Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category


The Undead and Philosophy – a review

April 15, 2010

My first reaction to hearing about this book was approximately this. Philosophy of the undead? Yeah, right. While books like this – the philosophy of [enter pop culture icon] – do come up fairly frequently, their quality is often dubious: they’re filled with pseudo-philosophy and illogical leaps and generalizations. Why is this? Probably because they’re written by self-taught kitchen philosophers and the like. Don’t get me wrong, books like that are often very entertaining, but they also tend to lack enough hard substance to make you really want to delve in. I’m happy to say that The Undead and Philosophy – chicken soup for the soulless positively surprised me.

Part of the ongoing series of books called Popular Culture and Philosophy (which I will definitely check out, if the quality equals this book), the Undead and Philosophy consists of 19 articles by various philosophy professionals – professors and associate professors mostly – focusing on the philosophical questions that surround the undead, the term in this book meaning zombies and vampires. While some people might dismiss something like this outright – a few friends of mine did – the questions are actually valid and interesting. Here are some examples of articles in the book:

  • The Badness of Undeath by Richard Greene – Is it actually bad being undead? Is undeath bad in itself?
  • When They Aren’t Eating Us, They Bring Us Together: Zombies and the American Social Contract by Leah A. Murray – Individualism and communitarianism in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
  • Zombies, Blade Runner and the Mind-Body Problem by Larry Hauser – The self awareness of zombies paralleled with the replicants in the movie Blade Runner.

Now if these didn’t sound interesting, this probably isn’t the book for you. If they did, read on!

One thing that strikes me as excellent in this book is that the writers know their undead culture sufficiently. They’ve seen their Romeros, Draculas and Buffys, so they can pose valid questions and observations. For a reader like me, with some knowledge in philosophy and a lot more in undead pop culture, this is of huge importance, as failure in either category immediately knocks the book down a notch.

Simplifying the classic philosophical theories to a comprehensible level is a challenge in itself, and again one which the book clears. Many of the writers are teachers, and it shows. They do a good job of making the book an easy read without dumbing it down too much.

The great thing in this book is that it adds a whole new level to the horror genre that we love so much. The articles in the book sparked a lot of those “hey, that’s true, I never thought about it that way” and whenever a book manages to do this, it gets a solid thumbs up from me. I know that watching the movies dealt with in this book after reading it will make me see them in a new light. Not a bad achievement, since we’re talking about films I’ve seen time and time again.

Overall verdict: You’re apparently already interested in the undead since you’re reading this blog. If you have even a passing interest in philosophy to boot, I strongly suggest you pick up this book. It’s bound to give you a few new points of view.

The Undead and Philosophy is edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, and you can get it in bookstores around the world. I picked mine up from  The Book Depository for 14 EUR.


Patient Zero – a review

December 25, 2009

Caution: This review contains the occasional spoiler. Read at your own risk, if you haven’t read the book yet.

Patient Zero is a zombie novel by Jonathan Maberry, best known to me as the author of the book Zombie CSU. It’s the story of Joe Ledger, a police detective that gets drafted into an ultra-secret government agency and lands in all sorts of sticky situations involving terrorists and the living dead.

After reading (and reviewing) Zombie CSU, I was left wondering about Maberry’s skills as a fiction writer. Zombie CSU was loaded with factual information, which occasionally even made it a bit heavy to read, and I wondered whether this style had crept into Patient Zero as well. I’m happy to say that my fears were far from the truth, as this book is a real page-turner. Clocking in at 421 pages, I read the first 260 in pretty much one sitting and then finished the book the next day.

There’s a lot of stuff to recommend about Patient Zero. I’ll start with realism. Realism, or at least a solid internal logic is very important to me in a book, and Patient Zero pretty much satisfied me in this regard. The scenario in all its wonderful horror is eerily believable. Maberry’s knowledge and contacts in the worlds of law enforcement, science, intelligence and military, very apparent in Zombie CSU, are put to very good use here. Everything seems solid, and this really helps the reader immerse him-/herself in the book. Such amounts of knowledge can sometimes drag a novel down, as a writer may be tempted to cram everything he knows into the book. Maberry occasionally dances on the outskirts of this when describing martial arts, equipment and the science behind it all, but doesn’t venture in deep enough for it to get tedious. It’s difficult to pull off, and I salute him for doing it as well as he has. There are a few misses (such as a character speaking “Iranian”, a language that doesn’t exist), but all in all it’s very plausible.

The plot is interesting, and as I already mentioned, believable. The book’s been divided into small chapters, with parallel story lines running throughout. Some people don’t like this movie-like approach with its frequent cuts, but I enjoy it. Maberry is a very good writer and up to date on current events, and there are pop culture references and such to keep the reader well entertained. The language the writer and the characters use is colourful and well written. The underlying tones of the book remain something of a mystery to me. There are lines in the book that throw vicious jabs at post-9/11 America. Then again, the main character’s patriotism and ends-justifying-means -authoritarian views threw me off a fair bit, especially combined with the stereotypical fanatical Islamic terrorists in the book. I would like to think that it’s basically just fiction, as I don’t really care much for pushing political agendas under the guise of something else.

There is suspense in the book, but it’s never really a horror story as much as it is a techno thriller. A fairly accurate description of how Patient Zero reads, is “Crichton or Clancy with zombies.” This definition suits me just fine, although there’s one thing that should’ve been left to Clancy. More on this later.

Action is plentiful, and the realism shows here as well. The action scenes are well thought out and very believable. Maberry’s love – and experience, I believe – of martial arts shines through, and having done years of martial arts myself, I certainly appreciated the realistic approach to combat techniques. No flying super spinning kicks here, it’s all throat punching and joint breaking. It’s brutal, it’s effective and paints violence like it should be: as ugly and vicious.

One of my main gripes about Zombie CSU was its too light treatment of the effects of psychological stress caused by a zombie scenario. Patient Zero addresses this as well, factoring in smoothly the mental strain that gunning down seemingly innocent people puts on a shooter. Psychology is an often visited theme in the book overall, with the main character regularly visiting his psychiatrist, who actually becomes one of the more important characters in the book too.

There’s one thing I haven’t yet commented on, and that is the characters. No book is without its flaws, and the ones that Patient Zero has crop up here. I liked most of the characters. They were well enough written, fairly well rounded and most didn’t feel like paper cut-outs, even if they were the (stereo)typical cast you’d expect to find in a story like this. The bad guys had a solid logic and a working moral,  and the good guys had their occasional flaws too. Except for Joe Ledger, the main character.

For me, the sheer heroism of Ledger, the book’s lead, was a turn-off. While it wasn’t even close to putting me off this book, it did get a tad annoying towards the end. In the beginning of the book, Joe Ledger is painted as a pretty ordinary cop, although very skillful in what he does. He often remarks how he’s getting into things that are way over his head and the like, there are flaws to him such as self-control and aggression issues and the reader ends up sympathizing with Joe quite a lot. However, as the book progresses, Joe turns out to be a bit too good at everything he does. He beats the living daylights out of military special forces guys, terrorists and zombies, out-thinks most intelligence agencies and military strategists, literally saves the world and even picks up a gorgeous woman while doing all of this. For me the low point of the book was when he all but wrecks the terrorists’ plan that’s been built up in the previous 400 pages, because he gets a funny feeling about a random agent smiling. That reeked of deus ex machina and Tom Clancy to me.

Sure, there are guys in films and books that do stuff like this. Indiana Jones, Jack Bauer in 24, John McClane in the Die Hard movies, James Bond and so on. What separates them from Joe Ledger, however, is that they occasionally fail. Jack Bauer gets beaten to a pulp every once in a while, as does the new Bond. Indiana Jones basically survives on luck, and John McClane’s entire character is based on the idea that even if he’s all but destroyed, he still comes out on top by virtue of sheer grit. Ledger as a character lacks this side altogether. There’s never really the feeling that the guy might fail at something, and it’s not because of luck or grit, but simply because he is so good at everything. He never misses a shot, never fails a punch, kick or throw and is only mentally thrown off for split seconds in even the most dire situations. The character flaws mentioned are never brought into play, and as such fail to have an impact. The heroism of Ledger also sadly causes him to draw a lot of attention and screen time away from a bunch of other, more interesting characters. Some of Ledger’s insights and skills could’ve been distributed amongst other characters, to flesh them out a bit and make them feel more important and less like extras.

Joe Ledger ends up a strange character. He’s well written and a nice guy. He’s good at delivering wise-ass lines and I found myself  liking him. Then again, it’s hard to feel for and relate to him on account of him being so perfect in everything he does. I hope that this changes in later Joe Ledger novels! If it doesn’t, Mr. Ledger faces the risk of becoming a major Mary Sue.

Also, the end of the book was a bit of a letdown. After brilliant planning and countless twists and turns, the terrorists pretty much blow it by being petty and emotional. Combine this with the sheer heroism of the good guys, and you have a fairly unsurprising and an unnecessarily happy ending.

Overall verdict: In spite of my last bits of critique, Patient Zero is a nice book. I’d say it’s easily the best piece of zombie fiction since World War Z that I’ve read, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel. I’d happily recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for an action-packed, fast read. Hunker down, grab a pack of snacks and dig in.


Zombie CSU – a review

September 30, 2009

Zombie CSU by Jonathan Maberry

Good zombie books are hard to find. They often slip into cliché-ridden [insert time of day] of the Living Dead copies or include too much underlined angst or present us with an implausible scenario. Occasionally – and far too often – all of these aspects are present.

Zombie CSU – The Forensics of the Living Dead by Jonathan Maberry takes another approach. It plays on that most fruitful aspect of the entire zombie culture: “What if?”

Hands up everyone who has ever speculated on what would really happen if the dead really rose up and started attacking the living. Probably every zombie enthusiast, am I right? Books like Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z both explore this to very good effect, and I’m happy to say that Zombie CSU is a good addition to the fold.

Zombie CSU looks into a possible zombie apocalypse from the point of view of experts, such as law enforcement, medical and military personnel. The book presents several scenarios familiar from zombie movies, and examines – and often debunks – them.

The book makes for fascin…no, not fascinating but very interesting reading. For those of us not inherently familiar with police and hospital procedure such as crime scene investigation and disease control, there a lot of information here written in a style easily digested and well written. The book was in my opinion a bit heavy on the forensics side, as it explored just about every single aspect of crime scene investigation, not all of which seemed particularly relevant in regards to zombies.

The credibility of a book like this depends a lot on the people interviewed, and Zombie CSU succeeds in this department. The experts do indeed seem like experts, being experienced professionals, lecturers, doctors and university professors. It’s great fun that such people have been willing to speculate on such an unlikely scenario in a serious, professional manner.

The book contains artwork and quotes from a lot of current zombie pop culture names as well, such as aforementioned Max Brooks and Robert Kirkman of the Walking Dead fame. The artwork varies tremendously in quality, but breaks up the chapters in a good way.

What conclusions does the book draw, then? Basically, that in most cases the zombies don’t really stand much chance against modern civilization. This basically launches my biggest gripe about the whole book:

While the book presents a psychological point of view also, it is sadly neglected in the conclusions. Sure, zombies are slow and and vulnerable, but are you really sure that basically pretty much anyone can deal with them simply by learning simple arm locks and basic self defense? That people – professional or not – will keep operating according to standard procedure when dealing with the dead returning to life? That people will just magically cast aside cultural and political differences and stand united against a common enemy? Call me a cynic (or a behavioral science major), but seems a bit optimistic. The US point of view of course skews things a lot. Most European countries have very very strict gun control laws, and for example in Finland it always makes headlines if a police officer needs to use his sidearm. Lately we have been discussing whether it is acceptable for taxi drivers to refuse accepting passengers with swine flu. Let’s see a society like ours dealing with zombies, let alone some developing country with limited infrastructure. Such themes aren’t touched upon sufficiently in the book.

Funnily enough, it’s this overly confident approach that would in my view cause the situation to escalate in the first place. People are irrational, emotional and more or less psychologically unstable, and society is composed of people.

Overall verdict: Zombie CSU is an entertaining read, which I’d happily recommend to anyone who’s into zombies. Since you’re reading this, you’re probably a part of the target audience. Take it with a grain of salt, however, unless you have total confidence in humanity and its authorities.

Zombie CSU is available in bookstores, I picked mine up from The Book Depository (which is my favoured choice for online book purchases). See also the book’s official homepage.

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