bookshelf books

The Books I Read: March – April 2023

Circe by Madeline Miller

This was attempt number two at reading. Not the book’s fault, it was me. At the time, I wasn’t in the headspace to read something heavy and steeped in the Classics. But now, Greek mythology is having a renaissance (or did it ever disappear?) with God of War, Hades, Lore Olympus. That, combined with my own ambition to write a book about Medusa, I felt I had to give this one a second try for research.

Madeline Miller is obviously versed in classics and Greek mythology so the text is not easy. I mean, it’s not Proust or anything, but you will feel like an adult reading this. Don’t come into this with a mindset that this is Disney’s Hercules. Or even Sam Raimi’s Hercules. This is more like a royal princess in her kingdom with her distant father, political marriages, and treading a balance beam of rebellion vs. obedience.

This is the story of Circe, who, if you recall, is a minor character in the Odyssey. She’s basically an obstacle for Odysseus. And them ding dang women always be tempting men, so evil they are. But this is the “real story” from her birth as a demigod, interacting with various gods and goddesses, and it really starts when she creates Scylla and is exiled to a mortal island for witchcraft. At its core, it’s not dissimilar to a “witches vs. patriarchy” story. It basically follows what the other characters in Odyssey were doing behind the scenes.

But for it trying to be a feminist retelling (which is how I interpreted it) the main character does develop a dependency on men, even though she has nothing but bad relationships with them. Circe’s inclinations are only slightly better than the usual greedy, selfish, scornful kind. In other words, Miller tried to elevate her above her relationships with men, but failed. Although, maybe that’s the point.

But the question is will you enjoy this book? Well, if you enjoy classics and myths, maybe. If you enjoy literature that makes you feel smart, maybe. If you enjoy feminist literature, maybe. If you can check all three of those boxes, I recommend it. But if you crave less character-based, more action-based, less characters-holding-the-idiot-ball, more drama, less relationshippy, then probably you can skip it.

How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur

I had just finished watching The Good Place, which is an excellent show. Then I remembered this guy had just written a book that made the Goodreads nominees. So yes, I will pick it up.

If you read one book about moral philosophy in your lifetime, let it be this one. Basically, everything he learned from writing The Good Place, about philosophy and how we should act in ethical situations, is condensed into this volume. It’s a laymen’s guide to a very complicated topic, translating so us mere mortals can understand it. Plus humor. There aren’t footnotes on every single word. No “we have to define what ‘things’ are”.

It goes over various philosophical quandaries like the “trolley problem“, the “violinist“, being a “happiness pump” and so on. how each of the three major schools of philosophy would tell you how react to moral dilemmas–Aristotlean, kantism, and utilitarianism. Some philosophy purists might say he needs to condense certain parts or expand certain parts. But I think that is not his intended audience. His audience is people like me, who will never pick up a book of German abstract expressionism or a book without a picture on the cover. He’s trying to reach the Eleanor Shellstrops of the world before they get hit by a shopping cart.

I especially loved the chapter on how we can reconcile problematic artists from their art (e.g. Louis C.K., Woody Allen, Dave Chapelle, etc.). Fun fact: he came to the same conclusion that I did, which is that you essentially have to decide for yourself. If you owned the Harry Potter books before Rowling became a TERF, that’s not on the same level of “bad” as going to Harry Potter World and putting more money in J.K. Rowling’s pocket, which is not the same level as being a J.K. Rowling apologist.

Even if the information here wasn’t about an interesting and thick topic, I’d recommend it because this guy is a top-notch writer. He’s worked on three of my favorite recent TV shows (Parks and Rec, Brooklyn 99, The Good Place) and demonstrates he’s not just a yutz in a writer’s room. He thinks about stuff. He’s in this for more than the money–he wants to see humanity thrive. And philosophy is one of those things where A) everyone who came up with these ideas are dead and gone and have no idea how their rules should apply in a world where I have the sum total of human knowledge in my pocket B) has no right answer or even an answer that everyone can agree on. It’s like religion without the mythology. And these are the conclusions Schur provides–counter to the book’s title, no one expects us to be perfect. Just do the best you can. Fail better.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance: Chronicles #1)

So the first thing I worried about when starting this was character soup. It names nine individuals in the dramatis personae in the beginning. And that’s just the main characters. Nine of them! And none appear in the first chapter. Even in Dungeons and Dragons the game, they don’t recommend that many players at the table.

This was written in 1984, so it has all the earmarks of overwritten fantasy like others I’ve read (or attempted to read). Tracy and Margaret never met an adverb they didn’t like. But since this is from the eighties and it’s about D&D, I tried to be as forgiving as possible. The style’s not great–it’s pretty basic and I saw lots of mistakes/style choices that today’s writers wouldn’t make. Granted, I’ve finished way worse fantasy novels. There’s something about the eighties–there was so much fantasy but 95% was just the worst crap. For every “Willow“, there were a hundred “Cave Dwellers” or “Krull”s.

I got through fifty percent before I stopped. There is lots of action and plot movement, but at the cost of characterization and world-building. What I could tell you about the characters–their quirks, what they were afraid of, the secrets they kept–had no relevance whatsoever. Everyone felt like pieces on a board, getting moved forward because someone said to go there, not their own motivation.

I read the summary of what happens ahead and realized it wasn’t going to get any better. I would have thought with nine characters some of them would either split off into subplots or get killed off. But nope! They all survive and they all stay together. In fact, they add more people in the mix. And the story doesn’t even reach a decent conclusion.

I’m sad it turned out this way because I was really looking forward to reading this. I love Dungeons and Dragons and I’ve been playing the Legend of Drizzt board game. I thought this might be the novelization, or at least include those characters within. Or maybe a book version of a D&D game, like “The Adventure Zone” or “Critical Role”. But it didn’t pan out. I can see this being for someone more forgiving of overwritten fantasy, who wants a classic swords-and-sorcery fix. Or maybe it was a product of its time. But these books are not for me.

Chaos on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer (Catnet #2)

Much of my review of the first one stands for the second. It picks up where the last one left off, but in this one, they’re exploring a few new social issues. (Which is already a mark in the plus column. A lot of sequels just repeat the same thing as if the hero didn’t learn anything in the first one.) In the first, we had this YA girl having to move towns a lot because her father was stalking her and her mom. That’s done, but now we’re exploring how the girl lives her new life. Plus we have a new character who’s part of a cult. Haven’t seen that old chestnut for a long time–cults kinda went out of fashion in the nineties where instead of the funny Hari Krishna banging tambourines at the airport they turned out to be Waco and Heaven’s Gate and sexual/child abuse colonies.

Much like the first, it’s an action ride, but more people are holding the idiot ball in this one to drive the plot forward. For instance, as soon as it’s discovered that the new friend’s other friend has been kidnapped and locked in a cabin with no food NO ONE CALLS THE POLICE. Instead, the kids handle everything because that keeps the plot moving. Even the most independent child would say “we need to call the cops so we can get all these people arrested and thrown in jail.” I don’t care if “time is of the essence”–this is not the time to be a superhero. Even Batman would call the GCPD once in a while.

Another thing is that everyone’s sexuality is full and forefront. For some reason, the author seems to think that I need to know if every character is a lesbian or ace-aro or still questioning. And stuff that SHOULD be explored more fully, like the fact that the new friend’s father is part of a polyamorous unit (read one male and three females), which SHOULD have some issues of jealousy and negotiation come up, doesn’t. This is what conservatives point to when they say everything is “woke”. It feels like the author posted up flags that said “this is a progressive book because I have representation” even if it has nothing to do with the story.

So bottom line, I didn’t like this one as much as the first. Whether I read the third (if there’s a third) probably depends on what the given plotline for that one is, whether it contains any tropes that I find interesting, if they concentrate more on the AI character and less on the YA part.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

This book seems to be sweeping the nation as the new “The Fault in Our Stars“. It’s got higher than 4 and a quarter stars for having 300,000 reviews, which means it’s a box office smash (at least as far as books ago). So what is it about? Is it a romance? An adventure? A family saga?

Kind of all three, but also not all three. It’s the story of two people who create a video game company. These two, a girl and a guy, used to be friends as pre-teenagers, but had a falling out. In college, they both fall into programming which leads to video game making, which leads to the story at hand as they become friends and business partners. Also, it’s about the other people that come into their life as a result of that, such as the best friend/roommate who goes from theater major to video game producer and the girl’s college professor. The story takes place from 1995 up to present day.

Let’s talk about the two main characters. One is Sam. His trauma is that he has a foot that was broken in a million places, a handicap which has made him taciturn and stoic, though he reads like autistic–overanalytical, judgemental, aloof.

The second is Sadie who also found solace in video games, as her sister had childhood cancer and became the focus of the family’s attention. She bonded with Sam since they both were often in the children’s ward of the hospital. Sadie has bouts of depression and insecurity, even though she’s a game-making genius. This leads to an affair with her foreign-born video game professor who’s one of “those” types (egotistical, pompous, always thinks he’s right and everyone else’s opinion is wrong) and much unhealthy relationshippage occurs.

From the first chapter, I wasn’t sure how this would go down. Since the first main character is Sam, it sounded “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time“. The writing sounded like writing. The dialogue did not sound like how people talk. But I gave it the benefit of the doubt and continued. It starts out almost being a sick kids romance (The Fault in Our Stars, Everything, Everything, Five Feet Apart) But I was able to get past that and into the core of the book, which is about the creation of video games–what ludonarration means, video games as art, as ways to make the audience feel something.

It romanticizes the idea of video game development, ignoring things like “crunch time“, running a business, office politics, and other meta elements that come with complex media production. Instead, the author focuses on the relationship between the people working on the project (e.g. game producers as public figures such as Will Wright or Richard Garriott).

The author is writing video games not as they were but how she wishes they could be. Which would be fine… if the majority of this book didn’t take place in the past. See, the big video game they make is called “Ichigo” and the way they talk about it, it seems to be along the lines of “Limbo” or “Undertale”. It sounds artsy and avant-garde, which would be fine if this took place today. But in 1995, there were no such things. Video games didn’t make people cry in 1995. And they certainly weren’t used as pack-in games for new consoles, which is what this game becomes (as part of a plot point). The top games in 1995 were Quake, Duke Nukem 3-D, Command and Conquer, Super Mario 64, etc. War games. Shooters. Well-established franchises.

You couldn’t be successful unless you were at least a little bit commercial. There is no freakin’ way someone would have made an artsy game as the pack-in. (They weren’t even using pack-ins anymore by this time.) And certainly not a game from a new unproven studio with just two people. There were no Bastions or Insides or Journeys or even Bioshocks that you could point to and say “here’s a successful example of the video game we’re making and that’s why this is going to work.”

So that’s what bothers me the most–the backdrop is not plausible, and I pointed out a hundred times where “this wouldn’t have happened”, “no way should this have happened”, “the industry would have reamed them out if this happened”. The only game during this era I could even try to point to that succeeded was “Myst”. And that game succeeded because it had a big new gimmick–the CD-ROM which allowed complex graphics and FMVs. No such innovations in this book. It wasn’t until 2003 that companies started taking chances with non-traditional games (e.g. “Katamari Damacy” and “Shadow of the Colossus“).

On the other hand, maybe this is the author writing about video games and how they evolved as she wishes they had been. Instead of it all being guns and gore and misogynistic heroes like Duke Nukem and Solid Snake, she wrote a universe where video games catered toward all genders instead of just guys. There’s no reason video games had to be marketed toward boys. It was just what they did in the eighties because executives believed in “there are toys for boys and toys for girls and there is no crossover.”

There is good writing here. I particularly fell for the beautiful chapter in the third act break (no spoilers!). If you don’t know anything about video games as an industry, you will enjoy this book. If you do, you will probably be tempted to throw it away because of how unrealistically it portrays the industry. Myself, I’m halfway on it. The story itself feels like something that could make an excellent Netflix short series. The video game backdrop drove me nuts, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the kind of book I wish I could write.

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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