Review of the Undead

Alright, as promised I’m doing my first “fiction Friday” book review.  Since we were talking about zombies on our camping trip, and that led to me deciding to do book reviews on my blog, I thought it would be fitting if I started with a zombie book.  So, in honor of this theme, I chose “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” by Carrie Ryan.

First off, this book has a great title.  Really, it’s the best zombie title I’ve seen, about a thousand times better than “Dawn of the Dead,” etc. (although Shaun of the Dead is a pretty good title, too, now that I think about it.  But since that’s a movie, it hardly counts).  But the question is, does it live up to its title? To be honest, when I first read this book a couple of months ago, I wasn’t so sure.  I definitely had mixed feelings about it, but since then I’ve found myself thinking about it at random times, and it stuck with me enough that I went out and bought the sequel, “The Dead-Tossed Waves,” even though it was still in hardback and I don’t actually like hardcovers on principle.

The basic plot is this (no spoilers–you could get most of this from the back of the book): Mary lives in a small village in the middle of the forest.  On all sides of their village is a fence, and on the other side of that fence is…you guessed it.  Zombies.  Hence the hands and teeth.  Her village is ruled by a Sisterhood of nuns, who teach them that they are the last people alive.  Shortly into the book, however, their fence is breached, and Mary and her friends have to venture out into the world, trying to find life in the midst of all that death.  Mary’s eventual goal is the ocean, but along the way she’ll have to decide between the two men who love her, subsequently destroying her friendship with her former best friend (actually, it was already pretty rocky by this point), and mending her relationship with her estranged brother.  She’ll discover truths about the forest, and the sisterhood, and the zombies on the other side of the fence, but most importantly, she’ll discover truths about herself.  And yeah, that sounds vague and lame, but I’m trying really hard not to give any spoilers here, so take it or leave it.

And now for the fun stuff.  First off, I love how they never refer to the undead in this book as “zombies.”  Instead, they call them “the Unconsecrated,” which sounds religious and creepy and really helps to make this book unique from all the other zombie books out there.  The Unconsecrated themselves are done really well; these are slow moving, relentless creatures who spend all their time hovering at the fence, moaning.  When they see people, they moan louder, and their fingers are all bloody and broken from trying to get in.  Later in the book, a new kind of Unconsecrated is introduced–a fast one, speeding back and forth and throwing itself at the fence with a ferocity that terrifies all the villagers.  And with good reason…

The characters in this book are well-done as well.  The main character, Mary, feels very real to me.  I like her because she’s not perfect, but she’s interesting and curious and strong.  A born survivor, she decides what she wants and she goes for it, which could be taken as selfishness, and really, it is that, but it also makes her a very intriguing character.  And it’s clear that she’s a good person, she just sees things from her own perspective.  I actually thought she was similar in many ways to Katniss from “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (great book–I’ll be reviewing it later)–both of them are strong female protagonists who look out for themselves first, although Katniss was a little more sympathetic to me because she loved her sister more than herself, whereas Mary comes first for Mary.

The other main characters are Harry, the boy Mary is supposed to marry, and his brother, Travis, the boy Mary actually loves.  What I liked best about them was that Harry wasn’t a total jerk.  Usually in those movies where the main female is with the guy she doesn’t love, he actually turns out to be a jerk, making it that much easier for the girl to move on to her actual love.  Real life isn’t like that.  People are all mixed bags of good and bad, and the characters in Carrie Ryan’s book are no exception to that.  In addition to Harry and Travis, there are Cass, Mary’s best friend, and Jed, Mary’s older brother.  Both of these characters are interesting because they start off as pillars of strength for Mary to lean on, and then they end up turning on her.  In fact, all the relationships in this book are handled very well.  I kept thinking certain characters would end up with other characters, and looking for the familiar patterns repeated over and over again in books and movies, and I kept being surprised by how things actually turned out.  That doesn’t happen too often, and it’s refreshing when it does.

Ultimately, there were three things I didn’t like about this book.  First of all, I felt like some parts were kind of glossed over.  Not to sound like a pervert or anything, but the author never actually mentions if Mary is sleeping with one or other of the boys in this book.  It’s inferred by the situation, but the fact that she doesn’t spell it out kind of bothered me, because it left me a little confused about their relationship.  Second, I wanted to know more information about the Sisterhood.  Mary starts to find out some disturbing facts, but then she’s forced to leave, and the book ends without that being resolved.  True, there’s the sequel, but I still felt like I needed just a little bit more closure.  On the other hand, this lack of closure is closer to real life, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  And third, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ending, but then again, it’s a zombie book.  There’s no way a zombie book can end too happily.  Think about it–once there’s one zombie in the world, that’s the beginning of the end, really.  Unless they’re like the zombies in “28 Days Later,” which can actually starve to death.  Hint: the Unconsecrated are not that convenient. So really just the first thing bothered me, and just a little bit.

So, all in all I would say that on first read, I liked this book.  On a star scale, I would have given it a solid 3 of 5.  Then I sat on it for a while, and now, I’d actually give it at least 4 stars, probably 4.5.  And if you want to know the truth, the reason this book stuck with me is one line.  Just one line in the book that resounded with me so strongly I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Mary says, “He was everything.  Why couldn’t I see that he was everything?” And with this one bit of dialogue, I could feel all the regret and anguish that looking back always brings when you realize you’ve made the wrong choice and you can’t fix it.  Even now, my heart aches for her, and she’s just a bit of words on a page.  So that’s my conclusion–this book is a good idea with great details and characters that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.  Read it.

The art of world building

I read an interesting post by Nathan Bransford today where he posed the question, “if you could live in the world of one novel, which one would you choose?” Now, I always like questions like this, maybe because the nerd in me likes imagining what life would be like if I were in each of the worlds I read about.  I’ve come to a few conclusions over the years; I wouldn’t want to be in any of these sword and sorcery novels where I’d have to do a lot of running, and nothing where my life is constantly in danger or where the world is very uncomfortable.  And by uncomfortable, I mean worlds like Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” where you have to walk around with a gas mask to breath the air and there are gangs of super-fast zombies traveling around.  In fact, any world with zombies is automatically O-U-T.

Which leads me to the one series I would like to live in: Harry Potter.  Who didn’t see that one coming? Embarrassingly enough, from the comments it looked like about 90% of the people answering wanted to live at Hogwarts.  So, instead of being bothered by my lack of originality, I decided to take a closer look at why everyone wants to be a wizard in the world of Harry Potter.

What’s there not to love about Hogwarts? Before going, you’re told you are special and belong in this whole other, better world, where you can do magic, live in a really amazing castle, and take classes that are full of fun things like how to ride a broomstick or transform items into other items (and honestly, even potions seemed like a pretty cool thing to learn).  True, there’s that whole He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named thing, but really, it seems like a small price to pay.

J.K. Rowling is able to create a whole separate world, with so much detail and so many fun little facts that it feels like a real place.  And while I’ve read many other books that accomplish this just as well (see “Boneshaker” above), none of them seem nearly as fun.  This is why I think the Harry Potter books are so popular; the characters are good and the storyline is good, but again, I’ve read books that are just as good and better.  But the world of Harry Potter is such a fun place that readers love these books, just for the chance to belong in that world for a couple of hours.

I’m still working on the art of world building in my own work.  I know the key is including plenty of little details that might feel insignificant or pointless at first, but that illustrate how this new world is different from other worlds.  If done right, these little details will eventually tie in to the main plot, becoming important, much like the room of requirement in the Harry Potter series, which started out as a comment from Dumbledore about a room full of chamber pots in the first book and became very significant in later books.  But what else do you need to do to make your world come alive? Suggestions? Comments? Thanks, and happy writing!

Published in: on May 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm  Comments (6)  
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Loving those intuitive writing moments

Alright, I’m back from my writing-cation, and I almost met my goal.  I got to about 19,000 words for the weekend, and I was aiming for 20,000, so not so bad.  Definitely more than I’ve ever written in a three-day period before.  And the best part is I have one last chapter and I’ll be done with my first draft.  Then the real fun begins…

One thing I noticed while writing is that I began to get more intuitive lurches.  Things like, “you need to have this character show up now,” etc.  The longer I wrote, the more I felt like I was getting a little bit of help, little nudges in the right direction.  I talked about this briefly in an earlier post–the ability to write intuitively without a real plan, but I wanted to talk about it some more because it is the part of the writing process I’m most interested in.

There was an interesting post by Tribal Writer recently about how you shouldn’t write what you know, but instead, “write what you want to know, or write what you don’t know, but will discover in the telling.”  I found this intriguing because I always felt like writing what I know would be problematic, since I like to write fantasy, or at least have a supernatural twist to my stories, and at least so far in my life I have yet to develop magical talents.  The day is still young, but I don’t really see that in my future.  So, instead I would start with something I know, and then imagine how that would change.  For instance, my current WIP is about a fourteen-year-old girl who is locked into manacles by the god of death and forced into another world.  Not something I would know much about, but as I wrote I’d try to picture what that would be like, and go from there.

I think the best writing advice is not “write what you know,” but “write what you love.”  If you’re enjoying what you’re writing about, then other people will enjoy reading it.  It’s sort of how you can tell if someone is smiling when you’re talking to them on the phone, you can tell if a writer is having a good time.  And while writing, you just need to trust that your subconscious will help you out, if you relax and listen to it.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 9:51 am  Comments (1)  
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