“Feed” by Mira Grant (2010)

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“Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.”

Fiction is laced with creepy creatures, and it’s always fun to see an author mess around with them. This year so far I’ve already dealt with vampires, monsters, gorgons and fairies, so it’s time to turn my attention to zombies.

It was 2014 when it all began. We’d cured the common cold and eradicated cancer, but something far more severe was released in the process – the Kellis-Amberlee virus, or as we may be more familiar with it, the “zombie virus”. In 2040, we meet Georgia and Shaun Mason, adopted siblings who work as journalists, one of the most respected professions in this new world. But as much as humanity survived, so did the zombies, and the world has been changed forever.

Via their popular news website, the Mason siblings have just learnt that they’ve been selected to follow the presidential campaign of Senator Ryman, a Republican who seems to have a genuine shot at being the country’s next leader. Following him across the country with their third member of the team, the technophile Buffy, they get to the heart of American politics and do their best to spread the truth about Ryman and his campaign to everyone else. Things start to unravel, however, when there’s a zombie outbreak at one of his conferences, and then another at his wife’s ranch, which ends up killing their daughter. Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and late addition Rick are on-hand to find out what happened, but end up uncovering a lot more than they bargained for.

Most notably, I felt, Grant does something that almost no other zombie fiction seems to do – it acknowledges previous zombie fiction. It always struck me as strange in zombie films and books that no one seems to know how to handle these creatures, suggesting that George Romero, Simon Pegg and their like never produced any zombie fiction and, indeed, they never existed in the mythology either until that moment. Here, it’s stated that George Romero is considered an international hero, as his movies allowed everyone to have the upper hand when zombies appeared. There are a few twists on the nature of the disease too. Grant goes into scientific detail about how the virus started and what it does to the body, and it’s noted that only people who died after the virus’s release reanimate, so there weren’t scenes of graveyards coming back to life, which probably allowed for the invasion not to lead to the end of the world. However, any mammal that weighs over forty pounds can be infected with the virus and become a problem. Because of this, most of the human population is now vegetarian, with it being unsafe to keep cows, sheep and pigs anymore. It also implies there are zombie whales roaming the oceans, which definitely needs exploring.

Grant’s worldbuilding is impressive. She takes into account how society would have to change with these events having happened, going into detail on hazard levels, cities that have been abandoned (the entire of Alaska is a no-go area now), how security and communication technology improved, what happened to religion, and most importantly how people’s view of the media changed. The reason that bloggers are now considered so worthy is that when the news broke, unofficial news blogs were already running information on how to defeat the zombies before the mainstream media were even admitting there was a problem. It has some rather prescient parallels to how the media is already being viewed, with many people seeming to get their news online instead, although not always from reputable sources. New slang is also introduced, such as dividing up the journalists into different factions; for example, Newsies report unbiased fact, and Irwins (named after the crocodile hunter, one presumes) like to get into the field and experience zombies up close.

However, Grant has a habit of getting bogged down in the minutia. It’s established very early on that security levels are ridiculously high, with blood tests and retinal scans being compulsory to enter any building, and often to leave them too. However, there are frequently long, slightly repetitive passages going into detail on all these scans and checks, despite the fact we’ve seen them all only a few pages before. Some of the dialogue is repetitive and phrases occur over and over again, such as Shaun always being described as liking to poke things with sticks. I also panicked towards the end that Grant was going to whip out a dues ex machina and make me want to drop the book into the water butt, but it was handled with such deft aplomb that I almost found myself applauding her.

Impressively for a zombie tale, the zombies don’t even feel like a major plot point. Very rarely do we have the protagonists dealing with them first hand; they’re merely part of this world, but one you forget at your own risk. It’s nicely done in that it’s not over the top, and the main story is really the presidential election, with themes embedded that we can totally understand. While it definitely has its problems, they aren’t related to plot at all, and it’s an inventive, exciting and really rather impressive introduction to what may well prove to be an engaging series.

“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2003)

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“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it behind at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.”

Given how many books I have unread on my shelves, I always feel a bit guilty re-reading something. However, this took me a single evening and half an hour the following morning, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Plus, it’s totally worth it. I think I last read Five People either while I was at university or perhaps even earlier. I recalled fragments, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.

The story opens on Eddie’s 83rd birthday. He is the head of maintenance at Ruby Pier, an old amusement park that still attracts a great number of tourists. He continues on his day, not realising that soon he will die. When one of the rides malfunctions, Eddie rushes forward to save a small girl from death, but in the process, loses his own life.

He wakes up in the afterlife, where he learns that he will, one by one, meet five people who somehow made a big impact on his life. Between them, they will teach him lessons and explain what his life meant. Some of them he will know, others he will not, but each of them changed his life forever. As Eddie encounters his five people, he is forced to look back on his life and perhaps re-evaluate what that life was really like. Only when he’s met the five will his life make complete sense, and he can move on to whatever the next stage is.

While a quick read, the morals and messages will last longer. I can see already why parts of this story had stuck with me for so long; just a few tired synapses working hard to make themselves known at times of importance. Eddie is a sympathetic character, and in many ways the book and his life are tragedies, but there is hope there too, and love, and above all the feeling that no one is insignificant and everyone matters. There’s a huge emphasis on how all our stories are interconnected, which I’ve always loved to think about. You are only the protagonist in your own story; supporting cast in the story of everyone you know, and a background extra in millions more. But everyone’s story is important, and they all create changes in others.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read Mitch Albom a couple of times before, and I always find his prose to be wonderful. He doesn’t waste words, but with the merest explanations and descriptions paints vast images for you to swim in. I don’t know why, really, I feel guilty about re-reading books, because I believe that many times a book comes along just as you need it, and maybe my brain knew that I needed to read this again right now. I implore you to find a copy and find some peace. Because if nothing else, this book will teach you the most important lesson of all, and the one that we all need to be reminded of now and again – you matter.

“Crooked” by Austin Grossman (2015)

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crooked“The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage.”

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, emerging only to get snacks and read my blog (and if my assumption is incorrect, then thanks!) you will undoubtedly have noticed that the Americans are having an election next month. The options are the Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years up against the Second Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years. Evidently, it’s all been going swimmingly. I’ve always been a bit vacant about the specifics of American politics, but this time round we’re all having to pay a bit of attention. Last time there was a president this unpopular, well, that brings us on neatly to the book my searchlight* has fallen upon this week.

(* If you get this reference without looking it up, award yourself a hundred jelly beans.)

Richard Nixon is often considered the worst president the USA ever elected, and yet they still elected him twice. Now most famous for being President when we landed on the moon, the Watergate scandal, his missing tapes, being the only President to resign from office, his rubbery face and insistence that he was not a crook, he has become a cartoon character. In this novel, narrated by Tricky Dick himself, we discover the truth behind his political career; a truth that stretches back to the arrival of the first pilgrim settlers.

Because it turns out that there are bigger threats than communism on the other side of the Cold War. There are monsters, far older than the country they inhabit, and there are wizards, dark magic users, zombies, ghosts and things that Nixon couldn’t even have imagined. This is the story of how Richard Nixon worked as a spy for the Russians before he became President, why Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, and what really happened when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to the moon.

Crooked is hard to define with a through plot, as so much of what happens is very vague, but what does should be kept secret until read. It’s broadly a crossover between political satire and Lovecraftian horror, and the book is basically Nixon vs. Cthulhu, although that name is never explicitly given. Even when narrating, Nixon comes across as rather unpleasant. He is a man who will sacrifice everything and stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself mixed up in along the way. His journey is littered with other historical figures – Eisenhower, JFK, Henry Kissinger, Alger Hiss – who show themselves to not necessarily be the people that history has left us believing they were. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nixon, Richard’s wife, who publicly stands by him throughout everything, while in private their relationship implodes.

The idea is a great one, and I always love the notion of hidden conspiracy theories, but I found the book rather slow going. It takes a long time to work itself up to anything, and then the references to what’s going on are somewhat oblique, which, true, adds to the chill and suspense of the novel, but I didn’t feel it paid off.

All I know is, that if even one iota of this hidden history turns out to be true, I’d rather have Hillary presiding over it than the other option, which is frankly more terrifying than the idea of Yog-Sothoth roaming the lower 48.

“The Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (1962)

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A chilling alternate world

A chilling alternate world

“For a week Mr R Childan had been anxiously watching the mail.”

It’s been a busy week so it’s taken me longer than usual to plow through a relatively small book. What with the Olympics, the wedding of one of my best friends, the necessary post-wedding day of recovery, illness and the fact I’ve been getting through two books at the same time (the second to come soon), it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to make my way through this modern classic. Have these distractions affected my view of the book? Almost certainly. But first, on with the plot.

This book is set in an alternate 1963, in a divided USA ruled half by Germany and half by Japan, because this is a world where the Allies lost World War Two, and the Nazis and Japanese ended up all but taking over the planet. In this nightmarish vision of what-might-have-been, we follow several characters as they find their way through the world. Mr Childan is a shopkeeper specialising in Americana antiques, who comes to believe his reputation is tarnished after discovering he has been tricked into selling forgeries. Mr Tagomi is a Japanese businessman seeking the perfect gift for a client, and is struggling to do business with another man, Baynes, who keeps putting off any transactions.

Frank Frink is a Jew who has begun making homemade jewellery with the hopes of selling it off and making his money from it. His ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor who has begun a sexual relationship with an Italian truck driver called Joe, who introduces her to a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is banned in many parts of the world because it depicts an alternate universe – one in which the Allies won the war.

Their stories interweave and overlap as they navigate a life that we can only gaze at in horror. Here, the surviving Jews have mostly had to undergo facial restructuring and name changes to avoid detection in society. Slavery is legal, Africa has been all but wiped out thanks to further genocide, the Japanese influence on the world means that everyone makes decisions based on their readings of the I Ching, and Hitler is still alive, although very ill. The main point of divergence seems to come when FDR is assassinated, and thus the USA don’t have the leadership to perform well in battle, and are still undergoing a Depression when the war starts. Here, the Allies surrender in 1947.

The idea of the “story within a story” of what would happen had the Allies won is a really interesting concept, and the version of events in that story play out somewhat differently to what really happened too, giving us three versions of reality by the time we’re done. It’s a nice meta touch. In true Philip K. Dick form, however, many things are left unanswered, character arcs seem to go unfinished, and there’s not a real sense of conclusion about any of it. At least, I never felt there was. It’s a really interesting idea, and one that literature has explored frequently (in alternate history writing, I’m sure “What if Hitler had won the war?” must be the most common starting point), but I’ve seen it done better.

The jewellery-making subplot I find boring, and I never really clicked with Mr Tagomi. I find Mr Childan’s clumsy attempts to not offend his new Japanese friends quite endearing, and Juliana Frink is an incredible character and the most interesting by far. I understand why it’s a modern classic, and I think it’s an important, intelligent novel, and while it may be one of the first novels to properly explore a world where the Axis powers won, it isn’t the best one. Even Stephen Fry’s Making History is a more engaging example. It’s a novel worth reading for some really inventive ideas, but it’s never going to be a favourite of mine.

“Psycho” by Robert Bloch (1959)

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psycho

Eeek, eeek, eeek!

“Norman Bates heard the noise and a shock went through him.”

The book is always better than the film. Yes, I’m one of those people. Generally though I do experience both, just to confirm that. Most of Hollywood’s greatest films once started out as books – Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Cloud Atlas, The Martian are all great films, but the books just edge them out. Sometimes though, I haven’t seen the film. And in this case, I don’t intend to.

Psycho is one of the most famous films of all time, to the point that we are far more likely to associate the story with Alfred Hitchcock than Robert Bloch, the man who actually wrote the story. As noted above, I’ve never seen the film but its fame is such that details of the plot have seeped through to me via cultural osmosis. Still, not all of it has, meaning I went into this book with suspicions as to what was going to happen, but not necessarily knowing all the details. If anything, that made this whole experience much worse.

Norman Bates is a middle-aged man who runs a motel with his domineering mother. She doesn’t let him drink or smoke or socialise with women, and she firmly disapproves of the books that Norman spends his time reading. But with no one else for company, the two are stuck together in their motel in the middle of nowhere, with just occasional guests to break the monotony. One night, Mary Crane arrives, carrying the $40,000 she’s stolen from her boss and intends to take to her lover. Things, however, don’t go to plan. When Norman is caught by his mother spying on this woman in the shower, his mother takes matters into her own hands and … well, I’m sure you all know what happens next.

When Norman finds out what his mother has done, he endeavours to protect her, but he knows that more people will soon arrive at the motel to find out where Mary and the money have gone. Norman is going to have to lie through his teeth to save himself, his mother, and his motel.

OK, so hands down, this is one of the scariest fucking books I have ever read in my life. Although, as I said, some of what was going to happen was known to me, I didn’t know everything, which means the suspense was racked up to eleven. Had I remembered correctly, too? That was another concern. Bloch’s style is painfully atmospheric and in this short novel he manages to create a world and a character so haunting that they will be lodged in my brain for a very long time. I’m already starting to wonder if I’ll ever sleep again. It does however contain one of the best lines and best examples of zeugma in literature: “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

If you’re not one with a faint heart or stomach that turns over at horror, then you might have a better time with this than me. By the way, I’m not at any point saying I didn’t like this book. It’s absolutely brilliant, so tightly plotted and able to bring to the forefront true fear and anxiety. It’s not fun to read, but it’s great to have read. Just don’t make me watch the film now.

“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

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