Charlaine Harris’s MIDNIGHT CROSSROAD: An Advance Review

midnight-crossroad_612x924The first in a new trilogy, Midnight Crossing is the first book Charlaine Harris will publish after the conclusion of the Southern Vampire Mysteries (sometimes known as the Sookie Stackhouse series, or more recently, the True Blood books). As an author, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to publish a new book after the completion of your best-known series. It must be even more daunting to face a fandom that was, by and large, unhappy with the way you ended that series. Such is the dilemma Charlaine Harris faces, with the release of Midnight Crossroad.
I was lucky enough to receive a highly anticipated ARC of Midnight Crossroad from Pulp Fiction Booksellers. I loved this book, and I am interested to see how fans of the Sookie Stackhouse series are going to respond to Harris’ new direction.

Midnight is a middle-of-the-road town in Texas, consisting of a diner, a church, a New-Age store, a gas station, a nail salon-and-antique store, and a pawnshop. The town is populated almost entirely by the proprietors of those businesses, and the very occasional passer-by.
Manfred, a sometime genuine and oftentimes fraudulent psychic, moves to Midnight in the hope of starting afresh. He quickly becomes accustomed to the insular community, and learns that the Midnighters don’t take kindly to personal questions. Secrets aside, however, the Midnight residents happily take Manfred into their fold, and he finds himself establishing a home in the unusual town.

When one of his neighbors suggests a “welcome to Midnight” picnic in Manfred’s honor, the whole town treks out to a picturesque mountain spot. The social occasion is brought to a screeching halt when one of Midnight’s citizens stumbles upon a dead body – unmistakably that of Aubrey Hamilton, former girlfriend of the pawnshop owner, Bobo.

The confirmation that Aubrey was murdered, and not just a runaway, throws Midnight society into disarray. Knowing that the killer had to have been one of their own, the Midnighters become suspicious and frightened.

The usually conservative members of the community find themselves having to disclose more and more about their pasts and their unusual abilities in order to avoid being targeted as Aubrey’s murderer. Before long, Midnight is embroiled in a conspiracy involving bikers, white supremacists and a mysterious legend that may or may not have a basis in reality.

deadtotheworldMidnight Crossroad is most definitely not the SVM. For one thing, it’s far more serious than the Sookie Stackhouse books. In the SVM series, Sookie’s sassy narration could lighten even the gravest predicaments (pun intended – sorry…). In Midnight Crossroad, Harris employs a third-person omniscient narrator, with multiple points of view – quite a change from her usual MO. Instead of forming a comfortable relationship with a single, familiar narrator as we did with Sookie, readers will instead find themselves immersed in the community of Midnight. It’s quite an eerie effect, especially as we begin to unravel the truth of Aubrey’s murder.
While the Sookie Stackhouse books were arguably focused on romance, Midnight only gives it a periphery acknowledgement. Manfred finds himself drawn to one of Midnight’s most mysterious citizens, and Fiji, the town witch, is trying to suppress her feelings for Bobo, but it’s only a small part of a much more interesting narrative.
Most fascinating to me, however, was the fact that any reference to the supernatural was extremely casual. Fiji is a witch, but the full extent of her abilities is left largely unexplored. Manfred comes from a family of genuine psychic ability, but we’re not really given any insight into whether he’s just carrying on the tradition, or if he’s got a true gift. Lemuel is a vampire, but he’s not one of Bill or Eric’s brethren. He seems to subsist on energy, rather than blood – although he did mention that “the synthetic stuff” just doesn’t cut it for him, a reference Sookie’s fans will appreciate.
I knew very little about Midnight Crossroad when I started it, but I did expect that it would be another addition to Harris’ canon of supernatural or paranormal works. It’s actually quite difficult to define, now that I’ve finished it, because the references to the supernatural elements of the town are so minimal that it could almost be classed as magical realism. Overall, it gives the impression that there is much more to the town of Midnight than this first book has divulged.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

I loved Midnight Crossroads. I missed my bus stop on not one, but two separate bus trips because I was so engrossed in it. With a few small alterations, this book could have been “twee” or overly kitschy, but Harris confidently walks the line between intriguing darkness and heartening community. Midnight Crossroads was an excellent follow-up to True Detective, as it carried on the Southern Gothic theme, but also served as a reintroduction to genre fiction (I had been suffering a bit of genre burnout beforehand). I recommend it not only to Sookie’s fans, but to anyone who is fed up with traditional urban fantasy. If you aren’t quite ready to let go of the eerie South yet, pick up your copy of Midnight Crossroad on release day.

Midnight Crossroad is released in America on May 1, and in Australia on May 6. Please order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers – you can add them on Facebook here.

I received a reviewer’s proof copy of Midnight Crossroads in exchange for providing my honest feedback to Pulp Fiction Booksellers. The copy I read was not the final edit, and may be subject to publisher’s editing prior to its publication. Thanks again Beau, Iain and Ron for providing me with this excellent book.

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James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA: to Soothe post-True Detective Blues.

As the end of True Detective drew near, I began to panic. I had become addicted to the madness, the obsession and the convoluted relationship between Marty and Rust, and I didn’t know where I’d get my fix when the penultimate eighth episode was done and dusted. True Detective was unlike anything I’d ever seen or read, so I had no idea where to start looking for something similar. Fortunately, Pulp Fiction came to the rescue, and recommended that I start out with James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA.

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I miss you, Rust.

As you may be aware, The Black Dahlia refers to an actual, exceptionally gruesome murder. Elizabeth “Betty” Short, a star-struck would-be actress, was found brutally murdered in Los Angeles in January of 1947. Her murder remains one of the oldest unsolved homicide cases in Los Angeles’ history, and has long been a subject of fascination for scholars and entertainers alike. Ellroy’s version of The Black Dahlia’s tale is fictionalized by necessity, but remains true to the facts as much as possible.

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Betty Short – famous in death, if not in life.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is working his way through the ranks of the LAPD when he is presented with a major PR opportunity. An amateur boxer with a reputation for his cool-headedness in the ring, Bucky is asked to go up against Lee “Mr Fire” Blanchard, a colleague in the Warrants division, to drum up public support for the police department. Despite being lighter than Blanchard, Bucky finds that competing in the fight might open up doors that would otherwise remain closed to him – so he accepts.
When the fight between the now-infamous “Mr Fire and Mr Ice” drums up enough support for the police to be approved for an 8% pay rise, Bucky finds himself faced with more opportunity than he knows what to do with. He takes a promotion and a partnership with his rival, Lee Blanchard, in the Warrants division. As they develop a partnership, Blanchard and Bleichert find that their contradictory natures are, in fact, complementary, and the pair find professional and personal success together. On a routine bust one night, Lee and Bucky find themselves in the middle of a crime scene – the worst murder that LA has seen in decades.
Elizabeth Short is found bisected at the waist with her innards removed and her mouth slashed from ear-to-ear. Despite not technically being on the homicide beat, the prolific partnership of Blanchard and Bleichert are assigned to the case of the murder of the Black Dahlia.
As the investigation deepens, Lee and Bucky become obsessed with finding and apprehending the sadist responsible for Betty Short’s horrific murder. And just as their boxing strategies differ, Lee and Bucky find their obsessive tendencies manifesting in different ways. Bound by the woman they both love, they are forced to work with and against each other in order to stay sane, and to keep one another alive.

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James Ellroy, looking suspiciously like John Malkovich

The case of the Black Dahlia is, as you know, unsolved. And, as we also know, Ellroy’s account is a fictionalized one – but that doesn’t stop him from naming a culprit. I expected the novel to focus on the degradation of Bleichert and Blanchard’s mindsets, and I would have been happy with this – but Ellroy stepped it up a notch, and ID’d a killer in the process. And just in case this alone wasn’t enough for the reader, the killer’s identity comes in the form of a major twist – and THEN, it takes a roaring bend to tie up ends that you didn’t even realize were loose. After all that, the story ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note – what more could you want?

I think I’m a bit late in jumping on the Ellroy bandwagon. He’s already a highly respected crime writer, and considered one of the best contemporary noir authors. But I’d like to rhapsodize anyway. THE BLACK DAHLIA is a compelling examination of the way in which trauma, both direct and indirect, has an interminable knock-on effect. It is an investigation of the life of a homicide detective, and a lament for the way in which his life is irrevocably changed by the atrocities he faces daily. It is a portrait of psychopathy on several levels, and a study of the way in which human beings use each other. It is dry, sparsely written and utterly compulsive. It is haunting, affecting and highly disturbing, and I couldn’t put it down.

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Cover Art for Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia

As with any true crime derivative, I think it’s important to remember the victim. In the case of THE BLACK DAHLIA, Ellroy never forgets that at the heart of this fascinating story is a girl whose life was cut too short by the worst means possible, and that our fascination comes at the cost of her life. However she chose to live her life, Betty Short never got the chance to turn it around, or even to decide whether she wanted to. That is the tragedy that permeates the pages of Ellroy’s addictive noir novel, and never once does he cheapen the experience of the oft-forgotten victim.

If you’re missing Rust and Marty’s dysfunctional partnership, and you’ve a taste for hard-hitting noir, THE BLACK DAHLIA is a must-read.

Are you a Brisbanite? Then surely, you know where to go by now – go and visit Pulp Fiction in Central Station and ask them to order you a copy.

I actually bought my copy of The Black Dahlia from the wonderful second-hand bookstore, Bent Books! Located in Brisbane’s West End, Bent Books is full of unexpected finds and lovely people – go check them out too.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

 Got a recommendation for a book like True Detective? Leave me a comment below!

Nnedi Okorafor’s WHO FEARS DEATH: A Review

Please note: The article contains discussion of the author’s treatment of rape and female circumcision in the context of a book review. 

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Cover art for WHO FEARS DEATH

Oneyesonwu was born of rape. A Nuru man, who wanted to impregnate her with a light-skinned baby, raped her mother. Instead of reviling her child as a lifelong reminder of her brutal assault, Onye’s mother speaks her truest wish – for her child to become a sorceress.
Forever labelled as Ewu, the product of rape, Onyesonwu becomes resilient to the prejudice she faces every day. As she grows up, she discovers that her strength also manifests in supernatural abilities. Her mother’s wish has come true – Onye is Eshu, a sorceress.
As a child, Onyesonwu meets another Ewu – a boy named Mwita, who is also a gifted healer. It soon becomes apparent that Onye and Mwita are destined to belong to one another.
Even though she knows her mother and her beloved stepfather love her, Onye feels responsible for the shame they have faced throughout her life, as the parents of a Nuru-Okeke Ewu. When she turns eleven, Onye makes the irreversible decision to go through with the Eleventh Rite, which she knows will bring her family honour and respect. In undertaking this enormous procedure, she is bonded to the three girls of her Eleventh Rite group – Diti, Luyu and Binta, her friends for life.
Despite the abuse she suffers on a daily basis, Onye lives a happy life. She longs to develop her magical abilities, and seeks an apprenticeship under a teacher who might be able to facilitate her learning. Although Aro, the teacher of magic, rejects her at first, Onye’s need for tutelage becomes great when it becomes apparent that her biological father intends to find and kill her.

Nnedi Okorafor was inspired to write Who Fears Death by a Washington Post article entitled “We Want to Make a Light Baby”. This distressing article brings to light the horrifying experiences of dark-skinned Sudanese women who are raped by Arabic men who hope to impregnate them. The victims believe that the rapes are a “systemic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.”
This unimaginable concept forms the basis for Onyesonwu’s story. Fuelled by her rage against the man who raped her mother, Onye is motivated to overcome the societal expectation that she is fated to become nothing more than a violent criminal.

Artist's interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

Artist’s interpretation of the post-apocalyptic African desert

But Who Fears Death is more than a revenge story. In a place where outrage could have dominated, love is ever-present. Okorafor tenderly explores the nature of love in all its forms – romantic, cultural, platonic, familial and sexual. In fact, sexuality is a major focus of the book. It is linked throughout to Onye’s decision to undergo the Eleventh Rite when she comes of age. The Eleventh Rite is, as you might have guessed, is Onye’s circumcision.
I know that other reviewers have been disturbed by the circumcision scene, but have liked the rest of the book – I don’t really understand how they can separate the one scene from the remainder of the book. Onye’s decision to undergo the Rite is integral to the narrative of Who Fears Death. She, Binta, Diti and Luyu spend the rest of their lives together trying to cope with the decision that they made as children. Their circumcision not only affects their relationships with one another, but deeply shapes the way in which they relate to the opposite sex. Each of the four girls comes to bitterly regret the decision they made at age eleven, but they also respect the ritual and its cultural significance. Their struggle to overcome the expectations of the Okeke culture in order to do the right thing for themselves as individuals makes for an emotionally difficult read, but Okorafor handles this with poise and sensitivity.

Who Fears Death will not disappoint fans of traditional fantasy. There is a prophecy, a Chosen One, a wise old elder who begrudgingly passes his magical skills on to the younger generation, a young magic user whose powers are not wholly within her control, and a quest for revenge that has the potential to destroy our hero. There’s a Scooby Gang of sorts, hellbent on following our hero to the very end, and a love to transcend the ages.

The post-apocalyptic African setting brings us to a new world, where traditional culture has merged with the harsh necessities of life in the post-nuclear desert. And our hero is, in fact, a heroine – Onye is the indisputable centre of this novel. Her life force and her magic are the centre of the storm that she wends throughout the Okeke and Nuru societies. Onye is brave, irrational, frustrating, loving and beloved. She’s unforgettably powerful, in every sense, and she’s stronger than I can summarise in any text less than the length of the novel itself. Onyesonwu – Who Fears Death? Not she.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

Incidentally, Nnedi Okorafor sent me this pic on Twitter to show me what Onye would like like.

I can’t recommend Who Fears Death to everyone. It comes with a trigger warning for rape and FGM, even if it is exceptionally well handled. It’s a very emotional read, and although there’s a lot of love to the story, there isn’t as much happiness as traditional fantasy readers may expect. But it is as moving as it is original, and I’m pretty certain that it’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

As ever, I implore my Brisbane-based readers to make the trip to Central Station to pay Pulp Fiction a visit to grab a copy of Who Fears Death. Add Pulp on Facebook here, and check out their Twitter here. Also, I have Twitter too! Check out The Novelettes on Twitter here.

Jeff VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION: Addictive New Weird!

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

In Annihilation, we follow journey of the twelfth expedition into the mysterious Area X. All the members of the previous parties have met strange and unexplained fates – some returned home a shell of their former selves; others died of ravaging illnesses and many were never seen again.

The twelfth expedition party consists of a psychologist, a biologist, and anthropologist, a surveryor and a linguist. The biologist, emotionally disconnected and highly analytical, tells us the story from the pages of her observational journal.

Soon after establishing their base camp, the team comes across an enormous tunnel descending into the earth. Inside this tunnel, the biologist finds evidence that a sentient being is scrawling erudite messages over the walls. Upon closer inspection, the biologist finds that the messages are written in living fungi.
As she leans in to take a sample, the fungi release a stream of spores into the air. After she accidentally inhales one, the biologist begins to monitor herself for any signs of illness or behavioural change. The first effect that she notices, however, is a sudden immunity to the hypnotic instruction that the psychologist is still administering to the surveyor, the anthropologist and the linguist.

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Why is the psychologist hypnotising the team? What is her agenda? What is the Southern Reach, and who are they? What do they expect the team to find in Area X that the eleven expeditions before did not? Who, or what, is writing on the walls of the tunnel, and where did it come from? Now that she can see through the psychologist’s façade of natural leadership, the biologist knows that the unknown landscape of Area X is not the only danger she will face on this expedition.

Annihilation is written in epistolary format – that is, as a journal. The biologist, whose name we never learn, consciously refrains from connecting with her fellow explorers in an emotional context in favour of immersing herself in her environment. Much like Dr Caldwell from The Girl with All the Gifts, the biologist is wholly focused on her work. As she recounts events from her life before entering Area X, we begin to see that she has always been this way – almost frightening in her coldness. When her self-preservation instincts kick in, though, she’s downright terrifying.

Annihilation features minimal characterisation, and what we do see is only through the eyes of the nameless biologist. Because she is utterly uninterested in engaging with her fellow explorers, she gives us very little idea of what her companions are actually like. We get the general idea that the psychologist is up to something, that the anthropologist can’t hack it in Area X, and that the surveyor is driven mad, but we spend most of the narrative inside the biologist’s head. As you might be able to guess, this makes for an uncomfortable and somewhat alienating read.
The biologist elaborates on her own past through ruminations on her marriage. A solitary person, the biologist found that she was at constant odds with her outgoing, social husband. As she delves deeper into Area X, she descends into a sort of madness, whereby she ends up pulling her marriage apart.

ANNIHILATION 1

  Annihilation clearly takes its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but there are other influences at work here too. The landscape of Area X is a living thing, and it becomes the biologist’s adversary, partner, lover and self.  And let me just clarify, when I say the landscape is alive, I literally mean that it is made of living, breathing tissue. I found this fascinating and quite disturbing, and the glimpses that I got of it were just not enough. As I’m sure you can predict, Vandermeer has taken a leaf out of the Necronomicon here – Annihilation has a distinctly Lovecraftian vibe. I really wouldn’t be surprised if the mysterious being scrawling strange messages inside the Tunnel is a Great Old One, to be honest.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

I burned through Annihilation in twenty four hours. I was addicted to the suspense, and the ever-present sense of foreboding that was only heightened by the cliff-hanger ending. Thankfully, Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, to be followed by Authority and Acceptance in May and September respectively (side note – how great is it that they’re all coming out in one year?). If you’re a fan of horror, suspense, dystopian SF, New Weird or anything vaguely Lovecraftian, I highly recommend you grab your copy ASAP!

I received a proof copy of Annihilation in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Pulp Fiction!

If you’re in Brisbane, buy your copy of Annihilation from Pulp Fiction. Add them on Facebook here, and follow their Twitter here – shoot them a message and they’ll sort you out.

Speaking of which, I have a Twitter also!

 

The Opposite of Life by Narelle Harris: The Right Book at the Right Time.

PULP PRESSTwenty-three year old Lissa doesn’t go out much – she prefers to stay at home with a glass of wine and a poetry anthology – but when her boyfriend dumps her, her best friend insists on taking her out to help take her mind off things. Out on the town in Melbourne, Lissa has a great time and even strikes up a potential romance with one of Evie’s friends. And then people start dying.
In the nightclubs in Melbourne, bodies are turning up, drained of their blood and abandoned in bathroom stalls. Every time it happens, Lissa seems to be near, so she decides to find out exactly what’s going one. Surely, it can’t be vampires?

I picked up this book out of general interest, because it was printed by Pulp Fiction Press. Regular readers will know that Pulp Fiction is my favourite bookstore. I trust the staff’s genre-specific knowledge and never hesitate to pick up their recommendations, so I was curious to read a book that they deemed worthy of publishing! Despite trusting Pulp, I was a little bit surprised to find that I genuinely loved this book! I gave up on vampire fiction long ago, but I think Ms Harris has restored my faith in the genre.

THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE gets off to a rocky start. It took me time to warm to the characters and to get a feel for its ‘voice’, but the second half passed by in a blur. I felt as though I was being kept company by Lissa, with whom I felt a certain undeniable sense of kinship (book-obsessed, questionable fashion sense, something of a loner – should I sue the author for copyright of my personality?).
This book is dark in an unexpected way. We’re used to vampire books having dangerous men, seductive women, exposure to erotic pain, etc. But this book was quite different. Through Lissa, Harris uses vampirism as a means to tackle the reality of death and its permanent, cumulative effect.
Lissa has endured significant loss by the tender age of twenty-three. Her parents’ marriage broke down when her younger sister died of a brain tumour. Unable to cope with the stress of a dysfunctional family life, Lissa’s younger brother Paul overdosed and died, leaving Lissa and her older sister Kate to cope with the remnants of their family. Hardened against personal tragedy, Lissa simply shuts down when something stressful appears on the horizon – a trait I found all too relatable.

Very much not your typical vampire novel.

Very much not your typical vampire novel.

When Lissa’s acquaintances start dying, she responds to the murders with an aggressive righteousness befitting one who has lost too much in her life already. Interestingly, the vampires in this book are genuinely quite repulsive – they are murderers, and their ‘life’ holds no seductive intrigue. While they are immortal, the vampires have sacrificed living brain function, meaning that they no longer have the capacity to learn new skills or to respond to stimuli in an emotional context. Upon being introduced to the world of Melbourne’s archaic vampires, Lissa finds herself drawn to a life where she would no longer be able to feel emotional pain.  Harris presents us with an interesting take on the emotional and psychological effects of joining the undead. What kind of effect would a choice like this have on your psyche?
Ultimately, Lissa determines that it’s better to feel pain and loss than to numb it out. This struck quite a personal chord for me, as I’ve been struggling with something similar myself of late.

Lissa is an excellent protagonist. She’s realistically flawed, but after dealing with vampiric murders AND a stressful family situation, she undergoes a genuine change, and it’s heart-warming for all the right reasons.
The male lead Gary, isn’t all that big of a focal character. Gary’s a vampire with a hilariously mundane name. His social skills leave a lot to be desired, and he generates more awkward silences than he fills. Gary is invested in finding out who’s killing Melbourne clubbers, and he reluctantly allows Lissa to tag along for the ride. Depsite this, Gary’s presence in the narrative doesn’t take over Lissa’s own agenda. He’s a means to an end – an access card to the vampire world. He’s not even really a romantic interest, though there’s potential for him to become one. This is enormously refreshing, particularly in a vampire novel!

Melbourne is an excellent setting!

Melbourne is an excellent setting!

Also? Lissa is a librarian. Her descriptions of working in a library really struck a chord for me, and I began applying for courses to become a qualified librarian myself!

I could make an argument that this book is feminist, but I’d rather not have to defend such a strong statement to those who will inevitably equate vampire fiction with anti-feminism. Rather, let me just say that THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE about a pretty awesome girl who faces some pretty awful situations head-on. THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of stress and anxiety this makes it a highly relatable book. For me, this may have been a matter of the right book at the right time, but I feel entirely confident in telling you all to pay Pulp Fiction a visit to collect your copy. If you’re in Brisbane, or coming anytime soon, you can find Pulp Fiction in Central Station (look for the purple and yellow sign). Alternatively, if you’re an international reader, you can buy THE OPPOSITE OF LIFE for your ereader here at Amazon.

Thank you to Pulp Fiction for providing me with a copy of The Opposite of Life.

M. R. Carey’s THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS: The Next Big Zombie Thing.

Cover art for The Girl with All the Gifts

Cover art for The Girl with All the Gifts

Ten year-old Melanie wakes fresh every day for her lessons. Sergeant comes to strap her in her wheelchair, making sure to restrain her hands and feet, and she’s taken to the classroom to begin the day’s teachings. Melanie is exceptionally bright, and she adores the days when Miss Justineau takes the class. Because she has never exited the compound in which she lives, Melanie’s exposure to the outside world is limited to the knowledge her teachers can give her. And because she has never known any different, she is unable to recognise that all of the adults around her are deathly afraid of what happens if she ever gets free.

Look, I have to tell you something. A lot of other reviews of this book are withholding this piece of information for fear of posting a dreaded spoiler, but I can tell you with one hundred per cent certainty that knowing this will not change your experience of this book. It’s got too many twists and turns for this small detail to be a spoiler. Right, so: Melanie is a zombie.

Put aside what you think you know about zombie novels. Forget 28 Days Later, and the monkey-borne virus. Put World War Z out of your mind, because it’s too late for the W.H.O to do anything about this outbreak. And don’t even think about assembling your unwanted record collection, a la Shaun of the Dead, because there’s absolutely no point in trying to combat

In The Girl with All the Gifts, society as we know it is long dead. What remains is the military run compound in which Melanie and her classmates are housed, and, somewhere out there, the survivalist citadel of Beacon. The rest of the world has been decimated by the “hungries” – the first wave of the zombie epidemic. Like the Boneys of Warm Bodies, the hungries resemble the zombies that we know and fear. So what, then, is Melanie, and why is the military scared of her?

In addition to being an exceptional zombie novel, The Girl with All the Gifts is also a compelling character study. Through the eyes of five very different characters, Carey dissects the new world that has emerged from the husk of humanity’s society, and man, does he do it well.
The five point-of-view characters represent a fascinating cross-section of the post-apocalyptic community: Miss Justineau, kind-hearted and fiercely protective teacher; the adamantly militaristic Sergeant; naïve and innocent Private Gallagher; chilling Dr Caldwell, and of course, Melanie. This eclectic collection of perspectives allows Carey to examine the state of the world from different angles, and in considerable depth.
Carey makes masterful use of the five POV characters to build tension and suspense. I found that he continually tripped up my expectations of a multiple perspective narrative, which made the book all the more surprising. ASOIAF has trained me to expect that when something interesting happens to a character, perspective will smash-cut to one of twenty-something other people. Not so with The Girl with All the Gifts: when something interesting happens, Carey keeps focus on the situation itself, even if he switches character perspective. This makes the book feel quite immediate, and a little bit cinematic.

This is the new zombie.

This is the new zombie. Scared? You should be.

Dr Caldwell, the researcher on base, is a truly chilling character. She is single-mindedly devoted to her life’s research, and genuinely does not seem to care about anything else. She systematically abducted Melanie’s classmates, one by one, so that she may dissect them and glean an understanding of the true nature of the end of the world. She has no issue with restricting life-saving resources from her fellow humans if it means that she can have peace and quiet to conduct her work, and holds onto her life with the sole intent of finding an answer. By the end of the book, it is apparent that her intent is pure selfishness in the guise of utilitarianism – an eerily familiar concept.

The thing is, Caldwell’s efforts amount to nothing anyway. Even after she dedicates her life to finding the answer, the answer has no effect on the outcome of the apocalypse. The fact that she knows this, and continues to single-mindedly seek answers at the expense of her peers, is nothing short of scary.

Where Caldwell is repulsive and alienating, Miss Justineau is wholly relatable. She has honour, and loves hugely, but she also breaks down in the face of overwhelming horror. She rages against the injustice of restraining children, but also recognises the vulnerability of her fellow travellers. At the novel’s conclusion, she accepts the state of the world that has shifted from underneath her. Her comparison to Caldwell makes the latter seem all the more monstrous. The tension between them is palpable!

There are parts of this book that are strikingly gory, but I kind of loved that about it. The violence and gore brings into focus the stark horror of a reality in which unknown monsters rule. That being said, I’m told that my tastes do run toward the bleak…

Too late, Shaun. Your records and cricket bats are no use now.

Too late, Shaun. Your records and cricket bats are no use now.

In an age of interminable trilogies and cliffhanger endings, The Girl with All The Gifts is a true standalone novel. Sure, the frightening world could be explored more in another book, but I was satisfied with the resolved narrative in the end. It does draw the inevitable comparison to Cronin’s The Passage. If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that I– I never actually finished The Passage. I’ve tried three times, but I always find that it just drags. I lose motivation to complete the book, can’t be bothered investing in new characters and trying to care about their situations. With a stack of unread books nearly as tall as I am, I’m unlikely to go back to The Passage anytime soon. Unlike The Passage, I could not put The Girl with All the Gifts down. In fact, I am sporting a spectacular bruise on my thigh because I was walking around reading, and ran straight into the corner of my bed.

With the possible exception of Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse, Carey’s apocalypse scenario is one of the best I’ve ever read. He takes our traditional understanding of the zombie myth, turns it upside down, cuts it all up and reassembles it. It is stunningly cool, highly original and quite frightening. In The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey shows us that the end of the world as we know it does not mean that it is the end of the world as a whole – and maybe we should just accept it.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS will be available at PULP FICTION BOOKSELLERS in Brisbane City this week. Call them on (07) 3236 2750 to reserve a copy, or hit them up on Facebook here. 

Are you a fan of zombie books? Check out these too!

- Mira Grant’s Parasite,
- Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant,
- Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City
-
 and J T Clay’s The Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Happy reading!

 

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – A Review

If you’re into Young Adult Fiction, chances are that one author made it happen. To paraphrase another editor, what writers like J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins started, John Green finished with his small but exquisite collection of novels about adolescent life that tell it like it is. But how and why has Green succeeded in winning the hearts of so many, when many more before him have tried and, if not failed, then not succeeded on the same scale? How did a young author from the American Midwest write novels that got the entire world (including a good number of adults) to fall in love with fiction for youths all over again?

 

Surely you've seen this cover around?

Surely you’ve seen this cover around?

Put simply, Green knows his teens. With his background as a youth chaplain and drawing from his own days at boarding school, he’s created a world of beautifully rendered youths who go about life, love and sometimes, death. His characters harbour deep crushes on the opposite sex, played out through snappy comebacks, thoughtful insights and intellectual referencing (think Walt Whitman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even wholly original Mathematical theorems). More often than not, they encounter a crisis, which forces them to re-examine the beliefs they’ve held all along, whether about themselves or about the people around them. And it’s in re-evaluating their lives that Green draws the reader in: we, too, with the characters, are brought around to a new perspective that stays in our minds and lingers in the heart long after the story is over.

Amazingly, Green has built a strong following of his works based on these few similar plot elements, so what exactly works so well for him? To me, it’s the understanding he displays, not just of what it means to be a teenager, but also what it means to be human. After all, the questions of love, life and death don’t only plague us during teenhood, but continue to haunt us even as we grow older. Green’s teens, despite their age, bring to the story reflections that somehow make sense even to adults. There are life lessons that we should already know but don’t – love the person, not the idea of them, for instance – or new interpretations to things that we take for granted – the cliché, for example, that remembering the dead through writing will somehow immortalize them in memory. Together with his band of wisecracking, painfully insightful, prematurely mature youths, Green manages to reach out and touch us deep within a place that we may have long forgotten about or assumed could no longer be moved.

John Green (left) with the young stars of the film.

John Green (left) with the young stars of the film.

Green’s latest novel and most successful work to date, The Fault in Our Stars, deviates slightly from the pattern described above. His protagonist is not a boy but a girl, Hazel Grace Lancaster, and from the onset her fate is never anything but determined – “her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis”, as the novel puts it. She starts the story not attracted to anyone, and in fact determined not to be, because in her mind terminally ill people like her are “grenades” who will eventually blow up and hurt the people around her for life. Against all odds, however, Hazel meets Augustus “Gus” Waters, a stunningly good-looking cancer survivor who falls in love with her and whom she grows to love in return.

As we have come to expect of Green’s protagonists, Hazel is wonderfully fleshed out, if not in body, then at least in character. She is smart and well-read, and finds in Gus an intellectual opponent worthy of verbal sparring. Their conversations are an enjoyable cocktail of philosophical musings, nods to authors both famous and fictional and inside jokes (“Okay? Okay.”). Perhaps such humorous wisdom is due to their accelerated adulthood; both teens are forced to grow up far too soon with the cancer clock looming over them, constantly and conspicuously ticking away their life. Yet ironically, in numbering their days, Green has created characters that are more vivid and full of life than one would expect cancer patients to be (incidentally, a stereotype that Green hoped to correct in writing this book).

The first official poster for the highly anticipated film adaptation.

The first official poster for the highly anticipated film adaptation.

The pair’s budding relationship, as the upcoming movie poster puts it, is “one sick love story”. Gus is inexplicably (to Hazel, at least) attracted to Hazel from the first, and refuses to distance himself from her despite her warnings: “All efforts to save me from you will fail”. The two gradually bond over their mutual love of Hazel’s favourite novel, the fictitious An Imperial Affliction, and Gus, in a gorgeously Cinderella moment, plays fairy godfather when he spends his cancer wish from the Genies (a play on the real-life Make-a-Wish Foundation) on trip for himself and Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the novel’s famously reclusive writer, Peter Van Houten. From there, the pair’s romance is sealed and sees them through the second half of the story as an unexpected discovery turns Hazel and Gus’s lives upside down forever.

This story is unmistakably a tragedy, and Green himself acknowledges as much through the title’s nod to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and explains further via the character of Van Houten, who notes in a letter to Gus that “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars”. Both Hazel and Gus are marked with a sense of fatality through their battles with cancer and respond in different ways: Hazel desires to live an ordinary life without hurting anyone, whereas Gus fears oblivion and not leaving a significant legacy behind. Yet, there is also love among the ruins, through Gus’s unflinching devotion to Hazel, and the latter’s eventual reciprocity (“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”); Hazel’s words, which also close out the book, carry a promise of eternal commitment to Gus.

As with Green’s other novels, The Fault in Our Stars contains the perfect blend of likable characters, witty humour, poignant scenes, topped off by Green’s splendid writing. In addition, it offers a reassurance somewhat to the fear of mortality, through the reversal of a age-old mantra: that while we are in the midst of death, we are too in life.

This review was written by Nicola Cheong, a guest writer for The Novelettes. Thank you Nicola!