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The Books I Read: March – April 2024

The Best American Short Stories 2022 edited by Andrew Sean Greer

So when I first started this “year of short stories” I asked Reddit how to write one, because I don’t know how. I write novels. I do long form. What they said was “read short stories”. So this is my first foray into sampling what others are doing in the space. All I know is I was glad when it was done.

Did I learn anything? Well, I learned that I am way out of my league when it comes to reaching the kind of quality and skill needed to express an idea in a fancy literary way. But that’s fine–I don’t want to write like that. I don’t write flowery phrases and ambiguous complicated sentences that make the story like a puzzle to solve. But also, does the world need another story about “you can’t go home again”? Another about escaping an abusive relationship? It certainly doesn’t need one that has no ending (of which there were several). And it certainly doesn’t need one about a woman wanting to be objectified, wanting to have sex with her married friend. Ladies, do you want feminism or not? You can’t have it both ways.

I don’t know if all short stories are like this, but from the foreword, it sure seems like the literary world is narcissistic. This editor is pretentious, the kind of guy who’s “in love with the written word” and cries at everything he reads. These stories are less about what was told and instead about how they are told. Which I guess makes sense–there’s nothing new under the sun, so judges judge you on how you performed over what was performed. But I want to write fanciful stories that give the reader a good satisfying experience. I want to be Willy Wonka and make wonderful candy that gives joy. I don’t want to make expensive dishes with fancy presentation but are just dressed-up hamburgers.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

So this is a YA where the basic plotline is that a nobody girl inherits a billion dollars but why? Why her? High concept, kinda reminds me of Knives Out. The mystery intrigued me, but after a while, I realized that’s all there was. Usually, a mystery exists to pull you in but what makes you stay is the characters–Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Benoit Blanc. In here, all the characters are the family of the dead billionaire who think they should have gotten the money and they all live in the giant mansion with her.

The fundamental problem is that the narrative keeps spinning its wheels, repeating information as if I forgot. The main character doesn’t seem competent–she doesn’t ask smart or obvious questions. For instance, she learns that a now-deceased person named Emily once lived in the mansion. But she never asks any other family members who Emily was or how she died. She waits for someone to tell her. Why? Well, the book says it’s because she’s scared, but the real reason is so that tension can be drawn out, whereas anyone with half a brain cell would immediately ask. We call that holding the idiot ball.

And the whole book is like that, full of plot contrivances to lengthen the tension that would make a soap opera raise its eyebrows. Maids getting pregnant, illegitimate heirs, dead people who aren’t dead, blackmail, convoluted spaghetti strings connecting people to other people. That might be all right if the characters were likable, but they’re not. Knives Out and Glass Onion had irredeemable greedypants characters, but at least other characters balanced them out, gave us someone to root for, like the detective, the nurse, the mystery novelist patriarch, the twin sister, etc. There’s no one like that here. Even the main character is a bit of a bitch. Besides not asking the right questions, she’s cold and so wrapped up in herself. She goes from living in a car with her half-sister and her abusive boyfriend to living in a mansion and yet doesn’t spend a dime on even a candy bar. She doesn’t even enjoy the hot shower and fluffy robe because she’s got “billionaire’s guilt”.

I read the Wikipedia summaries for the ending. It ends on a cliffhanger so that you read the other books, like an MLM. And the final solution isn’t even very satisfying. I’m glad I didn’t get trapped in this pyramid scheme for longer than I had to.

Morning Star (Red Rising #3) by Pierce Brown

The final book in the Red Rising trilogy, concluding Darrow’s quest to free “space society” from the oppressive caste system. Darrow has lost everything by this point and has to rebuild his rebellion from the ground up to destroy the empress.

My reviews for the other two still stand–I love this series. Some people criticize these books, saying that things come too easy to Darrow, that he conquers every challenge he comes across. I’d say that’s true, but not like a Mary Sue. It’s more akin to Ender’s Game. It’s the same thing, only the main character is a boy instead of a young man and not trying to disguise himself. But both are geniuses at war that keep confronting harder and impossible trials, yet always beating them, though it’s at the cost of personal relationships.

The story continues twenty years later in another set of books, but I don’t want to read those. The story ends very nicely here and I don’t want it to be ruined with the characters suffering more in the future.

Galaxy Trucker: Rocky Road by Jason A. Holt

The first book I read based on a board game. I got this game for Christmas, really liked it, and the instructions are kinda complicated. But more than that–they were funny. The game’s premise is that you build a ship using little cardboard squares with lasers, shields, crew, engines, etc., then race around the galaxy to see if your ship lasts against meteors, space pirates, etc. But the instruction manual is delightful.

The book jumps doesn’t deviate from those concepts. It’s about a lone trucker and her partner, an alien trying to become an actor, who has to literally build her ship like in the game, then has pieces of it fly off. I think it takes the concept a little too literally.

It reads very much like an indie science fiction humor comic book. The humor is like someone trying to imitate Douglas Adams, but that’s an impossible goal–no one can be like Douglas Adams. So it falls short of amusing (although that could be on me — I’m on a lot of mood-stabilizing medication). The jokes are nothing new–hackneyed humor about the incessant bureaucracy of the future (gotta find the right form!), technobabble, incompetent enemies, etc.

I feel like if you want some science fiction humor, there are better places than this. This one is skippable.

Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style by Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell

Kurt Vonnegut is probably the closest we get to a writer rock star. Maybe the most popular and well-liked author of the century (I’m sure Stephen King is up there somewhere too).

This book talks about his writing process, writing advice, and general style analysis as seen through both direct quotations and his writing, as compiled by the co-author. A collection of everything Vonnegut said about the art and craft of writing. The beginning of the book promises it will teach you how to write with style. More like it will teach you how to write like Kurt Vonnegut. Which is fine, you could do worse. The guy had no fear. I guess you get that way when you’re a prisoner of war who survives the firebombing of a city. That changes you, man. His writing ability was always there, but Dresden was his superhero origin story. Maybe I should try being firebombed.

The Best Short Stories 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I figure I’m not going to learn anything from short stories if I keep hating what I’m reading. The first thing I read wasn’t even a story, it was a situation. A setting, beautifully written, is still a fragment. Another was about a moron Black woman who says the wrong things to some pushy white people at her door. If there’s anything that will make readers dislike a story more (and all writers give this advice, it’s not just me) it’s a main character who’s incompetent at their role. And I can’t believe a middle-aged Black woman in the South doesn’t know how to navigate around white people. But I guess if it’s beautifully written, it gets bought. I used to tell myself that it wasn’t how a story was told, but what was being told. Maybe I was just lying to myself to help me on my author path.

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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