Ah, zombies and survivalism. A topic near and dear to my heart. I gravitate towards the genre like a chocoholic towards the candy section at the convenience store (who, me?). Yet I am frequently disappointed on both fronts. Searching for rich texture, a smooth taste, the essence of flavor, I often discover a waxy imposter attempting to cash in on the cravings. I’ve struggled with my review of Rise Again as the first time through was satisfying, at least in the quick-fix kind of way. Unfortunately, a second tasting highlighted a number of faults, and the unpredictable, cliff-hanger ending left a bitter aftertaste.
Sheriff Danny (Danielle) is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after a tour in Iraq, coping by drinking herself into insensibility every night. Nominally in charge of her teenage sister, Kelley, she wakes up one morning to discover that Kelley has disappeared, leaving a long letter and taking Danny’s most prized possession, a cherry-red Mustang. On the warpath, Danny heads into the office, set on using police resources to track her sister. However, she is soon interrupted for the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration, and she has celebratory responsibilities elsewhere. Shortly after, a state trooper shows up with vague warnings about outbreaks and disaster plans. Unable to contact his department, he hangs around hoping to help out. A few kids discover the first dead body, and it’s only a short time before all hell breaks loose with people running and screaming before dropping dead in short order. Danny and a few survivors fight their way free of the town, with Danny using her position for a leadership role–and to influence a search for Kelley.
In fairness, the first time through was enjoyable. Started during a slow-moving night shift, the tension of disease spread and survivalism maintained my interest. Danny was an interesting heroine with a couple of significant character flaws. Side characters added interest, although few had the chance to shine. I liked the progression of the story, the direction the survivors took and the direction the zombies developed, although the setting jumps became less coherent by the end of the book. If I sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, I don’t mean to be. It satisfies on critical zombie fronts of adequate details in pre-incident, recognition, disease spread and survival strategies. It just left me wanting.
In my search to understand my reaction, I visited Ben Tripp’s website. It turns out that Rise Again was initially written as a screenplay. He writes, “I used the screenplay as an outline for the first part of the book, and wrote an extended treatment for the remainder of the story based on the first season arc of the projected television series.”
Suddenly, the book, the writing, the plotting, the everything–it all made sense. This wasn’t written from a writer perspective of using words alone to create a reality or experience in a reader’s mind; it was written as the blueprint of a story that would be brought to life by directors, editors, designers and actors. This became glaringly obvious on re-read. The first time through a book, plotting will carry me a long way. (That, and the limited options a night shift presents for amusement). The second time, no longer distracted by drama, I found the writing to be very unsophisticated, falling rather soundly into the “tell” school of writing:
“Danny sprang awake as if shot up from the bottom of the ocean. Her alarm clock was ringing. It was eight o’clock on Saturday morning, Fourth of July weekend, and she was an hour late for roll call at her own Sheriff’s Station. Dispatcher Dave was calling for her on the radio:
‘Sheriff Adelman, where the heck are you? Come in, Danny.’
Danny rushed through the house, shoving her rumpled shirt into her pants, jamming feet into boots. Hat over there. Gun belt on the chair. Gun on the table. Note from Kelley. What the hell was this? Out of the official notebook, no less! Danny shoved the gun in the holster, snatched up Kelley’s note, and ran out the door. She had been awake for no more than three minutes.
As she jumped in the cab of the Sheriff’s Department Ford Explorer, another bell rang in the back of her mind.”
At first, I put the staccato, emotionally blunted style down to the narrative centered on Danny. Given that she’s suffering from post-war stress, and that she experiences a number of flashbacks through the book, it made a sort of character sense. But as I continued to read, I realized that not only is the narrative third-person omniscient, but that that emotional bluntness remains when following other characters, as well as the general setting. (It’s actually been kind of fascinating to try and understand why I didn’t engage with this book on a deeper level). I eventually realized that while Tripp does use a number of adjectives, they tended to be neutral words instead of mood creators. In the edition I read, page 15 has a description of the interior of the police station that dominates the page. A small sample:
“The back room of the station contained almost everything police-related. An evidence locker with a padlock on it. The communications desk with its radio, switchboard, and the walk-talkie charging station. A couple of desks for whoever needed to do paperwork or take a statement. There was also Danny’s tiny glass-walled office, a conference table, a gun cabinet with an impressive arsenal, mostly impounded. And at the back by the outside door, a pair of cells, complete with old-fashioned iron-barred doors.
It was a trim little operation, as long as nothing went too wrong.
Danny emerged from her office as tided up as she was going to get. Dave was half-carrying Wulf through the door of the nearest cell, grimacing as the old man’s smell was transferred onto himself. Wulf was complaining in a singsong murmur, but offered no resistance.”
Characters were a challenge as well. Danny isn’t entirely likeable with her alcoholic behavior patterns and her self-loathing, but ends up redeemable. On re-read, her actions/logic started to bother me more. For instance, at an early point, she elects to distract the zombie horde so her group can escape. She severely underestimates her own physical abilities, and worse yet, dead-ends, realizing she didn’t have a ‘next step.’ It just didn’t square well with either a leadership role or her war experience. Then there’s the police officer leaving his prior post to man a post in Forest Peaks, even though it hasn’t spread there yet. As I mentioned, as a screenplay, it suddenly made sense. Concepts like line of duty and departmental protocol can be easily abandoned for storyline.
Then there’s the zombies. It’s always interesting to see how a writer conceives of the living dead. Disease? Viral? Supernatural? Cultural? Alien? Sometimes, authors choose not to answer, an occasionally unsatisfying but a completely acceptable way of dealing with the reality of survival–except they are still required to problem-solve the behavior and actions of the zombie is part of long-term survival. Tripp largely follows the unexplained path, except when Danny speculates on the spread, and her town of Forest Peak “being the high-water mark.” Apparently people panic, run, and die (then spoilery stuff). But the contagion moves really, really, fast–apparently world-wide in less than twenty-four hours, and yet it’s capable of mutating before it runs through the host population (spoilery stuff would follow here). It also only hit major cites, and not rural communities, despite traveling world-wide and from L.A. to Forest Peaks in mere hours. And the end page just breaks it all the earlier theories to pieces, leading me to a more irritated place instead of the normal satisfaction one gets reading a book. But perfect for the next season!
My most significant objection is with the very disappointing ending. Without spoilers, I’ll note that there is a sudden jump two years into the future, after going minute-by-minute and day-by-day for the majority of the book, a disconcerting choice that did not serve continuity well. Had more books been planned at that point, I would have stopped before the time jump, which would have been moderately satisfying and addressed both survival and character issues. Unfortunately, not only did the story continue, but it included a deux ex machina character meeting coupled with a dramatic plot twist– resulting in a significant philosophical and emotional cliff-hanger ending. On Tripp’s site, it’s noted that Rise Again “stands alone.” In view of the last page, I’d vehemently disagree. Boo-hiss. There was a star-point deducted on that basis alone.
Ultimately, if you are a committed zombie fan (or just in need of a late-night binge) and if you are tolerant of plot-twist, balanced on an precipice ending, you will likely enjoy it, as long as you keep in mind that you are getting the waxy, flavor-enhanced version.