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The Books I Read: September – October 2020

The Books I Read: September – October 2020
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

A true sequel to the first–it’s a race against time to keep humanity alive after a meteor has crashed on Earth, giving it a much closer expiration date. The only solution is to travel to space. All of this was all in the first book.

Now that the space program’s been established, it’s time to put a colony on Mars. And our hero protagonist is part of the team making the year-long journey to the future with 1960’s technology.

It’s not a complicated plot, but it’s still very good. Better than the first. Since the majority of the book takes place on the ship, there’s less of the global cultural zeitgeist the first had. Like there’s no hemming and hawing over stage fright or anti-anxiety medication. Which is good — we dealt with that in the first book, and the character overcame those obstacles. No need to run that race again.

What we are dealing with is the products of those cultures bringing that baggage with them into space and the strife it causes. It’s civil rights on the smaller scale. The “women in the kitchen”, “screw your regulations, they’re dying out there”, “either have children or have a career” type stuff. The last book’s antagonist is now our protagonist’s captain, which makes for good drama.

And it’s all dealt with smartly, knowing you can’t win all the battles (especially in the 1960s). I realized it’s a little like The Hunger Games mixed with The Right Stuff. The conflict between the public image you have to present to gain the public’s favor so they support you and keep you progressing versus the gritty realism of the science, the hard work, and the fact that not all of us survive.

The prose is a little less technical, but that’s good. If you can understand Apollo 13, you can understand this. And I’m definitely going to pick up the next book in the series.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
(unfinished)

This is a collection of essays by Roxanne Gay, a teacher, Black woman, and political activist. Essay topics focus on race, LGBTQ, and women’s rights. They range from personal stories to opinions to “struggle” pieces.

I’m just not in a place for it. And I don’t know if I’d ever be in a place for it. I don’t need to feel ashamed for how I’m not “woke enough” these days. I get enough of that on Twitter. I get that being Black is hard, being a woman is hard, getting a Ph.D. while being impoverished is hard, teaching is hard, everything’s hard. I just didn’t get why I should care or why I should listen. Not because I don’t like the same things she likes (I don’t) but that I didn’t have a bond with the author. Does a non-fiction book need a “save the cat” moment?

This is the book that made me realize everyone has a different motivation for why they read. John Green said “I read because I am trapped in my one brain in my one body in this one place and I want to escape that prison.” Now you could interpret that to mean “I read to experience diversity” or “I read to live other people’s lives” or “to see worlds other than this one”. But for me, it means I read to feel less alone. I read to know there are other people out there like me who feel things like I do, in strange ways like I do, who see what’s wrong and right with the world in the same way I do. My favorite books are “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl” and “Looking for Alaska” and “Eleanor and Park”. I like the books where I wish I was friends with the characters, so we could be less lonely together.

This is not that kind of book.

It’s obviously for the educated and meant to educate others. And I have no doubt I would be educated by reading it. But it’s missing the charm that makes me want to spend time with this person. W. Kamau Bell and Lindsey Stirling and Hannah Hart had that. The reasons I stopped reading are similar to why I stopped reading We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby. I have no need for critiques of “Gone Girl” and “Fifty Shades of Grey“. I’ve seen those to ad nauseum on YouTube. And when your beliefs are full of conflicts and you proudly proclaim that, that invalidates your thesis in my opinion. You can’t have it both ways–there has to be equivalent exchange.

Dead Star Park by Mark Hill

This is a horror-comedy a little in the vein of David Wong (John Dies at the End), but in Adventureland. Basically the same plot too–disaffected teenagers work an amusement park, socializing, relationships, coming of age. But at this park, something sinister’s going on after close. Something unworldly.

Casey (the main character) is an excellent character to read about. The wit is there, the characters are *chef’s kiss* well-rounded. But the horror is blah. It never goes anywhere. There’s no sense of a goal or of goalposts being pushed back. Her “big problem” is seeing confusing visions and cryptic words to create “mystery” and “intrigue”. While the narrative hangs a lampshade on this trope, it doesn’t change that the plot never feels like it’s moving forward. The story goal didn’t even get established until 40% through.

Despite that, it’s still funny, small, and sharp (like all the best horror fiction is, unless your name is Stephen King). And it deals with teen issues you don’t normally read about. Not like peer pressure and smoking, but headier things like nihilism. And not the fun “Big Lebowski” or “Rick & Morty” nihilism, but the “what’s the point of anything” and “what am I even doing here” kind.

You laugh, but to a smart teenager with a shaping mind and probably some mental illnesses, that’s the kind of thing that can really drive a nail through your hands. So the author gets that right. And especially in the dialogue to “thinking” ratio. This book is for anyone who likes horror-comedy or Zombieland or the deeper teen angst movies like The Chumscrubber.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
(unfinished)

Monkeys!

The plot is fascinating and hard to summarize, but I’ll try. Basically, we tried to seed an Earth-like planet with a virus that would super-quick-evolve some apes so they would build a civilization for us to be waiting when our generational ship arrived. Two problems. One, the virus didn’t evolve the apes, it evolved the spiders. Two, the AI placed there to guard and watch the planet has gone rogue and isn’t letting our generational ship in.

There are twoish stories going on. One is the evolving spiders. Each scene break, the world develops a little more and you follow the descendant of “spider prime” through the centuries. There’s some incredible world-building as a collection of sentient spiders make a society. The second is the characters on the generational ship figuring out what to do, whether to force their way onto the planet they were promised or find somewhere else.

But I stopped reading because I realized I didn’t care about the characters. Interesting as the spiders are, it all reads like a documentary. The people on the spaceship are douchebags, hung up on their destroyed planet and generally being the worst human beings to each other. Not showing they’re worth saving.

It’s a little like “Leviathan Wakes” and “Wool” in terms of style, if you like that sort of thing. Me, I don’t. Long novels, multiple POVs, heavy on the hard science ideas, light on creating characters you want to spend time with. I had no one to root for. I guess some writers focus more on the concept than investment in a person.

Touch the Night by Max Booth III

A brutal thriller about two ghetto kids kidnapped by two “off” police officers. The elevator pitch alone strikes as Stephen King-like (From a Buick 8, Desperation) and that’s a compliment. But does the full novel follow through?

Yes, yes, it does. But only to a point. I was going to rate it four stars but the ending was unsatisfying. I don’t mind twist endings or hanging endings or even ambiguous endings. But there must be an ending. Endings mean resolution and there was no resolution about this. Being left with more questions than answers doesn’t equal a scary ending. Saw had a scary ending and it still answered everything. It Follows had a scary ending and it didn’t tie everything up, but it resolved the story. This is like “Well, I made my word count. Publish it.”

If not for that, it’s pretty good, and I looked forward to reading it each night. The characters are well-fleshed out and the relationships, both pre-existing and growing, are believable. It’s thematic of the boys’ friendship and motherhood-in-arms and being stymied by a system designed not to listen. That alone would be enough of an obstacle, but it’s combined with the vines of evil power controlling puppets from below.

The tagline calls it Stranger Things meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Maybe. I’d take out Stranger Things and substitute in Fresh (1992). Or the two kids from “The PJs” but without the funny. (Sorry, I don’t have a lot of selection.)

But given what I said about the ending, should you buy this book? I wish I could say. A bad ending can ruin a really good story (see Game of Thrones). I guess you’ll have to take a look for yourself and decide. Just preparing you for what you’ll get.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

What if you could put your brain in a computer… and it was AWESOME?

I feel like this is the closest I’ve ever been to someone who can capture the same blend of snarky comedy and well-researched science fiction that John Scalzi can.

The biggest challenge in a novel like this is that there is only one character. Which is because the plot demands it — it’s one person traveling alone for a long time. And when more characters are added, they’re the same character, because he can make copies of himself . So not a lot of diversity or dynamics in relationships. But at least it’s not due to authorial incompetence.

The best thing is that the main character is a regular guy. He’s a trope-savvy software engineer who doesn’t shirk away from the pop culture reference. He’s aware he’s in a 1950’s Isaac Asimov novel. In fact, he’s the only one of his “graduating class” that doesn’t go insane because he’s a brain-in-a-box because he likes it. He gets to live inside his mind, solve technical problems, explore space, and he can make his own friends. Sounds ideal to me.

It’s fast-paced, it’s witty, it’s got a layman’s POV of hard space travel science. I highly recommend.

Conceal, Don’t Feel (A Twisted Tale) by Jen Calonita

What if Anna and Elsa never knew each other?

Answer: The same thing that happens in Frozen.

Why do I keep reading these Frozen books that are the same damn thing as the movie? Is it because it’s a perfect story as it is?

This feels like an unnecessary script doctoring somebody found in the Disney archives. Like some executive had a deadline so he gave it to his sister’s kid who just graduated film school and said “here, give me something I can bring to the board meeting on Thursday.”

Like other “Twisted Tales“, the plot hinges on a cruel spin. This time, the spell to remove Anna’s memories goes awry. Now, if Anna and Elsa are too close together, Anna will turn into ice, like in the ending. So Anna is sent to a different village.

Not a great difference, is it? Anna’s the same person–bubbly and social. Elsa’s still introverted and proper. And they both lived somewhat separated in the original movie.

Elsa still creates Olaf. She still meets the deceptive Hans. She still reveals her powers in a fit of emotion. She still builds an ice castle (there’s even a chapter that’s essentially “Let It Go” in prose form. Now that’s exciting stuff.) She’s still captured and taken to the dungeon. Anna still meets Kristoff who takes her to find Elsa (who she thinks is in trouble based on no evidence). She still goes to Oaken’s. She still has a chase with the wolves. She still rushes to save Elsa from Hans at the end and turns into a frozen statue that’s healed by love.

If you change one thing, you’ve got to change the entire story. It’s a butterfly effect. Anna may not have a different personality, but her goals should change. The plot should change. She shouldn’t be concerned about government machinations. It’d be like if I was Kamala Harris’s long lost brother, but didn’t know it, and I had to find her before Mitch McConnell took over. I have no investment in that scenario–I’m distant in both the physical sense and familiar sense. I’ve got my baked goods to worry about.

And if you’re going to make a twisted tale, then the point of the twisting should be to show us a completely different story, not the same. Straight on Till Morning and Part of Your World did that and it worked beautifully. The conclusion of the movie never took place, so the story is totally different and the characters evolve differently. Ariel is consumed with regret and Wendy becomes an action girl. If Anna and Elsa don’t know each other, why not have them meet at the beginning of the story? Then we can watch their relationship form while they have an adventure that has nothing to do with Prince Hans or Olaf or the Duke of Weselton.

But redoing the movie is lazy lazy lazy. It doesn’t give the reader what they want, which is an “alternate universe” Frozen. This is, beat for beat, the same story. Everything’s just in a different order. It’s a waste of your time. Don’t read this book.

Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick by David Wong

It’s nice to read something that’s just a cleanly written, fun story that’s not trying to be a five hundred page epic or engineered toward a movie option.

I think this one’s better than the first (“Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits”) because I found it hard to wrap my head around the world-building and who they characters were (they all play the same role). Maybe now I know what this world is and what platform we’re standing on. The first one had a high-ish learning curve. This one doesn’t.

The basics? We’ve still got Zoey Ashe, a no-name millennial who inherited a city (essentially) after her mob boss father died and left everything to her. That includes all his businesses (legit and illegit), employees, mansion, and personal entourage of elite black ops bodyguards.

And the enemy? This time it’s something a little harder to fight–a throng of anti-woman incel supremacists. That makes the threat sound trivial, but not in a world where they sell cybernetic implants and homing beacons at Walmart. It’s a timely theme–how long and how much are you going to let these cyberbullies control your life. How much power do they really have? How do you fight an enemy that’s essentially a swarm of wasps?

Wong calls this bizarro fiction, but I don’t think so. It’s wacky, with some surreal science-fiction elements. But nothing bizarre. Bizarro is a convention full of William Shatners attacking a cult of Bruce Campbell worshipers. Bizarro is a Santa made entirely of sausages and elves having sex through extra-dimensional panties. Bizarro is your zombie girlfriend taking off her breasts so you can use them as suction cups to scale a wall.

Women may not find this as amusing since seeing Zoey harassed and trolled and threatened when that’s their every day life. But for men, it’s an important step toward understanding what it’s like to be on the receiving end of online misogyny day after day. I highlighted one passage in particular.

“I want, for the first time in my life, to enter an elevator with a man and not stand there with the knowledge that he can overpower me anytime he feels like it. I want to be able to go jogging alone, at night. And when I enter a room, I want the people there to take me seriously, because they know they have to.”

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://author-quest.blogspot.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.


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