Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

A while back I won a pre-press proof copy of Robin Becker's "Brains - a zombie memoir". The coveted copy arrived and I sat down ready for a good read. Now that I have read, you get to listen to my meandering review. {*grin*}

I wasn't quite sure what to expect since this is Ms. Becker's first novel, not to mention one of the few zombie novels I've read. After all, it is difficult to picture a moldering decaying zombie fixated on eating brains as a sympathetic protagonist. I did indeed find the first few chapters an unenthusiastic read. But then I began to care about the trials and tribulations of Jack, the lead zombie. That was all it took to have me hooked.

The storyline is simple. An experimental vaccine developed by a scientist (Dr. Stein) for the military is somehow released into the wild before the "bugs" have been worked out and spreads a viral wave of zombie-ism throughout the world. We are introduced to the chaos via the narrative of Jack, a former college professor turned zombie (who just so happens to have eaten his wife early in the saga). Jack is a rarity for a zombie - he retains the ability to think. He also has a really sarcastic and snarky world view that only gets more pronounced once he turns zombie. Since he retains the ability to think, he keeps a written diary of his journey through zombieland - the very story we are reading.

As Jack navigates the battle between human and zombie and his insatiable need to eat brains, he collects a raggedy crew of exceptional zombies that have retained various skills not found in the garden variety zombie. Ros has retained the ability to speak, Guts has retained the ability to move at something other than the zombie shuffle in spite of the fact that his guts are duct taped in, Joan who has retained a deep sense of compassion for her fellow zombies and skill with a mending kit to keep them put together, Annie who has retained the ability to shoot a gun with accuraccy, and others. Along the way, Jack adopts a lady that had been pregnant when she was turned into a zombie, thus introducing the first zombie pregnancy and birth to the zombie clan. (The new born Issac serves as the symbol of hope to the gang.)

The story then becomes one of survival as the remaining humans work hard at eradicating the zombie hordes. (It seems that being shot in the head is fatal to zombies.) Along the way, the Jack's goal mutates from simple survival to a quest for equality as the human and zombie populations shrink in the post-apocalyptic world.

Surprisingly, the story becomes more compelling as we become familiar with the band and all their foibles. The twist of allowing some zombies to retain various abilities like speech and normal ambulation serves well as a metaphor for the stuggles of the the differently abled amidst us. I was sucked into caring about the developing characters - a mark of good writing. The denouement is a blood bath, both of the zombie crew and Dr. Stein and humans. As the survivors sail off to a brave new world, I was tempted to throw the book across the room. It left so many questions unanswered.

Beyond the plot and character development, I loved all the literary allusions. The mad scientist named Dr. Stein? The alpha leader named Jack? The sharp shooter named Annie? Ms. Becker's roots as a professor of English and writing have served her well. I also liked the rather cynical view of academia presented by Jack in his reminisces about his life in the pre-zombie state. They ring true to a reprobate like me.

This is an amusing and gripping read, especially the latter half. What keeps me from calling it a great read is the inconsistency of the zombie-ism presented. Zombies are driven to eat (brains), but they do not self repair and continue to fall apart. Thus we have a logical contradiction between the denouement of the novel and the fact that given enough time, zombies as presented here will simply rot and fall apart. It also made the birth of Issac a real contradiction in terms. How does a baby that does not grow older and is rotting grow up to be a symbol of hope?

Fair warning - like most zombie tales, this one is full of blood and gore luridly described. If that bothers you, you may not want to read this book.


  1. I have to admit that I'm very bad about reading anything by anyone except Stephen King...unless it's a cookbook :) Plenty of blood and gore in SK's books. You made THIS book sound pretty good though...I might have to force myself to read it.

  2. I'm with you on the difficulty of a zombie protragonist. I'd probably skip it for that reason. And the gore. A baby zombie being born is definitely an interesting conundrum. Hmm.


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