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The Books I Read: November – December 2021

Truth of the Divine (Noumena #2) by Lindsay Ellis

This is the second book by Lindsay Ellis, famed (now ex-)YouTube video essayist, which continues the story of Cora–a young woman who made first contact with a set of very uncommunicative aliens. One in particular (Ampersand) and she have some kind of bond that’s hard to explain but is essentially love-based-on-shared-traumatic experience.

Well, in the second one, the aliens are just as uncommunicative to the point of maddening. Don’t get me wrong, the beginning is strong. Cora is experiencing some severe PTSD from the first book, having A) failed to save a baby alien B) gone through this horrific adventure of chases and escapes C) been eviscerated then put back together. But Ampersand is here to make her feel better. She’s currently working for the CIA getting the aliens to communicate and share information about what other interstellar entities might be coming. Yet, they apparently don’t pay her and she still lives in poverty.

I would call it a political science-fiction thriller. It’s largely about the public discovery of aliens and how everyone reacts (spoiler: not well, as this novel is colored by Trump-era covid wash so it’s not exactly a “Men In Black” romp). Ellis has improved on her prose–there are fewer clunky phrases like “It was a manual car with a stick shift.” She’s improved on her story structure and characterization (both new and old). But she hasn’t improved on brevity. Since it’s first person POV, there is a lot of “thinking”.

It didn’t make me cry like the others claimed to have because it’s less about the Transformers-style love story. In fact, Ampersand is largely absent from this volume. And when he’s around he’s even more taciturn, worse than a Jane Austen male protagonist, which makes the book frustrating. Basically, he’s being a total bitch. This is a dark book (as far as relationships go), and its more about psychological trauma and trying to be a valid human being when that casts a pall on everything you do and are.

So if you’re coming here to see more of the alien-human romance, you’re going to be disappointed. If you looking for more “what are the politics of aliens coming to America”, then this is what you’re looking for.

Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies by Derek Delgaudio

Like a lot of people, I came to Derek Delgaudio from his Hulu special “In and Of Itself“. It’s part magic show, part stand-up, part TED talk and everyone on Twitter was talking about it. I loved every second. So of course, I looked to see if there was more. And this was it.

This is more of a memoir–a tale of how he grew up and became a sleight-of-hand master. But Derek Delgaudio cannot be defined because he’s both a walking contradiction and an antiquity. A likable liar. A loveable cad. Neil Gaiman said that “magic (like fiction) means someone stands up on stage and says ‘I am going to lie to you’ and you accept the lie because you want to.”

Fortunately, this book isn’t as “pull the wool over your eyes”. Probably because it’s harder to do card tricks in the written word. But also because you probably want to figure out how such a man exists. It’s all about truth vs. lies, who plays who, who can you trust. He can do with words what he does in his special.

This book expounds on the details he touches on in his special, like his lesbian fire-fighting mother and his… well I wouldn’t call it stage fright, but part of the reason he’s the master of his field is he doesn’t like performing. But he can do the same thing over and over and over, practice and practice and practice the same motions to 10th degree black belt level and never get bored.

Derek Delgaudio is the honest cheater. The Sting transformed into a force for good. If you saw the special, you’ll want to read the book. If you read the book, you will want more. It certainly did for me.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

At first, I thought it was a pretty good examination of high school life and the social world of teen girls. But it also feels like high schoolers and death is a weird combination and there seems to be a lot of it out there (Thirteen Reasons Why, If I Stay, All the Bright Places, The Fault in Our Stars, The Lovely Bones). You’re eighteen and you got your whole life ahead of you. Nothing but potential. Death should be the farthest thing from a teen audience’s mind. However, I’m forty years old. Given all the other males in my family, I’ve got maximum twenty years left. I see death around every corner.

But tragic death makes for good story fodder, I guess–a young life gets cut short, either by accident or volition.

In Sam’s case, it’s by accident… over and over and over. She’s in a Groundhog Day scenario where the last day of her life keeps repeating because she needs to “learn a lesson” about not being such a bitch. And she is Mean Girl Alpha Plus.

The book starts by introducing some girls who are equal parts complex people and the worst girl in the room. I had to ask myself multiple times “is this how people really act?” And given that this was going to be an “It’s a Wonderful Life”/”Happy Death Day” where I’d have to basically experience the same day over and over with the worst people ever, that’s where I close the book.

I stopped for two reasons. 1) I am not the intended audience for this (see above statement about being a forty-year-old male). 2) It’s taking me back to high school too much. It’s too frustrating to read and the last thing I want these days is to feel more depressed. None of the content matches up with my own high school experience nor my daughters’.

These girls are so barbarous it’s bordering on assault. For example, they find tampons in a girls’ bag at a pool party and then throw them into the pool at her. Do you want Carrie? Because that’s how you get Carrie. I didn’t see where/why Sam and her clique had to be so atrocious and cold-blooded to anyone other than themselves and the “cool” guys. Does this kind of behavior just come out of nowhere? It’s got to have some origins.

That’s sociopath behavior, not teen girls. I had a miserable high school experience, but no one was cruel or mean for no reason. They did it because they were assholes and jerks, but the level of mistreatment was never at this level. And according to the book, it’s this behavior that made the girls popular. Parties and drinking and slutty outfits, like everyone wanted to be them. No one in their right minds wants to be these nutjobs.

All girls have periods. What does it serve them to call a fellow out for this? And where are the girls who would be on her side? Even The Swap wasn’t this implausible.

Maybe I have a thing about high school forming who you are for the rest of your days because I still think about high school all the time, and it’s always in the form of regrets. Maybe that’s the regret part of it. The story itself is themed around the regrets one has, even over a short life.

I think this book’s audience is women who were popular in high school but now have a little perspective to think that maybe all their actions and inactions weren’t as kosher as they thought. And that’s definitely not me.

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s short and colorful. The premise reminded me a lot of “The Little Trashmaid”, which is an excellent webcomic, or Waterworld/Mad Max starring Pippi Longstocking (minus the super-strength).

Tetley Abednego lives on a garbage patch where Britain used to be. The world is a post-apocalyptic trashbin divided into categories (e.g. pill island, electricity land, clothing world, etc.) I imagine it’s like Super Mario World but designed by Oscar the Grouch. But she loves it, and she can’t imagine living without it. She’s got the pure heart of a dumpster diver fascinated with refuse. Part archaeologist, part craphound. She’s a great character.

I guess you could call it absurdist speculative fiction? The text style is what I call “prosetry”–imagery heavy and plot light. Every sentence pops, but does it lead to a proper conclusion? Does the story result in a “Satisfying Reader Experience”(TM)?

I’m not sure, I guess it depends on what you’d be satisfied with because the story timeline jumps around, and I don’t like that. It provides an artificial puzzle that feels forced in there so the reader can feel “clever” or gives them something to “do” while reading.

But despite that, I liked it and I’d recommend it.

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass

“High impact techniques” is right. These lessons are so advanced, non-Proust scholars will have a hard time parsing them out. The lessons within are hard to tease out or implement. It proposes a lot of questions, but doesn’t give you a lot of answers. However, it does have examples and writing exercises.

If you’re the type of person who’s reached that level of art that you’re asking the advanced questions, then you might not need to ask. You might need to figure out how to let the art speak for itself. If you try and engineer a story that hits every single mark for every single character, setting, and plot point, then I’m afraid you’ll end up with a mishmash that reaches everyone and pleases no one.

Because stories are like food. If you combine all the edible ingredients from a cupboard, you’re going to make crap. There have to be some absences. Even the best writers can’t write a book that explains everything, that hits all the notes. Some people hate stuff just by their nature of other people liking it. An audience can sniff out unauthenticity, and if you’re following these guides to a T, I think you would end up with garbage.

I mean, the basic message is that you need to have two things: beautiful writing and intriguing story. How you get that, I still don’t know. I know the best stories have an emotional impact. I don’t know if fulfilling those exercises will result in a better story.

The problem I’m noticing with high-level books about writing is that you won’t be able to answer every single question they ask. The questions are trying to get at every possible flavor of a good story. But you can’t have every possible flavor in a recipe. You can’t put “sweet” into fried chicken or “sour” into breakfast cereal.

Can I recommend this? No. I wanted to read this because it’s by Donald Maass, an actual agent who owns his own agency. I’m sure he’s read his fair share of books. He tells you what questions you need to ask, but not how to execute those questions in the story you’re writing.

But if I can retain 10% of what I read from this book, then it’ll be worth it.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Hell, yes. Smartass scientists. Using cool math to figure out problems. Space travel. Single POV narrative of a man against the coldness of space?

Andy Weir’s first book was about a man stranded on Mars, revolutionary for its use of accessible science and character-less POV. His second book was about a colony on the moon–a lot more characters and modern storytelling, lighter on science.

This book is like a combination of those two, and I think it’s Weir’s best work. The puzzles aren’t as “hard” as The Martian and the social commentary isn’t as heavy-handed as Artemis. For some reason, Weir does better when there is little to no supporting cast.

A man wakes up on a spaceship heading… somewhere in deep space. He’s the only one aboard and he has amnesia. As he gets his post-coma memory back we learn why he’s here and what he’s trying to do. Honestly, I’m loathed to give details about anything because the less you know going in, the more fun you’ll have.

It’s full of heartbreaking plot twists, warm fuzzies, precious moments, and surprises. It made me feel things, which almost impossible for a book to do. And yes, stuff is scienced the shit out of.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

It was well-written, but just too long for my tastes. The prologue alone took me a night to read. It’s not fancy language–the prose is quite reachable and understandable. But I could tell there were going to be a lot of characters and settings.

There are few physical descriptions so you’re free to imagine the characters as you want. But that can be a problem. For example, there’s a slave race called the Skaa, but you don’t know if they’re physically similar to the dominant race or if they’re some other species. I was thinking they looked like the aliens in Oddworld at first.

It’s too bad you can’t read a fantasy story without needing to invest 18 hours (plus whatever other books there might be in the series). I stopped reading at 14% and it was mostly because of the characters. None of them had any distinguishing characteristics and I couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe I’ve been ruined by other, more memorable fantasy heists like Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Now those had some memorable, charismatic people that were worth investing time in. In Mistborn, I really only wanted to spend time with Karsier, and he wasn’t much. I felt I could get just as good a sense of the story by reading the Wikipedia summary on it.

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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