REVIEW Once Upon a Zombie By Billy Phillips and Jenny Nissenson

Review ( does NOT contain spoilers)

A book with the word zombie in the title might not appeal to those people who do not really fancy stories about mindless, flesh-chomping, feet-shuffling corpses. However, to dismiss it so offhandedly would be a mistake because they, those people, would miss the opportunity to enjoy an eccentric fantasy thriller with a specific sense of humour that pays homage to the wonderful spookiness of the classics of the genre. The writers invite us to embark upon an exciting journey into Wonderland, a realm which is “one endless wave of imagination” (as one of the characters describes it), an experience worth having.

The whimsical title, with its clipped version of the classical once upon a time, is a clever indication that this is a book which defies expectations at every twist and turn of its action-packed, fast-paced narrative.

The plot largely centres on Caitlin Fletcher, who, at first, appears to be your typical 21st century nervous teenager, plagued by anxiety, fear, self-doubt, and a deep sense of inadequacy. She struggles, however, with something far greater than the recent move from the US to the UK, the meanness of bullying colleagues at her new “hoity-toity” high school, body issues or the terrifying prospect of dancing in public: the loss of her charmingly eccentric British mother when she was only ten. Her mom, Evelyn Fletcher, went missing four years before the start of this story, on one of the annual visits to London to see her mom’s British family. To top it all, she vanished on Caitlin’s birthday. On Halloween! And Halloween is now only 24 hours away!

The family now consists of her well-meaning but somewhat helpless father and Natalie, her baby sister – big-mouthed, feistily nerdy, an officially acknowledged prodigy in various academic fields and aspiring photojournalist.

Sightings, mysterious occurrences in or near graveyards around the world where the most revered and beloved authors of books for young readers are buried – L. Frank Baum, Hans Christian Andersen, the brothers Grimm, Carlo Collodi, J.M. Barrie, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll – are signs that something strange and magical is about to happen … and Lewis Carroll, whose Alice novels Caitlin’s mother loved, happens to be buried not far from her home.

On her way to the All Hallows Eve Masquerade Ball at the Kingshire American School in London, where she is supposed to meet the handsome and amazingly charming Jack, Caitlin takes a route which lands her – literally — in Wonderland. She is actually called upon to prevent the “unthinkable”, namely the complete zombification of this enchanted realm. Zombification is synonymous with decay, both physical and moral, “empathy and decency” being replaced by “savage yearnings”. The misfortune befallen Wonderland has turned almost all its inhabitants into “mindless automatons”, “remorseless, bloodthirsty ghouls” and the plague appears unstoppable.
Caitlin’s aides are the four semi-zombified princesses: Rapunzel – who repeatedly puts her long tresses to good use, Cinderella – decomposing but still well-groomed, Sleeping Beauty – trying hard to live up to the name Beauty when her face is “susceptible to mildew”, and Snow White – with “skin as pale as fallen snow and just as cold”, all of them valiantly struggling to control their vile urges, but slowly losing their grip. Lord Amethyst Bartholomew, aka the Caterpillar, who has given up the hookah and is an organic tea drinker now, plays the part of the wise guide, instructor and mentor. She is also seconded by her sister, Natalie, the science buff, who alternately coaxes and bullies the reluctant saviour into action. Last but not least, there is the mysterious Jack who belongs to both worlds.
Caitlin crosses paths with the Queen of Hearts, the Duke of Clubs, Peter Pan, the Big Bad Wolf, the Little Mermaid, and a host of other wonderful characters from the canon of the literature for the young at heart of all ages. A dazzling array of creatures, plants, artefacts both magic and ordinary, some benevolent, others malevolent — most of them strangely familiar – either assist or hinder Caitlin on her heroic mission. After numerous dramatic events, blood-curdling encounters, feats of great courage, hilarious mishaps and heartbreaking revelations (which I leave for the reader to discover), the story skilfully builds to a spectacular climax … and good triumphs over evil , but the victory, however spectacular, is tinged with sadness. Moreover, and more importantly, it is far from decisive. After all this is just book one of a – hopefully – long saga!

In addition to being a bona fide tale of fantastic adventures, the book is also a record of Caitlin’s process of self-healing, of gradual suppression of the urge “to occupy herself with herself “which only leads to an exacerbation of her fears and anxieties, of learning how to turn perceived weaknesses into strengths. In Wonderland there are horrifying things lurching in the dark or hiding in plain sight. Not the projections of a fearful mind but literal, deadly menaces. Confronted with these “real” dangers, however hilarious and over the top they might be at times, the teenager learns the value of reaching out, of compassion and selflessness, of pluck and determination.

On a more personal note, I have to add that what I have enjoyed most is the authors’ witty, intelligent and fun take on the classics of fantasy literature (especially Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), on science (physics, biology, psychology), philosophy (Zeno’s paradox), with a humorous nod at contemporary concerns, fashions and fads (gluten-free, sugar -free, wheat-free energy bars).Despite the fact that the basic conflict is the eternal conflict between good and evil, light and darkness, beauty and decay, this novel is never corny or preachy, nor is it presumptuous or patronizing. The authors are unafraid to pack the pages with cultural and scientific references in the firm belief – I think – that young readers are perfectly capable of understanding and enjoying not only fantastic adventures but also smart, intriguing language. The characters are thoroughly modern teenagers who blog, text, use mobile phones (actually the mobile has an important role in the unfolding of the plot), and use teenage lingo (zonked, ginormous, awesome, wanna, lemme, gimme a break, freak out, etc.).. At the same time they are highly articulate, smart and do not shy away from discussing sophisticated concepts or from using high-brow vocabulary with ease, humour and gusto. Thankfully they are not fans of the obnoxious, moronic, jarring, annoyingly popular “like”, which they use only sparingly and with commendable restraint.

Once upon a Zombie is a delightful, riveting, informative read, a deft mixture of genuine emotion, quirky humour and hair-raising adventures. I unreservedly, wholeheartedly recommend it. Next month there will be two more dolls coming out, Zombie Alice® and Zombie Queen of Hearts®, but, in the meantime, be sure to buy this wonderful book on Amazon.


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