The One Sentence Summary: Survivors of the global zombie war relate their experiences in individual interviews.
The Meat and Potatoes: It’s sometime in...moreThe 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. (less)
The One Sentence Summary: An Edinburgh detective is called to investigate a murder in his childhood home on the Isle of Lewis and in doing so, has to...moreThe One Sentence Summary: An Edinburgh detective is called to investigate a murder in his childhood home on the Isle of Lewis and in doing so, has to confront his past.
The Meat and Potatoes: Detective Fin Macleod hasn’t been back to the Isle of Lewis, where he was raised, in years. But when the mutilated body of a murder victim is found there, bearing the same post-mortem injuries as a case he’s investigating in Edinburgh, he’s sent back to investigate any possible connections. The Lewis victim was a bully from Fin’s childhood though, and everyone on the island seems to have a motive for murder. While questioning his former friends and neighbors Fin delves into his past, which may have more to do with the present murder than he realizes.
The Black House is a novel primarily written in the past tense, in third person limited point of view, from the perspective of Fin, the main character. Upon Fin’s return to the Isle of Lewis though, he’s reminded of events from his past. Often these are immediately explored in a chapter narrated by Fin in the first person. These first person explorations of the past provide good context and perspective for the characters and events in the narrative present, and help the story to unfold on multiple dimensions.
The characters that Peter May creates in The Black House are three-dimensional and interesting, and he lets their depth unfold gradually. When we’re first introduced to Fin, for example, he seems like an all-around good character, but through his revelations of the past we find many shortcomings. He does the reverse with the murder victim, Angel Macritchie, who at first is presented as an unmitigated b*stard, but then softened when we learn of the deep friendship he developed with Calum Macdonald, who was crippled by a prank of Angel’s in childhood. The only character who is exactly as she seems is Marsaili Macdonald, a sweet and fairly innocent girl whose goodness is a foil against which we see Fin’s flaws.
May’s choice of The Isle of Lewis as a setting, a dark, cold, harsh location, is perfect for a story about a murder and the recollection of tortured childhood memories. At first Lewis is described negatively, as a place that Fin was glad he was able to escape from, but through the story a respect and admiration for the land comes through. A large portion of the story also takes place on An Sgeir, a rocky island miles from Lewis where a group of hunters make a yearly pilgrimage to hunt the guga, the gannets that inhabit the island. Even more harsh and inhospitable than Lewis, An Sgeir, and the mystery of what happened there during Fin’s first trip out with the hunters, provides an added dimension to the story.
Although billed as a crime novel, the murder isn’t the main story in The Black House. Fin’s story is the true story of interest, and the crime is a vehicle to explore Fin’s past. Although there is the standard criminal investigation including a postmortem examination and the questioning of witnesses, no new light is shed on the crime through these inquiries. Slowly it is revealed that the murder has its roots in the past, and it is through the slow revelations of Fin’s childhood that the murder is ultimately solved.
The Praiseworthy: May does a fabulous job with the perspective shifts throughout the story. The transitions between the chapters in the narrative present, given in the third person, and chapters in the past, given in the first person, are natural and absolutely seamless. I make it a point to note point-of-view shifts, but I didn’t even notice the first transition because it was done so naturally.
May also excels at creating a true and realistic narrative voice. Take this sentence of narration for example: “There was still a tremor ran through me each time I took a sip from it.” In Standard English this would more properly be phrased, “A tremor still ran through me each time I took a sip,” but instead the narrator says it the way a native Gaelic speaker would, which is true to the voice of the story.
Another exceptional bit of writing comes when the mystery is solved and (view spoiler)[Fin realizes that it was his best friend from childhood, Artair, who committed the murder. Suddenly all of the pieces fall into place and he imagines the murder as if he were watching it. This imagined scenario is written as narration that intrudes upon the present scene. Here is just a snippet:
‘Fin, what is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ He looked at her without seeing her. He was in the boatshed at Port of Ness. It was Saturday night and it was dark. There were two men there. One of them was Angel Macritchie. The other one moved into the moonlight. It was Artair.
In this way we get to see the scene as it happened, without it being revealed too soon in the story. Also, we can imagine the rising tension that Fin feels as he “sees” his friend murdering a man. (hide spoiler)] The Shortcomings: The only negative that I would note is that the prologue is written completely in italics. The purpose of italics is to emphasize and set something apart from the rest of the text, but this is unnecessary for the prologue as it’s already set apart in virtue of being the prologue and designated as such. In addition, the prologue is written in the present tense, which further sets it off from the rest of the story. The italics are unnecessary and just distracting.
The Verdict: I would recommend The Black House to readers who enjoy crime novels with a strong character-driven story, psychological emphasis, and well-crafted writing. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)