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Monday, July 25, 2011

Diana Rowland: WHITE TRASH ZOMBIE SERIES

Author:  Diana Rowland
Series:  WHITE TRASH ZOMBIE
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) with Zombies
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor3
Publisher and Titles:  Daw
     My Life as a White Trash Zombie (7/2011)
     Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues (7/2012)

     This post was revised and updated on 7/17/14 to include a review of How the White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back, the fourth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first three novels.

            NOVEL 4:  How the White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back            

     In the year since becoming a zombie, Angel Crawford has managed to hold down a job and get her GED. Now, she's thinking of attending the local community college. One day when she is in Dr. Ariston (Ari) Nikas's laboratory participating in a procedure designed to help Philip Reinhardt (the zombie Angel was forced to create in an earlier book) overcome some problems caused by the dastardly experimentation that was the center of the plot of book 2. Dr. Nikas plans to stimulate both Angel and Philip's zombie parasites with various drugs in the hope that as Angel's parasite copes with the stimulation, Philip's will learn to follow suit. Right in the middle of the procedure, Dr. Nikas receives a phone call and steps out of the lab, only to be drugged and kidnapped by none other than Brian Archer, Pietro Ivanov's head of security. Almost immediately, Angel and Philip learn that Pietro is also missing, along with the sociopathic Dr. Kristi Charish (who had been Pietro's prisoner) and Pietro's personal security guards. Everyone is certain that their old enemy, the Saberton Corporation, is behind the kidnappings, but they also suspect that along with Brian, there must be others within their own ranks who are betraying them. Soon, no one trusts anyone else. No one, that is except Angel and Philip. 

     When Naomi Comtesse (aka Heather Miller, aka Julia Saber) discovers that Saberton's private jet traveled from Louisiana to New York City, Angel, Philip, Naomi, and Kyle Griffin (Naomi's zombie boyfriend) jump into a car provided by Angels ex-boyfriend, Randy, and head for Manhattan. There, they discover an intricate, devious plot being carried out by Nicole Saber with the assistance of her son, Andrew (Naomi's twin brother). The story has plenty of action, as Angel and her friends try to rescue Pietro (and others) while hiding from Saberton's goons. Complicating matters is the fact that Philip and Angel are suffering from identical patterns of rotting because they were in the middle of the shared-drug experiment that was taking place when Dr. Nikas was kidnapped. In addition, Philip is having periodic periods of uncontrollable manic anxiety.


     Near the end, Rowland throws in a major change in the zombie mythology: a deus ex machina that comes out of nowhere to resolve much of the conflict. After the lengthy, technical explanation of the zombie mythology in book 2, this divergence comes across as a contrived plot manipulation. Why go to all the trouble of spelling out the scientific basis of zombie physiology if you're going to blow it up in this book? Up until this point, I was really enjoying the story, but when I came to this mythology manipulation, I felt cheated. It was as if Rowland had painted herself into a corner and had no other way out but to bring in a game-changer. I'm guessing that this situation arose because WHITE TRASH was originally planned as a trilogy and then was expanded to a six-book series, thus requiring a bit more complexity in order to come up with new and exciting plots.


     In addition to her adventures involving the Saber family, Angel must also deal with her various romantic problems. First, her boyfriend, Marcus Ivanov, once again tries to make decisions about Angel's life, which leads to some relationship turmoil. Then, Angel meets up with Randy once again, which leads to a rekindling of their friendship. Finally, Angel is attracted to Philip, which leads to hardly anything at all—just some kind words and a few "I-got-your-back" moments. 


     Angel is off-kilter throughout this adventure. She has never travelled very far from southern Louisiana; she has less than $100 in her bank account; and she is in the company of people who are much more sophisticated, wealthy, well-traveled, and better trained than she is. These factors cause some major bumps in Angel's friendship with Naomi as Naomi repeatedly gets annoyed with Angel for not accepting financial assistance and can't seem to understand why Angel feels out of place. The scenes in which Angel copes with being a lifelong, unskilled "have-not" are quite poignant. 

     As the book ends, Pietro's life has taken an unexpected path; Marcus's plan to attend law school has been up-ended; Randy and Angel have become friends again; Angel's dad has a new girlfriend; and Angel's addictive tendencies are once again coming to the forefront.


     Except for the mythology change that I discussed above, I really enjoyed this book. Even though Angel is still the klutzy, insecure young woman that she has been in previous book, she is beginning to build a skill set and plan for the future. Let's hope that she is able also to keep her addictive personality in check. Even with the new mythology, I'm looking forward to Angel's next adventures.

            WORLD-BUILDING            
     In this world, zombies can heal themselves and give themselves super strength and speed if they regularly and frequently consume brains. If they miss a few days, however, they begin to fall apart in the familiar zombie way—strips of skin falling off, skin color turning gray, and rotting odor growing stronger and stronger. In book 1, the whole idea of the super-strength zombies and the healing powers of brains just didn’t work for me. It was as if the author took the traditional vampire mythology and forced in zombies as replacements for the vamps:  

Traditional Vampires…
     > Are created by the bite of another vamp
     Must have human blood to maintain strength
     Attain super strength through excessive blood consumption
     Can heal themselves through excessive blood consumption
     Become mindless monsters without blood consumption  

Rowland's Zombies…
     Are created by the bite of another zombie
     Must have human brains to maintain strength
     Attain super strength through excessive brain consumption
     Can heal themselves through excessive brain consumption
     Become mindless, rotting monsters without brain consumption  

     The idea of self-healing, super-strong, ├╝ber-speedy zombies clashes with the inarguable fact that zombies are undead, rotting creatures—a reality that Rowland’s world-building absolutely denies. Another problem is that a number of upright citizens are walking around as zombies—and no one can tell that they are dead. Although she is herself a zombie, even Angel can’t tell a human from a zombie.

     Note added after reading book 2: Although there are still a few points in the mythology that still need clarification (like the zombies' inability to recognize a fellow zombie on sight—or smell), book 2 does answer a lot of my questions. The author adds the new information to the story, although it is presented in an info-dump manner. Still, better to get all the details out there, one way or another.


            NOVEL 1: My Life as a White Trash Zombie            
     This is a book that I wanted to love: great cover art and a terrifically inventive premise. Angel Crawford has always felt and acted like a loser, dropping out of school to lead a pill-popping, alcohol-fueled life. Having a mentally ill, suicidal mother and an alcoholic father hasn’t helped the situation. Currently, Angel is on parole for possessing a stolen car. As the story opens, Angel has just been picked up by the local police from the side of a country road—naked and full of drugs. She can’t remember anything about what happened that night. The next day, Angel receives an anonymous note telling her that she has a job in the county morgue and if she doesn’t show up and act right she will be going to jail. When Angel reports to work, she is surprised to find that she has no problem with the dead bodies, no matter what state of decomposition they are in. She is even more surprised that her stomach growls every time a brain is exposed during an autopsy. So…Angel seemingly has a new addiction: brrraaaaaaaains! Add in a cute police detective and a serial killer who chops off heads, and you have an imaginative new paranormal series. The major theme for book 1 is that Angel’s zombi-ness actually saves her life. By the end of the book, she has cleaned up her act and has become an upstanding citizen.

     The serial killer plot thread sustained my interest right up until the killer was unveiled. Unfortunately, the killer’s identity came out of left field, and not in a good way. In one short scene and with no real clues, Angel is suddenly able to spot the villain and charge in for the rescue. The suspenseful build-up was a lot better than the actual ending.

     Having said all this, I must confess that I really like Angel as a character. With her smart (and profane) mouth and her cynical take on life, she is both entertaining and heartbreaking—a girl who never had a chance for a “normal” life, and now never will. Her gradual metamorphosis into a compassionate and honorable young woman is a big part of the charm of the story. I’m looking forward to book 2 to see what’s next for Angel.

     Here are a few quotations from book 1 to give you a feel for Angel's need for brains and how she deals with it:

Angel has her first brain cravings:  "But I'd been craving brains. The smell was like chocolate and cookies and biscuits and gravy and everything else that was delicious It damn near drove me crazy every time I had to touch one. I'd been fighting the cravings the way I'd never fought the urge to take drugs or get drunk." (p. 56)

Angel's first brain snatch at the morgue:  "I looked down at the organs swimming in the clear plastic bag. I didn't even fully remember...unzipping the body bag. A weird calm descended on me. I was really going to do this....I didn't look at any of the other organs. I wasn't grossed out by them; they simply held no interest for me. It was the segments of brain that held my attention....It looked like pieces of bread pudding that had been soaked in raspberry syrup." (pp. 65-66)

Angel gets creative with her brain smoothies:  "I...started blending brains up with soup or fruit juice or chocolate milk—stuff that looked normal so that no one would freak out if they happened to open the cooler. I could fit half a brain and about a cup of soup or chocolate milk into each jar or water bottle, and so far it seemed that a jar or bottle every other day kept me from getting smelly." (p. 81)

      Click HERE to listen to a lengthy audio excerpt (scroll down a bit to find it). 
Click HERE to read a print excerpt.   

            NOVEL 2:  Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues            

     The author adds a great deal more to her zombie mythology in this book, explaining that these zombies were not created by a virus like many of the zombies we find in paranormal fiction, but by a parasite that uses prion proteins as building blocks. The process appears to be a surreal combination of vampirism and demon possession. A person must be on the verge of death when he or she is gnawed by another zombie, thus releasing parasitic spores into the new zombie's body. The full explanation of the process is quite lengthy and technical in nature and comes about half-way through this book.

     The story line in book 2 follows Angel as she investigates a weird crime that gets her name plastered across the local newspapers in an extremely unflattering way. One day, after Angel brings the dead body of a security guard back to the morgue, a masked gunman ties her up and steals the body. Of course, nobody believes Angel's story, including her zombie boyfriend, Detective Marcus Ivanov, and his Uncle Pietro, the boss of the local zombie mob. Everyone still views Angel as the convicted felon/drug addict/alcoholic she was before she was zombified, so they are sure that the disappearance of the body is somehow Angel's fault. When Angel is suspended from her job, she is determined to prove her innocence by getting to the bottom of the case, and as she begins her investigation things get even more weird. When Angel traces the strange happenings back to the experimental laboratory where the dead man worked and died, she makes connections that lead back to her old nemesis, Ed Quinn, the zombie hunter who tried to kill Angel and Marcus in book 1. Let's just say that Angel ties up a lot of loose ends as she solves this case. Unfortunately, she also gets herself into a lot of dangerous trouble involving secret experiments, mysterious MIBs, and a series of double crosses and betrayals.

     This is almost a police procedural—really a PI procedural—because the story follows Angel as she collects clues, spies on her suspects, pieces together the facts of the case, and eventually outsmarts the bad guys. Angel's relationship with Marcus gets fairly bumpy in this story because Marcus keeps underestimating Angel and questioning her level of intelligence. Does Marcus learn his lesson? We'll see in future books.

     I enjoyed this book more than book 1. Now that the zombie mythology is fully delineated, many of my questions have been answered. Angel continues to develop as a character, becoming more independent and less fearful of the consequences of her new life. Getting an explanation of exactly how her zombiness works is as helpful to the reader as it is to Angel. Click HERE to listen to a brief audio excerpt (scroll down a bit to find it). Click HERE to read a print excerpt.      

            NOVEL 3:  White Trash Zombie Apocalypse            

     Angel has been a zombie for almost a year now, and she's settling into her new life as well as can be expected, given the dangerous events chronicled in the first two books. Fortunately, her job at the morgue is going smoothly, and she's about to take her GED exam, so her life is looking pretty good. As the story opens, Angel is on the job, picking up a body at the local high school, where a film company is making a zombie movie. When Angel is nearly run over by a speeding car outside the school, she is rescued by Philip, the zombie she was forced to create in the previous book. Angel is shocked to see Philip, but he runs off before she can thank him for saving her life. Already we can guess that Philip and the zombie movie will no doubt play key parts in the plot.

     Gradually, suspicious events and overheard conversations cause Angel to suspect that the movie-making group is hiding some nefarious secrets, but she just can't figure out what they are. Then, she is attacked by zombies (one of whom is Philip), and a woman takes a blood sample from her while Philip holds her down. Then they tranquilize her and leave her in her truck in a downpour of rain suffering from several broken bones and mashed internal organs. Why does Philip attack Angel? Why do they take her blood? What is going on here? All of these questions are eventually answered as Angel continues involving herself in dangerous happenings that always result in serious injuries that require extra doses of her brainy nutritional smoothies. As the rain keeps coming nonstop, the river floods the lowlands where Angel and her dad live in their "rustic" little housewith frightening consequences for the Crawford family.

     Angel's relationship with Marcus is still rocky because he won't stop trying to advise her how to live her life. Late in the story, though, Angel figures out why Marcus is acting so paternally, so perhaps their relationship will get better. Marcus had better get himself together, though, because there's another man in Angel's life who would like her to give him a chance.

     This is a strong entry in the series, with a compelling story line and a great deal of character development, particularly for Brian Palmer (Pietro Ivanov's head of security) and Pietro himself, although Pietro makes a major TSTL move in this book when he continues to trust a character who has proven in the past to be completely untrustworthy and probably sociopathic. Although the mysteries in the plot are interesting and somewhat suspenseful, I was able to figure out what was going on long before Angel did. Even so, it's a good story, and I'm looking forward to more of Angel's adventures, mostly because she's such a fascinating character. Click HERE to listen to a brief audio excerpt from the book (scroll down a bit to find it).

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