Monthly Archives: November 2012

Ben’s Review: “The Twelve” by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin is a difficult book to talk about without considering its context. Taken as a single novel, it’s somewhat derivative and narratively unsatisfying. Taken as the middle chapter of a longer story, one begun with 2010’s The Passage, The Twelve finds some life. There are moments are brilliance in the book, and some truly great plays on horror tropes, but by the end of it I was left wondering what it had all been for.

The Passage told the story of a viral plague that turned twelve death row inmates into immortal “virals,” (read: vampires), who break out of their holding facility and, by attrition, more or less murder the entire North American continent. The Passage’s opening sections were told in our historical present, then the story flashed forward to a period 100 years after, which is where the primary action of the novel took place.

The Twelve, ostensibly a sequel, strangely backtracks to those early days, introducing us to a new cast of characters dealing with the viral outbreak. This first section accounts for roughly the first third of the book. Cronin’s portrayal of the recently destroyed world is incredible, mixing the dead-on description of Stephen King’s The Stand and the melancholy lyricism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

In this way, The Twelve’s structure mirrors that of The Passage. However, when the previous novel shifted forward in time, it was jarring and unsatisfying because most of the characters Cronin had spent a hundred or so pages developing had a trivial impact on the events of the much longer future story. That’s not the case in The Twelve. Over the novel’s first third, we are introduced to several geographically displaced characters. Over time, their story lines begin to converge. The stories of these characters have significant ripples in the novel’s later sections.

Sadly, the first third of the novel is by far the best part. From there, the story flashes forward again, first to a tragic event that occurred roughly seventy-five years after the outbreak, then to about 100 years after the outbreak. This convoluted chronology basically means that the main action of The Twelve occurs roughly five years after the primary action of The Passage.

If you are at all like me, it has been two years since you read The Passage (and, to be clear, if you have not read the first novel, you will get almost nothing out of this one). Two years isn’t that long, but I found myself going to Wikipedia to remember exactly who in the novel’s enormous cast was who, and what they had done in the first book. The Twelve does include a brief summary of events at the beginning, but I still felt adrift. This is partially my fault as a reader, but it also points to just how much stuff there is going on in this book. Worse, we aren’t picking up with these characters immediately after The Passage. Five years have passed, and Cronin largely leaves it up to context clues to fill in the narrative gap between the stories. Characters are not where we remember them, but their backstories are still vitally important to understanding their current situations.

I would have forgiven all of this is the story had gone somewhere interesting, but it kind of doesn’t. Peter, the de facto protagonist of the first novel, is now a member of the Expeditionary, a sort of militaristic organization under the rule of a democratic republic in what used to be Texas. Alicia, who is also now a half-vampire “new thing” after the events of The Passage, goes on a secret mission to Iowa, to investigate claims of a human settlement there. Peter, through various plot machinations, also ends up on the hunt for this city. Exactly what this city is and what those who live there are planning is the central conflict and mystery at the heart of the story, and it feels sadly underdeveloped, especially in comparison to the rich opening sections.

This new city is the source of much of what is new about The Twelve, and I’m sad to say that it’s mostly a predictable bore. The overseer of this city is a character from the novel’s opening section, and while it is fascinating to see how a character I thought was fantastic in the opening section changed over a century, I was left wondering exactly what his deal was. The city is a sort of militaristic totalitarian state, where people are forced to work on one of the many secret projects throughout the city. One of these, an enormous skyscraper that is implied to have some dark purpose, actually never figures into the action of The Twelve at all.

I have to assume that this plot point is being couched for the final book in the trilogy, but it is emblematic of what I think is the fundamental problem with this part of the story–it feels held back. When the curtain is pulled open and we see the kinds of people who govern this city, we find that they are tie-wearing bureaucrats, overseeing a collection of brutish non-characters who never get any characterization beyond behind obedient and sadistic. For many scenes, we see the main villain sitting in his office, looking over documents and other mundane activities that a pseudo-mayor would be expected to undertake. The point is that the city only feels malicious insofar as Cronin tells us that the city should feel malicious. It didn’t feel dangerous or especially thoughtful. Add in a ham-fisted storyline about an underground insurgency, and you have a collection of post-apocalypic tropes that don’t add up to anything novel or especially interesting. Even the mayor’s final plan, having to do with the original twelve virals, is so transparently a bad idea that the climax of the novel was more silly than affecting.

This very significant plot disappointment aside, I remain interested and invested in his series. I rolled my eyes a lot at Cronin’s language in The Passage. In between competently-written action bits, he would inject moment of lyrical interiority that seemed very self-consciously literary. Almost always, it rang flat or false, out of sync with the action and tone of the rest of the book. This problem is not as significant in The Twelve, though still present. There are stale, overly written sections, but then, sometimes on facing pages, I would find section that cut deeply into the heart of the characters, or that perfectly described a mood or setting. When Cronin’s language actually helps the story he’s trying to tell, it’s wonderful. But The Twelve is a very uneven book on a prose level. Some sections are beautiful, others, especially action sequences, seem so heavily edited as to almost resemble screenplays or storyboards.

And yet.

I am fascinated by this world. Cronin is managing an enormous story here, one that spans not only the hundred years since the viral outbreak but, as seen through bits of texts separating the sections, an entire millennium. Cronin is taking a huge risk in this series. And, sadly, some of those gambits don’t pay off. Huge sections of this novel, as well as it predecessor, seem overwritten, forced, or even unnecessary.

And yet.

I want to know more. I want to know where all this is going, if and how the viral plague will be eradicated, and which of these characters will be alive at the end to rebuild the world anew. This series, for all its obvious and significant faults, remains haunting. In these stories, the past matters, and, if you are not careful, it can come back to destroy you. In The Twelve, Justin Cronin has created a continuation of his dark story, and while I did not always love it, I never considered putting the book down. There is dark magic at the edges of these pages, and I have to know what happens.

The Twelve gets four pieces of lasagna. It’s far from a perfect novel, but it remains a fascinating glimpse into this weirdly familiar world.


Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

I’ve been thinking about this review for about a week and a half now, and despite really loving this book and loving to talk about Harry Potter, I don’t really have a whole lot to say. I’ll try to cover the major talking points that anyone discussing Deathly Hallows, but I’m mostly alright to just sit back, love on this book, and enjoy the ending of the greatest narrative of my generation. (And I know how I broke the cover picture pattern, but how could I not go with this one?)

I love the beginning of this book, from the seven-way split of the dedication to the Snape opening, it perfectly captures how epic this story has been/is. Rowling has so much narrative momentum going into this book, and the opening capitalizes on that majorly. We’re immediately forced to consider our feelings on Snape (side tangent: did anyone else get one of those “Trust Snape” or “Don’t Trust Snape” stickers before the seventh book came out? My sticker is probably my second or third most prized position ever. That includes my health.), and the Seven Potters is such an incredible way to manifest the danger/tension of Voldemort’s newfound presence (brought about by Dumbledore’s death). Even the oddly touching goodbye scene between Harry and Dudley cashes in on six books of narrative capital.

One of the things I really like about this book is the relative absence of a Harry/Ginny relationship. If you read my last review, you’d know that I’m totally a Harry/Ginny fan, but I like that Rowling doesn’t place the focus on that relationship; instead, so much of this book (including the tenting session that everyone likes to complain about despite its relative brevity) is focused on the relationship between our three heroes. I like that the (kind of) recent romantic relationship between Harry and Ginny doesn’t supplant the friendship between Harry/Ron/Hermione. It feels right.

I alluded to it in my last review, but one of the frustrating things about this book (really, the only frustrating thing) is the sense in which Dumbledore is still pretty in control of the game. The death of Dumbledore, our safety blanket, in the last book gives us the sense of despair and fear that so many of our characters are feeling, but it turns out that whole thing was an illusion, that Dumbledore was playing the long long game. I don’t think it ruins the book or destroys any of the emotional resonance (of which there is a ton), but it is a bit disappointing, like finding out that things couldn’t ever be any other way.

Of course, without Dumbledore’s long game, we don’t have the Snape narrative or the reveal, and this book would be so much less without The Prince’s Tale. I have a friend who says that Severus Snape is the very definition of a tragic character, and I absolutely agree. The story of unrequited love certainly didn’t originate here, but Rowling takes a traditional narrative and personalizes it with her characters and her world.

Finally, the epilogue. I know all of you epilogue haters probably won’t be convinced, but I really like the way Rowling chose to end her series. We don’t get anything (seriously, nothing) in the epilogue that we couldn’t easily figure out from the rest of the narrative. The purpose of the epilogue, for me, is a sense of emotional closure for these characters with whom we’ve journeyed for so long, and there’s no way that’s a bad thing. I love seeing Harry be a dad, I love seeing Snape’s namesake and knowing that the Prince’s tale didn’t go unappreciated, and I love knowing that all was well.

Ben’s Review – “In the Tall Grass” by Joe Hill and Stephen King

On paper, a collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, two of the masters of contemporary horror, should be incredible. We have reviewed several books by each of these writers here on Genre Lasagna, and our general opinion of each is pretty high. The novella “In the Tall Grass” was originally published in two parts in Esquire magazine as part of their poorly titled “Fiction for Men” campaign this past summer. The story was recently released as a standalone e-book, which was how I read it. While I went into my reading excited to see what these two masters would cook up together, I was disappointed to find an uninspired, sort of ugly story.

“In the Tall Grass” is a simple story. Two siblings, on a cross-country drive to a new city, hear a strange voice from the tall grass beside the road. They pull into an abandoned church parking lot, where several other cars are parked. The voice in the grass belongs to a young boy, begging for help. The two siblings go into the tall grass in an attempt to save him, and that is where things go terribly wrong.

To spoil what happens in the grass would be spoil one of the few interesting bits of storytelling in this novella, so I will be as vague as I can. Suffice to say, the effect of the tall grass is weird, unsettling, and compelling. But that’s where the novelty stops. After the initial shock of the disorienting properties of the tall grass, the story devolves into a poorly-paced, poorly-plotted mishmash of horror tropes that we seen a thousand times before. Worse, we’ve seen them done far better as well.

There is no subtlety in “In the Tall Grass.” Everything is visceral, gory, and, worst of all, totally unearned. There is so little context for what is happening that the horror bits, the apparent terrible center of the story, fall completely flat. The action of the story, while spare, manages to also be frustratingly vague. I know what happened at the end of the story, but I have no idea why it happened or why I was supposed care about it. There is one tantalizing mystery at the core of the story, but there is no attempt to explain it, or really even acknowledge it. It’s an empty center holding a dull, tedious, and totally bland horror story.

“In the Tall Grass” has none of the qualities we associate with the best writing of either author. It has none of King’s lingering, escalating tension, and none of Joe Hill’s focus on character. The story is short, perhaps only a third as long as a short novel, but it still took me four days to read it because, up until the last quarter, I was almost totally non-engaged. The story relies on weirdness it doesn’t earn and vivid, technicolor gore that it doesn’t need to tell a story about characters I never connected with.

“In the Tall Grass” gets 1 piece of lasagna.

It is currently available for your favorite ebook reader. The e-book version does contain short samples of King’s upcoming “Doctor Sleep” and Hill’s forthcoming “NOS4A2.” Those samples alone were worth my money, but they might not be for everyone.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Fair warning before I get into this review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is my favorite book in the series. The earlier books spent so much time setting up a complex narrative, compelling characters, and (mostly thanks to book 5) a deep emotional reserve from which to draw, and Half-Blood Prince capitalizes on all of that. Further, while I’m all for thick books and long narratives, this book feels pointed and focused in a way that those around it tend not to. Order of the Phoenix gets a little too long for me, and even though I love almost all of Deathly Hallows, that too seems kind of overly stuffed. Anyway, you’ve been warned: I love this book a whole lot.

I’m really a sucker for love stories, so maybe I’m a little predisposed to dig Half-Blood Prince based on the Harry/Ginny stuff, but the blossoming relationship between our protagonist and the youngest Weasley actually really nicely shows the development of both Harry and this series. Previously, we’ve seen Harry with Cho Chang, but that relationship was very clearly the middle school type we’ve all experienced: worrying about holding hands or what the other person is thinking or feeling completely awkward around one another. I’m definitely not saying that awkwardness goes away or that it’s the only marker for the maturity range of Harry/Cho, but there is definitely a marked difference in the Harry/Ginny situation. Whereas Cho was a one-dimensional character to Harry (and, therefore, the reader), there’s a way in which Rowling is careful to show Harry recognizing Ginny’s complexity and personality as he grows to understand his feelings for her. This is not only neat to see because Ginny has been a majorly bad-ass, cool character for some time without really getting any recognition, but it also shows a progression in our main character, which makes sense since he’s actually getting older and becoming an adult.

Speaking of growing up and becoming more complex, Rowling does a really nice job in both capitalizing on the intricacies of Snape’s character (and loyalties) and setting up Malfoy to be a similarly enigmatic character. Up to this point, he’s been the cookie-cutter bad guy–mean and evil based on standard reasons (family upbringing, ignorant, friends, just plain bad, whatever) that give him the depth of a kiddie pool. However, Malfoy doesn’t feature as prominently in this book, and when he does appear, it’s almost like he has a range of emotions and the possibility to feel fear and remorse. That scene on the tower at the end of the novel, when Malfoy is struggling with the decision to kill (or not) Dumbledore is the kind of thing that is always so appealing and powerful–the heart in conflict with itself (I think Faulkner said that, but I can’t remember for sure and don’t have the will or internet speed to look it up without taking the next hour and a half). We get to see Draco as a person with a complex and humanistic interiority, and that’s really nice. Pair that with the bitter sweet questions we are left with concerning the loyalties of Severus Snape, and we have a few characters who are suddenly much more compelling than we’ve previously seen.

On a similar note, we also get a good dose of Tom Riddle backstory in this book which, for me, adds a layer of complexity to the narrative more than it does Voldemort’s character. Sure, we get to see Voldemort’s origins and relatives, but Rowling (and I might be wrong on this–correct me if so) never really tries to make the Dark Lord out to be anything but a bad, evil dude. Even as a kid, he’s despicable without too much light. He’s described as handsome in a cold way, smart in a dangerous way, and independent in a scary way. Maybe it’s the teleological effects of seeing where he ends up that colors this reading of young Tom, but it just really doesn’t seem like he’s ever portrayed as anything other than evil. There are moments when it seems like Rowling is trying to fight this impulse–things like eliding Tom and Harry’s fetishization with Hogwarts, but even then she is careful to put some distance between the two characters’ feelings/desires. That said, I think the backstory stuff works really well in this book; Rowling is able to give us some major informational dumps without it ever feeling that way. The pensieve as a narrative device is brilliant because we can get those history lessons in a narrative format without it feeling to forced or contrived. In a weird way, I think I enjoy the backstory we get through the pensieve more than any of the actual narrative arcs in the present of this book.

Of course, the crowning moment of the book is Dumbledore’s death, and on the one hand, I think it’s a really brilliant, brave move by Rowling. Dumbledore’s absence is felt by Harry and everyone else as being akin to the loss of a rudder or guiding force, and that’s absolutely true. Dumbledore’s character has been described since the beginning as the only one Voldemort feared, but we’re also always given the sense that Dumbledore is the guiding hand in all of this, that he’s playing the long game and is definitely going to win. His death, therefore, has to feel like a major blow, one that brings with it despair and terror. On the other hand, as we’ll see in the next book, Rowling’s move here isn’t the brave and adventurous one that it’s made out to be.