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The Books I Read: January – February 2023

Catfishing on CatNet (CatNet #1) by Naomi Kritzer

So this is a YA novel about a girl forced to switch schools a lot because of her stalking father. The way she stays socially healthy is something called CatNet, which is basically a forum/chat client for people who like cute animals. What she doesn’t know is that this forum is run by a super-intelligent AI who, well, likes cute animals too. And as the girl and the AI become friends, the AI discovers things about her father. Things that make the girl think she might not know the whole truth.

It’s very good. The pace is fast. At first, you think it’s going to be another cliche YA novel about “poor girl trying to fit in at school”, but the AI is a fun addition to what otherwise would have been a mopefest. It’s more positive than the back matter makes it out to be. My only complaint is that it wraps up a little fast. But it’s got everything I want–cats, robots, adventure. This book was much better than I expected and I will be reading the sequel.

Behind a Mask, Or A Woman’s Power by Louisa May Alcott

So for 9th grade English, my eldest daughter’s assignment was to choose from a selection of public domain books. She chose this because this was the shortest. And I don’t blame her. It’s bad enough that classic literature is limited to what a bunch of stuffy old white males “decided” kids should learn (I’m looking at you Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby). It’s stuff like this that makes kids abhor reading. Good literature can be fun too (I’m looking at you Lord of the Rings).

Anyway, this is categorized as a “thriller”. Or what they’d consider a thriller in 1866. I guess they called it that because it’s about–shock of shocks–a woman with agency. Unlike other Austen-esque novel, she’s the bad guy. A sort of a femme fatale, like “I fooled you all, and now I stand triumphant.” And her victims are the Coventry.

This woman is hired as a governess for a British family, but at the end of the chapter, she reveals to the audience that she’s acting — she’s got a wig and false teeth. But it reveals nothing about her motivation besides getting out of poverty, I guess. Like an inverse version of The Making of a Marchioness. Anyway, nothing happens for the next six out of nine chapters. It’s just a bunch of faffing about. Then she manipulates a few people so that she can marry the old rich uncle of the family just in time to render her revealed secret irrelevant. I find no reason to read this today. I read it so I could help my daughter out with her assignment (which she did not end up asking me for — she’s very independent).

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell

I got the bug to read this when I watched The Evil Dead with Bruce Campbell’s commentary and I thought “man, this guy is witty. I bet his writing’s good.” So I picked up this book and it’s just as funny as Bruce himself. The guy’s too genuine.

Bruce Campbell gives us his memoir/biography of his life up to 2002. That includes memories of growing up, meeting Sam Raimi, doing stupid little Super-8 movies together, and eventually the Evil Dead franchise and what it was like to make that. If you care more about Evil Dead than Bruce Campbell, you might want to watch the DVD extra features and documentaries (I especially recommend “Medieval Times – The Making of Army of Darkness“, which is free on YouTube). But if you want to read a biography of an actor who really pounds the pavement for his work (I was appalled he had to make cold calls begging for investment money) and other stories of the life of an actor who doesn’t get the mansions and endorsements, then this is it. This is the story Hollywood doesn’t want you to know.

I think he’s written more, but I’m not sure if I’ll pick up anything else by him. He kinda told the story he wanted to tell. It contained the most important parts–Evil Dead, Brisco County Jr., Hercules–and I wonder what else there is to tell. But we’ll see.

Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller
(unfinished)

I still don’t understand short stories. The sample intrigued me with the first story–it’s about an Allosaurus that’s just… there, kept by a farmer that kids go on field trips to see. These stories just leave so much out (probably due to the nature of the brevity) that you’re just expected to “get it”. It might be the nature of short stories or maybe I’m just a long-term guy.

Characters act without illustrated motivations so you can’t get invested. They’re artsy and abstract, like an indie movie. Plus there’s a proliferation of stories about being gay. I don’t have a problem with that, but if every story contains the same theme…

A Movie Making Nerd by James Rolfe

Is forty too young for an autobiography? Bruce Campbell wrote his at 44, so I guess it’s all right. But James Rolfe still seems so young. Maybe it’s because he’s in such a “hip and trendy” medium, being one of the first career YouTubers. I feel he still has more to do in his life, that his career has yet to reach its pinnacle. He won’t be the AVGN forever. And some studio is going to recognize his prowess and snatch him up.

The testament to his staying power is not his video game skill, not his penchant for spectacle, but the fact that he’s always been a filmmaker. And that’s what the book is about. And it’s very much in his voice. Close your eyes during an AVGN video and that’s his narrative voice. Kind of gen-X’y, kind of stilted, like someone with a short attention span with short choppy sentences. The style he uses for videos is the same one he uses for writing. Which is not a smooth transition.

Clearly, he wrote this without the help of an editor or professional services. I spotted quite a few typos and grammar mistakes. Not to mention, overall, it lacks deeper self-reflection. Why did Rolfe do these things? What was his motivation? Why was this a mistake and what would he have done differently? A biography should be as much self-analysis as it is a retelling of events. Maybe even a form of therapy. This book lacks that.

But for a guy who’s just a YouTuber, it has some pretty fascinating events. I’d say it’s on par with Lindsey Stirling’s memoir.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

So this was a pick from my wife’s book club and, at first, I wasn’t going to read it. The story sounded like it an imitation of “classic” American literature full of Americana and “rah-rah” the good old days of the fifties (side-stepping the rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia). Even the back matter invokes “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath“. In the sample, the guy doesn’t use quote marks. All dialogue is denoted by a new paragraph and an emdash. What’s the matter Towles? Too good for proper punctuation? It’s not even satire like Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But despite all that, I kinda liked it. And I got the bug to keep reading.

It is full of Americana, but not the stuff you’d expect. Tangents account for things like radio commercials, riding the rails, cars, immigrant-owned Italian restaurants. Lots of asides through rose-colored glasses. And it is very male-oriented. There’s one female character and her chapters feel shoved in so that it doesn’t get dinged by critics for failing the Bechdel test. Well, guess what, I’m going to ding you anyway. *Ding*

But you know what? It is a gosh-darned good story. It’s not ground-breaking and the guy does sound like he was trying to combine Steinbeck with the Odyssey. But it’s also about confronting the elements of the past and the flaws in your personality. The two main characters are good at demonstrating that theme. And I think it’s okay to read a book like this if you keep in mind that you’re only seeing the good parts of this history. If you don’t get suckered into the hype, I recommend letting go and enjoying it.

Fight Magic Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher

I can’t help but compare this book to my recently read Chasing the Dragon, which was about the history of Dungeons & Dragons from a business perspective. This book uses bigger words and lacks that new “Twitter-short” style of journalism. There are more second-hand sources. And since this is based on Japanese-originating content, no one’s going to have a bad word to say about anyone–everyone’s so polite. So there won’t be much conflict.

This author never had a bad thing to say about a JRPG. The whole thing is pretty much a long love letter to Square-Enix, which created Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. In fact, that’s mostly all the book is. There’s nothing meat and potatoes about it. It’s mostly fluff, describing the JRPG, its context around the release, some trivia, then moving on to the next game. It doesn’t go in-depth with the people who made them or how they got their ideas.

I’m not sure who this book is for or what its purpose is, other than a stroll down memory lane. I don’t know that this book needed to exist–it doesn’t say anything new or bold. Maybe there was just a lack of books about JRPG history? You won’t learn how the sausage is made from this, that’s for sure.

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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