Tag Archives: Justin Cronin

Read these, not that

Not this

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slBelgravia-by-Julian-Fellowes-250ightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested in $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even within those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found it improved considerable – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.

Read these!

city of mirrorsEnough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with The Passage, back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through thought it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and, as it happens, a fun return to the 1990s and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. eligibleAnd I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical – Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

colin firth

Just because.

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.






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Stuck in the middle again

Dammit. Now I’m caught up on three different trilogies and am facing a wait of at least a year on each.

I guess it’s good news that each of the middle installments made me even more eager for the third.

The first was Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, sequel to her Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. And the sequel just made the longlist for this year’s Booker; how cool would that be? The second was Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness, second in her All Souls trilogy about star-crossed witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew de Clermont. I liked that one so much I went and re-read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, and liked it way better on a second read. The third middle book was The Twelve, the follow-up to Justin Cronin’s bestseller The Passage, a post-apocalyptic vampire epic. (Note to Twilight/All Souls/True Blood fans: These are not sexy kind of vampires.) The Twelve one doesn’t publish until October but I got an advanced review copy and devoured it in four days. Three of which I was working for eight of my waking hours.

It’s funny but reading, and liking very much, Cronin’s work doesn’t make me want to go out and get Stephen King’s The Stand, the book to which it is frequently compared. I’d be more inclined to check out other dystopias except we’ve had a lot of that with the recent Key West Literary Seminar and all. If anything the books remind me most of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, just for their masterful plotting and command of huge casts of characters and multiple settings. In Cronin’s case that even includes jumping around in time quite a bit and he still pulls it off. At several points in this book he would start with a whole new time, place and group of people and my initial thought would be, come on! I want to know what’s going on with Peter and Lish, and how am I supposed to keep all these people, places and times straight? And then found myself getting totally absorbed anyway. Definitely the mark of a good storyteller. Now if only he (and our friend Martin) would write faster.

Why this image for this blog post? Well, there are, appropriately, TWO reasons. Anyone want to take a guess what they are?


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My epic problem

Last week, while home from work with a sore throat, I spent the whole day reading the new highly-touted novel, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I liked it, as did the folks at Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist (which gave it a starred review). Even more impressively, it showed up at number 2 on the New York Times’ hardcover fiction bestseller list in its first week — nice to see a first-time novel by an English professor up there in Patterson/Larsson land.

Yet. Toward the end, I found myself racing through — not quite skimming but definitely not paying close attention. This is a bad habit of mine, especially if I’m reaching the end of a book at the end of the day and know I won’t be able to sleep until it’s done. But I found myself also getting a tad annoyed and I realized what that was about.

It’s the “Wait, there’s more!” syndrome, commonly seen in action/epic movies (Wyatt Earp and The Dark Knight come to mind) where there is just one denouement/near death experience/ultimate showdown too many. Or three.

I realize that’s kind of the point of an epic book like this one — and it’s the first part of a trilogy so there’s more to come. But after awhile, especially in a single volume, it starts to feel like Too Much. This is the reason I’ve given up on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Each single volume just involves too many James Bondish escapes. Even in a fantasy where you’ve suspended disbelief (time travel and all that not to mention a brawny, sexy Scotsman who’s also really smart and thoughtful, too), it’s asking too much to follow these characters through yet another traumatic event. I think if you’re going to follow the same people on epic adventures it helps to break it down into more digestible episodes like your standard mystery or thriller series. And one of the geniuses of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series, I realize now, is his ability to take us along on extended periods where nothing much actually happens, plotwise, but we’re still enthralled by just hanging out with those characters in those settings.

I feel the need here to repeat that I really did like Harkness’ book — which contributed the new (to me, at least) feature of supernatural beings doing yoga together as well as great European settings and the always-alluring enticement of ancient secrets hidden in an old book in the archives of the Bodleian Library. This book, like Justin Cronin’s blockbuster from last year, The Passage, (which I also read and liked but felt a little annoyed at its super-hype) is getting a lot of props as a sort of genre/literary hybrid, although the vampires in A Discovery of Witches are more traditional dangerous romantic hero types, not the viral predators of The Passage. I rated A Discovery of Witches 3 1/2 stars on LibraryThing which is my standard “enjoyable read” rating and I will probably read the next installment. The fact that I’m spending so much time thinking about this book indicates that it’s good, good enough to stay inside my head for a bit. And I am glad to see a non-Patterson-violent-male thriller book up there selling well. As the review in the Miami Herald pointed out, Harkness’s book uses elements from fantasy, romance and historical fiction, and I’m all for all those genres getting more play.

Maybe it’s the English major in me, or the romance reader, but the parts I like best about these books are the characters and their idiosyncracies. I know you need lots of action to keep people interested and I know if you’re talking about some kind of supernatural showdown there has to be lots of conflict with lots at stake. I just hope Harkness, Cronin and others (I’m sure their success means there will be tons of others) trust their readers, and themselves, to know that we’re reading these stories for more than just one more Incredible Cheating of Death.

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Win a free book! Plus some thoughts on vampire lit

I tried to resist the vampire lit thing. I really did. I have successfully avoided reading a word by Stephenie Meyers. I haven’t even seen any of the movies.

Then True Blood came out. Curse you, Alan Ball! I was hooked. So hooked I read the first of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, on which the series is based. It was a fun read — very different in tone and even in plot from the series but still, I quit reading after the first book because I didn’t want to spoil plot points from the show.

Over the summer, lured by Salon’s first online reading club, I read The Passage, Justin Cronin’s big (in many ways) dystopian page-turner. The vampires in that are in no way sexy — they’re predators, infected with a virus in … wait for it … a military experiment GONE HORRIBLY WRONG. No tuxes or seductions for these vampires — they’re just the enemy for the few remnant regular humans left in North America. It’s a good book, and I’ll definitely be reading the next installment.

So after Cronin’s dark dystopia I was ready for the lighter side of vampire lit — and along came Key West’s own Meg Cabot with Insatiable. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t previously read anything by Cabot, who is an extremely nice and generous person. So I figured this was my chance to start making up for that.

And I enjoyed it thoroughly. Insatiable is a bit of an homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with a heroine named Mina Harper who has a brother named Jonathan (and a dog named Jack Bauer). It’s a bit of a romp, something of a romance and a great send-up both of pop culture (besides Jack Bauer, Mina is a scriptwriter for a soap opera) and vampire lit. And it’sfunny. If you like Jennifer Crusie, chances are pretty good you’ll like this, too.

When we decided to focus on vampire lit for the October Book Bites book club at the library, we contacted Cabot with some questions about the book. She was extremely generous in her response — answers to our questions can be found here on the library website — and in giving us two signed copies of Insatiable.

And if you’re in Key West and you’re interested in reading the book, here’s your chance: Cabot generously donated two signed copies of the book to us. And we’re giving them away — all you have to do is come to the library and fill out a form with your name and contact info. Winners must collect the book from the library — we can’t mail them out. So stop by, and take a chance — and try out some other vampire lit while you’re here. We have a big display up with all kinds of vampire books.

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Don’t worry I’m not writing about ebooks

I’m sick to death of reading about ebooks and digital publishing because it all seems to come from the poles — either we’re looking at the Glorious Future or the Terrible End of literature. Plus there’s so much being written and published, both online and in print, by self-obsessed media types, that you couldn’t possibly follow it all. Plus as a wise person once said about Hollywood, nobody knows anything. So why kill myself trying to figure it out when really smart people who are paid to do so obviously can’t?

I chose this image because I recently completed two online book club reads — in both cases, ahead of the official schedule. The first was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for the inaugural One Book One Twitter. The second was Justin Cronin’s Passage for the inaugural Salon Book Club.

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Recent reading roundup

I’m currently immersed in one of this summer’s Hot Books — The Passage by Justin Cronin — which I’m attempting to read with Salon’s Reading Club (look for a future post contrasting that with the One Book One Twitter experience reading American Gods — the short version is that I like the Salon experience better, at least so far). And there are a couple other titles I’ve read in the last month between everything else — though now we’ve got the cable with the World Cup on and the Tour de France right around the corner so my reading rate could slow right down. (There are three copies of The Passage in the Monroe County Library system, by the way, with two requests pending so if you want this one you should get on the list.) But here’s a report on a couple of recent reads before they get too far into the rearview mirror.

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliviera — historical fiction set during the Civil War about a midwife who longs to become a surgeon, with lots of family drama going on. For some reason, this one just didn’t grab me though I did finish it. It struck me as one of those “look how much research I did into the time period” historical novels. That stuff needs to come through not quite so obviously. We do have it in the Monroe County Library collection, just not at the Key West Library. I’ll give it 3 stars.

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