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The Books I Read: December 2019 – February 2020

six of crows leigh bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Man, this was so long ago, let me see if I can remember it. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven crossed with The Lies of Locke Lamora. I know Locke Lamora is already kind of a caper book, but that one focuses on two people and it’s very character driven. This one’s closer to that classic “golden fleece” caper story–a team of eight people with different backgrounds and skills come together to get some prize (in this case, kidnap someone during a party in a fortress.) Includes the “getting the band back together” and “breaking the team member out of jail” scenes.

It’s pretty darn good. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a fantasy novel with an ensemble cast. Usually a fantasy novel is very “hero protagonist” focused. They’re always “super important” or “the key” or “the chosen one”.When there’s more, they’re usually epics that with multiple POV characters in separate settings, so it’s really just three short novels. The problem becomes that there are so many characters it’s hard to keep track of, like a D&D party of eight. In this case, the characters feel lived in. Each has a distinct background and way of thinking so when the narrative switches to their POV, you remember who it is.

My other worry was that, in fantasy, it’s very easy to “deus ex machina” an ending. “They were trapped in the pit with the falling ceiling and the spikes and alligators, but, oh, they just used the wand of teleportation and escaped.” That doesn’t take place here, and it helps that there’s good world-building here. The world has been tested, abused, like Star Wars–someone’s established a history and presented the effects of it in the present-time. That means you get a nice mix of plotting and character development.

The problem is that the ending is unsatisfying, and that’s because it just stops. It’s split into two books, like Harry Potter 7 and Mockingjay. Is that the thing we’re doing now? “An Absolutely Remarkably Thing” by Hank Green did the same thing — left the story open-ended. Or you can say it ended on a cliffhanger. I say it ended unfinished. Fortunately, the book is good enough that I want to find out what happens next.

Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis

So here’s a thing I didn’t know: this was a screenplay before it was a novel. Usually it’s the other around (and nine times out of ten, the book is better). But this here is a novelization of a movie. And you know how those are.

It’s a basic love story about two kids who have cystic fibrosis. This means they have low lung capacity and getting a cold can be life-threatening. They both essentially live in a hospital, but the boy has a bacteria that takes him off the lung transplant list. The girl doesn’t, but if she gets that bacteria, she’s off the list. Hence the five feet apart.

It’s like The Fault in Our Stars, but watered down. There are no grand thoughts here–no weighty contemplations about metaphors or suffering or oblivion or existentialism. It feels like this book is riding TFIOS’s coattails, capitalizing on a similar story with more focus on romance than the dissertation. Fortunately, that also means it’s shorter. But I guess it’s hard to communicate the gradualness of love in a short book.

And it has the trappings of a romance, like the gay best friend, the disapproving parents, the one “date”, the third act break-up, designed to make you cry. It’s going through the motions and cystic fibrosis is the way we’re going to tell the story this time. TFIOS is still probably the best teen romance I’ve read, one where it felt like the characters earned their togetherness and they weren’t smashed together because the book demanded it.

wolf hollow lauren wolk

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

I read this because my twelve-year-old read it and said she really liked it. She especially liked the theme of a man falsely accused and the main character’s choice to try and absolve him, even if it might condemn her. That’s pretty heady for a YA book, and I was pleasantly suprised that it gives more than that.

It reminded me a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird (but in rural Pennsylvania), which is high praise. Most of the similarities come from the themes and characters. For example, the POV protagonist is a young girl and there’s a reclusive man who has trouble fitting into society (although in his case, it’s because of WWI). The book dedicates a hefty third to explaining her small-town life and what she does when she walks around, goes to school, deals with bullies, relates to neighbors, learns minor life lessons, and so on. No racism, but it’s thematically about prejudice and how there are some things too beautiful to be in this world. The adults act like real people, not the “kids vs. adults” a lot of children’s fiction exhibits.

It’s a somber story, a tough story. One that might be hard to hear. If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird but want to avoid the hard-to-explain racism aspects, this is an excellent choice.

who put this song on morgan parker

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker

I picked this one up because it was from a collection of YA books about teens with mental disorders. Some Kind of Happiness was another of those. This one was about clinical depression, but it does not deliver.

What’s supposed to come through as depression comes off whiny and resentful. Granted, it’s difficult for depression-sufferer to fit one of the traits of a compelling main character (heroic, sympathetic, smart, principled, or winsome). Depression’s not a disorder you want to be around. You wind up falling into Anakin Skywalker emo-whiny territory. Just like this book does.

This reeks more of that 1990s Reality Bites stereotype of new adults. The one that’s ungrateful for anything, blames all adults for their mishaps but has no problem taking their money. They think they’re alone, they don’t belong, but they still have friends. Selfish, disaffected, aimless. Jerks.

The main character is a black female teen in an affluent neighborhood. She’s gossippy, cynical of Christianity, riled by people who’re happier than her. Which is everyone.

In-between events, she’s going to therapy and doing teen things. But all the time she’s criticizing and belittling everyone and everything. This isn’t depression, this is a discontented teen caught between childhood and adulthood. The Rest of Us Just Live Here had a better portrayal of depression. Or Please Ignore Vera Dietz or Speak (although in that case, the depression had an impetus).

I stopped reading because A) I couldn’t sympathize with the main character and B) the story never started. The character is not working toward a goal. It’s just a series of scenes from high school life like an episode of Degrassi. Maybe it’s because I’m a forty-year-old white boy, but I couldn’t find anything to relate or empathize with the character about.

And I had depression. (I mean I still have it, but I’m on medication now.) I know what it’s like, and it’s not this. Depression is a set of contradictions. It means wanting to be alone, but being extremely lonely. It doesn’t mean hating everyone, it means hating yourself. It means thinking one thing and doing something different. It means being afraid all the time. This is just teen drama with an extra scoop of misanthropy.

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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