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The Books I Read: September – October 2023

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

This has been out for a while, but it didn’t really get on my radar until Justin McElroy recommended it on The Besties. At first, I was dubious because I thought “eugh, another dystopian novel where people are separated into castes? And by color this time? Sounds so heavy-handed. Like I read this already in Shades of Grey. Or every other YA novel in the past ten years where teen girls get sorted by some arbitrary trait and enter a love triangle.”

That happens, but it’s way better than you think. It’s like Hunger Games, Uglies, Harry Potter, and Leviathan Wakes all mixed together and the result is synergistic. I hate to compare this book to those, but we all stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s like the adult version of all those books. Mostly it’s about class conflict, but plot-wise it’s mostly about war. Brutal war. Taking the wargames of Hunger Games and Ender’s Game up to eleven.

This book knocked my socks off. I haven’t gotten lost in a story like this for a long time. Especially since I’m a writer and I examine everything with a critical eye, always through the lens of getting published, seeking out what makes books special. But somehow this book was able to disarm me. It’s just the sort of book I’ve always been looking for. I think males are going to get more out of it than females. Not that the female part is underrepresented, but because most of the book focuses on typically masculine things such as “women as motivating factor”, violence, war, tactics, brave hero that can’t seem to be able to do wrong, and so on. But if you’re into that, no matter what gender, then this is your book.

Scattered Showers by Rainbow Rowell

I haven’t read any Rainbow Rowell since she’s been working on her faux-Harry/Draco fan fiction pastiches. Not interested in that. What I am interested in is short stories. Mostly trying to figure out how they’re made. And I don’t think I’ve ever read any short stories that weren’t science fiction/horror or the post-modern literary realism kind they force you to read in college courses like “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” and “A Rose for Emily“. These are romantic short stories.

They could have titled this collection “Oops! All Meet-Cutes”. But they’re still fun. And, surprisingly, I was able to finish the book, unlike many other collections I’ve tried over the years. Maybe I can enjoy short stories if they’re not experimental. These are fun, light-hearted, and have a consistent tone throughout (unlike anthologies, which are so hit-and-miss you’d think a blind man was handling the gun). Nothing in here is as heartwarming as Fangirl or reaches the emotional level of Eleanor & Park. But it’s still a pleasant book to bring on vacation somewhere.

Impostor Syndrome by Kathy Wang

Imagine a book about Russian spies in present-day America written by someone who knows nothing about world politics or international politi-social relationships. Imagine if someone tried to give Black Widow the Fifty Shades of Gray treatment.

This book is ridiculous. It imagines all Russians are idiots and incapable of maintaining their spy network. Like the KGB suddenly turned into McDonald’s. The main conceit of the plot is that this orphan is trained to become a Russian spy and inserted as the vice-CEO of a Facebook/Google company. They give her a rich house, rich family, rich husband, everything anyone could ever want. And then they expect her to betray all that by slipping secrets to them. And you wonder why she doesn’t want to?

Besides that, the book is so negative. I mean, I hate rich people too, but even I’m not this bitter about it. Everything out of this author’s narration is so acerbic, so disdainful, so resentful that it’s no fun to read. There are zero people to root for. This Russian spy woman has a gorgeous house, gorgeous status in life, position of power, doctor husband, beautiful baby, goes to huge billionaire parties–basically the American dream–and there’s nothing she can’t find to disparage about. Everything is a power struggle. If it’s not the people at the bottom trying to eat you up, it’s the people at the top who’d sooner crap on you than take a look at you. And men! Men, men, men. Men are so evil. Men are such devious jackasses. Men are always trying to keep women down. Men have no respect for women. Men! What a bunch of bastards.

So the combination of an author with no knowledge of the subject matter she’s writing about, plus a style that brings no joy to the table (you can’t call it satire, that’s a cheap excuse). And I haven’t mentioned the poor pacing, the poor plotting. Nothing happens in this book, and if it does happen, it’s off-screen. Would you rather read a book about two people staring at a chessboard, or about the actual movement of the chess piece? Throw this one away.

Medusa: The Girl Behind the Myth by Jessie Burton

I came in with low expectations and they were met.

The only reason I picked this up was for A) research for my own story about Medusa and B) it was short.

It’s really just two people sitting on opposite sides of a cave telling each other their origin stories. Nothing really happens. There’s a lot of thinking–I might almost call it stream-of-consciousness. I think making a story out of the Medusa myth is difficult unless you’re willing to make some bold choices. There isn’t much to the original myth. Hero enters a cave, fights a boss monster.

The originating material doesn’t give her much of a personality nor much of a chance. It’s an interesting myth but doesn’t make for a novel. Especially if you take the side of Medusa, because her story starts in tragedy and ends in tragedy. It’s not an uplifting tale if you’re the monster.

The lesson learned from her is a bad lesson. It says if you’re beautiful, people are going to get jealous, men will rape you, and then you get punished for that. Then they send someone in to kill you after your punishment.

I think the author did as best she could with what she was given, but there just isn’t enough here. I don’t think she wanted to deviate enough to fit the story to modern values, so it ends up being not enough from either side.

Starter Villain by John Scalzi

It’s fine. That’s all, just fine.

It’s not Redshirts, it’s not Old Man’s War. There are no poignant lessons to be learned from the story. In fact, I might say it’s Scalzi’s dumbest story yet, in the sense that I was entertained, but didn’t learn anything. Not about identity or socio-politico-economies or what makes a person a person. Seems like Scalzi’s not exploring serious themes in his books anymore. The SRE (Satisfying Reader Experience) was minimal.

Half the novel is infodumping and learning the premise. The Kaiju Preservation Society was much the same way, where the plot took a backseat to world-building. And in this novel, there’s nothing fantastic that needs explaining, which makes the exposition more superfluous. The central conceit is that there’s a secret society of supervillains that keep the world economy running and they’re all trying to take each other. And it’s just not very funny. This book doesn’t feel like it’s about anything. I’m disappointed.

And don’t let the cover lie to you. There are cats in here and they do talk, but there are no cat people or business cats or people with cat heads. It’s a funny cover but it’s misleading about the content therein.

When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom

So this is another book I accumulated from Paperbacks From Hell, and it’s really two novellas. When I read the excerpt, I was hooked because the first story reminded me of Room, which terrified and captured me. I guess one of my fundamental fears is being trapped in a single room all alone. But this story predates Room by thirty, forty years?

A sixteen-year-old woman is accidentally trapped in a network of caves underneath a farm after a cellar door closes on her. She has no light and no companions. Only brackish water and slugs and fungus to eat. Yet somehow she lives and gives birth to a child and raises it. It’s so eerie and it moves along at a breakneck clip. Can you imagine what Morlocks these people must look like?

The second story is less scary. It’s about a mentally deficient (in the eighties, she would have been called “retarded” but apparently we don’t use that word anymore) woman who slowly starts to recover her faculties (kind of a Flowers for Algernon thing) through the power of… love? I didn’t like this one as much because it’s not scary and it ends abruptly.

These books are great because they remind me of what the horror genre must have been in its heyday when you had Stephen King leading the charge for a ton of great authors and intriguing concepts. But when the eighties left and the yuppies deserted us and the coke blew away in the wind, King was the only one left remembered.

My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland

Crawl on me. Sink into me. Die for me. Living dead girl.

First of all, this cover is great. But the content inside is kinda… prosaic? It’s a simple read. There’s nothing flowery or striking about the prose. It’s just pretty much a straight urban fantasy with not a whole lot of plot or high stakes. There’s no build-up to something. It’s more slice of life. Writing for the masses. For entertainment.

The concept is really really close to iZombie, even though this came years before that. They’re both undead people (but not quite undead, they just have 10 bpm heart rates), both eat brains (as opposed to flesh), both work in a morgue, both eat the brains they get from the morgue, both help the cops solve murders, if you don’t eat brains quick enough you become the rotting mindless kind of zombie, both have an underground zombie society/black market. I wonder if Rob Thomas gleaned more from this than from the comic book of the same name.

My problem is the white trash part of her life and the zombie part of her life never mix together to create a synergistic plot. There are scenes dedicated to her alcoholic father, run-down house, drug habit, etc. And there are scenes where she’s working as a morgue technician. And the two never see each other. It’s like two separate stories are going on just to justify the title/hook. Zombie-ness/undeadness doesn’t factor into her life. She hides it too well and it’s never an obstacle. So I enjoyed this for what it is, but I’m not interested enough to read the sequels.

The Auctioneer by Joan Samson

The writing is as austere as the setting, which fits. This is a stark horror and it builds slowly. There is no monster here (except for the greatest monster of all–man).

Yes, this is one of those psychologically scary horrors like Oldboy or Se7ven. Fear is created through a slow burn as the person terrorizing others is just a guy like you or me. And he does it by degrees, not in a single brutal slash. And you are left to wonder what you would do in this situation and finding yourself not liking the answer.

The novel, as written, was more an allegory of city people fleeing into the rural areas, gentrifying them, farmers getting shouldered off their land by weekend warriors and the invasion of suburbia. But you know how I interpreted it? I saw an allegory for how Native Americans were driven off their land. Getting increasingly worse deals for their property, always the threat of violence implied if they didn’t surrender.

The problem is that, like other horror novels I’ve seen, like in The Deep and Touch the Night, they get into a “horror loop”. They remember to include the scares but forget to move the plot along. The scary thing repeats and no one does anything about it. It’s like building a stack of papers one sheet at a time. Which, I guess, is what a book is. But for me, I need more development than that, not just scrapings.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

I read an excerpt of this for my wife’s book club and boy-howdy you can catch a whiff of it from here. First of all, it sounds like every chicklit book ever written. I mean, read the summary, it’s got all the tropes–middle-aged woman main character, husband who doesn’t “get” her (even though he throws her birthday parties and is the nicest guy), works at a fashion magazine (Vogue, of course), wants to be a writer but can’t seem to start that novel, lived in Paris, now lives in a gated community in Oxford, parents are also artists who somehow manage to be both more and less successful than her (of course they’re obnoxious and overbearing), and through all this, she’s unhappy. Cause, of course, she is.

THERE IS NO PLOT HERE. THE MAIN CHARACTER DOESN’T WANT ANYTHING. How did this get past the query letter?

This book breaks all the rules of the first fifty pages and not in a good way. You’re supposed to start the story with action, with something happening. Nope, not here. This one starts with mingling at a party. Then she goes into backstory about her sister, driving home from said party, more backstory about her house, something about how Negronis are no longer the “in” drink. And then the chapter ends.

You’re supposed to intrigue the reader. Cement an emotional connection with the hero. We connect with Luke Skywalker because he’s an orphan/idealist/dreamer longing for adventure. Forrest Gump is loyal and loving and innocent, so we want to protect him. Scarlett O’Hara is resourceful, clever, ambitious, and, though cruel on the outside, she has a soft middle.

It’s like a duplicate of Impostor Syndrome with all the complaining & negativity & passive-aggressiveness and no plot. Lady, just take the Zoloft and call it a day.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amar El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This is a book, but it’s not a story. This makes it hard to review because this volume is for a certain person. I am not that certain person. I’m an idiot. I like my popcorn movies and ice cream changes.

I mean, the overall narrative isn’t that hard to understand–there are two people, Blue and Red, and they are soldiers on opposite sides of a war. They both travel to different places in time to engineer/sabotage events so that their side wins. And they start leaving letters for each other.

You can tell that this is supposed to be about the message and artiness over the story because the characters have no names. The prose is complex. Each sentence takes the briefest second to chew and digest before moving on to the next, like chewing a rubbery steak. You have to work to get through this book.

These are clearly great writers and they are going to appeal to the college professors and the critics who have seen it all before and thirst for something new and different. The only reason I picked this up was because of that “Bigolas Dickolas Wolfwood” meme.

There are two sides to this “time war”. One is on the side of “lush and poetic”. The other is on the side of “incomprehensibly dense”. I’m on that side, sorry.

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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