Survival, by Rhonda Hopkins

Short take:  It had a lot of potential.

Give your brain a snack!

Quick note:  I was gifted a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest review.

The Zombie Apocalypse.  It’s huge right now.  Books, movies, tv, the undead are everywhere.  Which means that there’s very little new material to be found anymore.  Zombies used to walk slowly, then they moved fast…. and that’s about all the genre has progressed in the last few decades.  So I’ll admit that while I was skeptical going into this one (another zombie book?  really?) I thought the premise was a fun one – normal person having to team up with terrible co-worker to save her sister – and so I dove in.

Survival opens right in the middle of the action, as Sarah and her twin sister Dana are being held in a basement somewhere in Fort Worth, Texas, by a few men with guns who are threatening to feed them to the zombies.  Sarah manages to escape, and, promising to return for Dana, seeks out her workplace arch nemesis.  Meredith may be a difficult coworker, but her husband has lots of guns, and Sarah sure could use a few of those.

Upon arriving at Meredith’s, however, Sarah finds out that Meredith has cancer and is currently suffering from a particularly brutal round of chemotherapy.  She loads up Meredith, and the guns, and goes out into a new and terrifying world where she needs to save her sister and possibly the rest of the human race.

So.  What did I think of this story?  As I mentioned above, the zombie genre has been done to undeath.  For a story to really hit me as a standout, it needs to have something different.  Because the basic plot of all zombie stories is the same (the few humans that are left have to fight the zombies and sometimes each other for survival), the “oh, this is GOOD” point for me tends to be well-drawn characters, cool dialogue, maybe an unexpected twist or two, something that I haven’t already seen a dozen times.  And I hate to say it, but I just didn’t get that with Survival.

There’s a lot of exterior action in this one (zombies!  gore!), but the characters have no internal world.  For example, Sarah is the heroine of the story, but all we know about her for 95% of the story is that she has a twin sister, and she used to work with Meredith, whom she didn’t like.  It’s stated at one point that Meredith used to make her work life difficult, and make Sarah feel inferior, but we’re never given any examples of this.    And she’s also some kind of… action hero?  Maybe?  She knows how to fight and kick bad guys’ butts and use guns and break things, but not till the very last scene do we get a tiny bit of background on how Sarah learned some of the ninja skills she uses.

It’s also not until the last page that we find out where Sarah and Meredith worked and what they did.  It’s still never entirely clear if they were in competition with each other or if Meredith was the one who ALWAYS took the last yogurt out of the fridge or didn’t bother refilling the coffee pot or cleaned her teeth at her desk or any number of other things that drive people crazy when they are forced to spend hours a day in close proximity.   And other than the fact that Meredith was nasty because she was jealous (spoiler alert!  Everyone loves Sarah because of course they do, she’s perfect), we still don’t get a feel for the history that would’ve made the partnership between these two interesting.  

Meredith’s cancer also seems awkwardly shoved in.  Were Meredith still healthy, or at least feisty and rude, it would’ve created an interesting dynamic between the two women, but immediately Sarah jumps into the role of caretaker and protector, and Meredith limply agrees.  There’s no tension, no “Oh I am so going to leave this beyotch for the zombies if she says ONE MORE WORD about her marble countertops…”  Nothing.  

I feel that Ms. Hopkins had a really great setup here.  Although it is kind of formulaic, the “people who can’t stand each other have to team up to accomplish something important” thing can be a lot of fun.  When the people involved bicker, they can bring some humor to the situation, or toss out exposition, or do both in a way that feels organic.  

For example, had Meredith started doing… whatever it is that Meredith does that Sarah can’t stand, Sarah could’ve thrown back something along the lines of “You know, when I was a kid my cousin Brian taught me twenty-seven ways to break a kneecap, and I haven’t used 26 of them yet today.  Unless you’d like to make it 25, I’d cut the crap right now!”  (*Nerd’s Note:  I fully admit that there are many good reasons why I’m not a writer.  This paragraph should be Exhibit A.)

In the end, I feel like there was a lot more story in the author’s mind than what made it onto the page, and it suffered for that.
The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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Pray For Darkness, by James Michael Rice

Short Take:  Like reading a horror movie.

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Horror movies are a lot of fun, and I would be lying if I said otherwise.  Horror novels are, obviously, awesome.  But while they both share the “horror” moniker, they are actually very different mediums.

Horror movies tend to be fairly formulaic.  The teenagers with questionable morals are the first to die.  The loner will either go insane or save the day.  The good guy and girl-next-door types will survive to the end.  The characters are stereotypes, the deaths are gruesome, and bad things happen when the sun goes down.

Horror novels, on the other hand, are not limited by runtime and production budget, and they can get a lot more in-depth.  The good guys can do bad things or vice versa, we can get to know their backgrounds and understand why they act in the ways that they do.  Reading Pray For Darkness was a strange experience for me, because I felt like I was seeing a movie and reading a book at the same time.

Best friends Ben, Cooper, and Auggie are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Amazon jungle in Peru.  After meeting Brooke and Janie at a tourist lodge, they all decide to go camping in an unmapped part of the jungle.

Although the American group loves the idea of flirting with danger, they don’t expect to be put in a genuine survival situation.  There are creatures in the darkness that exist only to kill, but even death isn’t the end.  It’s a classic dream-turned-nightmare scenario.

The jungle is easily the main character in Pray For Darkness.  The exotic beauty and danger were written with such attention to detail, I could nearly smell the earthiness of the air, and feel the hot humidity even in the middle of December.  The sounds and colors were beautifully vivid.

Also, the cause of the zombification is actually pretty cool.  I won’t give it away here, but after seeing a few particularly icky youtube videos, I can totally buy it.  It’s the fun kind of “hey, let’s take this thing that’s real, and push it just a couple of inches further, and… HOLY CRAP!!”

I must give props to the author for remembering Chekov’s gun.  There it was, displayed in the first act, and there it was, committing murder in the final act.  No spoilers, but it wasn’t a gun, and it was set up perfectly.  Well done, Mr. Rice.  Well done indeed.

There were some aspects that just didn’t work for me though.  For example, the ages of the guys in this book.  Throughout the entire thing, they are referred to as “the boys” and with descriptions like “the boy’s slender frame”, I had the impression for about two-thirds of it that they were still in high school.  It made reading scenes where they are boozing and hooking up with women in their 20’s really weird, and how do high school boys end up in the jungle for a weeks-long vacation without any adults?  It might be nitpicky of me, but it was seriously distracting.  And when there was finally some information that clarified their age, the whole “boys” thing became even more annoying.  I just kept picturing some frat-bro with a backwards ball cap constantly referring to his social circle as “my boys” and yeah…. no.  (Nerds & frat guys have a long & ugly history.)

There’s also a rather baffling change in tense in one chapter.  I’m not sure if the intent was to make the action seem more intense and immediate, but it seemed more like a mistake in editing.

As I said earlier, Pray For Darkness is a horror movie in book form.  I won’t give away any spoilers, because it WAS a fun book, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else.  But basically, the hero gets a hero’s edit from page one.  Even his jawline is heroic.  He’s prepared for any emergency, and keeps his head when all the others are losing theirs.  Of course the girl next door type female falls madly in love with him.  There’s the overconfident jock, the kinda skanky-dressing hot girl, the weirdo loner.  Everything happens in the expected sequence, and there’s the obligatory setup for a sequel.

What I’m getting at, in my long-winded way, is that there really aren’t many surprises here.  Once I got a look at the jungle (and oh my, what an amazing look it was), everything was something I’ve seen before.  What sets books apart is the space to explore other paths, to go down twists and turns without having to give some imaginary test audience what they expect.

So this one is hard to rate.  As a movie, I’d give it a four, but as a book, a two.  I’ll just take the average.


The Nerd’s Rating:  THREE HAPPY NEURONS

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Perishables, by Michael G. Williams

Short Take:  A hilarious satire of modern society, featuring a vampire and a bunch of zombies.

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Withrow Surrett is not your typical sparkling boy-band-looking vampire.  He’s middle-aged, obese, living (or unliving, if you prefer) in the suburbs, a cranky Mr. Wilson to humanity’s Dennis the Menace.  It’s during one of his Homeowners’ Association dinner meetings (right in the middle of the jellied beef loaf, actually) that the zombie apocalypse begins.

The undead – excuse me, the OTHER undead – are frightened of Withrow and avoid him, even as they attack any humans they encounter.  So Withrow is left with a choice – save all these bothersome people, or let the zombies remove the annoyance once and for all.  In the end, his love of a good fight wins out, and he and his massive Doberman, Smiles, dispatch the zombies in their neighborhood quickly and effectively.

The zombies are also trying to take over at Mt. Ares Baptist College, where Jennifer McCordy works in a basement closet-turned-office as a systems administrator.  While the baseball team is looting the cafeteria, and camo-clad students are exercising their god-given Second Amendment rights on anyone who might or might not be a walking corpse, Jennifer joins forces with her boyfriend Tim and professor Everett Plank to fight the zombies using the best weapons at their disposal: a bunch of old computers.

With the end of the world postponed indefinitely, Withrow is shopping for a Blu-Ray player at a Black Friday Doorbusters sale a few years later when a new breed of zombies attack.  He teams up with Jennifer, who’s now working retail, to save humanity yet again.

Michael G. Williams has a sharp eye for the absurdity of modern life.  He manages to deftly mock everything from Black Friday sales to cell phone addicts to religious hypocrisy to suburbia in the most perfect way possible:  by describing them with no embellishment whatsoever and a perfectly straight face.  He’s Stephen Colbert meets Stephen King.

The voices of both Withrow and Jennifer are entertaining, but they are also pretty similar.  Both of them are witty, sarcastic, and not so much into their fellow man.  While I really enjoyed the thoughts and observations of both of them, I would have liked to see a little more variety in narrative tone.  When Withrow and Jennifer team up, it’s because OF COURSE they would, they’re almost the same person.  I can’t tell if this was a conscious decision to maintain consistency, or if it’s just the author’s natural voice that he didn’t rein in.  It wasn’t too major of an issue for a fairly short novel, but I don’t know how well it would hold up over multiple books.  Which leads me to my next point.

As fun as Perishables is, it’s the first book in a series, and it feels like it.  There are a few characters that are introduced, and you get the sense that they’re going to be revisited and play a larger role later (Mary Lou, Seth), but they never do.  Although technically the story is complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it feels incomplete, like a setup for a larger story, which of course it is.  For me, that was a bit of a turnoff.  In my opinion, series work best if they work in one of a few ways.  Either each book is perfectly complete in and of itself and you don’t have to read the others to enjoy it (Sandford’s Prey series), or there are cliffhangers at the end that you just have to see resolved (A Song of Ice & Fire, The Dark Tower), or there is a central conflict that runs throughout (Harry Potter), or a combination of those.  I just didn’t feel like Perishables worked in those ways.

Finally, just as a sidenote, did anyone else get a Bentley Little’s “The Association” vibe from Mary Lou?  Just me?  Oh well, she was a great character regardless.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a can of mixed fruit.  Apparently you can use that stuff in all kinds of post-apocalyptic dishes.)

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