Really? A guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse?

The final book review in the zombie stage of my summer reading list has finally arrived. Max Brooks was again the author in question, with this book simply titled “The Zombie survival guide”. Not to rip off Ronseal or anything (sorry American readers, I’m not sure if ye have that), but this book really does do what it says on the tin. Actually, wait no, I’ve found a far more clichéd phrase-one should judge this book by its cover. Having been wrote before Brooks’ bestseller World War Z, this book gives a far more superficial look at the post-apocalyptic fallout that threatens us all if the dead reanimate.

That being said, superficial is far from what we get in all other areas. The book opens with a detailed look at what makes the walking dead tick (or well, what makes them not tick) in terms of their movement, hearing, eyesight, brain activity etc. As a pharmacy student, I found a lot of this material interesting, as not only is it hard to come by (ya know, ya don’t treat many zombies in community pharmacy these days) but it also ties up very well with concrete aspects of human physiology/anatomy. For readers less enthused by science, this section won’t stand out I’m afraid. Coming to the end of this section, however, we do get a good look at the classifications of an undead outbreak, and what signs to look for in the media.

The next thirty pages are more what the reader goes in expecting, with a full lowdown of all the weapons available and/or useful on commencement of the outbreak. Here we see Brooks got very creative, as his research obviously yielded cold hard facts about the drawbacks/limitations of conventional firearms or military based weaponry, but even outside of that he expands this section to give advice on combat styles, biological warfare and types of body armour. Anybody who has even dabbled in the infamous ‘zombie mode’ from the popular Call of Duty games would find this section more than enthralling.

Personally I found the next two sections to be the best in the book, as they again highlighted how far the writer was willing to delve into his work, but also could be extrapolated for use in other post-apocalyptic situations. The ‘On the defence’ chapter takes a comprehensive look at how homes can be vamped up for use as a defensive position once the dead come knocking. Not only does the author examine the different types of homes available, but he then provides tips for how to operate a defence in public buildings, such as churches, hospitals or schools. Given the outbreak is nigh able to occur at anytime of the day, you may find yourself relying on these pages more than you would have imagined.

The ‘On the run’ chapter then flips you out of the frying pan and into the fire-with its tips focusing on what your plan should be when the house-turned-fortress becomes a no-go. Because this section loosely resembles that of a doomsday prepper programme, it has its ups and downs. The major deal breaker comes in the form of how readily the advice can be applied, given the amount of money needed to create the standard pack alone would be dubious enough. That being said, the chapter does give a rather chilling view of the various terrains that will be encountered along the way, as the author succeeds in making the dangers of each jump right off the pages.

Next it was ‘On the attack’, a section I expected to pan out differently than it did. As it is, the major portion of the chapter centres on how to clear out different zones of infestation, as well as providing possible tactics as to how this process should go ahead. A lot of the terrain material gets repeated from the opposite perspective, and that maybe hampers the flow of the book. That being said, if we are to take this as a thorough guide, then I guess we have to call this repetition necessary, and maybe even important. As a final installment in the guide part of the book, we get advice on how to survive in an undead world, long after civilisation has collapsed and you are beyond hope of rescue. In this case, finding a permanent home is what’s vital, and so Brooks sets out to explore this concept, again using the terrain as a factor, but also looking at how accessible it is, both for yourself and those survivors who would wish to take it.

And so the guide comes to a close. The book however, stumbles on, its back pages acting almost as a prologue to World War Z, as in this section we get to examine accounts of outbreaks over thousands of years, and how these tie together. Here again, we see how Brooks can make a concept so surreal and unfathomable bite really close to the bone. Whether its asking what really happened to those ancient Egyptian bodies, or how did California find itself in the midst of a concerning outbreak, the stories champion all the good features of the classic zombie horror story.

And truthfully, that is really what Max Brooks delivers. For all of the ‘Dawn of the dead’ remake styled movies that now swarm in the film industry, these books are far closer to what we all identify as zombie. And that’s a good a note to close on as any.

World War Z without Brad Pitt

It’s very rare in the modern day to be able to read a book, watch it’s film adaptation, and still find no faults between them. Very rare. But here, after ploughing through an entire series of The Walking Dead books, the faults of which I outlined before both as a novel and as an on-screen version, I found a winner.

The above is actually incorrect, that is, in phrasing of course. I’d actually seen Max Brooks’ novel in the film version six months ago, long before Waterstones got paid a holiday visit from Kyle and his gift card. So when a quick google search informed me the movie and book were pretty much different in all but name, I wasn’t sure what I had got myself into.

The film World War Z stars Brad Pitt, who in the midst of a zombie pandemic finds himself shuffled into the deck of the world’s rescue team, which also features a globally renowned expert in viruses et al as well as the standard motley crew of army companions. Their mission is to go deep behind the enemy lines, to find patient zero and investigate how the infection operates. The journey takes them across countries which overall does try to encompass excerpts from the novel in as dramatic a fashion as possible. The portrayal of Israel is a good example that readers of the book could find a good parallel in. After that though, the similarities dwindle out. Most of the latter part of the movie centres on a World Health Organisation facility, where a plan for a cure begins to unravel. The climax is tense and overall as a narrative the movie successfully breaks into the ranks of respectable zombie films. This review will tend to focus more on the book though, as that’s probably where the real credit should go.

The most observable difference seen in the first few pages of the book on comparison to the film is the existence of the slow-type zombie rather than the fast-moving monster that is rampant in Brad Pitt’s world. Other than that readers would be surprised to see the book actually comprises a series of interviews, each skipping to different parts of the world and effectively examining the fallout of the “war” for people of all manner of class, gender, economic background and professional status. Even I thought this wasn’t going to work, with the skill needed to write a convincing novel made up only of interviews very hard to come by. But to Brooks’ credit, he whisks you right into the story from the beginning. The interviewer only intervenes to a point, giving the book room to flow, and so the pace isn’t hurt at all as mostly those being questioned are left free to describe first-hand what occurred to them during the apocalypse. However, if this was the only feature alone that Brooks employed, I’d leave the book thinking it was a solid shot at trying to convince the reader this had actually happened. What’s scary more than impressive, is that the author goes much, much further.

What’s immediately evident is the writer sticks to a set time pattern, with the novel’s early interviews revolving around the breakout of the virus, progressing eventually through survivor stories and the resulting fight back by the humans remaining.

The first twenty pages are an eerie look at just how terrifying it would be to come upon what seem like gruesome murders or abstract infections, the tone set by those interviewed (which of course the author controls) that all authority were completely incompetent, bewildered or out to cover up the true nature of what was going on. The writer breathes intelligence in every interview as he comes up with clever ways to get the virus on the move, such as cross-continent organ transplants or smugglers helping people out of quarantine zones. This helps quash the disbelief we all would have of “how exactly does this take over the world?”

Some of the best work is evident in the Israel/Palestine story. Of course, pre-war, this has its own political and social upheavals, so the virus only adds to the pool of problems the Middle East faces, with religion and military powers now coming into play as well. This is told from both sides of the Gaza strip, and from those both in power and those on the ground.

Once the plague begins to go global, the interviews shift to where the blame lies. At first we get glimpses of government officials discussing cover-up operations and attempts to avoid panic, but this also expands to give us a look at more interesting and obscure topics such as failed vaccine attempts and the embers of human-zombie contact on American soil.

The Great Panic spans a large chunk of the novel, and importantly deals with how humans became the losing side; a factor left out by most zombie movies where viewers are landed into the situation already after the government/society has collapsed. The tone here darkens significantly, and for the first time we begin to see the psychological implications of an undead world. Survivor stories feature a deranged woman, the fall of the army and the Russian side of the conflict.

After that we see just how big the fallout is, with stories of cannibalism and humans gone insane, either imitating zombies to their own demise or forming wild groups in the urban jungles. The book then takes the survivor cases in two groups-those still living in America and those located on other continents. Some pieces even go so far as to deal with life on the international space station, or life for a Japanese computer kid who is so hooked he fails to notice his parents gone for several days.

WordPress doesn’t have enough blog space to go into detail on all of the fascinating stories the author explores. As a result, I’ll focus finally on the last portion of the book, where I think the author succeeds to give the novel a lasting legacy. Here, during the human fight-back, we are painted a portrait of every aspect of the front line, whether it’s underwater, in cities, in Parisian catacombs or across the American Great Plains. Comprehensive would be insulting as a description, such is the extent to which it falls short in showing just how far the author’s research has prevailed. The ending is bitter sweet in most respects, with a lot of the earlier interviewees revisited to examine the aftershock. Realistically, if you took out the world zombie here and there, it really feels like the novel could have been the aftermath of any natural disaster. It’s less of a novel about zombies thriving, and more of a novel about humans clinging on, whatever for, and even then, remaining uncertain.

I would certainly recommend this on any summer reading list, if only for its merits in writing alone. Outside of that, the research, detail and difference in style the author brings to the table are commendable and go far beyond whatever Pitt and his friends were ever likely to achieve.

How The Walking Dead handles the move to a novel format

It’s been about a year since I took a gamble on following my interest in the ABC show “The Walking Dead” to the point where I purchased and read the spin-off novel; The Rise of the Governor. Mapped out by Robert Kirkman (the mastermind behind the original comic series) and pulled together by thriller writer Jay Bonansinga, the novel focuses on the back story of one of the most recognised and revered characters in the Walking Dead universe; Brian Blake (known widely as The Governor across all the aforementioned media). As my last review highlighted, the book overall pleased me, though it was not without its obvious drawbacks. Now nearly a fortnight into summer holidays, I’ve respectably flicked my way through the remaining three books in the series (though at two hundred and fifty-ish pages each, nobody is calling these a modern day War and Peace).

The second book in the series is titled “The road to Woodbury”, but rather than picking up where we left off with the Governors seizing of Woodbury’s power network, here we are thrust into the world of a separate character; Lily Caul (who is all but absent from the TV adaptation, but shows up as a regular at points in the comics). This installment starts as gripping and enthralling as that of the first, with Lily and her companions constantly facing human and zombie dangers alike. Being on the road, the pace ticks rapidly forward, never giving the reader or our protagonists a moment’s rest; a feature of Bonansinga’s writing that he might call a signature move. The inclusion of a female protagonist is a welcome sight, with Lily standing apart from previous male bravado-type characters and seeming far more human in what seems an increasingly unrealistic world of human responses to apocalyptic life. Josh and the remaining plot characters are written well enough that the story doesn’t suffer (at least not in that department), and by the halfway point there is a genuine desire on the part of the reader to want to see them safe. A huge plot shift occurs on arrival to the eponymous Woodbury. Rather than providing the overwhelming political and interpersonal tension that is characteristic of post-apocalyptic settlements, the novel seems to slip into a coma at this point; the new dangers of avoiding the town’s uglier denizens not living up to the perils seen on the run for our characters. By the end point the Governor is armed with enough psychotic intentions that the climax comes booming from the pages, but not without a splash of melodramatic flavouring.

The Fall of the Governor is split up into two identically sized pieces; its blurb reminding us that at this point characters made popular by the on-screen version are set to make an entrance into the series. Here Lily Caul again features as a viewpoint, a notion now so familiar the reader could wonder whether the Governor ever was supposed to stand out in this trilogy. Luckily this time even though we again find ourselves rooted in Woodbury, the tension is dialed up a notch, with Kirkman edging the Governor further over the edge in his actions, to the point where some of the residents question where the real problem lies-outside with the undead or inside with the living. Characters such as Martinez and Doc Stevens get more explored roles, with the Governor’s own henchmen also featuring to act as antagonists. By the time Glenn, Rick and Michonne arrive (their names so synonymous with the series it does jolt the reader back awake), the plot opens out into a much larger sweeping narrative, with multiple points of view becoming the norm, and short snappy scenes quashing the previous longer internal monologues. Austin arrives as a character throughout this final piece in the series, and immediately bolsters the ranks, with the Woodbury day-to-day life having diminished our pool of characters originally seen in book two. Once the narrative shifts to the prison, the challenge of trying to bring all the pieces into play at the right time really shows up in the pace of the story; the writer now clearly focusing on what is an inevitable outcome rather than giving the series the ending it deserves. The character of Michonne just gets annoying by now, her over the top displays in the field nothing short of laughable, a problem also seen in the TV show, which is no doubt always stemming from Kirkman himself. Lily Caul on the other hand goes from strength to strength, nearly reaching a point where the reader wishes a Woodbury victory over the memorable TV protagonists. Books three and four are swamped in tragedy, their tones far darker than those of the first two. The brutality now is relished by the characters not just thrust upon them.

On a whole the series succeeds in its mission to capture many of the elements of the other formats while giving a good account of the stories of the main characters. It’s a page turner and there’s no doubting it; the evidence of Bonansinga’s thriller writing experience present throughout. When it’s on the road, the novels are tense, gripping and highly engaging. Once it settles into a standstill, the ability of the book to hold the reader falters a little, but not to the point that you will lose faith. The series oozes action scenes, something any interested reader came in expecting, and so there’s no disappointment there. Where the books really fall down is the writing. It’s a lucky thing I came in wanting a theme more than some great novel. Because the latter can never be found. The writing is at best page-turning, at worst it’s enough to make you cringe and wonder did the author’s nine year old daughter step in for a chapter or two. Over description of the most mundane details is widespread. The writer clearly tries to convey some deep knowledge of biology at any possible moment, though having studied basic physiology I could give him a few pointers. Characters become stereotyped the second time we meet them, words are used to the point of outrage (apparently you can just about ‘thumb’ anything) and the phrase ‘nobody notices’ may as well comprise half the series for all its usage. It’s enough at times that the writing is what really is going bump in the night; the danger of drowning in sea of zombies nowhere near as close to that of suffocating beneath an onrush of unnecessary jargon. That being said, not all is at a loss.

Not one hour ago, I switched the TV to Film 4, and seeing that “The Wedding Planner” was just starting, I shrugged and sank back in my chair. It’s a very dull rom-com starring Jennifer Lopez and a boyish looking Matthew McConaughey. Having racked up a meager 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, it leaves a lot to be desired, but there I sat, watching it at my leisure, completely aware of what I was getting into. And perhaps that’s where the Walking Dead books triumph. For all their faults, they give us, the enthused, exactly what we wanted. Seeing that Kirkman has ordered Bonansinga to hammer out another four novels (starting with “The Descent” in October 14), I’ll remain quietly hopeful of a revamp of the series. Let’s not forget, Matthew himself would have laughed on the set of the Wedding Planner if you told he would hold up an oscar for Best Actor not two decades later…

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