Friday, March 25, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After (Steve Hockensmith)

Out in stores this week is the final installment of the Quirk Classic trilogy that began with Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continued with Steve Hockensmith's own Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls.


Dawn of the Dreadfuls only earned a 7.62 in its review here. While still a fairly high score, it's abysmal when compared to the 9.22 received by the original, the 9.17 received by Ben H. Winters' Android Karenina, and the 8.89 for Winters' Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. So, understandably, I was a little nervous heading into Dreadfully Ever After. Thankfully my apprehension was completely unnecessary.

P&P&Z was simply a retelling of Jane Austen's masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, a Regency-era tale of wit and romance surrounding one Mr. Bennet's five daughters, but with zombies. Dawn of the Dreadfuls acted as a prequel, shining light on the story behind the Bennet girls' martial arts upbringing. Dreadfully Ever After is the true sequel to P&P&Z that I think many people have been waiting for. The novel takes place several years after the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the final act of the original book. The Darcy's, once an abundantly happy couple, have fallen into a state of languor. Mrs. Darcy is depressed by the fact that it is not considered proper for a married woman in polite society to take up her sword and slay the undead. Mr. Darcy, ever the caring husband, is frustrated by his lack of ability to cheer up the woman he loves. All of this doubt and unhappiness is thrown brutally into their faces when Fitzwilliam Darcy is bitten by one of the sorry stricken. Elizabeth, mad with grief over the impending zombification of her husband, and feeling guilty over the fact that she could have prevented the tragedy had she been carrying her katana, pistols, or even a throwing star, accepts assistance from her most hated nemesis, running headfirst down a path of shame and subterfuge in an attempt to cure the good Fitzwilliam.

In Dreadfully Ever After, Steve Hockensmith is finally able to open himself up as a writer. With Dawn of the Dreadfuls, he was following up a huge success—one that had Jane Austen as a cowriter, no less—and was burdened even further by the fact that he was writing a prequel. Certain characters needed to be included, certain events needed to transpire, and certain questions needed to be answered. Not only that, but he wasn't really allowed to kill anyone important, which is always annoying. Dreadfully Ever After was essentially a blank slate for Hockensmith, and he made great use of the opportunity. While he remained true to each character's original motives, Hockensmith had the freedom to usher in growth for several of the Bennet sisters, making them much more interesting to read. Kitty Bennet, finally free from the shadow of her younger, but more headstrong, sister Lydia, makes great strides in self-discovery here. Even Mary, the middle Bennet sister—and certainly the most boring—is given new life and purpose. Hockensmith accomplishes all of this without any irrational character leaps or unexpected decisions; their progressions are fluid and natural.

Increased character growth isn't the only byproduct of Hockensmith's newfound freedom, though. No longer tied to points in a future story, the author physically takes the characters to new places as well. The plot is completely original, and introduces several new concepts and archetypes to the zombie mythos in general. While much of the story was predictable, especially the romantic attachments of several major characters, Hockensmith can only be applauded for maintaing that highly recognizable aspect of Austen's writing without the aid of a base text. At no point in time does anyone truly doubt that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy will end up married in the original novel. The joy of the read comes from the journey that the two lovers take to reach each other. Such is the case with Dreadfully Ever After. It is crystal clear that certain characters are burdened by a mutual attraction, despite class, race, and, in some cases, wooden barriers. Watching characters slowly fall for each other in spite of themselves is always fun.

Before wrapping up, though, one point should be made absolutely clear: the story itself is fantastic. Hockensmith is much funnier this time around, which is probably another byproduct of his creative freedom. Austenian writing, already among the most tongue in cheek in history, is updated and zombified to the nth degree here. Add tremendous amounts of gore, ridiculous conspiracy theories, and attempted regicide, and you've got the recipe for a novel that could have easily stood out strongly on its own. As it happens, though, the book sports some of the most memorable and recognizable characters in all of literature. While having read the first two novels will certainly make this one more interesting—the original is a must-read anyway—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After is actually perfectly enjoyable by itself. Highly, highly, highly recommended.


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After
by Steve Hockensmith

Honestly, I liked being able to predict certain aspects of the story. I was curious to see how smoothly Hockensmith could work everything into its final place. It also made the plot points that were unexpected even more of a surprise.

Very much what I was expecting thematically, but it was nice to see that the quality was there to support the tone. Also, Hockensmith introduces a few ingenious new concepts into the zombie world. Maybe they existed already, but I've never seen them, and I think he deserves credit for his originality.

This is not a difficult book to read. While it's fun and engaging, though, it is most definitely not for people who don't enjoy zombies. The other Quirk Classics could get away with it a bit, because they were more strictly based on classic literature, but this is its own story. That's part of the reason I enjoyed this one so much, but it's also part of the reason why some people might not want to check it out.


Be sure to go out and pick up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After now that it's out in stores! And just in case you've forgotten, here's a recap of all of the other Quirk Classics and their DG ratings!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
The original!—9.22

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters
More Jane Austen, but this time with a new coauthor!—8.89

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls
by Steve Hockensmith
Prequel to the original, and Steve Hockensmith's first foray into Regency-era zombieness!—7.62

Android Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters' second title, the first non-Austen Quirk Classic, and my personal favorite!—9.17

Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein)

By Emily Zilm

I haven’t read a book narrated by an animal since I was in grade school. Yes, it was The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Classic. The Art of Racing in the Rain is also told from a dog’s perspective, but it’s for grown ups. This one is less like an adorable animated film and a little more like Air Bud got together with a Nicholas Sparks novel and made a baby, though.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein follows Enzo the dog’s perception of the life of his owner, Denny,  a husband, father and aspiring race car driver. Once I got past all the mental pictures of a dog with a CGI mouth that speaks to humans who can’t hear him, there was a rather cliche but decently crafted story under there about struggle and not giving up.

Denny works at an upscale auto shop and dreams of getting a seat driving in a Formula One race and finishing first. He has a young daughter, Zoe, and a wife, Eve, whose parents think he’s not a good enough husband or father. When Eve is diagnosed with brain cancer (Enzo smelled it long before, as dogs do), a string of seemingly overwhelming obstacles threatens to forever block his road to success. I won’t tell you how the whole scenario unfolds, but it’s all pretty predictable as each point of conflict is heavily foreshadowed. Stein doesn’t seem to be one for surprising readers, so do not prepare to have your mind blown.

In general, I wasn’t sold on the idea of a dog narrating this book from the start, and at times it seemed contrived and gimmicky. However, if the lovable Enzo weren’t telling the story this would probably be just another so-so novel about a guy having a hard time in his life. Enzo’s voice added a certain charming quality to the story and it’s delivery. It also provided opportunities for clarity, impartiality, or humor in places that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. However, I would have liked to see Stein really hone in on Enzo’s role as storyteller to convey the meaning and emotion behind the plot. Enzo just seemed too human. He even remarks throughout the entire book about his desire to be human and expresses feelings of resentment about not being able to help people in the ways they help each other. This does ultimately have a purpose in regards to the plot, yet it seemed as though Stein missed opportunities to really use Enzo’s voice as a lens through which the reader could view the story from a truly different perspective. Despite my underwhelmed attitude towards the book as a whole, there were instances in which Enzo’s inability to control his actions did make me laugh, and his raw emotions made me truly angry or sad alongside the other characters.  

The Art of Racing in the Rain
By Garth Stein

Style - 4.3 
It was really hard for me to get past the cheesy aspects of the dog narration, but I eventually did. Most books like this usually fall clearly on one side of the line between smart and lame, most on the latter side, but this one manages to straddle it. It had all the cliche aspects that I expected, but at most times where I was sure I’d find a shortcoming or hole in the story, I didn’t. And despite the heavy foreshadowing and all of the repetition of  inspirational race car driving metaphors, Stein managed to maintain a nice flow. It was an easy read with little thought required of the reader. Also, I do most of my reading during my hour-plus-each-way daily commute on the bus and train with multiple transfers, so I really appreciated that all the chapters were short.

Story - 4.0 
This book does not have the most complex or original story, and it’s easy to anticipate what comes next. Sure there are a lot of cliche elements that can get irritating, but what I like about this story is that it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It’s the kind of story you can read with your brain on autopilot and not miss anything because there are no deeper layers.

General - 4.0
Overall it’s a really lighthearted, yet serious and emotional story about a man, his dog,  his family, his career, and his struggle to balance his love for each while keeping his head up in the face of hardship. If you’re looking for a great, earth-shattering masterpiece then you should keep looking. But if you’re in the mood for a really quick, relaxing read, then you might consider The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s like one of those movies you flick on during a Sunday afternoon because you don’t have to think too much about it. Reading it won’t change your life, but it passes the time.

Overall - 4.1

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Nightly News (Jonathan Hickman)

by Thom Dunn

"The VOICE says: When killing activists, never shoot for the head, always aim for the heart"

Jonathan Hickman has received a bit of attention as of late for killing off the Human Torch in the monthly ongoing Fantastic Four comic book series. But before becoming one of the Architects of the Marvel Comics Universe, Hickman first made his mark on the world of graphic literature in 2008 with a creator-owned book called The Nightly News.

The Nightly News is the story of a cult of domestic terrorists referred to as the Brotherhood of the Voice that is determined to take down the American news media. Each member of the Brotherhood has had his or her life destroyed by subjective reporting — by becoming stories, rather than facts. The book deals heavily with themes of indoctrination and control — both the ways in which the news media influences the masses, and the ways in which The Voice (standing in for any cult leader) manipulates his own subjects. It is propaganda about propaganda, a sprawling conspiracy thriller set against a backdrop of contemporary politics and frighteningly modern issues, full of ideas that challenge and question the status quo.

But not without challenging and questioning itself first.

From the book's subtitle, "A Lie Told In Six Parts," to the clever footnotes on the first page of every chapter ("Note: All violence in this book should not be considered a reflection of the author. I give to charities, play with children, and love cooking"), Hickman constantly calls his own authorial reliability into question, which only further enforces the labyrinthine manipulations and wheels-within-wheels that the narrative claims to be exploring. For the most part, the story is told from the point of view of the leader of the cult, The Hand of the Voice. Thus, as a reader, it is our initial inclination to accept or agree with the things that we are being told — but then something about the narrative makes you realize that this is precisely the kind of dogma fed to and by fanatics or extremists. And then you realize just how easily you went along with it yourself. And worse, that maybe there's a part of you that agrees with these extremist views.

This opaqueness and ambiguity is greatly assisted by Hickman's incredible artwork. It is not a comic book, nor a sequential narrative; The Nightly News is an impressive piece of graphic literature. The artwork is a breathtaking amalgamation of infographics (charts and facts that are just as apocryphal as the rest of the narrative), photo-renderings, comic art, and words that together weave a story of intrigue and deception that constantly looks back in upon itself. A single page might treat you to talking heads with dialogue bubbles, first person narration from The Hand of the Voice, interjections or "facts" from the Voice itself, plus facts about corporate ownerships, and a few witty asides from a disembodied "authoritative" first-person (whom we are led to believe is Hickman himself, but can we ever really be sure?). The sequence of events in a given page is often ambiguous, which echoes the theme of manipulation within the story and recreates the experience for the reader while also rewarding multiple re-readings. Jonathan Hickman truly pushes the limit of what is possible with graphic narrative.

The only real drawback of the story is in the development of the characters. Hickman himself claims in the afterword of the book that the large cast is "often intentionally ambiguous," and while this certainly resonates with the thematic nature of the story, it makes it difficult to connect with any of the characters. The highly stylized nature of the artwork also makes it difficult sometimes to distinguish between characters (note: pay close attention to the limited color palette used in each scene). It is the ideas that drive this story forward, with help from the plot; the characters only exist as a means to deliver both of these things to the reader. Still, I cannot help but think that an emotional anchor with which a reader could more easily sympathize would have greatly helped the story. While I do not doubt that this was at least somewhat intentional on Hickman's part, it nonetheless makes it harder for a reader to get a grasp on an already challenging and onerous tale.

The Nightly News
by Jonathan Hickman

Story: 5.7
While a story told (mostly) from the point of view of political extremists is certainly intriguing, Hickman loses points in this area due to the lack of distinct character development. As mentioned, it is the ideas that drive the reader's interest more than the story.

Style: 10
Simply put, The Nightly News is absolutely unlike anything you have ever read. It is a unique marriage of graphic design and words that sends you spiraling down a rabbit's hole that lands you back on top of yourself, before falling through the hole again in an endless loop.

General: 7.8
The Nightly News has layers enough to captivate nearly any willing reader, and while it might seem off-putting at first, it is well worth the journey. It doesn't answer any questions, and it's possible it won't even give you any new ideas, but it will certainly make you think. Some people might scoff at its dogma, but once you reach the end, you'll find yourself wondering just what Hickman's agenda was along...

Overall: 7.83

Read a free preview of Chapter 1 (pdf)

Friday, March 4, 2011

All the King's Men (Robert Penn Warren)

By Melanie Yarbrough


This is the story of the rise and fall of Willie Stark, who strikes a resemblance to the real-life Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana. Published in 1946, perhaps the story of a politician who starts out with the best intentions and ends in corruption seems a bit dated. Put Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on pause for a moment, and watch it happen in Robert Penn Warren's beautiful and harsh look into the difficulties of making everyone happy, including yourself.

Willie Stark is a familiar guy, especially if you're from the South like I am. He understands what his constituents want because he is one of them. It may sound like a page right out of W or Palin's campaign books, but the story of Willie Stark is rich with predicament and the kinds of justifications that pile on top of one another until the whole house is different from the blueprints.

Side note: While I've never seen any of the movies, it is my understanding that Sean Penn plays Willie in one of them. Please don't hold that against the book.

All the King's Men
By Robert Penn Warren

Story: 5.5 - While not the most original of stories, Warren's beautiful descriptions and strong, sympathetic characters take over the story and make it their own.

Style: 7.3 - Warren manages dialect without cheap apostrophes or misspelled words. The Southern drawl is present in the dialogue, and the heat of the setting is present in the descriptions. He does not rush through the story, instead allowing you to savor each bit.

General: 8.5 - The book didn't win the Pulitzer for nothing. This story has been told, will be told, and will occur in real life again and again. Whether or not it will be told in such a beautiful, patient, or sufficient way remains to be seen.

Overall: 7.1

Note on versions of the book: There are some versions that use a different name than "Willie Stark." I'm not sure the origin of this change, but I can tell you that I have read parts of the version with the different name and it doesn't read as well as the Willie Stark version. The cover pictured above is the book I read.

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