Thursday, May 10, 2012

Zombie; [sic] a madness

Note, this is the rough draft for a review I wrote for Please go ahead and read the final draft over there. It's a great website and source for zombie news.

This book is difficult for me to explain. You see, I tend to find faults even with books I like, and I have to hold myself back sometimes to make sure I'm not criticizing something that really doesn't need to be criticized. Part of it is my training as an editor and part of it is me being a critical person in general. It really helps me a lot if I'm getting paid to help someone improve their work. Not so much when I'm reading a book for the sake of it. Before I talk about this book, I need to explain a few things about writing and publishing.
If you've ever worked at a slush pile for any sort of magazine, journal, or publisher, you know that you find all sorts of writing; from surprisingly good to the worst of the worst. A good slush pile (assuming it doesn't get too many submissions) has its reviewers give the author a quick review and a couple pointers on how to improve their work. That's why if you can't find or afford a good freelance editor, it's still a good idea to submit to various venues. If nothing else, you might at least get a few good pointers. If you feel that your work isn't ready for submission then at the very least you should have people who have a good grasp of grammar and who aren't close relations or friends look your manuscript over. That's writing groups are for. A good writing group includes people you know, but not too well, who will give you good, constructive advice. The worst writing there, generally, is written by people who don't understand how poor their writing is and only have family members and close friends check their book over. More often than not, they will just say that it's great because they either do not know better or they don't want to hurt your feelings.
This book is one of those books where the writer went about the entire writing process wrong. He went so far as to self-publish his book well before it resembled anything even remotely publishable. There is simply so much wrong with the book that it's hard to know where to start, so I'll begin with the low-hanging fruit and work my way up.
Punctuation: You know when you see that the title of a work introduces the sub-title with a semi-colon that you're in for an interesting ride. If nothing else, the author has already shown that they don't know their basic punctuation. I mean, sure, most people don't really know how to use a semi-colon. But most people should know that a sub-title is introduced by a colon. Semi-colons really shouldn't be in the picture. But that's only the beginning. The book is littered with semi-colons, and not a single one is used correctly. I could chalk this up to overzelousness on the part of the author, heavens knows that I've seen more than my share f people who want to use more obscure punctuation in an attempt to look more educated than they are, but the author shows a rather strong dedication to poor use of almost all punctuation. Commas, possessive apostrophes, whatever. You name it, he abuses it. About the only thing he does use correctly on a consistent basis is the period. Trust me, I wish I were joking or even exaggerating in the slightest about this.

Next we have layout. Now here, we actually have something that is almost, but not quite, forgivable. The entire visual aspect of the book shows a lot of thought, creativity, and attention to detail. It's really obvious that he invested a lot of time to what the book was going to look like. There's a broken record motif, lots of dark and gory visuals that set the mood for the story and more. It should work. It should. But it doesn't. You see, most people don't realize this but there is a science to the layout of books, which for most books is all based around making the book both visually appealing but still easy to read. This book fails that second part mostly because 99% of the pictures are presented as a very strong watermark on every single page. Again, this wouldn't be quite as big of a problem if it weren't for the watermarks being so strong. I mean, if you were to make them just strong enough to see, but still transparent enough that they didn't overpower the text, then it wouldn't be such a big deal. But the watermarks do overpower the text. It's not impossible to read, but it is physically much more difficult to read than it should be. This is why most books are black text on a white background. It's much easier for people to read that way. There is a clear contrast between text and background. When the text is nearly the same color as that of the background, it gets pretty hard to read. Then there's the width of the book. I don't mean how many pages thick the book is, but the the actual width of the book in inches. You see, most books tend to be a uniform size with fairly uniform fonts. This is because it's easiest for people to read around 14 words (more or less) to a line. This book either breaks that rule by having more words per line than that, or by stretching the words across the page, breaking the connection by proximity. Then we have the page numbers. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof. I sincerely wonder how someone can you put that much thought into the visual aspect of a book and forget to include the page numbers. It's a pretty important design choice. In the end, I almost think that the book would have done much better as a comic book or graphic novel of sorts, since it would then eliminate almost all of the mistakes made in designing the layout. What stops me from saying that this book should have been a graphic novel is... well... the writing itself.

The writing is... *sigh* To be honest, I tell people, without hyperbole, that this is quite possibly the worst book ever to be published. I'm sure that there are plenty of books out there that are just as bad if not far worse than this book, but I can't say that very many of those people went the self-publishing route that this guy did. This book doesn't even have the saving grace of being hilariously terrible, like The Eye of Argon or Twilight. No, this book is just poorly written all around. I have to admit that the ideas behind the book are interesting. It's about a hard-boiled, film noir-style P.I. who accidentally gets involved in a Cthulhuesque pact with some eldritch powers and may or may not be involved in starting the zombie apocalypse. It's actually kind of a cool idea. But the execution...? Not so cool.

So, the book takes place in the 1920s and is presented as a series of letters and transcriptions from one  psychologist to a friend of his. He presents it as a clear case of some form of insanity on the part of the protagonist. What else could you call the testimony of a man who claims to experience strange magics and flesh-eating corpses? I mean, the psychologist himself talks about how his hometown was overrun by insane cannibals and that the army's greatest weapons were useless against these madmen who would continue to attack soldiers with their bare hands despite having been shot dozens of times with large caliber bullets. I mean... Crazy men who can't die = totally cool since I saw it myself. But a man claiming to come back from the dead because of strange Chinese magic = Totally insane and everything he says is suspect. I'm just sayin'... if you saw with your own eyes that there were cannibal maniacs that would not lie down dead after taking more damage than a PCP junkie on a bender could... You should start re-thinking what you consider "within the realm of possibility." Anyway. The psychologist's "observations" are probably the least annoying part of the book. The transcriptions are where the poor writing really shines.

I... I honestly don't know where to start. I mean, I can kind of get what's happening in the book, but it's not easy. Half of it is written in such a way that I have to re-read the page several times to get what happened, and the rest of it is written so that I'm not sure who certain people are or why they're there. Like the one guy and his boat. So the protagonist is in New York City running away from a giant horde of zombies. He manages to get away from them by jumping over a fence and running to the dock. Apparently the only available boat has some guy there, just standing on the dock next to it. I guess that he owns the boat and then the protagonist and this guy leave together. The way the event plays out, though, asks so many questions that ARE NEVER ANSWERED. Who is this guy? Why is he waiting there? Was he waiting for the protagonist?  If not, why hadn't he left with everyone else? It seems fairly clear that the entire city had been overrun with zombies, so how did this guy survive? Why hadn't he left when he had the chance? Did he just happen to still be there and took the protagonist with him because the protagonist had a gun? I don't know, and neither will you. Later on, the protagonist and a woman they picked up leave the boat to check out a house on shore. And then they leave for somewhere else by car. Now, they told the guy who owned the boat to wait for them, but they never went back to tell him they were leaving. What happens to him? I don't know, and frankly I don't care. Not because I'm a cruel, uncaring person, but because I was never given any reason to care about him. Or anyone else in the book, for that matter.

As if this weren't confusing enough, the "action" scenes are even worse. In addition to being confusing to the extreme, they make no fraking sense, no matter how you cut it. How bad do you have to work at it to break me out my willing suspension of disbelief? I mean, I've already decided to accept dark powers from beyond resurrecting a bland and useless P.I. from the dead and giving him incredible, otherworldly powers while causing a hive-mind zombie apocalypse. I'm letting the book get away with quite a lot, and yet, even then, it can't seem to stay within acceptable breaks from "reality." So, I'm going out on a limb and assuming a lot about the author. First off, I'm assuming he's never used a gun, even for target practice. He may not have done ever more than seen them on TV or the movies. Why do I make this assumption? Well, for one thing, in the aforementioned "running away from a horde of zombies in NYC" incident he is able to shoot his revolver behind him (while running at top speed, keep in mind) and shoot some of the zombies' legs off at the knees. It's implied, though not explicitly stated, that each bullet takes off one leg. Not only is that targeting highly improbable... but shooting their legs clean off? With one bullet per leg? Really? Even worse than that is the fight scene between the protagonist and fat zombie chef and flying boomerang zombie girl.

Oh, my goodness. I could write a book about everything that is wrong with these three to five pages, but I'll be as brief as I can. So, skipping past the first part of the fight, we'll move straight to the really weird part: So they've left the house and are standing in grass that goes up to the protagonist's hip. Let's say three feet tall, for the sake of argument. The chef chops his cleaver into the protagonist's shoulder and cleaves his left collarbone clean in two. That's all right, since he's got a shotgun in the other arm. While holding the shotgun in his other hand, he somehow manages to pull the cleaver out of his shoulder and throw it away... All right, whatever, I suppose it's not impossible. Then the chef zombie starts strangling him. So he takes the shotgun, shoves the barrel in the Chef zombie's face, and fires. All one-handed. Okay. Then the zombie's head explodes like a ripe melon. Whatever. So the chef zombie's headless body, which is apparently very, very fat, starts falling "slowly backwards". All right, that fight stretches belief a little bit, but not too much. That is until we add the little zombie girl who was attacking our protagonist synchronously.

That's right, not "at the same time" but rather "synchronously." Now this is a big problem that many, many writers have. So please, if I could give one piece of advice to any budding writers out there and one piece only (besides "know grammar and punctuation rules" because, really, that should be a given), it would be "put your thesaurus down". Seriously, stick to words that you actually know unless you have a very good reason for using a less common word.

Anyway, while all that is happening, a little zombie girl who can't be more than eight or ten years old is also attacking him. Specifically, she is digging her fingers into his left hip. In order to dislodge her he kicks her "square in the sternum" and she "le[aves] the grass, soar[ing] through the rain." Keep in mind, this is grass that's probably about three feet tall. And if she is "soaring" that means she's going some distance. Now, if you've been following this mentally and you think something might be amiss, you are right. I actually had to act this out with a couple friends to see what this looked like. Let me tell you, it makes absolutely no sense. To be able to kick a little girl who is digging her fingers into your hip "square in the sternum" with any amount of force is pretty dang hard, let alone doing that with enough force to send her "soaring" several feet into the air. Keeping in mind that while you're doing this you are also dealing with a broken collarbone and one-handedly shooting a large zombie in the face with a shotgun while said zombie is strangling you. And that's not the best part. Remember how I called her "boomerang zombie girl"? Well, you see, not only does she go "soaring" but she also manages to magically land directly under the fat chef zombie, getting trapped as the headless, fat chef zombie "plummets" down on top of her. First off, you may recall how the chef zombie was "falling slowly" earlier. But now it is "plummeting." I don't know about you, but when I think "plummet" I don't think "fall slowly." I think "falling with great force from a great distance." Second, you may also recall how the little girl zombie went "soaring through the rain." Now, to me, this says that the little girl goes some distance. At the very least, more than two or three feet. It doesn't matter where she was standing when she was kicked. If she is to land directly where the chef zombie falls, she has no choice but to break all the laws of physics that I know of and curve in her flight path. Perhaps even switch directions entirely while in flight. Keep in mind, the zombie chef did not take any steps backwards. He began to fall backwards immediately. Trust me, I acted this out as closely as possible to the text of the book. I wish I hadn't, but I did. It makes... NO SENSE! And that's just one example of the "action" scenes in this book.

Now, this is just the prose. Imagine, if you will, that the dialog is even worse. Now, stop imagining, because it is. The dialog is melodramatic, confusing, and generally worthless. I could go on and give examples, but I don't want to punish anyone reading this review any more than I already have.

You know, let me just get down to the heart of the matter. I've said it already and it needs to be said again: This book is terrible. It's a confusing, poorly-written mess. Maybe with the help of a good, paid developmental editor, and not a family member, it could be a decent book someday. As it is, though, it's just not worth your time. It's definitely not worth $40. Especially since the book ends with "To be continued..." I looked at those three words for about ten seconds, just dumbfounded. I was like... Seriously? I had to wade through that mess and I don't even get any closure? Poor form, book... poor form.

Bottom line: There are several books of which it has been said "this is not a book to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force." I wouldn't say that of this book, but only because I respect my walls too much. The best I can say for this book is that it does have some good ideas. Unfortunately, good ideas by themselves can't hold up a poorly-written story. Avoid this book at all costs.

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