Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review: I Left My Brains In San Francisco

Neeta Lyffe, Zombie Exterminator, is back in Neeta Lyffe 2:  I Left My Brains In San Francisco.  After hosting the show Zombie Death Extreme (which has spun off more copies of the franchise than anyone in the book can count), Neeta is back to her job Re-killing the undead.  However, for this book, she's off to a Zombie conference in San Francisco. There will be scientists, government researchers, fellow re-killing experts, as well as enough vendors to outfit a small armory.

Also tagging along is her business partner and sort-of/maybe boyfriend Ted, who had been a cameraman on Zombie Death Extreme, and has joined her as an exterminator with a penchant for setting things on fire. Usually zombies.

But there's something out in the dark waters of the bay that is restless, cold, and dark, and hungry.  And Neeta is about to have a busman's holiday from hell....

No, that's not the summary from the back of the book, that's the short version of my own summary.

Now, let's start with all of the good things about this book.

The details put into this world is impressive, and even reminds of me of early Laurell K. Hamilton (when the books were dedicated to building up her character's world, not her list of sex partners).  The global politics are well put together, the various legal systems regarding zombies, etc (and, sadly, I can see some idiot passing a "no eco-profiling" act). I liked the shots she took at the Occupy movement, and creating degrees in professional protesting (since anyone who read my self defense columns knows my opinion there), and, once the book gets started, they have a solid, amusing running gag involving a group of eco-terrorists.

There is also a ton of details and thought put into the development of anti-zombie weapons systems, from monofilament swords (model such as "the Buffy," or "The Highlander", and, of course, the "Inigo Montoya"), to specialized squirtguns, and flamethrowers.  There is a talking GPS named Majel (Star Trek joke), and a whole bunch of little moments that make this book quite enjoyable. And, of course, having recently been to DragonCon, I could easily believe some of the panels at this particular convention.

And, frankly, Madam Fabian may have already spoiled the best scene in the book for you the other day in her own guest post. [more below the break]

Now, I have to be honest, this book will be tough to get into.  In the first 20 pages, we've split four different ways.  There is Neeta -- her convention, her vacation plans, and her relationship with her business partner/maybe-boyfriend.  Yes, her maybe-boyfriend.  Along the way, we also have excerpts about an eco-terrorist group called TREE (Terrorism for Radical Environmental Enhancement), and dropping TREE"s founder down a watery grave.  We also trip over a professional protester wandering around the Bay area. At that point, the reader has no ideas what's going on.  It's a little like reading a Tom Clancy novel -- you have several things going on at once, but you don't know how they interact until page 100. In this case, we're not that lucky.

I have to say that I like making fun of San Francisco. I do it often. However, when I'm reading a book, I want to have a story, character, and plot. *Then* you can go on for pages at a time having fun at a city's expense. By page 25, she is so wrapped up with making fun of the strangeness that is San Francisco, I honestly started to wonder why I cared.  The jokes were funny -- probably because I've been there -- but the travelogue making fun of the practices and policies of the Left Coast probably could have been saved for later on, when the story, characters and plot were better established.  Instead, I was left wondering why I kept reading.  This was one novel that refused to get out of its own way.

In the previous novel, script excerpts from a proposed documentary were used to fill in the back story of the history of how zombies work in Karina's world.  She once again falls back on the model to explain the history of TREE.  While this model worked to great effect in the first novel, that was because the relevance of zombies were established on the first page.  Here, we have no idea EXACTLY what impact TREE will have on the plot until page 167 (of 229), while the documentary snippets explain the history of TREE back on page 15.  Early Terry Prachett novels barely got away with similar methods of dropping in "huh?" elements early in the book (showing you things that you have no idea the significance of just yet), but he usually saved the explanations until you knew what the heck was going on.  Mrs. Fabian allows no such leeway to her readers.  She has put Descartes before the horse (sorry, math joke).


In the last book, Neeta was witty, and smart, and tough. As we opened, she seems to have lost her wit and her smarts are not as on display. Her toughness is only tested with a zombie in the opening and the strength of character from the first book doesn't even return until more than halfway through the novel.  For a lot of this book, stuff happens to her, and she seems to be dragged from one event to another with little to no say in the matter. It felt like a forced character arc -- "Oh no, she was too self assured in the last book, we need to make her more neurotic in order to make her interesting, and then fix her."

Also, Neeta's thoughts continually go to an apprentice she lost on page one of the first book.  Which is odd, because she dwells more on the loss of that particular idiot (he died because he eschewed his body armor in order to show off his abs for the audience) in this book than she did in the first.  It was jarring and inconsistent with her previous behavior. There are even moments when it looked like said dead apprentice would become relevant in some way, but mentions of him peter out by the end of the novel.

There are brief, fleeting mentions of pills, and a psychologist, and one presumes we're supposed to deduce from these bits of detail that she's suffering from PTSD, but the only reason I even notice them now is that I have a PDF copy, and a search engine.  If PTSD is the diagnosis Madam Fabian wants us to come up with, she should have been a little bit more clear -- also, Neeta should have had flashbacks, heightened awareness, and not merely bad dreams and "stress." After all, if any normal person had her job, bad dreams should be par for the course (in fact, the subject of her bad dreams -- having to re-kill loved ones -- was an entire chapter in book one). Also, if PTSD is the conclusion we're supposed to draw, then it is entirely undercut by one scene with Ted, which makes all of her behavior seem like a result of inborn neuroses.

In short, this book doesn't begin to get interesting until page 40, when we actually get to a convention, and reconnect with several characters from the previous novel.

After page 40, the book only gets slow when Neeta is no longer on the page (though to be honest, those good parts might have had more to do with her sort-of-maybe-boyfriend, Ted, who stole many of their scenes together). The exception to that rule is a scene where a zombie horde runs into a survivalist store. It doesn't end well for the zombies.

There are a  lot of interesting characters in this book. Sadly, they're not used very well.  In fact, they are barely used. One of the strengths of the first book was the ensemble cast of strong and quirky personalities. Instead, we are given a neutered Neeta who only knows what to do when there's a Zombie in the area, and Ted, who we only see through the eyes of other people, who may be the more interesting character this time around.


By the end of the book, Ted proposes to Neeta. I'm a sucker for a good romance. Pity we didn't see any romance whatsoever. For most of the book, Neeta is wondering what her relationship is with Ted.  Now, I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer when if comes to social cues, and things like that.  However, the idea that Ted is going to propose to Neeta when she's not even sure if they're dating takes being thick to a whole new level of brain dead. Considering how perceptive Ted turns out to be by the end of the book, it's a striking oversight, and I mean more like a backhand.  Much like Neeta's personal character arc, it feels forced, almost obligatory.


I have no idea what's going on with the story, but so many things felt forced, it feels like someone else wrote the book.

Again, I had fun with this book.  At the end of the day, I think most people will enjoy it, especially if you have faith that, eventually, everything will tie together.  Trust me, it does.  However, if you read book two back to back with book one, you're going to have to just go with it. You'll probably enjoy it more if you don't argue with the narration, and turn your brain off.  Treating this like a murder mystery, where you try to solve the riddle of what's going on here, will not work.

If there is a book three, I will read it. I would assume that many of the little things that were "off" about this book were one-offs.

 At the end of the day, if you have some extra money kicking around, and you want something to read, you could do worse than this.

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