The Nature of Monsters

Clare Clark’s novel, The Nature of Monsters, is a fantastic story set in an era of vast scientific research. Clark makes references to true scientists and organizations that revere science and research that helped define human nature. Mr. Black, the master of the house, is not one of these true scientists and he employs horrific methods to prove his hypothesis that humans are imprinted with the horrors that their mothers witnessed and/or experienced during pregnancy, all while he self medicates with an opium based tincture of his own creation.

Clark inserts historical facts into her characters lives, including references to the cesspits beneath the homes, cleanliness of the drinking water, syphilis (the French disease), opium use/abuse. Many of the sanitary references resounding of her prior novel “The Great Stink”, published 2006.

This novels centers around Eliza Tally, a housemaid bound to the Black’s through a secret agreement, as she unearths the true purpose of Mr. Black’s research and how she unknowingly participated in it with her child. Eliza’s struggle to escape the madness of the house escalates as the novel progresses and is beautifully told through a historical vantage.

Clark brings to life what was a reality for many, devoting their lives to scientific research that is not ethically or competently completed. It reminds me of when I first heard of grave robbers that used the corpses to learn anatomy, but with a very disturbing twist.

Read January 2013.

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The Passage

Justin Cronin’s vampire novel, The Passage, starts with a government experiment gone wrong and the world (at least the parts we get to see) has been completely destroyed by criminals injected with a vampire-gene who, with their offspring, have decimated the human population.

From the beginning, we learn that Amy, the 13th vampire and a young child, holds the hope of the world and then she vanishes from the story. From there, Cronin detours for much of the book to a colony of survivors. Since children and very few adults were allowed safe passage to the colony, most of the knowledge of contemporary human existence is lost within 90 years. Through the stories of about 10 characters or so, the entire history of the colony and founding families is told. There is equality in this post apocalyptic society but with intense structure to keep those within the lighted walls safe from the walkers.

We hear the story from many points of view as well as some journal entries written and discovered at some later date, seemingly many years past the current story. It isn’t until toward the end of the novel that Amy returns and once we walk outside the walls of the colony do we learn what has happened to the rest of the United States. Finally Amy is the central storyline, although we never hear directly from her. And in showing several successful colonies, Cronin is really able to explore what would happen if the infrastructure in US collapses.

This isn’t a typical vampire story since its combining the horror story of the vampire with the post apocalyptic world. A good part of this novel is setting up the story of a trilogy so it felt a bit tiring, especially when going into such detail about the colony only to have it destroyed when the expedition returns. I think novelists should focus on one clear novel before writing a trilogy and each book should stand on its own while complementing the others. Otherwise it sets up each novel to be incomplete, which I think happened in this novel. I think a successful trilogy is when at the end of one book the reader is excited to see what happens next, not frustrated due to an incomplete story. I think the trilogy, if Cronin can keep up the story, will be better as a whole than its parts.

Read January 2012

Glaciers

Glaciers is a very short novel or a long free-verse poem about a young woman Isabel who has lived in Alaska and now Portland, OR. She works at the Central library with damaged old books. This work has the feel of stream of consciousness as she jumps from one story to another and the entire novel doesn’t have a cohesive thread or much of an ending, more like a brief look into someone else’s mind. But maybe that is the intent.

The stories are beautifully told and the author whisks the reader through a brief love interest, childhood dreams, and old postcards. It flows from beginning to end without me wanting more that what it gave.

Living in Portland, I particularly liked her use of the city as part of the story and her rummaging through the old parts of town to secure a beautiful vintage dress or eating veggie Chinese food. Portland seems like a good city to choose since its filled with a generation that seems to try to hold onto the past while creating their own future.

Read December 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s work, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a collection of stories linked together by a common pasts to create one novel. Not all the characters are linked together, but most of them have a connection either in the present or past.

The overall story is about a group of aging music workers (producer, band members, groupies) that are trying to stay current in an ever evolving industry. The story flips from current to past to future with a strange world catastrophe back drop at the end. The only one who seems to bring hope to this future generation is a music loser brought back to life from his old bandmate- current manager/producer.

All of the characters are mostly believable and the story that unfolds is interesting. I read this book intertwined with others and had a hard time at the beginning grasping who is connected to whom and from when. The jumps in time also made it harder if not paying close attention, but by the end of the novel it was easier.

I would recommend this novel with the caveat that is not good for a distracted reader.

Read December 2012