Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

For quite a while now, people whose reading judgement I trust have been saying to me “you must read this book.” Instead of encouraging me to rush out and immerse myself in whatever narrative is being recommended, a kind of reluctance, an inertia to do as I am bid, creeps over me. This occurs for two reasons: one, I’m afraid that the suggested book will fall short of my growing expectations and that I’ll be disappointed. This leads to the second reason which is, how do I tell someone who loved the book so much they wanted me to share the experience that it fell short? Will it be the end of a friendship, the end of exchanging novel ideas?; the exclusion from the all-important book-sharing club? Will my friend think less of me if I don’t like it as much as he or she did? I find these notions always beset me when I am told I “must” read a particular book. That I am often far from disappointed when I finally do doesn’t seem to matter, the apathy/fear hits me time and time again and makes me procrastinate about starting the new title.

I am a damn fool. If I’d listened to those who told me I must read World War Z by Max Brooks a couple of years ago and since sooner, I could have had the incredible, exhilarating, heart-wrenching, fist-clenching, teeth-grinding, anxiety-provoking experience reading it was much, much earlier.

Would I have wanted that? Hell. Yeah.

I may as well get it out of the way upfront; World War Z was not what I expected. I knew it was a “zombie story” and, having read and loved Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy (again, a recommended “must-read” that didn’t disappoint me one iota) and being absolutely enthralled by the Walking Dead Compendium by Robert Kirkman et. Al (and TV show), I shouldn’t have stereotyped Brooks’ novel (no relation BTW) as a lighter-weight version of what had already been done magnificently – but I did. More fool me. Admittedly, seeing shorts for the Brad Pitt film fuelled that notion and, while I love that type of full-scale action-adventure in my film, I desire something a little more intelligent, psychological, challenging and probing in my zombie novels.

Enter World War Z – from stage right left and every other conceivable direction. I finally bought it and began reading it… Well. This book grasped me by the imagination, throat and soul and didn’t let me go. To call it remarkable is to undersell it. Brooks’ work is an erudite, humane, political, emotional and psychological reckoning of what happens when humanity turns on itself – when the enemy is already dead and killing fellow humans who might not agree with your religion, ideology, culture, sexual preferences or anything else, simply adds to their ranks and places the future of the planet at greater risk.

Let me explain without spoilers. The book is set ten years after a decade-long war with zombies has all but finished and is basically the remnants (the humanity component) of a report that was commissioned by an organisation to record for posterity what occurred in the lead up to mass infection, during the outbreak and consequently. The lead investigator has taken it upon himself to include unique stories from all the people and countries he visits, much to the chagrin of his boss who feels that history wants facts only. But, as the investigator (who is largely absent from the novel) states: “what’s history without humanity?” Indeed.

So, World War Z is what’s been left out of the official report. As such, it’s a collection of very personal accounts and opinions, a memory bank if you like, of a huge variety of people. From an astronaut stranded in a space station, to a marketeer looking to profit from fear, to Japan, China, Uruguay, Russia, the United States, Mexico, and many, many other countries big and small; from veterans, to teachers to blind gardeners and everything in between, this other report is the voices of those who aren’t normally heard. It’s a testimony, their testimonies of what they feared, endured, survived and their memories of the times and those who didn’t. It’s what they were forced to do to simply survive, to recognise what they could either raise or lower themselves to do when everything, absolutely everything is at stake.

It’s also about how individuals from different cultures, backgrounds, ages and occupations, with different needs, wants and desires, respond to a threat that has never before been imagined or experienced.

I found this way of writing, the whole concept behind this book, utterly extraordinary. While the threat of zombies underpins the action and is the narrative drive, it’s also about so much more. Brooks manages to inhabit every character, no matter who they are, where they’re from or how brief their story. There’s a gravitas and respect for what’s being shared, what’s being exposed and this is felt in every word and page. I didn’t want this to end and yet, I did. It’s harrowing, amazing, thrilling and above all, it’s humane.

Now I am joining the ranks of those who say, “you must read this book”. It doesn’t matter if you think you “like” zombies or not. In this instance, it’s irrelevant. If you’re reticent like I was to start with, I do understand but all I can do is urge you to ignore this feeling so you don’t have any regrets – the regret I didn’t “know” this book sooner.

For now, I am going to read it again.

 

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Book Review: Blackout by Mira Grant

BookBlackout (Newsflesh Trilogy, #3) Three in the Newsflesh trilogy, while a terrific read that ticks many of the boxes, didn’t leave me as impressed or as satisfied as the first two in the series. The plot is strong, the characters very good and  their motivations mostly sound and plausible. Whereas Deadline was very much a quest cum road trip, Blackout uses many of the same tropes and subsequent ideas but, whereas they came across as original and compelling in the second book, in Blackout, you have a feeling of situations and outcomes repeating themselves. This also happens with manyexplanations. For example, the number of times Shaun has to justify the fact he is or is not going mad regarding Georgia is far too many. We get it. Likewise, with the explanations regarding the impact the virus had on Georgia’s eyesight and the differences between one way of imagining her and another. There was barely a description or reference to eyes that didn’t go over familiar ground and it became irritating and redundant and in the end infected the pace of the story.

In terms of story, however, the plot is good and the science and cunning of desperate men and women well-handled. Still searching for answers to Georgia’s death and the whole infection, Shaun and his crew stumble upon secrets, lies and possible truths including the greatest one of all, one that will test their credibility beyond limits. Fortunately, it didn’t test the reader and we accept the “truth” of this grave new world and the horrors contained within.

Like other books in this genre, the Newsflesh trilogy and Blackout in particular reveal that the monsters we live with are not necessarily those who manifest as such: that, in fact, the monstrous is within us all and it’s often down to the choices we make whether or not this aspect of our selves is given reign.

Overall, a good conclusion to a great series.

 

 

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Book Review: Deadline by Mira Grant

I haDeadline (Newsflesh Trilogy, #2)ve to say at the outset that I was simply stunned by Mira Grant’s first novel in this series, Feed and, after the shocking conclusion, wondered how she could follow it up… well, she did. Deadline is another wild ride that takes the reader deeper into the post-apocalyptic, virus-ridden world where zombies, pharmaceutical companies and politicians rule.

Greif-stricken and believing he’s going mad after the horrifying death of his beloved sister, Shaun Mason is searching for a reason to both live and die. Aiding him in this quest are the remaining members of his blogging business. Together, they set out to uncover the real reason why Georgia had to die and what they find not only break’s Shaun’s heart and mind, but will leave the reader reeling.

Fast-paced, tautly plotted, this is speculative fiction at its meaty best. The underlying commentary on media, science, truth and how we both produce and consume them all is powerful and very gratifying – food for thought. Thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

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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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