What to Read Next (No. 136): new zombie thriller // the best WWII books

For the last six months, I’ve had a hard time reading fiction that too closely resembles the real world. The Overstory, an award-winning novel about trees and climate activism, was tossed aside after 400+ pages. A bit head-scratching, I know, to give up that far in. A Thousand Acres, in which Jane Smiley wades through the literal and emotional muck of midwestern farm life, seemed far too real — and depressing. So a second Pulitzer winner was put aside, that one after about 120 pages. What kind of reader was I turning into? Why couldn’t I get into literature that was nearly universally acclaimed?

It’s the times, my friends. It would seem that the novels that too closely resemble life as it is aren’t appealing to me right now. I’ve heard similar tales from others, so I know I’m not entirely alone there. When the world changes, our reading changes too.

As for what I am getting into? Anything that takes me fully away from the reality we’re currently occupying. Blake Crouch’s sci-fi novels have been among my favorites. John Jakes’ long historical fiction acts as a nice diversion. A couple of William Kent Krueger’s “Cork O’Connor” thrillers have been surprisingly mentally relieving as well. And the latest addition to that group? Paul Tremblay’s new and stunning Survivor Song.

Also, in honor of the 75th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day, I asked Jonathan Jordan a few questions primarily about WWII books.

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

Published: 2020 | Pages: 307

“So how did the zombie fight go?”

I hadn’t heard of Paul Tremblay before I started reading The Last Conversation (a novella in the Forward collection). But as soon as I was done with that remarkable story, I knew I had to read more of his work. Lucky for me, Paul’s newest book was published in July, and it’s everything I could have hoped for and more.

Though we’re given a prelude, interlude, and postlude that provide some context and backstory, the primary heart of the novel is but a few short hours in which our protagonists try to get across town to a hospital.

Ramola, “Rams,” is a pediatrician. She’s soft-spoken, no-nonsense, and trying to manage a hectic life in Massachusetts as a British ex-pat. Before heading into work to help manage the growing-but-manageable local rabies problem, Rams gets a frantic call from her college friend Natalie (“Nats”). Something terrible has happened — I won’t tell you what — and she’s on her way over to Rams’ house right now with probable exposure to the virus. One more important detail: Nats is eight months pregnant.

Nats is sort of the yang to Rams’ yin. She’s bubbly, sarcastic, insanely courageous. Nats is a fighter, so she’s going to do anything and everything it takes to get to a hospital and save not only her baby, but herself too.

I get that a story about a virus seems prescient, but rabies is very different from coronavirus. It was plenty different to take me out of reality.

About that virus: Tremblay has envisioned a particularly nasty strain of rabies, which is a disease that’s 100% fatal once it gets into your brain. In humans, that process normally takes a month or two, but this sinister variety moves extraordinarily quickly, producing symptoms in just a few hours. Some of those tell-tale signs: fear of water (hydrophobia), delirium (vocal nonsense and babbling), and, of course, the desire to bite. So, even though Rams is insistent on clarifying that it’s not a “zombie” disease, that particular characterization takes hold in the locals’ imagination.

That’s all you need to know, and I’d suggest skipping the Amazon or book jacket description. I love going into novels like this with as little information as possible.

This marvelous and wrenching novel reminds me of Blake Crouch’s novels. The subject/genre is considered by many to be pretty low-brow, and yet there’s a human, soul-stirring element that inserts a more meaningful quality into the plot than what’s often found in zombie stories (though it is an element that’s undoubtedly common among the masters of the horror/thriller genre). I loved this book and finished it in just a couple days and I’m already looking forward to reading the rest of Paul’s books and stories.

A Few Bookish Questions With WWII Author Jonathan W. Jordan

I first found Jonathan’s books through my day job — he was on the podcast a couple years back after Brett, my boss, raved about his work. Since then, Jonathan and I have corresponded a bit about the writer’s craft and it was a delight to ask him a few bookish questions in honor of the 75th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day. I added all of these books (outside of the handful I’ve already read) to my TBR (to be read).

1. You write and review books about WWII. There are thousands of titles on that vast subject. Gimme a handful of your favorite, can't-miss WWII books.

My favorites change over time (usually based on what I am researching). My all-around list is really more than a handful, but here are some faves that I keep coming back to:

My Three Years With Eisenhower, by Harry Butcher. The diary of Ike’s “Man Friday” — if you want to know what it’s like to be Supreme Commander, read this one.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Possibly my all-time favorite World War II book, and certainly my all-time favorite World War II novel. While a satire, it tells much about the irrationality of large, unwieldy organizations — not just the U.S. Army Air Forces.

An Army At Dawn, by Rick Atkinson. The first of his Liberation Trilogy, this one covers the making of a mass, war-winning army almost from scratch.

No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Tells how FDR led the nation through an unprecedented bloodbath and laid the foundation for unprecedented prosperity.

Spearhead, by Adam Makos. What starts as the story of a tank crew in France and Germany turns into more than just a combat history. This is the book the film Fury wished it could be.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. The champ of human endurance stories set in World War II.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Duerr. The only dramatic novel among my go-to list, this one is worth reading just for the beautiful writing.

2. It was just the 75th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day. Do you have books to recommend specific to that theater of the war (or just the end of the war more generally)? 

Target Tokyo, by James M. Scott. Covers not only the Doolittle Raid and the reaction it provoked, but the repercussions on the Chinese people for aiding the raiders.

Ian Toll’s Pacific War trilogy. Ian does a great job on naval and air matters, and his final installment, launching next month, is a magnificent if complex ending to his story arc.

Richard Frank’s Asia-Pacific War trilogy. The author of the brilliant book Downfall, he has only completed Volume I, but it covers a wider range than Toll’s trilogy. It remains to be seen how it holds up, but the first volume is impressive.

The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empireby John Toland. This one deservedly won a Pulitzer for its balanced treatment of Japan’s mentality, conduct of the war and stoicism in the face of destruction.

3. I imagine most of your reading is within the WWII realm. When not doing that sort of work, what are you reading? Do you have any non-WWII topics/genres you gravitate towards?

My last work, the co-authored The War Queenscovered 2,500 years and three continents, which naturally took me out of my American comfort zone. While I have to force myself to go outside my history genre, I have concluded that reading novels is essential to staying broad-minded as a writer. Nowadays, I’m moving into the Cold War now, partly from nostalgia (I grew up on Izod, Rubik’s Cube, Saturday morning cartoons, Madonna, the Police, and Men Without Hats) and partly because I’m getting there, history-wise, in my writing. 

4. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list? 

I’m currently reading The Bronze Horsemana sort of War and Peace set during the 1941-43 Siege of Leningrad written by Paulina Simons. I’m also reading Mere Christianity, written during World War II by C.S. Lewis from a series of talks to the Royal Air Force. I recently finished Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series (Master and Commander and its progeny); The Things They Carried, a Vietnam reflection by veteran Tim O’Brien; and John Le Carre’s classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Other classics I love include Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex and David Chandler’s classic The Campaigns of Napoleon. Modern philosophical works I enjoy coming back to include Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full,a stoic story set in Atlanta in the 1980s, and Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.

Next on the list is probably catching up on Stephen King novels.

5. What are a couple books you find yourself recommending a lot or generally just talking/thinking a lot about?  

My all-time, repeat customer favorite, if not the aforementioned Catch-22,is probably I, Claudiusby Robert Graves. Arguably one of the best historical novels ever.