Zombies Vs. Unicorns: A Review

Forget about pirates and ninjas. Vampires and Werewolves is so 2008. Don’t even talk to me about salty vs sweet or angels and demons.

There is something far more important to debate.

Even more important that Edward/Jacob, Will/Jem, Puck/Ash debates.*

No, seriously.

Which is better: the zombie or the unicorn?

This heated debate has raged for centuries** and now, at last, two authors have sought to settle the matter once and for all in Zombies vs. Unicorns (2010).

This anthology was edited by Holly Black (leading Team Unicorn) and Justine Larbalestier (leading Team Zombie). Each team is comprised of six young adult authors including most of the big names you’d expect to have an opinion on the matter.

As editors Black and Larbalestier also include an introduction to each story with a bit about the origins of the mythology and the inspiration or appeal of the story. Then the opposing editor (Larbalestier if it’s a Unicorn story or vice versa) will put in a few ribs about why the story (and the creature in general) is totally lame. The introductions are funny but after going through twelve of them they started to become ever so slightly grating.

The book design also includes a handy icon to identify each story as pro-zombie or pro-unicorn.

I’m not actually much of a short story reader but I picked this collection up because there was a lot of hype and a small chance it would be shortlisted for the Cybils which would mean I had to read it anyway (it wasn’t and actually that decision makes perfect sense–if you were wondering).

As with any collection, some of the stories in Zombies vs. Unicorns were quite good. Garth Nix’s opening story “The Highest Justice” sets up the story nicely with a creepy zombie and a severe unicorn. Stories by Meg Cabot, Diana Peterfreund, Naomi Novik, Cassandra Clare, and Libba Bray were all lots of fun.

Unfortunately this review isn’t about individual stories.*** It’s about the anthology as a whole.

Again this might be because I don’t read a lot of short stories, but a few stories in the whole reading process because a struggle. The fact that I am solidly on Team Unicorn also probably helped. Almost all of the zombie stories felt too long. They were too creepy, too icky and just too much for me in one concentrated book.****

Zombies vs. Unicorns is a breezy book sure to entertain anyone with an interest in zombies or unicorns. Some of it is fun. Some of it is, honestly, kind of gross. Some of the stories were excellent. Some of them were not. At the end of the day Zombies vs. Unicorns had its moments but the stories were too divergent (in terms of quality, style and content) to really feel like a cohesive collection.

*I’m actually the only one on Team Puck but that’s okay.

**Or, you know, since February 2007 when our intrepid editors began discussing the merits of each supernatural creature.

***And even if it was that only amounts to six stories I truly liked. Frankly fifty per cent is a great stat for a book.

****Proof: I had a dream last night that I couldn’t leave my house because the yard was infested with zombies that wanted to eat me. I might never read a zombie story ever again. To be fair Margo Lanagan’s unicorn story was also truly awful in terms of gore. If nothing else I learned that I should probably skip her books since the style of her story just didn’t work for me.

Possible Pairings: I was going to do pairings, honest. But truthfully there are too many to name. If you want something to read after loving this anthology I’d suggest going through and picking up some of the other works by writers whose stories you enjoyed.

Exclusive Bonus Content: The title of this book is never actually written in words. Instead a picture of a shambling zombie and a majestic zombie face off on the cover cut out from a black dust jacket. Underneath the book binding is printed with a painting by Josh Cochran (who also did the hand lettering in the book) that shows zombies and unicorns . . . tearing each other to shreds. The cover is reminiscent of The Garden of Earthly Delights a famous Renaissance era triptych (three-paneled painting) by Hieronymous Bosch. The endpapers feature enlarged drawings of the scenery from the cover in black and white instead of the color paintings on the exterior.

The Talking Dead: A Book List

They might not always be walking, but in the books on this list the dead are always talking. Ten books, in no particular order, where the dead sometimes walk, sometimes talk, and always play a huge part in the story.

  • Generation Dead by Daniel Waters: The dead are walking in Oakvale, Connecticut–at least some of them are. No one knows why some teenagers come back and some don’t. The only certainty is that there are those in Oakvale who’d prefer to see the dead stay buried.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher: Hannah Baker killed herself two weeks ago. There are thirteen reasons that led to her suicide. All of them are explained in the cassette tapes Clay Jensen received in the mail–including what part Clay himself played in Hannah’s death.
  • White Cat by Holly Black: Cassel Sharpe is perfectly content being the straight arrow, ordinary guy in a family of crooked curse workers. That is when he’s not being followed by a white cat that reminds him a lot of his best friend Lila–the girl he killed three years ago.
  • Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta: The people of Lumatere are scattered, some trapped inside the kingdom walls while others live as exiles, haunted by the ghosts of their tragic past. But there might be hope. It all begins ten years after the five days of the unspeakable, when Finnikin of Lumatere climbs another rock.
  • Curses, Inc. by Vivian Vande Velde: Curses are bought and sold, magic is real, and the dead walk in this eerie collection of short stories.
  • Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough: Sadie is the new girl at school. Her brother keeps telling her to make friends. But it’s not that easy to fit in when you still talk every day to your brother who died four years ago.
  • Sabriel by Garth Nix: When her father, the Abhorsen, becomes trapped in Death Sabriel has to assume her rightful duties as the next Abhorsen and save her father, and perhaps many others, from the dead that would keep him and claim the world of the living for themselves.
  • Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier: Each full moon Jena and her sisters cross the wildwood to visit the enchanted glade of the Other Realm for a night of dancing and revelry. Everyone knows the wildwood is a dangerous place filled with witches, ghosts and all manner of other worldly creatures–and the lake that claimed Jena’s cousin years ago. But no harm can come from dancing. Or can it?
  • The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan: Libby’s older sister Kwan has yin eyes and can see the dead who dwell in the realm of Yin. At least, she says she can. When Libby travels to Kwan’s native village in China for work, Libby starts to wonder if there is more truth to Kwan’s ghost stories than she was willing to believe.
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: Gemma Doyle doesn’t want to have visions or the power to travel between this world only visible in death or dreams. But this other realm might be Gemma’s only chance to make sense of her mother’s death and her strange new powers.

Passing Strange: A (disappointed) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Passing Strange by Daniel WatersKaren DeSonne is good at fooling people. She’s passed as the normal girl, the responsible daughter, and even the happy girl. That was before she killed herself.

That was before she came back.

Now, Karen is making the most of her second chance at life–or whatever it is when the dead start walking around.

Things go horribly wrong when her dead friends’ planned social protest turns into a shootout after the zombies are accused of murder. Karen makes it away, but many other zombies in Oakvale are forced into hiding when it becomes illegal to be dead and walking around.

Karen knows that zombies had nothing to do with this crime. And she knows where to go to clear their names. In order to get the proof and help her people, Karen is going to have to wear the ultimate disguise. She’ll have to pretend to like Pete Martinsburg–a known zombie killer. But Karen’s pretended to like people before. The hard part, the part that could land her in a whole world of trouble, will be pretending she’s alive. Karen’s fooled everyone close to her at least once, but will she be able to pull off the charade of a lifetime (or un-lifetime) in Passing Strange (2010) by Daniel Waters.

Passing Strange is the third installment in Daniel Water’s quirky series about the walking dead in Oakvale (preceeded by the first book Generation Dead and Kiss of Life). This book is a departure from the first two in the series and would be a good place to start the series without missing a lot . . . except that this one is so much less than the first (and even the second) book.

Waters has abandoned his usual alternating perspectives and instead spends most of the book narrating in Karen’s voice. Unfortunately that voice is vacuous and sadly under-developed, particularly when compared to the writing from the other books (or even the third person parts in Passing Strange). Karen has had a complete personality shift from earlier in the series with seemingly no reason except to titillate readers. A girl who had previously seemed strong and grounded, comes across as flighty and insipid.

The entire book was erratic and a shocking departure from its two tightly written and well-put-together predecessors. Sometimes Karen is talking in present tense, sometimes the past tense. Sometimes she addresses a mysterious “you” to no effect. To make matters worse story threads that were raised in the earlier books are largely abandoned and sloppily set aside.

This book is a must read for anyone who has been following the series and wants to know what’s happening with their favorite zombies and their traditionally biotic friends (unless that includes Tommy or Phoebe who are barely in this one) but it is also a vast disappointment after Waters’ clever, sharp debut.

Possible Pairings: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan, Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

Exclusive Bonus Content: I received a copy of the UK edition to review from PriceMinister which is why I’m showing the usual zombie (US) cover (that’s Karen on the cover again by the way) and what I consider the inferior flower (UK) cover. I made a big deal of the wraparound covers from the first two books. Even that aspect fell short here with the cover only utilizing the front of the book this time. Everything about this book makes me wonder what the hell happened to the series I started reading and what the hell Waters is doing. We can only hope for a dramatic improvement in the next book.

Kiss of Life: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Life is always about choices. It’s about Phoebe Kendall befriending Karen DeSonne, the “differently biotic” girl next door and choosing to go to homecoming with Tommy Williams, the “differently biotic” boy next door. It’s about Tommy standing immobile when Pete Martinsburg pointed a gun at Phoebe’s head. It’s about Adam taking a bullet to save Phoebe. And, even though his “traditionally biotic” life might be over, it’s about Adam coming back–maybe for himself but probably for Phoebe, the girl he loves.

Adam isn’t alone.

All over the country, dead teenagers are waking up and rejoining the living with varying degrees of success. No one knows why some teenagers come back and some don’t. The only certainty is that everything changed the moment these zombies began trying to reconnect with the world of the living.

Adam’s death and return have rocked the city of Oakvale, Connecticut to its core. What really happened that night? Is it murder if the the victim can get up and walk away? Does a dead person deserve the same rights as a living person? Wouldn’t things be simpler if all of the zombies would just go away?

Vandalism and social protest abound as some of the zombies try to remind Oakvale that they aren’t going anywhere. But instead of raising awareness, the Sons of Romero might just be putting a bigger target on their differently biotic backs.

While Phoebe struggles to bring Adam back as much as she can, Tommy and Karen try to act as voices of reason among the zombie community. But the time for reason might be over in Kiss of Life (2009) by Daniel Waters.

Find it on Bookshop.

This sequel picks up shortly after the disastragic conclusion of Generation Dead leaving all of the characters to deal with the fallout, and the grief, in their own ways.

Don’t let the blurb or excerpt fool you. Both try to play up the Dramatic Love Triangle angle to lethal effect* but Kiss of Life is smarter than that. Waters continues to use the dichotomy between traditionally and differently biotic people to examine matters of tolerance and equality in a clever, original way.

In fact, even though this book is necessarily about Adam and his return, the book’s main event is really the polarizing nature of the newly dead arriving in Oakvale (and the rest of the country) and their own attempts to raise awareness and get some rights. Social protest is a big part of the story but so is, for lack of a better term, the meaning of life as all of the differently biotic characters try to make sense of what their returns really mean for them and, in a greater context, for the world at large.

I always said that Generation Dead was a really smart book. If possible, Kiss of Life is even more on point. It’s exciting, it gets under your skin, and it’s socially aware. Waters’ characters are charming and terrifying as he shows events not only from the heroes’ viewpoints but also from that of a villain. Nothing is black and white here. Add to that a dramatic finish and one of the most heart-wrenching love stories ever and you have something really exceptional.

Possible Pairings: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan, Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

*I was so excited about this sequel, but when I saw the blurb and excerpt I was so angry because this was one of those moments where there was absolutely no contest (Adam all the way, always and no matter what) but it really seemed like there was. I put off reading this book for almost a year because I DID NOT need to watch Phoebe spend a whole book mulling over which zombie boy she really loved. But the book is not about that AT ALL as the story really continues in the same vein as the first book. And I wish I knew that a year ago.

Exclusive Bonus Content: Like its predecessor, this book also has a fantastic wraparound cover that makes use of the full jacket. I get a little teary when I look at it, thinking “Oh, Adam.” every time. But aside from that it’s awesome. I don’t know who is finding these models but they are spot-on in capturing all of the characters and the whole “zombie” look. I love everything about this cover. (Click on the picture if you want to see it in its enormous full-sized image glory.)

Zombies Search for Acceptance and Tolerance Instead of Brains in Generation Dead

Generation Dead cover (note the use of the entire dust jacket)In its Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The schools for whites were often superior to their counterparts for black students and consequently the separate schools offered very different educational opportunities. This ruling was key to the civil rights movement and efforts to end segregation.

On September 3, 1957, nine black students were barred from entry into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. By September 23, after another court decision ruled that Arkansas’ governor could not keep them out, the Little Rock Nine were able to begin their school year in the white high school. President Eisenhower also sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to help protect the black students from harassment that ranged from insults to acid being thrown into one student’s face.

Eight of the Little Rock Nine finished the school year at the Central High. In May of 1958 Ernest Green graduated from the school, the only minority in his graduating class of 602 students.

Fifty years later, Daniel Waters’ debut novel Generation Dead (2008) offers a new take on integration and the fight for civil rights. Find it on Bookshop.

In Oakvale, Connecticut parents and students alike are worried about the new students transferring to Oakvale High to benefit from the school’s program of integration. Some of the new students are minorities, some of them are not. The reason all of the new students prove worrisome to some locals is more fundamental: The new students are dead.

All over the country, dead teenagers are waking up and rejoining the living—more or less. Called “living impaired” or “differently biotic” by a politically correct society, many of the undead kids prefer the term “zombie.” No one knows why some teenagers come back and some don’t. The only certainty is that everything changed the moment these zombies began trying to reconnect with the world of the living.

Unfortunately, some (living) people would prefer to have the zombies stay dead. Permanently. Everyone child knows that names can never hurt them, but for undead teens that don’t heal sticks and stones suddenly seem much more dangerous, especially when the government has no laws to protect differently biotic citizens. After all, citizenship is supposed to expire when the citizen does, isn’t it?

In Generation Dead integration doesn’t start with a court decision detailing undead rights. Instead it starts with Tommy Williams trying out for the football team. Dead for about a year, no one expects Tommy to survive tryouts, let alone make the team. Except that he does.

Suddenly, the zombies don’t seem quite so different. Phoebe Kendall, a traditionally biotic (albeit pale) student, realizes that better than anyone as she begins to observe Tommy and the other living impaired students at her school including Tommy and Karen (the girl featured on the novel’s cover and possibly this reviewer’s favorite character). The more Phoebe sees of zombies like Tommy and Karen, the more they seem like any normal teenager, well mostly.

No one questions Phoebe’s motivations for befriending Tommy until it begins to look like the two of them are more than friends. Margi, Phoebe’s best friend and fellow Goth, can’t understand what Phoebe could see in a dead boy. Every time her neighbor Adam sees Phoebe with Tommy, he can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t feel the same way about him when he’s actually alive.

Eventually Margi and Adam come around, forming their own tentative bonds with the zombies in their midst. Meanwhile, other students at Oakvale remain hostile. Determined to make sure that the dead students invading their school stay dead for good this time, they set a vicious plan into motion that will irrevocably change everything for Phoebe and her friends—dead and alive.

Written in the third person, Waters alternates viewpoints throughout the novel. Each of the main characters mentioned here, specifically Phoebe and Adam, have sections of the novel related from their perspective. The novel even features narration from one of the students strongly opposed to the zombie presence in Oakvale. This technique, aside from demonstrating Waters’ masterful writing skills, offers a fully informed perspective on the events of the novel with its variety of viewpoints.

Upon first glance, this book looks like a quirky but not necessarily serious book. A cover with a dead cheerleader wearing biker books can have that effect on readers. And yet, even though the story is about zombies, it isn’t just another fun book. Filled with smart writing and an utterly original story, Generation Dead also adds to the ongoing conversation about tolerance and equality suggesting that people often have more in common than not. Even with zombies.

(You can get even more of that zombie perspective at Tommy’s blog My So-Called Undeath.

Possible Pairings: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan, Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld