Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Book: The Twelve
Author: Justin Cronin
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release date: October 16, 2012
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series: The Passage #2
 
Summary from Goodreads:

At the end of The Passage, the great viral plague had left a small group of survivors clinging to life amidst a world transformed into a nightmare. In the second volume of this epic trilogy, this same group of survivors, led by the mysterious, charismatic Amy, go on the attack, leading an insurrection against the virals: the first offensives of the Second Viral War.

To do this, they must infiltrate a dozen hives, each presided over by one of the original Twelve. Their secret weapon: Alicia, transformed at the end of book one into a half human, half viral but whose side, in the end, is she really on?

I know what you’re thinking. Why would I review the sequel to a book I didn’t like all that much?

Well, the ending to The Passage was exciting enough that I felt The Twelve was worth a try. I wasn’t going to spend money on it, but I’d put a hold on the ebook at the library and see what happened. If it didn’t hook me in the first 50 pages, then I could just accept that this wasn’t the series for me and go on my merry way.

So I put it on hold, and when the hold came through, I started reading.

And it completely hooked me.

THIS was the book I wanted to read when I was promised literary-style vampires. THIS was the book I wanted to read when I was promised post-apocalyptic viral mayhem. THIS was 100 times better than The Passage.

Though we are, frustratingly, introduced to even MORE new characters in this book, at least these characters didn’t stumble around incoherently through 50 pages of backstory for each one of them. We also get to spend the majority of the book with characters we know from the first book, and they get to do way more interesting things. I’m still not a huge fan of the author’s stylistic choices, but the narrative switches bothered me much less in this book.

Justin Cronin is juggling a large timeline (100 years or so), multiple locations separated by hundreds of miles, and an enormous cast of characters. While I found the scope to be somewhat disjointed in book one, here some of the puzzle pieces start to fall into place. He has certainly earned my trust that all of my investment in his world will pay off.

In this book, we slide one generation back in time to see some important lead-ins to the current action, and we also get to see a new side of Year Zero. This time around we actually experience the viral outbreak and its immediate consequences on the population. I absolutely loved seeing the government side of the story and how they tried to balance their resources in the face of a society-ending plague. How would they try to quarantine large sections of the country? Who would they sacrifice for the greater good? What would happen to the world economy and foreign relations? These are the kinds of questions I enjoy exploring in post-apocalyptic fiction, and Cronin finally delivers.

The mysteries and objectives facing the characters were thrilling. I was swept up in the story, and found myself trusting Cronin to lead us to where we needed to be. My familiarity with the main characters put me at ease while reading, but the new challenges they faced had me on edge. Life is bleak in this world, and just when you think you know where things are going they take a right turn into a new surprise. It’s very much an enjoyable ride.

Action-packed mayhem, deepening plot mysteries, and strong characters make this a book well worth a read. If you can slog your way through the first book, The Twelve will reward you in spades. I will absolutely be reading the final book when it releases next year, and it can’t get here soon enough.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Book: The Passage
Author: Justin Cronin
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release date: June 8, 2010
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series: The Passage #1
  
Summary from Goodreads: It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born. 

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey spanning miles and decades towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

With The Passage, award-winning author Justin Cronin has written both a relentlessly suspenseful adventure and an epic chronicle of human endurance in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and unimaginable danger. Its inventive storytelling, masterful prose, and depth of human insight mark it as a crucial and transcendent work of modern fiction.

It took me two tries to get through this book. The first 200 pages or so were terrific. The middle section draaaaaaaagged. After 540 pages, with a looming library due date in front of me, I gave up. I decided the last 200 pages couldn’t possibly be worth the effort it was taking me to slog through and returned the book.

Fate wasn’t letting me off the hook so easy. Two days after I returned the book I received an email from the library that my ebook hold for this title (which I’d forgotten I had reserved) was available. I took it as a sign to push on and see if I could finish, so I downloaded the ebook and jumped back in, with a bit of trepidation. 

And I finished! Even more surprising, I actually liked the ending, and I’m curious about the sequel now. I think taking a break to read something quick and fun was a good idea, because I came back to it without the boredom slowly beating me to death as before.

Final verdict: great beginning, good end, horrible middle. 

In the beginning, I didn’t mind the slow pace because the characters were interesting and the story was intriguing. We get a nice setup to this world and how it’s about to change. We get a sense of the players involved and a hint of how they’re going to intersect later. At this point, I was still trusting Cronin to see us through to a satisfying conclusion and was willing to relax and go for the ride.

After the beginning sections end with the release of the virus, we fast forward nearly 100 years to post-apocalyptic life on one of the last human strongholds, the Colony. Here is where things ground to a halt for me. New, bland, barely distinguishable characters live boring and uneventful lives. Each character talks us through their excruciatingly detailed backstories as we learn who’s who in this entirely new setting. It was like starting a whole new book, but it paled in comparison to the one you’d just finished.

When exciting events do occur (which is oddly rare for a world populated by terrifyingly lethal vampires), Cronin delivers the action in narrative shifts that completely remove any trace of tension. One minute the characters are facing down a vampire horde, and the next minute you’re reading one of the character’s journal entries describing the attack. Why take us out of the action and have the character, who obviously lived since they wrote a journal entry about it, tell us how it happened? Why not just let the action happen? Most of these events could easily have unfolded as part of the regular narrative, and the distance created from these shifts made me care even less about the story. 

The characters’ behavior was often inconsistent. Where was the fear in these people? They’ve lived for almost a hundred years in a compound to keep out the vampires, and yet they never seem scared. It was mind numbingly boring to wait for something even mildly tense to happen. After 500 pages, when they finally have an objective, they set off on a quest across the Southwest without hesitation or fear. You can practically see them standing around, shrugging, and then loading up their backpacks.

I also didn’t buy the cultural and linguistic changes that Cronin created for the future-set Colony, either. After only 92 years, we’ve forgotten the concept of the ocean or basic geography? We’re calling kids “Littles” because the word “children” wasn’t working anymore? We’ve invented a new curse word and abandoned all others? We still know how to use stethoscopes and provide medical care, but we’ve stopped telling time? If Cronin had bothered to explain (perhaps in one of the lengthy backstory recaps) some of these influences or how they evolved, I’d have bought in to the world a little better.

Though I liked the mystery around the Amy character and the virus, the boring and tension-free writing made me throw in the towel. I’m glad I finished it, though, because things picked up again in the last hundred pages. The plot moves, big changes occur, and past characters from the beginning sections return. I liked the ending enough that I’m probably going to at least start the sequel, just to see where it’s headed. I find the story really interesting, and I do think it’ll make a great movie, but the hefty length of this one sure made it a chore to get through.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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Review: Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Book: Ashfall
Author: Mike Mullin
Publisher: Tanglewood Press
Release date: October 11, 2011
Source: Borrowed from a friend
Series: Ashfall #1

Summary from Goodreads: Under the bubbling hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park is a supervolcano. Most people don’t know it’s there. The caldera is so large that it can only be seen from a plane or satellite. It just could be overdue for an eruption, which would change the landscape and climate of our planet.

Ashfall is the story of Alex, a teenage boy left alone for the weekend while his parents visit relatives. When the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts unexpectedly, Alex is determined to reach his parents. He must travel over a hundred miles in a landscape transformed by a foot of ash and the destruction of every modern convenience that he has ever known, and through a new world in which disaster has brought out both the best and worst in people desperate for food, water, and warmth. With a combination of nonstop action, a little romance, and very real science, this is a story that is difficult to stop reading and even more difficult to forget.

First impressions: With regard to how I came to read this book, the phrase “borrowed from a friend” is not entirely accurate. Let’s call a spade a spade – I was book bullied into reading this. One of my pals in our writing group went on and on about how scary and awesome it was, so she happily pushed it into my hands. I’m so glad she did!

Lasting impressions: This book could actually happen. Which is definitely equal parts scary and awesome (as a reading experience, not as life).

Conflicting impressions: Alex may have needed to know how to kill and skin animals. I didn’t. Too real for me.

Overall impressions: Have you heard of the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone? You haven’t? You should Google it. It’s terrifying. I first learned of it through another fiction writer, James Rollins, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that it could blow in my lifetime. That kind of real, impending natural disaster is ripe for the picking when it comes to good stories.

Mike Mullin does not disappoint. Our young protagonist, Alex, is home alone when the volcano erupts and his neighborhood is quickly decimated by falling ash. Determined to try and escape the deteriorating conditions, Alex heads east across Iowa trying to reach his family across the Mississippi in Illinois. He straps on a pair of cross country skis and heads out.

This version of post-disaster American life is dark, frightening, and full of danger. It quickly becomes dog-eat-dog, and Alex runs into his fair share of unsavory characters out only for themselves. He does all he can to survive, relying on his own skill, luck, and occasionally the kindness of strangers. Just when you think he’s found a bit of peace, something else goes wrong and he’s forced to move on. It’s gut-wrenching.

It would be unfair to give away too much. Will Alex find his family? Will he figure out how to survive in this new and dangerous landscape? What will happen to the U.S. in the aftermath of this horrific eruption? We get a great story full of action and terror, and the promise of more with the reveal at the end. I can’t wait for the next installation in this series!

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Comic Book Review: American Vampire Volumes 1 & 2

Book: American Vampire Volume 1
Author: Story by Scott Snyder and Stephen King
Publisher: Vertigo
Release date: October 5, 2010
Source: Bought from Graham Crackers Comics

Summary: (from Goodreads) From writers Scott Snyder and Stephen King, AMERICAN VAMPIRE introduces a new strain of vampire â?? a more vicious species â?? and traces the creatures’ bloodline through decades of American history.

This first hardcover volume of the critically acclaimed series collects issues #1-5 and follows two stories: one written by Snyder and one written by King, both with art by future superstar Rafael Albuquerque. Snyder’s tale follows Pearl, a young woman living in 1920s Los Angeles, who is brutally turned into a vampire and sets out on a path of righteous revenge against the European monsters who tortured and abused her. And in King’s story set in the days of America’s Wild West, readers learn the origin of Skinner Sweet, the original American vampire â?? a stronger, faster creature than any vampire ever seen before.

Don’t miss out as Snyder and King set fire to the horror genre with this visionary, all-original take on one of the most popular monster stories!
This beautiful collection features a new introduction by Stephen King and bonus art including character sketches, variant covers and more!

Book: American Vampire Volume 2
Author: Story by Scott Snyder
Publisher: Vertigo
Release date: May 31, 2011
Source: Bought from Graham Crackers Comics

Summary: (from Goodreads) While trafficking in a bestselling sub-genre, AMERICAN VAMPIRE introduces a new strain of vampire â?? a more muscular and vicious species, born of the American West.

Itâ??s Las Vegas circa 1935, and Skinner Sweet and our gal Pearl are about to learn the hard way that the bloodsuckers in Hollywood were nothing compared to what awaits them in Sin City.

In just a few short years, young police Chief Cash McCogan has watched his native city of Las Vegas go from cow-town to wild, glittering boomtown. And when the bodies of prominent businessmen start showing up drained of blood, Chief McCogan finds himself facing a threat much darker and deadlier than anything he could have imagined . . . and the only sure bet in town is that Skinner and Pearl are right in the thick of it.

Features issues 6-11.

First impressions: Scott Snyder and Stephen King did not set out to make a sparkly vampire tale. This is dark, scary, disturbing, and violent. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

Lasting impressions: This has become my most anticipated monthly comic. Skinner Sweet is deliciously evil, and reading his progress from being turned in the Old West, to taking over a Vegas brothel in the ’30s, to battling vampire genocide in WWII is terrifying and compelling.

Conflicting impressions: Multiple readings make this one a bit easier to follow. The history of vampires is somewhat re-created here, and the large amount of information and competing story lines can get confusing.

Overall impressions: American Vampire is a monthly comic, currently on issue 19, supplemented by a 5 issue miniseries, American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest. It follows Skinner Sweet, the first American vampire, and the vampire he creates, Pearl.

Stephen King jumped on board with this comic to tell Skinner’s backstory. Through the first 5 issues, he trades panels with series creator Scott Snyder, interspersing Skinner’s origin as a new strain of vampire born in the Wild West with his present saving/turning young actress Pearl in the 1920s. The back-and-forth in time works well for the most part, as I enjoyed seeing how Skinner became a vampire, but it also seemed to read like two different stories that didn’t need to be told simultaneously.

Pearl is an interesting character who goes through the most significant changes across the arcs of these volumes. Though Skinner saves her from a gruesome death by turning her, he does little to help her navigate her new life as a vampire. Determined to not turn out as sadistic as Skinner, she allows herself to fall in love with jazz singer Henry, though they are often on the run from the Vassals of the Morning Star (VMS), a group determined to kill vampires.

Volume 2 fast forwards through time to the 1930s, where we meet Cash McCogan, Las Vegas police chief, investigating a string of murders that make him cross paths with the VMS and vampires. Cash and the VMS are the subject of the spin-off miniseries, which puts them in contact with Nazi vampires out to purify the vampire race.

This series is beautifully illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque, who manages to deliver creepy and grotesque content without the images themselves becoming overly graphic. The vampires are drawn to achieve the effect the writers wanted – scary, not seductive. These vampires are more monsters than they are humans, and the cruelty of Skinner Sweet is a constant reminder that these vampires are not exactly woeful about the loss of their humanity. Although Pearl is more human than the rest of them, she can still attack with little regard for the pain she causes, particularly when she or Henry is threatened.

The unique history of vampires and the setting in varied important periods in American history make this a joy to read. This is pure horror at its best, with twists and turns full of scary things ready to jump out and spoil the party. Skinner Sweet is one of my favorite fictional characters right now, because despite his nasty and cruel ways, he is still lashing out at a monster he never wanted to become. Sure, he’s a bad guy, and was long before he even became a vampire, but he’s unpredictable and clearly has a soft spot for Pearl. I can’t wait to see where his story takes us next.

I highly recommend this series to all horror, vampire, and Stephen King fans.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Book: Anna Dressed in Blood
Author: Kendare Blake
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release date: August 30, 2011
Source: ARC for review from I Read Banned Books Tour

Summary: (from Goodreads) Just your average boy-meets-girl, girl-kills-people story. . .

Cas Lowood has inherited an unusual vocation: He kills the dead.

So did his father before him, until his gruesome murder by a ghost he sought to kill. Now, armed with his father’s mysterious and deadly athame, Cas travels the country with his kitchen-witch mother and their spirit-sniffing cat. Together they follow legends and local lore, trying to keep up with the murderous deadâ??keeping pesky things like the future and friends at bay.

When they arrive in a new town in search of a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas doesn’t expect anything outside of the ordinary: move, hunt, kill. What he finds instead is a girl entangled in curses and rage, a ghost like he’s never faced before. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, but now stained red and dripping blood. Since her death, Anna has killed any and every person who has dared to step into the deserted Victorian she used to call home.

And she, for whatever reason, spares his life.

First impressions: Male POV! Yes! Not only is Cas a great male protagonist, he’s funny. Swoon!

Lasting impressions: Great little horror book for the ghost hunting set.

Conflicting impressions: Can we have a new rule where nobody falls in love with ghosts?

Overall impressions: This book was so much fun, which feels weird to say about a sometimes gruesome, often scary tale about a demonic ghost. Kendare Blake sets the tone with our fearless narrator, Cas. He’s witty, funny, quirky, and has an interesting occupation: ghost killer.

Cas has inherited a knife and an ability from his father that allows him to put murderous rampaging ghosts to rest. He grew up traipsing around the world after his dad, who followed leads on where to find the worst ghosts. His mother, a witch, sells candles and other Wiccan supplies online, thus supporting the ghost killer habit. When Cas’s dad dies at the hand of a particularly brutal ghost, Cas takes over.

Now following tips of his own, he pursues a lead on a ghost in Canada known locally as Anna Dressed in Blood. Murdered in the 50s on her way to a school dance, she now haunts her old house, taking out anyone who dares enter. She proves this in epic fashion on Cas’s first visit to the house, when a bully from school locks him in the house and Anna unleashes her wrath upon the bully.

There is plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language (f-bombs flying!), so this is one for the older set. I, for one, did not mind the language, but a few times it seemed to pop up so suddenly that it took me out of the world for a second. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so clean lately?

Anna is as wonderful a character as is Cas. She’s bold, confused, and full of hideous secrets she tries desperately to hide. I don’t want to give too much away, because the joy of the novel is discovering Anna’s story as well as Cas’s. The two of them have to explore their histories and destinies in ways that make them uncomfortable, but it must be done in order to set things right.

This is a magical, dark, funny novel full of interesting characters. I loved the story, and its twists and turns kept me guessing. There were a few elements that could have been developed a little further, and I’m not a fan of the fact that this turned into a paranormal romance when it could have been a great standard horror book, so four stars from me. It’s still a great read, however, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great male protagonist.

Marry me, Cas!

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: The Cellar by A. J. Whitten

Click the cover to purchase at Amazon

Book: The Cellar
Author: A. J. Whitten
Publisher: Graphia Books
Release date: May 2, 2011
Source: ARC from NetGalley

Summary: (from Goodreads) Meredith Willis is suspicious of Adrien, the new guy next door. When she dares to sneak a look into the windows of his house, she sees something in the cellar that makes her believe that Adrien might be more than just a creep – he may be an actual monster.

But her sister, Heather, doesn’t share Meredith’s repulsion. Heather believes Adrien is the only guy who really understands her. In fact, she may be falling in love with him. When Adrien and Heather are cast as the leads in the school production of Romeo and Juliet, to Heather, it feels like fate. To Meredith, it feels like a bad omen. But if she tries to tear the couple apart, she could end up in the last place she’d ever want to be: the cellar. Can Meredith convince her sister that she’s dating the living dead before it’s too late for both of them?

First impressions: The book opens with a tense scene where Meredith’s sister, Heather, blurts that she wishes she had died instead of their father. This family is falling apart after a car accident that killed their patriarch, and this bombshell of a statement sets up a very complicated relationship between the sisters that really sucked me in.

Lasting impressions: Unfortunately, there were not enough likable elements in this book for me to recommend it.

Conflicting impressions: For me, the book was overly graphic with characters I didn’t like or didn’t care about. I didn’t understand who I was supposed to be rooting for or against, particularly in light of the misleading tag line from the cover.

Overall impressions: Okay, deep breath. This is the first one star review I’ve given out on the blog. Usually if I dislike a book enough to give it one star, I’ve stopped reading, at which point I consider it a DNF, delete it from Goodreads, and don’t write a review. So what makes this book different?

For one, I actually wanted to finish it. As stated above, the opening has a good hook, and by the time I got to the midpoint I decided I just had to see how it was all going to tie up. I can’t say I regret reading the book, but I would certainly not recommend it to others – thus the one star.

Let me try to break down my feelings. First and foremost, I was really excited about this book because A) it’s a horror tale, which I love, and B) it’s based on Romeo and Juliet. Or so the cover, and to a lesser degree, the blurb, would have you think. I quickly discovered that the R & J link is not really there, other than the fact that Heather and Adrien take part in the school’s production.

The first point of confusion for me was whether I was supposed to be focused on Meredith or Heather. The story alternates between their perspectives, as well as Adrien’s. Meredith is told in first person, Heather and Adrien in a close third person. Adrien is the boy who moves in next door, and is some kind of zombie looking for eternal love. His primary motivation to find love is his loneliness, and so he can get rid of his fellow zombie/maternal figure, Marie. He decides he wants Heather, so he starts using his magical effects to make her fall in love with him.

The only problem is Heather’s sister, Meredith. She sees right through his charms. They don’t have an effect on her. This isn’t really discussed, just mentioned. Meredith spends most of the book getting more and more suspicious of the creepy guy who never takes off his sunglasses, seems to be brainwashing her entire family as well as the town, and who she sees burying things in the back yard.

It felt like that old Tom Hanks movie, The Burbs. In that way, I kind of liked it. However, while that movie was scary and suspenseful and creepy, this book quickly became just plain gross. Chapter 7 takes us inside Adrien’s house, where we witness him and Marie torturing a man they kidnapped for food. It’s very graphic, very disturbing, and almost made me physically ill while reading it on the train to work. I ended up skimming those pages because I couldn’t get through them.

The thing is, I’m not against violence or disturbing imagery in books. I read and have read a lot of crime and horror books. I like things scary and dark and eerie and yes, even sometimes gory. Here there was a lot of violence that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and then beat you over the head with it. There was a lot of flesh-eating, a LOT of bugs, and most of it was truly grotesque. This book is not for the faint-hearted, I promise you. That said, it seems like the kind of gross-out material that would be really popular with adolescent boys.

Once we become aware that Adrien is a Bad Man, the story focuses on his quest to steal away Heather, and Meredith’s half-assed attempts to stop him. Heather refuses to think this guy could be bad and thinks that Meredith just doesn’t want her to be happy, so bats away Meredith’s attempts to reason with her. Meredith, despite being convinced Heather is in real danger, never does anything other than try to talk her out of it. I found this ingenuine, as I can guarantee that if my sister were hanging around with a suspected serial killer, I’d physically restrain her if need be. On top of everything, the horrifying things Meredith sees (that spellbound Heather can’t) are explained away by an eye disease. Silly old Meredith, just seeing things again. It didn’t quite work for me.

At times it felt like we were supposed to think Adrien was really in love with Heather, whether because he was truly lonely or used to be a good person/zombie, I don’t know. He never seemed motivated by love until the last few chapters, but his insistence on being with her throughout most of the book wasn’t written as purely psychotic or obsessed. Adrien, more than anyone, could really have benefited by some fleshing out. In my mind, you can’t have it both ways. Adrien is either a good guy who wants to find love and happiness, or he’s really as awful as he is depicted here, in which case he shouldn’t care at all about Heather’s fate. When he pulled a complete 180 in the final scenes, it felt contrived and contrary to his character.

In the end, it seemed like the point of the book was for Meredith to stop Heather and Adrien, but the climax of the book involves intervention by a third party that, while leading to some resolution for the girls, ultimately deprives our heroine of the chance to tie up the story for herself. It confused the plot more than enhanced it, and it disappointed me as a reader.

Thank you to NetGalley and Graphia/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but this just wasn’t for me.

Rating: 1/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Want a different perspective? Check out this four star review by Palm Books Journal.