The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
It’s probably pretty good, but I did not have the patience to see it through. I like stories about child geniuses (The Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown), but it took so damn long to get to the arc of the story–the big goal. And when it did, I was disappointed. The Big Bad’s plan seemed so juvenile and nonsensical. It was like a cheesy James Bond trope or old Doctor Who episode.
I made it to 25% when I stopped, but that was a long 25 percentage points. Especially for a children’s book. That first quarter is pretty much just the process of joining the Benedict Society. Nothing to do with the main plot, why the Society exists, or what their purpose is. I guess the author expects you to keep going by not answering obvious questions anyone would ask in that situation. The hero is tested with a bunch of arbitrary puzzles and “secret tests of character“. You think this much effort is going to result in something big. But then it turns out to be an old eccentric man with money to burn. Willy Wonka he ain’t.
The other supporting characters aren’t people I want to hang out with either. One’s angry all the time. One seems to be a cloud-cuckoolander. And the other is a sad sack with a secret he won’t tell anyone until he does. And then it turns out to be nothing. Big anticipations, little payoffs.
Old me would have finished it. But remember, I said to myself “unless the book makes me excited to read it, it’s not worth it.”
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
This is a high concept short story based around one of those clever and fascinating ideas that doesn’t hold water if you think about it for a minute”. But the idea–and the plot lines it creates–are good enough to keep reading. Especially since it’s short.
Essentially, non-accidental death no longer applies. No one knows why or how, but if you are intentionally killed by someone, you wake up back in your bed in same condition you were in a few hours ago. There are loopholes around the rule (e.g. locking someone in a room until they starve to death counts as natural). But for the most part, you can’t be murdered anymore. (Natural and no-fault deaths still occur so the world doesn’t get over-populated. People still die of cancer and choking and heart attacks and car accidents.)
So if you are murdered, you get to come back none the worse for wear. That means if you’re, say, having a heart attack or got hit by a car, this rule becomes a convenient “get out of death free” card. That’s where the Dispatcher comes in. These guys get paid to murder you before a natural death would occur. Like reloading a quicksave.
So yeah, you see how there’s plenty of story ideas in this kind of world, especially ones in the noir vein. But also a lot of headscratchers (I wonder how the Darwin Awards are affected). Nonetheless, I think this is one of the better Scalzi short fictions (up there with Muse of Fire). Note that it originally existed as audio so, yes, it’s dialogue-heavy. Like the latter Old Man’s War books and not like the more recent Interdependency series. It’s a great story, but it’s tight. So if you like plots, you’re set. If you want to know more about the world than the characters in it, you’ll be disappointed.
Order of the Chaos (The Hidden Earth Chronicles #3) by Peter David
Well, I’m glad Peter David finished the trilogy. I was afraid the story would be left open after his stroke and since he was writing this other stuff like Artful and Pulling Up Stakes and managing his own press company.
Here’s the biggest problem–it has been so long since I read the last book (five years and change, to be exact), that I had no fuxxing idea who anyone was. It needed a dramatis personae or a “the story so far…” There’s no mercy for anyone jumping in. It’s like the trilogy is meant to be read back-to-back-to-back. Which is an interesting proposition, but not one I’m interested in at this time. I mean, jeez, when I read book two it was on my Nook.
Okay, so how is the book itself? Well, from what I remember, it’s rather underwhelming compared to the previous novels. The climax feels a little thin, even taking the book on stand-alone. There’s a final battle, but it includes two races that haven’t been seen before. There are plenty of unanswered questions still lingering around, ones you expect to be answered. And bee-tee-dubs, that ending doesn’t come into play much at all in the plot of the last book. So the end story feels a touch out there. And wrapped a little too quick.
But the same sense of humor is there, the same epic-ness is there. Like Lord of the Rings with more badass motorcycles. But I think the only way I can recommend this is if you read book one, loved it, and then read book two and three relatively soon after that. It’s all one story.
The Landry News by Andrew Clements
It was on a list of summer reading for my fourth-grade daughter. Plus, I used to write an “underground” newspaper, so I couldn’t pass this up.
But it reads like it was meant to be used for curriculum. It reeks of “written to be taught”, not because the author had something to say or a good story in mind. I deduce this because it’s padded badly. The beginning doesn’t match the ending–it switches themes partway through. After about a third of the way, it stops being about the student-published newspaper and becomes about the “evil principal” trying to “get” the teacher. And then the news story he hides behind is reprinted word for word in the book. And it has nothing to do with either idea. Its content is about a kid’s divorce. It has nothing to do with the themes of the main plot. I don’t know what its meant for. I think it’s trying to cover different themes at once so there’s plenty for the class to discuss.
The inciting incident is also too implausible — I cannot believe that at teacher would sit at his desk for eight hours a day, reading the paper, while the kids futz in the classroom semi-supervised and not being taught. From 7AM to 3PM. Teachers have been fired for less, tenure or not.
It’s so instructive I expected there to be a study guide in the back. Just skip this one.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Hank Green writes like you would expect Hank Green to write. Like the younger brother of John Green. A little unpolished, but more enthusiastic. The difference between John Green’s writing and Hank Green’s writing is the difference between John Green and Hank Green.
Okay, obligatory comparison over. How does it stand on its own?
There’s an interesting cross-pollination of genres going on here. The maguffin is science-fiction-esque (giant stationary robots, shared dreamscapes, etc.) but the core themes are about Internet popularity and talking head-incited violence (a la Proud Boys and alt-right). Green is the founder of VidCon and a prominent YouTuber, so he should know the subject. It’s nice to read a book that doesn’t treat Internet culture as either A) Fortnite-sploitation or B) “those damn kids”.
It reminded me of Ready Player One, in that there are puzzles to solve and the hard part is uniting people to work together to solve them. And the opposition is the greedy people who use negativity and fear of the maguffin to gain. But it’s certainly less problematic and more inclusive with its themes. It’s got some nice quotable lines too. I particularly liked “Behold the field in which I grow my f***s. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren.”
I also like that the character’s sexuality is a part of her characterization, but also something of a plot point, while at the same time your face isn’t being rubbed in it. On the other hand, there are times when it feels like it skips steps between the romance (like when April May and the scientist girl hook up out of nowhere). It’s a solid B. You can tell it’s a first effort, but you know it’s going to improve from there.
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
I learned about this book from Robots vs. Fairies. The one written by Lila Bowen (a.k.a. Delilah S. Dawson) especially flipped my cookie. And like I suspected, it was based on an already existing character.
I liked it, but how much are you going to like it? I have no idea. All I can do is report on the content, how it made me feel, and anything interesting about it. For me, the selling point was the western-fantasy genre. You don’t see that much. Certainly a breath of fresh air from all those women holding a knife while walking away in tight jeans and a tramp stamp. The main character has a strong voice. She’s not too wimpy, but she’s not perfect either.
This book is fantastically written. The prose is beautiful, the sentences strong. It’s a captivating plot, fascinating characters. It’s a “weird western”/fantasy genre, where the main character can now “see” monsters and is on a hunt to kill them (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer). And there’s a significant part of the text dedicated to her finding her sexual identity. So I understand why it had trouble finding its audience. There are a lot of potentially triggering subjects here.
But I plan to read the sequel, I liked it that much.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Given how popular this book is, I expected more out of it. But it’s just a children’s book about a gorilla and an elephant on display at a mall. And like any kid’s movie with an animals, all they want is to escape the crappy place.
The chapters are super short. SUPER SHORT. It’s almost like a free verse poem. Which means it lacks the depth I expected. It’s like one of the terrible 80’s Disney movie that came in a clamshell case, like “That Darn Cat”. The characters are not deep at all. Cardboard cut-out villains and a girl so overly-kindly it’s sickening. Sorry, maybe I’m a bitter thirty-seven-year-old man. But this book was one of those grocery store sugar cookies with more frosting than cookie. It lacks substance. Everyone’s a saint or a villain.
I mean, I guess there’s nothing really bad about it. It’s a cute story with talking animals. But there’s nothing really great about it either. It’s saccharine, meant to be sentimental and pull at the heartstrings without having much in consequences or plot points. Funny part is it’s based on a true story.
The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers, and Set Up Your Novel for Success by Jeff Gerke
So this is a book that focuses on the beginning of your novel. I don’t have any hard evidence, but it does seem like that’s a keystone in getting published. I’ve never heard of slushkillers starting at a random point in the manuscript for the yay-or-nay vote.
I’d say this is a useful book. The amount read per item of information learned ratio wasn’t great–lots of writing books talk about beginnings at length–but there are some key things to know. And as usual, grains of salt are recommended as a side dish. Because if you do come up with something that ticks all the boxes of a good first 13,000 words, it’s going to be… pretty boring, I imagine. I’m rather fortunate in that I usually know how a book should begin. Whether that’s the way editors/agents want it, whether it’s the best way or most attractive way, not so sure.
It’s not a slog to read at least. It’s enjoyable and not too long. There is padding, like “why you should want the beginning to be great” and “the do nots of beginnings” that don’t help you to actually do. If you condensed it to the actual helpful content, it would be as big as a pamphlet. Of course, that’s true of any book. So yeah, I’d say writers should pick this up. I don’t know if it’ll increase your chances of being published, but it couldn’t hurt.