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Was Carrie Justified?

carrie prom stephen king

I was talking with my wife last night about scary movies. Carrie came up. I said didn’t understand what scared her about it because I saw Carrie as a revenge/comeuppance story, not a horror movie. Then she stared at me, horrified. And I asked what I could say next that wouldn’t end with me sleeping on the couch.

Because Carrie is a powerful moment in story-telling. Maybe not the strongest, but definitely a pulse. It jumpstarts Stephen King’s influence in horror and he’s no stranger to the “revenge” plot. He also wrote Rage (which literally is about a disenfranchised student taking over a classroom with a gun) and Roadwork (a man massacres the construction team bulldozing his house because of the gub’mint) and The Running Man and Thinner.

Rage (King novel) - Wikipedia
Honestly, this guy looks more at home in a Flannery O’Connor short story

The movie, some say, surpasses the book. It’s one of the top films of its decade, got Oscar noms, and is known for the best jump scare in cinema ever. Without it, there’s no Heathers or Better Off Dead.

Also, keep in mind, this is way before Columbine, when high school mass murder became a national pastime. Carrie came out forty-five years ago. The book two years before that. The original idea far before that, probably in the sixties. (And the musical in 1988, but we don’t talk about that.)

But here’s the question: did Carrie White do right or wrong? Was she justified in killing her entire high school class?

BULLYING – WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN NO ONE CARES

20 Bullying Cartoons ideas | bullying, stop bullying, anti bullying

On the surface, it seems the answer is “no”. Carrie’s retribution goes too far for what they did to her. No matter the situation, no one has the right to take someone else’s life away (unless it’s immediate self-defense).

But what is Carrie supposed to do? What are her options? Is she supposed to talk to them? Sit each girl down and tell them how they hurt her feelings?

Or is she just supposed to endure it until she gets out of high school? Just “take it like a man”? As if this is some punishment she deserves.

Because there is no good solution to dealing with bullies. This article tells it better than I can, but it outlines what you already know. Tell an adult? What are they going to do? Walk with you 24/7? Get the law involved? There’re no laws regarding bullying. Kids are left to fend for their own.

Look at the catalyst event–the gym teacher punishes the bullies, which motivates them to seek revenge. Not on the teachers who took away their prom tickets, but on Carrie. You can’t drill empathy with push-ups. The principal can’t even get Carrie’s name right–keeps calling her “Cassie”.

Ignoring bullies doesn’t make them go away. Either they know they’re getting to you (because you’ve been told to “just ignore it”) or they don’t care about a reaction–they do it for their own self-gratification. You can’t run away. Certainly Carrie can’t, being A) a teenager B) having no money C) having an overbearing mom. In fact, Carrie’s worst fear is living the rest of her life with her mother, gaining weight, getting lonelier & lonelier.

You can’t fight back. Think about it–did any fight you have in high school resolve the situation? For one thing, that’s just not “how it’s done” in the girls’ world of 1974. For another, you might not win. For another another, there will be consequences. There’s the possibility of a permanent injury for one (one of my HS teachers told a story about a kid in a fight whose eye was hanging out of its socket, dangling by the optic nerve). For another, both of you get punished. Because no one cares to dig deeper into who started the fight or why it came about.

In Carrie, we are witness to two major incidents of bullying. One is where they throw the tampons at her in the shower. The other is the bucket of blood at the prom. But we can presume there were many many more incidents before this, given everyone’s behavior and the “carte blanche” the school gives them, given they fail to recognize any wrong-doing. “Girls will be girls.”

But bullying is insidious. It’s only been recognized as a problem recently, thanks to Columbine, various other school shootings, and documentaries like “Bully“.

Keep in mind bullying is not about power, it’s about pride. Pride is the domination of the self over others*. The bullies’ pride comes from believing that they are not lowlifes like Carrie. They reinforce that by abusing her and the lack of consequences of that abuse proves they were right. Until consequences come. But rather than accept them, the bullies double down so their beliefs don’t have to change.

*In fact, all sins are about power and abuse of it.

  • Gluttony – power over sustenance/nutrients/abundance (the consumption of food when you don’t need it is a demonstration of power over those who have no food)
  • Anger – power over the power of others (e.g. power over those you hate, either those above you on the totem pole, like politicians, or below you, like immigrants or other races)
  • Sloth – power over lack of action (a.k.a. the power of choosing to do nothing)
  • Pride- power over the self and others’ perception of yourself
  • Greed – power over material objects
  • Envy – giving power over external desires
  • Lust – giving power to internal desires
And you now know the acronym I use to remember the seven deadly sins — GASP GEL.

King was remarkably prescient about all this. But was that his intention?

THE KING”S INTENT

Stephen King | On Writing | Josh Mosey

Carrie (the character) is partially based on a real-life girl Stephen King knew in elementary school. A “peculiar girl from a peculiar family”. A girl everyone wanted to stay in her station.

“[T]he girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she’d bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she’d changed the black skirt and white blouse – which was all anybody had ever seen her in – for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold.”

From “On Writing”, I think

What do you do with that? What are you supposed to do when society itself won’t let you up? They make fun of your clothes, but when get better ones, they treat you worse.

That’s the character. What about the plot? Strangely, fear of student-led mass murder was not the original theme. In Danse Macabre, King says:

“Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power and what men fear about women and women’s sexuality… which is only to say that, writing the book in 1973, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. The book is, in its more adult implications, an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality.”

“Danse Macabre”

I take that to mean the fear factor is men’s anxiety of women getting power (remember — this is the seventies). What happens when girls realize they are women. What if they pull the whole rotten society down? It’s a worst-case scenario, but that’s what horror movies do. This means Carrie’s actions are justified if you think the world tree needs its misogynist branches severely pruned.

Broke Horror Fan on Twitter: "Original artwork & prints from  @Galleries1988's Stephen King tribute art show are now online:  https://t.co/u6HUaXtF9m… https://t.co/q3ysReQSrI"

Often, King’s stories are about monsters all around. In Pet Sematary, it’s not the people coming back to life, it’s the people who bury them there in the first place because they can’t deal with their grief. In The Stand, it’s not the virus, it’s the psychos and selfish ones left (as in any apocalypse story). In It, it’s not Pennywise the Clown, it’s the adults of Derry that cause the fear that Pennywise exploits (okay maybe it’s a little bit Pennywise). My point is, there’s no one you can turn a blind eye to.

Which means we have to determine what kind of story this is to glean its meaning. In Save the Cat, there’s no category for vengeance stories. It’s not a Golden Fleece or Whydunit or an Institutionalized. Revenge, as a motivation, can fit into any category.

SAVE THE TELEKINETIC CAT

I can’t decide whether what Carrie is a Superhero story, an Out of the Bottle story, or Rites of Passage.

Premium Photo | Superhero cat, scottish whiskas with a blue cloak and mask.

Superhero stories have three key elements: a special power, a nemesis, and a curse.

The special power is obviously telekinesis. She didn’t have to work for it, but she does have to learn how to use it. Some clues imply that her emotional trauma causes the power to manifest, but there’s no firm evidence.

This emotional trauma is the curse she must suffer for having these powers. You could say it’s the curse of womanhood, since getting her period is what triggers her powers. But bullying is what she has to put up with, like Harry Potter being hunted by Voldemort or Superman having to balance his alien/human life. The difference is Carrie succumbs to this curse. With great power comes great responsibility not to kill your entire high school.

The king bully, the nemesis, is her mother. She’s supposed to be Carrie’s salvation, but instead, she directly hammers her back down whenever she shows an inkling of rebellion. She represents the “old way” of woman, that they must be disciplined and subservient and everything is sinful. But here’s her daughter going out with boys and wearing make-up and doing all these progressive things. She lacks faith in her daughter.

This lack of faith drives the nemesis to destroy the hero. (That’s why she’s so mean–if Carrie’s mother really believed she was right, she wouldn’t need to tyrannize Carrie to prove it.) And when Carrie fights back, that faith is shattered. The only recourse is to kill her.

But Out of the Bottle has similar elements: a hero deserving of magic, a spell, and a lesson to learn.

Carrie, our hero definitely deserves her magic–she’s been powerless all her life, at school and at home. Her telekinesis forms part of her “B story” as she learns about the new world where she has clout. How she came by these powers is irrelevant. (Someone somewhere mentions genes, but who cares. It’s what do you do with it that’s important.)

And finally is the lesson. Carrie learns two. First is at the prom: humans gonna human. Her mom was right–they were all gonna laugh at her after all. So there was no point in reaching for something she was never going to get.

But then her mom tries to kill her, so her way certainly isn’t it (the second lesson). Therefore the only solution is take herself out–she can’t live in a world that doesn’t allow her to, similar to Terminator 2: Judgement Day or the deleted ending of The Butterfly Effect.

(Fun fact: in the movie, she telekinetically collapses the house on herself. In the book and 2013 remake, she summons a meteor storm that crushes her house, like some Final Fantasy spell.)

Final Fantasy V Part #26 - Galuf vs. X-Death

Then I looked up Rites of Passage. That includes a life problem (a universal challenge that’s an unavoidable part of life — in this case, high school), attacking the problem in the wrong way (trusting others like Tommy and Sue, letting them build up her confidence, ignoring the warnings of her mother, which all lead to Carrie murdering four hundred people) and acceptance (a solution to dealing with this stage in life… which, in this case, is Carrie’s suicide. There is no place in the world for her to be happy, so she destroys herself).

It’s all about what key elements are most at the forefront. I don’t think it’s Superhero because Carrie is not about sacrificing personal comfort to become the people’s champion. And if it’s Rites of Passage, the lesson is pretty bleak. That means it’s thematically about wish fulfillment.

WISH FUFILLMENT

Victor el Bizarro - Genie. Aladdin fan art

There aren’t too many good movies where it’s all about the hero taking revenge. It’s too hard to make a hero sympathetic who’s committing murder left and right. That’s the villain’s rag. Thus they’re relegated to one of two types.

  • Right-leaning shoot-em-ups: Death Wish, John Wick, Road House, or Joker
  • Comic book levels of ridiculousness: Kill Bill, I Spit On Your Grave, or Oldboy

Maybe The Princess Bride‘s squeaks out, but Inigo Montoya is a supporting character. I did come across one recently that I loved: Promising Young Woman. It’s not a conservative fantasy or a cartoonish romp. What does this mean for cinema? I don’t know. And I’m getting sidetracked.

Carrie is a tragic hero, like Sweeney Todd or Hamlet. Their killing’s okay because they seek justice where no justice can come. Hamlet’s murdering uncle is king so there’s no way he’s going to trial. Same for Judge Turpin. There’s no fairness in this world, so we have to get it where we can. Because secretly, we want all bad guys dead. We just don’t want to bloody our hands to do it.

Don’t believe me? Heroes kill people all the time, you just turn a blind eye to it. Batman leg grabs a guy like Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat, cracks his head into a bell, then throws him down an 800-foot cathedral shaft. What are you going to say? Gravity killed him?

Then in the fourth movie (Batman & Robin) he throws a bunch of Two-Face’s coins up in the air while he’s precariously balanced on a girder. And of course, Two-Face stumbles and plummets to his death. Like, what did Batman think was going to happen when he did that?

That seems to be the go-to way that cinema gets rid of bad guys without making the hero tread those murky moral waters. Spider-man could have totally grabbed the guy who fell out the window.

The whole theme of Captain America: Civil War is the Sokovia Accords — heroes are making too much collateral damage and people are dying. It’s accidental, but it brings up the question of whether the Avengers have too much power.

Heroes like Deadpool, Wolverine, and The Punisher act realistic to their villains. Because not everyone deserves to live. These people aren’t going to have some kind of redemption day. But Superman twists Zod’s neck as he’s about to laser a lobby full of people and everyone loses their minds. The audience wants to have it both ways.

The whole crux of the “Under the Red Hood” comic arc in Batman is that Jason Todd (Robin), who was literally killed by the Joker, is pissed that Batman keeps letting Joker live. It’s just a perpetual cycle of he’s arrested, he escapes and kills people, he’s arrested, he escapes and kills people. One might argue the justice system is letting him out, but the whole point of Batman is that he can operate outside the broken system of justice. That’s the point of any superhero. (Related article: Why Can’t Superheroes Kill?)

Batman: Under The Red Hood Full - Read Batman: Under The Red Hood Full comic  online in high… | Batman comic art, Batman and superman, Jason todd

I swear I’m trying to relate this back to Carrie.

My point is heroes get this “pass” because deep down, we know not all life is sacred. You know it and I know it. Do cops think life is sacred? Certainly not the black ones. Do you think the terrorists from 9/11 believed life was sacred?

Do you think the terrorists’ lives themselves were sacred? Let me ask you this: if you had the chance to save Mohamed Atta‘s life right before his hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, would you do it? I can guess your answer. (And no, you can’t save him so he stands trial–he’s teleported to an African savannah or somewhere he’s safe and out of jurisdiction).

So if heroes don’t think all life is sacred, why should Carrie? Why should you?

Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan - Carrie | Carrie movie, Stephen king  movies, John travolta

All these people are the worst kind of people (like I said–King writes about monsters upon monsters). Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan aren’t going to be missed. They’re not on their way to promising careers as doctors. Hell, not even good enough to be TikTok influencers (if that was a thing at the time).

All of them (except Sue, who becomes the final girl), take great delight in the misery of Carrie. At different degrees, sure, but they do it. And taking pleasure from someone else’s pain is the definition of evil. It’s not whether they deserve to die, it’s whether they deserve to live.

VENGEANCE

You simply can’t go through what Carrie went through and come out the other side a normal upstanding young woman.

Through the story, Carrie goes from the lowest point in her life to the happiest. She starts by cowering naked in a corner of the shower, at her most vulnerable, being abused and assaulted by people who are supposed to be her friends and peers

At the end, she’s on a date with the cutest boy in school, dancing, dressed and beautiful like the girls she wants to be like. There she is on stage, crowned as prom queen. Everyone loves and praises her. It’s like a dizzying dream.

The 10 Most Obsession-Worthy Shots of Brian De Palma's Career

Then it’s all taken out from her. She’s standing in front of everyone, covered in blood, like she was before. They’ve all gone from cherishing her to laughing at her. She’s right back where she started in the shower. You can’t go from the best moment in your life to the worst so quickly and not expect something to snap. The human mind simply isn’t fixed for that.

I read something in a book recently that sums this up perfectly.

“[H]uman beings have limits. And you can say all you want about the world being unfair and people rising above the atrocities done to them, but everyone is different. Some are hard as steel, but some are fragile, and you never know which one you’re going to get.”

-from Memory Man by David Baldacci

But…

The thing about vengeance is you can’t stop. It gets bigger and bigger until it takes out everyone. Maybe that’s why Batman keeps dissuading Robin from killing Two-Face in Batman & Robin. Maybe that’s why he has his vow against killing. Because once he jumps into that abyss, there’s no jumping back out. It destroys your ability to differentiate the guilty from the innocent. As suddenly everyone looks like they were part of the crime.

“The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”

Old proverb

So Carrie is like a shockwave. First, she takes out those who were mean to her. The ones who wronged her. Then those who laughed at her. Then everyone.

It’s like a rolling boulder. And the only way to stop it is to run in front and get killed. That’s why so many vengeance plots end with the protagonist dying at the same time. (e.g. Ravenous, The War of the Roses, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, The Prestige, The Hateful Eight. Oh, spoilers.)

Add some temporary insanity to that, and you have a gym full of high school student soup. He who fights monsters must ensure they do not become one themself.

Carrie Review | Movie - Empire

The sad thing is, if Carrie had done nothing and waited until she could get out of the crap town she was in, the crap high school, the crap house, the crap life, things might have gotten better for her. But when you’re pushed against the wall like that, with no ways to answer back, how do you act? You might say Carrie acted wrong. I say “what options did she have?”

What Carrie did wasn’t right. But if I was on the jury at her trial, I would vote “not guilty.”

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The Books I Read: November 2019

bookshelf books
catherine called birdy karen cushman
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

This is an epistolary YA novel that’s meant to accurately portray the life of a young lady in 12XX. She’s not a peasant, but she’s certainly no princess in a castle. She has a nice manor and some servants, but what this girl really wants, she can’t seem to get–freedom.

She’s supposed to sew, cook, and do medicine (which involved a lot of herbs), but those are only the in-between times of babymaking. There’s a lot of praying and going to church, as well as playing pranks on others (I think at one point she throws her sewing down the outhouse). Her central conflict comes from loathing the idea of being married off to some stranger. And there are several dinners being introduced to potential suitors that she sabotages. She has more fun playing with the peasant children her age. But they’re doomed to live a life of servitude, and she’s destined to be married off.

I really liked Karen Cushman’s other book The Midwife’s Apprentice which was also period-accurate. I would say this one is better, maybe because it’s simpler. There is no arching plot, since it’s a “slice of life” story. You get to see more of the “typical” events, such as the birthing of a baby, a wedding, traveling Jews. She’s a surprisingly relatable teenager for living over 800 years ago. I think it’s because she’s juuuust outside of adulthood, when she would be all reverent and polite. Instead we get to see her in that transition of child to adult and it’s interesting. Plus, like The Midwife’s Apprentice, it’s rich with medieval history and factoids. I highly recommend it.

view from saturday konigsburg
The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

E.L. Konigsburg also wrote The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler which I recall as a memorable book from my sixth-grade self, although I haven’t read it since then. I remember the kids were naked in the fountain gathering up money, and the answer was B for Bologna.

The format for The View From Saturday is its big draw. It’s kind of an anthology and kind of not. You’ve got four separate kids and the novel takes the time to tell their stories. Or really, it tells their character-forming anecdote. And there’s a Pulp Fiction-esque string that ties each to each in some coincidental way. That’s about four-sevenths of the book. The rest is when they are together. These kids call themselves “the souls” for some reason which escapes me, but it sounds pretentious because it is. And they’re on a quiz bowl team and the big question is will they win, since they’re so young.

The style left me pretty cold. There was an absence of emotional involvement in the characters. They all look at things in the same way, in a static robotic analytical way. There’s divorce, there’s death, there’s remarriage. But none of the kids seem to care. They all act like distant little autistic geniuses. They don’t use contractions. They do calligraphy and theater and Saturday afternoon tea.

It’s supposed to be about friends getting together, but I can’t believe these kids would be friends unless you plugged them into each other, like one of those four-way cables for the original Game Boy. They’re such little perfect students walking around like wind-up toys. They have backgrounds, but they’re lacking character. And that makes me lose my investment.

cinder marissa meyer
Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinderella plus Blade Runner? You know I love those crazy combinations. I had actually kept passing on this book forever because I thought it was just a YA romance, like The Selection. I never looked hard enough at the cover to see there’s a titanium bone there. They need to work on the cover art because I had no idea this was cyberpunk.

Now here’s a plot-driven book. First thing that happens is the prince enters Cinderella’s machine shop with an android that needs repairing. Then her evil stepsister catches the Black Shakes and her stepmother blames her. There is also a ball everyone’s getting ready for, because it’s when the prince becomes emperor and looks for a bride. I wanted to find out what happens, even if the story doesn’t go much beyond that YA depth of “hey c’mere c’mere c’mere c’mere” “no, get’way get’way get’way get’way get’way” boy-girl relationships, ripped off from Ever After.

Some things are never explained and that bothers me. Like there is never a reason given for why cyborgs are persona non grata here. Our main character seems to be the only one in the cast of characters, but I don’t get what’s wrong with being one? You can have cool laser vision and multi-tool arms and rocket legs. You’re an enhanced human. Why isn’t this seen as a step up? Especially in a world where you’re competing with the moon men who have psychic glamour. Being a cyborg is expensive, so those who get the surgery, elective or not, must be signs of status.

It was intriguing enough I think I’m going to read at least the second one. The book ends on a cliffhanger, which I’m not fond of. I didn’t really care about the characters enough to continue (the main character has that aloof Katniss vibe), but I cared about the world and the plot enough to.

heart shaped box joe hill
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

A ghost story. An aging rock-and-roller accidentally invokes the vengeance of a former girlfriend’s daddy. Said daddy is using his ethereal powers to haunt and drive the rock-and-roller suicidal or insane. Most of the novel is a road trip down to the south as old wounds that need healing are reopened.

I feel like not enough events happened for the length of the novel. The style is much like Stephen King, where there’s a lot of overwriting. There’s nothing terribly new here either. This could easily be in King’s early pantheon and I wouldn’t know it. The beginning and ending are great, it’s that sludgy middle that’s the problem.

I’ve never really liked ghosts either. Ghosts have no rules, and Hill does no better job of explaining them than anyone. Can they be attacked outside the house? Is the ghost always watching? Is there anywhere they are safe? How much can a ghost do?

I don’t know if I have any desire to read any more Joe Hill after the failed NOS482 and now this. I just don’t see anything big or new about it.

some kind of happiness claire legrand
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

This book was pretty damn good. It was originally suggested from a list of books dealing with mental illness. (Depression, for this one.) I don’t know if this book does much to address that but it does an excellent job of storytelling otherwise. The writing is the real star of the show here.

It reminded me of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, which I liked very much, with a little Bridge to Terabithia thrown in. I like the idea of there being some kind of family secret and only the kids can uncover it because they lack the prejudices or social stigmas of adults. They’re smart enough to ignore the “don’t associate with those people” rule. I love those books where the kids are heroes and the adults are the screw-ups.

The main character has this world she escapes to because she has depression and anxiety. But when she goes to her grandparents, and interacts with her cousins for the first time, they all get into the world, and suddenly they have a reason to play together. But this doesn’t help the broken-ness, the blue days, the panic attacks. She’s got to deal with them while fending off Grandma’s desire to keep up appearances, developing a crush on the neighbor boy, and idolizing the cool older cousin.

It may not help with your depression or give you much insight into it–the mental illness isn’t really part of the plot, it’s more a tacked on part of the character–but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy this.

be more chill ned vizzini
Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini

This book teaches you to treat people like shit, do drugs, steal from your parents, and suck on infected nipples.

A teen dork gets a computer in his head that tells him what to do and how to be cool. Kind of like “Upgrade” without the body control or “Venom” without the symbiote. The computer is a huge asshole, which is pretty much what I expected. Its only purpose is to get our hero to climb the social ladder, with no regard for the little people or whose feelings get hurt along the way. You’ve seen this in sitcoms all the time. It’s like “pick-up artistry for kids”.

All girls are sluts, all guys are horndogs, all adults are useless. Even the dad calls everything “gay”. Aren’t we passed that already? I can’t believe this book got so many awards for being “realistic teen fiction”. There are way more parties and drugs than there should be. All this book does is encourage the “I have to dress the way everyone does, I have to talk the way everyone does” groupthink mentality that turns everyone into Abercrombie zombies.

The worst part is the ending. I can’t talk about it without spoiling so stop reading this paragraph. The computer advises him to break character in the middle of the play, a play that’s been going on since the beginning of the novel, and announce his love for this girl he’s been pining for all the time (basically the high school equivalent of a marriage proposal). Also this takes place a day after two students were burned in a house fire. And the computer thinks it’s a good idea to, at this exact time, announce himself to everyone in the audience and take all the attention away from grief for the burn victims, the people who’ve been working on the play, the audience who came to see it, and make it all about him. It’s the dumbest plot point I ever saw. No one in their right mind would advise that kind of move. ELIZA has more intelligence than that.

I don’t think the author hates women, but he doesn’t know how to write women. All he knows is what he thought women were in high school, or what is gleaned from “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Sixteen Candles“. Checkout “Booksmart” for a better example of nerds trying to party that isn’t so misogynistic. This is what we talk about when we say “the author’s responsibility”.

The Books I Read: September – October 2019

bookshelf books

garth stein art of racing in the rain
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

A bittersweet fictional memoir from the POV of a dog. Some people found the POV of the dog annoying, but I didn’t think so. That may be because I’ve read so many “talking animal” novels I’m used to it. The ending is satisfying. But this wasn’t as unforgettable a book as people are making it out to be. Some are like “it changed my life”, but I thought “it’s just another one on the pile”.

In this book, you learn a lot about racing. I have to admit it made me appreciate the nuances of the Daytona 500 and Cars as an actual sport instead of a gas-guzzling waste of money and environment. Not that it’s turned me onto the activity, but at least now I know it’s more than rednecks watching car crashes.

The problem is there is a LOT of racing and if you’re not into the sport, you won’t get much out of at least half the book. It’s not like it’s really part of the story–it’s meditations on the subtleties of racing, the zen of motorsports if you will (I kept thinking this book was called Zen and the Art of Racing in the Rain).

The other part of the story, which hardly relates to the first, is a family drama. Short version is that the mean old in-laws are trying to take away his kid after wife dies. At times I thought the antagonist’s actions were pretty cliche–the main plot feels like a Lifetime movie called “Not Without My Daughter” (which I think is the title of half of all Lifetime movies — how do they make so many with the same plot? Sorry, I’m digressing).

I think if you’re a cynic or keep a generally negative outview on life, you won’t get much out of this book. But if you’re the type that loves animal stories and cried during Milo & Otis, you will.

hidden goddess mk hobson
The Hidden Goddess (Veneficas Americana #2) by M.K. Hobson
(unfinished)

This is the second book in the “The Native Star” series, the first of which I read way way back when I was first starting the blog. I didn’t stop because I forgot all the characters, I stopped because so damn little happened. It didn’t help that I barely remembered the first book, but it wasn’t the reason. The reason was that after fifty pages no events of note had happened. Again, there was a prologue that had no reason to be there except bringing “up” the lackluster beginning. It was all setup and establishment and exposition and events happening to characters that are supposed to provide foreshadowing and foreboding, but when I have no context for the characters or consequences, it’s all meaningless.

a dirty job christopher moore
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

I really loved Lamb, so I decided to try the next most popular book by this author. But honestly, it got pretty boring in the middle of it. It’s advertised as a story about a man becoming the grim reaper, but he doesn’t do that much reaping. Various unusual things happen to him in the course of the novel, like his daughter seems to be the spawn of Satan and is followed around by two hellhounds that won’t get out of the tub without her. It’s not as funny or as good as “Lamb”.

I feel like it’s trying to be Good Omens, but it lacks the talent and imagination of a veteran writer. And the talk about Beta males falls flat in this current age of Weinsteins and Men’s Rights Activists and GamerGate and everyone being called a cuck. That’s the problem with humor books–the reach tends to exceed the grasp. You don’t have the benefit of timing. If Good Omens is an epic novel, A Dirty Job is a sitcom. From the 90’s (which is better than the 2000s but not as good as the 1980s).

kill the dead sandman slim richard kadrey
Kill the Dead (Sandman Slim #2) by Richard Kadrey
(unfinished)

Another attempt to read the second book in a series I started a long long time ago. And another case of too much exposition and not enough happening. Just because it’s a sequel, people, doesn’t mean nothing has to happen. It still needs a plot, still needs a catalyst to start the plot. The first 25% is all updates on what characters from the first book are doing now, like it’s an e-mail newsletter or a VH1 Behind the Music. It was like he was writing slices of life and forgot to start the story.

The style is still fantastic. I loved Butcher Bird and the first Sandman Slim book. The sequence of events is always go-go-go, but I needed a main quest to keep me anchored, and being a bodyguard to the devil as he does a Hollywood premiere is not it (it seems a step down from the last novel, didn’t he save the world in that one?).

It kept me going but it could not hold me long enough to get to the plot. Maybe it’s because I’m not into hell demons and black magic anymore. Dark urban fantasy does not cross my “to-read” list very often.

the 13 clocks james thurber
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Well, that book certainly was… something. It’s heavy on style, light on plot. Is it fantasy? Is it a fairy tale? Is it slipstream? I don’t know. I guess it’s like Gabriel Garcia Marquez for kids — fantasy realism. I didn’t see what made it a classic. The cover made me think it was going to be more like a Hardy Boys mystery, but I shouldn’t judge by what I expected, only by what I got. And what I got was an extended fairy tale. I guess it’s a little like The Last Unicorn or Howl’s Moving Castle with that tongue-in-cheek satire going on.

red seas under red skies gentleman bastards scott lynch
Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastards #2) by Scott Lynch

Ah, finally we’ve got a real sequel, not a bunch of meandering “slice of life” events after the first book. This one has some real events, some real goals. And it’s just as good as the first.

Now keep in mind, you are not going to get the same as the first. The first was a heist story set in a fantasy world with awesome characters. This one still has the awesome characters, and there’s still some light heisting and thievery, but the majority of the story is pirates. Also keep in mind, you are not going to get the pirates right away. There has to be a tailing off from the last novel to this one.

But at its most basic, the plot is like “Avatar” or “Dances with Wolves”, where our two heroes are forced into piracy (yes, they’re blackmailed into becoming pirates. If only all of us could receive such a curse) and grow to love the lifestyle.

It’s actually all pretty awesome, and it doesn’t fall into second book syndrome. I don’t understand anyone who wouldn’t like this book, unless they’re absolutely adamant that they should receive the first book again with a different cover. But to those people, I say if you want the first book, read the first book again. No story is exactly like another. Not even if the same author were to rewrite it. Besides, you get a cool new world, cool new characters, and a cool new plot to go through. Why are you complaining?

Will you enjoy it just as much as the first? I had a little trouble in the beginning, because it seemed like a lot of setting up dominoes (although it’s all done with that same style) and the end knocks them down too quickly. But this is a rare book where you come for the middle. Especially if you love Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

swim the fly don calame
Swim the Fly by Don Calame

The plot is like a combination of Milk Money (a horrible movie in which cusp-of-puberty kids hire a prostitute to teach them about sex) and American Pie, with some The Sandlot thrown in. This summer, three boys decide that their mission in life is to see a naked girl. Not just on the Internet, but in real life (picky, picky). In the meantime, our main character has accidentally (to impress a girl) volunteered to the be the butterfly swimmer for their swim team (hence the title).

It sounds like it’s another case of misogynist teenagers treating women as a prize to be won, but it’s not like that. It’s wonderful, funny, and heartwarming. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously–it knows its premise is, er, problematic, but has ways around that so that our heroes learn that women aren’t just to gawk at. If nothing else, it’s a nice break from all the YA about apocalypses and dystopias. It reminded me a little of Superbad, but not as raunchy.

the phoenix project gene kim
The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim

Okay, this needs a bit of explanation. So this has been on the desk of my tech lead for some time. I don’t know if he’s reading it or not, but I wanted to make a good impression/be like him. When I looked it up, I was intrigued–it’s a non-fiction informational book wrapped into a fiction novel. What a novel idea! (Pardon the pun.) Why doesn’t everybody do this–put your education into an entertaining novel instead of a dusty old textbook. Hell, maybe this could be my avenue into publishing!

So what is it like? It’s heavy on the education and material, light on the novel part. That doesn’t mean it’s bad–I was entertained and learning at the same time. There’s a lot of mentor/mentee type dialogue, as one might expect, as the smart people who know the material impart it onto the harebrained. But it’s in a conversational way, not a lecture.

You end up rooting for the guy, trying to learn the better way to deliver products in IT. On the other hand, if you’re not part of this industry, not even a little bit, you won’t remotely get anything out of it. It kind of expects you to be in the IT industry already. Secretaries and teachers need not apply. If you’ve never dealt with a server crash at three in the morning, then these are not problems you need to worry about.

On the other hand, if you ARE that kind of person, and especially if you’re on a management track, you’ll definitely want to pick it up. Who wants to read another dull IT management book when you could be reading a story?

imaginary friend stephen chbosky
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

First things first, this is written by the same author as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a coming-of-age novel that changed my life. This book is NOT LIKE THAT BOOK. If you are coming for more Perks, you are looking in the wrong place.

Second things second, do you remember the episode of Futurama where Beck has a concert and he’s like:

beck futurama serious thing

This appears to be how the book was written. “I usually don’t write a 750 page book, but I got into a serious thing. And then I didn’t know how to end it so I just kept writing.”

Okay, all joking aside. This is a horror story in the vein of Stephen King. It seems to be Donnie Darko meets The Tommyknockers (which is not his best work). It’s got all the earmarks–bullies, alcoholism, kids in danger, supernatural stuff that never gets an explanation, overwriting. This is not what I was expecting, but I can dig it. I like Stephen King, I like horror, it’s October, throw it at me.

Here are some words I would use to describe the book: boring, suspenseful, drawn-out, simplistic, unnecessarily long, unsatisfying. The biggest problem is that you cannot draw out the same emotion over 100 chapters. There has to be breaks. There has to be up and downs. Every chapter, there’s trying to be some kind of gasp but it’s gasp after gasp after gasp and you get burnt out after a while (the fact that it’s so long doesn’t help). The style is remarkably simple. Really short sentences. You’d be amazed how the guy got so many pages out of a style like this. The first 30-45% entertained me, but the remaining felt like “How am I going to write myself out of this corner? I’ll make a new corner.”

simpsons dig hole

Then there are so many corners the plot becomes repetitious nonsensical, not the least because there’s no explanation for anything. The character motivations get muddled. It goes in a direction where it becomes more “The Stand” than “It” and it’s not earned.

I’m disappointed. I waited twenty years for Chbosky’s next work, and I got a Dean Koontz knock-off. This book is going to go into the paperback section of the supermarket, like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One versus Armada.

felicia day embrace your weird
Embrace Your Weird: Face Your Fears and Unleash Creativity by Felicia Day

So I was expecting (hoping for) a book that would help me with writing, but would be more generally focused on creativity in general — art, literature, film-making, sewing, puppets, acting, and so on. But it feels more like a self-help book for creatives. There’s a large portion of it about “defeating your enemies” (feelings of anxiety, perfectionism, outward critics, etc.) and “embracing your friends” (mentors, role models, etc.).

It didn’t help me as much as Neil Gaiman’s master class or Brandon Sanderson’s lectures did, but it’s still an entertaining read. I really liked Felicia Day’s memoir and this has the same funny, quirky style of writing. So even if you’re not creative, you can get something out of it (although you’ll probably think it’s a touch hippy-dippy). If you’re wondering if you should get a paper or e-copy, get the paper. There are “activities” to do inside that are not so easy to do in a Kindle. Even if you’re using a separate sheet of paper.

stephen king misery
Misery by Stephen King

It starts out a little unfocused. If I hadn’t seen the movie and known that it starts with a car crash, I would have thought it too abstract and maybe put the book down. As I read further, I got the sense that the movie would end up being better. It’s hard to dismiss the performance of Kathy Bates, the only actor to win an oscar for a Stephen King work. I mean, just the test of time proves me right. When you remember Misery, do you picture the book or the movie? Now play the same game with Cujo.

Anyway, back to the book. I finished it surprisingly fast for a King doorstopper. I find myself having a hard time writing a review for it though. I’ve read so much King that the horror works tend to blur together. If it’s not a bipolar nurse, it’s a bloodthirsty car. If it’s not a bloodthirsty car, it’s a psychotic father in a hotel. I’m not saying this book is the same as all his other works. I just mean the movie cuts out the filler. There’s no point to put in the chapters of the novel that the author is writing. No reason for the book inside the book–it doesn’t help move the story along. I guess it’s one of those books that is above the 50th percentile, but nowhere near the great ones, like James K. Polk.

The Books I Read: July – August 2019

bookshelf books
nora roberts year one
Year One by Nora Roberts

This is the nicest apocalypse I’ve ever seen.

It was advertised to me as a big epic story like The Stand, but with magic. It even has a mystery flu as the apocalypse-causing incident. But The Stand, this ain’t. Where’s the bleakness? Where’s the stakes? Where’s the beef?

The blurbs and reviews made it out like the next best thing since Patrick Rothfuss, but really it’s just a standard novel that feels like it belongs on mass market shelves at the grocery store. I was hoping for a unique twist, but it’s underdeveloped. And all you get are a bunch of nice people doing nice things in hard times. It reads more like the Katrina disaster than the end of the world.

For another thing, it has the problem of a big sludgy middle. It’s nothing like Swan Song or other apocalypse fiction I’ve read. Everyone’s too nice to each other. No one’s a hoarder. Everyone gives what they have willingly, like it’s a Meg Ryan apocalypse. Everyone trusts each other. And the weird part is how the build up around it is so unsatisfying. They create this big town called “New Hope” (eye roll), then it’s ransacked by bad guys and looters. But that’s not the end of the novel. You think it is, but it keeps going.

No one has a goal stronger than “survive”. No one has a character arc. If there are bad guys lurking, we don’t know anything about them. I’d call it “The Stand Lite“. I don’t think the author took time to think about what happens in a real worldwide disaster, as Stephen King and Robert McCammon did.

Some people said that it fell apart for them when the magic came in. I say it needed to have more magic. As such, there’s just a sprinkling of wiccan stuff and cliched prophecies going on. No one blasts each other with a spell. No one conjures up water. The fairies are human-sized and they actually have very little power. Don’t expect something like “the fae come to take over the ruined Earth”, because that’s a far cry from this.

I won’t be reading the next in the series. I probably won’t be reading any more Nora Roberts after this disappointment. Another case of an excellent idea executed poorly.

dean koontz watchers
Watchers by Dean Koontz

According to the PBS Special “The Great American Read”, this was the most-voted-for Dean Koontz book. I find myself wanting to read Dean Koontz, but am never sure what book to pick up, until this one.

There are three different storylines. That makes the book bloated, but I found I could speed-read the narrative and just read the dialogue. The best is the one with the dog (obviously). The dog isn’t telepathic, but it can understand human speech and language.

The story is fine being a nice little romance (reminds me of the beginning of 101 Dalmatians). One big problem is that the antagonists are shoe-horned in. One drops out 1/3 of the way through and the other(s) don’t show up until the very end. And then they are quickly dispatched. All build-up and little bang. These thriller aspects are what Koontz is known for, but they don’t have an effect on the main story. You just get glimpses of what they are doing as breaks from the main plot line.

It’s a decent story, but it’s long. So damn long. I liked Lightning better, so I’m not sure why everyone’s so fascinated with this particular novel. Maybe it’s the dog. It’s a very good dog. Maybe they love the family aspects and the romance. Koontz does a lot of telling. This is one of those books that gives me confidence that I can make it in the writing world. But it’s also dated in that none of this stuff is as significant as it was in the eighties. A genius dog manipulating Scrabble tiles isn’t as impressive when today’s movies have a realistic space raccoon with a foul mouth that shoots lasers.

11/22/63 stephen king
11/22/63 by Stephen King

If The Stand is Stephen King’s most popular work and The Dark Tower is his magnum opus, then where is the room for 11/22/63? I don’t know, but we need a new word for it. Magna cum libris?

So the book is a basic “what if?”: What if you could time travel and stop the JFK assassination. With none of the hang-ups that time travel comes with. No Grandfather Paradox, no complicated machines that break down, no future stuff baggage (because it’s not the future), no deLoreans needing to get struck by lightning.

It certainly starts quick and strong. And will it keep a grip on you and hold on? That depends on your feelings on JFK. If you’re like me and were born in the eighties, you have no idea what an event this was. Funnily, the story is less about stopping the JFK assassination and as much about the main character. What happens when you travel to the past and have to stay there for a given time? You miss cell phones, but you love the unprocessed food. You hate the lack of Google, but love how friendly everyone is (unless you’re black). So the novel’s in two main storylines that twine together–stalking Lee Harvey Oswald and a love story.

Quite honestly, this is some of the best King work I’ve ever read. The setting is vivid, not bleak like Firestarter. There’s no reliance on some spiritual un-be-knowable thing to draw tension, no bullies, no alcoholism, no monster-of-the-week. It’s damn well-researched. This is surprising because King’s been known to be a seat-of-the-pants writer (hence his tendency to overwrite). Is this story overwritten? Well, I wonder if it needed to be as long as it needed to be. The character ends up about four years before Oswald’s scheduled to make his fatal shot, so that gives him time to kill.

You don’t get to the consequences of his actions until the very end. And if you’re hoping for a big story about the alternate history if Kennedy lived, all you get is a glimpse. I won’t spoil what that is, because it was spoiled for me. But about 95% of the story is the events leading up to it. This is not a book about alternate history, it’s a book about the late fifties/early sixties (a little like It), which King lived through and thus has a mastery of.

I think this will most appeal to baby boomers because it’s preying on nostalgia and “blasts from the past” to evoke feelings of nostalgia. And hey, I’m the last person to deny the appeal of nostalgia. It uses rose-colored glasses to tell its tale, but they’re not smudgy.

jhereg stephen brust
Jhereg by Steven Brust
(unfinished)

Halfway through, I realized I didn’t care if anyone lives or dies. It succeeds at pulling you in — the main character getting a dragon familiar — but all it does is make snide comments every now and then. It promises to be a huge part of the plot/story, but then fails to do so. It’s more about the BS behind houses and ancestry and all that junk. It makes promises the middle can’t keep.

revenge of the shadow king derek benz
The Revenge of the Shadow King by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis
(unfinished)

It’s all right, but I didn’t finish it because the plot kept looping. A disaster happens, reaction to it, disaster happens, reaction to it. The plot never gets started. Instead we get “prophecies”, which now I’m getting sick of–they’re an artificial way to create tension and foreshadowing. You’re supposed to go “ooh, ahh, I wonder what that means” and meanwhile I’m over here with “this is meaningless until I know the context for this”.

I picked it up because I guess the author lives near me and based the setting on where I live. But I don’t see the resemblance. The main character is supposed to be a super-rich kid, and there’s no one like that around here. I also couldn’t differentiate the characters. There were too many and they sounded too alike to figure out who was who. Basically, it was a poorly written novel and too long.

It’s basically about a card game like Magic: the Gathering comes to life and the creatures start invading reality, and I don’t even know how it happens. I think the author was going for a feel like “The Neverending Story”, but that didn’t come across at all because there’s no empathy for the characters. Why bother having empathy for a kid with a driver/bodyguard and his friends whose biggest problem is getting rare cards. Someone who appreciates a good, well-written story will not like this book.

three laws lethal david walton
Three Laws Lethal by David Walton

My wife and I have an ongoing debate about self-driving cars. I think they’re the wave of the future and can’t wait for them to arrive. She thinks there’s too many logistical problems to overcome–what happens when the GPS doesn’t have info? How do you get off-road?–not to mention the ethical issues. That’s why I was delighted when I heard about this book–something that tackles those questions. And this book delivers.

The very first scene is the classic problem–if the car has to make a choice between killing the driver and killing someone on the road, which does it choose? How does it choose? And the rest of the story is thinking out those questions (Tip #1: Don’t tease the cars). The story is always moving, always building on what happened before, so there’s no long moral/ethical/metaphysical diatribes that take time out of the story. The characters are distinct and sympathetic. If I had to categorize it, I’d say it’s a techno-thriller like Daemon, but much better than that. It entertains and teaches something at the same time, and well, it’s just fun.

It’s a great book because it brings up questions, but doesn’t necessarily answer them. It reminds me of Cory Doctorow’s earlier works, like Eastern Standard Tribe. It acknowledges the work of Asimov, stands on his giant shoulders, and creates some big shoulders of its own. This is what Robopocalypse should have been. It’s a must for anyone interested in robot tropes.

sleeping dragon joel rosenberg
The Sleeping Dragon (Guardians of the Flame #1) by Joel Rosenberg

So you know how writing professors tell you not to write about your D & D campaign? This is that.

I mean, I’ve never had a stigma about it, so I embrace the concept. Five or six people get whisked away into their fantasy world they created at the table rolling dice. They’ve all become their characters and have to get back home.

This was probably more significant in the eighties, when these college kids had to do their research at the library instead of the computer. Today it’s old hat. I’m not saying the book is out of date, but it’s falls into some other fantasy trappings. There’s nothing about this fantasy world that makes it different from any others. I expected to see creepy D&D monsters and elements like sentient swords and beholders. But this is a pretty standard get from point A to point B with a few stumblings on the way.

beholder
I’d read the shit out of a book about this guy

I will say the pacing is pretty good and most of the characters are distinguishable, but inconsistent. One character dies and no one seems to give a rip. Another has muscular dystrophy and he’s torn between staying or going back to the real world. So it scales back and forth. I can’t tell whether the tropes are cliche by now or not, but I don’t think they were when this was written.

There’s lots to dislike about the book, but here’s the one that’ll make you drop it–it uses rape as a plot point. The females get barely any screen time to begin with, I don’t think a single scene takes their POV, and I don’t think they have a conversation with each other. But when a troop of bandits kidnaps them, they take the women into the back. This is purely to give the characters motivation. Any love I had for this book dropped. It happens about 80% of the way through, so I finished it anyway, but all the book’s good will left the building. Especially when it takes the big strong men to avenge the rapists. One woman goes catatonic and the other acts like nothing happened. This is what people point to when they say fantasy doesn’t favor females. I won’t be reading any more in the series.

pushcart war jean merrill
The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill

A perfectly serviceable book. It’s good for explaining to kids about war–how it starts, how it works. Like Animal Farm Lite. It’s so well-written, I thought it was a true story. I had to look up whether this was fiction or non-fiction.

It’s narrative fiction book about a conflict between pushcart peddlers and the truckers who want them off the streets. Although I said it’s good for teaching about war, there’s a clear “little guys vs. big bullies” allegory here, as the truckers are never put in a sympathetic light. The newspaper publisher in Newsies got better press than the truckers did.

This is as small a conflict as you expect from such a war, but that makes it accessible to readers. But it blows it up to talk about the Pea-Shooter Campaign as importantly as Sherman’s March. It’s different from any other children’s fiction book I’ve read. It’s good for the rare child who doesn’t like reading fiction, adding a little humor into it now and then to keep kids interested (but it’s no Sideways Stories from Wayside School). It gives kids what they don’t usually get in their fiction–politics, war theory, international issues, economics, civil liberties, propaganda, etc.

Problem is, I’m trying to figure out who this book is for, who I’d recommend it to, and I can’t think of anyone. It would be a great book for a social studies teacher to use in a classroom, to teach the issues mentioned above. But I don’t think I can recommend just picking it up and reading it. They love fantasy books like “Wings of Fire” and “Percy Jackson”, which put plot before message. This is a message book. But it’s a book of good taste so you feel smarter after reading it.

lila bowen malice of crows
Malice of Crows (The Shadow #3) by Lila Bowen

It’s much the same as the earlier books, so I feel I can copy and paste my review of those. It even follows the same pattern–there’s a whole bunch of traveling, sprinkled with a few battles and a few town visits, until the end where there’s a big climax/ultimate goal fulfilled. The problem is that travel portion. It feels like filler. Like the hurdles they have to jump don’t have to do with the main goal, they don’t have a permanent effect on the characters. Which is not a deal breaker, but it irritates me. Makes me feel like there was no point in reading what I just read. Or that it’s a repetitive cycle, with minimal character development in-between. It’s a quest story.

stalking the unicorn mike resnick
Stalking the Unicorn (John Justin Mallory Mystery #1) by Mike Resnick

It promises to be a hardboiled detective novel in a fantasy world (like Raymond Chandler meets Legend), but it’s more like a portal fantasy. Like Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, most of the main character’s time is taken up with little sidequests, like the two people playing a game of chess that takes forever, or the bar with old-timey witches. It’s like a character just moves from station to station, interviewing these oddballs and characters of humor when he should be getting on with the main goal. Because unlike Alice and Phantom, this isn’t a quest, this is a mystery. So it has a bad case of the “get-on-with-its”.

This book doesn’t deliver on it’s promise because it’s not a detective story. There are no clues, no suspects, no witnesses. Garfield’s Babes and Bullets was more of a detective story than this. So no, I won’t be reading any more in the series. It’s too farcical to be taken seriously.

The Books I Read: May – June 2019

bookshelf books
Titan by John Varley

As I expected with “classic” science fiction, this stuff is just weird. A group of space explorers (including a set of incestuous test-tube twins) find a Dyson sphere that’s part living, part machine. Inside the sphere, our heroes find giant landscapes, geographical features akin to Avatar’s Pandora, and a war between centaurs and angels (their names for these alien beings).

It reminds me of “Jitterbug Perfume” and “The Demolished Man” — critically acclaimed and difficult to understand. And like those books, there’s a lot of unncessary sex in there. It’s really obvious, like the sex was put in there to sell the book.

I’ll be honest, I came here for the centaur sex. But there isn’t any. There’s naked centaurs who have both man junk and horse junk. But that takes the fun out of it. And that’s when the book is going off on weird tangents. You can tell this guy is a gardener, not an architect, but there’s nothing here to sell it.

There’s really no reason to read this book. I didn’t get what I wanted out of it and neither will you. It’s too ridiculous to be considered sci-fi and too scientific to be considered fantasy. I do not recommend it.

The Wrong Unit by Rob Dircks

It’s okay. Not great, but good. It’s pop sci-fi, using tropes like “Robots enslave humanity” and “chosen one” for what’s intended to be humor. The whole of the book is about a lone robot raising a child as they try and travel back to where they came from (a human work camp). As you might tell, this is a book about fathers and sons, and has some heart-warming moments.

It has a sluggy middle and the storyline is pretty predictable. It’s funny at first, but then the concept starts to wear. And that’s the problem with sci-fi humor — it never maintains over a long period of time. The style of humor is most closest to The Big Bang Theory (as in we’re not talking about Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams here). Or maybe I’m just dead inside.

Personally, I couldn’t connect with the characters. Maybe I’m not into novels that take place over long spans of time. But you know, the world needs more humorous sci fi, so I’m going to go ahead and recommend this book.

rolling in the deep mira grant
Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

I’ve decided that, like Jim C. Hines, I’m a fan of the person but not the books.

This is genuine horror, something I rarely see nowadays, but it’s exactly what you expect. A camera crew goes out into the middle of the ocean to make a fakeumentary about mermaids, but wind up being attacked by some real ones. Sounds like every SyFy monster movie.

It takes a long time to get to the point where the action happens, and you don’t really care what happens to the characters. Not because they’re assholes but because a) it’s a novella so there’s not much point to get invested and b) you know everyone’s going to be getting killed. All the characters are kind of the same. They go through no arcs, and there are too many to keep track of. I would have liked more attention on characters like the deaf first mate instead of the blah mockumentary host and the hard-nosed stereotype captain.

One thing I will say is that the ending is very good. It’s hard to do modern cinematic style horror (i.e., swarms of monsters like The Descent or 28 Days Later) and keep it coherent, but that’s why Mira Grant is one of the best in the business. Even if I didn’t like the story, I liked the writing. Again, it could be that I’m dead inside.

The problem is it takes too long to get to that ending. There’s no real build-up or slow burn beforehand. There’s simply nothing but mundane things happening. The characters don’t form relationships with each other, there’s no plot consequences or cause-and-effects.

All in all, it has markings of one of those “straight-to-video” horror movies. But blessed be the short form, because that’s always perfect for horror.

ashes of the phoenix victar
Ashes of the Phoenix by Victar

I previously mentioned reading this many years ago. Someone on Twitter messaged me asking if I had the fic since Victar’s website has since shut down (RIP). I gave him what material I had and that reminded me that I had never really finished construction on the electronic version of the book that I had created–I needed to read it through. And so I did.

It’s still as good as I remember, and it’s great picking up things I missed the first 2-3 times I read it. This is the way I want to write, with interesting characters, good pacing, and satisfying character arcs. But maybe a little shorter (with notes, it’s 336,000 words).

dear evan hansen val emmich
Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich

My first impressions were that this is another “whiny kid” YA book. What I mean by that is it tries to make the character identifiable and relatable by immediately making him an social outcast with no friends and low self-esteem… except that every YA story is like that, so it gets grating. It’s as cliche as the “bully” trope (which this book also has). But the problem is… it works. He feels like I felt back then, struggling to break out of a shell, anxious and depressed all the time. I can’t imagine how easy it is to stay in your fortress after cable modems and wireless connections. But I’m digressing.

There are typical YA topics like suicide and social stature. As I read on, it didn’t really get better. One thing about introverts is that we don’t say much, but we put a lot of weight in what we do say. That means we act with integrity when we speak. No hemming or hawing. No lies. And we have a dedication to the truth, to the point of correcting others just to have something to say. Evan Hansen doesn’t act like this. He picks up an idiot ball and runs with it to the end of the novel.

In fact, I might say that this is the quintessential YA novel. But that’s not a good thing. I mean that in the sense that this book throws all the typical ingredients in the pot and what comes out is pizza. You can’t really ruin pizza, but you can make it unexciting. Just another reheated concoction that everyone else makes.

red true story riding hood liesl shurtliff
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood by Liesl Shurtliff
(unfinished)

I wasn’t into it. The protagonist is a jerk who’s disguised as a “sassy female” paired with an annoying sidekick. I already saw Shrek. But think less donkey and more Molly from TaleSpin (that’s a comparison that goes from bad to worse, if you don’t know TaleSpin). I couldn’t tell you where the Little Red Riding Hood part of it begins or ends.

Plus it’s more of a crossover event for her previous books. A lot of people are calling it a “fun retelling”, but I didn’t see so much fun.

Plus I’m not into YA books about quests. They’re always too simple, they give no reward for the reader who pays attention because of the simple plots. No part is influenced by another. There are no Chekhov’s guns or foreshadowing. And they so often end the same (the thing you were looking for was where you started). I skipped ahead to the ending and this one confirmed my suspicions. You can just jump over the middle to find out what maguffin the protagonist needed.

But I like the idea behind it, and the writing style, so I’m going to try Grump and see if that attracts me more. It could be the subject material that’s turning me off.

grump liesl shurtliff
Grump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by Liesl Shurtliff

This was better than Red, maybe because I was able to identify with the protagonist better — an outcast with a problem. I tend toward those stories more than quests because it allows better complexity of character. Plus it’s always about embracing your weird. And this was especially fun to read after finishing my own dwarf story.

Unlike mine, the dwarves live underground, eat rocks, and never interact with the surface world. Except for Grump who feels unquestionably drawn to it. When he finally breaks ground, he accidentally falls in with the evil queen and becomes her magic mirror. Grump is a better character than Red was. At first it might be hard to tell the difference–both are rather grumpy and acerbic. But something about Grump feels more earnest. It’s better to be grumpy than mean.

There are some stretches to fit the story of Snow White, and that always bothers me — reaching too far to make one story fit into another. The same thing happened with The Dark Knight Rises, which was the reason for its downfall. Both Snow White and Evil Queen get about equivalent screen time in this. The ending is satisfying, and I didn’t feel cheated, not like Red’s quest story (where you can skip all the middle and still find the ending, which is basically the answer to a riddle). And I was suprised at how well it weaves in both the folk tale and the Disney version of Snow White.

It does get a little sludgy in the lead-in to the third act, but the plot is surprisingly tight for a YA novel. There are some deus ex machina movements, but overall, I had a satisfying reader experience. It’s probably the best thing I read in the last two months.

emergency contact mary choi
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi
(unfinished)

This is not the book for me.

I’m not sure if the biggest problem was the characters or the plot. On one hand, the cast is made of one self-deprecating loser who judges everything, one self-absorbed stuck-up popular girl, and some guy. They didn’t do anything. They sat around a coffee shop and basically introduced themselves to the audience. I got tired of nothing happening, not because the plot wouldn’t move forward, but because the characters wouldn’t move the plot i.e. no stakes. They’re like the girls you hated in high school. Neither introvert nor extrovert comes out unscathed.

The killer came for me when “some guy”‘s ex came back in the picture, one who he’d been talking about since the beginning, such a heartbreaker uber-bitch she was. She reappears and guess what? Cliche of all cliches, she’s pregnant. The plot has the substance of a Kid Rock song.

It’s trying to be a feel-good “fun” romantic comedy, but I didn’t have any fun. If I wasn’t waiting for a story, I was overwhelmed by the twee-ness of it. It reminded me of “You’ve Got Mail” where the characters have either no arcs or bad arcs.

I’m a 38-year-old white male software programmer, so no, I’m not the intended audience. But I think people who liked Fangirl or other Rainbow Rowell books might like this just fine.

three times lucky sheila turnage
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
(unfinished)

It just didn’t spark joy within me. I think it was because, being a Midwest boy, I can’t identify with the Southernness of it. I got a few chapters in and realized I didn’t care enough about the characters to keep going. But then it’s hard for me to care about anything these days, so it might be my fault.

I recommend this for fans of Sharon Creech who wrote “Walk Two Moons” and “Ruby Holler“. They have the same kind of odd Southern charm thing happening. Three Times Lucky has more of it, more odd character developments, like the reason she’s named Moses was that she was found floating in a river during a flood. Her foster father is called The Colonel and her foster mother is apparently someone totally different who I never got to see. She’s in sixth grade and works at a diner to “earn her keep”. Eccentrics abound.

I’m sure it’s a fine book. Read other reviews about it to get a better idea.

lila bowen consipiracy of ravens
Conspiracy of Ravens by Lila Bowen

Like I always say, if you’re reading a second book before the first, why?

Parts of it are better. Other parts are not. It got good in the last act, but before that there’s some quest-y ambling around that doesn’t have to do with the end result. It’s filler or padding in that it doesn’t have an impact on the ending. But it’s more entertaining than I thought it would be. At least the plot stays in motion, has a clearer goal, and has some whiz-bang suspense. Maybe I’m having problems with my own plotting so I see everything as padding nowadays. Maybe I’m jealous that Lila Bowen can write so well, and I’m still struggling to make good sentences.

Here’s one thing I gotta quibble with. There’s still the issues of sexuality and gender confusion. But this time, the main character, who was born female and has female junk, decides she’s male. And then the pronouns change from she to he. And it’s not like this settles everything–there’s still conflict that keeps coming up. In fact he/she has sex with both a male and a female and no one seems to care one way or the other.

For one thing, this seems unrealistic. No one has a reaction to her/him having opposite parts of what’s expected. This makes it an “issue” book. But that “issue” is subplot, which makes it seem not important. It feels like she’s a he just for the sake of the author wanting diversity. For another thing, it’s confusing. He was a she in the last book. And the name changes too. A couple times actually.

strange case of alchemist's daughter theodora goss
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
(unfinished)

I wish I could have finished this, but the pacing drove me nuts. It was too slow to develop. Maybe my attention span is getting shorter in my old age.

The concept is bonkers though and I love it. The daughter of Mr. Jekyll finds out she has a sister named Diana Hyde in a sanitarium. The two get together and, along with other female fictional figures or offspring thereof, form a group of heroes.

But it’s terribly paced. It’s as slow as the books its characters come from. Plot events take too long to come up. It’s so slow the characters from the book interrupt the narrative every now and then with screenplay-style banter.

But the gimmick doesn’t overshadow the content. Although, given the content, I wish it would. Just because the book is in a Victorian time period doesn’t mean you have to write in Victorian style. You can tell Goss really loves the material she’s pinching from. Maybe a little too much. I think this would make a better movie than a book.

dead trees give no shelter wil wheaton
Dead Trees Give No Shelter by Wil Wheaton

After reading all these unfinished books or long plods, this was a breath of fresh air. Wil Wheaton’s been talking about it on his blog, said he wrote it after being inspired by Stranger Things.

For a Kindle self-publish release, it’s surprisingly polished. There’s nothing new or earth-shattering. But the best written horror comes in short form, and this fits nicely into that medium. It’s not too psychological, but all the elements of fear are there — children in danger, a monster in the woods, reconciling childhood drama. It’s got the gross-out, the fear, and the horror. It’s like a love letter to Stephen King.

I can tell by this that Wil Wheaton is a capable fiction writer. He was always a good writer, but this proves he can cut the mustard when it comes to fiction.

nos4a2 joe hill
NOS482 by Joe Hill
(unfinished)

I stopped reading this for the same reason I stopped reading The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter–too much detail and too little pacing. It’s 700 pages and after reading about 25%, I was getting no emotional reaction from the characters. I’m sure it’s my fault, but after a while, I felt like I’d rather read the Wikipedia summary. I’d already gotten the atmosphere, I’d gotten the style, now I just wanted something to happen.

But I don’t want to read “The Stand” again. Especially if there are no actual vampires in it. It’s more a slipstream kinda fantasy, like “It” where the monster’s powers never have any logical strengths and weaknesses. They just do things because it’s scary and causes be damned.

talisman stephen king peter straub
The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
(unfinished)

I started this, thinking it was a sequel to “The Eyes of the Dragon“. It’s not. I’m not sure where I got that in my head. So, I was pretty confused when it started in the real world. But I figured I’d try it out.

Again, problems with pacing. There’s too much time taken to establish the normal. King’s tedious overwriting is here, and I don’t think Straub does a good job of keeping it in check. That, combined with not being what I wanted, results in putting the book down.

The Books I Read: July – August 2018

bookshelf books

firestarter stephen king
Firestarter by Stephen King
(unfinished)

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

mick harte was here
Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park

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

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

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

spell or high water
Spell or High Water by Scott Meyer

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

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

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

the serpent's gift
The Serpent Gift (The Shamer’s Chronicles #3) by Lene Kaaberbøl

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

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

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

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

garbage this is the noise that keeps me awake
This is the Noise that Keeps Me Awake by Garbage

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

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

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

dear mr. henshaw beverly cleary
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

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

That excerpt is nothing like the book.

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

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

midwife's apprentice
The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

final girls riley sager
Final Girls by Riley Sager
(unfinished)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

artemis andy weir
Artemis by Andy Weir

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

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

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

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

The Books I Read: November – December 2017

bookshelf books

eliza and her monsters
Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza lives with a sitcom family of annoying siblings and health-nut parents who just “don’t get it”. They don’t get computers, they don’t get the Internet. They think the way to live life is out of doors, socializing face to face. And that’s not the only place to find friends and success. Especially for severe introverts like Eliza.

Eliza is just a high schooler who writes a webcomic. A damn successful one. From the sound of it, it’s on par with Penny Arcade and xkcd in terms of popularity, but more dramatic (and made in manga style with space-existential elements). But on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, and Eliza’s anonymity keeps her creative. Then she meets a new student, accidentally defending him against some bullies, and learns he’s the premiere fan fiction writer for her comic.

This is a story about two people who find each other and bond through the thing they both like. It’s like a John Green/Rainbow Rowell hybrid, which is high praise. I loved it. This is a great cozy romance for people with social anxiety. And a much needed contrast to “The Selection”. In here, people are a little broken. They don’t follow predictable stereotypes. They make bad decisions, decisions that hurt people, not Hallmark-movie pulled punches. I heartily recommend reading it.

heroine complex sarah kuhn
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
(unfinished)

It took very little time for me to realize I did not want to continue this book. The killer was that all characters are douchebags or toadies right from the start. It’s not a story about superheroes, it’s more like the “assistant to a diva” you see in so many cookie-cutter films and shows. It’s a trite way to provide conflict between females without any violence (or gravitas). And they’re always the same–a beleaguered assistant, a jerkass boss, and the fiancee straight out of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”.

The superhero doesn’t even have real powers. She’s a Black Widow-like gymnast, but only concerned about training and publicity. She’s less concerned about the demon cupcakes she’s fending off than getting good shots of it for Instagram.

Then the big conflict in the first act is that she gets a zit and how is she going to go to her party looking like that and what’s her assistant going to do about it? I don’t remember clogged pores playing a big role in the Dark Phoenix saga or Batman: Hush (although maybe that’s why he had the bandages). I wanted a superhero story, not another “The Devil Wears Prada” knock-off.

stephen king night shift
Night Shift by Stephen King
(reread)

I couldn’t sleep one night and this was the only thing around. I didn’t feel like starting a whole new novel when I was about to get one from the library. Maybe it was because I’d finished Danse Macabre recently that I’d gotten a taste for the King. It’s certainly better than “Just After Sunset”.

Officially this is a re-read, but it had been so long ago, jumbled with other short stories from different collections, and totally out of order, that it felt fresh. I liked the majority of the stories and was able to skip the bad ones. But those weren’t many (mostly the Salem’s Lot tie-ins) Could be useful in a study of the short story, except that it’s from 1960-1970s sensibilities, so I don’t know how useful it is for learning how to break in now.

daughter of smoke and bone laini taylor
Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
(unfinished)

I love going into a book with no expectations, but it rarely happens. There’s no almost no way you can look at a book without reading the summary. Thus you gain a little foreknowledge of its content (or at least what the marketing wants you to believe). So you already know the setup going in. But then you still have to get through the setup the novel provides. So really, you’re waiting for the book to start while you already know how it starts. But I digress.

This book is not for me. I’m sure it’s a great book, but it has content I care not one whit about. I first noticed when it was talking about the beauty of Europe and architecture and quaint little apartments and bistros and bars. Maybe I’m a fuddy duddy patriot who rarely gets past his own front door, let alone to another state for a vacation, but I have zero-to-no interest in architecture and antiques. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it has value. It’s clear the author doesn’t think that way, and that’s great for her. Every page reads like a love letter to old Europe, like it’s some fairy tale land. But that’s not for me.

The main character is an American girl studying art in Prague and I’m immediately reminded of Tithe by Holly Black (which I also didn’t finish) and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (which I regretfully did). I’ve seen this before too, and it smells of entitlement. I resent for those going into passion majors, like art history, because then they complain there’s no jobs for them, when they should have taken classes in something that can translate to a paying job. And of course, the first plot point is boy troubles.

But the style is damn poetic. It uses similes I’ve never heard of. It’s worth reading for the writing technique, even if the plot isn’t especially compelling. It’s worth sampling the first few chapters alone just to see the way Taylor writes. That alone can interest a reader. I kept going to see if there was maybe something else valuable.

Then the “Beauty & the Beast” stuff starts. The main girl is connected to the demon world in some way–her adopted dad and all his friends are demons, but he keeps a King Triton-esque wrap on her activities (the dad even looks like the Beast™). Then an angel soldier starts waging jihad on them, and he’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen… She can’t stop thinking about him, has butterflies in her stomach… even though he unleashed the fire of God on everyone she knows. Someone here is in love with the idea of being in love, like Bella in Twilight. This star-crossed romance is also not my thing. I needed less attention on the relationshippy-ness and more on her family.

Now don’t take this to mean I don’t or can’t read books intended for female audiences. I loved “Eleanor & Park” and “Ella Enchanted“. I think the big stopping point was that this book lacked a character to identify with, which is totally not the book’s fault. I’m a 36-year-old straight white male computer programmer with two kids and a mortgage. There’s no cushion shaped for my butt in these pages. It could be fine for my daughter… when she turns sixteen.

crash override zoe quinn gamergate
Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn

It’s hard to read a book like this in a time like 2017, but it’s necessary. Christ, how naive we were back then, when “ethics in journalism” was all we had to worry about from the alt-right. But I’m getting off track.

GamerGate was a phenomenon filled with false information, fake news, lies, damned lies, statistics, and damned lying statistics. But in 2014, we had no precedent for this kind of thing. This was the shining premiere of famed Men’s Rights Activists Toby Fair and Actual Lee. But after the Kotaku posts and Reddit threads, there’s a person at the end of the computer, and this is her story how a bunch of assholes made a her life miserable by publishing personal information and online harassment.

Only half the book is really the tale of GamerGate from Zoe Quinn’s perspective. The other half is what can we do about it–what’s wrong with the current state of online bullying and what the police and congress can’t or don’t do about it (meaning they’re woefully behind the times). I would rather have a book on the whole GamerGate scenario, dissecting the truth and laying it out in narrative non-fiction. But I can’t judge the book based on what I wanted, only what it is.

And I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for Zoe Quinn’s side of the story, it’s here. If you’re looking for information on how you can further the cause of stopping online harassment and bullying, it’s here. But the two tastes don’t taste great together. It’s not a memoir, it’s more of an advocacy book. But it’s all difficult to get through (because it’s so disgusting to read about) and given everything that’s happening in the world today, it’s hard to give such things serious thought with nuclear war and white supremacy on the horizon.

Zoe Quinn’s a surprisingly good writer for being an engineer/coder (but then again, so am I). I’d only recommend this book if you’re at all interested in GamerGate (maybe you are, having been a front-of-the-caution-tape witness), but not if bigger political issues flip your cookie.

shamer's signet lene kaaberbol
The Shamer’s Signet by Lene Kaaberbøl

A little slumpier than the first, but I don’t mind giving three heaping stars to it. It doesn’t feel like much in the world has changed. It’s not like great advancements in the personal life or life of the world change greatly in this book. No huge revelations, no new characters. Even the old characters aren’t seen much or developed upon. In other words, this is not “The Empire Strikes Back”. It more feels like an addendum or sequel, rather than the continued story of Shamers.

That being said it’s still a good book. This time you get a POV of her older brother (technical note: the book switches back and forth between Dina and Davin and I had trouble discerning whose POV was which, until I noticed their names at the beginning of each chapter). He acts like a typical hothead-fighter, wanting-to-prove-his-warrior-mettle, like Wart from “Sword in the Stone” or Taran from “The Black Cauldron”. But Dina’s got the biggest story arc and you feel more for her.

There’s more action and less world-building/plot development. I get the sense the author didn’t plan for a series, unless she’s setting up some real far-reaching dominoes. Still, I recommend it and will be reading more in the series. Plus it’s fun to write that O with the slash through it.

The Books I Read: September – October 2017

bookshelf books

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

In a word, melodramatic. In many other words…

The tone of this story skews so heavily feminine it’s distracting. I’m not saying femininity is a bad thing, but an event like this is going to have a lot of different reactions from different people. It’s supposed to be about a real school shooting, but it’s so cheesy it doesn’t feel real. The narrative is split into the perspectives of four victims in four different situations. One is the ex-girlfriend of the shooter, another is the sister of the shooter, another is that sister’s lesbian girlfriend, and last is the trouble-making brother of the lesbian girlfriend (do you see how relationshippy this is?). Two are trapped in the auditorium with the shooter, the brother is trying to get them out, and the ex-girlfriend is ROTC and running for help.

The sister, who I guess is the main character because she’s the closest to the shooter and has the most to lose, is obsessed with dance. Her dead mother was a dancer. Dancing is the “only time she feels free.” And of course she’s going to Julliard. Maybe it’s because I’m not a dancer, but this feels like such cliched rhetoric. See any dance movie or book in the last ten years. You cannot combine Bowling for Columbine with Step Up. The shooter makes his sister dance on stage, like he’s the Joker. Don’t you want to mix it up a bit and make her want to be an astronaut?

And there’s way too much thinking. Four different narratives + limited amount of time (about an hour) means minute by minute breakdown of each POV. In high-risk situations, there is NEVER this much thinking going on. No thinking about the past or “why does he like her and not me?” high school junk. That all drops when you’re just trying to survive. Even with the wordiness, the lack of detail is appalling. The author never even mentions what kind of gun the shooter has. Is it a rifle? Shotgun? Handgun? Automatic? That’s an essential detail, to know what kind of damage can be done, what the stakes are. I’d venture to say the author didn’t research school shootings, instead opting to make a soap opera around a dramatic event.

There is so much Lifetime-worthy drama cheese it’s embarrassing. The name of the town is Opportunity, and the author never lets you forget it. Lines like “the sky feels endless” and “she looks so beautiful” and kissing a guy during a crisis like at the end of Speed. Is this really your biggest concern with a gunman? Was there kissing going on during Columbine? Because I read that book and no one reported any post-tragedy romance. Add in a nice dose of parent abuse, sexual assault, and all the other things you expect from a “serious” YA novel about “serious issues” that it seems everyone deals with on a CW show. This is not worth your time. Read Columbine by Dave Cullen instead.

wizard's bane rick cook

Wizard’s Bane by Rick Cook
(unfinished)

Boring as hell. I thought it would be a cozy fantasy like A Computer Programmer in King Aragorn’s Court. I wanted to see how you could decompile magic or turn the Council of Elrond into a stand-up meeting. But no, it’s a bunch of walking and walking and nothing happens.

A girl guides the guy through the woods and it’s boring. He only regards the girl for how hot she is, always looking down her blouse. The girl is a bitch throughout, complaining how he doesn’t have the stamina to hike or knowledge about dangerous magic stones. The guy doesn’t regard anything with wonder. There’s dragons and elf kings and magic, and all he’s worried about is being cockblocked. He doesn’t even try to impress her with knowledge of the future.

The only reason I made it to 46% was because it was a short book. But once it decided to take a chapter to tell a story within a story, I was out. I barely cared if the main characters lived or died, you’re not going to pad pages with someone else’s tale.

stephen king shawshank redemption

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

The book is a straight and true narrative that deviates very little from the movie, plus Stephen King-isms (twangy blue-collar metaphors that seem more at home in the Appalachians than Maine). But the movie is still better. The cinematic-ness adds emotion and removes unnecessary elements. Stephen King can produce material that results in good movies, as long as the makers of that movie are chosen well.

the shamer's daughter lene kaaberbol

The Shamer’s Daughter by Lene Kaaberbøl

This is the cozy fantasy I was looking for. Well, maybe “cozy” isn’t the right word, but it’s well written. Good characters, good conflict, and good setting. Said premise is that “shaming” is the magic here, which really means looking into the subject’s eyes and making him feel guilty enough to confess his crimes. Sort of like Ghost Rider’s “penance stare”, only it’s in Eragon. That’s a solid premise in itself, but the characters are interesting enough to carry it, especially when it becomes a murder mystery and political throne-grabbing.

It reminded me of Far Far Away in terms of style. Maybe that’s the translation at work. There is no slowness (maybe because it’s YA, which also means it’s not too long), and I see potential for storylines in the next sequence. Characters are not douchebags and no one holds an idiot ball, but there are a few trappings, like evil princes and dumb peasants. It’s one of the few books of a series that makes me want to find out what happens next.

writing magic gail carson levine

Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine

Levine is the person who wrote Ella Enchanted. I liked that book so much I wanted to check out her non-fiction book on “how to write”. I thought, by the title, it would have to do with specifically magic and fantasy, but no, it’s writing in general. That’s not a bad thing.

This is one of the better writing books I’ve read. Liked it more than “Bird by Bird” (but that’s not a high bar to jump for me). The focus is on prompts and exercises (i.e. you learn to write by writing). It also never wears out its welcome. Some books emphasize sentence structure and adverb placement — too much nitty gritty. This one doesn’t care, and it shouldn’t. It’s wants you out there and producing.

However, it is definitely skewed toward younger audiences. Middle school and high schoolers will get more out of this book than I did from Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

stephen king danse macabre

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

I was hesitant on reading this, worried it would be out of date. (It’s as old as me!) There have been a lot of… advances? (I don’t know what you’d call them) in horror that no one could have predicted in 1981: slasher franchises going mainstream (e.g. Freddy Krueger action figures), J-horror, psychological horror (like Black Swan), torture porn, home invasion films, indie horror (e.g. The Blair Witch Project), the second rise and decline of zombies. Enough time has passed that now we have meta-horror for all those tropes (e.g. Scream and The Cabin in the Woods).

Nonetheless, much of it still holds up, to my surprise, because it’s really all about roots. And those roots take place in three things–films, TV, and books. It takes examples from timeless phenomenon like B-movie monsters, anthology suspense, and Lovecraft books. Each reflects the time period they were born into. And it’s all delivered with Stephen King’s tight and witty prose (he was still high in these days so his writing is still good). It’s the kind of book that might be assigned in an “Introduction to Horror” college class. Plus, it contains some of the missing biographical elements from “On Writing”.

However, I don’t think it’s required for any horror aficionado. There’s a lot of examples from the 50s-70s that maybe influenced King more that it influenced everybody. Read this if you’re a fan of Stephen King’s style. You get to see him put on his college professor hat. But there are more current books that do just as well.

fata morgana steven boyett ken michoney

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

It’s a marathon, but a good one. The story is a basic portal fantasy (a B-52 crew flies into another dimension), but you feel like you’re there: all the detail about the plane, the crew’s lives, how they interact with each other, the equipment, and the war. It got me excited about World War II (there is a lot more detail about World War II stuff than the fantasy world) and balances description with plot.

The fantasy elements are underwhelming. It’s a standard domed city, a flying mechano-dragon, bad guys in the other domed city across the wasteland, the man from the past falls in love with the woman from the future, and so on. It’s all very sixties Star Trek or H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. Nothing exceptional. Mundane even. I kept waiting for the thing that made the world extra-special and unique.

And I have a hard time believing that any of the crew could help with anything mechanical in this world. It would be like a watchmaker fixing my iPhone. Besides that, some threads don’t go anywhere (like the whole chapter dedicated to the new crewmember’s “story” of his haunted plane), making the book unnecessarily long. I hate when that happens.

The magic comes from the plausible character development. It’s a satisfying read and entertaining, but make sure you can handle some World War II history and mechanics.

john green turtles all the way down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green’s latest. How could I not read? If you’re looking for a remix of “The Fault in Our Stars“, this is not it. It’s not a romance. It takes the romance elements out and focuses more on the character’s disease. Only this time it’s not cancer, it’s compulsion disorder/intrusive thoughts. A mental illness that the main character neglects to resolve.

The primary plot driver is extremely unimportant, so there won’t be a lot of twists and events. What exists is the thin thread of mystery–the lugubriously rich father of an old childhood friend disappears to escape indictment. Our two heroines hope to find him and earn a reward. Our POV character is not the main driver of this story–that’s her friend. But it retains the same peculiarity and quirkiness that Green is good at. It’s closer to Paper Towns, but minus the insufferable pining over a crazy girl. Green also fixes the mistake where his teenagers speak way over their vocabulary range, like college freshman milking every damn page from a thesaurus to sound smart on an English paper (e.g. Augustus Waters).

It’s more of a character study, like “Looking for Alaska” was. In that, the pathology was someone with an unredeemable crush on a real-life MPDG. Her, it’s someone broken by anxiety and mental illness, self-centered (not because of ego, but because OCD does that to a person) and unable to have relationships because of that. Green says that the best thing you can get from books is to “imagine humans complexly” and I think he does just that in a package that’s fun to open.

Will it become a classic? I wish I could say it’s likely, but I wouldn’t believe that myself. It probably won’t make you cry, but it will make you understand. And I think that’s a better achievement.

beyond the castle jody dreyer

Beyond the Castle: A Disney Insider’s Guide to Finding Your Happily Ever After by Jody Jean Dreyer
(unfinished)

This did not deliver on what I wanted. I wanted anecdotes about working at Disney. Stories about dealing with douchebags, cast member affairs, triumph of the storyboard room. It sounds like this woman has worked nearly every job, seen every facet of the company. You’d think there’d be dozens of anecdotes about that. But no. This is more of a self-help book, full of quaint little lessons and morals and life advice.

There are anecdotes sprinkled in, but most of it is stuff you could learn from the IMDB trivia page of any Pixar movie. It’s far more thematically about being the best “you”. And entirely too much focus on “giving yourself to God”. That’s where it lost me–all the strong Christian overtones, saying God wants you to be happy and using Disney stuff to illustrate that. Disney wants you to be happy, because happy people give you money. I’m not under any illusion that Disney isn’t a business. It gives you a lot back for your dollar, but it wants your dollar first and foremost.

I stopped reading when it spelled “Lotso” (the antagonist from Toy Story 3) as “Lostoso”. If you can’t proofread well-enough, especially regarding a Disney term, then I’m done. It’s minor and stupid, but, hey, that’s why they call the camel back-breaker a straw, not a brick.

kiera cass selection

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Oh, boy, where do I start with this one. I’m afraid this might turn into another 5,000 word rant like “Wild” or “The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer” or any of Jackie Morse Kessler

I guess I’ll start with expectations, the blame for which I shall receive none. It shall go to the marketing team and author. The description makes it sound like a cross between The Bachelor and The Hunger Games, which I was fine with. The ceremonies and reality TV part of The Hunger Games was my favorite. I’d like to see what happens when that’s expanded to a whole universe. But the author is doing her best to make it feel like a dystopian YA novel/clone of THG, but it doesn’t get any more savage than a Disney Channel original movie.

The first red flag was all the telling in the first chapter. Exposition, exposition, exposition. Not even infodumped in a clever or interesting way, just *plop* there it is. The universe is described to us like it was a textbook.

And then it’s nothing but cliches. I swear to god, I thought I was reading the Dystopian YA twitter account. Society’s in a caste system that sorts people because of course there is. Her family is poor. It includes a little sister and an overbearing mother. There’s a love triangle between the guy she left at home and the guy society expects her to pair with. There’s rebels and a dictatorship and interviews and dresses and a Cesar Flickerman and my god did this author create anything on her own? I know “everything is a remix” but at least use some unique ingredients (how about The Hunger Games with dwarves?).

For a book about thirty-five teenage girls competing to marry a prince, it’s surprisingly chaste. Like a Mormon version of Survivor. Getting a kiss is like winning the lottery. I would think, in a competition where the prize is you and your family being set up for life with money and power and royal titles, there should be boobs flopping out all over the place.

No one acts plausibly, least of all the main character. She doesn’t want anything, she’s just along for the ride. She doesn’t take action, action happens to her. The only thing going for her is “feistiness” compared to the other snobby upper-class girls. She’s not even really competing with them–she sets herself up as a confidante, but of course, this means the prince likes her best. As a result, there’s no conflict. They’re all trying to help each other, instead of figuring out who your friends an enemies are. It doesn’t even conclude like a normal book. It just ends–there’s no climax, no build-up. It’s like they just cut it off at 300 pages so they could call it a series.

Surprisingly, I’m not depressed that this book got published. I am depressed that readers rated so high. It’s so shallow and cliche. I kept reading because I was waiting for that “more”–that reason it garnered such attention. But it never came. And that’s three hundred and thirty-nine pages of my life I won’t be getting back.

Is Stephen King Getting Worse or Better?

stephen king

Stephen King’s going to go down in history as THE novelist of the late twentieth century. More than Dean Koontz or John Green or Danielle Steele. They even made a horror movie about him. I’m not talking about a documentary or his directorial debut (and finale) Maximum Overdrive or a thinly veiled pastiche like in “In the Mouth of Madness“. I mean he was the subject matter. He’s ceased to be a person, but a brand. That’s what I call being part of the public consciousness. Not even J.K. Rowling has that (yet).

But art changes over time. Simply because people change over time. Steven Spielberg doesn’t make the same kinds of movies he used to. Metallica’s first album Kill ‘Em All has a different style than Load, which has a different style from Death Magnetic. And don’t get me started about The Muppets.

It’s not all internal (meaning experience and skill). It’s mood, tone, technology, and situation. It’s the outside world and the inside world. It’s your mother dying or a civil war or a drug problem. Long story short, people change, so their art changes.

Stephen King’s been a non-stop train, publishing 1-2 books a year and countless short stories. But he’s not as “big” as he was in the eighties. Neither was he ever known for quality. He had a “People’s Choice” sentiment going on. Most of that is due to the nature of the genre (as in, if you write in a genre, critics ignore you). People still talk about It and Cujo and The Shining. Nobody talks about Joyland or Cell. Even Under the Dome became a TV series, but you wouldn’t know it unless you were paying attention.

While thinking about “On Writing,” my foundation for “how to write”, his advice seems to contradict his actions. And not just in his old books, which might contain rookie mistakes. I’m talking about now. There are so many of the same tropes and clichés in every book you can make a drinking game out of them. Harold Bloom accused him of “dumbing down America” when King won the 2003 National Book Foundation award. He’s been accused of overwriting, inflating the word count to make his books into doorstops, and making the customer feel like he or she got more for their money. This article, taking a snippet of a 2014 book, does better justice to my thesis.

So here’s my question: Is Stephen King getting worse?

You would think that the more experience you have, the better at something you get. However, the bigger you get, the more “yes-men” around you. They think your shit doesn’t stink, so they pass everything along because A) they know it’ll make a buck or B) if they say no, they’ll get fired. There’re fewer gatekeepers, fewer filters. If I was given the task of editing Stephen King, I would be very hesitant on suggesting any corrections. The man must know what he’s doing, he’s published so many books.

So let’s go to the data. Data never lies, right? I want to know if Stephen King’s trending up or down. Does he have a place in the world of stories today, or is it simply that we remember his name?

YEARTITLEGENREGOODREADS RATINGGOODREADS REVIEWSLIBRARYTHING RATINGLIBRARYTHING MEMBERSNOTES
1974CarrieHorror3.93382,0003.729,500 
1975‘Salem’s LotHorror3.99248,0003.9410,000 
1977The ShiningHorror / Psych Horror4.18836,0004.1115,000King moves from ME to CO
1977Rage*Psych Thriller3.823,0003.38747King moves back to ME
1978The StandPost-Apocalyptic4.34474,0004.3314,000 
1978Night Shift†Short story collection3.96113,0003.86,300 
1979The Long Walk*Psych Horror4.1180,0003.843,400 
1979The Dead ZoneSupernatural Thriller3.9140,0003.777,000 
1980FirestarterScience fiction3.85149,0003.646,600 
1981Roadwork*Psych Thriller3.5920,0003.841,200 
1981CujoHorror3.65168,0003.436,700King’s addiction intervention
1982The Running Man*Science fiction3.8168,0003.632,400 
1982The Dark Tower: The GunslingerFantasy / Western3.98374,0003.8615,000Originally written from 1977-1981
1982Different Seasons†Short story collection4.34139,0003.986,500 
1983ChristineHorror3.73158,0003.536,100 
1983Pet SemataryHorror3.91296,0003.729,100 
1983Cycle of the WerewolfHorror3.6236,0003.392,000 
1984The TalismanFantasy4.1287,0004.047,200 
1984Thinner*Horror3.67137,0003.415,300“Richard Bachman” is unveiled
1985Skeleton Crew†Short story collection3.9388,0003.775,900 
1986ItHorror4.19492,0004.0813,000 
1987The Eyes of the DragonFantasy3.9282,0003.827,500 
1987The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the ThreeFantasy / Western4.23160,0004.11,1000 
1987MiseryPsych Horror4.11356,0003.949,900 
1987The TommyknockersScience fiction3.4896,0003.336,500First book written after sobriety?
1989The Dark HalfPsych Horror3.74100,0003.566,000 
1990Four Past Midnight†Short story collection3.982,0003.715,700 
1991The Dark Tower III: The Waste LandsFantasy / Western4.24137,0004.0810,000 
1991Needful ThingsHorror3.87162,0003.697,500First book written after sobriety?
1992Gerald’s GameSuspense3.47106,0003.295,700 
1992Dolores ClaibornePsych Thriller3.8199,0003.645,700 
1993Nightmares & Dreamscapes†Short story collection3.959,0003.694,300 
1994InsomniaHorror / fantasy3.79110,0003.677,500 
1995Rose MadderFantasy3.6676,0003.485,400 
1996The Green MileFantasy4.42192,0004.238,400 
1996DesperationHorror3.8100,0003.596,800 
1996The Regulators*Science fiction / horror3.6454,0003.374,600 
1997The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and GlassFantasy / Western4.24122,0004.079,400 
1998Bag of BonesGothic fiction3.87138,0003.717,900 
1999The Girl Who Loved Tom GordonHorror3.56103,0003.446,500King’s car accident
1999Hearts in Atlantis†Short story collection3.871,0003.666,000 
2001DreamcatcherScience fiction3.59123,0003.326,600 
2001Black HouseHorror3.9945,0003.785,400 
2002From a Buick 8Horror3.4250,0003.294,800 
2002Everything’s Eventual†Short story collection3.9468,0003.756,900 
2003The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the CallaFantasy / Western4.17110,0004.038,300 
2004The Dark Tower VI: Song of SusannahFantasy / Western3.9897,0003.877,800 
2004The Dark Tower VII: The Dark TowerFantasy / Western4.27105,0004.147,800 
2005The Colorado KidCrime fiction3.2822,0003.22,400 
2006CellHorror3.64154,0003.458,600 
2006Lisey’s StoryHorror3.6555,0003.65,900 
2007Blaze*Crime fiction3.6630,0003.462,800 
2008Duma KeyPsych Horror3.9380,0003.895,800 
2008Just After Sunset†Short story collection3.8538,0003.713,600 
2009Under the DomeScience fiction3.89203,0003.847,800 
2010Full Dark, No Stars†Short story collection4.0370,0003.963,400 
201111/22/63Science fiction / alternate history4.29306,0004.27,400 
2012The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the KeyholeFantasy / Western4.1547,0004.072,000 
2013JoylandCrime fiction / mystery3.983,0003.92,400 
2013Doctor SleepHorror4.1117,0004.063,300 
2014Mr. MercedesCrime fiction3.92151,0003.852,700 
2014RevivalCrime fiction3.7569,0003.691,700 
2015Finders KeepersCrime fiction4.0366,0003.971,600 
2015The Bazaar of Bad Dreams†Short story collection3.9229,0003.911,000 
2016End of WatchCrime fiction4.0947,0003.911,000 

* Published under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman”
† Short story collection

Here’s our base data. Genres were taken from Wikipedia, which is authoritative as anything else with regard to the categorization of art. Now let’s plot these data points.

Well, this certainly… doesn’t answer any questions. The GoodReads ratings trend slightly down but the LibraryThing ratings trend slightly up. And neither in any significant slope. I’m comfortable saying the quality of his work (as rated by the people) has remained consistent through his career.

Again, this is not scientific. Some of these people voted for Trump. And, from this view, the spikes vary wildly. Note that not one goes higher than 4.4 and not one goes lower than 3.2. But as a writer, that’s a comfortable wheelhouse to be in.

So we’ve determined no change in how his books are rated. Mr. Mercedes is about as good as Pet Sematary. But how about the number of people picking up his books?

Ah, we see some trends here. But the data skews downward for a reason. Forty years have passed since Carrie. That gives people more time for people to pick it up than Duma Key (2008). So the downward line doesn’t necessarily mean people are dropping King from their reading lists.

Or does it? When was the last time you heard someone talk about him? Not in the “fine legacy of a horror writer” sense, but “what have you done for me lately?”

Here’s a thing I want to point out. Somewhere between 1987 and 1991, King got sober. I’m not sure which was his first sober book (one source said The Tommyknockers, another said Needful Things) but note that point in time on the graph. No book except for The Dark Tower 7 (the final book in the series) and Under the Dome (which had a big marketing campaign behind it) reaches above 200,000 readers. So the quality didn’t change, but the number of people who cared did. Did his content change with his sobriety? Was the bloom off the rose? I feel like something happened, but I don’t know what.

Here’s another interesting thing to note — Stephen King’s not really writing horror anymore. In the last ten years, only three books (that weren’t short story collections) were horror. More were categorized as crime fiction. Does that mean King’s sick of horror? Or he’s experimenting? I dunno. But I don’t think we’ll ever see another Misery or The Stand again.

Does King care? Probably not. I wouldn’t care. I would consider it a blessing. He’s made it. He still makes bestseller lists, for both old and new books (It is up there right now, thanks to the movie). And now he can write whatever he wants to. No deadlines, no pressure. Not even George R. R. Martin can say that.

Does any of this data mining prove anything? I guess it proves that, contrary to what I said before, maybe a person’s art doesn’t change as much as we think.

The Books I Read: July – August 2017

bookshelf books

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.