Alice in Zombieland, Gena Showalter

I know we’re only two days away from a three-day long weekend, but the last week has been a real slog of post vacation blues. Usually this is a condition I suffer, at most, a day or so, but I have not been able to let go this time. I crave more sun! More family time! More hours to lazily read zombie novels while the waves crash at my feet!

Yes, while on vacation, I finished the two books I’d brought (unheard of!) and ended up downloading one at random from my Amazon wish list. As is the case with many of the titles collected there, I couldn’t remember where I had tagged it from or what it was about; all that mattered was that it looked like just the right level of popcorn fiction for the occasion at hand. Judging by the quick three-day turn around (read exclusively on beaches or while waiting for my turn to scrub sunscreen-cemented sand off), it was the right choice.

Now, this is not one of those books I’d blithely recommend to just anyone. First of all, it has a teen romance element I was neither expecting nor particularly enamored with. Secondly, it’s about zombies. Now, personally, I love a good zombie book. While I often find television and movie depictions of the genre too intense, I find the right novel, laced with a healthy dose of humor, to be intriguing. (For example, I’m more of a Shaun of the Dead fan than The Walking Dead.)

It’s not an area of fiction where I’ve generally found much traction. While vampires, werewolves, and otherworldly spirits have long dominated the shelves, zombies seem to continuously slip by on the reader popularity scale. I think I’ve only reviewed one other even remotely similar title here, and that was a few years back now. I’m certain some of you are genre aficionados and will be able to point me toward some great titles, but it still stands that as far as monster fiction goes, the pickings are rather slim.

It was with great joy, then, that I discovered Alice. Although the character is flawed in some very realistic adolescent ways, the writing was never less than compelling. The pacing was perfect for such a story, and even when I rolled my eyes at descriptions of muscle-bound teenage delinquent zombie hunters, I was also completely hooked. The kids Showalter was describing – burn outs and troublemakers and victims of great tragedies – did seem like the perfect army to fight the undead. They had that ideal combination of ridiculous unflagging energy and young bones that could take brutal beatings and realistically recover in a few days or weeks.

The end result was a guilty pleasure that practically had “vacation reading” stamped on the cover. I didn’t even have to break a sweat to finish this before we flew home, and it was the perfect companion to that brief bit of summer I glimpsed during this interminable winter.

 

For more about Gena Showalter and the White Rabbit Chronicles, head here.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown, Paulo Bacigalupi

Happy Halloween everyone! And by “everyone,” I mean those of you who celebrate Halloween. For the rest of you, Happy Thursday! It’s almost the weekend, and my brother’s birthday is tomorrow…and oh yeah, National Novel Writing Month kicks off. Tomorrow. Huh. That came up quickly. Thank goodness today is Halloween so I can drown my problems in bite sized candy bars! (Tomorrow I’ll be doing the same thing, but all the candy will be marked down eighty percent, so that will be something special.)

I’m actually not big into Halloween. I’ve never liked costumes, and I hate being scared, so the only thing this day has going for it is the candy. Don’t get me wrong – I do really enjoy free candy, but even that’s less exciting as an adult. I can go buy candy whenever I want, and I don’t have to wear a wig or a hula skirt or whatever to get it. As a child, I always just latched onto the biggest group of trick-or-treaters I could find so I could hide in the back and score treats on their enthusiasm. (That’s a pro-tip right there, so if you have a child who loves candy but finds it difficult to break the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, I highly recommend this method.) Even though I don’t get particularly excited about October 31, I did want to give you all a fantastic quasi-horror story to enjoy when you come down off that sugar rush, and thankfully for all of us, Bacigalupi delivers in spades.

I’ve actually owned his first novel, The Windup Girl for quite a while but have never gotten around to it. When I read his Big Idea post on Whatever about his foray into middle grade fiction while I was traveling in September, I decided not to wait around. Sure, other people were giving him crap about branching out to try something new, but I wasn’t tied to his other books. I had no reason not to like this novel, and, as it turns out, about a dozen reasons to find it utterly delightful.

I highly recommend you scroll up and click on the link to his Big Idea post because I actually think Bacigalupi can sell this book to you better than I can. I’m so worried about spoiling it (and I really don’t want to spoil it for you) that I keep writing and deleting a list of the things I love about it. I can’t decide what information you should have to convince you to run right out and buy a copy (or twenty, if you happen to teach fourth through seventh grade – and yes, I do think it would appeal to that wide a range of readers, not to mention adults, who would be crazy not to enjoy Bacigalupi’s approach to the zombie apocalypse), so I’m going to share the one paragraph from his post that sold this book to me:

Ultimately, it turns out that whether I’m writing novels for adults or for middle school zombie enthusiasts, my themes and agendas still sneak into my stories. It was probably inevitable that my zombie apocalypse would come oozing out of the local meatpacking plant, with its overuse of antibiotics and strange feed supplements and questionable government oversight. And of course, once you’re writing about industrial meat, you can’t help but write about the workers who are often exploited by the meatpacking industry. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, a story about bashing zombies with baseball bats becomes a story about food safety and corporate greed, immigration policy and race in America. (excerpted from The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi at whatever.scalzi.com)

I mean, come on – it has something for everyone! Kids, baseball lovers (and baseball haters, incidentally), zombie fans, vegetarians, political junkies…and I’m actually none of these (well, I do love the Rockies, but I’d never read a book about baseball by choice, so that hardly counts), and I still thought this book was freaking fantastic. I’m already hounding my library to get more copies because it’s just that good. Seriously. It grossed me out, and I teared up on at least three separate occasions, but mostly, I laughed and cheered and generally felt a sense of awesome that can’t be denied.

But, you know, I’m not going to twist your arm. If you’re not into it, that’s…cool. I still have this bowl of candy to help see me through the dark times, and when I come out on the other side of…well, today, it will be November. I’ll be trying to write three thousand words a day. I won’t have time for your rejection of zombies, people! Nope. I won’t have time for anything but pretending you love what I love, so you may as well just give in and love this book now.

 

For more about Paulo Bacigalupi, head over here.

Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Commonplace Books)

Every once in a while, I come across a story being told in an unconventional way and I inadvertently fall in love with it. A few months ago, it was The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. At the moment, “fresh” off a twelve-hour flight, it’s this podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. And yes, I realize I live in a shuttered world where the concept of storytelling via podcasts is novel to me. I’m guessing everybody else has been listening to them since around 200…6? Maybe? I honestly have no idea when podcasts really took off. Was it related to smart phones? Could I look all this up? Probably! But jet lag! So no. I’m just going to assume I’m a minimum of eight years behind the curve on anything that has to do with the internet.

So, podcasts! Yes! I love them, especially since I can’t read on planes, trains, or in automobiles (motion sickness is the devil), and I have begun to get migraines from trying to watch movies on the little television stuck into the seat in front of me. The angle is just wrong and it causes neck strain because I have an abnormally long torso…but I digress. I get bored listening to music after about three hours, and even factoring in napping and boredom snacking, that still leaves about five or six hours I have to fill when traveling this far.

I’ve recently been coming around to audiobooks to try to fill this need, but they’re expensive to buy and nearly impossible to download from the library onto a Mac. (I don’t know why that is, and maybe I’m doing it wrong, but it sends me into a tailspin of rage whenever I try it, so…) Welcome to Night Vale, on the other hand, is free and downloads easily onto my phone for hours of stress-free listening pleasure.  Those two factors alone sold it to me pretty hard, I have to admit, but fortunately, in addition, the content, designed as twice monthly radio broadcasts from a small desert town with dark roots and frequent paranormal happenings, is also delightful.

Readers who have been following me awhile know that I adore humor – dark, silly, vengeful, romantic – I crave it all on a regular basis. In fact, I can forgive a whole boatload of issues with a story or writer if the content has made me laugh. I can even squint my eyes at a podcast and call it enough of a book to review here if it has entertained me thusly. What can I say? I have literary scruples that are very easily bested by a case of the giggles.

Welcome to Night Vale  was the perfect brain candy for this flight. It kept my spirits up over the incredibly long hours, it split into twenty-minute segments so I could doze and listen as fitfully as a I pleased, and it made me into that person who snort-laughs into complete silence (which, if I’m really being honest, I love to do). Is it a book? No. Is it damn fine story-telling, available free of charge to anyone with access to the internet and a pair of headphones? Yes.

I call that a win.

Lost in Clover, Travis Richardson

I don’t often review books by people I know personally. It might be because I’m one of those writers who doesn’t have a lot of friends who are writers, or it might be because it’s challenging to review the book of someone whose wedding I’m going to in a few weeks. If I were a famous writer with a gaggle of famous writer friends, this probably wouldn’t be an issue, but, like me, most of my friends who are writers are struggling to break into the field and make a name for themselves. We don’t read each other’s work all that much, and when we do, it’s with a healthy dose of ego interfering.

This is not an issue limited to the field of writing either. I struggle when eating other people’s cakes, or lifting at the gym, or playing Bananagrams. It’s a streak of competitiveness that spikes in direct relation to how talented I consider myself to be at a given task. I’m not even going to give you the opportunity to pretend this doesn’t happen to you. It does. In some area of your life, you feel superior to others, and it can make it more difficult to accept that the talents of other do not necessarily impact you.

Of course, sometimes they do. There can be only one valedictorian in a class, and there are only a handful of spots on any given team. Publishers only take a tiny percentage of the manuscripts written every year, and call backs cull hundreds of hopefuls in the process of looking for the right person to fill a single part. Competition is part of life every single day, in just about every single job, and it has been this way since the beginning of life on this planet. Animals and plants compete in order to survive, and unfortunately, in some places in the world, the competition for food, clean water, and access to things like basic health care and an education is still fierce. And trust me, when I start to think about it like that, it seems silly to worry whether the book written and published by a friend kept me from success in the same field.

For the record, it didn’t. Travis and I actually have remarkably similar styles, and the manner in which Lost in Clover got published (he originally submitted the piece as a short story for an anthology; it was rejected for the intended project; then the editor contacted him and asked if he would be willing to turn it into a novella instead) is not completely unfamiliar to me. Honestly, he should be My Nemesis, but he isn’t. Instead, I’m just happy that someone read his short story and was smart enough to tell him to keep working on it because I can’t imagine this book as less than what it is.

I’m sure it wasn’t easy to take a piece that he had completely imagined as one thing – a single compact moment in time – and turn it into another that covers eight years of a young man’s life. I’ve tried to convert my own flash fiction into longer stories before, with varying degrees of success, but I’ve never attempted what Travis has in this book. He manages to take one horrific day in this boy’s life and then, instead of pumping the story full of unbelievable action, he explores the path that unfolds when a character’s decision to do nothing becomes the choice that defines the rest of his life.

I was moved by this story because it taps into how most of us live. Maybe we can think back on a few opportunities in life when we weighed the pros and cons, made a decision, then acted on it. Most of the time though, it takes a lot less energy to choose not to choose, doesn’t it? It’s so much easier to keep our mouths shut and our heads down, and if we miss something great by doing that, well hey! At least we didn’t open ourselves up to failure, right?

There are times when it makes sense to just keep on keeping on, but we use an awful lot of excuses to protect ourselves from the uncertainty of choice. The problem with that, as Jeremy Rogers discovers in this book, is that doing or saying nothing is still something. There is no “nothing. ” There are only somethings that we either choose to control…or not.

 

For more about Travis Richardson, head over here.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

A week or two ago, I was talking with my neighbor and she mentioned that she had finally gotten around to starting one of Neil Gaiman’s books. Which one, I demanded to know. She thought about it for a minute and then replied, the one with the door. Ahh, Neverwhere. The second book of his I ever read. I immediately besieged her with questions about how she was enjoying it, and offered recommendations for her next selection, and when her sons demanded our attentions again, and she seemed quite grateful to be out of my Gaiman-obsessed firing range.

I don’t blame her. I suspect it’s the same feeling my mother got last week when we went to the second run theatre to watch The Rise of the Guardians for three dollars apiece, and I kept leaning over to confirm that I thought for sure the Boogie Man was drawn from a photograph of Gaiman. Look at the hair, I whispered. And the terrifying, yet strangely mesmerizing grin. It’s as though he has a story – one I would probably follow him into frightening territory to hear. I could practically hear her eyes rolling, so I’m quite glad I didn’t mention how I silently squealed over the movie having a character called The Sandman…

So yes, I admit it. I can be a bit overwhelming when it comes to all things Gaiman. And I have no problem rereading his novels over and over again. When I pulled this one off the shelf, I also remembered that it’s just two more weeks until what promises to be an incredible radio adaptation premieres (cast list and details here), and I got all amped up again. There might have been fist pumping…

When I searched for that link, I also came across an interesting detail about the book which I had never known; the novel was actually a companion piece for the television series created by Gaiman and Lenny Henry in 1996. The plots are the same, but the novel is a much richer expression of the story, in my opinion at least. I’ve seen the series two or three times though, so obviously, I don’t hate it – I just prefer the book. I am looking forward to seeing it transformed, yet again, into a new format with a cast of brilliant British actors (I’m actually nervous about just how good – and by “good,” I mean “terrifying” – the cast is said to be). It fits into what is becoming something of a theme for me this year – the translation of fiction.

I haven’t been intentionally seeking out these projects, but sometimes, even when we aren’t looking for a thing, it manages to find us anyway because, well, we need it to – it is simply time for us to find it, or for it to find us so that we can face it or deal with it or vanquish it. This is one of the major ideas at play in Neverwhere, and I believe it’s true for us as readers and creators (and humans) as well. Right now, I’m working on a project that ties in classic texts with modern sensibilities, and even though I haven’t intended to explore other people’s expressions of this idea, it seems to happen anyway. All of a sudden, everywhere I turn, it’s all I can see. Neverwhere is a book I’ve loved for over a decade for its lovely story, compelling villains, and fumbling (yet completely lovable) hero, and inexplicably now, when I come to review it, I can’t help but see what a grand life it has outside of its spine. It gives me a new kind of chills…

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go here (you can join me in obsessing over his new book, due out in a few months), to twitter, or tumblr.

Harper Connelly Mysteries (Books 1-4), Charlaine Harris

Although I won’t post this until Monday morning in deference to the schedule I like to adhere to, I’m writing it on Friday. It’s important that I mention that in this instance because although I finished the fourth one of these books last night and had already been considering what to write about, when I woke up at 5 this morning (thank you east coast jet lag), the very first thing I heard about when I checked the internet was the shooting in Colorado.  As of now, twelve people are dead and at least fifty have been treated for related injuries. The alleged shooter is in custody, and although I’m sure more details will leak out before this review goes up, I felt I have to look at in relation to this particular series of books.

Last night before bed, I performed a relaxation ritual that I often use when I’ve read or watched something that provokes a lot of anxiety when I try to fall asleep. This series of mysteries by Harris focuses on crimes against children, and I was especially struggling with some of the images invoked.  I lay and thought about the really horrible things that are going on right now all over the world (when I’m doing this exercise, I intentionally don’t censor myself – the point is to get all the ideas hiding at the corners of my mind out into the open), and after a few minutes, I forced myself to stop and consider all the wonderful people out there who are trying to counteract the horrors I had imagined. Finally, I reminded myself that it’s a balancing act, and the world will always have its share of light and darkness.

It worked well. I fell asleep quickly and I didn’t have any of the hyper-vivid nightmares that I usually do. Unfortunately, when I woke up, the balance had been tipped. I found myself remembering Columbine and the months afterward when school shootings were on the rise. I was a junior in high school then, and I still remember how afraid I was when I understood that people I considered my peers could be capable of such unexpected violence.

I was so angry then, and I am now, that the system fails as often as it does – that so many deeply troubled people fall through the cracks – and that the result is horrific violence. And I was amazed by how much thinking about that tied into my experience over the last week reading these books about a young woman who can find the dead. Harris creates a character who is likable, but deeply damaged,a woman who makes her living experiencing the last moments of the deceased, and who has to remove herself in large part from the outside world in order to remain sane.

Harper Connelly really isn’t the most pleasant character I’ve ever read, but I found myself drawn to her because for all her faults, she’s honest. Although she is far outside the normal flow of humanity, she manages to tether herself to the fringes by holding onto a certain bluntness, and a balanced view of what other people are capable of. She witnesses the worst last moments of any corpse she comes across (and if she’s to be believed, the dead are everywhere), yet she continues to work, to build relationships, and to hope that the law enforcement and victims’ families and clients who employ her will do their best to listen to voices of the dead and learn from them.

I could imagine that seeing the last few moments of a person’s death would be difficult, to say the least, but Harper handles it with only the idea that the dead want to be found, and heard, to comfort her. She doesn’t see who kills them. She can’t help them. She has no superpower beyond her own brain when it comes to solving a case. Most importantly, she has more reason than most to be filled with hatred and disgust toward humanity, but instead, she’s pragmatic about the terrible stories she discovers in many graves. It’s the balance she exhibits that draws me to her. In the face of tragedy, she moves mourning aside to make room for problem solving. She sees justice – true justice, not revenge or vigilante recklessness – as the best gift she can give to any of the bodies she finds.

As I struggle to make sense out of what happened this morning, I have to make myself remember that sense of equilibrium. I try to believe that one event doesn’t misalign the entire universe (although I have no doubt of the damage it has done to those involved), and that while I can’t stop the awful things happening around the world, I do have control over what I do in response. It serves as a reminder that I need to hold myself responsible for the way I behave toward others, that I need to practice compassion until I’m exhausted and then keep practicing it still, that I need to be thankful for all the people in Aurora who will reach out after this to help the families affected. I even have to remember the young man who caused all this pain and hope that this incident will encourage people to be more aware of how others around them might be struggling. Our attention and empathy are the first line of defense against situations like this one happening again.

As Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

For more information about Charlaine Harris, go here.

The Maze Runner, James Dashner

Just as there are authors who enjoy having written and others who enjoy writing, there are books you enjoy reading and others you enjoy having read.
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his book The Bed Of Procrustes

About a week and a half ago, I was browsing the blog of one of my commenters and I happened upon this quote by an author I hadn’t heard of from a book I’d never read that perfectly summed up how I feel about The Maze Runner. I would say, in fact, that I feel this way about maybe a quarter of the books I read and review. These books fall into a category outside of “books I really love” and “books that are completely forgettable.” They live in the “enjoyed having read” section of my mental library usually reserved for books that are educational (interesting, but dry), political (necessary, but soul-crushing), or horror (haunting, scarring, nightmare-inducing).

You see, I’m that person who never wants to see slasher flicks but who convinces my friends to tell me the entire plot then tries to pretend that the description alone didn’t give me nightmares. I was the kid who was genuinely afraid of books written by R.L. Stine. I didn’t even like to touch the covers, yet I often found myself sitting on the floor of the library reading them; once I started one, it was inconceivable that I not finish (even though the ending was rarely a happy one). I even used to write screenplays in college with the most stomach-clenching scenes – in fact, I knew without a doubt that my class would like the new pages if I was afraid to go to sleep after I finished writing them.

What does it say about me that my imagination is so vivid/overactive/demented that I can create pages of material that frighten me literally as I’m typing it (amusingly, I just hit the caps lock by mistake, so the previous sentence originally read “literally AS I’M TYPING IT.” I think my computer can be a bit melodramatic at times). I’m sure some people would tell me it’s spectacular, and some would recommend I try anxiety-reducing medication, but my own personal preference leans toward avoidance. If I know a book or movie or play (that’s right, I’m looking at you Shear Madness and The Mouse Trap – my eight year old self still hasn’t forgiven you your casual approach to murder) is going to tweak me out, I simply don’t engage.

This technique works well about ninety percent of the time. I have a pretty good handle on what gets under my skin and what I’ve hardened myself to for the sake of a great book. When I picked up The Maze Runner a few weeks back I figured I was in the clear. Both the back cover and the first few chapters read like this book was the love child of Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games. It’s an extremely fast-paced novel, almost too quick for me, but once I got past the overwhelmingly masculine voice (this is a book about sixty teenage boys and one teenage girl – and she’s in a coma for the first two-thirds of the story – so the male voice is appropriate, if a little much at first), I was hooked.

Dashner might not be speaking from a place that I relate to, but he is one compelling story-teller. His book is unapologetically action-packed, and to be honest, it would translate wonderfully to another format (like film) because he doesn’t spend a lot of time delving into the emotional psychology of his characters. Normally that would be a no-go for me, but it works here.

His concept and plot are strong enough that they manage to convey believable emotional overtones without needing each boy to go on a tangent about how terrified/lonely/sad he is – of course they feel this way – they’re children, stuck in a creepy and frustrating horror story. I have an older brother who, from the time he was thirteen until he went away to college, spoke in a language consisting entirely of grunts. If he formed a coherent six word sentence, I paid attention because that meant something. Many of my closest friends in high school were also guys, and while they were more chatty and outgoing than my brother, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about feelings (well, I spent a lot of time talking about my feelings, and they spent a lot of time listening to me try to explain to them that girls they were interested in might do the same). Do men have feelings? Obviously. Do some men enjoy sharing these feelings? Probably. Have I met many of them? No. Most of what I understand about male emotions comes from context and action on their part, and that is exactly how Dashner has written this book.

It is from this believability, this understated approach to the teenage male voice that made the terrifying parts of the story bother me so much. With a novel like this one, floating in the sci-fi/YA nebula, I’m usually able to remove myself and enjoy the story for its fantastic premise. It’s certainly why I chose to read it (I’m a sucker for an alternate earth storyline). I just didn’t expect to feel that these boys had formed a community with each other, a rather astounding community in fact, and that what they had created should be protected. That each of them should be protected because, after all, they’re just ordinary, fart-joke making, awkward teenage boys – vulnerable, irritating, imperfect and lovable – being tested and callously disposed of by unseen adult hands.

And lest you think everything turns out alright in the end, there’s a sequel (wait – make that two…plus a prequel). That I’m afraid to read. But probably will.

For more on James Dashner and his work, go here.