“Since August, I’ve fought zombie therapists, killed my own sister-in-law, matched wits with both a mad scientist and his annoying child, and trekked across the zombie wasteland that is the South and Midwest. And I’ve done all this to keep my marriage together.” (p185)
Having survived the zombie apocalypse, saved their marriage and worked as zombie exterminators, Sarah and Dave find themselves on a quest to save the world. The pair have a cure for the zombie plague in their hands, one that they know works because Sarah had to use it on Dave at the end of Flip This Zombie. He’s remained human so far but that hasn’t stopped Sarah from having nightmares about being chased by zombies led by Dave.
Every time I look back over my shoulder, it seems like they’re right there. Their feet pound on the pavements, their clawing fingers (complete with long, dirty, dead-person fingernails – um, manicure people!!) reach for me, trying to give me one scratch, one bite, one nick that spells certain death… er, living death… for me.(p2)1
Rumours persist about a Midwest Wall that splits the uninfected USA from the Badlands and the pair have decided to take the cure to the people who could potentially synthesise it and distribute it more widely. En route they stumble upon former “stalkerazzi” Nicole Nessing and then promptly get captured by yet another bunch of nutjobs. The leader of said nutjobs decides to throw Dave in a pit of zombies and let the women go to spread the word about not messing with Bumfuck-Nowhere, Oklahoma. Petersen shows off her geek credentials here albeit with each and every reference explained which negates the effect somewhat.
“I love you,” I shouted.
He looked at me evenly and then he smiled. “I know.”
I blinked, and for a moment the tension faded. “Are you quoting Empire Strikes Back? At a time like this you’re geeking out on me! Seriously?” (p56)
Dave survives because
carbon-freezing isn’t fatal it turns out that he’s developed zombie-like powers after being cured, like being invisible to zombies. He breaks out of the pit, along with the zombies, and in the ensuing chaos our heroes flee to the nearby town of Plainspark to hunt for supplies. Instead they find drug-addled British rocker Colin McCray (note to authors: Google your character names to avoid embarrassing phonetic clashes with actual celebrities) in the hospital where he and his band checked in for rehab. Eventually they all make it to the Wall, or rather an electrified, barbed-wire topped fence complete with armed guards who are there to shoot any uninfected who get too close. There’s been a cover-up and the official story is that no one west of the Wall survived the initial outbreak. It’s going to make getting the cure over the Wall hard but rest assured that the dynamic duo prevail.
After reading the previous books in the Living with the Dead series and concluding that they were lacking both romance and comedy in a purported zom-rom-com2, along with any hint of characterisation, here I am with the third installment. I am clearly a masochist. Perhaps I should have “Will read shit books for your entertainment” tattooed on my forehead for future reference.
As before the writing is light and not particularly offensive, but with this book’s extended length the lack of any substance becomes more significant. Aside from the ongoing fashion-related humour that is completely wasted on me, it feels like a lot of the supposedly comical banter between Sarah and Dave is based on Petersen’s own married life and thus completely wasted on everyone else. I for one play a fuck-tonne of games, including the oft-mentioned Halo, and I don’t find any of the gaming references remotely amusing3, let alone the overly-explicit film references.
When considering the romance angle again, it struck me that this aspect has generally been underplayed and indeed quite sanitised4. The series is clearly not aimed at a YA audience (unless marital bickering is the new big thing) and yet it is all very chaste, consisting of warm, fuzzy feelings from Sarah when Dave gets all protective and Sarah getting petrified whenever Dave is in trouble. Whenever they are separated and reunited, there’s some kissing but that’s about it. I think sex is hinted at once in Flip This Zombie but that’s about it. I’m not expecting Richard Morgan levels of detail but a little could have gone a long way.
This prudishness also extends to how the pair react to other characters. Earlier in the book, Nicole explains how she used her “feminine wiles” to get across the Mexican border to which Sarah expresses horror (but inwardly sees how it might have been necessary) whilst Dave is silently disillusioned by his gossip reporting heroine having to trade sex for favours. Sympathy might have been more appropriate for a woman on her own without a gun or a husband to provide alternative choices of action, but it’s not the first time Sarah has come across as an utter bitch (although it is for Dave). Nicole employs a similar tactic to retrieve her camcorder after the group are captured and once again, we get shitty responses from both Sarah (“Standards, Nicole!”) and Dave (“Ew!!!”). To top off her judgemental stance, Sarah asks whether Nicole filmed what she did with the guard. Amazing.
At this point I decided that I really didn’t want to know any more about such a pair of arseholes, and it seems as though the author was willing to accomodate me. After three books it’s clear that Petersen has no intention of delving deeper into Sarah and Dave’s relationship and its history, which is sensible given that she’s defined Sarah and David’s pre-apocalypse relationship as arguments spawned by Dave being an unemployed bum who plays games until 3am (I can relate to this) and Sarah having to work a shitty job for the two of them, whilst their post-apocalypse relationship consists of Dave always being right and Sarah getting turned on by Dave acting like a caveman. Some depth here would be nice but when you’ve got one-dimensional characters there’s not much left to explore.
In short, there’s a clear divide between what I want these books to be and what they are, so I’m going to call a stop here and not bother with any future installments. I think I’ve used up my shit books quota for the year (eight at last count, and reviewing those last few is going to be painful) and it’s not like I haven’t got other (better) books to read and review. Unsurprisingly I’ve developed a backlog of books I want to review for the site, including some books I actually liked! Shocking I know.
1That quote is a pretty good test of whether you’re going to like this or any of the other Living with the Dead books. Evidently I’m not in the target demographic as I found it a terrible joke, but if you did then knock yourself out, although you might want to start with the first book Married with Zombies. I’d just like to note that Never Slow Dance with a Zombie is much better and in the absence of a review from me (I’m working on it), go and read Hannah Strom-Martin’s review for Strange Horizons or better yet just buy the book.
2 I appreciate that this is about as likely to stick as “sexy zombie” as a substitute for “zombie romantic comedies”, but with zombies currently the big thing in YA novels a short name for the sub-genre would be useful.
3 Incidentally, the idea that playing a FPS game gives you the ability to operate a real-life rocket launcher is ludicrous. The Gantz manga/anime/film shows a more realistic view of what would happen when the untrained are presented with the unfamiliar.
4 “White-wash” may be a better, more general term for the series when one considers the complete lack of POC characters. Or indeed a complete lack of GLBT characters too5.
5 Let’s just pretend the Bechdel Test doesn’t exist6.
6 I know. Footnotes for my footnotes is a bit too Pterry.
It’s been a few months since the events of Married With Zombies in which our heroes Sarah and David overcame their marital difficulties in the process of surviving the zombie apocalypse. Since fleeing Seattle, they’ve found a new home in the New Phoenix survivor camp and turned their natural zombie killing skills into a mercenary business, Zombiebusters Extermination Inc.
Amidst rumours of a faster, smarter strain of undead that Sarah dubs “bionic zombies”, the pair find a secret government research lab complete with a mad scientist who claims that he has developed a cure for the zombie plague. The only problem is that he needs “live” zombies to test the cure’s efficacy. Sarah’s hope that the world can still be saved wins out over David’s pessimism and they take on the contract, but things are not what they seem and once again their relationship hangs in the balance.
Flip This Zombie is the second book in Petersen’s Living with the Dead series and is another short-ish book that rattles along at a breakneck pace. Having set the scene in Married With Zombies, Petersen extends her post-apocalyptic world and fixes the by-the-numbers action seen previously but the primary flaws of the first book remain – namely that Sarah is an unlikeable narrator, action takes precedence over character development and there’s not much rom in what is being marketed as a zombie rom-com. In fact, there’s not much com for that matter – “laugh out loud with witnesses on the train funny” this is not.
As before we’re trapped in Sarah’s head and it’s not a nice or funny place to be. She’s still churning out those (un)dead/die/death jokes, remarking that life post-apocalypse was much the same as before: “Well, I still have a dead-end job… undead end, I guess is more accurate.” (p1). Soon afterwards she notes that many of their clients are already dead by the time Zombiebusters arrive on the scene, which seems like a poignant observation before she continues “…but seriously, if you haven’t figured out how to protect yourselves after three months of zombie hell.. well you sort of deserve what you get.” (p3). Things only get better when she and David encounter a kid (hilariously nicknamed “The Kid”) in their attempts to capture a live zombie. Sarah first suggests that they use The Kid as bait and then later, because he gives her some lip, she tells David that they should abandon him in the desert. Nice.
Borderline sociopathic tendencies aside, Rob Berg makes the good point that “it is extremely gratifying to read a zombie story that centers on a kickass female narrator who stands up to the undead horde without fear; who is in a partnership with her husband, rather than simply needing to be rescued by him”. This is all very true, except Petersen undermines Sarah’s independence by having her turn to mush whenever David gets all alpha male and protective, and then compounds that by engineering a situation near the end of the book in which David has to rescue Sarah (for which she mentally promises him a blow-job due to the level of her fuck-up).
The action is better than the first book, if only because it is less repetitive than before, but Petersen concentrates on that too much and so misses the opportunity to take time to develop the background behind Sarah and David’s relationship or even to address how the dynamic between them may have changed since David started taking a more active role in the relationship compared to his pre-apocalypse couch surfing. He’s still a blank slate due to Sarah’s self-obsessed narration and in my view it would be highly interesting to see events from his perspective from time to time ala the Come Together novels of Josie Rees and Emlyn Lloyd (perhaps Petersen could ask her husband to help out).
The Living with the Dead series continues its failure to achieve a good balance between its constituent parts of action, horror, romance and comedy, and after reading two books I don’t think that the third installment of Eat Slay Love will do anything to change that.