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The Books I Read: March – April 2022

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

If you’re looking for some superhero fiction, this would be an excellent place to start. This is about a henchwoman who becomes chief assistant to a supervillain because she figures out a way to really defeat heroes–in the court of public opinion. It’s all a matter of perspective–if you account for all the collateral damage they do, they end up doing more harm than good. There’s a little bit of John Scalzi’s Redshirts in here combined with Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible.

But more to the fact, it’s “My Fair Lady”. The main woman starts at the bottom and becomes a super-villain in her own right. In the meantime, she’s wondering if this is the right thing to do–if this is just part of her own petty vengeance for being part of that collateral damage (since she was acting in a henchman capacity) or if she’s gone too far. It soon becomes a war of who can act more heinously and ends up in some disturbing zones (including a little body horror).

It’s an examination of the dark side of superheroes and the life of supervillains. If you like shows/comics like “The Boys” or “Invincible”, you’ll like this. It’s not as over-the-top violent, but it has an intriguing plot and good characters.

The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration edited by Robin Rosenberg

I thought this would be like The Law of Superheroes, but it’s actually pretty boring. There’s less about “what makes Superhero X tick” and more about generic psychological phenomena. For example, they don’t talk about the Hulk’s relationship to rage or how to treat him. They talk about rage in general, using Hulk for their case studies and examples. It’s like they took their research and replaced real names with superheroes.

They’re always talking about “positive psychology” and I don’t know what that is. At least they avoid any discussion of Freud, except in a satirical “what not to do” sense. Unless you know psychology, you won’t have a fun time with this. But if you were a doctor of psychology, you also wouldn’t learn anything new from this book. Like any collection of short stories or essays by multiple authors, the essays are going to be hit or miss.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

So imagine if you combined Agatha Christie with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (or “Groundhog’s Day” if you’re not a video game connoisseur). An unusual combination I know, but that’s definitely the best comparison I can make. The problem is that I don’t like Agatha Christie and Majora’s Mask was an overrated game. This came across my radar after a recommendation by Justin McElroy (of My Brother My Brother and Me podcasting fame)

There’s a big high society party in a mansion (imagine The Great Gatsby) where there’re lots of colorful characters and they all have their reasons to kill one another. Our main character, who has amnesia, inhabits one of these bodies throughout the day. But he gets to do it eight times. So at any given instance, there’s eight of him but they all have different levels of knowledge about the goings-on. When he dies or falls asleep, he goes into another body and repeats the day, needing to use what he’s learned from before. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to figure out who killed the daughter of the mansion’s owner.

It’s long and I got very confused throughout. I am not a guy who can figure out a book mystery. Between all the red herrings, false leads, and characters, I can barely hang on to the plot. Now add time travel into the mix. Maybe I’m an unsophisticated idiot, but it’s too challenging to keep track of who’s in what body where at what time and what that person knows. I’m sure the author spent a long time figuring out the exact timeline of all events and an even harder time making a book out of all that. Kudos for that, but a reader needs a spreadsheet to keep track of everything and get everything out of it the author intended. It’s like a very intricate clock or 80-hour video game. The other problem is all the characters are pretty despicable. If you like character-driven pieces, this is not for you. This is more like a puzzle box.

But I did finish it, so it was entertaining enough, but I could not tell you what was happening. This is a hard read, not for the beach. It’s on the level of The Magicians by Lev Grossman or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

I would call this Scalzi’s dumbest book to date. That doesn’t mean what you think it means. I mean it’s just lacking in big or methodical ideas. There’s a share of science, but not as much as I would have liked (how do you grow an organic nuclear reactor?) but its more like spitballing and hand-waving and less like some hard “what could be” you’d find from Asimov or Heinlein.

Usually Scalzi takes on some interesting “what if” subjects, like politics and trade routes, metaphysical identity issues, and so on. Kaiju is, Scalzi self-admits, a book written to try and shake off all the terribility of 2020 and beyond.

It’s so short I hadn’t had time to form an opinion on it before I was done. Honestly, it’s probably the book of his I like the least. Scalzi admits he wrote it in a four-week haze in March of 2021 after failing on another novel. But that’s fine. Scalzi’s therapeutic exhales are better than some author’s shouts.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

If you saw the movie, you don’t need to read this. There’s nearly a 1:1 event/character/setting adaptation. Which is fine, it’s a good story, but I think the movie was better. In the book, there are some aggravating scenes where characters hold the idiot ball and keep secrets just because it moves the plot forward. I think the story is excellent, but does better in the adaptation to film, especially since it’s a love letter to the medium. That loses a little bit of something in book form.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

So when I read “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” I thought “Here’s an interesting concept–a space opera without much violence or adult content. Quite peaceful. Low stakes. Dynamic characters. Like if Star Wars was a happy place.” So when I heard her next book was about robots and in a more Earth-like setting, I was delighted. But this book is a bunch of hippy-dippy shit about helping people, having an existential crisis, and not knowing the purpose of life.

cartman south park hippies dream

There aren’t fights, there aren’t high stakes, there’s no danger of failure. Just a lot of crying. I knew Chambers liked positive stories, but this is Sesame Street. I mean, granted there’s some decent philosophy talk here and there, but I feel like I need my stories to matter to someone. We’re missing a “what happens if he/she fails”.

Speaking of “he/she”, the main character is non-gender identified and I have a beef with that. Not because I’m anti-trans, but I have a problem with using the pronoun “they”. I know “they” is grammatically correct. It can be used in place of “he or she”. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I’m fine with transgender people, but you can’t change English. “They” means more than one person, so every time the narrative reads “Dex went to the fountain. They found the water clear and cool.” I feel like I skipped a sentence and it’s referring to something else now. Or that Dex suddenly grew a second head. Or has an alien parasite like Venom. My point is it’s jarring, and language exists to provide clarity to information. I don’t like it and I don’t want to get used to it. Call me a cantankerous old coot if you want. Use another pronoun. Use “xe/xer” or “hir” or “vir” or “per”, I don’t care. But “they” is an established word with meaning and you can’t bend language to your will.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

This is the book I wish Riley Sager’s Final Girls would have been. Horror fans, like me, will love this. Especially all the references, nods, and Easter eggs which alone make this worth reading. The author definitely did their research. But more than that, you can also tell he loves the material.

In this novel, the concept is that all the horror movie franchises actually happened–Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre–and that the movies we see are based on their real stories. I’d say it’s more thriller than horror, but that’s fine for me, because, as I’ve said before, horror just doesn’t seem to work in the written word. Text doesn’t deliver that visceral visual stimulation or suspenseful timing that movies or plays can deliver. (You get scared? You can just peek at the end of the chapter to see if they live through this.)

All the characters have different voices, personalities, and motivations. There’s a good sense of plot movement and pacing so I never got bored. And of dealing with trauma. I loved it so much I added Hendrix’s other most popular book (“The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires”) on my “to-read” list.

The Broken Blade by William Durbin

My youngest is reading this for her school, so I figured why not? It’s not too long and I’m descended from voyageurs myself. I should find out what my legacy is.

The Broken Blade is meant to be a historical fiction/educational book in the same sense of Across Five Aprils. Our lead, Pierre, feels guilty for an accident that made his father resign from the yearly “march of the voyageurs” that brought them their livelihood. So he conscripts himself into their ranks and learns what its like paddling from Montreal to west Lake Superior. The heartache, the danger, the camaraderie, the enemies and friends made.

It’s a very clear Coming of Age story–the transition of the boy to a man. As you imagine, the female parts are extremely underwritten. I feel like some of the material was sanitized for younger readers. There is drinking and fighting, but no swearing or sex talk. I probably won’t read the following books in the series, but I’m glad I read this as it gave me a better understanding of the French-Canadian explorers and pioneers.

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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