Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Book Reviews by James Maxey
June 2009

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead by Mark Twain and Don Borchert

After the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it was inevitable that other publishers would attempt to cash in with hastily constructed knock-offs. However, while the word "knock-off" implies something of lower quality, sometimes in books the second author to tackle an idea can rise to the challenge and produce something really good. The first author to interweave zombies into a classic novel can succeed purely on novelty, but the authors that follow, if they truly desire to produce a good book, can rise above mediocrity by focusing on technique and execution.

In the case of Tom Sawyer and the Undead, I must report mixed results. The good news: Mark Twain pulled off his portion of the writing brilliantly. I'm a huge fan of Twain, but it had been many years since I last read Tom Sawyer. Diving into the book, I once again fell in love with Twain's folksy yet elegant prose and his penetrating insights into the human condition, and especially into boyhood. I can happily report that I enjoyed this novel from beginning to end, simply because Twain's prose for the most part remains intact.

Alas, Don Borchett's efforts were not as rewarding. It's not that the writing that he overlaid on this novel was done poorly. In fairness, the plotlines involving the undead are placed into the book so lightly they hardly stand out as new material. However, one reason the undead don't disturb the flow of the book is because they a barely there at all. You might expect, in a novel where the undead get to share the title with one of the most famous characters in literature, that the zombies might play a significant role in the book. Alas, the zombies are nothing but a tease. The advance reading copy I was sent contained three hundred pages, and the first zombie attack doesn't occur until page 190. The zombies -- or "zum" as they are called for some reason never explained -- are discussed earlier in the book, but never take a starring role.

Typical zombie stories build toward climaxes where shambling hordes of undead attack the heroes. The horde attack is necessary because a lone zombie is too slow and stupid to be fearsome; only in vast numbers do they become an unstoppable force. So, as the book neared the end, I kept waiting and waiting for the zum hordes to arrive. They never do. The "climax" is a fight with a single zum. It barely stirs a yawn, let alone a sense of dread or doom.

If you like Twain, you need not bother with this book; you can simply read the original to find every clever and enjoyable moment. And, if you like zombies, you can safely skip this book as well. You'll find more undead on the jacket copy than you will inside.

The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer

In contrast to the nearly zombie-free Tom Sawyer and the Undead, Amelia Beamer's The Loving Dead is chock-full of voracious brain-suckers. They pop up in bathrooms, bedrooms, hospitals and hillsides, shambling along city streets and clogging the isles of grocery stores. In the best moments of the books, you even have zombies rampaging aboard a zeppelin. What more can a fan of the undead ask for?

At the heart of The Loving Dead, two roommates struggle to find each other as the world breaks down at the dawn of a zombie apocalypse. Kate and Michael are young twenty-somethings working together at Trader Joe's who've had a platonic relationship until the night the zombie invasion begins. Following their first zombie encounter, they turn to each other for comfort. Romance blossoms, or, if not quite romance, at least a little lust mixed with affection. Alas the events of the following day split our heroes apart before they can explore their feelings further, and the rest of the book is spent with each trying to survive long enough to see the other once more.

As an adventure tale, The Loving Dead has a lot to offer. The zombie attack aboard the zeppelin is a terrific moment of tension, and Amelia Beamer shows that she truly does understand how to build a zombie story, doling out the monsters slowly at first, but constantly increasing the pace as each zombie spawns more undead with every bite. Beamer is plainly aware of the comic potential of zombies as well, and readers will be rewarded with a well-timed laugh or two.

Still, while Beamer gets the zombies right, I thought the "loving" part of the title was clumsily executed. Michael is almost invisible as a character. His sole defining characteristic is that he likes kinky sex and is aroused by his roommate. He's decidedly passive throughout the book, reacting to the zombie attacks but not really showing much in the way of initiative. I was mystified as to what, exactly, any romance between Kate and Michael would be built on. Kate is slightly more three-dimensional, and is plainly Beamer's favorite character. Kate has the best lines and takes the most decisive actions in the book. Unfortunately, Kate is kind of unlikable. She's the mistress of an older man, taking his money in exchange for a sexual relationship, which she at least has the decency to keep secret from Michael. I was left perplexed by why she had turned to prostitution. She has a job, she seems pretty smart, and she constantly shows courage and resourcefulness. It's difficult to reconcile her action hero attributes with her willingness to sell her body for money. Despite her active role in helping others survive the zombie apocalypse, Kate turns out to be a curiously empty cipher, whose true nature is never revealed. The thinness of the character building makes the attempt at a love story decidedly unsatisfying.

One last annoyance: Cell phones. In a modern novel with young protagonists, cell phones are going to be everywhere. However, functional cell phones would make this novel a little too convenient; Michael and Kate could just call each other, or have friends call friends, and find each other without too much effort. So, in just about every chapter, Michael or Kate look at their cell phones and discover they are in an area with no signal. If this had happened once in the book, I'd have shrugged it off as a necessary convenience. But, there must be two dozen plot points where the lack of cell signal gets referenced. I'm stunned an editor allowed Beamer to pull this trick more than twice.

Still, despite the flaws of the novel, if you want to read about flesh-eating, brain-sucking, zombie hordes rampaging through a modern American city, The Loving Dead delivers. I can't say that I recommend the book for everyone, but a hardcore zombie addict will probably find it worth their time and money.

Read more by James Maxey

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