Book review: Zoo 2 is fast and fierce


2016 thriller novella cover

Clever scenes, exotic locations, and, for an animals-attack thriller, nothing too over the top.

James Patterson’s Zoo 2, which Patterson and his marketers call a “bookshot” is actually a novella and a sequel to the longer 2012 novel, Zoo.  It picks up where the original left off, with intrepid, un-credentialed scientist Jackson Oz and his family in Greenland taking refuge from the resurgence in animal attacks ongoing in the U.S. and other temperate regions.

The President summons Jackson back into action.  Jackson decides to leave his wife Chloe at her parents’ home in France while he goes to research the possible spread of aggressive behavior from animals into isolated human cases.  Some readers don’t seem to like the concept that “humans are evolving” in this sequel.  There is a ‘feral human’ story line, and it worked for me!  The dangerous human theme doesn’t go overboard into full zombie apocalypse mode, but it’s a serious enough threat that it changes the dynamics from the original Zoo book or the “Zoo” TV series. If this sequel had only been another series of animal attacks, it probably would have unsatisfying, boring, or both. The feral human angle gave it an extra dose of horror.

Zoo 2 is well-written—a step-up in professionalism compared to some other monster novels out there.  (This may be thanks to Patterson’s co-writer, Max DiLallo.) The shorter novella platform was just right for the subject matter and for me. A quicker read than the original Zoo with fewer hokey set-ups.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is something that happens early on at Chloe’s home in Paris.  Let’s just say that two people end up dead, when killing off one character would have worked just as well.  Especially considering that Chloe didn’t seem to be that upset—you think she’d have been devastated, possibly for the rest of the book.

Movie review: “War Horse” the tear-jerker


Shot from War Horse

It pulls your heart strings right out of your chest.  Steven Spielberg, you stinking genius!  How do you do it, time and time again?

You start with a grown-up, flawed but wise.  Then you add a young person, precocious and special.  Mix in a creature, wild and untamed, that has a connection to the youth.  Then fold in tragic external events which complicate the bond between the youth and the enchanting animal.  Add dashes of evil, goodness, comedy, and syrup.  Bake for two hours and enjoy!  Or just cry your eyes out.

No, it’s not “E.T.,” “Gremlins” or “Jurassic Park,” but “War Horse” (2011).  Yes, I’m way overdue in watching it, but since it is set during World War I, it’s not a time-sensitive movie that requires immediate viewing.

That being said, there has been a great surge in interest in military working dogs since the inception of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  To me this movie felt like a natural extension of the newly rediscovered affection for animals in military service, but with horses instead of dogs.

The movie also gave Spielberg, and the rest of us, a chance to look back at the Great War.  Unlike World War II, which is the setting for many of Spielberg’s films, World War I is less morally clear, with good people on both sides of the conflict.  The English, French, and Germans are all presented sympathetically in “War Horse,” with horse-friendly humans among the armies of the Allies and the Central Powers.

The plot is not quite as predictable as I laid out in the Spielberg template above.  At the beginning, it seems that Joey, the leading horse, could become a racehorse (or maybe I had Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, and Secretariat on my mind).  Then it seems he’s destined to be a plow horse, then a cavalry horse, then fill other roles, but it’s rarely obvious where the war will lead Joey next.  Whether and how Joey will be reunited with Narracott, the boy who raised him, is key to the atmosphere of suspense and longing in the movie.

The landscapes of the English and French countrysides, including the Narracott cottage, are breathtaking.  The trenches and no man’s land of the battlefront are stark and horrifying.  The camera work and horse effects are real, even painful to watch at times, earning the movie its PG-13 rating.  It’s a beautiful film.

It is also maudlin and manipulative, sending stern Germans and stiff Englishmen into temporary truces for their mutual love of a beautiful, unfairly victimized horse.

Watch it, learn from it, and be prepared to discreetly wipe your eyes while you enjoy it.

Review of Zoo: The Graphic Novel

Chimp looks at Manhattan by moonlight in Zoo: The Graphic Novel

Chimp looks at Manhattan by moonlight in Zoo: The Graphic Novel

Zoo: The Graphic Novel is better than the original book, Zoo.  The book was fast-paced, but became tedious about two-thirds of the way through.  Not so with the graphic novel, which remained engaging throughout.

It’s the exact same story:  grad school dropout Jackson Oz studies increasing cases of “human animal conflict” (HAC).  Scientists and politicians delay the research for a cure because they don’t believe Oz.  By the time they acknowledge it, it’s almost too late to pinpoint the cause and the solution.  Without spoiling anything, the solution has downsides that the people in power don’t like, so once again Oz finds himself in the minority.  He wants the solution fully implemented but everybody else is too stuck in their ways to accept wholesale change.

The pictures helped tell the story and cut down the need for text descriptions of setting, animal appearance, and animal behavior.  For example, the scene of Oz following a dog into a dog lair, which helped him uncover a key clue about HAC, was handled much more efficiently in the graphic novel in just a few panels than in the book, where that story seemed to stretch on for multiple pages.

As in the book, Chloe transitions from being a scientist with independent expertise into a stay-at-home mom.  However, the graphic novel smoothed it out a little, with Chloe retaining some strength and independence, whereas the book presented her as Oz’s fawning doormat.  However, Oz’s character development was probably stronger in the book than in the graphic novel.  Oz in the graphic novel is too distant—I couldn’t really get a good feel for him as a person.

Amazon reviewers have complained about the graphic novel being black and white.  The lack of color struck me as odd at first, but once you get into it, you forget about it.  In some ways it helped—it’s easier to make out character features and details in the animal’s faces in black and white.  Too much color can be a little distracting and intense.  Maybe they also wanted to keep it family friendly without a bunch of red blood splattered on the pages.  The drawings of Oz’s chimpanzee Atilla are very well done.

If you already read the book and you’re watching the CBS miniseries “Zoo,” or if you’re planning to read Zoo 2 (Patterson’s new novella) then reading the graphic novel is a great refresher on the original story.  If you never read the original book, just skip it and read the graphic novel.

Book review: Orca starts with a bang, ends on ice


Before there was “Blackfish,” there was “Orca.”

And alongside Orca the book (1977) was Orca the movie.  And a dreadful movie it was.  My main memory is of a whale fetus ejected from its mother’s womb, landing on a ship deck, and squealing like a human baby.  It put the “ick” in flick.  As others have pointed out, the novel is superior.

Jack Campbell, the main character, is an alcoholic who is hopelessly uninterested in anything life has to offer, barely keeping his father’s charter boating business in Florida afloat.  His sister Annie’s boyfriend finds a newspaper article about a $125K reward from the Japanese for the capture of a great white shark.  Campbell’s crew, including surly Gus, head north in the Bumpo.

While hunting fish, Campbell finally finds that the activity excites him.  He begins to step away from the bottle.  Ending up in Canadian waters, the Bumpo fails to capture a shark.  Netting an orca, the killer whale, is more feasible.  Campbell and the Bumpo’s crew gain the blessing from the leaders of a South Harbor, a Newfoundland fishing village, to ship out on a whaling mission.

During the expedition, a pregnant orca delivers a stillborn calf.  The orca father, dubbed “Nickfin” by a local Indian chief, blames Campbell.  That sets into motion a series of attacks against vessels, Campbell’s loved ones, and South Harbor.  The Bumpo is damaged, and Campbell is stuck back in town awaiting repairs while the entire town turns on him.

There he falls in love with Rachel, a whale expert who doesn’t want Campbell to kill the orca.  He doesn’t want to tangle with Nickfin either, since he knows how dangerous the whale is.  But the town becomes so antagonistic that Campbell has little choice but to ready for battle with the orca on the high seas.

Campbell is a strong, engaging character.  The succession of events leading to the final battle is compelling.  The orca’s attack scenes are gripping.  The fickleness of the villagers—cheering on Jack at one point and trying to run him out on a rail later on—is frustrating but true to life.  Overall, I liked the book.  People who like sea monster fiction like Jaws and Meg will find this to be a quick and entertaining read.  The audiobook was fun because of the sly narration by Mark Moseley.  I’d give the novel three out of five stars.

Why not a higher rating?  There’s an odd theme in the book involving Campbell’s bonding or soul connection with Nickfin.  Campbell perceives that the orca represents freedom.  That doesn’t make sense since the whale seems as obsessed with revenge as Campbell does.  At other points, the orca represents Campbell’s own demons—perhaps his alcoholism or sense of worthlessness.  At times the connection borders on the paranormal with Campbell practically reading the whale’s thoughts.  That element didn’t work for me, and the final page or two made for a limp ending.

Review of “Zoo” Season 1


Zoo miniseries airs on Channel 46 in Atlanta

The CBS series “Zoo” is a harmless diversion for recreational TV viewing.  It’s a summer series about a global condition that affects a wide variety of animal species causing them to become aggressive toward humans.  It is loosely based on James Patterson’s book of the same name, which had the same basic premise.

The show also has the same main character as the book, Jackson Oz.  He’s an impetuous but perceptive man played by James Wolk who discovers early signs of the problem among lions in Botswana.  Jackson’s father studied the same phenomenon of interspecies animal aggression, but nobody believed him either.  Wolk is very telegenic and he may be one of the reasons that the show was renewed for a second season which debuts this week on June 28.

In Botswana, Jackson meets Chloe, a Frenchwoman played by Nora Arnezeder.  Unlike the book’s depiction of Chloe as a scientist who becomes a fawning doormat once she falls in love with Jackson, the TV series presents Chloe as a strong, independent woman who investigates the animal behavior for reasons of international security.

The other characters are mostly inventions of the TV show.  Abraham, a Kenyan safari guide played by Nonso Anozie, is “the muscle” of the group.  He also serves as a rational Spock to Jackson’s risk-taking Kirk.  Anozie has a commanding screen presence and makes for fun watching every week.  His stature and authoritative baritone would make him the perfect actor to play Professor Challenger in a modern version of Lost World.

Billy Burke and Kristen Connolly play the other two members of the team.  Burke is Mitch, a veterinary pathologist who serves as the geeky and irascible Jeff Goldblum of the group.  Connolly is Jamie, a crusading journalist cum blogger on a campaign to expose Raiden, a shadowy corporation with questionable products that have found their way into each link of the food chain.  As Jackson and Chloe pair off, so do Mitch and Jamie.

The quintet fights their way through at least one hostile species each week, rarely in the same location twice.  They take cover from swarming bats in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, dodge man-eating leopards in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and investigate bears on the prowl in Paris.  Their work is sponsored by the intelligence agency that employs Chloe, or so it seems, until the group finds out that Raiden is actually pulling the strings.  The group has to worry about the humans on their tail as much as they have to worry about the animals.

On occasion, the show slips into a pattern of scenes that are dark or serious.  Normally, the focus is on adventure and camaraderie within the team, and that’s where the show is at its best.  On paper the characters are a bit one-dimensional, but the actors do a great job of adding depth and conviction, especially when they probably have to do half of their acting in front of a blue screen.  The special effects are very good for a TV show—the animal attacks don’t seem computer generated.

You can catch up on Season 1 on Netflix and tune into CBS on Tuesday nights at 9 for Season 2.

A book review to kick-off the summer: Jaws


Variety rates “Jaws” as one of 10 movies that was better than the book.  Several lists on Goodreads also put the book Jaws in the same category, such as “The movie was better than the book” which puts Jaws one notch above The Silence of the Lambs.

So my expectations were low when I finally got a chance to read Peter Benchley’s classic.  Reading it easily blew my expectations out of the water.

Like the movie, Jaws opens with a topless teenager splashing into the waves after dark.  We all know what happens next.  But the true horror grows after the first shark attack as we meet the men pulling the strings in Amity.  They call the shots and have the power to make or break the lives of the locals.  The chief of police comes under their nasty pressures to keep the beaches open.  Amity is totally reliant on a very short vacationer season to sustain itself economically for the year.  Brody caves, but he remains a very sympathetic character because we know he wanted to do the right thing.

The biggest difference between the book and film in terms of the plot is that Brody’s wife cheats on him with Matt Hooper.  One Goodreads reviewer calls the sex “utterly pointless and adds nothing to the story,” but that comment misses the point.  Brody’s wife is from “the city,” and grew up vacationing with her middle class family in Amity.  The rift between “summer people” and the townees is one of the big themes in Jaws.  The shark doesn’t just threaten swimmers, but it threatens the fabric of life in Amity.  Hooper, the shark expert, offers the sophistication and care-free adventure that she misses as an Amity housewife.  The shark forces the characters to reexamine where they are in life.

Benchley depicts the escalating threat of the shark very effectively.  Each attack scene is scary and reveals something additional about the shark’s nature and the severity of the danger.  The text may not have the visceral impact to scare you out of the water the same way that the movie could, and it’s true that Stephen Spielberg made a terrific movie.  But that is hardly Benchley’s fault.  If I had written Jaws, I would have been thrilled for a great director to turn my book into a fantastic film.  And if I were Spielberg I’d count my blessings for the good fortune of starting production with such a great book.

Book review: Island 731 delivers non-stop chills


A 2014 bio-thriller

In Jeremy Robinson’s thriller Island 731, an ecological expedition in the Pacific runs aground on an unknown island.  A crewmate flees and Hawkins, a hero who earlier survived a grizzly bear attack, sets out to find him.  Hawkins and his love interest, the risk-taking Joliet, plunge inland despite initial signs of danger.

Why their geeky but likable crewmate Kam would have run away makes no sense at first.  Hawkins and Joliet speculate that Kam went into hiding after killing another crewmate:

“That’s my best theory.”

Joliet sagged.  “I came up with the same thing.  Do you really think Kam would run?  If it was an accident—”

The search is complicated as Hawkins and Joliet quickly learn that the island is teeming with dangerous lifeforms that are blends of more than one species.  The discovery of an island with previously undiscovered creatures makes this thriller reminiscent of The Land That Time Forgot.  And like Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic, the threats to the protagonists aren’t only from the island’s beasts, but from frictions within the marooned crew.

An island full of chimeras is exciting, foreboding, and mysterious.  It creates a great, dark atmosphere.  That being said, some of the chimeras have so many progenitors that they are difficult to visualize.  For example, one chimera has a face with features from a bat, goat, tiger, and crocodile.  Tough to picture.

The search leads the main characters into more danger and closer to the truth of the island.  Without giving any spoilers, Robinson’s work shows a broad familiarity with biology, history, and conspiracy theories.  Island 731 delivers plausibly on these themes.  There is some background and technical information that must be conveyed for the story to make sense, but Robinson handles those passages economically without retarding the action.

The characters are engaging.  Larger-than-life villains and bald faced evil make for an ambitious book, but Robinson pulls it together.  Hawkins’s jovial sidekick Bray is fun, and the romance between Hawkins and Joliett is well done.

Parts of the book are gruesome:  one character is crucified hanging from his own entrails.  “Patients” are dissected alive.  If you didn’t like the bloody, gross-out scenes of the movie “Saw,” this may not be the right book for you.

Some thrillers have great beginnings and the action falls apart toward the end or doesn’t pay off.  That’s not the case with Island 731.  The action builds throughout and the stakes get higher toward the end.  Robinson has a good sense for plot, pace, tension, and momentum.  The characters are always on the move and run into one obstacle after another.

For readers who are drawn to thrillers because they enjoy non-stop thrills and chills, look no further.  If you’ve got a dark streak, you’ll want to bring this apocalyptic island adventure on your next cruise.

Tourist climbs 20 feet to elude tiger for 2 hours

Shah and Vaan Laan

Krishna Shah (middle) and Gerard Van Laar (right). Photo from The Katmandu Post.

Tour guide Krishna Shah was injured while attempting to distract a Bengal tiger in Bardia National Park in Nepal.  His client, a tourist from the Netherlands, climbed a tree for safety.  The tour guide returned a couple hours later with backup to save Gerard Van Laar.  Kudos to Mr. Shah for returning to the site despite his own injuries to save the Dutchman!

The Metro has the story:

A Dutch tourist managed to escape from a prowling Bengal tiger by hiding up a tree for more than two hours.

Gerard Van Laar was walking in a Nepalese national park with his guide when they suddenly heard a growling roar and saw the animal ‘heading towards us at full speed’.

His guide Krishna selflessly saved the tourist’s life by running into the jungle to draw the tiger’s attention, and telling Gerard to climb the tree.

Tigers are capable of climbing sturdy trees but it is relatively rare for them to do so.

Freelance engineer Gerard, 33, said he was lucky to be alive after the attack on Saturday.

He had been trekking in Bardia National Park, around 250 miles southwest of the capital, Kathmandu.

‘I would have been dead if it had not been for Krishna,’ he told The Associated Press.

Krisha was attacked and slightly injured after he saved the other man, but escaped to raise the alarm.

As Gerard waited in the tree, the tiger returned and started circling while the man in the branches tried to stay as still and quiet as possible around 20 feet above the ground.

Around two hours later the guide came back with help, shouting and using sticks to drive the tiger away…