The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: July – August 2017

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norse mythology neil gaiman
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I expected this to be like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. And I got what I wanted. It’s a tightly paced retelling of the old Norse creation myths. Problem is, there aren’t many of them. I suspect that’s more to do with lack of surviving source material, given what Neil Gaiman says in the foreword. Maybe a long time ago there were scrolls and scrolls of Loki and Thor stories. Now all we’ve got are comic books. And if you’re any fan of Marvel’s interpretations, this is required reading.

The nice thing is that the re-tellings are up to date. I expected something Shakespearean or textbook-dry, like Hamilton. But the narration feels like an old storyteller sitting down by the fire, telling yarns to the grandchildren. The details behind Ragnarok and Fenrir and Loki are fascinating. It’s funny and suspenseful and creative. There are one-liners and drama and character flaws & flawed actions. It’s flavorful.

If you haven’t picked up Neil Gaiman before, this might be a good one to try. The content doesn’t consist of his usual dreamlike, abstract faire (that I’m not too fond of either). And you can tell it’s material he’s passionate about.

tough shit kevin smith
Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith

One night, before going out, Kevin Smith asks his wife “Can I stare at your asshole while I jack off?”

So depending on your reaction to that line, you can judge your potential interest in this tome.

Kevin Smith is, uh, an interesting fellow. Well, what I can I say? He was one of the voices of a generation. You look at the nineties and people think Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Kevin Smith. The guy is, at heart, a storyteller. I could listen to him talk about Superman and the Giant Spider all day.

And that’s what this book is. You get to hear how he met his wife, the making/publication of Red State, the Southwest “too fat to fly” fiasco, the up and down relationship with The Weinstein Company. The nice thing about Smith is he’s able to admit his wrongs and justify his rights. He never assumes he’s the smartest guy in the room and always gets feedback on if he’s showing his own ass (because that’s easy to do when your content consists of stinkpalming stoners and Carlin-esque religion satire).

The book is equal combinations of crudeness and heart, black humor and childlike wonder. It’s a good book for insight on the Hollywood scene, especially for potential indie film-makers. And it gives more inspiration that “you can make it” than “this is how to make it” (which is really all luck more than anything).

the killer angels michael shaara
The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Sharra
(unfinished)

I might have finished if I hadn’t realized there were SparkNotes for it. Also a movie. Also, I didn’t care enough about the characters to know if they lived or died. And these are real characters that I know if they lived or died (spoiler: they all died… eventually).

I put it on my to-read list because I heard that this is the book that inspired Joss Whedon to make Firefly. Well, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. But when I got to 40%, I realized I had gotten everything the book had to offer. The prose is dry and the characters read robotically. Maybe that’s to do with their military upbringing, but it’s hard to sympathize with the team that’s not fighting for the right side, even if they may or may not “believe” in that side’s cause (which is stupid, but I’m digressing).

If this was meant to teach me about war novels, I learned that they are boring. The plot is mechanical. Arguing about strategy–“take that hill.” We took that hill. Our guys got shot. We shot their guys. Argue, argue. Decide on more strategy. It’s how I imagine Warhammer novels are.

And then there’s the constant self-doubt of anyone in power. I imagine that’s true, but it gets annoying to constantly read about. The historical factor isn’t enough to pull me in either. Plus I know how it ends. So what did I come here for?

terry pratchett going postal
Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The city government grants a con artist a second lease on life if he can get the post office up and running. The mail system’s fallen into disrepair since the clacks (a telegraph/semaphore system) went up. But the evil business that owns them has been embezzling and employee safety has paid the price. So it’s David vs. Goliath as the thief has to figure out not only how to eschew his criminal background, but also how to deliver floors full of letters as he avoids the shadowy businessmen.

This is an adventure story. It’s not dissimilar to any other Pratchett – if you’ve read one of them, you’ve know what to expect. And this won’t convince you otherwise. I picked it up because it’s the highest rated/ranked Discworld novel in the series, and thought I should read this if not any others.

I consider Pratchett to the be the fantasy equivalent of Douglas Adams. That means events take a backseat to world-building and situation-explaining. Plot pacing is sacrificed for humor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Written humor is hard because you lose all elements of timing. So if you can get a chuckle out of anyone, you’ve accomplished a great deal. And this got several chuckles from me.

The key negative is the unlikable characters. The con man doesn’t really want to be there. The government is forcing him in this job on threat of death. His chief ally at the post office is an old man who’d rather see tradition served than do any work. Plus a young man who might be autistic (he collects pins and goes into fits when routine is broken). No one is particularly charming, but Iron Man seems to get away with it. The other problem is too many subplots, due to the too many characters, which is par for the course in Discworld.

It’s a book of contradictions, but a solid four stars.

13 treasures
13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison
(unfinished)

It’s full of cliches. The story makes a promise in the first chapter that doesn’t get fulfilled or hinted at for the next four or five. Which means it’s a cheat.

This girl is apparently the one who can see fairies and thus under their constant threat (because she could reveal their existence). This means a bunch of hijinks that can’t be explained has already happened and the mother has no choice but to send her troubled child to live with her grandmother in the country. There’s a neighbor boy who’s kind of annoying, weird neighbors, parents who don’t understand, falling in love with a library, and a witch who gives her a trinket for no reason. Didn’t I see this already in Coraline?

There’s more narration than dialogue. No one has any personality. The character makes no connections or relationships in this new setting. Events happen without being rooted in some cause. The protagonist has no “save the cat” moment. She’s a whiny inactive protagonist. And lots of telling. There’s even a gypsy woman (and I thought that term was racist).

This is just some thirteen-year-old’s badly conceived fantasy.

the rest of us just live here patrick ness
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

All the characters here are broken. And thus, interesting. But this is not a fantasy novel. This is a standard YA novel with real-life problems. Non-real elements are minor and don’t affect the plot.

Something’s going on in the background of said plot. Something “Harry Potter” or “Buffy” involving a Big Bad and Apocalypses. But that’s not what the story is about. This is about the extras that end up in the B-roll, when the cameras pan over the ambulances. Who are those people?

One is gay. One is going to a war-torn third world country after graduation. One is a recovering anorexic. And one (the main character) has a compulsion disorder. There is magic in the world, but no one is using it. No one wants to. They’ve seen what happens to the kids who do. They’re stressing about college, graduation, dating, whether he-likes-her-but-does-she-like-me. It’s nice to see a deconstruction of the hero’s journey, but hard to do well. This one does. The style reminds me of John Green writing a Harry Potter background character or A.S. King (“Please Ignore Vera Dietz”).

stephen king just after sunset
Just After Sunset by Stephen King
(unfinished)

I read the first six stories. Only one provoked any reaction from me, thus I put it down. They’re all typical Stephen King — overwritten and full of generic description. I think he’s said everything he’s needed to say, and now he’s repeating himself.

Plus the thing about short stories is that they never seem to matter to the world within. They’re never important or epic. There’s no point to invest in one because it’s gone as soon as you do. They’re just slices of life.

They’re also not scary. He’s gone from tangible horror to the existential slipstream hypnosis or something like that. There’s a Family Guy joke where King’s publisher is asking for his next idea. King looks around the office and grabs a lamp. “For my next book, um… this couple is… um… attacked by, um… a lamp monster! Oooh…” There is LITERALLY a story like that, but it’s a stationary bike. “Ooh, look at the scary stationary bike. Ooh, you don’t know where it’s taking you. Ooh, is it making you hallucinate or is it real?” Please.

i hated hated hated this movie roger ebert
I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert

I enjoyed “Your Movie Sucks“, and thought this one would be even better, because it might include more movies I’m familiar with. But that’s not the case. It cuts off in 1999 and includes a ton of stinkers that I don’t remember at all. (There’s even a review of a MST3K movie, I thought that was a neat anachronism.)

This one seems to lack the vitriol that the sequel had. Probably because Ebert hadn’t reached peak cynicism yet. I thought I’d enjoy hearing his witty evisceration of my nostalgic classics, but those were few and far between. It’s too bad you can’t buy just the reviews of the movies you want to read about.

the long way to a small angry planet becky chambers
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I cannot remember why I put this on my to-read list. It’s like a combo of John Scalzi and Leviathan Wakes. The characters are colorful, like a readable Firefly, but painted with a comic book brush. So they’re actually happy–not sullen or brooding or grimdark. That’s weird to me, but welcome. But after I finished, I was of two minds about it.

One one hand, it’s amateur hour. The entire middle could be removed without affecting the plot. Each chapter is episodic and self-contained. Some characters get a lot of screen time. Others you forget are there.

There’s an illusion of consequences to character actions… but nothing really happens. For example, the main character has a “the liar revealed” moment, and it affects nothing because everybody is so nice. No one dies. No one loses an hand or a mentor. Nothing changes anyone or anything. Nobody gets to say “Man, I regret doing that thing” or “I was wrong to do that”.

Finally, the “episodes” get transparently political. There is one that’s an immigration allegory. One that’s a LGBTQ rights allegory. One about religious freedom.

On the other hand, these are fun characters. They’re enjoyable to be around. They’re funny and smart, they don’t make stupid decisions. They’re practical and don’t fall into space opera tropes. It’s a little like Star Wars if it was created by the person who wrote My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It’s not morose empire drama. But I don’t think I’ll read the second one.

The Books I Read: November – December 2016

bookshelf books

rejected princesses david porath
Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by David Porath

I fell in love with this book immediately, which has never happened to me before. I am not an early adopter, and it’s the onus of every book to entice me. Of course, by the time I know that, I’m usually victim to time sink fallacy. But look at this cover. It looks like all the books in the old Disney movies. You know, like in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty where a live-action book opens at the beginning and closes at “the end”. Now I have a book like that. I can look like I’m reading an old timey volume of forgotten lore (quoth the raven). Look at me — I’m gushing and I haven’t even opened the book yet.

snow white book

Inside is more than fifty stories of women who kicked ass and took names, folk tales you never heard of, tribal leaders, revolutionaries, women who outrode Paul Revere, outsmarted popes, outbattled kings, and outwitted empires. Each entry is about a page or two, so no princess outstays her welcome. They’re like wikipedia entries, but don’t duplicate the dry descriptions. Many include anecdotes and details that bring them to life as real people who existed. This is not a research/reference book. It’s entertaining and informative like The Daily Show or CGPGrey or Extra Credits. The author adds a unique flavor/voice that gives away how much he loves this subject and how much he wants to share it.

Plus, each entry has a beautiful illustration of the lady therein, rendered as a kind of Dreamworks/Disney princess. Like each woman has her own movie poster. It even includes notes on how the art includes culture and tidbits not in the story.

Now this volume does have a fault: there are maturity ratings and content warnings for each story, ranging from one to five. But even the tamest wasn’t appropriate for kids under ten (IMHO). In fact, just about all of them… well, this makes me sound like the most conservative of parents, but they acknowledge the existence of sex, use words like “plastered”, and assume some historical knowledge. It’s not that the content is vulgar or adult. It just brings up questions that I don’t need to answers yet. Which makes it kind of strange that this book wants to highlight famous influential women, but the content is too old for when girls are their most influenced. Maybe they can release a PG version for the younglings? I want them to learn about these people too. The earlier the better.

hollow city peregrine peculiar children random riggs
Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I dunno. It’s a basic quest story. The Peculiars need to get from Point A to Point B and they come up against obstacles in-between. The bulk of those obstacles take place in WWII London during the firebombings. It’s hard to get invested in the characters again because they never stay in one place for long. There are no “quiet moments” where they talk about what they’re feeling or their reactions or how they feel about each other. The kids bicker among themselves about where to go and what to do, but never about their relationships. They don’t use their powers much, except for invisible kid, so I have trouble telling any of them apart.

It’s more like exploring the “expanded universe” of peculiars. And this time around, the events are even more aimless. Like the author pulled out a photograph at random and had to write about it. As a result, this seems like random stuff that happened. Because by the end, it seems like it was all forced filler. No one has a plot arc and no one feels changed at the end. The bulk of what they learned is that World War II sucks (which I already knew).

neil gaiman view from the cheap seats
The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

These are all the speeches, articles, blog entries, and forewords Neil Gaiman has written over the years. A lot of them were about stuff I know nothing about — old authors that he admired, music I don’t listen to, stories from his youth I’m too young to appreciate. It’s not a memoir, it’s a series of essays. Most of them are gushes about someone. There’s nothing about the writing process or creation in here, except the “Make Good Art” speech which everyone knows.

And it’s long. His writing style is unchanged — full of comfort and warmth, like when Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time, and you know that this guy is one of the good ones. But I am not the kind of guy who has found solace in any of Gaiman’s influencers — Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Will Eisner, etc. There are a few memorable ones, but as a whole, this is only for the most diehard Gaiman fan.

fuzzy tom angleberger
Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

It’s… all right. It’s perfectly average. There are no groundbreaking ideas, no new techniques. It’s aimed at a younger age group than YA (Percy Jackson, Underland Chronicles, et al). There’s nothing controversial or gaspworthy inside. It’s less about the robot and more about everything surrounding him. Like the AI that runs the school being super Big Brother. It’s kind of like 1984 meets Double Dare.

There are some plot threads that taper off into nothingness, as if there were already sequels planned, which make me disgusted. I hate when marketers plan a series before anyone’s seen it. The robot doesn’t act much like a robot (I say that about every robot book, don’t I?). There was a perfectly serviceable opportunity to present some interesting STEM topics here, like “what IS fuzzy logic?” “how does/could AI work?” WWW: Wake is a book that better explores these ideas, and I had no inclination to continue that series (too metaphysical).

I know I’m complaining more than praising, but the things that the book does right are basic and safe. Harmless. I could really only recommend this book if you’ve got nothing else that’s flipping your cookie at the moment.

The Books I Read: November – December 2013 (Part 1)

bookshelf books

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

It’s definitely unlike the movie. I’ve complained before about Blade Runner, and that it’s all style and lacking cohesion. The book feels a little more satirical, a little more biting, and not so concerned about looking and feeling cool. It’s really steeped in allegory and metaphor and THE MESSAGE. It’s interesting how the director saw a movie in this. The portion that made it into the film is quite minimal. He probably could have saved some money by filing off the serial numbers.

The book itself? Well, it’s hard to put an opinion on it. It’s a novel to be appreciated for its place in history. It’s almost like a Wes Anderson science fiction story, with the quirkiness and the focus on people over tech. I guess the problem with classic science fiction is that everyone wants to say they’ve read it, but no one actually wants to do the reading. The ideas inside are nominal.  But everyone else has done more current variations on them, with characters one can better sympathize with. I read my books for emotional connections, and this doesn’t have them so much.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi

When I read The Big Idea piece on it, it sounded interesting, but I didn’t intend to pick it up. Except I saw it on my library’s eBook catalog, so I thought, what the heck. It sounded like a fun book.

Paolo says he wrote the book as a fun thing without much pressure. There aren’t any literary techniques.  He just tried to make a fun book for boys about zombie fighting, without many themes and motifs. In fact, I think the themes are actually more prevalent than he makes light of. There’s a prominent thread of foreigners/bigotry in here. Moreso than the zombies, which are actually lacking. Those expecting something like World War Z or David Wolverton will be disappointed.

That being said, the novel does achieve what it seeks out to. It’s a beach read, not too heavy except for the racism themes, and some fun gross-outs.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

When I read Eleanor & Park I decided to check out more of this Rainbow Rowell person. Delightedly, I my library had her latest, newly-released novel available. This is about Cath, one of twin girls, going to college freshman year. The primary conflict is that she’s forced to live an independent life and come out of her shell. She’s used to retreating into her computer and writing fan fiction.

I guess I’d categorize this book as a romance. There aren’t a lot of plot twists or problems or obstacles. The main character is simply trying to cope with her severe introversion and reaching an adult identity. It was a subject I could easily identify with — I was very scared as a freshman, and frequently stayed in my dorm. The stakes are not epic, but character-focused. Which is fine. If you loved Eleanor & Park, but thought it was too depressing, this one is not.

Rage by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

I’ve wanted to read this one for a long time, but could never find it. Stephen King let it fall out of print and called it “a good thing”. Personally, I found that hypocritical. This is the guy who says “you can have my books when you pry them from my cold dead hands.”

The book itself shows those shades of early King, before he became too wordy. It’s not horror or supernatural, it’s dark satire (and some author venting). The kid goes into school and holds a classroom hostage. The problem is what happens there. While we get flashbacks of the killer’s life, he plays around with his power on the students. Like resolving an argument between girls with a fight.

Eventually, they start revealing that they’re not happy, they’re not the perfect choir girls parents think they are. They get pretty comfortable with a madman with the gun in the room. So much, it only takes 2 hours for them to get Stockholm syndrome and side with the madman.

The plot is implausible. It has that 70’s style-over-realism thing going on. King is famous for that in the Bachman books. The ending has earmarks of 80’s horror movie cheesiness. If you want to complete your King collection or have a jones for stories about school rebellion, this is a fine read. But otherwise, I think it can be passed.

Breath by Jackie Morse Kessler

When I got this book, I left the library thinking “how is she going to screw this one up?” This is the last book of the series, dealing with Death, who Kessler has portrayed as Kurt Cobain.

And of course, it’s all exposition. Talking, talking, talking. Explaining, more talking, and then existential nonsense which has nothing to do with the protagonist. Nobody wants anything. I’m shouting at the book DO SOMETHING. There’s no conflict. The big plot twist for the protagonist, where what he thought was wasn’t (a la A Beautiful Mind) happens in the last five pages.  THE LAST FIVE PAGES.

That’s the kind of shit that happens in Act 1. It’s the crux of your story, and it doesn’t happen until the end. And of course, there’s no consequences for it. It takes one hundred pages in for any sort of turn to happen. Besides that it’s people living, making bad jokes, and NOTHING HAPPENS.

Oh, and it’s transparent that she’s trying to hide gender. Kessler, you are not John Scalzi. I am so glad to be done with you.

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Also one I was surprised to see in my library’s eCatalog. But I snatched it up. However, I think this works better as a paper book. There are some nice illustrations that go along with it, that are really too small in eBook form to be appreciated.

The story is one Neil Gaiman is famous for — an ordinary schlub gets caught up in whimsical adventures with weird, funny stuff. This time it takes a page from Roald Dahl.  And while it’s got plenty of funny bits, I don’t feel it’s destined to become a classic. Also, I’m not sure some of the more complex subjects (time travel and quantum mechanics figure heavily into the plot) will go under the heads of the target audience. I would never want someone to dumb things down for kids, but I feel like only a small portion of its readers will appreciate it.  But that’s no reason not to try.

The Books I Read: July – August 2013

bookshelf books

she hulk diaries marta acosta
The She-Hulk Diaries by Marta Acosta

I had high expectations for this book — a novel about a superheroine who usually doesn’t make it past the comic books. I was hoping that, since Jennifer Walters is a lawyer, the book would be about some courtroom drama, a la John Grisham, but with the added complication of superheroes.

Despite it being The She-Hulk Diaries, She-Hulk is barely in it. It’s more about Jennifer Walters, her human form, and her “girl problems”. The crux of the story is Jennifer tooling around, talking to her friend, and trying to get a job. She spends way too much time obsessing over boyfriends — past, present, and future. I don’t mind romantic relationships, but she spends more time thinking about them than I prefer in my protagonists. Especially ones with a higher calling.

When she transforms (apparently she can do that — I thought she was always “on”), “Shulky” takes control. She’s not so much a raging beast as a party girl. Walters sits back and waits for her to finish her C-list heroics, then whoop it up at the opening of “pLace”. Thus the story feels like those chick lit novels scattered all over Barnes and Noble. You know, the ones with pop art and cocktails on the cover. The text is full of teenspeak, lists, quirky tidbits (even the place she works is named QUIRC), and short attention span writing.

The whole reason I like She-Hulk is because she’s not bogged down by these female tropes. She’s a super-strong, green-skinned women who uses the skills she’s fought for more than the ones she inherited. She’s confident, self-actualized, and capable, but has the hang-ups that freaks like the Thing and Beast have. That’s what makes her fascinating to me.

But in this she’s just another woman with insecurities, passive-aggressiveness, and a positive but cowardly attitude. The She-Hulk I want wouldn’t be worried about her ex’s fiancee. The central conflict of this book is whether or not the rock star guy she had a one night fling with still remembers her. It’s a plot that would be immediately resolved if the main character just TALKED TO THE PERSON.

I don’t want a She-Hulk that acts like Ally McBeal (even though Iron Man was in both). I don’t get any sense that any of this matters to the world, to Jennifer, and not to the reader.

shadow moon george lucas chris claremont
Shadow Moon (Chronicles of the Shadow War, Book 1) by Chris Claremont and George Lucas
(unfinished)

One word: overwriting. To the point it’s unreadable. I made it through one hundred pages, and only one thing happened.

I was excited when I learned there was a written sequel to Willow, one of my favorite movies. One that goes beyond favorite because I grew up with it. You’d think the sequel, written by the movie’s writer/director and a famous writer of “X-Men” could make magic, but they didn’t. The novel seems so far removed from the original movie, it can hardly be called a sequel. They don’t even call him “Willow” anymore. It’s something like “Ulfric Goodmoon”. And nobody returns except the annoying Brownies are still with him. They’re not as charming in print.

I stopped reading before it ruined my nostalgic memory for the little dwarf that could, the greatest swordsman in the world, and a woman who actually had some agency and character in a time when Conan the Barbarian’s love interest got five words spoken to her.

absolutely true diary part time indian sherman alexie
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This is a good book. I find it a shame that Sherman Alexie hasn’t written more. I was partly influenced to read this because I’d read and enjoyed “Reservation Blues” and partly because it had made so many “Best of Year” lists.

There’s very little that has influenced my opinion of native Americans in today’s culture than Sherman Alexie. He’s about my only source. Everything else, I can’t take at face value. I guess it’s like being black, you have to be it to understand, otherwise you just don’t get it. The story is enormously entertaining. It gets real, but there are also some loose ends, like his seizures and stuttering that don’t figure in.

scalzi the human division
The Human Division by John Scalzi

I really want Scalzi to branch out into new IP. He did so with Redshirts, which has now won the Best Novel Hugo. But then he went back to the OMW universe with a semi-serialized e-Book experiment.

It’s… I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s still Old Man’s War, it’s still Scalzi. It still feels like a novel, although it rests on a much more inconclusive cliffhanger than The Last Colony did. If you liked any of the other Old Man’s War books, you’ll like this too. Maybe a little bit less. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I like novels, and not a series of short stories. That’s just me.

speak anderson book cover
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

On the way to pick up “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, my eye caught this. I remembered Jim C. Hines talking about it, and remembering that it was about rape and selective mutism. Two subjects I’m interested in learning more about.

I was on-board with it for the first few chapters. A high schooler disaffected with life? Sign me up. But the story never starts. There are hints dropped here and there, but there’s no concrete narrative. No real goal or obstacles for the protagonist. Just a lot of complaining and sarcasm. There’s only so much vitriol I can read before I need a story or something.

And there’s an element of painting with such a brush of perspective. Not every high schooler is as vapid and mean and stupid as the characters herein. It’s like “Daria” the book, but played straight, which doesn’t work.

Then I finished it and read about it, and apparently it’s called a “problem novel” (a.k.a. social novel), which I went “this is a thing”? It’s a book where a social problem is illustrated through the characters in the book, and it’s not so much about the story but about the effects on the character. The story comes from the sociological theme, not the events or milieu.

So what I was complaining about in Speak speaks more about the mentality of the victim. It’s not just general grumpiness, it’s also about identity crisis. It’s not about the character trying to solve a problem or wanting something. It’s about illustrating what happened after the event. Like a denouement kinda thing. It makes me think that this may not be a novel I can judge as aesthetically as others I’ve read.

twilight sparkle my little pony book
Twilight Sparkle and the Crystal Heart Spell by G. M. Berrow

Um, I didn’t read this. It was… it was research. For my kids. But it’s at too high level for them right now. Yes, that’s it.

eleanor and park
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This is the best book I read for this time period. Months later, and I’m still thinking about it, wanting to revisit it. Just like Looking for Alaska. In fact, I heard about the book from John Green, who does a much better job of reviewing it than me.

It’s a YA romance about two teens in 1986. Park is half-Korean, but well-off. Eleanor comes straight out of Scalzi’s “Being Poor”. The novel slowly, methodically treads the course of their relationship. From the first idle glances, to words exchanged, in and out of misunderstandings, parental involvement, and their own sense of self-worth. These are two one-winged angels that need to hold onto each other in order to fly.

It’s a love story that’s not ridiculous Harlequin bodice-ripping or teen Dawson’s Creek drama. It perfectly illustrates the emotions, the awkwardness, the time when holding hands was enough. I don’t know how Rowell was somehow able to write such small things with such intensity — the first phone call, the little gifts and mix-tapes, waiting for no parents in the house, the first make-out session. I feel like an old man, looking at photographs. And each picture brings me to that reality. Just for a moment, I’m back there.

It’s also surreal that Eleanor looks almost exactly like my wife and that Park likes comic books and geeky stuff.

unnatural creatures neil gaiman
Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman edited by Neil Gaiman

Well, this ended up the same as the other short story anthologies I’ve read. Some I liked, and some I didn’t. Anthologies are always a crapshoot, and they’re always harder than a novel. I gotta get used to another universe and writing style every 5,000 words. I gotta figure out the new protagonist and plot goals over and over again. It’s a no-win situation. If you don’t like the story, it’s a slog. If you do like the story, it’s over too quickly.

The only reason I read this was because Neil Gaiman’s name was attached to it AND I found it easily at the library. Failing those events, I wouldn’t have picked this up.

chris kluwe beautifully unique sparkleponies
Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe

This book consists of very short essays, most not more than 2 pages, about various topics, mostly sociological and political, and reprinted from Kluwe’s earlier printed articles. They’re all very angry, like someone’s LiveJournal rants, but aimed at a newspaper audience. Some feel like Andrew Ryan’s audio diaries.

He has creative writing in his similes, but really, he’s not telling me anything I haven’t heard before. And moreover, there’s nothing positive in this. Everything is bad, bad, wrong, wrong. I wanted a little glimmer of optimism, if for nothing else than to clear the palate. I want to know about things he likes.

Also, I was hoping for more personal stories, like what it’s like to be a pro football player and a geek, balancing family, nerdery, and footballery. (To his credit, there is a chapter that explains why he doesn’t include those sorts of things). I like stories, I like anecdotes. I guess I was expecting this to be more memoir-ish, plot-based, and not a collection of angry rants with creative swears.

peter pan barrie
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
(reread)

A re-read. After this, I plan to re-read Tigerheart. This is all in preparation for Fearless, the unexpected sequel to one of my few five-star books.

Peter Pan still holds up, but I think it serves better as a book that’s read to you, rather than one you read. The great thing is that Barrie sets up a huge world, but only ever shows a tiny sliver of the stories that exist in it. I think that’s kept up the appeal of Neverland. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we see a renaissance like Wizard of Oz today.

The Books I Read: May – June 2013

bookshelf books

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson

You might remember this story from the famous “Yahoo! Answers” response to someone who asked for a summary, wanting to skip the summer reading. The D.C. Pierson himself responded, saying how disappointed he was trying to avoid it because it sounded like work, when the book is much better than other classics that could pop up on such a list. (Christ, Charlie Brown got assigned War and Peace, and that was just for Christmas vacation!)

But the book is everything Pierson said it was. The thing is it’s really rather… how do I put this… The title promises science-fiction, but it’s really more literary. It only gets into supernatural stuff in the last sixth, and it has nothing to do with what takes place before. The bulk is more about two geeky friends in a typical “enjoying their comic books video games when everyone rags on that and wants them to like football”. A wild girlfriend appears! to put them back on the mainstream track and drama ensues. It’s a branch off the “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” tree. But I do recommend it.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

I pre-ordered it this last year with my birthday money (May 2012), but it didn’t get released until November. Then I forgot about it, because I had so much to read. I didn’t think about it again until my queue was more manageable.

I think I burned myself out on Sandman near the end. It’s one thing to get one or two volumes at the library. It’s another to read the whole thing continuously.

But you practically have to read it beginning to end. There is so much inside. There are characters in volume one that don’t become significant until the last book. You could easily forget who’s who with everything that happens in-between. I’m not even talking about the literary references, the hidden meanings, the subtlety, the abstract thinking.

So it started to become drudgery after a while. Trudging through the swamp of such abstract thinking (as such is the stuff from which dreams are made). I myself am not a fan of the poetic, existential writing. I like concrete. I like stories where I can tell what’s happening and don’t have to think on artsy things. It’s like the writing is engineered to have so many meanings that it means nothing. Sandman defies critical analysis, like why do the Furies care about killing Sandman? Why does he kill himself? What is up with his elephant-man mask?

I think Sandman is meant to be read like a comic book — a little bit at a time. Slower than I read it. But I had to read it fast or I’d forget who everyone is.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Well, it was better than “The Last Unicorn“, which I consider to be its contemporary in “post-modern fantasy” (which means it was part of that weird eighties fantasy influx). But it sags in the middle, just like the old lady main character.

Nothing happens. There is no action. There are no stakes. Characters talk, but no one moves a plot forward. Sophie turns into an old lady, but then she doesn’t really care about getting a cure. She’s more comfortable as an old lady than as a young’n. They fall in love at the end, but there’s nothing leading up to that. Sophie is a nag, and Howl is an emo git. They don’t fall in love, they just get used to each other.

And then to give the semblance that there’s a story in all this, the ending is a huge deus ex machina of making stuff up. “Oh, yeah, um, how do I end this… OK, I’ll make this guy show up from nothing and say that this this person was the bad guy all along and… and Sophie’s “talent” will suddenly do something important. And this scarecrow who did nothing, I’ll turn into a main character.”

I don’t want to disrespect Diana Wynne Jones — there’s a lot of good ideas in here. But I liked the Miyazaki movie better.

Loss by Jackie Morse Kessler

Jackie: this series is not your confessional. It is not your soapbox or your diary. It is a book, meant to inform and entertain. You introduced a great concept with “Hunger”, but gave up decent exploration of the topic for superficial YA thrills. Then you screwed up with “Rage”. You screwed up with this one. And (now that I have “time-sink fallacy” and I have to finish the series) I know you’ll screw the pooch with the last. I know it.

Her author’s notes say the book went through twenty-two drafts before it was finished. Well, gee, I wonder why that was? Maybe because you put in so much junk that had nothing to do with the central concept? Pestilence. One of the four horsemen. Responsible for plague, sickness, poisons, germs. Dominion over disease. Do you want to tell me what that has the fuck-all to do with school bullies and Robin Hood? (At least the other books had a tangential theme: Famine to eating disorders, War to self-harm.) It’s like Kessler is writing some other story she wants to, other than the one presented to her.

(And maybe you shouldn’t be advertising your failures in your own book. How many times do movies with multiple directors, multiple drafts, multiple production companies, become lauded bestsellers? They have a term for that: development hell.)

The story is all over the place and none of it has to do with the protagonist. There are more words dedicated to the backstory of the deuteragonist than the main one. And nothing is resolved in the end — he’s still got bullies. He’s going to get his ass kicked the next day.

This series has lost such potential. I’m frustrated because there are some great themes she could be working with. But what does pestilence have to do with self-esteem? What does unrequited school crushes have to do with being assigned as a harbinger of the end-times? You’ve got a character who’s got the power to make anyone sick. It’s a hero’s journey. A call to adventure. And what does the author do? Watch some guy in a coma be Robin Hood and King Midas.

It’s like “The Dark Knight Rises”. Don’t shove the wrong story into the wrong milieu.

Pulling Up Stakes Part 2 by Peter David

My review of the first one, you can find here. The first part had more whiz-bang stuff, but a lot more info-dumping. This one is the reverse: less whiz-bang, more plot. My big problem is that there’s not much mystery — everything that they think is happening (who the bad guys are, what their plot is), turns out to be what is happening. No third act twist.

The ending appears to be setting up for a series, which I’m just not into. Not in this genre (urban fantasy). There’s just something about it which makes the story feel “not so important”.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I wasn’t sure I’d be into this book at first. My mom didn’t care for it, and my tastes run alongside hers.

At first it felt like hipster reading. The language was so clever you could feel it was in love with itself. But the story itself is mundane. Just a boy and a girl having marital problems.

So why couldn’t I stop reading it?

I’m not sure where it got me. It must have been some time in Amy’s diary entries where she’s talking about dating in Manhattan, where she’s dating Nick and talking about “monkey husbands”. It sounded like a girl I could like, and a boy I could sympathize with.

But all the women love having uber amounts of sex and speak vulgarly. I know my experiences are limited, but I just don’t know any women like that. I don’t know any women who know women like that. Are they out there? Is there anyone like in this book? Everyone’s acting like they do in Sex and the City but it’s played for farce in there. No woman’s ever asked me to “fuck them”.

Here’s the other thing. I read that the author tried to make it ambiguous to the reader whether the man was actually the killer or not in the first half, as in all the other “Lifetime movie/Sleeping with the Enemy” scenarios. I never got that part, so I never figured Nick was the killer/kidnapper. I read part one completely straight — a man trying to keep his name clear when the world’s out to get him.

At a certain point it started reminding me of those shows like “Revenge” and “Damages” and “Pretty Little Liars” that are all intrigue and scandal but never reach a resolution. They’re soap operas. This one has a resolution, but it also has the amazing coincidences of the characters needing to be who they are (good thing her stalker, who always denied being a stalker, was really her stalker, and happened to be rich and have an isolated place on the lake) and do what they do when needed.

Not to mention what does she hope to gain from all this rigmarole when it gets to the end? I know she’s a sociopath, so she might not be thinking straight. But she seems to have a plan for everything else. She’s now pregnant and forced herself into staying married because…. yay? (I’m not really sure about that sperm thing — medical doctors are sticklers for property and my wife can’t even call in the credit card number for which we’re both on the account). Gone Girl? Yeah, more like gone in the head.

Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

I liked Blubber better, but this book was more plausible. I couldn’t remember if I had ever read this one when I was little or not. But even if I did, at least now I can appreciate it better.

It’s about a girl who just moved to New Jersey. She’s got split-religion parents (one Christian, one Jewish) but is being raised as “neutral”, which I could identify with. Despite this, she talks to God in the form of diary entries/letters asking for strength to handle things in her life. And for her year-long independent project (at ninth grade? I don’t think so), she’s studying various church worships.

The other big rub is her new friends, which are classic “Queen Bee/Wanna-Be”s. They’re so concerned about being mature, the queen makes them grow up too fast (recording what boys they like, getting bras they don’t need, slumber parties with seven minutes in heaven). Given Margaret’s personality, she asks God to speed her development along.

The conflicts culminate when her twenty-year estranged grandparents want to visit, and remind the family why they were estranged in the first place, which causes Margaret to lose her “faith(?)” in God. He’s been giving her all this trouble, but nothing she’s been asking for. But as soon as things settle, the bees disintegrate (after rejecting all this forced maturity), and she gets her period. Thus is Margaret’s confidence is restored.

The reason I’m summarizing it like this is because all the pieces work beautifully. In harmony, almost. There’s the conflict of Margaret’s religion, with ties into her clique, which ties into her faith, and it takes place in the frame of time, while continuing development of the character. It all fits together so nicely. Everything works like a piece of music.

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

I was hooked by the beginning excerpt (the trailer and endorsement by Wil Wheaton didn’t hurt either).

However, the story fizzles after the first third. It’s a fantastic draw-in, just like any good comic book writer should do. Like Pushing Up Stakes, there’s no real twists or gotchas through the plot. Everything you thought was happening is what’s happening. I guess my problem was that the promises set up by the beginning don’t reflect the ending.

And what you think might be bizarre or supernatural turns out to be normal realism. It’s called “Gun Machine” but there is no machine, much less one made of guns. Big locked door, guns in circles. You’re thinking aliens? Cult ritual? Something ethereal (at least based on the trailer). And it turns out to be mundane.

That being said, the characters (especially the CSI forensics team) is fantastically written, as are the antagonists and the smart protagonists. It’s a crime thriller written by a comic book writer, one who subscribes to the Neil Gaiman school of writing. That means it’s sharp, short, and witty. I think it’s worth a try.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

And speaking of Neil Gaiman, boy was I excited for this one (as was the rest of the world, undoubtedly). I wanted to read it slowly, to appreciate it. Because there probably won’t be another Neil Gaiman book for five years. And it was short.

It started really well, even with the prologues/framing devices. I loved the stories of the main character, the introduction to the Hempstock family, anecdotes, being a seven-year-old. It evoked images of Roald Dahl and British coming-of-age novels.

But in the end, it gets really abstract. This is his most abstract novel to date, and it reminded me of the Sandman. Not in terms of cultural references but in of leaving things vague and up-to-interpretation instead of keeping a firm story. You never know what’s going on — what the stakes are for doing all this magic or seeing all these obstacles — that I never got a sense of sympathy to any of the characters to stay caring what happened to them at the end. It felt like the story didn’t match the characters.

Especially Lettie. I wanted to like Lettie. I wanted her to be like Marci from “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town”, Alaska from “Looking for Alaska”, Leslie from “Bridge to Terabithia” — eccentric, but crush-worthy girl-next-door fantasy. Maybe that wasn’t what Gaiman intended. Either way, there’s just not enough interaction between her and the main character to get enough of a sense of care.

My favorite Gaiman novels are still American Gods and Anansi Boys. I guess I just like my novels to contain answers, instead of raising questions.

The Books I Read: September – October 2012

bookshelf books

the last unicorn peter s. beagle
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

My mom was surprised I’d never read it. And I saw the movie, which I loved for its campy 80’s-ness and animation that wasn’t Disney. The book follows the movie pretty damn well. It’s almost word-for-word. So much that I’m afraid my experience with the movie colored my opinion of the book. I guess it’s like when you hear the remix to a song first, then you hear the original version. But the remix was the first one you heard so you like that better. I’m sure there’s a name for that phenomenon.

Anyway, I wish I could say I enjoyed it and could recommend it, but the fact is, I think I got more out of the movie than the book. Sorry to be that way. Maybe it was meant for the seventies. Maybe it was supposed to be old-world satirical, like “The Once and Future King”.

For instance, one of the bandits eats a taco. I had to read that several times and look it up to make sure taco didn’t have some weird etymology. And there are other weird anachronisms like the Rastafarian butterfly, Jewish names, and magic that works when the story needs it to.

But I also didn’t like “The Once and Future King”. I guess if you’re going to make a humorous fantasy novel, you gotta go whole hog like “The Princess Bride”. The movie felt more alive, with bright colors and good voice acting and better tension. But I’m glad I read it.

stardust graphic novel neil gaiman charlie vess
Stardust by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charlie Vess

I picked this up in the graphic novel section of my library by mistake. It’s actually the novel’s full text, saturated with illustrations, in the shape and size of a graphic novel. At first I wasn’t going to read it — I’d already seen the movie and it’s one of Gaiman’s very first forays into text, which are always stumbling. But then I thought, well, it’s Neil Gaiman, so what the heck.

Like “The Last Unicorn”, this might be a case of “first version” syndrome. I saw the movie first, and it follows so closely, I feel like that’s my preferred version. The movie has more — Robert DeNiro is a gay sky pirate, crying Claire Danes, and there’s an awesome climax battle.

In the book, it feels like the plotlines aren’t woven together, but in the movie, they are. Plus the added bonus of the visuals. Maybe that’s why they turned it into a graphic novel.

wild cheryl strayed
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Oh boy. Grab a cup of tea for this review. I got a lot to say.

When this book was assigned for book club, my first thought was that it was going to be like Eat, Pray, Love. Instead of shirking her responsibilities to work and family and spending a bunch of money she doesn’t have so she can eat grubs with toothless monks and have sex with strange European men, Cheryl Strayed takes a short cut and just hikes the Pacific Crest trail.

This kind of story is always bullshit. I couldn’t get past the introduction without immediately disliking her.

In the first section, she presents herself as divorced, a drug user, an adulterer, homecoming queen, and cheerleader. And to boot, she colors Minnesotans as north woods cabin-dwellers with no electricity or running water. And I’m supposed to root for her?

In the first chapter, she’s already hating her husband of four years (who she married at twenty) for no reason, despite the fact that he has been calling her every day (out of concern) while she’s at the hospital with her dying mother. But nope, whatever connection she thinks they had broke. No reason why, it just happened. No reason to make an effort to try and put things back together either. Solid. You sound like a good person to me.

Especially after you leave your husband and start doing heroin. Then he drives eight hours across the country to intervention you away from this asshole. With nothing to gain from it — out of the goodness of his heart he does this. After a few months of dealing with the divorce and the death of her mom (and not having a job or source of income), she decides on a whim that she’ll hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Based solely on a book she picked up.

Listen to me. You are not courageous. You are a fuck-up that doesn’t know you’re a fuck-up, and then wonders why there’s consequences for your actions. You’ve been acting selfish all your life, then go out and do something selfish under the guise of “finding yourself”, then write a book all about it because you can’t fuel your ego enough.

You hiking up the Pacific seaboard without learning how to hike properly is not a struggle. It’s you being stupid. Your sole source of information was a book published in 1989 (hike took place in 2006) and the pimple-face at REI. You don’t know how to wear boots or pack a bag. I read “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. That means I’m more qualified than she was.

But Strayed makes sure to mention each and every other book she reads on the trail (before she burns them for campfire fuel). Not that any of them help her — it’s all pretentious literary bullshit like “As I Lay Dying”, “Dubliners” and “The Novel”. And just in case we forget that she’s “well-read”, there’s a handy list at the back of the book.

She’s surprised that there’s no such thing as a bad hair day on the trail. She’s no longer worried about the intricacies of being thin or fat. Women have been discovering that for decades. Do you think Mia Hamm or the female American Gladiators worry about their hair? (Well, the gladiators might. They’re on TV, after all.) This women is so deep in her self, the idea that anyone around her might have already discovered these gems or feels the same way never occurs to her. She thinks she’s finding all these things herself for the first time. And then she doesn’t even learn anything. She still has sex with anonymous partners. Just to experience “what a man feels like again”.

And if that’s not enough, if you get the Oprah Book Club edition, you can enjoy all of Queen O’s laudations and notes about how she’s so courageous, how she’s such a good writer, all the passages she loves about “past-bloom flowers in the wind” and being in love with words. Make me puke.

The biggest example of her idiocy occurs midway through the book. A man in a car stops up and asks to her interview her for Hobo Times. “But I’m not a hobo,” she says, “I’m a backpacker.”
“Do you have a permanent home?” he asks.
“Nope.”
“Are you walking on the road?”
“Yep.”
“How many times have you slept with a roof over your head in the past month?”
“Three.”
“Is your backpack all you have in the world?”
“Are you getting around by hitchhiking?”
“Yes.”
“Then please take this standard hobo care package.”

Which she does. Nice. Way to stay true to your convictions. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…

This book perpetuates the same idea I had in Merm-8, that people who break the rules get it all, while the people who follow the rules, go to work every day and do their job, get shafted. Please, women. Please don’t look up to self-absorbed people like this for your inspiration.

mogworld yahtzee croshaw
Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw

After that book I had to get something a little more my style. Mogworld is the first book written by the very awesome creator of the very awesome video game review series “Zero Punctuation”. Imagine the Angry Video Game Nerd on speed and Australian.

All Jim wanted was a little peace and quiet. Not much to ask for, being dead after all. But after a necromancer raises him for his unholy army of the night (with a nice health-care package), Jim tries everything to get back to his crypt. But things keep getting in the way, like the zealot priest, “Slippery John”, the crafty thief who keeps referring to himself in third person, and the Deleters — mysterious, ghost-like apparitions that seem to have more control over the world than anyone really should.

Okay, I don’t know why I just wrote a query for this book (a bad one, at that). The book combines a little Terry Pratchett and a little Video Game Memebase. There are so few books out there that treat video games as legit (like Ready Player One) it’s a pleasure to find something that’s this well-written. My only beef is that it’s so satirical and biting that there aren’t enough really likable characters in it. Like a lot of nerd humor, it relies on Asperger’s syndrome or douche-bag characters for its humor.

pulling up stakes peter david
Pulling Up Stakes (Part 1) by Peter David

I love Peter David, and this book was only $.99 so why not? The problem as I soon discovered is that this is only part one. I’m not even sure if it’s the first half. (I think it is, cause the end blurb says “Coming Soon: the conclusion”) There’s no indication that this is just the first part, and no indication where the second half is or if it’s even forthcoming.

If I hadn’t paid just a buck for it, I might be pissed. I know how books are — sometimes it can be months or years between sequels (George R. R. Martin). Sometimes the writers never come back to those works — they just don’t feel like writing them anymore (Anne Rice). Sometimes they get made but never get published because of market demands (Fiona Apple).

What I do not like is getting half a story, no matter how cheap it was. I’m a bit of a completionist, and knowing that the story might be hanging out there forever, like a song that never reaches its final chord, does not make me a happy customer. It’s like making a recipe, but you can only make part of it now — the rest of the ingredients will come later. When maybe you don’t feel like eating anymore.

the book thief marcus zusak
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Sigh. I wanted to like this, but I guess I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy when it comes to books. I like my plot and I like my characters. Any fancy dressing or style tends to get in the way for me. I don’t like all this weird flowery roundabout writing, or lacy descriptions, or jumping around between events, or being narrated to by Death, who should be omniscient and godlike. But he/she gets presented as a human being concerned with the day-to-days of a single ant. It’s not plausible for me.

Not to mention I already had a certain level of prejudice. “Number the Stars” was recently finished and I’d seen Anne Frank a few times. How many different ways can you tell the story of a young girl in the Nazi occupation? Without the stylistics and obfuscations of what’s going on, the core story is really quite bland. Maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe I’m not the target audience.

The novel has its strengths and weaknesses. Near the end, I actually did like the idea of Death as a narrator, but I would have rather Death was an actual character, a protagonist a la Neil Gaiman (but that might be my bias showing through). I like the frequent uses of colored skies, and how they relate to the novel, but I can’t get out of my head that that’s something a high schooler would do. An author’s first duty is to the story. And it would have been stronger with the fat boiled away.

The Books I Read: July – August 2012

bookshelf books

ready player one ernest cline
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I was really looking forward to this one. I kept hearing all these tales about how it’s made for my generation and persona type, the geek who grew up in the 1980’s. It is not a grand epic book with grand themes. It is meant for a specific audience and never deviates from that. But if you are in that audience, you will love this book.

Unfortunately for me, I found out I am juuuuust a bit outside that audience because I was born in 1981, and most of the nostalgia is too early for me. Video games are Atari and arcade cabinets, not Nintendo and Sega. Movies are WarGames and Ladyhawke, not Batman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Music is from Rush and Van Halen, not… well, I have no idea. I didn’t really listen to pop music growing up.

Nonetheless, this is my favorite book I’ve read these two months (as I knew it would be), and I hope the sequel moves the date up juuuuust a little bit.

jitterbug perfume tom robbins
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

For book club. This is… well, it’s hard to describe. It’s weird. Maybe I’ll start by summarizing it.

For 3/4ths of the book, there’s one main plot about a king in the past seeking immortality. We focus on him 75% of the time, and the other 25% is three other plot lines in the present. One is about a starving artist in Seattle trying to hit on a blockbuster amateur perfume, one is about a perfumer in New Orleans, and the other is about the brother co-owners of a fragrance company in France. The remaining 1/4th is all these plotlines merging together.

The main hook of the story is the colorful prose. And it is very colorful. The prose is fantastic to read — jazzy metaphors, extravagant similes, splashy hyperbole. It’s like every sentence is dessert.

But the problem is, you eat enough dessert, you start to get sick of it. And you want some meat and potatoes. I would love a short story written like this, but it’s too intense for an entire novel. It hinges on style over substance, and fore gos plotholes and cohesion for what’s neat and creative. There’s a lot of weird stuff, a lot of graphic sex. It feels like it was written by a hippie for hippies.

catching jordan
Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally

This is not the novel I was expecting, but it is still pretty good. I was sold on the tagline: the main character is a girl on a high school football team. Not just a girl, but the quarterback and the captain. And that’s not the big conflict. The big conflict is that a new kid, a new HOT kid comes in, threatening to take her position, and she has to choose between a boy she likes and sport she loves.

Well, that’s not exactly what happens. The threat of the new hotness is minimal at best — her position’s never in jeopardy. What she’s really torn about choosing between the new hotness or her best friend who likes her likes her. There’s nothing worse than advertising that fibs on the product in order to sell. Plus, they’ve been best friends since grade school and only NOW she realizes he likes her, after countless sleepovers and school projects.

The story is YA to the core, and hinges on implausible teen-ness. The only characters in the book are footballers and cheerleaders. Normally, I’d expect main screen time for jocks and cheerleaders with this kind of subject matter. But no one talks to anyone BUT cheerleaders and footballers.

And no one talks about anything but their relationships. That means guys only talk about girls and girls only talk about guys. No one has a life outside of school – no one talks about jobs, or family problems, or homework, or colleges, or non-football activities/hobbies, or other friends. They all exist in their football bubble.

The other big flaw is that the character development is two-faced. The girl quarterback constantly derides the cheerleaders for being slutty, indecisive, and flitting from boyfriend to boyfriend. Whereas she is just as gossipy and self-absorbed as the girls she purports to hate.

So if you’re looking for an awesome book about shattering gender stereotypes or a woman succeeding in a man’s world, not really here. But If you’re looking for a high-school romance that’s not in a cliched setting, this is it.

mary poppins travers
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Goodreads kept recommending this one, so I picked it up from the library. It’s not great at all. Stick with the movie. The connection is tenuous at best, and features none of the wit, themes, or charm that made it great.

The plot has no cohesion. The chapters are more like vignettes. In fact, the very second chapter, the one after she’s been employed and the scene is set, is her hanging out with Bert. No establishing scene of her with the kids. And to boot, Bert only has a one-shot appearance.

Occasionally, something magic happens, like Mary Poppins hears the babies talking (babies that are not in the movie), or they take a magic umbrella to various spots around the world (which was originally cut for being racist). But it’s filled with stodgy Britishness, which makes the characters and the path they take unlikeable.

rage jackie morse kessler
Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler

I had previously read Hunger, which was about a girl fighting an eating/image disorder who becomes the Horseman Famine. This one follows the same formula, and is maybe a little bit worse. The first one dealt very well with eating disorders, keeping plausible and never going for TV-movie melodrama. Maybe because the author had an ED. Not so with War’s chosen psychological disorder.

In this one, the girl is a cutter/self-injurer. But I’ve studied this, and cutters cut to get the emotions out. They feel helpless, with situations they can’t control. They can’t control their rage, but they can control the pain, and thus control themselves*. This does not apply to our main character — her family life is ideal: two parents, non-screwed up sister. She plays soccer. And she does not demonstrate being emotionally stunted or repressive, a la Bruce Banner.

Like Hunger, it also takes place over an extremely short period of time. There’s a lot of runaround and nothing much happens. There’s a lot of internalized thinking that feels like padding. The girl is fucking War for Christ’s sake. It seems like something exciting should happen, but I can find a key event except for the beginning and ending.

It also seems that key events in the lot would have higher consequences. For example, at a party, the main character disrobes in anticipation of a sexual encounter with a boy who’s already spurned her once (and she’s convinced in an extremely implausible teen-ness way). But it’s all a cruel trick, as the students burst in and take pictures and videos of her, a la Carrie.

In the real world, that’s sexual assault, child abuse, sexual abuse on a minor, and other crimes I’m sure I’m missing. Half the students would get arrested, and the story would blow up nationwide. Instead, it’s glossed over, and wrapped up at the end by finding some other kid to make fun of and forgetting about her. Not plausible. Christ, we’re living in a world where kids can sexually abuse themselves (by sexting pictures if they’re under eighteen).

*This comes up in Baby Blocks, available at fine Fan Fiction sites near you 🙂

scalzi redshirts
Redshirts by John Scalzi

Ah, Scalzi. You’re my go-to man for a good book. You never disappoint.

This book feels less epic than Fuzzy Nation, which felt even less epic than Old Man’s War. It’s good, but not great. If you’re a Star Trek nerd, you’ve already heard all the jokes. It’s really just a throwaway sci-fi cliche, drawn out very, very long. But only Scalzi could write a book like that and make it good. Although, as you can tell on the cover, the book has to tack on three codas and still falls short of 90,000 words.

It feels like nothing that happens really matters, because the main characters have no faces, no personality (although that might be the point). It might work as a high-level pitch, but not in fiction. Not if you want the reader to latch onto the characters and sympathize. The ending(s) feel syrupy and forced. I heard a lot of people were crying at the end, but I wasn’t one of them. Because the characters did not offer enough emotional capital to invest in.

I feel like it’s spread out too thin. I can almost see in the text that Scalzi was stretched too thin to give this book as much polish and thought as his other books. That it’s the result of being SFWA president, and taking care of a family, and a blog, and conventions, and all sorts of other things that I’m sure came up.

neil gaiman odd and the frost giants
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

I never thought I’d be able to read this one, because I thought it was part of some exclusive UK thing. But it was at my library. God bless those things.

I like it. It’s short and sweet, classic hero’s journey, coming of age, bildrungsroman. Takes place in Norse times with the fab three — Odin, Loki, and Thor. Plenty of Gaiman-style humor–bickering among superpowers, themes of innocent, charming story elements, plenty of magic. It’s hard to describe it without spoiling anything. But it’s a tasty treat, like an Oreo Blizzard.

lois lowry number the stars
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Also one that kept being recommended by Goodreads. And it’s one of those books that everyone’s read, that you always see on the library shelf, but I never got around to reading. I think because the cover was never very appealing to me — Jewish star + Norwegian-looking girl = historical fiction = not interested.

And it is historical fiction, and an exceedingly simple story. But that’s not a bad thing. Simple stories need to be simply told, but that doesn’t mean their content is simple. Straightforward might be a better way of putting it. We follow a girl in occupied Denmark who watches the Germans tighten their grip, to the point where they need to help her best friend escape.

And it’s a good escape. But the story is told through the lens of the girl, so she doesn’t really participate. We watch her watch. This kind of book would be a great introduction to WWII and the Nazi movement. Like Schindler’s List Junior. Perhaps I am just too old to appreciate it for what it is. The moment’s passed me by. But I think even if I caught it at the right age, I’d still be meh.

the boy at the end of the world
The Boy at the End of the World by Greg Van Eekhout

The first chapter sold me on this. Unfortunately, same thing happened with Norse Code, another Van Eekhout novel. This one wasn’t NEARLY as disappointing, but still… my big complaint is that the story is more about survival and full of action, rather than character, cleverness, and intriguing plot. I guess that’s just my personal preference.

A boy wakes up as a result of an “Ark” preservation project. Except everything’s gone wrong, and he’s the only one who survived. And he’s got a cute robot for an Obi Wan. A boy and his robot story? Who could resist? And it is pretty good, but it’s not as much about that bond as it is about survival, and what happened to the world. Which I guess is all right. The book is somewhere around the middle-grade/YA border though. As a result, you get some kiddie stuff like the pet mammoth who acts way too domesticated (and poops a lot) mixed with scary stuff like a robot with good intentions for humanity. You know what I’m talking about.

fault in our stars john green
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Cleverness, on the other hand, abounds in John Green. This one’s far superior to “An Abundance of Katherines”. It’s the closest to the emotional impact of “Looking for Alaska”, but where that one was male POV, this one is female POV. My personal preference is still for “Alaska” (emphasis on personal), but this might be his finest work yet. It’s certainly getting him press.

It’s a tragic romance about a teen girl and a teen boy, both with cancer, and their daily struggles (spoiler: their daily struggles are much harder than ours, like being able to breathe). And it’s not schmaltzy like Nicholas Sparks — no one kisses in the rain, no one writes letters (well, they do, but in a much MUCH better way). It’s much more realistic, and the tragedy is the realism of dying. That it’s not glorious or romantic, but authentic. And that is so much more tragic and so much better. And so much of a good story.

My New Mantra

cartoon writing a book is hard work

“If you don’t do it, nobody else is going to.

So you may as well finish it.

And when it’s all done, pretty soon you won’t be able to remember quite which bits left you certain it was terrible and that you should abandon it, and which were the bits where you knew it was the best thing anyone had ever made ever.”

(paraphrased from Neil Gaiman)

Give Google+ Some Time

google plus logo

I was fortunate to be invited to Google+, the new social media dealy-bobber that everyone’s talking about. Why is everyone talking about it? No idea. I haven’t seen one article that says why the big deal, besides that it’s Google. But it doesn’t matter, I know the reason: everyone’s wondering if it’s going to be a Facebook killer.

People are wondering if the Facebook king can be toppled. Facebook permeates everyone’s lives these days. It’s a genius app and it’s making Markie Z a ton of money. (Can you imagine what a kid with that much money now is going to be like in twenty years?) Anyway, the big debate is if everyone’s going to need to do a painful migration like they did from MySpace.  

It was important to me because I missed the Twitter boat. Social media is important for an author because it’s a great way to connect with fans, which I will eventually have (hopefully). Personally, it looks just like a Facebook clone to me. I don’t see what’s new and different about it, but even so, people are on it. People are talking about it. So that means I should get on.

But there are complaints. Both Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman, two biggies in the literary world, made public declarations that they were on G+, checked it out, and signed off. Their basic reasons were “friend bankruptcy”, which means that thousands of people kept adding them as friends, which made it impossible for them to find people they actually knew and wanted to communicate with.

Other reasons were that Google kept firing off notifications every ten seconds because of the frequent circle-adding. And that Google kept suggesting people as friends that were completely unknown to the user (but doesn’t Facebook do that too?) Neil Gaiman said that people kept telling him he was “using it wrong”, which was his tipping point.

First off, totally agree with everything they’re saying, especially the “doing it wrong” comment. I’m a software engineer, and I know that it’s the user that should dictate how the application works, not the other way around. To do otherwise is to force a square peg into a round hole.

When you’re UET (user experience testing), you need to watch what the user is trying to do, and see where he/she’s screwing up or trying to do something he/she can’t do. If you can’t find the close button, it’s the app’s fault for not putting it in an accessible place. That’s how Valve perfects its video games. It’s happened before. eBay was originally going to be a personals site. MySpace was supposed to be for musicians. The sites saw how the user was using them and changed to adapt, and they became successful.

Also, it’s a pain in the ass to maintain social media. Bad enough you’ve got to blog, make posts about yourself through Facebook, Twitter. Upload photos, cross-link, and then read everyone else’s posts to keep current. But now there’s this new one with a new UI and terms you’ve got to learn all over again. WTF is a circle? What is a spark?

But here’s my comment. Google+ is still in its infancy. It’s field testing, what we call a “closed beta”, invite-only. It’s a new release, meaning they’re still working out the kinks, and seeing how users use it. I mean, the G+ went down for a day in its first month because its storage servers overloaded. That’s something they did not predict. There’s not even an API for 3rd party developers yet. (That’s what lets games like “Farmville” and “What cocktail are you?” exist. Can’t wait for that! </sarcasm>)

So don’t cancel your Google+ account just yet. If it’s not flipping your tea biscuit, just sign off, and wait for them to work out the kinks. Don’t just abandon it outright. System updates take time. They have a lot of user data to analyze, decisions to make, and software development is a process. It can’t be done in a day.

It’s like looking at a first draft of something and dismissing it. Software development is a multi-person process. Unlike movies and video games, computer programs continuously evolve. Facebook didn’t start off with all the features it has now. And Google’s full of smart people. Hopefully, one of them will be able to form it into something we never expected.

Graphic Novelists Make Good Writers

graphic novels library poster

I have discovered something quite interesting. Actually, I discovered it a long time ago, just haven’t written about it.

Graphic novelists make really good writers. I mean really good. All of my favorite authors, the ones with books I could read over and over again, started off as comic book writers.

Those authors are Richard Kadrey, Peter David, Neil Gaiman, and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash was originally going to be a graphic novel, and it sure reads like one). There may be others that I don’t know of.

I don’t know what it is about the comic style that makes good novelists. Maybe you learn a lot about pacing and keeping the reader interested when you write comics. For some reason, the lack of needing to write imagery and description doesn’t hurt the text. Maybe that’s on purpose — bogging the reader down with infodump images slows down the story.

Do you know of any other comic writers turned novel writers that I’m missing?