Book Review: The Passage – Justin Cronin

The Passage – Justin Cronin

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Let’s start this with an apology. I’m super sorry guys but this is gonna be chock-a-block full of spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens then close your eyes now! I normally try to steer clear of ruining books for people, but I just loved this one so so much I want to tell you all about the parts that interested me. And if you have read it then please speak up – I really want to discuss it with someone!

Vampirical apocalypse is what this novel is billed as, and right from the start you are know something catastrophic is going to happen. The opening section follows two stories; one of which is Amy’s, a young girl who has been abandoned with nuns by her mother. The second story is that of FBI Agent Wolgast who is in charge of collecting death row prisoners who have been given the option to live out the rest of their lives in incarceration rather than lethal injection. These inmates are then used for experimentation by the government, who have discovered a virus – transmitted by vampire bats that can make humans disease-free and thus immortal. Wolgast doesn’t object to this task, until he discovers that he has to pick up a thirteenth subject – Amy.

There is a connection between Wolgast and Amy from the very beginning, he even tries to escape with her – but is foiled – and upon returning to the government faculty stays with her up until she receives the injection. When everything inevitably goes to shit and the test subjects break out Wolgast manages to run away with Amy under the cover of the calamitous events that unfold. Whilst the term vampire is never used, the test subjects gain super strength, are virtually immune to attack and have a prodigious appetite for human flesh.

For a while the book follows the story of Amy and Wolgast’s survival, whilst the virus spreads across America. They hole up in a cabin in the mountains making occasional trips out for supplies. Amy has contracted some aspects of the virus, she does not age and is sensitive to light – however the destructive elements are not evident. This is where I thought the story would continue, with their survival and adaptation to the new world. However Justin Cronin brutally kills off Wolgast in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. I was not this massive twist, Wolgast is a brave extremely likeable character and it honestly threw me as to how the book would continue.

The following section picks up the story 92 years later; following a band of survivors who have formed a Colony surrounded by massive lights that burn all night thus protecting the survivors from the “virals” as they are dubbed. This section feels like a whole new novel, the virals are the only continuation until Amy shows up at the colony’s gates. Her arrival is the beginning of unrest throughout the colony. We learn that the batteries powering the lights are beginning to fail. People begin having strange dreams, leading to a chain of events in which the lights are turned off. There is a devastating viral attack which results in the death of a prominent figure in the Colony. A combination of these factors and increasing friction within the Colony force several members to leave along with Amy to seek out a radio signal which they believe to be from other survivors.

Ok, that’s it I won’t spoil any more of the plot; I will only say that it gets even stranger from there on in. A lot happens in this book, there are heaps of characters as well as many little side spinoffs and interactions that later have significant impact. Despite this it is a really great storyline; you can’t help but be drawn into the intrigue surrounding the virals. Cronin manages to depict a creature far more interesting and  than your regular zombie or vampire, these creatures have some degree of physic power being able to manipulate humans’ dreams and thoughts to weaken their defences. I found parts of this book really scary, something I haven’t experienced reading anything for a long long time. So if you like being terrified then this is one for you! I would recommend it to anyone who likes horror, dystopian novels and a good long book to get their teeth into. It is the first part of a trilogy so I expect a lot from the next installation (which I have already ordered!! Have any of you read The Passage? Who loved it as much as I did?

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Book Review – David Starkey, Elizabeth: Apprenticeship

David Starkey – Elizabeth: Apprenticeship

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As you may have noticed in my previous post – I expressed an interest in reading more historical texts and this is one of the books that I was gifted by my lovely boyfriend. I had mentioned that I wanted to read it as from a bit of internet research it seemed like David Starkey was a pretty safe bet when it came to the Tudors. Elizabeth the 1st is such a fascinating character – as a child I loved looking at pictures and paintings of her. She was to my young mind, like a fairy tale queen; her pale skin and red hair set off by massive starched ruffs atop bejewelled dresses. Throughout junior school I was interested in Lady Jane Grey and her nine day reign, followed by Elizabeth taking the throne in such tumultuous times.

The blurb on the back of this book captures perfectly the intrigue that surrounds Elizabeth’s reign;

A woman in a man’s world, confident of her destiny to reign, intensely intelligent, passionately sexual yet (she said) a virgin, Elizabeth was to become England’s most successful ruler. Finding her way through the labyrinthine plots that surrounded the court, she had to live by her wits, surrounded by betrayal and suspicion, not knowing who to trust with her desire to be queen, or her desire to be a lover…’

Within the text Starkey focuses on Elizabeth’s early life, an area relatively unexplored, with the belief that this holds the key to her behaviour throughout her reign. The book begins with the event of her birth, an event which King Henry the 8th had divorced his first wife and married Elizabeth’s mother for, but unfortunately Elizabeth was not the longed for prince and heir. Nevertheless the first few years of her life were golden ones; she had her own house and was showered by gifts from her royal parents. Starkey points out that this might marks the beginning of the rift between her and her elder sister Mary, whose own house was dissolved and put under the charge of Elizabeth’s. However the doted-upon toddler’s life was soon to change, with the death of Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn. Starkey follows the effect Henry’ next three wives had on upon Elizabeth’s life – and I think very cleverly, throughout this childhood section sows the seeds of themes which will develop throughout her life.

Starkey’s impeccable scholarly research shines throughout, with his referrals back to letters and ledgers of the time. His interpretation of them is really interesting; particularly in regards to the words Elizabeth spoke and wrote around the time of her coronation on the topic of religion. Starkey says that careful ambiguity in her turn of phrase is the reason why she was so successful in making the changes to religion throughout the country. She had never stated her Catholic intent, and thus was able to make changes through her behaviour – and the court followed. I don’t know enough about religion in the Tudor times to state how accurate this interpretation is, but it made for interesting reading.

However – there is one thing that niggles, and I mean REALLY niggles at me about this book. Starkey’s aim is to make it read like a historical thriller, and there is enough in the life of Elizabeth the 1st to make this plausible, however he cannot resist making some little aside comments throughout. These, I feel, are intended humorously or descriptively but to me they just feel a bit overdone. He describes poor Mary as ‘pudgy’, and there is an exceptionally ill-mannered comment about attitudes to foreigners in England having not changed since the Tudor period. Small things, I know – but I just felt they were in bad taste.

Overall I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Tudors. You don’t need to be knowledgeable about the time period to read it, and it is a good read! Hopefully you will gel with Starkey a little better than I did. Are any of you interested in specific historical periods? I’d love to receive any historical fiction or non-fiction recommendations!

Becqui

Book Review: Jack Kerouac – On the Road

Jack Kerouac – On the Road.

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I love worn battered covers from charity shops!

Kerouac is an author I have never read before, yet in dissertation seminars over the past year he cropped up a lot. It seemed like loads of my peers were extremely taken by On the Road – and indeed the whole Beat generation. When I found this copy in a charity shop I noticed that the small- print on the front of this book describes it as ‘The Beat Generation’s Classic Novel of sex, jazz and freedom,’ all of which sounded pretty great to me so I decided it was time to give Kerouac a go.

This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of Kerouac’s own adventures with his friends. The protagonist Sal Paradise is Kerouac himself and the plot follows the trips that him, and his main friend Dean Moriaty (Neal Leon Cassady) take. The drive of the plot is fairly loose, a lot happens on the road trips that Dean and Sal take together; there are jazz clubs, women, recreational drugs and heaps of hitch hiking. However ultimately there isn’t much sense of moving forwards in this book.

The boys are mad, bad and wild – idealistically free, they aren’t tied down by jobs, family or relationships instead they choose their own adventures. Long walks down the freeway in the rain trying to hitch hike and living off apple pie whilst crossing states aren’t constraints – they are an unhindered lifestyle. However what we come to realise is that they actually spend a lot of time taking advantage of people and situations. Dean in particular is extremely promiscuous; he marries three times within the novel but leaves wives with the conviction that they are ‘whores’. He even abandons one with his children in order to spend time with Sal in jazz bars, drinking and pursuing prostitutes.

However, as little as I care for the story the writing is what sets the novel on fire. Dean Moriaty is a feckless man, but Kerouac’s descriptions of him – full of enthusiasm ‘rubbing his belly’ with excitement like a child, and just jumping around loving everyone one so wildly and happily really tickle you. You get excited with him; he is the light at the centre of the text. I think that this enthusiasm for people and for excitement is captured perfectly in this quote:

‘the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’

Isn’t that a fantastic description? You can’t help but become enthused yourself by his words. And Kerouac’s writing style could not be more perfect to describe this unorthodox life. Despite having prepped the story meticulously in notebooks for years, recording and detailing the events. When it comes to writing the novel, Kerouac taped together paper to form a one hundred and twenty foot roll so that it might flow continuously through his type writer. He then sat down and wrote the whole novel in three weeks. It’s the long sentences with lots of strange description, an eye for familiar details and the and the repetition that keep this book moving and exciting.

For me therefore I had a bit of a love hate relationship with the novel. Re-wind to my teenage years and I probably would have fallen in with the free spirited recklessness depicted. Now I just see the protagonists as beat-out, a bit worn down and distasteful (the feminist in me is raging at Dean’s treatment of his wives…). However I can’t help but fall a little in love with the writing, it evokes some of that wanderlust in me and I can’t help but want to hitchhike with nothing but seven dollars and apple pie to feed me.

Be honest with me now – what are your thoughts on this novel? Have any of you watched the film? I’ve heard good things about it, but I generally hate film adaptions of books so I’m undecided as to if it’s worth a watch! Let me know either way!

Becqui

Book Review: ‘The Goldfinch’

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Impulse purchase that paid off.  That’s my review of this novel done in five words – boom. I’m only joking, I’ll write a little bit more than that. However it was most definitely an impulse purchase, this article about lengthy summer reads popped up on my Facebook timeline, and with my re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire coming to a close I was in the market for a tome I could get my teeth into. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Donna Tart – The Goldfinch, weighing in at just fewer than 800 pages, was recommended so I popped onto Amazon and had it on my kindle within minutes.

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Not relevant but – I love my Kindle cover, it’s from Cath Kidston and it’s lasted for over two years so far. When travelling I always pop my phone/passport in it as well!

This is a novel about loss, life changing in a second, about good and bad, adolescent confusion and the power of beauty. A painting, The Goldfinch by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius (which incidentally is a real painting, but the story that unfolds around it is purely fictitious) is at the centre of this text, with vivid characters and settings drawn around it.

Donna Tartt’s power of captivation runs right from the opening scene when we meet the protagonist Theo Decker living in a hotel room in Amsterdam where, sick and haunted by fever, he dreams of his dead mother. The plot then rewinds fourteen years to reveal the close relationship between Theo and his mother, living alone after his alcoholic father abandoned them, in a flat in New York. This world is torn asunder when a bomb goes off when they are visiting an art museum. In the confusion that follows directly after the explosion Theo attempts to rescue an old man, who gives him a ring off his finger and then motions towards a painting on the wall. This is the painting that gives the novel its name, The Goldfinch. Disorientated from the blast Theo takes the painting, and the ring, escapes from the building and, still in shock returns to the flat waiting for his mother to return home. His mother however, died in the explosion and Theo’s future changes forever.

He is taken in by the Barbours, a high-society family with spiteful younger children and a mentally unstable father. Whilst trying to adapt to these changes Theo visits the address the old man gave him alongside the ring and finds himself becoming friends with Hobie, the old man’s business partner. Hobie runs an antique store, and spends most of his time restoring furniture in the basement. Theo finds comfort and friendship here and begins to take an interest in restoring furniture. Just as he seems to be adjusting to life once more, his father reappears and once again Theo’s life is upturned as he moves out to Vegas.

The strength of this novel and what makes it a great read despite its length is Tartt’s ability to depict places and people with such vivid qualities. This is very much in evidence in the passages where Theo is in Vegas, it’s a sunbleached land with near-empty towns that are gradually being taken over by the desert. Here Theo meets Boris an enigmatic, irrepressible young man with a skewed view of the world. They spend their teenage years drowning parts of themselves with vodka and pills.

From here on in these are the two themes that weave through the novel, Theo’s dependency on narcotics and his feelings about the painting. He has confused emotional attachments which alongside financial difficulties lead him into forgery – both of which he combats with narcotics, for the way they make him feel and forget. The painting is, I think, the foil to this. It reminds him that there is good in the world. However the ending of the text shows to us that good and bad are intermingled. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but the layers of deceit and confusion ultimately lead to a redemption that can’t be viewed as wholly pure.

For me this is something I loved about the novel – Tartt depicts a world where characters aren’t good or bad, they are all multi-layered and captivating. The storyline isn’t a straightforward one, but that’s what drew me in – the ambiguity, Theo does bad things but for good reasons. Combined with Tartt’s masterful storytelling this was a fantastic read.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read it – what were your thoughts on the novel? I’ve heard it described as full of clichés, but I didn’t think that was the case. What is your take on the characters and places depicted?

Becqui

First Post / Book Review

Hello! Welcome to my little corner of the internet, I’m Rebecca/Becqui a recent English and Philosophy graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University. I’m going back to do an MA in English studies in September, but in the mean time I am occupied with part-time work and a little bit of freelance writing. I love reading and following many blogs so thought it was time to jump into the fray. On here I’m going to post mostly book reviews, but also about anything else that I find interesting! Let me know which posts you do and don’t like – all feedback is welcome! And if there is anything you’d like to see, I’ll do my best to make it happen.

Anyway to kick things off I thought I would share with you one of my favourite books – The Beach by Alex Garland. The reason that this is one of my favourite reads is because every time I return to it, and I must have read it at least six times, I find something different to interest me and to think about.

Alex Garland - The Beach

Excuse the bad quality pictures, I will be upgrading to something better soon!

The Beach tells the story of Richard, a seasoned traveller who upon his first night on the Khao Sang Road, Bangkok, discovers the suicide of a follower traveller. The man, known only as Daffy Duck, leaves nothing but questions for the police and a hand-drawn map for Richard with directions to ‘The Beach’. ‘The Beach’ has become something of a legend amongst the young travelling community, for it is the home to a select group who are living beyond the reach of tourism on an elusive island. For Richard, plagued with half-memories of the glamour of Vietnam war movies visiting unknown Thai territory is irresistible. Alongside a young French couple he ventures into the forbidden land of the Thai national park, encountering drug barons and sharks on his quest for the ultimate traveller’s paradise.

The first time I read this book was about seven years ago, when I was just sixteen. At that time I took it pretty much at face value and loved it. The plot follows a travelling community who all smoke weed, a lot of banana pancakes are consumed, and the beach has easy access to massive marijuana fields. Despite risking the wrath of Thai drug barons there is an endless pot supply. I think every teenager would love the seemingly glamorous hazy lifestyle that the travellers aspire to. Sure shit gets a bit weird towards the end and people die but on the whole I thought it an amazing adventure.

With a few more years and a lot more books under my belt on this read I was really interested in different aspects of it. Richard, the narrator is a character who seems to exist mostly inside his own head. After meeting Mister Duck, the Scottish run-away from the ‘Beach’ who commits suicide Richard has frequent nightmares about him all of which contain omens about his future. Mister Duck leads Richard out of trouble a few times, and eventually starts appearing as a hallucination. This initially startles Richard but then he comes to view Mister Duck as a friend, they have a lot in common and they spend hours chatting about their favourite films and Airfix models. People from the ‘Beach’ even comment on how much Richard reminds them of Daffy (Mister Duck).

Equally Richard is presented as an outsider, he travels with a couple Françoise and Étienne, and he likes to describe the relief he feels when he shuts himself off from them. When they reach the beach he again becomes an outsider – completing missions that mean he spends a lot of time alone with only Mister Duck to talk to. I’m still not sure what the significance of these aspects is, but that’s just why I like it: even though it’s well-read I still find things to chew over.

However, the main draw of this book for me is was how the ‘Beach’ is presented as a Mecca for travellers who want an untainted experience, closed off from tourism and the outside world. However in the end it is the people within the Beach that destroy it, rifts spring up and it descends into a nightmare. It reminds me of Lord of the Flies in this respect, showing how lawless societies descend into a madness that is almost inhuman.

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I also love these simple illustrations at the beginning of each paragraph!

I think this is a good book for those who are interested in ‘cult’ fiction; there is something captivating about this novel, something increasingly strange which sets it apart from other texts. As previously mentioned, if Lord of the Flies interested you then this is a totally different read, but has aspects of similarity in it.

So there you go! That’s one of my favourite books! Have any of you read it? If so, what do you think of the review? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Richard’s dreams/hallucinations.

Becqui