Book Review: The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn

After I expressed a great deal of nerdy fan-girl enthusiasm for the TV series The Walking Dead, a friend of mine asked (a little scathingly) if I’d read the Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn graphic novels. After all, if you were serious about the show, he said, then you should have at least read the source material. I did not and had not. So, being that kind of guy, my friend promptly loaned me his copy of The Walking Dead Compendium –  the most amazing, awful and unforgettable graphic novel that spans over 1000 pages.

It’s taken me a while to read it and that’s partly because it’s a simply astonishing piece of work and partly because I have been torn between watching the TV series and learning
what happens next through that medium and been worried about getting too far ahead in and/or of the compendium.

As it turns out, I need not have worried. The Walking Dead Compendium is as different from the TV series as the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris are to the HBO series, True Blood.

The Compendium and series commence in the same world and use the same premise as the TV show: that is, after being shot, police officer Rick Grimes, a loyal, ethical man, wakes up in an Atlanta (?) hospital to find the world as he knew it irrevocably changed. The dead have risen and have not only taken over the cities and much of the country, but mindlessly seek out the living and destroy everything in their path. Life as Rick knew it is over.
The Walking Dead, Compendium 1 Escaping the hospital, Rick sets out to find his wife, Laurie and son, Karl and, in the process links up with desperate survivors who, together, face the unbelievable horrors of this post-apocalyptic zombie-dominated world where the real abomination is not necessarily the living dead, but the humans who have thus far avoided infection.

Civilisation is cast adrift from its moorings and the novel seeks to explore how and even if we can recover it. What does it take to restore, not humans, but humanity?

It turns out to be a huge, complex question…

The TV series is utterly violent, gripping and has wonderful performances from all the cast who make you believe in this gritty, terrifying world and how the most ordinary of activities such as eating, sleeping and travelling are contingent on factors never before considered: they can mean life or death. Blood is spilled regularly; bodies are ripped asunder, flayed, blown up, treated with contempt and disregard. Everything is at stake always, and no-one is spared. There’s no sentimentality in this series – root for the hero or underdog at your own peril. Loss and grief are the default position for everyone – no matter what age or sex.

OK. Imagine that (or recall the series) and then up the tension, awfulness and shocks a hundredfold and you have a sense of what’s in store for you if you read the Compendium. Soaked with nail-biting scenes, unexpected pathos and humour, and meaningful commentary about contemporary life, this harrowing take and the superb and graphic illustrations that accompany it deliver again and again.

Watching the series didn’t spoil the story for me, on the contrary, while the cast are pretty much the same and some of the settings are used in the TV show, reading the novel was a visceral and in many ways even more satisfying experience. There are different fates for some of the characters, new and old ones appear and disappear, and parts of the primary story lines differ. The characters are richly (and sometimes too briefly) depicted, the agony of death and loss, the humanity of the survivors (or lack thereof), the heart-warming moments of connectivity and celebration are all captured, as are the terrible consequences of witnessing and contributing to so much death.

At one stage, Rick Grimes asks his wife if he’s evil because he’s lost the capacity to feel, all the destruction and death he’s either witnessed or been complicit in, the fact he weighs everyone he meets on a scale of whether or not he’d be prepared to sacrifice them for the safety of his family, has him questioning his own humanity. It’s a powerful moment and question; one that underpins the entire book: what or who is evil and how do we know?

Trust is also a huge issue as is faith – not in God or some invisible being – religion has no real place in this world (but there are those who cling to it and persuasively). Trust is about each other.

Another important theme is safety. In this grave new world, it becomes the new currency and there are those who exploit and barter safety in exactly the same way but with even more ruthlessness than any modern day commodity.

The illustrations are black and white and for some reason, this adds to their terror and pathos: suffering and beauty has never been so elegantly or realistically (for a comic-style) captured.

If you enjoy dystopian narratives, zombies and what they signify, or if you love the frisson eschatological stories arouse, then I think you will more than enjoy this.

I cannot wait to get my hands on the next instalment or the next episode of season three either.

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Book Review: Feed by Mira Grant

When going on holidays recently, I asked FaceBook friends for some reading recommendations (this was despite having about forty books in my “to-read” pile). Feed, by Mira Grant was one of them and, why I chose it from the many other wonderful suggestions I received was the way it was “sold” to me by another writer, the lovely Mandy Wrangles. I still remember. She wrote something along the lines of, “It’s a zombie book, only, it’s not. It’s so much more. Don’t let the zombie thing put you off. This is an amazing book, dystopian and about communication, the media and politics and it’s just incredible…”

To be fair, Mandy said it far more eloquently than that, but that’s how I absorbed it and was intrigued. Much preferring zombies on the screen than on the page, I’d resisted anything remotely zombified before, but I was going on a holiday, why not challenge myself? Take a holiday from my usual genres? Am I glad I did. Oh. Boy. Mandy was right, Feed, the first book in the Newsflesh Trilogy, was not what I expected – even with Mandy’s wonderful affirmations, it thoroughly exceeded my expectations.

Set in the very near future, after a zombie plague has basically wiped out a great deal of the civilised world, facilitated the establishment of gated communities, serious and constant health checks, and armed protection services, and seen the mainstream media not replaced, but in healthy competition with bloggers (the reason being that when the uprising of zombies began, the media were in denial and, due to government control and censorship, inclined to perpetuate fallacies – it was bloggers who told the truth and won reader loyalty and trust), this tale centres around prominent blogger, Georgia Mason, who along with her brother Shaun and their IT specialist, win a contract to accompany a candidate throughout the drawn-out presidential election. Overjoyed at such a coup, they quickly accept and join the convoy, travelling throughout parts of the US, being given insights into not just the political machinations of the party and those who belong, but the media and the plots and cunning of desperate men, including the biggest secret of all – the terrible conspiracy behind the infected….

This is a wild, hold-on-to-the-edge-of-your-seat book that, after an ETesque opening (but with zombies, death and destruction on the protagonists’ bicycle tail), immerses you in this post-apocalytpic reality of a country/world torn apart by a mass infection and its consequences. Orphaned at a young age, brother and sister Georgia and Shaun, though they’ve been adopted, have to survive on their wits and intelligence and neither of these are in short supply. Nor is their sense of justice and determination to see it meted out.

Though the zombies (the infected) hover at the edges of the story the entire time, bursting into the narrative at opportune and sometimes unexpected moments, the real story here is the politics – not simply Republican versus Democratic, though that’s there, but personal politics as well. How individuals manoeuvre themselves into positions of power, the politics around the stories we tell, about ourselves, each other – what’s omitted, what’s included, the impression we strive to give and maintain- and the strength of meta-narratives to colour and infect the smaller ones. It’s also about belonging, connectivity, being an outsider – of family, society and beyond. It’s about truth, lies and everything in-between. It’s about when to compromise – morally, physically, intellectually – and when it’s appropriate not to.

As story-tellers with credibility, Georgia and Shaun know how important their job is, how much the surviving masses rely on them to keep the lines of communication open, to spread the “truth” and to provide informed opinion. But story-telling in this world is also big business, and ratings are important. Hence, risks must be taken, not with the truth, never with that, but with reputations, uncovering relevant information and, for Georgia and Shaun, it also means putting their lives (and that of others) on the line.

This never becomes more important or real than when they discover the truth about the zombies…

This is such an original and compelling book. Alternately shocking and heart-wrenching, capable of blood-thirsty scenes and great pathos, the characters are strong, purposeful to a fault, but also ever-so vulnerable, the combination is intoxicating and nerve-wracking. You invest so heavily in both Georgia and Shaun, shout at and with them from the sidelines, revel in their ingenuity and disingenuousness. The narrative twists and flows in ways that are never predictable but always true to the overall arc and intentions of the book – you believe in everything that’s happening and the rationale behind it. An example of this is the reasoning behind why there are zombies in the first place. An interview with Grant (at the end of the book) reveals that she was always frustrated by films and other books that took zombies for granted, that is, the writer/s never explained how they became that way, except to point to biting and contagion through other means as the answer. The origins of the infection and what happens in the body of a human who becomes a zombie is rarely if ever dealt with. Feed addresses this in a scientific and acceptable but never dull way. The explanation simply feeds (excuse the pun) into the logic of the setting and time the author has created. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect as well.

Whether or not you like “zombies” (what’s NOT to like J), whether or not you enjoy dystopian narratives, this is a great book. But, if you’re looking for well-crafted, tightly written, imaginatively conceived stories that take you on an incredible, high-octane adventure while simultaneously exploring some serious ethical and philosophical issues and offering a critique of modern media with kick-arse, wonderful rich and complex characters and a plot dripping with intrigue, this is the book for you.

Touted as young adult, it’s not. It’s for anyone who loves astonishing novels.

I have bought the second and (er um) can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

A huge big thank you to Mandy!

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

Why is it that when a songwriter or singer changes genres we applaud their daring, write, and speak about how multi-talented they are; how fortunate we are to gain so much pleasure from their creativity? But, when a famous author dares to switch genres, there are rumblings and grumblings and unfair expectations placed upon them – before the work is even published? Warning the marketplace that The Casual Vacancy would be nothing like the Harry Potter books, that it was for adults and quite depressing, Rowling was nonetheless encumbered with criticisms and snubs for having the literary presumption to leave Potterworld. Yet, she was blunt: if you were looking for Hogwarts and wizards, she warned, they would not be found in the pages of her new book. Yet, so many reviewers have come to the novel with the expectation that, for some reason, they should be there, even if just a glimmer, whisper or peek. They practically accuse her of letting readers down, of abusing her position as a world-famous writer instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt and congratulating her for demonstrating such imagination and lexical dexterity.

Frustrated by attitudes, stories and some reviews (which were not reviews because it was clear the book hadn’t been read, rather they were more rebukes) the publication of this book produced, it was hard not to let them tarnish the reading experience. I tried to approach this book as I would any other by a beloved author who decided to try their hand at something different and read and rate it on its own merits – and I was not disappointed. But, as Rowling warned, it’s no Harry Potter: the only magical thing is the writing, which is superb.

The Casual Vacancy is, frankly, brilliantly awful. Set across two English towns, Pagford and The Fields, one with a very acute awareness of its history, the other a by-product of late modernity, they are inhabited by a cast of mostly toxic characters who illustrate, through their small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness, the pettiness that can exist in supposed idyllic English village-like communities. As I read, I kept thinking of a quote about academia that’s been attributed to Henry Kissinger (among others), that “the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low” – I think this sums Rowling’s book up nicely.

After the death of a member of the local council, Barry Fairclough, various members of the Pagford community vie for his vacant seat. As they do, the reader is drawn into the complexity and ugliness of what should be simple lives, albeit, affected by mourning and loss. Populated by ego-centric, gossiping, classist, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, drug-taking self-interested people, Pagford and The Fields appear to be governed by folk who can barely function in their own lives, let alone make decisions that will affect others. And, as the council move towards another election, it becomes clear that one person’s loss is potentially another’s gain.

Not even the children in this miserable tale are spared the less attractive qualities the adults so readily exhibit, and is it any wonder when the grown-ups are their role-models? The kids have learned their lessons well. Dishonest, thieving, sneaky and risk-takers, they are both effect and cause of the outcomes.

As the story progresses, Rowling demonstrates her uncanny ability to mine a character’s emotions and psychology, to peel back layers to explain even the most unlikely or heinous of behaviours, to provide a context for understanding (but rarely approving). Piecing together the jigsaw of individuality, family and community, she mercilessly flays the characters, forensically dismantles their psyches and leaves them in the equivalent of a mortuary for us to gaze upon in horror.

For example, there’s Simon, violent, bad-tempered and his ineffectual wife, Ruth; their two boys, Andrew (called “pizza-face” by his aggressive, abusive father) and “Pauline”; Parminder, the local doctor, surprised by her reaction to a fellow-councilman’s death and who appears to understand the bodies and minds of all the townspeople in her care but not her own children. Her dashing heart-surgeon husband, Sukhvinder, regarded as a hero by those he loathes, especially the Mollisons – a work of gruesome art  – for whom Rowling shows very little sympathy. Empathy is reserved for some of the residents of The Fields as well as the children in the novel who can do little more than suffer their parents and their foibles, until they discover the means to revenge – not served cold, but molten hot.

The race is on to secure the vacant council seat and, as the story progresses, skeletons are exposed, secrets uncovered. Everyone in this novel is damaged – severely and, when terrible tragedy unfolds, it’s only the myopic townsfolk who didn’t see it coming.

The writing is what makes this bleak book. While Rowling does head-hop (a cardinal sin in most author’s hands), she does it with aplomb and there’s a sense in which this becomes a stylistic of the narrative. We drift from one character’s thoughts to another’s, caught in the current of activity, the plots and plans of little men and women. In terms of the tone, I was reminded of Elizabeth George’s marvellous and heart-rending What Came Before He Shot Her, only this book is firmly rooted in the middle classes (though there are those who feature who can no longer claim a place there) and the life decisions that can affect generations. Also, George’s book redeems some characters – see if you think the same happens here. I have also heard, again before publication, that the book was likened to Midsomer Murders. The Casual Vacancy make Midsomer Murders seem like Narnia – before the White Witch.

Drugs, suicide, rape, incest, adultery, criminal activity, violent abuse, shocking neglect, fear, anxiety, OCD, dark fantasies, cruelty, it’s all there – relentless, but darkly fascinating at the same time. Rowling really raised (or lowered) the writing stakes with this book.

No, this wasn’t what anyone expected… but how marvellous is that?

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