Posts Tagged ‘Zombies’

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Okay, so short stories.

Part of me loves short stories. The precision, the concision, the economy of language within them – read The Dead by James Joyce. Part of me, however, longs for the lengthy, relaxed familiarity you get with the characters in a novel, even in the best of the genre.

In the worst collections of short stories, you get the impression that the author has swept up the offcuts and cast-off fragments from his editing desk and served them up.

So reading any short story collection is a double-edged sword for me.

But Miéville has such a range to his writings and such a wealth of imagination and control over his voices and depth to his settings that I was looking at this with a lot of excitement. And in main part, this collection was wonderful and rich. Not every story in the collection chimed with me – but then you’d expect that from a short story collection. We also have more than just short stories here: the collection includes monologues, meditations and screenplays for film trailers as well as short stories. And within the collection, Miéville takes us into his familiar weird fiction milieus: familiar and recognisable locations confronted by the bizarre and inexplicable such as walking oil rigs, floating icebergs and a sickness which surrounds the infected with a moat. In addition to this, we encounter magic realism, horror, zombie apocalypses and science fiction.

Let’s have a quick canter of some of the most successful stories (at least for me).

  • Sӓcken was Miéville’s foray into horror and begins in familiar enough territory: a pair of innocent girls stay in an isolated lakeside cottage in the forests of Germany. Something horrific drags itself from the lake and into the girls’ lives. In itself, the scenario is traditional enough but Miéville’s control over the horror and his navigation of the territories of scepticism, doubt, nightmare and horror was wonderful.  As were his descriptions of the

“nightmare calf born without limbs or head or eyes but full of tumors”.

  • After The Festival was wonderfully viscerally creepy. Imagining a world in which revellers attend celebrations of slaughter and cooking, and afterwards decked themselves with the severed heads of the slaughtered animals was wonderful. Imagine now the worms burrowing from those heads into the flesh of the people beneath, revealing the animal within the human condition, and the craving those people have for those heads.
  • The 9th Technique was, perhaps, the most truly Miévillian in the collection. The description of the diner in which clandestine magical black market transactions was brilliantly evoked and made the purchase of the potent puissance-laden cocoon credible. I wonder how many Miéville-readers wondered whether the cocoon contained a slake moth! Again, the beauty is in Miéville’s descriptions as much as anything: the glass jar in which his protagonist, Koning, placed the cocoon

“did not break and it did not bow or bend or inflate grotesquely as if heated and made soft, but it was harder and harder to lift, denser and denser with shadow.”

  • The Dowager of Bees, in my mind, was the most evocative story and showed the greatest control to maintain its conciseness. A gambler discovers that there are impossible and unknown hidden suits of cards capable of manifesting inside any pack of cards in any game, warping reality around them, inserting additional chapters of rules into rule books whenever they appear. The imagery of the cards themselves – with echoes of tarot cards and magic in themselves – and the idea that these cards were somehow conscious or sentient.

I did miss with these stories what has, for me, been the cornerstone of Miéville’s writings: the urban, thriving, decaying, living cities, whether they be London from The Kraken, New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station or Armada from The Scar. Obviously, that is inherent within the brevity of the genre and at times there are suggestions of it. Dan’s flight in Estate in which he “fingered walls and bollards. He passed a knocked-over bin and knelt to examine it”, where he seemed to be reading the cityscape the way a tracker might read a forest, came close. And then the London of Polynia seemed curiously blank in contrast.

All in all, this collection offers a number of rich and lush gems, all the more evocative for being so concise, and a myriad of interesting ideas and conceits.

  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

Death Bringer.

An apt title to read this week as I have struggled with another vile bug. Or possibly the same vile bug that I’ve had since Christmas and never really shifted.

The Death Bringer virus.

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Or perhaps just book six in the Skulduggery Pleasant series.

I lost faith a little with Mortal Coil and the unnecessary violence inflicted in Valkyrie Cain there. I was pleased that Landy appeared to have stepped back: there is plenty of violence in here – plenty! – but it has a comic book quality to it rather than horror. It is perhaps telling that the final conflict is resolved in a Forbidden Planet store for a couple of reasons.

Ok. Let’s look at the plot. In some ways, the plot felt freer than previously. Almost pared down. The various generals of Mevolent’s war had been dispatched with previously and it felt as if Landy had drawn a line under that. Our antagonist instead was the Necromancy Order who had been erstwhile allies and were tutoring Valkyrie. They had discovered (or twisted into being) a sufficiently powerful necromancer to act as the fabled Death Bringer.

Once it was realised what the Death Bringer was intended to do, which isn’t wholly surprising given its name, Skulduggery, Valkyrie and the Sanctuary seek to stop her.

A lot of fighting ensues.

We also get a good chance to study the terrible Darquesse, the ultra powerful version of Valkyrie fated to destroy the world. And we discover the truth about – and again witness – Lord Vile. The full Lord Vile. Not just his armour. Their combat certainly came across as cool. And violent. Bones shattered and organs were crushed. But healed instantaneously. There was also something reminiscent of Man Of Steel about it though: two functionally invulnerable characters fighting each other quickly becomes repetitive. And stale. And dull.

In fairness, Landy does just about pitch it right. Better than Man of Steel.

The novel also seems more character driven than previously. Although there has been a gap since I read the previous ones so I may be doing them a disservice. The darkness at the heart of both Skulduggery and Valkyrie get star billing with echoes of Jekyll and Hyde. The somewhat cliched love triangle between Valkyrie, Fletcher and the vampire Caelan is resolved – with an always enjoyable swipe at Twilight

“We’re not Buffy and Angel, or Romeo and Juliet, or those other two from West Side Story. We’re not even Edward and Bella. OK? You’re far too freaky for me.”
He looked at her. “We’re meant to be together…”
“And this is exactly what I mean.”
“Our love is written in the stars.”
“And there you go again.”
“I love you.”
“You bore me.”
He faltered. “What?”

And we see far more of Valkyrie at home, with her parents, her baby sister and even her uncle and cousins.

Along with the fighting, Landy’s hallmark has been the comedy elements to his books: Skulduggery is typically described as wise-cracking; Scapegrace and Thrasher return as the comedy zombies. Personally, I think the comedy was overdone here a little: following the deaths in the assault on the Necromancers’ Temple, Cleric Craven and the remains of the order seemed to degenerate into farce and were almost played for laughs which detracted from the credibility of their threat. And the incessant joking and wisecracking from Skulduggery became just a little tiresome.

I did enjoy Fletcher’s character assassination of Valkyrie, though, when she dumped him

“Do you even care? I mean, I know you’re crying, I can see the tears, but they’re not tears for me. You’re crying because you feel bad. Those tears are about you, because everything is about you. It always is, isn’t it? The world revolves around you because you are just that selfish…. I don’t think it even occurred to you that I would be hurt. It never entered your head. You’re that obsessed with yourself, you know that?”

And I have to say I do kind of agree with him: she is an engaging character but all her wisecracking gives her a certain air of self-importance. It is important that we see her in these more domestic and mundane and emotionally vulnerable.

The novel leaves many potential threats by the end: Melancholia, Eliza Scorn, the continually misbehaving reflection and, most interestingly to me, Kenny Dunne, a journalist slowly patching together an exposé of the magical world of Dublin.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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My teeth grated together in horror as soon as I listened to this: “World War Zee by Max Brooks!” intoned the narrator. “Zee”? “Zee“?! No!! World War Zed!

Despite that, this was a brilliant book to listen to as an audiobook: it is formed from interviews with various survivors of the war against the undead. Z for zombies. Because of the episodic nature of the narrative, it was perfect to listen to one or two interviews on the way to or from work.

And some of the voice acting here was brilliant: more dramatisation perhaps than audiobook. The feral child who recalled the ragged (stertorous perhaps, stealing Bram Stoker’s word) breathing of the zombies as they attacked her family was particularly effective. As was the pilot who was shot down. And the family forced to trade goods for human meat when their daughter is ill, seen through the eyes of her older sister.

The problem is that the stories and accounts are all – more or less – effective. But fairly repetitive.

I missed having continuity. When I had invested in the characters for a while, I wanted to know how they dealt with the later parts of the war.

Episodic narratives: excellent for audiobooks listened to in the car; poor for allowing investment in characters.

I am wondering whether it is possible to create a spoiler here. Zombies rise in China. That’s chapter one. The blurb would tell anyone that. Not a spoiler. Through a combination of idiocy, greed and corruption, the virus spreads across the world through human migration, organ and people trafficking. World War Z? No spoiler there! Zombies eat lots of people. The army is ill prepared (who would be?) and fail spectacularly to protect the world. People fight back. America saves the world.

Yes.

America saves the world.

The US President makes a speech. And everything gets better.

Imagine Abraham Lincoln crossed with Bill Pullman in Independence Day.

It is terribly Americocentric. Yankiecentric. There are many other countries and nationalities interviewed but they are all sidelined by the U S of A. China originated the virus. Russia is corrupt and dishonest. England is romanticised to Disneyesque proportions: Her Majesty refused to leave London and inspired us the populace. God bless her!

I was heading towards the four / five star area with this book when I began listening to it. But I think in retrospect that was due to the quality of the voice acting and the coincidence of the narrative structure with my listening habits. On reflection, if I were asked to rate it out of five, I’d maybe say 3.5 stars.