What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:



HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.


You Should Read: Mira Grant’s DEADLINE

I have just finished reading the second in a series of zombie-novels by Mira Grant (or, depending on your perspective, a series of political novels that have zombies in them, or, alternatively, a series about cutting-edge journalism in a world were politics are just as nasty as ever and oh, by the way, there are zombies too). Following in the style of the first, DEADLINE has a mostly-reliable first person narrator, if you can accept his cracking sanity doesn’t interfere with his ability to do his job. Shaun Mason is a journalist, and brother to Georgia Mason, who was the narrator of the first book, FEED. If you’ve read the first you’ll recognize the same basic cast of characters, though individuals have been replaced. Occupational hazard. More importantly, if you haven’t read FEED yet, why not? Go, buy FEED, devour it, be shocked, be sad, be happy not to have zombie eating your brains, and come back when you’re done. Or, if you’d rather finish this review first and then go buy (and read) both books, that’s fine too, but take a moment to watch the official FEED/DEADLINE book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUXWlXK985U&feature=youtu.be. It explains some stuff. I’ll wait.

Ok then. Ready?

Ow, does this book have sharp edges. First, there’s the horrible thing at the end of the first book which Shaun is struggling to recover from. He’s failing pretty spectacularly, in case you were wondering. Then there’s the exciting knowledge that maybe things could have been done differently, which, btw, Grant? Yeah, that was mean. Brilliant, perfect for the story, and … hard to take. That the zombie situation suddenly gets worse isn’t helping the fact that once again, Shaun and his crew spend most of their waking hours trying to avoid the people who’re trying to murder them while simultaneously trying to crack open a news story that might just reveal enough to save the world. Grant moves into a slower arc with this book, allowing her characters to face a more certain kind of villain, and to endure fewer number of sudden shocks. This doesn’t mean she’s being nice to them, or going easy on you, because the shocks are still there, and when they do come, they’re massive. She remains an author I want to hug for being brave enough to do terrible (but necessary) things in the course of writing these novels. Also, I want to poke her with a pointed stick for the terrible but necessary things that she does, because, did I mention the ow?

BLACKOUT, the third in the series, isn’t due out til next year and I’ll have to wait, but with DEADLINE Grant has proven herself (again) a storyteller worth waiting for.

Still reading weird – Claude Lalumière’s OBJECTS OF WORSHIP

I admit that I picked up this collection because the publisher, ChiZine, gave away free .pdfs of it. It was worth more than the (free) price, and after having read it, I’m ordering a print copy to keep in my library. I didn’t love every moment of OBJECTS OF WORSHIP, and struggled to get through the middle – it was ordered with the best stories at the beginning and end, but without knowing that, I nearly put it down before getting all the way through it. Having finished it, what did I think?

Skip “The Darkness at the Heart of the World”. Just don’t bother with it. I understand that it had to be included so that, along with “Ethical Treatment of Meat”, it could form the back story to “A Visit to the Optometrist”, but even after figuring that out I didn’t forgive the time wasted on it. It’s simply a list of actions taken by the main character in a world which clearly matters to him but has no reason to be important to us. Lalumière, as he so often does, tells us things are important instead of letting the reader figure anything out on their own. There is no chance to develop an attachment to the story as it rushes too quickly toward its conclusion. As part of another world he’s already written, maybe this story would make sense, but in this collection, it just disappoints. “Optometrist” could be skipped too, and you wouldn’t be missing much. It draws too much on the idea that the reader has already read the stories it develops from, and feels too much like bits of disparate stories strung together to make a new one that doesn’t quite fit.

“The Sea, at Bari”, “Njàbò”, “A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens” are only OK stories. They’re not bad, they have some fun ideas – a sea monster that eats your emotions, a world without elephants, and a month of free long distance calls from the afterlife – but the execution fails to deliver. In “Sea” the narrator talks about passion we never feel, “Njàbò” suffers from Lalumière’s tendency to tell instead of show, and to rush through time as if stating “and this happened” can make up for years of the characters’ lives that we don’t get to know. “Nothing Ever Happens” could just as easily be a description of the story, where an unbelievably perfect woman falls in love with a kid who’s described, too often, negatively, just so he can end up in the same love triangle as his father. OK, but why should we care?

“Hochelaga and Sons”, “Spiderkid”, and “Destroyer of Worlds” are the comic book stories. On a reader who hasn’t spent as much time with comics as I have, they might have been better received, though I did enjoy them all. It’s just that the homage of it all pulled me a little out of what was happening in the story. “Hochelaga” was my favorite of the three, though another writer I know was deeply moved by “Destroyer” so I think they’re equally good, and definitely worth reading.

It may seem as if I didn’t much like this author or this collection, but I only disliked the stories where I could see what he was going for, and was disappointed that it missed. When Lalumière’s writing is on target I fall in love with him.

“The Object of Worship” is the best opening story that I have ever read in a collection of shorts. “The Ethical Treatment of Meat” was so visceral and disgustingly evocative that I finished it, wanted to be sick, and then wanted to punch someone in the face. Probably twice. It takes a great writer to be able to have an effect on a reader, and an even better one to have a terrible effect without driving a reader to put the book down and never pick it up again. “Roman Predator’s Chimeric Odyssey” is the collection’s weird tale, and alone it would be worth the purchase price of the book. It’s strange and wonderful, weird and fully engaged in its setting, an alternate Earth. “This Is the Ice Age” has my favorite female character, and shows off a unique apocalypse in a brief but convincing way, mingling an impossible event with utterly understandable characters. Plus, the narrator makes up for the nearly pointless Mary Jane in “Nothing Ever Happens”.

Judging from his stories, Lalumière’s clearly an idea man. You can see in each tale the kernel of the idea which inspired it. In some cases, the idea is all there is, and the surrounding story falls flat. In others, both the heart and the body of the story flow smoothly from beginning to end in a way which is both captivating and illuminating. Even when the story doesn’t work, the idea is still intriguing. I want to talk about those story ideas with him, and I’d happily buy him a beer and listen to whatever new thing he’s got bubbling up in his brain.

If he continues to progress toward the pieces which do work, like “Ice Age” and “Roman” and “Objects”, Lalumière will become an author whose work I buy for as long as he keeps writing it.

History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man


But of course, you knew that was a line from Blue Oyster Cult’s classic rock masterpiece – “Godzilla” – which was playing when I started this post. You, of course, know a great deal about what’s good in music, and for that I love you.

I can’t write without music on. I have to make soundtracks that correspond the the mood that I’m trying to invoke when I write, so that they can inspire in a me a sense memory of the emotions I associate with those songs. I have several soundtracks lined up and ready to go at the moment, all connected to a different work in progress.  When I started writing again this summer, the first anthology I ran across was Rigor Amortis, which celebrates its launch today. An open athology, it was looking for zombie erotica, a horror-filled subset of a genre I’d never written before. I was up for the challenge, and my finished product, “Mitch’s Girl” was my first sale this summer, but it took a serious shift in listening tastes to get into the mindset of a Midwesterner with dead-girl tastes.

Laura Veirs’ “July Flame” invoked those last summer evenings, when the corn is ripe and the sky is darkening to a deeper shade of blue. It’s a song for sitting quietly on the porch with a cool drink and a cotton dress.

“Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd has that long slow sound which reminds me that nothing needs to be rushed. Lyrically, it’s a song about being a good person with simple, down home, values, but musically it has a melodic tension in the bass line which stretches out over a faster guitar track, like pulling molasses out of a jar.

The Me First and the Gimmie Gimmie’s cover of “Country Roads” reminds me of being in the passenger seat of a truck driven by a boy I didn’t know well enough to be driving with, one of my feet up on the dashboard, singing loudly to the original of this song while take the curves of a winding mountain road just a little too fast. It reminds me of high summer, yellowing grasses, and a dry heat in the afternoons.

“Cross-Eyed Mary” by Jethro Tull brings me the creepy factor I needed for the this story. The lyrics are dark and wanting, and the singer lends his dirty secrets to the song when he sings. I needed all of that, and a bit more, to write about longing for a response from a woman who only exists from the navel down. 

You Should Read: J. P. Moore’s TOOTHLESS

Summary: Toothless is an epic tale of war and redemption set in 12th century Europe. An ancient evil is on the march. An army of demons and undead rampages across the countryside, spreading death and destruction. Judgment has come. The world of the living teeters on the edge of ruin. One knight, a failed Templar, returns to the battlefield to avenge his wife and daughter. The dice are cast against him, and he is slain only to rise in service to the very evil that he hoped to destroy. He is a gifted minion. But life is not done with him yet. (From DragonMoon Press)

Toothless is the story of a zombie hero, if there can be such a thing, set in a medieval Europe devastated by the advance of a demonic army. Riding ahead of this unstoppable mass of death is a plague which strikes any living creature. Behind the plague comes the army of risen undead, pulled from the recently killed soldiers who died trying to defeat it. Toothless is told by an omniscient narrator who gives us the stories of two outcasts: Martin, the dead Templar who’s second life as a zombie with no lower jaw is the subject of most of the book, and Lil, the deformed psychic teen girl who just happens to be protected by the church.

Part of what I love about Moore’s work is that he took a story which, on its surface, seems a little ridiculous, and made it not only believable but gripping. His world is darker and gets darker still with the introduction of a main character that you slowly realize is never going to become a better person. Toothless is a monster. That he may also save world is beside the point. As an exploration of humanity, Toothless is terribly exciting because, freed from the living Martin’s responsibilities, he devolves into a creature who does remarkably bad things, over and over again. At some point the not-yet-dead around him realize his potential as a saviour, and rally around him on his journey to defeat the source of the desolation, but that doesn’t make Toothless a good guy. He still kills, still thrives on the blood and energy he’s washed in with the death of every victim, and is still an unabashed drunk.

He simply aims his talent for murder in the direction of the bad guys for a while.

Moore’s book, which began life as a podcast, is not cheerful, and only barely hopeful. It exists in an alternate history of our own Earth, in a dark age we very nearly can’t climb out of.

I loved reading this book.

I am, admittedly, a zombie fangirl, and I’m always on the lookout for new takes on the decreasingly-original theme. J.P. Moore’s Toothless is startlingly original, with a breadth and depth unusual in a zombie novel, but one that only adds to the feeling of withering melancholy which rises up from this story the way Martin rose up and became Toothless.

Toothless is due out October 31, 2010.

J.P. Moore is @jpmoo on twitter, and the cover artist Scott Purdy is @scottpurdy on twitter