Tag Archives: vampires

Book review Monday: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Generally, I like to use Book Review Monday to help spread the word about great books that are worth your time. But sometimes, I need to use this space as a public service announcement, to warn you off of books that have received positive reviews or lots of hype but are, in my opinion, crap. Today is one of those times. Brace yourselves.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin, was billed as a thrilling, sprawling vampire novel and received positive reviews from such respected publications as The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others. But I disliked it so much, I couldn’t even finish it. Let me emphasize that for me, to not finish a book is a rare thing. I struggle through books that I feel lukewarm about all the time. But my policy, since discovering at age eleven that I wasn’t obligated to read all of the Sunday comics, including the ones I hated (looking at you, For Better or For Worse), is that I shouldn’t feel bad about abandoning ship on a book, movie, or TV show that I’m not enjoying. Life is too short, right? To be fair, I made it 67% of the way through The Passage before calling it quits, so no one can say I didn’t give it a fair shake.

passage

Here were my issues with this book, in convenient list format.

1. It’s derivative. No, like, really derivative.

I don’t throw around the word “derivative,” because when you think about it, everything created by a human being is in some sense derivative of some earlier work. But The Passage goes beyond “derivative” and lands firmly in “blatant rip-off” territory. Cronin has put together a poorly rendered copy of plot points and themes from Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and a number of other better written books. Even the reviewer from The Washington Post, Ron Charles, concedes this point, writing:

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 derivatives so fast and furious he should be regulated by the SEC. But who cares? It’s alive!

That last sentence is where I part ways with Mr. Charles. This book is not alive. It’s so boring and unimaginative as to be dead on the table. If I wanted to read a well-rendered and chilling vampire novel, I’d read Salem’s Lot. If I wanted a futuristic, post-apocalyptic vision of the world, I’d read The Stand or Cloud Atlas. If I wanted a boring supernatural saga with a strong but sexy female lead, I’d watch Battlestar Galactica (except I wouldn’t, because Battlestar Galactica sucks).

Let’s talk about how badly Cronin rips off The Stand, in particular, in case you’re not convinced yet. Here are the main elements Cronin lifted wholesale from Stephen King’s masterpiece:

  • Government-created super virus with fun nickname kills everyone in America and the rest of the world;
  • Survivors of virus experience dreams of forces of good and/or evil as embodied by a good woman and an evil man;
  • Survivors escape to the Western United States, including Colorado and Las Vegas, of all places; and
  • Elderly African-American woman, aged 108, delivers homespun wisdom.

When one considers these elements together with the fact that The Passage is a vampire novel (because we don’t have enough of those already!), one starts to wonder if there is anything original in this book at all.

2. The historical details, including the characters’ vernacular, are bizarre and inconsistent.

The book opens in 2018, when the US government is testing the vampire super virus on death row prisoners (as you do) and then fast forwards 100 years, after the experiment has inevitably gone awry and vampires are roaming the Earth. The story’s Mother Abigail clone, Ida “Auntie” Jaxon, is now 108 years old. That means she was eight years old in 2018, which would mean she was born in 2010. We learn that she’s from Philadelphia. Okay. So first question: how many babies born in 2010 are named Ida? More importantly, how many babies born in 2010 who grew up in urban Philly would say things like the following:

“Folks call me Auntie, on account of I never could have no children of my own, and I guess that suits me fine.”

“There were other trains, I do believe.”

“I’d been sick myself so it scared me about out my skin when she told me this.”

AND SO ON. Let’s give Cronin the benefit of the doubt and assume that Ida somehow picked up her old-timey, vaguely Southern vernacular from her parents. Even with a generous reckoning, assuming Ida’s mother gave birth to her when she was forty, her mother would have been born in 1970. What person born in 1970s Philadelphia says stuff like “I do believe” and “suits me fine?” It’s like Cronin got so caught up in recreating King’s Mother Abigail, who was supposed to have been born in Nebraska at the end of the 19th century, that he lifted her patterns of speech and transplanted them onto the character of Ida for no other reason than that they are both elderly black women.

Another inexplicable and weird vernacular thing I noticed: instead of using normal curse words, the characters say “Flyers!”. This is never explained.

I only have one question: WHY?

3. The dialogue is painful.

Just trust me on this one.

4. The plot is repetitive and boring.

The characters nearly get killed by vampires — but barely squeak by! — every. single. chapter. There are also long, plodding descriptions of where the characters are walking and what, exactly, they are thinking about as they walk. The characters are so dull as to be forgettable, and I found myself rooting for them to all be eaten by vampires. Also, did I mention this book is a million pages long?

*****

Perhaps alone, each of these issues would have been surmountable. But together, they added up to a book that I couldn’t truck with, and thus The Passage has been relegated to the proverbial dustheap of my Kindle. Have you read The Passage? Did you like it? I’m curious to hear if other people were as bothered by it as I was. If you haven’t read it, save yourself some time and pick up The Stand instead. You’re welcome.

Book review Monday: The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

Your long-awaited Book Review Monday is finally here, and is coming to you from Le Pain Quotidien in Notting Hill, London, where I am sitting with a really expensive iced coffee, a sparkling water, and the remains of a really good (but again, really expensive) salmon salad. London, turns out, is expensive. But lovely! I am so happy to be here. Anyway, last night I finally finished a book that I’ve been slowly making my way through for lo these many (read: two) weeks, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.

The-Historian

The Historian had been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time, and I can’t remember where I got it or why I bought it, but I think maybe my mom had recommended it to me? In any case, I had been avoiding it, because it was a ginormous paperback about vampires, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. But finally, a few weeks ago, I picked it up and began to read and was pleasantly surprised. The Historian is not your Twilight-style, sexy vampire story. It’s actually about Dracula — the original vampire — and the havoc he wreaks on the lives of several historians over several generations. The story is told from two perspectives: the principal narrator, a woman who is never named, tells a story that happened when she was a teenager in the 1970s, during which time she discovers the writings of her father, which relate a story that happened to him twenty-some years earlier, in the 1950s. The book switches back and forth between the two narratives, but mostly follows the earlier story of the narrator’s father, Paul, and his companion, Helen, as they try to chase down the body of Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula) so they can put a stake through his heart and stop him from continuing his nefarious deeds (mostly, turning people into vampires). Turns out, Dracula is still alive (sort of) and well, going about his business and building an army of the undead (many of whom happen to be historians or librarians who study Dracula and learn too much). The problem is, no one knows where his tomb is, so Paul and Helen must figure it out by traveling through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, visiting monasteries and libraries, conferring with academics, and doing some good old fashioned grave robbing (or, at least, grave disturbing). It doesn’t spoil anything to tell you that the book ends with a showdown between the historians and Dracula himself.

This book was mostly an enjoyable read, but definitely dragged occasionally. One gets the sense that Kostova herself is a historian, or at least some sort of academic, because she finds it hard to resist packing the narrative with historical, factual detail, often at the expense of pacing. There were actually points during the book that I had to skim entire pages of dry historical background on various Dracula lore, and found myself wishing that Kostova had written a slimmer, quicker paced book. All of this was made more disappointing by what felt, to me, like a quite anticlimactic ending to the book (despite the aforementioned Dracula showdown). I also felt that the characters were not entirely relatable/well-developed, and two of the secondary characters, both elderly gentlemen, were essentially interchangeable with each other. The characters lacked some essential spice that would have made them stand out in the reader’s memory, or cause the reader to root for them.

However, the writing is very good, and I enjoyed the detail-rich descriptions of cities like Sofia, Istanbul, Budapest, and Bucharest. Kostova also has a particular gift for describing meals. I love it when a book tells you what the characters are eating, particularly when the characters are in exotic settings. My stomach especially rumbled when Paul and Helen sat down to burek in Istanbul. I love burek so much.

I’d recommend The Historian for anyone looking for a fresh take on an ancient vampire legend and people with an interest in history and/or who enjoy historians and academics as protagonists. It’s a long, slow read, though, so don’t expect to charge through it in a day, and it can be quite dry. If you’re looking for an addictive page-turner, this is not the book for you.