally outraged. This book, more than any other I have read, gave me a real insight in to how people lived under Nazi rule. I cannot recommend it enough.

The Crossroads
The Crossroads
Price: £8.50

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Gritty but bitty..., 13 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Crossroads (Kindle Edition)
After reading Niccolo Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared, which was full of elegant prose, subtle characterisation and a cleverly constructed story, I was excited when I found Crossroads in my local bookshop. I even paid £10.99 for the pleasure. But I'm still questioning if it was worth it.

In the first 10 pages, I knew that this wasn't the Ammaniti book I was expecting. Straight off the bat, the violence, the gritty realism and the effing and blinding jumped off the page, in an explosive introduction to the main characters. All preconceptions were immediately dispelled. (It's always dangerous to expect a certain style of writing from an author - it often leads to disappointment.) I gradually began to enjoy the shocks and general bleakness of this cartoon like assortment of oddball characters.

The story follows a teenage boy, Cristiano Zena, who lives a squalid existence in a pre-fab house that his alcoholic, nazi loving father, Rino, built while a construction worker years before. Rino has a rag tag pair of friends, Danilo and Quattro Formaggi (because he loves that flavour of pizza) each of whom has fallen on hard times and join Rino, the aggressive and unpredictable leader, for drinking sessions and half heated attempts to get labouring work.

This is a book of interweaving stories, all connecting to this trio of adults who have a plan to ram raid a cash machine, split the loot and make better lives for themselves. In great heist-gone-wrong tradition, nothing goes as planned and everyone's lives are affected dramatically as a result.

There is a lot of fun to be had here, but I couldn't help thinking that Ammaniti was trying too hard to make his characters `quirky;' that this was written with one eye on Hollywood, thinking of the film rights with every outrageous act.

It isn't a patch on I'm Not Scared, and that's perhaps why I was so disappointed. There was also nothing here that showed the subtlety and nuance either. If I am Not Scared is a whisper, then this is a bloody great mega-phone boom. I never fully engaged with these characters- they felt like part of a graphic novel and never quite believable.

It reminded me of Tim Willocks (great writer, filmic to the max) in the sense that these books feel like the precursor to a hollywood film.

Don't get me wrong, Ammaniti has done a god job here, but with such genius as I'm Not Scared to live up to, it's really no wonder this one falls short.

Fun, but self conscious, gritty but bitty...

The Death Instinct
The Death Instinct
by Jed Rubenfeld
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars well worth a read, 13 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Death Instinct (Paperback)
This book surpasses his debut, with a labyrinthine plot that moves from New York, to Vienna, to Germany and back, taking in Radium, Freud, terrorism, oil, warfare and banking. If that sounds like a summary of the headlines of any given newspaper recently (perhaps radium and Freud aside) then it's because Rubenfeld has drawn some bold parallels with today's current societal problems - sometimes to the detriment of the story.

Stratham Younger, the protagonist from the first book, has returned from the Great War a changed man, disillusioned with psychoanalysis, quiet, introspective and haunted by the horrors of warfare. Littlemore, his cohort in the previous book, is now Captain of the NYPD and they investigate seemingly disparate incidents to uncover the Big Plot.

After an act of terrorism on 16th September, outside the JP Morgan building in New York, the pair gradually delve in to the shady world of politics, banking, oil and American foreign policy. It's an interesting yarn, with a complicated series of sub plots, that all lead to a heated finale.

Rubenfeld is a solid writer and the plot rarely loses pace, but first and foremost he is an historian. This is evident in the first five pages of nearly every chapter, where historical detail is documented in a tone that is slightly out of kilter with the rest of the narrative. These sections serve to highlight the `real-world' aspect of the story, and help root it in some semblance of reality, but for the most part they aren't strictly necessary and just distract from the action.

The constant references to 9/11 are of course inevitable. For the first 50 pages, the parallel is interesting, but as the book progresses, it becomes a little tiresome; bankers can be corrupt,; politicians are often devious and terrorism is a constant threat to liberty. This perhaps wouldn't have been a problem had there been a more interesting message than; `See? Nothing changes.' But there is little development of this parallel, so it remains slightly frustrating.

The other aspect that niggles me was the inclusion of psychoanalysis. I can't help but wonder whether the presence of Freud is relevant to the story, or Rubenfeld has used him again for the sake of continuity. I can't decide if it's a mild diversion or totally pointless. While his sections are interesting, they do very little for the plot.

That said, the 1920's era is very well imagined and the complex story has a satisfying denouement. It's a fun read and well worth a visit- go on, give it a go...

Anno Dracula (Anno Dracula 1)
Anno Dracula (Anno Dracula 1)
by Kim Newman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars brilliantly researched, gory and great fun, 13 Jan. 2012
Kim Newman is an Empire Magazine hero, single handedly guarding the dungeon at Empire HQ and watching those straight to DVD films, separating the wheat (not much) from the chaff (lots).

He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of horror, having written books, both factual and fictional, as well as radio plays, even directing a film. He's a jack of all, and annoyingly, a master too. So it is no surprise that his novel, Anno Dracula is also, well, masterful.

The book was actually written in 1992, so the re-release only highlights how far ahead of the curve Newman was. Think of the films that have appeared in the interim; Bram Stoker's Dracula; Interview with the Vampire; the Blades, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Van Helsing; Twilight; Daybreakers... Some good, some bad, but all feel as though they could have been directly influenced by Newman's amazingly realised vampire novel.

The year is 1888. The Prince of Darkness, Dracula has married Queen Victoria and now vampires and humans live alongside each other, tussling for power, in a violent, foggy, Victorian London. Our protagonist, Charles Beauregard is a member of the Diogenes Club, a cabal of the utmost secrecy, for which he is a spy. Charles has been tasked with hunting down the Silver Blade

Throw in to this story a list of iconic characters, from John Merrick, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll, Dr Moreau, Bram Stoker and Jack the Ripper, to name just a few. This novel is a melting pot of cleverly intermingling characters- some from history, some from fiction, all brought to vivid life by Newman's writing.

You don't have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of vampire lore to enjoy this book. It pulls you along with the force of the narrative; it's thrilling. I can only hope the re-issue has happened because it has finally got the green light in Hollywood. This is insistently filmic and seeing it on the screen is a tantalising prospect.

As for the book, it's a political-horror-vampire-action-period-thriller and you should read it. Not because vampires have become fashionable, but because this is a bloody good read.

The Rapture
The Rapture
by Liz Jensen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars post apocalyptic but with brains, 13 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Rapture (Paperback)
The book follows art therapist, Gabrielle- sharp, bitter and wickedly dry- who is tasked with helping a particularly troubled inmate of a young offenders institution, a girl called Bethany. Not only has Bethany been locked up in a bleakly realised mental institution - the smell of chlorine, the institutional colours, inmates rocking in their chairs- for the horrific murder of her religious mother, but she can predict natural disasters. Or at least, she seems to be able to with unnerving accuracy.

The book kicks off in a sweltering England, the temperature is soaring and Gabrielle, who tells us this story, is wheelchair bound and suffering. Though partially recovered physically, she is psychologically damaged by the after-effects of an horrific car accident. Bethany is her last ditch attempt at salvaging a career on the verge of collapse.

The dynamic between Gabrielle and Bethany is delicately constructed; despite the coarsness of Bethany's language and the unpredicatabilty of her actions, the scenes where Gabrielle and Bethany are locked in a power struggle tell us the most about their insecurities and weaknesses. These two characters create the focal point for a story that is filled with doom - very exciting, very tense and very powerful doom.

As the weather becomes more unpredictable, this odd pair become embroiled in a scheme that hopes to save the world, no less. Bethany's indifference to the world and Gabrielle's belligerent compassion for it make the approaching apocalypse all the more human - and all the more terrifying.

A book about saving the world from an environmental disaster sounds like a Roland Emmerich film on paper; all that's missing is a rousing speech from the President, a dog narrowly escaping disaster and everything would be sorted out and squared away neatly. But Jensen fills the story with shrewd and terrifying observations. Religion, politics, society, art and of course the environment all get analysed under Jensen's critical eye. But don't be put off by the `big themes'; this is no ponderous meditation on the future of humanity, it's a cliff-hanging, page-turning treat.

The characters are so believably drawn, the landscapes so expertly described, with a sense of nostalgic affection and outright disgust in equal measure it creates a convincing and gritty picture of a country- and the world- on the verge of collapse. The great thing about this book is how pursuasive it is: rarely do you stop and think how bonkers the whole thing is, how blockbustery the storyline or why certain characters don't act with a shred of common sense - Jensen's writing makes it scary, real and immediate.

by Simon Lelic
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a brilliant book, 13 Jan. 2012
This review is from: Rupture (Hardcover)
I've just finished reading Rupture, by Simon Lelic. I found it when I was checking out the lovereading website, bought it the next day and finished the 300 odd pages in a couple of sittings after being completely absorbed by a brilliantly structured and totally different crime thriller.

The structure is reminiscent of Kurosawa's Rashomon; a tragic event told from the point of view of a host of characters, all giving their unique perspective on what happened, slowly shifting the reader's perception- and sympathy- as the facts emerge.

Rupture follows the investigation of a shooting in a secondary school in London, after a teacher opens fire in the assembly hall, killing pupils and teachers before turning the gun on himself. The investigation is led by Lucia May, a detective who takes a keen interest in the life of the shooter, Samuel Szajkowski. Her investigation begins to unravel a sinister web of secrets and silence at the heart of the school

The plot unfolds cleverly, through about 15 different first-person narratives. These range from pupils at the school, teachers, parents of the victims and relatives of the killer. Each one is conducted as a police interview, and each alluding to Lucia's presence as they talk, though Lucia's voice is never heard during these monologues, giving them a powerful confessional tone. Each one also has a different pace and flow of language, depending on the person, with Lelic creating character brilliantly through his use of vernacular-every one of them providing telling clues about the state of Samuel's mind in the lead up to the shooting.

Lucia's story is told in the third person and her story the similarities with her own life become increasingly apparent as Lucia struggles to cope at work. As she retraces the final days of Samuel Szajkowski's life, the narrative grips, with every monologue ramping up the sense of dread and impending tragedy.

It's a book that looks at the level of trust we put in positions of authority, the violence that is meted out in the playground and the powerlessness to understand what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but the overarching theme looks at bullying. Every character comes into contact with it in some form; either suffering it, ignoring it or inflicting it. As the book draws to a close, you are hit with an interesting question - how much sympathy can you feel for a murderer?

I read a quote from Chuck Palahniuk, where he said; "maybe you don't go to hell for the things you do. Maybe you go to hell for the things you don't do." Which rings true for every character in this book.

The ending did leave me a little disappointed, not giving me the resolution I was hoping for, but that is perhaps the point - and pushes home a powerful message.

Overall, this is a cracking read. I was gripped. The structure puts a fresh spin on the crime/ police thriller and Lelic's writing is concise and taut and delivers a hefty emotional punch. I'm already looking forward to reading his new book, The Facility. If it's anywhere near as good as this book, it'll be a winner.

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