Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Passage: Going Viral

Justin Cronin's The Passage was the hit novel of 2010. Everyone read it. Everyone raved about it. Everyone waited in eager anticipation for the next novel in the trilogy (The Twelve, which is out this October). But I skipped it. No particular reason — just never got to it. 

So having picked up an ARC of The Twelve at BEA, I figured I'd finally give The Passage a go — a first step in getting over my hesitation of reading long series before all the books are out.

And you what? It's not half bad after all. It's a familiar story, to be sure — a government experiment with a virus wipes out most of the population, leaving a small band of survivors to carry the torch for humanity. A "chosen one" — a girl named Amy — helps this band of noble straggles make a "passage" across the country to try to find out who she is, and if humanity really does have a future.

Of course, the comparison's to Stephen King's The Stand are inevitable. But there is one key difference — whereas The Stand was a pitched battle of good vs. evil, The Passage is simply good (or is it?) vs. vampires (or virals, smokes, or dracs, as they're referred to in the novel); mindless creatures programmed to kill humans so they can survive. So, they're no more evil than a polar bear that kills salmon to live. The only evil characters are the government henchman who start the viral weapons program at the beginning of the novel. And then, it's pretty obvious that they're evil.

So, again, you know this story. But what sets The Passage apart is that, with the exception some wooden dialogue here and there, The Passage is better written by about a factor of 20 than just about any of those genre humankind-wipeout stories. Cronin is a master of pacing — writing action scenes and moody, atmospheric "set-up scenes" with equal aplomb. Here's an example of Cronin's writing, a quote I really liked: "Courage is easy when the alternative is getting killed. It's hope that's hard." 

There's nothing extraordinarily heady here — it makes for great plane reading. There's action. There's romance. There's blood and gore and death. But with hints of religion and the philosophy of history, there are interesting questions the novel asks its readers to consider. How seriously do we take stories that are ostensibly allegories? Are they really allegories after all? (Noah's ark, for instance?)

Regarding history, Cronin often includes diary entries from the main characters that are presented at a conference a thousand years later. It's an interesting tactic that makes us consider the two types of storytelling — the first-person from the characters' perspectives, and Cronin's own omniscient perspective. Normally, this shift in narration bugs me. Here, it worked.

I'd say this is a four-out-of-five stars novel. I really enjoyed it and read it quickly (mostly on planes). It loses a star for slipping into the too-familiar from time to time. But overall, highly recommended.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

This Is Where I Leave You: The Movie!

Details continue to emerge about a possible film adaptation for Jonathan Tropper’s fantastic 2009 novelThis Is Where I Leave You. When I caught Tropper at a reading in July 2010, he’d finished the screenplay and mentioned that a “famous director” was attached, but he still seemed skeptical that the movie would ever see the light of day. “Any movie that doesn’t have a superhero doesn’t get made anymore,” he said. Now, though, it seems like a realistic possibility. Let’s take a look at what we know about the film so far, and gauge its chances.
Source Material
With lines like “He is the Paul McCartney of our family: better looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead” and “My marriage ended the way these things do: with paramedics and cheesecake,” the source material is as film-ready as it comes. Again, Tropper wrote the screenplay, so confidence is high that the source material will turn out well on screen. At that July 2010 reading, Tropper mentioned that one of his favorite writers is Richard Russo, who had great success adapting his own novel Empire Falls into a terrific HBO miniseries. Oh, and the story about siblings coming to sit shiva for their father in the midst of their own relationship and personal crises is as rich with built-in conflict and comedy as source material for a film gets. Here's my long-ago review of This Is Where I Leave You, if you're interested. 
I don’t know whether Adam Shankman is the “famous director” Tropper said was attached two years ago, but this guy’s not exactly a household name. Most recently, he’s directed the Tom Cruise vehicle Rock of Ages. Many of the reviews of Rock of Ages have not been good, so far — which may not be all Shankman's fault, but still. So, that’s not a good omen for this movie. As well, probably Shankman’s two most well-known directing credits are 2007′s Hairspray (which I haven’t seen) and  2001′s Jennifer Lopez/Matt McConaughey dud The Wedding Planner (which I’m REALLY GLAD I haven’t seen). So, frankly, confidence isn’t high on this one, but you never know…
All the actors, including Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Goldie Hawn, and Malin Akerman, are in “various stages of negotiations,” according to most of the Hollywood trade pubs. If they all wind up in the film, this is a very, very solid cast. Presumably, Bateman plays Judd (rumors still swirl about exact roles), the protagonist and narrator. Bateman’s constant comic exasperation, as displayed in Horrible Bosses and Arrested Development, will make him a fantastic Judd. A+ casting here. 
Additional note: When I saw Tropper at BEA in New York, I asked him what he thought of Bateman as Judd. He paused a beat and then said he was thrilled. He said he'd sent Bateman scripts for all his other novels, but This Is Where I Leave You is the first time Bateman said 'yes.' I told him I thought it was a fantastic choice, too. 
Rumors are that Sudeikis would play Judd’s radio disc jockey boss whom Judd catches sleeping with his wife (not sure about this — Sudeikis could do the cheesy DJ way, way over the top here), Efron would play youngest brother and playboy Phillip (I’ll abstain here. I hate Efron, but this might work.), Mann would play oldest sister Wendy (Mann can be a good harpy, so good here), Akerman would play Judd’s cheating wife (she’s hot, so okay, but I have no idea) and Hawn would play the recently-turned-lesbian mother (inspired casting here!). It’ll come down to chemistry, since so much of the comedy lies in the family’s squabbles, but on a role-by-role basis, I think this has an above-average chance of working.
Wild Card
No rumors yet on who will play Paul, Judd’s older ex-jock brother — it’s a critical role for the “brother-bonding” scenes. And I’m not sure about Shankman — he’s never really handled an ensemble cast before, and hasn’t really directed anything that’s done well. But with great source material, Tropper adapting his own novel, and Bateman as Judd, confidence is good to great on this film. What do you think?

CONFIDENCE INDEX: 6.5 (out of 10) 

Note: This post, minus a few updates, originally appeared on Book Riot.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Darlings: Financial, Family Meltdown

It's not often a book keeps me up until 2 am to finish, but Cristina Alger's debut novel, The Darlings, did. This "financial thriller," as many reviewers describe it, is actually the fascinating tale of a family in crisis — examining the question of, when shit hits the fan, where do loyalties lie: to the truth (i.e, to doing the right thing), or to protecting your family?

Don't get me wrong, though — it is also, indeed, thrilling. The story is of Carter Darling — a New York billionaire who runs an investment company called Delphic. It's Thanksgiving weekend, 2008, at the onset of the financial crisis, and the manager of one of Delphic's top funds — and Carter's long-time friend — has just killed himself. Turns out this guy's fund was fraudulent — a kind of Ponzi scheme. And so Carter and his family —including his son-in-law Paul, newly hired as the firm's legal counsel — must decide who knew what, how to protect themselves from legal action, as well as indictment in the court of public opinion (who is going to sympathize with Wall Street billionaires, even if they are ostensibly innocent?), and how all this will affect the future of the family, its firm, and their social standing as "darlings" of New York society.

One of my favorite parts of this novel is the wide cast of complex characters, and what each brings to bear on this story — how they're all different, and how each relates to his or her own family. Alger often takes a break from her break-neck pace to tell us the backstories of these characters — a journalist for a magazine, his young assistant trying to make it in the cutthroat world of New York publishing, Carter's lawyer Sol and Sol's legal secretary (whose husband had worked at Bear Stearns, and now the family is struggling to make ends meet), and an SEC lawyer who has to investigate a former love interest.

At first blush, some of these backstories may seem superfluous; like information that the author needed to know to tell her characters' stories, but that the reader doesn't necessarily need to see about them. But the different takes on family loyalty provide interesting context to Carter Darling's relationship with his family, and how he's committed (or not?) to them. Is family loyalty enough to ensure he'll do the right thing? That's why you stay up to all hours of the night to finish reading.

I really enjoyed this novel — it's about one of my favorite fictional subjects (rich, interesting New Yorkers) in one of my favorite literary settings. I'd highly recommend this for those interested in a timely thriller with more than a bit of moral dilemma and no shortage of heart. Four stars.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In One Person: Sexual Healing?

In many ways, In One Person is the prototypical John Irving novel. It's populated with a folksy cast of characters who all seem to keep secrets from each other (but not maliciously), it takes place in New England and there's lots of wrestling, and the story itself sort of has its own mythology which the plot buildings upon to make for a satisfying conclusion.

And, as you've probably heard or read if you're an Irving fan, this is Irving's "most political novel since The Cider House Rules." But it's political without be preachy. Indeed, the message is simple: Be tolerant of those who are different from you.

The story is of Billy Abbott, a bisexual man trying to make his way through the second half of the twentieth century. The first half of the novel is about Billy as a teenager in 1960s small-town Vermont, as he begins to understand what his "crushes on the wrong people" -- including simultaneous crushes on the town librarian Miss Frost, who herself has a secret, as well as the most popular boy in his school, wrestler, actor, and bully Kittredge -- mean. The unhappy resolutions to these two situations, the full effect of which isn't known until the end of the novel, is what sets in motion Billy's adult life. He goes to Europe and dates women. He deals with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, watching many of his childhood friends die, and he publishes several novels, fictionalizing the "plight" of LGBT people. Though Billy is mostly at peace with who he is, how so many different desires can reside in one person, he easily recognizes how others like him are tormented -- and he wants to be helpful to them.

But amidst the relative seriousness of the story given its subject, there's a lot of Irving's signature humor here, too -- Irving's dialogue is often hilariously non-sequitur and some of Billy's misunderstandings about sex are really hard not to giggle at. (He wonders if vaginal sex will be like "having sex with a ballroom" when compared to the man-on-man sex he's used to -- this is a rather explicit novel, to be honest, and not for the squeamish.)

In One Person will never be my favorite Irving novel -- indeed, it's probably only about in the bottom half of the mid-tier of his novels. Still, a so-so John Irving novel is better than 75 percent of all other novels, in my humble view. So if you're a huge Irving fan like me, you'll probably mostly enjoy this, too. I'll give it 3.5-4 stars.