bookshelf books

The Books I Read: May – June 2020

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

It’s like the last book, I guess. It’s YA, has a strong female lead, takes place in a romanticized non-American country (France in this case). But I stopped at 40% because I just didn’t care about the characters.

It’s half spin-off and half sequel. The new main is a “strong female character” who’s mean and angry just so she can appear tough. But in reality, she’s a screw-up who doesn’t know she’s a screw-up and then wonders why there are consequences for her actions. Her main goal is to find her grandma, who went missing two weeks ago. But the government’s not doing anything about it, so she stews and grouses until a street-fighter helps her for some reason. He’s the one who actually takes action. (He’s also the dangerous bad boy who uses his anger and rage to protect her. Never seen that before.)

It’s full of filler and introspection and “thinking” on events that had just happened. (Example: “She bit her tongue, thinking of being worried about the killer beside her. Could she trust him? He had killed a man in the ring, but he’d also volunteered to come with her, blah blah blah.”) I just read the Wikipedia summaries to find out how the story ended.

Shoving a fairy tale into a science fiction setting is a fun idea, but just for one book. Making a series out of it, with each book repping a different tale, and it’s a square peg in a round hole. It becomes as silly as wolfmen on the moon.

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Like the last one, it’s great but long. This time we’re involved in more than one heist. There are multiple characters in multiple locations, so a few adventures are going on. It’s just as dark and violent and splashes lovingly in the middle part of the morality pool where the water becomes gray.

And there’s a great push-and-pull as the bad guys put obstacles up, the good guys plan and banter a way around them, the goalposts get pushed back, and so on. It’s just good writing and good plot development all around. Finding a good fantasy story that’s not just a clone of “Game of Thrones” is hard–something that’s not houses going to war, princes & princesses in political marriages, or prophetic chosen ones. But it’s so loooooong.

Nonetheless, it ends the duology well. Somehow Leigh Bardugo knows how to psychologically manipulate through story and still bring out good character development and plot movement. You hate to read so much and be disappointed by the ending, but that’s not the case here. The ending is like a cherry on top for this saga.

The Last Emperox (The Interdependency #3) by John Scalzi

I feel like this might be Scalzi’s least Scalziest book yet. Something about the writing style of the Interdependency series leaves me cold. Colder than his other books, at least. In terms of tone, it feels like one of those big deal epics that Isaac Asimov or Larry Niven wrote. Not like Lock In or Old Man’s War.

First, a lot of the book is setup. Basically, the empress is dealing with the paradigm-shifting changes made to the status quo last time, and not everyone in government likes it. In fact, half of the battle is stopping those derogators than moving forward with fixing the mess. Every chapter is “oh, this might happen”, “oh, this might happen”, “oh, this might happen”, and it’s exhausting waiting for a shoe to drop. He’s basically saving it all for the end. Reminds me of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, which I didn’t like.

The scope of the narration feels so high it’s like you’re watching Sims go about their business. Getting emotionally close to characters is eschewed for snarky narrative and plot twists. It loses characterization to be a book about global machinations, like the saga of the Spanish Armada. A “big deal” political epic like Dune or Foundation, condensed and modernized. But it’s a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. I’m just eager to read something a little more personal and intimate.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian by W. Kamau Bell

I have double- and triple- and quadruple-checked this review to not sound racist, and it still sounds racist to me. Everything I write seems condescending like “ooh, let me read about the experience and perspective of these poor downtrodden folk so that I, as a lord, may better fathom these men’s plight. Ah, now I totally understand the Black experience, tum-tee-tum.”

On Twitter, during the Minneapolis riots, someone listed a set of books by Black voices discounted on Amazon, to encourage the purchase of artistic works by Black people. So I bought some of them. I understand other humans through books, and my bookshelf does not have many authors of color. Especially Black people, since they have a unique aspect that the Chinese or Irish or Indian or Hispanic or any other American emigrants don’t have–slavery.

W. Kamau Bell is the child of two people that couldn’t fail if they wanted to. Usually, I complain about people like that (see my review of Mary Robinette Kowal‘s book), but in this case, it’s fine because Bell fails quite a bit. He drops out of college. He can’t make friends. He doesn’t fit in at private school. He doesn’t have two married parents. He likes superheroes and rock music and Bruce Lee. He’s in a Venn diagram of not Black enough for Blacks and not safe enough for whites.

He’s spent his career in jumping around mediums–stand-up, one man shows, late night TV round-tables, man-on-the-street news features–but the common theme is he’s always exploring social issues.

But sometimes his essays get too progressive for their own good. Sometimes Bell points out incidents that he claimed were racist, where I didn’t see where it wouldn’t have gone different if he was a white man. Like having to deal with idiot television producers or nosy Karens who think they know better than you how to be a parent. Despite large amounts of text dedicated to his upbringing, I just didn’t see where he had experienced a lot of hardship or interesting things in his life. Not like Lindsey Stirling or Kayla Williams.

That being said, I enjoyed this collection of essays, especially compared to the pasty white drivel I had read previously (David Sedaris and John Hodgman) and I think he has intriguing ideas. This guy’s got the makings of a leader. I would like to see another set of writing, now that the autobiography stuff is out of the way. There’s still plenty that white people don’t know about being Black in America.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This book has effluvial praise. That always makes me suspicious–when everyone likes something that usually means I’m not going to like it. If it pleases everyone, that means it’s been adulterated to appeal to everyone.

It’s another class-conflict story, like The Dutch House. Rich man, poor man. Upstairs, downstairs. The guys who can afford everything versus the people who have to eat jelly packets.

The story starts with a suburbanite family’s house on fire, unsalvagable. Three of the four children (all teenagers) watch it burn, theorizing their littlest sister did it and no one seems very surprised or impassioned. I would be like “OMG she just destroyed our lives! Kill that bitch!”

That’s the “upstairs” family–Mom’s a journalist, Dad’s a lawyer, and the four teen kids all fit in a WB teen drama. The “downstairs” is a single mother and daughter who just moved into the duplex rented out by “upstairs” mom. The mother is basically a starving artist. She considers her artistic photography to be her “job” and the waitressing is just to make money. Hence why they’re “downstairs”.

Which brings me to the main reason I stopped reading — I liked no characters. There is a part where the single mother gets a successful gallery show and the curator offers to pay her for another batch of similar photographs. What does she say? No, I never do the same thing twice.

Fuck you, lady. You’ve got a KID. She needs to EAT. You’re fine with feeding your kid tortillas and canned beans so don’t have to “compromise your artistic integrity”. Are you gonna tell your daughter “Sorry honey, it’s Imaginary Christmas this year because ‘the MAN’ doesn’t understand my vision.” I can’t stand people like that — I thought the notion of the romantic Bohemian artiste died at the same time Moulin Rouge came out.

I can’t stand the notions some people have that if you create art that makes money you’re a sell-out. I have a quote on my website — “Being a better writer is something of a moot point, since if you’re not a commercial writer to some extent, very few people will know whether your writing is any good or not.” (John Scalzi).

I made it 18% in. There was just no plot happening. The excitement happens in the first chapter, but it’s a bait-and-switch–it’s a flash-forward, and then the rest is exposition. (What’s the opposite of burying the lede?) By chapter six there wasn’t even an inkling of what was to come. The alleged arsonist little sister hadn’t even shown up. BTW, she’s the most interesting character–the sister who plays violin and writes “I am not a puppet” on her forehead at dance recital because her parents pushed her into it. I want to read about that person. But no, she’s the bad guy because she doesn’t want to conform to you suburbanites.

Instead I got the friendship between the single mother’s daughter and the four upper class children. And the jealousy and longing and desire for each other’s lives and crushes and money woes as one would expect. But it’s just characterization and “getting to know you” passages. The only interest comes from the “differences” between the two families. Well, an elf and a dwarf have differences, but they still need to do something.

And after reading the summary and analysis, I’m glad I cut out early. Because I’m wondering what is the point of this novel? It seems to be “stop sticking your nose into other people’s business”. The story sounds like it’s a microwavable version of a “Desperate Housewives” melodrama. There’s abortions, given-up babies, affairs, women’s issues, shame in front of the neighbors, lawsuits, runaway mothers, and nosy white bitches. If I wanted to something about someone not fitting in and the dirty little secrets of white middle class suburbia, I’d watch Edward Scissorhands.

The plot hinges on a bunch of Karens making bad decisions because they think they’re right. Halfway through a woman tells someone that they should sue an adopting couple for the child she gave up. Because she thinks every woman should have the right to raise their own child. And she would know, since she’s been living on the run for the past decade because she was a surrogate and stole the child she was meant to surrender. At a certain point, don’t you look at your life and wonder how you got there? Oh, maybe it’s because I keep imposing my high and mighty beliefs on others and lashing out at anyone who doesn’t agree. This is the same reason we have people who don’t wear masks and cluck their tongues at BLM protests like “why are they so angry?”

I hate this book and I haven’t even read it.

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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