It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty.

the passage

 

I enjoy post apocalypse fiction. There is something about the society and all its excesses breaking down and mankind being stripped to its bare essentials that appeals to me as a literary trope. The means in which the world ends is simply a MacGuffin, the device that propels the story forward and tells us what happens to mankind when it has to focus solely on survival. The Passage is similar in that regard, though the concept of a viral vampire apocalypse is intriguing. In the end it’s the story of what mankind is when boiled down to its essence.

As with most apocalypse stories, the government is the catalyst. After finding a vampire-like virus carried by Bolivian bats that can greatly extend life, the U.S. Government uses death row inmates as guinea pigs for a top secret military operation known as Project Noah. Things to horribly wrong as they must for this story to continue. A young girl named Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has also been infected with the virus escapes with an FBI agent and lives through the end of the world, also outliving her savior. The story then jumps forward approximately 93 years to a small outpost in California which has been cut off from the rest of the country for decades and encounters Amy by chance. Though they don’t realize it, Amy holds the key to ending the plague that has destroyed most of humanity.

Though this book hit many of the same plot points followed by books like The Stand and Swan Song, it still surprised me in quite a few places. At over 700 pages the book is long but rarely drags. No character is unimportant to the plot. The book ties up many loose ends in the conclusion but still leaves a nice cliffhanger for its sequel.

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“You left me alone but you’re still my own.”

pretty girls

 

The key to a good suspense/mystery novel is similar to that of a good horror film. The characters reactions to things have to be realistic and make sense. That doesn’t mean they have to necessarily be smart or follow basic common sense. It means they have to make sense given what we know about the character’s past experiences and personality. That way, when everything goes pear shaped, it feels like these things are being experienced by a real human and not merely a vessel to move the story forward. Pretty Girls hits the nail on the head. I hate to use a cliched term like “non-stop thrill ride,” but reading this book was a lot like riding a roller coaster. I found myself having to take a breather from this book every once in awhile because it got too intense.

Lydia and Claire are two sisters who have not spoken in twenty years. Their relationship slowly deteriorated after their sister Julia disappeared without a trace from her college campus one night. The incident destroyed their once happy family. As the book begins, Claire’s husband is killed in what appears to be a botched mugging. This sets in motion a series of events that throw the two sisters back together as are drawn deeper into the mystery, not only of her husband’s death but of their missing sister.

Aside from being a hell of a good mystery, this book depicts the emotional toll taken on a family when a child goes missing. It packed an emotional wallop throughout. I will give a warning for extremely graphic depictions of murder and rape. It’s rough material but given the themes of the book I don’t think it’s extraneous.

All I want is some truth

code name verity

This book took me awhile to really get into. It definitely wasn’t bad, it just didn’t suck me in the way I expected to. The description, a young female spy held prisoner and tortured by the Nazis, gave me a much different impression of what this book would be. At it’s core, Code Name Verity is the story of a powerful female friendship and what one friend will do to save another. It was only about midway through the book when the perspective shifted that I was unable to put this book down.

The first half of the book is told by “Queenie,” a British spy against the Nazis for the Allied Forces. At the beginning of the book she is being held in an old hotel in occupied France which the Nazis are using as a prison/interrogation center. She is being forced to write everything she knows about the British Defense and French Resistance forces. Queenie is writing everything down in the form of a novel in which she tells the story of her friendship with Maddie, a British pilot dropped her into occupied French territory before crashing her plane. After Queenie concludes her narrative, the story shifts to Maddie’s perspective. As is often the case, this mid-novel perspective shift completely turns everything we thought we knew on its head.

This is a spy story but it is also the story of two singular women thrown into a harrowing situation and using all of their wits and their talents to try and save one another. I had to put this book down and have myself a good cry at one point. The next time a literary snob tries to tell you that YA writing isn’t art, buy them a hard copy of this book and beat them soundly about the head and shoulders with it…or make them read it, whatever.

“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”

Kitchen Confidential

 

I did not have any exposure to Anthony Bourdain until his later television programs; The Layover and Parts Unknown. I have to say I much prefer the older more introspective and thoughtful version of Mr. Bourdain. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy his first book thoroughly. While the younger chef is certainly more brash, he’s still clearly a smart, engaging and thoughtful writer who does not shy away from sharing some of his lowest career moments with his readers.

Before Anthony Bordain was all over our televisions trying meats of questionable origin from all corners of the world, he was just a work-a-day chef in kitchens throughout the eastern seaboard. Kitchen Confidential is the story of his early years; how he first became a “foodie” during a family trip to France, his early years as an inexperienced but overly cocky young chef and his various ups and downs (including a heroin addiction) to become head chef at Les Halles in New York City. He also offers various tips on getting the most out of your fine dining experience. I’m not sure if his advice is still accurate seventeen years later, but this book made me want to do a Cook’s Tour of Manhattan.

I love food memoirs and “Kitchen Confidential” is definitely one of the most famous. While it didn’t make me want to be a chef like “My Life in France” made me want to move to Provence, it’s a solid, well written and fun memoir.