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The Books I Read: May – June 2018

The Books I Read: May – June 2018

my brother sam is dead collier
My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

It’s much less “rah-rah-America” than I thought it would be. I was expecting something like “Johnny Tremain”, but no, this is a realistic look at the Revolutionary War before people knew how it would end. It’s like the Civil War. Neighbors are on opposite sides. As many people sided with the British as the Patriots. Soldiers from both ends victimize civilians for cows or guns. Bandits raid the roads, taking advantage of the chaos in the name of “patriotism”. If you try to sell a pig to someone who might sell it to someone who might sell it to the British, they’d just kill you. And meanwhile, the farmers are trying to stay alive in an economy where all funds have been diverted to the war effort. Reminds me of the background to Gone With the Wind where everyone’s optimistic and then it all goes to shit and it seems like the war is never going to end.

But anyway, yes, I recommend this book. The matter-of-fact tone is a pleasant change from most of the Revolutionary War novels I’ve read that were all pro-America. It doesn’t pull punches. The protagonist is well-rounded. He’s super young so he looks up to his brother and father for guidance, but they’re polarized on this issue. He starts to see the values of his world degenerate until it’s like a Mad Max apocalypse-land where natural resources are more important than money. It’s about the people behind the scenes, keeping the homefront, and no one is a saint.

scalzi head on
Head On by John Scalzi

It’s a fine mystery story. I liked it better than the first of the series (Lock In). Maybe because it’s fun sports and not economic takeover and the ending isn’t a big dialogue dump of Columbo-style “we got ya”.

But it’s definitely more of the same–nothing new but nothing broken. If John Scalzi is anything, he’s consistent with tone from series to series. And you’re 90% not likely to read the second book before the first, so just look at my review of that one for more info. It doesn’t stand out from his other works, but it stays on the themes of robots, police procedural, and disability.

wishing spell chris colfer
The Wishing Spell (The Land of Stories, #1) by Chris Colfer

My daughter loved this one and recommended it. Usually I like her picks (such as Out of My Mind and Ruby Holler) but this ones was just awful. It’s a portal fantasy (into a world of public domain fairy tales, no less) with no surprises. Like someone upped the complexity of Magic Tree House but kept the content.

There’s nothing new. And it takes four chapters to get to the inciting incident. The writing was just so bad. So much telling. The backstory for the characters is schmaltzy. Then I later found that this is a guy from Glee (that teeny-pop TV show that made show choir popular prevalent again.) That explains why the writing felt so unpolished–guy’s an actor, not a writer. Remember, Snooki wrote a book too. I bet there are few five-star raters who weren’t already Chris Colfer fans.

face on the milk carton cooney
The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney

I was really looking forward to this book. Had a great premise–what if you saw that the missing person was you. But it’s only about 45% mystery and the other part is romance teen-dating, dealing with friends and crushes and other high school drama. And it comprises so much of the book too. You can bet that if I saw my face on a milk carton, I’d be dedicating 100% of my time to figuring it out. That’d be all I could think about — no time for boys or anything else. Plus it’s shoehorned in–these are two themes that don’t go together. So jarring, you could literally mark where one story changes to the other.

Besides the disconnected theming, the characters just aren’t likable. Besides the fact that the main character does as much pining for who’s-his-face as detective work, she seems barely motivated to do anything. Just concerned about college and high school, but not much beyond that. And there’s no ending. It’s a cliffhanger (except the cliff is three feet up) that’s so dull it feels like the author just ran out of paper.

Don’t be fooled by the fascinating premise. It’s not at all satisfying to read.

artful peter david
Artful by Peter David

This is a nice little fan-sequel to Oliver Twist… with vampires.

There actually isn’t much Oliver Twist stuff in there, so you don’t necessarily need to know that story to get this one. On the other hand, if you don’t know anything about Oliver Twist, why would you read this? Without it, it’s a silly story about old-timey London where a street-smart urchin meets a princess-in-disguise and a junior detective who work together to stop a London vampire takeover.

I’m a fan of Peter David so I ate it up, even if I did have to refer to Wikipedia on occasion. If you like Tigerheart, you’ll like this, since both are mash-ups of classics. And it’s more cozy than than the subject matter would indicate. Although David used Dickens characters and writing style (which he does amazingly without being anachronistic or dull), he avoids the bleak and stark mood that feels like a smokestack shoved into an jilted old lady’s heart. Reminded me of the first few (good) chapters of Great Expectations.

It’s a solid three stars. Satisfying, but only worth picking up for the component items (i.e. if you like mash-ups or Dickens or vampires or Peter David or Oliver Twist).

disaster artist greg sestero
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

Jesus Christ. Tommy Wiseau…

The book alternates between two narratives–the filming/production of The Room and how Greg Sestero (co-star) met Tommy. It’s as close to an origin story as you get for this man who seems to defy plausibility.

I mean, I read about the filming and it disregards a rational universe. You know how in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the narrator describes Hagrid’s first appearance with “He looked simply too big to be allowed.”? After reading this, I feel that way about Tommy Wiseau. He’s simply too… something to be let into existence. His accent and word choice is bizarre. His face looks like a rubber mask from an 1980’s horror movie (like one of the Mars mutants in Total Recall except not very mutated. Like only 1% mutated.) and acts like an alien trying to mimic human behavior. This world should not have allowed him to be, yet he is. Then you learn about his lifestyle and hobbies and actions, and it blows you away.

If all you’ve seen of him is The Room, you can’t imagine how much much worse it was behind the camera. There’s so many bad decisions, weird decisions, frustrated actors and cock-ups you can’t believe anyone worked for him for so long. Or that Sestero put up with him.

That’s one of the big themes of the book — sticking with a toxic friend because he doesn’t have anyone else to be with. If not you, then he’d have no one. Like that Fraggle Rock where this rabbit-creature thing shrinks Mokey to his size to be his friend because he doesn’t have any because he’s a self-loathing entitled douche. Plus Sestero’s pretty boy should-have-been-an-extra-on-Baywatch-but-he-was-born-too-late Californian struggling actor persona makes a great contrast to Wiseau’s… personality.

The second storyline–the getting-to-know-you–tends to be dull at times. I guess friendships usually are. But it does kick in at a certain point, once you realize how unstable Wiseau is and that Sestero may be friends with a literal paranoid delusional.

The book ends at the movie’s premiere. I would have liked to see the aftermath of it all–Wiseau’s reaction to everyone else’s reaction, and how the ignominy and fame affected him. How he reacted to the lack of interest, then infamous rise to popularity as the “best bad movie”, since he was so convinced he was making the next Citizen Kane.

But maybe that wasn’t what the author thought was important. Maybe his goal was to tell why the movie was made and why it was made “that way”. And the “filming of” part more than makes up for it. It’s a wild blend of funny and creepy that you can’t believe took place in real life.

I think it’s worth reading even if you don’t know anything about The Room. You WILL believe that a man with an unplaceable accent can be this dense! It makes for good reading and good character study. If anything, it’s worth it to find out what’s the deal with the spoons (obvious hint: it’s not purposeful).

wings of fire dragonet prophecy sutherland
Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy (Book #1) by Tui T. Sutherland

If I hadn’t read this to endure myself to my youngest daughter, I would have rated it two stars. The book didn’t keep my interest–no character was more developed than one of the sidekicks in He-Man. In fact, the whole thing could be a Saturday Morning Cartoon, if you don’t mind a little more death than Power Rangers. They bleed, they take prisoners, they torture, they disfigure. But it still feels engineered to sell toys to the kids.

It starts well, but the tones keep switching back and forth. From cutesy bonding to gladiator violence to royal court intrigue. And the author does not maintain distinguishable character voices for everyone (and there are a lot for a MG book). And what’s worse, they don’t sound like dragons. Now, I understand that dragons aren’t real so no one knows what they sound like. But my point is the dialogue lacks species characterization. They sound like humans, not four-legged flying carnivores. If you didn’t know they were dragons, this could be any YA novel.

It’s a strange little book with a lot of cliches (like a Chosen One Prophecy and five-man band) but at least it doesn’t condescend. I guess if you like dragons, it might be worth looking through. But it’s definitely not the new Harry Potter. It’s not even the next Divergent.

daniel suarez freedom
Freedom™ (Daemon #2) by Daniel Suarez

Sequel to Daemon. Seems like the kind of thing Cory Doctorow would love. I thought this was going to be a trilogy, but I guess it’s a dulogy. Hardly matters–I don’t think I’d read the third book anyway.

This one’s more sludgy than the first one (like most sequels are), especially in the middle. Whereas the first one had a clear A to B to C storyline, this one is more like a series of vignettes. It lacks a coherent beginning and ending. 

For example, there’s this fifth-generation farmer who starts with a lawsuit with Big Agri over seed DNA patents and becomes a VR wearing, commune-living, self-sufficient man, all thanks to this computer virus that, somehow, one man was able to program well enough to penetrate Chinese, Russian, and American military defense systems autonomously and regardless of upgrades or patching. That was a long sentence.

It reminded me of Peter Watts’s writing or Stephen Baxter’s Flood, which I didn’t care for. Too much milieu, characters that drop from and into oblivion as is convenient to the author, tone dissonance (is it science fiction or meant to be plausible). And here, same case — I didn’t like it. It has the trappings of the first book (see last entry) and the struggles of a sequel trying to finish a storyline.

london eye mystery dowd
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

If not for The Big Bang Theory, I would have liked this a lot better. The kid in this book has what appears to be the same condition, and treats it seriously (in that he actually suffers consequences for it.) And the author should get credit for that. But when I read, I hear that stupid laugh track.

All right, trying to get Jim Parsons and Chuck Lorre out of my head, this is a good book. It’s comparable to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Out of My Mind, but less mature  content than the first and more mature content than the second. Just as fun to read too. The main character’s affliction is never named, but he has some kind of half-Sheldon Cooper, half-Rainman thing going on. It’s heart-warming and gives you insight into a misunderstood disorder. It fits John Green’s maxim of what books should do — imagine humans complexly.

And it’s an entertaining mystery to boot, with a satisfying reader experience. The beginning may seem sludgy as it needs to set up everything (and it has to do so through someone with a mental condition). If you can make it through that, I think you’ll be satisfied too.

Eric J. Juneau

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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