The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: January – February 2018

bookshelf books

The Elven by Bernhard Hennen

It took me two months of dedicated reading to complete this. Of course, I took breaks along the way, but still, I feel stories can wear out their welcome. We’re not in the era of television-less-ness anymore. We don’t need War and Peace to keep us occupied. And this is a callback to those kinds of books. It’s a saga rooted in high fantasy and Norse/Germanic myths (like elves and dwarves).

We’ve got three main characters. Two are elves who have been rivals for a girl elf’s love for whatever thousands of years elves live. The last is a viking who gets treated like the comic relief throughout the book. Seriously, you think he’s going to be a badass, but the elves treat him like Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movies. Every place they go, the elves cluck their tongues at him for drinking, fighting, and being crude (although no more than any normal viking) and go “look at this boorish human, ha ha”. They’re like Legolas in every way–eagle vision, can do magic, nimble, skilled warrior, and so on. Very few female parts that don’t involve a queen or someone more important’s daughter, so don’t look here for any diversity.

It is well-written, it’s just so damn long. You forget who characters are, what places are. There’s a map in the beginning but it only covers a small portion of the world. Maybe I’m a dummy, but if you’re going to make a novel this big and sprawling, add a few cheat sheets in there.

And as a result, I don’t think I can recommend this book. It’s good enough for a normal size novel, but not for something this long. It took me eighteen hours–I could have read three or four other books in that time. I can’t help but think I’d have been better off continuing The Expanse.

futuristic violence and fancy suits david wong

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong

I found a few books recommended for people who liked “Ready Player One”. And I needed it after finishing some long fantasy sagas. I wanted something funny and contemporary. I’d read David Wong before and liked it so I thought this would hit the spot.

And it did. Wong’s not good at titles (or is he too good?) but it’s exactly what’s on the tin–fast action and men-in-black doing gratuitous violence. It’s a big that stew that combines cyberassasins, superheroes, horror movies, anime, future dystopia. Much of them reflect (but aren’t directly coded as) eighties weirdness like “Rock and Rule” and MTV’s bizarro years.

It’s not a story that holds up to scrutiny. The plot moves so fast you don’t have much chance to learn character backstories or reflect on anything. You’re onto something new before you can digest the old. Characters turncoat from bad to good without explanation. Plot coupons come from nowhere. Chapters are short and action-packed. The character is dragged through events by the seat of her pants, rather than making decisions for herself. And none of the cast is likable. It’s like a Jason Statham movie.

So this should only be used for amusement and entertainment. It won’t give you anything profound. It won’t be taught in high school. But it is a great book for a reader who likes Marvel movies and video games. It’s a trip and a joke and an action movie.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

This is the story of a twelve-year-old girl coming to terms with the absence of her mom. It’s told in two parallel narratives. One is in present-time, on a road trip with her grandparents. The other is the story she tells to her grandparents that involve her mom and what happened with her and her dad after she left.

The classic trifecta ensues: 1) they move somewhere she doesn’t like 2) Dad starts seeing another woman 3) No one in school likes her. In the process, she befriends another girl, and HER mother leaves. This is the interesting part, as our main character gets a taste of what a pill she was, having to console someone in the same situation.

It’s a good story, especially if you know what a broken home is like. And the style, full of odd quaint country expressions and quirky humor. It’s not a cheesy Hallmark story. It reminds me of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie or “Holes” by Louis Sachar or “I Am the Cheese” by Robert Cormier. All of these have an unreliable narrator and implication of something sinister going on below the surface.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I was nervous about reading this at first. John Green highly recommended it, dedicated a whole vlog to it. But in the past, he’d recommended Kendra by Coe Booth, which I didn’t like. And The Boy in the Black Suit was only so-so. So I thought this genre wasn’t for me, because I couldn’t be more white and it’s a big leap to sympathize with… what are we calling them now? Underprivileged minorities? Then I saw it on a bunch of Year End Top Ten lists and thought I’d give it a try.

Days later, I was still thinking about it. Yes, it’s an “issue” book, but it’s more about the aftermath of what someone goes through. Other issue books miss the point entirely, skipping over roots & causes and capitalizing on a hot button to sell books (like 13 Reasons Why or This Is Where It Ends).

Our main character is split between two worlds. By day she goes to school in a white neighborhood full of preppies, thanks to a school voucher. By night, she’s back in the ghetto, with her family of half-siblings and Dad who’s done time and now runs a grocery store. She never lets either side know of her other life because she’d be called a traitor or ostracized for some other reason.

That all changes when she witnesses a cop shoot her friend and can’t toe the line anymore. But it’s more about what her neighborhood goes through, how they react, from gang leaders to barbers, and the whites & lawyers reactions. It’s about what it means to be “ghetto” when that’s your life, not just a thirty-minute sitcom. Even when you live among gangs and broken families, a young black teenage girl can still want daddy snuggles. No one is a one-note or ghetto caricature. It’s modern life and helps a great deal with empathizing and sympathizing and, most of all, understanding the POV of “Black Lives Matter”.

Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

It’s a solid C. The main character lacks a “Save the Cat” moment, so he’s not very sympathetic. And women won’t find anything for themselves here. The only female in the book is the person the main character is trying to ask out. She’s a prize to be won. Also there’s no plot, no bad guy, no goal (either inner or outer) besides “learn a thing”. So it’s a little like Disney’s The Sword in the Stone in that way. But at least in that movie, Merlin was grooming Arthur to be king. Here, the wizards’ objective is to live easy bachelor lives, geek wish fulfillment, and to conjure burritos whenever they want.

After that, you’d think I’d give it a low rating. But despite its flaws, I realized, halfway through, that I still wanted to know how it ended. This is what I wanted Wizard’s Bane to be–a computer programmer in medieval times using programming to do magic.

This is a book for people who like comic strips, not characters. It’s light-hearted, fun, and humorous. But keep in mind that means the plot is going to be held by shoestrings. So don’t come in with expectations of Harry Potter.

Also, the cover is bupkiss. There’s no video games here.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

This was way better than I thought it would be. King’s known for horror, not high fantasy. Before this point, the only other fantasy he wrote (if you don’t count The Gunslinger, which goes beyond genres) was The Talisman. And after this point, he didn’t go back to it for a long time. So I thought it would be a disaster. When an author writes outside their wheelhouse, you get wary. But it was also written in 1987, around the same time as It, Misery, and Skeleton Crew. And before he got sober.

The whole book has a fun storyteller vibe, like an old man in a tavern telling you the saga of King What’s-his-face. And since it’s a secondary world, you don’t have to worry about those Stephen King cliches.

However, the weird thing is the story never seems to start. It keeps describing characters, giving anecdotes, showing the history of the kingdom, etc. but you’re halfway through the book and the inciting incident hasn’t occurred. The narration consistently feels like it’s building towards something all throughout, which is disconcerting.

But overall, yes, I recommend it. It’s a good book even for the non-Stephen King fan and I plan on reading the sequel.

John Dies at the End by David Wong
(re-read)

I remember reading this when it was free online, many many years ago. At the time, it felt like a life-changing work. So many books consist of dull introspective characters, plodding plots. This was a story for the MTV generation, with creative monsters, gross-out moments, and complete rejection of post-modern literary crap.

But it’s a flawed narrative. Many scenes take up space and reflect what you’d see in a movie. They don’t drive plot, reveal character, or restate theme. Also, all the events happen without being tied together, so it gets long and boring when the characters don’t want anything except to survive.

It’s like a Transformers movie: every scene is framed as MAXIMUM importance… which means nothing is important.Things happen, but you don’t care. It’s not a character-based story, it’s event, then event, then event. There’s no quiet scenes where we get a chance to absorb the impact. There’s sort of a beginning but there’s no middle or ending. The imagery provides information that isn’t necessary, like reading a book while listening to a different one. It’s all spectacle and no information.

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View by various authors

This is an anthology of short stories that tells the story of Star Wars, but from the point-of-view of all the little characters that don’t matter. Like the Jawa that finds R2-D2, the Tusken Raider that cold-cocks Luke, various droids and rebels, even the stormtrooper that bonks his head on the doorway. All the parts that didn’t even earn scale.

It’s actually one of the better short story collections I’ve read. Maybe because A) there’s one unifying element tying them all together and leading to a conclusion and B) it’s Star Wars. It was enjoyable, but not pull-you-in enjoyable. There is a LOT of time spent on Tatooine. I think there’s a story for every character in Mos Eisley. If you like Star Wars, this is definitely worth looking into.

The Dark Side is Not an Evil Side (Obligatory “Two Sides to Every Schwartz” joke)

One of the things I wish Star Wars would do with its storytelling is to resolve that the Dark Side is not evil. Nothing is inherently evil in this world. Only humans (and some well-evolved animals) can be evil. It takes a good brain to be evil, because evil is gaining pleasure from the pain of others.

So not spiders or guns or poison or magic or anything is evil. It’s what you do with those powers that determines your fate. It’s why I feel bad for Slytherin house. They all get painted with the same brush. You get sorted into Slytherin, it’s a death sentence for your social life. But there’s nothing evil about ambition or resourcefulness or determination or self-preservation.

It’s the same thing with the Force, which is essentially magic. It’s just that people who use the Dark Side of the Force keep using them for evil. But there’s nothing that says they have to hurt people. That’s why I like Kylo Ren as a character, and why I’m holding out for his redemption.

There are force-neutral powers, like telekinesis, jumping, persuasion, telepathy, and force concealment, (which is like “masking your scent”. I guess other force-sensitives can tell what side of the coin you land on so there’s a way to cover that up. Who knew?) But these powers can be used for good and evil. You can read someone’s mind and invade their privacy. Deceiving others about the nature of your powers seems like it should be on the Dark Side, but it’s not. And Persuasion is basically like mind-rape. I can’t believe there’s not more controversy about this–I guess it’s okay to force your will on someone else as long as you have a wispy beard.

star wars force infographic
Source

Midichlorian Manipulation – Create, maintain, or save life by “influencing midichlorians”. This was how Anakin believed he could stop Padme from dying. Of course, no one knows what midichlorians are or how they work, so I don’t know how this can be called good or evil. In fact, this might be all bupkiss, made up by Palpatine. And isn’t healing others a good thing? The Light Side has healing, detoxification, revitalization, but if someone’s not breathing, you just stop?

Force Rage – Tap into fears, pain, and hate, turning them into rage that can increase speed, strength, and ferocity. Well, isn’t that what normal anger does? Anger isn’t an evil emotion. Anger over an injustice can lead to a greater good. If your kid is trapped under a car, fear and anger lets you lift that F150 off the ground.

Force Choke/Crush/Grip – This is just telekinesis. We always see Dark Siders doing it–lifting someone and choking them or throwing them around. They’re just focused on specific body parts. But it’s no different than anything the Light Side can do.

Force Drain – Tap into the strengths of an organic target, exhausting it immediately. Can be used to affect a wide area, depending on how mastered in the technique.This seems to be the inverse of the Force Heal (though it’s not clear if the life and vitality is transferred to the user or it just dissipates). Most of the time you see a “drain” spell, it’s in the context of magic meant to harm. Final Fantasy does this. Magic: The Gathering does this. Vampires do this. Not many arguments that removing health from someone in order to gain isn’t inherently evil, but there are examples.

In Blade, the female protagonist lets the hero drink her blood to regain his strength. I think Buffy does the same thing with Angel at some point. Rogue is an X-Man X-woman X-menman X-person superhero with power-draining powers. Metroids can drain and inject energy, and we all remember the tragic ending of Super Metroid. And in real life, there are many blood-drinking insects and animals, but they’re so small that they don’t individually do significant harm (unless they transmit a disease). And here’s a fun fact: Male garter snakes will emit and act like a female garter snake when rising from hibernation. This gets other male garter snakes to cluster and coil around them, transferring body heat and helping them wake up.(See also definition 3 of trap)

Force Slow – Cloud the target’s mind, slowing them down mentally and physically. This is a weird one, but I can see instances where it doesn’t need to be considered harmful. Like if you’re a cop and you’ve got to handle some whacked-out PCP meth-head brandishing a sword at an intersection. And Zack Morris could have used it to deal with Jessie Spano.

Force Corrupt – Temporarily manipulate the mind of another sentient being to make him/her serve your own cause. Isn’t this just Force Persuasion? And that was labeled as a core power. Moving on.

Force Lightning – This is just the collection and projection of energy. I consider it to be Force concentrated, like how electricity is concentrated fire (like all good science, this is based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and not actual science). We only ever see Sith use it, and only ever to harm others, but that doesn’t mean it has to. Why not repower that Moisture Reclamator and help a farmer out.

Transfer Essence – Basically, you switch bodies, or transfer your soul into an inanimate object. (Does that mean anything? Like a rock? Or a droid? Or a ship? Is this where Emperor Snoke came from? I have a fan theory that Snoke is really Palpatine, who survived the fall and Death Star II explosion using his strong connection to the Force, but that’s why he’s all scarred and weird looking.) As long as you can’t “Project: Genesis” someone, this doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, Hollywood has taught us that the results are always hilarious, like in Freaky Friday and Shrek the Third, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

It seems like the most distinguishing characteristic of dark Force powers is avoidance of death. The Light Side has no defense against that, except for being a Force Ghost. Not to mention we’ve seen Luke using some of these Dark Side powers (in ROTJ, he chokes some moblins in Jabba’s palace).

The best thing about Kylo Ren is how conflicted he is. He has a huge legacy to live up to. His loved ones betrayed him (Mom and Dad got divorced, Uncle/teacher tried to kill him). Everyone’s always talking about his “raw” power, but no one tells him what to do with it. He’s just a puppy looking for a master. His best strengths are telekinesis (holding blaster bolts) and telepathy, both neutral powers. And he can shrug off a bowcaster blast, something that sent a dozen stormtroopers into the sky.

So I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to him in the future. And I hope that it ties with how the force works in the context of Light Side vs. Dark Side.

Analyzing the Disney Villains: Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)

final mad madam mim sword in the stone
Origin: The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Sword in the Stone is interesting because the plot line has no real good vs. evil arc as most Disney movies do. Instead, the story is about growth, about the evolution of a small, wimpy boy being taught courage, wisdom, and strength. The value is put on education, not defeating the bad guy. That being said, there are obstacles to Wart’s goal. I would describe Sir Kay and Ector as the film’s antagonists, as they are the primary obstacles to Wart getting what he wants (hanging out with Merlin and getting an education). However, that does not mean they are the film’s villain. I believe that person is the Mad Madam Mim.

Motivation: Mad Madam Mim is a little bit like the archetype evil witch in that A) she lives alone in the woods and B) likes to kill little children. But she has no overarching desire or backstory. Once she learns Wart’s connection to Merlin, she tries to kill him, but why? Maybe Merlin’s her primary target, but she sure isn’t doing much, sitting in the woods with her cards. And what does she intend to do afterwards? Good stakes (the loss of the protagonist), but no root cause. Her scene could be drastically changed or removed without upsetting the movie.

Character Strengths: Merlin’s animosity toward Mim is that she uses “trickery” instead of real magic. What the difference is, I have no idea. Their skills seem evenly matched, although all we ever see them do is change into animals. I guess they were using my four-year-old’s Big Book of Animals for a spellbook. (For a real wizard’s duel, try “The Raven”, starring Boris “Cannonball Foot” Karloff vs. Vincent “The Nice” Price). Mim uses deceit and lies where Merlin uses cleverness. And it works for her. But like all lies, only to a point.

Evilness: Meh. She’s more comic relief than anything — one of those villains who takes being called horrible and ugly as a compliment, looks like a frumpy grandma, and then sings a song about how she’s so great. I feel like she should be off somewhere else, fighting Smurfs. If she came to my doorway, I wouldn’t be terribly scared. I’d be wondering if she brought me cookies.

Tools: It’s hard to argue with magic powers, but it looks like they don’t deviate much from transfiguration. If she is Merlin’s equal, she must have more than that. But we only see what the movie shows us. So except for killing a flower and some neat sparklies, I’m pretty sure I could whack her from behind with a baseball bat.

Complement to the Hero: Mad Madam Mim apparently has some past history with Merlin, but not Wart, who is the protagonist. Minus points there. She doesn’t appear until Wart flies through her window, and has less than ten minutes of screen time. At no time does she ever come into real conflict with Wart or have a crossing of goals. She is not an obstacle, she is an enemy of convenience.

Fatal Flaw: She seems to have a penchant for games — when we first see her, she’s playing solitaire. She gives Wart a “sporting chance” to escape her when she tries to kill him (she turns into a cat when he’s a bird). And finally challenges Merlin to a wizard duel (in a very contrived way), which ultimately leads to her defeat. I must admit, I kinda like this, the “downfall by hubris”, biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew, hoist-by-your-own-petard fatal flaw. In the process, she (and also the audience) learn that “knowledge and wisdom is the real power”.

Also, not a strong immune system. Must be from living with all that dust.

Method of Defeat/Death: Mim sets the rules for the Wizard’s Duel (no relation to Harry Potter) and they both chase each other up the evolutionary ladder until Mim becomes a purple dragon (breaking her own rule). Merlin, instead of taking the bait and becoming something bigger (though dragons are assumed to be apex predators), goes the opposite way and becomes a germ. (Except Merlin just broke the rule too: they can only turn into animals, but bacteria belong to a separate taxonomic kingdom from Animalia.) Sick in bed, Merlin leaves Mim with her red spots and hot’n’cold flashes. Apparently, he wants her to get back up and kill him later.

Final Rating: One star

Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

Harry Potter and the Implausible Scenario

harry potter magic

“I’m half and half.  Me dad’s a muggle; Mam’s a witch.  Bit of a nasty shock for him when he found out.”

The character of Seamus Finnegan spouts that line in the movie “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”.  It’s a one-line condensation of a much bigger, more subtle part of the book, meant only to say indicate that wizards can be born from two wizards, two muggles, or one muggle and one wizard.  Parentage doesn’t seem to matter where magic prowess is concerned.  Of course, this becomes a much bigger issue in following stories.  But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I’m here to talk about what must have been going through his dad’s mind when he found out all this.  I’ve got two daughters, so these are the things I think about: what if one of them developed psychic powers like Carrie, or turned into a superhero, or was invited to a school for witchcraft & wizardry.

I can imagine myself sitting in my easy chair, staring at this letter that just came down the chimney (despite us having a gas fireplace), turning it back and forth in my hand.  My wife has given me a brief explanation of what it means and that yes, she’s a former graduate and can do magic too.

“So, magic is real,” I say.  “You can light things on fire and make gold and heal wounds and shoot fireballs.  And change princes into frogs and pumpkins into cars.”

They nod.

“And this school is going to teach you how to do all that.  How to make things fly and find unicorns?”

More nodding.

“So unicorns are real.  And dragons.”

They nod.

“So if we wanted to, we could pack up the car, buy a ticket.  And go see a real dragon right now.”

They look at each other, shrug, then nod.

“So let’s go!  Let’s see some dragons.  And monsters and giants and whatever else might be out there.  Goblins?  Can we fight some goblins?  Are there cool swords?”

“Well, yes.  Usually you use a wand,” my wife would say.  “I have one here.”

I stare at the wand.  A nine-inch cherry-wood with unicorn tail hair.  “So you… so you’ve been able to do magic all this time.  So you could have made the faucets spout gold at any time.  So I wouldn’t have to break my back working for Big Roy’s Heating & Plumbing for twenty years for the mortgage payment.”

She nods.

“And you can put dinner on the table at any time, without having to slave over a cooking stove, instead of me having to wait half an hour while you burn the steak?”

She puts up her finger.  “Actually, you can’t just transfigure food like that.  It’s not possible.  It has to be magically transported from the kitchens.”

I steeple my fingers.  “So magical transportation.  This is essentially teleportation?  You are in one place one second and in another the next?”

They nod.

“Which means instead of a forty-minute commute each morning and afternoon…  Plus the business trip I had to take cross-country on Jet Blue where we sat on the tarmac for eight hours and wouldn’t let us go to the bathroom…”

They nod.

“Get out.”