Archive for January, 2013

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My teeth grated together in horror as soon as I listened to this: “World War Zee by Max Brooks!” intoned the narrator. “Zee”? “Zee“?! No!! World War Zed!

Despite that, this was a brilliant book to listen to as an audiobook: it is formed from interviews with various survivors of the war against the undead. Z for zombies. Because of the episodic nature of the narrative, it was perfect to listen to one or two interviews on the way to or from work.

And some of the voice acting here was brilliant: more dramatisation perhaps than audiobook. The feral child who recalled the ragged (stertorous perhaps, stealing Bram Stoker’s word) breathing of the zombies as they attacked her family was particularly effective. As was the pilot who was shot down. And the family forced to trade goods for human meat when their daughter is ill, seen through the eyes of her older sister.

The problem is that the stories and accounts are all – more or less – effective. But fairly repetitive.

I missed having continuity. When I had invested in the characters for a while, I wanted to know how they dealt with the later parts of the war.

Episodic narratives: excellent for audiobooks listened to in the car; poor for allowing investment in characters.

I am wondering whether it is possible to create a spoiler here. Zombies rise in China. That’s chapter one. The blurb would tell anyone that. Not a spoiler. Through a combination of idiocy, greed and corruption, the virus spreads across the world through human migration, organ and people trafficking. World War Z? No spoiler there! Zombies eat lots of people. The army is ill prepared (who would be?) and fail spectacularly to protect the world. People fight back. America saves the world.

Yes.

America saves the world.

The US President makes a speech. And everything gets better.

Imagine Abraham Lincoln crossed with Bill Pullman in Independence Day.

It is terribly Americocentric. Yankiecentric. There are many other countries and nationalities interviewed but they are all sidelined by the U S of A. China originated the virus. Russia is corrupt and dishonest. England is romanticised to Disneyesque proportions: Her Majesty refused to leave London and inspired us the populace. God bless her!

I was heading towards the four / five star area with this book when I began listening to it. But I think in retrospect that was due to the quality of the voice acting and the coincidence of the narrative structure with my listening habits. On reflection, if I were asked to rate it out of five, I’d maybe say 3.5 stars.

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Posted: January 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

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The last book I read, The Passage by Justin Cronin, took me a month to read.

This book, The Shakespeare Curse, took me 72 hours. That’s not a good sign. Not good at all. I like to lose myself in a book, to live, breathe, love and bleed with the characters I share my reading with. I like to immerse myself in the narrative, care for characters, feel their relationships grow and develop.

I could barely remember who was who in The Shakespeare Curse. Perhaps this was the effect of too many mince pies over Christmas or early onset senility. Perhaps it was the fact that Carrell’s characters were so wholly one dimensional that they were essentially interchangeable.

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I had some hopes for this book when I picked it up. I love Shakespeare as both an historical character and a writer; MacBeth is one of my favourite plays; a thriller in which modern murders are somehow based on MacBeth had promise.

Not a whole lot of promise! But some.

I was only really looking for a light post-Yuletide no-brainer thriller.

What I got was Kate Stanley, a heroine so monumentally stupid that I was rooting for the bad guys to finish her off! She is a Shakespeare scholar turned director who discovered a lost Shakespeare manuscript in the previous The Shakespeare Secret. Appearing not to want to waste a basic plot by only using it once, Carrell regurgitates it here: Kate was summoned to Scotland to locate a missing version of MacBeth on behalf of Lady Nairn a famous retired Shakespearean actress.

I can forgive Carrell the repeated plot. She’s in good company. Shakespeare recycled his own and other people’s plots.

The problem is that there is only plot here. There is no narrative, just plot.

The most absurd point occurred almost exactly half way through on page 178 out of 338 in my edition. Out of thin air and a propos of nothing, Lady Nairn mentions that she has an evil niece, Carrie Douglas.

Later she hands over an iPod containing a digital copy of a lost performance of MacBeth. There’s no explanation of how she got it. And it just happens to have a vital clue in it.

The best parts of this novel are perhaps the interludes around Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan polymath and occultist. The parallels between theatre and the occult were interesting: the performance as ritual; players summoning and conjuring the semblance of Kings and heroes from the past; the dangerous nature of the Renaissance stage. But it was nothing that hasn’t been played with before: the Theatre and Globe were alleged by Carrell to have been made to Dee’s occult design to conjure within. An episode of Doctor Who entitled The Shakespeare Code showed The Globe’s structure and Shakespeare’s words summoning ancient alien Carrionites.

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As a thriller, this book did not work: I cared so little for Kate or Lady Nairn that the plot held no thrill. There was no twist to surprise me.

As a lover of Shakespeare, I found the hints that he derived his power from a magical rite mildly offensive. His poetry and language has power from its muscular, human heart not derived from an occultist rite!

This was a novel driven solely by plot and bereft of all those things that make Shakespeare wonderful: character, narrative, growth or humanity.

I’m sorry, J. L. Carrell, I wanted to like this book but just couldn’t!

Horror is not usually my thing at all.

I don’t like blood. I get bored by violence. I get worried by crime writing’s increasing interest in hugely violent bloodied crime scenes and the minutiae of destruction that can be inflicted on the human (and usually female) form.

So it was with some misgivings that I approached Justin Cronin’s The Passage. In all honesty, it was The Twelve I picked up and then backtracked to The Passage as the first in the trilogy.

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There was nothing original about the plot: scientists discover new virus with the potential to cure disease and prolong life; the US military take it over to produce super soldiers; the virus is tested, the test subjects become develop vampire-like abilities; the test subjects escape and slaughter or convert most of the population of the world. A plucky band of survivors later discover both the truth of the outbreak and how to defeat the vampire threat.

So far so predictable.

But this book is lifted above the plodding re-hash of this somewhat tired plot by the richness of the characters that live (and un-live?) in this world.

It’s a long read – 847 pages in my e-version – and has taken a long investment of time. But you are swallowed up in the worlds that Cronin creates absolutely. Note how in keeping with the vampiric theme I said swallowed rather than immersed there. Smug grin to myself.

I also say “worlds” deliberately. It is a book of two halves: both pre- and post-apocalyptic. The link between these worlds is the main character, the child Amy Harper Bellafonte, named by her mother after Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. We learn this in the opening page of the novel and the literariness and intertextuality suggested here abound in the book. The book is divided into eleven parts and each one is introduced by a quotation of or from literature – often Shakespeare although Percy Bysshe Shelley, Katherine Anne Porter, Louise Gluck, Henry Vaughan and Sir Walter Raleigh also appear.

Amy has echoes of Scout from To Kill A Mockingbirdthroughout the novel: self-contained, self-educated, knowing. But she is a Scout without an Atticus: her biological father is a drunkard and abuser and abandoned by the narrative sharply. Her mother is forced by circumstances into prostitution and eventually abandons Amy to a convent. In fact the emotional honesty and empathy of her mother Jeanette’s descent into prostitution and murder was one of the most effective and affective description of despair I have read.

Amy is the thirteenth subject of the virus: after twelve unsuccessful tests on death row inmates, FBI Agent Wolgast is dispatched to collect Amy so that it can be determined whether her immature state would accept the virus better than the grown inmates.

Wolgast becomes perhaps the Atticus-like father-figure for Amy: she takes the place of his dead daughter, he takes the place of her father. Their relationship again is an unexpected pleasure in the book: his attempt to escape with her before they reach the compound; his sitting with her after she’s been infected; his rescue of her after the infected have escaped; his isolation with her as the world dies around them.

Cronin managed to avoid the temptation to linger on violence or to depict the overrunning of the world with vampires. He closets Wolgast and Amy in the mountains and, save for the occasional piece of rumour, gossip or news, he concentrates on deepening the relationship between them.

The post-viral world was perhaps less successfully created: I found it hard to keep track of the families and relationships in The Colony but that may reflect more on my lack of brain power than Cronin’s writing. But the disintegration of society there, created when Amy re-emerges, was shockingly credible.

Eventually, a plucky band leave The Colony with Amy in order to save her from potential mob justice. At one level they could be seen as a little cliched; Alicia the fighter, Michael the engineer, Peter the leader, Sara the medic, Hollis the support. They are a typical well balanced team you’d expect in any role playing game. But Cronin does imbue each one with depth, character and interest.

There is so much to praise here. But I think the most praiseworthy is what Cronin leaves out: so much is unexplained or hinted at or suggested; so much is left at being evocative such as Amy’s chaotic moment in the zoo; so much of the violence occurs off the page and there’s no glorying in it; and there was no giving in to the temptation to play sexually on Amy’s chronological ambiguity as outwardly a teenage girl aged a hundred. There’s so much to mention that it’s hard to fit it all in: Sister Lacey, the underlying religious echoes ( the project to create the super soldiers was entitled Project Noah, which is the story that underpin the whole novel).

The book that this most reminds me off actually is Patrick Ness’ The Knife Of Never Letting Go for all that that is a Young Adult novel. The clear trajectory of the novel following the flight of the main characters. And I have the same concern for the rest of the trilogy: as Peter claims at the end of the novel that “Now we go to war” I hope that Cronin remains as restrained and humane as he has here.

Update: for my review of the sequel The Twelve, please click here.