bookshelf books

The Books I Read: July – August 2022

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The thing I like about this book is the world-building. It gives you a good picture of what it’s like to be a prey animal. Anyone writing a fantasy novel where there are “cannon fodder” beings like grunts, goblins, or kobolds should read at least part of this book to understand what their society is like. What is the pecking order when everyone and everything can kill you and the only thing you can have dominance over is yourselves.

But I stopped when I’d been reading for about three weeks and was still less than 50% finished. It’s just too long. It’s written in a 70s stuffy English style that probably worked back then. The prose is so dense that it takes way too long to get to any story event. I should be looking forward to reading each night, but it eventually became “Aw, man, I gotta keep reading Watership Down?” That’s a big red flag that you need to stop. It felt like the story would never end.

My favorite part was the interstitial fables but those weren’t the point of the story. Once they’d actually found Watership Down, the big conflict went away. Then the problems were trying to befriend the other little woodland creatures. Without the big tangible goal, I stopped caring about the characters anymore. Little defenseless Fiver faded away, big tough Bigwig wasn’t so tough. If I want to become an author, I need to focus my attention on best sellers — seeing what makes them tick, what gets them sold. Classics are the exception to the rule.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve come to the conclusion that a Kurt Vonnegut novel is like a music album from an artist that never changes their formula e.g. AC/DC or Red Hot Chili Peppers. You know what an AC/DC album is going to sound like. You know what RHCP’s next single is going to sound like (and it’s probably going to involve California). That’s not a bad thing — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Kurt Vonnegut is like that, like a music album more than a story. There are other authors like that too, but Vonnegut is so embossed that his style outshines any other part of the book. He’s not necessarily a storymaker, so much as a style. You’ve read one Kurt Vonnegut story, you know what the others are going to offer. There won’t necessarily be a linear plot or characters you like, but there will be a technique, a voice. Something that’s got a form that can’t really be described. And it’s popular because it’s something different. This is not a slight against Vonnegut, just a description.

It’s so stream-of-consciousness that I wasn’t sure where the story actually started. The plot meanders all over the place so that you’re not so much reading a story as you’re reading Kurt Vonnegut’s brain. Dwayne was a car dealer. Car dealers sell Corvettes. I once had a Corvette. I drove the Corvette up a mountain. The mountain did not like this. “Ouch,” said the mountain. It’s like a four-year-old telling you his dream, but amped up to the composure of an adult.

As far as I can tell, it’s a satirical indictment of capitalism. But with a non-linear story sustained long enough, it all becomes a mess, and I found myself getting distracted while reading because there was nothing to hang onto. It was like a painting that’s a swirl of colors that might seem pretty, but there’s nothing for my eye to rest on.

Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Expert Advice to Bring Authenticity to Your Fantasy Writing edited by Dan Kolboldt

It’s some pretty standard non-fiction. Each essay is only a few pages long, but none of them will really help you make that novel about your Dungeons and Dragons games more realistic. It’s more there to give you ideas on what to think about when writing certain aspects. Or to check yourself before you wreck yourself (i.e. bust some common myths). There are overviews on medieval life and things that people get wrong. And it gives you some suggestions for lesser-used options in fantasy, such as 900 A.D. Mesopotamia or Black Vikings. I guess I’m glad I read it, but don’t pick it up thinking “Oh, this is going to write my novel for me.”

Verity by Colleen Hoover

This novel is about how important communication is in a relationship.

So like I said, I need to focus on bestsellers. And there’s five Colleen Hoover novels in the NYT list right now. Actually, I took a look at this while searching for comps for Replaneted, came upon this, and thought it looked interesting. Apparently, this is darker fare than Hoover’s usual romcoms. Probably others will berate me for starting with this, but I liked it just fine.

It starts morbidly with some pretty graphic descriptions of a man’s head getting crushed in a traffic accident. I guess that’s the litmus test–if you can take that, you can take the rest of the novel. Not that the rest of the novel is about gross Troma-esque head explodies. But it digs into some pretty sick stuff.

It’s like an updated version of Bronte-esque novels with a wealthy man who has a big secret, living in an isolated mansion, giving gobs of money to some nobody for some reason. In addition to the Brontes, I got strong Gone Girl vibes as well. This is a sexually charged thriller, maybe more sexually charged than I like, but I guess that’s Colleen Hoover’s signature move. The story itself has nothing new–it feels like part of a Tales from the Crypt-like anthology, something episodic, especially when it gets to the end (in terms of absurd cliches). It’s full of intense emotions (as a thriller should), but also treads no new territory.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Apparently, this guy is a big deal in the book world. He wrote “A Man Called Ove”, which is supposed to be a fan favorite, but I’ve never read it.

The cover of this book says that it’s a comedy. But the problem is that, in a book, you lose the element of timing, which is CRUCIAL to telling a joke. A joke without timing is like a pasta salad without pasta. Also, I think some of these jokes might work better in Swedish (“How’s tricks?”) and I don’t envy the work the translator had to do. But nothing makes me laugh anyway, so don’t judge me on that.

But overall, it’s a good job all around. The style of storytelling is what’s crucial here. It reminds me of a Wes Anderson movie. It’s like the story is told “around the plot”, if that makes any sense. Imagine a guy at a shooting range who shoots an outline around the target. It’s an impressive feat, but you still haven’t hit the guy.

But I did get invested and that’s because the characters are very relatable. They each suffer from some form of anxiety so you get equal parts comedy and drama, which I think lots of writers miss. They write strictly one or the other. So in dramas, no one makes a joke, no one attempts to be funny. But in reality, people make jokes all the time, especially in serious situations. They’re always trying to be comedy relief because that’s the kind of person who’s likable. And that’s who all these characters are. This would make a good quirky play — there’s a strong set of characters and they all have good characterization scenes. Good for an ensemble cast.

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir

Imagine just the reality show portion of The Hunger Games (the part with Cesar Flickerman and Katniss whining how she’s not pretty enough, then nailing it on camera). Expand that out and put it in today’s reality (in other words, something non-science fiction and non-post-apocalyptic). There’s a Peeta, there’s a Katniss, and there’s a Cesar who’s actually more like a Katniss who survived the games.

This is a grimdark look at families who exploit their kids for “reality TV” and evangelical religion. You are not going to feel happy while reading this, but you will be fascinated. Like when you see a car wreck or a fail video or… or, well, a reality show.

Essie belongs to a highly evangelical family that also produces a reality show. Imagine “19 Kids and Counting“, but it’s Joel Osteen. (I know *shudder*). If that wasn’t bad enough, Essie is now sixteen and pregnant (what, is she trying to audition for another reality show?) and it’s decided that she needs to have a quickie marriage so that A) the show can keep going and B) the family doesn’t lose its rep for wholesome Christian moral values.

The story rotates between three POVs. One is Essie’s, who has a plan to use this pregnancy to get out of the reality show game and bring her family down at the same time (but she won’t tell us how). Another is Roarke, the one picked to serve as her underage husband. The third is someone named Liberty Bell, the journalist Essie has chosen to give the exclusive story of her marriage to. Liberty Bell was once involved in a QAnon cult Bundy standoff-like situation that resulted in the death of her sister.

As you can tell, all these characters are built around an “issue”. But the story has trouble holding up the characters. You mostly read to find out information that the author is purposefully keeping from you to build tension (i.e. Essie knows who the father is obviously, but doesn’t tell us when it’s in her POV). Liberty’s story doesn’t have much to do with the main story–it’s more of a subplot that relates to the themes. It’s a C-story, and you know those only exist when the writers need to pad the running time. The themes therein are already stuff we know–about the hypocrisy of modern celebrity, the selfishness of fame. It’s basically about Karens, but at least they get theirs in the end.

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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