Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category


Pirate reading

February 3, 2018

I love reading, whether it’s fact or fiction. In recent years, it’s been mostly fact for me, though, and not even due to a budding career in academia. Instead, it’s pirates (surprise surprise). While my whole pirate project started in 2015 with the purchase of a single book at a used book store in London, I’ve built up a nice little collection in the years since. As many people seem to be interested in knowing more about pirates, I figured I’d showcase some of my favourites on the subject.

Historians’ takes on pirates tend to fall into one of two groups, one being a more conservative approach and the other one a more radical one. To crudely summarize the difference: the conservative approach paints pirates as intriguing subjects, but ultimately views them as mostly criminals and fairly nasty ones at that. The radical interpretation often views pirates from the viewpoint of rebellion and class struggle, considering them as not just criminals, but as challengers to emerging global capitalism. As is often the case with history, we don’t know the truth of the matter, but exploring different viewpoints is definitely worthwhile.

So, in no particular order, five pirate books worth reading. As these are just my favourites, there are obviously many more excellent pieces out there that I just don’t happen to own. As there are fairly limited actual historical records on pirates, all the books mentioned have considerable overlap as they draw on the same resources. However, different readings make comparisons interesting and allow you to form your own view of pirates. The focus of most of these books is on the Golden Age of Piracy, i.e. the early 18th century.

Marcus Rediker: Villains of All Nations : Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Rediker is a prominent figure in the radical school, and this is not only a very good take but a smooth read as well. Villains of All Nations is a prime example of the pirates-as-rebels interpretation.

David Cordingly: Under the Black Flag : The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

Cordingly’s approach to pirates is much more conservative than Rediker’s. This is, however, a wonderfully comprehensive look at most common pirate myths and pirates in general.

Colin Woodard: The Republic of Pirates

Leaning more towards the radical side, The Republic of Pirates deserves a special mention for its very entertaining writing. The book’s focus is on the Bahamas, so if Black Sails is your thing (and it should be), this is a good look at the history behind it.

Captain Charles Johnson: General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates

The mother of all pirate sources. This is actually a reprint of “Captain Charles Johnson’s” (most likely a pseudonym) entertaining and often sensationalist and embellished contemporary writings on pirates. Pirates were a source of fascination and entertainment to many of their contemporaries, as this book shows. Most pirate historians draw on this as a primary source, although there are almost certainly quite a few bits of 18th century tabloid journalism in there as well. The spelling has been modernized, but the writing is still more than a little archaic at times.

Angus Konstam: Pirates of the Seven Seas

This is the book that started my pirate craze so it deserves its spot. Now, style-wise it might not be the most academic take on the subject, but with its lavish full colour illustrations and information chopped up into clear themes and bite-sized chunks, it’s a very easy first venture into pirate literacy and very suitable for both younger and adult readers. It also details the origins from piracy from ancient times up to modernity.

So there you have it! Three of the five writers mentioned, Rediker, Cordingly and Konstam, have written loads more on the subject. Konstam has done extensive work for Osprey Publishing, so if you’re interested in a wargaming angle, those are definitely worth looking into.

Happy reading, and do share your own favourites in the comments!


Fever – a review

November 3, 2012

Earlier this year I reviewed Flu by Wayne Simmons. Fever is a sequel to the book – or rather a prequel and a parallel story. Fever exposes the origins of the virus and takes a look at the entire epidemic through the eyes of various different players. I was originally supposed to review Fever right after its publication, but never received the review copy and proceeded to forget about the whole thing until recently. Better late than never, right?

The book follows different characters and their storylines. As is typical of a structure like this, the storylines are somewhat interwoven. What made me happy were the references to Flu, seamlessly tying the two books together. Many of the things I wanted to see more of in Flu were present in Fever, for example the military aspects that felt a little detached in the first book.

There are many similarities between the two books and many of the same comments still apply. Simmons keeps his writing compact and efficient, and there’s a lot crammed into the 290 pages. At times this borders on excess, with a lot of different storylines and characters getting introduced, but it gets easier as the book progresses. The style is still very brutal and carnal, and I think Simmons still holds the title of “Author with the most disgusting zombies”, with the flu-ridden corpses (and soon-to-be ones) spewing bloody mucus from every orifice and so on.

With their similarities, we’re still talking about two different books. While Flu had a strong political vibe, with a large part of the conflicts rising from an establishment/anti-establishment setup, Fever draws more from the pool of social conflict. This is helped along by a cast of characters different from your usual zombie fiction fare, through which themes such as sexual minorities and disabilities both physical and mental are explored. This results in a book that feels refreshingly different while retaining a solid genre feel. While not as prominent as in Flu, the anti-establishment sentiment is still present, and you definitely get the feeling that the government isn’t doing a very good job at reacting the problem to say the least.

On a related note a word of possible warning: Fever is bleak – very bleak. While not quite reaching excessive, David Moody -like proportions, this book definitely isn’t a happy read. Personally, I liked it, but I understand it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. A large part of the dark humour present in the previous book is missing this time, making Fever pretty depressing at times. This is something of a double-edged sword: humour helps you relate to the characters (Shaun of the Dead being a prime example) but can easily lead to the whole thing getting silly and unbelievable. Luckily, Simmons is a good enough character writer that his characters function even with the humour turned down a bit.

Overall verdict: If you liked Flu, you’re bound to like Fever. It’s a gripping, bleak zombie read, with thoughtfully crafted characters and plenty of interesting storylines and points of view to keep the reader interested. While it probably won’t leave you feeling warm and happy inside, it’s an interesting, harsh example of a worst case zombie outbreak scenario. If you haven’t read Flu, I suggest reading it before Fever.

As usual, I picked up my copy from The Book Depository.


The Caldecott Chronicles No. 1 – a review

July 2, 2012

Victorian England. Zombies. With an intro like this I was immediately reminded of the dire Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and more than a little apprehensive. Luckily, I was positively surprised by R.G. Bullet’s first YA book (or rather, “excerpt”) The Caldecott Chronicles. It’s a very short book, so this review will also be a compact one.

The short book of 120 pages is written in the form of a diary, and it details the exploits of the 32nd Earl of Rothshire. In 1896 everyone – aristocrat and peasant alike – is inexplicably hungering for warm flesh, and the fine Earl must adjust with the aid of a young peasant girl and a fine Purdey shotgun. What follows is a lot of fun.

What makes The Caldecott Chronicles so enjoyable? Since I can’t avoid comparisons with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, here goes. TCC isn’t too over the top. You won’t find ninjas, katanas, Shaolin monks or any of that here. What you will find is bear traps, steam technology and a somewhat stiff upper lip. Bullet is also a pretty fluent writer, and the book is an easy read. While not quite reaching “hilarious”, the book did give me a fair few chuckles mostly relating to the polite and reserved mindset of the main protagonist. The book is fairly well grounded in the period, and there weren’t any glaring historical errors. All in all, TCC was what I had hoped PaPaZ to be.

As mentioned, TCC is a quick read. I read it via Amazon’s Kindle cloud on my Android phone, and the book was nicely suited to that platform. The second book is available now, with more on the way soon.

Overall verdict: The Caldecott Chronicles nicely combines the elegance of Victorian England with shambling undead. The result is a fun, humorous mix of period and zombie fiction, and yet another great YA book. Definitely worth getting, if you’re looking to grab a quick bite-sized read.

At $3.44 from Amazon it’s a steal – and if that’s too high for you, you can get it for free for a limited time.

You can read my interview with R.G. Bullet here!


Rot & Ruin – a review

January 28, 2012

(This review contains no spoilers)

Closing in on thirty, I’m going ever further from the Young Adult demographic. That didn’t keep me from picking up Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. A zombie novel’s a zombie novel, and I quite like Mr. Maberry’s work.

Rot & Ruin starts the story of Benny Imura, a boy of fifteen, living in a post-apocalyptic world. Fourteen years ago zombies happened, and since then the world has degenerated into a Wild West of sorts. Kind of Mad Max meets Fallout meets The Walking Dead. Technology is severely lacking, and Benny lives with his brother Tom in a small settlement. It isn’t long before things get funky, and what starts out as a teenager’s quest to find a job quickly turns into a fast-paced adventure.

I don’t read much Young Adult stuff, but I guess I should if it’s the same quality as R&R. Having read Maberry’s Patient Zero and Dead of Night (review forthcoming soonish), I didn’t quite know what to expect. His main characters tend to be hard boiled kick-ass types, and I wondered how he would portray a 15-year old. I was happy with how the character of Benny was handled. Yes, he tends to be annoying, petulant, irrational and just plain dumb, but then again who wasn’t at fifteen? In my opinion he’s Maberry’s most human character to date. The supporting cast is none too shabby either, and I ended up caring about their well-being. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. Neither are from cardboard, however, and there are justifications to their actions.

Where Rot & Ruin excels, however, is in its treatment of the zombie apocalypse. Surprisingly it’s a much more mature book than either of Maberry’s previous works of zombie fiction. Whereas in those books the zombies were basically just a very clear and present, acute threat, in Rot & Ruin the apocalypse and zombies are viewed in a wider scope. Key questions of the genre are asked: are zombies monsters or victims? Are they morally responsible for their actions? Why is it difficult to kill zombies? I think that asking questions and seeking answers are a staple of YA books, and such an approach is very suitable in the zombie genre as well. Just like Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, the zombies in R&R are shown as not only monsters, but also creatures heartbreakingly empty and lost. As is often the case in zombie stories, the worst monsters are usually the living and breathing ones. Rot & Ruin manages to be a genuinely touching book, an all too rare occurrence in a world where the only qualification required to be a published zombie novelist seems to be the ability to write “braaaaaaains“. The fact that Maberry manages to include a lot of suspense and gory action into the mix is proof of his skills as a writer. Another testament is that the book carries its length of 460+ pages easily.

Some minor issues irked me, but these are things often encountered in books about unexpected heroes (Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books spring to mind). In R&R some characters suddenly act just a bit more callously or bravely than you would expect them to. As mentioned, this is in my view a part of the genre but nonetheless somewhat disrupts the coherency of the characters momentarily. There is a bit of a deus ex machina ending, but I’m more tolerant of it here as well. I would also have liked a bit more of a surprise in the climax of the book. It was all in all a good scene, but not as effective as it could have been.

Overall verdict: It’s hard for me to describe what exactly it is about Rot & Ruin that makes it so appealing. Maybe it’s the grassroots approach, maybe it’s the YA vibe that comes from easy readability and themes such as growing up. Maybe it’s the thoughtful take on zombies. Whatever it is, it works very nicely. Paradoxically, writing to young adults, Jonathan Maberry has written his most mature piece of zombie fiction. There is a sequel to the book, called Dust & Decay and it’s already on my shopping list.

As usual, I picked up my copy from the Book Depository.

On a related note, Jonathan Maberry will be interviewed on Dawn of the Lead at the start of February. Stay tuned!


Flu – a review

January 21, 2012

I’m currently vacationing in sunny Sri Lanka. To while away my time in the sun, I took a fair few zombie books with me. This serves the triple purpose of providing me with both entertainment and something to review and offering you something useful to read. First up is Flu by Wayne Simmons.

The concept behind Flu is very simple. It’s another flu (just like with the avians and the swine) that hits, first provoking the usual panic, jokes and cynical dismissal that these things tend to do. Only it starts to get a lot worse. There are quarantines, deaths and eventually re-animations. You know how it goes from there.

The book’s setting is an interesting one, as it’s set in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The place has a rough history of political division and internal strife making it an interesting backdrop for a story with or without zombies. Wayne Simmons has managed to incorporate strong elements from the setting into the story, and Flu doesn’t feel like yet another foray into the generic US city that frames most zombie novels. There are bitter enmities and deep regrets as well as historical references and the like. The writer manages to write these into the story without being too heavy-handed. When criticism is levelled, it feels done by the characters and not the author. Personally I hate having a political ideology, religion or anything similar crammed down my throat when I’m trying to enjoy some zombie action, so I was happy with the way Simmons handled his subject matter. They serve the story’s purpose and not the other way around. Simmons hails from Northern Ireland, and it’s apparent he knows what he’s writing about.

Another thing I applaud is Simmons’ writing style. He doesn’t waste his pages and there isn’t a lot of empty filler in the book. In roughly 280 pages he manages to tell a good story, introduce the reader to a handful of characters and include the above mentioned themes into the mix. He drops nice hints here and there about how things went down when the flu struck, and there are some excellent little details there that make it hit a little closer to home.

The characters are a nice collection, too. None of them feel like cardboard cut-outs. The story follows each character’s perspective at some turn, and you get a glimpse or their motivations and inner workings. Nobody’s perfect, nobody’s a complete mess-up. They feel pretty much human, with their good and bad traits. At times it feels like Flu might make a nice movie, probably a Guy Ritchie one. The reason for this is the combination of a tragic situation, some dark humour and imperfect characters. It works wonderfully for me.

There wasn’t much in the book that irked me. A pet peeve of mine raised its head a few times. What is it with zombie book authors and firearms? Seriously. Once I know it’s a Glock 17, it can be referred to as a pistol. Do I even need to know it’s a Glock 17? This isn’t to say that the book is brimming with gun information, thankfully. There’s just a bit too much needless repetition at times. Also, the military strand of the story could’ve been developed a bit more as it felt a bit detached. Apparently this is taken further in the upcoming sequel Fever, which is a welcome piece of news.

Overall verdict: Flu doesn’t really bring that much new to the genre. A lot of the usual tropes are there – the tension between survivors, hidden agendas and friction between the establishment and civilians. Normally I’d view this as a failing on the book’s part. A book with nothing much in the new idea department needs to be pretty good otherwise to float, and luckily writer Simmons pulls it off. Flu is an intense, compact book, and well worth your reading. I ate it up in two days, and am still hungry for more.

I picked up my copy of Flu at the Book Depository.

You can check out Simmons’ homepage here.


Deadline – a review

September 6, 2011


Deadline is the second installment of the Newsflesh trilogy, written by Mira Grant (pseudonym of writer Seanan McGuire). It follows the praised zombie novel, Feed, but can it live up to its predecessor? To be blunt: no, it can’t.

Feed is a modern zombie classic. Just see my review to see why, exactly.  It was a suspenseful, excellently paced story with good characters and an intriguing plotline, combining zombie action seamlessly with a political thriller. I think it was fair to expect the same from its sequel.

Deadline kicks off some time after the end of Feed. With the demise of his sister, Shaun Mason is left to run the show. Dead but not forgotten, Georgia has stayed as a voice in his head, making him effectively crazy, although very aware of the fact. Shaun starts investigating the death of his sister, and unsurprisingly quickly runs into a conspiracy. And that’s about all I can say without giving the plot away.

Let’s set one thing straight first. Deadline isn’t a poor novel. It’s a decent read, despite the heavy criticism I level at it below. It simply had big shoes to fill and has tiny feet. There are many good parts throughout the book, even if they fail to come together. Grant is a good writer, and still manages to paint a good picture of a post-not-quite-apocalypse world. Despite its failings, I went through Deadline in a few days and it was difficult to put the book down at times.

What are the aforementioned failings then? I’ll just list them. Sadly, Deadline fails at the parts where Feed excelled. This was the cause for most of my disappointment.

Characters. Georgia Mason was the character that carried Feed, while her brother served as an excellent supporting character. Now Georgia is gone and Shaun is the main protagonist. This is where things go wrong. Shaun simply doesn’t have what it takes to be a leading character, kind of like a master stuntman taking up acting. He’s pretty much one-dimensional, and the talks-to-dead-sister gimmick becomes old and repetitive pretty quickly. When things go wrong, he punches walls instead of providing insight or dwelling on things. Sure, this is true to the character but boring for the reader. I can’t help the feeling that Grant herself has noted this and kept Georgia on as a voice inside Shaun’s head. The fact further undermines Shaun as a character: even if he is the main character, he never feels independent but is left playing second fiddle to her dead sister. I think that’s a major flaw in the book. The death of Georgia Mason at the end of Feed was a real shocker and keeping her on as a semi-character robbed a lot from that effectiveness. The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better. There’s Alaric who has a computer, Becks who has a gun and Maggie who has money and a mansion. Yes, that’s being a bit harsh, but that’s the way I saw it.

Pacing. Another one of Feed‘s key strengths, another one of Deadline‘s stumbling points. I hate to say this, but the book is frequently boring. When there’s action, it’s great. When there isn’t, it’s..not great. Feed managed to keep up the suspense even when there was nothing much actively happening. Due to Deadline‘s faulty cast, this doesn’t happen. Also, the plot doesn’t help this, but more on that below. Deadline clocks in at over 500 pages, and that’s 100-150 pages too much. The book takes forever to really get rolling, and when that finally happens – the book ends with a dead stop. At times I found myself reading onwards just thinking that maybe when I turn the next page, it finally gets going. Which it mostly didn’t.

Plot. This goes hand in hand with the pacing. Whereas Feed had a coherent story of upcoming presidential elections, Deadline lacks this. There is the conspiracy they’re trying to uncover, but that resembles a boring adventure game: find a clue, follow said clue, find another clue, follow that one, something happens, find another clue and so on. Sure, this doesn’t sound too bad. Now take a look at that structure, and replace every comma with “nothing much happens for 20-40 pages.” As said, the plot and the poor pacing combine in a disappointing way. Overall the conspiracy is much more vague and frankly uninteresting than the one in Feed, and when the main point is uncovered, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of “and that’s it?” And this might sound silly, but there are just far too few zombies in the book. This would be fine if the characters carried it, but as mentioned before, they don’t. The best bits of the book are those in which the undead make their appearance.

Overall verdict: Despite my harsh words, Deadline isn’t a complete dud. It simply compares very poorly with its predecessor, which in turn highlights the book’s failings. As mentioned, there are severe problems with the book and it feels like a rushed sequel recycling a lot from the first book. It also suffers from major sequelitis, as it feels like a bridge between the first book and the upcoming third one, with no real merits of its own. To sum it all up, Deadline is a direct-to-dvd sequel to the surprise of the year major motion picture that was Feed. Not great by any means, but worth getting anyway.

As usual, I got mine from The Book Depository, where it currently retails for just over 6 EUR.


Theories of International Politics and Zombies – a review

March 8, 2011

Imagine a world ruled by creatures with limited brainpower, bent on the eradication of the human race via rampant consumption. Now imagine what would happen, if this world faced a zombie catastrophe. This is a scenario presented by Daniel W. Drezner in his book Theories of International Politics and Zombies (referred to as TIPZ from now on).

Zombies are all the rage now, or rather have been for the last ten years or so. The years have seen all sorts of books. Some have been blatant attempts to cash in on the zombie craze, while others have actually offered an interesting take on the subject. It is with true joy that I include TIPZ in the latter category. Why? Well, that’s what this review’s all about, isn’t it?

I love zombie books that deal with the question of zombies with a degree of seriousness. Actually, I’ve even reviewed one or two. While TIPZ has its fair share of humour, it still presents us with the very very interesting question of how international politics would cope with a zombie uprising. Or insurgency, as these things tend to be called nowadays. I don’t think there’s one zombie enthusiast who hasn’t toyed with the idea of how the world would actually react. It’s right up there with “what would you do if it really happened?” I’m glad someone finally grabbed the bull by the horns and put it in writing.

That someone is Daniel W. Drezner. As well as a blogger for the Foreign Policy magazine, he’s a professor of international politics as well as a published author on the subject. As such, he knows where he’s coming from in terms of politics. What about zombies then? To my surprise he nails this part as well. The book references a whole lot of zombie pop culture, including some very current outings such as Left 4 Dead. This most certainly warrants a tip of the hat, as a lot of authors of zombie books basically equate zombies with someone green going “braaaaaaaaainssss”and don’t get me started on that.

Drezner knows how to write. That’s quite important when publishing a book. His text flows nicely, it’s informative and easy to read even if you know nothing about international politics. A true academic, he provides referenes for pretty much everything he claims, giving the book a lot of credibility. There’s a fair bit of humour and wit, and the part about neo-conservatives had me in stitches. It’s also not too difficult to see from which side of the political field the author hails from.

The book is very much what the title suggests. It examines how different political ideologies and the people who adhere to them would likely deal with a zombie catastrophe. There are no glaring inconsistencies as far as I can tell, although there are a few comedy exaggerations. It presents fairly logical scenarios that are easy to swallow.

No book is perfect, of course. With all its merits, TIPZ has one major thing going against it. The book is a measly 114 small pages, leaving out the notes, references and acknowledgements. The book is an extension of the author’s article Night of the Living Wonks, and if you’ve read that you know a lot of the book’s content as well. This leads to the book feeling a bit rushed. Not rushed in the sense that it’s poorly written, but in the sense that a lot of very interesting points are just briefly touched on. This book could’ve easily been twice as long and it would still have been able to hold the reader’s interest. As it stands, it’s almost like a teaser. Another thing that some might consider a flaw is that Drezner occasionally moves too far into the humour territory, slightly detracting from the informational content of the book in my view. This is a horses for courses thing, however, and I know a lot of people won’t mind that at all.

Overall verdict: If my biggest gripe about a book is that it left me wanting more, I believe you can easily catch my overall feelings about it. This is a very nice book. It provides the always important food for thought, as well as some genuine laughs. It’s a quick read, too. If the subject interests you at all, do get TIPZ. You won’t regret it.

Prices for the book vary a lot. At the time of writing it’s 13 EUR at the Book Depository, but half that price (6,70 EUR) at 13 EUR is a pretty hefty price for a small, short paperback, so do a bit of comparison before ordering. I got mine as a reviewer’s copy, which is just cool.


I Am Scrooge – a review

January 18, 2011

The whole title of this book is I am Scrooge – a zombie story for Christmas. The moment you read a title like that, you assume the book will either be great or atrocious. You’re not too far off the mark with this one.

As the title hints at, the book is a very, very loose combination of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In the book, Ebenezer Scrooge lands in all sorts of trouble with the walking dead, as he’s lead through time by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

Before this book, which I got as a Christmas present from a friend of mine, I’d only read one humorous zombie novel. Or rather, tried to read one. The much hyped Pride and Prejudice and zombies was in a word terrible. I made it halfway through it, after which I’d had enough of the miserably poorly written, utterly crap rape of a literary classic. The graphic novel was a bit better, but not by much. With this wonderful blend of humour, zombies and literary classics in mind, I approached I Am Scrooge with more than a bit trepidation.

Humour is such a difficult thing to pull off. At times it’s enough for someone to have a bad bout of flatulence to produce enough laughs for a week, at times you need a bit more. This is especially true with books, and I’m happy to report that I Am Scrooge made me laugh already in the preface, as the writer Adam Roberts sincerely and with a 19th century turn of phrase wishes that his book not be remade as a major motion picture starring Will Smith.

Roberts is a decent writer and comedian, and there a fair few more or less witty puns in the text. He frequently breaks the fourth wall, commenting to the reader and explaining his choice of words. This effect is not used excessively, so it doesn’t turn dreary. Besides, the phrase “Fear stalked the city like a giant, er, stork” became one of my instant favourites as far as book quotes go. Roberts has clearly read his Terry Pratchett, so if you’re into that sort of humour, this should be right up your alley. Roberts has even included a nod in this direction, I believe, by renaming Bob Cratchit as Terence Cratchit. Terry Cratchit, get it? You probably did.

The story itself is a fun blend of the Dickens story, Victorian Science Fiction and zombie pop culture. At 153 pages, it’s a quick read and short enough so as not to get dull or repetitive. My only gripe is that age-old thing which I never get tired of bashing: zombies and brains (or braaaaaaains, as it’s usually spelled). For crying out loud, bloody Return of the Living Dead has forever stapled that thing over the whole genre. Grumble grumble.

Overall verdict: I Am Scrooge is a nice way to spend a few hours, especially if you’re into VSF or steampunk. Some of the jokes are a bit of hit and miss, but as a whole the book does provide a fair few laughs and a definitely original take on a classic story.

As mentioned, I got this as a gift. You can find it for EUR 7.05 (it’s a hardback) at The Book Depository, where it happens to be on sale at the moment.


Feed – a review

January 8, 2011

For me, World War Z has always – since I read it, that is – been THE zombie novel. That position is now heavily contested by Mira Grant’s Feed, the first part of her Newsflesh trilogy.

Feed tells the story of two blogging siblings, Shaun and Georgia Mason, in a post-zombie apocalypse USA of 2040. The apocalypse happened, but it wasn’t in fact an actual apocalypse. Much like the ending in World War Z, humanity prevailed but zombies still remain as a kind of very deadly natural hazard. Life carries on with at least a semblance of normality, but the world is brimming with security measures. Blood tests, decontamination, access zones, licenses and the like are the norm. The world’s not a dystopia, mankind has simply learned the dangers of an outbreak.

Bloggers serve a similar function as today (and no, that doesn’t mean endless home-made fashion pictures of teen girls with pigeon-toed stances or hot young zombie/wargame bloggers reviewing books about bloggers), although their importance has grown substantially. Blogs offer a lot of the entertainment and news available, and are a viable competitor to traditional press. The siblings and their friend Buffy make up After the End Times, a blogging site delivering news (via Georgia), Jackass-style entertainment (via Shaun) and fiction (via Buffy). The presidential elections are coming, and the crew is chosen as the official press corps for a senator that’s running for office. That’s when things start to get interesting, as you might expect.

What makes Feed so excellent? The story itself is a combination of many things, being part horror and part political techno-thriller, without becoming a sloppy mishmash of different genres. Even that’s secondary to one thing, and that one thing is essential in a book: Mira Grant is a great writer. The main characters in the book are well-rounded, likeable and they feel natural. They have their flaws, their fears and their sympathetic little quirks, and importantly, these don’t feel tacked-on. I simply hate the age-old trick of “she’s perfect, but oh my god she has a tiny scar on her cheek which she’s SO embarrassed of, love her!” that a lot of poor writers go for. No cardboard cut-outs here, I’m happy to report. The book does have a bit of an obvious antagonist, though, if I were to point out something negative.

The story rolls along nicely, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader firmly in its grip. There’s humour, there are peaceful lulls, there’s action, there’s mystery and suspense, there’s pretty much everything you need in a book like this. There’s luckily also not a lot of romance going on. Don’t take me wrong, nothing wrong with romance, but again, a lot of poor writers simply misuse it as another way of making character likeable and don’t seem to know anything about basic human relationships besides. Grant works the humanity and love aspect into the tightly knit blogging crew and community, and especially the siblings’ relationship with each other, and it works a treat.

It’s not just the characters that feel realistic. The world seems to function pretty rationally and follows a coherent internal logic. Another point picked up by Ms. Grant here. The science of the zombie outbreak felt realistic, as did the politics and the near-future technology. Grant also seems to have a good grasp of the wonderful world of blogging, which a blogger like me enjoyed immensely. Lots of familiar things there, not least the occasional fixation on getting more and more readers. At the end of the book the writer acknowledges a lot of people responsible for all the little detail. What can I say, the research has definitely paid off and there’s not really much suspension of disbelief needed. Not bad, considering that this is a book about zombies in 2040. Even the names of the main characters aren’t clumsy nods and winks to the genre-savvy reader. Shaun of the Dead and Buffy the Vampire Slayer exist in the world, and the characters have been named after them. End of story.

I can’t really think of much negative to say about the book. It does clock in at a veritable 574 pages, but then again there’s not a lot of filler in there. There is a bit of repetition every now and then, especially with the security measures and tech, but then again that’s a two-edged sword: while it might be a bit dull at times, so is reality. For me it merely served to make the book feel more natural and realistic.

Overall verdict: If you didn’t gather it from the text above, this really is a nice book and easily on par with WWZ. It’s great as a zombie novel. It’s great as a techno-thriller. It’s near perfect as a zombie techno-thriller. It was good enough to keep me from putting my mittens on at the bus stop when it was -10 °C so I could keep reading. Get it.

As always, my copy came from the Book Depository. For more information on Mira Grant, visit her official homepage.


Zombie Apocalypse! – a review

December 18, 2010

Anthologies, even themed ones, are usually a mixed bag. This one  created by Stephen Jones is no different.

Zombie Apocalypse! is a definite tip of the hat to H.P. Lovecraft, who is explicitly mentioned in the credits section. The book is basically a continuation of Lovecraft’s – and Bram Stoker in Dracula, for example – fake-documentary, first person style (see The Whisperer in Darkness for a prime Lovecraft example). There are letters, police and doctor reports, Twitter, IM, and SMS logs, blogs and so on. They detail the eponymous zombie apocalypse that starts off in the UK and before long spreads across the world. Sounds great this far, doesn’t it?

I’ll be very blunt with this next comment: a fair few of the 19 authors in this book aren’t very good writers. As always in anthologies, there are some gems in there, a lot of OK stuff, some that are a bit “meh” and then some that are a bit rubbish. Where a lot of these stories fail is subtlety. Whereas Lovecraft and Stoker manage to tell just enough to leave room for the imagination of the reader, many writers in ZA! fail in this respect. I mean that instead of ending, say, a logged phone call with “ummn..are you ok?” they instead end it with “oh my god, you’re really not ok! You’re a zombie! Oh my god, and now you’re taking chunks out of my arm! There’s blood everywhere! Now I understand, this is the way the plague spreads, through bites! Arrrrgh, I’m losing gallons of blood and my intestines are on the floor, and yet I keep on talking on this phone, I don’t even know why! Please, oh god no!” Catch my drift? The same flaw can be seen in another way as well, as the writers often pretty heavy handedly insert plot elements into stories which should be very realistic in style, such as police or medical reports. This greatly detracts from the whole suspension of disbelief thing. Why would a police officer write in his report that a church has a “strange aura” or that it “feels Gothic” or suddenly describe his female police partner as a “glamorous […] tall, striking blonde”? Sorry, but that’s just plain poor writing. Sometimes less is indeed more.

There’s another major problem. Basically, while the book tells a chronologically pretty coherent story, at times it doesn’t know whether it is a bird or a fish. At times its Dawn of the Dead, at times Return of the Living Dead, before becoming 28 Days Later and segueing to Army of Darkness. Sounds like a very wide spread of different styles, and it is. The book also becomes a bit repetitive at times, as it’s basically “now I’m writing, now I’m depressed, now I’ve been bitten/scratched, now I’m turning into a zombie/committing suicide” over and over again, told through various media sources.

Despite those flaws, the book is mostly a very entertaining read, and I found it difficult to put down quite a few times. A lot of the stories are very short (often thankfully so), and some of them are really rather good, so even at over 500 pages it doesn’t grow wearisome. It could just be the zombie enthusiast in me, but I’ll definitely give this another read, although I might skip a few of the B-grade stories. There’s a fair bit of humour in there as well, with some being hit and miss but others downright hilarious.

Overall verdict: Make no mistake, this is no World War Z 2. The stories vary a lot in quality, and at times the book’s styles and themes are all over the place. It’s still a good way to spend a few evenings or quite a few bus rides, if you’re into zombie apocalypse and the fake-documentary style. I just wish they’d all read their Lovecraft.

As usual, I got my copy from the Book Depository, where the book retails for €7.54.

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