Friday, November 25, 2011

The Gathering Dead

The Gathering Dead, by Stephen Knight

"The Horde Is Always Hungry...
The zombie apocalypse has begun, and Major Cordell McDaniels is given the most important mission of his career: lead a Special Forces team into New York City to rescue the one man who can stop the ghastly virus that reanimates the dead."

If you like action movies, zombies, a military p.o.v., and stories that take place over a short period of time (in this case, fewer than 24 hours pass from the novel's start and finish), this one's for you.  Personally, by the last few pages, I couldn't help feeling some agreement when a character asks, "Good God, when will this be over?"  That said, the very end won me back (a little), and earlier in the book, I was thoroughly enjoying the story, so...  Maybe I can only handle so many descriptions of Hollywood-style action sequences before my eyes start to glaze over.

Many who've read this novel think it would make an excellent movie.  I'd be interested in seeing a film adaption (especially given that much of it feels like your typical action flick), and I'd even be interested in similar books by the author.  After I've had a palette cleanser in the form of something less military/action-focused.

My Incredibly Long List of Random Notes:
(Some of them may be slightly spoilerish.)

•  Wolf and Regina Safire?  Very odd names.

•  I thought about commenting on the cursing, but then I realized that, A) this is a book about zombies, so it's not really geared toward kids, B) cursing when a zombie's chasing you is different from casually cursing because you think it makes you sound cool, and C) most of the characters are military.  I don't know what percentage of those serving in the military actually curse with frequency, but if you believe what you see in movies, it's practically a requirement.  ;o)  Actually, there's not that much cursing.  Not as much as I've seen in some other books where characters weren't in life-or-death situations.

•  At first, the military-speak and terminology can be a bit off-putting to someone who isn't familiar with it.  It's a little like reading a book that's peppered with foreign words and phrases.  However, eventually it settles down and you stop feeling (so much) like you're having to jump over verbal hurdles every sentence or two.  Still, the specific names of military vehicles and guns... Good grief!  I guess a military buff might think they add to the story, though.

•  Ditto for the NYC street names.  I might have found them worthwhile if I knew anything about NYC. 

•  Though I may not have always enjoyed the gratuitous military terminology, I did it refreshing that the author seems to be pro-capitalism.  The zombie virus is suspected to have originated in Russia (thought to be a "long-forgotten relic of the Cold War" that was tampered with and released).  "...Within weeks, Russia went dark.  Satellites showed the legions of the dead moving across the nation, heading for both Europe and China.  It was the double attack on capitalism the old Soviet guard might have dreamed of, but the soldiers had an entirely different perspective.  They weren't in it to destroy capitalism."

Another opinion I rarely see in novels:  "McDaniels had heard reports on his way in that a group of the walking dead had emerged from the East River and was headed for the United Nations building.  He had chuckled at that.  Finally, something would devour the United Nations before it could envelop the world in leftist glory."

•  Zombies in this book are called "zeds" and "stenches".  (Reminded me of "stenchable", a made-up word from my childhood/youth...)

•  The writing at times (many times) could've used some polish.  "The security situation was clearly deteriorating more quickly than the forces on hand could handle." (forces on hand could handle?)  "The wheels folded up as they were designed to do, absorbing a goodly amount of the G forces."  (goodly?)  "Keep an eye on the weather... It would totally suck if we get closed out because of a little rain and wind, over." (Yeah.  Totally.) "...temporary situation..." (should've been "temporary solution"...) "...his battlefield skills were beyond redoubt." (should be "beyond doubt", right?) "Beyond the door, darkness reigned, slashed by wet rain."  (Oh, so it's the wet sort of rain.  Important distinction.)

• "The first sergeant's head panned from side to side like a tank turret as he took in the sights."  Heh.  Like a tank turret, huh?  (g)  Even the author's similes and metaphors are military in nature.

•  What a surprise that the doctor's daughter happens to be beautiful!  Black hair!  Big green eyes!  At least she's in her mid-thirties instead of a perfect twenty-two. 

•  I was confused when the helicopter pilot and gunner turned into zombies.  They weren't bitten... or had I missed something?  Apparently, in this universe/zombie apocalypse/whatever, you turn into a zombie after dying even if you haven't been bitten. I guess it's airborne.

•  Of all the military terms the author uses, he chooses to spell out/define two of the ones that almost anyone would already be familiar with-- "hooah" and "FUBAR".  (g)

  Interesting that the author chose not to reveal that the main character is black until ~70 pages into the book.  But later on much is made of McDaniels's race.  (A little too much, imho.)

•  A couple of times, I was surprised to realize that such-and-such was supposed to have taken place in a mere twenty minutes (for instance).  These characters seem to squeeze more time out of their minutes than I do.

•  I preferred the part of the book where the characters are holed up in a building.  I like the survival aspect-- watching them think things through, compare options, take precautionary measures-- better than when characters are just running around in imminent danger, shooting at zombies.  However, I'm well aware that many people must have the exact opposite opinion.  (Don't worry; there's plenty of running and shooting later on in the book, which is when it started to go downhill for me.)

•  I was surprised how many conversations take place over radio.  Interesting...

•  Doctor Safire is so completely unlikeable.  I think the author went out of his way to make Safire someone that no-one really cares about. 

•  On the other hand, clearly we're supposed to fawn over Earl-- and I like Earl just fine, but I felt like I was supposed to like him even more than I did.  However, I can't help be feel resistant when I'm so clearly meant to feel sympathetic, and the "folksy" is poured on a little too thickly, at times.

  Or in other words, there are some character clichés-- stock characters.  

•  The description of Regina being "turned on" was unnecessary and...  just ew.  I really found myself wishing Regina wasn't even in the book, by this point of the story.  She felt pointless.  I guess she was there to provide a humanizing element for Dr. Safire, but honestly, both the characters fell pancake-flat for me.

•  "...another goofy Jersey Shore guido..." Ick.  A bit too current pop culture for my taste.

•  The descriptions of exactly what everyone is eating feel amateurish:  "She went ahead and made herself a zesty salami sandwich with oil and vinegar and black pepper..." Well, what are you waiting for?  Don't hold back!  Go on!  I need more detail!  How many slices of salami, exactly?  How many swishes of vinegar?  What kind of oil?  I MUST KNOW.

•  Also:  You're holed up in a building surrounded by zombies, waiting for rescue.  Anything could happen at any time.  What better time to kick back and drink a few beers, right?  (At least the military characters don't partake, but neither should the civilians!)  What is it with characters in zombie movies, TV shows, and books drinking alcohol-- sometimes even hard liquor?  Honestly, if you get drunk or even just tipsy in a zombie apocalypse situation, you deserve to be eaten by the zombies.  It's natural selection, weeding out the poor decision-makers.  (Never mind the fact that I'd probably be weeded out for my inability to run long distances. And if I ever lost my glasses... *gulp*)

  "He understood now why there were so few African Americans in Army Special Forces.  No one wanted to deal with this s**t."  Um, and members of other races have no problem with that sort of thing, I suppose...

•  It felt like the characters had some obsession/compulsion about cleaning/checking their weapons.  I guess it makes sense-- don't want to find something not working when you need it-- but I wonder if members of the military really are always doing that so often, or if it was exaggerated here.

•  When Gartrell said something was "totally of the hook" I stared at the page in disbelief.  He didn't really say that, did he?  How old is Gartrell supposed to be, anyway?

•  Another amusing moment: "You listen to me, soldier.  You've been a total stud muffin this entire time... ...No one's ever going to be able to convince me you're a girlie-man.  Got that?"  Got it.  Stud muffin, yes.  Girlie-man, no.  

•  "I need both of you out there with booger hooks on the bang levers."  Much more efficient than saying "fingers on triggers". 

  Oh. My. Gosh.  How many times did the author compare the zombies to cancer?  I think I counted at least three.

•  How in the world did OMEN keep up with the group when they were driving a van?!  I guess they weren't driving very far each time?  I had a hard time visualizing that part of the story.

•  "From behind, more zombies massed, but even the most fleet of them were unable to match the pace of the living."  Oh really?  Because at some points in the book, they're sprinting...  Incidentally, I'm not sure how I feel about the sprinting zombies... I guess it makes sense that the "fresh" zombies who died at a young age, in fit condition might be able to run pretty quickly...

•  This novel is responsible for my finally googling "tango uniform".  So that's what it means.  (Obviously, it meant a bad situation, but I never exactly knew what it stood for.)

•  How many times was Finelly described as "big"?  That's almost all I remember about him, apart from the fact that he was "raw-boned", looked like a farmer's son, and was the one responsible for Regina's disgusting and utterly pointless "turned on" moment.  Thank you, Finelly, so very, very much.  (*fakeretch*)

  "This isn't my idea of a hot date!" Gartrell said as he blazed away at the approaching mass of ghouls, dropping them to the street as quickly as the AA-12 could fire." 

Comments with **BIGGIE SPOILERS**:

•  I'm not super crazy about the OMEN zombies.  For one thing, are we supposed to believe that these were the smartest guys in NYC?  Wouldn't some of the non-OMEN zombies be just as intelligent?  True, they wouldn't be as likely to have weapons on them, but surely they would remember how to drive a car, etc.  The bigger issue is that any zombies at all remember how to drive, shoot a gun, use a grenade, and so on.  I think that I, personally, prefer the old-fashioned zombie that's dumb as a bag of rocks, but I wouldn't want to discourage writers from experimenting with different types of zombie characters.  There's no reason why they all have to be the same.  Just like vampires.  You have the scary vampires, and then you have the sparkly ones.  ;o) 

•  When Regina grabbed the gun from McDaniels's belt, I had to roll my eyes.  Really?  She has to be the one to shoot her (now dead) father?  And it's not even one of those "I should be the one to do it" moments-- it's because everyone's in a hurry to move on and can't spare the time to fire a single shot.  Give me a break!  Another clichéd Hollywood-style moment.

•  I was seriously annoyed when Leary died.  I think he was one of my favorite characters, which is odd, considering that we hardly get to know him.  Very rude to kill him off like that.  Not nice. 


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

Overall impression:  This is a ghost story in the classic style.  This means that it is somewhat predictable in spots, but it still manages to deliver the goosebumps and prickly scalp.  I'd recommend it for people who like good old-fashioned ghost stories and aren't afraid of something a little dark.

More specific tidbits:

•  Early in the book, some characters want to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and so of course there's a reference to the fact that it's an "ancient tradition" to do so.  That's not the first time I've heard about this "ancient tradition", but I must confess, I don't think I know anyone who actually does tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  Is this a tradition that didn't make it to America, or is that just my family?  (Also, apart from the ghosts in A Christmas Carol-- Scrooge's old partner and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future-- I can't think of a single Christmas story with a ghostly appearance.  I realize the ghost stories needn't be about or set at Christmastime.  That just crossed my mind.)  

 Honestly, ghost stories feel somewhat inappropriate for Christmas Eve-- definitely not a tradition I'd want to start.  That's what Hallowe'en is for.  Christmas is a time to feel cozy-- warm-- thankful-- joyful-- peaceful or can't-sit-still excited, depending on your age and the circumstances.  First and foremost, it's a religious holiday-- and also a time to focus on loving your fellow man-- not my ideal time for eerie stories.  (But that's just me. (g))

  Some very evocative, creepy place names in this book!  Eel Marsh... the Nine Lives Causeway... Gapemouth Tunnel...  Even the town's name (Crythin Gifford) and the house named Monk's Piece seem a little odd (to my American ears, at least).  "I've come to the land of curious place-names, certainly."  Yes, Arthur, you have. 

  "Sea frets".  I'd never heard of a fret before.  Apparently it's a sea mist/fog.

  "It's a far-flung part of the world.  we don't get many visitors."
    "I suppose because there is nothing much to see."
    "It all depends what you mean by 'nothing'.  There's the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village," he chuckled.  "Those are particularly fine examples of 'nothing to see'."

I would've liked to have heard/seen more of those things.  Unless I missed them somehow, though, that was the only time they were mentioned.

•  This book was written in the 1980s, but I think Susan Hill did a good job of making it feel much older than that.  I could have believed it was written in the time it was set (the Edwardian era, I think, or between the wars).  

•  Susan Hill really likes to stick in foreboding "warnings" that bad things are coming up in the story. I'm not sure I'd say it's a good thing, really, but apparently it didn't completely ruin the novel.  ;o)

•  " as blue as a blackbird's egg." 

•  Very atmospheric, which is of ultimate importance in ghost stories.  Without atmosphere, they are nothing.

  The salt marsh made me think of the Everglades... and more locally, the Mobile Bay delta and the Weeks Bay estuary.  

•  Quicksand has always fascinated me... It also frightens me, and I wouldn't want to get too close to it, but any book with quicksand gets bonus points on my personal book rating scale.  ;o)

•  Mr. Jerome likes to repeat himself for dramatic effect.

•  This book mentions that a woman is crocheting "something elaborate with very fine cotton".  Double bonus points!  (Even though the character is described as rather a mousy, shy, "powdery-looking little woman".  If the crocheter had been young and pretty, quadruple bonus points would have been awarded, with sugar on top.)

Spoilery observations:

•  There's a little of the usual "why is the character doing this stupid thing?" (Why not just pack up the papers, cart them back to town, and sort them there?  Sure there are a lot of them, but better that than go back to the haunted house.)  But in this type of story, you've just got to look past that-- and really, Hill did a decent job of explaining Arthur's rationale for what he does. 

•  I figured out pretty quickly what the bumping was.  Or, well, I had it narrowed down to two things, so I was not surprised.  But then again, maybe you were supposed to figure it out ahead of Arthur.  It just wasn't that hard to guess.  

•  After a certain point, it seems obvious who the ghosts are, why they're there, etc.-- long before Arthur finally spells it out.  That's probably intentional, though-- give the reader ample opportunity to figure it out on his/her own before you spill the beans.  

•  For most of the book, I felt that what happened to Arthur was pretty tame.  Admittedly, there were a few creepy moments, but looking back over them, it wasn't anything that different from your average ghostly ghost-story happenings.  I wasn't sure what more "should" have happened, though... 

•  The end was also somewhat predictable.  At least, I figured out, when Stella came for Arthur, that something would happen to their future child.  You can see it coming, but it is still horrifying-- especially the fact that Stella hangs on through another ten months.  I didn't predict that little detail, and it makes the last page so much worse.  

End spoilery observations.  

One more thing-- after I started reading this novel, I learned that it's being made into a movie that will come out sometime next year.  I'll be interested in seeing it, eventually.  There are certain scenes that should translate very well to the screen.  (In fact, many aspects of the story seem better suited for a movie than for a novel.)  I doubt it will be for fans of serious horror, because the novel is not, but for those of us who like a good ghost story, it's something to look forward to.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris

I found this collection of autobiographical essays to be a little bit hit-or-miss.  Generally, there would be at least one or two funny moments per essay, but there would also usually also be one or two things that I felt could just as well have been left out.  If something's not funny and doesn't contribute much to the anecdote at hand, be ruthless and rip it right off the page.  (I guess the problem is that the author and editor(s) thought those boring, troubling, and/or irrelevant bits were funny or somehow important.  Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks.  As they say.)

I selected this as read-aloud (with Donald) material, not realizing that it would contain quite so much cursing as it does.  Considering that I'm simply not comfortable cursing very heartily (especially "in cold blood"), this led to a lot of bleeping during the reading.  In most of the essays, there are only a few bleeps-- and then there was the essay about the author's brother, who calls himself "the Rooster"...

All in all, this book wasn't the sort I'd recommend without reservations to just anyone, but I can't deny that some of it made us laugh, so I'm willing to try another book of essays by Sedaris-- particularly since the reviews I've read indicate that this may not have been his very best work.  

Note:  I'm labeling this as non-fiction, though there seems to have been some embroidering in spots (based on reviews).  I'm assuming there's enough basis in fact to make the "non-fiction" label apt.  It certainly doesn't feel like a cohesive work of fiction or a collection of short stories, so non-fiction it is!