Saturday, November 28, 2009

FreeBooks #11: Snapdragon Alley by Tom Lichtenberg

Snapdragon.jpgTom Lichtenberg writes curiously engaging novellas. His stories are not driven by action but by mood and metaphysics. His premises often begin with fairly standard, often vaguely science-fiction concepts: time travel in Time Zone, for example, or mind control in World Weary Avengers. But he spins those concepts out into melancholy, thoughtful tales.

Lichtenberg cares little about the mechanics of the MacGuffins that underlie his stories. Rather, he explores the emotion and (often) dislocation that people feel when confronted by something outside their normal experience. In Somebody Somewhere that "something" is as commonplace (relatively speaking) as a kidnapping and hostage situation; in Time Zone, as noted above, the "something" is as vast an incomprehensible as travel through time. Lichtenberg's characters may adapt to the situation or ignore it, or become totally overwhelmed; but the true story is always in those emotions and responses, rather than the rote turnings of some formulaic plot device. Although Lichtenberg's spare, quiet style could not be more different than H.P. Lovecraft's ornate verbal extravagance, the two share a conceptual interest in exploring how people respond when conventional reality is stripped away.

Lichtenberg's prose in some of his novellas ranges pretty far into the experimental; although I have enjoyed some of these, my admitted preference is for those works that hew a bit closer to a traditional narrative style. My favorite thus far is Snapdragon Alley, the story of young friends who discover a vacant lot at the end of a bus line that, perhaps, is more than it seems.

Lichtenberg's "launching point" for Snapdragon Alley is nothing new (Lichtenberg himself gives away in his back-cover blurb that, in investigating the lot, the children "encounter the possibility of" a gateway to "another dimension"). Nor, despite some interesting narrative quirks along the way, are the bare facts of how the story plays out particularly novel. But Lichtenberg captures beautifully the poetry of what such a gateway might mean to the people who stumble across it, and the emotions it might inspire. There are no loud explosions in Snapdragon Alley, or, indeed, very much overt action at all. But the novella, like much of Lichtenberg's writing, inspires an appreciation of just how vast, mysterious and majestic "reality" is, and that is both a far tougher task and a greater triumph.

Lichtenberg recently made several of his novellas (including Snapdragon Alley and all of the others mentioned above) available for free on Smashwords. (He also maintains a complete index of all of his works, including a link for free webpage reading of each and additional links for download sources, here.) Beyond Snapdragon Alley, other recommendations include Orange Car With Stripes (described by Lichtenberg as an "atheist science fiction comedy," as good a description as any) and, on the slightly more experimental side, the aforementioned Time Zone. However, all of Lichtenberg's novellas are quick reads and well worth checking out.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

REVIEW: Eat Me by Ray Weeks

Eat Me Cover.jpgIn a prior review, I discussed how much I enjoyed Ray Weeks' superhero parody/homage The Adventures of Portly Boy. I now turn to Weeks' altogether more serious, but equally enjoyable, Eat Me: A Zombie Story Collection (Lulu paperback or pdf download).

Eat Me is formally a series of disconnected short stories, each set in a progressively further future and populated by completely different characters. However, the collection as a whole forms a novelistic arc of the history of a zombie armageddon, from present times through the end of our current civilization and into to what follows.

And even though the book itself is fairly short (at 170 pages), the tale is epic. Each story stands very well on its own; by giving himself the luxury to progress through time and different characters' lives, Weeks frees himself to explore some very interesting new ideas (and to bypass entirely those boring, undying cliches that seem to infest zombie fiction, the evil biker gang and the evil military).1 But even beyond the effectiveness of the individual stories, the whole creates something even greater: an apocalyptic panorama that is variably exciting, humorous, sad, and uplifting.

If Eat Me has any (minor) flaw, it is that all of the characters have similar voices. The collection is professionally written and edited, and I enjoy Weeks' casual yet muscular writing style. But Weeks especially excels at a snarky, sarcastic tone (as is apparent from The Adventures of Portly Boy and Weeks' blog, The Strangelands). In Eat Me, no matter the supposed background of the character narrating a particular story or the overall tone of that piece, one can sense that persona lurking close by.

But this is a minor quibble. Even if all the characters sound a bit similar, they are also similarly captivating, and I can unreservedly recommend Eat Me to anyone who is looking for zombie fiction that is epic in scope, imagination, and the range of emotion it inspires (if not in page count).


In addition to his book writing, Weeks occasionally reviews other authors' novels on his blog. He has been especially fulsome in his praise for the first two novels in Rhiannon Frater's As the World Dies zombie trilogy, The First Days and Fighting to Survive (click titles for Weeks' reviews; click here to purchase The First Days, Fighting to Survive or the third book, Siege, as ebooks from Smashwords, or here for paperback or Kindle versions from Amazon). I agree with the core of Weeks' review, which is that Frater's writing is very strong, particularly her characterization:

Her characters are interesting, and the story trucks along at a good speed. There's gore and death and all that other fun stuff you expect from a zombie story, but there's also an actual story, so it isn't just a bunch of people you don't care about getting chased by dead things.

Nonetheless, I have a bit more difficulty with the plotting in the trilogy than Weeks apparently does. I fully enjoyed The First Days, which seemed wholly fresh and avoided the "evil gang / military" cliche discussed above. However, even though the writing remains involving, the crux of the action in the second novel (as foreshadowed in the first) involves an evil gang. I haven't read the third novel yet, but am concerned that an evil military may be involved.

I very well may be wrong (which is the problem with discussing books one hasn't even read yet). And even if I'm right, Frater's writing is strong enough that I can add my recommendation to Weeks' for anyone whose personal prejudices about how zombie novels should be plotted do not coincide with mine.


1 Seriously, why do so many zombie novels and films feel compelled to revisit the tired old trope of the eeeevil biker gang or soldiers, whose main pastime is invariably sexual subjugation? I'm not necessarily arguing that such evildoers wouldn't arise in the 'real' world after the collapse of civilization. But aren't other people bored of reading about it? As Ken Begg recently observed over on when reviewing the movie The Infestation:

The film does at least a couple of things very right. First, there’s no human villain to waste time on. I remember how glad I was to hear that Piranha 3-D was going that route, and this proves that I was on the right track in this regard. Amazingly, the filmmakers apparently [recognized] there was enough juice in a giant bug apocalypse to drive the narrative, and that eeeevil military or corporate scientists were not required.

I couldn't agree more. Isn't there enough juice in a zombie apocalypse to drive the narrative, such that eeeevil biker gangs or soldiers are not required?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

REVIEW: The Fence Mender by Anghus Houvouras

Fence Cover.jpgThe Fence Mender is an enjoyable if not revolutionary addition to the zombie genre. Decades ago, mankind faced an apocalyptic infestation of parasites that transformed people into murderous, cannibalistic automatons (i.e., zombies). Now, a small number of urban enclaves are the last bastions of civilization, each protected by a metal-mesh protective fence that keeps the zombies out. (Why no one ever built a concrete wall is never explored.)

Our lonely, misunderstood hero is responsible for keeping the fence in good repair. However important his job may be, his heart yearns for something more, something beyond his narrowly circumscribed world. Specifically, he yearns for a life with with a woman in a neighboring fence-city with whom he has maintained a wistful radio relationship. When the woman's town is overrun by zombies, the fence mender decides to abandon his post and make the seemingly impossible journey to try to rescue her.

It is no surprise that first time novelist Anghus Houvouras is a film critic and filmmaker, as The Fence Mender (Lulu paperback; Kindle ebook) has a decidedly cinematic flavor. And notwithstanding the novel's pastoral cover, sedate start and melancholy official blurb, that flavor ultimately is action extravaganza. Our initially nebbishy, contemplative hero slides easily into improbable action man mode for the final third of the story as he literally pulls out the heavy artillery and faces down hordes of zombies while participating in several mighty big explosions. And even as Houvouras entertains us with large-scale violence and chaos, he also focuses the attention down on our leading players, inviting us (as action movies often do) to care more about the fate of two people than about the dozens of other minor characters who flesh out the action (or the countless multitudes who have already died pitiably in the background).

But even if The Fence Member is a novelized screenplay at heart, it is fun and effective. The action sequences excite, and the novel does succeed, in a broad-brush way, in creating empathy for our hero, as well as tension about who will ultimately survive. These accomplishments are genuine and significant.

However, the novel needs a thorough proofread, as typos and continuity slips abound. Moreover, although the novel is already a relatively short 200 or so pages, more could easily be cut. The first 10% of the book is completely extraneous, including an entire pre-credit sequence -- excuse me, prologue -- that provides some needless background on the origins of the fence-city system. Indeed, our hero is not introduced until chapter three. Everything before that is expendable, as are the occasional subsequent passages where the POV shifts away from our main characters to some military and political folks who deliver some clunky exposition. The Fence Mender is a good read, but it could be even better in a revised, re-edited, refocused edition.


Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Delacorte Books for Young Readers; Amazon) also involves a zombie menace that has overrun the world but is kept at bay from the few remaining pockets of humanity by a chain-link fence. However, except for that similarity, Ryan's world is very different than the one portrayed in The Fence Mender. Civilization has deteriorated far more; the origin of the fences is far more mysterious. Most importantly, there is far more teenage angst and moping. Once the heroic fence mender in Houvouras' tale decides to save his lady love, mindless action (which I enjoy tremendously) takes center stage. By contrast, although The Forest of Hands and Teeth contains a perfectly fair amount of zombie mayhem, it is overshadowed by teenage whining, self-doubt, self-discovery, self-loathing, and general self-involvement. Some people may prefer that. And Ryan's writing certainly is fine, the atmosphere of dread and mystery is strong, and the novel maintained my interest enough that I read through to the end. Moreover, I didn't notice any typos. But for all that, I enjoyed The Fence Mender more.