Review: ‘Lady Be Good’ (Rules for the Reckless #3) by Meredith Duran

Lady Be Good

Even though I absolutely adored the last Meredith Duran book I read, my experience with her writing has been pretty erratic to date. Still, I had my finger crossed when I read Lady Be Good and, luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

London, 1882. Lily Monroe is a precocious thief working for her uncle in return for her sister Fiona’s medical treatment. While she is used to a life of hard knocks and dangerous encounters, she is not prepared for her only sibling’s untimely death. Meanwhile, Major Christian “Kit” Stratton is being tortured by a Russian madman somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains. The Russian, Bolkhov, blames Kit and his men for the deaths of his family (read: captors he raped and impregnated) and vows to exact revenge by killing everyone Kit holds dear.

The story then takes a four-year leap. Back in London, Christian, now a viscount after the sudden deaths of his father (riding accident) and elder brother (house fire), is a celebrated war hero. Suspecting foul play, he is determined to save the lives of his mother and sister from a megalomaniacal Bolkhov. Christian meets Lily, now calling herself Lilah, at Everleigh’s Auction House. Now a ‘hostess’, Lily gets caught by him as she attempts to steal Peter Everleigh’s correspondence as a last favor for her Godfather/Robin Hood uncle. Instead of ratting her out, Christian decides to use Lily to get to Catherine Everleigh, the beauty co-owner of Everleigh’s who has had contact with a mysterious Russian antique dealer that Christian suspects to be Bolkhov. He blackmails Lily into spying on Catherine, telling her that he just wants help in wooing the icy proprietress. In return, he insists that he will return Peter Everleigh’s letters to Lily when her job is done.

Lily has been trying to fulfill her sister’s dream of living a respectable life. She was living on the straight and narrow when her uncle threatened to expose her sordid past to her new employers if she didn’t steal the letters. Now, she is being blackmailed by two men, and in order to pay the first, she has no choice but to obey the second.

The story then shifts to a country estate that Christian has inherited from a distant cousin. After some expert maneuvering, he has made sure that Catherine, and not her brother, will accompany him to the property to assess the valuables in the house for an auction. Lily is forced to be her assistant-cum-chaperone. Though she hates the fact that she is being blackmailed by Christian, the new job is an opportunity for Lily to learn from Catherine and maybe move up in the world. Unfortunately, Catherine Everleigh is too sharp and exacting in life, making both of Lily’s jobs difficult.

In the meanwhile, Christian and Lily are attracted to each other despite the many reasons they shouldn’t be. For all their differences, they have both lost an older sibling and in some ways are living the lives those people were meant to lead. Christian has no desire to be a peer of the realm; Fiona dreamed of becoming an Everleigh hostess while Lily trained as a typist.

There is nothing stellar about Lady Be Good. As with most Meredith Duran books, its strength lies in its execution, through strong prose and extensive characterization, leading Christian and Lily to emerge as more than stereotypes. Sure, he’s ruthless, but Christian is also deeply conflicted. He feels like he’s playing a role–‘the hero of Bekhole’ to an adoring British public–but it’s not really him. He was once the carefree spare heir, then the disciplined military man, but neither of these labels fit him anymore. As for Lily, she has tried really tried to shake off her past, but not without regret. Her cunning uncle and her other friends and family from the London underworld make her feel ashamed of wanting to be something different, someone more respectable. And she can never quite the lose the fear that one day the truth about her past will come out and her carefully constructed new world will come crashing down.

Lily and Christian’s relationship develops slowly and gradually–from intrigue and attraction to respect and liking and then to love. There were times when I felt that the characters could have overcome the mental constraints imposed on them by their antiquated time period. Also, Bolkhov was woefully underdeveloped as a villain. He maintains a menacing background presence for most of the book, but the actual confrontation with him was rather anti-climactic.

Lastly, Lady Be Good left me very eager to start its sequel Luck Be A Lady, which pairs Lily’s uncle Nick O’Shea with Miss Catherine Everleigh. It will be interesting to see how Ms. Duran manages to redeem him. (Catherine’s a piece of work, too, but she softens considerably in this book.) Another fun read by Meredith Duran.

Review: ‘Do Not Become Alarmed’ by Maile Meloy

Do Not Become Alarmed

When I read the description of Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed, I was expecting quite a lot from the book. Her previous books have been received positively and this one had a strong premise. When things go wrong for three rich families somewhere in Central America, lots of questions are raised about money, race, and privilege. The plotlines involve high stakes, kidnapping. Its characters are granted space to change and grow — something we demand very strictly of fictional people, if less often of real ones. Its writing is uniformly excellent. But I didn’t like the book.

Liv and Nora, thirtysomething cousins from LA, book themselves, husbands and kids onto a two-week cruise down the coast of Mexico and Central America. Once on board, they hook up with another family, wealthy Argentinians with two long-limbed, sporty teenagers. When the husbands go golfing for the day, the mothers take all six kids, aged six to 15, on an excursion. “This is a good country for us to go ashore in,” Liv says. “They call it the Switzerland of Latin America.”

And yes, alarm bells are already ringing. For the unnamed country turns out to be not very Swiss at all, but frighteningly chaotic and sinisterly foreign; you read on with mounting dread, as well as excitement, for it’s impossible not to relish the skill with which Meloy ratchets up the tension.

First, Pedro the well-meaning but lamentably chilled tour guide crashes the car, leaving his charges shaken and marooned without a bus in sight. Next, shepherding them to a pretty little beach at the mouth of a river, where he assures them it’s safe for the children to cool off in the water, he passes round frozen rum and openly flirts with Nora. As the children shriek and splash, Liv and Camila, the Argentinian mother, doze off in the sun, while Nora heads off into the trees for “a little no-strings attention” from Pedro. A few moments later, all six children are gone.

All credit to Meloy’s glistening prose that every detail of this grisly scene is shudderingly convincing. The sultry afternoon, the beautiful, sheltered Americans knocked off course by a routine accident but left with no choice but to trust in the local, the faint moments of comedy, the momentary lapses of attention – all of it rings uneasily true. Once the children are gone, everything accelerates and the plot unfurls swiftly and sleekly with chapters moving back and forth between adults and children with barely a viewpoint left unturned. As one queasy event follows another, it becomes clear that Meloy is not going to spare us – the children are alive, but for how long? – and there is no question of not reading on. I can’t remember the last time I gobbled a novel down so fast. Sadly, it wasn’t long before I realised I did not like the taste it was leaving.

The problem can be identified in one word: tone. Given the sometimes graphically unpleasant nature of the events she describes, Meloy’s writing begins to lack scope, sensitivity and even, sometimes, heart. It’s almost as if, having decided to explore a subject with such viscerally dark and dramatic potential, she can’t quite trust to the subtlety of her prose and allow less to be more: instead, she loses her nerve, retreating into quips and platitudes. Although we are told that the parents are distraught at having lost their children to this land of hungry crocodiles and ruthless criminals, we never quite feel it. Conversations seem oddly banal and lacking in any real urgency or despair. Yes, the grown-ups bicker and blame themselves and each other, but only in the way you might if your luggage or your iPad had gone missing.

At its best moments, Do Not Become Alarmed captures the anxiety of being the kind of parent with the least right to be anxious, a rich American one, the feeling that even our best efforts (the most enormous, cocooning cruise ship!) cannot safeguard us from danger. It’s an interesting notion, but because Meloy ventures half-heartedly into her ambitious themes, it barely emerges. “Their parents are American,” one local character thinks. “They don’t know anything.” This book is supposed to be a sally against that blindness. It only seems like proof of it.

I was provided an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “The City of Mirrors” (The Passage #3) by Justin Cronin

City of Mirrors

The night is ours again. The vampire apocalypse is finally over. And I apologise in advance for all the lame vampire jokes I’m about to crack.

As survivors know, the bloodletting started in 2010 with The Passage, an engorged thriller by Justin Cronin. A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin had published a couple of literary novels before going to the dark side and selling his projected vampire trilogy for over $3.5 million. Fox 2000 landed the first book — then half-written — for $1.75 million for Scott Free to produce. Originally developed as a feature, the producers eventually determined that the property would be better served as a TV series. Sophisticates may have sucked their fangs, but how electrifying it felt to have a fine writer spread his wings and swoop into this garlic-breath genre. With its blood-slick pacing and sympathetic heroes, The Passage was a killer antidote to the CrossFit vampires colonizing the twilight.

Yes, it’s true: Cronin’s story of a bat virus that destroys human civilization got a bit bogged down in the second volume, The Twelve. But those of us hypnotized by this tale were eagerly awaiting the finale. In The City of Mirrors, we finally find out what happens to the remnant of humanity that survived those decades of terror.

But beware all who enter. This is very much a sequel for the twice-bitten. The uninfected reader will wander around these dark passages entirely lost. The City of Mirrors opens a few years after the cataclysmic confrontation that ended The Twelve. So far as anyone can tell, the vampires were all destroyed. Our modest warrior-hero Peter Jaxon eventually assumes the presidency of a bustling settlement of a hundred thousand souls in Texas. There are now substantial settlements of beleaguered humans, and the real crisis is not shooting a “smoke” or “drac” or “flyer” in the chest, but creating a feasible tax regime. “People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall,” Cronin writes. “The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking.”

The epic climax turns out to be bathetic, though the flashback to Patient Zero’s former life as Timothy Fanning is actually rather good. An inset novella, it tells of being a middle-class boy in a prestigious university, beguiled by wealth and crippled by self-doubt. In the intervening century, he’s devolved into some kind of vampiric Miss Havisham, determined to make the whole world pay for his broken heart. Fortunately, one of the emotionally wounded characters from the previous book has found a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s determined to turn it into a latter-day Noah’s Ark — an insurance policy just in case the vamps come leaping back.

The trilogy exemplifies Anthropocene masochism. When humanity has irreversibly changed the nature of the environment, the environment bites back – literally, in this case. Humanity’s ubiquity conjures fantasies of its own extinction. What survives of us is not, despite the book’s sentimentality, love; but bureaucracy. Throughout the trilogy, the central concerns are planning, management, pragmatism and resource allocation.

The Passage focused on the response to the cataclysm and the strict government of the survivors (for example, children are not allowed to know about the disaster until a certain age). The Twelve was less concerned with the serial killer vampires – most of whom were never even fleshed out – than with the totalitarian regime in Iowa that collaborated with them. The City of Mirrors is more thrilling when dealing with the relationship between the black market and the official economy than the boo-hooing of the principal villain. Even the vampires have to deal with a diminishing food supply and the results of their over-plundering. The monster in the first book tried factory farming humans; the Iowan quislings were very keen on biofuels in the second book, and now Zero himself embarks on a proactive rewilding strategy. In the earlier books, the walled townships could be seen as a prophetic parody of Donald Trump’s isolationism. The third book has everyone except the Americans dead, and they are thus charged with making humanity great again. Zero has a great affection for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Hamlet; the courageous pioneers think Moby-Dick is too difficult, wondering if it is even written in English. The future is delightfully philistine.

Cronin picks open the wound with a few unnerving disappearances, but then once the lights go out, he launches breathtaking Homeric battles between viral hordes and soft-bellied humans. Back in New York, the conflict soars from one abandoned skyscraper to another — a spectacular clash that looks ready-made for Ridley Scott. And he’s even more frightening in crowded, locked rooms where sweaty survivors listen to the vamps sniffing under the door. The lucky ones are eaten alive; the others become blood brothers of the nastiest sort.

It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday. Inexplicably, the passing of a millennium and the murder of 7 billion people have given birth to a new civilization pretty much like ours. “History teaches us that there are no guarantees,” drones some professor at an academic conference around the year 3000. “We ignore the lessons of the Great Catastrophe at our peril,” he says, which suggests that platitudes, like cockroaches, will survive us all.

What good is immortality, Count Dracula might wonder, if the distant future is so deadeningly familiar?

Exposed in Darkness (In Darkness #1) by Heather Sunseri

exposed-in-darkness

I am a Nora Roberts superfan. I have read and reread every one of her books and the woman redefined the genre of romance for me, whether it was between vampires and witches, or a super badass cop with a charming Irish billionaire. Right after I finished her latest, Echoes In Death,  I was left wanting more. Thankfully, I had a copy of Heather Sunseri’s foray into romantic suspense, Exposed in Darkness, and I am so happy to have found a new favourite author in the genre.

Brooke Fairfax left the FBI after the tragic death of her husband in an op that went south. Overpowered by grief and guilt, she cut off all ties with the Bureau until a message from her Confidential Human Source (CHS), Romeo, shows her the poisoning of Kentucky’s Lt. Governor. Believing the Governor, her ex-brother-in-law, to be the actual target, Brooke heads to Lexington to stop the threat.

Suspect number one: Declan O’Roark. Charming Irish billionaire with a passion for great bourbon and thoroughbreds. Despite being pursued by the feds, all Declan wants is to unravel the mystery that is Brooke and take away the pain she seems determined not to share with anyone. When a second attack results in the death of another innocent man, Declan and Brooke race to figure out who the mastermind is and how to stop him from committing an act of terrorism at the Bluegrass Derby.

At first glance, there are an awful lot of similarities between the iconic In Death series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb and Ms Sunseri’s new In Darkness series. But what sets this book apart is Ms Sunseri’s strong and complex sense of storytelling. Unlike Robb, Ms Sunseri gives us a peek into Declan’s mind and I loved it.  The location and history of the small Kentucky town truly make it a character of its own. The characters are motivated by a complicated web of culture, political, and socio-economic factors. In other words, Exposed in Darkness is both timely and realistic.

There is a really interesting climax scene that juxtaposes the Derby race with the final threat. While I found the big reveal to be slightly predictable, there were a lot of questions left unanswered and I, for one, am eagerly waiting for Ms Sunseri’s next book in the series. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the romantic suspense genre but especially to my fellow In Death superfans.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “The Last Anniversary” by Liane Moriarty

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Having read quite a bit of chick lit this year, I’ve found that these novels tend to vary widely upon where they fall on the spectrum. On one end, you’ll have you’ll have your traditional gooey romances where a happily ever after is a given. On the other end, you’ll have darker stories that could just as well be called literary fiction or mysteries or thrillers. Liane Moriarty’s early novel, The Last Anniversary, belongs to the latter category and confounds a number of genre expectations.

Sophie Honeywell always wondered if Thomas Gordon was the one she let get away. He was the perfect boyfriend, but on the day he was to propose, she broke his heart. A year later he married his travel agent while Sophie has been mortifyingly single ever since. Now Thomas is back in her life because Sophie has unexpectedly inherited his great-aunt Connie’s house on Scribbly Gum Island — home of the famously unsolved Munro Baby mystery.

Sophie moves onto the island and begins a new life as part of an unconventional family where it seems everyone has a secret. Grace, a beautiful young mother, is feverishly planning a shocking escape from her perfect life. Margie, a frumpy housewife, has made a pact with a stranger while dreamy Aunt Rose wonders if maybe it’s about time she started making her own decisions.

I have to admit that, having heard so much about the hype surrounding Liane Moriarty’s books, I was expecting something very different from this story than what it turned out to be. While the novel does spend time dwelling on the existential angst that apparently comes with being single and childless at the age of 39, it’s far more than one woman’s race against her biological clock. In addition to some of the more lighthearted fare encountered throughout the narrative, Moriarty engages with a number of challenging themes thoughtfully and unflinchingly. The most prominent of these was the postpartum depression experienced by the outwardly unflappable Grace, presented in a raw, unrelenting yet sympathetic way. While other issues like rape and emotional abuse were also raised, they were addressed in a rather superficial manner. However, it is evident that Moriarty has a knack for balancing challenging themes with the less confrontational parts of the narrative in a way that doesn’t trivialize them.

While the story itself follows a rather predictable path, what’s special about this book are its characters and its setting. The setting of Scribbly Gum Island is beautifully rendered, and Moriarty’s evident attention to milieu is augmented by a cast of characters who slide perfectly into it, with the two bridged together by the author’s profound understanding of what being an Australian means. Moriarty avoids the ponderously overt approach to “doing Australian” injected with such painful determination into so many Australian novels (or worse, novels that aren’t Australian, but try to be), and instead allows her characters’ culture to shine through in a number of snippets that will have readers familiar with the plight of the aspirational classes nodding along.

Despite having a rather large cast for a novel this size, Moriarty’s skill with characterisation ensures that each of them leaves an impression. However, some of the male characters in the book did seem to be left rather one-dimensional and comparatively underdeveloped. Given the diversity of female characters in the book and the balanced approach taken to their actions present and past, the condemnatory approach taken towards the male characters is all the more noticeable.

While The Last Anniversary is, for the most part, a rather well-written novel, with a style that veers from fluffy to astonishingly cruel as needed, this sense of authorial control is not displayed so well at the narrative level. The mystery surrounding Scribbly Gum Island is perhaps played up a little too much, particularly given the fairly mundane (and easily guessable) truth behind it, and I can’t help but feel that the book could have been streamlined a little by reducing the emphasis on this particular plot point. Similarly, there’s some redundancy in Sophie’s quest for love and romance, and this results in a certain amount of tedium that detracts from an otherwise quick and zippy plot.

The Last Anniversary  turned out to be a mostly pleasant surprise for me. While it’s certainly not a flawless work, it’s certainly thoroughly engaging and readers will find themselves getting easily caught up in the complex familial machinations of the residents of Scribbly Gum Island. Moriarty has a considerable knack for characterisation and works hard to balance the darker elements of the plot with moments of delightful levity, resulting in a read that is somehow both insouciant and thoughtful at the same time.

Review: “The Virgin of the Wind Rose” by Glen Craney

Virgin of the Wind Rose

While investigating the murder of her fiance in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam. Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon’s Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged. The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal’s Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.

Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this thriller to expose the world’s most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer’s connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days.

I liked Craney’s style of writing for the most part. However, I felt he had a tendency to over-dramatize the negative, especially by using unnecessary adjectives. In addition, I had a lot of issues with his portrayal of Jaq. In the beginning, she is portrayed as this pious virgin with a “Caribbean figure” and “luscious sable hair with wild Medusa curls.” If that isn’t sexist enough, she is engaged to marry a missionary who was “impressed enough with her potential for obedience” and voluntarily enrols in a Christian cult a.k.a. “rehab” just because her father-figure says so. I confess, what I know of evangelical Christians and “true believers” of any kind is heavily biased. But, if you choose to pit Muslims and Christians against each other in your story, why is the Christian made to sound rational in his piety and the Muslim a deranged lunatic, when it is understood that their faiths have largely similar origins?

In terms of historical content, it is obvious that Craney spent a great deal of time and effort researching the different events and characters that pop up in the course of the story. However, the descriptions often become long expositions and include a lot of obscure details, making them a difficult read, even though the reader knows they exist to provide context. Even the characters often rely on an archaic vocabulary to make their point, using words like ‘carnaptious’, ‘druthers’ and ‘troglodyte’, making the entire setting seem anachronistic.

Despite being based so firmly in real history, Craney never makes you forget the story’s a work of fiction with his conspiracy theories that border on the implausible. They don’t take anything away from the novel per se, and end up paving a truly epic path for the protagonists to follow. We get treated to secrets guarded by Prince Henry and the Order of the Christ, Queen Isabella’s hunt for them, the Spanish Inquisition’s lesser-known purposes, cryptographic tablets with orders passed on them, End-Time cults… all in all, things definitely worth suspending one’s disbelief for.

The balanced narration ensures that the mystery is exposed at the right pace, switching between the present and the past at the right times, with Craney revealing just enough to pique our curiosity while keeping the really jaw-dropping revelations until the climax. The way the whole thing evolves is rather reminiscent of Dan Brown’s style (or Brad Thor, as some prefer to compare), focused on keeping the mystery alive and prominent until the end, and perhaps even after that.

Overall, The Virgin of the Wind Rose is an enthralling page-turner that will keep you glued to the couch despite its flaws. It’s a largely logical and well-developed mystery and anyone who enjoys reading about globe-trotting treasure hunts will certainly love this book.

P.S. I was provided a copy by the author. The views expressed are honest and personal.

Review: “The Invention of Fire” (John Gower #2) by Bruce Holsinger

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John Gower, unsuccessful poet, blackmailer, and a reluctant investigator is not an easy man to like. A court official who knew London well and a good friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, he became closely associated with the nobility and even professed an acquaintance with King Richard II. His potential to be a fictional ‘trader of secrets’ in a city of shadows, fear and filth was compelling, and one seized upon with imagination, relish and consummate mastery by Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning scholar of the Middle Ages.

Last year’s stunning debut, A Burnable Book, introduced us to Gower, part-time poet and full-time dealer in the clandestine, operating in a kingdom ruled by a headstrong teenage king and haunted by the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst the barons.  That Gower was really losing his sight by this time – famously describing himself as ‘senex et cecus’ (old and blind) – only adds pathos to these exhilarating, intelligent thrillers which brim with atmosphere, authenticity, danger, and mystery. (Read my review of A Burnable Book here)

For a man who lives metaphorically at least by sifting dirt, this story has a fitting opening. Sixteen bodies are found in a London midden. No one knows the dead men, the way they were killed or who could be responsible – and the authorities, both the City and the Crown, seem reluctant to pursue the matter. At the same time, however, they seem desperate to recapture a man and woman who have escaped from jail in Kent, where Gower’s friend Chaucer is a magistrate. Only one thing is clear. Whoever threw the bodies into the sewer knew they would be found – and was powerful enough not to care.

Soon we meet Stephen Marsh, the city’s most creative metalworker, who is recruited by the king’s armorer to come to the Tower and develop ever more lethal “handgonnes,” as the emerging weapons were called; they’re desperately needed to defend against the feared invasion. It becomes clear that handguns were used to kill the men, but the identity of the victims and their killers remains a mystery, despite Gower’s determined sleuthing.

Hampered by his ‘creeping blindness’ and challenged by deception and treachery on all sides, Gower battles to unearth the truth in an inquiry that takes him from the city’s labyrinthine slums to the port of Calais and on to the forests of Kent. As Gower strives to discover the source of the new guns and the identity of those who wielded them, he must risk everything to reveal the truth and prevent a more devastating massacre on London’s crowded streets.

London itself plays almost as much a part as do the characters. Real people like Chaucer, London Mayor Nicholas Brembre and various members of the aristocracy mix with fictional ones, to fill half a dozen different plots. Holsinger recreates the sights, sounds, and even the smells and combines them with a complex story of multiple murders, intrigue, pilgrimage, the law of sanctuary, religious hermits – and an amazingly accurate technical description of the development of a new weapon which was to change the face of war.

This is history and mystery in perfect unison, a gripping whodunit set amidst the grinding, grimy reality of everyday life in medieval London and a charismatic, thinking man’s detective driving all the action.

Historical fiction at its best.

 

Review: “The Twelve” (The Passage #2) by Justin Cronin

The Twelve

These are confusing times to be a vampire. In the early days, things were clearer: you were a filthy, exsanguinated revenant, doomed to wander graveyards after dark, feeding on the blood of living humans, sleeping in coffins, biting necks and hiding your face from sunlight, mirrors, and God. You were a rat whisperer. You were neither rich nor sexy. And you definitely didn’t sparkle.

But then the Romanians discovered you, and you went from an underground word-of-mouth legend to a supernatural star of page, stage, screen, and, not surprisingly, dildos. The newly industrialized culture was mesmerized by you. No longer a mere monster, you ascended to metaphor.

But transformation is as much a staple of the genre as bats and bloodsucking. Every new vampire story absorbs and reconfigures the tradition, as Justin Cronin aptly demonstrates in The Twelve–the second installment to a vampire trilogy that began in 2010 with Cronin’s blockbuster novel The Passage.

The Twelve feels like a post-apocalyptic cover novel. Justin Cronin lifts liberally from the classics–a little Margaret Atwood, a touch of George Orwell, a lot of Stephen King–in a way that vacillates between homage and cheeky theft. The book is odd,  ponderously structured, flitting through time in decidedly bizarre ways and putting so much pressure on the upcoming final book in this trilogy to make the story tie together elegantly that Cronin has essentially left himself no room to stick the landing.

Yet the book is compulsively readable. And while it struggles in some places where The Passage soared, that seems to be because Cronin took some of the more pervasive criticisms of the earlier book to heart. The Passage was an odd hybrid of character-driven and plot-driven fiction; The Twelve tips more toward the latter, but Cronin has become a much better writer of this kind of story. The plot is always chugging forward, and while the overall contours are mostly predictable (as they were in The Passage), the specific moments and events driving the narrative aren’t.

The Passage began in a world where a military-created virus turned one professor and 12 death-row prisoners into super-vampires, who escaped and plunged North America into chaos and darkness. The book then abruptly lurched forward nearly a century, putting the residents of a tiny human outpost in the California desert in touch with the young girl who was afflicted with the virus without turning into a vampire. The book ended with a semi-cliffhanger, leaving several characters’ fates in question. (For more information, you can read the book or my review of The Passage here.)

The foremost thing about The Passage was just how weird it was.  For me, I believe I was able to get on to its wavelength, and it proved to be an oddly structured delight, one that didn’t give a fuck about leaving the plot behind for several hundred pages for what amounted to a quirky small-town novel awkwardly intersecting with a post-apocalyptic vampire novel. Lots of people I know pushed it away, but The Passage excelled in Cronin’s ability to evoke tenderness and loss, and to sketch in his characters in just a few sentences, then deepen them as the epic tale took root. The Twelve keeps both of these skills largely intact, but it also feels more focused, and that focus draws attention to some of Cronin’s less-worthy qualities, like a tendency to lean too heavily on sentimentality that turns some of the passages of the book into sugary-sweet sludge, or the fact that avid fans of post-apocalyptic literature will have read this all before, probably many times over. Cronin also can’t stop himself from embracing several stereotypes, including a mystical black man and (sigh) an autistic twentysomething who just wants to drive a school bus.

For better or worse, The Passage reads like a novel written by someone who isn’t afraid to try all new things, even if not all of them work. It’s derivative, but also deeply personal, and the two tones work together in spite of themselves. On a technical level, The Twelve is much better written, but also feels slightly more soulless, as if making the whole enterprise several hundred pages shorter left Cronin without rabbit trails to follow off into the plot’s hinterlands.

Yet even with all of this working against him, Cronin remains adroit at approaching his structure and characters from interesting angles. Instead of plunging forward from the cliffhanger, The Twelve initially sends readers back to the era when the virus was first sweeping the continent. The hope is both to establish a new set of characters and to give a better view of the events only glanced at in The Passage.  These 250 pages are mostly terrific (even though they feature that bus driver), and the rest of the novel–which follows more directly from The Passage–does a much better job of tying past to present and making all the plotlines matter. In particular, there’s a beautiful symmetry to the way Cronin leaves behind the world of the newborn “virals” and the way he leaves behind his future world; he uses the past to inform the mysteries he’s teasing in the present. It’s skillful stuff, though it creates an expectation that the third book will now have to wrap up storylines in multiple time periods.

The surviving characters of the original novel all follow believable arcs, and Cronin is great at coming up with new characters who invigorate the story for a few pages and are ripped away from the readers shortly  thereafter. Plus, he’s greatly improved his action sequences, and while the middle of the book occasionally strains from constant viral attacks, the last 200 pages expertly build tension and bring several mysteries to a head.

The Twelve has its flaws, but Cronin’s writing continues to lift it above what could easily become a morass of easy contrivance and eye-rolling vague spirituality. And even if the book had none of that, it would have Lila Kyle and Amy, two characters linked through strange circumstances, who drive the novel’s best portions. The heavily traumatized, deeply maternal Lila pushes the best parts of the mid-apocalyptic sections, while Amy continues her role from The Passage of being simultaneously a symbol and a recognizable young woman finding her way in a terrifying world. For all The Twelve‘s struggles to act as a bridge between its predecessor and whatever’s coming next, whenever the book turns to these two women, it succeeds.

Review: “The Passage” (The Passage #1) by Justin Cronin

The Passage

It is often difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when a writer achieves literary success, but when Stephen King picks up the phone to interrupt your Good Morning America appearance to personally thank you for writing your book, you know you’ve made it.

Cronin is the latest indication that no one, not even an English professor at Rice University, Texas, whose written a couple of small literary novels, is safe from the Count’s bloody fangs. You’d think Cronin’s degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop would repel vampires like a garlic necklace, but who can repel Dracula’s mesmeric gaze, not to mention the $3.75 million advance?

Of course, you’re skeptical. So was I. But by the third chapter, I was way behind on all my work because I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next in the book. It’s a macabre pleasure to see what a really talented novelist can do with these old Transylvanian tropes. In the same way that A Song of Ice and Fire gave us a mature alternative after the Harry Potter series ended, The Passage is for adults who have been bitten but can’t swallow the teeny bopper misogyny of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

As a writer, though, Cronin is more Dr. Frankenstein than Dr. Van Helsing. The Passage, the first volume of a planned trilogy, doesn’t have any interest in pursuing ol’ Count Dracula; it’s all about stitching together the still-beating scraps of classic horror and science fiction, techno-thrillers, and apocalyptic terror. Although a clairvoyant nun plays a crucial role, Cronin has stripped away the lurid religious trappings of the vampire myth and gone with a contemporary biomedical framework. Imagine Michael Crichton crossbreeding Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot in that lab at Jurassic Park, with rich infusions of Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, Battlestar Galactica and even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

A pastiche? Please! Cronin is trading derivates so fast and furious he should be regulated by the SEC. (Sorry, inside joke :P)

The story opens a few years in the future, when the war on terror has truly arrived in the USA with frequent attacks on American shopping malls and subway stations by (eye-roll) Iranian jihadists.  A secure government project wants to create a breed of super soldiers by re-engineering a virus found in some nasty Bolivian bats. The last 12 subjects are death-row inmates–murderers and rapists–just the kind of people you’d want to endow with lightning speed, impenetrable exoskeletons, and a rapacious thirst for human blood.

But relax, what could possibly go wrong? These are government experts. They’ve got, like, double locks on the cages and everything. As you might expect, “mistakes were made”. Soon the entire North American continent is overrun by indestructible, blood-sucking fiends. Like the 2016 US presidential election campaign.

The second part of the book picks up about 90 years later with an abrupt jump in locale and tone. From here on out, we follow the fate of a small community of descendants hanging on in a walled compound powered by antique technology. Nuclear plants melt down and explode, vegetation retakes the cities, and the Gulf of Mexico fills with oil from untended wells. Like that could ever happen.

Cronin proves himself just as skillful with this dystopian future as he is with the techno-thriller that opens The Passage. This second section sinks deep into the exotic customs of these beleaguered survivors. We meet a vibrant cast of citizen warriors, who have to ask themselves each day if it’s worth fighting against the dying of the light. (If those wind-powered bulbs go out, the “virals” will swoop in.)

Their best fighter is a stoic redhead named Alicia, who was raised by an old soldier to kill–and could teach Lara Croft a few things about being hot and deadly. I was initially less impressed with Peter, the earnest young man who gradually becomes the center of this epic.  He’s about as sexy as an Axe deodorant model, but there’s something endearing about his modesty and determination, and eventually I saw the wisdom of placing this good-hearted everyman at the centre of all these bizarre crises.

Fortunately, Cronin has a wry sense of humour that runs from macabre to silly. A passing reference to Jenna Bush Hager as the governor of Texas may be the scariest thing in these pages. Soldier’s watching an old reel of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in a post-apocalyptic vampire wasteland is a particularly nice touch. And in the final pages of the novel, one of my favourite characters “lapsed into a kind of twilight“, but not the Stephenie Meyers kind.

Yes, once in a while, Cronin can’t resist sucking on a few supple cliches. A traumatised survivor obviously heading toward something terrible says, “I wonder if we’re heading towards something terrible”. There’s a prostitute with a heart of gold, a little child holds the key to humanity’s salvation, and some exhilarating chapters have needless cliffhangers grafted onto the last line, e.g., “Something was about to happen.” You don’t say.

But once the vampires start leaping from the treetops, you’re not going to notice those little flaws. You’ll be running too fast.  Part of what makes these light-sensitive monsters so terrifying is that Cronin never lets us see them much or for long.  For hundreds of pages, we remain like the harried survivors, peering into the darkness for those glowing orange eyes, the last thing we’ll see before we experience the new sensation of being ripped from crotch to neck. It’ll be interesting to see if Ridley Scott, having reportedly paid $1.75 million for the movie rights before the book was even finished, can make a good movie out of it. But even if he can’t, late in the novel there’s a climactic gladiator scene with Wild West overtones that will blow the top of your head off.

About halfway through the loooong centre of The Passage, I was whining that Cronin should have cut out a few hundred pages, but by the end, the only thing I wanted was to get my sweaty hands on the next two volumes. Till then, I’ll be keeping the lights on.

 You can read my review of the next book in the Passage trilogy, The Twelve, here.

Review: ‘Obsession In Death’ (In Death #40) by J.D. Robb

Obsession in Death Cover

Before I write anything else, let me just say that I am a die-hard J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts fan. I have read almost every single book she has published so I was slightly surprised when I found out that there was a new In Death book out and I had no idea that it was even coming. Needless to say, I rushed to buy a copy and finished it in a night. As a rule, I had decided not to review books mid-series but here goes.

In Obsession In Death, the year 2060 is coming to an end and we see a very different Lieutenant Eve Dallas from how she was in Naked In Death (In Death #1). Happily married, Eve has solved a lot of high-profile murders for the New York Police and Security Department (NYPSD) and she is getting accustomed to being an object of attention, of gossip, of speculation.

But this time, she is the object of one person’s obsession. A person who thinks she is extraordinary, who believes they have a special relationship and that they are her ‘true and loyal friend’. Most importantly, this person has taken it upon themself to murder people who have slighted Eve in all her years as a cop. And if you know Eve, that is a really long list. Fighting to keep the investigation in her own hands, Eve is treading a very thin line, trying to find a murderer who knows her methods while she races to keep everyone she values safe. And Eve knows that under the offer of friendship and admiration, the biggest threat is to herself.

I found the premise of the book very interesting but the actual story was a slight let-down because I feel after 40 books, Robb is not taking much risks with what she has figured is a winning formula. The usual characters of Detectives Peabody and McNab, Captain Feeney and the rest of her squad along with her friends Mavis, Nadine Furst, Doctor Mira, Chief Medical Examiner Morris and others are simply there to make Eve realise that she has come a long way from being a snarky badass loner in the past. And of course, there is Roarke, her gorgeous Irish billionaire husband, the love of Eve’s life, a man so perfect that you know nothing bad will ever happen to him in the In Death universe.

The victims of this admirer include a defense attorney that Eve had butted heads against in a couple of past cases and a junkie informant who had once smacked Eve in the face. There are multiple attempts on people really close to Eve but nothing actually happens. This book fails to pack the punch that, say, Conspiracy In Death or New York In Dallas did. The pace of the book is impossibly slow and after a while I really started getting annoyed at the lack of action.

In the end, I’d say Obsession In Death was not one of J.D. Robb’s better works but it gave a nice overview of how Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s life has changed positively since the beginning of the series because she has now laid her past to rest and filled her life with amazing (and why always gorgeous?) people. So, basically, good chick-lit but slightly below-average crime-fiction. Because I am a fan, I’d recommend it to other people who already love the series but for people who have never read an In Death book before, this is really not a good place to start.