Thursday, June 04, 2009

Book Review: "The Strain"

A caveat: this review was written "unemployed nerd-style" which means basically I stood in a Barnes and Noble and read the first 20 pages to see if it was something I'd read if I had money to buy a new book. That's how I'm rolling these days, and I anticipate it's a style The New York Review of Books will be picking up shortly as well.

Boy, was I shocked to discovered that "The Strain," the first novel by "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro and not the first novel by his co-author Chuck Hogan, was not at all about a terrible hamstring pull but instead about vampires! As you know, I'm all about the vampires these days what with watching glittery David Bowie a not-at-all disco Robert Pattinson pitch undead woo to Kristen Stewart in "Twilight" yesterday. So I was pleased as punch to learn I'd be reading about bloodsuckers in "The Strain."

In my 20 pages, I was able to read a very intriguing prologue and one full chapter. The thing pulls you in from paragraph one, starting off with a sort of fairytale told by a grandmother to her soup-guzzling grandson. It's pre-World War II Eastern Europe and the grandmother is telling the boy a story about a gentle giant who loved children but who was turned into a crazy, not-so-gentle giant who loved to maybe eat children after a bad episode in the woods with some wolves. And then, sadly, we later see the child all grown up running from the Nazis with his grandmother. And then more bad stuff happens and I'm assuming we'll see this young man again later in the story.

Then we flash forward to present-day New York when a plane lands and immediately goes dark on the runway. Cue up all sorts of airport staff frantically trying to figure out what happened inside the plane. They approach it and get ready to open its doors and I'm standing there thinking, no, don't open the doors. Just run! It's vampires! The only character who even remotely listened to me was the nervous nelly luggage cart driver who thinks to herself, "Something's going to eat me in there." Exactly. So run!

And that was 20 pages...

My ham-fisted descriptions do not do justice to the genuinely eerie vibe that del Toro and Hogan inject into this story. I was getting nervous just standing there in a crowded B&N. I'd be huddled under the blankets already if I'd cracked this thing open on a dark and stormy night. "The Strain" is not great literature, but it is a great read -- a perfect summer confection to be enjoyed and consumed in one or two sittings.

You can definitely see del Toro's movie-maker tendencies in this book. Everything is choppy and filled with prose jump-cuts from scene to scene. It works well as a fictional devise, though, building a nice bit of tension and unease. I would have kept turning pages if I'd had more time and if the girl behind the counter would have stopped looking at me like I was going to stuff the book down my pants and run. I only steal hearts, lady, not hardcovers!

Overall grade for first 20 pages: A-
Would I buy this book if I were employed? Yes


Shan said...

I highly endorse your new book review technique, and think all major literary publications should immediately switch to the "unemployed nerd-style" evaluations. That's a ringing endorsement in my book.

Tace said...

You crack me up. :)

Heto said...

Thanks to your review, I bought this book for my upcoming vacation. I am having a total vampire/zombie bookfest (The Strain, the first two Sookie Stackhouse books, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!) while I'll be on the beach in Mexico. If you've got any recs for a great werewolf or alien book, please pass it along! :)

Wanda said...

This is the second time I have heard of this book in the last couple of days. Someone is live-blogging the book at NPR's Monkey See blog today: (

Anonymous said...

Perfect review. I just finished this thing in under two days - and managed to lead a somewhat normal life all whilst reading those 585 pages. Cinematic, definitely. After the first five or so chapters I forgot that I was reading something that GDT had his hands in and just tore through it. Good monster read with a dash of "modern" science rhetoric.

Now I am waiting the long wait for book #2.