The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

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.

The Books I Read: July – August 2016

bookshelf books
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Fans of Neil Gaiman will love this book. The closest I can call it is a modern fairy tale, but that word gets thrown around so much it’s become meaningless. I’ve never used it until now (I think). It felt like a combination of Stardust and Holes. Jacob Grimm has become a ghost and, after traveling the ethereal plane, attaches to the only boy who can hear him. A lonely boy struggling with a single Dad with a failing business.

The thing keeping this good book from being a great book is that nothing happens until about 66% through. The first fifteen percent, the exposition phase, is good then the rest is filler. It’s kids hanging out, a plot thread about a trivia game that never comes back, and other junk. It’s a wide boring lawn where the author drops Easter eggs for the third act. Character motivation is lacking too. Why does the girl take any sort of interest in the main boy? Why is she at all interested in him? It reduces her to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, like Bridge to Terabithia.

Also, I don’t know where or when it’s set, and that bothers me. It’s a small town, apparently in America, but you have to strain to decipher that because the people and setting is so weird. One of the people uses “zounds” and not in an ironic way. The bakery is the teen hangout spot, where his special cakes are the thing to get, like ramen in Japan. They’re still in school but walk (not drive) places. No one has a smart phone. It has the feel of a book that was translated (maybe that was the intention, since Jacob Grimm is the narrator). And the dad’s sole source of income is a bookstore that sells one book. How does that kind of business stay open past two weeks?

So the line between fantasy and reality gets a little blurry. But if you can get past some of that minor stuff, it’s a recommended book.

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
(unfinished)

I have never read a Star Wars book before, so keep in mind I’m coming in fresh. I don’t believe in any homosexual agenda. I have no opinion of Chuck Wendig and never read one of his stories.

I didn’t like this and didn’t finish it. I’m not sure how much of the content was dictated by Disney or Wendig’s own, but there were some fundamental problems with the narrative I couldn’t get past. It read like Stephen King’s “The Stand” — tons of characters and storylines — none of which tie in to anything between Episode Six and Seven. It’s just floating out there. I don’t know anyone’s back story. Every character is a pastiche of an existing one — the bounty hunter (Boba Fett), the smuggler (Han Solo), the young hero (Luke Skywalker), etc. And it’s all action. No one thinks or reflects. At one-third of the way through, the story was still introducing new characters, preparing for a long haul.

Maybe these books are for diehard fans — I had to keep looking up terms in the Wookiepedia. Maybe it was the foreign names and races, but I couldn’t keep track of anything. The text has no problem with style or tense, at least not for me. The “cute points” were the best. At one point a character plays Star Wars Settlers of Catan with a droid (instead of something cliche like chess or that holographic game Chewie and Threepio play.

Other than that, I was bored. I didn’t know the characters and there was never anything to make me care or sympathize. They were shallow action figures doing things that translate better in film.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I read one-quarter of it in a day.

The title and B&W cover make it look like it’s a bit snooty and removed from reality, like A.A. Milne or Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton edition). But it in fact, it reads just like any YA novel and takes place in a firm, explained setting with a flawed protagonist. In the first chapter he demonstrates his jerk streak to much delight. And he’s American and interesting and interesting things happen to him and he goes out to do interesting things (which sounds like par for the course, but you’d be surprised how many books lack this).

The story is built around these odd photos his dead grandfather had — ones that might have used old-timey trick photography (e.g. two reflections in a pond where just one girl is standing). But these happen to be the peculiar children (i.e., they’re basically X-Men — one’s super strong, one’s invisible, one can grow plants, etc.) We find this out when he goes to England where this home supposedly is, though it was destroyed in World War II.

The anticipation of the movie (also by Tim Burton, what can you do?) prompted me to give this a try. I’ll be reading the next two books, so I have a good feeling about the movie.

The Third Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen

It’s worse than the first two. It’s tedious. It leaves big gaps between books. Explanations are left on the floor in favor of vapid philosophical questions. It’s got nothing to do with the cool swords. It brings up some topics relating to gods and mortals that might have been interesting in the eighties, but are old hat now. The plot focuses more on ideas than engaging characters. And it all ends with a big confusing war where characters die and I just don’t care, because I don’t remember them. There’s nothing resolved with the swords or the gods at the end. It’s better as a premise than a book.

Emily Fox-Seton or The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I read this as research for a book I might be writing. The BBC made-for-TV movie is better, and I could only watch that drunk. The book is just so damn tame. The bad guy confesses everything without provocation then leaves peacefully. Then dies accidentally. The women are all so weak. The littlest things throw them into an emotional tizzy. Arranged marriages and racism are the least of this story’s problems.

Everything happens through hearsay and after-the-fact conversations. People talk about things, they don’t do them. There’s always the threat of things happening, never actual things happening. Sure the book’s a hundred years old, but you only get so much leeway.

Hero-Type by Barry Lyga

The promises at the beginning of the book don’t match the content. The main character is a town hero after saving a girl in his class from a rapist. And as the reader finds, it wasn’t just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. However, no one knows this, and no one’s going to know, because that isn’t the meat of the book.

The meat is that he gets a ton of flak for taking some “Support the Troops” magnetic ribbons off his car, ones he didn’t put on in the first place, and is forced to take off by his Dad. All of a sudden, this makes him the town pariah. It gets worse as he rolls with it, defending the non-decision as it relates to the first amendment. And it all snowballs into discussions on politics and free speech.

One of these stories interests me. One of them doesn’t. Guess which is which (hint: the stalker angle interests me and the political one doesn’t). I could make a case for why one fits into the other. But the two themes just don’t seem to fit with each other. 

A big chunk of plotline is the character holding the idiot ball. Problems that could easily be solved if someone just explained what happened instead of being cryptic or obstinate. He took the ribbons was because his dad freaked out (he has PTSD from the Iraq War). But the main character doesn’t, because then there’d be no story. The dad doesn’t tell anyone the reason he was dishonorably discharged from the army, which turns out to be a because he was a whistleblower. The school administrator allows not one but TWO student-run student-organized debates about this “controversy” which devolve into chaos. (I swear, Barry Lyga’s fictional school has the most inept administration since Lawndale High).

I thought this book would be about what it means to be a hero. But the plot overstates to the point of melodrama, which makes this my least favorite Lyga book.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

I know what I said before, but I’m pretty sure this is the last Tiffany Aching book this time. It’s good. The easiest to follow of the five. I say this all the time, but it gives a fitting end to the Tiffany Aching saga, giving the main character a mantle from her mentors, passing on the torch.

What feels unusual is that it seems a little rushed. Wrapped up a little too quickly. The previous books’ antagonists like Wintersmith and The Cunning Man enveloped abstract concepts. The other books had more plot threads, interactions with different and new characters, and sundry subplots. But I suppose there was a reason for the rushedness — Terry Pratchett was suffering Alzheimer’s and he wanted to produce something before his mind or life had gone. I salute you Mr. Pratchett. Shall we all be as hardworking as you.

This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own: A Journey to the End of Boxing by Jonathan Rendall
(unfinished)

John Green recommended this, but it was out of print and not to be found in any libraries. I finally decided to buy a used copy, because I like boxing.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that John Green’s favorites do not run parallel to my own. The writing style is too journalistic. It’s a memoir, but there’s not enough interesting things happening. The main character doesn’t come up against enough conflict. It’s basically “I saw boxing. I liked boxing. I went into boxing.” And then there’s a laundry list of celebrities and famous pugilists whom I don’t recognize. I’m sure it’s a fine book if you know boxing and/or sports history, but for everyone else… well, there’s a reason these books become unavailable.

Village of the Mermaids by Carlton Mellick III

Bizarro fiction, but less bizarro than others I’ve read. The plot is not so much a “monsters in the deep”, but a “Village of the Damned”/”Children of the Corn”. Our protagonist is a doctor with some kind of terminal medical condition where his skin turns to putty. He arrives at an island to figure out where the mermaids went and makes friends with a young girl. When the ferry sinks and there’s no way off the island, he keeps a cool head. There’s some gross sex stuff and people genetically-engineered to be delicious for mermaids.

I feel it needed more character development. It ended too early. The main character appeared to have changed, but I don’t know for what. It’s presented as a mystery novel, but the answers are in plain sight, not even hiding. The answer isn’t really found through deduction or mistakes of the enemy, but coincidence and luck. And then it ends in a gory, creepy mess. Which is fine if you like that kind of thing (I do), but doesn’t seem to fit the promises made in the beginning. The man’s condition has no bearing on the plot. Really, I just picked it up for the mermaids.

Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino

So… Ursula is Cthulhu.

Oh, you didn’t know? Yes, apparently she can transform people into Deep Ones. Also, she was raised on land in a small village by a fisherman and can transform into a human at will, no magic needed. This was happening behind the movie the whole time and you didn’t know it. Isn’t it good to be informed?

The plot uses the non-canon lore that Ursula is Triton’s sister, but that’s what little of Ursula there is here. Again, this is more about the three witch sisters and Circe and Tulip and a bunch of other non-Disney characters who I don’t give two shits about it. If I hadn’t read “The Beast Within” I would have been totally lost (although you’d think I would have learned my lesson from that book). At least Valentino took the time to get the lines from the movie right this time.

The only reason I read this was the “The Little Mermaid” connection, and let me tell you, people, it’s not even worth that. There’s no character investment in anyone. And there’s less than forty percent of the page count dedicated to “The Little Mermaid” lore, let alone Ursula. It’s probably going to end up on my “worst books I read” of the year.

The Books I Read: November – December 2015

bookshelf books

my little brony
My Little Brony by K.M. Hayes

I found this book at the library and only grabbed it on a whim. I used to be into My Little Pony:FiM (until Lauren Faust left, but that’s another entry). I didn’t expect much of it. The idea reeked of self-publication and the fan art cover didn’t help. I was expecting sappy, amateur Dawson’s Creek drama with a cheap gimmick to draw in readers.

But it turned out to be a great little novel. The teens speak realistically. They have plausible problems, not bulimia/my gay mother/sexually confused/vegetarian/alcoholism/pregnancy scare stuff you see in other teen drama books. Adults play a part — they’re not absent like Saved by the Bell. They don’t fall to the cliche tropes of plot movement like not telling people what the real problem is when a few words could solve everything. There’s no love triangles. The main character doesn’t realize he’s gay with MLP as the vehicle. And most of all, there’s no “bully“, which this material was ripe for.

This is a book about acceptance. Trying to find your place in high school and searching for like-minded people to be around while wanting to make your parents proud. I can really get behind that, since I had a similar experience. There’s no cop-out resolution like he realizes he doesn’t need friends or moves somewhere. There are consequences and not everything wraps up tidy. It reminded me a lot of Barry Lyga’s YA, who I’m a big fan of. I even looked for other things by K.M. Hayes and was disappointed to find this the premiere work. Hopefully this isn’t the only story in the author’s arsenal.

castle in the attic winthrop
The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop

I was promised Indian in the Cupboard, but with medieval knights. But what I got was a dull story. Most of the story is about his nanny leaving to return to England. He wants to keep her, so he uses the maguffin to trap her in his toy castle. There isn’t any impressive research shown or memorable characters or “oh no!” moments. In fact, the kid is psycho. I don’t know how mature he’s supposed to be, but he literally kidnaps someone and puts her in his toy castle.

She doesn’t even react very strongly to it either. She just sits in the tower and mopes. There’s supposed to be some kind of prophecy, and the boy shrinks down to fulfill it. This involves him confronting the evil king who created the magic, fooling him by his gymnastics. (Yes, he’s in gymnastics. For a book written in 1985, I give points for being progressive. But that’s it.)  The characters aren’t competent and because of that, the plot is boring, because the characters aren’t sympathetic.

a confederacy of dunces john kennedy toole
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
(unfinished)

Ah, it’s always a gamble when you try and read a classic. You never know if it’s going to be unreadable, popular because it was promoted by English Ph.D.s who can A) fully comprehend the material B) have no other job than selecting which books will be “classics”. The professor part of me was saying “Mm, yes, mm, quite good, enjoyable prose, mm, yes, harumph”. The emotional part of me was like “this sucks. It’s not funny. Everyone in here is a douche or an idiot. It’s like Birdman, more in love with its technique than the plot.”

This book is like experimental theater. Comedy, but no humor. It’s called a “picaresque”, like Don Quixote. Wikipedia explicitly says this means, by definition, it has no plot (which is already a big-ass stop sign for me), but the characters just go walking around, do silly things, and then it just ends.

Stories where characters don’t want anything or don’t have a goal don’t sit well with me. Plus it’s in a Southern style, which reading Faulkner in eleventh grade turned me off from. (I want to punch someone everytime I think of “My mother is a fish.” Hey, I can write incomprehensible narration that is so abstract any meaning can be ascribed to it too.) If you want a comedy book, read Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.

guards guards terry pratchett
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

This is the first non-Tiffany Aching Terry Pratchett novel I’ve read. Also, the highest rated Pratchett book (at least according to Goodreads). But for some reason I could not get into it. I think maybe because it’s too long. Comedy’s at its best when short and witty. It’s here, in Monty Python-esque glory, but it goes on too long. The situation wears out its welcome.

It’s a character focused, which is good. The characters are the best part — a human teen who was raised by dwarfs (his name is Carrot because he has wide shoulders and skinny legs from working in the mines), an alcoholic captain of the guards (imagine Aragorn mixed with Sam Spade), and “the others”. My favorite is Sybil Ramkin, a woman who breeds small dragons. She’s kind-hearted, but doesn’t take guff, and has a wonderful way of asking for what she wants without seeming like she asked for anything. Though she’s a lady, she’s an outdoorsy woman, like Katharine Hepburn. And there’s a librarian who’s an orangutan.

This is where I come to my problems. They say you can jump into any Discworld novel without reading the others, but I didn’t feel that was the case here. Either I got lost because there was too much that seemed to imply I should have prior knowledge (the mechanics and government of a big fantasy city are not explicit) or because the characters are treated like background characters. This is the nature of the story — the city watch is the guys who come running after something’s happened. They’re inept, but they do their best.

The plot feels like it was made up as it went along. The lack of chapters bothered me (apparently all Discworld except Tiffany Aching does this) because that meant there were no signals for when a big event occurs. No stopping points. Like each scene was a day of writing. “Okay, something needs to happen here, so… um, okay, let’s put in a dragon.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll give up on Pratchett. This is his eighth novel and written in 1989, so there are plenty of others to sample.

love my rifle more than you young and female in the us army kayla williams
Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams

A non-fiction account of a woman in the army. It is a raw and honest diatribe of what it was like, and has no compunctions about lifting the scabs. Most female memoir authors tend towards a “it was all their fault, I was an angel”. But there’s not much of that here. She’s a fascinating character full of contradictions.

And due to that, this book did a good job of making me angry at the army. This is around 2003, when there was the “we don’t have body armor” issue and Halliburton fiascoes. This book reveals this was the tip of the iceberg. This war gave soldiers no lack of purpose. They ignore dietary requirements, leaving it up to the soldiers to scrounge like rogues in D & D. They get poor training. They shift everyone around so there’s no sense of camaraderie. And so many dumbasses in leadership positions. I know I’m only getting one side of these stories here, but even half of them are true, it’s like the blind leading the blinder. After reading this, I feel like the government utilizes the air force, navy, and marines, for their specialization. But the army is just fresh bodies to do jobs robots can’t do yet.

And that eighteen is too young to be in the military. These boys are not mature. They do not know the basics of how to talk to humans or how to treat women without sexually harassing them. Every woman is categorized as a slut or a bitch, and you can’t be neither. It’s like high school, but with guns. There needs to be more HR type training, because there are more women in the military than ever.

This book is mostly anecdotes. I enjoy that personally, but not everyone will. You won’t find “Saving Private Ryan” here — the narrator didn’t see a lot of combat due to her status as a translator. But the book delivers what it advertises — an account of a woman soldier in the modern army.

Side note: I’d love to see this girl kick Cheryl Strayed from Wild‘s ass.

made to kill adam christopher
Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

I am probably the wrong person for this book. I was pulled in by the robots, not the genre. I’ve never read Raymond Chandler, and if I’m going to read detective fiction, I’ll select current stuff, not classics. Therefore, I can only assume the super-detailed writing is part of his oeuvre. The novel is described as Raymond Chandler meets science fiction and it is. But it’s science fiction of his era. Mind control and mad scientists and “Commies From the Planet X”.

Oddly, the detail isn’t boring, but it does get in the way of the story progress. Certain character aspects are left undeveloped, like the robot’s side job as a hitman or the backstory of his creator. I don’t know if this is an aspect of the style or the fact that it’s part of a trilogy, but neither work in its favor. I believe, even if it’s going to be a series, the first book has to wrap up conclusively, like Star Wars, and not leave any threads hanging.

john green let it snow
Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

Now this is the kind of short story anthology I can get behind. Three authors with novellas, each separate but all taking place in the same setting and same circumstances (in this case, a giant snowstorm) and all in the same genre (romance). This is a much better format to introduce readers to new writers — draw them in with well-knowns and add a guest, like an opening band.

I know John Green well, love his work. Maureen Johnson I’ve heard of, but not familiar with. But I loved her contribution. Lauren Myracle I’ve never heard of, and I wasn’t a big fan of her story — too much navel-gazing, not enough plot moving along. The main character stood in one place and introspected most of the time.

But overall, the book is solid. It’s light-hearted and heavy on the adorbz. The kind of stuff fangirls squee for — quirky characters hugging and such. It’s a good book to read around Christmas, which I did. It’s a little underwhelming but has a tone like a warm blanket. A pleasant palate-cleanser if you’ve read too many gritty books about robots and army women.

The Books I Read: September – October 2014

bookshelf books

I Shall Wear Midnight (Tiffany Aching #4) by Terry Pratchett

The last of the Tiffany Aching books and an excellent ending to the series. Besides the first, I think this might be my favorite book of the four. Tiffany has finished her “apprenticeship” and is now the resident witch of her hometown. This means she’s taking care of the community the way true witches do — helping the sick who have no one to take care of them, easing the elderly to the next stage of life, fixing domestic disputes so no one knows she’s really doing it. She’s confronting anti-witches and land-grabbers and old fundamentalist ladies who simply don’t agree with what she does.

We see a grown up Tiffany here, making and dealing with being an adult. She no longer has the wisdom and guidance of her fellow witches, so her mistakes are a result of a lack of experience (and a sharp tongue). But she does have the wee free men in her corner. You see her finally deal with some of the relationships that other books have let linger.

This book also borrows more from Pratchett’s existing universe, as Tiffany travels to Ankh-Morpork.  This chunk in the middle seems to be catering to Discworld die-hards. It harms a little of the overall narrative, but the rest of the story makes up for it.

Unlike the last two, this one doesn’t have a big bad or a problematic witch teacher. You get to see Tiffany being Tiffany, rough and gruff, practical but still scared. All in all, it’s a very satisfying conclusion, closer to the magic of the first book.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In is Scalzi’s most serious science fiction novel yet, and one you’ve got to pay attention to. It’s got a lot of heady issues. Not to say his other books, like Old Man’s War, don’t bring up existential puzzles. But they usually make up for it with whiz bang sci-fi gizmos or cynical humor. This one, no. It’s essentially a police procedural that involves semi-artificial beings.

At its core, this is a robot story, but without artificial intelligence. A disease has rendered a significant portion of the populace catatonic, but new technology allows their brains to venture out in walking automatons. The Hadens (Haden’s Syndrome is the name of the disease, and becomes the identifier of people with it) have created their own culture, like the deaf and handicapped community.  But the government funding that kept them provided for is about to be rescinded. That means a lot of opportunities for private companies, civil rights leaders, and millions of people who had been getting a free lunch wondering what’s going to happen to them. This is all narrated to the reader through Chris, a Haden who’s new on the FBI force.

It does what a good novel should do, not make answers but bring up questions, much like Gaiman’s novels. But unlike Gaiman’s novels, this one reaches a satisfying, concrete solution. I think the murder mystery was definitely the way to go. It makes a lot of the head-wrapping around the Haden culture (like people who hitch a ride in other people’s bodies) easier to understand and a plot that keeps moving forward.

It’s not my favorite Scalzi of all time, but it’s pretty good. The world-building is at an intermediate level, and the characters suffer from his famous “blank slates, no development, no sympathy” that his other books have. But the fast and intriguing plot will keep you wondering what happens next.

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

This book is not for me. I was on board for the first few pages, but I have a hard time getting into story where the main conflict is “do I choose this boy or that boy”. I just can’t sympathize with any character caught up in a dilemma of riches. Maybe this a thing girls go through, maybe it’s a problem they like to read about. But it makes me want to smack them all in the face. Especially in this case, when the drama isn’t even that good.

It has been three months since Lennie’s sister died. Lennie always lived her life gladly in the shadow of her more exuberant sister, including vicarious romance with Toby, her sister’s boyfriend. Now she’s insecure about her feelings for Toby and the new hippie kid who just moved in and has “hella good hair” so he wants him to come on over and shake, shake, shake.

The sister thing reminded me a little bit of Frozen, but that’s the only part that appealed to me. Like others of its genre, the plot is driven forward by misunderstandings, refusals to listen, misinterpretations, and other petty obstacles that could be solved with thirty seconds of talking.

The style is full of trite teenspeak and quotations way beyond their years (Lennie constantly reads Wuthering Heights — isn’t that about a mentally abusive man who marries his beau’s daughter? — but oh precious she is that she reads something so adult). At one point, it’s revealed that the sister was pregnant at the time of her death, but no one raises a hand about how they, as teenagers, expected to raise it, earn money, get a house. Everyone was too entranced by the tragic baby romance.

This is for people who un-ironically enjoy the romances you see in Hannah Montana and The Bachelor. There are essentially no stakes, and the characters are too hippie-dippie to be realistic.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart is a book about what happens when superheroes stop being polite and start getting real. Essentially they all become supervillains, taking over cities and ruling with an iron a steel fist. In fact, the entire city’s been turned into steel and plunged into darkness.

This is the story of David, a boy with a mission against the super who killed his father. He joins with La Resistance, eager to show his skills and the encyclopedia of knowledge he’s been gathering all his life in preparation for revenge.

This book has a lot of action, and I’ve never been a fan of action scenes in novels. The mediums just don’t translate. You don’t see novelizations of The Fast and the Furious (and if there are, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know). But the strengths of the book are the straightforward style and the concrete characters. Each member of La Resistance has a personality and a look (for some reason they remind me of Team Fortress 2 characters). The POV from David’s perspective helps keep the story grounded. For instance, instead of epic battles you lose track of, you see David’s role in it all.

My two disappointments were that it seems overly oriented to a male audience (trope of female character that exists to be girl who doesn’t like him at first but once he proves himself changes her tune). Lots of cars and guns and superheroes and action scenes. The other is that the reason people with powers become evil is intrinsically linked to their powers, not simply a result of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

But the energy and overall fun factor of the concept are going to keep me reading the rest of the series.

Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything by E. Lockhart

Doesn’t the title sound like a Lifetime movie?

It’s short, but doesn’t have very much plot. It’s supposed to be about a girl who Franz Kafka’s into a fly, so she can know what boys are really like, what they talk about, what goes on when girls aren’t there turning them into monkey-idiots. The thing is, it doesn’t seem like her big problem is understanding boys, but getting people to understand her. She goes to an arts high school where her teacher frowns on her refusal to branch from a comic book style. Her parents spring a divorce on her, then her mom leaves her daughter behind while she goes on a week-long cruise (this makes it convenient to be a fly for a week). She’s not boy-crazy, like I’d expect out of a plot like this.

It’s better than Cycler insofar as learning about the gendered Other. But like Cycler, it doesn’t go as far with the idea as it could, and uses too much melodrama. The titular fly on the wall literally doesn’t leave the locker room, and there is a lot more to teen males than what happens there. It’s like studying polar bear behavior only in the zoo. There’s a significant portion of the text dedicated to discovering boys’ penises, which she constantly calls gherkins. Is this a northeastern thing?  I’ve NEVER heard anyone use the word gherkin, least of all as much as she does.

But it’s easy and short. I think you’ll get something out of it, as long as you’re not looking for much.

Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross
(unfinished)

I talked some about this book already. It’s just not a story for me. It’s for complex people who like complex stories. Critical acclaim? Award winner? Maybe, but I just couldn’t stand it. It’s for people who like Dune, Ringworld, and other “essential science fiction”. If you can appreciate that, fine. But every Charles Stross I’ve tried to read has left me bored. I guess this isn’t my place.

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci

Nothing special at all. And in fact, kinda boring. It’s just a series of things that happened, and the title makes it sound more interesting than it is. She’s not boy proof, she’s just an anti-social asshole. She’s Miss Independent until some cute guy transfers schools. Of course. But this takes place in Hollywood, so Miss Independent has the added weirdness of mimicking a girl from a Matrix pastiche, so much so that she dresses like her and wants to be called by that character’s name (which is “Egg”). And this character is described as looking kinda like Ilia from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

ilia star trek motion picture
Appealing

She’s a bitch for no reason, and combine this with the weirdness of living with a mother who’s an old sci-fi starlet and a dad who works in special f/x makeup. I learned more about growing up in Tinseltown than anything else. That includes the character and her motivations.

And her change comes unprovoked. It feels like “The Girl Who Became a Beatle” — a forced idea that has nothing to do with the title concept. At least “The Sky is Everywhere” had style. This just has an unlikeable character being unlikeable. I would have rather heard the story of a likable girl with those kind of parents doing a Hollywood movie thing (kinda like my opinion of Landline needing more TV writing).

The Night Sessions by Ken McLeod
(unfinished)

Also mentioned in my article with Saturn’s Children. I heard it had an interesting take on robots, but it never got to the robots. It was about a very thick built world around politics and religion, two topics I cannot stand to read about. I’m just not interested in material like archaic religion or the U.K. or the murder of a bishop when Christianity has become a niche religion (I assume.  I really didn’t understand much of this book).

It just wasn’t entertaining for me. It was more work than it was fun. It had no characters. The big ideas were the characters (which I find to be a trapping of science fiction that keeps it from being regarded as seriously as literary fiction). There are just other books I’d rather read.

The Books I Read: March – April 2014

bookshelf books

jeff vandermeer wonderbook
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanDerMeer

It took me a looooong time to read this. It’s built like a textbook, but I don’t think I’d ever see this is in a classroom. The illustrations are pretty, but all the same style, and a lot of them aren’t relevant. I was hoping for more charts, but there’s more “weird art” (which makes some sense, since the author’s wife was the editor for Weird Tales). It’s definitely comprehensive.

Does it say anything new? Here and there. The exercises in the back look smart, but complex. The best part of the book are the essays from other writers like Neil Gaiman and Ekaterina Sedia. They make the purchase price almost worth it. I think the next book should be just that — essays on writing from current authors, ones who’ll probably never publish an “On Writing” book, but we all want one from.

Do I recommend it? Well, if you haven’t read any other writing books before this one, I’d say yes. Be warned, it’s a heavy read. Nearly everything in it is helpful, but it provides no succinctness for the newbie. New writers still struggling in the novice stages might be overwhelmed, except the most dedicated.

round ireland with a fridge
Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

It’s exactly what it says on the tin. A man makes a bar bet to hitchhike around the coast of Ireland, toting a mini-fridge with him. Hilarity ensues. To a degree.

It wasn’t as funny as I was promised, but I’m a hard man to make laugh, so take that with a grain of salt. I think the problem is that, like most travel writing, there is little conflict and little rising action. It starts with some pleasant anecdotes, but then halfway through it starts getting repetitive. He went into a pub, made some friends, and found a ride to the next city. The comedy has to be provided by the writer, not the experiences. And comedy in books is hard.

Instead of the fridge being a hindrance, it actually endears people to pick him up. The local radio station has been broadcasting his story every day, local news did a spot on him in their search for human interest stories. So there’s no difficulty in him achieving the bet. Nothing super bad happens except some rain. Everyone in Ireland is super friendly, and gets drunk all the time. (So much for breaking stereotypes.)

terry pratchett wintersmith
Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

The third in the Tiffany Aching series. I liked this one a little better than the last, but it also felt like the plot was even more scattershot. The Wintersmith refers to the actual antagonist of this plot. But much more text is dedicated to Tiffany’s time with the witches, specifically one she doesn’t like too much and is very, very old. The ending is a little stronger, but still vague. Kinda like Labyrinth. Some characters get more fleshed out, but I’m still having trouble matching names to faces. And still not enough Feegles for my taste, but it’s nice to see Tiffany’s relationships with others, like boys, getting more complex. There’s no reason to skip this one if you’re a fan of the series.

this blinding absence of light
This Blinding Abscence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun

I was a little surprised I finished this. It’s a book where very little happens.  But I don’t blame the author — what else could you imagine from people locked in a windowless prison, unable to go outside, for eighteen years. It impressed me that it had as much content as it did. I guess the little things matter a lot when you’re in that situation. A bird perching up in the ceiling, remembering past times, one’s relationship with God, personality conflicts with prisoners.

It’s surprisingly diverse and interesting. But depressing. (Again, as you’d imagine.) You get a lot of time to think in prison, philosophize on why you’re here and the nature of power and soldiers and feeling sorry for yourself. And there isn’t a story here. More of a summary of those eighteen years. Thoughtful reflections on the world from the bottom.

wonder EJ Palacio
Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The best thing I read this month. It’s a YA book about a boy born with a severe facial disfigurement.  He’s going to public school for the first time. The adults are attempting to make it go well, to the point that they’re coercing fellow students into being his friend.  The interesting thing is that it doesn’t stay in his POV.  You get to see perspectives from his older sister, another student, and even his older sister’s boyfriend.

It’s great. Entertaining, intriguing. I would have rated it five stars, but it gets really cheesy at the end, like on the level of a Disney Channel movie. Wonder Boy gets an award for courage, everyone likes him, the bad guy leaves on his own, they get a new puppy. Seems a little too perfect. Nothing ends that well, especially when you have a facial deformity that I couldn’t even google.

jonathan strange and mr norrell susanna clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
(unfinished)

I feel bad for not finishing it, but I just wasn’t having any fun. Neil Gaiman keeps mentioning it as one of his favorite books, but it’s way too traditional for me. Old English style. It’s very much like a modern Dickens story. But that was fine for it’s time. I think it’s me, I’m just not into that kind of book, one that evokes classic literature.

The main plot starts with old, stuffy guys on a council when one old, stuffy guy talks to another stuffy guy about bringing back real magic to England because it seems to have disappeared, except at a stuffy academic level. So then they go see some reclusive old, stuffy guy who does a little magic for them, and then he leaves the council to go to London where even more old, stuffy guys live.

I tried really, really hard. But I just couldn’t finish it. I’m sure it’s a good book, just not for me. I can’t stand the constant discussing and talking, the lack of stakes, the impersonal relationships.  I have no problem reading a big book (The Name of the Wind), but you gotta make something happen in it.  Does this mean I can never write a Hugo work if I can’t read one?

The Books I Read: November – December 2013 (Part 2)

bookshelf books


A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

The second in the “Tiffany Aching” series. I read and really enjoyed “The Wee Free Men”. But I have to be honest: this one is not as good. Maybe because there’s not as much wee free men. No Granny Aching. Maybe because it suffers from “sequel syndrome” where, since her first goal was already accomplished, now the story struggles with achievements. It’s about Tiffany living with the witches, and now she has to go to “witch school”. She meets colorful characters, but suffers from annoyances and problems. Rather than something to achieve, to reach for.


On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
(unfinished)

I paged through it on my way out of the library. The first page I contacted had a diagram of words with accent tick marks. I thought, oh boy, this might be full of advice that’s obsolete or nonsensical or useless. And I was pretty much right.

I’m pretty sure John Scalzi has never done stress tick marks on his work. The accents of words have never even crossed my mind. I change things around if they sound funny or off, but diagramming is not a factor.

The content of this book is too old, too archaic. It’s concerned about making art, not a story. Gardner frequently cites Nabokov and James Joyce as role models. Do you know how many people hate James Joyce? His own wife told him “why can’t you write books people can read?” It says nothing about writing commercial fiction, just post-modern literary fiction. Ick.


Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m not sure what to think about this one. This is the first Kurt Vonnegut I’ve ever read, and I was expecting something revolutionary, given the way people talk about him. It’s actually just sort of weird. Chapters are bite-sized. Characters and events fall in weird ways.

Everyone says Vonnegut writes satire, but I didn’t feel that here. Maybe the book is out of time. It did seem to have relevant themes, like science out of control, atomic bombs. Those were current of the day. And I’m willing to say that the themes were lost on me. But not because the book is bad/weird, but because I’m an idiot. It could be that it’s more straightforward than I was led to believe, and I’m searching for something that’s not there.

I do plan to read Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe then I’ll have a more complete picture of Vonnegut.


Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista
(unfinished)

I gave it 50 pages, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I just wasn’t interested enough to continue. It’s written in French by an Italian guy, translated into English. So that’s an obstacle right there.

After that, I just didn’t care about the characters enough. The main character is grumpy and friendless. He gets a vineyard and hates everybody. There, that’s the story in a nutshell.

When the main character got shot at, and I didn’t even notice, I knew that was the time to stop. I just couldn’t see how the book could bring me back around to care.


The Girl Who Became a Beatle by Dave Taylor

WARNING: This book does not contain The Beatles. This is more like “The Girl Who Became a Pop Diva”. She gets wish fulfillment for no real reason, has typical band problems, wants to be a leader and no one likes her for it. She starts getting bossy, but experiences no consequences. She starts out liking a boy, but then life becomes too perfect. In her alternate universe, she has a boyfriend from “The O.C.”, creative control, a $12 million mansion, a life in L.A. instead of podunk midwest, Grammys, sellout crowds, and fame & fortune. Nothing goes wrong for her.

I wanted this to be about The Beatles. I thought it would be about a teen experiencing their history, growing up in the fifties, struggling from dive bars to the Ed Sullivan show to Beatlemania and drugs and Yoko and the break-up. Like John or Paul’s POV but transformed into current day YA form.

Instead, she just takes their songs, which makes no sense. Songs written in the fifties have no place in today’s context. Can you imagine “I Want to Hold Your Hand” going up against Ke$ha and Lady Gaga? The way it’s written the Beatles are just placeholders. It could have been any band — Nirvana, Green Day, Metallica.

And the ending is not earned. She spends 90% of her time living an awesome rock star life, and there’s no evidence that she wants a change back, or that a change back would be good for her. And of course, she does. Because its expected of her. Gotta have that Disney ending.


I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

A set of disconnected stories about humans trying to debug artificial intelligence. This books is more about ideas that turned into stories. Putting a face onto potential problems with thinking robots. And it doesn’t gel with what I know about computers. I don’t believe that we’d develop robots that move before they can output verbal commands (we already have that technology in Siri). Or robots that get in a tizzy over weakly-worded commands versus strongly-emphasized Robotic Laws. Logic just doesn’t work like that.

I know everyone gives Isaac Asimov props, and I’ll be the first to contribute to that coffer. But I just don’t see how this book helps my understanding of robots and a future with them.