bookshelf books

The Books I Read: November – December 2020

Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery by Laurie Loewenstein

I read this because my wife was reading it for book club. Plus the idea intrigued me–a mystery story set in a piece of history rooted in Americana. I had never heard of it, the author, or the publishing company before. But I thought I could use a break from the robots and aliens.

The thing is, it’s just tedious. The characters are dull as dishwater. There’s no intensity to the mystery. There’re no stakes. It’s as dry as the dust bowl it’s telling about.

The thing about a mystery book is that bad mysteries contain large swaths of text that don’t matter to the plot. In a good mystery, the entire story is the mystery, not side characters or subplots. Knives Out, The Da Vinci Code, The Maltese Falcon, The Silence of the Lambs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even the false leads, the red herring, still matter to the plot.

So for example, this book has a suspect. They spend time investigating them, thinking he’s the killer, but then it turns out to be wrong. And the audience knows this all the time. So you feel like you wasted time reading that part. It’s not dramatic irony, it’s page filler. This feels more like a regular book that got labeled “mystery” for marketing purpose. Maybe that’s why I don’t read them — I don’t like plot threads that end at a wall.

In a mystery, all the parts are important. Finding evidence A leads to talking to suspect B who points a finger at witness C who we find out was with D who lied about artifact E which suspect B wants and so on. It should be “buts” and “therefores”, not “and thens”. I don’t mean it has to be a complex web, but “Garfield’s Babes and Bullets” was a more intriguing mystery than this.

This book is for old ladies who just want a comfort read. They don’t want anything surprising or challenging. There’s no diversity in the book–no black people, no immigrants, no one ethnic, no Native Americans, no gays, no Jews. Just loud, white males and one white female (the wife of the investigating sheriff).

Oh, there is one blind guy who runs the theater, so I guess you can check off “disability”. Thing is, he’s an asshole, so it’s not exactly glorious representation. Not to mention he doesn’t figure into the story whatsoever. He’s not even a B-plot, he’s a C-plot. I’m not sure what role he’s meant to play? The struggling entrepreneur during the time of economic hardship?

I would rate it three stars, but my judgment criteria means I wouldn’t bring anything two stars or below to a desert island with me. And I wouldn’t bring this with me — I don’t want to read it again.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

It’s a funny book. But at three-quarters of the way through, the humor started to wear thin. I recommend you don’t read it all at once. You don’t have to read it in sequence. Take breaks, read something else in-between. The jokes are intense and fast, but it’s overwhelming. As in, it’s not relaxing to read. Maybe it has a Police Squad effect.

Police Squad is a television show from 1982. I learned about it in high school in a unit in English about films. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s hilarious–and why shouldn’t it be? It’s from the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker trifecta. The same people who did The Naked Gun, Airplane!, Hot Shots, and other fantastic comedies. But Police Squad only lasted six episodes. Why?

Because it was too much for viewing audiences who wanted to relax and watch TV. If you watch The Naked Gun and Airplane!, you see there are a TON of jokes. Visual gags and puns and subtle humor and slapstick and parody and fourth-wall breaks. There’re even jokes embedded in the credits (if you have the patience). But it works because, in a movie, all your focus is on the movie. But with TV, you’re talking to people, you’re relaxing with a glass of wine, you’re going to the bathroom, you’re talking with your wife. Police Squad forces you to pay attention to get all the jokes, because there are so many.

In Furiously Happy, the biggest flaw is that the same joke gets told over and over. I get it — you’re a wacky mentally ill woman trying to have it all and still survive and you’re into weird stuff like raccoon taxidermy. Basically a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But real because she has rheumatoid arthritis, bouts of depression, and personality disorders.

I’m thinking maybe I’m not cut out for non-fiction memoirs by underprivileged women. It started off so strongly, but at a certain point, I just got overwhelmed by her.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

From now, if I need an example of a novel written exclusively for male audiences, this is what I’ll think of.

I suppose you could call it a science-fiction thriller. The problem is it brings up plot questions, but doesn’t answer them.

The story is about a guy with a wonderful satisfying life, just that he chose family over becoming a famous scientist. Then he’s kidnapped in an odd way, taken to a strange building, and knocked out. He wakes up in a hospital/laboratory where he’s being lauded by a bunch of people who seem to know him, but he doesn’t. So instead of sticking around to ask some questions, get reoriented, and learn what’s going on, he takes the idiot ball and breaks out of the lab into a world he doesn’t know with no allies or money.

So pages and pages go on of this guy wondering what happened, where he is, why things have changed. And I’m yelling at the book “it’s an alternate timeline, idiot! Haven’t you seen a single episode of Star Trek? Or The Twilight Zone? Donnie Darko? Sliding Doors? It’s a Wonderful Life?” This isn’t a foreign concept. It’s like people in zombie movies never using the “Z word”. Being genre blind, either as character or author, doesn’t disguise the concept as original.

And that’s the thing–I’ve seen all those movies mentioned above, and so has the discerning science-fiction audience. I already know every concept and plot point in this sort of story. I knew this guy was going to find his wife, freak out that it’s not her, she’d freak out on him, someone from the alt universe would help him for no reason, and so on. There is some cleverness halfway through in regard to where it takes the idea of all the other alt timeline. But it doesn’t make the main character any more likable.

Speaking of which, this book is pretty misogynist. Or at least not forward-thinking. The guy’s wife is a huge factor in what drives the story goal. Except she’s not really a player in the story. She has all positive personality traits and never makes a mistake, like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the ball being tossed back and forth, the prize to be won. This is why I say this was clearly written for men.

It’s like Taken combined with Community‘s “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode. The premise is capitalizing on the “defend my family so I can justify violence” power fantasy that is trending, like John Wick or anything involving Gerard Butler or Denzel Washington, although none of them have a science fiction twist like this does. Too bad that playing ignorant of its legacy couldn’t save it.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

I read the first one with an open heart, but without a critical eye. But through the years, after reading others’ takes on it, I’ve come around and no longer believe Ready Player One is the five-star delight I originally thought.

Most significant was the central theme, that being “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”. It’s the kind of thing entitled fanboys use to ruin things like Star Wars, Rick & Morty, sports, elections. It results in cults like YouTube content creators and QAnon. They think if they sink enough time into something, there’s a reward at the bottom of the well. Like a “nice guy” who believes being nice to a girl equals points on a “sex card” that he can trade in at some point. They think that because they invest time and money into someone else’s creative work, they possess a share of it. In other words, Sam Sykes’s stages of a toxic fandom: “I love this. I own this. I control this. I can’t control this. I hate this. I must destroy this.”

Plus, the lack of diversity, the weird sex, the total absence of female perspective, and me learning what good characters, good plotting, and good writing looks like, I came into this sequel with glasses un-smudged by nostalgia. Long story short, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake of naivety with this book.

Eight years have passed between book one and book two. Years which included a dismal sophomore follow-up and a popular Stephen Spielberg movie. Mr. Cline has had plenty of time to gain perspective on his work. Develop himself as a writer. Improve his craft, his tastes. Learn the mistakes he made in the past, correct them, and grow ambition for something that exceeded his original vision. That is the hope I had coming into this.

That hope was false.

This book is much the same as the first. In fact, it feels like both the protagonist and the author haven’t learned a thing from the previous book. The pop culture references are even more unnecessary and jammed in there (no one cares that you woke up to Soul II Soul). The story and characters are the same shit as the first one. No sign that Cline learned anything or developed his skill. This could be marketing (just give them the same slop that sold last time) or it could be laziness.

It starts with summary and summary and summary. No dialogue or characterization. All showing, no telling. The story doesn’t really start until a third of the way in, just like last time. Until then, all you’re getting is setup and backstory, and it’s sad. The main character is the CEO of the world’s biggest company–basically Facebook and Nintendo combined–and all he does is play video games all day. He loses the girlfriend he made in the last book because he goes all-in to sucking more people into the virtual world he now owns. He stops talking to the real-life friends he needed in the last book, and spends all his time in the OASIS instead of running the company. It’s like he learned nothing.

For the first 33% of the book, we just follow him in his routine. The author tries to give him “Save the Cat” credit by having him give away money on education (in his VR game) and providing rigs to poor people (for his VR game). He gives so much money away I wonder how his company makes a profit.

And this is part of the virtue-signaling in the book you’ve probably already heard of. I didn’t think virtue-signaling was a real thing until I read this. I thought it was a false flag made up by reactionaries and trolls to hate on people doing good. The triggering incident I’m talking about is when the main character meets a girl he likes (in the simulation). And just like in the last book, he violates her privacy, spies on her, digs up information (this time using his CEO privileges which violate the privacy policy and could get him in jail), and discovers she was assigned male at birth.

“Discovering this minor detail didn’t send me spiraling into a sexual-identity crisis…” Since his VR game allows him to have sex as anyone with anything, he’s realized that “passion was passion, and love was love.” Two things here. One, the fact that he’s only using gender in relation to sex (i.e. whether or not I’d do her) and not her character as a whole. And two, the author doing the same thing–using her gender status as the sole identifier of her character. This tidbit is the only thing I remember about this character. She does nothing in the story. She shows up two times, both as a “plot coupon” to help Wade out of a sticky situation. In other words, not exactly well-rounded. Virtue-signaling is when you tell people you’re “woke” without showing it through action.

So that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what’s left. The new “thing” in the story is technology created by the CEO who left the previous easter egg hunt. It’s called ONI and it’s a direct neural interface, meaning you can now touch, taste, and smell everything in the game. How the hell did this guy have time to design an expansive virtual world AND run a company from scratch (meaning marketing, management, customers, capital, facilities, etc.) AND build the hardware for the company AND architect the program the hardware would run on AND engineer the software to run on the hardware AND invent totally new equipment, in secret, that’s basically the singularity. By himself!

And like I said, the first 33% of the book is just this–setting up the book. The aftermath of winning the contest, finding the new ONI, releasing it to the public, shifting culture again so people spend even more time in a simulated world so the real world can go to pot. What reason is there to spend in reality anymore?

After all that summary the story finally starts and guess what. It’s ANOTHER Easter egg quest, designed by the founder (how did this guy have time to take a shit?). Go here, traverse the world, solve the clues, get the token. And it’s all eighties themed again. So yeah, guess what. You’re getting more of the same. Wade finds the path to one obstacle, finds the way around it (it’s not even detective work, it’s using trivia and video game powers), then moves onto the next. And everything is jammed with 80s pop culture. It makes the whole book a game of “I understood that reference.”

What is the reference Captain America understood? - Science Fiction &  Fantasy Stack Exchange

Unless you can win that game, you’re not going to have any fun. For example, they spend three chapters on the Prince planet. Prince the artist. Three chapters on Prince’s entire history.

Here’s Ready Player Two’s basic structure. Imagine a football field. Our main character is at one end and the goal is at the other. In-between there are seven blockades. All the character has to do is climb over them, one after the other, to get to the goal. Character is at point A, wants to be at point B, gets to point B without any meaningful problems or deviations that surprise the reader. The end. This is number one item in Strange Horizons’s list of stories seen too often.

A better story would involve no obstacles at first. Then, at the twenty-yard-line, an impassible wall springs up. Our character has to dig under it, or scale it, only to find murderous eagles along the way. The second barricade spans the width of the field, so he has to run through the stands, which breaks the rules and he has to avoid being seen by referees. But that presents a new problem as the audience tries to hold him back. If he gets through, the audience hates him stepping on them. And so on.

They say, in a good story, when a character is close to achieving their goal, the goalposts get pushed back. Would Mario Kart be any fun without the random items knocking you back and forth in the race? Ready Player Two is full of “and then”, “and then”, “and then”, when it should be “buts” and “therefores”.

So yeah, drop this one from your to-read lists. Cline has not demonstrated that he’s learned anything as a writer and this book feels like catering to edgelords and internet trolls that are like his characters. There was plenty of opportunity here to fix the mistakes and improve upon the first one. Change the POV character. Have multiple POV characters. Start a family to add some maturity. Go all-female version of the first book. What is it like to be the CEO of a video game company? What are the consequences of a worldwide phenomenon that’s sucking the life out of the planet? Nope, just more Willy Wonka fun & games from the 1980s.

If the theme of this book is “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”, Cline should learn the opposite. “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.”

Sleeping Giants (The Themis Files #1) by Sylvain Neuvel

This is an epistolary science fiction novel mostly about unearthing alien artifacts. Big ones. Like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers sized. But it’s a novel about scientific discovery and exploration and puzzle-solving. Our three main characters are the scientist leader, the tough-as-nails fighter pilot, and a linguist deciphering what was left behind. Also there’s the “mysterious g-man” who’s pulling the strings and conducting the interviews.

The author weaves an intriguing mystery and really grips you out of the gate. There are huge pieces of a statue buried all over the world, like a disassembled action figure. Who left them? How do they fit together? How do we get them out of countries that aren’t exactly friendly to us? There’s a real sense of “how are we going to get out of this one” and “what is the solution to this riddle?”

This is all helped along by good characters. They are well-rounded and competent. Meaning there’s no gruff five-star general who just wants to use it as a weapon against the commies, or the pencil-necked politician, or the bad boy Tom Cruise with a huge ego, or a love interest whose only job is to get Tom Cruise where he needs to go.

Disadvantage: since it’s in epistolary format, all the action’s is muted. When a character is describing a climactic chase scene or a huge disastrous explosion, it’s always after the fact. In hindsight. That kills the suspense.

The cover makes comparisons to The Martian. I wouldn’t say you get as warm a character as Mark Watney or as whizbang of an ending. But you get a good meal. Quick and engaging. And I’ll be coming back to this restaurant to try the chef’s next special.

The Humans by Matt Haig

I didn’t bother finishing this because the story was dull and the humor was hackneyed. Imagine every bad alien joke you heard in the eighties and nineties. Like all the material from ALF or Mork & Mindy or Coneheads. Not even Third Rock from the Sun material.

“Fish Out of Water” only works when the fish are fresh and the water is clean. This is the same damn thing we’ve seen a million times before. Alien comes to Earth and gets in trouble because he doesn’t know the customs. “Humans wear clothes! They wear these many layers of fabrics on their genitals!” Blah, blah, blah. You’re just using nerd language to describe everyday stuff.

And pointing out the oddity of what we consider commonplace isn’t funny anymore. “Aren’t noses weird? I am afraid of pudding!” It’s bordering on cultural insensitivity, even if it’s making fun of ourselves. I got my fill of that “anthropology through a mirror” BS by reading “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” in high school.

In addition, I never understood what the main character’s goal in the story was. But it sure didn’t seem as important as making fun of humans for their weird hair and pencils.


Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson

It starts quite well, but then it gets sluggy. There are some strange detours throughout, which means our main character wanders around for a time, and his actions aren’t really in service of reaching his goal. Instead it’s a “slice of life” kind of thing where we watch his antics as he does the rom-com stuff, gets advice from a mentor, falls for the trickster’s tricks, and so on.

The main plot is that a dentist-servant robot starts to get feelings. He’s not sure what to do about it, but he knows if he tells anyone, he’ll be erased. So what’s his solution? Go to Hollywood and write a screenplay that will make others stop thinking of bots as inhuman automatons. I guess he’s trying to pull an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?.

This is supposed to be a comedy book, but the humor grates because he keeps telling the same jokes over and over. I guess it’s supposed to be because it doesn’t fully understand sarcasm or irony. Which makes me wonder how he’s supposed to write a screenplay. Let alone THE screenplay. But I cannot take one more “Can you guess what XYZ is? You cannot! Humans!”

But it’s still heartfelt. It plays out pretty much how you’d expect it to so don’t expect any surprises. Plus the robots are barely robots–they pass for humans with no difficulty. So don’t come in looking for any cool robot stuff.

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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