Books in Review, May 2016

Depending on what you define as a zombie (The hangup: do dead thralls count?), zombies have appeared in somewhere between 3 and 5 books I’ve read so far this year. That’s as much as a quarter. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

(Updated in 2020 to reflect my refined genre classifications.)

Lord John and the Hand of Devils, Diana Gabaldon

As you recall, I veered off the main path of Outlander to pick up the Lord John books, because I love Lord John and also his books are “normal” length, which is a nice break. (Especially with the Long Book slot being occupied by my mad sprint to finish Monte Cristo). This particular volume was actually two short stories and a novella. Apparently, the novella was meant to be a short story, but Diana Gabaldon wasn’t able to convince anyone that a 200+ page story was “short”. As I mentioned in my prior review, these books will make very little sense to anyone who hasn’t read the first three main Outlander books. Eventually, you’ll be able to get there by watching the show, because it’s super faithful. It’s currently finishing season 2, and has already been renewed for season 3, which thank goodness because the only other shows I really cared about were both canceled. (RIP Galavant and Agent Carter, I guess I’ll replace you with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and going back to Agents of Shield.) (2020 me says: you didn’t keep watching Outlander and you didn’t go back to Agents of Shield, or keep up with Outlander for that matter, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend finished strong to the end.) But I digress. These stories were assembled with a fantasy theme in mind – though John’s books have less of the supernatural than the time-traveling main series, the fantastic elements here are not all they first appear. Also, one of the other Lord John stories is about zombies, so I think I’m obliged now to read it this year.

Format: novel. Traditional genre: probably mystery. Maybe literary fic. It’s always an adventure shelving Outlander. Setting: historical. Story genre: character study, mystery. Rating: 3/3.

Feed, Mira Grant

The overwhelming majority of zombie fiction focuses on (or at least starts during, and continues in the aftermath) the initial outbreak. Most of the rest feature small groups or even solo survivors who have been on their own for months to years. My favorite zombie fiction ever is Zombies, Run, the exercise app that makes you sprint from zombies and then pull over to the side of the sidewalk to cry about your feelings. Season 1 (2012) opens shortly after the outbreak, but after humans have already organized themselves into settlements and a rudimentary government, and at this point in Season 5 (2016) zombies are just annoying things to dodge while the REAL problems shoot at you for discovering their nefarious secrets. That’s the kind of zombie story I like: where the zombies themselves are not actually the main issue anymore, but just one more thing to deal with in another story. Feed is also this kind of story – we’re more than 20 years into a zombie world. Journalism has become dominated by blogs, which are more like indie news outfits with departments and licensing regulations (emphasizing self-defense). Unusually for a zombie story, we know exactly what the origin of the infection was and how it works, though there’s no cure. And politics has resumed business as usual, with zombies to evade and a press corps to follow them around. The main characters are journalists selected to embed with an up-and-coming presidential candidate. Of course, this being a political thriller, someone is weaponizing zombies against his campaign. I was completely gripped by this book – it may be the best political thriller I’ve read (from a very small sample size, granted). Addressing issues not frequently seen in zombie OR political books (biological weapons, the motives of terrorists, sacrifices, religion in a post-zombie world, the changing face of journalism, I could go on) and pinning me to my seat, this book is no light read, but it is worth the pain. Though two more books follow, Feed concludes in a pretty satisfactory way (no blatant cliffhangers – I don’t even really care who wins the election, at this point) and apparently the later books aren’t as good, so I think I’m just going to leave it there. (2020 me adds: and it’s disturbingly prescient. Pandemic? Presidential election? Collapse of traditional media with the void filled by bloggers and worse? Yikes.)

Format: novel. Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: apocalyptic, political thriller. Story genre: specfic, thriller, high concept. Rating: 3/3.

The Shambling Guide to New York City, Mur Lafferty

I am such a sucker for the “supernatural beings trying to live everyday modern lives” genre. I have been a sucker for this genre for so long that I could not remember purchasing this book and I only know it’s from Powell’s thanks to the barcode. The author takes the eminently reasonable premise that modern supernatural beings have to travel, and they have special travel needs, so they probably need a magical Frommer’s or Lonely Planet or whatever. Our protagonist is a vanilla human travel guide editor who gets sucked into the world of the inhuman by stubbornly ignoring when to stop (another soft spot of mine, because I totally do that), and getting herself hired by a group of dedicated but inexperienced magical beings trying to write a guide. This proves to be both an excellent and a terrible idea. I wavered around a bit trying to figure out what I thought of this book: I was gripped by the plot, impressed by the worldbuilding, and enjoyed the protagonist’s company. But the writing was pretty pedestrian. I try to be forgiving, but almost all of the characters spoke the same way, the exposition was wonderfully thorough (a definite pro for a book heavy on worldbuilding) but extremely choppy and not actually all that descriptive, and overall ignored the show-don’t-tell principle. I’ll be giving the sequel a whirl at some point – despite my frustration with the style, I really do want to know what happens to her next!

Format: novel. Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: specfic, mystery. Rating: 2/3, docked for writing and style, not story

Cleaning the Kingdom, Ken Pellman, Lynn Barron, AnaKaren Aguirre, and Rolly Crump

I bought this on impulse at 5am while I was waiting for my flight to Disneyland. I’ve always been a person who likes to know how things work, especially theatrical things. And despite having no experience to qualify me for such a position (though I definitely have the skills to succeed at it) I’ve never quite given up the idea of working in Disney park operations. (I just think it would be really cool to be the stage manager for ALL OF DISNEYLAND, ok?) This book was a memoir by former custodians at Disneyland, discussing all the things they have to do to keep the parks famously clean, how things changed over the years, and behind-the-scenes secrets. (They also discuss how cost-cutting measures and the overcrowding of the park in search of revenue at the expense of experience has eroded that famous cleanliness – and having been several times recently, I sadly have to agree.) There wasn’t much that was terribly surprising, but it certainly was interesting and educational to learn about all the stuff that the regular visitors don’t see. One that did surprise me is that ride tracks are cleaned (of oil and grit) by custodians, not ride maintenance – I thought that there would be a stricter maintenance/rides vs. custodians/visitor areas boundary. While this book certainly lifted the curtain and I got a kick out of hearing about some of the wilder duties (like scrubbing down rides and collecting horse poo), it was in desperate need of an editor. The book was divided into areas of the park + other special duties (like parades, rides) and was ploddingly repetitive and overly detailed. The prose was dreary, which for a book about the most magical place on earth was especially noticeable. I personally didn’t love their method of handling multiple narrators, but that’s tricky and there’s not one right way, so that’s more of a personal gripe. You really have to be a person who wants to know how Disneyland works to make it through the writing here, unfortunately, which is a shame because maybe people would stop littering all over Frontierland if they understood the Sisyphean effort to keep it tidy.

Subject: Disney. Format: memoir. Rating: 2/3, but only if you’re a hard core disney fan. Otherwise, the give it a pass due to the mediocre writing.

Bob’s Burgers: Medium Rare, many authors and artists

This will probably make very little sense if you haven’t watched the surreal masterpiece that is Bob’s Burgers. I did not watch this show voluntarily, and at first I didn’t like it, but then I realized that it actually was my kind of bizarre after all and I got attached. I think Salvador Dali would watch Bob’s Burgers. He’d probably have some official merch. It’s that kind of show. It’s on netflix, go on.

Format: graphic novel/comic. Setting: cartoon realism. Story genre: miscellaneous, many separate stories. Rating: 3/3, but only if you’ve seen the show.


There is method to the madness in what I read concurrently, by the way. I generally have one or sometimes two nonfiction, and 3-4 fiction including graphic novels, for a total of not more than five. I try not to have more than one really long book (600+ pages of fiction, 450+ of nonfiction) going at once, though I’m currently seriously breaking that rule with two long fictions and a long nonfiction. I nearly always have at least one fantasy book going (Outlander counts), which should surprise nobody. It looks like chaos but there’s a very strong set of rules I read by, and when I break them (like right now) I usually get it over my head in too many books and regret it.

When I talk about reading more than one book at a time, people’s reactions are pretty much always either “how. and why.” or “SOMEONE ELSE DOES THAT TOO YAY”. Which are you, friend?

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