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The Books I Read: May – June 2023

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

So I’ve grown to love Grady Hendrix and his books. He just seems to have a knack for combining grody horror and nuttiness. Like Stephen King if he was fabulously gay.

This book is like his other ones — My Best Friend’s Exorcism, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It starts out tongue-in-cheek to help you bond with the characters, then migrates to horror, then terror. In How to Sell a Haunted House, there really isn’t much “selling”. But there is plenty of conflict between a brother and sister whose parents just died. The sister (main character) is smart, has her life together, and is raising a child. The brother is fuck-up who doesn’t realize he’s a fuck-up and then wonders why there are consequences for his actions. You know the type.

Hendrix always nails female characters, enough to make this writer jealous. The content of this book will hit hard for anyone who has dealt with a parent’s death. Especially if it’s your last parent and you now have to deal with splitting the inheritance, the house’s objects and furniture, what to keep, what to toss, what has value, what doesn’t, bickering with everyone about it, not to mention handling all the legalities. Then combine that with the characters Hendrix creates, like the brother that Mom always liked best and the eccentricities that empty nesters left behind.

The brother is the best antagonist I’ve seen in a long time. The whole plot is a rollicking ride (what does “rollicking” mean? And why does it only apply to rides?) It’s definitely not as serious as The Final Girl Support Group, which I think is his best book but not my favorite (I’m not sure what my favorite is yet). Imagine something like “Child’s Play” or “Annabelle”. Something clearly camp but combined with domestic problems like “Oculus” or “The Amityville Horror”. It’s a book about dealing with grief and getting along with siblings you don’t get along with and death as a human concept.

It’s a great book. It’s Hendrix’s latest work. I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re fond of eighties horror.

The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

So sometimes when I go to sleep, I listen to old radio programs. Stuff like “The Red Skelton Show”, “Abbot and Costello”, “The Great Gildersleeve”, etc. My favorites are “Gunsmoke” and “X Minus One”, a science fiction anthology. This is like a combination of those two. Think of the forties/fifties fascination with Mars (e.g. War of the Worlds, John Carter of Mars) believing it could hold alien life. Combine that with the “new frontier” setting of Westerns. It looks like hard science fiction, but there’s nothing hard about it. It’s got robots and spaceships. It doesn’t go into a fifty-page essay about how the oxygen reclamators work.

On the surface, it’s a weird Western. It’s “True Grit” meets “The Martian Chronicles”. But the deeper you go, it becomes science fiction horror. The only horror movie I can think of taking place on another planet is Ghosts of Mars, a terrible movie with Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge fighting zombies. All the rest take place in space like Alien and Event Horizon. (I guess Aliens does take place on a planet, but it feels more like an isolated facility.)

For a novel, it’s short. 76,000 words. There are times where I’m reading what the main character thinks of so-and-so character, so-and-so other character, the situation she’s in. It’s like a pattern: action-analysis, action-analysis. Scene-sequel. And I’m like “DO something.” Like the author’s trying to make a word count.

It’s pretty good. Not great, not exceptional. I picked this up because both Justin McElroy and Mike Krahulik recommended it. The concept is better than the execution, but not by much. I guess this guy has mostly written short stories before this. This is his first novel, and it’s a good first novel. (Certainly better than mine was.) The guy just needs to brush up on his style to not be so “thoughtful” to make my taste.

Refuge by Dot Jackson
(unfinished)

This was for my wife’s book club, so I took a peek. I only got to seven percent. It’s all backstory. A laundry list of names — who married who and what they did and all the gossip and scandal surrounding them. The story never started. I never got to a main character or what that main character wanted or what obstacles they had to face. After two sessions, I was still reading prologue. And a little voice in the back of my mind kept repeating “we don’t care, we don’t care, we don’t care.”

This book is an example of why authors tell you not to start with backstory. I don’t know what character to root for, which one to identify with. It sounds more like a character sketch than a story. Besides that, it’s historical (starting from 1900 and onward with so-and-so’s family tree). I presume that, because it takes place in the South, in Appalachia, I’m supposed to be very concerned with the main character’s pedigree.

There was nothing for me to latch on to. If I’m going to read about the American South, I’ll pick up a Grady Hendrix book. At least he can deliver the culture in a much more palatable dish, instead of a big pill.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
(re-read)

I had a little gap in-between my “books to read”, so I decided to re-read this one. I feel like I read it so fast last time, I didn’t get a chance to really taste it. To really run it over my tongue and get a mouthfeel for it. That’s why it’s good to re-read books–when you finish them, then you know what they’re about, and you can read for that. You can better appreciate the parts that highlight that flavor (in this case, the story of a teen with OCD). You can see all the parts that made the book greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, I miss John Green.

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
(unfinished)

This is the second time I tried this book, and I still failed to finish it. I thought that, now that I know more about Star Wars lore (the context of the third trilogy, various video games, Disney+ Star Wars series) I would appreciate it more. This time I got to 50% before I realized I didn’t like it.

The thing about Star Wars is that if you want to enjoy anything other than the movies, you need to know about three hundred pages of lore. You have to know what a B1 Battle Droid is, who Wedge Antilles and Admiral Ackbar are, what XYZ alien is, the significance of ABC planet. You can’t enjoy anything other than the movies if you’re a casual fan. All the other media rewards the hardcore for reading and remembering everything, like Dragonlance or Homestuck.

I stopped when I realized I was dreading it every night. Every plot point is connected by “and then”, “and then”, “and then”. Not “but” or “therefore”. That makes for an unsatisfying reader experience. It’s competently written, but badly plotted. So much that I don’t care who lives and dies. And plenty of people could have died because there are so many characters.

The story never kicks off. It’s just a bunch of events with eight different storylines going on. I don’t know how Chuck Wendig queried this book (if he did) but there’s no main character. I couldn’t tell you what everyone wants or what they’re going to do to get it. Everyone just wants to survive. It has nothing to do with the new trilogy. But it does feel like Star Wars, which is not necessarily a good thing. Star Wars thrives in the film medium. When you try to make that into a book, try to shove in the action set pieces and exotic visuals into a light plot, that’s not good for a book.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

I realized the movie was so good, I should probably try the book. It did cause a phenomenon after all.

First, I’ve got to say this is the worst cover I’ve ever seen. Creepy woman with big eyes and puckered mouth trapped inside a book. Looks like Tom Riddle’s diary went drag.

Second, the movie is far far superior to the book. As expected, it’s an epistolary. Every entry is pretty short and always starts with calories consumed, alcohol drunk, cigarettes smoked. This woman has ADHD, which makes her entries difficult to read. It embodies all the worst elements of chick lit. She’s super judgy, complains a lot. She makes bad decisions, then wonders why there are consequences for her actions. I admire her for standing up to “masculine fuckwittage” as she calls it (for example, refusing to indulge a man who stood her up, then went on a date just to get sex). But her other characteristics make her very difficult to stomach. She and I couldn’t hang.

It’s a look into the double standards of single woman life, expecting the body to be a certain way and full of people around her who say the same thing. At least it’s short. But you are way better off watching the movie and avoiding the book. There is nothing that you missed.

Lies Beneath by Anne Greenwood Brown
(unfinished)

I heard about this from the writer’s conference I went to. One of the speakers wrote this book, which she described as “deadly mermaids in Lake Superior”. And I thought “yes, please” because that is right up my alley. But unfortunately, the prose did not provide. It suffers from a case (like most mediocre YA) of “not-much-happening-itis”.

The plot is that a set of mermaid siblings are planning to wreak fae-like revenge on the son of the man who killed their mother. What that consists of is a lot of watching. It’s like P.I. work as they observe the family and it’s creepy. There’s no plot, just vibes. Just mood and tone. Development of a relationship is not a story. And the author never met an adjective she didn’t like.

Is it trying to be Twilight with mermaids, with a fae creature falling in love with the victim? Is it trying to be The Little Mermaid with genders reversed and in modern times? Or some other kind of twisted love story? It doesn’t execute any of these well.

I stopped reading at fifty percent when I realized I was speed-reading just to get it through it, which is no way to read a book. At some point, I had no idea what was going on so I just quit and saved myself the time.

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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