World War Z

World War Z by Max Brooks

Zombie mythos is at an all-time high, as evidenced by the popular The Walking Dead graphic novels and television show, Zombieland and just about every other incarnation imaginable. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Max Brooks’ popular first-person, biographical account of the Zombie War has become a classic, must-read zombie novel.

The reprint cover boasts “soon to be a major motion picture” and, hopefully, the movie will stay true to the book (although that is so rarely the case).

The premise of World War Z is this: The 10-year nightmare that soon became known as the Zombie War nearly eradicated humanity. Max Brooks, a federal employee charged with compiling a report that detailed the events of the war, soon discovers the United Nations Postwar Commission failed to truly capture the horrors, loss and bravery of the war and those who survived.

Brooks, armed with a notebook and recorder, travels across the United States and throughout the world to capture first-person accounts of those who fought in the war. His subjects range from military brass to political figures to moms and dads who did their best to save their families from the mobs of the undead that took over the world of the living.

Fresh on the heels of a tenuous victory over the zombie army, Brooks recounts harrowing tales of combat, unspeakable loss and bravery from the unlikeliest heroes.

World War Z is an interesting take on the zombie mythos. It’s engaging, thoughtful and stands out from many of the other zombie stories out there. The personal recollections from characters who could be a neighbor of family member lend it a believability that’s rare in the undead genre. It’s almost easy to forget that this is a fictional account of an impossible reality.

However, that being said, the story suffered a little because of thinly veiled pop culture and political references – Paris Hilton, Bush, Obama, television shows, etc. It’s always dicey to dated references in a book, because eventually, those examples become outdated and ultimately detract from the story. Brooks could have foregone those and had a stronger story.

The first-person narratives could have been tied together a bit more to create a stronger continuity. At times, it felt like the book was left hanging, especially at the end.

Aside from those criticisms, World War Z was an enjoyable and it’d be great if a sequel was written, specifically one that delved into the stories Brooks left untold.

Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

It’s safe to say Neil Gaiman will be remembered as a literary tour-de-force long after we are all gone. His crowning achievement – the Sandman graphic novels – secured him a place in literary history as soon as people began reading them.

It should come as no surprise that Gaiman once again revisits the mythos that consistently peppered the Sandman novels and American Gods. By now, Gaiman has credibly established a universe where ancient gods still walk among modern man, spreading their wisdom and, more often than not, wreaking mischief upon unsuspecting mankind.

The premise of Anansi Boys is this: When Charlie Nancy’s father named something, it stuck. Like the nickname Fat Charlie. Even though Fat Charlie is now a grown man, living in London and engaged, he’s still saddled with embarrassing moniker.

When his father drops dead on a karaoke bar stage, Fat Charlie has the unsettling feeling he’s still not free of the older man’s influence, and he’s correct. Nancy’s boring, staid life suddenly transforms into a bubbling maelstrom with trips across the Atlantic, the surprising appearance of a brother he never knew he had, and – perhaps the most startling revelation of all – the realization that Mr. Nancy wasn’t simply an embarrassing father. No, he was Anansi, the trickster, spider god of rebellion, and he had an annoying habit of not staying dead.

Gaiman masterfully weaves ancient mythology with subtle pathos, knowing almost every reader will easily identify with Fat Charlie’s dysfunctional family. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to not sympathize with Charlie’s confusion when his mischievous brother appears, his sights seemingly set on ruining Charlie’s life all in the name of teaching Charlie to have a little fun.

A colorful cast of characters, including a cantankerous future mother-in-law, a shyster boss who’s been fleecing his clients for years, a group of decrepit, grouchy witches and a slew of ancient gods make this story incredibly satisfying. Blending gods with man is never easy, but Gaiman makes it look effortless.

One might say Anansi Boys is a coming-of-age story for Fat Charlie, because the man who appears on the first page of the story is nothing like the man left standing on the last, and I was glad for that.

Thunderhead sizzles with history and murder

Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Having been a fan of the Pendergast books by Preston and Child, I decided it was high time to start reading the other works they’ve produced as a writing duo.

“Thunderhead” seemed a good choice, because it introduces archaeologist Nora Kelly, who features prominently in several of the Pendergast novels. Getting more background information on her was appealing to me, because Nora has always been a strong character and added great depth to the novels in which she’s appeared; however, a part of me was curious to see if I would like her as much in a standalone story.

The premise of Thunderhead is this: Archaeologist Nora Kelly is at a crossroads in her career, dissatisfied with her current projects and unsure of how to change that. But when a violent encounter in her childhood home leaves in possession of a letter written by her vanished father, her life suddenly changes.

In the 16-year-old letter, her father claims to have discovered Quivira, the lost city of the Anasazi Indians which is fabled to been a treasure trove of gold. Quickly mounting an expedition and backed by the Institute’s credibility and funding, her team travels deep into the remote desert and harsh canyons.

When the team finally reaches their destination, they discover an archaeological dream which quickly morphs into a horrific nightmare.

Preston and Child have a gift for solidly grounding their fiction stories in fact, which comes from extensive research. “Thunderhead” is no different, and I think it’s because they sprinkle fact within fiction that their stories are highly believable. It’s easily apparent that much time was spent researching Plains Indian culture. Without ever falling into Native stereotypes, they create a culture that could have easily inhabited the Southwest so many years ago. Weaving in accounts of early Spanish explorers helped strengthen that back story.

By the time Nora and her team reach Quivira, the reader already has the mythos of the Anasazi firmly embedded in their minds. As the story progresses and the horror of what truly occurred at the fabled city emerge, it easily meshes with the established history.

Fast-paced action scenes, believable tensions between strong-willed personalities and the ominous backdrop of the harsh Southwest all combine to form a spellbinding tale. When it finally came to a conclusion, I was pleased to discover I liked Nora Kelly even more than when I began the novel.

Readers should note that there are several particularly gruesome deaths throughout the novel, but they are never gratuitous and always serve to further the plot.

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

After hearing about the Sandman series for several years, I finally decided to visit my local library and pick up the first volume. The concept of a graphic novel as an intense storyline with stellar art was, to me, intriguing.

Although I used to read comics when I was younger – mostly Marvel and DC’s Star Trek line – I’d moved away from that medium shortly after high school. I’m glad I listened to the recommendation for Gaiman’s Sandman series – arguably Vertigo’s most popular publishing – as the book to bring me back to illustrated storytelling. The art in each novel is unbelievable, and Todd Klein’s lettering is fluid and beautiful!

The premise of the first volume is this: After being imprisoned by a power-hungry human for 70 years, Morpheus, commonly known as Dream, escapes captivity and sets out to recover the objects that give him his power, which were stolen from him. As he travels, he has dealings with Lucifer (a recurring character in the Sandman universe), John Constantine (a popular comic book character), and ultimately encounters a mad-man who uses one of Dream’s objects to wreak havoc on humanity.

The storylines range from surreal to absurd,  but that quirkiness is what makes this novel so interesting. Gaiman weaves in facets of ancient mythology and religion to create a multitude of worlds through which Dream travels.

Gaiman’s unique voice comes across in each tale, and each novel as a distinct story-telling style. The issues in this first volume contain DC-character crossovers, that while interesting, tends to detract from Gaiman’s established voice.

Dream is a gorgeous character, illustrated in dark violets, whites and blacks. The stark beauty of the Dream King is haunting, and the landscapes in which he moves are breathtaking.

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes is great when simply judging it on writing alone, but when you add in the incredible artwork and detailed lettering, the novel becomes a stellar find and worthy of reading several times.

Readers should be warned the Sandman series often features graphic subject matter – sex, drugs and death being common themes – but it is never gratuitous and always serves to progress the story.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

This book was a departure from my usual reading fare. It’s set in a modern times, whereas I usually prefer historical or fantasy genres, but it was a good change. As I delved deeper in the story, I barely even remembered I was reading a novel taking place in London. Ultimately, the setting wasn’t all that important. The events could have occurred almost anywhere and still carried the same weight.

The premise of Amsterdam is this: Clive, a prominent composer, and Vernon, a hard-hitting editor of a flagging paper, both come together at the death of Molly, a vivacious, former lover whose sudden illness and death robbed her of her outgoing personality. Upon reflection, both men make a pact to help the other end their life if they ever find themselves in the same position as Molly.

As various situations occur, Clive and Vernon find themselves in the midst of tough decisions. In the end, after choosing a self-serving agenda, both men ultimately destroy themselves and each other.

What drove this story was the fascinating tale of self-absorption and misguided moral piety the two main characters display. These are traits which are so prevalent in today’s society, and that’s the main reason this story resonated with me. It’s not a comfortable read. It makes the reader squirm as they’re confronted with unpleasant truths that might mirror their own life. However, that’s what makes this a fantastic novel.

Soulless

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Even though I voraciously devour The Dresden Files whenever a new books appears, I wasn’t quite sure a book dealing with vampires and werewolves, but no magic, would appeal to me. In the end, it was the cover that sold me. After realizing it was set in Victorian England, I was intrigued and decided to buy it.

Best decision ever. 

Soulless is a delightful mix of hilarity, romance and the supernatural, and never once did I find myself bored with what I was reading.

The premise of Soulless is this:  Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster who possesses the remarkable distinction of being born without a soul – hence the title. As such, she is able to nullify all traces of the supernatural by merely touching the skin of any vampire or werewolf. The caveat is that this unique ability only works while maintaining contact. If broken, the supernatural powers are restored.

When Alexia is attacked at a London ball by a rather disheveled vampire, she is forced to kill him. This event sets the story in motion as Alexia soon discovers vampires are appearing and disappearing all throughout London. The Vampire Hive thinks Alexia’s responsible. Lord Maccon, Alpha of the Woolsey werewolf pack and Head of BUR, knows she isn’t and tries to determine who is. To top it all off, a shady villain and frightening henchman have their sights set on Alexia.

What’s a girl to do? Drink more tea, of course.

Soulless is one of the wittiest and best-developed books with a strong heroine that I’ve read in quite a long time. Rather than rely on the traditional male hero to swoop in and save the day, Alexia embodies tenacity, critical thinking, stubbornness and independence – rare qualities not often found in the female leads of most books. That alone makes the book worth reading.

Add to that an intoxicating blend of alternative history where werewolves and vampires helped shaped the English Crown and British politics, and you end up with a brilliant book that moves at a quick pace and delivers a solid story. There was not a single moment this book didn’t captivate me, and I went out and bought the next book in the series as soon as I closed the back cover.

Soulless is exactly what it sells itself as: A comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking. How utterly charming!

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean

I originally got this to read to my five-year-old nephew when he spent the summer with us. However, like every picky reader, he wanted a different title read to him, specifically Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls.

After he left, I decided to read the book, and I was pleasantly surprised. Although I didn’t find it as engaging as The Wolves in the Walls, the story was quite entertaining.

The premise is this: A young boy, frustrated by his father who only wants to read the newspaper, decides to trade his boring dad for two exciting goldfish. However, when the boy’s mother learns what has happened, she demands the boy and his sister retrieve their father.

The ensuing tale results in hilarious moments as the siblings discover a chain-reaction of trading has occurred. The pair follow his trail from house to house and trade to trade until they eventually discover him crouched in a rabbit hutch, still reading his paper.

As always, Gaiman takes a far-fetched idea and creates a fantastic story that captures his reader’s attention. Having once been a child, I can vividly remember the frustration I felt when my parents were too engrossed in tasks I deemed boring. Had I been given the opportunity to trade them for something more exciting, I just might have done so.

There isn’t a morality lesson tucked within this children’s tale, but young readers will be fascinated by the idea of trading their parent for a pet and be dazzled by Dave McKean’s stunning artwork.