Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 259 pages
Published October 18th 2011 by Doubleday (first published October 18th 2010)

In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild­ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.

And then things start to go wrong.

Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One bril­liantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century.

“The dead had paid their mortgages on time…graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s…and superimposed the borders of the good school districts on mental maps of their neighborhood, which were often included on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.”

Zone One is full of colorful melancholy descriptions, of varying levels of cerebral-ness, of an ashen, grey Manhattan post-plague apocalypse. Imagine a world where post “apocalypse-as-moral-hygiene,” as one character put it. A world where, “the dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living.”

I’d be remiss—not to mention completely misleading you—if I didn’t note that Zone One is not an action novel by any means. (Really, any reader of Colson Whitehead would probably figure this before even picking this one up from the shelf, so this is really a note for those as yet unfamiliar with his writing style. 😊)

**SPOILER** There is no real “action” in this novel so much as there’s deliberations, flashbacks, and several run-ins—some eerie, some semi-dramatic, some thought-provoking–with “skels,” the dead who are not quite dead. **SPOILER END**

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—depending on the reader—because it allows for the Sci-Fi-like descriptions of an otherworldly scenario that oft-times need to be drawn out in such a fashion. However, I yearned for some action after a while—some way to ignite the gloom of ash and barrenness described.

Mark Spitz, the main character and the only one to be constantly referred to by his whole name, spends his days as one of the sweepers for Zone One, killing “skels” with a bullet to the head and collecting the info on their IDs, when he can, so that information of plague victims can be turned into the higher ups and turned into spreadsheets of data. Can this data help them to get a larger view of what happened—how the plague spread so quickly, how it can be prevented in the future? That’s the hope and the new purpose of Mark Spritz’s days. Of course, his cynical humor, narration (which seemed to drone on at times with a cadence of monotony) and outlook on life help to pass the days as well.

The majority of the novel passes via cerebral recollections from Mark Spitz conveyed to the reader in all manner of both wryness and dryness—pulling a “skel” who looks like his old elementary school teacher into a body bag elicits pages of narration on what it was like for him as a young student. Shooting a gorilla-costume clad “skel” in the head elicits imaginings of what their life must’ve been like before the plague, why they were even in such an outfit, etc. The at times mundane musings of one of the last people on earth. Really, I suppose the mundane nature makes the novel all the more real. Wouldn’t our thoughts turn to the ordinary, the routine, the yesterdays and yesteryears, when all that stretches before you is a life more quiet and routine than the one you experienced in the loud, capitalistic, busy world that’s now fallen?

Of course, there’s always that bit of action in the end to get you through. Apocalypse junkies: never fear; there will be blood, gore, gunshots in the night…

Though relatively short, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One was not necessarily a quick read, because of the density of its language and the vaguely cerebral, and at times seemingly intellectual ramblings. In reading this novel, you’re likely to get carried away in this deluge of narration. Wry narration laced with appealing satire here and there, shrouded in the grey gloom of overcast skies and a metropolis covered in soot and ash. Like this one as they fight their way through “skels”:

“She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws, and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt. These empty-headed fiends between Chambers and Park Place did not vote or attend parent-teacher conferences, they ate fast food more than twice a weeks and required special plus-size stores for clothing to hide their hideous bodies from the healthy. Her assembled underclass who simultaneously undermined and justified her lifestyle choices. They needed to be terminated, and they tumbled into the dirty water beside Gary’s dead without differentiation.”

How’s that for a healthy injection of social commentary?

They say, “The third time’s the charm,” but with the conclusion of Zone One, after The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad, I think it’s safe to say I have immense respect for the obvious skill and intellect of Colson Whitehead, but his writing, overall, simply does not move me, yet, the ending did save this one. 3.5 stars ***

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Colson Whitehead He’s the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. Colson Whitehead has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

Whitehead’s latest book, The Underground Railroad, is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

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The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: May 23rd 2017 by Simon Schuster

The #1 internationally bestselling author of The Demonologist radically reimagines the origins of gothic literature’s founding masterpieces—Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula—in a contemporary novel driven by relentless suspense and surprising emotion. This is the story of a man who may be the world’s one real-life monster, and the only woman who has a chance of finding him.

As a forensic psychiatrist at New York’s leading institution of its kind, Dr. Lily Dominick has evaluated the mental states of some of the country’s most dangerous psychotics. But the strangely compelling client she interviewed today—a man with no name, accused of the most twisted crime—struck her as somehow different from the others, despite the two impossible claims he made.

First, that he is more than two hundred years old and personally inspired Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker in creating the three novels of the nineteenth century that define the monstrous in the modern imagination. Second, that he’s Lily’s father. To discover the truth—behind her client, her mother’s death, herself—Dr. Dominick must embark on a journey that will threaten her career, her sanity, and ultimately her life. Fusing the page-turning tension of a first-rate thriller with a provocative take on where thrillers come from, The Only Child will keep you up until its last unforgettable revelation.

The Only Child started out as improbably as to mock the tradition of true Gothic fiction. The tension and “horror” seemed contrived from the very start, placed into our minds by the forced narration of the author, not by circumstance, not by the skilled hand that every reader searches for to guide them on their path.

This novel was a dabbling adaptation of so many classic stories of the Gothic tradition—Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula…my foot. To sample their tradition is one thing, to recreate it, another, more awe-inspiring thing. Yet this, The Only Child, was neither. It sampled their names, their ideas, but never breathed any life into them. In fact, it read as a lifeless shell of them, if that even, that writhed with too much telling me and not enough showing me. I felt nothing while reading this, not even when Pyper tried to tell me what to feel, and was bored from the start of the first chapter.

In short, The Only Child turned out to be a “fast-paced” adventure story with no soul, a play on the classic horror traditions we all love for their originality, though this novel displayed little originality of its own. I recommend it to no one, least of all lovers of classic horror or the Gothic tradition. In fact, the only surprise I found in these pages, before skipping to the end and finally putting it down, was that the renowned Simon and Schuster, whose lists I tend to love, would publish this thing in the first place. 1 star *

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

*To see more reviews, go to The Navi Review at http://www.thenavireview.com and follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview

Andrew PyperAndrew Pyper is the author of eight novels, including the forthcoming THE ONLY CHILD (to be published June, 2017 by S&S in the US and Canada, and by Orion in the UK). Among his previous books, THE DEMONOLOGIST won the International Thriller Writers award for Best Hardcover Novel and was selected for the Globe and Mail’s Best 100 Books of 2013 and Amazon’s 20 Best Books of 2013. LOST GIRLS won the Arthur Ellis Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and is being developed for television by Lin Pictures and Warner Bros TV with Pyper acting as Creator and Executive Producer. Two of Pyper’s novels, THE DEMONOLOGIST and THE DAMNED, are in active development for feature film. He lives in Toronto.

The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

Paperback, 384 pages
Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Gallery Books

Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In is the new Are You Afraid of the Dark? for adults–a lot of you will know that reference *wink*. Centered around a small town in Oregon, this novel had just enough bite to be entertaining, yet, the jury is still out on whether or not anyone’s going to be kept up late at night thinking about this one.

Stevie Clark is a 10-year-old loner—rather, he has no friends other than his best friend and cousin, Jude. His slight speech impediment (echolalia) and missing fingers on one hand make him an outsider, the weird kid in the eyes of other kids. Add to that his abusive father-in-law who knows his way around a belt, and you can image how distraught Stevie would be when, one day his best friend, Jude, goes missing. When Jude suddenly turns back up, he’s…different: blank in the face, unresponsive to questions…his skin is peeling and itchy and…well, he’s attracting all the mangy, sickly neighborhood cats like some sort of sick beacon for wildlife…

All the makings of an excellent novel are here. Ahlborn even did a good job of stepping into a 10-year-old’s shoes and showing us Stevie’s world through his eyes. Stevie was as unreliable a narrator as you would expect from an elementary schooler, seeing shadows in the night and tripping and falling all over himself every time he sensed something—a moving shadow, a twitch in his periphery—out of the ordinary. His relationship to his peers and neighbors, his possibly overactive imagination—it all bundled together to work in this package. The Devil Crept In featured two converging story lines, which Ahlborn did an okay job at integrating—I say “okay” because I was prepared to throw the back of my hand to my forehead with a melodramatic sigh at the cliché-ness of the some of the plot angles. Rosie’s story line, for example, I felt I’d read somewhere already—lots of places, actually. It read like a horror-movie cliché that’d been overdone too many times. Yet, just as I was ready to heave an annoyed sigh, Ahlborn got it together and recovered pretty nicely, definitely helped along by a few awesome turns of phrase that warranted an appreciative pause. Eventually, the creepy crept in and the story lines did, indeed, tie together.

For those of you who are fans Stephen King’s child-centered scary fiction, this one may be a real treat for you! I couldn’t help but think of his “Mile 81,” because of Devil’s tone, descriptions and insight through a determined, though easily frightened, young boy’s eyes. This one read authentically from the POV of a 10-year-old, while using adult language to describe the happenings surrounding these characters. Honestly, I both appreciated that and felt jarred by it. Like, hmm, would an elementary schooler really describe a demon as having “cauliflower ears like a boxer…?” (Thinking face—probably not.)

All in all, Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In was a fun little read that could’ve been shortened down to 300 pages or so, to make it more streamlined and faster to the action. It had its pros and cons, as many novels do, but there were also more than a few loose ends here left flapping in the breeze, let me tell ya!

With that in mind, I would recommend this novel to anyone in need of a quick jolt of excitement. If you’re not interested in looking under the hood of a read to see how it all connects together—at what every little turned screw and nuance might mean for the overall performance—but you just want to get on with the creepy, pick this one up. It’ll definitely get you where you need to be. But, maybe, don’t read it alone…in the woods…

3-3.5 stars ***

I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

* To see more reviews, go follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads under Navidad Thelamour!

Slade House by David Mitchell

Hardcover, 260 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Random House (first published October 20th 2015)

“To follow [the] trail of breadcrumbs you have to blindfold your own sanity…”

Wow, what a ride! David Mitchell’s Slade House came running round the bend, no pun intended (well, maybe just a little for those who have read it), at full steam ahead with all of the mechanical makings and suspenseful trappings of a haunting psychological thrill ride. It had a rhythmic flow that you could fall into, but beware. That trap has thorns. And fangs.

“…but as I watch, the running-boy shape gets fuzzier and becomes a growling darkness with darker eyes, eyes that know me, and fangs that’ll finish what they started and it’s pounding after me in sickening slow motion, big as a cantering horse and I’d scream if I could but I can’t my chest’s full of molten panic it’s choking me choking…if I fall it’ll have me, and I’ve only got moments left and I stumble up the steps and grip the doorknob turn please turn it’s stuck no no no…it’s ridged does it turn yes no yes no twist pull push pull turn twist I’m falling forwards…”

Slade House is the tale of a mystical house in London, that can only be found if you know just where—and when—to look: just a skip from the ratty Fox and Hounds pub, down the alley too dark and narrow for “a properly fat person…[to] get past someone coming the other way.” There you’ll find a little iron door, so small you’d have to stoop to go through it, embedded in the side of the wall. You’ll wonder how you missed it when you first walked by. Was it there before? Are you imagining it now? Inside you’ll find a paradise to your liking: a beautiful woman, the career opportunity of a lifetime, a raging kegger, whatever you fancy. But once inside, there’s no turning back because, as we all know, the house always wins.

The format worked well for this one, using a series of vignettes, all nine years apart, to weave together the haunting mystery of Slade House and the experiences of those who dared to enter those walls—all linked soul-to-soul if not hand-in-hand. Their experiences in Slade House overlap in the most disconcerting and sinister of ways. Each character is eventually and inevitably interlaced into the experiences of the other vignettes, and subtle sequences tie it all together with an eerie thread of déja vu like a finger down the spine of your back.

Mitchell’s Slade House was Hill House meets The Skeleton Key, if you’ve ever seen that movie. An enchanted experience woven by a true magician, because now you see it; now you don’t. It was absolutely cinematic, and once the novel had you in its clutches, it was quite the thrill ride, building suspense in a way that made you grasp the pages and say, “No, that is not happening—oh, my God, is that about to happen!” (Well, it did for me, anyways. ;)) The premise of this novel was divine and the execution of it near-perfect.

However—oh yes, I’ve got to hit it with the “however—” I couldn’t give this one 5 stars.

Of course, you’re asking, “Why’d you steal Slade’s star?” And the answer, simply put, is cop-out. I haven’t seen cop-out revelations like that since middle-school writing, at least, I’m sorry to say. The short explanatory monologues spoiled it for me a little, pulling me out of this world of ghostly mystique and foreboding just to dowse me in annoyance before inserting me back into the plot. I loathe when pro/antagonists practically leap out of character to deliver stilted, unrealistic dialogues amongst themselves, explaining things (to the reader) that they, themselves, would already know! Case in point, under what circumstance would it ever be okay to turn to your sister and say:

“For fifty-four years, our souls have wandered that big wide world out there, possessing whatever bodies we want, living whatever lives we wish, while our fellow birth-Victorians are all dead or dying out…”?

Umm, no. Never! Never ever! Creative Writing 101—hell, Reader 101! That totally killed the mood of mounting suspense for me, and I was definitely peeved to find that I could expect this at the end of every. single. vignette. Then there were the annoying explanations that the narrator gave for why protagonists did what they did, such as, “Vodafone must have begun upgrading their network after Avril’s texts arrived” (to explain why a call didn’t go through at an eerie time, ect.) I’m basically positive that that’s why the page count is so low on this one—cop-out wrap-ups that didn’t require the time or word count to really flesh out these seemingly minor makings of the novel that can never go forgotten about, that can never be faked or rushed.

So, think of Slade House as a thrill ride with bumpy turns. If those had been smoothed at the edges and fleshed out with the same brilliant strokes of writing as the kaleidoscope of fun-house horrors—the effortless illustration of Slade House and all of its haunting hallways and staircases, rose gardens and phantom occurrences—this definitely would have earned back its stolen star. Still, I’d definitely recommend this read for anyone who dares to stoop through that doorway and enter Slade House. The taste of the pros is definitely worth eating the cons—you know, like a good bag of popcorn or potato chips. But reader beware: this book has bite. 4 stars. ****