The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

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: September – October 2020

bookshelf books

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

A true sequel to the first–it’s a race against time to keep humanity alive after a meteor has crashed on Earth, giving it a much closer expiration date. The only solution is to travel to space. All of this was all in the first book.

Now that the space program’s been established, it’s time to put a colony on Mars. And our hero protagonist is part of the team making the year-long journey to the future with 1960’s technology.

It’s not a complicated plot, but it’s still very good. Better than the first. Since the majority of the book takes place on the ship, there’s less of the global cultural zeitgeist the first had. Like there’s no hemming and hawing over stage fright or anti-anxiety medication. Which is good — we dealt with that in the first book, and the character overcame those obstacles. No need to run that race again.

What we are dealing with is the products of those cultures bringing that baggage with them into space and the strife it causes. It’s civil rights on the smaller scale. The “women in the kitchen”, “screw your regulations, they’re dying out there”, “either have children or have a career” type stuff. The last book’s antagonist is now our protagonist’s captain, which makes for good drama.

And it’s all dealt with smartly, knowing you can’t win all the battles (especially in the 1960s). I realized it’s a little like The Hunger Games mixed with The Right Stuff. The conflict between the public image you have to present to gain the public’s favor so they support you and keep you progressing versus the gritty realism of the science, the hard work, and the fact that not all of us survive.

The prose is a little less technical, but that’s good. If you can understand Apollo 13, you can understand this. And I’m definitely going to pick up the next book in the series.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This is a collection of essays by Roxanne Gay, a teacher, Black woman, and political activist. Essay topics focus on race, LGBTQ, and women’s rights. They range from personal stories to opinions to “struggle” pieces.

I’m just not in a place for it. And I don’t know if I’d ever be in a place for it. I don’t need to feel ashamed for how I’m not “woke enough” these days. I get enough of that on Twitter. I get that being Black is hard, being a woman is hard, getting a Ph.D. while being impoverished is hard, teaching is hard, everything’s hard. I just didn’t get why I should care or why I should listen. Not because I don’t like the same things she likes (I don’t) but that I didn’t have a bond with the author. Does a non-fiction book need a “save the cat” moment?

This is the book that made me realize everyone has a different motivation for why they read. John Green said “I read because I am trapped in my one brain in my one body in this one place and I want to escape that prison.” Now you could interpret that to mean “I read to experience diversity” or “I read to live other people’s lives” or “to see worlds other than this one”. But for me, it means I read to feel less alone. I read to know there are other people out there like me who feel things like I do, in strange ways like I do, who see what’s wrong and right with the world in the same way I do. My favorite books are “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl” and “Looking for Alaska” and “Eleanor and Park”. I like the books where I wish I was friends with the characters, so we could be less lonely together.

This is not that kind of book.

It’s obviously for the educated and meant to educate others. And I have no doubt I would be educated by reading it. But it’s missing the charm that makes me want to spend time with this person. W. Kamau Bell and Lindsey Stirling and Hannah Hart had that. The reasons I stopped reading are similar to why I stopped reading We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby. I have no need for critiques of “Gone Girl” and “Fifty Shades of Grey“. I’ve seen those to ad nauseum on YouTube. And when your beliefs are full of conflicts and you proudly proclaim that, that invalidates your thesis in my opinion. You can’t have it both ways–there has to be equivalent exchange.

Dead Star Park by Mark Hill

This is a horror-comedy a little in the vein of David Wong (John Dies at the End), but in Adventureland. Basically the same plot too–disaffected teenagers work an amusement park, socializing, relationships, coming of age. But at this park, something sinister’s going on after close. Something unworldly.

Casey (the main character) is an excellent character to read about. The wit is there, the characters are *chef’s kiss* well-rounded. But the horror is blah. It never goes anywhere. There’s no sense of a goal or of goalposts being pushed back. Her “big problem” is seeing confusing visions and cryptic words to create “mystery” and “intrigue”. While the narrative hangs a lampshade on this trope, it doesn’t change that the plot never feels like it’s moving forward. The story goal didn’t even get established until 40% through.

Despite that, it’s still funny, small, and sharp (like all the best horror fiction is, unless your name is Stephen King). And it deals with teen issues you don’t normally read about. Not like peer pressure and smoking, but headier things like nihilism. And not the fun “Big Lebowski” or “Rick & Morty” nihilism, but the “what’s the point of anything” and “what am I even doing here” kind.

You laugh, but to a smart teenager with a shaping mind and probably some mental illnesses, that’s the kind of thing that can really drive a nail through your hands. So the author gets that right. And especially in the dialogue to “thinking” ratio. This book is for anyone who likes horror-comedy or Zombieland or the deeper teen angst movies like The Chumscrubber.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky


The plot is fascinating and hard to summarize, but I’ll try. Basically, we tried to seed an Earth-like planet with a virus that would super-quick-evolve some apes so they would build a civilization for us to be waiting when our generational ship arrived. Two problems. One, the virus didn’t evolve the apes, it evolved the spiders. Two, the AI placed there to guard and watch the planet has gone rogue and isn’t letting our generational ship in.

There are twoish stories going on. One is the evolving spiders. Each scene break, the world develops a little more and you follow the descendant of “spider prime” through the centuries. There’s some incredible world-building as a collection of sentient spiders make a society. The second is the characters on the generational ship figuring out what to do, whether to force their way onto the planet they were promised or find somewhere else.

But I stopped reading because I realized I didn’t care about the characters. Interesting as the spiders are, it all reads like a documentary. The people on the spaceship are douchebags, hung up on their destroyed planet and generally being the worst human beings to each other. Not showing they’re worth saving.

It’s a little like “Leviathan Wakes” and “Wool” in terms of style, if you like that sort of thing. Me, I don’t. Long novels, multiple POVs, heavy on the hard science ideas, light on creating characters you want to spend time with. I had no one to root for. I guess some writers focus more on the concept than investment in a person.

Touch the Night by Max Booth III

A brutal thriller about two ghetto kids kidnapped by two “off” police officers. The elevator pitch alone strikes as Stephen King-like (From a Buick 8, Desperation) and that’s a compliment. But does the full novel follow through?

Yes, yes, it does. But only to a point. I was going to rate it four stars but the ending was unsatisfying. I don’t mind twist endings or hanging endings or even ambiguous endings. But there must be an ending. Endings mean resolution and there was no resolution about this. Being left with more questions than answers doesn’t equal a scary ending. Saw had a scary ending and it still answered everything. It Follows had a scary ending and it didn’t tie everything up, but it resolved the story. This is like “Well, I made my word count. Publish it.”

If not for that, it’s pretty good, and I looked forward to reading it each night. The characters are well-fleshed out and the relationships, both pre-existing and growing, are believable. It’s thematic of the boys’ friendship and motherhood-in-arms and being stymied by a system designed not to listen. That alone would be enough of an obstacle, but it’s combined with the vines of evil power controlling puppets from below.

The tagline calls it Stranger Things meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Maybe. I’d take out Stranger Things and substitute in Fresh (1992). Or the two kids from “The PJs” but without the funny. (Sorry, I don’t have a lot of selection.)

But given what I said about the ending, should you buy this book? I wish I could say. A bad ending can ruin a really good story (see Game of Thrones). I guess you’ll have to take a look for yourself and decide. Just preparing you for what you’ll get.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

What if you could put your brain in a computer… and it was AWESOME?

I feel like this is the closest I’ve ever been to someone who can capture the same blend of snarky comedy and well-researched science fiction that John Scalzi can.

The biggest challenge in a novel like this is that there is only one character. Which is because the plot demands it — it’s one person traveling alone for a long time. And when more characters are added, they’re the same character, because he can make copies of himself . So not a lot of diversity or dynamics in relationships. But at least it’s not due to authorial incompetence.

The best thing is that the main character is a regular guy. He’s a trope-savvy software engineer who doesn’t shirk away from the pop culture reference. He’s aware he’s in a 1950’s Isaac Asimov novel. In fact, he’s the only one of his “graduating class” that doesn’t go insane because he’s a brain-in-a-box because he likes it. He gets to live inside his mind, solve technical problems, explore space, and he can make his own friends. Sounds ideal to me.

It’s fast-paced, it’s witty, it’s got a layman’s POV of hard space travel science. I highly recommend.

Conceal, Don’t Feel (A Twisted Tale) by Jen Calonita

What if Anna and Elsa never knew each other?

Answer: The same thing that happens in Frozen.

Why do I keep reading these Frozen books that are the same damn thing as the movie? Is it because it’s a perfect story as it is?

This feels like an unnecessary script doctoring somebody found in the Disney archives. Like some executive had a deadline so he gave it to his sister’s kid who just graduated film school and said “here, give me something I can bring to the board meeting on Thursday.”

Like other “Twisted Tales“, the plot hinges on a cruel spin. This time, the spell to remove Anna’s memories goes awry. Now, if Anna and Elsa are too close together, Anna will turn into ice, like in the ending. So Anna is sent to a different village.

Not a great difference, is it? Anna’s the same person–bubbly and social. Elsa’s still introverted and proper. And they both lived somewhat separated in the original movie.

Elsa still creates Olaf. She still meets the deceptive Hans. She still reveals her powers in a fit of emotion. She still builds an ice castle (there’s even a chapter that’s essentially “Let It Go” in prose form. Now that’s exciting stuff.) She’s still captured and taken to the dungeon. Anna still meets Kristoff who takes her to find Elsa (who she thinks is in trouble based on no evidence). She still goes to Oaken’s. She still has a chase with the wolves. She still rushes to save Elsa from Hans at the end and turns into a frozen statue that’s healed by love.

If you change one thing, you’ve got to change the entire story. It’s a butterfly effect. Anna may not have a different personality, but her goals should change. The plot should change. She shouldn’t be concerned about government machinations. It’d be like if I was Kamala Harris’s long lost brother, but didn’t know it, and I had to find her before Mitch McConnell took over. I have no investment in that scenario–I’m distant in both the physical sense and familiar sense. I’ve got my baked goods to worry about.

And if you’re going to make a twisted tale, then the point of the twisting should be to show us a completely different story, not the same. Straight on Till Morning and Part of Your World did that and it worked beautifully. The conclusion of the movie never took place, so the story is totally different and the characters evolve differently. Ariel is consumed with regret and Wendy becomes an action girl. If Anna and Elsa don’t know each other, why not have them meet at the beginning of the story? Then we can watch their relationship form while they have an adventure that has nothing to do with Prince Hans or Olaf or the Duke of Weselton.

But redoing the movie is lazy lazy lazy. It doesn’t give the reader what they want, which is an “alternate universe” Frozen. This is, beat for beat, the same story. Everything’s just in a different order. It’s a waste of your time. Don’t read this book.

Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick by David Wong

It’s nice to read something that’s just a cleanly written, fun story that’s not trying to be a five hundred page epic or engineered toward a movie option.

I think this one’s better than the first (“Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits”) because I found it hard to wrap my head around the world-building and who they characters were (they all play the same role). Maybe now I know what this world is and what platform we’re standing on. The first one had a high-ish learning curve. This one doesn’t.

The basics? We’ve still got Zoey Ashe, a no-name millennial who inherited a city (essentially) after her mob boss father died and left everything to her. That includes all his businesses (legit and illegit), employees, mansion, and personal entourage of elite black ops bodyguards.

And the enemy? This time it’s something a little harder to fight–a throng of anti-woman incel supremacists. That makes the threat sound trivial, but not in a world where they sell cybernetic implants and homing beacons at Walmart. It’s a timely theme–how long and how much are you going to let these cyberbullies control your life. How much power do they really have? How do you fight an enemy that’s essentially a swarm of wasps?

Wong calls this bizarro fiction, but I don’t think so. It’s wacky, with some surreal science-fiction elements. But nothing bizarre. Bizarro is a convention full of William Shatners attacking a cult of Bruce Campbell worshipers. Bizarro is a Santa made entirely of sausages and elves having sex through extra-dimensional panties. Bizarro is your zombie girlfriend taking off her breasts so you can use them as suction cups to scale a wall.

Women may not find this as amusing since seeing Zoey harassed and trolled and threatened when that’s their every day life. But for men, it’s an important step toward understanding what it’s like to be on the receiving end of online misogyny day after day. I highlighted one passage in particular.

“I want, for the first time in my life, to enter an elevator with a man and not stand there with the knowledge that he can overpower me anytime he feels like it. I want to be able to go jogging alone, at night. And when I enter a room, I want the people there to take me seriously, because they know they have to.”

The Books I Read: May – June 2020

bookshelf books

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

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

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.

The Books I Read: November – December 2018

bookshelf books
the consuming fire john scalzi

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

So, like all second books in a series, I’m not sure why you’re reading this. If you haven’t read the first one, what’s this going to do. If you have read the first one, you already know if you want to read the second. Nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

There is plenty here to sing praises about. The new world-building is fun and classic at the same time. It evokes the more sophisticated “low concept” stories of Heinlein and Asimov, using thick allegory and hard science to tell a story. One that’s not necessarily a happily ever after. It’s hard to tell he wrote this in two weeks.

Some criticize the book for a lack of depth, but I don’t see that. I see more depth than other Scalzi novels. The characters are as interesting as before… but not more interesting. The revelations are as gasp-creating as before… but not more gasp-creating. Nothing like as big as a Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker thing.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe–I never get the sense that anyone’s in real danger. Pages and pages of bad guy schemes, plans, and set-ups, enough to put Game of Thrones to shame. But then, right before they execute, someone calls them out, revealing they were one step ahead the whole time. And while it’s satisfying to see the bullies get their ass handed to them, it doesn’t give a sense of risk. All the good guys have more power than the bad. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I’m still looking forward to the next. I don’t feel the second book made the storyline better, but it certainly didn’t make it worse.

stargirl spinelli

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

I just didn’t buy it. I mean, not like “physically” buy. I mean in the sense of not believing the plotline. YA romance is a hard enough sell as it is. How much romance can there be in ninth grade? Holding hands? Only 2% of marriages are between high school sweethearts. I just didn’t buy her falling in love with him or him with her.

She’s supposed to be this New Girl Weirdo like in Bridge to Terabithia. What does she do to earn this reputation? She wears bright clothes. That’s it.

I can’t tell if she wants to conform or not. She makes actions that for both. She becomes a cheerleader, but then cheers for both sides. If it’s a student’s birthday, she plays the ukelele and sings to them.

I get a feeling the principal would have cracked down on this behavior–it’s disrupting, not everyone likes a song, and it could be an invasion of privacy. You may not want everyone knowing it’s your birthday. But no, in this place, adults are useless.

I thought she was going to be revealed as an alien instead of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The title threw me off. The first half is all her shenanigans. It seems she’s getting used to humanity more than trying to fit in. And it looks like she’s trying to fit in, but with malicious compliance. Like when someone pre-emptively tells her not to sing on her birthday. She sings to the person next to her.

The style sucks too. There is a lot of telling. There’s never a story, just kind of a narrative summary. No scenes. That means everything is “told” through that summary narrative. And if nothing’s in the present moment, then how am I supposed to get invested? Bridge to Terabithia was better.

echo pam munoz ryan

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Schmaltzy. Everyone gets a happy ending. Even in Nazi Germany.

The book is split into three narratives, like three short stories. But they’re all connected to each other. The only other media I can remember doing this is “The Red Violin”, but I’m sure there are others. Maybe “Hyperion”.

Anyway, I got fooled because I based my decision to read on the prologue alone. The prologue makes it look cool, like a fairy-tale meets modern day kinda thing, like “Far Far Away“. It’s not. Immediately after that cool prologue, which you don’t see again, is the first story. And it’s like every middle grade historical fiction story you’ve read: The Book Thief, Number the Stars, or anything with pseudo-Nazi (Maus, Harry Potter, 1984, various Marvel comics, Star Trek, etc.)

And the next two follow the same vein of prejudice and racism and “down on your luck” situations that have no lasting consequences. Like a Disney Channel Original movie. And at the end, everyone learns a lesson.

This is an “issue” book. One they teach in school to teach multiple things at once (History, English, etc.). Thusly, it contains nothing offensive, edgy, or substantial (i.e. no character flaws — everyone’s good or evil) to sink your teeth into. It’s a family book. And I’ve grown beyond that in my literature.

this is the year i put my financial life in order john schwartz book

This is the Year I Put My Financial Life In Order by John Schwartz

Well, it can’t be all dragons and lasers now, can it? Sometimes, you need a vegetable to after all the desserts.

There were a few times I almost stopped reading. As much as one needs good money sense (a skill they do not teach in public school), the subject matter is nowhere near my wheelhouse. But then there’d be a funny anecdote that’d be enough to keep it going. Schwartz comes from a journalistic background, not a financial one. So he’s good at keeping you entertained first and informed second.

Now this book may not work for everyone. It vastly depends on what your financial savvy is. For example, I wished for some kind of glossary or hint sidebar (like in For Dummies books, because I’m still not sure what the definition of “mutual fund” is. But it’s not a clickbait list of one hundred tips to make money. And thank god for that. It’s more “this is what I experienced and this is what I did”.

samwell tarly read the book followed the instructions game of thrones

And it’s good. Schwartz does the hard work so I don’t have to. It has some good websites, some breakdowns of what questions to ask, and how to gauge if you’re doing it right or not. It’s a primer, and it has easy-to-understand steps on what to do with that glass jar of pennies under your bed.

one of us book craig dilouie

One of Us by Craig DiLouie

Is it a horror novel? Is it a thriller? Chiller? YA? Science fantasy? I’m not sure. But I know it’s -handed allegory.

A sexually-transmitted disease (called “the plague”) has caused severe abnormalities, defects, and aberrations in 10% of children (during 1960? 1990? I can’t tell). Government has stepped in to prevent carriers from creating more, but this book is not about that. This book is about a small set of them at an orphan home that would make Miss Hannigan cringe.

Miss Hannigan Annie

The book never uses the term “mutation”, but let’s call them what they really are: X-Men. The book goes out of its way to make sure everyone knows the plague children are persona non grata. They’re forced into unpaid labor at local farms. They have “school” but no one teaches them. The security abuses them regularly. And even though they’re treated like lepers, they have special skills that should make them exploited, not shunned.

For example, one kid can finish anyone’s sentence, so he’s pulled out to a government facility to figure out muffled radio communications. But leaves behind the one who has pyrokinesis (pyro), the human gorilla (Beast), and the one who remembers everything that has ever happened to him with perfect recall, even as far as being born (he’s the “brain”). The main character looks like a dog and has similar attributes (like Wolverine). I can’t believe that the American government would leave these kids in their crappy “Home for the Deranged” instead of military testing facilities.

And so they’re treated like stand-ins for blacks during the peak of Southern segregation. Thus the story is a full-length “don’t bully the dragon” tale. I know X-men’s an allegory too, but not as transparent as this. It even takes place in Georgia. And that fact doesn’t do the book favors.

Everyone is a redneck or murderous or lecherous or otherwise a Stephen King third-stringer. The stereotypes are predictable “man is the real monster” stuff and it uses rape as a plot-driving device. The author is Canadian and he writes like he’s only heard of the South but never been there.

It doesn’t break any barriers or do any fresh takes. And despite the message, it doesn’t practice what it preaches (i.e. for an allegory about black people, where are the black people?).

shamer's war lene kaaberbol

The Shamer’s War (The Shamer Chronicles #4) by Lene Kaaberbøl

This is the fourth (and final?) book in the Shamer Chronicles, so why wouldn’t you read it if you already read the first three?

The grand war isn’t so much grand. More like one battle… that gets condensed into a sword duel… a short sword duel. So don’t come in expecting Helm’s Deep to make up for the thumb-twiddling of previous books.

The plot is a little simpler, but I get frustrated because no one asks the questions they should. It’s one of those stories where a character gets dragged along by people who know what’s happening and what everything is. But that character never asks any questions. “What’s happening?” or “What is your plan?” or “What did she mean back there by blah-blah-blah?” This creates intrigue in a plot, but it’s artificial. It means someone’s carrying the idiot ball. And that means the plot is proceeding on rails. Not because of a character’s actions or desires.

So now that the series is done, do I recommend it? Well, if the coolness of shamers and shaming magic is what pulls you in, books 2, 3, and 4 will disappoint you. I’d say read the first definitely. And if you’re fine with not knowing what happens afterwards (spoiler: it’s an HEA), then stick with that.

this book is full of spiders david wong

This Book Is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Don’t Touch It) by David Wong

I was really impressed with the quality of “Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits“. I was underwhelmed by the quality of “John Dies at the End“. This book is closer to the former. It’s a solid story all the way through. In fact, take the content of “John Dies at the End” and put it in the tempered style of “Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits” and this is the result. Of course, this doesn’t help if you haven’t read either.

I’d categorize this as a horror-comedy. If you like movies like The Evil Dead and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, this is for you. Better even, because it touches into the philosophy behind movies like that… as one would drunk with your friends at two in the morning by the fridge… but still fun. David Wong is to horror as Douglas Adams is to space opera.

In summary, it’s a zombie apocalypse novel, but that doesn’t do it justice. Nothing about it is run-of-the-mill. It’s fresh takes on everything. There’s a lot of tension, never knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s almost bizarro, except somehow the characterization keeps it grounded (i.e. everyone acts like you’d expect them to act). It even goes into the POVs of the titular John (and some others). It feels like an epic tome, like Swan Song but with more butt humor.

springfield confidential simpsons mike reiss

Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons by Mike Reiss

You like The Simpsons. Everyone likes The Simpsons. Nobody doesn’t like The Simpsons. If you say you don’t like The Simpsons, you’re wrong.

It’s a fast read. It’s got the Simpsons-style humor (some of it’s more Dad jokes than I expected). It tells stories of behind the scenes stuff, how writing the TV show works (spoiler: it’s as unexciting as you think it is). Mike Reiss isn’t a terribly interesting individual by himself, but the things he’s seen make him interesting.

You won’t find any secret to The Simpsons success here (spoiler: there is none, except maybe the lack of studio interference) but there is an amusing recounting of his years. There’s even talk about The Critic, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough detail, which would be my biggest gripe.

It’s a trip down memory lane for us old folks who were there when it premiered. Good for trivia night. I can’t say anything bad about this book, but I can’t say much exceptional about it. It’s a memoir, and in the top three of memoirs I’ve read.

The Books I Read: July – August 2018

bookshelf books

firestarter stephen king

Firestarter by Stephen King

I started it, but didn’t take long to decide not to continue. I’ve seen the movie, so there was nothing here for me but King’s overwriting and quaint New England phraseology. It’s written as an unfolding thriller, but there’s no thrill when you know how it ends. There’s no “this scene was in the book, but not the movie” to add value because it’s a pretty strict adaptation. And it’s antiquated–Vietnam vets and the energy crisis are so far removed from pop culture he might as well be talking about the World War I flu epidemic. I’ve decided I don’t slog though any of King’s early coke-fueled style if I don’t want to.

mick harte was here

Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park

Phoebe’s brother has just died. And this book is about how she deals with it, from the morning of the accident to the months and months later. It’s not tragic like Bridge to Terabithia–death and dealing with trauma is the theme of the book and it starts from the beginning. So there’s no real heartbreak, except for watching the deceased’s younger sister deal with the aftermath.

I like this because it’s a good portrayal of dealing with grief as a young adult. Good for anyone going through the same thing–a death in the family–and is too young to truly process it. And it cuts through all the sugarcoating too. Death ain’t fun and it ain’t pretty. Or how people keep turning death into a chance to talk about themselves, how the grief never really goes away, the empty feeling of something missing. There’s always something missing. How trying to remember the good times doesn’t really help, that you just need time. And as we go on Phoebe’s journey, we gain the tools to handle that same situation ourselves.

My one qualm about the book is that you don’t really know how he died until the ending, when the build-up loses some of the impact. That’s where it gets a little preachy, even though I’m sure it’s not intended. Otherwise, this is a good book for kids and adults, like My Brother Sam Is Dead. It has a sense of humor despite the subject matter. And it teaches us all that, whether you want it to or not, life goes on.

spell or high water

Spell or High Water by Scott Meyer

The first one I only sort of liked because it had some whizbang milieu with hacking a “uber-file” so you can cast magic spells, like flying and fireballs.

But this one is much more boring. All the whizbang stuff has been explained so what else is there? Well, the last book was rather light on female characters, so let’s head over to Atlantis, where all the women who discovered magic are. No, they don’t live anywhere else. They’d rather stay together. And they all get along. And have two types of husbands–one for companionship and one for sex. Good times. I wonder what gender the author was.

It’s trying to be some kind of murder mystery, but that’s hard when A) everyone is immortal B) everyone’s an omnipotent magician C) you’ve got time travel too, which blasts anything suspenseful out of the plot because now all things are possible. What ends up happening is a whole bunch of dull padding that’s supposed to be budding romance. But it’s as passionate as a trackball mouse. I don’t think the author is very good at writing either female characters or interesting characters. In any case, I don’t think I’m going to read the third one.

the serpent's gift

The Serpent Gift (The Shamer’s Chronicles #3) by Lene Kaaberbøl

Much, much better than the second. Marked improvement. Gold star. There are more events, more suffering for the main characters, more fantasy elements. I was worried it was going to be like a soap opera because the main plot has to do with her dad coming back. You see, little Dina’s shaming power has been on the fritz since she blew out her shame fuses after being kidnapped. But along comes her father who wants to return to her life and teach her the ways of the snake.

It starts as an abhorrent “if they would just talk to each other” kinda story, but it gets better fast. Like the last one, the book is split into Dina and Davin’s (the older brother) narratives. Davin has much more to do this time since he’s not being a prideful twat. His adventure is just as interesting as Dina’s.

This is not a continuous story  like “A Song of Ice and Fire”. These books are episodic and don’t have much to do with each other. However we seem to have forgotten why we’re all here in the first place–the exiled prince Nico and his usurping cousin who’s got a bounty on them all. Nico has more than a background role, but I would think there’d be more in this one about retaking his kingdom or escaping the usurpers. But I can’t criticize the book for what I wanted it to be. Only for what it is.

And what it is is a good fantasy/medieval novel. The author redeemed the story enough to put me back on track to reading the next in the series.

garbage this is the noise that keeps me awake

This is the Noise that Keeps Me Awake by Garbage

I’m a lifelong Garbage fan (though I’ve never been to a concert — too shy). But I have all the albums and b-sides. Pretty influential on my development as a person. First heard them in 1996–a golden year for things in my life that I never got sick of.

But really, only a Garbage fan is going to want this book. They aren’t terribly controversial or dramatic. They’re three guys from Wisconsin and one girl making music. What’s more surprising is how well they get along. No disappearances, no sleeping with band members, no drug binges (just alcohol). I never knew how isolated Shirley Manson felt in the beginning recordings living in a hotel all by herself. It certainly doesn’t come through on the track. And it traces the development of each album, how they’re all so different from each other, and why.

So the question is, should a Garbage fan pick up this book? The answer’s yes. It’s full of beautiful images, including artifacts from the road, and cocktail recipes, stories, interviews, and general history. They say it’s a coffee table book, but I disagree–that diminishes the work. Besides, you shouldn’t keep this on a coffee table where it can get spilled on. Put it on a shelf to be admired.

dear mr. henshaw beverly cleary

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

At least twice during school, my reading textbook contained an excerpt from this. And both times it was the part where the boy gets to go to lunch with an author. Now I finally read it.

That excerpt is nothing like the book.

Well, maybe a little. It is about a young boy who writes letters to an author. They start as “fan mail/questions”. Then it becomes personal stuff about his life–way too personal–that transforms into essentially a diary, or shouting into the wind. And it’s in epistolary format, so it’s fun to see his writing style evolve over time. I was under the impression that Mr. Henshaw never responds to the boy, but in fact he does. You just don’t see those responses. But writing is not what the book is about.

It’s about his coming to terms with his parents’ divorce and his deadbeat truck driver father. A bit cliche now, but not so much when this was written. I don’t know why, but something felt off about this book. Maybe it was my expectations that it would be about a boy becoming a writer and then being delivered a bildrungsoman. Maybe I couldn’t much relate to the boy. He’s living in a trailer and he’s constantly talking about his father–if he’s going to come visit, if he’s going to call, what he’s doing with their dog, who was that woman who answered the phone, and so on. Something’s lacking–either charm or wit or levity. It seems bleak. It seems like the moral is “adults are shits and there’s nothing you can do about it, kid”. It’s a solid idea, but lacks plot. So it comes off whiny. I imagine this is the kid who grew up to become J.D. Salinger.

midwife's apprentice

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

This book has a writing style that I have never seen before. Not like “whoa this is going to change everything about the literature world” but it has a flavor. It flies fast. It’s terse. It has no fluff and buff. All fat is trimmed. The result is that the story feels lean but still passionate, like a summer love affair. “Show, don’t tell” in spades. And a main character that gets you right in the feels without being a perfect lady. You can feel the authentic historical accuracy. But despite the age of the protagonist, it’s not for anyone who hasn’t had “the talk” yet.

The atmosphere feels like a fantasy story, but it deals with the common people living in the outskirts. The ones far away from knights or dragons or princesses. This one’s got cheese as a delicacy, sleeping in dung for warmth, and some very satisfying revenge plots. Not to mention social issues, including but not limited to: verbal abuse, breastfeeding, swearing, transgenderism, marital infidelity, superstitious demon possession, and catching some teenagers in the farm shed doing you-know-what. If that doesn’t make for a good book, I don’t know what does.

rats of nimh

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but only mildly. Just to find the stuff they didn’t include in the movie. So I never got around to it until my daughter somehow received it, I don’t know how, and I couldn’t avoid the opportunity any more.

It’s the story of a little creature in a big world that’s not in her control. A little like Stuart Little or Watership Down plot and Beatrix Potter sensibilities. The central conflict is the same–they have to move their house before the farm plows come.

What surprised me is that there is no magic in this world. I was hoping for some explanations–why Mrs. Frisby went Super-Saiyan, what the amulet was, the history of Justin and Jonathan and Jenner and so on. But no magic means no answers (and don’t look to the straight-to-video sequel).

There is a LARGE part of the text dedicated to the flashback/origin story of the rats. Maybe almost half the book. So much that you wonder why this isn’t the rats’ story. It’s like the author had the idea for two novels, but not enough story for one full novel.

It’s a nice little book, but I’ve got to say, the movie was better. I don’t think that’s any surprise. People remember The Godfather and Jaws and Die Hard as movies, not books. The movie ups all the drama, all the tension, up to eleven. While the book is a British “down-on-the-farm” story with cute little mice. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. Just manage your expectations.

final girls riley sager

Final Girls by Riley Sager

I was really looking forward to this one. Stephen King spoke highly of it. I love 80’s horror movies. I loved The Final Girls film. I liked “The Last Final Girl” but it was an indie book and didn’t take the premise as far as I would have liked IMO. And maybe this “Big Five” book would do it.

The story is about Quincy Carpenter (ugh, that name…), the survivor of a Friday the 13th-esque massacre. It’s 15 years later, and she’s living isolated, using the money from her media appearances. She’s dealing with her PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Other media has dubbed her a “final girl”, given the similarities to those horror movies, and the fact that two other women underwent similar situations years before.

I realized one-sixth of the way through that I wasn’t into it. For one thing, the plot still hadn’t started. It was still line-by-line detail of every thought going through the protagonist’s head. Cheesy quasi-poetic lines like “I feel her gaze on my cheek, as warm as the afternoon sun coming through the kitchen window. I get the uneasy sense she’s testing me somehow. That I’ll fail if I turn to meet her stare.” How can the plot get through text like that? The pacing is awful. I stopped when the first plot turn finally came–one of the final girls who’s been in reclusion for the past twenty years suddenly shows up at Quincy’s apartment and they… bake cookies.

The main character is terribly unlikable. She’s a shut-in, but she’s rich. She runs a foodie blog but doesn’t want attention. She’s a kleptomaniac which she blames on her trauma. She complains about having sex, but never says a word. She complains about her boyfriend–her boyfriend who’s kind and sensitive to her condition, but no, it’s not what she wants. He’s the disposable fiancee like in “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle”. She complains about taking Xanax. She’s always gasping. It reminded me of “The Girl on the Train“, which I also left unfinished. The most frustrating thing is that she’s doing it to herself. Sure, she’s a trauma survivor, but that can only hold so much weight. She’s always flagging “I’m a victim! I’m a victim!”, but she makes that misery happen.

I may not know what a “strong female protagonist” is, but I know a weak one when I see it. “I hate all these reporters on my back, but I sure love that they paid me.” The fact is, I wouldn’t want to spend one afternoon with Quincy. Why would I want to spend a whole book? Even her name evokes Quinn from “Daria” and the comparison’s not far off–whiny, entitled, shallow, and a bore. Is this supposed to be an “unreliable narrator” thing with the repressed memories?

Yes, a big part of the story is that she cannot remember anything about the murders she was in. It’s not that certain pieces are fuzzy, but that the whole thing is 100% blocked. She had this highly excruciating incident where all her senses were on fire, and it’s literally a convenient blank from beginning to end. In fact, if not for her “laser-guided amnesia” there would be no story. I hate it. We Were Liars did something similar thing, but way way better.

The “final girl” thing isn’t even a thing. It’s something that the “media” assigned given the nature of the massacres. In fact, there are only three women in this “club”. Their catastrophes are all spaced out over twenty years apart. And none are connected. It’s not a secret society or a title. Any relation to slasher films is thin at best. This is not a murderer copycatting Michael Myers or a crazed fan. In fact, one might almost say the author simply cribbed that idea to sell her story. There’s nothing supernatural about here. It’s just a suspense novel.

I should have been warned off by all the “Gone Girl” comparisons in the front matter blurbs. That’s a polarizing book and my feelings on it land on the side of “no thank you”. The reviews use them as praise, but they’re really warnings — if you didn’t like “Gone Girl”, you should not pick up this book. Now if you liked that book, fine. It’s meant for you. But it’s not meant for the cool chick with tattoos who likes horror movies. Watch “The Final Girls” instead for an emotionally earned climax and thank me later.

artemis andy weir

Artemis by Andy Weir

When this came out, everyone seemed to react with hate or disappointment. I don’t know why–I loved it. It’s not the same as “The Martian“. But if I wanted the same as “The Martian”, I’d read “The Martian”.

This one has less science and math. Maybe that’s what people were looking forward to. That was the “special something” that made “The Martian” stand out. But that means it’s easier to understand the plot. I expected that, without his physics to rely on, Andy Weir’s characters and plot would be flat and plodding. But that’s not the case at all. Weir proves he’s not a guy who wrote a lab paper in narrative form. He wrote a narrative using a lab paper.

So our story takes place on a city on the moon. One that’s not exactly as pristine and efficient as 2001: A Space Odyssey would have you believe. In fact, our main character is a smuggler. And she gets involved in a corporate sabotage kind of plot, but more like a heist caper. And she’s a PoC, she’s funny, she swears a lot. In fact, all the characters are dynamic and stand out. (Did Weir engineer this novel with the intention of it becoming a movie? Hm.) It’s intelligent and entertaining this side of Scalzi.

The math and science aren’t completely gone (I don’t think it would be Andy Weir if it wasn’t). It’s more about chemistry and economics, all of which result from living on the moon in a low-gravity, no oxygen environment. And welding. I hope you like welding, because there is a lot of talk about that.

The Books I Read: March – April 2018

bookshelf books

Out of My Mind by Sharon R. Draper

It’s very good. I was invested right away and I didn’t expect to be. It’s like Wonder in that the kid has a disability, but in this case, it’s cerebral palsy. The mind works fine, but the body doesn’t. And thus we get a nice look at the terrible way schools lump all the “special ed” kids in a single room, whereas Wonder was about bullying and prejudice and superficiality.

It dragged in the middle, but it’s not a scmaltzy ending like Wonder. (I mean, Wonder by Natalie Merchant for the movie trailer? Really?) As one would expect, it’s inspirational, but not cheesy. There are consequences for actions on both sides, and both show a not-so-great side of humanity. I recommend it, especially because it’s short.

Robots vs. Fairies by various authors

It’s actually not so much about the conflict between future and fantasy as it is alternating robot and fairy stories (except for the one at the back which combines them). Which makes me wonder why this collection exists. It’s not a matter of taste–I like robot stories and I like fairy stories–but what’s the point of combining them? Seem like two things that would be better on their own if they’re not gonna play together.

Most of the stories are pretty good. This is one of the better short story collections I’ve read, and I don’t like ’em all that much. I even found one or two new authors to investigate (which is what a good short fiction collection should do–act like a sampler for other authors). To my surprise I was not impressed with Scalzi’s contribution. But I was with Jim C. Hines’s. I expected those two to be reversed. I think I need to amend my earlier stance on Hines for a corollary about his short fiction.

Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech

My daughter said this is one of her favorite books and Sharon Creech is one of her favorite authors. I had already read “Walk Two Moons” but that didn’t set me up proper for this one. Walk Two Moons has big questions, like karma, parental loss, parental absence, and lots of death. Ruby Holler is about a brother and sister, two grandparents in a cabin, and evil villains who run an orphanage.

It reminded me of a female Roald Dahl book + Gilmore Girls/Switched at Birth. There’s all this quaint country stuff (living in the woods, rural lifestyle, hiking and boating) with a little spitz of magic. There are some problems with choppiness and loose ends (the evil orphanage owner gets a rather pithy comeuppance for his misdeeds). It’s like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events if it was shown on CMT.

Ban This Book by Alan Gratz

A young, shy girl finds that her favorite library book has been considered “contraband” because of a “concerned parent”. And of course, anything that’s forbidden becomes automatically interesting. So others around her borrow the same books she loves, which leads to her running an underground lending library of all the banned books. Anything being censored becomes novel and rebellious. Hell, I put a bunch of them on my own reading list after reading this.

It was not as weighty as I thought a book like this should be, but it’s still engaging. It’s not too long and not artificially extended with meaningless subplots. On the younger end of YA. All in all, it’s a fascinating little scheme and it’s fun to see how it all turns out. The concept is based on an urban legend and it’s clear the author apporached it with reverence. If you finish it, you’ll find yourself looking into all the real banned/challenged books it mentions.

Daemon by Daniel Suarez

I don’t read too many thrillers, but this was recommended for fans of “Ready Player One”. It’s kinda longish, but it does involve some interesting concepts. Far-fetched concepts to be sure (a dead software developer somehow has the wherewithal to turn the world into an AR game, control all the world’s money, and make autonomic cars with ninja swords. It’s like Dr. Light in Mega Man X, who despite being a hologram in a buried capsule, knows who Zero is–this guy ain’t dead).

However, like most thrillers, interesting characters get less screentime for the sake of suspense. People become talking heads for explaining and furthering the plot via investigations and news updates. They don’t have much personality.

It’s a techno-thriller, so there’s going to be a lot of focus on IT stuff. It’s not terrible writing, but it’s not great. It’s like Stephen King minus the New England color. Meant to be a bestseller thriller. I’m not sure I’d put this on a list of “If you like Ready Player One, you’ll like…” — the mood is completely different: bleak and noir — but I was intrigued enough to put the sequel on my “to read” list (but that’s because the book just ends with no resolution/the bad guys win).

Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn

This was one of the books I gleaned from “Ban This Book” by Alan Gratz. I’m not sure why it was challenged. Maybe someone thought it was too spoopy for the targeted audience. A second-marriage mom and dad move their family to a quaint farmhouse in Maine so they can work on their art (reminds me of the House Hunters joke: I’m a mouse trainer and he’s a toothpick collector; our budget is 2 million dollars). But the littlest girl, the main character’s stepsister, keeps seeing a ghost nearby. A ghost trying to push her into going full Bad Seed.

The pacing is poor. I should have lowered my expectations when I saw the cover–one of those mass-market Avon-Camelot numbers that look like they’re part of a series. The kind with the border and standard typeface you saw in the spinning racks in the school library. Being a ghost story it s t r e t c h e s the narration out, trying to provide a spooky atmosphere. Maybe it’s just me, or it could be the times, but I wanted her to stop being such a whiner and show some initiative regarding finding out the truth. Not to keep going back to mom and dad. But it was written in 1987 after all. It goes a little farther than those “for kids” scary shows like “Goosebumps” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark”, but it doesn’t do anything to stand out among the tropes.

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

A cute little story about a girl who finds a dog and makes a few friends thanks to that dog. It’s just her and her dad in a trailer (she calls him pastor instead of Dad) and the dog gets her into typical shenanigans. Reminded me of Marmaduke but where he’s not such an asshole.

It also leads to finding some new friends, both adult and kid. Which proves that dogs are great for picking up chicks. I’m not sure why people consider this a classic, or how a movie got made from it. There’s nothing that stands out, no emotional hammers. It’s not too different from Beethoven or “Where the Red Fern Grows” (except the dog doesn’t die) in terms of fundamental beats. But it contains no offensive material, so schoolteachers can show it without worrying about a “concerned parent”.

The Books I Read: March – April 2017

bookshelf books

i hunt killers barry lyga

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

I love Barry Lyga, but I had to stop after twenty-five percent. There was too much telling and not enough showing.

The story’s about a teenager who knows all the serial killer tricks because his father was one. So there’s analysis, backstory, and thinking, but not much action. Too much of the text is setup for the ongoing series, not the current story. I wanted to know what’s happening with the murder now, not ten years ago.

It would have been better if the text was presented in flashbacks so there was more immediacy, instead of recall. The narrator is just not interesting enough to allow him total control.

afraid jack kilborn

Afraid by Jack Kilborn

This is a real Suicide Squad — not some namby-pamby rogues gallery. A half-dozen sociopaths are given CIA mental conditioning and drug therapy. Then they crash land in sleepy-town, USA. Chaos ensues.

I’ve never read anything as fast-paced as this. Chapters are short, sentences are short, scenes are short. Although the characterization is light, the action is visceral enough and quick enough that you want to see more. You might think it’s a Stephen King-style thriller from the cover and blurb — slow burn, supernatural junk, psychic powers for no reason — but it’s a far cry.

It reminds me of a high-budget B-movie where they went heavy on script and light on special effects. The horror comes from how realistic (as in the killer is a criminal trained to be a soldier, not Pennywise the clown).

all the bright places jennifer niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

I stopped when I reached two bothersome tropes in YA novels that I couldn’t overlook. One was the Wild Teen Party. The all-night rager-kegger thrown by the resident Daddy’s little princess where everyone’s drinking copiously and every room has the door shut. There’s mean girls, drinking games, and bros talking out loud about “getting ass” in front of the people they’re trying to get ass from. And of course, our heroine goes because her friends are there, but she’s too virginal to take part in the hedonistic orgy.

In movies it’s entertaining, but in a book, it’s the crutch of authors who need a place and time for characters to argue or see someone kiss someone else or some other plot point because, literally, everyone is there. It’s a setup to get someone sexually assaulted or overhear/see someone doing naughty which leads to “the liar revealed”, “the misunderstanding”, or “what did I do last night?”. Reality contradicts this to the point of ludicrousness — parties only have a few friends, finding alcohol/drugs is a scavenger hunt in its own right, and no one acts like a chauvinistic douche in front of anyone who could hear it. Yes, there are parties that turn up to eleven, but they’re the exception that proves the rule. The other nine times out of ten, you either play Halo all night or eat ice cream and talk.

Cliche #2 — our oh-so-precious heroes don’t read any conventional books. They read the classics like Bronte and Woolf. And constantly quote them to each other, like it’s a ping-pong challenge to prove which one is dumber (of course, neither loses, they know all the lines like Wuthering Heights was “Austin Powers”). No one reads Twilight or Harry Potter. No one reads anything written in the last century. That’s too mainstream. We’re all Hipster Ariels here.

That’s when I stopped reading. There are two main characters, one girl and one boy. They’re both suicidal. But one is more “eccentric” suicidal and the other is “dramatique”. The boy does it for the negative attention, but then criticizes the girl for doing the same thing. He’s like a manic pixie dream boy, like Johnny Rzeznik or the Phantom of the Opera. He’s special because he’s not one of the jocks who wants sex (see above re: “getting ass”). He’s a special snowflake who wants a meaningful relationship.

I read somewhere that “this is a book about depressed teens, not a book FOR depressed teens.” That makes death into a game. Like you’re watching these teens skirt around the edge of the suicide pool and the big question becomes “will she or won’t she?” Which is wrong. There is no glory in suicide. I’ve looked into that abyss, and I was able to turn away. There’s no romance. There’s no story. It doesn’t release you from your pain, it makes everyone around you feel worse.

At 33% I realized I didn’t give a shit about any of the characters. Books about coping with depressing situations? I’ll stick with “Eleanor and Park”, thanks. Coping with suicide? I’ll stick with “Looking for Alaska”, thanks.

stephen king salem's lot

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

At one-third of the way through, there still weren’t any vampires. I’m not saying I need vampires at page one, but they should be part of the plot setup.

But still, this is one of the books that reminds you why people admire King (or did in the eighties). Despite the tedium of character after character after character, the prose still crackles with quaint expressions and sharp dialogue. Even though no one is working towards a goal, the characters are interesting and there are tons of them. Some of whom only get one scene or two and are then killed off. But the difference is, because they get a little screen time AND something you can stick to them (the bus driver who hates kids, the husband of the former beauty queen who catches her in an affair) their deaths have meaning (even if it’s only an ounce).

It’s the progenitor of many of the Stephen King cliches we take for granted today (setting in Maine, supernatural creatures without origin, one-dimensional bullies, useless police, crazy fundamentalists, rednecks, abusive jerkasses, alcoholics, letdown of an ending) and there’s pacing issues abound. Though they crackle, there are long stints of nothing happening, especially in the beginning. Although it gives the effect of making the town a character (so there is meaning when it becomes doomed), it makes me wonder which parts were written on a coke binge and which weren’t.

the collapsing empire john scalzi

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

A little Dune, a little Game of Thrones, a little Leviathan Wakes, with the rest being pure Scalzi himself. It’s a great read, like his others. Not one you want to put down. Add to that the fact that’s it fun to be starting a new saga. And the best part is that Scalzi’s created one of his best characters to date in Kiva Lagos (mostly because she swears a lot). And that’s saying something because Scalzi is not known for character-driven plots.

Like the last two Old Man’s War books, this story takes place with a high scope. A forty-thousand-foot view. This is not like Zoe’s Tale or The Ghost Brigades where you knew one character intimately. And like the last two Old Man’s War books, the story stays focused on politics and governmental milieu (although it’s not a political thriller).

One negative is that it seemed the good guys win their obstacles a little easy. Like someone grabs the gun from Chekhov’s mantle, but the security manager saw him bring in bullets, and they knew who was going to do it, so they replaced the gun with one of those bang flag things. Challenges were nipped in the bud right away so that the goal became how to make it so no one noticed they nipped the bud while finding out who grew the flower.

If you’re not familiar with Scalzi’s stuff, then this is a good jumping in point. It’s closest to Lock-In for style and The End of All Things for content.

The Books I Read: July – August 2015

bookshelf books

calvin and hobbes bill watterson

The Complete Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Every Calvin and Hobbes strip, beginning to end. It’s the likability of Peanuts with the humor of Dennis the Menace. I’ll never know how Bill Watterson came up with so many unique strips using only four characters — one of which is imaginary (or is he?). Peanuts added and dropped new faces all the time and Dennis the Menace was only one panel. When I was younger, I got my fix of C & H collections in the library, but reading them in chronological order, you can see the scatters and misfires in the beginning, the peaks in the middle, and the shopworn gags in the end.

At this point in time, you either know Calvin and Hobbes or you don’t, so I shouldn’t need to provide a recommendation. It’s expensive, but a piece of Americana is worth it. Just don’t let your kid take the crayons to it.

rachel dratch girl walks into a bar

Girl Walks into a Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle by Rachel Dratch

Cute little memoir, in the same vein as Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. Many of my complaints are the same — not enough of the personal life, not enough of the SNL life. Some of the writing style is the same, when it morphs into a fake interview or letter to herself. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rachel Dratch. I loved her on SNL and was very sad when she left.

It covers material much like Amy Poehler’s book does — the years on SNL, how certain sketches came to light, early years in improv, gushing over fellow actors. But it divides when she leaves SNL and talks about why she doesn’t act anymore. But now we have the unique experience of the NY dating scene mid-career, finding a relationship, and then the anxiety of having a baby when older and unmarried. The subtitle is definitely there for a purpose — clarifying what the book is about. If you liked Yes, Please, you’ll like this.

we were liars lockhart

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

At first I thought I wouldn’t make it through this book. Right off the bat, we start with entitled rich people. I mean really rich. Like, they own their own island off the coast of New England. The grandparents and their three daughters’ families (including grandchildren, whom the story’s about) all own houses on the island and spend their summers there. That alone might have caused me to put the book down.

Because rich people aren’t like real people. There is no problem they have that they can’t throw money at and solve. It’s the same reason I can’t get into The Great Gatsby or Jane Austen. Problems like “my family is deep in debt so I gotta marry someone with money, but they’re all jerks or my aunts are jerks or trying to get the family fortune” and so on. Hard to care when you you know people whose kids can’t breathe. These people don’t even know the names of their “help”. Jeez, even Billy Madison wasn’t that much of a jerk.

My point is, don’t let the setting turn you off, because for some reason I got deep into it. I wasn’t that impressed with Lockhart’s Fly on the Wall, but this one has such a strong voice of the main character. For some reason you care about her well-being even if she goes to Europe for the summer with her Dad. I got 45% through within 12 hours. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the easy reading — the short “Dan Brown” chapters keep the book a long summary of events than a novel. There are no real scenes, and it’s full of simple sentences but with good word choice. A little teen angsty, but poetic. Super poetic.

The title “We Were Liars” makes it sound like some drama/mystery/thriller full of scandals and betrayal like “Pretty Little Liars”. And the size gives it earmarks of a beach read. But it’s not. It’s about growing up, becoming mature, and seeing your family for what it really is. It’s months later and I’m still trying to put my finger on why I like it so much. Maybe the fairy tale elements? (A princess, a castle, a king, the rule of three.) Little people against the world? Kids with hearts in the right place versus adults with money and “pure-bloodedness” on their mind? All I know is there’s a reason this book is a “best of year”.

neil gaiman trigger warning

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

Better than Fragile Things and approaching Smoke and Mirrors in terms of quality/likability. Most of the short stories are high fantasy, and I was surprised how many I’d already read (like Samsung’s A Calendar of Tales that appeared on Twitter and Click-Clack the Rattlebag). I always find it hard to review anthologies because it’s never a single vision over a long term. Either it’s many visions from one imagineer, or many visions under one theme. It’s too divisive to give a yay or nay. Like all anthologies, there are hits and misses.  It’s worth reading if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan. But not if you don’t like short stories.

louis sachar holes

Holes by Louis Sachar

You know one thing you never see in YA — kids in prison. Well, he’s not really in juvey, but an “camp for troubled teens”. Which is not so much a camp as slave labor — also not often seen in YA.  How he gets sent to this obviously corrupt and unaccredited alternative to jail, I don’t know. That’s the biggest implausibility, but if you get past that, it’s a compelling story. And that’s because the author is doing things you don’t see in YA — living among criminals, manipulation by adults, ambiguity on who to trust, sins of the father — along with humor like stinky shoes and onion eating. Heavy stuff for a kid’s book.

But I know kids can take that stuff, so I like it. It’s not just one story, it’s a couple stories, but they all come together. All the set pieces, motifs, characters meet each other in a dynamic way — part Western, part prison story, part funny YA book — so you’re getting a meal with flavorful and different side dishes. Each is different but they all complement each other in ways you didn’t expect. Like Orange is the New Black for kids.

ernest cline armada

Armada by Ernest Cline

A dull and disappointing follow-up to Ready Player One. I realize the biggest draw-in for his first novel was pure nostalgia. It was a giant mish-mash of things from the eighties. In Ready Player One, the author plays with elements the way a kid plays with toys (you play arcade games against a D & D lich). But it was essential to the plot. The pieces of the puzzle. Man questing, gaining friends and enemies on the way, while the stakes raise.

Again, this one involves the eighties, but as a crutch. The nostalgia plays no part in the story, it just becomes a “hey, I remember that” and goes nowhere (like “Pixels”). The main character’s supposed to be obsessed with the eighties because his dad disappeared then.  Even with that, there is no reason for a teenager from 2015 to drive a 1989 Dodge Omni while listening to Rush and ZZ Top cassettes.

The plot is ridiculous too. This kid is obsessed with a “Wing Commander”-like space shooter MMO game, and then it turns out the game is real. Just like The Last Starfighter.  The game was a way to train fighters. Just like The Last Starfighter. I was hoping it would take a different turn plot-wise, but it really doesn’t. The spaceship whisks him off from all his problems.  He’s an ace pilot. He finds his missing dad, who turns out to be the flight commander and was right about everything. They fight back the aliens, and he becomes a hero, playing video games the rest of his life.

The obstacles are easily overcome and there’s little tension. I half-expected the story to be a psychotic break, and he was in a mental hospital the whole time, imagining this. He was about to take a tire iron to a guy in the school parking lot before this recruiting spaceship appears, so it would make sense. And it would explain why everything happens so easy for him. It’s whizbang action and little characterization and a one-dimensional plot. I do not recommend it.

annotated alice in wonderland lewis carroll

The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll, annotations by Martin Gardner & Mark Burstein

Well, the annotations aren’t as comprehensive as I would have liked. But I guess it’s better to leave analysis to the professors and just give facts. Most of the annotations explain the poetry that Carroll’s parodying, which is nice. They’re all verse that would be common in Carroll’s day, but have become antiquated since (except for one or two). Others illustrate the history (like relations to the real Alice) and the logic jokes he probably thought were hilarious (like how Through the Looking-Glass follows real chess moves). Otherwise, all the illustrations and text are here. So it’s nice to read it again, this time with a better understanding. It even includes the official definitions for the words in Jabberwocky.

felicia day you're never weird on the internet almost

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir by Felicia Day

Wondrous! Magnificent! Funny! Hilarious! Stupendous! After reading this, I wanted to write a fan letter to Felicia Day, thanking her for writing the book. I wanted to give this book to my wife, even though she wouldn’t understand any of it, just because I wanted to show her how strong and delightful and personable she is. This is a role model for my kids.

You never realized how amazing she is as a person. Going from a lazy homeschool life to prodigy violinist to college degree. And then a Hollywood actress for no damn reason whatsoever. But it’s not without drama. She’s had to fight Internet addiction, low budget film-making, and the Gamergaters. 

She’s pretty much the pioneer for the message she’s spreading — embrace your weird. After reading it, I felt motivated to create things like her. To not listen to the humilitous voice that says “aw, gee, that’s not good, I’m not a professional.” I want to be her and not her at the same time. This is a MUST READ.

the end of all things scalzi john

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

I’ve been thinking about how to judge this book. It has a concrete narrative storyline from beginning to end, but it’s presented as “Four Tales of the Colonial Union”. Each has a different main character and a different story-telling style. The lack of a single main character, the disconnections between novellas, mean it’s hard to establish empathy to anyone. It reminded me of Fuzzy Nation. But where that had scads of humor, a single main character hero, and whiz-bang courtroom drama, this is just space politics. And everyone who knows me knows I DON’T like me some politicians. It felt like Scalzi was continuing the story out of contractual obligation. Not my favorite of his. In fact, it’s on the lower fiftieth percentile of his works.

kissing snowflakes abby sher

Kissing Snowflakes by Abby Sher

A cute little YA book. Thankfully, it’s the last of the skiing romances I downloaded (others included Heartbreak Hotel, Crave: New Adult Sports Romance (The Boys of Winter #1)) And I was actually able to finish this one. But it’s still terribly predictable and cheesy. Yeah, I’m not the target demographic, but surely you can do better than this. The characters are stereotypes with questionable motivations and plausibility. There isn’t a sense of setting — no one does much skiing. And the end romance seems doomed anyway. There are better selections out there.

NerdCon: Stories (Minneapolis Oct 9-10 2015)

nerdcon poster we are made of stories

So here’s my write-up on attending NerdCon: Stories.

To summarize, I’m not sure how much I learned, but I was definitely entertained. There wasn’t anything about the publishing industry or how to get an agent, but that was all right. That wasn’t what I was expecting. This con was focused on the fundamentals behind the story: why they matter, what effect they can have. The medium didn’t matter. Novel, movie, or song. Horror, erotica, or adventure. Stories are what makes us human.

Let’s go to the rundown. Unlike Convergence, there was a lot more “everybody goes to this” events scheduled. The only thing scheduled in the morning was mainstage entertainment. Then it broke out into three hour-long panels, with half hour breaks in-between (and even that was too short to get in a meal). The reason I say I didn’t feel educated was because the people on the panels didn’t seem to have any answers. How do you make your money? (You don’t. You do it for the love.) How do you hone your craft? What is your process? (I don’t have one. Just get words on the page.) And the “Activism and Narrative” panel wasn’t even the one I wanted. I wanted the one about conveying truths in narrative, but that one got full before I could get in. Shouldn’t have gone down for that coffee.


The mainstages were most definitely the highlights. There were no bad seats and all the best entertainment was there. Some of the things were unusual — playing “who said the quote? Kanye West or Donald Trump?” and Starship: Artemis with Patrick Rothfuss and John Scalzi. Not sure what these had to do with the theme, but they were sure funny. Maybe it was just an unique way to introduce the guests.

The mainstage, where most of the action happened

The afternoon mainstage wasn’t very good. They played “what’s in my mouth” (guess what object is in the mouth, like a plastic spider covered in spinach puree), a brief conversation about science with Hank Green and Ben Lillie, and a subpar musical performance by Harry & the Potters — a “wizard rock” band that was neither wizard nor rock. Then there was an hour break for dinner. I thought about going out — I was in beautiful downtown Minneapolis just a block from Nicollet Mall, but given how time seems to dilate in this convention, I had to eat and run*.

*I ate very badly at the convention because I was hungover — a Dunn Brothers tuna sandwich at 10:00 AM, a gyro, and Chipotle + cafeteria pizza for dinner. The next day I had four slices of leftover Domino’s and went to a Chinese food bar & grill for dinner.

The evening ended with another mainstage with “Superfight”, a “Cards Against Humanity”-like game where you draw characters, powers, and altering situations and decide who would win in a fight. (For example, Katniss in a blimp holding a baby vs. the bottom legs of Iron Man + the top half of the Mario Brothers made of kittens.) followed by Patrick Rothfuss leading a story-telling game in the style of telling tall tales at a pub. That was pretty good — it reminded me of the Mad Scientist tournament in Convergence where, if you got good personalities, the entertainment writes itself.

This was the story circle, which I did not atten as it conflicted with Superfight, but was a hell of a lot larger than I thought it would be.

After that was an Open Mic, but I just wasn’t feeling it. It was Friday, it was a quarter after eight, so I went home.

The next day was better, but there seemed to be a lot more attendees. I finally got to see John Green and Rainbow Rowell (who is as adorable live as I imagined and more). They talked about how dealing with success, which is a privileged problem (they admitted that) and not one that I have. But I wasn’t gung-ho about any of the panels at this time (the others were putting yourself online and the art of performing) but this was the only chance I’d have to see John Green and Rainbow Rowell talk about things.

She is just so frickin’ cute

The most disappointing part of the day was not getting into the Writing Sex panel. I’ve thought about expanding into erotica (as Milk & Honey and The Upgrades demonstrate), but as soon as I left the previous panel, the line for Writing Sex already stretched across the width of the convention center. When you don’t even have a chance of getting into a panel after the previous one ended, there’s something wrong. Hopefully someone taped it — it would have been the most useful panel for me at the whole convention.

The other two panels were a “Welcome to Night Vale” Q & A, which I had no interest in, and Storytelling Through Song. Also no interest — not a musical guy. I thought about just tooling around, getting some food, for the hour. But I didn’t want to overeat, I’d already been eating crap, and thought it might be a waste of money. So I went to the song one because it was in the auditorium I thought I needed to be in for the last panel. And as NerdCon had demonstrated to me, you better get there before time allows or don’t count on a seat. I didn’t pay attention and just read on my phone in the back.

A good writer is always disheveled

Now the last panel was “The Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller”. I’ll talk more about this later — it gave me a lot of food for thought. The funny thing was, this was not actually the panel I wanted to attend — I thought I was going to “Tropes, Misinformation, and Stereotypes”, but I got my auditoriums mixed up. But by the time the moderator I didn’t expect walked in, I had been there long enough and was trapped in the middle that I thought, “eh, I’ll stay.” And I’m glad I did.

Then finally was the last two mainstage panels. The afternoon one was pretty much the official goodbye to NerdCon. The mock debate was funny, but seemed more for an improv class. But when you got professional hams like John Scalzi and Mara Wilson and Storm (of Paul and Storm) against NY theater troupers and beat poets, it’s not to laugh.

Mary Robinette Kowal (who I despise because she’s one of those people who just decides to do stuff and succeeds wildly at it (just kidding, she’s awesome)) and her troupe put on an amazing, unbelievable puppet show. Scalzi narrated/”barded” while the puppeteers did one of those black-clad puppeteers against a black background things. But they used the most simple and elegant props, nothing professional. The main girl was one wrist wrapped in a handkerchief and holding a pair of glasses between her fingers, while a second puppeteer operated two American Doll galoshes. The knight was a coffee canister and two tuna cans for feet. The dragon was an umbrella opening and closing, breathing red plastic bag fire. And the cyclops was just a white balloon with a dot. It made me sorry for making fun of my sister’s puppet class in college.

End result of the puppet show: Scalzi lays dead on stage amongst a potato/rockslide

And for some reason the thing that sticks with me most is the last event — something called “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”. Okay, do you know that Saturday Night Live sketch where the theater students are doing this artsy avant-garde production with that’s equal parts cynical and pretentous. It was like that, but way way better. It’s hard to explain. Like zen stories, but with life experience. Comedy and satire and life lessons in bite-size form. It was so unique and live and different that I’m still replaying moments days later. Like when you hear/see a musical for the first time and can’t get the songs out of your head?

So I loved it, the whole experience. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for improvement. First off, of course, making room. Everybody should be able to see the panel they want given reasonable time to get there. I think the combo of it being about sex (sex sells!) and the two other panels being niche contributed to the over-crowding. But it’s a problem I expect out of a first-year con.

The other thing was that all the events were pretty much “read-only”. They were either lectures or panels or conversations. Basically, you’re watching people. This meant not so much engagement of the audience. I would have loved more ways to interact with other people. Like games! There are tons of interactive or collaborative story-telling games — Fiasco, Happy Birthday Robot, many of which have been featured on TableTop.

The best part of the con was this: seeing attendees writing in notebooks or reading on the floor like they DGAF. That’s my kinda people. That’s the home for me.

In Defense of Physics

physics blackboard

Every once in a while, when discussing the phenomena of movie nitpicking, someone brings up the argument that “how can you believe in the giant spiders, talking lions, and semi-magic telekinesis but not that who’s-his-face survived that explosion?”

John Scalzi has written about this topic before (“The Flying Snowman” Part 1 and Part 2) landing on the side of “if you can accept these implausible things from the science fiction, why can’t you accept this implausible thing?” (even though he contradicts statements made here) But I was mostly instigated by this trending GIF from Conan’s Comic-Con interview with the cast of Game of Thrones.

Also, Maisie Williams’s expressions are priceless

The basics of the argument are that, the more ridiculous things get, the more everyone’s going to see some element that unsuspends suspension of disbelief. Like a bad magician’s levitation trick. It’s not an argument to abandon all criticism or hope for realism in media. But one must ask if the one thing is unrealistic, is that consistent with the world-building presented?

At minimum, storytellers need to make their works accurate enough to science and history that an average movie-goer doesn’t get pulled out of the story. Unfortunately, sometimes directors underestimate “average” intelligence.

Let’s take another frequently used example — Gollum falling into Mount Doom. He makes impact, then slowly sinks in. A similar scene happens in Volcano, where a man jumps from the back of a bus to spreading lava, landing feet first and slowly melting.

Also, no such thing as conductive heat.  Get as close as you want, just don’t touch it.

Real lava is quite dense — imagine a Styrofoam cup falling onto a bucket of motor oil. Scalzi said that “if you need the lava to be dense, why do all those other things get a pass?”

I’ll tell you why they get a pass — they’re magic. Maybe it’s got to do with their bigness, how they’re used as set pieces and focused on (we see the giant spider but not the cute little flying seahorses on the other side of the world). That focus is telling the viewer “look at this cool thing that’s a featured part of the story. I’m showing it to you so that you understand it’s part of the world — hiding out in the open.”

I’m not a lava person, but I’ve seen enough movie trivia and Mythbusters to know the most common errors. There’s no sound in space, bullets can’t make cars explode, and getting knocked out results in brain damage. I know lava doesn’t act the way it does in Lord of the Rings, but I could believe that the lava has something up with it. It was used to forge the one ring (and others) so maybe that did something to the lava, either before or after. Thus it has a lower viscosity.

However, nothing in the books or movies calls attention to this fact, thus it is pure conjecture. Also, this argument fails for “Volcano” and other stories that take place in the “real world”.  Scientifically speaking, not all lava is created equal.

I don’t know what he’s talking about.  I’m standing in lava and I’m fine.

This is why it bothers me when people dismiss things like Sam Tarly’s weight as a joke at the expense of overly attentive fanboys. Yes, Sam should be getting thinner or more muscular. But I know that being schlubby is part of his character, so it never bothered me and I never noticed it. Like explosions in space, payoff is the overall aesthete and the work doesn’t suffer for it.

But we live in a world of physics. A man hiking across mountains, living off rations, should have some body changes. Episodes of Survivor prove this. We live in a video game. Imagine something big, like GTA. This video game has rules. You can run, walk, shoot, drive, etc. But then a glitch happens. The screen tears or a cheat code gets entered, or someone runs into a wall and flies into space. Your immersion into that world has been suspended. It’s not surviving a car crash, which is possible. It’s something that violates logic.

G.R.R.M. never establishes that metabolism is different in Westeros. It could be, but there’s no gun on the mantle to indicate that. Nor clues to lead the reader to a reasonable conjecture. However, this is not bad writing.

And that’s the distinction to make. There’s fantasy physics and then there’s bad writing. Bad writing is usually avoidable. It happens when the style more important than substance or the writer just doesn’t care.

In Superman, Superman catches Lois Lane falling from a building. It’s supposed to be majestic, but that impact would shatter her spine. But he could fly up, then slowing down his momentum as she drops in his arms. Godzilla takes a nuke, but there’s no consequences — no fallout, no nuclear winter. Just change it to something else radioactive. And then there’s everything in the Star Trek reboot. Whoever wrote that needs to get their head out of their ass.

This is something the writer has to choose for him or herself: when to prefer stylism over realism. And when the writer finds this conflict, there are three things to remember:

1) The fact is, there is always going to be an expert in your audience. Someone who knows geology or arachnology or radiology. It’s the writer’s duty to be as accurate as possible, but even living in the world, you gain prejudices and false information that you think is factual.

2) Everyone’s going to trip up on something different. We have “tiers” of believability. But there are ways to mitigate that. It could be a matter of creating more graduation before the thing people are tripping on. It depends on the style of the piece. Does it lead to an air of mystery and enchantment where anything can happen? Or is it a cop-out, where it’s just a matter of avoiding this thing/writer’s block. Imagine if E.T. hadn’t been shown to fly before the cops got him.

3) There will always be inaccuracies in science and history. It is unavoidable. Titanic is full of them. History doesn’t always fit even basic storytelling style and pacing. It’s a trade-off and the balance must be maintained. No movie is without sin.

Or maybe Gollum was just incredibly dense. He never did lose that hobbit weight.