1: Derek Landy – Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil

2: Libba Bray – Going Bovine

3: Paolo Bacigalupi—Ship Breaker

4: Madeleine Roux – Allison Hewitt is Trapped: A Zombie Novel

5: Bali Rai — Killing Honour

Speculative fiction has been inundated with the undead element for decades; we’ve all seen our fair share of evil zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, ghasts and ghosts. Even a few mummies have risen from the crypt in the last decade or so to try and scare the pants off us.

But what about the good guys who just happen to be mortally challenged? And by good guys I don’t mean the Anne Rice kind of undead who are generally naughty boys until they meet the right girl/guy/werewolf. I mean the kind of lurching characters who just try to get along in their un-life without meaning harm to anyone; the Friendly Dead.

Thankfully I’m not alone in thinking that just because you lose your pulse you don’t lose your humanity. Over the last decade or so there have been several pretty well known authors trying to bring the dearly departed back into the fold. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be scared of the majority of the undead, just that we should look at them on a case-by-case basis.

I’ll start with a personal favourite; Terry Pratchett. Yes, I know, I go on about him often but when you are a prolific as famous as he, you get a few perks.

In 1989 Pratchett broke ground for the pro-undead movement with Pyramids; a novel parodying Egyptian culture by asking the big question: “What would our ancestors say if they were alive today?”.  This story humanises the mummy community far better than the 1999 Brendan Fraser movie The Mummy ever did.

Since then the friendly dead are a constant element in Pratchett’s works; the most notable of these being theCity Watch series where the undead comprise a large part of the city’s police force, including a ghoul cafeteria lady.

Moving forward to the year of 2007 saw the emergence of the young adult supernatural novel series Skulduggery Pleasant; an ongoing work about the adventures of the skeleton detective and his mostly human counterpart Valkyrie Cain in their attempt to stop the world being destroyed again and again.

Skip another couple of years and we get Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner; a beautiful example of film noir style writing in a modern context. The main character, a private investigator and self-confessed zombie named Richter, attempts to locate an artefact of unimaginable power in full Maltese Parrot style.

What do all these stories have in common? Besides the fact that they are all fantastically written stories full of plot, action and humour? The main characters are not just undead but members of my Friendly Dead category.

They all have emotion, they all act like everyday people –for the most part – doing everyday things, and they are all believable. They don’t just lurch around the place eating people or burying them under the floorboards for later.

Context is everything; the undead are no exception. So next time you meet a zombie or skeleton don’t just run away or try to club their head off; try getting to know them first.

Having never read any of Coben’s previous novels, I started Shelter in a state of objectiveness; after reading my way through the book, I found this lack of bias helped me get into the foreign headspace. Shelter is a very American book. That isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with the American culture but it is reflected very heavily in the setting, the characters, even the use of language. The setting, a basketball-obsessed town, is pretty typical of a lot of the media that comes out of the USA. Most of the characters are jocks, cheerleaders and a sprinkle of the usual alternative lifestyles, including a goth girl named Ema and a hyperactive computer expert named Spoon. And, to be honest, it took me a while to get into the swing of the storyline because of these all too familiar elements.

Once you get past the rather slow beginning, the plot starts to take some pretty radical turns and becomes something difficult to put down. Mickey Bolitar, a rather hardened high school student, with his father dead and mother in rehab, is startled when he receives a cryptic message that his father is still alive from the Bat Lady: a member of his neighbourhood who is more myth than reality. Around that time his girlfriend vanishes without a trace, leaving him in what would politely be called a state of confusion.

What follows is a pretty solid mystery story involving tattoo artists, strange symbols, confusing gravestone epitaphs, violent strip-club owners and a man nicknamed “The White Death”. There are some pretty strong undercurrents in Shelter that do more than just pull the plot along; the human condition is as much a part of this novel as the ‘boy tries to find girl’ aspect. The subject of white slavery comes up more than once, as do war atrocities and human rights abuse. Shelter may start a little slow but it builds momentum quickly. There is plenty to enjoy and the ending sets the scene perfectly for at least one sequel.

Shelter – Harlan Coben

Published Sept 6, 2011, by Putnam Juvenile

Hardcover, 288 pages

  • ISBN-10: 0399256504
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399256509

  • The world is not a perfect place; there’s war, disease, famine and all kinds of flaws that make life not so fun.

    But what if you could live in a world where everything was perfect? What would you do to live in a city where everything went the way you wanted? What would you give up?

    The Utopia verses Dystopia debate has been a subject of literary speculation for many generations – The philosopher Plato wrote the first proposal for a Utopia around 300BC – and it is still a hot topic today.

    The problem with the idea of a Utopia is that it is one group’s idea of a perfect society, not everyone’s. What works for one person may not work for everyone. This is when we need to add Dys (ill, bad – Greek) to our Topia (landscape, place – Greek again) to create a Dystopia, a not very nice place to be.

    But how do we decide what is a Utopia or a Dystopia? Some are easy to recognise, like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; a civilization under ruthless control by the ruling power. This is perhaps the most dramatic representation of a Dystopia: media and language control, propaganda, kidnappings and torture.

    Many people in the media over the last couple of generations have used this novel to protest decisions made by their government, most without really understanding that most Western governments are nowhere near as bad as the novel illustrates and will probably never even get close.

    Sometimes, though, it’s harder to discern whether where you live is a Utopia or not. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is, in its way, a wonderful place to live – although most people see it as a Dystopia: You’re born into a job that seems perfect for you (actually, you are genetically designed to do the job); you get prescription medication that makes you happy; and all your wants are immediately satisfied. What could be wrong with that?

    Simple: you have no control. None at all. You are created to fulfil a role – from a mentally disabled menial worker to a genius ruler; and instead of thinking for yourself, you are given every kind of entertainment (e.g. movies, food, sex, drugs) to stop you from questioning what the government may be doing.

    But would you give up thought like in Brave New World? Would you give up the ability to feel emotion in exchange for peace like they do in the film Equilibrium? Do you fear that your government will make you “disappear”? Then you’re in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Does being born the natural way make you less of a person? You’re in the film Gattaca.

    Some genres of fiction focus on the concept of the Utopia/Dystopia better than others. CyberPunk is a good example of this as the tools that government uses to control are often advanced technology. Fantasy often has elements of the UvD debate, usually with the use of magic or iron-fisted kings.

    A perfect world may not exist; it may never. But would you really want to live in someone else’s idea of a Utopia?

    Other examples of either a Utopia or a Dystopia are: The film & animated series of Aeon Flux, the video game Bioshock, and the graphic novel & film V for Vendetta.

    CLIP: Aeon Flux – Pilot

    10 Tips for dating an Evil Genius

    Who doesn’t love the idea of total power? The thrill of world domination has a great attraction.

    But maybe you just aren’t cut out to rule the planet; there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has the ambition required to get together the wealth and personnel to seize all.

    This is where dating has its advantages.

    There are plenty of people out there with aspirations for planetary conquest; some of them looking for that special someone to rule by their side.

    Here are some points that are useful to know if you intend for this kind of special partnership to bloom.

    10. Location, Location, Location

    You won’t usually find evil geniuses hanging out in coffee shops looking for a date while sipping a latte.

    Finding your one true love can be a difficult journey; you can either take a holiday to secluded, volcanic islands in the hope that you will meet someone walking along the beach, or get creative and put out a personal ad that will catch the eye of a powerful tyrant.

    9. Henchmen

    Once you have made contact with your ambitious love interest, the first thing you will notice is that there will be many people in his/her life.

    Don’t be worried: these people are just henchmen. Henchmen are underlings in an Evil Genius’s lifestyle; they carry out menial tasks and keep things running smoothly so that you and your new love can get on with more important things like dating and destroying Paris.

    8. Pets

    An Evil Genius loves their pets, be it their aquarium full of laser sharks or pack of carefully trained tigers.

    These animals fulfil necessary roles but need love just as much as any house pet.

    A fondness for animals is a great thing to share with your intended.

    7. Jealousy

    Occasionally people will come into the life of your Evil Genius in an attempt to bring their “ambitions” to an end. It may seem that your love is spending an awful lot of time and effort on these individuals. Jealousy is a natural reaction.

    Fear not- any Genius worth your time will have ways to rid these people from your lives and so your worries will be short lived.

    6. Budget

    It can be hard to budget when your partner is an Evil Genius. They aren’t being cheap, just careful with their hard earned “loot”. After all, they have a business to run and until their bold venture pays off, you may need to tighten your purse strings.

    Making your money stretch can be as easy as going out for picnics along the rim of the volcano or taking long walks together around the lair.

    5. Travel

    Once your and your Evil Genius have settled in to a romantic life together travel will become frequent and exotic. Sure, a lot of the places you go to will be on business trips, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourselves.

    Remember to take lots of photos for your album; the place you go to may not be there once your Evil Genius’s plan gets in motion.

    4. Reputation

    Reputation is a very important thing to an Evil Genius. He/she is judged by what they do and whether they succeed or fail.

    You can help by working with them to improve their image. Stand by their side at parties, learn to network with their colleagues and competition, and, if possible, help to remove obstacles from their career.

    3. Privacy

    The lair of an Evil Genius is a place of privacy as well as business.

    Many of the things that your partner gets up to will be questionable, and the governments of the world won’t stop until they learn everything.

    Give your partner as much space as they need to work, and be sure to make sure that all the lair’s security up to scratch. No one likes it when the surprise is ruined.

    2. Doomsday Weaponry

    The end goal for any Evil Genius is their Doomsday Weapon. This is the pride and joy of your partner and will take up all of their attention until it is ready to use.

    It may be a death-ray, silo full of nuclear missiles or just a plague designed to wipe out all life. No matter the tool, your wonderfully ambitious partner will want to bring it to bear as soon as possible.

    Once the world learns of what your partner has to offer they will give anything to keep him/her happy.

    1. Break-up

    Maybe your partner’s ambitions are too much. Maybe you just can’t stand the constant flow of secret agents trying to seduce the Genius you thought you could trust. Or maybe you just don’t want to live in a space station any more.

    Whatever the reason it may be time for you to cut your losses and get out of the relationship.

    Evil geniuses can be a moody bunch and may not appreciate you wanting to go. So my advice to you is to wait until everyone is occupied and slip out quietly.

    It may seem like a cowardly thing to do but it’s better than ending up as dinner for a pack of hungry tigers.

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