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The Books I Read: July – August 2019

The Books I Read: July – August 2019
nora roberts year one
Year One by Nora Roberts

This is the nicest apocalypse I’ve ever seen.

It was advertised to me as a big epic story like The Stand, but with magic. It even has a mystery flu as the apocalypse-causing incident. But The Stand, this ain’t. Where’s the bleakness? Where’s the stakes? Where’s the beef?

The blurbs and reviews made it out like the next best thing since Patrick Rothfuss, but really it’s just a standard novel that feels like it belongs on mass market shelves at the grocery store. I was hoping for a unique twist, but it’s underdeveloped. And all you get are a bunch of nice people doing nice things in hard times. It reads more like the Katrina disaster than the end of the world.

For another thing, it has the problem of a big sludgy middle. It’s nothing like Swan Song or other apocalypse fiction I’ve read. Everyone’s too nice to each other. No one’s a hoarder. Everyone gives what they have willingly, like it’s a Meg Ryan apocalypse. Everyone trusts each other. And the weird part is how the build up around it is so unsatisfying. They create this big town called “New Hope” (eye roll), then it’s ransacked by bad guys and looters. But that’s not the end of the novel. You think it is, but it keeps going.

No one has a goal stronger than “survive”. No one has a character arc. If there are bad guys lurking, we don’t know anything about them. I’d call it “The Stand Lite“. I don’t think the author took time to think about what happens in a real worldwide disaster, as Stephen King and Robert McCammon did.

Some people said that it fell apart for them when the magic came in. I say it needed to have more magic. As such, there’s just a sprinkling of wiccan stuff and cliched prophecies going on. No one blasts each other with a spell. No one conjures up water. The fairies are human-sized and they actually have very little power. Don’t expect something like “the fae come to take over the ruined Earth”, because that’s a far cry from this.

I won’t be reading the next in the series. I probably won’t be reading any more Nora Roberts after this disappointment. Another case of an excellent idea executed poorly.

dean koontz watchers
Watchers by Dean Koontz

According to the PBS Special “The Great American Read”, this was the most-voted-for Dean Koontz book. I find myself wanting to read Dean Koontz, but am never sure what book to pick up, until this one.

There are three different storylines. That makes the book bloated, but I found I could speed-read the narrative and just read the dialogue. The best is the one with the dog (obviously). The dog isn’t telepathic, but it can understand human speech and language.

The story is fine being a nice little romance (reminds me of the beginning of 101 Dalmatians). One big problem is that the antagonists are shoe-horned in. One drops out 1/3 of the way through and the other(s) don’t show up until the very end. And then they are quickly dispatched. All build-up and little bang. These thriller aspects are what Koontz is known for, but they don’t have an effect on the main story. You just get glimpses of what they are doing as breaks from the main plot line.

It’s a decent story, but it’s long. So damn long. I liked Lightning better, so I’m not sure why everyone’s so fascinated with this particular novel. Maybe it’s the dog. It’s a very good dog. Maybe they love the family aspects and the romance. Koontz does a lot of telling. This is one of those books that gives me confidence that I can make it in the writing world. But it’s also dated in that none of this stuff is as significant as it was in the eighties. A genius dog manipulating Scrabble tiles isn’t as impressive when today’s movies have a realistic space raccoon with a foul mouth that shoots lasers.

11/22/63 stephen king
11/22/63 by Stephen King

If The Stand is Stephen King’s most popular work and The Dark Tower is his magnum opus, then where is the room for 11/22/63? I don’t know, but we need a new word for it. Magna cum libris?

So the book is a basic “what if?”: What if you could time travel and stop the JFK assassination. With none of the hang-ups that time travel comes with. No Grandfather Paradox, no complicated machines that break down, no future stuff baggage (because it’s not the future), no deLoreans needing to get struck by lightning.

It certainly starts quick and strong. And will it keep a grip on you and hold on? That depends on your feelings on JFK. If you’re like me and were born in the eighties, you have no idea what an event this was. Funnily, the story is less about stopping the JFK assassination and as much about the main character. What happens when you travel to the past and have to stay there for a given time? You miss cell phones, but you love the unprocessed food. You hate the lack of Google, but love how friendly everyone is (unless you’re black). So the novel’s in two main storylines that twine together–stalking Lee Harvey Oswald and a love story.

Quite honestly, this is some of the best King work I’ve ever read. The setting is vivid, not bleak like Firestarter. There’s no reliance on some spiritual un-be-knowable thing to draw tension, no bullies, no alcoholism, no monster-of-the-week. It’s damn well-researched. This is surprising because King’s been known to be a seat-of-the-pants writer (hence his tendency to overwrite). Is this story overwritten? Well, I wonder if it needed to be as long as it needed to be. The character ends up about four years before Oswald’s scheduled to make his fatal shot, so that gives him time to kill.

You don’t get to the consequences of his actions until the very end. And if you’re hoping for a big story about the alternate history if Kennedy lived, all you get is a glimpse. I won’t spoil what that is, because it was spoiled for me. But about 95% of the story is the events leading up to it. This is not a book about alternate history, it’s a book about the late fifties/early sixties (a little like It), which King lived through and thus has a mastery of.

I think this will most appeal to baby boomers because it’s preying on nostalgia and “blasts from the past” to evoke feelings of nostalgia. And hey, I’m the last person to deny the appeal of nostalgia. It uses rose-colored glasses to tell its tale, but they’re not smudgy.

jhereg stephen brust
Jhereg by Steven Brust
(unfinished)

Halfway through, I realized I didn’t care if anyone lives or dies. It succeeds at pulling you in — the main character getting a dragon familiar — but all it does is make snide comments every now and then. It promises to be a huge part of the plot/story, but then fails to do so. It’s more about the BS behind houses and ancestry and all that junk. It makes promises the middle can’t keep.

revenge of the shadow king derek benz
The Revenge of the Shadow King by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis
(unfinished)

It’s all right, but I didn’t finish it because the plot kept looping. A disaster happens, reaction to it, disaster happens, reaction to it. The plot never gets started. Instead we get “prophecies”, which now I’m getting sick of–they’re an artificial way to create tension and foreshadowing. You’re supposed to go “ooh, ahh, I wonder what that means” and meanwhile I’m over here with “this is meaningless until I know the context for this”.

I picked it up because I guess the author lives near me and based the setting on where I live. But I don’t see the resemblance. The main character is supposed to be a super-rich kid, and there’s no one like that around here. I also couldn’t differentiate the characters. There were too many and they sounded too alike to figure out who was who. Basically, it was a poorly written novel and too long.

It’s basically about a card game like Magic: the Gathering comes to life and the creatures start invading reality, and I don’t even know how it happens. I think the author was going for a feel like “The Neverending Story”, but that didn’t come across at all because there’s no empathy for the characters. Why bother having empathy for a kid with a driver/bodyguard and his friends whose biggest problem is getting rare cards. Someone who appreciates a good, well-written story will not like this book.

three laws lethal david walton
Three Laws Lethal by David Walton

My wife and I have an ongoing debate about self-driving cars. I think they’re the wave of the future and can’t wait for them to arrive. She thinks there’s too many logistical problems to overcome–what happens when the GPS doesn’t have info? How do you get off-road?–not to mention the ethical issues. That’s why I was delighted when I heard about this book–something that tackles those questions. And this book delivers.

The very first scene is the classic problem–if the car has to make a choice between killing the driver and killing someone on the road, which does it choose? How does it choose? And the rest of the story is thinking out those questions (Tip #1: Don’t tease the cars). The story is always moving, always building on what happened before, so there’s no long moral/ethical/metaphysical diatribes that take time out of the story. The characters are distinct and sympathetic. If I had to categorize it, I’d say it’s a techno-thriller like Daemon, but much better than that. It entertains and teaches something at the same time, and well, it’s just fun.

It’s a great book because it brings up questions, but doesn’t necessarily answer them. It reminds me of Cory Doctorow’s earlier works, like Eastern Standard Tribe. It acknowledges the work of Asimov, stands on his giant shoulders, and creates some big shoulders of its own. This is what Robopocalypse should have been. It’s a must for anyone interested in robot tropes.

sleeping dragon joel rosenberg
The Sleeping Dragon (Guardians of the Flame #1) by Joel Rosenberg

So you know how writing professors tell you not to write about your D & D campaign? This is that.

I mean, I’ve never had a stigma about it, so I embrace the concept. Five or six people get whisked away into their fantasy world they created at the table rolling dice. They’ve all become their characters and have to get back home.

This was probably more significant in the eighties, when these college kids had to do their research at the library instead of the computer. Today it’s old hat. I’m not saying the book is out of date, but it’s falls into some other fantasy trappings. There’s nothing about this fantasy world that makes it different from any others. I expected to see creepy D&D monsters and elements like sentient swords and beholders. But this is a pretty standard get from point A to point B with a few stumblings on the way.

beholder
I’d read the shit out of a book about this guy

I will say the pacing is pretty good and most of the characters are distinguishable, but inconsistent. One character dies and no one seems to give a rip. Another has muscular dystrophy and he’s torn between staying or going back to the real world. So it scales back and forth. I can’t tell whether the tropes are cliche by now or not, but I don’t think they were when this was written.

There’s lots to dislike about the book, but here’s the one that’ll make you drop it–it uses rape as a plot point. The females get barely any screen time to begin with, I don’t think a single scene takes their POV, and I don’t think they have a conversation with each other. But when a troop of bandits kidnaps them, they take the women into the back. This is purely to give the characters motivation. Any love I had for this book dropped. It happens about 80% of the way through, so I finished it anyway, but all the book’s good will left the building. Especially when it takes the big strong men to avenge the rapists. One woman goes catatonic and the other acts like nothing happened. This is what people point to when they say fantasy doesn’t favor females. I won’t be reading any more in the series.

pushcart war jean merrill
The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill

A perfectly serviceable book. It’s good for explaining to kids about war–how it starts, how it works. Like Animal Farm Lite. It’s so well-written, I thought it was a true story. I had to look up whether this was fiction or non-fiction.

It’s narrative fiction book about a conflict between pushcart peddlers and the truckers who want them off the streets. Although I said it’s good for teaching about war, there’s a clear “little guys vs. big bullies” allegory here, as the truckers are never put in a sympathetic light. The newspaper publisher in Newsies got better press than the truckers did.

This is as small a conflict as you expect from such a war, but that makes it accessible to readers. But it blows it up to talk about the Pea-Shooter Campaign as importantly as Sherman’s March. It’s different from any other children’s fiction book I’ve read. It’s good for the rare child who doesn’t like reading fiction, adding a little humor into it now and then to keep kids interested (but it’s no Sideways Stories from Wayside School). It gives kids what they don’t usually get in their fiction–politics, war theory, international issues, economics, civil liberties, propaganda, etc.

Problem is, I’m trying to figure out who this book is for, who I’d recommend it to, and I can’t think of anyone. It would be a great book for a social studies teacher to use in a classroom, to teach the issues mentioned above. But I don’t think I can recommend just picking it up and reading it. They love fantasy books like “Wings of Fire” and “Percy Jackson”, which put plot before message. This is a message book. But it’s a book of good taste so you feel smarter after reading it.

lila bowen malice of crows
Malice of Crows (The Shadow #3) by Lila Bowen

It’s much the same as the earlier books, so I feel I can copy and paste my review of those. It even follows the same pattern–there’s a whole bunch of traveling, sprinkled with a few battles and a few town visits, until the end where there’s a big climax/ultimate goal fulfilled. The problem is that travel portion. It feels like filler. Like the hurdles they have to jump don’t have to do with the main goal, they don’t have a permanent effect on the characters. Which is not a deal breaker, but it irritates me. Makes me feel like there was no point in reading what I just read. Or that it’s a repetitive cycle, with minimal character development in-between. It’s a quest story.

stalking the unicorn mike resnick
Stalking the Unicorn (John Justin Mallory Mystery #1) by Mike Resnick

It promises to be a hardboiled detective novel in a fantasy world (like Raymond Chandler meets Legend), but it’s more like a portal fantasy. Like Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, most of the main character’s time is taken up with little sidequests, like the two people playing a game of chess that takes forever, or the bar with old-timey witches. It’s like a character just moves from station to station, interviewing these oddballs and characters of humor when he should be getting on with the main goal. Because unlike Alice and Phantom, this isn’t a quest, this is a mystery. So it has a bad case of the “get-on-with-its”.

This book doesn’t deliver on it’s promise because it’s not a detective story. There are no clues, no suspects, no witnesses. Garfield’s Babes and Bullets was more of a detective story than this. So no, I won’t be reading any more in the series. It’s too farcical to be taken seriously.

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 http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.


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