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The Books I Read: January – February 2021

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I was watching the Netflix series Ragnarök and decided I needed to catch up on my Norse gods. It’s not Marvel’s Thor, so you can’t just wing it. You have to remember who Tyr and Fenrir are and that Frost Giants aren’t just cannon fodder to be whacked around.

It still holds up pretty well. I maintain the same opinion from my first review. One new problem I realized is that there is a lack of continuity between tales. One guy dies and is immediately resurrected in the next story. No explanation why (or ever). But that’s a symptom of a spotty written record. I don’t blame the author. It was his choice to maintain truthiness to the source. And sometimes cohesion is the cost.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

So much internal “thinking” and description of the minute details of everyone’s actions. Not enough multi-person dialogue. The main character lacks relationships with anything or anyone. You might say “well, that’s denotive of the main character, her being a robot and all. Observant of everything but never able to assimilate into it.” And I say, “Great. Why do you have to bore me with that?” People call her sarcastic, empathetic, sweet, socially awkward, but I didn’t get any of that. You know how I am with my robots–it seems they’re never written the way they should be. I might have left it unfinished if it wasn’t so short. But I won’t be reading any more in this series.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

It’s 90% the same as the original “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. Same beats, same outline. The only difference is that the examples are novels instead of films.

I always thought Save the Cat is a way to get “how do I make this idea into a commercial story”. And the keyword is commercial–something that will sell. Because, really, unless you can sell your story to a major publisher–someone who can get it in front of eyes–you’re just shouting into the wind.

Everyone’s looking for the magic formula to create that best-selling story, myself included. But the real magic is in the lines themselves, and there’s nothing that can help with that. Sometimes you’ve got to just build one Lego brick on top of the other.

My point is, either read this one or read Blake Snyder’s version. There’s not much difference. But I guess if you haven’t read either, and you’re aiming for novels instead of screenplays, read this one. You’ll get closer-to-home examples (and hope to god you’ve read them).

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #2)

It feels like an odd coincidence, reading this so close to A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, both of which are about large alien robots no one knows what to do about. The difference is that one is about the effect on pop culture. The other is global politics a la Godzilla/total-destruction-weapons “I’m gonna smash everything, whatcha gonna do about it?”

I wish I could say I thought of it myself, but it reminds me of what an American version of Neon Genesis Evangelion might look like. Less on the Christianity, more on the whizbang Hollywood moments (mix thoroughly) — but that’s a compliment. There’s less angst and more CSI-style character drama. But it’s still good.

The problem is, if you go into this expecting a typical mecha story, with action and team strife and missiles flying around and questions of fate vs. destiny, that’s not here. These themes are more nihilistic and “we’re all doomed because we can’t get the world to act together”.

But it’s a sequel, so if you didn’t read the first one, I don’t know why you’d read the second.

The Empire Strikes Back: From a Certain Point of View by various authors

Like the first, this is an anthology of short stories. Each one is about a different side or background character in “The Empire Strikes Back” that influences or is affected by the events of the movie. For example, the imperial officer who discovers the rebel base or the tauntaun keeper on Hoth.

Short stories are a hard sell for me, and this book made me realize one additional problem to all the ones I’ve listed before: you have to learn a new guy’s backstory every ten minutes. As soon as you’re comfortable in his or her skin, you jump to a new one, and you will never see that first one again. All that information you absorbed is rendered useless.

Plus, these are all the unimportant characters. I know that’s the hook, but when your subject matter is, by definition, characters who don’t matter to the central conflict, it’s not compelling. These are all the rebels and stormtroopers whose only purpose is to get shot by lasers, upping the stakes for characters who do matter.

So that’s why I stopped reading–it was just boring. You’re either reading the internal narrative of Yoda as he sneaks up on Luke or the non-adventures of the rebel base administrator or snowspeeder pilot. The only way you’re going to get anything out of this is if you know the names Onsell and Dak.

What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong (John Dies at the End #3)

I love that macabre humor from David Wong. I’ll always say this guy deserves more accolades and notoriety for the books he writes. There are so many books that are trying to be Victorian prose and stylistic word poems and post-modern literary realism and there’s nothing for the reader that just wants a good time. Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it has value. Don’t be The Exorcist, be The Evil Dead. Books should be fun, not homework.

That said, it’s the “least good” of the JDATE books. Maybe because there are several Deus ex moments that ruin the stakes. And some plot elements that don’t fit in, don’t make sense. It’s borderline bizarro fiction, so things that don’t make sense are par for the course (like a Santa Claus made of sausages). But when they affect the consequences or challenges of characters in the narrative, when they scoop them out of trouble, that’s where I have a problem. It’s cheap to say “I set this up while I was on a drug bender where I don’t remember anything, and now it shows up to save us.”

It’s not as erratic or short attention span as the first book, but also not as cohesive and linear as the second one. It’s a mix of the two.

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #3)

To be honest, I only finished it just to complete the series, and that’s a terrible reason to read a book (but a great way to hook you into buying it–why do you think there are so many series?) I just stopped caring about the characters after the midpoint of book two. Everyone I had cared about was gone by that point.

For the first two books, we’ve been trying to figure out who these aliens are. Then they actually got to go to the alien planet to meet them… and no one cared. I mean both the Earthlings and the aliens. They’re accidentally summoned to the origin planet of the giant robots and no one knows what to do with them. They make decisions like Ents. All these big revelations about advanced science and our evolution and where the war comes from and cures for cancer and “To Serve Man” and what happens? They get put in a home in the suburbs.

They live there for twelve years and just kinda exist. Like Alf or The Munsters. All these questions linger–what do they do all day? How do they brush their teeth? What do they do all day? Do they get jobs? How do they get money? Where’s the alien Walmart? How is learning the language so easy? There are still languages on Earth we haven’t totally deciphered. But it’s more about father and daughter bickering.

I felt the same in Book 2, where they find enemy aliens in a robot and we never hear a thing about it. No one figures out their biology or culture. No anthropology or forensics on them. I would think we’d have an Independence Day or Watchmen situation, but nope, we just care about the robots. That jars me out of the story because it seems cognitively dissonantt (i.e. “I don’t think this would happen in this situation”).

Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese

Well, it’s definitely short. I read it in two days, but I only needed one.

It’s quite useful, but the problem is I had already heard most of it in a talk John Cleese gave that was recorded on YouTube. But now I can’t seem to find that talk, so at least the book preserves it for posterity.

It’s a cheerful little volume that helps you understand how to fuel creativity. It can be condensed into two phrases: “allocation of time” and “allocation of space”. You need to set aside a time and a place where you can sit and be creative. This book adds a few more details as to why this works and ways to make it work well. It’s like a long web article. But I’d say it’s worth your time. Couldn’t hurt.

Warlock: Reign of Blood by Edwin McRae

I learned about LitRPG from Felicia Day’s promotion that she was narrating a book from such a genre. So I think to myself “what is this ‘LitRPG’?” I like to think I have my fingers on the pulse of today’s lit scene and that this passed me by is egregious (note that I said “I like to think”).

I thought it would be like Dungeons & Dragons but in book form. So that means you get the fun dynamics of table talk, party banter, rules changing on the fly, wacky stuff happening. Like Acquisitions, Inc. or The Adventure Zone. But as a novel.

It’s not.

At least not in this case. It’s more like they live in a world where the success of actions (like sword strikes and arrow shots) is determined by dice rolls, not skill or luck. And they know it. It doesn’t affect the narrative that much because that’s how anything in life is–coincidence and chance and how the characters react to that. It’s the author’s job to engineer that into a compelling story.

I made it 20% of the way through. The story never started–I didn’t know what the main character wanted and I didn’t care whether he got it. When making a new genre, you’ve got to keep some fundamental storytelling elements, like character and goal and stakes. Otherwise, you won’t be able to smooth out that new path without something for the reader to tread on. Like Guitar Hero–that game can be played with a controller, but that’s not very immersive. But playing with a real guitar would be too complex and not fun. So you get the hybrid toy model, and a video game phenomenon is born.

It reminded me of Wizard’s Bane or Off to Be the Wizard, where the characters are blah and have no idea what they want or what bad things happen if they don’t get it. Pretty much a male fantasy where they fight with swords and get the girl. Boring and amateur. The author seemed more concerned with the character build than who he’s with or where he’s going.

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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