I finally found it!

Back when I was in high school, one of my English teachers kept a small bookshelf with different books for us to read if we had nothing to occupy ourselves with. One day I started a book that I didn’t get to finish, but wished I had. I’ve been searching for this particular book off and on for years, but it’s hard to find a book when all you can remember is that the cover was white, and some guy on a plane literally exploded with Ebola. Not exactly the best description to go by!

Surprisingly enough, Dipper recognized the book by my description. He told me I was looking for The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. He also forewarned me that it wasn’t the greatest piece of literature he’d ever read, but if I was that interested that it had stayed with me, I might as well read it.

A couple weeks ago my job took me to a local hospital that isn’t within the usual system I work. One of the unspoken bonuses of working in hospital systems is that most of the gift shops offer a cart of used books for sale. I love used books! On this particular day I was lucky. I found In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, MD, which is about addiction. It’s a relatively thick book and sounds really interesting. I have some small experience with addiction, as my aunt was a very dedicated alcoholic.

The other book was The Hot Zone. At long last, I had found it! Granted, it was a severely beaten copy, but for 50 cents and charity at a hospital, you simply can’t go wrong! I purchased both books, and since it was a Friday, I was able to finish my current read at home and begin The Hot Zone.

The Hot Zone started off pretty confusing, because there was much talk of Marburg as well as Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan. Until reading this book, I don’t believe I was ever fully aware that there were enough strains of Ebola for one to be considered worse than the other. I also had no idea where Marburg fit into the equation. As it turns out, they’re all filoviruses. Filoviruses look stringy under a microscope, and cause hemorrhaging in people and primates. They’re also called “the three sisters” because of how they are related in terms of structure and effect on a living body.

The first part of the book went into the differences in the filoviruses, as well as some information on how they were discovered. I found that extremely interesting, but since I wasn’t expecting it to cover the different viruses, I was lost a few times and had to backtrack. In retrospect, I’m really glad Preston covered the viruses in the beginning, because I also got used to terminology that he would use later. For instance, I had no idea that when sick with a hemorrhagic disease, a body is considered to “crash out” when it is so completely consumed by the virus that it basically collapses, turns to mush, and spreads the virus. Preston also does a really good job of explaining the different levels of clearance when working with viruses. Level 4 is the killer stuff – Ebola, Marburg, Lassa. In other words, the nasty shit.

After this run-through and backstory, The Hot Zone shifts it’s focus to Ebola Reston. This strain was discovered in Reston, Virginia in a building that housed monkeys used in research. I don’t want to ruin the whole book for any potential readers, but I will say this. Once the story hones in on Ebola Reston, it’s easy to see parallels between the story and the 1995 movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr, Kevin Spacey, and Donald Sutherland. (While I’m at it – it’s a super cheeseball movie but one of my favorites. I highly recommend that you watch it!)

There are some parts of The Hot Zone that are really confusing, and I would have preferred if Preston followed a chronological timeline for the viruses in the beginning, rather than skipping around. As someone not terribly familiar with these viruses, it made understanding their origins difficult. However, once Preston switched to Ebola Reston, I found the book much better written and easier to follow. The pace also picked up, making it a page-turner. I appreciate the fact that Preston conducted several interviews with the people involved in the outbreak of Reston, as well as the other filoviruses, because it gave the book an edge. Instead of guessing how people felt or what their motivations were, he had knowledge from the interviews.

Overall I liked The Hot Zone, and it’s spurred me into a serious kick. I have purchased several other books on Ebola, HIV, and other diseases. I am also on a binge for virus-themed movies. Be forewarned – there will be a bit of a sidetrack into the viral for the next few posts!


World War Z Part 2: Quit Your Bitching

wwz2I have been to World War Z, lived to tell the tale…and loved it.

For the past 3 years I have read horror (specifically zombies) to the exclusion of almost anything else (barring food box ingredient lists and one accidental slip where I read The Silver Linings Playbook.  Yeah, I loved that one too.)  The point I’m trying to make is that I had high expectations for this movie because I knew what the genre was capable of, and it payed off.

World War Z is one of the first zombie movies to really be believable.  The movie focuses on a “real disease” that moves from person to person through bites and has a frighteningly short incubation period after which the victims become rabid.  A few months before World War Z came out in theaters, The National Geographic released an article detailing the possibility of a zombie virus.  The article discusses the conditions necessary to create the Rage Virus out of the 28 Days franchise.  Thankfully for all of us, it seems that Nature safeguarded us and we aren’t going to experience anything like the movies.  Then again who knows, I just found this new article about a new strain of rabies.

Looking to the natural world again, the filmmakers patterned their zombies after ants and other animals that exhibit pack and herd behavior.  The idea is that the individual becomes less important and the main need is spreading the virus to the next host.  This explains their lack of interest in their own physical pain or well-being.  The article also includes some cool footage of the zombies taking down a chopper.  Speaking of spreading the virus, I was pleased to see that the filmmakers actually made the passing of the virus believable as well.  They tamed the zombie virus, and made it follow real world rules.  According to the American Red Cross (I used to be an instructor for several of their courses), there are rules that viruses and bacteria have to follow in order to infect people.  They are (paraphrased):

1) The virus/bacteria has to be present

2) The host needs to be susceptible (i.e. no immunity OR the right kind of host)

3) The virus/bacteria has to have the right entry method (i.e. bite, scrape, injection, airborne)

4) There needs to be enough of the virus/bacteria to cause infection

whoamigodWithout giving away a spoiler, there is a scene where Brad Pitt comes into contact with the blood, and I was positive he was infected.  (The picture to the left is not from that scene – it’s from another part of the movie.)  I was surprised and confused when he didn’t contract the disease.  However, I saw later on that the filmmakers had stayed true to their rule regarding infection when another character was most likely going to be infected in a similar manner.  Similarly, the “camouflage” that seems to be drawing the ire of the Internet community was actually a really great idea.  Within context of the rules of the disease that the movie sets down, it makes perfect sense.  Just refer to the American Red Cross rules – it’s number 2.  Susceptibility due to being the right kind of host.  Trust me, when you see the movie it will make sense.  Also trust me when I say that if you haven’t found the spoiler on the Internet, don’t go looking for it.  The idea of the “camouflage” is the driving force of the last third of the movie, and the resolution of the movie.

For those that don’t believe that this movie is in the spirit of Max Brooks’ iconic book (including the author himself), put aside your prejudice.  Any attempts to be true to the book would require a Game of Thrones-sized undertaking with a huge budget.  When you strip away the expectations of the book, the movie is actually really good.  In fact, it’s the scariest zombie film I’ve ever seen.  Zombies rise as cities fall in this PG-13 thriller.  Worried there won’t be enough blood?  Don’t be – there’s enough suspense to more than make up for the PG rating.  The CGI zombie sequences and makeup are all top notch, and the acting isn’t half bad either.  Big name Brad Pitt manages to fade into the story, instead of sticking out like a multi-million dollar sore thumb.

In short, don’t cheat yourself out of seeing this on the big screen.  When you finally put your big-kid pants on and see it, you’ll be sorry you missed it on the big screen.


The End of the Sparkly Vampire

Jack Hamlyn has officially returned the vampire to it’s rightful place in vampirushorror.  The tyranny of the sparkly vampire has come to an end.  Hamlyn’s new tale, Vampirus, goes back to the roots of the creature.  His vampires don’t drive stylish cars and make friends with the local mortals.  They die in delirious agony, and come back for their loved ones at night.  They come to the windows, speaking lovingly, all the while scratching at the windows with their clawed hands.  Hamlyn’s vampires are disease vectors, who use bites to spread it others.

I couldn’t put this book down.  It was almost too much to bear – watching one man struggle nightly against the reanimated body of his wife and daughter.  Hamlyn kept the story moving along at a brisk pace, which is not an easy feat considering during the majority of the book, the protagonist was searching for his vampire family.  Hamlyn created the perfect antagonist as well.  He took a community member, dear to the protagonist, and turned her against him.  Hamlyn made her the embodiment of evil, a ruthless predator toying with our hero every step of the way.

Vampirus is a fascinating book, and I highly suggest that everyone go to amazon.com and pick it up.  It’s a quick and engaging read, and features vampires with some bite to them!



“The Walking Dead” – Graphic Novel

The Walking Dead

Image by Walt Jabsco via Flickr - The sword-wielding woman would be Michonne. She's a wild one who makes some questionable decisions in the series, but remains an interesting character altogether.

Almost a year ago I read “The Walking Dead: Compendium 1” which was books 1-48).  I read it in anticipation of the beginning of the AMC show of the same name.  Incidentally, “The Walking Dead” was also the first graphic novel series I had read, so it was a new experience for me all the way around.  As with almost everything that becomes a TV show or movie, I wanted to experience it first in print.  I didn’t want to be

I immediately fell in love with the story of “The Walking Dead”.  The people were realistic, you could almost expect them to walk right off the page and into your life.  There were characters that fit specific stereotypes, but not so much that it caused them to be one dimensional.  The story never lagged – character conflict kept the story going when the zombies weren’t present.  There was never a superfluous moment.

The artwork in the book is fantastic.  The angle from frame to frame changes enough to give you an almost panoramic feel.  There are moments in the book when you can close your eyes and almost imagine a 360 degree view of where the characters are standing.  Moore and Aldard have created characters that look different enough that it’s easy to tell from frame to frame who is speaking.  In later non-“Walking Dead” graphic novels I’ve read, I have found it almost impossible to figure out who is who.  Moore and Aldard have also created terrifying frames.  They seem to know just which moment to depict, whether it’s a lone zombie sneaking up on someone or a horde descending on something.

I am currently waiting for Compendium 2 before moving onward.  Each book is so exciting and written so well it’s easily to fly through it in a few hours (after all, books 1-48 only took me a weekend).  I would have happily paid more money if they would have included the covers for the individual books in the Compendium.  They do distinguish between the individual books, but I don’t want to have to go back and buy the covers separately.  I’d rather have them where they belong, which is with the main book.

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” will be back in October – I heard on October 16th, but that may change.  Do yourself a favor and go out and get the Compendium.  It’s a great book in and of itself, but it also makes a great companion for the show (warning – the show doesn’t follow the book).

Death’s Eye View of the Apocalypse

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), Is...

Image via Wikipedia - majestic when living - unsurmountable when undead...

I was in a local bookstore itching to buy a new zombie book to add to my collection.  (It will be permanently stated that at no time do I need a “new book” as I always have at least 10 waiting to be read…but when I feel the urge to buy a new book, there’s no logical way of stopping me.)  Anyhow, I was perusing the shelves and I stumbled on “Empire” by David Dunwoody.  The cover is green with a huge silhouette of the Grim Reaper and the title written sideways, subtext neatly boxed in with bones.  All in all a very handsome cover.

Dunwoody is a master storyteller – he managed to juggle a mess of characters with ease.  I always knew who was who in the story, and he didn’t have to keep reminding me every time I encountered a character.  The character’s personalities were all very intriguing, and each was distinct.  The story had an effect similar to the movie Crash, if you’ve ever seen that.  The characters were all inter-connected and every one served to move the plot forward.  Dunwoody also played with the stereotypes of the characters – often revealing surprising (and horrifying) secrets at the perfect moment.  I think my favorite character is Death himself, but we’ll touch on his role later.

One of the most chilling scenes was a recollection from the mind of a police officer.  He recalled an epic struggle against an undead great white shark (a 12 footer that he and a fishing crew pulled up onto the deck during a routine fishing run).  Of course, the shark is attacking in the teeth of a rainstorm.  That scene is sheer perfection !  I’ve always loved shark stories and sharks in general, and I think few things make a person feel more insignificant than the idea of a great white, more so if the beast is undead.  Yeesh !

Dunwoody comes up with a really unique way of explaining the start of the plague.  It starts out as dark energy seeping from places in the Earth, back from when the universe came together.  Humans experimented with the energy and the way it brought back all dead life forms and accidentally gave the undead the ability to spread their disease.  Before human interference the dead could only eat the living, but afterward…well, all hell broke loose.

“Empire” is a thinker’s zombie novel.  It made me consider the apocalypse from a whole new angle.  What exactly would Death do about zombies ?  Would he even care ?  If Death regulates the passing of living souls, what about husks without souls ?  Reading from Death’s perspective is always interesting, and this is no exception.  It’s interesting to see things from the point of view of a personification who has seen ages go by.  (If you don’t mind humor and satire, try the Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett – they feature Death heavily.)

I’m not going to give away anything else about the plot or the characters, other than to say that this book truly shows the polarized nature of humans.  There are characters who are truly good, some who pretend to be good, and some who are so evil its almost incomprehensible.  David Dunwoody’s “Empire” was a page turner !  This is the kind of book you read and then loan to friends so they can marvel at the story too.

Undead gone wild !

A zombie in Haiti

Image via Wikipedia (voodoo zombie - I couldn't find the book's cover)

“Zombie Zoology” is just about as wild as it gets.  All puns aside, I am really impressed with this book.  I was a little skeptical at the beginning when I bought the book, because I wasn’t sure how many zombie tales could involve animals and yet still be fresh and exciting.  Although the movie was a little monkey-heavy, it was still really interesting.

I don’t think there is a story that I preferred over any of the others.  Each story was unique and memorable.  However, for the sake of tradition (and to hopefully get you to buy this book…) I will mention a few.

It’s a good thing I’m not so much of a cat person as a dog person, or else “Yule Cat” would have me rethinking my choice of pets.  Ted Wenskus really knows how to stick it to naughty children, but I think the idea of an ancient, legendary, zombie cat is a little much punishment (which only serves to amplify the effect of the story.  So much horror for so little a transgression.)  The story goes that on Christmas Eve in Iceland, you need to wear something new or else the Yule Cat will get you.  One young man learns the hard way when his petulant little sister is snatched that some legends are not meant to be messed with.  The story was well written – and believe me, you will never look the same way at a cat !  To say the least, the imagery of the Yule Cat itself was very effective and creepy.

“Loss of Vector” by William Wood is a particularly freaky tale.  It details the voyage of some astronauts trying to recover a set of experiments from a defunct shuttle.  What they find isn’t what they expected.  A still-alive (sort of) chimp is only the first of their worries.  The atmosphere of the story is very effective and chilling – I had to sleep with my light on for most of the night over the next week or so.

J. Gilliam Martin’s  “Gift Horse Mouth” was absolutely crazy.  Reading this story is not unlike being flipped upside down and slammed repeatedly into the floor.  Every time I thought that the kid’s life couldn’t get worse (what’s worse than a dead father, a drugged-up mother who sells herself in town and is never around, losing your best friend, etc.) something else happened.  Adding to that a Satan-crazed friend who decides that there is no other course of action than demonic resurrection and possession and you have a hell of a tale.  I think the worse part of the story is that throughout, you know that every decision that the characters are making is terribly wrong, and the outcomes are worse than you expect.

Bryan Pinkerton certainly knows how to draw a morbid laugh from his readers.  “SWAT” follows an elite group bent on keeping the zombie plague contained.  There’s just one little obstacle.  Or, a million little obstacles, depending on your point of view.  Finally, a story that addresses the idea that blood-borne pathogens such as a zombie virus should be carried by mosquitoes.  The story is hair-raising, nerve-wracking, and will cause you to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the idea of humans surmounting the plague.

This is an excellent book !  It’s a really nice detour from the usual zombie tales, and packs a punch.  My only complaint is that there are a few more editing errors than normal, and while that didn’t hinder my comprehension of the stories, it was irritating at times.  That being said – you need to have this book on your shelf !  An extra plus is that the cover of “Zombie Zoology” sports one of the nastiest looking zombies ever.  You can almost hear the shrill screaming of attacker and victim…

Recht, Z. A. “Thunder and Ashes”

I posted my R.I.P. for Z.A. Recht on December 21st.  Technically it’s December 26th, and yesterday I finished “Thunder and Ashes“, the second book in the Morningstar Strain.  The marathon reading session was brought on by the amazing content of the book.  I still can’t believe that the author passed away and his literary voice has been silenced.  His books are without a doubt my favorite zombie books out of all that I have read in my lifetime.  During his short writing career, he wrote two amazingly powerful books.

I have no idea where to explain how amazing the second book was.  “Thunder and Ashes” picked up the storyline seamlessly from where “Plague of the Dead” left off.  The transition was so smooth that it felt like one whole book instead of two.  Recht showed his writing prowess in that he didn’t waste space in the book giving too much background information on the established characters, but rather moving the book forward.  That’s one of my peeves in book series – the paragraphs and paragraphs spent reminding the reader about the character.  (Just a hint – if the character requires that much explanation in the following novels, they were most likely a forgettable character anyway.)

Recht’s strongest talent as a writer was to be able to produce living, breathing characters.  I found it hard to believe that the characters weren’t real people.  Their words, actions, lives, and deaths all felt realistic.  Not a single moment went by in “Thunder and Ashes” where I felt that the characters had acted strangely.

Similar to the first book, “Thunder and Ashes” was full of action.  Firefights, undead hordes, and malevolent humans are in abundance in this novel, and all have perfect timing.  This novel was every bit the page-turner that I was expecting from Recht.  This book was also the second piece of zombie literature that has caused me to cry while reading.  I had to say goodbye to one of my favorite characters.  Recht let the character go with dignity and heroism (I’m not telling you whom – go buy the book!).

“Thunder and Ashes” is an absolutely phenomenal book and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting novel.  Incidentally, although the book deals with military terms, it is not overwhelming.  I am not familiar with very many military terms but still found the book enjoyable, and even learned a few new terms while reading.

Z. A. Recht, “Plague of the Dead”

Cover of "Plague of the Dead (The Morning...

Cover via Amazon

What a book !  I just finished Plague of the Dead today – and it was one of the best books I’ve ever read in the zombie genre.  Recht’s book is fantastic !

The characters in the book are very believable.  None of them stand around and whine about their situation, or give superfluous background information that isn’t necessary.  I think its’ better not to know too much about the characters.  When something like a zombie apocalypse occurs, things tend to change.  For that matter, people tend to change.  When the only motive is staying alive for another minute, people show more of who they are, whether its in caring for other people or putting themselves first at all costs.

The characters are not stereotypical by any means.  In fact, they are quite the opposite.  Heading the survivor camp is General Francis Sherman, a man who likes the civilians he protects, and in some cases even allows them to fight alongside the enlisted men.  Julie Ortiz, an investigative journalist, holds for weeks against mental and physical torture when being held captive for leaking vital information to the public about the Morningstar Strain.  There are more characters, but I refuse to spoil all the fun – go read the book !

Recht is very detailed about the virus, to the extent that often it becomes hard to remember that the Morningstar Strain does not exist.  When someone is first infected they experience severe flu-like symptoms which turn into a kind of mania.  The mania phase causes them to sprint after uninfected persons (attempting to find more hosts for the virus).  When the host body dies, the virus takes over fully and propels the bodies along as “shamblers”.  The transition from sprinter to shambler is a great way to bring together two ends of the zombie spectrum – those that think zombies should run, and those that think zombies should shamble – thereby having something for everyone.

Plague of the Dead was really difficult to put down in order to do other things.  Every page seemed to teem with a relentless assault from the living and (truly?) dead.  I get irritated when zombie books act like the apocalypse contains isolated, infrequent zombie attacks.  When I think about the population of the United States, and the world, I find it impossible that the streets wouldn’t be filled to the brim with carriers, zombies, and people dying.  Plague of the Dead depicted this kind of anxiety and adrenaline filled world.

Overall it was a phenomenal book !  I highly recommend that you go and pick this book up NOW.