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The Books I Read: September – October 2021

The Deep by Nick Cutter

It starts really strong. It’s straight and direct. And it reminds me of a horror version of Merm-8. But once the catalyst was reached, the story went from five stars down to three.

There wasn’t enough of the plot moving forward. This is a common thing I see in horror novels–the story stops for the scares. That might work in movies, which reward you with a gory death in return for the anticipation. But in a novel you can’t do that because you stay with one character, and that character has to live through the entire book.

The scares are good, thanks to the surreal imagery. I’m talking scary-ass grossness on par with the best Stephen King. But the plot stops for those incidents. Either the character is creeping toward the thing or paralyzed with fear or talking about some scary anecdote that happened as a child. Those aren’t so bad–revealing character through anecdotes is a good strategy. But these scenes could be inserted or removed or switched around without changing the story.

It reminded me of Touch the Night–overstaying its welcome with a bunch of scary scenes loosely threaded together. For example, there’s a part where they need to move a generator from one end of the undersea station to the other. That takes a fifth of the book because a bunch of scary stuff keeps interrupting them, but it’s all flashbacks or illusions and I know nothing bad will happen because it’s not the end of the book.

You see, the best horror is partially a “whydunit”. Why are these camp counselors being killed? Because some old lady wants revenge for her dead son. Why is Jigsaw trapping people? Because he’s dying of cancer and sees so many people not appreciating life. Why is the Alien xenomorph killing people? Because it’s a predatory animal (but also because the corporate bosses want it to).

The horror stories that don’t have an explanation fall by the wayside. Halloween didn’t try to give Michael Myers a “why” until movie four and everyone hated it. Half the people who saw The Blair Witch Project didn’t get it because there wasn’t enough explanation. And that’s what the sequels tried to expand on and no one liked them.

And that’s why I don’t read too much horror. Lots of scary imagery, plot never moves forward. It might be because the root of scariness is “the unknown” and it’s hard to have a plot if the premise constrains you to never reveal anything about what’s going on.

Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public by Pamela Ribon

When it started, I thought it was really funny and that it’s aimed right at people like me, who thought their thirteen to fifteens were the culmination of life. Who was a writer before they realized it. When we felt things way too intensely. When we were more in love with the idea of being in love than actually being with anyone. Who thought everything they created was a precious diamond but also crap.

But I also hoped it wouldn’t get too repetitive, since it would be very easy to. Given that these are letters from an early teen girl, they weren’t exactly intended for a discerning audience. Will you wince? Will you cringe? Most definitely. Is that what the writer intended. Also yes.

I picked it up because it’s by Pamela Ribon, she helped write Wreck-It Ralph 2, Moana, several award-winning comics (including Rick & Morty) & graphic novels, and columns, and anime. She’s been all over the place and she’s damn good. And it’s a delight to peek into what she did when she was a kid and we can know she’s not alone. You get a flavor of Texas, a flavor of the west coast. This is a woman who thought losing her virginity was the ultimate sign of adulthood and made elaborate plans to do so, then wondered why it failed.

There are times when it gets dark. Like trigger warning dark. It seems like little Pam’s compass is spinning wildly and you want to reach through the book and tell her it will be all right. Yes, it can get repetitive slogging through each letter chock full of teen bad poetry cliches that might make an Evanescence songfic avert their eyes. But I’m glad she and I survived those teenage years so that she could write a book and I could read it. And I plan on it not being the last of her work I partake.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

I read this because my wife is reading it for book club. So far I’ve read The Dutch House and tried The Lake House and The Women in the Castle. (Why do so many book club books have to do with houses? Houses aren’t characters, they’re settings. Unless it’s Smart House.)

I probably only kept reading because there’s an angle in this: tarot reading. Of course, I don’t believe in fortune-telling, but I also don’t know anything about tarot cards. I like learning new things, so that kept me intrigued up to the catalyst.

But if you saw Knives Out, you already know what’s going to happen. The valid descendants don’t get any inheritance, the nobody gets it all. They call it a crime novel, but it’s not, because no crime has been committed. It’s just a gothic romance like Wuthering Heights.

Being family-less, the nobody makes a bond with the black sheep family member. The other relatives are crabby and snobby and spoiled. (Another thing that keeps coming up in these book club books–rich people.) It’s not paced well at all. I skipped all the thinking (so much thinking). This girl is very concerned what people she doesn’t know think of her.

The thing about characters is that you have to care about them, we know this. But this can come in two flavors. There are bad characters you hate. I don’t mean “love to hate” like Dolores Umbridge or Nurse Ratched. I’m talking about poorly made characters like Bella Swan or Holden Caulfield or that girl in 50 Shades of Gray who doesn’t know what a butt plug is. This character is not like that. I don’t want her to die… but I don’t want to save her either.

She elicits no sympathy because she’s so whiny and naive. Every line is like “why is <THAT GUY> looking at me? Is he looking at me? Why me? I’m just plain old Jane.” She’s supposed to be a dockside fortune teller, but she doesn’t have an ounce of charisma. I didn’t believe she could entice customers or convince them that her “powers” are real. She must be the world’s worst shyster. No wonder she had to borrow money from a loan shark who never comes back in the end. That’s the biggest flaw in the book, and maybe the killer flaw in any book.

The Last Mile (Amos Decker #2) by David Baldacci

I liked it even better than the first, maybe because it’s a sequel. More mystery-solving, less setup. Good ending, good pacing. It’s another five-star effort. The only problem is I keep imagining Amos Decker as the dad from The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

Parallel by Lauren Miller

There’s an interesting concept here, but it’s ruined by the main character. (Reminds me of Cycler.) The problem is she keeps failing up, so I can’t relate to her.

She starts as a movie actress literally scooped up by a casting agent who saw her in a school play like so many Hollywood fairy tales. She goes from partying with cute boys at Stefon’s hottest club, then shifts into a parallel life where… she’s a student at Yale. Not exactly a downgrade.

(The parallel universe is really more of a time travel scenario–her past self is making different life choices and that ripples up to her present.)

Then there’s another shift and… she’s on the Yale rowing team instead of cross country running. Again, not exactly big stakes. I guess the wacky shenanigans are supposed to come from her awkwardly fumbling through a task she doesn’t know how to do.

This is supposed to be a YA novel, but there are also some Crichton-esque discussions about quantum mechanics, multiverse theory, and parallel timestreams. Then she drinks all night and flirts with guys. I don’t blame her for that–she’s doing what any college student would do. On one hand, this book is good at imagining humans complexly–Ivy Leaguers like to have a good time, they’re not always in the books. On the other hand, this character acts like an airhead and doesn’t deserve the good things she’s getting. How she’s getting money to pay for all this partying and college at Yale never gets discussed.

I figured if the whole book was going to be like this, I might as well quit. There are no real consequences and the hijinx are hardly zany. It’s not like she’s going from Yale student to homeless bag lady.

The cover’s a remarkably accurate depiction of the book. It shows a young woman split down the middle, but there’s no difference between the two sides. Either way, she’s still hot as hell.

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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