Review: Love, Death, Robots, and Zombies by Tom O’Donnell

In my search for books with less than 20 reviews to read for The January Project, I came across a Kindle freebie for Love, Death, Robots, and Zombies by Tom O’Donnell. The title tells you exactly what to expect, as all four elements are there in the book, and the price was certainly right. But, to be honest, while I love plenty of books with love, death, zombies and/or robots, this wasn’t to my taste.

On the upside, the author created a unique post-apocalyptic world and I particularly enjoyed the complex and multi-layered relationship between humans and robots. The writing is solid, although there were a few missing words here and there that I suspect were part of an uploading issue. First person present tense is not my favorite point of view, but the author used it effectively, particularly in the battle scenes.

The story follows the journey of a fifteen-year old boy, Tristan, who must leave his library home after raiders find it. He sets off to find a new home with his robot dog and Echo, a teen girl who was his childhood friend before she took up with the raiders. En route, they meet other humans, robots and zombies with differing goals and have to decide who is trustworthy and who is not. It’s a good premise, but wasn’t enough to keep me from thinking about other issues with the story.

I have to wonder who was the intended audience? I’m not a big sci-fi reader, so I don’t have a sense if there is an age breakdown or not for materiel intended for teen readers and those for adults. There was almost no swearing, until the last thirty pages, and the shift seemed jarring. Until that point, I would have guessed the audience was tween boys.

What really irritated me as a reader was gender politics. As an adult woman, reading this book made me feel icky. The female characters, of which there were two, may as well have been blow-up dolls. One is beautiful, but has no personality. The other serves the primary purpose of being penetrated. The hero seems to be under the impression this girl wants to be sexually used. We know he’s a hero, because her free wheeling sexuality makes him sad. The hero does not see her as a victim of sexual abuse, so it is never called out an inappropriate behavior. ICK! Double ICK! ICKY, ICK, ICK, ICK! I cannot endorse this book, but the author will probably sell lots of books because of this one review.

This book got me thinking about something I learned in film classes called “The Masculine Gaze.” I suspect there is a literary bias toward “The Feminine Gaze,” particularly in literature aimed at the under 18 set. Maybe some of my dislike for this book stems from my expectations for competent female characters. This bias is a topic I hope to address more fully in a future blog.

In the meantime, I want the books I read to have strong characters, male and female and I want the books my kids read to have strong male and female characters too. Fortunately, there are a lot of great choices out there.

 

Review: War and Grace by Desmond McDougall

I finished War and Grace: One Woman’s Time at the Trenches by Desmond McDougall a couple of days ago, but sitting down to write a review has proved a challenge. My thoughts are still disorganized, so I’ll attempt to sort them out here.

war&graceWar and Grace is the story of Grace McDougall nee Smith, a leading figure in the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and a woman who passed most of World War I serving near the allied battlefront. Her youngest son wrote the book and many times while reading, I was swept with nostalgia for my childhood moments of listening my grandpa tell stories about the Civil War that he heard from his who fought in it. Reading War and Grace was like overhearing another family’s history. As I process the book, I struggle to merge the family story feel with my trained historian brain. Some elements drove me bonkers, and yet, I can’t remember the last time a book spiked my curiosity the way this one has and left me totally jazzed about jumping down the rabbit hole of research.

The nitpicking critical part of my brain wanted to remove the unnecessary exclamation points and have more context. I suspect the author wrote as he talked. The prose is a bit clunky in places and prone to hyperbole, but I think that is part of why this story tapped into my nostalgia for my grandpa’s stories. As for the context, some of the individuals and places referenced may be more familiar to those who went through the British school system. I consider myself fairly well versed in European history, but I had a hard time grafting the events in War and Grace onto the overall timeline of World War I and my understanding of British involvement in the war and the military hierarchy. I’m a map girl, so I’m glad one was included so I could see the areas where FANY operated, but having a few dated maps that showed a snapshot of the battle lines would have heightened my temporal grounding. I would have loved a reference list as well since the author mentioned several published and unpublished works used to guide his storytelling, but I was left to wonder how much came through the filter of memory.

And yet, in spite of, or perhaps, because of, these shortcomings, I cannot wait to read more about this subject. I was unfamiliar with FANY and the role of women at the front lines outside of the work of the Red Cross.  Grace McDougall is a fascinating woman who should be more widely known as a feminist pioneer. Grace’s life intersected with then socio-cultural shift from the 19th to the 20th century. A strong moralist streak and deep seeded patriotism drove her to challenge the patriarchal establishment. The nature of this being Grace’s story means the reader does not get a complete picture of the obstacles she faced and how systemic they were. I want to know what other women thought of Grace and her struggle for equality. Were other people as in awe of her as I am or did they find her a nuisance? This is fascinating stuff. I need to read more about it.

If the sole measure of a book is how excited the reader feels, and how much they talk it up with anyone who will listen, then War and Grace is a 5 star. I’m going with a 4 because of the style elements.

If you are interested in World War I, or British history, or history in general, this is a worthwhile read and the paperback is fairly cheap on Amazon. My daughter wants to read it. If she does, I’ll share her thoughts.

And if anyone out there can recommend further books on the subject of FANY or women in World War I, please let me know. You’ll help me save a little bit of time researching what to read, and let me have more time reading. Thanks.

 

 

 

Review: Threads of Desire by KM Jackson

There were surprisingly few unread books on my Kindle with less than 20 reviews, but Threads of Desire (Creative Hearts Book 3) by K.M. Jackson was one of them. I have not read the previous two books in the Creative Hearts series, but that didn’t matter. Threads of Desire works as a stand alone, but I suspect there are some Easter Eggs for those who have read the first two in the series.

I Threads of Desire is a contemporary romance with a friends to lovers trope and is the sort of story that can only take place in New York City, and I mean that in the best possible way. The heroine, Gabby, works in the fashion industry, and the hero, Nick, is in finance. The author, K.M. Jackson presents a lived in New York City that is realistic and reminds me of what I miss from the brief time I lived in the NYC area. The city was my second favorite character in the book, behind Gabby.

So often in the romance genre, the characters are all fabulously wealthy and successful, or at least the hero is. Part of my enjoyment in this book came from the characters’ professional struggles, which made them far more relatable than a billionaire-vampire-shiek. I particularly found myself drawn to Gabby, a curvy designer in the size zero fashion world. The author doesn’t reveal Gabby’s size and she doesn’t need to. I love that Gabby is happy and confident with who she is physically. She doesn’t need to lose weight to fit into some off the rack dress. Gabby makes her own style. The author’s description of design and fabrics seemed to come from a place of knowledge that ran deeper than watching a few episodes of “Project Runway.”  Threads of Desire tapped into the same awe I get when watching “Project Runway.” I may not be fashionable myself, but I love witnessing creativity at work. This book gave me a glimpse behind the curtain.

I didn’t love the hero in quite the same way as I did other aspects of the book. But all in all, this was an enjoyable by an author I’ll seek out again. I discovered I have another book by K.M. Jackson on my kindle, Bounce. The short tease for Bounce offered at the end of Threads of Desire has earned that book a promotion to the top of my to-be-read list once I’m through with the January Project. Bounce has a lot of great reviews already.

Review: Hearth Song by Lois Greiman

So this is kind of cool – I am reviewing a book that is not even out yet. I was in the right place at the right time when the author, Lois Greiman, handed out some advance copies.  She’s been on my “Authors I really should read” list for a couple of years. Even though my copy says “Advance Uncorrected Proof,” in my mind, this is a polished finalized work.  The editing was really clean, which is something I cannot say for a number of books I’ve purchased or have attempted to read.

As I read Hearth Song, I thought a lot about genre. I’d plunk this into subcategories  like  “Fiction -women – ranchers – horses – parenting,” but there is a keyword to describe this book that defies categories. The core story revolves around Bravura Lambert and her journey from insecure to confident. Bravura is a largely self-sufficient woman who owns a business and cares for her five-year-old autistic daughter, Lily, while her husband, Dane, lives away and works on the Dakota oil wells. I was a bit overwhelmed in the first chapter, which takes place at a rodeo type event, because I had not read the previous book in this series, Hearth Stone. There were a lot of characters introduced, and some of them had two or three names (Bravura is also called Vura and Vey for instance.) I’m glad I stuck with the book, because the character journey pulled me in. At times, I wanted to yell at the heroine, and at other times, I wanted to be a shoulder for her to cry on and at still other points, I cheered her on.

Ultimately, I’d add a subcategory for empathy. Greiman drew me into a world that was as foreign to me as Mars and made me care about a character, Bravura, who I wouldn’t seek out or identify with in real life. That’s the beauty of storytelling and why I read.  I doubt I’ll go back and read the first book in the series, because I wasn’t 100% in love with the ranch setting and because that book has reviews, but this was a great way to kick off The January Project.

The January Project, 2016

I’m going to be blunt. 2015 was a crap year for me, with pretty much all my energy was sucked up by efforts to recover from my broken arm (Jan 26, 2015 – I’ll celebrate the anniversary by hiding in bed). I’m finally starting to get over the mental fog, but the best of 2015 lists? Um yeah. Didn’t happen.

I’m still committed to The January Project, even after last year’s abrupt interruption. My goal this month is purchase nothing new (not even free books) and to clear some books off of my shelf while also giving reviews to authors in need.

If you don’t know much about the book business, think of your own life a moment. How much do you depend on reviews? Would you buy a two star vacuum from Amazon? What about a book that had thirty five star reviews, but the only text ones said things like “This is the best book ever!” I was burned a few too many times on that last one in 2015 and quit a lot of crap books with lousy editing.

Book reviews and sales are a numbers game. An author has to have a certain number of reviews to be considered for those nifty newsletters or special sale promotions. An author can’t get sales and reviews without visibility. You can’t get visibility in the form of “readers who liked … also liked….” without a certain number of text reviews. It blows. I cannot change the system. I also cannot change the policy that strips some authors of reviews because they know another author or because a fan friends them on Facebook.

What I can do is read books and write reviews. In the month of January, I commit to cleaning my shelves and reviewing books with less than twenty reviews. I challenge you to read a new to you author and leave a thoughtful review.

Look for reviews over the next few weeks.

Review: Living with Your Past Selves

Living with your Past Selves by Bill Hiatt is my latest entry in The January Project. I picked this up on a free day and it embodies the opportunities and risks in self-publishing like few other books I’ve encountered. Read on as I try to explain what I mean.

This novel, aimed at teen readers dips into the Arthurian legends and Welsh mythology and pulls them into the modern era, but defies easy genre classification. Although magic appears in the form of witches, spell-casting and shape-shifters, I wouldn’t call this paranormal, nor Magical Realism. Fantasy seems the best descriptor to me, but I don’t read a lot of fantasy.

There is so much to like about this book – the concept, a modern day teen discovers he is the reincarnation of Taliesin and that someone or something from his past life is trying to destroy him, is fresh. There are some terrific moments of dialogue between the teen characters and even the football players are allowed to have depth. I noticed one typographical error in the entire 600+ book, which is significantly less than this blog post will have.

And yet….. Something was off in this book and I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the long paragraphs full of introspection disengaged me. I tried to see them as part of the fantasy world building, but some paragraphs extended over two pages and the ideas got lost within them.

Or maybe I’m not used to being inside the head of a teen-male character. Plenty of books for the middle school audience feature male narrators, but I’m not aware of so many for teens, except Catcher in the Rye. Tal resists his hormones too much for him to be confused with Holden Caulfield, but when he does, we get a page long paragraph about why he’s trying not to be insulting to women. I was more insulted by the cardboard female characters than by Tal’s page long discussion of why he tried not to look at boobs.

What pulled me out of the story world the most was that I couldn’t ground the story temporally. Living with Your Past Selves felt dusty. Tal’s friend Stan is a computer wiz who designed the mayor’s website, but it works plausibility wise, but none of the teens have a cell phone. If you have a group of twenty odd teens, you will smart phones. They will take selfies, they will take video unless they are characters in this book. The author took such time with building the mythology but nothing explained the lack of normal teen behavior.

I checked when the book was released. 2012. These kids should be comparing their iPhone models, instead this technology isn’t mentioned until half-way through the book and then once. The author could have handled this so much better. If the manuscript were an old one dug out from a box beneath the bed, then put a date at the start like “Fall 2000.” Another option would be to keep the present day, but have the town’s magic cause it to be a cell-service black hole.

Authors will make their own choices. That is their right as artists and content producers. Living with Your Past Selves is Mr. Haitt’ book, not mine, but as a reader, I couldn’t buy into this particular story world. Sorry.

Review: Flirting with Fangs by Peg Pierson

I swear I’m not a vampire book reader and yet every January, it seems one has fallen into my lap that looks intriguing and needs reviews. This year I found an autographed copy of Peg Pierson’s Flirting with Fangs that probably came in a raffle basket.

Flirting with Fangs is a high concept farce. Heroine Bailey Hamilton writes a successful series of vampire romance novels until her mojo ups and leaves alongside her cheating husband. When a bit of magic brings her brooding vampire hero, Torin Kane, to life complications arise for Bailey’s heart and career.

Brutal honesty – I didn’t care for this book at first. I almost stopped twenty pages in because I hadn’t connected with the book and I’m not sure why. The concept amused me (I happen to be a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series). I kept reading because I noticed a quirk in the writing that impressed me. Pierson’s use of language changed in a meaningful way. The segments Pierson wrote as a novel by Bailey Hamilton incorporated a more flowery and melodramatic imagery than presented in the story’s “present day.” Torin’s dialogue as Torin-not-written-by-Bailey introduced a third linguistic style.

The contrast between these styles kept me engaged enough that I read on to see how my observation played out. I’m glad I did because the last third of this book is a rollicking laugh out loud farce that combines violence, scatological humor, sex, Halloween, public disaster, public drunkenness and Satan. Yeah, it’s that kind of book. In a standard rating form, I’d give the first part of the book a 3, well written and clever, but not my taste. The later portion full out 5 star absurdism.

I would not be a fan lining up to buy Bailey Hamilton’s books, but I’m open to reading more Peg Pierson.

You can pick up Flirting with Fangs at Amazon    or Barnes & Noble.