The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: March – April 2021

bookshelf books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Woods by Tana French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Books I Read: September – October 2018

bookshelf books

mysterious benedict society Trenton Lee Stewart
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
(unfinished)

It’s probably pretty good, but I did not have the patience to see it through. I like stories about child geniuses (The Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown), but it took so damn long to get to the arc of the story–the big goal. And when it did, I was disappointed. The Big Bad’s plan seemed so juvenile and nonsensical. It was like a cheesy James Bond trope or old Doctor Who episode.

I made it to 25% when I stopped, but that was a long 25 percentage points. Especially for a children’s book. That first quarter is pretty much just the process of joining the Benedict Society. Nothing to do with the main plot, why the Society exists, or what their purpose is. I guess the author expects you to keep going by not answering obvious questions anyone would ask in that situation. The hero is tested with a bunch of arbitrary puzzles and “secret tests of character“. You think this much effort is going to result in something big. But then it turns out to be an old eccentric man with money to burn. Willy Wonka he ain’t.

The other supporting characters aren’t people I want to hang out with either. One’s angry all the time. One seems to be a cloud-cuckoolander. And the other is a sad sack with a secret he won’t tell anyone until he does. And then it turns out to be nothing. Big anticipations, little payoffs.

Old me would have finished it. But remember, I said to myself “unless the book makes me excited to read it, it’s not worth it.”

john scalzi the dispatcher
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

This is a high concept short story based around one of those clever and fascinating ideas that doesn’t hold water if you think about it for a minute”. But the idea–and the plot lines it creates–are good enough to keep reading. Especially since it’s short.

Essentially, non-accidental death no longer applies. No one knows why or how, but if you are intentionally killed by someone, you wake up back in your bed in same condition you were in a few hours ago. There are loopholes around the rule (e.g. locking someone in a room until they starve to death counts as natural). But for the most part, you can’t be murdered anymore. (Natural and no-fault deaths still occur so the world doesn’t get over-populated. People still die of cancer and choking and heart attacks and car accidents.)

So if you are murdered, you get to come back none the worse for wear. That means if you’re, say, having a heart attack or got hit by a car, this rule becomes a convenient “get out of death free” card. That’s where the Dispatcher comes in. These guys get paid to murder you before a natural death would occur. Like reloading a quicksave.

So yeah, you see how there’s plenty of story ideas in this kind of world, especially ones in the noir vein. But also a lot of headscratchers (I wonder how the Darwin Awards are affected). Nonetheless, I think this is one of the better Scalzi short fictions (up there with Muse of Fire). Note that it originally existed as audio so, yes, it’s dialogue-heavy. Like the latter Old Man’s War books and not like the more recent Interdependency series. It’s a great story, but it’s tight. So if you like plots, you’re set. If you want to know more about the world than the characters in it, you’ll be disappointed.

order of the chaos hidden earth peter david
Order of the Chaos (The Hidden Earth Chronicles #3) by Peter David

Well, I’m glad Peter David finished the trilogy. I was afraid the story would be left open after his stroke and since he was writing this other stuff like Artful and Pulling Up Stakes and managing his own press company.

Here’s the biggest problem–it has been so long since I read the last book (five years and change, to be exact), that I had no fuxxing idea who anyone was. It needed a dramatis personae or a “the story so far…” There’s no mercy for anyone jumping in. It’s like the trilogy is meant to be read back-to-back-to-back. Which is an interesting proposition, but not one I’m interested in at this time. I mean, jeez, when I read book two it was on my Nook.

Okay, so how is the book itself? Well, from what I remember, it’s rather underwhelming compared to the previous novels. The climax feels a little thin, even taking the book on stand-alone. There’s a final battle, but it includes two races that haven’t been seen before. There are plenty of unanswered questions still lingering around, ones you expect to be answered. And bee-tee-dubs, that ending doesn’t come into play much at all in the plot of the last book. So the end story feels a touch out there. And wrapped a little too quick.

But the same sense of humor is there, the same epic-ness is there. Like Lord of the Rings with more badass motorcycles. But I think the only way I can recommend this is if you read book one, loved it, and then read book two and three relatively soon after that. It’s all one story.

landry news andrew clements
The Landry News by Andrew Clements

It was on a list of summer reading for my fourth-grade daughter. Plus, I used to write an “underground” newspaper, so I couldn’t pass this up.

But it reads like it was meant to be used for curriculum. It reeks of “written to be taught”, not because the author had something to say or a good story in mind. I deduce this because it’s padded badly. The beginning doesn’t match the ending–it switches themes partway through. After about a third of the way, it stops being about the student-published newspaper and becomes about the “evil principal” trying to “get” the teacher. And then the news story he hides behind is reprinted word for word in the book. And it has nothing to do with either idea. Its content is about a kid’s divorce. It has nothing to do with the themes of the main plot. I don’t know what its meant for. I think it’s trying to cover different themes at once so there’s plenty for the class to discuss.

The inciting incident is also too implausible — I cannot believe that at teacher would sit at his desk for eight hours a day, reading the paper, while the kids futz in the classroom semi-supervised and not being taught. From 7AM to 3PM. Teachers have been fired for less, tenure or not.

It’s so instructive I expected there to be a study guide in the back. Just skip this one.

an absolutely remarkable thing hank green
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Hank Green writes like you would expect Hank Green to write. Like the younger brother of John Green. A little unpolished, but more enthusiastic. The difference between John Green’s writing and Hank Green’s writing is the difference between John Green and Hank Green.

Okay, obligatory comparison over. How does it stand on its own?

There’s an interesting cross-pollination of genres going on here. The maguffin is science-fiction-esque (giant stationary robots, shared dreamscapes, etc.) but the core themes are about Internet popularity and talking head-incited violence (a la Proud Boys and alt-right). Green is the founder of VidCon and a prominent YouTuber, so he should know the subject. It’s nice to read a book that doesn’t treat Internet culture as either A) Fortnite-sploitation or B) “those damn kids”.

It reminded me of Ready Player One, in that there are puzzles to solve and the hard part is uniting people to work together to solve them. And the opposition is the greedy people who use negativity and fear of the maguffin to gain. But it’s certainly less problematic and more inclusive with its themes. It’s got some nice quotable lines too. I particularly liked “Behold the field in which I grow my f***s. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren.”

I also like that the character’s sexuality is a part of her characterization, but also something of a plot point, while at the same time your face isn’t being rubbed in it. On the other hand, there are times when it feels like it skips steps between the romance (like when April May and the scientist girl hook up out of nowhere). It’s a solid B. You can tell it’s a first effort, but you know it’s going to improve from there.

lila bowen wake of vultures
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

I learned about this book from Robots vs. Fairies. The one written by Lila Bowen (a.k.a. Delilah S. Dawson) especially flipped my cookie. And like I suspected, it was based on an already existing character.

I liked it, but how much are you going to like it? I have no idea. All I can do is report on the content, how it made me feel, and anything interesting about it. For me, the selling point was the western-fantasy genre. You don’t see that much. Certainly a breath of fresh air from all those women holding a knife while walking away in tight jeans and a tramp stamp. The main character has a strong voice. She’s not too wimpy, but she’s not perfect either.

This book is fantastically written. The prose is beautiful, the sentences strong. It’s a captivating plot, fascinating characters. It’s a “weird western”/fantasy genre, where the main character can now “see” monsters and is on a hunt to kill them (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer). And there’s a significant part of the text dedicated to her finding her sexual identity. So I understand why it had trouble finding its audience. There are a lot of potentially triggering subjects here.

But I plan to read the sequel, I liked it that much.

the one and only ivan katherine applegate
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Given how popular this book is, I expected more out of it. But it’s just a children’s book about a gorilla and an elephant on display at a mall. And like any kid’s movie with an animals, all they want is to escape the crappy place.

The chapters are super short. SUPER SHORT. It’s almost like a free verse poem. Which means it lacks the depth I expected. It’s like one of the terrible 80’s Disney movie that came in a clamshell case, like “That Darn Cat”. The characters are not deep at all. Cardboard cut-out villains and a girl so overly-kindly it’s sickening. Sorry, maybe I’m a bitter thirty-seven-year-old man. But this book was one of those grocery store sugar cookies with more frosting than cookie. It lacks substance. Everyone’s a saint or a villain.

I mean, I guess there’s nothing really bad about it. It’s a cute story with talking animals. But there’s nothing really great about it either. It’s saccharine, meant to be sentimental and pull at the heartstrings without having much in consequences or plot points. Funny part is it’s based on a true story.

first fifty pages jeff genke
The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers, and Set Up Your Novel for Success by Jeff Gerke

So this is a book that focuses on the beginning of your novel. I don’t have any hard evidence, but it does seem like that’s a keystone in getting published. I’ve never heard of slushkillers starting at a random point in the manuscript for the yay-or-nay vote.

I’d say this is a useful book. The amount read per item of information learned ratio wasn’t great–lots of writing books talk about beginnings at length–but there are some key things to know. And as usual, grains of salt are recommended as a side dish. Because if you do come up with something that ticks all the boxes of a good first 13,000 words, it’s going to be… pretty boring, I imagine. I’m rather fortunate in that I usually know how a book should begin. Whether that’s the way editors/agents want it, whether it’s the best way or most attractive way, not so sure.

It’s not a slog to read at least. It’s enjoyable and not too long. There is padding, like “why you should want the beginning to be great” and “the do nots of beginnings” that don’t help you to actually do. If you condensed it to the actual helpful content, it would be as big as a pamphlet. Of course, that’s true of any book. So yeah, I’d say writers should pick this up. I don’t know if it’ll increase your chances of being published, but it couldn’t hurt.

The Books I Read: May – June 2018

bookshelf books

my brother sam is dead collier
My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

It’s much less “rah-rah-America” than I thought it would be. I was expecting something like “Johnny Tremain”, but no, this is a realistic look at the Revolutionary War before people knew how it would end. It’s like the Civil War. Neighbors are on opposite sides. As many people sided with the British as the Patriots. Soldiers from both ends victimize civilians for cows or guns. Bandits raid the roads, taking advantage of the chaos in the name of “patriotism”. If you try to sell a pig to someone who might sell it to someone who might sell it to the British, they’d just kill you. And meanwhile, the farmers are trying to stay alive in an economy where all funds have been diverted to the war effort. Reminds me of the background to Gone With the Wind where everyone’s optimistic and then it all goes to shit and it seems like the war is never going to end.

But anyway, yes, I recommend this book. The matter-of-fact tone is a pleasant change from most of the Revolutionary War novels I’ve read that were all pro-America. It doesn’t pull punches. The protagonist is well-rounded. He’s super young so he looks up to his brother and father for guidance, but they’re polarized on this issue. He starts to see the values of his world degenerate until it’s like a Mad Max apocalypse-land where natural resources are more important than money. It’s about the people behind the scenes, keeping the homefront, and no one is a saint.

scalzi head on
Head On by John Scalzi

It’s a fine mystery story. I liked it better than the first of the series (Lock In). Maybe because it’s fun sports and not economic takeover and the ending isn’t a big dialogue dump of Columbo-style “we got ya”.

But it’s definitely more of the same–nothing new but nothing broken. If John Scalzi is anything, he’s consistent with tone from series to series. And you’re 90% not likely to read the second book before the first, so just look at my review of that one for more info. It doesn’t stand out from his other works, but it stays on the themes of robots, police procedural, and disability.

wishing spell chris colfer
The Wishing Spell (The Land of Stories, #1) by Chris Colfer
(unfinished)

My daughter loved this one and recommended it. Usually I like her picks (such as Out of My Mind and Ruby Holler) but this ones was just awful. It’s a portal fantasy (into a world of public domain fairy tales, no less) with no surprises. Like someone upped the complexity of Magic Tree House but kept the content.

There’s nothing new. And it takes four chapters to get to the inciting incident. The writing was just so bad. So much telling. The backstory for the characters is schmaltzy. Then I later found that this is a guy from Glee (that teeny-pop TV show that made show choir popular prevalent again.) That explains why the writing felt so unpolished–guy’s an actor, not a writer. Remember, Snooki wrote a book too. I bet there are few five-star raters who weren’t already Chris Colfer fans.

face on the milk carton cooney
The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney

I was really looking forward to this book. Had a great premise–what if you saw that the missing person was you. But it’s only about 45% mystery and the other part is romance teen-dating, dealing with friends and crushes and other high school drama. And it comprises so much of the book too. You can bet that if I saw my face on a milk carton, I’d be dedicating 100% of my time to figuring it out. That’d be all I could think about — no time for boys or anything else. Plus it’s shoehorned in–these are two themes that don’t go together. So jarring, you could literally mark where one story changes to the other.

Besides the disconnected theming, the characters just aren’t likable. Besides the fact that the main character does as much pining for who’s-his-face as detective work, she seems barely motivated to do anything. Just concerned about college and high school, but not much beyond that. And there’s no ending. It’s a cliffhanger (except the cliff is three feet up) that’s so dull it feels like the author just ran out of paper.

Don’t be fooled by the fascinating premise. It’s not at all satisfying to read.

artful peter david
Artful by Peter David

This is a nice little fan-sequel to Oliver Twist… with vampires.

There actually isn’t much Oliver Twist stuff in there, so you don’t necessarily need to know that story to get this one. On the other hand, if you don’t know anything about Oliver Twist, why would you read this? Without it, it’s a silly story about old-timey London where a street-smart urchin meets a princess-in-disguise and a junior detective who work together to stop a London vampire takeover.

I’m a fan of Peter David so I ate it up, even if I did have to refer to Wikipedia on occasion. If you like Tigerheart, you’ll like this, since both are mash-ups of classics. And it’s more cozy than than the subject matter would indicate. Although David used Dickens characters and writing style (which he does amazingly without being anachronistic or dull), he avoids the bleak and stark mood that feels like a smokestack shoved into an jilted old lady’s heart. Reminded me of the first few (good) chapters of Great Expectations.

It’s a solid three stars. Satisfying, but only worth picking up for the component items (i.e. if you like mash-ups or Dickens or vampires or Peter David or Oliver Twist).

disaster artist greg sestero
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

Jesus Christ. Tommy Wiseau…

The book alternates between two narratives–the filming/production of The Room and how Greg Sestero (co-star) met Tommy. It’s as close to an origin story as you get for this man who seems to defy plausibility.

I mean, I read about the filming and it disregards a rational universe. You know how in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the narrator describes Hagrid’s first appearance with “He looked simply too big to be allowed.”? After reading this, I feel that way about Tommy Wiseau. He’s simply too… something to be let into existence. His accent and word choice is bizarre. His face looks like a rubber mask from an 1980’s horror movie (like one of the Mars mutants in Total Recall except not very mutated. Like only 1% mutated.) and acts like an alien trying to mimic human behavior. This world should not have allowed him to be, yet he is. Then you learn about his lifestyle and hobbies and actions, and it blows you away.

If all you’ve seen of him is The Room, you can’t imagine how much much worse it was behind the camera. There’s so many bad decisions, weird decisions, frustrated actors and cock-ups you can’t believe anyone worked for him for so long. Or that Sestero put up with him.

That’s one of the big themes of the book — sticking with a toxic friend because he doesn’t have anyone else to be with. If not you, then he’d have no one. Like that Fraggle Rock where this rabbit-creature thing shrinks Mokey to his size to be his friend because he doesn’t have any because he’s a self-loathing entitled douche. Plus Sestero’s pretty boy should-have-been-an-extra-on-Baywatch-but-he-was-born-too-late Californian struggling actor persona makes a great contrast to Wiseau’s… personality.

The second storyline–the getting-to-know-you–tends to be dull at times. I guess friendships usually are. But it does kick in at a certain point, once you realize how unstable Wiseau is and that Sestero may be friends with a literal paranoid delusional.

The book ends at the movie’s premiere. I would have liked to see the aftermath of it all–Wiseau’s reaction to everyone else’s reaction, and how the ignominy and fame affected him. How he reacted to the lack of interest, then infamous rise to popularity as the “best bad movie”, since he was so convinced he was making the next Citizen Kane.

But maybe that wasn’t what the author thought was important. Maybe his goal was to tell why the movie was made and why it was made “that way”. And the “filming of” part more than makes up for it. It’s a wild blend of funny and creepy that you can’t believe took place in real life.

I think it’s worth reading even if you don’t know anything about The Room. You WILL believe that a man with an unplaceable accent can be this dense! It makes for good reading and good character study. If anything, it’s worth it to find out what’s the deal with the spoons (obvious hint: it’s not purposeful).

wings of fire dragonet prophecy sutherland
Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy (Book #1) by Tui T. Sutherland

If I hadn’t read this to endure myself to my youngest daughter, I would have rated it two stars. The book didn’t keep my interest–no character was more developed than one of the sidekicks in He-Man. In fact, the whole thing could be a Saturday Morning Cartoon, if you don’t mind a little more death than Power Rangers. They bleed, they take prisoners, they torture, they disfigure. But it still feels engineered to sell toys to the kids.

It starts well, but the tones keep switching back and forth. From cutesy bonding to gladiator violence to royal court intrigue. And the author does not maintain distinguishable character voices for everyone (and there are a lot for a MG book). And what’s worse, they don’t sound like dragons. Now, I understand that dragons aren’t real so no one knows what they sound like. But my point is the dialogue lacks species characterization. They sound like humans, not four-legged flying carnivores. If you didn’t know they were dragons, this could be any YA novel.

It’s a strange little book with a lot of cliches (like a Chosen One Prophecy and five-man band) but at least it doesn’t condescend. I guess if you like dragons, it might be worth looking through. But it’s definitely not the new Harry Potter. It’s not even the next Divergent.

daniel suarez freedom
Freedom™ (Daemon #2) by Daniel Suarez

Sequel to Daemon. Seems like the kind of thing Cory Doctorow would love. I thought this was going to be a trilogy, but I guess it’s a dulogy. Hardly matters–I don’t think I’d read the third book anyway.

This one’s more sludgy than the first one (like most sequels are), especially in the middle. Whereas the first one had a clear A to B to C storyline, this one is more like a series of vignettes. It lacks a coherent beginning and ending. 

For example, there’s this fifth-generation farmer who starts with a lawsuit with Big Agri over seed DNA patents and becomes a VR wearing, commune-living, self-sufficient man, all thanks to this computer virus that, somehow, one man was able to program well enough to penetrate Chinese, Russian, and American military defense systems autonomously and regardless of upgrades or patching. That was a long sentence.

It reminded me of Peter Watts’s writing or Stephen Baxter’s Flood, which I didn’t care for. Too much milieu, characters that drop from and into oblivion as is convenient to the author, tone dissonance (is it science fiction or meant to be plausible). And here, same case — I didn’t like it. It has the trappings of the first book (see last entry) and the struggles of a sequel trying to finish a storyline.

london eye mystery dowd
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

If not for The Big Bang Theory, I would have liked this a lot better. The kid in this book has what appears to be the same condition, and treats it seriously (in that he actually suffers consequences for it.) And the author should get credit for that. But when I read, I hear that stupid laugh track.

All right, trying to get Jim Parsons and Chuck Lorre out of my head, this is a good book. It’s comparable to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Out of My Mind, but less mature  content than the first and more mature content than the second. Just as fun to read too. The main character’s affliction is never named, but he has some kind of half-Sheldon Cooper, half-Rainman thing going on. It’s heart-warming and gives you insight into a misunderstood disorder. It fits John Green’s maxim of what books should do — imagine humans complexly.

And it’s an entertaining mystery to boot, with a satisfying reader experience. The beginning may seem sludgy as it needs to set up everything (and it has to do so through someone with a mental condition). If you can make it through that, I think you’ll be satisfied too.

The Books I Read: September – October 2013

bookshelf books


Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines is good at set dressing, but less so with character + plot combos. I wish I could come up with overall ideas like him, but that’s about all I wish for.  The story, like his other stories, are very linear and take all place in the immediate present with little thought to backstory or contemplation. I feel like his characters don’t drive the plot, events do. And the result is I don’t have much sense of character. No sense that this matters to the character personally, only immediately.

So there’s no literary devices, no foreshadowing, no flashbacks, no Easter eggs, no moments where the character sits and talks. I could read the last 25% without needing to know the first 75%. The character maintains his personality from beginning to end, like an action movie. And I don’t read books for action. This was part of my problem with the Uglies books. I don’t like reading descriptions of car chases and shoot-outs. I like plot turns and character revelations. That’s what drives a book, IMHO.

I don’t like the books, but I like the man.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

This is one of the few classic sci-fis I’ve read that kept me motivated. I think it was the Canterbury Tales style of story-telling. You had a nice linking frame, and each story exists in a digestible form. And the character’s problems are interesting and diverse, so it’s like a nice multi-course meal.

The problem is the world-building contains zero infodumping, so it’s difficult to gain what is going on in the complex world. Lot of chess pieces moving. Especially with the classic sci-fi vocabulary influx. And there’s no ending. There’s nine people going on a religious pilgrimage where one of them gets a wish and the others get dead and no one knows how or why. And you don’t write an ending to that? You spend one book with character development, like a prelude? And now I’ve got to read the next book? Blasphemy!

Tigerheart by Peter David

A re-read to get ready for the sequel. I didn’t even know there was going to be one until it showed up on Peter David’s Twitter. My original review stands, but for the second time around, I got a bigger appreciation for the writing style, the world, and that I know a little more about Peter Pan now. What the changes he made. Plus I can appreciate all the foreshadowing and mystery placed in the beginning of the novel.

Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham

This book is twenty years old and it’s showing its age. Bickham spends a large portion of the message dedicated to slowing a story down. I’ve never heard of doing that. That’s not a problem these days.

This is a good book for those people who have read other books on writing, and are looking for more advanced techniques or more specific approaches. More than the simple “show, don’t tell” and “don’t use adverbs”. This books takes more detail into the “kill your darlings” message and how to structure a novel piece-by-piece, scene by scene. This book breaks it down to its molecules and restructures it back up.

The problem was I kept drifting off in the middle. Maybe the book was too detailed? Maybe it was trying to give too much information, too specific. The entire last chapter is a formula/outline for a novel, with things like “the main character attempts to solve his problem here but ends in disaster” or “POV of the romantic interest, the thing stopping her gets bigger” and “this chapter is where the good guy lays it all on the line”. At that point, if you write every novel this way, don’t you lose the spontaneity of the story? Doesn’t it restrict the craft?

Cycler by Lauren MacLaughlin

This one may have been the longest on my “to-read” list. All I knew was that it was about a girl who turns into a boy for five days every menstrual cycle. I was expecting a different story, one about girls versus boys. Differences between masculine and feminine. Today’s societal issues. I thought it was going to offer some enlightenment and insight into how we treat each other based on gender. But this is more like a comic novel.

The girl is obsessed with prom. Right off the bat, I was disappointed. How shallow can you get, starting with a girl who has this gift that provides incredible perspective on a giant issue in high school. And all she cares about is the most asinine thing secondary education has to offer. I really couldn’t tell you one more thing she’s interested in besides prom.

And when she’s a boy, they trap him/her in his/her room for five days, where he has his own fridge and porn. There is no plot in this story until halfway through, when the boy decides he’s in love with his/her girl-ego’s buxom best friend. Not to mention the unresolved storylines, like her family’s dynamic with a mom and dad who are living separate lives in the same house. And that she doesn’t tell her two best friends her secret until the very last line. Dude! That is not where you end your novel, that’s where you end your first act!

There’s a fantastic commentary locked in this story concept and it’s wasted on petty YA junk like making plans for how to flirt with boys and shallow stereotypes and the importance of popularity. It focuses on what some Hollywood executive thinks are problems.

Fearless by Peter & Caroline David

When Tigerheart ended, the main character came back with a baby sister. This book is about that sister and how, in a feat typical of this fantasy-adventure children’s literature, cannot feel fear (hence the title). Mary grows up quite precociously (as one would expect from a fearless child) and has a great imagination and a best friend to share it. But one day, her friend’s imagination runs away, and Mary must use her refrigerator box to find it.

Where Tigerheart evokes Peter Pan (and quite obviously), this one evokes The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth or Labyrinth, but without direct parallels. I like that David made it a new character’s story (you could read this if you haven’t read Tigerheart). There are a few mystical companions, dangers both supernatural and political, divergence from the main story that never goes too far.

It’s nice to see a mostly-female cast that doesn’t make a big deal out of it. The characters are fun, and the narrative retains the same charm and cleverness that Peter David is known for. My one beef with it is that it doesn’t stray too far out of the boundaries of “children’s adventure” tropes or push its limits.

But you know? The thing is they don’t make novels like this anymore. All children’s literature these days is YA Vampire Academy and Harry Potter knock-offs. No one has an adventure anymore.  Bless Peter David for making a novel like this.  If you like any of the classic works that I mentioned above, you will like this book.

The S-Word by Chelsea Pitcher

This book was different than I expected. The style feels like a film noir, with short sentences, an investigation, a troubled personal life. It reminds me that I need to work on my own style, updating it to be sharper and shorter.

The book is about what happens after someone’s best friend commits suicide after being slut-shamed into a pariah. The main character starts investigating how this came to be and starts uncovering some dark secrets about the people in her high school.

But that’s just the hook. This book invokes just about every after-school special trope — monstrous teens, the too-smart bitch, the attention whore, the handsome sex-crazed jock, cheerleaders, gay/not gay, date rape, the wild teen party, climbing through a bedroom window to see your girl, “Dude, she’s like in a coma”, defiled forever, driven to suicide, rape leads to insanity, self-harm, sneaking alcohol in high school, “secretly a lesbian”, divorced parents, secret molestation, overly Christian parents, the big reveal, and of course, slut shaming and finishes with a decoy protagonist/killer in me combo.

I’m not trying to say a story with lots of tropes is bad. All stories have them. But the problem is that all these tropes are front and center. Like a Lifetime movie.  They’re all part of the plot turns and revelations. Which means that the characters herein are stereotypes, much like I talked about with Speak and Cycler. My beef is that it keeps painting high school with the same brush that all movies and YA books paint it with. Like how no one has academics to worry about. How does the main character get all this “investigating” done? Between passing times?

Don’t get me wrong, I like this book, but it’s controversial simply because the characters demand it.  To the point of being ridiculously implausible. One of the characters is gay.  So gay he wears a skirt to school.  And of course, the jocks beat him up for it.  But then he tells the main character he’s not gay, he’s just acting like it.  Because… reasons?

I was fooled by the summary in its Big Idea piece. I thought this was going to be a book about a girl going vigilante revenge for her friend who got slut-shamed into suicide, and then the revenge starts to consume her, where she couldn’t stop. That is most definitely not this book. This book is much like the high schoolers it’s portraying — a hot mess.

It did keep me reading. It was a completely acceptable story with a great style. It’s powerful. But it’s trying to be a ‘super YA novel’. It simply has too many ingredients, like a hamburger with forty things in it. You don’t need that many to make a good hamburger. Too much stuff, and it becomes too rich to digest.

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: January – February 2013

bookshelf books

peter david heights of the depths
Heights of the Depths (The Hidden Earth Chronicles #2) by Peter David

This book wasn’t as excellent as the first one, but still pretty good. Maybe because it’s the second of a trilogy, always a disadvantage since it loses the excitement of an introduction or resolution and there’s more moving characters to a destination.

Also, the eBook version had quite a few typography problems. The spacing would go from single to double with no transition, and the font size would change sometimes. It looked unprofessionally produced, which doesn’t match what I know of Peter David — a consummate writer-fo’-life. I hope this was just a blip.

The book continues where it left off, dropping off some characters from the last book and introducing some new ones. The biggest problem is that there are about six storylines going on, and when you’ve got that many, each one can only develop a little bit before it moves to the next. There’s going to be stories that are interesting and ones that aren’t, and you’ve got to wait for those to pass.

Plus it feels like the intrigue and mystery behind the world got explained away in this one, by the simple act of lifting the curtain. And the end didn’t really entice me to read on, since it eliminated what seemed to be the primary obstacle. Now I’m not sure what the big goal is.

But I still will read the next one. I still like this universe, I still love the characters. And I want to see what happens next.

tina fey bossypants
Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is awesome, but I can’t determine how she got awesome. All the female comics I know of had a gimmick. Ellen’s a lesbian, Sarah Silverman’s Jewish, Lisa Lampanelli’s a loudmouth Italian, Rosie O’Donnell is “nice”, Margaret Cho is Korean, Whoopi Goldberg is Rastafarian, Janeane Garofalo’s alternative (and hard to spell), and Joan Rivers is obnoxious.

Tina Fey is just… Tina Fey. She’s a nice, respectable, cute girl from Chicago. But no matter what she does, she friggin’ nails it. She’s one of those “I Don’t Know How She Does It” supermoms you can’t hope to emulate. So I wanted to figure out how she does it.

And there really is no good secret. Just hard work, good people, and paying attention to what’s around you. In the book, Tina also explains about being female among males, what being a mom means, tips on improv and comedy writing, her first photo shoot, SNL dish. If you’re looking for something Tina Fey, you’ll find it in here. It’s really an all-purpose book.

And everything’s pretty hilarious. It reminds me of Bill Cosby’s writing. There’s no reason not to pick up this book. You will enjoy it, guaranteed. Unless you’re a douche bag. You’re not a douche bag, are you?

judy blume blubber
Blubber by Judy Blume

I’m unsure what to think about this book. This and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret are the two titles everyone associates with Blume. I didn’t know what it was about going in. YA titles often have bizarre names mostly to intrigue the reader, like How to Eat Fried Worms and My Teacher is an Alien. Not this one.

Going in blind, I was allowed to judge the characters with impartiality. The main character, Jill, starts as whiny and spoiled, and doesn’t get any better when she starts targeting the title character (a fat girl).

The bullying is instigated by ringleader Wendy, and the things she and Jill (and others) do to “Blubber” are absolutely atrocious, like trapping her in the bathroom and attempting to strip her. The story culminates in a mock trial of “Blubber” that becomes too unfair not to protest. For her insolence, Jill becomes the bullied. The story ends with friendships manipulated and changed, as often happens in elementary school.

When I realized the story was about bullying, and that the bully is the protagonist, I wasn’t sure how to react. I had automatic lack of sympathy for her, which I can’t believe Blume didn’t expect. Then I started thinking, is this a cautionary tale? A walk in the other person’s shoes? No, because the reader doesn’t understand why Jill started bullying, or anyone in fact, and there’s no consequences from it. Is it like The Great Gatsby where you’re not supposed to sympathize with the characters but observe the decline and fall?

And I can’t help reading this book without applying what we now know about bullying and girls. I’m not saying the book is out of date. Far from it, it’s actually close to home. But you’ve also got more knowledge on the subject like Queen Bees and Wannabes, cyberbullying, school shootings, bullycide, causes of bullying, interventions, scapegoating, and so on.

Jill’s bully persona doesn’t match her non-school persona (she collects stamps, for God’s sake). The bully’s perspective didn’t feel plausible (a book that did do it well was the sequel to My Teacher is an Alien). And in the book, it never goes beyond the circle of girls. The events feel disconnected, like “a bunch of stuff that happens”.

I guess my two biggest complaints are that, except for Jill, we never get out of the bully cliche (even though Blume says she wrote this based on what was going on her daughter’s class at the time — maybe this is the kind of stuff that actually happens to girls and not boys). It’s more about the instances of bullying. They’re not well-developed, complex, or have backstory. The worst people on Earth are the most fascinating. The other complaint is that no one seems to learn anything by the end, except that “war changes things”. Maybe that’s the lesson we’re supposed to learn?

J.K. rowling the casual vacancy
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

This and Heights of the Depths were the reasons I don’t have a long list this time around. Thick books, man.

I’d heard a lot of things about J.K.’s post-Potter experiment. Opinions seemed to be split. I heard critics panned it on release day, but at the end of the year, it was hitting a lot of “Best of” lists. I went into it giving a lot of benefit of the doubt. After all, this is an author who has her own theme park.

The “story” starts when a guy on a small English town’s council dies suddenly. There’s a vacant seat and there’s a big debate who should fill it because there’s going to be a vote on where to draw property lines around a ghetto part of town. Unfortunately, the main plot remains unthrust because it’s more about the tons of characters and the mundane things they do. It was still kind of interesting because there are several core conflicts of teens vs. parents, rich vs. poor, and so on. It kept my interest, but nothing goes beyond arguing and suffering. My interest waned as the pages went on and on and on, and nothing happened to “change the game”.

Every single detail gets expanded, every characters thought gets explained. There’s too much internal dialogue and not enough external. I can see this book being appealing for fans of Pride and Prejudice or other long British epics where there’s a lot of talking not even talking, but minor interactions like doctor’s visits, prosaic house conversations, arguing couples, and so on.

I wish this book had started in the middle, cause there’s no tangible problem until then. (I will say that it’s nice to see a book that integrates Internet into the plot, you’d be surprised how many texts ignore it.) After that you see the consequences and all the exciting stuff that happens, the conflicts and revelations. Before that it’s all set-up.

So to sum up, I don’t think it was worth the time I spent on it. It’s a milieu book, where you’ve got a lot of characters, but not a lot of interest.

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.