The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: July – August 2020

The Books I Read: July – August 2020
Part of Your World: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

So there’s this “Twisted Tale” series from Disney books that’s essentially all about screwing the heroines out of their happy ending and making the story “what if” instead. I don’t know why Disney’s trying to do this. To reach a mature audience you have to make everything grimdark and miserable? The first series was villain-focused with works like “The Beast Within” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then a YA adventure of Disneyland crossed with “they only come out at night”. I hated all of them passionately.

I did not hate this.

In fact, I kind of like it. It’s like a Twilight Zone sequel to “The Little Mermaid” — what if Ariel lost? The writing feels more gothic and less modern, more ornate and unnecessarily lengthy (probably because someone’s trying to make a word count). But the story stays moving.

It lacks the sense of Disney whimsy that makes the first one magical. Sebastian’s now an old fuddy-duddy, not a wise-cracking crab. Scuttle is senile and has a grand-daughter. Ariel is world-weary and jaded by her experience. But maybe that’s plausible, given these characters didn’t get a “Happily Ever After”. It’s made for adults, but lacks the Disney joy. Like Disney’s characters continued by Hans Christian Andersen.

A big flaw is that the world-building cribs the Disney movie and the fairy tale. The author picks and chooses from both (like turning into sea foam or immortal souls, but ignoring the “walking on knives” or the prince treats her like a pet), and sometimes that canon comes into conflict. It retcons some plot points and isn’t explicit about where the cut-off for the timeline is.

Basically, the key moment is that Scuttle doesn’t fly by the window where Ursula/Vanessa is singing and see that she’s really the sea witch. However, Ariel still somehow gets to the boat to confront Ursula. But I guess she’s too late? Then there’s a big Ursula vs. Triton battle (not in the book) and she wins, polyp-ifies Triton, and becomes Eric’s wife. But she wipes everyone’s memories so they don’t remember mermaids, and everything’s back to status quo. And now Ursula is starting to invade human lands.

Except…

Ursula never wanted to rule the human world. She wanted to rule the sea. She doesn’t give a flying fish about humans. Why would she? There’s more power in the oceans than one tiny human kingdom. She wants that trident and that crown. Eric is just a big dumb meathead means to an end. Ariel is a pawn for greater rewards (i.e. a contract that ropes Triton into sacrificing his crown for his daughter) and revenge for… something (the movie doesn’t say).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She’s a Faustian villain, a vehicle for Ariel to make a deal with the devil to learn the hard lesson that she shouldn’t let her desires lead her into reckless decisions.

But this is Ariel’s story. It’s an adventure and a redemption arc and it paints Ariel with an empowering brush. Ariel has had years to learn the consequences of her actions, to deal with the loss of her father, her role as Princess of the Sea, leaving the one she loved behind. It means Ariel and Eric take time to establish a relationship as they figure out what to do about Ursula. It was a satisfying follow-up to the original movie and I want to read more from the Twisted Tale series.

In reality, if Ariel did lose to Ursula, the sequel should be about her getting a lawyer and learning contract law.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This did not have enticing beginning. It starts with a prologue and poetry and description and other shit. Not something happening or an intriguing event. It didn’t pull me in.

But I kept reading and I’m glad I did. This is a story about a woman raising herself in nature. (And almost by nature.) She’s one of those white trash families in the bayou: alcoholic father, living in a shack in a swamp, hillbilly, thick accent, tobacco-chawin’ types that has too many kids, like “Cletus” in The Simpsons. But this one’s played straight. Very straight. Basically her whole family abandons her by the age of ten and somehow she manages to survive.

At its core, it’s a coming-of-age book set in the deep south with the climax being a court trial. (Why do I keep finding these “To Kill a Mockingbird” remixes?) It takes place in two time periods. About 75% of the content is a survival story (a little reminiscent of “Island of the Blue Dolphins”) about how she managed to live alone in the swamp as a ten-year-old and not go crazy or starve to death. (Along with life and love and bullies and other things that come with growing up in 1952.) The other quarter is a murder-mystery trial taking place in the present (which for them is 1969).

Two big things stood out to me. One was the poetic descriptions. You really get a feel for how Kya embraces nature. She lives in it, soaks in it, it becomes her and she becomes it. She lives there so long she is symbiotic to nature. Very focused on the beauty and power of nature. If you like poetry, you’ll like this part.

But when it comes to any plot elements that involve anyone other than Kya and the marsh, it drops into cliches. There’s the teenage bully, the truant officer, the football quarterback. Classism, racism, and sexist asshole redneck archetypes. Anyone other than Kya sounds like a video I watched in health class.

It’s not my favorite book, but it’s a great book. It’s not for everyone, but this thing’s been on the NYT Bestseller list for years now. It’s got nearly a million ratings on GoodReads. So go read the reviews by people who can write them better than me.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

I thought it was a better read than the first book. It’s slow to start, but then really gets exciting.

The first act is a combination of “aftermath from the first book” and “setup for this second book”. And there are times the narrative starts to wax poetic about fame and power and metahumanism that it starts to sound like one of the vlogbrothers videos (though these are tough questions and deserve attention). But then the plot busts open and you get invested in what’s happening.

I guess part of that is that there was time set aside to build up the characters. Each one is distinct and likable in their own way. I think it’s improved by having multiple characters’ POV instead of just the one (who got a little millennial-obnoxious after a while).

Once again, we’re talking sequel so if you read the first book, you know if you want to read the second. But take comfort that the second improves on the first. I think Hank Green took what he learned, applied it, and the effects are palpable.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

So it’s hard to write a review of this book without being biased. I’ve been watching her since she was a pig-tailed nostalgia chucker and stayed following through Disney film criticism, Transformers film theory, obsession with musicals, and Hugo nominations. She doesn’t release material often, but she’s never disappointed. So as I read it, I tried to be objective in my evaluation–if you’d never heard of Lindsay Ellis, what would you think of this book?

Ellis has described Axiom’s End as “Stranger Things” meets “Arrival” (the good one with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, not “The Arrival“). Personally, I think it’s more like “E.T.” meets “Independence Day” with an infusion of “Beauty and the Beast”/”Phantom of the Opera”-style plot (you know, those stories where an emotionally unavailable anti-villain and a warm-hearted girl fall in love even though it’s wrong and would never work). The external story is about xenophobia and protecting a group of refugee aliens from bounty hunters with technology way beyond our own. The internal story is about the relationship between the main woman and her alien companion.

The beginning is good at “show, don’t tell” and that’s tough for a beginning, because you want to get backstory out there without being infodumpy, but you’ve got to do it expediently or the plot can’t start. Then it gets complex. Way more complex than I expected from someone whose most popular video is about Disney’s Aladdin. (but I guess this went through 26 drafts, so it makes sense. In software development, we call that “feature creep”.) Good, hard science about time dilation, political machinations, and Dyson spheres. One of the major motifs in the book is language (par for the course when dealing with aliens), and that gets tricky when you’re trying to remember who’s who in the alien world–what is a “similar”? Is Esperas a name or a term? How is Cefo related to everyone again?

And here’s what I didn’t expect: it’s a love story that’s not a romance. Like a “hurt/comfort” fic? For all those “comp titles” I mentioned before, the real root of the plot is basically 2007’s “Transformers” by way of Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov. An aimless young adult makes contact with an alien soldier from a space war galaxies away. And that war’s coming to Earth. It’s evocative of a fan fiction that got blessed by the blue fairy and turned into a real boy for being so good.

A lot of the reviews describe it as “fun”, but I don’t know if I’d call it that. The complexity turned me off, because that reeks of hard science fiction, which I’m not a fan of (too much research, not enough characters). But I would like to see the sequel, because I want to see where the girl and the alien’s relationship goes.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby
(unfinished)

It’s a collection of essays (I think they’re gleaned from her blog) about regular life stuff. You know: dating, work, money, The Bachelorette, eating ice cream in bed. The first thing I thought was “Damn, that’s witty. I wish I could write like this.”

The second thing was “I don’t think this is for me.”

The writer is a single woman. She wants to get married… except she shaves her head, is overweight, is thirty-six years old (but looks older — her admission), has to wear adult undergarments, only graduated high school, works as a receptionist at a vet clinic, can’t have children (I don’t mean infertile, I mean she can’t physically run around a yard after a toddler), and is lazy (see aforementioned eating-ice-cream-in-bed, plus her own admittance that “marriage is hard”). So… what exactly is it you bring to the table?

Yes, you have obstacles in your life that make for an interesting memoir… but I’m wondering if some of these problems aren’t brought on by your own decisions (or lack thereof). She was in poverty, but now her spending habits are ridiculous (to make up for lost time, she says). She hates cats, but takes home a kitten that no one wants and clearly hates her. And she ends up taking care of it. And it still hates her.

But I also wonder if I’m not in the right place for this, mentally, with everything going on (i.e. waves hand to everything).

The story of shitting herself from bad Burger King on the side of the road in front of friends from bad Burger King with the story of how her father died. Her alcoholic absent father with dementia. While also dealing with her mother, both of whom had to be put in a home by her when she was eighteen because she was born late. I can’t deal with that right now.

Or I’m not the target audience at all. This might be for the “loves-The-Kardashians-non-ironically” types. Those who embrace Lizzo. Trying to convince Facebook you’re living a luxurious life. But lacking ambition or drive to achieve something. To leave the world a little better than when you found it.

The Women In the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
(unfinished)

Historical fiction about a set of German women friends living through the war in Nazi Deutschland. It’s evocative of “The Sound of Music” because it starts with fancy rich people enjoying their privileged lives and then it all goes to shit when the invasions begin. Some of them try to do something about it, some are just trying to survive, but everyone suffers.

And that’s the problem: I’ve seen this story before, dozens of times. The horrors of war. Yes, I get it. Nazis are bad. Everyone’s son or husband dies. And this volume offers nothing new. Maus, War Horse, The Book Thief, Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, Inglorious Basterds, Slaughterhouse Five, Number the Stars. I get it, World War II was bad. You are bringing nothing new to the table. It’s a by-the-numbers “suffering in war” story.

And the time-jumping, I just don’t see the point of it. The book shifts around multiple perspectives, multiple places (all German places I’ve never heard of), multiple time points. And there’s no reason for it that I can see, neither style nor substance. Why confuse us? What does the story gain that it couldn’t from a straight start-to-finish narrative. You’ve already told me who survives so what “message” does your “medium” present?

It just wasn’t flipping my cookie, so I moved on.

Straight on Till Morning: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

It maintains some of the similarities of the other “Twisted Tale” I read. There’s a definite strong slant on morphing these “damsels in distress” into “strong female characters”. The fortunate thing is that they keep their personalities (relatively) while doing this. Wendy is still a proper Englishwoman who overthinks things and talks a lot.

It plays fast and loose with the canon, cherry-picking from the book and movie (like Wendy’s house is here, but the jerk-mermaids are also here). It takes a while to actually get to Neverland, and when you do, it’s not as imaginative as I thought it could be.

It gets real sludgy in the middle. Clearly the author is trying to make a word count, and when you’ve got a basic quest plot, there isn’t a whole lot that happens to change the character or affect them personally. Hook is also a letdown, as he’s portrayed as sad-crazy, not funny-crazy.

It’s not disappointing, but it’s not blow your socks off. Take it this way–even the best of the direct-to-video Disney sequels were only middlin’, with thin plots and uninventive story paths.

And it cops out on the Indians.

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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.