|Books That Cure What Ails You|
Monster Island by David Wellington
Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006, $13.95
David Wellington was initially unable to find a publisher for this zombie novel. So you might
say Monster Island was dead. But then the novel came back to life, as an online serial,
which eventually attracted the attention of editor John Oakes at Thunder's Mouth Press,
thanks to Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. Now it lives on as this handsome trade
paperback and has even managed to spawn two forthcoming sequels, Monster Nation and
Monster Planet. How's that for undead?
Dekalb is a New York born-and-raised United Nations weapons inspector who was stuck in
Somalia when the world went to hell. Not literally, of course, but close enough: the dead
have started coming back. That's right: zombies.
Somalia is under the yoke of a warlord who has been maintaining order despite the chaos
caused by the dead rising up. The problem is, she's got AIDS, and the zombie epidemic is
preventing her from getting her medication. Knowing that Dekalb works for the U.N., the
warlord holds his daughter hostage and forces him to go out in search of the drugs she so
desperately needs to stay alive.
So Dekalb boards a ship, along with a group of Somali "girl soldiers," to travel to United
Nations headquarters in Manhattan, since that's the only place Dekalb knows for sure will
have the medicine.
New York is about as bad as one might expectcompletely overrun with zombies, so
overrun, in fact, that one of the harbors they attempt to pull into is completely clogged up
with corpses. Seeing this, and the rest of the island, makes it immediately obvious to
Dekalb and crew that getting to the U.N. building isn't going to be easy.
Meanwhile, already in Manhattan is Garya survivor...of sorts. You see, Gary is a doctora
medical student, reallywho saw what was happening with the dead returning to life and
decided that if you can't beat'em, join'em. But he doesn't just kill himself. Gary figures
that the reason the newly walking dead are so stupid and brainless as zombies tend to be is
because that when they died, their brains were deprived of oxygen for a sufficient amount of
time to cause brain death. So Gary concocts a plan to "survive" the zombie apocalypse with
careful medical planning. And it worksGary dies but comes back to life with his body
already decaying but his mind still intact. Which is exactly what he'd planned, but what he
didn't plan on was the all-consuming hunger he found himself afflicted with.
The novel is divided into three parts, and the first partthe first eighty pages or sois pure,
unadulterated post-apocalyptic zombie fun. Which is not to say that the novel is without its
flaws. There are several choices made by the characters that seem only to make sense if
their intent is to forward the plot while leaving room for plenty of zombie horror. Also, a
narrative revelation at the end of the novel comes off as a bit silly, as if Wellington realized
that he should have told the story in third person rather than first person (with alternating
chapters told from Gary's third person POV). The novel also loses a considerable amount of
steam after part one, but it remains an enjoyable ride all the way to the end. Dekalb is an
engaging and memorable protagonist, and Wellington's knowledge of Manhattan makes the
setting lively and realistic.
What makes Monster Island stand out from much of the other zombie fare out there is that
it puts several new spins on the old zombie tale. Not only is there Gary's clever "survival,"
but there's also a force at work behind the scenes, controlling the zombies, so that their
endless pursuit of human flesh has some purpose behind it. Ultimately, the question of
what caused the dead to rise remains unanswered, as it almost always is in zombie-fiction,
but that doesn't make the book any less entertaining.
If you think the novel sounds interesting, but you're not sure you want to plunk down the
cash for it, Monster Island and sequels Monster Nation and Monster Planet are all available
online, as is Wellington's new ongoing vampire serial, Thirteen Bullets.
Victory by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2006, $16.95
Susan Cooper is the Newberry Medal-winning author of the acclaimed and beloved The Dark
is Rising series and many other fine books. Most of these were written for children and
young adults, but her work tends to work just fine for grown-ups as well, and her new
novel, Victory, is no exception.
In 2006, eleven year old Molly is an English city girl who has recently moved, unwillingly, to
America with her family when her new step-father's job takes them across the Atlantic.
Though there's nothing wrong with her new home in Connecticut, Molly longs for London. In
a happy coincidence, Molly and her family stumble into a bookshop one day and there Molly
discovers a very old book about one of England's greatest heroes: Admiral Lord Nelson.
In 1803, eleven year old Sam is a farm boy that escapes his mean-spirited father's tyranny
by going off to live with his Uncle Charlie, a ropemaker. But just when things seem to be
looking up, Sam and Charlie are taken by a forceful band of Navy recruiters known as a
"press gang," and are made into sailors against their will. In this era, Napoleon is trying to
conquer all of Europe, and so England is at war with France and needs all the sailors it can
get. So Sam and Charlie are brought to His Majesty's Ship Victory, and are taught how to
The narrative unfolds jointly through Molly's and Sam's viewpoints, and though they're
living in very different times, they both go through a time of great change in their lives, and
both come to love and admire Lord Nelson. At first, it seems as though the two narrative
threads are wholly separate stories, but Molly eventually discovers that her book about Lord
Nelson is no ordinary volume; glued between the front cover and the first page is an old
letter from the book's previous owneran Emma Tenneyand with it, a tiny piece of old
Victory's battered flag, which Sam received over two hundred years ago, after the Battle of
Though the cover copy describes Victory as an "extraordinary time-shifting adventure,"
there's no real fantasy element present here. There are hints at some supernatural
connection between Molly and Sam, but nothing overt. But the lack of a fantasy element
does not make this a poorer novel. Because I thought it was going to be fantasy, I kept
expecting a temporal shift of some sort, for Molly to end up on board the Victory with Sam,
but the novel worked extraordinarily well for me despite those expectations. The prose is
evocative and effortless to read, the characters supremely well-drawn and authentic. Also
authentic are the maritime details Cooper provides in Sam's narrative thread; through this
young boy's eyes, Cooper paints a vivid picture of what life aboard one of His Majesty's
Ships was really like, and requires no previous nautical knowledge to follow along (think of
it as Patrick O'Brian-lite, if you will).
One of the most astonishing things about the novel is that Cooper somehow made Molly's
relatively benign contemporary troubles seem just as compelling to me as Sam's historical
woes. In a novel like this one, with alternating chapters of two wildly different viewpoints,
oftentimes a reader might get impatient with one point of view because they're so eager to
get back to the other. But that never happens here; Cooper so skillfully intertwines the
narrative threads that the book flows smoothly from start to finish, and the result is a
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Tor, 2006, $25.95
Vernor Vinge is a four-time Hugo Award-winning author, most widely known for his Hugo
winning novels A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, and for his essay "The
Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era" in which the idea
of the Singularitywhich has so dominated SF in the past few yearswas first proposed.
But while much of Vinge's fiction takes place in the far future, this new novel, Rainbows
End, which is set in the same world as his Hugo Award-winning novella, "Fast Times at
Fairmont High," takes place less than twenty years from now. (It is not, as Amazon.com
claims, a Zones of Thought novel.)
It's the year 2025, and the brilliant poet Robert Gu has long been debilitated by old age and
Alzheimer's. But thanks to recent medical science advances, not only is his Alzheimer's
cured, his body is also rejuvenated, effectively making him into a young man again. The
cure is no miracle, however; the damage caused by the Alzheimer's has left Robert unable
to write, and the many years he was incapacitated by dementia have left him unable to
functionwhat's a grown man with no appreciable skills to do with the rest of his life?
But medicine is not the only field in which there have been drastic advances. The Internet
has become even more pervasive than it is now, thinning the line between virtual and
reality to the point where what's real and what's not is almost indistinguishable. People
walk around with "wearable" computers that they interface with via contact lenses, which
allows people to walk around in virtual environments while walking around in the real worldessentially the real world with a virtual overlay. Being so completely wired also allows for
"sming" (silent messaging) from person to person, which is akin to technological telepathy.
The world Robert knew was much like the world we're living in today, so waking up in the
Vinge's 2025 is a bit of a future shock. Robert ends up at the aforementioned Fairmont High
to learn how to function in this new world. And there he's drawn into a complex, clandestine
operation enacted by various intelligence agencies, and he learns just how different the
world he's now living in is.
Rainbows End features some really incredible speculations. Its tagline of "a novel with one
foot in the future" feels as if it might actually be true, and if it isif in twenty years time the
world will look remotely like the one depicted herewe're all in for a major future shock.
The conspiratorial plot seems too Byzantine for its own good, but the Gu family dynamic, on
the other hand, saves the novel and gives the reader something concrete to hold on to and
identify with in the midst of this strange but plausible future.
In short, you'll come for the mind-blowing concepts, you'll tolerate the conspiracies, but
you'll stay for the characters.
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
Read by Stevens Fisher
HarperAudio, 2006, $39.95, 12 hours, Audio CD (Unabridged)
Audible.com, 2006, $27.95, 12 hours, digital audio (Unabridged)
You know how when you're a kid and you see all those department store Santas and your
parents tell you that those guys are just Santa's helpers, and that the real Santa lives at the
South Pole? Well, Death needs helpers too, and that's Charlie Asherone of death's little
Charlie wasn't always that way though. A self-proclaimed "beta male" (as opposed to alpha
male, king of the jungle-types), Charlie settled into a happy existence with his lovely wife
Rachel and his family-owned second-hand store. But his world is turned upside down when
Rachel goes to the hospital to give birth to their baby daughter only to successfully deliver
the baby and then quietly pass away of a rare, but non unheard of, complication of
Soon after Rachel's death, strange things start happening to Charlie. First of all, he starts
seeing a red glow around certain objects. And when he attempts to confront a man on the
street carrying such an object, the man stumbles away from Charlie only to be run over by a
Turns out Charlie is what's known as a Death Merchantor that's what he calls it anyway.
It's the job of Charlie, and others like him, to collect what are known as "soul vessels," from
the dearly-departed, and then to make sure that they end up in the right hands.
Sure, it sounds like a tough job, but Death Merchants have the handy ability to be invisible
when they're in the process of collecting a soul vessel, and they know them when they see
them by their crimson glow. Death Merchants, however, have little room for error. If they
miss out on collecting a soul vessel within the time frame allotted, Bad Things could happen.
That's a capital B, as in Armageddon bad. And to top things off, all the while he's trying to
do his job, Charlie's harassed by some underground-dwelling demons he refers to as "sewer
harpies." They hiss insults at him and threaten to use his entrails to weave a basket...or
maybe a hat.
There are also lots of crazy rules involved with being a Death Merchant, and The Great Big
Book of Death forbids Death Merchants from speaking with each other...though that doesn't
stop Charlie from conversing with a few. When he does, he learns that there might be
something special about him, that he might not be your run of the mill Death Merchant. Not
to mention that his daughter might be involved with all this too. Not only do her pets have
an extremely high mortality rate, but a pair of gigantic hell hounds appear out of nowhere to
protect her when the sewer harpies come calling, and then they stick around to hold vigil
over little Sophie and to make sure Charlie doesn't neglect his duties....
Stevens Fisher is an ideal narrator for Moore's work; he really nails the irreverent tone of
the novel and its characters. He has a great deadpan delivery that lets Moore's jokes do all
the work, and his voice seems a perfect fit for Charlie's beta male nature. Fisher subtly
alters his voice to distinguish between characters so that who is speaking is never in doubt.
The slow-talking and careful annunciation of Ray is especially noteworthy as are little
Sophie's joy-filled shrieks, which delight instead of cloy and the menacing cackles of the
A Dirty Job is a damn funny novel. I was trying to think of a funny death pun to useit's
terminally funny, or you'll die laughingbut the truth is, while it's pretty hilarious at times,
it's not quite so funny as to make you keel over from laughter. That's probably a good
thing, or else I wouldn't have been able to write this review, and Christopher Moore's fan
base would be drastically diminished. Plus, neither of my puns were particularly good. But
the point is, Moore lays his shtick on a bit too thick at times, and while that doesn't prevent
the book from being a good one, it does prevent it from being a comic masterpiece.
However, since A Dirty Job is not just about the humorthere's a fairly interesting plot here,
along with some inventive twists to the Death-as-an-entity tropeit ends up being a fun
and worthwhile read...even if you're sick to death of Death.