Are Zombies the New Vampires?: Zombie Blondes by Brian James and Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

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I've been hearing a lot of buzz about how zombies are the new vampires, but I'm not totally convinced.  However, two new books (with very compelling covers) are getting pulled off the displays in our library and I think there are some interesting trends to note in how they are marketed, versus what they really are about.

Zombie Blondes by Brian James (do not look at this author link if you are prone to migraines) has a fabulous cover.  She looks like a big kewpie doll, doesn't she?  There is something about that blank stare which is sinister and, as such, is a great match to the book content.  Hannah Sanders is an observant teen who could practically be an adolescent sociologist.  She's been shunted from town to town as her ex-cop dad looks for work (he busted some corrupt officers and became a pariah unable to work in the force) resulting in her becoming all too familiar with the "new kid" syndrome.  They arrive in the quintessential New England town of Maplecrest, but all the "for sale" signs in front of empty, unkempt suburban houses are disturbing.  At the local high school, an astonishingly cruel football team is cheered on by a group of almost identical blond cheerleaders and they might be looking for a new member.

James does an admirable job of getting into the head of an insecure teenage girl desperate to belong - to just once be part of the popular crowd - to the point of ignoring the warnings of the well-meaning, comic book reading outcast, Lucas, who had lost a friend previously to the cheerleaders.  Through Lucas' excellent reference works (graphic novels and comic books about zombies) he's figured out exactly who and what surrounds them and attempts to save Hannah from her fate.

Any truly good young adult novel has a couple of similar elements.  The first, the protagonist who feels like an outcast is a given (most teenagers don't realize that everyone feels like an outcast) and Hannah fits the bill, even as we get hints that other kids find her pretty and intelligent.  The second element, necessary for the protagonist to have adventures, is the absence of an authority figure.  Hannah's dad has to leave her for days in order to take an out-of-town job to put food on the table and with his creditors after him (to say nothing of a town full of zombies) this plot element gives a feeling of true menace.  The big climax of the book at the abandoned warehouse actually made me shiver - and it's been a long time since a book caused that visceral a reaction.  I read a lot of scary books, too!

So Brian James ends up flaunting a considerable amount of writing talent.  In an interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith, James says that he envisioned Zombie Blondes as a cross between the two iconic movies, Heathers (1989) and The Lost Boys (1987) and anyone who has seen those movies and read this books can see the parallels.  I think it's interesting to note that several reviewers have described this book "lighter" than I would.  I was surprised upon reading it that it wasn't all about the cheerleaders and their clique and that annoyed me a little since I felt the book was much more about Hannah and her desire to really fit in, finally, at yet another high school, to the point where she might be turning a blind eye to the real price of admission to that in crowd.

Another book that I felt was marketed poorly (in the sense of perhaps misrepresenting what it is) is Daniel Waters' novel, Generation Dead.  The cover art is fabulous (talk about eye catching, right?) but there's one problem - not one of the main characters is cheeleader and certainly not a dead one.  Like Zombie Blondes, several of the PR blurbs and even a few reviews seemed to focus on the lighter aspects of this book (the romance, the unique idea of zombie rights) as if the ideas are so darn funny, while never getting down to what I felt was the overwhelming theme of the novel, namely issues surrounding discrimination.

Phoebe Kendall lives in a world in which she is content to be a goth girl - she dyes her hair jet black, wears long flowing dark clothes, and listens to music about sorrow and death.  She is a kind friend with a warm heart and her next-door neighbor and longtime friend, Adam knows he loves her for more than her beautiful face, but Phoebe remains unaware of his feelings.  Both teens live in a world attempting to adjust to a new and frightening phenomena - American teenagers are occasionally coming back to life.

This naturally causes a host of problems.  In addition to the reaction you might expect from a religious standpoint (with some people being deeply offended or frightened while others begin questioning their religion's promise of an afterlife), some citizens have taken their fear and disgust to a new level by decapitating these undead children or setting them on fire (two ways to actual "kill" a zombie).  Of course, this doesn't qualify as murder when you consider the fact that the law doesn't recognize the legal existence of the undead, so it's open season on this crowd.  Other groups, like the Hunter Foundation for the Advancement and Understanding of Differently Biotic Persons, are attempting to not only help the new zombies (the politically correct term is "differently biotic") but also educate the population about the undead and create legal inroads to protect their rights.

Phoebe and Adam's high school has a great program for the "differently biotic" so there are more and more dead kids coming to class.  Phoebe begins to take an interest in Tommy Williams, a new and "differently biotic" student who seems a little higher functioning than the other zombie kids.  Tommy goes out for the football team and maintains a blog where he shares his thoughts and reflections about his life with all its challenges.

Waters writes minor as well as major characters extremely well.  Phoebe's best friend, Margie, is wrestling with the death and reappearance of the former third member of their friendship group, Collette, who isn't as high functioning as some of the other undead kids.   Adam's former friend (really, bully) Pete Martinsburg is another football player filled with rage and hate at the zombie kids because of his personal loss of a sweet girlfriend who never did come back from the dead.  I wept salty tears when a sweet member of the undead group was brutally murdered and found myself horrified by some of the sinister subplots coiling around the reader's ankles.

Daniel Waters is a talented, insightful writer (who maintains a very nice blog, by the way) who has set up a complex premise that promises an excellent series for readers.  The next book, Kiss of Life, is already out and you can read more about it and the Generation Dead series at the custom website dedicated to it.  Waters recently posted the cover for the third book in the series, Passing Strange, which he says will be out next June.  With so many questions left unanswered, I look forward to reading these sequels.  While I don't agree with some people who have compared the book to Twilight, I do agree with them that this book is a well-written story about not only the inklings of supernatural romance but about the nature of hate and discrimination.

Steampunk is not a sweaty Ramones concert: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

9:40 PM 1 Comments A+ a-

I'm convinced it's not humanly possible for Scott Westerfeld to write a bad book.  I've read almost everything by this author (the Uglies series, Midnighters series, Peeps and its sequel, The Last Days, So Yesterday) and loved it all - he's one of my "go to" authors who will never let me down.  That said, I was REALLY nervous about him writing what was described as an alternate history/steampunk novel.  It sounded like one of those movies where the good young actor goes outside their comfort zone (say, romantic comedy) and ends up with latex facial features to make them look less attractive so we can focus on the story.  Sometimes it works and sometimes you say, "the poor thing - they were trying SO hard, though" as you search through your Junior Mints box because you can't bear to look at the screen one more minute.

Well, no danger of that being the case here!  Westerfeld does not disappoint and in fact takes it a step farther (I really want to explore more steampunk now) enticing the reader into a whole new subgenre.  Steampunk is a fascinating cross-over area - sometimes it's alternate history, sometimes fantasy, sometimes science fiction - and I was floored by how young this movement is (it's only been around since the 1980s/1990s).  The main crux of it appears to be that the world of the book has a Victorian flavor, particularly in the nature of all or part of that world using steam energy as a source of fuel for machinery (some of the art is truly cool and has actually inspired computer cases and clocks that you can actually buy).  Authors often cite classic writers like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Mark Twain, and Mary Shelley as inspiration, so chances are if you cut your teeth on this author list, you'll feel pretty comfortable with steampunk.  It's important to note that female characters are often constrained by similar social norms (and usually stuck in a corset) which adds an interesting tension to these stories.  (Some steampunk fans get really, really into the clothing and accessories piece of the genre.)

Leviathan places the reader in a world on the cusp of World War I by focusing on two characters, the young Hapsburg, Prince Aleksander, son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his commoner wife, Sophie (Aleksander is pure fiction - Franz Ferdinand had three children but none of them were named Aleksander) and Deryn Sharp, a young woman who has disguised herself as a boy in order to enlist in the British Air Service.

But here's the steampunk twist.  Aleksander has grown up in Central Europe surrounded by what the British call "clankers" - complex steam-powered machines whose design is often inspired by biology. Alek is an excellent pilot of these machines and has learned to guide them just as his real-life contemporary might have focused on a fine seat for his horseback riding.  Deryn on the other hand has grown up amid Darwinists who in their history discovered the secret of DNA during the Victorian age with the subsequent ability to manipulate and change biological creatures in order to serve their technological needs.  The ships she "flies" in the Air Service are either small (think jellyfish-like) or large (whale-based airships) all genetically altered to produce hydrogen as a byproduct of their existence - hydrogen which allows them to fly with a crew and serve whatever purpose the military might have in mind.  Each side looks down on the other with a little fear and derision about the source of each technology, so the clash of cultures is as much a part of the book as the espionage and political machinations.

Both characters are well-drawn and compelling although they come across as rather young and innocent (yet plucky and resilient) in this first book of the series.  Alek has suffered the assassination of his parents and, surrounded by a few loyal supporters, sets off with enemies in hot pursuit for the safety of Switzerland.  Deryn, known as the boy Dylan to the Air Service, has a rough first flight as a new recruit placing her over the English channel where she is rescued by Leviathan, a massive biological airship.  With war on the horizon she is quickly incorporated into the crew and begins a truly hands-on education as midshipman.  The two meet when Deryn's ship meets potential disaster not far from Alek's neutral Swiss lair.

I'd be remiss to not mention a few spectacular details about this book - like the ILLUSTRATIONS.  Westerfeld partnered with illustrator Keith Thompson, a fantasy and science fiction artist.  Thompson's work is astonishing in its beauty and detail and seems to spring from this new world as if it had given birth to it.  The other piece I couldn't resist was Westerfeld's compelling ability to create a unique vocabulary to go along with his steampunk world - a popular exclamation is "Barking Spiders!" and I've caught myself yelling it a couple of times when startled, considerably cleaning up my occasional potty mouth.  Anyone who found that "Bubbly" become part of their personal dictionary with the Uglies series, will find themselves tucking away new and fabulous phrases to dazzle and confuse friends and family.

Leviathan is a terrific addition to Westerfeld's oeuvre.  Librarians and teachers will find it has appeal for both middle grades and high school (as well as adults interested in alternate reality or steampunk).  Thankfully, the sequel Behemoth is due out in October of 2010, so we won't have too long to wait for the next installment.

A note for Scott Westerfeld fans.  His website has a lot of video trailers for Leviathan which are excellent and might be a good thing to watch with a friend you're trying to convince to read this book after you've enjoyed it.  His blog (the default main page on the website) is an excellent primer about writing and publishing, so for would-be authors this could be a terrific resource.  Westerfeld is also on Twitter and is one of the BEST and funniest authors (I've actually snorted water out my nose following some of his tweets on the Leviathan book tour) in the medium of 140 characters or less.  If that's not the sign of a talented writer, what is?