Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review: “Feed” by Mira Grant

Title: Feed
Author: Mira Grant (real name Seanan McGuire)
Series: The Newsflesh Trilogy #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Orbit, 2010

I don’t cry, not usually. Not for fictional characters. I can count on one hand the characters I might have cried over, half of them I can’t remember either way. I definitely shed a tear at the end of Odd Thomas–still do, for that matter, every time I read it. Back in early High School I remember crying at the end of A Walk To Remember, not for the girl, but for the guy who has to live on without her.* I may have cried for Anakin Solo when he died at the end of Star By Star, but I don’t remember. I usually cite him as one of my favorite dead characters, so it’s not impossible. Likewise when Mara Jade Skywalker fell. Again, I don’t remember. Last night, however, as I finished the last hundred pages of Feed, tears definitely flowed. I also don’t typically binge on a series, trying to spread them out with other books between. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so tempted to chuck my no-binging policy and find the next book….If the library was open on Sundays I might have succumbed. Alas, it is not, and my record is safe. In these reviews, I usually tell you, the reader, that I enjoyed this particular book and why. I usually leave any imperative to follow in my footsteps unstated. Not this time. This time, I’m telling you to put down the computer and head to your local library and check out this book. They don’t have it? Request it! Their selection will be improved by its addition.

In the world Ms. Grant creates in Feed, the zombies arose in 2014, the product of a well-tested cure for cancer and a not-so-tested cure for the common cold joining forces. Unlike most apocalyptic visions of the future, humanity survived with our society intact, if weathered. The world we see in 2040 is very much ours, with believable differences. Ms. Grant also manages to make the plague sustainable–the virus is in everyone in a passive state, just waiting to be activated by a zombie bite or the subject’s death. That’s right: in this world, you die, you rise. It’s that simple. There are bloodtests everywhere making sure nobody with an active infection can access your house, and the CDC is now a military force in their own right. Bloggers are now the main source of news for most people, a side effect of being the only people to report the truth when the dead started walking. Much of the nation has returned to their Christian faith in desperation, and we have sacrificed every freedom that was asked of us in the name of protection from the walking dead. You find this world less than believable? Go look at how we reacted after 9/11. I sadly find it all too believable.

Georgia and Shaun Mason are brother and sister, two of the three headliners for the blog team After The End Times. Georgia heads up the Newsies, the serious news side of the site. Shaun is in charge of the Irwins, those crazy folks who go out and court danger for your education and entertainment. The third part of their triple-threat is Georgette “Buffy” Meissonier, (“I’m cute, blonde, and living in a world full of zombies. What do you think I should call myself?”) tech wizard and head of the Fictionals who offer you your escape from cold, hard, zombie-infested reality now and then. The Masons and Buffy have just been given the chance of a lifetime–they have been selected from hundreds of other applicants to be the personal press corps for Presidential hopeful Peter Ryman. They will join his campaign and follow it from day one all the way to the steps of the White House, assuming he makes it that far. This is the make-or-break moment for all of their careers, but it is also far more important than that. Someone is determined to make sure Senator Ryman never reaches the White House, and they are willing to kill to make sure their ends are met. Whoever this is has no scruples, stooping to using the zombie virus itself in their campaign of destruction–an act of terrorism viewed with the same horror we reserve for attempting to fly an airliner into a building full of innocents. There is a conspiracy here, dedicated to hiding the truth. And the one thing that matters to Georgia Mason as much as her brother does is the truth….

My personal opinion? This was the best book I’ve read in quite a while. This book would at first glance appear to be just another zombie novel, a genre that is populated with too much dross and too few gems. On a second look, it’s a political thriller with a unique twist, i.e. being set after the Rising. Inventive, but still only of interest to folks with an interest in those genres. I’m here to tell you that you should read it anyway. It really is that good. It took second place for the Hugo Award in 2011, and I honestly am a little disappointed as I sit here that it didn’t win. The book that beat it out had to be pretty special….I should look into that.

Some reviewers have criticized Ms. Grant for having “stock” characters. With a couple of caveats, I can’t particularly argue. First, I would clarify that there is a difference between “stock” and “cardboard” or “one-dimensional.” Stock characters are recognizable archetypes you find throughout countless works, and they’re stock characters for a reason. Do a lot of them have twists to differentiate them from every other (to choose Rick Cousins as an example) “reporter with a tragedy in his past who is running from it and trying to bury himself in his work?” Not really, but that’s not the point. I don’t believe it detracts from the quality of the work. Secondly, I would also say that I didn’t find the main characters (Shaun, Georgia, maybe Buffy) to be stock characters at all. I thought they were well-rounded and original, and I empathized with them fully. Even when I realized [CHARACTER NAME(S) DELETED] was/were doomed well before his/her/their death, it didn’t decrease the impact of the blow. Especially experiencing the event through the eyes of the survivors and seeing their pain. As I mentioned, I cried for [CHARACTER NAME DELETED.] I’m not particularly ashamed of that, either. It takes a d*** good writer to get me to empathize that much with a character, and I think Ms. Grant deserves credit for her expert manipulation of my emotions.

As with nearly any novel that touches on political or religious issues and comes from a mainline press, the author and I don’t see eye to eye. I’m a Christian, and I have to say that Christians don’t come off well in this story. On the other hand, Ms. Grant’s premise here–that the Rising would prompt a fear-based resurgence in religious fervor–is probably accurate, and those conditions are not conducive to positive depictions. Revival based on fear isn’t sustainable, and faith based on fear isn’t healing. The fact is that anyone can claim to be a Christian, but a number of the characters herein that represent that group don’t do so very well. Are there idiots out there like Governor Tate? Yes. Yes there are. But I would argue that they are poor specimens of Christianity. Politically, Ms. Grant’s views would seem to fall moderate-liberal, while mine are firmly conservative, but I am pleased to say that Ms. Grant isn’t a jerk about it. Always a pleasure to “meet” a member of the opposition with whom you can be friendly.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, present but not gratuitous. Zombie violence, sometimes very gory, and sometimes involving characters you’ve grown very close to. Mild sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit.

*What? They held a gradebook to my head. Plus, I’m a hopeless romantic under this gruff exterior. Get over it.

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Review: “The Strain” by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

Title: The Strain
Authors: Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
Series: The Strain Trilogy #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: HarperCollins, 2009

I read The Strain for the first time immediately after it was released, back when I was in school. I absolutely loved it, but somehow missed the memo when the second and third books in the trilogy came out. Well, a recent trip to Half-Price Books netted me the entire trilogy, and one of the groups I’m a member of on Goodreads decided to do it as their monthly group-read, so I finally got around to picking it back up! The tagline hypes it as Bram Stoker meets Stephen King meets Michael Crichton, and I think that’s pretty accurate. Highly recommended!

Our story begins with an airliner, dead on the tarmac after landing. Complete systems shutdown, no power, complete blackout, and not a peep from the passengers. When they finally manage to get inside, it’s discovered that every single person on board is dead, save for three barely-conscious survivors. The public fears a cataclysmic outbreak, but the CDC is quick to assure them that things are under control. Doctor Ephraim Goodweather is not so certain. Neither is Abraham Setrakian, a Jewish pawn-shop owner and Holocaust survivor with an unbelievable secret. And when the dead passengers of the dead plane disappear from the morgue, it becomes clear that the nightmare is far from over….

The Strain takes vampires and makes them scary again, pure and simple. Tired of your vampires being sparkly and angst-ridden? The bloodsuckers you find here are monsters, pure and simple. What’s more, they are presented in such a way that their condition is almost scientifically feasible. This tale is plausible without large suspensions of disbelief, which is more than can be said for most vampire novels. I greatly enjoyed it both times I’ve read it, which is saying something. The prose is incredibly cinematic and descriptive, very evocative. Apparently del Toro originally conceived this as a television series before teaming up with Hogan to write it as a trilogy of novels when none of the networks would bite. The plot is perhaps a bit predictable, and the characters perhaps a bit too stereotypical for some peoples’ taste (I see these accusations a lot in other reviews, anyway), but this didn’t really hamper my enjoyment. Another oft-criticized element is the dead plane opening–apparently that’s been done already several times, and is seen as derivative. What del Toro is actually doing here, far from ripping off Fringe or another author, is paying homage to the original Dracula novel and the title character’s arrival in England on a lifeless ship, every passenger and crewmember dead and eaten. I appreciated this. I think a lot of people missed the reference.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, especially from the gangbanger character. A lot of vampire violence, fairly gory, as well as dissection and autopsy sequences, plus the inevitable vampire-slaying scenes that can also get pretty gory. Some sexual content, not usually too explicit aside from some past-tense references. No occult content, as these vampires are played for a purely scientific effect.

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Review: “The Dead Zone” by Stephen King

Title: The Dead Zone
Author: Stephen King
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Signet, 1980

My reading relationship with the works of Stephen King is a complicated one. I greatly admire his craft, he’s an excellent writer. The Shining is one of my favorite books ever, and may be the only one to ever actually scare me. (I don’t usually read horror, as a rule, so there haven’t been many opportunities.) I’ve been meaning to read this one for a year or so now, ever since King piqued my interest in it when he discussed its premise in On Writing. Fortunately, I found a copy at the library book sale last week, and here we are.

Johnny Smith is on the face of things nothing exceptional, but his brain hides a secret of astounding power. A childhood concussion gives him occasional headaches and vague premonitions, but it is not until a run of spectacular luck at the fair is balanced by a near-fatal car accident that plunges him into a coma for four and a half years that this gift or curse is unlocked to its full potential. He awakes to find a world that is changed–Watergate has forever ruined the American people’s faith in the White House, long hair isn’t just for hippies anymore, and his girlfriend married another man after the doctors said Johnny would never wake up. The real kicker, however, is that Johnny now has the ability to “read” certain people and things, touch them and know something about them he shouldn’t otherwise know. He tells one of his doctors how to find his supposedly-dead mother. He informs a nurse that her apartment is on fire and she should go save her cats, and tells another nurse that her son’s surgery will be a success. He tells Jimmy Carter he’ll win the Presidency. And one day, when he shakes the hand of an up-and-coming politician, he is treated to a vision of impending full-out nuclear war….

I like King. I really do. That said, there are some things about King and his work that I am less a fan of. For example, in the works I’ve read so far anyway, the supernatural is almost always bad, almost always horrifying. The exception to this rule has been The Shining, where the boy’s power is at worst neutral and could potentially be used for good. Now The Dead Zone makes the list as well, since John Smith’s ability or curse has positive applications.* The Dead Zone also makes the list of exceptions to the other general rule for King novels–I usually don’t like the characters. Johnny Smith is likable. So is Danny Torrance and the old cook who has the same ability in The Shining. I liked Jake Epping, the protagonist from 11/22/63 as well, but most of the characters King writes (that I’ve read) are less likable. I pity Carrie, but I don’t like her. Neither did King, according to On Writing, so that may have had something to do with it. Paul Sheldon doesn’t deserve what happens to him at the hand of Annie Wilkes in Misery, but he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue–let’s not forget he fell into her hands after driving drunk during a snowstorm. I don’t remember strongly reacting to the characters one way or the other in The Eyes Of The Dragon or Cell, so I’ll leave those be. Johnny Smith, however, is a rarity for King’s body of work (again, so far as I’ve read.) He’s a true tragic hero in every sense of the term. On multiple occasions it would be so much easier to ignore his premonitions and just let things be, but his conscience gets the best of him every time. To quote Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Christians don’t fare well in King’s novels (again, so far as I’ve read.) Carrie’s mother is a full-blown psycho fundamentalist, as is a character’s mother in this novel. Johnny’s mother is on her way to becoming the same way, but never gets beyond eccentric and gullible to become destructive. If I didn’t know better, I’d say King’s mother had something to do with this recurring theme, but I don’t recall that being discussed in On Writing. On the other hand, he does take care to distinguish these characters who are so far off the deep end from the main body of Christians, so that’s at least not quite so annoying.

CONTENT: R-rated language, not so gratuitous as you will find elsewhere. Some violence, occasionally graphic, and some related content that is fairly disturbing. Gred Stillson’s first appearance is a disturbing example of animal cruelty. Sexual content, non-explicit, including a serial-killer/rapist whose victims range from an old church-lady to a nine-year-old schoolgirl. This is in no way glorified, but written such that the reader feels only repulsed (as they should be!) Stephen King is no stranger to occult content, but I don’t think this quite qualifies. Johnny’s power is played as scientific, albeit far from understood, a side effect of his brain accommodating the damage done in the accident.

*You could argue whether it’s truly supernatural, however.

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