Friday, September 28, 2012

World War Z, a Review

Zombies are everywhere in pop culture these days.  The undead presence is so proliferated that its occurrence is no longer shocking to encounter in almost any given genre.  By and large I am an independent soul, beating to the chords of my own guitar.  I eschew trendiness like a kindergartner cringes at shots.  For all practical purposes, whenever something becomes coo, it is implicitly given a death sentence, because the masses are always looking for something new and different.  The zombie craze, I think, is finally nearing the downward slope of its popularity.  (But the question is can it remain dead?)

I’ve been a zombie fan for most of my life.  My mom woke me up late one night—I was five—and she wanted me to watch some old black & white movie with her cause she was scared.  This is one of my earliest memories.  The film was “Night of the Living Dead.”  To this day she is still terrified of that movie.  Apparently it entered into my young psyche and I’ve been partial to the genre ever since.

When Max Brooks’ World War Z came out I thought it sounded interesting.  I’m a fan of the documentary style of storytelling, and World War Z was described as a series of interviews with survivors from the zombie war.  But this was all during the hype of the zombie craze, so I dropped the book on my TBR and went about my business (much like I did with Pride & Prejudice& Zombies).  However, I had to do some traveling recently for work, so I decided to pick up the audio version of WWZ for the road.

To begin with, the audio book itself is a work of art.  Because the book is a series of interviews with various survivors, the audio production features a full cast of actors to fill the bill.  Max Brooks reads his own part, playing the role of the interviewer.  Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, Rob Reiner, and several other voices play other roles.  This version won recognition and an Audie award.  This was truly a delight to listen to.

However, one thing I did not notice until later, the audio book was ABRIDGED!  I am against abridged books and cannot understand why they even exist.  (If you have any good reasons why, do tell.)  But there was no going back, so I pressed on.  This is my only disappointment with the audio book.

Plot-wise, Brooks establishes right up front that he’s presenting these interviews as a follow-up to an official UN report.  He traveled the world collecting facts and figures and wound up gathering so much stuff that he was encouraged to write the book.  Most of the time Brooks stays silent in order to allow the survivor to tell their story.  He introduces each character and asks an occasional question, but he has intentionally removed himself from the story.

The world is fascinating.  Brooks interviews people from all over: China, Japan, Iceland, New York, South Africa, Palestine, and more.  The stories are captivating to varying degrees, but all were engrossing enough that I never grew bored.  The interviews provide some unique insight to how the zombie outbreak affected the entire world, culturally, economically, mentally.  They were handled well and entirely believable.

I don’t want to say anything about any of the individual stories to remain spoiler free, but all were worth the read.  If you can suspend your disbelief and have a weakness for this type of storytelling, check out Max Brooks’ World War Z.  I very much enjoyed it.  The audio was excellent, just remember that it is abridged.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, a Review

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies came out whilst I finished my studies at the University. I recall when the faint whisperings of such a blasphemous tale first reached mine ears, and I remember delighting in it. This was before zombies were ubiquitous in the entertainment world, and the introduction of zombies into Jane Austen’s beloved classic was twisted just enough to my liking that I could not but help declaim its brilliance. And so Seth Grahame-Smith’s alterations to Austen’s original masterpiece* made its way onto my extending TBR. 

That was a smidgen over three years ago. Since then, the glorious undead have proliferated to a shocking degree. Indeed, they became mainstream and trendy. As such, I never got around to reading P&P&Z… until now. 

In essence, this book is a bizarre alternate universe story of old England. The undead—also known as the dreadfuls—roam the beautiful countryside with unstated bloodlust. The five Bennet sisters struggle to maintain ladylike propriety due to their training in the Deadly Arts. Each of the sisters is a lethal zombie slayer, much to Mr. Bennet’s delight. Each of the sisters is unwed and somewhat uncouth, much to Mrs. Bennet’s chagrin. 

The basic plot of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies follows the original excepting a few major points (i.e., the revisions have more innuendo than Ms. Austen’s, as well as violence). Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley come into the Bennet’s lives and romance ensues. During it all, however, the threat of the undead grows. Periodic episodes of zombie mayhem arise, and the Bennets are often forced to make quick of the scourge. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. The idea is clever, methinks, but its execution quickly grew stagnant. The bizarre juxtaposition of Regency England to ninjas and zombies yielded laughs, yes, but the tension never elevated. I enjoyed all of the different nomenclatures Grahame-Smith created for dealing with the dreadfuls. I also liked the plot surrounding Ms. Charlotte Lucas. But, as I mentioned, too many things grew repetitive and dull. 

There was enough intrigue to keep me reading the book, if only to see it to the end. I kept thinking about Downton Abbey while reading the book, picturing a twisted version of the show airing on PBS. I think that I would have enjoyed Pride & Prejudice & Zombies more if the plot varied, or if there were more postulation about the dreadfuls and the scourge. Instead, as often the zombie genre does, this is left up to the Reader to accept as Fact and move on. Usually I’m okay with that, so long as the world is captivating enough. Regency England is not. 

So do I recommend reading Pride & Prejudice & Zombies? Maybe. I suppose it would depend on the Reader’s expectations. A true Jane Austen fan may balk at the disgraceful changes, but an Austen fan with a sense of humor might get enough giggles to warrant a read. Me, I can’t say that I’m an Austen fan per se. I only read the book out of mere curiosity. I had more fun imagining how the original readers of Pride & Prejudice would have reacted if Austen had actually published the & Zombies version instead of the original.

*That is according to universal acknowledgement, not which is not necessarily reflective of my own opinion.  I think perhaps calling the book a masterpiece is quite a high honor, but I'll not get into all that stuff.  It's just a "beloved classic" in mine eyes.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Stardust, a Review

Tristran Thorn is an unusual lad in the town of Wall. Wall itself is rather an unusual town in the English countryside. The town is named after the natural wall that spans all across its border next to faerie. There is but one break in the wall, and it is guarded day and night by men from Wall to make sure that no one goes through.

Every nine years the Market comes to faerie. It’s set up across the hole in the wall, and folk travel from far and wide to shop at the Market. This is the only time the guards allow anyone through, as a faerie Market is not something to miss. To miss the Market would be to miss miracles and wonders and all manner of mysterious things.

Victoria Forrester is the prettiest girl in all of Wall, and young Tristran Thorn pines for her as much as any other man. One night Tristran proposes to Victoria and she laughs him off, telling him that if he wanted to win her love then he would have to find a fallen star that the two had just seen. Tristran, ever eager, vows that he will and sets off almost immediately. The guards let him through the wall and soon he’s in faerie, chasing a fallen star to win his love.

Tristran Thorn, however, is not the only one after the star. For a fallen star is a thing of value in faerie, and there are many that would like to find it.

In essence that pretty much sums up what Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is. The book has accolades and acclaim and has been on my TBR pretty much since I discovered Gaiman back in college. I remember watching the film adaptation, but I have no memories about it other than that. So as I read this book it was as if I was reading the story for the first time.

No one can deny that Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller. His prose is precisely as it needs be, and he has a way with words that few others can match. Stardust is a simple story, but its simplicity allows Gaiman to truly shine. All of the characters are well developed (even Wall) and flushed out. The pacing is quick, partially rushed by the tale’s just two-hundred pages or so. The wit is great, and the humor quite funny. Gaiman once again tells a master story.

Allow me to give an idea of how much I enjoyed this read. I checked out the audio book from the library and listened to it on my commute. Gaiman himself did the narrating, and this made the story all the better. Once I finished the audio book I checked out the hardback from the library and began reading it aloud to Keisha because I wanted her to hear the story. Point blank, I finished the book one afternoon and began re-reading it again that night. That’s how much I enjoyed Stardust.

If you’ve never read Stardust then allow me to boldly recommend that you rectify that. It’s a truly wonderful story that takes very little time to read. It’s sweet and funny and dramatic and fascinating and many other things. Gaiman tells a great story, and I’m rather sure to say that Stardust is my favorite novel of his that I’ve read to date. I’m glad to have finally read it, and I look forward to revisiting it again down the road.


Post Thought: I checked out the film version from the library again.  I'd forgotten so much about it that it was practically like watching it anew.  The long short of it: Nowhere near as good as the book.  The many changes made to suit a film style were necessary, I suppose, but the alterations weren't to my liking.  I much prefer the book's ending to the film's.  Even so, the movie does have a magical-ness to it, and it was a fun way to while away the night.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Bob Dylan Chronicles Volume 1, a Review

Bob Dylan has had a special place in my heart for nigh over a decade now.  My first experience with the man himself was in high school, where I bought a double-live album on a whim.  I’d recognized the name and had a vague idea of who he was, but that was it.  This album stirred something inside my high school soul, and anon I was captivated by folk music.  Through college my love for the genre grew fonder, as did my appreciation for the legendary Dylan.  I up and listened to his entire catalog.  The guy could write.

Sometime ago I bought a trade paperback of the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs titled Chronicles Volume One.  The book was an immediate bestseller and had a lot of fanfare about it.  But I’m not much on biographies* so the book rested on the TBR.  Until now.

I described Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. One to Keisha like the ramblings of an old man just sharing some memories.  In essence that’s exactly what it is.  But to the fan, this is a book straight from the man himself**.  Music is in my blood and marrow, and the idea of getting some insight into Dylan’s psyche sounded fascinating.

Reading prose by Bob Dylan is as evocative as his lyrics.  His use of metaphor is unique, painting pictures with perfect comparisons.  The way he describes people is sometimes funny but always revelatory.  These passages are like little trips into Dylan’s mind.  I loved his reactions to Woodie Guthrie’s music and Robert Johnson’s records. 

One odd thing about Chronicles Vol. One is that its focus is on odd points in Dylan’s life.  The book spends a bit of its time detailing two of Dylan’s lesser celebrated albums (Oh Mercy and New Morning) and how Dylan came to creating them while practically omitting any other albums.  There’s also a generous section on Dylan’s rambling about New York and New Orleans but very little on his formative years.

I did enjoy Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One, but there seemed to be things missing.  I would have preferred more time devoted to his first few albums as opposed to ones so late into his career.  I would have preferred more anecdotes and reactions to his rise of popularity.  I would have preferred many other things, but that’s not what Dylan wanted to share.  This Reader infers that these shared memories in Chronicles Volume One are very special to the man, perhaps more so than others.  There are supposedly three volumes to this memoir set, but this is the only one out right now.  All in all, if you’re a Bob Dylan fan and are curious to learn some more off-the-familiar path information about him, Chronicles Volume One is definitely for you.  Just be aware that the scope is very limited with this book and you may wish to get a more thorough biography if you’re after anything else.

*Unless they’re fictitious in nature, or about a larger-than-life subject (of which Dylan possibly could be). 

** Apparently there is a bit of controversy over how much of this book stems from Dylan’s own vocabulary.  There’s folks aplenty crying that Dylan plagiarized, or at least didn’t give proper credit.  From what I can tell, this has some truth to it, but I didn’t really care one way or the other.