Monday, January 22, 2018

Book Review: WATCHDOG by Will McIntosh

First Paragraph(s): Vick never got used to the smell. Usually he stopped noticing bad smells after a while, but the eye-watering stink of mountains of trash baking in the blazing August sun was so bad, it made every breath an ordeal. And then there were the flies buzzing around Vick’s face, landing on him with their tickly legs. He never got used to them, either.

Is 2018 doing all right by you so far, Esteemed Reader? Are you sticking to your New Years resolution(s)? The Ninja is so far still getting all the usual exercise and meeting his daily word counts. I'm still terribly slow, but a draft of Banneker Bones 2 should be done in the reasonably near future and I may or may not be sitting on a partial for Banneker Bones 3. I'm all middle grade all the time just recently.

I've been mostly turning down book review requests because although I'm reading lots of books, writing these reviews takes time away from my fiction. More, I think this blog is better served by guest posts by more talented authors than myself or interviews with more interesting people (speaking of which, Will McIntosh will be here Wednesday to join the list of distinguished writers who've faced the 7 Questions).

But when I looked up between Bannekers and saw a Hugo-winning author had created a humorous middle grade Sci-Fi story about middle grade kids, one of  whom is an inventor of robots and on the autism spectrum, I figured I'd better read this one (if the book also had zombies, I'd have totally freaked out). Some books are books the reader finds, and some books find readers. Watchdog is a book that found me and I'm so glad it did.

Watchdog is a fun book I know you're going to love, Esteemed Reader, so feel free to skip this review and just go get yourself a copy if you like (it will save time). My review is as follows: This book is swell. Here's a blurb for Delacorte Books for Young Readers (feel free to put this on the jacket going forward at no charge):

"This book has robots in it. I like robots. Will McIntosh's name reminds me of a McMuffin. That sounds so good right now. I'm going to go eat one." --Middle Grade Ninja

Now that we've dispensed with that review business and progressed my booming empire of book blurbs, we can move on to our true purpose which is to discuss craft elements we can apply to our own writing (I'm assuming y'all are writing about middle grade autistic robot inventors as well). The first thing I have for you this week, Esteemed Reader, is to note the way in which McIntosh introduces genre up front in chapter one (remembering there was no way for him to guarantee there would be a robotic dog on the cover):

Tara was nowhere in sight. Huffing, Vick trudged around the base of the mound he was working on, arms spread to aid his balance as his feet sank into the trash. 
She was sitting on a filthy mattress on the opposite side of the mound, waving off the flies and laughing as she watched a TV show on a decrepit handheld with a missing back panel. Vick had no clue how she’d gotten it working, but it didn’t surprise him. Wild audience laughter drifted from the handheld. Vick guessed she was watching Boffo, a reality show where people gave domestic robots tricky orders so the robots would do the wrong things and look stupid. It was one of her favorite shows.

This is the very definition of show, don't tell. The description of the trash and the broken television tells us our heroes are living in a not great situation by showing us that situation. The television program introduces a central concept of the book: this a world in which advanced robots live among people and they're so commonplace that there's a TV show about tricking them. In a decade, maybe less, this might no longer be a giveaway of the type of story we can expect as we'll all be living in such a world, but in 2018 this is still Sci-Fi territory.

Pro-tip: If a writer ever takes the time to tell us what's on a character's television/radio/internet/holocomputer/etc, it's a good bet we're about to be introduced to some vital exposition, either because present characters don't know the information and need to learn it, or because it's a faster way for the reader to learn something. In both my zombie stories, characters get vital information from the TV. If you're a reading a writer who describes what's on a fictional television and the content of the program has no bearing on the story you're reading, that writer is an amateur and you should put their book down.

McIntosh (God, I want a McMuffin) applies this same skill when it comes to introducing our characters. Witness how he describes Tara while simultaneously telling us information about Vick and setting the parameters of their relationship:

From his angle, her profile was hidden by her dirty-blond hair (with the emphasis on dirty). Every morning he tied it back with a rubber band to try to keep it clean, and within an hour she took it out. She was so small she could pass for a seven-year-old. With the difference in their sizes, and Vick’s dark hair and Tara’s light, no one could believe they were twins.

Behold how he conveys the age of our protagonists in a manner that's relevant to the situation and the story and which provides additional crucial exposition:

Thirteen was a bad age to be homeless. Not young and cute enough for pity, but not old enough to hold their ground against grown-ups.

Unlike certain books about giant robot bees you might read and not even realize the title character is on the autism spectrum until you read the sequel (or the author's blog), Watchdog puts the autism of its main character on main street. If you're looking for a book specifically dealing with autism while also being about a charming and engaging story (and the reader in question is too young for Gone), Watchdog is a great book for this purpose.

I'd happily hand a copy to anyone who's either on the spectrum or in contact with someone who is (and probably you are even if you're unaware of it). The Ninja himself hums tunelessly and possesses many other spectrum traits. Tara is a wonderfully sympathetic hero who succeeds not just despite, but perhaps because of her autism. Tara's brain works differently, which is good. Vick and Tara (and Daisy, who we'll talk about in a minute) need a brain that works differently to get them out of their present situation.

 A sudden wave of homesickness mixed with sympathy for Tara nearly doubled Vick over. He squeezed his eyes shut until it passed. As much as it ever passed. Routine and sameness were so important for Tara—a classic symptom of autism. “It won’t be exactly the same as home, Tara. But it’ll be nice. You can have your own room.” 
Tara just stood there, arms dangling at her sides, gazing off to Vick’s right. A cloud of flies buzzed around her head. A few landed on the corners of her mouth. 
“Please help me. Dig. You’re the one who knows what we’re looking for. What we can sell.” 
“Okay. I’m sorry.” She knelt where she was and picked at the trash, moving it a piece at a time. The little robot sat beside her, wagging its rat tail. 
“I know it’s disgusting. I hate it, too.” 
“You can go away now. You’re bothering me,” Tara said. 
Vick sighed as he turned away. You never had to guess with Tara; she always gave it to you straight. He headed back to his spot. Behind him Tara began humming tunelessly.

As they settled into the trash, Tara pressed close to Vick. Mom had told him most kids with autism didn’t like to be touched or held. Not Tara. When she was scared she went overboard the other way, pretty much climbing into your lap and squeezing you until you couldn’t breathe.

So, what is a watchdog anyway? I could give you my less good definition, or I could just let McIntosh do it:

“I love watchdogs.” Tara reached up and set her hand between the thing’s shoulder blades, which rose and fell like levers as it walked. It didn’t seem to notice. People called them watchdogs, but you could build them to look like anything—a tiger, a spider, a velociraptor—or they could resemble nothing at all. This one looked like a cross between a pit bull and a four-legged T. rex. It had an oversized head, with dozens of silver fangs bristling inside massive jaws. The body was squat and powerful, the hind legs shorter than the front ones. 
One look at it was enough to know it was designed to be a fighter. It was technically illegal to create a robot designed to kill, but it was a gray area. Even a domestic robot could crush someone’s windpipe, and it was hard to know what a robot could do just by looking at it. As long as you didn’t outfit one with an automatic weapon you could probably get away with anything, especially in bad areas like this one. Police rarely ventured into this neighborhood anymore, and when they did they definitely had no interest in tangling with a watchdog.

Here's another pro-tip: if you introduce any fictional thing, such as a robot dog, readers want to know about the most interesting version of that fictional thing. Viewers don't care about all the Nova robots who weren't struck by lightning. They care about the fifth one. Why? Because number five is alive.

And if you aren't old enough to catch those references, then good for you. Nothing makes me feel older than remembering that within my lifetime there was a mainstream movie that involved a white actor darkening his skin and taking on racial stereotypes for laughs (and not nearly enough people thought it was weird until later as evidenced by an equally successful sequel). But my horror in learning that some of my favorite things from childhood are marred by racism is the subject of another post.

There are many watchdogs in Watchdog, but the one we most care about is Daisy. Why? Because thanks to Tara's brilliant inventing, Daisy has become sentient. So much so that she's able to reinvent herself and other robots, which is a terrifying concept, but lucky for middle grade readers, Daisy is friendly and fiercely loyal to her humans. Daisy starts out small and relatively harmless, but she doesn't stay that way for long.

Vick couldn’t quite believe this little robot was helping design her own new body. Robots didn’t design. A high-end domestic robot couldn’t decide what brand of coffee to buy unless you told it exactly. It would stand in the coffee section of the supermarket for eternity, trapped in a decision-loop.

Eventually, Tara's talents are discovered by Ms. Alba, who wants to take the twins off the streets and provide them with a job designing robots, which is good. Unfortunately, Ms. Alba is a sinister crime lord not unlike Oliver Twist's Fagin, which is bad. In no time, the kids are involved in multiple chases and futuristic battles with robots, which is what we all came to read in the first place.

McIntosh's story is fast-past and never gets bogged down with too many details. Watchdog is less concerned with the intricacies of robotic-human integration and crime life (although there are unavoidable parallels in the story to America's current blight of extreme economic inequality), and more concerned with robot fights. This book is a lot of fun and would make a great movie. I  enjoyed this story and I have no doubt you will as well.

And that's where we'll leave it except for one thing. You regular Esteemed Readers know how much I love it when writers get all writer-ly in their books. I never can resist drawing attention to it. But I mean, McIntosh, or at least, his character, isn't wrong:

Mom hadn’t graduated from high school, but she’d always pushed them to do “smart” things—visit museums, see plays instead of movies. She loved trashy romance books, but her rule for herself was she had to read one classic—Moby-Dick or Jane Eyre—for every trashy romance she read. No matter how boring the book turned out to be, she read every word.

Make sure you come back Wednesday for the interview. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Watchdog:

Tara rose and trudged toward him, her pet robot hopping along at her heels looking like a cross between a big rat and a rag doll, its cobbled-together parts all mismatched, its face nothing but a snout and eyes on scuffed silver metal.

It was almost dark, and the last sun rays gave the unlit lights down West Huron Street a glow, a reminder of when Vick was a little kid, before the economy crashed and everything turned bad. Bad in the poor neighborhoods, anyway. The lights were still shining in the wealthy neighborhoods on the north side.

His entire life seemed like a slow-motion fall down a flight of stairs.

They’d only been able to take what they could carry, and mostly that was stuff Tara insisted she couldn’t live without. Things like her plastic toy robot collection and the Disney Purple Girls shirt that hadn’t fit since she was four. He’d been stupid to let her load them up with so much junk when they could have been carrying food and medicine, but he’d been so sure this was temporary, that some adult was going to swoop in to save them. He hadn’t realized that when things got bad, when there weren’t enough jobs and people were hungry, adults only took care of their own kids.

“You need to talk to your sister. If she gives them grief, they’re going to make her life miserable. Yours, too.” 
Talk to his sister. If things had been different, he might have laughed at that. “She’s autistic. When she gets like that, it’s like a switch was flipped in her head. She can’t help it. You might as well tell the wind not to blow.”

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 


  1. Watchdog sounds really intriguing, I'm going to add it to the TBR. Thanks for the review.


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