Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Great Reads for March 2011


by Julia Kuttner

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

The PassageNow:  Your first requisite for reading this book is strong wrists – it’s a doorstopper.  Your second is a complete suspension of ‘yeah, right!’ comments as I recount my heavily-abridged version of the plot, for this is a novel on the grand scale as well as huge physical size;  it’s a tale of a scientific experiment gone dreadfully, fatally wrong, conducted by the U.S. Army in a remote location in the mountains of Colorado, the scientific objective being to create a race of ‘Super Soldiers’, impervious to heat, cold, disease and virtually indestructible, thereby conquering America’s terrorist enemies in Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent.  There would be no more wounded and dying to be returned home  ‘eating up the defense budget in the veterans’ hospitals’;  in short, it would be the answer to the Pentagon’s prayers – all that had to be done was to inject a new-found virus into chosen candidates, and after a short period of illness, a new, invincible warrior would be born. 
But here’s the rub:  the men initially chosen as guinea-pigs for the experiment were all convicts on Death Row, criminals of the worst kind.  When injected with the serum they were turned into killing machines, entirely devoid  of morals, compassion and conscience – and highly infectious.  The major part of the plot deals with their escape, the destruction they wreak on the world, and What Happens Next, for naturally there are some doughty survivors left to battle these thousands of dreadful beings.  Mr. Cronin is a superb story-teller;  his masterly plotting and wonderful imagery create suspense of the most heart-stopping kind;   at no time does the story sag or lose impetus -  no mean feat when you consider the size of this book (760 pages).  I read that ‘The Passage’ is the first book of a trilogy:  well, my heart and my wrists quail at the thought of the sheer physical weight of words in the next two volumes, but I can honestly say that I can’t wait to continue this epic adventure,  at the very least  to find out WHAT HAPPENS, but also to know how Mr. Cronin’s characters eventually vanquish the mutants – or will they?  There’s only one way to find out:  keep reading.   Book #2 is called ‘The Twelve’.  *****

A tiny bit Marvellous, by Dawn French

Tiny bit marvellousThere is no end to Ms. French’s myriad talents – quite apart from her superb comic skills as an actress she has now proven that she is also a writer of insight and wit, capturing effortlessly in her amber the 21st century family:  Mum Maureen Battle (Mo), capable and efficient, on-to-it child psychologist – except when it comes to her own children, about whom she clearly hasn’t a clue:  Dad or ‘Husband’ as Mo invariably refers to him, hovering lovingly in the background, keeping the wheels turning in ever so subtle ways in his efforts to provide a loving and stable environment for his family.  He has a job, ‘doing something with computers’, but everyone seems to be vague as to its specifics:   Dora, about to turn 18 and full of teenage angst and self-loathing, is fretting about the humiliation of being dumped by her small but perfectly-formed boyfriend, being a virgin, being less than interested in a future career, and being FAT!  Last but not least, Peter:  call him Oscar please, as he is such a disciple of Mr. Wilde that he is sure he is his reincarnation.  Peter is also tall, cherubic, flamboyant, academically brilliant  and gay as a hat – and proud of it  - no gender angst for Mr. Peter;  in fact the only thing he agonises over is having to live in Pangbourne, the most deeply unfashionable place on earth.
  The novel is written in diary form, with each member of the family contributing their own thoughts and opinions (and some of them are hair-raising) about each other, and while some of the humour is laugh-out-loud funny (as we would expect from Ms. French) there is also very shrewd and poignant observation of this flawed, Ipod, Iphone, Ipad, I want family – the problems they face are all too familiar to anyone who reads this charming, wise little story;  the dangers parents  wish to protect  their children from are still the same, but stranger-danger has become Internet- danger in the 21st century,  and not always preventable.  Fortunately,  Dad/Husband/Den – that loving, unsung problem- solver extraordinaire – well, he only gets one chapter to narrate, but he saves the day, his family and his marriage:    what a Star!  Oh, and I nearly forgot (for shame!) to mention Nanna Pam, Mo’s loving mum, dispenser of sound common sense and wise council, and baker of everyone’s favourite cakes – and the yummy recipes are all at the back of the book.  Magic. ****

The Wake of Forgiveness, by Bruce Machart

 the wake of forgivenessThis novel is not for the faint-hearted.  It’s themes are as unforgiving and brutal as the Texas landscape in which the story is set – but WHAT a story:  starting in 1895 with the death in childbirth of the beloved wife of Vaclav Sala, a Czech immigrant cotton farmer.  The baby, the fourth son for the couple, survives but Vaclav is completely unmanned and embittered by his loss.  His heart turns to stone and he regards his sons, particularly the youngest as intolerable reminders of what he once had.  He becomes famous in the district for treating his horses better than his sons – in fact, he races his horses and makes his sons pull the plough in front of him, no better than human livestock, with all four reaching adulthood with permanently deformed necks.  His  sons hate Vaclav (not that he cares) but they are staunch in their love and support of each other – until their father accepts a wager from a very rich Spaniard newly arrived in the district:  a horse race between Vaclav’s best mount, ridden by 15 year-old Karel, the youngest, despised cause of his wife’s death, and the Spaniard’s beautiful thoroughbred, ridden by his spirited youngest daughter.  The prize if Karel wins:  600 acres of land.   If he loses, the three eldest brothers must wed the Spaniard’s daughters.  The brothers are ecstatic!  It’s a win-win situation for them – escape from their tyrannical father, and legal union to three comely girls:   what could be better – provided Karel will only lose.   And Karel finds that he doesn’t want to, indeed can’t, because Vaclav threatens him with a terrible punishment if  he dares to throw the race;  he is  caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and Mr. Machart doesn’t spare us as he draws us inexorably onwards to the terrible conclusion of the wager and the end of the brothers’ loving alliance against their terrible parent.
Mr. Machart is a superlative writer;  his characters and plotting are Shakespearian in breadth and he conveys effortlessly beautiful and haunting imagery of landscape and the primeval ties to it.  He shows us with infinite grace that the ancient bonds of fraternal loyalty, shattered by hatred and betrayal, are still capable of being reforged by passing time and the healing balm of forgiveness.   This is a very fine debut novel.  *****