Read This, Not That: “The Passage” and “The Fall”

[“Read This, Not That” is an occasional column in which we unmask an overhyped book and recommend a similar, better book to read instead. You can follow it here, or browse all our ongoing features here.]

Do not read: The Fall, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

I like Del Toro’s movies, I think he’s a talented guy, but he simply has no business writing novels, let alone an overhyped, unreadable mess like The Strain Trilogy. The first book in the series, The Strain, was cliched and horribly written (see my review for more details). To simulate the experience of reading it, imagine you’re in a class you hate with a professor who loves the sound of his own voice. He plays a bad movie for the class—say, Repo Men—and then keeps pausing it in the middle of action sequences in order to explain what combat boots are, or how a carburetor works, or the history of forks. That’s a lot like The Strain: a bunch of boring details cluttering up the action of an uninspired story. The big selling point for this series is that the vampires in it are mean. So… just like all the other pre-Twilight vampire stories? Sorry, Del Toro, that’s just not enough.

Instead read this: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

The Passage also got more than its fair share of media hype this year, and it’s also about vampires, and those vampires are also mean. I haven’t been able to read it myself, but I also haven’t seen less than a glowing review. For instance, here’s Ron Charles raving about it, and Ron Charles doesn’t pass out the good candy to every kid who knocks on his door.

In that review, Charles acknowledges our skepticism about yet another vampire novel, but then he calls Cronin “a really talented novelist”—the last legitimately talented novelist who wrote a vampire novel was probably Bram Stoker. There are sure to be some cliches and hackneyed elements (vampires, after all, are a cliche), but if Cronin knows where they are, and he’s as funny as Charles says, this book could be pretty good. It’s a much better bet, certainly, than The Fall.

Read This, Not That: “The Thousand” and “The Da Vinci Code”

[“Read This, Not That” is an occasional column in which we unmask an overhyped book and recommend a similar, better book to read instead. You can follow it here, or follow all our ongoing features here.]

Do not read: The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown.

“Dan Brown is a hack” is codified somewhere in the Chamber Four constitution. In fact, we once had some stickers that said something to that effect. We say this for a reason. Because he is. He really sucks. I tried to read this book when it first came out. It’s terrible.

It’s pretty rare that I don’t finish a book, even a bad one. But this novel’s awfulness bested me. It sucks for the writing alone. The Da Vinci Code is known for its twisty plot, but that’s really the only selling point. Besides that, it has stilted language, is structured for readers with attention spans of less than 4 pages, and presents perhaps the flattest and most boring protagonist ever put to paper. This book seriously ought to insult the intelligence of a 4th grader. Here’s an example why:

Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow’s peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.

I’ll give a prize to whomever points out the most things wrong with that trio of sentences.


Read this instead: The Thousand, by Kevin Guilfoile.

The Thousand isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, in fact it’s sort of mediocre, but it’s infinitely more readable than The Da Vinci Code.  Like Brown’s novel, this has secret societies guarding ancient mysteries, and a plot buried in puzzles. Frankly, though, the secret society stuff is the worst part of this book. Guilfoile writes well enough, and he renders some interesting characters. I really like Canada Gold, who has a implant in her brain that makes her brain act almost like a computer. It’s pretty gimmicky for sure, but also different enough to keep things feeling interesting.

So where the above novel is all plot and little else, this has a plot that flounders a bit, but substance that at least remains engaging. I’ll have my full review up next week. It’s a decent thriller/mystery, so if you’re into that (or The Da Vinci Code), it’s worth a pick-up.

Read This, Not That: “I Curse the River of Time” & “You Lost Me There”

[“Read This, Not That” is a new occasional column in which we unmask an overhyped book and recommend a similar, better book to read instead. You can follow it here, or follow all our ongoing features here.]

Do not read: I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson

Petterson’s latest novel has been gushed and fawned over endlessly in the past few months, praised for its starkness and cold austerity. I did not like Curse at all, because it’s stark and coldly austere. I suppose I should’ve seen that coming, but it’s possible to portray depression and malaise without boring the stuffing out of your reader. Petterson chooses to bore you.

Curse is an atmospheric novel about a recently divorced 37-year-old Communist who doesn’t get along with his mother, though he loves her. There, you’re done. There are nearly zero other surprises left in store in the rest of the book, and no complexities in the main character makes for a pretty boring character study.

Read my full review here.

Read this instead: You Lost Me There, by Rosecrans Baldwin

Baldwin’s first novel has likewise gotten some press, and likewise concerns the ruminations of a man whose life has not gone well. In this case, it’s a sixty-something scientist whose wife died a few years back. He finds notes she wrote to her therapist and agonizingly relives his failures as a husband.

Lost is nuanced and complex, heartbreaking and richly textured. Although it’s not an outstanding novel, it’s compelling. And that, quite simply, is what I’m looking for, atmospheric character study or no.

Read my full review of Lost here.

Read this, bonus: The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford

My favorite atmospheric character study, The Sportswriter, takes place over a single weekend and consists mostly of interior monologue. It’s riveting and superb.