Allison's Book Bag

Author Archive

MusingMondaysWhat are you reading right now?
What do you think of it?
Why did you chose it?

In case you didn’t notice the byline, I must warn you that what you are reading was not written by Allison. It is written instead by me, Andy, her husband. Proceed at your own risk.

I told Allison earlier today that writers must overcome many obstacles. I should know — often the obstacle is me. And today I was one obstacle too many.

Allison likes to fill her life to the brim. No, that’s not quite true. It’s not that she wants to be busy, it’s that she has so many interests, and she just can’t say no to any of them. If she’s not working on her novel, she’s reading books and reviewing them for this blog. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s trying to make the world a better place for pets, either by writing articles for rescue groups or by helping care for feral cats. And of course there’s her job — but Allison isn’t content to just put in the hours that are required of her, so she also has an after-school writing club. Between you and me, I think she likes writing. Her days are a flurry of teaching, reading, writing, organizing, and more. She just never stops. The world is a better place because of her drive and passion. She’s truly a remarkable person.

But even truly remarkable people can’t always handle everything that life throws at them, and so, because today I was one of those unwelcome projectiles, I offered to write this post for her while she’s at her dentist appointment. My idea was that she would tell me as much as possible about her current read on our drive home, and I would tell all of you. She thought that was worth trying, and so as soon as she closed the passenger door the floodgates opened.

Allison’s current read is Little by Little, the autobiography of Jean Little. That’s a lot of “littles”. If you’re a regular visitor to Allison’s blog, you know that Allison has a lot of interests and/or passions. Just a few of them are: authors (duh!), Canada, and special needs. Hence her love of this book.

JeanLittleJean Little, is a Canadian author who was legally blind from birth, whose life experiences have inspired her to write several children’s books about characters with disabilities. What Allison likes about Little’s books is that while her characters have disabilities, the disabilities are not the focus of the stories.

Allison shared a couple of anecdotes about how Little became interested in writing. The first involved Jean being late for school, and being afraid to write her name on the board as punishment, and using a made-up tale to explain her lateness as a diversionary tactic. It worked, she wasn’t punished, and she began to learn the power of words. I forget the second anecdote, but I’m sure Allison will tell you about it.

Allison couldn’t help crying when she related a story about Little’s father, who had been extremely supportive of her writing. Little was writing something for publication, and her father sent her a book that he thought would be of help to her, and during a phone call he asked her if the book was helping and she said that he would have to decide for himself when he read the published article. But her father was soon hospitalized, and he died before he could read the article. Something like that. This hit Allison so strongly because it reminds her of her own need to share her writing with her father, who has been so supportive to her in everything she does.

There’s so much more that Allison wants to tell you about this book. She left me her notes, but there’s just no way I could do them justice. Allison read the book, I didn’t. But I know Allison will pop in here when she can and add her own thoughts to this post. You really should bookmark this page and check back in a day or two to read what she has to say.

The Boy Who Couldn't DieWe are all familiar with the zombies of movies, television, and books: reanimated corpses that feast on human brains and spread the zombie plague through their bite. But there is another kind of zombie– the zombies of folklore and witchcraft. The Boy Who Couldn’t Die, by William Sleator, is about the second kind.

Most teenagers do not think about death, but after Ken’s best friend died in a plane crash he becomes determined to avoid it. It’s not difficult to find psychics in New York, but it takes a bit of searching before Ken can find someone who can help him with his particular need. He finally finds an ad that offers “Freedom from Death” — at the bargain price of fifty dollars. Cheri Buttercup says she can make Ken invulnerable. He just has to die first. Then she will take his soul and hide it, and then bring him back to life. And with his soul hidden, nothing will harm him. Simple.

Ken has misgivings. But he really doesn’t want to die, so he goes through with the ritual. But did it work? He soon finds out. A hot dish doesn’t burn him. The punches of a beautiful girl’s enraged boyfriend feel like feathers to Ken and a brick wall to the boyfriend. Ken doesn’t quite feel himself, but he enjoys knowing that nothing can hurt him.

Ken talks his parents into taking him to the Caribbean so he can learn scuba diving and swim with sharks. Well, he leaves out the part about the sharks. The week-long vacation in St. Calao begins with a day of scuba training culminating in certification. On the following day the scuba instructors take their six students out to a reef to put their new training to use. Ken sneaks away with he can to go looking for sharks. He finds one, but discovers that he was followed by Sabine, the sixteen-year-old assistant  trainer. And the shark has his eye on both of them. Ken is forced to put his invulnerability to the ultimate test, offering his body to the shark to save Sabine.

Now that Sabine knows Ken’s secret, he tells her everything. But the ritual he experienced in New York is familiar to the Caribbean girl. Sabine tells Ken that by giving his soul to Cheri Buttercup, it is now under her control. This explains why Ken is having disturbing dreams in which he sees himself helping to reanimate his friend Roger, and killing a man on the streets of New York. Sabine tells Ken that he must reclaim his soul.

Back in New York, Cheri buttercup is only happy to oblige–for the less-than-bargain price of $50,000. There’s always a catch, isn’t there?

Sleator grabbed my attention early and held it throughout his 162-page book. The Boy Who Couldn’t Die is obviously a very different kind of zombie story, and as such is a welcome change of pace. It reminded me of Stephen King’s Thinner, which is about a man who is cursed by a gypsy. Both stories are about someone who races to reverse a supernatural spell. Sleator has a streamlined writing style that is suitable for younger teens and up. Any lover of the macabre will enjoy this creepy tale.

I gave The Walking Dead graphic novels a try after becoming a huge fan of the television series they inspired. The graphic novels, by necessity, must tell a condensed story. They are like Cliff Notes with pictures. The Walking Dead television show, also by necessity, had to expand on the story told by the graphic novels.

There’s a sort of paradox posed by graphic novels. A scene of any complexity will require an abundance of panels to convey. Conversely, it requires very little time for the reader to scan those panels. So while a simple story will have a long page length, the time required to read it will be very short. Reading The Walking Dead graphic novels, I would try to slow myself down by studying the illustrations. Of course we all know the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words. Well… maybe in principle. When you’ve just looked at a panel in which a character is surrounded by zombies, and in the next panel the zombies are a little closer, how long do you need to look at that panel to understand what is going on? What will you gain by looking at the panel any longer than necessary?

To see how the television show differs from the graphic novels, let’s take a look at an early scene from both…

Rick’s arrival in Atlanta: the graphic novel

The welcoming committee greets rick upon his arrival in Atlanta

Rick rides into Atlanta on a horse. He is quickly surrounded by zombies. The zombies attack, knock Rick to the ground, and commence eating his horse. Rick shoots at the zombies, runs like hell, and stumbles into an alley. There he meets Glenn, who helps him escape to safety on the rooftops.

From Rick’s arrival in Atlanta to his escape from the zombies with Glenn, the action is simple and straightforward, spanning six pages that can be easily “read” in less than a minute. Any drama created by Rick’s predicament is short-lived because the crisis is quickly averted.

Rick crawls under a tank to escape the zombies

Rick crawls under a tank to escape the zombies

Rick’s arrival in Atlanta: the television show

You can watch this scene here: Watch Rick’s arrival in Atlanta.

Rick rides into Atlanta on a horse. The seemingly deserted city is littered with the remnants of a lost battle, with abandoned cars and military vehicles on every block. Rick rounds a corner to find a massive gathering of zombies. Rick and his horse turn tail and the zombies follow. More zombies come out of side streets and cut off Rick’s escape. The zombies close in, surrounding Rick, grabbing at him, pulling him from his horse, pulling his horse to the ground. The zombies begin to make a meal of the horse as Rick watches in horror. Other zombies take notice of Rick and move in for the kill. In a panic, Rick scrambles under a tank. Zombies crawl after him. More zombies crawl under the tank from the front. Rick shoots a few zombies but there are just too many. Collapsing on his back, Rick puts his gun to his head as he prepares to take his own life before the zombies can get to him. Glancing up he sees an open hatch in the belly of the tank. Rick scurries up and in and slams the hatch cover. There is a dead soldier in the tank. But of course he isn’t dead. Rick dispatches him quickly with his gun, but in the confined interior of the tank the blast of the gun is deafening and disorienting. As Rick struggles to clear his head, he notices the open top hatch. He crawls through to check things out, catches the attention of the zombies, retreats back into the tank and closes the hatch. Rick is isolated and trapped, but safe. For now. Rick sits still and attempts to gather his wits. The radio squawks. A voice says: “Hey, you. Dumbass. Yeah, you in the tank. Cozy in there?”

The voice belongs to Glenn. From Rick’s arrival in Atlanta to hearing Glenn’s voice over the tank’s radio, the scene lasts five minutes. And Rick still hasn’t actually met Glenn, nor is he truly out of his predicament. What next? Well, viewers of the television show had to wait, because this is where the episode ends.

As you can see, the TV version is more complex and, therefore, more dramatic. It made my skin crawl, frankly. More than once, I was sure Rick was doomed. How was he going to get out of this? Whereas when reading the graphic novel, there just isn’t time to get too worked up about anything.

You may think I don’t think much of the graphic novels. Not true. They are simply a different beast. And yes, I do prefer TV, movies, and regular novels to graphic novels. But graphic novels have their place, and their fans. And I am eternally grateful to the creators of The Walking Dead graphic novels: Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. Without them, The Walking Dead universe would not exist. And while comparing the original medium to the television series, it is worth noting that obviously the television series has a larger creative team (which, by the way, includes Kirkman and Darabont). It’s therefore to be expected that the television series would sometimes add creative twists to the storyline.

Because I am such a huge fan of the television show, and because the television show seems to stick fairly close to the general plot of the graphic novels, I have stopped reading the graphic novels for now. The graphic novels are ahead of the television show, of course, and I don’t want to ruin the television show for myself by reading “spoilers” in the graphic novels. However, one day the television show will end, and when it does I will almost certainly want to return to the graphic novels to appease my addiction. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend the series to fans of graphic novels and comic books. And I especially recommend the series to teens who struggle with reading.

Zombie in Love

Zombie in Love, written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Scott Campbell

If your preschooler or kindergartner prefers fresh human brains to cookies and milk, have I got the picture book for you. Zombie in Love fills a much overlooked void in children’s literature. For far too long, picture books have tended toward the cute and cuddly — kittens, flowers, rainbows, unicorns. Blech. Disgusting. Unwholesome. Where can kids turn for valuable lessons in death? Look no further!

Zombie in Love, written by Kelly DiPucchio, tells the delightful story of Mortimer — a fine, upstanding young zombie who, sad to say, finds himself surrounded by very unpleasant humans. All Mortimer wants is a girlfriend, but no human girl will give him the time of day. Mortimer plies them with delectable worm-infested chocolates, a “shiny, red heart”, and a diamond ring with the severed finger of its original owner. But these women just don’t know a good thing when they see it.

Does Mortimer give up? No, he does not! He reads self-help books, works out at the gym, and learns to dance. But still he just can’t find a date. Is there no hope for poor Mortimer?

Children will love reading of Mortimer’s romantic exploits, he’s just so charming. In addition, there’s also his faithful dog; we don’t learn his name, but he’s a handsome boy with most of his skin and fur intact and that one eye hanging adorably from its socket. And don’t forget his little wormy friends who follow him everywhere.

zombieinlove1

Mortimer’s “I Brain Brains” coffee mug.

The best thing about Zombie in Love is the illustrations by Scott Campbell. If you or your children just give them a passing glance, you’ll miss half the fun. There are so many great details; pictures of a few of these accompany this review.

zombieinlove2

Mortimer’s “cologne” is a pine-scented air freshener.

Now, as we all know, zombies can be a tad… oh, what’s the word? Blood-thirsty? That is, they have this amusing tendency to, you know, feast on human flesh. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But descriptions and depictions of this habit in a children’s picture book may be frowned upon by some overprotective human parents. So how does Zombie in Love handle this delicate issue? By mostly ignoring it. Yes, Mortimer keeps a human brain on a shelf in his home. Yes, he gives a human heart to one prospective love interest. Yes, there’s that severed finger. And sure, Mortimer and his date eat brains, eyeballs, and hands on their picnic date, while Mortimer’s dog chews on a severed foot. But their picnic is in a cemetery, so at least there’s the possibility that their meal was already dead before they found it.

(My review continues after the picture. Don’t get lost.)

Mortimer and his date have an interesting way of holding hands.

Mortimer and his date have an interesting way of holding hands.

What I’m getting at is this. I feel fairly confident in saying that because bloody carnage is downplayed in Zombie in Love, should you choose to share this fantastic book with your offspring you will likely not awaken one night to find your children gnawing on your head. But please don’t mistake this for a guarantee. I wash my hands of it.

The Enemy (Higson novel)

How do you get rid of the adults? Every writer of children’s fiction, from picture books to young adult novels, has had to answer this question. Adults aren’t fun. Adults get in the way. How can kids have adventures if they’re stuck doing homework and chores? Enter the old standbys of  divorce, death, abandonment, and prison.

Charlie Higson found a better solution: turn them all into zombies.

The Enemy is the first book in a planned young adult series of seven. A strange disease turns everyone over the age of sixteen (or is it fourteen?) into zombies. Of course these are not classic undead zombies, but living zombies — people who have become animalistic brain-craving monsters as a result of a mysterious illness. Not only does this get all those pesky adults out of the way — in the sense that they are no longer authority figures who do nothing by spoil kids’ fun — but it gives kids license to kill them on sight.

I wondered at first about the overly specific cutoff between zombie and non-zombies. How can it be so specific? (And what is the cutoff age anyway? I swear it was sixteen in the copy I read, and reviews on Amazon say it’s sixteen, but Wikipedia and Penguin Books’ trailer says it’s fourteen. Is it fourteen in Britain and sixteen in the U.S.? Anyway, for the purposes of this review and my sanity, let’s say it’s sixteen.) Where was I? Oh yeah. So there isn’t any physiological difference between a sixteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old that would make one immune and one not. Ah, but Higson has a rational explanation. Seventeen years prior to the events of the book, there is a worldwide plague. Everyone alive at the time is infected. But the disease doesn’t manifest itself immediately. It remains dormant for sixteen years. Meanwhile, everyone born in the wake of the plague is disease-free. Kids born to infected parents do not have the disease. So when the disease finally kicks in, only those people who were alive at the time of the plague become zombies. Elegant.

The Enemy is set in London one year after the zombification of the majority of the population. The story focuses on a group of kids who have holed up in a Waitrose supermarket. Their lives are what you’d expect: sending out groups to forage and fighting off zombies. There’s also the occasional encounter with a rival gang holed up in the nearby Morrisons supermarket.

Naturally change is a-comin’, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. A stranger arrives and invites the Waitrose kids to return with him to his group’s stronghold. His group is well-organized, and their leader has big plans. And so they pack up and set out and have an incident-free journey through London. Well, no, not really. There are zombies everywhere.

English: Charlie Higson, comedian and Young Bo...

English: Charlie Higson, comedian and Young Bond author, taken at Los Angeles book signing in 2005 by John Cox (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Higson adds variety to the story by providing a couple of subplots. Two of the Waitrose kids do not tag along with the main group. One stays behind at Waitrose because he’s a bit agoraphobic, and another is separated against his will and has adventures of his own. I like that one of these subplots is not wrapped up in a tidy package at the end of the book. In fact, the main plot isn’t wrapped up in a tidy package either, as naturally the promised land is not what the Waitrose kids were expecting.

If you aren’t in the mood for a nitpicky complaint, please skip to my concluding paragraph. Okay, here it is: I am not a big fan of the word “though”. It’s hard to explain, but I’m of the opinion that it’s a word for amateurs. Often it just isn’t necessary, and other times it’s just ungainly. And in The Enemy, it’s overused. (The Enemy contains 112 uses of the word; The Hunger Games, which is the same length as The Enemy, contains only 66.) Here’s an example from The Enemy in which I think it’s both ungainly and unnecessary: “He was happy. Almost happier than he had been before the disaster. The one thing he longed for, though, was peace of mind.” The phrase “The one thing he longed for” implies that what follows will be an exception to the character’s happiness. So why add “though”, which interrupts the flow of the sentence? Try re-reading those sentences without the “though”. You still understand what’s being said, and the passage reads better. The word “though”, used like this, is a jarring speed bump — one that can often be avoided. It tells the reader that the narration is contradicting itself. Here’s an example that is completely made-up by me but which is illustrative of the way the word is frequently employed in The Enemy: “It was quiet. Everyone was on high alert, though, sensing that something was wrong.” See the contradiction? It’s quiet, so you’d think everyone could relax. But no, they can’t. Now, consider instead: “The uncharacteristic silence was unnerving. Everyone was on high alert.” This rewrite tells you upfront that something is wrong with the silence, and so the second sentence does not need to be presented as a contradiction that requires explanation. Furthermore, the rewrite has better pacing — no speed bump! Have I made my case? I wish I could cite an “expert” who agrees with me, but I can’t find anyone who has an opinion on “though” one way or another. So maybe I’m the only person in the world who’s bothered by it. Could be. I won’t let it get to me, though. (Hee hee.)

Enough nitpicking. What matters is this: I’m hooked. Despite the abundance of “thoughs,” Higson writes well and has created an exciting adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip through zombie-infested London. As an adult, I appreciated that Higson did not write a watered-down gore-free child-friendly zombie tale. And as someone who is not a teenage girl, I also appreciated that Higson wrote a real zombie story and not a Twilightesque teen-zombie grope-fest. The next book in the series is The Dead, which is a prequel to The Enemy and is set about a year earlier, two weeks after people began turning into zombies. Unfortunately this means that I’ll have to wait until at least the third book to find out what happens to those Waitrose kids.

Charlie Higson on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

Penguin Book’s trailer for The Enemy


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