Sunday, February 19, 2012

Forget the Red Coats... the Zombies are Coming!!

Sure, you consider yourself a broad-minded person, but let’s be honest... no matter how enlightened you may be, it’s almost impossible to feel warm fuzzies toward zombies. That whole “I-want-to-catch-you-and-eat-your-braaaaain!” thing (not verbalized, of course--it’s awfully hard to talk when your own brain is nothing but mush and your lips have long since rotted away--but made abundantly clear via the grasping hands and gaping mouth holes) pretty much precludes anyone “normal” (and living) forming a close and personal relationship with a member of the walking (and putrifying) dead.

Or so I thought, anyway, until I (woo-hoo!) gleefully stumbled upon Scott Kenemore’s Zombie, Ohio: A Tale of the Undead... and what must be the most unusual take on zombies, ever.
Peter Mellor is a popular college professor at a small university out in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio. (Yes, obviously the little town actually has a name, but the point is, it’s not important.) A handsome and charming (if increasingly-dissolute) fellow, he’s the sort that women of all ages flirt with, while other men simply like him too much to be jealous.
Not that poor Peter is in any condition to boast of his past successes or worry about his current problems, though; when we pick up the story, he’s just coming to after a very nasty collision between himself (in his car) and a sturdy oak tree, with no recollection of anything which has just transpired, let alone who or where he is.
Only after stumbling through the snow to a nearby hamlet--where the few people he runs across recognize him and call him by name--does he learn his identity. And, once his predicament is apparent, they naturally proceed to fill him in on the other particulars of his life... plus a whole lot more.
It seems they’re in the midst of a nationwide zombie apocalypse--yes, Peter, those ghastly creatures straight out of George Romero movies really do exist--and the monsters are just as deadly as advertised. Furthermore, the only ways to avoid a decidedly-unpleasant fate at their decaying hands are, short-term, to outrun them (not too difficult, really, barring decrepitude or some physical handicap which puts a hitch in your giddy-up), or, as a more permanent solution, to completely sever the connection between what’s left of their brains and their bodies (shooting them, then lopping off their heads works nicely).
It’s certainly a grisly task--not to mention horrifying, when facing down a creature he used to know in a considerably more-robust state--but really, what choice does he have? It’s survival of the fittest (the least-squeamish, anyway), kill-or-be-eaten-alive, and every human for himself... until Peter makes an even-more shocking realization. (Like waking up to find the world overrun by so-called “moving cadavers” isn’t the absolute high point on the shock-o-meter?? Well, no, actually, turns out it’s not.)
Peter, you see, wasn’t merely lying unconscious beneath that old oak tree. As the gaping hole which he discovers hidden beneath his winter hat--a hole exposing his own grey matter (erm... yum?)--makes apparent, he is himself a newly card-carrying member (if they carried cards) of the brain-munching horde. The walking dead. One of the moving cadavers. A zombie.
After having recently observed--and killed--a few of them under the quick tutelage of the helpful townsfolk, though, he also realizes that he’s nothing like the rest of his “kind”. Where the other zombies are molasses-slow, awkward, lumbering, incoherent, stupid monsters... he isn’t. He can walk (even run, albeit somewhat less gracefully than in his prime), talk, and pass for a normal human. For alive.
As the reality of his altered existence begins to sink in, Peter grasps two things with utter clarity. First, there is no way he can continue among the living. Small changes are already making themselves apparent; sooner of later, someone would surely catch on to the fact that he was more than just a little “off”. The second thing he realizes is that his accident was no “accident”.

What follows, then, is Peter’s journey into the wilds of Ohio (teehee)... from leaving his old life (including a buddy and a girlfriend) behind and learning how to be a zombie (hey, eating brains for the first time is just another one of those “firsts” to be gotten through... right??), to figuring out how to interact with others of his kind (even becoming zombie royalty)... but always, uncomfortably aware that he belongs to neither world entirely. 
And, with each new day bringing another threat to his existence--hungry animals amenable to snacking on some zombie flesh, the random gun-toting homeowner who stayed behind to protect his land, gangs of ex-bikers-cum-zombie-hunters looking for a little fun, and plenty of military intrusions, as they strafe the zombies from above and scatter troops below--Peter finds himself asking with increasing frequency, “Who am I, now... and why on earth am I so different?”.   
This book could have gone in so many directions; happily, though, author Kenemore strikes a spot-on perfect balance between humor and horror, murder mystery and sci-fi... even, somehow, pulling off a touching little love story amidst the gore fest. He sucked me in from the get-go, then had me alternating between laughing, wincing, thinking, and feeling for this unfortunate man (a lot of unfortunate souls, actually) for the duration. 
Whether you like your zombie stories with extra “Braaaaaaaaaaaains!!” or prefer a more thought-provoking take on what it means to be who/what we are, Zombie, Ohio has something for everyone... and it's left me wanting more.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  All the Enthusiastic (Ragged, Played-to-Death-with) Mousies there are!!

[Note: I actually read this book several months ago, just after it was released... then life--work, holidays, and just too-much stuff--intervened, delaying what I wish I could have shared with everyone then. Hopefully, this review does it a fraction of the justice it so deserves.] 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole to Hell

If Charlie Hardie--the hero of author Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games--was channeling Bruce Willis as tough cop Officer John McClane in all his Die Hard, “Yippee-ki-yay, m***...!” glory (and believe me, he was), then the follow-up, Hell & Gone, finds him walking as well in the footsteps of Willis’ conflicted convict James Cole from Twelve Monkeys, with a bit of Alice in Wonderland (well, if Alice were a bruiser sporting a five-o’clock shadow) and its down-the-rabbit-hole trippiness thrown in for good measure.
Intrigued? You should be, because Swierczynski is the real deal when it comes to delivering pulse-pounding, visually-dynamic, explosively-energetic, and insanely-addictive action-suspense-crime-fiction thrillers. And, as outrageously good as the first in the Hardie trilogy (see my review here ) was? I think the second, Hell & Gone, is that much better.

✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠

Hell & Gone picks up right where the previous book left off, with Hardie in a world of hurt after having been beaten to a pulp and left for dead at the end of Fun & Games. The so-called “Accident People”--an elite group of hit men and “fixers” who hire out to the highest bidder (and whose dastardly plans it just so happens he singlehandedly foiled)--really aren’t the sort of folks you want to get on the bad side of... so naturally, that’s precisely where Charlie happens to be sitting (or lying in a semi-conscious state, if you want to get nit-picky about such things).

Nor are the Accident People the type to waste an opportunity when one arises. If they think you may be of potential use to them, they’re more apt to stab you with a series of big pointy needles laced with heavy-duty knockout drugs, patch you up a bit, then stuff you in the trunk of a car and drive to what feels like the ass-end of nowhere, than they are to just kill you outright. 
When Hardie finally climbs out of his drugged stupor (one he’s convinced must’ve lasted only a few days, although the truth turns out to be scarily different), he discovers that he’s in a prison--but not the type with row after row of barred cells and hundreds of yelling inmates. This prison is something much more disturbing, as is the fact that one of the Accident People--one with whom he already has a less-than-chummy relationship (hey, poking someone’s eye out tends to put a crimp in the ol’ let’s-be-pals bit)--is sitting across an interview table from him... smiling.

She tells him she has some bad news and some worse news for him. The bad news is that yes, he’s in a prison, a highly-secret place in an (undisclosed) underground location, the sole purpose of which is containing the most dangerous, heinous criminals from around the world. The worse news is that he, Hardie, is the new warden of the joint. The real kicker, though, is that just in case he or anyone else gets any crazy ideas, the place is equipped with a special “death mechanism”; any attempts to escape will trip the mechanism, and everyone inside--everyone--will be killed.

Oh, and if he refuses to play along, to act as warden in this creepy gulag? His wife and son will be the Accident People’s next targets.
It's an impossible predicament for a man used to thinking with his fists, but he has no choice but to go along, biding his time in this bizarro place until a window of opportunity presents itself. So, he tries to figure out his “staff”, four scary-weird guards he’s sure he doesn’t like. He observes their prisoners, and wonders what each has done to earn the distinction of “worst criminal on earth”. He sees the various methods of punishment (torture) the guards use on the prisoners... and experiences the distrust the guards have for their new boss. 

And, as endless days pass in their windowless world, he starts to question just who is the worst of the bunch: the ones with the electric batons and spiffy uniforms, or the ones behind bars... 
✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠ 

To call this an “action” crime fiction book is like referring to a Lamborghini as “transportation”; it’s a balls-to-the-wall, super-charged, badass-rocket-launch of a thrill ride that grabs you by the throat on the first page and doesn’t let up until the last one (and not even then, really, since there’s still one more book to go).
Swierczynski has a knack for making everything seem perfectly plausible, thanks primarily to his irresistible “everyguy” hero. Like the John McClane character from the Die Hard movies, Charlie Hardie is just an ordinary dude; sure, he’s tough and can handle himself, but he doesn’t have any super-knowledge or super-powers. He may have the bad luck (in spades, actually) to find himself in the middle of some seriously-tight jams, but he also has the determination and instincts to get himself back out. And, although this couldn’t be further from a touchy-feely book, there’s no doubt Charlie cares about stuff, and about people, in his way. His inner monologues--which let us know just how close to the brink of insane fury, crippling uncertainty and despair, or near madness he is at any moment--show an intelligent man all-too aware of his of lifetime of mistakes, now reconciled to living with his shame. Factor in his smart-ass sense of humor, and you’ve got a hero worthy of the big screen in Hardie.
As much as I’m dying to know what happens next in this wickedly-entertaining conspiracy-theory-on-rails trilogy, having to wait a bit gives me the chance to catch my breath. I’m sure I’ll be needing it for Swierczynski’s grand finale. ;)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  A Veritable Surfeit of Extra-Potent Mousies!