Post-Apocalyptic Vampires, World War II, and The Escapist: Man Books Are Awesome!

As always, I’ve read a lot of books the past few months. Most have been books published by my company and I’ve already stated before that I won’t really talk about those books, so that leaves me with only a few books I’ve read since Fall that I can actually write about. So here is a small selection of what I’ve read since my last book post!

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin is the first book that I read this year. The Passage is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi epic that tells the story of a small band of humans struggling to survive in a world overrun by genetically mutated humans that are very similar to what we’d call vampires.

F.B.I. agent Brad Wolgast recruits death-row inmates to be genetic guinea pigs in an underground research lab in Colorado where scientists are working on a virus that could be the path to immortality. After recruiting the twelfth death-row test subject, Wolgast is contacted by his superiors and instructed to secure the thirteenth and final subject. But the thirteenth is no hardened criminal, she is a little girl named Amy who was recently abandoned by her mother. Wolgast had misgivings about the nature of the research happening in Colorado, but when he receives the orders to secure Amy as a test subject he takes it upon himself to be her guardian. However, Wolgast’s chivalrous intentions do not prevent Amy from becoming the thirteenth test subject at the facility in Colorado where the death-row inmates have been mutated into inhuman, telepathic monsters. Toward the end of Amy’s “treatment” the other test subjects stage a violent escape from the facility and Wolgast and Amy barely escape with their lives. Wolgast and Amy run to Oregon and hole up in an abandoned cabin in the mountains while the rest of the world falls into chaos as the virus spreads, turning more and more people into vampires. While in Oregon, Wolgast begins to understand that Amy is the key to humanity’s survival, but despite the happy contentedness of their lives in the mountains, Wolgast knows that nothing gold can stay, and eventually Amy must face the shattered remains of the world on her own.

…That’s just the prologue. The story picks up again about a hundred years later when the seemingly immortal Amy finds her way to a small colony of survivors in California and the rest of the story picks up from there.

The premise and the story are both engaging, and while it is hardly an original post-apocalyptic story, the characters, setting and plot are created with a lot of care and I wanted to know what would happen to everyone as I kept reading. Unfortunately, there is a point where characters are given too much care in their creation and The Passage is guilty of such a charge. At times there are pages, and pages of interior monologue that explains every little detail and emotion of a given character’s life. The prologue is a great case in point as it is book length on its own. This coupled with Cronin’s slow-paced writing style make this read oftentimes tedious especially considering the fact the edition of The Passage that I read is 871 pages! Luckily some action happens later in the book, and these scenes stand in stark contrast to the emotional baggage that fills most of the pages of The Passage. Cronin is definitely capable of writing riveting action sequences. I didn’t want to put the book down when I reached an action scene, but they are few and far between. At one point Cronin even forgoes writing an action sequence and instead details in retrospect what could have otherwise been an intense scene. But Cronin is more concerned about his characters’ emotions, and they have a lot of them, to the point that the book suffers and is oftentimes boring. Still, the world of The Passage has caught my attention, and I’m interested in seeing what happens so I may pick up the sequel, The Twelve, sometime later.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein is the story of two British friends during World War II. Maddie is a tomboy, who knows more about engines and machinery than most boys her age. Shortly before World War II, Maddie begins training to be a pilot, and when the war breaks out she volunteers to help on airfields and later she also ferries planes and troops across England. During this time, she meets Julie, a Scottish aristocrat working as a radio operator. The two become friends, and in the meantime Julie’s fluency in French and German is noticed by a British secret agent of some sort, and Julie becomes an agent herself. Later in the war, the need for British pilots reaches the point that Maddie is allowed to fly a mission over France. Once in the air she learns that this mission is to drop Julie into occupied France where she will work as a spy behind enemy lines. But Julie makes an error that blows her cover and is captured by the Germans. She is imprisoned and interrogated. To make matters worse, Maddie is shot down over France on her return flight, but is luckily able to join up with the French resistance. Learning that Julie has been captured, Maddie and her French allies plan a rescue mission, but the odds are definitely not in their favor.

I was originally turned off by Code Name Verity. Having read a lot of YA novels over the last year, I’ve grown kind of tired of the snarky, sarcastic narrators that seem ubiquitous in the genre. But this voice is the only thing Julie really has left while imprisoned and it is her best and only way to maintain any strength in her situation. So I guess I can forgive the sarcasm this time, and Julie’s story is pretty compelling although it is a little disorienting and slow-starting at the onset. The narration duties switch to Maddie midway through the book, and though the story isn’t as narratively complex it is still just as engaging as Maddie works to rescue Julie. On top of all that, the story builds to an unexpected and riveting conclusion. I can’t spoil it, but the ending was more than enough to make Code Name Verity worth reading.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon is the fictional story of two cousins of Jewish descent who break into the fledgling comic book industry in the late 1930s. Sam Clayman lives in Brooklyn and is the son of Jewish immigrants. He has become completely enamored with those newfangled comic books and the superheroes that populate them, and dreams of breaking into the business and making “a whole lot of dough.” Sam isn’t sure how to accomplish this until his cousin, Josef Kavalier, arrives on Sam’s doorstep after fleeing Europe due to increasing anti-Semitic laws and restrictions. Joe left his family behind in Europe, and his single purpose upon arriving in the U.S. is making enough money to secure his family’s escape. When Sam learns that Joe actually spent two years in art school and is an adept artist, he sees his opportunity. Upon seeing that Joe and Sam may be able to deliver a character along the lines of Superman, Sam’s boss, the owner of a novelty company, agrees to see what the two young Jewish boys can do. Together, Sam and Joe create a superhero,The Escapist, and their creation becomes a smash hit. But as their bank accounts begin to fill with their salaries (and the small royalties that they were able to negotiate for their creations), the two boys learn that living in “escapist” fantasies and having a lot of money does not protect them from the harsh realities of life.

This is an amazing book. My description makes it sound far more simple than it really is. The depth of the characters, the complexity of their relations, their successes and tragedies, are all keenly depicted and it is hard for the reader not to empathize with all that happens in the lives of these two young men. The narrative is very nearly epic (and yes I know that word is overused, but it is the correct adjective in this case) in its scope, yet still manages to maintain its immediacy and tightness throughout most of the book. The last hundred or so pages are the only part where the narrative begins to meander, and it was much slower reading than the rest of the book. Still, even though the immediacy and tension were not as prominent in these last hundred pages, they did manage to bring the story of the various characters to a satisfying conclusion. I savored reading this book. Of all the books I’ve read over the last year since finishing my master’s degree, I think this is probably the only book I’ll consider reading a second time. I’ll definitely be checking out more Michael Chabon books in the future as well.

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