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: 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: Getting a life… by Beth Watson

Getting a Life, Even if You’re Dead (No Going Back, Book 1) by Beth Watson is the next entry in The January Project, my one month effort to give authors reviews.

I love the title and cover for Getting A Life, Even if You’re Dead and I enjoyed a previous book by one of Beth Watson’s alter egos so picking this up on a Kindle free day was a no brainer.  Two female leads narrate. Kendra isn’t happy about being dragged along on her mother’s trip to photograph cemeteries in Paris.  How will operation get a boyfriend succeed if she’s not at home? Soon, Kendra has bigger problems in the form of her best friend, Amber. Amber (the other narrator) is dead and has been long before meeting Kendra three years ago.  Amber implores Kendra to help her with two lost souls, one alive, Pierrot and one dead, Loic. Loic doesn’t remember his death, but blames his brother Pierrot. To help Loic pass on to the afterlife, Kendra needs Amber to navigate mysteries in a physical world.

Great concept, but something fell a little flat for me in the execution and I wish I could pinpoint the issue. From a technical standpoint, I have no quibble with the book. The plot buzzed along.  The setting made me feel as though I were creeping around a Parisian cemetery and traipsing through the streets.  The hook at the end makes me want to read the next book in the series. A number of pity one liners prompted my husband to ask “Why are you smiling?” All the elements are there. I think the hiccup for me was a failure to develop a deep relationship with the characters.  It may be because I read this concurrent with the deeply emotional satisfying The Boys of Summer by Sarah Madison.  The dual narrators may have thrown me for a loop. I only connected with Amber in the last few chapters. Maybe I’m too old to relate to this young adult/teen novel? Perhaps if I had dreamt of Paris or viewed it as a romantic city rather than one where I battled waves of tourists and couldn’t get service at restaurants, the story would have resonated more.

In my reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I’ll go with a 4/5 although a 3.5 more accurately reflects my reaction.  If my daughter is interested, I’d share this book with her. The story is wholly appropriate for the intended audience of later tweens and teens. I suspect the failings to fully enjoy this novel fall more to this reader than the author.  Besides, due to that hook, I am looking forward to more of this series.

I make no money by offering these, but here are the buy links:


Barnes & Noble:

My top reads of 2013

If you’ve followed me since inception, you know the routine, and you might need your head examined. For the rest of you, here’s the run-down.  Each year in December, I post the ten best books I’ve read all year, regardless of when the book first appeared in publication.  I consider ebooks, audio books and yes, paper books so long as I read them this calendar year.  And since a few days remain in 2013, I pledge I will only read crap the rest of the year so as to not ruin my list.

10. Flowertown by S.G. Redling — I had high expectations for this dystopian novel and this book met-if not surpassed- them. After a chemical disaster leaves an Iowa town in quarantine, the inhabitant yearn for freedom or at least answers. Ellie is a terrific anti-hero who must decide whether to continue a slow death or find a way to channel her rage at the true enemy.  As an FYI- There’s a lot of language in here – didn’t bother me but it may put off some readers and may explain why it hasn’t taken off like some other dystopian series aimed more at the young adult market.

9. If the Shoe Fits by Amber T. Smith — This updated Cinderella story features an evil ex-stepmother, a talking cat, a pair of memorable shoes, Mr. Charming and an even more charming heroine in Ella.    I love that Ella has a lot of self-confidence and can laugh at her own propensity for getting into awkward social situations. She is the type of gal who will make you laugh so hard to spit beer out your nose on girls night out.  There is a terrific sense of play in this book.  If you want serious literature, run the other direction.  This book is a light as air delightful bon-bon, but sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.

8. Mrs. Perfect by Jane Porter — Jane Porter did something I never thought was possible – she made a type A perfectionist super Mom human. Part of the appeal for me in this book stems from how well it meshed with book #2 on my list.  The heroines surely ran into each other somewhere along the way with bile and hilarity ensuing.

7. The Help by Kathryn Stockett — this is one of those books that will fuel conversations for years.  It’s not a perfect book, but memorable with winning characters you think about long after you close the covers.

6. Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea — I blogged about this book last week.  Click here to see why it made my best list.

5. The Time Between by Karen White — Not only is this a strange choice since it actually came out this year, but I haven’t met anyone else who has read it, which is weird and a shame.  I’ll be honest, if I’d seen it in a bookstore, I might have walked past it, but I received a complementary copy from the author at a writing conference and picked it up when a bunch of other books were in moving boxes.  I won’t spoil the mystery surrounding the great aunts, but will say if you enjoy Southern Fiction (it’s set in the Carolinas), or even stories that address familial guilt, pick up this book.  You can practically smell the sea breeze.

4. Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim — Embrace your inner Nellie Olsen – Alison did, but this book is so much more. Part Hollywood memoir, part feminist manifest, part overcoming horrors, you’ll learn about humanity and laugh so hard you might pee your wetsuit. (See – that’s why you need to read the book).

3. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker — Another young adult dystopian, but this one, I’d share with my 10 year old.  Unlike many dystopians that feature a world divided by have/have nots and marked by violence, this looks at transition time.  The earth’s rotation is slowing, the time between sunrise and sunset increases daily.  This almost poetic look at the banal during a life changing epoch reminds me of my fave nuclear holocaust film/series of the 1980’s Testament.

2. Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple — freakin’ hilarious and I admire the untraditional storytelling.

1. The Fault in our Stars by John Green — I finished this several months ago and words still fail me when I try to communicate the elegant, unapologetic beauty of this story of about teens with childhood cancer

So that’s it – what should I read next?

2011 Best Reads

In the spirit of top ten lists, I present to you the best books I read in 2011. Please note I did not say published in 2011. Most are recent titles and if you haven’t read them, well, maybe you should.  I’ll present a brief “honorable mention” list at the end, which will include more mass market books than the rest of the list.

10. Faithful Place  by Tana French (2010) – Another fine entry in the Dublin Murder Squad series.  Not quite as good as The Likeness, but still a terrific read. French knows how to create discomforting environments and the grungy housing development featured here is no exception.

9. Shades of Gray – Jasper Fforde (2009) – An intriguing new series from the man who brought us Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next. Set in a future world, one’s professional and personal fate is determined by one’s ability to see color.  The ability to keep track of your spoon is also useful.

8. The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly (2006) – I listened to this as an audio book and invented household chores so I could finish the story of a twelve-year-old British boy who discovers a hole between worlds when a German plane crashes into his garden during World War II. During his quest, young David encounters the Woodsman, seven dwarves and faces his nemesis, the Crooked Man.Cover for Nesbo's Snowman

7. The Snowman – Jo Nesbo – (2011 in translation) The 7th entry in the Harry Hole series provided my entree to this Norwegian series.   I can’t wait to read more. Harry is the rockingist detective in fiction.  Dude listens to Franz Ferdinand.  Nuff said.

6.  Packing for MarsMary Roach (2010) – She survives a ride in the “Vomit Comet” and asks the questions no-one else will. Sure she covers the effect of bone loss and mental health of future voyagers to Mars, but also the problem of weight of fecal matter and all with her trademark blend of humor and serious science.

5. The Box – Gunter Grass – I blogged on this book earlier this year.

4.  A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (2010) There’s been a lot of talk in some circles about what a “Post-Modern” novel will look like.  This probably isn’t it, but with an entirely readable and understandable chapter written in Powerpoint, non-linear narrative it breaks with tradition. In case you find that off putting – don’t.  This is also a wonderfully written book with enjoyable characters and a cohesive story.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (2010) A tremendous work of non-fiction, one that recognizes both and incredible life story, a woman who unknowingly changed the entire medical field, and the challenge researchers take in tracking down such stories.  Clear some time for this book. Once you start it, you won’t want to put it down, unless it is to think about medical ethics, race relations, financial benefits or any of the myriad topics brought together in this one volume.

2. The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games – 2008, Catching Fire 2009 & Mocking Jay 2009) – This series shows how grown up Young Adult really is.  In twenty, or perhaps even ten years, these will be part of the school curriculum.  For those who argue these books where teens fight to the death to win food for their provinces are too violent for young adult, all I can say is these books are way better than Lord of the Flies, which was violent and cruel. The Hunger Games takes place in a cruel world, but Katniss, Peeta and Cinna represent different types of goodness that cannot be defeated.

Covor for Skippy Dies1. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray (2010) – I love a book that makes me laugh out loud. As the title tells you, Skippy Dies, but the joy is in the journey Murray takes his readers on as we untangle the steps that led to Skippy’s death. The boarding school boys may well be inmates at an asylum and the none of the adults will take home the Teacher of the Year prize but they all leap off the page with a joie de vivre that will make your own life a little brighter.

Happy Reading!

PS – Here’s the honorable mention list: A Man in Uniform – Kate Taylor, The Apprentice – Tess Gerritsen, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs, Bossypants – Tina Fey, and Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries.

Review: The Iron King/ The Iron Daughter by Julie Kagawa

Young Adult literature is an exciting place to be. As J. K. Rowling proved in Harry Potter, Young Adult isn’t just kid stuff. I adored the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and, yes, I’ll admit it, even the Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot.  When I heard the buzz around Julie Kagawa‘s The Iron King, I had to check it out.

I’ll be blunt. I like Kagawa’s books about the Iron Fey and I’ll seek out the next installments. The fairies occupying Kagawa’s world are vicious, petty and vain creatures, far removed from the Disneyfied version of happy creatures making flower necklaces. They draw more inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Indeed, the infamous Puck is a major character in Kagawa’s books. The descriptions of the worlds the fairies occupy are at times opulent, at times vague, but done in a way that makes sense given the first person point of view.  Our narrator, Meghan Chase doesn’t have time to consider the curtains when she’s running for her life from fairies with shiny, sharp teeth.  So far, the series balances action with moments of reflection that say more about our human world than the one occupied by mythological creatures.

But, and if one is going to muse on something like this, there better be a but, I find myself troubled by the over all message that seems to be emerging.  Although neither the Summer nor the Winter Fey emerge as particularly heroic, the Iron Fey represent the villainous forces our heroine and her rag-tag team of outsiders must defeat. The Summer and Winter Fey draw their magic from human imagination, creativity and lust. The Iron Fey, developing from technology, destroy the forces the rest of the Fey hold  dear.

The anti-technology message in The Iron King and The Iron Daughter rings loud and clear. We’ve heard similar arguments before – TV rots the mind, video games destroy our capacity to think.  I finished the second book the day after Steve Jobs’ death was announced. He, to me, is a prime example of how technology and creativity are not mutually exclusive.  Consider the explosion of e-media. Looking at Rube Goldberg Machines on You-Tube with my children a few months ago showed people using their creativity to create a ‘buzz-worthy’ video. We spent nearly an hour watching them, then spent longer trying to create our own. I’m a firm believer that technology can enhance, not destroy, creativity.

I wonder how many people are reading Kagawa’s series on an e-reader? Do they pick up the same uncomfortable message I do? There are several more books in the series. I intend to read on.  In that way Kagawa succeeded.  I have to continue to find out if my fears are substantiated.