Review of The Girl With All The Gifts by MJ Carey

To be released June 15th, 2014

the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-by-mj-carey-191x300SPOILERS AHEAD!

I have a theory for the endless proliferation of zombie novels, which have been around in various forms since the early 1800s. They usually show science gone wrong, a handsome, rugged male protagonist saving the day and everyone else is boring and undead. The origin of the zombie virus is nearly always caused by scientists overstepping their boundaries, because science is evil and we’re living in a despairingly anti-intellectual society that gives anti-vaccination crazy people a place to peddle their bullshit. The zombie story ultimately panders to the hideously solipsistic belief that we alone are special and everyone else deserves to die and be shotgun fodder. After all, zombies are the last acceptable humans to murder without any guilt or overtones of racism and ‘my country it is of thee’ jingoism. It is for this reason that I generally avoid zombie novels, though sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.

As such, I was tricked into The Girl With All The Gifts, which is revealed to be a story about zombies relatively early on. Except the zombies are called hungries, and this time the origin of the plague is caused by a natural mutation of a particularly ugly fungus. This fungus gets into the brain and causes zombies, and wipes out most of the planet. Now, this is a much more interesting premise than usual, and is delivered with a lot of proper scientific talk and less ‘stuff happens, yo’. Most zombie stories are based around “zombies are here because science”, which is a terrible and boring explanation.

Anyway, to the plot. Melanie is one of many little children who are kept in wheelchairs, strapped down and wheeled to class to learn things. They are fed grubs and washed in chemicals. The opening of the novel is done in Melanie’s voice. The novel flits from voice to voice but remains in the third person. The author is definitely capable of rendering several different writing styles. So the barracks is overrun by junkers (that usual old chestnut about what happens when people survive and basically turn into extras from Deliverance) and five people escape from the base: a teacher, a scientist, a grunt, an army general and Melanie, a kid with an eidetic memory who isn’t sure who she is. They must traverse zombie-ruined England to get to the last known bit of civilisation left. Goal in place, they set off.

As far as actual writing goes, the book is occasionally ponderous and spends too much time telling us every minute detail in each character’s head. While I would normally applaud such in-depth storytelling, it was not done with enough skill to maintain pacing and interest. There are some well-scripted action scenes and there are moments of decent, palpable horror. It is a book with an interesting premise and approach to zombies, shifting the focus away from bad science to the cost of survival. Most of the characters are forgettable though, and even Melanie fails to captivate the reader throughout. I would have liked to see this approach in the hands of a more polished author. As is typical of debut authors, the prose lacks polish and edge, and is occasionally too dedicated to setting up backgrounds for ultimately boring characters than fleshing out the overarching philosophy and implications.

It’ll appeal to most zombie fans, but as far as a ‘mind-bending thriller’ goes (so sayeth the blurb), it didn’t really bake my cake. It passes the time and asks some interesting questions about the cost of a scientific cure and the failure of humankind; it could have been a much more powerful novel with some judicious editing.

Review of The Universe Vs Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

15984268Most will probably consider this controversial, as it touches on atheism and euthanasia. Like any good book, it packs a wide variety of subjects into a simple narrative: epilepsy, astronomy, the Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut, weed as a recreational drug, Amnesty International, maths, tarot and what it means to really die with dignity. Alex Woods has the misfortune of getting hit by a fragment of a meteorite through his bathroom roof, and wakes up a month later with epilepsy. We follow him on his journey to wellness, as he spends time alone and turns to reading as a way to pass the time. Because of his fits he is unable to attend school and so his learning becomes ours.

In what is a slightly tired trope, he befriends the grumpy old man no one else in the village will talk to. After damaging the old man’s property while running away from bullies, he is punished and starts by writing Mr Peterson’s letters to Amnesty International. Mr Peterson introduces him to Kurt Vonnegut, and so their friendship blooms. But (and you probably saw this coming) Mr Peterson falls ill with a degenerative disease and is faced with the prospect of dying without dignity, lying in his own excrement after falling down the stairs due to encroaching blindness and failing muscles. Enter euthanasia and the assisted suicide clinics in Switzerland, and the book moves to a serious discussion of what it really means to die with dignity.

I feel a great number of people will probably drop the book at this point, even though the adventure of how Alex and Mr Peterson get to Switzerland is worth the read. The book is, perhaps, a bold advocate for euthanasia. My hope is that it will encourage people to get past the knee-jerk reaction of “don’t play God” that most people have to the discussion. Sometimes the book suffers from the inexperience of a debut writer – it could have used some sterner editing to stop the narrator from sounding like a grating prepubescent – but it is nonetheless funny in parts, sad in others and genuinely interesting most of the way.

Reviews elsewhere: 

Alex Woods is a secular hero, for whom adolescent awakening is more death than sex – Susanna Rustin for The Guardian

Blogcritics.org: Beginning with Alex and how he developed his own personality, and moving toward a tragic and yet uplifting ending you will be hard pressed to put this work down

Unpredictable, genre-defying, multi-layered. And always entertaining. – The Star Online