Content note: This post discusses rape, domestic violence, child death, and contains misogynistic and able-ist slurs. Also there are gifs.
At what point do you give up on finishing a book? What’s the ultimate factor in deciding whether you’ll make it to the last page? Does a badly-written book turn you off of an otherwise great story, or will you plow through a bland, cliched plot for the beautiful prose? Do you stick it out through a terrible novel just to say you finished it, or do you refuse to waste your time on bad books? What, dear readers, is your Did Not Finish threshold?
As a reader, once I get past the first chapter of a book, I feel almost obligated to read through to the end. Sometimes it’s the hope that the book will get better that drives me; other times, it’s pure Trainwreck Syndrome. I muddled my way through Poison Study because, under the painfully amateurish writing, I could see a great story that made me want to find out what happened next. I picked up Twilight to see what all the fuss was about, and wound up reading the rest of the series because I needed to see how bad it got. Hell, I read Fifty Shades of Grey just to see if I could.
On the other hand, I’ve dropped more than a few books in the middle. In most cases it was because they were boring. (Boring as in bland, not because nothing happened. Eragon is boring in places because nothing really happens, but I can make myself keep reading on the sheer force of my hatred.*) I actually stopped reading The Eye of the World less than twenty pages from the end because I lost my place, forgot about the book for a couple weeks due to exams, and couldn’t be bothered to start over from the beginning just to say I finished it. And I only got about two pages into Cerulean Sins before throwing up my hands and declaring myself done (but then, I’d just spent a month reading through the entire series and watching it deteriorate before my eyes, so there may have been some bias there).
Then, sometimes, there are the books that you just can’t stand anymore. Which brings me to our first installment of the DNF Files: The First Days by Rhiannon Frater. As always, spoilers abound. (Really, I should just stick that in the blog’s byline. I think I’ve had one non-spoilery post out of fifty at this point.)
I wanted to like this book. It was described to me as Thelma and Louise** with zombies – how could I not like it? Two ladies bonding through the hardship of the zombie apocalypse? It sounds perfect, especially in light of all the zombie stories where the world quickly devolves into a state where the men are in charge and have all the guns, and the women are valued for their ability to produce children and satisfy the men’s sexual appetites. Lemme tell you, that gets real boring and frustrating, real fast.
The story starts out strong: Jenni, a housewife, stands paralyzed on her front porch as the toddler she just watched her husband eat attempts to reach her under the front door:
So very, very small.
The fingers pressed under the front door of her home were so very small. She could not stop staring at those baby fingers straining frantically to reach her as she stood shivering on the porch. The cool morning air lightly puffed out her pink nightgown as her own pale fingers clutched the thing bathrobe closed at her throat. Texas weather could change so fast, and this early March morning was crisp. I knew we needed weather stripping, she thought vaguely. […] The tiny fingers clawed under the edge of the door. The banging from inside the house had become a steady staccato. It had a rhythm now, as did the grunts and groans. The sounds terrified her. But what was truly horrible were those tiny, desperate fingers.
Now that’s a compelling opening. Just as Jenni’s husband and her older son break through the front window and advance on her, she’s saved when a pickup stops behind her and the driver yells at her to get in. The driver, Katie, is the second protagonist. She’s a lawyer who was saved from becoming zombie chow during her morning commute, just barely avoided being eaten by her wife when she went home to check on her, and only managed to be in the right place at the right time because she got lost in the suburbs. Together they manage to get out of the city (which is never named), and they’re forced to rely on each other to survive.
Aaand then it all goes downhill.
For one thing, the pacing is all over the place. Mostly it just goes too fast: in one day, the entire state seems to have been overrun with the undead; on day two, they find a town that has managed to wall off a couple blocks in less than two days. Then the narration begins skipping around and suddenly it’s day four. On top of that, the characters all form seemingly instant connections to each other. It’s one thing for Jenni and Katie to bond before the end of the first day; they’re experiencing the zombie apocalypse together. It’s another for Katie to have an instant connection to a man she’s never seen before:
Travis glanced over at them, and Katie had to look away. She felt unnerved by his gaze. Something had happened when she first looked at him. New knowledge had sprung strong and sure into her mind: This was now home. And Travis was going to play a very important role in her future. All her life, Katie had always trusted her instincts about people. She formed quick and firm attachments. It had taken her all of one minute to fall in love with Lydia. She already felt completely attacked to Jenni and Jason. They were her new family. Her gut told her that Travis was also important in this new world.
She looked back and saw him staring at her.
He knows, too, she thought.
The wheels of destiny had turned, and a new reality was being spun into existence.
She met this guy less than five minutes ago.
It doesn’t help that she later says that she’s bisexual, and not a lesbian as she claimed earlier. I really want to believe that the author was going for more bi visibility in fiction, but with the “instantaneous camaraderie” setup and the fact that her wife is dead and only alluded to in the third person makes it seem more like Katie being bi is a cop-out – a way to have a gay character without ever having to show her being gay.
The bit about Katie always trusting her instincts brings up another thing that bugs me about this book: everyone is ridiculously nice and helpful. There’s a few people who are combative, but they’re all people who refuse to believe that the dead are coming back to life and either call the women crazy or murderers. I’m not saying everyone they meet should be trying to rape, rob, or kill them (in fact, I’d prefer it if rape was kept out of the equation altogether), but they’re taken in with open arms everywhere they go. There’s a cursory check to see if they’ve been bitten, and then everyone is nice as pie to them.
I really wanted to like Jenni. It becomes clear almost immediately that even before her husband started eating their children, he was an abusive asshole who liked to beat his wife. In a way, Jenni is the character most prepared for the zombie apocalypse: she’s the first to call them zombies, the first to declare that it’s the end of the world. At the same time, the end of the world acts as a sort of therapy for her: she goes out of her way to kill zombies that look like her abusive husband or her father (who’s implied to have been just as abusive). Jenni’s reaction to the world crumbling around her was the only thing that kept me going half the time; I’d like to see this concept in the hands of a more competent author.
On a technical level, the writing is rather clumsy. The author seems to have an aversion to contractions, for one thing. And the dialogue is pretty clunky, in some spots sounding more like that “perfect” comeback that only works against a one-note strawman:
“Yes, I can barely get into the store because of some hick truck pulled up to the door. I get inside and this retard spills coffee on me, and now I have a blond bitch giving me lip.”
Katie motioned to his phone. “Does that work?”
He blinked, obviously not expecting that response. “No, because we are in Hicksville and there is no signal.”
Katie slightly nodded. “Or the world has gone to hell and the city is in ruins. Doesn’t anyone listen to their radio anymore?”
“Look, bitch, I make six figures. I don’t have time for radio or TV. I work constantly. My time is money. I am money. I have a meeting in one hour in the city, and I’m running late thanks to your stupid friend here and that damn truck.”
“Well, buddy, hate to tell you this, but the world is over. The city is in ruins and you aren’t going to make that meeting and you’re not going to get a signal. Your six figures means nothing now.”
I just… OW. That dialogue physically hurts me, guys. I have been run over by the semi truck of “Why does this exist and why didn’t someone catch this while proofreading, or at least read it aloud to see how it sounded?”
Then there’s of overuse of the Z-word. I realize that, being a zombie novel, that word’s going to come up quite often, but even as a fan of the genre “zombie” is just one of those words that’s really hard for me to take seriously. The undead, the infected, ghouls, geeks, Gs, Zack, whatever – just call them something other than zombies. Maybe I’m just weird, and this is just a pet peeve that makes no sense, but it did add to the annoyance level as I read. (Or maybe it was the over-reliance on a single word. If they’d used a few synonyms I might not have cared so much.)
I’m ashamed to say that none of this made me stop reading. No, the final straw came when Katie scraped her arm on a piece of metal that was covered in zombie gore, then got sick (as in delirious, unconscious, talking-in-her-sleep sick) to the point where everyone thought she was going to die and come back as the undead… and then woke up and waved it off as the flu.
“None of you could have known that when I get the flu, I go down like an elephant. I always have, and that’s why I usually get the flu shot. I skipped it this year because I had a big case and just never found the time. Who knows what diseases all those dead bodies have unleashed into the air?” She shivered at the thought.
[…] “The flu,” Travis said with relief. “Thank God, just the fucking everyday flu.”
THAT’S the explanation the author went with? THAT’S how she avoided having one of her main characters turn into a zombie? The motherfucking FLU?! The ending to the World War Z movie was less painfully stupid. How do you justify such a blatant deus ex machina and still sleep at night? WHY DID ANYONE THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?!
So, yeah, that’s when I threw up my hands and quit. There’s only so much stupidity I can take before my reading experience goes from “having fun being angry” to “beating my head against a wall hoping it won’t hurt.”
* Yes, I realize how little sense that makes. All I can say is, blandness will make me give up faster than rage-inducing stupidity. At least when I’m angry, I’m not bored.
** Granted, I’ve never seen Thelma and Louise (it came out when I was four years old) so I don’t have a very good frame of reference for it, but who can say no to strong friendships between women?