The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: May – June 2021

bookshelf books

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

This is the first chick lit I’ve read in a while. The last one I think was The She-Hulk Diaries? And I only read that for a very specific giant green woman reason.

The setup is quick. In the first chapter, there’s a lot of telling, not showing, about exactly the state of her life: work, family, social. Boom, boom, boom. Going right to the high concept–that being the main character sees the ghost of her 108-year-old aunt at her funeral.

The problem with this book, which I was worried about (and my worries came true) are two big ghost cliches: 1) they’re assholes 2) they have indeterminate powers. It happens in Drop Dead Fred, Little Monsters, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Ghost Dad, and Field of Dreams. The plot moves forward because the ghost provokes the main character into doing something they don’t want to do. Usually, this is forcing them out of their comfort zone. (Not like robbing a bank, I mean. Although that would definitely be outside the comfort zone for most people.)

For example, the main character is a job headhunter. And the ghost makes her character shout and act stupid during an expensive lunch, losing her last potential client. The ghost is selfish, leaves her protege in the lurch more than once, talks about how great her old life was, and makes no effort to understand who she’s haunting or explore her new existence. Instead, she annoys a person.

This ruins her life, tears down the status quo, and forces the protagonist into change they don’t want to make. This is proper story-telling procedure, so it’s fine. It fills all the requirements. But it’s cliche. I know how the story’s going to progress before it does.

But knowing how the story goes isn’t necessarily bad–look at all those damn Hallmark Christmas movies. Same damn story every damn time. But they must be making money because they keep making them.

Seems like the whole point of chick lit is to watch the main character suffer. Have them be embarrassed or act in foolish ways, get pulled down a couple hundred pegs. Reminds me of the “Dramarama” section of Seventeen magazine where teen girls told their most humiliating stories, like throwing up in front of their crush. Maybe it’s a hurt/comfort niche combined with humor.

Anyway, I’ve gotten off track. Do I recommend this book? Eh, I’d give it a tentative yes. The beginning is cringey. The middle is pretty good. The ending wraps up too neatly. You won’t learn anything about the 1920s (in fact, they tend to treat it as this wonderful magical era where people drank and danced and were free and no one was racist or sexist or greedy or abusive). So you won’t learn any history. But you will watch a woman mortify herself and come out better for it. Like Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

It starts with a free verse poem, which I took to be an epigraph. Then another. Oh, a double epigraph, okay… Then another. Then another. Oh, the whole thing is like this?

You can finish this book in less than ninety minutes. The story is pretty much how you’d expect (what’s the name for the Christmas Carol trope where ghosts from a person’s past come back to teach them a lesson?).

Some might say it lacks depth, since it packs a small punch. But it’s a definite punch. It’s written by the same author as The Boy in the Black Suit, which I liked.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Well, it’s a long novel, so it gets a long review.

This was frequently cited in “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel“, so I decided to read it. It might be the last “classic” that I read, so I made a commitment to finish this one–the great American novel (along with The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird). But just because something’s old doesn’t mean it has value.

This book is about white people farming and suffering from time-sink fallacy–just because you spent a lot of time on something without making any progress doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. Like a video game where you just can’t make that jump. Here, it’s that the land is worth something to them. “Oh, I spent my blood, sweat, and tears on this land. I buried my brother over there. I dug my hands into it. Eight generations of my family lived here.” Well, now the land isn’t giving back.

Yeah, you may have invested a lot of time and money into your land, but now you’re not getting anything from it. Like keeping a car that doesn’t run and then getting angry when it’s repossessed. It’s the same reason people stay in dead relationships–you’re not getting anything from it, but moving out would be harder. Here, the farmers are using classic anger-and-denial defense mechanism, blaming the banks. Except you had a deal with the banks.

Once I wrote how I have no sympathy for the rich. This book gives me no sympathy for the poor. Half the book demonifies the businesses and banks ousting the poor farmers. But who sold you that land in the first place? It was their land in the first place. You basically got a small business loan. Then you have the guts to say “what do you mean I have to pay it back? I made no money this year, but it’s not my fault. No one bought my one-eyed cat statues. It’s not like I wasted it all on booze and bad investments.”

Well, sometimes you’re unlucky. That’s the risk you take in a job that depends on nature, a famously unpredictable mistress. Maybe a giant shipping boat gets stuck in the Suez Canal and your supplies don’t arrive on time. It’s possible to do nothing wrong, but you still have to pay the piper.

“Oh, the big bad banks are taking advantage of us. And so are these carpetbaggers. And car dealers. Woe is me, the shop paid only $15 for my precious child’s doll which has no intrinsic value to anyone but her. Everyone’s preying on me.” And then they steal and vandalize the shops because they’re desperate.

It sounds like I’m ragging on the oppressed and siding with big corporations, hypocritizing what I said before about the rich. Not so. I might sympathize with these people… if they weren’t so incompetent.

The Joads wait way too late to leave a bad situation. They drive to California with too many people, in a hacked-up car with no tires, going to a state they have no firm proof has their salvation, just a flyer with promises of a land of milk and honey. This is a novel about a bunch of rubes being fleeced. They act like turkeys staring up at the rain and wonder why they’re drowning. But that’s how capitalism works–it thrives on ignorance.

The Stupids Take Off: Harry Allard, James Marshall: 9780395500682:  Amazon.com: Books
Alternate book cover

And then there’s other stuff the family does. Like they decide to bring their dog at the last minute (they actually have two dogs, but one doesn’t come so they leave it abandoned on the farm–that thing’s going to die). Then they stop at a gas station and let everyone out. The dog wanders by a highway and immediately gets run over and dies. No one notices it, no one calls for it. Pa’s response? “Guess I oughta tied him up.”

They say you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat their animals. And you could say “it was a different time, people treated animals differently back then, yadda yadda yadda.” My counter-argument is you could say that about any time–slavery, segregation, Indian reservations, sending the mentally disabled to sanitariums, fat-shaming. You could always say “that was just what you did back then”. Except if you take a close look, there are ALWAYS people who know better. There are always dissenters.

If you take the dog with you, you should take care of it. At least you could sell it if you’re low on money. Or eat it, if you’re really desperate. (Don’t get all eww on me–there’s an adult breastfeeding scene at the end of this book.)

Every chapter alternates between the story of the Joads and some essay/narrative around some aspect of this time period–farming, diners, traveling, jails. One chapter is themed around the old “man vs. machine” trope. “Horses are better than tractors because horses have a ‘living sense’, but a tractor is a cold dead thing.” John, are you saying farmers should prefer the implement that needs feeding, has half the longevity, one-quarter the power, parts that can’t be replaced, and dies from exhaustion if run straight for three hours? Get over yourself. No farmer, today or yesterday, would give up their implements for the old ox-and-plow.

tom joad | Explore Tumblr Posts and Blogs | Tumgir

A little about the main character: Tom Joad isn’t strong enough to be a main character. Even as a hub for other characters to revolve around. He doesn’t have anything to make me connect to him. He’s not one of the big five: sacrificing, principled, sympathetic, winsome, or smart.

The novel’s more of an ensemble piece. But even ensembles have a distinct main character. A Game of Thrones has hundreds, but the story revolves around Tyrion, Jon Snow, and Daenerys.

But Steinbeck doesn’t give Tom a strong enough presence to be a protagonist. What do I mean by that? I know what Tom Joad is meant to do, but I don’t know why. He’s meant to take Preacher Casy’s place (or Casy’s his mentor*) to become a leader for the people. To act as their voice, unite them, speak up for their rights. But why? We know he’s self-sacrificing, because he went to prison defending someone in a fight. But what does that have to do with becoming a union leader.

*By the way–fuck Preacher Casy. Steinbeck’s supposed to make me sympathetic toward a priest who raped a thirteen-year-old girl. And all that happened is he lost his job. I hope he’s burning in hell.

I’m not saying every book needs to have a likable character, but you don’t have to bore me with it. It seems like the trend in classic American literature is that everyone should be dumb stubborn assholes–The Old Man and the Sea, As I Lay Dying, Stranger in a Strangeland, Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye. At some point, someone decided “Great literature is about deplorable people. I have spoken.”

And in the ending, we don’t even see Tom Joad step up and make the big change he’s been building toward. He just says what he’s thinking about doing and wanders into the grass, never to be seen again. And the story keeps going without him. We’re left with the supporting characters.

 SORRY, THAT STORY DOESN'T USUALLY GO ON FOR 450 PAGES, BUT I GOT INTO A SERIOUS THING. AND THEN I FORGOT HOW IT ENDED. | image tagged in beck on futurama | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

Every time I opened this book I wondered “What am I supposed to get out of this. What am I supposed to learn? What is this supposed to teach me (as a writer)?”

Okay, there is one positive I can take away. Everything is so beautifully detailed. Every nuance. Every word is illustrative. Every tiny little facet of this time period is explored like a Beethoven symphony. To a fault. This would never fly with the short attention spans of today, and rightly so.

When I was writing my first novel, I got criticized for a scene where someone saves a turtle. It was motif-building and characterizing, but it didn’t have to do with the story. So when I read every detail about skinning a rabbit I have to ask “What does this have to do with the story? What does this add to the plot?”

So in the end, this book is an illustration of life in the dust bowl/depression years. But as entertainment or “this is what books should be”–no. I don’t know what place this has today, but it’s not for me.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
(unfinished)

I think the person who wrote this might be crazy. Like Riddler/Morarity levels of planning.

You know those activity pages that are a big mess of threads and your goal is to follow the thread to the end? This is like that. There are sixteen main characters! Sixteen! For a children’s novel! Each has a backstory and needs and wants and who’s related to who and how and it’s impossible to keep them all straight. The narrative doesn’t allow getting used to one before using the other.

From The Stand, I learned that the best way to get audiences used to an ensemble cast is you introduce Character A, then Character B, then back to Character A, back to B, then introduce C. And so on. None of that here. This is just a mess of people. POVs switch mid-chapter without scene breaks. Even the movie Clue didn’t have so many characters.

Everyone’s in this “game” set up by a dead man for these people who live in an apartment building. They need to find out who killed the guy and divides them up into arbitrary pairs (though are they so arbitrary?) Events happen, characters are brought together, problems are solved, then it turns out none of that development mattered. They had the clues in front of them all along and just needed to talk to each other.

It’s weird. It’s non-linear. I don’t know how it won a Newberry. And I don’t recommend it.

Sweet by Emmy Laybourne

Is there such a genre as romance/horror? If not, this could start a trend. Or you could call it “horror among YouTubers”? Like Road Rules – Semester at Sea, I guess.

A drug company invents a new kind of combination food sweetener/weight loss supplement. Like you will eat and literally lose weight instead of gain it. Plus it makes food taste better. And they’re using this cruise ship to promote/publicize it. They’re so confident they paint a line on the ship’s hull when they leave to show everyone how much higher it is when they dock.

I wouldn’t say it’s horrific. More of a thriller, because there aren’t really supernatural elements. More like The Crazies or Cujo, since the allegory is sugar addiction. But those were good movies. Had good scares. This takes a long time to get going, and the precursor is the romance I mentioned. It has a very chick-lit beach read kind of feel. I can see reading this on a cruise itself. If you were the Wednesday Addams/Lydia Deetz (come to think of it, any Winona Ryder role) type, you’d like it.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Why is there so much “sick kids romance” I’ve read. The Fault In Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl and now this (not counting crappy movies like Clouds). And it plays just like a Sick Kids Romance.

I think I’m too old for this kind of book, for young love stories. I see them and I’m like everyone reacting to The Little Mermaid now.

I’m forty. I’ve been married for fifteen years. I’m on antidepressants. I get no thrill from hand-holding anymore. A younger me might’ve.

Also, I knew the ending so all I saw was Room, where a monster is keeping her prisoner. Room and its concept terrifies me. I feel like the book should have explored that aspect more–the PTSD that comes from being trapped in a single place for all your life. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave. This book puts a syrupy family drama onto it that feels facetious.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
(unfinished)

I love Crichton. I famously brag that I finished Jurassic Park in a day when I was twelve (although now that I have the Internet, I see that’s no big accomplishment). So I was looking forward to this.

But I was worried that it’s also his most derivative. Crichton is famous for science fiction with a realism twist. This just looks like a straight Western. No science added.

The beginning has a ton of infodumping about the era. In fact, each chapter necessitates some infodumping about Victorian history just to explain why XYZ character was doing this or the mechanics of ABC setting just to explain the behavior. This takes you out of the story and makes it feel like a textbook. Is this narrative non-fiction?

Then there’s a static narrative of our heist heroes casing the joint or meeting up or making plans. There’s no character development. Even Ocean’s Eleven had the George Clooney/Julia Roberts subplot. Also, every character had some charisma. This is dry as hell. Maybe it’s better for history buffs who like texts over fiction.

Then I read ahead and it really lost me when one of the targets, they get to him through the fact that he has syphilis and he thinks sleeping with a twelve-year-old girl will get rid of it, which was the style at the time. I don’t care if that was the age of consent back then or that’s what backward Victorians believed. I don’t want to read about it.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
(unfinished)

This is just not for me and that’s fine. I am so far removed from the subject matter, I couldn’t tell whether it was good or bad. I know emotionally I hate it, but that’s because I don’t understand it. The author throws around so many British labels and stores that have no meaning to me, it might as well be using Klingon.

That’s because she’s not really a shopaholic, more of a fashion-aholic. She notices what everyone’s wearing and characterizes them based on that. The first few chapters are about her bending over backward to buy a scarf from a fancy store. So fancy, she saves the bag and hangs it up in her room. She doesn’t want “stuff”, she wants “image”.

She also doesn’t seem competent in anything. A good character should be good at something in life, even if they’re bad at everything else. Ross from Friends is a terrible person, but at least he’s respectably winsome. Dwight Shrute might be a bootlicker but at least he’s good at his job. Dolores Umbridge is deplorable but she got the Hogwarts Express running on time. But this shopaholic, she’s not heroic or principled or sympathetic or smart or charming.

This is like my article on dance. I don’t understand this universe, so I hate it. But rather than rate it low, I’ll just leave it for the person it is meant for and move on.

The Books I Read: January – February 2021

bookshelf books

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
(reread)

I was watching the Netflix series Ragnarök and decided I needed to catch up on my Norse gods. It’s not Marvel’s Thor, so you can’t just wing it. You have to remember who Tyr and Fenrir are and that Frost Giants aren’t just cannon fodder to be whacked around.

It still holds up pretty well. I maintain the same opinion from my first review. One new problem I realized is that there is a lack of continuity between tales. One guy dies and is immediately resurrected in the next story. No explanation why (or ever). But that’s a symptom of a spotty written record. I don’t blame the author. It was his choice to maintain truthiness to the source. And sometimes cohesion is the cost.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

So much internal “thinking” and description of the minute details of everyone’s actions. Not enough multi-person dialogue. The main character lacks relationships with anything or anyone. You might say “well, that’s denotive of the main character, her being a robot and all. Observant of everything but never able to assimilate into it.” And I say, “Great. Why do you have to bore me with that?” People call her sarcastic, empathetic, sweet, socially awkward, but I didn’t get any of that. You know how I am with my robots–it seems they’re never written the way they should be. I might have left it unfinished if it wasn’t so short. But I won’t be reading any more in this series.

Save the Cat!: Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

It’s 90% the same as the original “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. Same beats, same outline. The only difference is that the examples are novels instead of films.

I always thought Save the Cat is a way to get “how do I make this idea into a commercial story”. And the keyword is commercial–something that will sell. Because, really, unless you can sell your story to a major publisher–someone who can get it in front of eyes–you’re just shouting into the wind.

Everyone’s looking for the magic formula to create that best-selling story, myself included. But the real magic is in the lines themselves, and there’s nothing that can help with that. Sometimes you’ve got to just build one Lego brick on top of the other.

My point is, either read this one or read Blake Snyder’s version. There’s not much difference. But I guess if you haven’t read either, and you’re aiming for novels instead of screenplays, read this one. You’ll get closer-to-home examples (and hope to god you’ve read them).

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #2)

It feels like an odd coincidence, reading this so close to A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, both of which are about large alien robots no one knows what to do about. The difference is that one is about the effect on pop culture. The other is global politics a la Godzilla/total-destruction-weapons “I’m gonna smash everything, whatcha gonna do about it?”

I wish I could say I thought of it myself, but it reminds me of what an American version of Neon Genesis Evangelion might look like. Less on the Christianity, more on the whizbang Hollywood moments (mix thoroughly) — but that’s a compliment. There’s less angst and more CSI-style character drama. But it’s still good.

The problem is, if you go into this expecting a typical mecha story, with action and team strife and missiles flying around and questions of fate vs. destiny, that’s not here. These themes are more nihilistic and “we’re all doomed because we can’t get the world to act together”.

But it’s a sequel, so if you didn’t read the first one, I don’t know why you’d read the second.

The Empire Strikes Back: From a Certain Point of View by various authors
(unfinished)

Like the first, this is an anthology of short stories. Each one is about a different side or background character in “The Empire Strikes Back” that influences or is affected by the events of the movie. For example, the imperial officer who discovers the rebel base or the tauntaun keeper on Hoth.

Short stories are a hard sell for me, and this book made me realize one additional problem to all the ones I’ve listed before: you have to learn a new guy’s backstory every ten minutes. As soon as you’re comfortable in his or her skin, you jump to a new one, and you will never see that first one again. All that information you absorbed is rendered useless.

Plus, these are all the unimportant characters. I know that’s the hook, but when your subject matter is, by definition, characters who don’t matter to the central conflict, it’s not compelling. These are all the rebels and stormtroopers whose only purpose is to get shot by lasers, upping the stakes for characters who do matter.

So that’s why I stopped reading–it was just boring. You’re either reading the internal narrative of Yoda as he sneaks up on Luke or the non-adventures of the rebel base administrator or snowspeeder pilot. The only way you’re going to get anything out of this is if you know the names Onsell and Dak.

What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong (John Dies at the End #3)

I love that macabre humor from David Wong. I’ll always say this guy deserves more accolades and notoriety for the books he writes. There are so many books that are trying to be Victorian prose and stylistic word poems and post-modern literary realism and there’s nothing for the reader that just wants a good time. Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it has value. Don’t be The Exorcist, be The Evil Dead. Books should be fun, not homework.

That said, it’s the “least good” of the JDATE books. Maybe because there are several Deus ex moments that ruin the stakes. And some plot elements that don’t fit in, don’t make sense. It’s borderline bizarro fiction, so things that don’t make sense are par for the course (like a Santa Claus made of sausages). But when they affect the consequences or challenges of characters in the narrative, when they scoop them out of trouble, that’s where I have a problem. It’s cheap to say “I set this up while I was on a drug bender where I don’t remember anything, and now it shows up to save us.”

It’s not as erratic or short attention span as the first book, but also not as cohesive and linear as the second one. It’s a mix of the two.

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #3)

To be honest, I only finished it just to complete the series, and that’s a terrible reason to read a book (but a great way to hook you into buying it–why do you think there are so many series?) I just stopped caring about the characters after the midpoint of book two. Everyone I had cared about was gone by that point.

For the first two books, we’ve been trying to figure out who these aliens are. Then they actually got to go to the alien planet to meet them… and no one cared. I mean both the Earthlings and the aliens. They’re accidentally summoned to the origin planet of the giant robots and no one knows what to do with them. They make decisions like Ents. All these big revelations about advanced science and our evolution and where the war comes from and cures for cancer and “To Serve Man” and what happens? They get put in a home in the suburbs.

They live there for twelve years and just kinda exist. Like Alf or The Munsters. All these questions linger–what do they do all day? How do they brush their teeth? What do they do all day? Do they get jobs? How do they get money? Where’s the alien Walmart? How is learning the language so easy? There are still languages on Earth we haven’t totally deciphered. But it’s more about father and daughter bickering.

I felt the same in Book 2, where they find enemy aliens in a robot and we never hear a thing about it. No one figures out their biology or culture. No anthropology or forensics on them. I would think we’d have an Independence Day or Watchmen situation, but nope, we just care about the robots. That jars me out of the story because it seems cognitively dissonantt (i.e. “I don’t think this would happen in this situation”).

Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese

Well, it’s definitely short. I read it in two days, but I only needed one.

It’s quite useful, but the problem is I had already heard most of it in a talk John Cleese gave that was recorded on YouTube. But now I can’t seem to find that talk, so at least the book preserves it for posterity.

It’s a cheerful little volume that helps you understand how to fuel creativity. It can be condensed into two phrases: “allocation of time” and “allocation of space”. You need to set aside a time and a place where you can sit and be creative. This book adds a few more details as to why this works and ways to make it work well. It’s like a long web article. But I’d say it’s worth your time. Couldn’t hurt.

Warlock: Reign of Blood by Edwin McRae
(unfinished)

I learned about LitRPG from Felicia Day’s promotion that she was narrating a book from such a genre. So I think to myself “what is this ‘LitRPG’?” I like to think I have my fingers on the pulse of today’s lit scene and that this passed me by is egregious (note that I said “I like to think”).

I thought it would be like Dungeons & Dragons but in book form. So that means you get the fun dynamics of table talk, party banter, rules changing on the fly, wacky stuff happening. Like Acquisitions, Inc. or The Adventure Zone. But as a novel.

It’s not.

At least not in this case. It’s more like they live in a world where the success of actions (like sword strikes and arrow shots) is determined by dice rolls, not skill or luck. And they know it. It doesn’t affect the narrative that much because that’s how anything in life is–coincidence and chance and how the characters react to that. It’s the author’s job to engineer that into a compelling story.

I made it 20% of the way through. The story never started–I didn’t know what the main character wanted and I didn’t care whether he got it. When making a new genre, you’ve got to keep some fundamental storytelling elements, like character and goal and stakes. Otherwise, you won’t be able to smooth out that new path without something for the reader to tread on. Like Guitar Hero–that game can be played with a controller, but that’s not very immersive. But playing with a real guitar would be too complex and not fun. So you get the hybrid toy model, and a video game phenomenon is born.

It reminded me of Wizard’s Bane or Off to Be the Wizard, where the characters are blah and have no idea what they want or what bad things happen if they don’t get it. Pretty much a male fantasy where they fight with swords and get the girl. Boring and amateur. The author seemed more concerned with the character build than who he’s with or where he’s going.

The Books I Read: March – April 2020

bookshelf books
the calculating stars mary robinette kowal
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I had never read Mary Robinette Kowal before. I admit, I’m a little green-eyed at her. She’s one of those people that can’t seem to fail at anything they do. She’s an art director, she’s a theater producer, she’s a puppeter working with Jim Henson Productions. One day she just decides “now I’ll be a writer” and immediately gets book deals and awards and becomes president of SFWA. Meanwhile, I’m writing novel after novel, trying to get published, throwing darts in the dark hoping I word vomit out something well-written and marketable.

But I digress. This is about the book. The Calculating Stars is good. It’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” plus “Hidden Figures”, with a little “The Right Stuff”.

Basic plot: in 1950, a meteor hits the Earth. In fifty years, it’s going to cause enough climate change to bring out an ice age, so if we want humanity to survive, we better get our butts into some moon colonies. The Space Race has become less about “beating the Ruskies” and more about getting the hell out of Dodge. This means lots of problem-solving and mathematics. Which might make you think it’s like The Martian, with tons of math and physics that makes it feel like a school assignment. But it’s not.

A large part of the theme is advancing feminism in a world where we need all the smart people we can get and cutting out half of them is not a wise idea. My favorite part is that it’s not like the “Strong Female Protagonist” like Captain Marvel or Erin Brockovich or Miss Congeniality. A dame who’s got no flaws (except stubbornness) who don’t need no man. This character’s married, in a happy relationship, and they’re both working together. That’s refreshing to see.

The expected trapfalls of stories like this is present though — the chauvinistic male general who disregards anything a female says, the hotshot cowboy who thinks women can’t fly, the woman who acts as anti-thesis for feminism. Characters get a little archetype-y, but they stay likable, because it’s not just “one girl against the world”. There are helpers and hurters, and each is distinct enough. We’re talking about a single character POV with a problem that’s on a global scale. Is that a little too much to shove into one book? Maybe.

I bought in. Some people might criticize it for characters that are too much like stereotypes. Or a main character whose biggest flaw is “stage fright”. When people could die by rocket explosion, and there’s only a few years to get to the “moon colony” stage of the space program, and the tension is supposed to come from public speaking? Seems like her Big Problem is being a progressive woman in a myopic world.

It has hindsight glasses on. But that didn’t make it less enjoyable for me. Especially because, like The Martian and The Right Stuff, all the science seems right, but doesn’t get in the way of the story-telling. I’ll be reading the next in the series.

the starlit wood new fairy tales
The Starlit Wood by various authors

When they say fairy tales retold, they don’t mean “Rapunzel in middle school” or “Cinderella in cyberpunk“. This is more “crank up the maturity by adding sex, drugs, and woman abuse” type of retelling. The themes are skewed toward “men are the devil, women are helpless”. The writing is parched and lifeless and bleak. “The man put a seed in her belly. She lay there while he lay on top of her and did his thing.” And I mean literally using the terms “did his thing”.

Everything screams “I AM WOMAN” and “my character is defined by my womanhood. Whether I spread my legs and let a man on top of me or a take a lover (male or female because love should be free) or I’m a woman in a man’s role. I scream womanness and I have no point beyond that but to be a woman and exist in relationship to men.”

I get that lots of fairy tales are about women suffering due to the actions of men. But when you’re revamping those tales for current sensibilities, they don’t all have to turn it on the same head. Viewing everything from the same lens is dull. Plus it makes everyone unlikable. And I certainly don’t want to read about it over and over.

Especially the female authors. They treat their stories like they’re an artsy short film–all experimental and pretentious. Some of them call it “playing with form”. I call it choosing form over function. Construct over content. Should a collection of short stories really be your experimental ground?

Oh, and two of the stories are of the “set in a world from another story I wrote” variety, and I HATE that. Making your short story as if it’s an advertisement for your other book series. No wonder short stories fell out of favor.

john hodgman medallion status
Medallion Status by John Hodgman

I guess you have to like John Hodgman a lot to appreciate it. And I don’t know why anyone would. He’s not very funny. He’s not very popular. He hasn’t lived through any great tragedies or demonstrated expertise with the written word.

From the book, it sounds like his job is being a celebrity. But a celebrity of what, you don’t know. Like Kathy Griffin or Kim Kardashian. And it’s not even a big celebrity, more like vice-vice-vice-celebrity. And the essays in this book prove that. They’re not even funny, they’re just… diverting. Agreeable.

But not fulfilling because there’s no conflict or drama here. You either get peeved at him because of his elevated status (e.g. his quest to be in the most prestigious Delta Sky Club) or tedious musings on Disneyland (celebrities are just like us!).

High concentrations of meh.

the odd 1s out
The Odd 1s Out: How to Be Cool and Other Things I Definitely Learned from Growing Up by James Rallison

Just watch his YouTube channel. It’s the same content — 75% of the essays/stories are just regurgitated, almost if not fully verbatim, from his videos. And those have the benefit of animation and comedic timing. Even one of the chapter titles still has the words “not clickbait”.

david sedaris calypso
Calypso by David Sedaris

I had never read anything by David Sedaris before, but I had heard him on This American Life several times. He has a distinct monotone that makes him a character just through his voice. And his stories always seemed interesting and funny. So before the apocalypse closed all the libraries, I grabbed this.

Like John Hodgman, he’s a celebrity, but no one knows what he’s a celebrity for. Being a writer, I guess? Like Dave Barry or Lewis Grizzard? But when the essays you produce are mostly about yourself, can you really call that fameworthy? Seems a little narcissistic to me. But I digress.

My biggest beef is that the essays sound super judgemental. Hypocritical of me to complain about someone else being judgy, I know. I like judging. But judgement should be rendered with the right criteria, and for the right reasons. Not petty superficial ones that damn a region or race instead of individual behavior.

His writings have a background of disdain for America. He’s very into criticizing anything that’s not European or his beach house in North Carolina. Except for when those towns and states fund his lecture tour.

He has a dark streak that’s hard to describe. He’s like a George Carlin that’s too lazy to get off the couch. There’s no vitriol or irony, but the same disdain for poor language, travel, and stupid people. In one chapter, he gives an iPad to a sick kid in the hospital. But in another, he makes it his mission to feed his exsected tumor to a wild turtle for… reasons? He even went to extra effort to have a black market medical procedure done for this purpose. There’s something about a character who would take the trouble to do that that makes me ill.

I wish one of his other collections has been at the library that day, like Me Talk Pretty One Day. This book, his latest, sounds he’s taken the turn of old age, losing hope and gaining cynicism.

beat the band don calame
Beat the Band by Don Calame

This is a direct sequel to the first, except this one takes the POV of the group’s Stifler.

There’s a reason that Stifler is a secondary character in the American Pie series and not one of the main four/three. You can only take him in small doses. As comic relief, he’s not supposed to learn anything or grow. The Stifler in American Pie is the Stifler in American Wedding (I didn’t see American Reunion). He’s the trickster, the shapeshifter. He challenges the status quo. He’s the foul-mouthed friend with the crazy schemes. He’s a little bit the enemy — how far will he drag his friends down to pursue his own self-interests?

And you’re going to make a novel about him?

I almost quit in the beginning. Cooper is chauvinistic in a way that doesn’t mesh with 2020 culture. He’s the same character as the last book–obsessed with who’s cool and who’s not. Staring at boobs. Making constant sex jokes and double entendres. Wanting to get with the hotties and naught with the notties. Trying to prove he’s a macho man, almost to the point where he’s a bully. Spending more time and effort avoiding work than actually doing the work. And wanting to bone everything in sight, even if that’s not how teenagers are.

But…

It gets better. The big conflict is that, for his Health class project, he’s paired with a “persona non grata” girl. All he’s worried about is how this will affect his reputation and how to either get out of it or do as little work as possible. And as you’d expect, Coop’s journey is him learning to see women as people instead of weird objects indicative of status and pleasure. And that there are more important things than how you are seen by other people. And I guess I’m a sucker for that kind of story, as that was a common trope in during my teen years (e.g. The Outsiders, She’s All That, American Pie 2, Carrie, Harry Potter). If you can get used to the constant sex references, there’s a decent story in here–a romance and a comedy.

Most times when I read a sequel, I usually don’t have much to say. My oft-repeated tagline is “If you’ve read the first one you’ve probably already decided whether or not you’ll read the second one.” But in this case they’re different books. The first has a butt-monkey as the main character and this one stars the “jerk with a heart of gold”. You don’t need to read the first one, but why not? They’re both good books.

the dutch house ann patchett
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Okay, so first, this is a damn ugly cover.

Second, this is not my typical fare. I read this because my wife was reading it for book club, and I really didn’t have anything new. I had finished everything I picked up from the library for quarantine and all my “to read” books were still on hold at the library. She couldn’t stop talking about how much she hated the last book (Judy Blundell’s The High Season), so I decided to join her this time so I could sympathize and relate. That’s what good husbands do, you know.

Second, my copy had a stupid little “ReadWithJenna” sticker on it and I had to look up what that was. Apparently, the Jenna is Jenna Bush. As in former president George W. Bush’s daughter. Apparently, she’s trying to copy Oprah with talk shows and media correspondence, even down to the book club. I’ll tell you, anything recommended by something that sprang from dubya’s loins already has a strike against it. I don’t need to be told what books to read by someone who’s half-Kathie Lee Gifford and half-political darling. Plus the last time I read a book with a book club sticker, it was “Wild”.

The beginning feels erratic. You don’t get a sense of what the book is going to be about. It’s stream-of-consciousnessy, jumping from one thing to another. My writing advice says that, by the first chapter, you should know what the story is about, but I didn’t feel that way by chapter two or three. It was just setting and exposition. Nothing was happening. Nothing was giving me something to make me say “Boy, I can’t wait to read the next chapter of The Dutch House“. And that’s kind of how the whole thing is.

I mean, it’s well-written and it tells a good narrative, so you get a good book. It’s like oatmeal. Mild and bland. No surprises. No innovations. No risks.

The main conflict comes from what I call “rich white asshole problems”, and these are common in post-modern literature, especially the ones I don’t usually finish or like (examples: Final Girls by Riley Sager, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Dawkins). These two baby boomer kids live a huge old mansion in New England. Their father, although emotionally stunted, is still there and a rich real estate mogul. But they’re mostly raised by two housekeeper/cooks. Then the father marries a shrew and they get two stepsiblings. When the dad suddenly dies, she kicks the kids out and keeps the house and money. What do the kids do? They sit in a car outside the Dutch House and smoke cigarettes and grouse. Then they find out they get a trust fund, but only for education. So the older sister “gets revenge” by making the brother go to medical school and draining the trust from the shrew’s kids. But while attending free medical school, the brother is buying buildings because he wants to become a New York real estate handler like his father.

And you see how it’s hard to relate or sympathize with these characters when you’re a grocery store manager living paycheck to paycheck in 2020 and you just saw an off-duty cop shoot your neighbor for jogging while black and it gets no news coverage.

But I still give it three stars, and this is where I need to explain my rating system. When I think of how to rate a book out of five, I think “Okay, pretend you’re going to a desert island. But you can bring as many books as you want. Would this be one of those books?” If so, I always rate it three stars or above. If not, it should be two or one.

My first instinct was to give it two stars, because of my system. I would not want to read this again. It gave me no emotional reaction. Like I said before, it’s oatmeal. But on the other hand, it’s high quality oatmeal. And I think giving it less than three stars does a disservice to the craftsmanship behind it. I mean, it was a book I didn’t have to read. I could have stopped at any time, but I didn’t.

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: 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: March – April 2019

bookshelf books
scott lynch lies of locke lamora
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

It took a little effort to get into it, but it’s worth it. The writing style is sharp, funny. The narrative jumps around a little–both in setting and time–making it difficult to latch on. Like trying to ride a wild fire hose. And there’s a lot of world-building that has to occur. But once you get past that, this book is on par with The Name of the Wind. And that’s a damn good book.

At first I was intimidated by its long length. But it’s worth it. You get really invested in the characters. (Minus points for having so few women). And it’s fun as hell to follow a main character who’s a cad and a thief, not a noble hero. But he’s still loyal to his friends and never acts unfairly. And unlike The Name of the Wind, it’s not so much a series of vignettes but a plot that tapers down then weaves up everything back together. So in some ways, it’s even better. It reminded me a lot of the world of Dishonored. But whereas the tie-in books for that are churned-out junk, this is the kind of world-building, atmosphere, and character development we’re all looking for. Don’t get me wrong, it’s less assassins and more Errol Flynn.

One of the few flaws is that it gets pretty complex. Everyone’s got two, maybe three identities going at one time. But it’s not much harder than following the MCU–who everyone is, what their roles are. Some people might think it takes a while to get to the good stuff. I say there’s good stuff up front, and better stuff as it goes along.

This is a slow burn novel. It takes its time with character development and puts plot-building in the background. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t tension and wanting to learn more. I personally like books that hinge on the relationship between characters and how those dynamics affect what happens next. In fact, I’m writing one right now (so maybe I’m biased).

dungeons and dragons player's handbook
Player’s Handbook by Wizards of the Coast

Well, it’s what you expect–a standard manual for playing Dungeons & Dragons. As I understand it, version 5.0 simplified many of the rules from previous editions. I don’t have any frame of reference, but I’ve played Pathfinder, which is based on D&D 3.5 and can vouch for that.

This is both good and bad. It allows the players more freedom, more imagination to do and go where they want. And obviously, this has its other side of the coin too, which you’d know if you subscribe to the RPGhorrorstories subreddit (quick clue: It’s not about RPGs like Vampire: The Masquerade or Call of Cthulu). So that means the game is easier to play without a bunch of implements, like minis and maps. You could play it around a campfire. There’s a bigger focus on storytelling than Pathfinder. But that means it’s missing the mechanics that make combat so fun, like flanking and combat manuveur damage.

As a book itself, it’s very beautiful. The art is spot on and the charts are easy to read. The text gets fairly dense, and it’s not as subdivided in the general categories as I would like (meaning, I would like things to be sectionalized more for easy lookup). And don’t forget to read the disclaimer in the front.

So if you thought previous D&Ds were too combat heavy, you might be into this. Otherwise, I suggest Pathfinder.

philip reeve no such thing as dragons
No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve

I got this recommended from a list of straight sword-and-sworcery fantasy novels.

There is too much of what I call “scenery porn”. That’s when the author spends a lot of describing the trees and the forests and the desolate wind and the chilly night air and the warm fireplace. They have long passages of what the character sees. It’s so obviously filler, meant to establish mood and atmosphere. But it stops the plot dead to rights. Especially in a rural setting like this. I know what a friggin’ forest looks like, ya see me?

It’s unfortunate because the plot is fairly interesting. The two are shysters who go into towns which think they have a dragon bringing bad luck. Then they go and “kill it” and collect the reward. Because everyone knows dragons don’t exist… OR DO THEY? And if you’re smart you’ve guessed the plot by now.

It’s somewhat satisfying to read, but it’s also a plot I’ve seen many times before, and ends in no special way. That plus the scenery porn means it’s entirely skippable.

ellie kemper my squirrel days
My Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper

I had just finished The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, one of the funniest and more inspiring TV series that I’ve ever seen. I picked this up because of it, but this book has barely any content from that part of her life.

I imagine I would have hated Ellie Kemper in school. She seems to be the type of girl that always gets what she goes after with no meaningful obstacles or weaknesses. She wants to be a comedian, so she takes a few improv classes and bam, she’s in the top touring troupe, auditioning for Saturday Night Live. She wants to be an actress so bam, she’s on The Office (which I didn’t even know). She wants to see squirrels from her treehouse so she can pretend she’s a Disney Princess, she waits hours, motionless… and the squirrels come up to her.

Reminds me of Student Council students in high school. The ones who complain how tired they are… when they’re the ones who signed up for a hundred activities in the first place.

So we come to the problem of a biography/memoir that stars a person with no conflict in their life. Whatever Ellie Kemper wanted to be, she became. Wife, actress, goofball, friend. Fortunately, when you read the auto-bio of a comedian, at least it’s funny even if the material is boring. And this one is. I’m surprised how much of Kimmy Schmidt is in Ellie Kemper, if what she puts on paper is who she is in life. Even if there’s not much about The Incredible Kimmy Schmidt, it feels like the book was written by her.

It’s cute, maybe overly so, but the stories are good. It’s better than Anna Kendrick‘s, but worse than Lindsey Stirling‘s.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
(unfinished)

I’ve never read a short story collection from anyone other than Stephen King. And I still haven’t.

I read the first two stories, including the titular one. Then I decided that, if this is what the rest of the content is like, no thank you. I don’t need to read about asshole people doing asshole things. Got enough of that in my life.

Moreover it’s about asshole women doing asshole things, in ways which are misogynistic and “yeah, but women too…” The first story is about a gender studies professor sleeping with a one night stand. She’s a proper woman, all third wave and professional. And she gets drunk and almost sleeps with her uber driver… who lied to her to get into her pants. What is it trying to say? I don’t know, but I sure didn’t feel good about the representation of women after reading it.

The second is about a married woman who falls in love with a married man because they bond over her bitchiness. She wants to sleep with him, she obssesses over him, ready to break her family apart over it. He rejects her, and then he turns out to be an asshole anyway. And it makes the woman look like the bad guy–victim to desires, making bad decisions.

I thought one story like that might be an outlier. But two in a row like that? No thanks.

eric idle always look on the bright side of life
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle

I’m of two minds about this book. On one side, it’s a dull narrative of celebrity encounters. He tries to be humble about hanging out with rock stars like the Rolling Stones, the Star Wars cast, various Beatles, and all the various women and drugs he did and slept with.

On the other, it’s Eric Idle, one of the leading Monty Pythons. A progenitor of modern humor. Is it witty? Intelligent? British? Charmingly droll? Most definitely.

I figure, unless you’re a Monty Python fan, there isn’t a lot you’ll get out of this book. But you won’t know who Eric Idle is unless you’re a Monty Python fan anyway. So the question becomes, will you enjoy it if you are?

And the answer’s yes. It’s not a quick book, and there isn’t much about Monty Python therein. It includes the origins and the aftermath though. And really, you’ve probably already seen all that Behind the Scenes already, so there’s no need to repeat it. There sure is a lot about his relationship with the book’s title. One could say it’s partly about that famous song as much as its author. Ellie Kemper’s biography was a little punchier, but not as much stuff in it.

The Books I Read: January – February 2019

bookshelf books
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
(unfinished)

Too cutesy, too moralistic, and it kept running on. I felt like nothing important happened. It’s all stuff I’ve seen before in “little animal befriends a human” stories, like The Littles or The Secret World of Arietty or Stuart Little or any other of the various children’s books I’ve read to my offspring.

It’s slow. I was constantly yelling at the book to get on with it. Especially cause the formula was so predictable. I could see it checking off boxes as the narrative went on. Too much set-up, not enough plot.

I couldn’t figure out why the book was so popular. It seems to rival The Mouse and the Motorcycle. But it felt like any other middle-of-the-road book. Maybe it had good marketing. But I got enough Ned Flanders-style writing in Because of Winn-Dixie.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
(unfinished)

I stopped 50% – 60% of the way through. Just didn’t want to finish it. Someone told me if you’re not wholly in love with the book you’re reading, you should stop. There are plenty of other books out there. And this one didn’t spark joy.

Disclosure: I’ve never seen Marie Kondo

I try my best to get through these award winners and classics, but they’re always drab and dry. The POV is a peasant boy, so he has no great vocabulary. The narrative stark and emotionless (maybe it’s supposed to be because he’s little better than a slave). And everything is historically accurate so the prose gets dry and boring.

But the key was that I couldn’t care about anyone. It took forever for supporting characters to enter the story. And they kept me going for a little, but I didn’t care if the kid lived or died. I read the Wikipedia entry to find out the ending, and I missed nothing.

The big revelation, you can see from a mile away (think Jon Snow). But then he doesn’t even use it! After all those pages about being dirt poor and not being able to eat meat, and he’d rather be a traveling peasant when he could be a baron or lord. I thought the ending would result in his taking the power on to change the ways things were. But nope, he pusses out. Not my kind of hero.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Eh, I guess it’s fine. It’s short anyway.

A woman who doesn’t want to be a proper princess leaves the castle. She wants to learn fencing and performing, but they won’t let her. So she finds some dragons to capture her as a fair maiden. The kind you rescue if any male in this story was capable. What this really means is she becomes a maid, doing dragon stuff like polishing the gold hoard, making breakfast, and handling appointments. So much for feminism.

To be honest, I didn’t think there was much there. Not enough to recommend it. It’s got a few funny moments, but I find comedy in books comes greatly from the absurd. And this isn’t it.

I think this might even be more of a prequel or setup to some other book. I like my stories with a little more substance than twee charm. Like Diana Wynne Jones lite. Nothing seemed to matter to anyone. It was just a few trite “stronger princess than prince” jokes. As if fairy tale maidens have never broken the mold before.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier

A collection of stories about video games and how they got made. It doesn’t take for them to get samey. Company wants to make a game. It takes longer than they think. It costs more than they think. They work ninety hour weeks, beg for deadline extensions, and then release it. Game is a hit. Then they all go and do it again. I’m reminded of a George Carlin bit my dad liked:

“You know when you’ve been eating ice cream too fast and you get that frozen spot in the back of your throat but you can’t do anything about it because you can’t reach it to rub it? You just have to kinda wait for it to go away? And it does… then what do you do? EAT MORE ICE CREAM!”

At times it almost sounds like propaganda for the video game industry. There are no tales of when it all fell apart or everything was cancelled and dreams were destroyed (except one). He glosses over the lay-offs and misses those times when they just lock the doors and fire everyone. I bet he lifted from stories he’s written on Kotaku, so he didn’t have much work after that.

I don’t think it’s a well-balanced look at the crunch video games are famous for. And really, I don’t think it’s telling us anything we don’t already know–that working conditions for video game makers are horrible. I think you’re better off subscribing to a video game news feed.

The Company of Death by Elisa Hansen
(unfinished)

I wanted to read this book because Elisa Hansen is the Maven of the Eventide–a youtuber specializing in vampire media. And friend to Lindsay Ellis, who I’ve talked about before.

But the book has a fatal flaw–amateur writing. There are adverbs everywhere. There are long sentences. There are pacing problems. So much telling. Bad dialogue to narrative ratio. It’s like the stuff I read from people putting their novels up for critique.

This is a flaw that can be fixed over time, but it won’t be fixed in this text, so I decided to stop (see previous comment on joy sparking). There is charm there, and the content sounds plenty promising (there’s a zombie apocalypse at the same time as a vampire horde takeover). And if you can get past the writing style, maybe this is the book for you. Maybe I’m not the right audience for it.

But right away, I could tell this is an issue book (fair disclosure, I’m probably biased because I knew as much going in–I follow her on Twitter and saw how this book came about). And that issue is asexuality.

It’s a topic I don’t know much about it but was hoping to learn. Hansen herself identifies as asexual. I don’t understand it, but I was looking forward to learning about it in this book. But I couldn’t get past the beginning. Sorry Elisa.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I was going on vacation for a week (a Disney cruise). I did not bring my Kindle, because I thought it would be too sunny to read or I wouldn’t have time. I didn’t bring anything to read on the plane. And they don’t make SkyMall anymore.

So I had to quickly peruse the selection in one of those airport kiosks. Lots of spy/CIA/political thrillers, romances, and “going home” books. No science-fiction or fantasy. The reason I picked this is because A) it advertised humor and satire (specifically using the term “beach read”) B) I remembered seeing the trailer for this. If someone turned it into a movie, it must have at least a moving plot, right?

I was most afraid of it being quirky chick-lit. You know the kind, where the main character is always an attractive professional woman who just can’t land a man. Her friend is a sassy bartender or gay guy. And it’s all about careers, shopping, and other stuff Sex & the City already covered. But it’s not. It’s more of a family-style novel, like an ABC dramedy.

The plot is hard to describe. Its mood is ambivalent even, but the humor makes up for it. The key plot point forms the third act. Before that, all of the first two acts are epistolary. I kind of frown on epistolary because it’s an easy way to get world-building, and plot out there without narration. It’s a novel of all dialogue. The best part is the main antagonist–a nosy oblivious suburban mom who puts that one busybody in Donnie Darko to shame.

This isn’t my normal faire, so it’s hard to judge it using my perspective. I know I enjoyed it. I’m a little miffed at some of the shots it takes at Microsoft (and that’s saying a lot, because I’m a software engineer) and there are some things that don’t make sense. Like one of the things is Samantha 2, which is an incredible invention that [SPOILER REDACTED] and Microsoft cancels it. Not even they could fail to see the money-making opportunities, especially when the CEO invented poo water.

I think the theming was more about a woman’s need to be unexpectable vs. the expectations placed on her being a “normal” mother. It’s not going to be taught in any future curriculum, but hey, sometimes you need a beach read.

Dungeon Master Guide by Mike Mearls

Well, there’s really no sense to review this one. It is what it says on the tin. What surprises me is how much information in the DMG is already covered in the Player’s Handbook (which I’m in the middle of now).

But as for whether you’re going to read it? Well, it is a pretty book. Lots of cool pictures. Nice tables. After five revisions, I imagine they’ve got the technical documents down to a science. I just wish it wasn’t so expensive.

The Books I Read: September – October 2018

bookshelf books

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

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

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

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

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

john scalzi the dispatcher
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

landry news andrew clements
The Landry News by Andrew Clements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lila bowen wake of vultures
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Books I Read: 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.