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Archive for the ‘Apocalyptic fiction’ Category

Gone-Away WorldIf you like writers as diverse as Joseph Heller, Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, or Charles Dickens, you’ll want to run to the novels of John le Carre’s son, Nick Harkaway.  I can get away with that much name dropping in one sentence because Harkaway is that good.

His first novel, The Gone-Away World, takes place in a near future after some kind of event  has left only a narrow band of land habitable, protected by the mysterious chemicals from a pipeline.  In Harkaway’s tour de force first chapter, we discover that this pipeline has been breached and the refinery that fills it is aflame.  A misfit crew of mercenaries, including the unnamed narrator and his lifelong friend Gonzo Lubitsch, is asked by a powerful bureaucrat to fix the problem.

After that, the story alternates between exploring the narrator’s adventures in the present and the past.  Slowly, we discover the twisty story of how the world came to an end, how the narrator was rendered unreal, and how he attempts to recover his life.  This plot is impossible to condense, but the astonishing thing is that although this story is halfway in fantasy, halfway in reality, half serious and half parody, and loaded with characters like pirates, ninjas, and mimes, in the end it all makes a perfectly bizarre kind of sense.  There are plot twists you won’t see coming in a million years, enough eccentrics to populate a small country, and enough madcap but spot-on social observations to make every page an adventure.

This is a dense read.  Expect a challenge.  But whether you enjoy science fiction, literary fiction, or humor, I think you’ll find it truly rewarding, a book that’s worth the effort for vivid style, biting social commentary, audacious metaphors, and imaginative world building.  Don’t expect a standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, expect a weird, bumpy ride through a surreal landscape.  Strap in and enjoy!

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Wool“People, it was suspected, had once lived aboveground.”

At the opening of this postapocalyptic novel, Sheriff Holston is walking up a spiral staircase to his death. For generations, his community has lived and died on the 144 levels of an underground silo, and Holston has just committed a capital crime—asking to go outside. Technically, it’s a suicide. Everyone knows the outside world is a toxic wasteland. Three years ago, on the big-screen monitors that show the surrounding desolation, Holston watched his wife die out there, and now he’s going to join her. Just like all the others who have been pushed out the airlock, he’s given a protective suit. It lasts just long enough for the condemned to do some silo cleaning and maintenance—for one thing, scrubbing the grimy outdoor camera lenses so that folks inside have a nice, unblurred view of your death. Now, why the condemned should care what’s shown on the big screens…that’s what Holston is about to find out.

My brother, who hasn’t read a book in dead-tree format since the invention of the smartphone, insisted that I read Wool, and read it immediately, sending it from his app to my app with a tap and a swipe. In a nutshell, that’s the success story of Wool. At the time author Howey first self-published the story direct to Kindle, Holston’s atmospheric, claustrophobic story was all there was to the Silo universe. But as word-of-mouth reviews drew more and more readers, Howey began to elaborate.

In later, serial-style installments, the search for a new sheriff takes the silo’s mayor and deputy down through the floors of the silo, through hydroponics and the nursery and IT to the mechanical levels. As they descend, readers learn more about how this society works, and doesn’t work, stratified both literally and by an inflexible class structure. With the appointment of a hardworking mechanic, Juliette, as the new sheriff, a longer story arc begins. An outsider from the bottom levels, Juliette shakes up the power struggles of the upper floors. She’s a character that readers rally behind, as she learns more about the factions governing the silo, especially on the IT level, which controls what’s left of the silo’s forgotten history on its closely-guarded servers.

The original, novella-length Kindle releases have been collected in omnibus print editions, starting with Wool and continuing with Shift and Dust. It’s a little bit old-school Twilight Zone, a little bit Shirley Jackson, a little bit Lost, without quite so many characters. With a compelling storyline and characters who you can root for, Wool should appeal to teens as well, and it fits right in with the current YA mania for dystopias. Plus you can get in on the ground floor—see what I did there?—before the inevitable movie.

Check the WRL catalog for Wool.

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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enclaveGet ready for a fast paced, post-apocalyptic thrill ride. Author Aguirre appeals to a wide range of readers in this first of a planned trilogy, which has ample amounts of action, suspense and adventure.

The world now isn’t a place we would easily recognize. The ruins are all that remain, along with the violent gangs who inhabit them and the underground subcultures living in communities known as “Enclaves.” However, roaming the underground tunnels is another set of creatures as well. Known by members of the Enclaves as “Freaks,” these creatures are absolutely zombie-like, with a lust for human flesh. In this frightening view of the future we meet Deuce. She exists within the Enclave, a strong and dedicated member who lives for her coveted position as Huntress.

The Enclave has assigned the role of Hunter/Huntress to members of the community who will defend them against the “Freaks.” On her naming day, after fifteen years of training and waiting, Deuce is assigned the role of Huntress. Ever diligent and never questioning, she takes on the role with fervor. But everything begins to slowly change when she is partnered with another hunter, Fade. Fade is an outcast who arrived at the Enclave after surviving for years on his own topside. Never fully accepted and a self-made loner, Fade still possesses a unique skill set that is highly valued—fighting and killing. Together, Deuce and Fade begin to make notable discoveries about their leaders and start to get a glimpse of the dystopian society they have called home for years. After a devastating event forces Deuce and Fade to be banished from the Enclave, they must learn to survive not only the topside gangs, but the “Freaks” who have found their way up as well. An ideal read for fans of The Hunger Games and Graceling.

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lexiconYou aren’t you, you know. You are a type to be identified, evaluated, measured, sorted, and slotted in with everyone else your type. It’s just a way for businesses, political parties, and non-profits of finding the people most responsive to their message, right? But what if that type isn’t the accretion of your life’s experiences, your current situation, your relationships–in other words, you–but a deep-seated biologically programmed identity vulnerable to direct manipulation? And what if there were people dedicated to learning specific words and sounds that turn the key to your identity and make you want to obey them? Enter the poets.

Barry, whose interest in language and manipulation runs through books such as Jennifer Government and Company, takes a direct run at the topic in this complex thriller. He posits an organization dedicated to exploring ways to control the nearly 300 personality types they’ve identified. Potential students are recruited and tested, and those that pass enter a rigorous and disturbingly competitive education program on their way to analyzing personality types, running experiments on them, and providing the sanitized results to those who will use them in some kind of marketplace. Those who rise to the top of this select group become poets, able to utter a series of nonsense syllables that make the hearer suggestible. To what? In the course of the story, to involuntary sex, giving away money and cars, even committing murder and mayhem, with the implication that these are long-standing and frequently used methods that reach to all levels of society. Those poets are themselves rebranded with the names of real poets, which is why Tom Eliot and Virginia Woolf are playing cat-and-mouse from Australia to Washington, DC. Woolf is a rogue poet capable of suborning even the most experienced of the organization, and Eliot wants to stop her before she executes a horrific plan.

Barry structures the story with intertwined past-and-present narratives. We learn about street kid Emily’s recruitment and training into the organization, and the colossal mistake she makes when she’s sent to Broken Hill, Australia as punishment for another major mistake (A word of warning to the actual Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce: Barry makes it sound like the place where they recruit garbage men for the last stop on the road to the back-of-beyond; it sounds like a cool place in real life). In the present storyline, Eliot violently kidnaps an innocent man from the airport and dodges pursuers on a nonstop quest to find out why the man has been targeted by opposing poets. As the storylines begin to merge, we slowly come to understand why the factions have moved into open warfare with each other.

Barry departs from the cynical humor of his earlier work as he creates this speculative look at power and language. The real tension in his ideas is that the ongoing quest to motivate (command?) masses of people may actually succeed by reducing that mass to precisely defined individuals. If there is humor, it is found in occasional side notes from chat room comments on erroneous news stories which come off as conspiracy theories but are closer to the truth than the commenters know. He also takes those ordinary Website quizzes and polls and gives them a more sinister purpose. I’ll certainly look twice at those ‘recruiting for psychology experiments’ posters and ‘take this online quiz to discover your true self’ with a little more skepticism than I have in the past.

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windup_girl

Blister rust. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Plant and human diseases mutate quickly in the 23rd century, where genehacking by the powerful calorie companies runs the economy. Staying ahead of the plagues can cause otherwise honorable people to justify acts they would never believe they were capable of committing. Major cities, including New York and Mumbai, were drowned as the planet heated; the capital city in Thailand is protected by levees and pumps. Fossil fuels were mostly spent out generations ago. Most power is now human- or beast-created and stored in springs; computers are driven by treadle; radios are hand-cranked. Bicycles, ships, and dirigibles provide transportation.

Anderson Lake manages the SpringLife kink-spring factory in the capital city of Thailand. Megadonts, huge beasts of burden that have been genehacked from elephants, power the factory. SpringLife kink-springs, when finally manufactured, should hold and disperse many more joules than regular springs. This huge factory, with its workers, its megadonts and their handlers, is failing, though Anderson keeps it running. It’s a cover for his real purpose in Thailand. He works covertly for AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines. He’s in Thailand to figure out how the kingdom is growing disease-resistant crops independently of the calorie companies. Potatoes, tobacco, and other nightshades flourish in the markets in Thailand—how can that be when most natural plants succumb to the diseases that thrive and mutate in the age of genetically modified produce of AgriGen, PurCal, RedStar, U Texas and other calorie companies?

Emiko is a windup girl—one of the New People—a genetically modified humanoid “born” in a crèche in Japan and bred to serve her master. She began her life as a kind of secretary for her owner, Gendo-sama, but after he brought her to Thailand on a business trip, he discarded her; dirigible fare back to Japan is exorbitant and Gendo-sama, who had once told Emiko she was beautiful and perfect, found it more economical to simply purchase a newer model once he got back to Japan. As an unnatural species, Emiko is illegal in Thailand, but Raleigh, her new owner, pays bribes to the Environment Ministry to keep her in his club.  She earns her keep as an entertainer in a sexually humiliating show for the pleasure of the patrons of the club. For the most part, Emiko can blend in with humans, though her engineered stutter-stop motions give her away, and her specifically designed small pore structure, fine in cooler Japan, causes her to overheat in Thailand.

When Anderson meets Emiko, Emiko reveals a vital clue to him about the plague-resistant foods, and he tells her something that changes her life forever—and ultimately leads to a rebalancing of power between the Thai government and the calorie companies.

Anderson and Emiko are just two of the many complex characters in the richly-developed Thai kingdom of the future that Bacigalupi has created. Anderson’s assistant, Hock Seng, a “yellow card” refugee from an environmental disaster in Malaysia, has plans and secrets of his own. The head of the White Shirts, the Environment Ministry enforcers, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his lieutenant, the unsmiling Kanya Chirathivat, play their parts in this dense and detailed world. Trust and loyalty, kamma or karma, love, regret, and identity are themes that run throughout the novel. Religious beliefs and practices—Christian and Buddhist—have evolved also with the changing environment. The world described in The Windup Girl seems frighteningly possible as we ignore environmental concerns and allow corporations to patent seeds and genes.

The Windup Girl is novel that can be read multiple times without losing its surprises. It’s one of the best novels I have read in many years. It tied with China Miéville’s The City & the City (also a great novel) for the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Windup Girl.

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rot I was looking for something easy to listen to and picked up the YA book Rot & Ruin without really knowing what it was about — except that it was about zombies.  I was expecting a pretty typical “run from the monsters” plot and was completely surprised by the  sympathy the author evoked for the zombies.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s action, plenty of “uh-oh the monsters might catch me” suspense, but I was surprised at who was the real monster.

The world has been changed by a cataclysm – some sort of medical or environmental disaster that caused some people, including Benny’s parents, to turn into zombies.  And as people turned to zombies, they infected others until their sheer numbers overran cities large and small…

Groups of  survivors gathered in outposts with fences and patrols to keep the zombies out.  Most people don’t venture into the “great Rot & Ruin” – the zombie- infested expanse separating the outposts from each other.

That’s the post-apocalyptic world Benny Imura has grown up in.  And he hates zombies with a white hot passion. His older brother, Tom, is a zombie hunter, supposedly one of the best.  But Benny doubts it.  His earliest memory is of Tom running away when his parents were turned to zombies.  Benny hasn’t forgiven Tom for not staying to fight.

Benny goes to school and hangs out with friends.  But some of Benny’s favorite times are when the “real” zombie hunters like Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer tell stories of how they fought zoms in the Rot & Ruin.  It sounds so cool when they tell the stories.

In the fall after Benny turns 15 he has to find a job or face having his rations cut.  When he runs out of options, he reluctantly approaches his brother about going into the family business.  But hunting zombies is not what Benny thought it would be.

There’s depth to this story, as well as lots of nail-biting tension and some really heart-wrenching revelations.  Rot & Ruin is the first in a series.  I can’t wait to see what happens next to Benny and his friends!

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Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of Rot & Ruin

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A very important question for people who love to read is, can the sequel ever be as good as first book? And in this case the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’!

I blogged on Mike Mullin’s debut novel Ashfall in April, and I have been anticipating the release of the sequel Ashen Winter ever since. In Ashfall a supervolcano erupted under Yellowstone National Park and sixteen year old Alex sets off on an odyssey from his home in Iowa to find his family in Illinois. The ash has destroyed the plants, killed the livestock (from breathing the ash), and poisoned the water. In Ashfall  some people are kind, and Alex meets Darla who will become the love of his life. Ten months on in Ashen Winter people’s desperation is growing. No summer came, possibly presaging the beginning of an unbelievably long and cold volcanic winter. Stored food is running out, and the last supplies of necessities we take for granted like antibiotics and gasoline are also running out. Alex struggles to stay true to the values he didn’t even know he had. In a world full of human cruelty and even cannibalism  he wants to save everyone who is innocent. Even his previously mild, spineless father resorts to violence leading Alex to think, “The disaster had warped the landscape of our minds – perhaps even more than it had altered the physical landscape.”

Ashen Winter is as dark as Ashfall and goes at the same breakneck pace. The problems of survival are just as intense, and the characters continue to change and grow in a believable way. I find some apocalyptic books, movies or TV series fascinating in the beginning as the characters deal with how to survive their disasters. Then too many of them descend into soap opera, where the story centers around who is hooking up with whom, rather than who will actually be able to survive to be able to hook up with anyone.

Like its predecessor Ashen Winter is an apocalyptic read that is a good choice for both older teens and adults. It may be too violent and disturbing for younger teens. Try it if you enjoyed The Hunger Games or older apocalyptic titles such as On The Beach or even less well known books like Monument 14.

Ashen Winter was so eagerly anticipated that it had a Blog Tour before its official release date. One blog, My Reading Room, had an interview with Mike Mullin. When asked who is his favorite character in Ashen Winter, Mike Mullin replied “I love Rita Mae, because, well, she’s a librarian.” For a librarian, obviously this is the best answer he could give and shows his good sense and taste!

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Yorick Brown is on the phone trying to propose to his girlfriend, who is away doing research in Australia, when a catastrophic event wipes out everything with a Y chromosome. In the blink of an eye, Yorick and his monkey Ampersand, for reasons that are unclear, are the last surviving males on the planet. That’s the starting point for Y: the Last Man, a comic series written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Pia Guerra and Jose Marzan, Jr.

In the ensuing chaos, planes fall from the sky, highways are cluttered with cars full of dead men, and the few women of congress (one of whom is Yorick’s mother) battle for control of the U.S. Presidency, as the only female cabinet officer, the Secretary of Agriculture, is reluctant to take up the role. Various plot lines follow Yorick’s attempt to reach his mother and girlfriend, the battle for control of Washington, the mysterious agent 355, a genetic researcher whose work may be the only hope for repopulation, some militant Israeli army officers, and the emergency of Amazons, a group of women who interpret the disappearance of men as some kind of proof from God that males were scum and the proper order has been restored. It’s hard to say what will happen, but one thing is sure: Yorick, previously nothing much more than a third-rate escape artist, is now a very hot commodity.

This series isn’t particularly cutting edge. The art is nicely done but not revolutionary. I’m recommending it because the premise is intriguing and Vaughan delivers the fun. One good thing about graphic novels is that the serial format allows writers to explore complex, many threaded situations, like an apocalyptic event, in a way that can only be accomplished at the cost of great length in prose or film. In comics, the storytelling remains tight, with plenty of action, but there is room to explore many different aspects of this big gender die off without becoming ponderous. Y: the Last Man is fun and thought-provoking at the same time, without ever becoming too taxing on a reader looking for something that isn’t too heavy.

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Here’s my take on a book coming out in August.  I got it as an advance reader copy.

The world as we know it ended nine years ago.  A virulent disease wiped out the world’s population, with the exception of a few people desperately hanging on to the remnants of civilization or roaming the country determined to steal those remnants.  Pockets of the afflicted are still around, quarantined and feared by the healthy.

Hig is a pilot, a grieving widower, a hunter and fisherman, a dog owner, a lover of books and poetry.  He lives at an old Midwest airport designed as the centerpiece of a community of nouveaux-riches pilots, where he tends to his 1956 Cessna, hunts deer, and scouts out interlopers from the air.  His sole neighbor is Bangley, a tough man determined to protect his territory or die trying.  Bangley continually tests Hig, pushing him to find his weak points and bullying him out of them.  Hig’s weaknesses? Caring about the community of contagious families within flying distance.  His reluctance to shoot people.  His dog Jasper.  His memories of the time before.  The innate trust that Bangley believes will kill them both one day.

His desire to go anywhere, to be anywhere but that old airport.

When the chance arises, Hig decides to fly off in the direction of a voice transmission he’d picked up years before, seeking a new face, a new place, a new something that will divert him from his grief and give him a shot at regaining his sense of humanity.  Loaded down with fuel and supplies, he takes off and leaves Bangley behind.

And meets other people.  The problem is that those people are also trying to protect their territory.  They don’t know that he’s looking for companionship or salvation, and he may be dead before he can communicate that to them.  He must balance his essential self with everything Bangley has drilled into him to weave his way through these encounters.

Heller uses the first person to tell this story, giving an immediacy to the adrenaline of Hig’s mortal encounters and the range of emotions he feels towards Jasper, Bangley, his wife, and all the things of the prior world that he misses, along with the complicated thrill Hig still gets from flying.  From the details of ambushing a raiding party to the feel of tickling fish in a mountain stream, Heller puts the reader into Hig’s unenviable place and finds the slightest glimmer of hope in a world that is barely holding on.

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High school junior Dean is starting a normal day in his Colorado suburb, riding his school bus in a future not too different from now, where every child has a minitab that keeps them continuously connected to the Network. Suddenly, strange hail filled with stones and sticks inundates them so terribly that his bus crashes, killing the driver and over half the students. The survivors of the crash are helped into a nearby superstore by the resourceful driver of the nearby elementary school bus. She goes looking for help and eight teenagers are left to look after six small children as the world goes crazy.

From an old fashioned TV they learn that a volcanic eruption in the far away Canary Islands have set off a chain of catastrophes such as the strange hail and earthquakes which have caused the release of chemical weapons. Things are looking very bleak. How will these eight teenagers survive? Will they able to care for the six small children who have unexpectedly become their responsibility?

Monument 14 only covers 12 days, but an amazing amount of action is squeezed into less than two weeks. Like Ashfall (about which I previously posted), Monument 14 starts with a natural disaster that is beyond the control of people, but unlike Ashfall it then delves into the man made disaster of the released chemical weapons.  Monument 14 focuses less on the action and more on the psychology of the previously carefree teenagers and the children who are now their responsibility. There are many characters to keep track of, but they are well drawn with some being likable and others distinctly less so. The teenagers already know each other from high school, but travel different social circles. The teenagers who were popular aren’t necessarily the ones best suited to the extremes of their new situation.

Monument 14 suggests that during an apocalyptic event a superstore is a great place to take shelter, as it has everything you might need–food, medicine, bedding, clothing, and camping supplies to start with. In reality, it may be a terrible place because everyone will want the same supplies and you may have to fight for them. In Monument 14, the store has strong, automatic “riot gates” that close and lock the children in. More importantly, it also locks everyone else out, but other people want to get in, adding to the tension and plot twists.

Monument 14 is another book published for teenagers that many adults will enjoy. It has enough action to keep you on the edge of your seat and enough post-apocalyptic problems and psychology to keep you thinking long after the last page. It ends in a cliffhanger and, according to the author’s website,  the sequel, Monument 14: Sky on Fire, will come out in the summer of 2013. I can’t wait!

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Some apocalyptic stories begin with human folly. Ashfall starts with a catastrophe that no human could ever prevent, the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park. Some authorities think that these supervolcanic events have occurred several times in the course of human history. They may have caused ice ages and may have caused a bottleneck in human evolution. Perhaps humans can predict supervolcanic events in the short term if we notice a rise in seismic and volcanic activity but no human power can prevent them.

In Ashfall, Alex is an ordinary teenager living in a suburb in Iowa. He argues with his mother and likes playing World of Warcraft. He is thrilled when his parents go on a weekend visit to his uncle’s farm 3 hours’ drive away in Warren, Illinois and leave him home alone for the first time.

Nobody suspected that this routine Friday would be the last ordinary day that anyone in America, and maybe the whole world, would ever see. Alex’s house suddenly explodes into flames and all the phones, internet and even the radios don’t work. He goes to a neighbor’s house and for days the world is plunged into darkness as they are surrounded by a noise so loud that they have to stuff toilet paper in their ears and wear headphones to prevent pain. At first Alex has no idea what is going on, but his neighbor connects the crazy events to a short radio news bulletin about a volcanic eruption.

Even when they know what has happened, nobody knows what it means for them in the short term or humanity in the long term. All Alex knows is that he must find his family, so he sets off with cross country skis and a backpack of food. Conditions are terrible as every water source is poisoned and it becomes so cold that it starts snowing in September, but the behavior of people is far worse. Some are kind, together in towns to look after each other, but with civilization collapsing, criminals have no restraints. Alex meets good people like sharp-tongued Darla but also murderous criminals like Target.

Ashfall can be enjoyed as a tense action adventure with fascinating post-apocalyptic problems. Who would have considered that flat-roofed buildings are a terrible choice during a supervolcanic eruption because they may collapse under the weight of the ash? But Ashfall is more than a simple thriller. Author Mike Mullins movingly and realistically portrays Alex’s growth from a spoiled teenager to a strong and mature young man, capable of surviving in the new, harsh world.

Since this book deals with future events, I will make a prediction. I think this book is destined for popularity. If sequels that are planned to complete the trilogy are as good, they are as well (Ashen Winter is due out October 2012). Yet at the same time I fervently hope Mike Mullins’ predictive skills are lacking and no supervolcanic eruptions are coming soon.

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When is a bandwagon no longer a bandwagon? How about when a genuine author comes along, takes his place and kicks the crap back into the street?  The best I can tell from my own reading is that would leave three writers whose insight goes deeper than the mechanics of killing the undead.  The third, of course, is zombie newcomer Colson Whitehead.  The rest of the wannabes should grab a broom and start sweeping the street.

It takes some nerve to approach such a trendy subject, but Whitehead has penetrated to its heart and brought back a novel that resonates on many fronts.  May I blushingly suggest that in the course of 259 pages he has found the true appeal of the zombie storyline, and it completely dovetails with my own?  Of course, I’ve only stumbled through a few incoherent emails, while Whitehead has unerringly written a novel both graceful and frightening in its depths.

Mark Spitz is the main character of the narrative.  A determinedly average person from an ordinary middle-class family, he has thus far survived the zombie apocalypse, and is now engaged in an overwhelming volunteer task.  He and thousands of other civilians are assigned to clear New York, building by building, of the undead.  The professional military has already conducted the massive operations that eliminated the majority of the zombie hordes, and it is now up to Mark Spitz and his two partners to join in the mopping up so that “Zone One” can begin rebuilding.  Manhattan still attracts the ambitious and hungry (mostly hungry), but military barricades and crematoria work 24 hours a day to deal with that external threat.

Of course we learn more about Mark Spitz as the story progresses—his life before the plague, his initial discovery of the threat, his own flight from shelter to shelter, the source of his nom-de-guerre.  He is such an ordinary person that we come to completely identify with him, but even there Colson manages to surprise us.  One aspect of Mark Spitz’s personality we especially adopt for ourselves is his certainty that he is destined to survive.  Who among us doesn’t think that we’ll be exempt from the pandemic, the asteroid crash, the accidental nuclear war?  Death is always for other people.

Where Max Brooks assembled first-person narratives, Whitehead goes deeper into the psychology of a survivor whose internal life reveals far more than the spoken word ever could.  We see how he divides other living humans into classes based on their chances, and treats them accordingly; we see what little remains of his survivor’s guilt, and we see the hope in others that he ruthlessly suppresses in himself.

But I read all of this as an extended metaphor. Mark Spitz withheld almost all of himself from others even before survival made that necessary.  He had a distaste for people that didn’t quite rise to the level of misanthropy, tolerating a few for the company or opportunities they provided while he went about his self-centered life.  Don’t we all do that?  Don’t we all reveal only the portions of ourselves that we want others to see?  Sure, the closer they are the more we reveal, but even our inmost thoughts are ours alone, dismal as that may sound.  The zombie apocalypse gives perfect cover to anyone who doesn’t want to feel guilty about withholding themselves.

My own thoughts about the literary zombie trend?  It’s about The Other.  We live in a world that is so fractured by ethnic, linguistic, national, class, and political divisions that it would take a saint not to create groups of Us and Them.  The zombie narrative cuts through that Gordian knot.  We are alive.  They are dead.  No matter how viciously we the living may have treated each other before, now we represent possibly the best way to guarantee our own survival. And when it comes down to that, I’m going to sacrifice You for Me.  So be it.

I’ve tried not to reveal much of the story because I want to leave the reading of this terrific novel to you.  I would, however, appreciate hearing your thoughts on the last few paragraphs.

Check the WRL catalog for Zone One

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A note from Jessica: I’ve been with BFGB since its inception 4.5 years ago. This will be my last review, since I’m leaving for a new job in a new state. Writing about books has been my favorite part of working at WRL. Thank you for the good times, readers.

They call it a cure for death, but that’s misleading. You can still drown or starve or fall out a window. It is merely a cure for aging, it is completely illegal, and it can be had for seven thousand dollars on the black market. That’s not a bad deal in the year 2019.

John Farrow decides to get the cure at age 29. He can afford it on his income as a lawyer, especially now that he’s changing his specialty to divorce law. (“‘Til Death Do Us Part” has taken on new meaning.) He does not struggle with the decision. He is not Catholic, so he can’t be excommunicated. He is not worried about potential societal consequences of pollution, scarce resources, or violence. He is normally a logical and conscionable thinker, but, he realizes, “no argument could be made against my profound interest in not dying.”

After a few years of indecision, the United States legalizes the cure. This sharply-decelerated death rate provides a fallow playground for debut novelist Magary, who imagines all sorts of unintended consequences. There are the Peter Pan cases, young children whose mothers illegally suspend aging in their infants. There are the hyper-violent trolls who forswear the cure and instead seek to maim, but not kill, people who might live forever. There are the viruses that now have decades to perfect their attacks against individuals. And there are new career opportunities, even as the planet bulges with people. Our hero John eventually takes a job as an End Specialist, a government employee who grants death to people who no longer want to be cured of aging.

John is a shrewd narrator with a strong streak of resilience, imperative for people trying to survive in a post-aging world. The novel starts out as a quirky thought-piece, filled with speculative “What-if?” scenarios of the near future, but it gets progressively deeper as the years go by. The ranks of the homeless swell. Cars are abandoned when worldwide gasoline reserves are tapped dry. Transportation grinds to a halt.  Some nations use nuclear weapons to control their populations, while other nations employ ageless armies as career pillagers.

Though playful at first, Magary’s book transforms into a bleak vision of the future. Let us hope it is not prophetic.

Check the WRL catalog for The Postmortal

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Oh noes, another zombie book! Can the world sustain yet more coverage of the apocalypse brought on by the undead? Well, in this case, it not only must sustain it, but the world will be better for it. You see, we now have a clue, brought to you in this Max Brooks/George Romero-approved journal, of how the plague started and how the disease progresses. What great luck that we also now have a record of the spiritual implications of blowing their undead heads off. Whew!

On an isolated island in the Indian Ocean, a small team has been assembled for a last-ditch effort at understanding the physiology of the zombie.  Knowing that their exposure to Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome (ANSD) is certain, these brave souls intend to provide as much medical evidence as possible before they succumb to the syndrome. Or, in layman’s parlance, become ex-people. Unfortunately, it was only by accident that any record of their inconclusive discoveries made it off the island, but even those were tainted by the relative inexperience of the journal’s author, Dr. Stanley Blum.

The project is beset by difficulties, not least of which is that Dr. Blum is an administrator, not a researcher. Dr. Gutierrez, the world’s leading ANSD expert, is also rapidly progressing through the stages of ANSD, although she is able to direct the autopsies. Slowly, the project begins to reveal the medical reasons behind the familiar symptoms of ANSD– the shuffling gait, the insatiable appetite, the ability to remain active despite advanced decomposition. The most serious problem, though, is that the test zombies cannot be sedated, incapacitated, or eliminated, so the work has to be done on animated humanoids, classed as No Longer Human. And they have to be fed.

Schlozman uses an intriguing device to introduce and periodically interpret Blum’s work. The journal is accompanied by a bureaucratic memo reminding the reader that these observations provide the foundation of an upcoming meeting to create a comprehensive strategy. The memo includes a glossary, a copy of the Treaty of Atlanta (laying out the ethics of dealing with zombies), personal materials from Drs. Gutierrez and Blum, and a significant collection of emails.

Schlozman easily moves between voices, adopting the appropriate tone for each.  Blum’s handwritten journal alternates between his medical observations and a narrative of his one week in the lab. While the first are informative, the latter are both horrifying and plaintive. The bureaucrat is analytical, even detached; the Treaty of Atlanta is earnest; and those relevant emails are chilling in their specificity. There is one niggling detail at odds with Max Brooks’s description of the earliest outbreaks, but that could be put down to confusion or cover-up over the source and spread of ANSD. Regardless, this is a necessary and readable addition to the scholarly literature, and when it is declassified, should be an essential acquisition for every surviving public and academic library.

Check the WRL catalog for The Zombie Autopsies

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OK, so zombies are big these days. Huge, in fact. Fictional and historical characters have taken up the eternal battle against the undead with great success. But what if you were a 20-something slacker and the Day dawned?

Shaun is the classic underachiever. In fact, the greatest triumph of his life is probably living away from his mom and despised stepfather. He’s in a dead-end job (and all his younger co-workers openly laugh at him), he’s drifting through a relationship with girlfriend Liz, and he’s stuck between his hard-charging roommate Pete and doper/gamer Ed, his best friend and the third roomie in the flat. When Liz dumps him, Shaun decides to change his ways. Unfortunately (fortunately?), the zombie outbreak has preceded Shaun’s resolution, and Shaun is forced to make more drastic changes than even he had imagined.

The script does a great job balancing the horror of increasing zombie attacks and the humor of Shaun’s attempts to be a hero. The funniest part of the film (to me) was a scene in which Shaun goes out to run an errand and blithely walks past scenes of mayhem. But he quickly comes to understand that he’s surrounded by a catastrophe and begins to improvise weapons in the face of zombie attacks. (Another funny scene has Ed and Shaun arguing over which sentimental objects are OK to use in their battles.) But that humor is underlined with background images that leave the viewer uncertain and off-balance—is that a couple kissing in the shadows of a phone booth, or a hickey going drastically wrong? Are those kids playing tag or is It one of Them?

Shaun of the Dead occupies an enviably unique spot in the movie realm: a horror film that is truly comic, a comic film that is truly horrific. There are moments of revelation as well, including impossible decisions that Shaun and his friends must make to survive. I don’t know that you could truly say that Shaun grows up, but at least he finds his niche, no matter how bizarre that niche may be.

Check the WRL catalog for Shaun of the Dead

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Russian-American emigré Gary Shteyngart has received many awards for his acerbic satirical fiction, but his best reviewed book yet is 2010′s Super Sad True Love Story.

It’s an apocalyptic tale set in the near future of the United States. The story is told from two viewpoints. Lenny Abramov is a middle-aged nebbish, a salesman of über-expensive rejuvenation treatments to the hyper-rich. His job is under threat because he no longer looks young enough to hawk immortality. Lenny comforts himself with the nearly extinct luxury of classic books, failing to conform to the texting culture of his time. The son of Russian immigrants, Lenny constantly caves in to please those around him, particularly his manipulative boss, the elegant but sleazy Joshy Goldman. Lenny’s chapters in the book take the form of journals.

Perhaps because he longs to reconnect with his youth, Lenny falls for Eunice Park, a petulant, often shallow Korean-American girl, represented here by text messages to her manipulative family and callow friends. Like others of her generation, Eunice is addicted to shopping, fixated on health food, media trends and casual sex. Lenny is anything but her type, but she responds to his devoted attentions. The security and kindness he provides contrasts with the pressure placed on her by her family.  And so begins an unlikely relationship.

While the characters are good, the real star here is the truly terrifying world that Shteyngart describes in his zingy, snappy, semi-obscene slang. His future America is surprised to be failing in a war against Venezuela and in deep debt to China and Norway. Privacy is dead, with the credit ratings, vital statistics,  and emotional reactions of passersby broadcast on poles in the street and on the äpääräts (horrifyingly invasive microcomputing devices) of everyone in the vicinity. Media pervades every aspect of culture, mostly with personal confessions, ever-present sexual references, ads for healthy, youth-maintaining foods, and demands that consumers buy more goods to show their patriotism. Everything is aimed at young people, with those over 30 considered over the hill. What I find especially terrifying about Shteyngart’s “future” is that much of it has already happened.

All of this leads to a kind of end times—not the Rapture, but in Shteyngart’s play on words, “The Rupture.” America comes apart, the creditors move in like sharks, corporate national guard troops take over the streets, and the poor begin to be eliminated. Against this  Lenny and Eunice play out their pathetic and doomed romance, a romance that is something of an allegory for the death of the American immigrant dream.

This isn’t for everybody. Lenny and Eunice aren’t likable people, and Shteyngart’s language is peppered with phrases that may make readers uncomfortable. The humor here is very dark. Some readers will laugh hysterically, while others won’t appreciate the acid bath. This style is essential to the arguments that Shteyngart is making, but readers who prefer happy, innocent, and uplifting should look elsewhere.

Check the WRL catalog for Super Sad True Love Story

Or try Super Sad True Love Story as an audiobook on compact disc

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You know how some movie reviews say, “This film grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go”? Well, The Enemy does that in book form. I was hooked from the very beginning of this dark and somewhat disturbing story. It is set in London a year after everyone over sixteen falls victim to an unexplained illness. The adults who did not die are now zombie-like, killing and eating whatever they can to survive, and their kids are left to fend for themselves.

A band of kids are using the Waitrose grocery store as their home base, and they have turned it into a fortress. They send out parties to scavenge for food, which is becoming harder to find, and they must fight roving bands of zombies, whom they call “Grown-ups.” Don’t get too attached to any particular character, even if they seem to be one of the main protagonists, as the death toll is high. It gets even higher when Waitrose is visited by a kid they have never seen before, who claims to be from a similar entrenchment of kids at Buckingham Palace. The Waitrose kids, along with a group of kids similarly holed up in the nearby Morrisons grocery store, decide to abandon their stores and attempt to travel to the palace, where survival is promised to be much easier. And it’s not necessarily a suicide mission. As one character says, “The thing about grown-ups is, some of them are strong, some of them can run fast, and some of them are clever, but the strong ones are slow, the fast ones are stupid, and the smart ones are weak.”

I had to push past a particular incident very early on featuring the kids taking on a pack of feral dogs, but I can tell you dog-lovers that this is the only instance of canine violence in the story. There is plenty of human violence, however, and fans of Michael Grant’s Gone series and the Hunger Games series will find similarities here: kids in peril fight for survival in a world where adults can no longer help them. If you are as hooked as I was after finishing this book, you’ll be glad to know that a prequel has already been published… but it’s only available in the U.K. The Dead will be released in America in June 2011.

Check the WRL catalog for The Enemy.

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