Alice in Zombieland
Written by: Gena Showalter
Synopsis: Had anyone told Alice Bell that her entire life would change course between one heartbeat and the next, she would have laughed. From blissful to tragic, innocent to ruined? Please. But that’s all it took. One heartbeat. A blink, a breath, a second, and everything she knew and loved was gone.
Her father was right. The monsters are real….
To avenge her family, Ali must learn to fight the undead. To survive, she must learn to trust the baddest of the bad boys, Cole Holland. But Cole has secrets of his own, and if Ali isn’t careful, those secrets might just prove to be more dangerous than the zombies….
Before I begin my review I need to address two issues that you really should know before going into the book. First, the zombies are not zombies. They're cannibalistic spirits, so they're closer to revanants than zombies. For most people this probably won't matter because they still manage to wreak havoc, but if you're a zombie purist this will probably drive you nuts. Secondly, Alice is Zombieland is just a title, there is very little connection between this book and Alice in Wonderland, which I found really disappointing. There is a white rabbit which pops up from time to time as a cloud, and a very, very minor thematic connection but I was hoping it'd be more of an undead retelling of Alice in Wonderland so it just wasn't enough for me.
Moving on from that though, I'm torn about this book. There are some real issues in terms of characterisation, plot structure and the writing style, but I ended up enjoying myself for most of it. Key to the success was the protagonist, Alice. The book begins while her family is still alive. Her sister is an enthusiastic and glowing 8 year old and her best friend despite the large age gap. Part of the reason for this is the fact that their father is crazy. He believes that monsters walk the Earth and he's gone to great lengths to protect his young family. Alice's mother is stuck somewhere in the middle, she loves her kids dearly, but her complete adoration and trust in her husband puts her at odds with her daughters much of the time. One or two chapters in, a car accident results in the deaths of the entire family, Alice excluded. She moves in with her grandparents and has to transfer to a new school, and all of a sudden her father's safety precautions no longer apply. She can stay out after dark if she wants to and make plans with friends, but she doesn't feel free - the guilt of living while her family died hangs heavily over her head. It isn't a perfect character, but Gena Showalter does a pretty remarkable job of creating a teenage character suffering through the loss of a loved one. In the first section she essentially shuts down, unable to even cry, and puts herself into dangerous situations trying to find answers to her family's deaths. As the book continues though, she finds purpose and slowly begins to heal from her loss.
Aside from Alice and her grandparents (they only feature fairly briefly, but I really enjoyed them) most of the characters are walking clichés Her new best friend Kat is almost embarrassing, speaking in one-liners and overly obsessed with her appearance. She's the kind of stereotypical teenage girl you'd expect your out of touch mum or grandma to write. Later in the book attempts are made to add depth to her character but they don't work because of the earlier efforts which basically render her a cartoon character. Similarly, all of the boys that feature in this book, bar one, are bad boys. They're covered in piercings and tattoos and frequently show up at school covered in bruises. I know piercings are common enough, but how many 17 year olds do you see decked out in tattoos? Maybe it's more common in America, but it just seemed ridiculous to me. Also, can we move past the 'bad boys are irresistible period' already? It's gone on long enough. Most YA books I read either infantilise the characters or turn them into mini-adults, and this one basically chucks a bunch of college-aged adults (appearance-wise at least) into a high school and acts like it's natural. I'd hazard a guess that the reason Showalter does this is because of the heavy emphasis on sex and romance in this novel. Showalter is best known for writing paranormal and contemporary romances, and all of the characters in this book have a heavy focus on getting into the pants of someone else. I know 16-18 year olds have sex, but at times it felt really creepy reading about the sexual attraction Alice has for the lead bad boy, Cole, (there's a scene in a bar that's especially bad) and felt like it would have been more at home in a Mills and Boon novel.
Which leads me onto my next concern, there are some parallels between this book and Twilight. A new girl to school find herself irresistibly drawn to the 'bad' boy. Trouble seems drawn to her, her new best friend is obnoxious, there is a second guy that doesn't get along with the 'bad' boy, the 'bad' boys close friends are overly protective and hate the new girl...it's not just me right? I suppose you could argue that many YA books follow this general pattern, but considering it has a supernatural element these similarities just seemed glaring and hard to ignore.
The story itself was pretty interesting, although it had problems of its own. Regaining conscious for a brief moment during the car accident, Alice saw what looked like people dive into her father's body and come out eating his flesh. Because this seemed to suggest her dad wasn't so crazy after all it becomes a fixation of Alice's as she tries to find proof that she hasn't just gone crazy herself. As she investigates, she meets a group of zombie hunters and learns a few things about the zombies that help answer some questions but also raises a whole slew of new questions. About two minutes into the book one big question loomed, "if zombies are present why doesn't everyone notice a huge amount of corpses appearing each night?" During her investigation into these undead spirits, Alice learns that because they're in spirit form not everyone can see them, and as a result the deaths that they instigate (which seem relatively small to be honest) are blamed on wild animals. The members of the zombie hunter troop are all able to see the zombies, but are also equipped with another talent. In order to fight the zombies they need to also be in spirit form, which is something they can train themselves to do. This is perhaps one of the more bizarre elements of the story - people who not only can leave their bodies to fight zombies, but whose weapons can also be transferred to spirit form? But it does work, kind of. Along with a few other factors which unfold as Alice grows to know this other zombie-fighting world, it's still bizarre and but makes for a different take on a fairly typical narrative structure.
I know this has probably seemed like a very negative review but these issues were all glaringly clear as I read the book so I feel like it's really important to lay them down for you all lest you pick it up, read it and shake a fist at the sky screaming "damn you Nylon Admiral, damn you!" But I also want to emphasise how much I didn't hate it as I read it. Yes I noticed the awkward or strange narrative, character and style choices, and yes I did occasionally groan or shake my head but I never had to force myself to continue, and I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. It's been a hard one to review because it's right down the middle for me, enjoyable enough but technically not great and I could completely relate if someone were to tell me they disliked it. In this instance I think I really have to direct you to the other reviews on Goodreads, hopefully they, in conjunction with this review, can help you decide if you want to give it a shot.