THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin
This is being buzzed as the Big Book of the Year, and with reason: it was bought for a colossal sum at auction by Ballantine Books; film rights sold to Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Gladiator within days, and it's drawn comparisons to the best of Stephen King. Being a fan of King's earlier novels (The Shining is one of my all-time favorites) I was intrigued by Cronin's apocalyptic tale of a scientific experiment gone awry and a world overcome by virological vampires, aptly dubbed "virals." At the center of this huge story spanning over 700 pages is an enigmatic girl named Amy, whose abandonment by her mother propels her into the horrific events leading up to the end of civilization as we know it, and the creation of a much-altered and frightening post-collapse society, where clusters of surviving mortals hide behind enclosed homesteads and banks of battery-powered lights which are slowly but inexorably losing power. The cast is immense, as befitting an epic, though at times this proves challenging both in remembering who everyone is and investing in any single person, particularly as you never know when said person will fall prey to the marauding, tree-leaping, blood-thirsty virals who've quite literally "eaten the world." These virals, however, are more than toothy creatures; and it's their secret, as well as Amy's role in it, that drives the story to its long-winded but ultimately creepy conclusion. THE PASSAGE requires immersion and patience; but for the intrepid reader there are rewards to be had, including the first 250 pages, which are a pitch-perfect icy soak into the terrors of science taken to extreme, and later on, a particularly nasty confrontation with hordes of virals in devastated Las Vegas. Mr Cronin is working on the next book in a proposed trilogy.
THE ILLUMINATOR by Brenda Rickman Vantrese
This is another book that generated serious buzz when it sold to St Martin's Press years ago and I bought a first edition because, frankly, the cover looked like a gold-laminated Faberge egg. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to reading it until recently, though I've faithfully bought the next two books by Ms Vantrese based on reviews. And let me just say for the record: Why did I wait so long?! THE ILLUMINATOR is a magnificent, thought-provoking and defiantly anti-anachronistic plunge into the turmoil and tragedy of 14th century England. The story, on the surface, appears deceptively simple: a widow, Lady Kathyrn - portrayed refreshingly in middle age, rather than the dewy glamour of youth- is fighting to save her estate as inheritance for her sons from the rapacity of the Church and ill-intentioned suitors. Enter a mysterious illuminator named Finn and his evanescent daughter; after a mishap on the road involving a pig and a dwarf, Finn is conscripted into plying his trade as an illuminator of manuscripts for the local bishop and comes to live in Lady Kathyrn's manor, where his presence sets off a chain of life-shattering events. Vantrese's true strengths lie in her superb grasp of the era and understanding of the complex importance of spirituality to people striving to overcome every-day suffering. This is not a romanticized historical recreation; THE ILLUMINATOR transports you into a time both fascinating and repellent in its contradictions. Ms Vantrese is also the author of The Mercy Seller and The Heretic's Wife, which loosely connect with her first book and are now at the top of my TBR list.
DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE by Isabel Allende
Let me say it upfront: I'm a devoted fan of Ms Allende. From her House of the Spirits to Zorro, I have reveled in her quixotic, sensual, unabashedly sprawling explorations of family ties, the toll and joys of love in all its diverse forms, and the independent spirit of the immigrant. DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE was the book selected by Oprah for her book club and of course it garnered enormous acclaim; while I bought it, it was another that sat on my shelf unread, for some inexplicable reason. Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. Infused with Ms Allende's trademark turns of phrase ("fate lashed its tail and changed her life forever") and cast of eccentric characters driven by private obsessions, this novel takes place in the 1800s, starting in Chile with the discovery of a baby in a soap crate, left on the threshold of the very proper but secret-riddled English family of the Sommers. The child, named Eliza, is raised by the delightful wasp-waisted Ms Rose Sommers, indoctrinated in the limited methods a girl can employ to survive in their rarefied society; but when Eliza falls passionately and unexpectedly in love with a common clerk, she flees the safe emptiness of her cloistered existence for feral California, embarking on an adventure that awakens her to life's vast potential and cracks the fragile veneer in which the Sommers themselves have dwelled. Ms Allende's deft pen conjures to vivid, humane life both the hypocrisy of Victorian mores in South America as well as the savage abandon of the Gold Rush; her cast is wide and diverse, ranging from the mourning Chinese physician who accompanies Eliza to a caravan of prostitutes led by a transgender humanitarian. Very few writers today can claim the mastery of color and depth of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work; I humbly suggest that Ms Allende is definitely one of them.
THE SHEEN ON THE SILK by Anne Perry
Anne Perry departs from her bestselling Victorian mysteries for this epic, yet at times uneven, tale of 13th century Byzantium featuring a female physician who disguises herself as a eunuch to uncover the truth about her twin's involvement in the assassination of a politician. Still reeling from a Venetian-led assault that devastated its populace and exiled its imperial family, Byzantium is a city of crumbling secrets, besieged noble families, and labyrinthine intrigues; into this dangerous yet seductive crossroads between East and West enters Anna, a.k.a. Anastasius, determined to prove her brother's innocence. While Anna's story is compelling in and of itself, it is her patroness Zoe, an aging but still beautiful noblewoman intent on revenge, who steals the plot — seductive, lethal, and uncompromising, Zoe has never forgotten the debt that Venice has incurred for destroying the city, even as her own past is haunted by tragedy and violence. Woven throughout the novel's ambitious narrative are various supporting characters, including a conflicted Roman priest whose contact with Byzantium throws his own faith into question; a Venetian sailor seeking his hidden past; and a spiritually pliant bishop of the Orthodox faith determined to prevent ecclesiastical union with Rome. Perry excels in her characterizations and in creating an ambiance that shifts easily between the gilded corridors of Byzantium’s sea-scented palaces to the corrupt intrigues of the Vatican to the arid expanse of the Sinai desert; however, at times her pacing can be challenging both because of the wide cast of characters and the novel's meditations on the meaning of religion in a world overcome by upheaval.