The One Sentence Summary: Survivors of the global zombie war relate their experiences in individual interviews.
The Meat and Potatoes: It’s sometime inThe One Sentence Summary: Survivors of the global zombie war relate their experiences in individual interviews.
The Meat and Potatoes: It’s sometime in the distant future, the dead have risen, consumed more than half the world’s population, and been beaten back. Now that the planet has been retaken by the living, it is time for a look back.
That is the setting of Max Brooks’s World War Z. The narrator is a researcher who has conducted a comprehensive study on the outbreak, the war, and the aftermath. These are the interviews that were deemed “too emotional” for the final report, compiled by the narrator to put a human face on the tragedy. The interviews are with individuals of all races, backgrounds, and nationalities, some civilian and some military, in order to give us, piece-by-piece, the whole story. For example, early on we’re given an account of a revolt in the Russian army, and their unique method of quashing the rebellion. Later, military leaders from other nations discuss the lessons learned from this incident and how it changed their policies. This provides us with a wonderful view of the interconnected nature of this “global war.”
The world Brooks creates in World War Z is very different from our own. Aside from the dead munching on people’s brains, the entire geopolitical scheme is foreign. Prior to the text, the narrator describes the setting of each interview. We get labels such as “the Holy Russian Empire,” the “United States of Southern Africa,” and descriptions such as the “glittering metropolis and bustling harbor” of Havana. Brooks drops these on us, leaves us to theorize, and then slowly explains how the zombie war spawned these changes.
World War Z also contains a healthy dose of social commentary. Early on in the crisis Brooks describes the creation of a reality show in which a varied group of celebrities hide from the zombie menace in a well-stocked mansion behind high walls. He tells us of the Army taking a stand at Yonkers, heavily televised, employing all the high-tech equipment necessary to impress the viewers, but useless against the zombies. We’re also taken north with people escaping to climates where the zombies would freeze in the winter, with no concept of how they were going to survive in that kind of climate. (In the good times everyone gets along, sharing supplies and singing campfire songs; in the bad times, they steal, kill, and cannibalize.) Brooks also showed us how the majority of the workforce would be all-but-useless in such a global crisis. The survivors in the safe zones had to produce food, clothing, weaponry, and a host of other things on their own, and the highly-educated executives and CEOs, their narrow education and experience now useless, had to receive training from immigrant laborers to become productive members of this new society. These are just a few examples of the detail and intrigue of World War Z.
The Praiseworthy: Brooks’s story is richly detailed and imaginative, with every possibility considered and taken to its conclusion, which then feels inevitable. For example, the zombies in Brooks’s world are the traditional slow-moving reanimated corpses who can only be stopped by destroying the brain. With the outbreak and the slow understanding of the true nature of the crisis, many humans try to escape to the sea, hoping a ship will provide them protection against the undead. Many of these refugees are infected themselves, and in their panic trying to swim to ships leaving port, drown and reanimate at sea. The result is millions of zombies walking the ocean floor, requiring divers to wage an underwater war.
—But we aren’t told this story with such pedestrian simplicity. Instead, we see through the eyes of 1) an Indian man trying to escape via a shipyard whose purpose was actually to deconstruct aged ships for scrap metal, 2) a Chinese sailor serving on a nuclear sub that was taken to sea for safety, and 3) an officer in the Navy’s Deep Submergence Combat Corps, tasked with eliminating the zombies remaining in the ocean.
The format Brooks chooses to tell his tale is unique and refreshingly literary for popular fiction. Rather than the simple narration with an omniscient or limited point of view that is common today, we’re given essentially a collection of short stories on the theme of the zombie war, related through the first-person perspective of survivors, via interview with a visible and individualized fictional narrator (who also speaks to us directly in the introduction). In this way, we feel connected with every character, every setting, and every event that transpires in World War Z.
The Shortcomings: Some readers, conditioned by “pulse-pounding,” “adrenaline packed” books that read like action movies may find the interview structure and the exposition of the story a bit slow. However even these readers should gain some satisfaction from piecing the story together themselves rather than being told chronologically what occurred.
The Verdict: I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy good, experimental literature, with creative, unconventional subject-matter. ...more
The One Sentence Summary: Years after the crime for which she was convicted, a psychiatrist evaluates a young girl, looking to shine light on her invoThe One Sentence Summary: Years after the crime for which she was convicted, a psychiatrist evaluates a young girl, looking to shine light on her involvement in the double-murder of her employer and his mistress, of which she claims no memory.
The Meat and Potatoes: On July 23, 1843, Mr. Thomas Kinnear, a respected local man, and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery, were murdered in Kinnear’s home in Richmond Hill, Ontario. The culprits, a disgruntled hand named James McDermott and a young servant girl named Grace Marks, were subsequently apprehended by Canadian authorities in the United States, in the possession of many objects owned by, and indeed wearing the clothes of, the deceased. Both were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang for their crimes. At the last moment though, Grace Marks’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. Confused by the conflicting accounts given by McDermott and Grace (two differing accounts by him and three by her), no one really knows what happened on that day, or the extent of Grace’s involvement in the crimes.
These are the facts of one of the most notorious murders in Canadian history. Margaret Atwood picks up the tale with Grace in the Kingston Penitentiary, as a minister and a group of influential citizens petition for her release. They contact Simon Jordan, a doctor studying in the new field of mental illness, to evaluate her and write a report on her mental condition at the time of the murders. Since Grace claims no memory of the murders, Simon tries at first to use association to bring forth these repressed memories, but eventually must turn to more unconventional means. Is Grace merely an innocent victim, swept up in events that were beyond her control? Or is she a foul temptress who orchestrated the crimes and recruited McDermott with her feminine wiles? Simon believes the answer is locked in her past.
Alias Grace is a brilliant and remarkably unconventional book. Similar to Truman Capote’s fictionalized account of real murders in rural Kansas in In Cold Blood, Atwood puts words and feelings to the true events of this historical Canadian case. She goes one step beyond Capote though, taking liberties with any events not set in stone and creating her own fascinating work of fiction.
Complex and masterfully crafted, Alias Grace employs multiple points of view and tenses. Those chapters narrated by Grace are in the first person, while those narrated by Simon are in the third. Events in the narrative present (such as Simon’s interviews of Grace) are all in the present tense, while Grace’s discussion of the past (which takes up a large portion of the novel) are in the past tense. Atwood also uses primary and secondary sources about the crimes and literary snippets in a similar vein at the beginning of each chapter, for context and color. Additionally, Atwood presents much of the detail of the story in the form of letters written to and from the main characters. In Alias Grace, Atwood utilizes all these disparate methods and weaves them together to give us a broad view of the events.
The Praiseworthy: Alias Grace is the epitome of intricate storytelling; the variety of perspectives, points of view, and tenses (as discussed above), allow for a seamless and comprehensive story.
Also necessary to mention is Atwood’s mastery of the written word. Atwood has a talent that many popular fiction writers lack: the ability to see a detail or situation and describe it in a new way, going beyond a mere description and transcending into a type of poetry. This one simple sentence caught my eye: “Her lips are full, but fragile, like a rose on the verge of collapse.” In this, and many other instances, Atwood takes something familiar and compares it with something disparate in such a way that the reader not only gets the meaning, but the description seems almost inevitable.
Consider also this paragraph, whose hidden meanings and poetical repetition I found particularly striking:
It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour. Soon it will be daybreak. Soon the day will break. I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around again like clockwork. It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and then it’s the day itself. A Saturday. The breaking day. The day the butcher comes.
Simply put, Atwood has proven herself to be a true master of both storytelling and language, and Alias Grace is a prime example of her talent.
The Shortcomings: My only (halfhearted) gripe is that the story is a bit slow to start, and the scenes and descriptions sometimes longwinded. This is the natural outcome of the type of story Atwood chose to tell though, as her writing in Alias Grace was crafted after the oft longwinded style of the period in which it was set. A casual reader may be deterred by this, but I found the intrigue of the story more than sufficient to overcome my occasional boredom.
The Verdict: I would recommend Alias Grace to readers who enjoy crime stories, historical fiction, psychological thrillers, or any combination thereof, and have an appreciation for beautiful storycraft and writing. ...more
The One Sentence Summary: A detective investigates a child murder in the same small town outside Dublin where, in his childhood, two friends disappearThe One Sentence Summary: A detective investigates a child murder in the same small town outside Dublin where, in his childhood, two friends disappeared while he played in the wood with them, an event of which he had repressed all memory.
The Meat and Potatoes: In the summer of 1984, Detective Rob Ryan was found in the woods abutting his property development, terrified, with a large quantity of blood on his clothing. The two friends that he had been playing with that evening were never seen again. Years later Detective Ryan is called to investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl on an archaeological dig site just outside the recently cleared edge of that same wood. The apparently motiveless killing takes Ryan, his partner, and his squad around the small Dublin suburb of Knocknaree and back. Could the cases be related? What was the likelihood of two different child killers operating in a place as small as Knocknaree, even separated by twenty years? As the investigation continues and Ryan explores any possible connections to the old case, long repressed memories of that summer begin to surface. The mystery of the events of long ago begin to weigh on him in a way they never had before, threatening to claim his friendships, his partnership, and his career, as casualties.
In The Woods is a first person, past tense story communicated by Detective Rob Ryan, an admittedly unreliable narrator (“What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie.”), at some distant time in the future. Although the story has plenty of intrigue in itself, the novel is heavily character-based, and it is the reader’s affinity for and curiosity regarding the lives of these characters that drives the story forward. Detective Rob Ryan is not the typical world-wearied Detective that we’re used to seeing in crime novels (at least not at the beginning). He is a hardworking person who is generally comfortable, even happy, with his lot in life, despite the mystery in his past. Ryan’s partner is the enigmatic Detective Cassie Maddox, a young, laid-back, tomboyish female detective with whom he shares a sibling-like relationship. Detective Sam O’Neill, a genuinely nice and idealistic lad (bordering on naïve) rounds off the trio working on the child murder. The main characters are all very three-dimensional, and negative as well as positive characteristics abound. Because the characters and their relationships are so realistic, the novel has powerful emotional affect. When Ryan’s intruding memories begin to affect his life and his relationship with his partner starts to unravel, I personally was so drawn in that I finished the remainder of the book (almost two-hundred pages) in a single sitting.
The plotting of In The Woods is masterfully done. In a few pages in the prologue we are given background information on the original mystery, the disappearance of the children in Ryan’s childhood. In just a few paragraphs the scene is set and the close relationship between these young characters is cemented. Nothing sinister is described in these pages, although the final paragraph contains an ominous hint as to their final fate:
These children will not be coming of age, this or any other summer. This August will not ask them to find hidden reserves of strength and courage as they confront the complexity of the adult world and come away sadder and wiser and bonded for life. This summer has other requirements for them.
The actual details of this first crime are given incrementally. Ryan provides a clinical description from the case file, which he reads when he first becomes a detective; in the course of interviews regarding the child murder, the 1984 case is explored and we’re given additional details from the community residents; and as Ryan spends more time in the area, repressed memories begin to surface. This old case shares roughly equal time in the narrative with the “present day” case, and the details are interwoven through the more traditional, chronological child murder investigation.
The story is set in Ireland, where the author has lived since 1990, and her knowledge of the area and local culture is very apparent. Local dialect is sprinkled throughout (use of the verb “amn’t,” adjectives such as “bowsie,” and phrasing including “after” plus a continuous verb—“It’s only terrible what’s after happening”), adding a further level of realism to the novel.
The Praiseworthy: There are so many things I could describe in this section, from the grand to the mundane, but I’ll try to keep my analysis short. What makes this novel a future classic in my mind is the beauty and eloquence of the writing, which in my opinion transcends the crime genre and elevates this novel to the level of literary fiction. A few instances where the writing took my breath away include:
Out of absolute nowhere I felt a sudden sweet shot of joy . . . It was my partner bracing herself on her hands as she slid fluidly off the desk, it was the neat practised movement of flipping my notebook shut one-handed, it was my superintendent wriggling into his suit jacket and covertly checking his shoulders for dandruff, it was the garishly lit office with a stack of marker-labelled case files sagging in the corner and evening rubbing up against the window. It was the realisation, all over again, that this was real and it was my life.*
She just sat there quietly, her thumb moving regularly on my shoulder, while I cried. Not for those three children, I can’t claim that, but for the unbridgeable distance that lay between them and me: for the millions of miles, and the planets separating at dizzying speed. For how much we had to lose. We had been so small, so recklessly sure that together we could defy all the dark and complicated threats of the adult world, run straight through them like a game of Red Rover, laughing and away.
This was our last and greatest dance together, danced in a tiny interview room with darkness outside and rain falling soft and relentless on the roof, for no audience but the doomed and the dead.
I thought . . . of all those who hold life so light, or the stakes so dear, that they can walk steady and open-eyed to meet that thing that will take or transform their lives and whose high cold criteria are far beyond our understanding.
Also, what’s not said in this novel is a triumph in itself. The author is a master of the ellipses; French gives us the most important information in dialogue, and knows when to break and jump to the next scene. Her transitions are flawless with, in many cases, an enviable simplicity (for example: “Sam showed up at my apartment on Monday evening, late, around ten.”). Through this artful juggling of dialogue, narration, break, and summary, the reader is given all the important information without being bogged down in trivial detail or having the pace of the novel compromised.
The last praiseworthy aspect of In The Woods that I will discuss is French’s use of the present continuous tense for injection of invading memories. Small interruptions (in italics) are sprinkled throughout the novel, especially in the early stages of the child murder investigation when Ryan is beginning to recall details from the 1984 incident: “trainer heels dug into the earth of the bank, leaf-shadows dappling a red t-shirt, fishing-rods of branches and string, slapping at midges: Shut up! You’ll scare the fish!—“ French also uses this device to introduce more significant intrusions of memory. In one scene, Ryan is spending a night in a clearing in the woods, attempting to recover any memories that may be useful in the child murder case. The narration describes him climbing into the sleeping bag and leaning against the tree, and then abruptly jumps: “Peter whirling around on the castle wall and shooting out a hand to freeze me and Jamie on either side: ‘What’s that?’” In the next paragraph, she picks up the memory with the past simple tense: “We had been outside all day. . . .” Later in that scene, as the memories become interspersed with a panic in the present tense of the narrative, the present continuous is used to distinguish the description of the events in 1984 from the events in the narrative’s present:
Down by the river. Skidding to a stop; willow branches swaying and the water firing off splinters of light like a million tiny mirrors, blinding, dizzying. Eyes, golden and fringed like an owl. (Memories of the past)
The next paragraph:
I ran. I scrabbled out of the clutching sleeping-bag and threw myself into the wood, away from the clearing. (Actions in the narrative’s present)
Although it seems incongruous to use the present tense to describe events in the distant past, French’s choice crafts a narrative that flows freely from the past to the present and back, without confusing the reader.
The Shortcomings: (view spoiler)[The original mystery of what happened to the children in 1984 is never resolved. On the whole I did not see this decision as a failing as unsolved cases are a reality in law enforcement, but this is somewhat unusual for the genre and could be unsatisfying to the reader since so much of the novel is spent exploring the details of this old crime. Personally, this choice did not affect my reading of the novel. (hide spoiler)]
The Verdict: I would recommend In The Woods to readers who enjoy crime and appreciate beautiful and eloquent writing in addition to well-constructed narrative. Also, a sprinkling of 90s pop-culture references add an extra dimension for those who came of age in that decade.
*practised, levelled, and realisation are presented in their British spellings as I pulled the quote from the British edition of the novel. ...more