Zombie book double-bill: ‘World War Z’ and ‘Dude, This Book Is Full Of Spiders’

World War Z book coverWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks is perhaps the best book I have read in the zombie genre; not that I have read many books in that genre beyond Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend. I tend to stay away from the zombie genre in books because while films in genre can be visceral, I have never considered it to be a style that translates well into the written form.

World War Z is somewhat different from in that it’s written from the serious perspective of an unpublished United Nations report on a wide scale zombie epidemic that overruns the whole world. The treatment given to the zombie outbreak is much like what you’d expect from a story on a global virus outbreak, similar to the film Contagion. From the very onset it’s quite clear that Brooks has thoroughly researched the cultural zeitgeist of various locales that make up the settings for the book’s chapters; it lends a weight to the story that goes beyond the mere “let’s hit the rural areas!” trap many zombie books / films tend to stray into.

What the book does an excellent job of doing is pointing out the hubris of the modern military and government machine at tackling large-scale, rapidly-changing scenarios. All the military force a country has crumbles quickly when faced with an enemy that literally cannot be killed because it’s already dead, and then delves into how that can psychologically affect the combat effectiveness of armed forces – and how that can spread into mass hysteria.

By breaking the mould of following a single set of survivors, and instead tracking the action on a global scale, Brooks is able to highlight the psychological impact that a disaster of such proportions can have on humankind. The eventual victory is equally grim: months and years of dogged fighting to slowly make tracts of land inhabitable again. A chilling, gripping read.


What prompted me to read the book was how impressed I was with World War Z, the film. And while, at the time, I was impressed by the stunning visuals in the film and the concept of telling the story of a global zombie outbreak. In those aspects, the film clearly works. But in relation to the book, the film shares absolutely nothing in common expect for “zombies” (as summed up by this Oatmeal comic). The climax of the film is particularly mind-numbingly stupid.

I understand why such a decision was made, because the book’s ending is a lot more grim and in terms of box office performance making a more “authentic” film would have been a riskier bet. As Damon Lindelof, star Hollywood blockbuster script doctor says, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.” Yet, I wonder what a truly trendsetting a film it could have been if it went down the other path.


Dude This Book Is Full OF Spiders book coverI have been a fan of David Wong, pseudonym for comedy writer Jason Pargin, ever since I read his first book John Dies At The End and followed him on the Internet comedy sinkhole In style that can only be summarised with a Braveheart-style battle-cry of “Wong!”, he’s back with a sequel to his first novel, this one titled Dude, This Book Is Full Of Spiders. The sequel picks up after the events of John Dies At The End, with David Wong and his friend John coping with their life as people who will have to put up with the only ones to be able to see the weird shit that goes on in their town of [Undisclosed].

Unlike the previous book which was dark and was based around demonology, this one is centred around another beloved geek genre: zombies. In typical David Wong style, the book is peppered with black comedy; admittedly a hard feat for the grim topic of zombies. Yet, the book delights at every page-turn with characteristic Wong-isms, such as:

John and I have made this stuff our hobby, in the way an especially attractive prisoner makes a hobby out of not getting raped.

Wait, did I just give away a spoiler that John doesn’t, in fact, die at the end of the last book? Soz! But as you can figure out from the quote, the novel doesn’t shy away from jokes that other comedians might not consider kosher. And this is precisely what sets Wong’s writing apart: that it’s unabashedly, unapologetically funny.

For a book which is written by a comedy writer, there are quite a few moments in the plot that dive into existential questions of how mass media is controlled, time travel, love, and much more. Similar to World War Z, it explores how mass hysteria can spread through a population in the face of a “disease” that is supernatural in origin and can go undetected. There are parts of the book that are genuinely terrifying. Yet, it doesn’t shy away from mocking the culture of zombie-killing worship that is perpetuated by popular video games in the genre either; that killing zombies in real life would pretty much be like mashing buttons to kill them on a screen.

The ending to Dude, This Book Is Full Of Spiders is somewhat tamer – almost as if written for a Hollywood screenplay – than John Dies At The End, but the book overall is a fascinating bizzaro world with intriguing characters and subtle humour. I haven’t read anything of a similar tone other Alice In Wonderland.


Escape From Camp 14

When my friend Alexandra Wilks gifted me Escape From Camp 14 – a book on North Korea – I couldn’t control my excitement to the extent that I found it hard to hold the book open because my hands were shaking so much. I may have jizzed my pants too. Those who know me will be aware that I have a huge obsession with North Korea. I fastidiously follow any news or analysis of the country. My Twitter bio reads “World’s leading authority on loving adoration of North Korea.” The country is almost cartoonishly evil: from thinking that breeding giant rabbits would be a solution to its famine problem to a brother of Kim Jong-Il being disowned from the family after trying to sneak into Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland under a fake Dominican Republic passport where his name translated to “fat bear”.

Much of the aura around North Korea comes from its relative isolation from the world at large. I bought into the online hysteria surrounding North Korea, religiously following photoblogs of Kim Jong-Il looking at things, and when his son took over, Kim Jong-un looking at things. While I was aware of the fact that human rights violations were a reality in the country, I assumed it was mostly of the kind that would result from life in a highly communist country.

Blaine Harden - Escape From Camp 14

Escape From Camp 14 is the real-life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in a North Korean slave labour camp to successfully escape. Written as a biography based on Shin’s account by Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden, it tells how North Korea’s policy of subjecting “traitors” to three generations of hard labour is used as a means of suppressing political dissent. Growing up in such an environment, Shin never had exposure to human emotions such as empathy or love to the point that he ratted out his own mother and brother for execution in the hopes of getting more food. The narrative then moves on to how Shin learnt about human trust and trickery, eventually making his escape out of the camp on foot, crossing over into China.

North Korean labour camps have existed for longer than Nazi concentration camps, or the labour camps of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, yet it’s a human rights violation that largely gets overlooked. Western countries provide the country food aid worth millions on humanitarian grounds to combat famines, yet much of it supposedly ends up in the hands of North Korea’s élite. The picture painted in the book of realities on the ground is far removed from the jovial smiling faces of chubby leaders in Internet memes. To his credit, Harden reviews all information objectively, often fact-checking with external sources on the veracity of Shin’s story, as well as giving background information wherever necessary, drawing on his experience as a correspondent covering East Asian foreign policy affairs.

It’s an utterly bleak book that gives an insight into the kind of cruelty that goes on in slave labour camps and for the populace in general, made better by Harden’s narrative technique. There cannot be a better example of how much storytelling affects public exposure, since Shin’s story was published previously by a human rights organization in South Korea without garnering attention, until Harden’s take on the same gave this issue international exposure. I had the opportunity once to meet Bou Meng, a survivor of Cambodia’s torture camps who published a book on his survival from Pol Pot’s regime’s killing fields which went largely unnoticed, and Escape From Camp 14‘s worldwide success shows how important the narrative can be in shaping public opinion.


Paul Carr’s ‘The Upgrade’

Paul Carr was a fuckup. He left a career as a journalist with The Guardian to start his own multimillion dollar publishing company, abandoned it to launch a web startup under the delusion of becoming “the next Mark Zuckerberg”, got arrested and failed in many relationships because of an alcohol problem. With mounting bills and his life going off the rails, Carr started a journey that has made him a legend in tech journalism.

Paul Carr The Upgrade book cover

The Upgrade: A Cautionary Tale of Life Without Reservations is Paul Carr’s story of how he realised that it would be cheaper for him to live exclusively in hotels for a whole year, compared to renting a place in London at £1100 a month. He makes a sane argument: living in a hotel comes with all bills included, no council taxes, an easy choice to shift residence whenever you feel like, and deeply discounted rates when staying at a hotel for months. In a way, he provides an insider look into the hotel industry – as his parents were both career hoteliers, and he spent much of his childhood living in hotels.

Thus begins a wild ride with Carr living in hotels with personal butlers, countless sexual encounters, train journeys across America, hanging out with Icelandic rockers, getting chased by Spanish drug dealers, blagging his way into the launch party of the Hollywood film 21 – and then summarily proceeding to insult Kate Bosworth by assuming she was a cocktail waitress and calling Clive Owen’s films shit in front of him, attending a party of hairdressers dressed only in bedsheets (claiming that he was the proprietor of “British Hairways”), thousand-mile booty calls, going on a press junket to Bognor Regis with chavs dressed as Tinkerbell…it’s all very Hunter S. Thompson, minus the drug-fuelled hallucinations. His lifestyle as a global nomad living wherever he can snap up the cheapest hotels affords him opportunities for such outrageous stories.

Loads of drunken stories themselves would not make this book stand out though; everyone has their own ‘crazy’ drunken stories. For starters, Carr’s narrative style is incredibly funny as well as outrageously frank. (“Another thing I’m not very good at is having sex with someone, knowing that their dead mother is in my bedside cupboard,” he says, of a disappointing sexual performance.) He also propounds a philosophy of only owning as much possessions as one can fit into a single bag – something that I was so enamoured by that I have adopted it in my life.

What makes his book truly stand is that it’s part travelogue, part personal journey of epiphany and self-discovery. As you read along the book, you find him transforming from an arrogant self-centred prick who does not care about his friends – as long as his stories of drunken romps get him attention – to a reformed man who realises what things are truly important in life. As someone with his own behavioural issues, I found Paul Carr’s story to be deeply inspiring to get my own life in order.

And if you do enjoy The Upgrade, I recommend his first book Bringing Nothing To The Party: The True Confessions of a New Media Whore too. It’s a fascinating look into the London journalism circle, publishing companies, and tech startups.


The fault in ‘The Fault In Our Stars’

The Fault In Our StarsJohn Green’s latest novel The Fault In Our Stars does everything right on paper: its plot has universal appeal among the masses and has garnered much critical acclaim to boot. This is a book that was destined to become a bestseller. The story is of a 16-year-old girl Hazel Grace Lancaster who suffers from cancer and meets a guy called Augutus “Gus” Waters through her cancer support group and falls in love with him, and the machinations of this romance through the months they spend together. A major subplot revolves around an alcoholic author called Peter van Houten who lives in Amsterdam – Hazel’s favourite author – whom the two end up meeting in a quest to find the ending to his (only) novel.

To say that I was massively disappointed with this book would be an understatement. I expected it to be similar to Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper – a book that moved me to tears with its story – but in the end I found The Fault In Our Stars to be lacking in pizazz. The plot is only slightly more original than a story that you might read on the back of a box of breakfast cereal. Every cliché that you can think of – and then some more – is thrown into the mix, to the point that every single page is utterly predictable. If it was backed up by proper character development, the novel would still be salvageable but alas this is something it fails at too.

It’s easy to forget how much of the buzz around John Green’s books stems from legions of adoring fans who flood the Web with positive reviews. For those who are not aware of his background, John Green is a major Internet celebrity – converts to four-sevenths of a real-life celebrity at current exchange rates – for pioneering the concept of ‘vlogging’ (video blogging). With just about a million subscribers on YouTube with 300 million views on his videos, Green’s fans are a highly-effective PR juggernaut that publishing executives wish for in their wet dreams.

Lest someone accuse me of being biased against John Green, I immensely enjoyed one of his previous novels Paper Towns. I used to avoid the whole young adult novel genre like the scourge until Paper Towns showed me that a genuinely witty novel aimed at younger readers that did not have flying wizards or law-and-order leprechauns could be written. The genre as a whole has progressed so far in terms of being insightful yet relevant to the younger generation. Unfortunately, The Fault In Our Stars signifies everything that I see wrong in “dumbing down” books to appeal to young readers.

Rating: 1 / 5


Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri trilogy of novels, about “India’s Most Private Investigator”

Tarquin Hall 'The Case of the Missing Servant' book cover

What caught my attention when I first heard of the Vish Puri trilogy of novels (hat tip to my friend Bhavika for recommending them to me) were the quirky titles: The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, and The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken. Written by British freelance journalist Tarquin Hall, the trilogy is about Vish Puri – “India’s Most Private Investigator” – and outlandish mysteries that have been solved by him. Think of Vish Puri as an Indian version of Sherlock Holmes, although it’s a comparison that causes much chagrin to the detective who dismisses Holmes as a “veritable upstart”.

(You may have heard of Tarquin Hall’s book Salaam Brick Lane, which, along with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, is one of the best pieces of literature on Asian culture in Britain in my opinion.)

Tarquin Hall 'The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing' book cover

Each novel has a colourful premise: an investigation into the “character” of boy matched for ‘arranged’ marriage, a missing servant in a wealthy family, a prominent scientist murdered by an apparition of the Hindu goddess Kali, the father of a Pakistani cricketer poisoned at a high-society. Assisting Vish Puri in his investigations is an ensemble cast of minions with bizarre code names such as “Facecream”, “Handbrake”, and “Tubelight” and a plethora of relatives you would expect of a stereotypical Indian “extended family”. There’s also Vish Puri mother “Mummyji”, who is a retired school principal and fancies herself as a bit of a detective too; for some reason, her description reminded me of Modern School Vasant Vihar’s principal Goldy Malhotra. Not quite sure whether that was indeed the inspiration!

Tarquin Hall 'The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken' book cover

The mysteries themselves are not hard to figure out – that’s not the allure of these novels. Novels about India tend to fall into staid categories, either going for the foreign-born Indian returning home (The Namesake), or rural Indians on their journey climbing up in prosperity (The White Tiger, Life of Pi). Hall goes beyond the remit of a detective novel, providing insightful social commentary into the transformative changes that have been sweeping through India’s urban elite in the past two decades in a way that only an outsider – an expat – can. His descriptions of Delhi’s Punjabi culture are written with local speech mannerisms that do come across as forced at times, but the pace and light-hearted tone of the novels keep the reader engaged. (Oh, and the descriptions of food! That’s partly what made be yearn coming back to India last year in winter.)

While Vish Puri may not be able to dethrone Satyajit Ray’s Feluda novels for the crown of best Indian fictional detective, he is a colourful enough character to make it worth an enjoyable read. Also, Tarquin Hall’s blog is quite funny.