The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: September – October 2022

bookshelf books

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
(unfinished)

Do not trust the title. For something called “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” I was expecting a story about the relationship between a father and daughter. It turns out this is a love story about the daughter and the android he invents. Said android is made out of human flesh, so he looks real, but never ages and has a cold computer-like personality. Nonetheless, the daughter grows up with him and ends up falling in love with him. But she does nothing about it because she’s not supposed to love an android.

So this is essentially a romance with a passive protagonist. If I had to read one more chapter about how she’s bored with the husband she settled for, I would’ve plucked my eyes out. It’s a thin science fiction patina over an “unhappy marriage” drama. You know, those ones where the drama is around bad decisions made by the protagonist and it draws out forever. Peel off the serial numbers and the android is no different than another thinly-veiled metaphor for social injustice. You could turn him into a Black man and set this during the civil rights era and not need to change a thing.

The science fiction in this is ridiculously minimal. We only ever hear whispers and hearsay about what’s going on in the mad scientist’s life. The narrative stays focused on the daughter who doesn’t give a rip about what her father is doing. It’s not like he’s a Dr. Frankenstein–he works for a legit company and the android doesn’t go mad and destroy a village.

Plus the daughter smokes like a chimney. Every other sentence she lights one up. This is supposed to be the future. I would have presumed smoking is as outdated as snuff is now. The mad scientist isn’t mad. He’s just a disappointed scientist.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

I’ve always been intrigued by Carrie Fisher, especially when I learned she was also a writer/script doctor (e.g. Hook, Sister Act, and even the Star Wars prequels). So I wanted to see how she wrote. The verdict? Carrie Fisher writes like a mother f**ker.

The Princess Diarist is her memoir from working on Star Wars, based on journals that she kept at the time. Star Wars has lots of “archaeological artifacts” but little personal accounts from the time. She goes into detail about living the Hollywood life, the audition, the creation of the buns, what George Lucas was like, did she have an affair with Harrison Ford, what said affair/relationship was like. What’s missing is her work as a screenwriter. Maybe that’s in a different book?

But all in all, the book just made me feel bad. I’m not sure why, exactly. Bad about the Star Wars fans, bad about celebrities. Fisher talks about being everyone’s first masturbatory fantasy, a sordid affair with a married man for the sake of “having fun”, the good and bad of fan conventions that border on ridicule. A large chunk is straight lifted from her diaries, and I had my fill of that from “Notes to Boys” by Pamela Ribon. They’re funny for a minute, but then they’re insipid. Fisher’s not the hero of her own story.

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series, but it’s really more like book 2.5. Except there already was a 2.5–the novella “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”. Except THAT takes place after book two and this one takes place at the same time as book two, so this is really book two-two. Or book 2.75? I don’t know. I’m getting off track.

Like I said, this takes place over the events of book two. In that book, we followed Alma as she makes her multi-year trip to colonize Mars. In this one, we find out what happens back on Earth during that time. And what happens is lots of turmoil. This was probably influenced by being written over 2016-2021 (also known as “that whole thing”).

Earth is coming to terms with the fact that the world is ending and very few of them are going to get deported to space to survive. They’re getting left behind, they’re suffering from lack of food, lack of housing, climate change, and so on. They think too much money is being spent on the space program and not enough on the people at home. So the answer is domestic terrorism. What does that sound like?

Nicole Wargin, a side character in the two other books, takes center stage in this one. About half the story is much like the others — expanding space colonization, fun with science, life with the colonists, dealing with the inherent racism and sexism of the period. And the other half is uncovering who is attempting to sabotage everything, because there’s a mole on the moon. (Moon mole? Molemen from the Moon? Wasn’t that a MST3K movie?) That deals with issues of knowing who to trust, fighting with the external need to prove oneself just as capable as men while sabotaging the self.

Nicole is not Alma York. For one thing, while York had to deal with crippling anxiety, Wargin has anorexia. York’s husband is a mathematician while Wargin’s is the governor of the state with the new U.S. Capital and site of the American space program. Wargin is not Jewish. Thus the problems are different. Nicole has to deal with the political ramifications of all her actions, that her marriage might be falling apart because they are too busy for each other. But both are competent, and there’s nothing wrong with competent heroes.

That doesn’t mean Nicole’s not just as interesting as York. She’s just different. This going to be more about a woman who is confident in her skin, more confident about yelling at people. But her big problem is her reach exceeds her grasp. About the half the time, the problems that occur happen because she jumped into the situation before she fully thought it out (which illustrates a big difference between her and Alma York).

The biggest problem is that it’s so long, but so good. I think several “incidents” on the moon were unnecessary and could have been cut. Maybe I have a short attention span. It moves fairly fast but it’s a long journey. The crux of the story is a mystery. And drawn-out mysteries tend to grate on me. There’s a lot to deal with in this book. (Is there such a thing as “situation soup”?) I don’t think this can serve as a standalone, but if you enjoyed any of the first two books, you’ll like this. But you’ll probably grow as impatient as I did.

Nine-Tenths by Jeff Macfee

In a world where superheroes exist, repo work takes on a whole new level of dangerous. You need to figure out a way to tow Starlaser’s car before he wakes up and hurls energy bolts at you. But this book isn’t about the repossession game (which I find misleading and docked points for). It’s a hard-boiled, gritty crime drama and reads like one. A noir detective story, like The Maltese Falcon. There just happen to be superheroes in it.

The premise is that an incarcerated supervillain invented a ring that allows you to phase through stuff. This is an uber-powerful device since it means you could be hiding anywhere, are basically invincible, and can kill people by squeezing their heart. It’s gone missing. The last person to have it was our main character’s old boss. And he just went six feet under. (Like, literally, because he was phased into the ground). If the main character doesn’t find some answers, the government’s going to take his money, his business, and what remains of his broken family.

I like the world-building. I like the main characters–they have a found family vibe. I don’t like how there’s too many characters. I’m not sure if that’s part of the detective genre, where you’ve gotta put in a bunch of red herrings. But it confused me, bordering on character soup. There’s a lot of good dialogue. It drags on in the middle. It reminded me of some meta-textual superhero stuff, like Invincible. I recommend reading a sample of it before you get the whole thing though. And read the whole sample–the whole book does not read like the first chapter.

The Books I Read: March – April 2022

bookshelf books
Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

If you’re looking for some superhero fiction, this would be an excellent place to start. This is about a henchwoman who becomes chief assistant to a supervillain because she figures out a way to really defeat heroes–in the court of public opinion. It’s all a matter of perspective–if you account for all the collateral damage they do, they end up doing more harm than good. There’s a little bit of John Scalzi’s Redshirts in here combined with Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible.

But more to the fact, it’s “My Fair Lady”. The main woman starts at the bottom and becomes a super-villain in her own right. In the meantime, she’s wondering if this is the right thing to do–if this is just part of her own petty vengeance for being part of that collateral damage (since she was acting in a henchman capacity) or if she’s gone too far. It soon becomes a war of who can act more heinously and ends up in some disturbing zones (including a little body horror).

It’s an examination of the dark side of superheroes and the life of supervillains. If you like shows/comics like “The Boys” or “Invincible”, you’ll like this. It’s not as over-the-top violent, but it has an intriguing plot and good characters.

The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration edited by Robin Rosenberg

I thought this would be like The Law of Superheroes, but it’s actually pretty boring. There’s less about “what makes Superhero X tick” and more about generic psychological phenomena. For example, they don’t talk about the Hulk’s relationship to rage or how to treat him. They talk about rage in general, using Hulk for their case studies and examples. It’s like they took their research and replaced real names with superheroes.

They’re always talking about “positive psychology” and I don’t know what that is. At least they avoid any discussion of Freud, except in a satirical “what not to do” sense. Unless you know psychology, you won’t have a fun time with this. But if you were a doctor of psychology, you also wouldn’t learn anything new from this book. Like any collection of short stories or essays by multiple authors, the essays are going to be hit or miss.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

So imagine if you combined Agatha Christie with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (or “Groundhog’s Day” if you’re not a video game connoisseur). An unusual combination I know, but that’s definitely the best comparison I can make. The problem is that I don’t like Agatha Christie and Majora’s Mask was an overrated game. This came across my radar after a recommendation by Justin McElroy (of My Brother My Brother and Me podcasting fame)

There’s a big high society party in a mansion (imagine The Great Gatsby) where there’re lots of colorful characters and they all have their reasons to kill one another. Our main character, who has amnesia, inhabits one of these bodies throughout the day. But he gets to do it eight times. So at any given instance, there’s eight of him but they all have different levels of knowledge about the goings-on. When he dies or falls asleep, he goes into another body and repeats the day, needing to use what he’s learned from before. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to figure out who killed the daughter of the mansion’s owner.

It’s long and I got very confused throughout. I am not a guy who can figure out a book mystery. Between all the red herrings, false leads, and characters, I can barely hang on to the plot. Now add time travel into the mix. Maybe I’m an unsophisticated idiot, but it’s too challenging to keep track of who’s in what body where at what time and what that person knows. I’m sure the author spent a long time figuring out the exact timeline of all events and an even harder time making a book out of all that. Kudos for that, but a reader needs a spreadsheet to keep track of everything and get everything out of it the author intended. It’s like a very intricate clock or 80-hour video game. The other problem is all the characters are pretty despicable. If you like character-driven pieces, this is not for you. This is more like a puzzle box.

But I did finish it, so it was entertaining enough, but I could not tell you what was happening. This is a hard read, not for the beach. It’s on the level of The Magicians by Lev Grossman or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

I would call this Scalzi’s dumbest book to date. That doesn’t mean what you think it means. I mean it’s just lacking in big or methodical ideas. There’s a share of science, but not as much as I would have liked (how do you grow an organic nuclear reactor?) but its more like spitballing and hand-waving and less like some hard “what could be” you’d find from Asimov or Heinlein.

Usually Scalzi takes on some interesting “what if” subjects, like politics and trade routes, metaphysical identity issues, and so on. Kaiju is, Scalzi self-admits, a book written to try and shake off all the terribility of 2020 and beyond.

It’s so short I hadn’t had time to form an opinion on it before I was done. Honestly, it’s probably the book of his I like the least. Scalzi admits he wrote it in a four-week haze in March of 2021 after failing on another novel. But that’s fine. Scalzi’s therapeutic exhales are better than some author’s shouts.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

If you saw the movie, you don’t need to read this. There’s nearly a 1:1 event/character/setting adaptation. Which is fine, it’s a good story, but I think the movie was better. In the book, there are some aggravating scenes where characters hold the idiot ball and keep secrets just because it moves the plot forward. I think the story is excellent, but does better in the adaptation to film, especially since it’s a love letter to the medium. That loses a little bit of something in book form.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

So when I read “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” I thought “Here’s an interesting concept–a space opera without much violence or adult content. Quite peaceful. Low stakes. Dynamic characters. Like if Star Wars was a happy place.” So when I heard her next book was about robots and in a more Earth-like setting, I was delighted. But this book is a bunch of hippy-dippy shit about helping people, having an existential crisis, and not knowing the purpose of life.

cartman south park hippies dream

There aren’t fights, there aren’t high stakes, there’s no danger of failure. Just a lot of crying. I knew Chambers liked positive stories, but this is Sesame Street. I mean, granted there’s some decent philosophy talk here and there, but I feel like I need my stories to matter to someone. We’re missing a “what happens if he/she fails”.

Speaking of “he/she”, the main character is non-gender identified and I have a beef with that. Not because I’m anti-trans, but I have a problem with using the pronoun “they”. I know “they” is grammatically correct. It can be used in place of “he or she”. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I’m fine with transgender people, but you can’t change English. “They” means more than one person, so every time the narrative reads “Dex went to the fountain. They found the water clear and cool.” I feel like I skipped a sentence and it’s referring to something else now. Or that Dex suddenly grew a second head. Or has an alien parasite like Venom. My point is it’s jarring, and language exists to provide clarity to information. I don’t like it and I don’t want to get used to it. Call me a cantankerous old coot if you want. Use another pronoun. Use “xe/xer” or “hir” or “vir” or “per”, I don’t care. But “they” is an established word with meaning and you can’t bend language to your will.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

This is the book I wish Riley Sager’s Final Girls would have been. Horror fans, like me, will love this. Especially all the references, nods, and Easter eggs which alone make this worth reading. The author definitely did their research. But more than that, you can also tell he loves the material.

In this novel, the concept is that all the horror movie franchises actually happened–Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre–and that the movies we see are based on their real stories. I’d say it’s more thriller than horror, but that’s fine for me, because, as I’ve said before, horror just doesn’t seem to work in the written word. Text doesn’t deliver that visceral visual stimulation or suspenseful timing that movies or plays can deliver. (You get scared? You can just peek at the end of the chapter to see if they live through this.)

All the characters have different voices, personalities, and motivations. There’s a good sense of plot movement and pacing so I never got bored. And of dealing with trauma. I loved it so much I added Hendrix’s other most popular book (“The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires”) on my “to-read” list.

The Broken Blade by William Durbin

My youngest is reading this for her school, so I figured why not? It’s not too long and I’m descended from voyageurs myself. I should find out what my legacy is.

The Broken Blade is meant to be a historical fiction/educational book in the same sense of Across Five Aprils. Our lead, Pierre, feels guilty for an accident that made his father resign from the yearly “march of the voyageurs” that brought them their livelihood. So he conscripts himself into their ranks and learns what its like paddling from Montreal to west Lake Superior. The heartache, the danger, the camaraderie, the enemies and friends made.

It’s a very clear Coming of Age story–the transition of the boy to a man. As you imagine, the female parts are extremely underwritten. I feel like some of the material was sanitized for younger readers. There is drinking and fighting, but no swearing or sex talk. I probably won’t read the following books in the series, but I’m glad I read this as it gave me a better understanding of the French-Canadian explorers and pioneers.

The Books I Read: January – February 2022

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The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This is a short collection of beautifully written essays that don’t seem to have a point. Only about a quarter of this book is really about “writing life”. That section is nothing you haven’t heard before. It’s getting your ass in the chair and writing and looking around. Nothing about the publicity tours, the writer’s block, the interactions with an editor, with fans, the relationship changes with a family (i.e. what to say during gatherings where you just want people to buy it)

The rest is about… something else. I guess it’s the things you think about when you should be writing but you’re not. Like how cold your cabin is. Or what that lumberjack is doing over in the distance. Mostly it’s stories that don’t go anywhere, like the time I had to catch the train to Shelbyville and I had to tie an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. There’s something “metaphysical” about the book, that it’s about more life and less writing.

And the problem was I couldn’t follow it. I got the sense this is something the author wrote as an exercise in-between books. In other words, it didn’t meet my expectations. I’m not sure who this book is for but it’s not for writers.

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

This guy has such a hard-on for Casablanca and Tootsie he should have been a film critic. The book was written in 2007 but all his examples are from way in the past (we’re talking Four Weddings and a Funeral or The Godfather). These are fine stories, it may not be what you want to write. I know I don’t. You may want to write “Iron Man” or “Nightmare Alley” or some crime thriller book. You can have a story that’s fun and still affects the reader. It doesn’t have to be about social issues or dour “message-driven” plots. This book emphasizes starting with the theme and snowballing out from there. Not about what “well wouldn’t it be fun if…”

For another thing, those works are once-in-a-blue-moon-type stories. I doubt Mario Puzo and Murray Burnett (the guy who wrote the play Casablanca is based on) were thinking about morals, themes, or motifs right from the get-go. They’re what Stephen King calls “geniuses” and you can’t make a genius out of a competent writer. No writing book in the world is going to do that and that is the premise this book seems to be selling. The Godfather and Casablanca were cases of the right story, right writer, and right time & place. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman say they wait until the book is finished, then examine the story to determine the theme that came out of it.

This book was much like Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass where, if I got 10% out of what I read, that would be enough. But this book is so long, and seems so counter to current stories and best-sellers, I don’t think I can recommend it. Watch another movie besides Tootsie, John.

Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks

I got excited when I read the concept. But then the story got boring because there was no character development. It’s supposed to be like “what happened when the kids from Stranger Things or The Goonies grew up?”

I guess they get real dull is what happened. The story that happened before this would have been far more exciting to read. The author keeps telling, not showing, because the important parts all happened before.

This is like the sequel or fan fiction to a story that never happened. And the content that is there is just tedious adventuring and no character arcs. No one learns anything, they just do fighting. So there’s no way to get invested.

All These Worlds (Bobiverse #3) by Dennis E. Taylor

This is the third book in the “Bobiverse” trilogy. There are other side-spin-off books, but I don’t think I’ll read those because the story ended quite satisfactorily here for me. Far more than The Themis Files.

As with all sequels in a series, you’ll learn more about my recommendations for those if you read my previous reviews. Suffice to say, it ends delightfully and, as aforementioned, satisfactorily. I think it might be better than the second book, which is always a good thing for a trilogy. It’s got a good sense of humor, very Scalzi-esque. But as I’ve said previously, don’t wait too long between each book or you’ll forget everything.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

I think this is short enough to be called a novella, so I’d like to know how this got a publisher, because I’ve got some novellas I’d like to submit.

There’s some beautifully written prose in here, but at the cost of narrative flow. The dialogue keeps getting interrupted with some observation, facial tic, or other analysis of the narrative.

That means the story gets no chance to flow. Barry Lyga says “Small, insignificant actions like ‘looking’ or ‘blinking’ or ‘swallowing’ or ‘narrowing eyes’ distract to the reader and make the story unnecessarily longer.” This is coupled with there being too much telling about the characters, not showing, because the narrative is told through a single POV. This means I forgot who they were half the time, even though there are only five.

The more horror I read, the less I like it as a genre/medium. It gets too metafictional. Too self-aware. I guess it’s hard not to have the characters realize they’re in a horror movie when there are so many tropes. But it all comes off like a repeat of Scream. Plus you lose all the timing of the scare and the visuality of the horror.

The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson

I picked this up as research for a possible book. I guess if you were going to read any fun “accessible” book about law, this would be it. But be prepared because these guys are lawyers first and writers second. There are times even Batman’s vigilante justice can’t save all the prose (i.e. long paragraphs, high vocabulary, and plenty of adverbs). But how else are you going to find out if Superman has to pay taxes on the coal he squeezes into diamonds?

There’s quite a lot of content here, from constitutional law to criminal to privacy to property. At least everything has a tone of humor, so it’s not a dry legal document. I think if you used to watch The People’s Court (Wapner forever!) and read comic books at the same time, this is for you. It’s for a specific audience, but hey, you might be that audience!

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten
(unfinished)

This was gifted to my wife, so of course, it got to my hands first. It didn’t look like my usual fare, but sometimes books find you. And you have to take those opportunities when they come. If you search for good books, understand that they may also be searching for you. Besides, I want to learn how to write a bestseller. Why not read a bestseller?

I really really tried. I made it halfway through–204 pages. But I just did not care about the characters. I did not see a world where I would have been glad I finished this all the way to the end.

First, I hate the style. Everything is written in this dark gothic prose with lots of gaps between dialogue detailing every wisp of hair, every bite of the lip, every taste in the mouth, every visual and audio detail between the lines. It’s wordy, wordy, wordy. There’s basically one thing that happens in each chapter and all the rest is window dressing and filler prose. Is overwriting a plague among bestsellers?

Second, I hate the story. It’s not Little Red Riding Hood. It’s not even close to that as an allegory. There’s not even a grandma to eat. The symbology is vague at best. If it’s close to any fairy tale, it’s Beauty and the Beast. And there is already a metric ton of those. I don’t need to read them again. Look at the facts: the little defenseless girl is forced to live in a castle with a gruff grumpy man (called The Wolf) who acts taciturn and rude to her until they spend some time together. They fall in love by proximity, yadda yadda yadda. You already know how it ends.

It’s got a distinct mood, but why do I need another “tale as old as time”? Why do I need to know every time a character wipes their eyebrow or looks at the floor?

The Books I Read: September – October 2021

bookshelf books

The Deep by Nick Cutter

It starts really strong. It’s straight and direct. And it reminds me of a horror version of Merm-8. But once the catalyst was reached, the story went from five stars down to three.

There wasn’t enough of the plot moving forward. This is a common thing I see in horror novels–the story stops for the scares. That might work in movies, which reward you with a gory death in return for the anticipation. But in a novel you can’t do that because you stay with one character, and that character has to live through the entire book.

The scares are good, thanks to the surreal imagery. I’m talking scary-ass grossness on par with the best Stephen King. But the plot stops for those incidents. Either the character is creeping toward the thing or paralyzed with fear or talking about some scary anecdote that happened as a child. Those aren’t so bad–revealing character through anecdotes is a good strategy. But these scenes could be inserted or removed or switched around without changing the story.

It reminded me of Touch the Night–overstaying its welcome with a bunch of scary scenes loosely threaded together. For example, there’s a part where they need to move a generator from one end of the undersea station to the other. That takes a fifth of the book because a bunch of scary stuff keeps interrupting them, but it’s all flashbacks or illusions and I know nothing bad will happen because it’s not the end of the book.

You see, the best horror is partially a “whydunit”. Why are these camp counselors being killed? Because some old lady wants revenge for her dead son. Why is Jigsaw trapping people? Because he’s dying of cancer and sees so many people not appreciating life. Why is the Alien xenomorph killing people? Because it’s a predatory animal (but also because the corporate bosses want it to).

The horror stories that don’t have an explanation fall by the wayside. Halloween didn’t try to give Michael Myers a “why” until movie four and everyone hated it. Half the people who saw The Blair Witch Project didn’t get it because there wasn’t enough explanation. And that’s what the sequels tried to expand on and no one liked them.

And that’s why I don’t read too much horror. Lots of scary imagery, plot never moves forward. It might be because the root of scariness is “the unknown” and it’s hard to have a plot if the premise constrains you to never reveal anything about what’s going on.

Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public by Pamela Ribon

When it started, I thought it was really funny and that it’s aimed right at people like me, who thought their thirteen to fifteens were the culmination of life. Who was a writer before they realized it. When we felt things way too intensely. When we were more in love with the idea of being in love than actually being with anyone. Who thought everything they created was a precious diamond but also crap.

But I also hoped it wouldn’t get too repetitive, since it would be very easy to. Given that these are letters from an early teen girl, they weren’t exactly intended for a discerning audience. Will you wince? Will you cringe? Most definitely. Is that what the writer intended. Also yes.

I picked it up because it’s by Pamela Ribon, she helped write Wreck-It Ralph 2, Moana, several award-winning comics (including Rick & Morty) & graphic novels, and columns, and anime. She’s been all over the place and she’s damn good. And it’s a delight to peek into what she did when she was a kid and we can know she’s not alone. You get a flavor of Texas, a flavor of the west coast. This is a woman who thought losing her virginity was the ultimate sign of adulthood and made elaborate plans to do so, then wondered why it failed.

There are times when it gets dark. Like trigger warning dark. It seems like little Pam’s compass is spinning wildly and you want to reach through the book and tell her it will be all right. Yes, it can get repetitive slogging through each letter chock full of teen bad poetry cliches that might make an Evanescence songfic avert their eyes. But I’m glad she and I survived those teenage years so that she could write a book and I could read it. And I plan on it not being the last of her work I partake.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

I read this because my wife is reading it for book club. So far I’ve read The Dutch House and tried The Lake House and The Women in the Castle. (Why do so many book club books have to do with houses? Houses aren’t characters, they’re settings. Unless it’s Smart House.)

I probably only kept reading because there’s an angle in this: tarot reading. Of course, I don’t believe in fortune-telling, but I also don’t know anything about tarot cards. I like learning new things, so that kept me intrigued up to the catalyst.

But if you saw Knives Out, you already know what’s going to happen. The valid descendants don’t get any inheritance, the nobody gets it all. They call it a crime novel, but it’s not, because no crime has been committed. It’s just a gothic romance like Wuthering Heights.

Being family-less, the nobody makes a bond with the black sheep family member. The other relatives are crabby and snobby and spoiled. (Another thing that keeps coming up in these book club books–rich people.) It’s not paced well at all. I skipped all the thinking (so much thinking). This girl is very concerned what people she doesn’t know think of her.

The thing about characters is that you have to care about them, we know this. But this can come in two flavors. There are bad characters you hate. I don’t mean “love to hate” like Dolores Umbridge or Nurse Ratched. I’m talking about poorly made characters like Bella Swan or Holden Caulfield or that girl in 50 Shades of Gray who doesn’t know what a butt plug is. This character is not like that. I don’t want her to die… but I don’t want to save her either.

She elicits no sympathy because she’s so whiny and naive. Every line is like “why is <THAT GUY> looking at me? Is he looking at me? Why me? I’m just plain old Jane.” She’s supposed to be a dockside fortune teller, but she doesn’t have an ounce of charisma. I didn’t believe she could entice customers or convince them that her “powers” are real. She must be the world’s worst shyster. No wonder she had to borrow money from a loan shark who never comes back in the end. That’s the biggest flaw in the book, and maybe the killer flaw in any book.

The Last Mile (Amos Decker #2) by David Baldacci

I liked it even better than the first, maybe because it’s a sequel. More mystery-solving, less setup. Good ending, good pacing. It’s another five-star effort. The only problem is I keep imagining Amos Decker as the dad from The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

Parallel by Lauren Miller
(unfinished)

There’s an interesting concept here, but it’s ruined by the main character. (Reminds me of Cycler.) The problem is she keeps failing up, so I can’t relate to her.

She starts as a movie actress literally scooped up by a casting agent who saw her in a school play like so many Hollywood fairy tales. She goes from partying with cute boys at Stefon’s hottest club, then shifts into a parallel life where… she’s a student at Yale. Not exactly a downgrade.

(The parallel universe is really more of a time travel scenario–her past self is making different life choices and that ripples up to her present.)

Then there’s another shift and… she’s on the Yale rowing team instead of cross country running. Again, not exactly big stakes. I guess the wacky shenanigans are supposed to come from her awkwardly fumbling through a task she doesn’t know how to do.

This is supposed to be a YA novel, but there are also some Crichton-esque discussions about quantum mechanics, multiverse theory, and parallel timestreams. Then she drinks all night and flirts with guys. I don’t blame her for that–she’s doing what any college student would do. On one hand, this book is good at imagining humans complexly–Ivy Leaguers like to have a good time, they’re not always in the books. On the other hand, this character acts like an airhead and doesn’t deserve the good things she’s getting. How she’s getting money to pay for all this partying and college at Yale never gets discussed.

I figured if the whole book was going to be like this, I might as well quit. There are no real consequences and the hijinx are hardly zany. It’s not like she’s going from Yale student to homeless bag lady.

The cover’s a remarkably accurate depiction of the book. It shows a young woman split down the middle, but there’s no difference between the two sides. Either way, she’s still hot as hell.

The Books I Read: July – August 2021

bookshelf books

Memory Man by David Baldacci

The first thing I thought of when I read the first chapter was Max Payne. It’s a very old game shaped like a crime noir graphic novel. In it, the detective (who doesn’t have the personality of a family man) comes home to find his wife and child killed by a druggie home invasion (which later turns out to be a conspiracy, but that’s not relevant here).

The same thing happens here–this is a detective novel where the main character discovers the bodies of his wife and child brutally killed in their home. The exception he doesn’t know who did it. Also, instead of John Woo powers, he remembers everything he hears/sees/senses. (The two aren’t connected–he got this ability from a football injury.) But one makes more sense for a written medium. None of this is good or bad, it’s just something I thought of.

The difference is that Max Payne is a send-up. A pastiche. Nearly self-referential. This one is all played straight. And it should be. And it works. And I loved it.

This is the kind of grit I was going for in Black Hole Son and Quake. A grimy emotionless man with an edge harder than steel. One who takes no shit, can’t stand people, but has an ability that makes him indispensable for saving the world. You can be a complete asshole and still help others. Use that hate for good.

I rated it five, but I’d really rate it 4.5 if GoodReads allowed centrist fence-sitters. The answer to the “whydunit” is sort of confusing. I guess it would have to be for someone who can access his life’s record like a DVR. The ending felt thinly tied to the character. You may say you read books for the journey, not the destination. But “whydunit”s are special in that the ending is particularly important.

The Weird Accordion to Al by Nathan Rabin
(unfinished)

Basically, this volume reviews every song ever written and released by “Weird Al” Yankovic. I mean every song. Ever. B-sides and rarities and I think any and every thing released to the public. The problem is–how much can you say about an artist’s work before it starts lacking originality? Even for someone as diverse as Weird Al? It was so boring I actually bought a physical copy and still didn’t finish it.

They’re just reviews. Like the kind you might see on AllMusic.com. So many glowing words just get repetitive. And it’s worse because it’s comedy. Mark Twain said “Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog. You learn a lot in the process, but in the end, the frog is dead.”

I was hoping for content about the creation of each song, where it originated, what it means, how it was constructed. I expected details on the Lady Gaga and Coolio kerfuffles. What was the impetus for “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung?”–a song about such an antiquated subject? Why does Weird Al write so many songs about creepy casanovas?

Maybe there’s a difference between what I expected the book to be and what the author wrote, which feels like a very long long long fan letter to each “Weird Al” song. And I have no need for that. I already like Weird Al Yankovic, I don’t need to be told why over and over.

For We Are Many (Bobiverse #2) by Dennis E. Taylor

It starts right where the last one left off, so don’t take a long time between reading this one and the last. There is an “appendix” at the back, but it’s not terribly helpful because it doesn’t give much context for the names and places. Fortunately, they’re all pretty much the same character, since they’re, you know, brain clones, since that’s the conceit of the book.

If this were a video game, I’d say it plays the same as the first. Some of the Bobs are working on evacuating Earth. Some are finding new planets. The central one is helping this race of alien hominids survive to become like humans. There isn’t much emotional or relationship drama because of course you’re going to get along with yourself.

All the good and bad of the first book continues in this second one, but there are new developments too. It’s good for us programmers and problem solvers but lacks the increased characterization that would come with a sequel. We get to know the people on the planets more than the Bobs.

It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
(unfinished)

This was not the book that marketing thinks it is. Judging by the cover and back copy, I thought this was going to be a happy bubbly chick lit like Twenties Girl or Catching Jordan. A wealthy socialite inherits a professional football team! The shenanigans!

No.

First, we start with some grim family drama. The old man dies and his Anna Nicole Smith wife comes in, just as drunk, and her dog pees on the coffin. Less Anna Kendrick and more Christopher Titus. Then in Chapter Two, there’s some a flashback to some rape. Then in Chapter Three, there’s some statutory rape… almost.

Turns out the author fooled you. When you thought you were reading about a teacher taking his sixteen-year-old student back to his place and having sex with her, that was just our hero engaging in some good old roleplay with his ex-wife who he can’t stop sleeping with. Classic chick lit.

Like, what is the point of deceiving us? You present him as reprehensible only to pull away the curtain to show he’s slightly less reprehensible. At least he’s not doing anything illegal like you thought? It’s like showing us a guy thinking he punched his kid, then it turned out it was just a small man. He still punched the guy.

Later this becomes a plot point (in the part I didn’t get to) where he engages in some rape play with her. Except it’s not her, like he thinks. It’s actually with the female love interest. And she’s too scared to say anything because she was previously raped by the football players her dead husband had coached. I don’t know how something like this could happen–it’s just dark. It’s not like her voice changed or they’re wearing eye masks. And there’s nothing about safe practices like safe words or even being slightly worried that this has ceased to be consensual. Very Fifty Shades of Grey.

This is not the book I thought it would be. And I blame the publishers more than the author. The cover shows a girl with balloons against a yellow background or a football whistle hanging between some sultry boobs. Not all this sexual assault. If you’re thinking it’s going to be “oh, how is this Paris Hilton archetype going to deal with all these manly men? Dur-hur-hur…” you have made the wrong selection.

Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer

It’s a fun YA adventure book about a space race. The characters are interesting, but the plot follows a path deeply tread by The Hunger Games. I wouldn’t call it “Katniss in Space”, but it has the same themes of adventure, reluctant heroes, clear lines between friends and enemies, and mass media attention.

It ends on a cliffhanger, and I can’t tell if I care enough to continue. The book just doesn’t seem like it takes itself that importantly, like these are the most important stories in these people’s lives.

The Lake House by Kate Morton
(unfinished)

There are two reasons I stopped reading this before the sample was done.

One: There’s a prologue with no named characters doing something that is irrelevant to what follows. You will literally forget what happened within the next few pages because it has no connection. It’s put in because the first chapter is a little girl trotting around her garden, talking to people. So the prologue has to act as the exciting, “pulling you in” thing. But like most prologues, it can be removed and nothing is affected.

Personally, I think the content of the first chapter is fine in itself. It’s a little girl having random thoughts, which is fine because she’s sixteen we need the exposition. So she talks about wanting to marry the gardener, and then trips on a log, and that she likes this old man but not this old woman. She’s a lot like Lizzie Bennet’s little sisters. It’s flighty and good characterization. But it demonstrates the second reason I stopped reading: so much telling, not enough showing.

The first two chapters are lots of inner monologuing by the main characters of two different timelines. They’re telling you what they already know for our benefit. There’s no dialogue, no interactions, no conflict. Just the POV character alone and infodumping.

And there is way too much of it. Too much detail, not enough story. I know some people like those long descriptive passages that really make you feel you’re in the book. I don’t. I’ve seen what a fancy English countryside looks like. I’ve watched Pride & Prejudice. I have an imagination. I don’t want to put two and two together about why you’re suspended from the force. Just read your performance review letter. Or a news article. Or even better, have a neighbor confront her.

My wife is reading this for book club right now and she has the same complaints I do. The story is just not moving forward. I don’t know who would like this book, but it’s not me.

The House of Wael by Chris Avellone
(unfinished)

I found this in my copy of Pillars of Eternity, which is a video game by same creators of Baldur’s Gate, but unique for being Kickstarted so well. Thus there were lots of free bonuses included. Finally got around to digging into the directory and discovering it (and that was because I was trying to clear space on my drive and found the documentary video).

Free is about what it’s worth. I thought it had potential in the beginning, but the first chapter goes on and on. There’s a whole paragraph about a guy taking a breath.

I guess it’s framed to be like someone discovered some scrolls of Wael, which is a god in Pillars of Eternity. But it reads like someone told this guy to write a novella in a week. I was hoping it would engross me in the game, give some background on events. But this is for the people who like Homestuck, who are either completionists or like Time Sink Fallacy followers.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

This is a good book. It’s a classic high concept romance with a twist — the guy is a quadriplegic and the woman is his personal assistant (non-medical). On the surface, it feels like another entry in all the “Sick Kids in Love” stories I’ve read lately, except these are adults. So if you like that genre but don’t like the juvenility of YA, this is for you.

The writing is good and there’s not much “thinking” (as in the character navel-gazing and whining about the situation they’re in and wondering what to do about it, common in romances and which stagnates the plot).

The best part is Act II, especially the “fun & games” section and that’s because the author really shines in characterization. I feel like she was good at not only forming these characters even if quadriplegia wasn’t part of it, but then also nailed the ailment as well. So I got a sense of learning something as well as being entertained, which makes for a Satisfying Reader Experience (TM).

The book delivers the promise of the premise without bogging it down with common trappings of romance books (like wool-gathering over “do I love him?” “how do I know I’m in love?” “can I be in love?” “should I be?” and so on).

The Swap by Megan Shull

Nuance, thy name is not this book.

This is the same damn “Freaky Friday” story we’ve all heard before. I was hoping that this time there would be something different because it’s a genderswap, something I didn’t get from Cycler. There are so many issues you can explore by putting a boy in a girl’s body and vice versa. Life-affirming issues like that not all guys are horndogs/killers/rough stuff and not all women are crybaby drama queens. But no, this is like a bad middle school play.

The problem is the girl and boy therein are too similar. They both do sports. They both live in single-parent households. They both have friends that may/may not be good for them. The girl’s big problem is that her best friend has joined a Mean Girl Clique (TM) and EVERYTHING out of her mouth is something snide and/or passive-aggressive. Example: (while walking by) “Some people just shouldn’t wear clothes that don’t fit their figure, right?” The mean girl’s name? Sassy.

And the boy is part of a hockey-playing family of four brothers (who everyone gets into Boston College). Their names are Stryker, Gunner, and Jett. And they are constantly using slang. Like not a single sentence comes out that’s not some kind of hockey jargon. I don’t think they have an English class in their middle school. Everything is “Bro got the flow chopped” and “We’re just rippin’ you, Jacko” and “I could sit here all night, quick scoping fools!” Their dad is a maniacal army captain. And he acts more like a serial killer than a strict dad.

This is like an Disney Channel sitcom*–overacted, full of one-note archetypes, plotted poorly, bad hackneyed comedy, characters acting outrageously, no real stakes or pinch points, and the ending is just weird. I think if you’re going to make a “Freaky Friday” book, you’ve got to have more dynamic than just a single characteristic (i.e. age or gender). Like if the boy was a nerd and the girl was popular, there’s more to be explored. But this, I didn’t learn a damn thing from it. Like, what was it written for? To fill pages? To kill trees?

*In fact, it became a Disney Channel Original Movie, so take that for what’s it worth.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
(unfinished)

Basically, I don’t want to read a nine-hundred-page novel. I did it with The Elven. I sort of did it with The Grapes of Wrath. And I’ve found that they’re just not worth the time needed. There are so many other stories out there. There are better stories out there. I don’t want to waste my temporal investment on a story I know isn’t going invest in me. There’s something about readers where they think if you read a long work, you get some kind of medal. Proust, James Joyce, Tolstoy. Big Sunk Cost Fallacy working there.

I think this one fell into that, where it got some kind of Exit Through the Gift Shop hype train because A) foreign writer B) long work C) takes its name from another literary classic. This book has jack-all to do with 1984 by George Orwell. There’s no themes of surveillance or big government or anything like that. It’s called that because the main character thinks she’s in a slightly alternate world and the year is 1984. And the Japanese word for “Q” sounds like “9”. So it’s really a translation foible. It’d be like calling a book “Manimal Farm”, but it’s about the Animorphs.

So like I said, I don’t know the reason for all the hype, why I kept seeing this on my radar. The content is like a puzzle that’s nothing but a white picture. Besides that, it’s just boring. This is the kind of book that just reinforces my point about post-modern literary movement being garbage foisted on us by rich white publishers.

The Books I Read: March – April 2021

bookshelf books

Somebody’s Gotta Do It: Because Civilization Won’t Save Itself and Other Truths about Democracy I Learned by Winning a Lowly Local Office by Adrienne Martini

I was honestly scared to read this because it talks so much about the dark times of 2016. That confident optimism (“oh, we’ll get our first woman president. No one will vote for this reality show clown who’s gone bankrupt three times.”) then shock is what provokes this book. Which is exactly why I wanted to read it. I get so frustrated reading tweet after tweet about the bad guys getting away with it, sowing discord and doubt, all to keep power and money, their secrets and sins.

We all have an opinion, but very few of us take action to accomplish it. Maybe because the only actions you can do at a citizen level are “donate money” and “spread awareness” and “contact your representatives”. Spreading awareness is worthless because it’s too easy–pressing a button to Tweet or Instagram or Tik-Tok involves no effort. And there’s only so much money I can donate. If I gave to all the charities and foundations and causes that ask for it, that say “giving money is the best thing you can do for us”, I’d have nothing left (coupled with the fact that if you give once, they bug you even more). And do you think Mitch McConnell reads a single letter he gets? He doesn’t give a shit about his people, only his party.

So the only way to make change is to get the power to make change. That means being in an elected position. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about running for an office. But everyone does. Everyone thinks everything would be perfect if only they were in charge. I’ve discussed some politics and political science on this blog before, like the Bill and Bob billboards and other posts. So I read this to learn what running for local office in a basic suburb is like. Would it give me the kick in the pants I need? Would I be turned off from all the horrible ethics violations that happen even at low-level politics?

This book confirmed that I don’t have the personality for it. For one thing, you have to schmooze. Do a lot of door-to-door knocking and cold-calling. I’m cold, independent, used charisma as my dump stat, bad at talking off the cuff/improv, and I look funny. My brains are suitable for office, but I don’t have the personality to lead. I’d be better as an official’s assistant or speechwriter. I know that sounds egotistical, but that’s how I feel.

Anyway, none of this tells you about the book itself, except to say that it accomplishes what it sets out to do–tells you what it’s like to run for a community office in a small town. It’s not that hard, but also not that easy. This is about the way systems work, both the election process and the council chambers. The book is split into those two parts, with the second half going to great lengths to explain the limits on their power due to A) the way the system is set up (like that coroners are elected–you can’t fire an incompetent elected coroner) and B) the abilities and budget are determined by those in higher office than them.

But the author of this book is a good person who lays it out on the line. I was hoping for more stories of life after caucus. More stories and anecdotes, instead of dry explanations of what A, B, and C means. But I wish she was on my town council. I think, as far as local politics, the fact that you care enough to attempt to unseat an incumbent is enough to get my vote. The best politics happens when old dried blood is removed and fresh blood moves in. (That wasn’t meant to sound so vampiric.)

The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

A horror novel from the 1980s that’s not Stephen King. I didn’t think such a thing existed.

The introduction isn’t enticing, and it’s a product of its time. We start with a prologue containing characters that don’t show up again until the 33% mark. Every character, every building gets a physical description, especially when they don’t need one. They’re all 1940’s German — everyone’s going to look the same.

It’s okay. In the middle, it starts delivering the promise of the premise. The author avoids a sludgy middle by introducing new characters and some plot twists, as opposed to keeping the mystery boxes locked and stringing the reader along. It would make a pretty good movie–I love seeing Nazis killed in horrific ways by a monster, especially when most times the Nazis are the monster (Overlord, Dead Snow, Puppet Master, Hellboy).

Rule of Cool – Know Your Roll by Matthew Siege
(unfinished)

After failing with Warlock: Reign of Blood, I was hoping this LitRPG would redeem the fledgling genre. I wanted it to succeed. Felicia Day was promoting it. It had a fun cover, fun goblins.

But boy is it overwritten. The content is fine. Entertaining. There’s just so much of it. I read for an hour and still wasn’t at any semblance of a goal or a problem to overcome. It takes place in a video game world, like Warlock: Reign of Blood, but either no one knows they’re in a video game or they accept it as normal. I can’t tell.

The irritating thing is the narrative or character thoughts that constantly interrupt the dialoge. There’s a tag or an action on every line, like an over-directed, over-produced Disney Channel Original Movie. Imagine if the camera held on every line so the actor could shift their eyebrows or purse their lips or make some snarky expression. Slows the pacing, doesn’t it? Overlengthens the content, doesn’t it? Ruins the flow, doesn’t it? There’s so much that I forgot what the point of the conversation was.

I ended up stopping at fifty percent. I tried, I really tried with this one. I wanted to like it, but every time I opened it up, I hated it and I hated myself. Life is too short for bad books.

The sad thing is this isn’t a bad book. The characters are great. The humor is great. But it suffers from two big flaws. One is that I have no idea what the stakes are. Something about a Smash and a Rift and a Raid and other Important Capitalized Things and it’s never made clear what the heroes are doing or why they’re doing it. The main character just falls into it, and her desire to be a hero with free will and powers is lukewarm at best. She makes quippy remarks and goes along the ride. If I don’t understand the protagonist’s problem, I can’t empathize. And if the protagonist doesn’t care about their own problem, I certainly won’t.

The second is these dice rolls. Certain interactions with objects or people are determined by Random Number Generators (that they can see?) that dictate whether something is accomplished or not, and how successfully it’s completed. This was in the other LitRPG book I read and I don’t understand the point of it. A) The author can engineer the roll to direct the story. Not like I can audit his work. B) The only narrative reason for a dice roll to determine fate is if you’re not in control of your body. And I’m pretty sure the characters in the book are, unless this is some genius metafictional post-literary intertextual approach that’s going over my head, but I doubt it.

In Dungeons and Dragons, the function of dice rolls is to add randomness to the narrative. This makes it exciting because it’s in the moment. No one knows if you’ll succeed or fail that desperate hit on a troll or convince the bad guy you’re just another guard or make that jump over the pit. That means quick change, improvisation, changing plans. That’s fun and exciting. But a book is prepared and preplanned. It’s linear and set in stone. So what’s the point? Success or failure is based on the character’s actions, not random chance. The author didn’t start writing, roll some dice, then go “uh oh, got a critical fail. Better think of something else.” Can you imagine if Captain Ahab threw a spear at Moby Dick and got a nat 20? Well, the book would be a lot shorter, so maybe it’s not all bad.

In the Woods by Tana French

It has a good introduction, creative imagery. The text is clever, smart. It’s all-around a five star book.

It’s going to sound weird, but what made me fall in love with the book was the sentences. They’re fantastic. Each one is well-constructed, but they always communicate new ideas. Things I hadn’t thought of before. There’re no attempts at trying to be The Dutch House or Where the Crawdads Sing.

My usual problem with “whydunits” is that the detectives don’t change. It would be wrong to say they are not character-based, but their fatal flaw is also why they’re such a good detective. Good whydunits have a dark turn, where the hero has to break their integrity/personal code/innocence to solve the case. The desire for justice is so strong, the detective has to decide how much they pay of themselves. And sometimes the detective can overpay and ruin the whole thing.

Anyway, my point is mysteries don’t have typical story protagonists. They are the same person from the beginning of the story to the end. This is why there are so many mystery series–the story changes but the main character doesn’t. He/she doesn’t get fixed, doesn’t learn anything. He/she already has all the tools to solve the problem (which is really someone else’s problem).

They are single solid archetypes–Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Jessica Fletcher, Shawn Spencer, even the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Encyclopedia Brown is same person in book 1 as he is in book 237. Columbo is still a trenchcoated grumpy old man. Sherlock Holmes is still an asshole.

This is not that story. This is a story about a character. A character who wants something, who has a problem, and a need to learn a life lesson. In other words, not your typical mystery. Read it.

Mr. Sulu Grabbed My Ass, and Other Highlights from a Life in Comics, Novels, Television, Films and Video Games by Peter David

As wonderful and funny as anything written by Peter David, who is one of my famous authors. Unlike all my other favorite authors who are mainstream, Peter David is a name most don’t recognize in usual company. He’s written comic books, novels, and TV shows.

This is definitely a memoir, not a biography. It jumps around from memory to memory, telling stories, mostly of comics. I know David of novels and only a few comic trade paperbacks. He also tends not to name years, so it’s hard to tell the context of certain stories, when he’s writing The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, etc. and knowing the historical context of these events (cause it’s hard to gauge things pre Spider-verse or MCU). It’s best intended for fans of Marvel comics, conventions, and the science fiction fandom. There won’t be much about his writing style or creative process.

The Books I Read: January – February 2021

bookshelf books

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
(re-read)

I was watching the Netflix series Ragnarök and decided I needed to catch up on my Norse gods. It’s not Marvel’s Thor, so you can’t just wing it. You have to remember who Tyr and Fenrir are and that Frost Giants aren’t just cannon fodder to be whacked around.

It still holds up pretty well. I maintain the same opinion from my first review. One new problem I realized is that there is a lack of continuity between tales. One guy dies and is immediately resurrected in the next story. No explanation why (or ever). But that’s a symptom of a spotty written record. I don’t blame the author. It was his choice to maintain truthiness to the source. And sometimes cohesion is the cost.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

So much internal “thinking” and description of the minute details of everyone’s actions. Not enough multi-person dialogue. The main character lacks relationships with anything or anyone. You might say “well, that’s denotive of the main character, her being a robot and all. Observant of everything but never able to assimilate into it.” And I say, “Great. Why do you have to bore me with that?” People call her sarcastic, empathetic, sweet, socially awkward, but I didn’t get any of that. You know how I am with my robots–it seems they’re never written the way they should be. I might have left it unfinished if it wasn’t so short. But I won’t be reading any more in this series.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

It’s 90% the same as the original “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. Same beats, same outline. The only difference is that the examples are novels instead of films.

I always thought Save the Cat is a way to get “how do I make this idea into a commercial story”. And the keyword is commercial–something that will sell. Because, really, unless you can sell your story to a major publisher–someone who can get it in front of eyes–you’re just shouting into the wind.

Everyone’s looking for the magic formula to create that best-selling story, myself included. But the real magic is in the lines themselves, and there’s nothing that can help with that. Sometimes you’ve got to just build one Lego brick on top of the other.

My point is, either read this one or read Blake Snyder’s version. There’s not much difference. But I guess if you haven’t read either, and you’re aiming for novels instead of screenplays, read this one. You’ll get closer-to-home examples (and hope to god you’ve read them).

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #2)

It feels like an odd coincidence, reading this so close to A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, both of which are about large alien robots no one knows what to do about. The difference is that one is about the effect on pop culture. The other is global politics a la Godzilla/total-destruction-weapons “I’m gonna smash everything, whatcha gonna do about it?”

I wish I could say I thought of it myself, but it reminds me of what an American version of Neon Genesis Evangelion might look like. Less on the Christianity, more on the whizbang Hollywood moments (mix thoroughly) — but that’s a compliment. There’s less angst and more CSI-style character drama. But it’s still good.

The problem is, if you go into this expecting a typical mecha story, with action and team strife and missiles flying around and questions of fate vs. destiny, that’s not here. These themes are more nihilistic and “we’re all doomed because we can’t get the world to act together”.

But it’s a sequel, so if you didn’t read the first one, I don’t know why you’d read the second.

The Empire Strikes Back: From a Certain Point of View by various authors
(unfinished)

Like the first, this is an anthology of short stories. Each one is about a different side or background character in “The Empire Strikes Back” that influences or is affected by the events of the movie. For example, the imperial officer who discovers the rebel base or the tauntaun keeper on Hoth.

Short stories are a hard sell for me, and this book made me realize one additional problem to all the ones I’ve listed before: you have to learn a new guy’s backstory every ten minutes. As soon as you’re comfortable in his or her skin, you jump to a new one, and you will never see that first one again. All that information you absorbed is rendered useless.

Plus, these are all the unimportant characters. I know that’s the hook, but when your subject matter is, by definition, characters who don’t matter to the central conflict, it’s not compelling. These are all the rebels and stormtroopers whose only purpose is to get shot by lasers, upping the stakes for characters who do matter.

So that’s why I stopped reading–it was just boring. You’re either reading the internal narrative of Yoda as he sneaks up on Luke or the non-adventures of the rebel base administrator or snowspeeder pilot. The only way you’re going to get anything out of this is if you know the names Onsell and Dak.

What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong (John Dies at the End #3)

I love that macabre humor from David Wong. I’ll always say this guy deserves more accolades and notoriety for the books he writes. There are so many books that are trying to be Victorian prose and stylistic word poems and post-modern literary realism and there’s nothing for the reader that just wants a good time. Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it has value. Don’t be The Exorcist, be The Evil Dead. Books should be fun, not homework.

That said, it’s the “least good” of the JDATE books. Maybe because there are several Deus ex moments that ruin the stakes. And some plot elements that don’t fit in, don’t make sense. It’s borderline bizarro fiction, so things that don’t make sense are par for the course (like a Santa Claus made of sausages). But when they affect the consequences or challenges of characters in the narrative, when they scoop them out of trouble, that’s where I have a problem. It’s cheap to say “I set this up while I was on a drug bender where I don’t remember anything, and now it shows up to save us.”

It’s not as erratic or short attention span as the first book, but also not as cohesive and linear as the second one. It’s a mix of the two.

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #3)

To be honest, I only finished it just to complete the series, and that’s a terrible reason to read a book (but a great way to hook you into buying it–why do you think there are so many series?) I just stopped caring about the characters after the midpoint of book two. Everyone I had cared about was gone by that point.

For the first two books, we’ve been trying to figure out who these aliens are. Then they actually got to go to the alien planet to meet them… and no one cared. I mean both the Earthlings and the aliens. They’re accidentally summoned to the origin planet of the giant robots and no one knows what to do with them. They make decisions like Ents. All these big revelations about advanced science and our evolution and where the war comes from and cures for cancer and “To Serve Man” and what happens? They get put in a home in the suburbs.

They live there for twelve years and just kinda exist. Like Alf or The Munsters. All these questions linger–what do they do all day? How do they brush their teeth? What do they do all day? Do they get jobs? How do they get money? Where’s the alien Walmart? How is learning the language so easy? There are still languages on Earth we haven’t totally deciphered. But it’s more about father and daughter bickering.

I felt the same in Book 2, where they find enemy aliens in a robot and we never hear a thing about it. No one figures out their biology or culture. No anthropology or forensics on them. I would think we’d have an Independence Day or Watchmen situation, but nope, we just care about the robots. That jars me out of the story because it seems cognitively dissonantt (i.e. “I don’t think this would happen in this situation”).

Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese

Well, it’s definitely short. I read it in two days, but I only needed one.

It’s quite useful, but the problem is I had already heard most of it in a talk John Cleese gave that was recorded on YouTube. But now I can’t seem to find that talk, so at least the book preserves it for posterity.

It’s a cheerful little volume that helps you understand how to fuel creativity. It can be condensed into two phrases: “allocation of time” and “allocation of space”. You need to set aside a time and a place where you can sit and be creative. This book adds a few more details as to why this works and ways to make it work well. It’s like a long web article. But I’d say it’s worth your time. Couldn’t hurt.

Warlock: Reign of Blood by Edwin McRae
(unfinished)

I learned about LitRPG from Felicia Day’s promotion that she was narrating a book from such a genre. So I think to myself “what is this ‘LitRPG’?” I like to think I have my fingers on the pulse of today’s lit scene and that this passed me by is egregious (note that I said “I like to think”).

I thought it would be like Dungeons & Dragons but in book form. So that means you get the fun dynamics of table talk, party banter, rules changing on the fly, wacky stuff happening. Like Acquisitions, Inc. or The Adventure Zone. But as a novel.

It’s not.

At least not in this case. It’s more like they live in a world where the success of actions (like sword strikes and arrow shots) is determined by dice rolls, not skill or luck. And they know it. It doesn’t affect the narrative that much because that’s how anything in life is–coincidence and chance and how the characters react to that. It’s the author’s job to engineer that into a compelling story.

I made it 20% of the way through. The story never started–I didn’t know what the main character wanted and I didn’t care whether he got it. When making a new genre, you’ve got to keep some fundamental storytelling elements, like character and goal and stakes. Otherwise, you won’t be able to smooth out that new path without something for the reader to tread on. Like Guitar Hero–that game can be played with a controller, but that’s not very immersive. But playing with a real guitar would be too complex and not fun. So you get the hybrid toy model, and a video game phenomenon is born.

It reminded me of Wizard’s Bane or Off to Be the Wizard, where the characters are blah and have no idea what they want or what bad things happen if they don’t get it. Pretty much a male fantasy where they fight with swords and get the girl. Boring and amateur. The author seemed more concerned with the character build than who he’s with or where he’s going.

The Books I Read: November – December 2020

bookshelf books

Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery by Laurie Loewenstein

I read this because my wife was reading it for book club. Plus the idea intrigued me–a mystery story set in a piece of history rooted in Americana. I had never heard of it, the author, or the publishing company before. But I thought I could use a break from the robots and aliens.

The thing is, it’s just tedious. The characters are dull as dishwater. There’s no intensity to the mystery. There’re no stakes. It’s as dry as the dust bowl it’s telling about.

The thing about a mystery book is that bad mysteries contain large swaths of text that don’t matter to the plot. In a good mystery, the entire story is the mystery, not side characters or subplots. Knives Out, The Da Vinci Code, The Maltese Falcon, The Silence of the Lambs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even the false leads, the red herring, still matter to the plot.

So for example, this book has a suspect. They spend time investigating them, thinking he’s the killer, but then it turns out to be wrong. And the audience knows this all the time. So you feel like you wasted time reading that part. It’s not dramatic irony, it’s page filler. This feels more like a regular book that got labeled “mystery” for marketing purpose. Maybe that’s why I don’t read them — I don’t like plot threads that end at a wall.

In a mystery, all the parts are important. Finding evidence A leads to talking to suspect B who points a finger at witness C who we find out was with D who lied about artifact E which suspect B wants and so on. It should be “buts” and “therefores”, not “and thens”. I don’t mean it has to be a complex web, but “Garfield’s Babes and Bullets” was a more intriguing mystery than this.

This book is for old ladies who just want a comfort read. They don’t want anything surprising or challenging. There’s no diversity in the book–no black people, no immigrants, no one ethnic, no Native Americans, no gays, no Jews. Just loud, white males and one white female (the wife of the investigating sheriff).

Oh, there is one blind guy who runs the theater, so I guess you can check off “disability”. Thing is, he’s an asshole, so it’s not exactly glorious representation. Not to mention he doesn’t figure into the story whatsoever. He’s not even a B-plot, he’s a C-plot. I’m not sure what role he’s meant to play? The struggling entrepreneur during the time of economic hardship?

I would rate it three stars, but my judgment criteria means I wouldn’t bring anything two stars or below to a desert island with me. And I wouldn’t bring this with me — I don’t want to read it again.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

It’s a funny book. But at three-quarters of the way through, the humor started to wear thin. I recommend you don’t read it all at once. You don’t have to read it in sequence. Take breaks, read something else in-between. The jokes are intense and fast, but it’s overwhelming. As in, it’s not relaxing to read. Maybe it has a Police Squad effect.

Police Squad is a television show from 1982. I learned about it in high school in a unit in English about films. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s hilarious–and why shouldn’t it be? It’s from the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker trifecta. The same people who did The Naked Gun, Airplane!, Hot Shots, and other fantastic comedies. But Police Squad only lasted six episodes. Why?

Because it was too much for viewing audiences who wanted to relax and watch TV. If you watch The Naked Gun and Airplane!, you see there are a TON of jokes. Visual gags and puns and subtle humor and slapstick and parody and fourth-wall breaks. There’re even jokes embedded in the credits (if you have the patience). But it works because, in a movie, all your focus is on the movie. But with TV, you’re talking to people, you’re relaxing with a glass of wine, you’re going to the bathroom, you’re talking with your wife. Police Squad forces you to pay attention to get all the jokes, because there are so many.

In Furiously Happy, the biggest flaw is that the same joke gets told over and over. I get it — you’re a wacky mentally ill woman trying to have it all and still survive and you’re into weird stuff like raccoon taxidermy. Basically a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But real because she has rheumatoid arthritis, bouts of depression, and personality disorders.

I’m thinking maybe I’m not cut out for non-fiction memoirs by underprivileged women. It started off so strongly, but at a certain point, I just got overwhelmed by her.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

From now, if I need an example of a novel written exclusively for male audiences, this is what I’ll think of.

I suppose you could call it a science-fiction thriller. The problem is it brings up plot questions, but doesn’t answer them.

The story is about a guy with a wonderful satisfying life, just that he chose family over becoming a famous scientist. Then he’s kidnapped in an odd way, taken to a strange building, and knocked out. He wakes up in a hospital/laboratory where he’s being lauded by a bunch of people who seem to know him, but he doesn’t. So instead of sticking around to ask some questions, get reoriented, and learn what’s going on, he takes the idiot ball and breaks out of the lab into a world he doesn’t know with no allies or money.

So pages and pages go on of this guy wondering what happened, where he is, why things have changed. And I’m yelling at the book “it’s an alternate timeline, idiot! Haven’t you seen a single episode of Star Trek? Or The Twilight Zone? Donnie Darko? Sliding Doors? It’s a Wonderful Life?” This isn’t a foreign concept. It’s like people in zombie movies never using the “Z word”. Being genre blind, either as character or author, doesn’t disguise the concept as original.

And that’s the thing–I’ve seen all those movies mentioned above, and so has the discerning science-fiction audience. I already know every concept and plot point in this sort of story. I knew this guy was going to find his wife, freak out that it’s not her, she’d freak out on him, someone from the alt universe would help him for no reason, and so on. There is some cleverness halfway through in regard to where it takes the idea of all the other alt timeline. But it doesn’t make the main character any more likable.

Speaking of which, this book is pretty misogynist. Or at least not forward-thinking. The guy’s wife is a huge factor in what drives the story goal. Except she’s not really a player in the story. She has all positive personality traits and never makes a mistake, like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the ball being tossed back and forth, the prize to be won. This is why I say this was clearly written for men.

It’s like Taken combined with Community‘s “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode. The premise is capitalizing on the “defend my family so I can justify violence” power fantasy that is trending, like John Wick or anything involving Gerard Butler or Denzel Washington, although none of them have a science fiction twist like this does. Too bad that playing ignorant of its legacy couldn’t save it.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

I read the first one with an open heart, but without a critical eye. But through the years, after reading others’ takes on it, I’ve come around and no longer believe Ready Player One is the five-star delight I originally thought.

Most significant was the central theme, that being “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”. It’s the kind of thing entitled fanboys use to ruin things like Star Wars, Rick & Morty, sports, elections. It results in cults like YouTube content creators and QAnon. They think if they sink enough time into something, there’s a reward at the bottom of the well. Like a “nice guy” who believes being nice to a girl equals points on a “sex card” that he can trade in at some point. They think that because they invest time and money into someone else’s creative work, they possess a share of it. In other words, Sam Sykes’s stages of a toxic fandom: “I love this. I own this. I control this. I can’t control this. I hate this. I must destroy this.”

Plus, the lack of diversity, the weird sex, the total absence of female perspective, and me learning what good characters, good plotting, and good writing looks like, I came into this sequel with glasses un-smudged by nostalgia. Long story short, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake of naivety with this book.

Eight years have passed between book one and book two. Years which included a dismal sophomore follow-up and a popular Stephen Spielberg movie. Mr. Cline has had plenty of time to gain perspective on his work. Develop himself as a writer. Improve his craft, his tastes. Learn the mistakes he made in the past, correct them, and grow ambition for something that exceeded his original vision. That is the hope I had coming into this.

That hope was false.

This book is much the same as the first. In fact, it feels like both the protagonist and the author haven’t learned a thing from the previous book. The pop culture references are even more unnecessary and jammed in there (no one cares that you woke up to Soul II Soul). The story and characters are the same shit as the first one. No sign that Cline learned anything or developed his skill. This could be marketing (just give them the same slop that sold last time) or it could be laziness.

It starts with summary and summary and summary. No dialogue or characterization. All showing, no telling. The story doesn’t really start until a third of the way in, just like last time. Until then, all you’re getting is setup and backstory, and it’s sad. The main character is the CEO of the world’s biggest company–basically Facebook and Nintendo combined–and all he does is play video games all day. He loses the girlfriend he made in the last book because he goes all-in to sucking more people into the virtual world he now owns. He stops talking to the real-life friends he needed in the last book, and spends all his time in the OASIS instead of running the company. It’s like he learned nothing.

For the first 33% of the book, we just follow him in his routine. The author tries to give him “Save the Cat” credit by having him give away money on education (in his VR game) and providing rigs to poor people (for his VR game). He gives so much money away I wonder how his company makes a profit.

And this is part of the virtue-signaling in the book you’ve probably already heard of. I didn’t think virtue-signaling was a real thing until I read this. I thought it was a false flag made up by reactionaries and trolls to hate on people doing good. The triggering incident I’m talking about is when the main character meets a girl he likes (in the simulation). And just like in the last book, he violates her privacy, spies on her, digs up information (this time using his CEO privileges which violate the privacy policy and could get him in jail), and discovers she was assigned male at birth.

“Discovering this minor detail didn’t send me spiraling into a sexual-identity crisis…” Since his VR game allows him to have sex as anyone with anything, he’s realized that “passion was passion, and love was love.” Two things here. One, the fact that he’s only using gender in relation to sex (i.e. whether or not I’d do her) and not her character as a whole. And two, the author doing the same thing–using her gender status as the sole identifier of her character. This tidbit is the only thing I remember about this character. She does nothing in the story. She shows up two times, both as a “plot coupon” to help Wade out of a sticky situation. In other words, not exactly well-rounded. Virtue-signaling is when you tell people you’re “woke” without showing it through action.

So that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what’s left. The new “thing” in the story is technology created by the CEO who left the previous easter egg hunt. It’s called ONI and it’s a direct neural interface, meaning you can now touch, taste, and smell everything in the game. How the hell did this guy have time to design an expansive virtual world AND run a company from scratch (meaning marketing, management, customers, capital, facilities, etc.) AND build the hardware for the company AND architect the program the hardware would run on AND engineer the software to run on the hardware AND invent totally new equipment, in secret, that’s basically the singularity. By himself!

And like I said, the first 33% of the book is just this–setting up the book. The aftermath of winning the contest, finding the new ONI, releasing it to the public, shifting culture again so people spend even more time in a simulated world so the real world can go to pot. What reason is there to spend in reality anymore?

After all that summary the story finally starts and guess what. It’s ANOTHER Easter egg quest, designed by the founder (how did this guy have time to take a shit?). Go here, traverse the world, solve the clues, get the token. And it’s all eighties themed again. So yeah, guess what. You’re getting more of the same. Wade finds the path to one obstacle, finds the way around it (it’s not even detective work, it’s using trivia and video game powers), then moves onto the next. And everything is jammed with 80s pop culture. It makes the whole book a game of “I understood that reference.”

What is the reference Captain America understood? - Science Fiction &  Fantasy Stack Exchange

Unless you can win that game, you’re not going to have any fun. For example, they spend three chapters on the Prince planet. Prince the artist. Three chapters on Prince’s entire history.

Here’s Ready Player Two’s basic structure. Imagine a football field. Our main character is at one end and the goal is at the other. In-between there are seven blockades. All the character has to do is climb over them, one after the other, to get to the goal. Character is at point A, wants to be at point B, gets to point B without any meaningful problems or deviations that surprise the reader. The end. This is number one item in Strange Horizons’s list of stories seen too often.

A better story would involve no obstacles at first. Then, at the twenty-yard-line, an impassible wall springs up. Our character has to dig under it, or scale it, only to find murderous eagles along the way. The second barricade spans the width of the field, so he has to run through the stands, which breaks the rules and he has to avoid being seen by referees. But that presents a new problem as the audience tries to hold him back. If he gets through, the audience hates him stepping on them. And so on.

They say, in a good story, when a character is close to achieving their goal, the goalposts get pushed back. Would Mario Kart be any fun without the random items knocking you back and forth in the race? Ready Player Two is full of “and then”, “and then”, “and then”, when it should be “buts” and “therefores”.

So yeah, drop this one from your to-read lists. Cline has not demonstrated that he’s learned anything as a writer and this book feels like catering to edgelords and internet trolls that are like his characters. There was plenty of opportunity here to fix the mistakes and improve upon the first one. Change the POV character. Have multiple POV characters. Start a family to add some maturity. Go all-female version of the first book. What is it like to be the CEO of a video game company? What are the consequences of a worldwide phenomenon that’s sucking the life out of the planet? Nope, just more Willy Wonka fun & games from the 1980s.

If the theme of this book is “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”, Cline should learn the opposite. “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.”

Sleeping Giants (The Themis Files #1) by Sylvain Neuvel

This is an epistolary science fiction novel mostly about unearthing alien artifacts. Big ones. Like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers sized. But it’s a novel about scientific discovery and exploration and puzzle-solving. Our three main characters are the scientist leader, the tough-as-nails fighter pilot, and a linguist deciphering what was left behind. Also there’s the “mysterious g-man” who’s pulling the strings and conducting the interviews.

The author weaves an intriguing mystery and really grips you out of the gate. There are huge pieces of a statue buried all over the world, like a disassembled action figure. Who left them? How do they fit together? How do we get them out of countries that aren’t exactly friendly to us? There’s a real sense of “how are we going to get out of this one” and “what is the solution to this riddle?”

This is all helped along by good characters. They are well-rounded and competent. Meaning there’s no gruff five-star general who just wants to use it as a weapon against the commies, or the pencil-necked politician, or the bad boy Tom Cruise with a huge ego, or a love interest whose only job is to get Tom Cruise where he needs to go.

Disadvantage: since it’s in epistolary format, all the action’s is muted. When a character is describing a climactic chase scene or a huge disastrous explosion, it’s always after the fact. In hindsight. That kills the suspense.

The cover makes comparisons to The Martian. I wouldn’t say you get as warm a character as Mark Watney or as whizbang of an ending. But you get a good meal. Quick and engaging. And I’ll be coming back to this restaurant to try the chef’s next special.

The Humans by Matt Haig
(unfinished)

I didn’t bother finishing this because the story was dull and the humor was hackneyed. Imagine every bad alien joke you heard in the eighties and nineties. Like all the material from ALF or Mork & Mindy or Coneheads. Not even Third Rock from the Sun material.

“Fish Out of Water” only works when the fish are fresh and the water is clean. This is the same damn thing we’ve seen a million times before. Alien comes to Earth and gets in trouble because he doesn’t know the customs. “Humans wear clothes! They wear these many layers of fabrics on their genitals!” Blah, blah, blah. You’re just using nerd language to describe everyday stuff.

And pointing out the oddity of what we consider commonplace isn’t funny anymore. “Aren’t noses weird? I am afraid of pudding!” It’s bordering on cultural insensitivity, even if it’s making fun of ourselves. I got my fill of that “anthropology through a mirror” BS by reading “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” in high school.

In addition, I never understood what the main character’s goal in the story was. But it sure didn’t seem as important as making fun of humans for their weird hair and pencils.

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Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson

It starts quite well, but then it gets sluggy. There are some strange detours throughout, which means our main character wanders around for a time, and his actions aren’t really in service of reaching his goal. Instead it’s a “slice of life” kind of thing where we watch his antics as he does the rom-com stuff, gets advice from a mentor, falls for the trickster’s tricks, and so on.

The main plot is that a dentist-servant robot starts to get feelings. He’s not sure what to do about it, but he knows if he tells anyone, he’ll be erased. So what’s his solution? Go to Hollywood and write a screenplay that will make others stop thinking of bots as inhuman automatons. I guess he’s trying to pull an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?.

This is supposed to be a comedy book, but the humor grates because he keeps telling the same jokes over and over. I guess it’s supposed to be because it doesn’t fully understand sarcasm or irony. Which makes me wonder how he’s supposed to write a screenplay. Let alone THE screenplay. But I cannot take one more “Can you guess what XYZ is? You cannot! Humans!”

But it’s still heartfelt. It plays out pretty much how you’d expect it to so don’t expect any surprises. Plus the robots are barely robots–they pass for humans with no difficulty. So don’t come in looking for any cool robot stuff.

The Books I Read: July – August 2020

bookshelf books

Part of Your World: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

So there’s this “Twisted Tale” series from Disney books that’s essentially all about screwing the heroines out of their happy ending and making the story “what if” instead. I don’t know why Disney’s trying to do this. To reach a mature audience you have to make everything grimdark and miserable? The first series was villain-focused with works like “The Beast Within” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then a YA adventure of Disneyland crossed with “they only come out at night”. I hated all of them passionately.

I did not hate this.

In fact, I kind of like it. It’s like a Twilight Zone sequel to “The Little Mermaid” — what if Ariel lost? The writing feels more gothic and less modern, more ornate and unnecessarily lengthy (probably because someone’s trying to make a word count). But the story stays moving.

It lacks the sense of Disney whimsy that makes the first one magical. Sebastian’s now an old fuddy-duddy, not a wise-cracking crab. Scuttle is senile and has a grand-daughter. Ariel is world-weary and jaded by her experience. But maybe that’s plausible, given these characters didn’t get a “Happily Ever After”. It’s made for adults, but lacks the Disney joy. Like Disney’s characters continued by Hans Christian Andersen.

A big flaw is that the world-building cribs the Disney movie and the fairy tale. The author picks and chooses from both (like turning into sea foam or immortal souls, but ignoring the “walking on knives” or the prince treats her like a pet), and sometimes that canon comes into conflict. It retcons some plot points and isn’t explicit about where the cut-off for the timeline is.

Basically, the key moment is that Scuttle doesn’t fly by the window where Ursula/Vanessa is singing and see that she’s really the sea witch. However, Ariel still somehow gets to the boat to confront Ursula. But I guess she’s too late? Then there’s a big Ursula vs. Triton battle (not in the book) and she wins, polyp-ifies Triton, and becomes Eric’s wife. But she wipes everyone’s memories so they don’t remember mermaids, and everything’s back to status quo. And now Ursula is starting to invade human lands.

Except…

Ursula never wanted to rule the human world. She wanted to rule the sea. She doesn’t give a flying fish about humans. Why would she? There’s more power in the oceans than one tiny human kingdom. She wants that trident and that crown. Eric is just a big dumb meathead means to an end. Ariel is a pawn for greater rewards (i.e. a contract that ropes Triton into sacrificing his crown for his daughter) and revenge for… something (the movie doesn’t say).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She’s a Faustian villain, a vehicle for Ariel to make a deal with the devil to learn the hard lesson that she shouldn’t let her desires lead her into reckless decisions.

But this is Ariel’s story. It’s an adventure and a redemption arc and it paints Ariel with an empowering brush. Ariel has had years to learn the consequences of her actions, to deal with the loss of her father, her role as Princess of the Sea, leaving the one she loved behind. It means Ariel and Eric take time to establish a relationship as they figure out what to do about Ursula. It was a satisfying follow-up to the original movie and I want to read more from the Twisted Tale series.

In reality, if Ariel did lose to Ursula, the sequel should be about her getting a lawyer and learning contract law.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This did not have enticing beginning. It starts with a prologue and poetry and description and other shit. Not something happening or an intriguing event. It didn’t pull me in.

But I kept reading and I’m glad I did. This is a story about a woman raising herself in nature. (And almost by nature.) She’s one of those white trash families in the bayou: alcoholic father, living in a shack in a swamp, hillbilly, thick accent, tobacco-chawin’ types that has too many kids, like “Cletus” in The Simpsons. But this one’s played straight. Very straight. Basically her whole family abandons her by the age of ten and somehow she manages to survive.

At its core, it’s a coming-of-age book set in the deep south with the climax being a court trial. (Why do I keep finding these “To Kill a Mockingbird” remixes?) It takes place in two time periods. About 75% of the content is a survival story (a little reminiscent of “Island of the Blue Dolphins”) about how she managed to live alone in the swamp as a ten-year-old and not go crazy or starve to death. (Along with life and love and bullies and other things that come with growing up in 1952.) The other quarter is a murder-mystery trial taking place in the present (which for them is 1969).

Two big things stood out to me. One was the poetic descriptions. You really get a feel for how Kya embraces nature. She lives in it, soaks in it, it becomes her and she becomes it. She lives there so long she is symbiotic to nature. Very focused on the beauty and power of nature. If you like poetry, you’ll like this part.

But when it comes to any plot elements that involve anyone other than Kya and the marsh, it drops into cliches. There’s the teenage bully, the truant officer, the football quarterback. Classism, racism, and sexist asshole redneck archetypes. Anyone other than Kya sounds like a video I watched in health class.

It’s not my favorite book, but it’s a great book. It’s not for everyone, but this thing’s been on the NYT Bestseller list for years now. It’s got nearly a million ratings on GoodReads. So go read the reviews by people who can write them better than me.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

I thought it was a better read than the first book. It’s slow to start, but then really gets exciting.

The first act is a combination of “aftermath from the first book” and “setup for this second book”. And there are times the narrative starts to wax poetic about fame and power and metahumanism that it starts to sound like one of the vlogbrothers videos (though these are tough questions and deserve attention). But then the plot busts open and you get invested in what’s happening.

I guess part of that is that there was time set aside to build up the characters. Each one is distinct and likable in their own way. I think it’s improved by having multiple characters’ POV instead of just the one (who got a little millennial-obnoxious after a while).

Once again, we’re talking sequel so if you read the first book, you know if you want to read the second. But take comfort that the second improves on the first. I think Hank Green took what he learned, applied it, and the effects are palpable.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

So it’s hard to write a review of this book without being biased. I’ve been watching her since she was a pig-tailed nostalgia chucker and stayed following through Disney film criticism, Transformers film theory, obsession with musicals, and Hugo nominations. She doesn’t release material often, but she’s never disappointed. So as I read it, I tried to be objective in my evaluation–if you’d never heard of Lindsay Ellis, what would you think of this book?

Ellis has described Axiom’s End as “Stranger Things” meets “Arrival” (the good one with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, not “The Arrival“). Personally, I think it’s more like “E.T.” meets “Independence Day” with an infusion of “Beauty and the Beast”/”Phantom of the Opera”-style plot (you know, those stories where an emotionally unavailable anti-villain and a warm-hearted girl fall in love even though it’s wrong and would never work). The external story is about xenophobia and protecting a group of refugee aliens from bounty hunters with technology way beyond our own. The internal story is about the relationship between the main woman and her alien companion.

The beginning is good at “show, don’t tell” and that’s tough for a beginning, because you want to get backstory out there without being infodumpy, but you’ve got to do it expediently or the plot can’t start. Then it gets complex. Way more complex than I expected from someone whose most popular video is about Disney’s Aladdin. (but I guess this went through 26 drafts, so it makes sense. In software development, we call that “feature creep”.) Good, hard science about time dilation, political machinations, and Dyson spheres. One of the major motifs in the book is language (par for the course when dealing with aliens), and that gets tricky when you’re trying to remember who’s who in the alien world–what is a “similar”? Is Esperas a name or a term? How is Cefo related to everyone again?

And here’s what I didn’t expect: it’s a love story that’s not a romance. Like a “hurt/comfort” fic? For all those “comp titles” I mentioned before, the real root of the plot is basically 2007’s “Transformers” by way of Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov. An aimless young adult makes contact with an alien soldier from a space war galaxies away. And that war’s coming to Earth. It’s evocative of a fan fiction that got blessed by the blue fairy and turned into a real boy for being so good.

A lot of the reviews describe it as “fun”, but I don’t know if I’d call it that. The complexity turned me off, because that reeks of hard science fiction, which I’m not a fan of (too much research, not enough characters). But I would like to see the sequel, because I want to see where the girl and the alien’s relationship goes.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby
(unfinished)

It’s a collection of essays (I think they’re gleaned from her blog) about regular life stuff. You know: dating, work, money, The Bachelorette, eating ice cream in bed. The first thing I thought was “Damn, that’s witty. I wish I could write like this.”

The second thing was “I don’t think this is for me.”

The writer is a single woman. She wants to get married… except she shaves her head, is overweight, is thirty-six years old (but looks older — her admission), has to wear adult undergarments, only graduated high school, works as a receptionist at a vet clinic, can’t have children (I don’t mean infertile, I mean she can’t physically run around a yard after a toddler), and is lazy (see aforementioned eating-ice-cream-in-bed, plus her own admittance that “marriage is hard”). So… what exactly is it you bring to the table?

Yes, you have obstacles in your life that make for an interesting memoir… but I’m wondering if some of these problems aren’t brought on by your own decisions (or lack thereof). She was in poverty, but now her spending habits are ridiculous (to make up for lost time, she says). She hates cats, but takes home a kitten that no one wants and clearly hates her. And she ends up taking care of it. And it still hates her.

But I also wonder if I’m not in the right place for this, mentally, with everything going on (i.e. waves hand to everything).

The story of shitting herself from bad Burger King on the side of the road in front of friends from bad Burger King with the story of how her father died. Her alcoholic absent father with dementia. While also dealing with her mother, both of whom had to be put in a home by her when she was eighteen because she was born late. I can’t deal with that right now.

Or I’m not the target audience at all. This might be for the “loves-The-Kardashians-non-ironically” types. Those who embrace Lizzo. Trying to convince Facebook you’re living a luxurious life. But lacking ambition or drive to achieve something. To leave the world a little better than when you found it.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
(unfinished)

Historical fiction about a set of German women friends living through the war in Nazi Deutschland. It’s evocative of “The Sound of Music” because it starts with fancy rich people enjoying their privileged lives and then it all goes to shit when the invasions begin. Some of them try to do something about it, some are just trying to survive, but everyone suffers.

And that’s the problem: I’ve seen this story before, dozens of times. The horrors of war. Yes, I get it. Nazis are bad. Everyone’s son or husband dies. And this volume offers nothing new. Maus, War Horse, The Book Thief, Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, Inglorious Basterds, Slaughterhouse Five, Number the Stars. I get it, World War II was bad. You are bringing nothing new to the table. It’s a by-the-numbers “suffering in war” story.

And the time-jumping, I just don’t see the point of it. The book shifts around multiple perspectives, multiple places (all German places I’ve never heard of), multiple time points. And there’s no reason for it that I can see, neither style nor substance. Why confuse us? What does the story gain that it couldn’t from a straight start-to-finish narrative. You’ve already told me who survives so what “message” does your “medium” present?

It just wasn’t flipping my cookie, so I moved on.

Straight on Till Morning: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

It maintains some of the similarities of the other “Twisted Tale” I read. There’s a definite strong slant on morphing these “damsels in distress” into “strong female characters”. The fortunate thing is that they keep their personalities (relatively) while doing this. Wendy is still a proper Englishwoman who overthinks things and talks a lot.

It plays fast and loose with the canon, cherry-picking from the book and movie (like Wendy’s house is here, but the jerk-mermaids are also here). It takes a while to actually get to Neverland, and when you do, it’s not as imaginative as I thought it could be.

It gets real sludgy in the middle. Clearly the author is trying to make a word count, and when you’ve got a basic quest plot, there isn’t a whole lot that happens to change the character or affect them personally. Hook is also a letdown, as he’s portrayed as sad-crazy, not funny-crazy.

It’s not disappointing, but it’s not blow your socks off. Take it this way–even the best of the direct-to-video Disney sequels were only middlin’, with thin plots and uninventive story paths.

And it cops out on the Indians.

The Books I Read: May – June 2020

bookshelf books

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
(unfinished)

It’s like the last book, I guess. It’s YA, has a strong female lead, takes place in a romanticized non-American country (France in this case). But I stopped at 40% because I just didn’t care about the characters.

It’s half spin-off and half sequel. The new main is a “strong female character” who’s mean and angry just so she can appear tough. But in reality, she’s a screw-up who doesn’t know she’s a screw-up and then wonders why there are consequences for her actions. Her main goal is to find her grandma, who went missing two weeks ago. But the government’s not doing anything about it, so she stews and grouses until a street-fighter helps her for some reason. He’s the one who actually takes action. (He’s also the dangerous bad boy who uses his anger and rage to protect her. Never seen that before.)

It’s full of filler and introspection and “thinking” on events that had just happened. (Example: “She bit her tongue, thinking of being worried about the killer beside her. Could she trust him? He had killed a man in the ring, but he’d also volunteered to come with her, blah blah blah.”) I just read the Wikipedia summaries to find out how the story ended.

Shoving a fairy tale into a science fiction setting is a fun idea, but just for one book. Making a series out of it, with each book repping a different tale, and it’s a square peg in a round hole. It becomes as silly as wolfmen on the moon.

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Like the last one, it’s great but long. This time we’re involved in more than one heist. There are multiple characters in multiple locations, so a few adventures are going on. It’s just as dark and violent and splashes lovingly in the middle part of the morality pool where the water becomes gray.

And there’s a great push-and-pull as the bad guys put obstacles up, the good guys plan and banter a way around them, the goalposts get pushed back, and so on. It’s just good writing and good plot development all around. Finding a good fantasy story that’s not just a clone of “Game of Thrones” is hard–something that’s not houses going to war, princes & princesses in political marriages, or prophetic chosen ones. But it’s so loooooong.

Nonetheless, it ends the duology well. Somehow Leigh Bardugo knows how to psychologically manipulate through story and still bring out good character development and plot movement. You hate to read so much and be disappointed by the ending, but that’s not the case here. The ending is like a cherry on top for this saga.

The Last Emperox (The Interdependency #3) by John Scalzi

I feel like this might be Scalzi’s least Scalziest book yet. Something about the writing style of the Interdependency series leaves me cold. Colder than his other books, at least. In terms of tone, it feels like one of those big deal epics that Isaac Asimov or Larry Niven wrote. Not like Lock In or Old Man’s War.

First, a lot of the book is setup. Basically, the empress is dealing with the paradigm-shifting changes made to the status quo last time, and not everyone in government likes it. In fact, half of the battle is stopping those derogators than moving forward with fixing the mess. Every chapter is “oh, this might happen”, “oh, this might happen”, “oh, this might happen”, and it’s exhausting waiting for a shoe to drop. He’s basically saving it all for the end. Reminds me of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, which I didn’t like.

The scope of the narration feels so high it’s like you’re watching Sims go about their business. Getting emotionally close to characters is eschewed for snarky narrative and plot twists. It loses characterization to be a book about global machinations, like the saga of the Spanish Armada. A “big deal” political epic like Dune or Foundation, condensed and modernized. But it’s a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. I’m just eager to read something a little more personal and intimate.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian by W. Kamau Bell

I have double- and triple- and quadruple-checked this review to not sound racist, and it still sounds racist to me. Everything I write seems condescending like “ooh, let me read about the experience and perspective of these poor downtrodden folk so that I, as a lord, may better fathom these men’s plight. Ah, now I totally understand the Black experience, tum-tee-tum.”

On Twitter, during the Minneapolis riots, someone listed a set of books by Black voices discounted on Amazon, to encourage the purchase of artistic works by Black people. So I bought some of them. I understand other humans through books, and my bookshelf does not have many authors of color. Especially Black people, since they have a unique aspect that the Chinese or Irish or Indian or Hispanic or any other American emigrants don’t have–slavery.

W. Kamau Bell is the child of two people that couldn’t fail if they wanted to. Usually, I complain about people like that (see my review of Mary Robinette Kowal‘s book), but in this case, it’s fine because Bell fails quite a bit. He drops out of college. He can’t make friends. He doesn’t fit in at private school. He doesn’t have two married parents. He likes superheroes and rock music and Bruce Lee. He’s in a Venn diagram of not Black enough for Blacks and not safe enough for whites.

He’s spent his career in jumping around mediums–stand-up, one man shows, late night TV round-tables, man-on-the-street news features–but the common theme is he’s always exploring social issues.

But sometimes his essays get too progressive for their own good. Sometimes Bell points out incidents that he claimed were racist, where I didn’t see where it wouldn’t have gone different if he was a white man. Like having to deal with idiot television producers or nosy Karens who think they know better than you how to be a parent. Despite large amounts of text dedicated to his upbringing, I just didn’t see where he had experienced a lot of hardship or interesting things in his life. Not like Lindsey Stirling or Kayla Williams.

That being said, I enjoyed this collection of essays, especially compared to the pasty white drivel I had read previously (David Sedaris and John Hodgman) and I think he has intriguing ideas. This guy’s got the makings of a leader. I would like to see another set of writing, now that the autobiography stuff is out of the way. There’s still plenty that white people don’t know about being Black in America.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
(unfinished)

This book has effluvial praise. That always makes me suspicious–when everyone likes something that usually means I’m not going to like it. If it pleases everyone, that means it’s been adulterated to appeal to everyone.

It’s another class-conflict story, like The Dutch House. Rich man, poor man. Upstairs, downstairs. The guys who can afford everything versus the people who have to eat jelly packets.

The story starts with a suburbanite family’s house on fire, unsalvagable. Three of the four children (all teenagers) watch it burn, theorizing their littlest sister did it and no one seems very surprised or impassioned. I would be like “OMG she just destroyed our lives! Kill that bitch!”

That’s the “upstairs” family–Mom’s a journalist, Dad’s a lawyer, and the four teen kids all fit in a WB teen drama. The “downstairs” is a single mother and daughter who just moved into the duplex rented out by “upstairs” mom. The mother is basically a starving artist. She considers her artistic photography to be her “job” and the waitressing is just to make money. Hence why they’re “downstairs”.

Which brings me to the main reason I stopped reading — I liked no characters. There is a part where the single mother gets a successful gallery show and the curator offers to pay her for another batch of similar photographs. What does she say? No, I never do the same thing twice.

Fuck you, lady. You’ve got a KID. She needs to EAT. You’re fine with feeding your kid tortillas and canned beans so don’t have to “compromise your artistic integrity”. Are you gonna tell your daughter “Sorry honey, it’s Imaginary Christmas this year because ‘the MAN’ doesn’t understand my vision.” I can’t stand people like that — I thought the notion of the romantic Bohemian artiste died at the same time Moulin Rouge came out.

I can’t stand the notions some people have that if you create art that makes money you’re a sell-out. I have a quote on my website — “Being a better writer is something of a moot point, since if you’re not a commercial writer to some extent, very few people will know whether your writing is any good or not.” (John Scalzi).

I made it 18% in. There was just no plot happening. The excitement happens in the first chapter, but it’s a bait-and-switch–it’s a flash-forward, and then the rest is exposition. (What’s the opposite of burying the lede?) By chapter six there wasn’t even an inkling of what was to come. The alleged arsonist little sister hadn’t even shown up. BTW, she’s the most interesting character–the sister who plays violin and writes “I am not a puppet” on her forehead at dance recital because her parents pushed her into it. I want to read about that person. But no, she’s the bad guy because she doesn’t want to conform to you suburbanites.

Instead I got the friendship between the single mother’s daughter and the four upper class children. And the jealousy and longing and desire for each other’s lives and crushes and money woes as one would expect. But it’s just characterization and “getting to know you” passages. The only interest comes from the “differences” between the two families. Well, an elf and a dwarf have differences, but they still need to do something.

And after reading the summary and analysis, I’m glad I cut out early. Because I’m wondering what is the point of this novel? It seems to be “stop sticking your nose into other people’s business”. The story sounds like it’s a microwavable version of a “Desperate Housewives” melodrama. There’s abortions, given-up babies, affairs, women’s issues, shame in front of the neighbors, lawsuits, runaway mothers, and nosy white bitches. If I wanted to something about someone not fitting in and the dirty little secrets of white middle class suburbia, I’d watch Edward Scissorhands.

The plot hinges on a bunch of Karens making bad decisions because they think they’re right. Halfway through a woman tells someone that they should sue an adopting couple for the child she gave up. Because she thinks every woman should have the right to raise their own child. And she would know, since she’s been living on the run for the past decade because she was a surrogate and stole the child she was meant to surrender. At a certain point, don’t you look at your life and wonder how you got there? Oh, maybe it’s because I keep imposing my high and mighty beliefs on others and lashing out at anyone who doesn’t agree. This is the same reason we have people who don’t wear masks and cluck their tongues at BLM protests like “why are they so angry?”

I hate this book and I haven’t even read it.