Film Review: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies (2013), based on the book of the same name by Isaac Marion. Rated PG-13.

The Plot: Poor R. He’s having a bit of a crisis. Wanting to connect to those around him, but just not able to. It’s part of the problem of being a zombie.

Then he falls for Julie, a human girl. Yes, he’s a zombie who just ate her boyfriend’s brains, but will that really stand in the way between him?

Julie is horrified by R except he’s not like any zombie she’s ever seen. First, he’s not trying to kill her. Second, he can talk. Third, he has a pretty sweet record collection.

Can these two crazy kids make it work? Or, rather, can a zombie and a human make it work?

The Good: Such a good, funny movie!

It starts with a monologue by R that is just hysterical because all the angst he is talking about could easily be said by anyone. What he is going through is heightened by the fact that the reason he is wondering about his place in the world is he is dead. And a zombie. Who eats people.

What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, we’re all dead. This girl is dead. That guy is dead. That guy in the corner is definitely dead. Jesus these guys look awful.” (Quote from the IMDB site for the film).

And then the funny turns to scary to remind us that R is a zombie by showing us an attack by the zombies on a group of humans; an attack on a group of scavengers led by Julie and her boyfriend Perry. R kills Perry and eats his brains.

And this is where Warm Bodies adds not one but two interesting things to zombie lore. First is R’s hanging onto his humanity, and his gradual reclamation of his humanity, both mentally and physically. Second, when R eats someone’s brains, he experiences that person’s memories. Part of his connection with Julie, the connection that saves Julie’s life as well as pushes R even farther towards becoming more human, is based in part on his experiencing Perry’s memories of loving Julie. That’s sick and funny and I loved it.

As you can probably tell from the names, Warm Bodies is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a love story between star-crossed lovers. And it’s a zombie movie with a twist: is it possible to save those zombies with, well, love and acceptance? And less you think that makes this movie tame, Warm Bodies also introduces super-zombies called Bonies, who are little more than skeletons and muscle, with no shred of humanity left. Let’s just say that even the zombies fear the Bonies.

For a bit more serious look at zombies being cured and returning to living with humans, check out BBC America’s In The Flesh.



Review: This Is Not A Test

This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers. St. Martin’s Press. 2012. Personal Copy.

The Plot: Sloane is having breakfast with her father. She has been home from school and her father has written a note explaining it was the flu. (It wasn’t the flu.) Her older sister Lily left home six months ago, with a short note (I’m so sorry. I can’t do this anymore) and if only Lily had left her sleeping pills, it would be so much easier for Sloane to do what has to be done. What she wants to do.

Sloane is having breakfast with her father, and he burnt the toast to punish her because she was late to breakfast. Not as bad as the punishment that kept her out of school. (It wasn’t the flu). And Sloane is thinking the world is gray and nothing matters and she needs her sister but her sister left, and Sloane wants to leave in the only way left to her —

A desperate knock on the door, sirens, screams. A woman crashes through the window, bloody and attacking, scratching and biting, and Sloane runs, away from her father and the yelling and the blood, and suddenly the world has changed. She is with a group of teens, all running for their lives, looking for safety from the bodies that rise from the dead to hunt and kill the living.

The Good: I like zombies. Love zombie movies and TV shows and books.

I want three things from a zombie book: a new take on the story. A good metaphor for what the zombies represent. And a concrete tip or two on how to survive the zombie apocalypse.

This Is Not A Test is told from the point of view of a depressed, abused teenage girl who wants to die. Sloane was “rescued” by two high school classmates, Rhys and Cary, who didn’t know she wasn’t trying to survive, not like the rest of them. And now she is one of six, huddled up in a school, exits blocked and barricaded. Five teens who want to survive: twins Trace and Grace, Grace, where Sloane had her only sleepover and a peak into a real, warm family; Rhys, a senior whose locker was near Sloane’s; Cary, who used to sell pot to Lily and shared a class with Sloane because he had to repeat a grade; and Harrison, a freshman no one knows. And Sloane, whose secret is she’s not like them, never has been. Sloane doesn’t want to live, but she doesn’t want to put the group at risk, won’t do to them what Lily did to her, so she finds herself with them, in the high school, where her silence is mistaken for strength.

This is a survival tale, as zombie stories tend to be. And there is action. The first chapter, of Sloane having breakfast, was perhaps one of my favorite first chapters ever. OK, yes, I knew it was a zombie book; but, still, Sloane didn’t know that. It was full of the details of her sister leaving her, and her abusive father, and Sloane making it through the minutes, and it could have been a different type of book, then BAM. And better than bam, because you see what Sloane sees and she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know it’s zombies; she doesn’t know why that woman has burst through the window; and the moment when she realizes that someone isn’t giving another CPR, isn’t helping another but is doing something worse — It’s beautiful, in the way good, tight writing is beautiful.

While at the school, there are flashbacks to the seven days the teens battled through the streets, hiding and running, before they got to the school. The days when they had more people in their group. There are other moments, too, of things happening, of strategy and fighting and running. But this is also about the illusion and monotony of safety, because once they are in the school they are safe. The school design is such they only have to worry about blocking the doors; there is water because the school has its own water tank; there is food. Safety means sitting around, and talking, and trying to figure out what’s next, and maybe, also, who was to blame for the loss of two of the group.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not My Dinner With Andre With Zombies, all talk and no action. No, rather, it’s a story of psychological survival. It’s having breathing room to remember what what no one wants to remember. It’s one thing to be “together” as you flee from house to house, one step ahead of zombies. It’s another to be trapped in a school, hearing the constant “thump” against the door as they try to get in, and remember what you lost and what you did to make it that far. Watching who unraveled, and why. What people became, in this tiny moment of safety, fascinated me; and all the more so because Sloane entered this situation with so many things already haunting her. In a way, she has always lived in a dangerous world; it’s only new to the others. As they wait in the school, wondering if rescue will come, will the danger shift from the zombies outside to each other?

So, the metaphor: are the zombies Sloane’s mental health? Her escape from her father? Or are the zombies, these things that want to kill her, her father? Does she flee from them, yet want the death they offer, in the same way that she wanted to flee her father yet never did because she was tied to that house? To want death and have death all around her, wanting her — so delicious! Yet, she cannot simply open the door and wait for them because there are others to think about. She doesn’t want to kill the others. Yes, I loved the zombies for both their own zombiehood and also for the things they represented to Sloane.

Metaphor and action come together, because for Sloane, the question isn’t whether she will survive, but, rather, whether she wants to.

Finally, what lessons did I learn on survival? Backpacks can be tricky, because they give zombies something to grab. The key to finding a possible safe refuge is window placement: picture windows are bad, but windows higher than a person, or skylights, are good. More tips are at Summers’ piece at Publishers Weekly on How To Survive The Zombie Apocalypse.

Because the character dynamics were fascinating. Because damaged Sloane is just the type of person who would, indeed, have what it takes to survive a world where the rules have all changed. Because, in a way, this has always been the world Sloane lives in. Because it’s tightly written. Because it’s zombies. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Stacked; Steph Su Reads; S. Krishna’s Books.

Review: Ashes

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. Egmont USA. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Review copies from publisher. Listened to audio. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

The Plot: One minute, Alex is hiking, trying to figure out her future and deal with her past. Sounds typical for a seventeen year old, but her future is complicated by an inoperable brain tumor and her past by the death of her parents four years before.

An electromagnetic pulse changes that.

Suddenly, the world changes.

No electronics are working. Alex find herself responsible for Ellie, an angry eight year old who just saw her grandfather die from the pulse. At first, they think the dangers they face are low supplies, a rough trek to the ranger’s station, and wild dogs.

Then they return into two teenagers. Unlike Alex and Ellie, these kids are changed. They eat flesh. Human flesh.

Alex and Ellie find another survivor, Tom, who hasn’t changed, and band together to figure out what happened and what to do next. Along the way, the encounter other survivors and discover that most teens have become wild flesh-eaters. In response, the surviving seniors are not welcoming towards kids they suspect may change any moment.

Should they head to a big city? Somewhere with less people? Would a military base be safe? Or have any towns survived?

Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, which appears to offer safety. She discovers flesh-eating teens and armed bandits aren’t the only things to worry about.

The Good: So many things!

There is Alex. Her father was a police officer; her mother, a doctor; and both enjoyed camping. The type of camping that meant teaching their only daughter survivalist-type skills: she knows how to make a debris shelter, what to do to make water drinkable, can read maps and knows her way around a gun. If anyone can survive the end of the world as we know it, it’s Alex.

One of the things I liked about at Alex? At times, I didn’t like her. She’s in a hurt, bitter, selfish place at the beginning of the story. Her parents are dead, she’s taken their ashes, her own future is bleak because of the brain tumor, she’s gone through years of treatment, she doesn’t even have a sense of smell anymore. There is more than a hint that she brought her father’s gun with her for more than protection.

When the pulse happens, Alex is thinking of herself, not Ellie, and acts accordingly. Keep in mind, at this point Ellie is challenging her fear, anger and grief into stubborness and whining. In short: she’s a brat. Honestly? At this stage, Alex is so caught up in herself that she doesn’t handle the situation well. That’s OK; she’s only seventeen. An important part of the story is Alex’s own progress from an understandably self-centered teen to someone who thinks about others. It’ s not just that, of course. Whether by her own hand or not, Alex was preparing for death. Now, she’s fighting to stay alive/

Alex and Ellie meet Tom, a young soldier on leave. The situation means Alex begins to think about others: hey, there’s nothing like fighting for survival to bond people together.

Alex’s brain tumor had affected her physically. After the pulse? Those symptoms go away. Not only can she smell; she has a super sense of smell. Is that why she wasn’t turned into a flesh-eater? Why wasn’t Tom? Alex tries to figure it out, based on what she knows of the handful of teens who didn’t change. Tom had nightmares from his time in the middle east; does that mean anything?

About halfway through, the book changes from one of adventurist survival to a different type of survival. Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, a place that has survived fairly intact and safe. She finds out it’s not as safe as it appears to be. I’ll be honest, for some reason I had an easier time believing in the flesh-eating teens than I did in Rule. I understand that society would change because of the pulse, the deaths, the flesh eaters; but it seems like Rule had always been — different. Controlled by a handful of families. Religious, but not quite like any traditional religion. It didn’t help that the story is told from Alex’s point of view, so all I know about Rule is what Alex knows or what she guesses.

The narration is terrific! Kellgren kept me on the edge of my seat. I listen to audiobooks during my commute (roughly an hour each way), and sometimes I had to just sit for a few minutes to calm down.

Ashes is the first book in a trilogy. It ends with a shocking reveal and a “how are you going to get out of this one” cliffhanger. I have a feeling that some of the things that frustrate or confuse me about Rule will be revealed. I can’t wait to read the next book!

Other reviews: Presenting Lenore and GalleySmith Joint Discussion; S. Krishna’s Books; Stacked; The Book Smugglers

Review: The Dark and Hollow Places

The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Annah has waited in the Dark City for years, waiting for the return of Elias. As children, they, along with Annah’s twin sister Abigail, had been lost in the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Abigail had been left behind by Annah and Elias, a betrayal that haunts the now teenaged Annah.

Annah waits, alone, scarred, not just by the abandonment of Abigail but also by Elias’s leaving Annah some years ago. Annah is also physically scarred: while exploring the abandoned tunnels of the Dark City, she fell into barbed wire and bears the marks on her face and body.

The city is falling apart, civilization is ending,and Annah is about to flee the city when, miraculously, she is reunited with both her long lost sister and Elias. The reunions are not what she had either feared or hoped. It is made all the more complicated by the appearance of the mysterious Catcher. As Annah adjusts from solitude and loneliness to being one of four, the living dead gain control of the city.

Annah’s world in the world created in The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead Tossed Waves; a world where generations before, the dead did not remain dead. The Forest of Hands and Teeth looked at this world from the point of view of a teenage girl, Mary, raised in an isolated religious village surrounded by a forest full of the living dead. The Dead Tossed Waves was about Gabry, Mary’s adopted daughter (and, it turns out, Annah’s missing sister), raised in safety and love with the dead safely behind walls.

The Good: The Dark and Hollow Places is my favorite book of the The Forest of Hands and Teeth series so far, and that is saying something since both of the previous books made my Favorites Books Read for 2009 and 2010). I adored the character of Annah: she has been beat up by the world, but she is not broken. She has built up emotional walls to protect herself, yet learns to let sister, friend, lover in.

Annah and Abigail are identical twins: Annah looks at Abigail — now Gabry — and sees what she, Annah, would have looked like and been like if she wasn’t scarred from barbed wire, if she had been loved by a mother and raised in a close, caring community. Readers of The Dead Tossed Waves know that Gabry’s life was not perfect. Annah does not want to be jealous of Gabry, especially since Annah believes it was her fault that the three children were initially lost in the forest. That Gabry ended up having a pretty good life is part of what Annah has to work through; Annah also has to work through Elias and Gabry’s relationship. Does Elias love Gabry because she is the unmarked Annah? This matters to Annah because of her bundle of emotions about Elias: Elias, the only person in her life for years. All her emotional life has been about Elias and now Elias loves another — not just any other, but Gabry.

Let me take a second to say, Ryan pulled me so into Annah’s interior and emotional life that I became more angry at Elias than Annah was! Luckily for Annah (and this reader), there was Catcher. I loved the love triangle here because the love between Annah and Elias was not about lust, not about boyfriend/girlfriend love. And Catcher, well, Catcher has his own secrets that keeps him at arm’s length from Annah and of course Annah believes “oh, it’s because of my barbed wire scars” and up the angst when Annah finds out the connection between Catcher and Gabry.

Just in case you’re thinking this is just an emotional merry go round, let me remind you: Living Dead. Zombies. Civilization survived the initial zombie apocalypse, yes, but the structure that developed has collapsed just as an endless, unstoppable Horde of living dead attack the Dead City. What happens is not pretty, and Annah (along with Elias, Gabry and Catcher) find themselves in the middle of it. The Dead and Hollow Places is full of running from zombies, encounters with zombies, and the nastiness that humans exhibit when faced with the end of the world as they know it.

Because Ryan brings both the emotion and action; because I was so invested in Annah’s well being, both physical and emotional; because the love interests were so real and tense and hot; The Dead and Hollow Places is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Review: Rot & Ruin

Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

The Plot: Benny Imura has turned fifteen, which means he has to get a job or lose half his rations. Morningside and its inhabitants have survived the First Night of the zombies and fourteen years later, the zombies still moan outside the town’s fences. Benny tries a number of different jobs; he manages to find something wrong with each one of them until he has no choice but to become his brother’s apprentice.

His brother, Tom Imura, is a professional zombie killer. Benny knows it won’t be exciting; he knows Tom isn’t as brave as people think. Tom never talks about killing zombies, doesn’t boast about daring feats like the other bounty hunters, Charlie and the Hammer.

Tom takes Benny beyond the fence, into the Rot and Ruin. Turns out, almost everything Benny thought, about zombies, humans, and even about First Night, was wrong.

The Good: Rot & Ruin begins humorously, with Ben and his slacker friend Lou Chong trying job after job. Locksmith, because even bedroom doors need locks on both sides… in case someone dies, becomes a zombie, and turns on his family in the night. The zombies of Rot & Ruin are the type that, with death, lose coordination and planning.  Also, the dead always rise, not just the ones that were bitten by zombies. Locksmith is actually a bit boring and, well, unnecessary as zombie’s usually can’t even turn a door knob. Then there’s Carpet Coat salesman, because carpet coats are so thick they hold up well against zombie bites. They hold up so well pretty much everyone already has one. Funny, yes — but always lurking in the background are the zombies. Benny’s saga of job-seeking not only establishes Benny’s character, it is also a terrific way to show the reader Benny’s world, a world of zombies, of isolation, of Benny thinking the way he lives is normal.

Benny’s journey with Tom outside the gate is the actual, physical journey of hunting zombies — and even that phrase, “hunting zombies,” turns out to not mean what Benny thought it was. It is the journey of Tom and Benny becoming brothers. Finally, it is Benny’s journey from child to adulthood as he learns the truth about the world and those he thought were heroes and cowards. That journey is scary and violent and action packed.

Maberry examines the question — what will life be like for that first generation of survivors? Rot & Ruin is set safely away from the actual events of First Night and the months that immediately followed, the months of running and fighting until the town that would be Mountainside was founded. Benny knew (or thought he knew) his own story: his father a zombie, his frightened mother shoving her toddler son into the arms of his older half-brother with the one word: “go.” Now, there are houses with cisterns for water and trade routes between the isolated towns. Now, there are fences to keep the zombies out. Now, the people who live behind the fences can almost — almost — forget.

Rot & Ruin also addresses the fact that the dead were once alive, and not just alive but loved ones. Family. Father, mother, child, sibling. After running, after survival, how does a person handle that their loved one is out there? Erosion artists, one of the jobs Benny flirts with, creates zombified pictures of relatives.

How does surviving zombies impact people? Does it make them kinder? Traumatized? Do they value life more, or less? Benny is forced out of his teen slackerhood into adulthood, forced to make these decisions out in the Rot and Ruin.

I am thrilled to say that there is a sequel coming this summer, Dust & Decay.

Because zombies aren’t in this book just because they’re the latest cool thing. Because zombies manage to be both terrifying and sad. Because Tom Imura is an amazing zombie fighter, even if it takes a while for Benny to realize it. Because I am as  haunted as Benny by the Lost Girl, the human child surviving beyond the fence. Because after I read this, I went into my kitchen to try to figure out how much food I’d have when First Night struck and realized, at most, I’d last a few months. Because of all this, Rot & Ruin is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Some book extras. As Bookshelves of Doom says, “the pages practically turn themselves.”