Saturday, June 9, 2012

Team player

I've never thought much about which mythical creature I'd prefer in a food fight, but evidently authors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier have. Then they polled all their friends about which side they fell on and then asked them to write a story featuring their favorite. It all came together in a pretty terrific short-story collection called Zombies vs. Unicorns, which features a dozen entries in the contest by (I'm just listing and linking them all here) Libba Bray, Meg Cabot, Cassandra Clare, Kathleen Duey, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Maureen Johnson, Margo Lanagan, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Diana Peterfreund, Carrie Ryan and Scott Westerfeld. While the majority of stories creeped me out, most were entertaining ... and in the complete seriousness with which they approached the ridiculous subject, thought-provoking.

Larbalestier finds zombies intriguing and funny, providing us with an image of our own deaths. Black says that unicorns (despite that virgin thing) pursue justice, occasionally to the death, and are healers. The dozen authors are from all over the board -- some spouting the Team line, others heading off in unanticipated directions. I liked all but one or two, but a few favorites were Ryan's "Bougainvillea," which chillingly prequels her series, The Forest of Hands and Teeth (which I really didn't like); Lanagan's "A Thousand Flowers," a deeply disturbing (like all of her work) story about human/unicorn intercourse and its wide-ranging consequences; Maureen Johnson's "The Children of the Revolution," a sly commentary on our celebrity culture; Westerfeld's "Inoculata," which sees a future beyond the zombie apocalypse; and Bray's "Prom Night," the collection's final story and the one that ends without ending: Only teens are left from the apocalypse and they are trying to maintain a degree of normalcy inside the fence ... but what's that light in the distance? According to that list, I might be on Team Zombie, but really I'm on neither -- except that maybe Zombies make more interesting stories? Or stories that disturb me so much that I can't forget them?

Black and Larbalestier introduce each story with a brief, humorous commentary arguing the merits of their Team and how the story supports (or rejects) their preference; in the audiobook the subject of the story is indicated by either a hunting-horn blast, neigh and clopping hoofs, or a groan and the exaggerated word "brains."  Funny ... the first few times. Still, I suppose you can't start something and then abandon it halfway through. After the first few stories, I pretty much ignored what they were saying -- the stories themselves are much more interesting than the intros.

The audiobook has a slew of narrators. Phil Gigante (last heard here) reads the introduction in a deep, important movie-preview kind of voice, then we never hear him again. Black (her last audiobook heard by me is here) and Larbalestier (and hers is here) read their introductions -- but they speak (or were recorded) fairly softly and they tend to drop their volume at the end of their sentences (I do this too), which makes them hard to understand (another reason why I just began ignoring their brief intros). I did like hearing Larbalestier's Aussie accent and her occasional non-Americanisms.

The stories are narrated by Ellen Grafton (last heard here), Nick Podehl (here), Kate Rudd (never heard!) and Julia Whelan (here). And, well, despite the interesting stories, I'm not sure I really liked the narrations.  I couldn't distinguish between Rudd and Whelan, although their work was the strongest.  Podehl shined in one of the three stories he narrated, Alaya Dawn Johnson's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," where he performed up to his usual excellent teen-boy standard. He does fine with Duey's "The Third Virgin," although that one was lengthy and a bit dull. But he was so uncomfortable in his section of Lanagan's story where he tried a wobbly Irish accent that I can't deny I was glad when something bad happened to his character and the story moved on. Grafton's girlish voice bugged me in her narrations -- it was high and piercing and didn't express much emotional range (beyond childishness). Particularly when it's easy to compare her work to Rudd and Whelan, she comes up far short.

A few subject heading searches: Zombies - Fiction (180 at my library), Zombies - Juvenile Fiction (71 titles -- mostly teen stuff). Unicorns - Fiction (29), Unicorns - Juvenile Fiction (55).  I guess Team Zombie wins by sheer numbers, if nothing else. My mythical team? Djinn (Go, Team Bartimaeus!)  Jinn - Fiction (11), Jinn - Juvenile Fiction (40).

[Screenshot from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is from timeinc.net and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's tapestry at The Cloisters, The Unicorn in Captivity, is from the Google Art Project and also was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Zombies vs. Unicorns, compiled and edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
Narrated by Ellen Grafton, Nick Podehl, Kate Rudd, Julia Whelan, with the editors and Phil Gigante
Brilliance Audio, 2010.  11:57

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