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The Books I Read: July – August 2021

The Books I Read: July – August 2021

Memory Man by David Baldacci

The first thing I thought of when I read the first chapter was Max Payne. It’s a very old game shaped like a crime noir graphic novel. In it, the detective (who doesn’t have the personality of a family man) comes home to find his wife and child killed by a druggie home invasion (which later turns out to be a conspiracy, but that’s not relevant here).

The same thing happens here–this is a detective novel where the main character discovers the bodies of his wife and child brutally killed in their home. The exception he doesn’t know who did it. Also, instead of John Woo powers, he remembers everything he hears/sees/senses. (The two aren’t connected–he got this ability from a football injury.) But one makes more sense for a written medium. None of this is good or bad, it’s just something I thought of.

The difference is that Max Payne is a send-up. A pastiche. Nearly self-referential. This one is all played straight. And it should be. And it works. And I loved it.

This is the kind of grit I was going for in Black Hole Son and Quake. A grimy emotionless man with an edge harder than steel. One who takes no shit, can’t stand people, but has an ability that makes him indispensable for saving the world. You can be a complete asshole and still help others. Use that hate for good.

I rated it five, but I’d really rate it 4.5 if GoodReads allowed centrist fence-sitters. The answer to the “whydunit” is sort of confusing. I guess it would have to be for someone who can access his life’s record like a DVR. The ending felt thinly tied to the character. You may say you read books for the journey, not the destination. But “whydunit”s are special in that the ending is particularly important.

The Weird Accordion to Al by Nathan Rabin
(unfinished)

Basically, this volume reviews every song ever written and released by “Weird Al” Yankovic. I mean every song. Ever. B-sides and rarities and I think any and every thing released to the public. The problem is–how much can you say about an artist’s work before it starts lacking originality? Even for someone as diverse as Weird Al? It was so boring I actually bought a physical copy and still didn’t finish it.

They’re just reviews. Like the kind you might see on AllMusic.com. So many glowing words just get repetitive. And it’s worse because it’s comedy. Mark Twain said “Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog. You learn a lot in the process, but in the end, the frog is dead.”

I was hoping for content about the creation of each song, where it originated, what it means, how it was constructed. I expected details on the Lady Gaga and Coolio kerfuffles. What was the impetus for “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung?”–a song about such an antiquated subject? Why does Weird Al write so many songs about creepy casanovas?

Maybe there’s a difference between what I expected the book to be and what the author wrote, which feels like a very long long long fan letter to each “Weird Al” song. And I have no need for that. I already like Weird Al Yankovic, I don’t need to be told why over and over.

For We Are Many (Bobiverse #2) by Dennis E. Taylor

It starts right where the last one left off, so don’t take a long time between reading this one and the last. There is an “appendix” at the back, but it’s not terribly helpful because it doesn’t give much context for the names and places. Fortunately, they’re all pretty much the same character, since they’re, you know, brain clones, since that’s the conceit of the book.

If this were a video game, I’d say it plays the same as the first. Some of the Bobs are working on evacuating Earth. Some are finding new planets. The central one is helping this race of alien hominids survive to become like humans. There isn’t much emotional or relationship drama because of course you’re going to get along with yourself.

All the good and bad of the first book continues in this second one, but there are new developments too. It’s good for us programmers and problem solvers but lacks the increased characterization that would come with a sequel. We get to know the people on the planets more than the Bobs.

It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
(unfinished)

This was not the book that marketing thinks it is. Judging by the cover and back copy, I thought this was going to be a happy bubbly chick lit like Twenties Girl or Catching Jordan. A wealthy socialite inherits a professional football team! The shenanigans!

No.

First, we start with some grim family drama. The old man dies and his Anna Nicole Smith wife comes in, just as drunk, and her dog pees on the coffin. Less Anna Kendrick and more Christopher Titus. Then in Chapter Two, there’s some a flashback to some rape. Then in Chapter Three, there’s some statutory rape… almost.

Turns out the author fooled you. When you thought you were reading about a teacher taking his sixteen-year-old student back to his place and having sex with her, that was just our hero engaging in some good old roleplay with his ex-wife who he can’t stop sleeping with. Classic chick lit.

Like, what is the point of deceiving us? You present him as reprehensible only to pull away the curtain to show he’s slightly less reprehensible. At least he’s not doing anything illegal like you thought? It’s like showing us a guy thinking he punched his kid, then it turned out it was just a small man. He still punched the guy.

Later this becomes a plot point (in the part I didn’t get to) where he engages in some rape play with her. Except it’s not her, like he thinks. It’s actually with the female love interest. And she’s too scared to say anything because she was previously raped by the football players her dead husband had coached. I don’t know how something like this could happen–it’s just dark. It’s not like her voice changed or they’re wearing eye masks. And there’s nothing about safe practices like safe words or even being slightly worried that this has ceased to be consensual. Very Fifty Shades of Grey.

This is not the book I thought it would be. And I blame the publishers more than the author. The cover shows a girl with balloons against a yellow background or a football whistle hanging between some sultry boobs. Not all this sexual assault. If you’re thinking it’s going to be “oh, how is this Paris Hilton archetype going to deal with all these manly men? Dur-hur-hur…” you have made the wrong selection.

Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer

It’s a fun YA adventure book about a space race. The characters are interesting, but the plot follows a path deeply tread by The Hunger Games. I wouldn’t call it “Katniss in Space”, but it has the same themes of adventure, reluctant heroes, clear lines between friends and enemies, and mass media attention.

It ends on a cliffhanger, and I can’t tell if I care enough to continue. The book just doesn’t seem like it takes itself that importantly, like these are the most important stories in these people’s lives.

The Lake House by Kate Morton
(unfinished)

There are two reasons I stopped reading this before the sample was done.

One: There’s a prologue with no named characters doing something that is irrelevant to what follows. You will literally forget what happened within the next few pages because it has no connection. It’s put in because the first chapter is a little girl trotting around her garden, talking to people. So the prologue has to act as the exciting, “pulling you in” thing. But like most prologues, it can be removed and nothing is affected.

Personally, I think the content of the first chapter is fine in itself. It’s a little girl having random thoughts, which is fine because she’s sixteen we need the exposition. So she talks about wanting to marry the gardener, and then trips on a log, and that she likes this old man but not this old woman. She’s a lot like Lizzie Bennet’s little sisters. It’s flighty and good characterization. But it demonstrates the second reason I stopped reading: so much telling, not enough showing.

The first two chapters are lots of inner monologuing by the main characters of two different timelines. They’re telling you what they already know for our benefit. There’s no dialogue, no interactions, no conflict. Just the POV character alone and infodumping.

And there is way too much of it. Too much detail, not enough story. I know some people like those long descriptive passages that really make you feel you’re in the book. I don’t. I’ve seen what a fancy English countryside looks like. I’ve watched Pride & Prejudice. I have an imagination. I don’t want to put two and two together about why you’re suspended from the force. Just read your performance review letter. Or a news article. Or even better, have a neighbor confront her.

My wife is reading this for book club right now and she has the same complaints I do. The story is just not moving forward. I don’t know who would like this book, but it’s not me.

The House of Wael by Chris Avellone
(unfinished)

I found this in my copy of Pillars of Eternity, which is a video game by same creators of Baldur’s Gate, but unique for being Kickstarted so well. Thus there were lots of free bonuses included. Finally got around to digging into the directory and discovering it (and that was because I was trying to clear space on my drive and found the documentary video).

Free is about what it’s worth. I thought it had potential in the beginning, but the first chapter goes on and on. There’s a whole paragraph about a guy taking a breath.

I guess it’s framed to be like someone discovered some scrolls of Wael, which is a god in Pillars of Eternity. But it reads like someone told this guy to write a novella in a week. I was hoping it would engross me in the game, give some background on events. But this is for the people who like Homestuck, who are either completionists or like Time Sink Fallacy followers.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

This is a good book. It’s a classic high concept romance with a twist — the guy is a quadriplegic and the woman is his personal assistant (non-medical). On the surface, it feels like another entry in all the “Sick Kids in Love” stories I’ve read lately, except these are adults. So if you like that genre but don’t like the juvenility of YA, this is for you.

The writing is good and there’s not much “thinking” (as in the character navel-gazing and whining about the situation they’re in and wondering what to do about it, common in romances and which stagnates the plot).

The best part is Act II, especially the “fun & games” section and that’s because the author really shines in characterization. I feel like she was good at not only forming these characters even if quadriplegia wasn’t part of it, but then also nailed the ailment as well. So I got a sense of learning something as well as being entertained, which makes for a Satisfying Reader Experience (TM).

The book delivers the promise of the premise without bogging it down with common trappings of romance books (like wool-gathering over “do I love him?” “how do I know I’m in love?” “can I be in love?” “should I be?” and so on).

The Swap by Megan Shull

Nuance, thy name is not this book.

This is the same damn “Freaky Friday” story we’ve all heard before. I was hoping that this time there would be something different because it’s a genderswap, something I didn’t get from Cycler. There are so many issues you can explore by putting a boy in a girl’s body and vice versa. Life-affirming issues like that not all guys are horndogs/killers/rough stuff and not all women are crybaby drama queens. But no, this is like a bad middle school play.

The problem is the girl and boy therein are too similar. They both do sports. They both live in single-parent households. They both have friends that may/may not be good for them. The girl’s big problem is that her best friend has joined a Mean Girl Clique (TM) and EVERYTHING out of her mouth is something snide and/or passive-aggressive. Example: (while walking by) “Some people just shouldn’t wear clothes that don’t fit their figure, right?” The mean girl’s name? Sassy.

And the boy is part of a hockey-playing family of four brothers (who everyone gets into Boston College). Their names are Stryker, Gunner, and Jett. And they are constantly using slang. Like not a single sentence comes out that’s not some kind of hockey jargon. I don’t think they have an English class in their middle school. Everything is “Bro got the flow chopped” and “We’re just rippin’ you, Jacko” and “I could sit here all night, quick scoping fools!” Their dad is a maniacal army captain. And he acts more like a serial killer than a strict dad.

This is like an Disney Channel sitcom*–overacted, full of one-note archetypes, plotted poorly, bad hackneyed comedy, characters acting outrageously, no real stakes or pinch points, and the ending is just weird. I think if you’re going to make a “Freaky Friday” book, you’ve got to have more dynamic than just a single characteristic (i.e. age or gender). Like if the boy was a nerd and the girl was popular, there’s more to be explored. But this, I didn’t learn a damn thing from it. Like, what was it written for? To fill pages? To kill trees?

*In fact, it became a Disney Channel Original Movie, so take that for what’s it worth.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
(unfinished)

Basically, I don’t want to read a nine-hundred-page novel. I did it with The Elven. I sort of did it with The Grapes of Wrath. And I’ve found that they’re just not worth the time needed. There are so many other stories out there. There are better stories out there. I don’t want to waste my temporal investment on a story I know isn’t going invest in me. There’s something about readers where they think if you read a long work, you get some kind of medal. Proust, James Joyce, Tolstoy. Big Sunk Cost Fallacy working there.

I think this one fell into that, where it got some kind of Exit Through the Gift Shop hype train because A) foreign writer B) long work C) takes its name from another literary classic. This book has jack-all to do with 1984 by George Orwell. There’s no themes of surveillance or big government or anything like that. It’s called that because the main character thinks she’s in a slightly alternate world and the year is 1984. And the Japanese word for “Q” sounds like “9”. So it’s really a translation foible. It’d be like calling a book “Manimal Farm”, but it’s about the Animorphs.

So like I said, I don’t know the reason for all the hype, why I kept seeing this on my radar. The content is like a puzzle that’s nothing but a white picture. Besides that, it’s just boring. This is the kind of book that just reinforces my point about post-modern literary movement being garbage foisted on us by rich white publishers.

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.


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