Posts Tagged ‘Feed’

  Oh dear. 

I fear I’m going to be unpopular here because I’ve heard so much good about this book. People have raved about it. A friend, whose book recommendations I’ve often been steered well by, re-reads it. Monthly. 

So I apologise in advance. 

I found it to be… okay. 

It was standard zombie post-apocalyptic horror fare with a fairly interesting twist.  

Let’s look at the world building first … World building? World destruction? Whatever. It is set in the UK which makes a nice change from the almost ubiquitous American settings. This is, perhaps, not hugely surprising as M. R. Carey hails from Liverpool but the occasional  reference (like the one to David Attenborough) gives it, momentarily, a very British feel. The setting, however, quickly became fairly generic: generic Army base; generic devastated countryside; generic infected cities. 

But one of the pleasures of zombie novels, for me, is the imagined mechanics of it all. Mira Grant’s Feed books had a credible virus-origin; World War Z felt credible enough; Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a little convenient and vague. The infection here, however, is fungal rather than viral and rooted in real science: the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis  fungus apparently does infect and change the behaviours of ants which actually is genuinely amazing! And it must be true: it’s on Wikipedia here! It is one of those facts that does shift your perception of the natural world. These are fungi, pretty much the most basic organism in the world. Taking control of an insect. In the world of the novel, a mutated form of this fungus does the same in people, destroying the higher functions of the brain and exaggerating the hunger. 

So far, so good: a pretty solid creation. The twist comes in the form of the ten-year old protagonist Melanie: infected but somehow retaining her higher processes: language, memory, intelligence, which we are told repeatedly is at genius-level, emotion and empathy. We first meet her along with nearly two dozen other children, housed in a cell, strapped into a wheelchair and transported back and forth to have classes with a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Occasionally, children are removed by Doctor Caldwell to be dissected. As a reader, we catch on fairly quickly, and Melanie’s partial understanding and her almost wilful refusal to confront it is managed well enough. 

Although not first person, the point of view is generally Melanie’s and the language seems to match it with a simplicity and clarity and naivety which is pretty effective. But the voice doesn’t change when our point of view does which don’t seem terribly well managed. Equally clumsily done are the various infodumps about the infection: even Justineau asks Caldwell why she’s telling her how the infection began. 

In terms of structure and plot, it progresses in the only real way it could: the security of the base is compromised; a small band of survivors flee, heading for Beacon, some safe holdfast south of London. On the way, Carey tries to develop the back stories of his characters before the inevitable occurs. 

And that was where the novel faltered, for me. The characters never emerged from two-dimensionality: Parks was always the gruff but well-meaning Sargeant; Gallagher, always the immature innocent soldier caught up in a war he did not understand; Caldwell never became more than a female Dr Mengele; Justineau the compassionate. And they were so incredibly stupid! Heading for cities where the concentration of zombies was at its highest; approaching a zombie in the street. Even Melanie, who was the most intriguing of them all, didn’t really engage me. I’d seen it done before in Cronin’s The Passage and between Melanie and Amy Harper Bellafonte, there is no contest.

I mean, don’t get me wrong… This is not a bad book; it’s a decent read and a good example of the genre; it’s not lyrical or beautiful in its language but it is well written and well paced. It’s a decent book. I just don’t get the huge praise I’ve heard about it. 

Maybe it’s me. 

Maybe I’m missing something. 

Related

Advertisements

20140208-102939.jpg

I’m not going to write much about this book: it doesn’t really warrant it!

This is the third in Mira Grant’s post-zombie-apocalypse political thriller Feed trilogy – so I have that glow of satisfaction of completion having read it – but it is a trilogy that should never have been. The first book, Feed was, I thought, actually pretty good up to and including the death of the main character and narrator. Book two, Deadline lost the plot, both literally and metaphorically: without the direction that Feed had because it was following a presidential campaign, Deadline seemed to lurch from one disaster to another with no real momentum; and the change of narrator from Georgia to Shaun Mason did not work. Primarily the change of narrator did not work because Shaun became unstable, violent and heard the voice of his dead sister. All of that I could have accepted. Except that Grant kept telling me that Shaun was crazy. Over and over. And over. It became dull. Slightly offensive to anyone who has struggled with bereavement. And never really engaged with as a narrative device. There is a wealth of unreliable narrators in fiction – a rich vein of interesting perspectives to delve into – all of which were eschewed just to expound the fact that Shaun was “crazy”. A waste of a narrative opportunity.

And all these problems from Deadline continue into Blackout with less zombie action – which is not a bad thing – and a really disappointing return of the dead Georgia. As a clone. Cheap sci-fi resurrection device number one. Not just a clone which I could have accepted but a clone which contains all of the original Georgia’s memories.

Plot holes abound: the CDC created the clones in order to look like but not act like the original Georgia – who was critical of the CDC and whose brother had broken into the CDC on numerous occasions. So why put 97% of her memories and personality into place at all when they weren’t going to use her anyway? The programme was created by one of Georgia’s colleagues, Rick, who is now Vice-President because she would be believed when she exposed the conspiracy. Is the US public pre-disposed to believe dead people? Even in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world? Would not any other journalist be believed – such as any member of the entire After The End Times team, trained by Georgia? Resurrecting a dead woman at a cost of billions – not to mention the ethical implications – was easier than speaking to her replacement? Or her brother?

And the final denouement? More clones were exposed; hostages were released off-screen in the space of two pages which really begged the question Why didn’t you do that a year ago, you morons?.

Rushed, unsuccessfully plotted; two-dimensional and unconvincing characters; pedestrian prose.

No, this was not a great book. Nor even, really, a good read.

Sorry, Mira, I wanted to like it but I didn’t.

And what happened to my zombie bear? I mean, I’m not a great fan of gore and violence but popcorn books need fun and some action and a standout sequence. Don’t give up your opportunities to show the sheer fun of a story. You showed us a zombie bear on the road and then did not show the confrontation with it! You even tell the reader later how cool it was without ever showing it being cool! This moment has all the hallmarks of a great action moment which either Grant or her editors excised.

But it was still on the blurb of the book!

20140208-114122.jpg

In education, there is a chap by the name of Dylan Wiliam who espouses the theory that one shouldn’t give grades out. Children look at their grade and either think “yeah, that’s good enough” or they think “I’m a failure and there’s no point in trying”. Dylan Wiliam tells us that we should just give advice with no grade attached.

Perhaps that’s why I tend not to give star ratings on my reviews.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a star rating might be useful. Having read Deadline immediately on top of finishing Feed, a nice clear and visual indication that I didn’t like this one as much as the first could be useful.

20130718-103703.jpg

Okay, so this is book two of the Newsflesh trilogy in a post-zombie apocalypse world. The dead rose. The living shot them. Our heroes are the same team of intrepid bloggers that we followed in Feed. Link here to my review of that one.

Well, almost the same team.

Well 33.3% of them. No spoiler alert here. I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’ll have read Feed already. Georgia Mason, our first person narrator, and Buffy the tech-geek died in book one. I applaud that. It’s a brave move and unexpected – rule one of a first person narrative is almost that your narrator has to live! Georgia’s final blog post in Feed, as the Kellis-Amberlee zombie virus took over her body and her brother Shaun held a gun to her spine, was effective and moving.

But it left Grant with a problem. Shaun Mason, Georgia’s adopted brother and an adrenaline junkie Irwin and, to be honest, a bit of a prat, took over the team and narration.

And he really wasn’t up to the job.

Various beta-characters that had been mentioned in Feed re-appear in Deadline as the new team. But the team was pointless. Georgia had been driven, the political campaign in Feed had given direction. Shaun’s team appeared to drift somewhat aimlessly from one disaster to another. But maybe that was the point, to emphasise the enormity of the loss.

And he hears voices in his head.

Well, one voice. Georgia’s.

He is self-diagnosed as ‘crazy’ and repeatedly referencing the fact that he talks to her and how others reacted to it became… tiresome. And continually threatening to punch people or walls was… tedious.

The plot – which I had praised in Feed – has become razor thin. A minor doctor from the CDC who we’d met briefly in Feed arrives at Shaun’s home / office with sensitive information. People with a form of the zombie virus which affected only a certain organ, such as the eyes, were dying more frequently than people without these so-called reservoir conditions.

Almost immediately, zombies appear on the roof of the building and an air strike wipes out that section of the city. Obviously, our heroes escape and re-group at the fortified home of one of their fiction writers – because all writers of doggerel and aficionados of George Romero zombie movies are also the heir to mega-fortunes.

Various road trips ensue. To an underground zombie virus laboratory. To the increasingly shady CDC. Twice.

More clunky plot devices are rammed at us.

More statistics are uncovered remarkably easily.

Zombies are used as weapons to try to thwart our increasingly unplucky and occasionally downright annoying heroes.

An awkward love moment happens for no real reason whatsoever.

The strength of Feed‘s drive and shape is lost here, although it remains a fairly taut conspiracy thriller. The credibility of the world created by Grant does wear a little thin here. The blogosphere becomes nothing more than background noise: under Shaun’s narration, it is little more than a revenge novel. Shaun’s time on the successful presidential campaign and the fact that his friend has become vice-president was sidelined. The fact that there may be organisations that would seek to benefit from a zombie-based opportunity and the fears it engendered I get… but I’m not so sure that releasing zombies into city blocks in order to level the area to kill a renegade scientist and a couple of journalists seems a rather blunt and ineffectual assassination technique.

I’d also have liked more on the statistics and more on the epidemiology. Another weakness in Shaun’s narration was that he didn’t understand the science and we were reliant on rather artificial and clunky dialogue to explain it. Which was a shame: Grant seems to have put a lot of effort into devising a credible viral pathway to zombiehood … and I’d have liked more.

And more on the evidence that was found that showed the extent of the corruption and manipulation of the reservoir conditions.

For a book revolving around bloggers and containing excerpts from their blogs both published and unpublished, I wanted to see this evidence first hand. As bloggers, I would have thought Shaun would have put the original figures online – or at least in an unpublished blog or secure server – alongside the interpretation. And it wouldn’t have been a huge effort for Mason to have mocked that up for us, his reader. Ideally colour coded. With graphs.

Overall, I do feel slightly disappointed. I have some faith that Mason will be able to bring things back together. The repeated reference to Georgia’s retinal KA in Feed makes more sense as one of the reservoir conditions brought up in Deadline. I’m hoping President Ryman and Shaun’s hearing and seeing the dead Georgia will all be knitted together in book 3. As well as Dr Abbey.

Clearly, in the world of the undead, death may not be the end of Georgia Mason.

20130718-123039.jpg

I’m a sensitive soul, me.

I like books and words; I wear my heart on my sleeve. I cringe at the sight of gore and blood.

So why have I been immersing myself in gore recently? The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin and now Feed, book one of the Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant.

20130717-180022.jpg

Zombies are the new vampires with World War Z hitting the cinemas and this book’s been kicking about in my ‘mildly intrigued’ sub-pile of my ‘to-be-read’ lists on my e-reader.

What was it that intrigued me? It’s hard to say: the cover was pretty cool; I liked the ambiguity of the title referring to the appetite of the zombies and to the blogging news feeds that the book revolves around. Moreover, though, the biggest intrigue derived here (as it did with Brooks’ World War Z) from a single question:

“What on earth do you do with zombies once you’ve got them?”

Now, I don’t mean that in a survivalist sever-the-brain-stem kind of way.

Narratively, what do you do with zombies once the visceral reveal has happened? There’s no suave temptation that drips from the pores of every non-Twilight vampire; there’s no cunning intelligence; there’s no eternal conflict between the animal and civilised, the id and the superego, epitomised by the werewolf or Jekyll and Hyde. Once you have revealed your zombie and the audience has received it’s visceral thrill or shock, they’re actually a pretty rubbish antagonist. By definition.

Max Brooks ramped up the tension by scale and the sheer weight of numbers.

Grant doesn’t.

Unlike Brooks, Feed shows little interest in rise of the zombies. It’s events take place a generation post-Rising. The dead rose. The living adapted. Life continued.

The skill in this novel is in the imagining of how our world might adapt to cope with a threat such as zombies. How would behaviours change? How would politics alter? How would the media mutate itself? What variations would creep into our lives if something horrific occurred? How would terror of the living dead be responded to? Or be taken advantage of?

Is it too great a leap to see parallels between the post-zombie world, populated by people whose fears lead them to isolate themselves and exclude anyone else, with a world coming to terms with a War on Terror? Or a world in the grip of a fear of the incurable AIDS virus?

The rise of the blogger is the key feature of Grant’s world: where traditional print media failed to respond to the rise of the undead, blogs recognised, recorded and reported on it thereby lifting their status to that of ‘true’ journalism. Again, the parallels with The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and a whole host of other ‘grass roots’ movements connecting through Twitter and the blogosphere feels credible. In Grant’s world, bloggers are divided into three categories: newsies such as the first-person narrator Georgia Mason, who report on the news; Irwins, such as her adoptive brother Shaun, who record their field exploits and encounters with the undead for entertainment value as much as education; and fictionals such as the Masons’ partner Buffy who appear to write rather poor doggerel to make us all feel better. Oh and Buffy is also a whizzy techno-geek. This little trio has it all therefore: a driven and ethical reporter backed up by her action-hero brother and nerd friend. And they drive around in a van. Solving mysteries.

I did spend half the book expecting Shaggy and Scooby-Doo to arrive!

The trio manage to secure a job reporting on the campaign of a Senator Ryman in the American Primaries and then Presidential elections. Shady things happen. Tragedies unveil themselves. A conspiracy is uncovered.

I am generally a little slapdash with spoiler alerts: it is possible to enjoy a journey even if you already know the destination. Especially if the journey is a good one with nice scenery. With books, I’m more interested in the characters and writing than I am with plot and events. But here, I am going to tread carefully: there are events in the book which do warrant coming to fresh and being ambushed by.

It’s not the uncovering of the conspiracy: Grant red flags the culprit pretty obviously!

And let’s face it, the writing here is not great literary prose that has much merit in its own right. To continue the journey metaphor, it’s like driving through the flat fenlands of Norfolk. Pretty flat. Nor do the characters work terribly well for me: they are pretty two-dimensional at times with the exception of George, our narrator.

So I’m going to let you enjoy the few way markers you come across without spoiling them!

So, to return to my question: what do you do with a zombie? Grant’s answer seems to be, very broadly, ‘get over it’. This is a book set in a world in which zombies live… No… Inhabit… No … Exist? But it is not a zombie book: our antagonist is not a zombie; there are perhaps two or three zombie attacks seen in the book. It is, essentially a political thriller. With a handful of zombies.

One thing I did like – and which I suspect might have put other readers off – is the nature of the virus that gave rise to the zombie plague. Apparently Grant objected to the “It’s a virus” plot device (a devil ex machina?) to explain zombies and we are treated to a fair amount of detail about the mechanics and vectors involved. I liked that part. It was, again, credible.

In short then… The good points were: some interesting world building with a fair amount of social parallels – enough to start you thinking; a string sense of the mechanics of the virus; a playful reverence of existing zombie lore and movies; decent, if slightly two dimensional, characters; some strong plot twists and pretty decent and contemplative pacing (I’m afraid the somewhat frenetic pacing of some plot-driven novels gives me a headache!)

Bad points included: competent but uninspiring writing; a lack of depth to many characters; a slightly obvious villain (though, as book one of three, I suspect this will develop); and, in my electronic version for reasons I cannot fathom, an absence of apostrophes and speech marks. In a writing style that often interposes lengthy narrative into dialogue before returning to speech mid paragraph, that became really annoying really quickly.

20130718-123125.jpg