This is a deeply weird, strange and cheerfully skewed middle grade adventure tale. It starts out normally, with our three heroes, (Abby, Phil and Sam Pruitt), spending a summer day exploring the woods neighboring Forest Heights. There's a creek, an old mill foundation, random abandoned trash and all of the sorts of things you would expect to find in such a woods in such a story.
But the kids find a junk field behind an old antiques store. The store owner knew their grandpa, and tells them he was once a guard at a zoo that operated in the woods back before World War II. This is news to the kids and they become obsessed with finding the old abandoned zoo grounds. But there are weird undertones to all of this. There is no mention of the zoo in local histories; the kids' parents deny grandpa worked at such a place. Abby starts having nightmares. They start being followed by a possibly crazy preacher man. The book begins drifting into a sort of moody Arkansas gothic horror story.
Abby finds an old book that confirms the existence of the zoo and points them in the right direction for finding it. A long walk through the forest and the help of some impatient penguins gets them to the old zoo grounds. This is where most of the book's action takes place and is where the book really takes off and flies. The romance and adventure and basic coolness of being able to explore an ancient abandoned zoo is beautifully captured by the author. Your sense of adventure would have to be totally dead-as-a-doornail for you to fail to be captivated by this section. It's like a kid version of discovering Chichen Itza or Machu Picchu.
And get this - (not really a SPOILER, it's in the book blurb) - the zoo is still populated by all of its dead but still living original animals, and by the people who tended them. The "zombies" are kind and benevolent. They just seem a bit bemused to be dead yet still "alive". The general air is one of melancholy and resignation. Except. There is a bad guy. He has evil plans and intentions. The kids will have to struggle against him to right the wrongs that were committed at the zoo, and to escape.
The writing is all over the place. There are some scenes that are arresting and compelling and just tremendously evocative and atmospheric, and yet some scenes are clunky and unwieldy. The kids are believable, although Abby is the main, strongest, and best developed character. The plot actually makes sense and works, and the resolution is satisfying. There are a number of graceful scenes and set pieces that are very touching. There are some thrills and scares, although no graphic violence. This book is built more on mood than conflict. It touches on just about every life and death myth, legend and symbol out there in a playful and knowing way.
So, I count this a lucky find and an unexpected and unassuming winner. Very nice.
Two words of caution. First, don't be fooled by the wildly inappropriate cover, which suggests that this is some sort of funny, fuzzy zombie pet story. It isn't; it is much more substantial than that. Second, be warned that the book starts slowly and is a bit slow and lumpy for starters. Persevere, the plot, pace, writing and rewards will start to flow after a chapter or two.
Please note that I found this book while browsing Amazon Kindle freebies. I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.
on 11 January 2014
Don't judge this book by it's cartoonish cover as it's a little more serious and mature that you would be lead to believe. Also I thought it was a Tasmanian tiger at first, but it only came clear towards the end that it's a dog!
This is a wonderful story and a great take on the zombie genre, though you won't find much blood and guts which is quite nice for a change even for myself as a fan of the genre. It's a yarn with great humour, engaging characters, tension, heroism, plot twists galore and three slap happy zombie penguins... yup zombie penguins! What more could you want for free? I was quite sad when I came to the end of the book and it was a definitive ending with not much wriggle room for a sequel.