The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road charts the journey of a nameless man and a nameless boy south through a post-apocalyptic America. They have nothing but each other and a cart of supplies. There is little food available. Nothing grows any more. The trees are leafless and ash covers the ground. The story is set years after some devastating event that turned the country into a charred ruin, presumably a nuclear war. The two protagonists are journeying south to escape the cold of the approaching winter, doing their best to avoid encounters with any “bad guys” (as the man calls them when speaking to the boy). In a world with nothing but canned food in ever diminishing supply, it’s not surprising that some might turn to cannibalism. The names of characters are never mentioned, I would guess, because in a world with so few people, names become meaningless. Likewise the names of the roads on which they travel have ceased to have meaning; there is only The Road.

You could be forgiven for skipping this novel on account of the bleak storyline. But nothing could be further from the truth. The novel shows the reader a world where on the surface of things there is nothing to live for – where you would either kill yourself or long for death. But the man’s entire life is transformed by the simple fact that he must take care of the boy. This is a story about where true meaning in life resides, when you strip away all the comforts and distractions of our lives: in the love one person has for another human being. It’s such a simple story: a long journey interspersed with occasional dramatic encounters. But it’s an absolute page-turner, because it’s meaningful, realistic, uncompromising.

The fact that it’s hard to put down may also have something to do with the strange style in which the book is written. There are no chapter divisions at all, but a great many scene divisions throughout the book. Many scenes consists of only two or three paragraphs. Rarely do they exceed two pages. This brevity, oddly enough, works quite well, and has the effect of making the reader think “Just a bit more before a put it down.” Then, before you know it, you’ve read another twenty pages.

The author has decided to rewrite the rules of English grammar and punctuation for himself. If McCarthy were a self-published author, I would be balking at such arrogance. But since he’s an accomplished author, and since I enjoyed the novel so much, I’m forced to pause and examine the matter closely. I always read with a critical eye, so here’s a list of all the things I saw McCarthy doing a little differently:

  • There are no quotation marks. Speech is rendered indistinguishable from narration, like this: Let’s go, he said. All things considered, it was fairly easy to distinguish the two.
  • Commas are in short supply. This decision did cause me a bit of grief. Occasionally I got mixed up in the meaning of a sentence and had to re-read it.
  • Several clauses in a sentence are often joined with multiple “and”s, in a manner that seems quite childlike, which is bizarre because McCarthy demonstrates a rich vocabulary that puts me to shame.
  • There are no italics. Fair enough; not exactly a necessity.
  • Apostrophes are removed from words like “can’t,” but are retained for words like “he’d.” McCarthy seems to have decided that when two words are joined together (“he had”), you keep the apostrophe, but when one one (“not”) is concatenated (“nt), you remove it. Struck me as an unnecessary amendment to the English language.
  • Hyphenated words are usually rendered without the hyphen.
  • “He” does not usually refer to the last mentioned subject, but to the man, as opposed to the boy, regardless of whether the boy was last mentioned.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I get the feeling that perhaps the author is attempting to convey a style similar to oral storytelling; you can’t speak a quotation mark, so why write one? The idea has some merit, and I’m actually curious about attempting to write something in a similar style. I appreciated some of McCarthy’s changes, but others irritated me and made the prose awkward to read. There was also a limited degree of sloppy inconsistency going on. More than once, I spotted a sentence like Come on he said, where McCarthy left out a comma in a circumstance where he always used one. Also, about halfway through the story, in a the middle of a paragraph, I encountered a nonsensical sentence that began with a small letter. It was as if someone had accidentally highlighted the first half of a sentence and deleted it by accident. Don’t publishers proof-read their books before publication? Shame on you, Picador.

Enough criticism. I’m overlooking McCarthy’s oddball English, because this is an excellent novel. Thoroughly recommended.

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Antarktos Rising by Jeremy Robinson

I’ve had my eye on Jeremy Robinson for a while. He’s a self-published author running his own publishing imprint (Breakneck Books), and he’s one who seems to be going places. After spotting a couple of glowing reviews on some blogs, I had to get hold of this.

I love the concept Robinson came up with. America inexplicably freezes, while Russia boils, and Antarctica thaws. The earth’s crust has tilted forty degrees on its axis. All the earth’s nations are now in ruins, with billions dead. As humanity picks itself up from the apocalypse, the remaining governments seek to claim Antarctica (later named Antarktos) as their new home. Rather than descending into war, all the nations agree to a participate in a race. The first three to reach the centre of Antarktos will divide the continent into three equal sections. The losing nations will have to make do with the harsh conditons of their present homeland.

After only two months of mild weather conditions, Antarktos has mysteriously transformed into a lush paradise. Trees and plants have grown at an alarming rate. The thaw also reveals Antarktos to have been inhabited in the distant past, eons ago when it wasn’t covered in ice. Worse still, the thaw has released Antarktos’s wildlife from a state of cryonic suspension. The race teams not only have to outwit and outrun each other (with talented assassins and Arab terrorists in the mix), but they must also face dangerous dinosaurs and do battle with a more intelligent enemy – mentioned briefly in the Bible: giants, known as the Nephilim, recorded in Genesis chapter 6.

From the beginning, the story is divided up into several sub-plots. We follow Dr. Merrill Clark, Antarctic explorer, as he experiences the changes on the continent first-hand. We follow Mira Whitney, in the USA, who must escape an incoming tsunami followed by a rapid freeze. We see right inside the lives of Arab terrorists, intent on sabotaging the American race team. And there are Russians and Chinese sub-plots, too. All the jumping around from place to place does unfortunately have a negative affect on the story’s pacing, but it did help maintain the sense of epic promised in the story’s premise. Occasionally, I got impatent, eager for the race to get moving and the real adventure to start.

The first point where the story faltered a little for me was when Dr. Clark emerged from a naturally dry valley in Antarctica and discovered that all the ice had gone, leaving only soil and rock. The temperature had risen, then the ice had melted and presumably flowed out to sea. But I had to ask myself: why didn’t the water flow into the valley and drown Dr. Clark? A valley, by definition, is lower than the surrounding land. No matter how I tried to think about it, I couldn’t conceive of how one man could survive the “birth pains” of the new continent. I put this plot-hole aside, hoping it would be the only one. Sadly, a little later we see Whitney in the USA hiding from men with guns by pretending to be dead. However, she’s in sub-zero temperatures. The author seemed to forget that the very act of breathing would betray her, as her warm breaths hit the frigid air. Maybe I’m nit-picking, but it bugged me, because I thought it should have been so obvious. To be fair, though, the novel wasn’t littered with these inconsistencies.

The author makes a reasonable attempt to add a more intimate and personal side to the story. The lives of the principle characters are fleshed out. We even see the terrorists’ motives from inside their own heads. But none of it rings true enough for me. The characters were just too straightforward and uncomplicated, their actions occasionally spoiled by melodrama. The novel just lacks a necessary richness in the area of characterisation. And that’s a great pity, because that’s one of the main things I’m after, as a reader. If the characters don’t come alive in my imagination, even the most original and action-packed story will fail for me.

Antarktos Rising is essentially a cross-genre novel. Nothing wrong with that, in principal; genre definitions are merely labels to determine where a book should be placed in a store. Antarktos Rising starts out as a thriller with sci-fi leanings, but by the end it’s in full-fledged fantasy territory. Robinson starts off by appealing to those who like their fiction grounded in something close to reality; he goes to great pains to inject some science into his theory of the earth’s crust shifting. But at the end, we have winged beasts and magical healing powers. Those who where expecting a scientific explanation for the accelerated growth of Antarktos will be disappointed to discover that it boils down to an explanation more at home in a Tolkien-esque fantasy. All I’m saying is, you have to like both genres. You have to be able to handle the massive suspension of disbelief that is part-and-parcel of any fantasy novel right alongside scientific thrillers, which typically thrive on rationality. This strikes me as a hard sell, and it didn’t quite work for me.

It’s more than just thriller plus fantasy. There’s a religious side to the story. I have no problem with that, in principle, and I think it’s good that a writer injects his own beliefs into his fiction. That’s writing from the heart, after all. However, there was something strange about reading two characters debate about the historicity of the Biblical Flood inside a novel that was already steeped in so much fantasy. If you want to convince a reader that the events of the Bible really happened, you’re going to need to place your argument in a more reliable context. As a Christian myself, I felt Robinson went a little too far when he suggested that the Flood was not God punishing mankind for its wickedness (as stated in the Bible), but God wiping out a race of demon-human hybrids that had mixed with man’s bloodline. The Flood, he suggests, was a means of restoring humanity back to a pure bloodline. I’m shocked that a Christian author would dare to mix fantasy with reality and be so bold as to misrepresent the will of God.

I hate having to voice all these criticisms, because I really wanted to love this book. In fairness, there were some really atmospheric scenes. The short chapters, many of which ended in cliff-hangers, kept the pages turning. Robinson, as a self-published author, is one of the minority who are doing self-publishing the right way – taking time to shine their prose up so that it sparkles. Robinsons’s grammar, punctuation and style are almost indistinguishable from a professional novelist’s. I think, however, that the story could have benefitted greatly by being submitted to some hardcore critiques prior to publication. The plot-holes alone make me suspect that Robinson is running a one-man show. Every writer needs his advisers.

Overall, this is a story that attempts to be great and succeeds in being good. It’s clear that the author is working to the best of his ability and aiming for the top, which is something I can respect. And I hope that Jeremy Robinson continues to hone his craft with future novels. It struck me that fans of Jules Verne in particular may appreciate this novel.

Survival Op: The Fear in the Wilderness by Scott Allen

Author Scott Allen asked me to review his book and even went to the trouble of mailing it to me from the USA at his own expense. I usually say no to review requests, but the cover art and theme of the story appealed to me. My confidence that I was in for a good read was further bolstered by the many positive reviews of the book I found online and by the fact that Allen is an English teacher. Sadly, the novel didn’t live up to expectations. My problems with it began in the very first sentence:

It was the same type of dark, dreary night as when I was delivered here in this dreadful prison of the wilderness.

For authors, the opening line is your crucial moment to hook a reader’s attention. The last thing you want to do is blow it on a comment about the weather. In fact, starting a book with a line about the weather is generally regarded as a cardinal sin of writing fiction. However, I could forgive it here, if not for the dreadful grammatical error that made me read the sentence several times, to make sure I understood it before I moved on. It should read “I was delivered here to this dreadful prison,” not “in this dreadful prison.” To say that you were delivered in a wilderness really means that someone gave birth to you there!

Unfortunately, this grammatical misstep was not an exception, but the shape of things to come. However, I thought, “Okay, the book is far from polished, but let’s ignore that fact and hope the story is good.”

The protagonist is Marcus, a homeless thirteen-year-old boy who is kidnapped by a criminal organisation called Survival Op. Marcus is part of a scientific experiment to enchance the human body’s survival ability. As part of the research, the organisation implants a microchip in Marcus designed to monitor the chemical changes in the body during stress. Then they release him onto an island wilderness and begin to hunt him. Marcus is soon joined by a girl called Lynn, and together they learn to survive.

That all sounds okay as the basis for a story. But big problems arise in its execution. For instance, Marcus and Lynn start a fire just inside the entrance to a cave in order to burn out all the snakes that live there so that they can make it their home. The plans works. However, a couple of chapters later, the duo enters the cave, only to discover an S-bend leading to an expansive cavern at the back of which are several holes. So why didn’t the snakes simply move further into the cave? Okay, it could be argued they died from oxygen depletion, that is, until our heroes decide to build a fire at the back of the cave, under one of the holes. Lo and behold, the smoke escapes up this convenient air-hole (or should that be plot-hole?).

Marcus and Lynn’s relationship isn’t believable. One minute they’ll be sharing a joke, and the next minute Marcus is inexplicably angry. Furthermore, the dialogue is written as if two robots are communicating:

“I cannot believe they would die to rescue us,” Lynn said as she leaned her head back on the cave wall. “Who would die for someone they do not even know?”

“Ms. Wayne told me that it does not matter how special or awesome something is that a person does, it is the reason why that person does that thing,” I said.

The author sometimes uses inappropriate words. Marcus constantly calls Lynn “punk” (a term I’ve only ever heard referring to males). Fish swimming through the water are referred to as “figures” (a term I’ve only ever heard reffering to humans).

The story meanders through fairly predictable territory. The main surprises were those of incredulity. The reader is literally slapped across the face with Marcus’s instant transformation from ordinary boy into experienced survivalist and killing machine. He does survival tricks that no young teenager would know, instantly knows how to handle captured weapons, kills without mercy or conscience.

On a descriptive level, one of the most disappointing moments was when Marcus finally comes face-to-face with a fearsome beast that has been skulking in the wilderness. It is described as ten-feet-tall, black, with bright yellow eyes. That’s all the reader is given. We never know whether it’s hairy, scaly, whether it moves on two legs or four.

As a result of this review experience, I’ve actually changed my submission guidelines on the blog. I read for pleasure, and I would rather avoid having to read bad books altogether. But right now, my personal commitment to review everything I consume compels me to write this painful one.

Survival Op is just another title in a sea of poorly conceived, sloppily written, non-edited, novels that gives self-publishing a bad name. Sorry, Scott, I wanted it to be different, but I have to tell it like it is.

Forever Odd by Dean Koontz

Forever Odd is the second in a series of novels centred around the character Odd Thomas, a young man with the ability to see what he calls “the lingering dead” – spirits of dead people who, for one reason or another, have unfinished business before moving on. It’s far from an original notion, of course, but that didn’t stop me devouring the first and second novels quickly, and anticipating the third.

I’m probably repeating what I said in my review of the first book, but Forever Odd is a great read because of its titular character, a sensitive, eccentric, deep thinking young man, dealing with a supernatural gift that has the habit of doubling as a curse.

Forever Odd begins several months after the traumatic climax of the first novel. We see Odd voluntarily unemployed, living alone in an apartment, trying to put the pieces of his psyche back together. Suddenly he is visited by a new ghost, the father of one of his friends – a man who should be vey much alive. Odd quickly visits the man’s house, only to discover that his friend has been kidnapped, and his friend’s father murdered. And so, Odd sets off in hot pursuit, his gift giving him an edge over anything the police might do.

In one sense, the novel is typical formulaic Koontz, and just when I’m inclined to view the author as a bit of a hack, he goes and surprises me with a nugget of wisdom among the pages, elevating the book to more than just the literary equivalent of a dumb action movie. Koontz, in his podcast, said the novel is about “the redemptive nature of unearned suffering.” That’s a tad pretentious, but credit where credit’s due: Koontz does inject a few good insights about life into the prose.

All things considered, the Forever Odd makes a pretty good thriller, and it has a tendency to surprise the reader (as did the first novel).

A worthy sequel. Looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into Brother Odd sometime. And I’ve heard Koontz is intending to write yet more Odd Thomas books.

Stone Cold by Robert Swindells

Every once in a while – not very often – you read a book that changes the way you think. And this is one of those.

The tale is told from two distinct first-person perspectives – two diaries read concurrently, the perspective shifting with each chapter division. It works remarkably well, because the characters are far from ordinary people. The first is a homeless teenager, compelled to leave home because of an abusive step-father, now living rough on the streets of London. The second is a serial killer, prowling the streets of London on a mission to rid the city of “dossers,” as he calls them. It’s clear from the outset that the two are destined to cross paths, and the suspense is maintained throughout the novel.

This is no fairy tale. It’s a grim depiction of homelessness, and a sharp criticism of our apathy towards it. Swindells does not gloss over the subject. He makes it clear that everything is not OK with the world, and we need to wake up.

This is a short novel, only a hundred pages. It is marketed as a children’s book, and I admire Swindells for daring to open kids’ eyes like this instead of pulling the wool over them, like so many writers. And if you’re an adult, I can only urge you not to skip this one because of the packaging. This novel won’t make you feel good, but it will change you.

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Allan Quatermain, an adventurer of some notoriety, is approached by Sir Henry Curtis, who proposes a mission to rescue the latter’s brother, lost on an expedition to find King Solomon’s diamond mines. Together with a third man, Captain Good, they begin their journey across Africa. Along the way they pick up a brave Zulu called Umbopa, who accompanies them on the final stage of the quest – across a perilous desert from which no one has ever returned. On on the other side they encounter the land of the Kukuanas, led by evil king Twala. The people of this hidden land regard the strange visitors as “white men from the stars.” Twala’s actions soon put the adventurers right in the middle of a bloody war.

I found this novel difficult to read. The content of the adventure wasn’t very exciting by today’s standards, and some of the sections were long and drawn out – in particular the Kukuanaland war and a pointless early chapter about an elephant hunt. (I couldn’t help questioning the morality of the hero of the story, as he gunned down a herd of elephants without conscience, for no other reason than to profit from their ivory tusks. Different times, I guess.) Still, it’s hard to argue with a novel that’s been turned into a couple of films, and which is probably the chief inspiration behind the Indiana Jones films.

There is one brief moment of humour about halfway through the book that made me laugh as hard as I’ve ever laughed at written words (a rare thing!), where Good tries a few tricks to prove that he’s “from the stars”; I won’t spoil them for you. I had hoped that this comical trend would continue for the remainer of the story, but sadly it was the exception rather than the rule.

I always hate to speak ill of a classic, but I can only tell it like I see it. The story was too simple and it failed to hold my attention. Hence, it took me about half a year to read it through. There are better adventures out there to invest time in.

On the Edge by Gillian Cross

A teenage boy, Liam Shakespeare, is kidnapped by terrorists and held to ransom in his own house in London. Far away in Derbyshire, a girl called Jinny stumbles across strangers (two adults and a boy), arriving at a cottage in the middle of the night. Are they merely tourists, or something more sinister? And is Liam Shakespeare really being held in London, as it says on the news, or is he in fact the boy in the cottage?

This kidnapping story is made particularly interesting by the fact that it’s not merely about a couple of crooks wanting to make money. Gillian Cross invents a terrorist organisation called the Free People, which is intent on the abolishing of the family unit as a way of life. That might seem like laughable goal, but Cross expounds the views of the organisation in detail, and the Free People become all too realistic.

The book is not without its faults. Liam Shakespeare, who is cooped up in a room for much of the story, starts to lose his sense of identity, as he is fed a load of lies by his kidnappers. That’s all well and good, but the fact that it only takes a few days for the boy’s mind to play tricks on him seems a little forced. By the end of the story, the identity crisis is taken to a pretentious extreme; the author gets a little philosophical, but I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to say. The words looked good on paper, but felt empty, and made for an unsatisfying ending.

On a brghter note, the characters are great – especially the bad guys, who are by no means stereotypical villians, but damaged people with real problems and believable motives.

Overall, quite enjoyable – an average thriller.