The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: July – August 2022

bookshelf books

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The thing I like about this book is the world-building. It gives you a good picture of what it’s like to be a prey animal. Anyone writing a fantasy novel where there are “cannon fodder” beings like grunts, goblins, or kobolds should read at least part of this book to understand what their society is like. What is the pecking order when everyone and everything can kill you and the only thing you can have dominance over is yourselves.

But I stopped when I’d been reading for about three weeks and was still less than 50% finished. It’s just too long. It’s written in a 70s stuffy English style that probably worked back then. The prose is so dense that it takes way too long to get to any story event. I should be looking forward to reading each night, but it eventually became “Aw, man, I gotta keep reading Watership Down?” That’s a big red flag that you need to stop. It felt like the story would never end.

My favorite part was the interstitial fables but those weren’t the point of the story. Once they’d actually found Watership Down, the big conflict went away. Then the problems were trying to befriend the other little woodland creatures. Without the big tangible goal, I stopped caring about the characters anymore. Little defenseless Fiver faded away, big tough Bigwig wasn’t so tough. If I want to become an author, I need to focus my attention on best sellers — seeing what makes them tick, what gets them sold. Classics are the exception to the rule.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve come to the conclusion that a Kurt Vonnegut novel is like a music album from an artist that never changes their formula e.g. AC/DC or Red Hot Chili Peppers. You know what an AC/DC album is going to sound like. You know what RHCP’s next single is going to sound like (and it’s probably going to involve California). That’s not a bad thing — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Kurt Vonnegut is like that, like a music album more than a story. There are other authors like that too, but Vonnegut is so embossed that his style outshines any other part of the book. He’s not necessarily a storymaker, so much as a style. You’ve read one Kurt Vonnegut story, you know what the others are going to offer. There won’t necessarily be a linear plot or characters you like, but there will be a technique, a voice. Something that’s got a form that can’t really be described. And it’s popular because it’s something different. This is not a slight against Vonnegut, just a description.

It’s so stream-of-consciousness that I wasn’t sure where the story actually started. The plot meanders all over the place so that you’re not so much reading a story as you’re reading Kurt Vonnegut’s brain. Dwayne was a car dealer. Car dealers sell Corvettes. I once had a Corvette. I drove the Corvette up a mountain. The mountain did not like this. “Ouch,” said the mountain. It’s like a four-year-old telling you his dream, but amped up to the composure of an adult.

As far as I can tell, it’s a satirical indictment of capitalism. But with a non-linear story sustained long enough, it all becomes a mess, and I found myself getting distracted while reading because there was nothing to hang onto. It was like a painting that’s a swirl of colors that might seem pretty, but there’s nothing for my eye to rest on.

Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Expert Advice to Bring Authenticity to Your Fantasy Writing edited by Dan Kolboldt

It’s some pretty standard non-fiction. Each essay is only a few pages long, but none of them will really help you make that novel about your Dungeons and Dragons games more realistic. It’s more there to give you ideas on what to think about when writing certain aspects. Or to check yourself before you wreck yourself (i.e. bust some common myths). There are overviews on medieval life and things that people get wrong. And it gives you some suggestions for lesser-used options in fantasy, such as 900 A.D. Mesopotamia or Black Vikings. I guess I’m glad I read it, but don’t pick it up thinking “Oh, this is going to write my novel for me.”

Verity by Colleen Hoover

This novel is about how important communication is in a relationship.

So like I said, I need to focus on bestsellers. And there’s five Colleen Hoover novels in the NYT list right now. Actually, I took a look at this while searching for comps for Replaneted, came upon this, and thought it looked interesting. Apparently, this is darker fare than Hoover’s usual romcoms. Probably others will berate me for starting with this, but I liked it just fine.

It starts morbidly with some pretty graphic descriptions of a man’s head getting crushed in a traffic accident. I guess that’s the litmus test–if you can take that, you can take the rest of the novel. Not that the rest of the novel is about gross Troma-esque head explodies. But it digs into some pretty sick stuff.

It’s like an updated version of Bronte-esque novels with a wealthy man who has a big secret, living in an isolated mansion, giving gobs of money to some nobody for some reason. In addition to the Brontes, I got strong Gone Girl vibes as well. This is a sexually charged thriller, maybe more sexually charged than I like, but I guess that’s Colleen Hoover’s signature move. The story itself has nothing new–it feels like part of a Tales from the Crypt-like anthology, something episodic, especially when it gets to the end (in terms of absurd cliches). It’s full of intense emotions (as a thriller should), but also treads no new territory.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Apparently, this guy is a big deal in the book world. He wrote “A Man Called Ove”, which is supposed to be a fan favorite, but I’ve never read it.

The cover of this book says that it’s a comedy. But the problem is that, in a book, you lose the element of timing, which is CRUCIAL to telling a joke. A joke without timing is like a pasta salad without pasta. Also, I think some of these jokes might work better in Swedish (“How’s tricks?”) and I don’t envy the work the translator had to do. But nothing makes me laugh anyway, so don’t judge me on that.

But overall, it’s a good job all around. The style of storytelling is what’s crucial here. It reminds me of a Wes Anderson movie. It’s like the story is told “around the plot”, if that makes any sense. Imagine a guy at a shooting range who shoots an outline around the target. It’s an impressive feat, but you still haven’t hit the guy.

But I did get invested and that’s because the characters are very relatable. They each suffer from some form of anxiety so you get equal parts comedy and drama, which I think lots of writers miss. They write strictly one or the other. So in dramas, no one makes a joke, no one attempts to be funny. But in reality, people make jokes all the time, especially in serious situations. They’re always trying to be comedy relief because that’s the kind of person who’s likable. And that’s who all these characters are. This would make a good quirky play — there’s a strong set of characters and they all have good characterization scenes. Good for an ensemble cast.

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir

Imagine just the reality show portion of The Hunger Games (the part with Cesar Flickerman and Katniss whining how she’s not pretty enough, then nailing it on camera). Expand that out and put it in today’s reality (in other words, something non-science fiction and non-post-apocalyptic). There’s a Peeta, there’s a Katniss, and there’s a Cesar who’s actually more like a Katniss who survived the games.

This is a grimdark look at families who exploit their kids for “reality TV” and evangelical religion. You are not going to feel happy while reading this, but you will be fascinated. Like when you see a car wreck or a fail video or… or, well, a reality show.

Essie belongs to a highly evangelical family that also produces a reality show. Imagine “19 Kids and Counting“, but it’s Joel Osteen. (I know *shudder*). If that wasn’t bad enough, Essie is now sixteen and pregnant (what, is she trying to audition for another reality show?) and it’s decided that she needs to have a quickie marriage so that A) the show can keep going and B) the family doesn’t lose its rep for wholesome Christian moral values.

The story rotates between three POVs. One is Essie’s, who has a plan to use this pregnancy to get out of the reality show game and bring her family down at the same time (but she won’t tell us how). Another is Roarke, the one picked to serve as her underage husband. The third is someone named Liberty Bell, the journalist Essie has chosen to give the exclusive story of her marriage to. Liberty Bell was once involved in a QAnon cult Bundy standoff-like situation that resulted in the death of her sister.

As you can tell, all these characters are built around an “issue”. But the story has trouble holding up the characters. You mostly read to find out information that the author is purposefully keeping from you to build tension (i.e. Essie knows who the father is obviously, but doesn’t tell us when it’s in her POV). Liberty’s story doesn’t have much to do with the main story–it’s more of a subplot that relates to the themes. It’s a C-story, and you know those only exist when the writers need to pad the running time. The themes therein are already stuff we know–about the hypocrisy of modern celebrity, the selfishness of fame. It’s basically about Karens, but at least they get theirs in the end.

The Books I Read: May – June 2022

bookshelf books

Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

Well, it delivers what it promises–it’s a cozy story with little danger or tension. It’s just about a female orc who builds a coffee shop from scratch. People are skeptical at first, as anyone would be when a giantess wants to start a small business instead of eat babies. But everyone loves it. She encounters troubles but they’re all minor–a complaining customer here, a gang boss who wants a cut there. But everyone falls in love with her and wins them over. Like a DCOM but without attempts at funny.

It doesn’t go into much detail around the world-building–it seems very based on World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons. All the material is G-rated (no disembowelments). But it’s kinda neat how the author integrates fantasy elements into Starbucks (e.g. the cappucino machine is a steam-powered gnome invention) and I personally like reading fantasy that’s not a doorstop epic. I hate how the publishing industry thinks they all have to be world-building bricks like Mistborn or Song of Ice and Fire. It taught me an important lesson on how important stakes are in a story.

Do I recommend it? I’m not sure. I’d say to try an excerpt–that’s what I did. I didn’t exactly fall in love, but I was intrigued, especially as someone who likes to write this kind of material.

Under the Dragon’s Tail (Murdoch Mysteries #2) by Maureen Jennings

My wife got into a show called Murdoch Mysteries, a cozy Canadian mystery show that takes place in 1900. Then she got our kids into it (we have strange kids). So I often have to hear the dinner talk with the detective and coroner’s relationship, the lieutenant’s quest for a promotion, the gruff police chief’s drinking habits, etc. It’s a pretty good show if you like Castle or Monk or The Mentalist and so on. But it started as a book series, so I thought I’d check that out.

The book is quite different. Like you’ve probably gathered from other reviews, it’s grim and gritty, not shirking from the terrible dirty parts of living at the turn of the century–disease, child abuse, orphans, classism, lack of women’s rights, etc. Themes circle issues you can’t deal with on nice Canadian TV. For example, in the TV series, they’ve, through necessity of the cases (and the necessity of the writers probably) accidentally created things like the polygraph and night vision goggles and luminol. In the book, he’s struggling to stop from masturbating he’s an adult male Catholic.

I’m not sure people who like the series will like this, especially if they have delicate sensibilities (for example, this one has a lot of abortion and “promiscuous women” and child death). They are two different things–much like Song of Ice and Fire vs. Game of Thrones. Or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories vs. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. I liked it, but that’s because I can separate Book Murdoch from Television Murdoch.

However, I don’t think I’d read any other books in the series. It lacks what makes the TV show charming (Murdoch’s boyish curiosity, the strong female presence, the anachronistic plots like the “Wrestlemania” one). If I need grim and gritty detective novels, there are plenty of others I can go to. Frankly, I’m surprised whoever created this show found a kernel of what it became. But shrug.

Demon Kissed (The Summoner’s Mark Book 1) by J.D. Blackrose

To start, this is very oriented toward the female audience. It reminded me of Legends and Lattes in that A) the stakes are too low and B) it’s a slice-of-life kind of book. But unlike Legends and Lattes, it never promised low stakes from the get-go.

The story has trouble getting started. I don’t care if the characters aren’t really creative or lifted straight from other urban fantasies, but that means the plot has to be original. And here–there’s nothing new under the sun.

It’s another story where a typical woman is the chosen one but she doesn’t want her power but gets dragged into using it. She likes a guy but can’t get her life together because she keeps making bad decisions.

It’s those bad decisions that will turn me off from a book faster than anything. Your characters don’t have to be good, they don’t have to be smart, but they do have to be competent. And not just do things because the story demands it.

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace

When I rewatched this film recently I noticed it was based on a book, which piqued my delight. It’s all about storytellers and storytelling, about the urbane fantastic and tall tales, so it’s one of my favorite movies. It turns out the adaption is nearly “in name only”, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad.

The bare bones are there but 1) There are many many elements that don’t show up in the movie but do in the book and vice versa and 2) the mediums translate to two totally different executions. In the movie, there’s a framing device where the son is attending to his dying father who he’s resented all his life for telling these stories and being an attention-hog/liar. The book is pretty much just these stories–no framing device. It’s like a collection or anthology of tall tales about his dad’s life.

They are somewhat less colorful but there are more of them. For example, there is no wolfman-ringmaster in the book. Not even a circus. The old woman’s eye is there, but the circumstances are much less scary than presented in the movie. Tim Burton peeled away the book to its core, then added his own style to it.

But both are chock full of content from the anecdotes and tall tales and stories, like in the movie. The only difference is the movie remixes them. It’s like adapting a video game to a movie–you can make all the changes you want as long as it stays true to the spirit of what made the original great (e.g. Silent Hill, Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog). And that’s the case here.

Still Just A Geek: An Annotated Memoir by Wil Wheaton

The concept behind it alone is intriguing–not writing a second memoir, but going back to something written eighteen years ago–after three different presidents, upheavals in the cultural zeitgeist, advancements in LGBTQ rights, regressions in women’s rights, Twitter. After nearly two decades, going back to the first thing you published (autobiographical no less) and giving notes is unique.

Just the fact that it’s an examination of old words gives a chance to see how one’s mentality changes with a little maturity and shift in perspective. What I’m saying is don’t just dismiss this as a capitalistic opportunity to re-release an already written work without much overhead. In the introduction, Wheaton says that he wrote this to demo how he’s grown and changed as a person and a writer.

The problem is that he makes all new flubs.

The footnotes come in three categories: “My parents were assholes”, “I’m sorry for making a sexist/ableist/racist joke here”, and riffs on the material. They tend to go on too long, making a six-hour book into a ten-hour book. He has no compunction about pointing out the mistakes he’s made in the past. But at a certain point, it starts to get grating, uber-liberalistic, apologistic, and so “woke culture” that it makes even a progressive like me wince. Another thing, he keeps saying his parents were abusive and gaslighted him in his youth, but never gives evidence as to what they did. It’s like an essay with no evidence in the middle. I’m sure he’s telling the truth, but he just tells us, doesn’t show us.

Like I said, it’s not like “Oh, this book was the greatest, I’m just going to re-release it with extra material”. It’s more like “look what I’ve learned about writing now”. But I’d rather see that in a new book, not a revised and expanded memoir. Nonetheless, it’s no small task revisiting old work and seeing how cringe it is.

Abomination by Gary Whitta

Who’s Gary Whitta? Why, he’s a screenwriter (The Book of Eli, After Earth, Star Wars: Rogue One), video game writer, and comic book writer turned novelist, which is my favorite kind of author (see Peter David and Neil Gaiman). What does this mean? It means don’t expect a boring book.

And this isn’t one. Right from the start, we are summoning demons in medieval times, hooking you right away like any decent book ought to do. We’ve got good noble warrior characters, bad evil zealots and sorcerers, and a clear objective. It’s basically the story of the Punisher if the mafia were demons and if King Arthur was Captain America (if that makes any sense).

It’s a simple story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good story. The biggest problem, like most novels, is that there’s a sludgy middle where there’s lots of thinking and description. Then it speeds up at the end. This is the first time I’ve noticed the pacing of a novel and it’s upsetting. But it’s still a good book. I recommend giving it a try.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

I got this because I really loved The Final Girl Support Group and wanted to read more from the same author. This might be better than TFGSG, but be warned it’s a different style. TFGSG was a thriller. This is more modern chicklit/true crime.

The story is that a vampire moves into a house in a nice suburban neighborhood in South Carolina where everyone’s safe. This is not a spoiler, it’s pretty obvious the guy’s a vampire when the first meeting is him laying in bed in the middle of the day, emaciated.

But the subtext of the story is that a serial killer has moved in next door, and this comes from all the true stories of people like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy who acted like nice guys but were really monsters underneath. It preys on that fear that not everyone is who they appear to be, that you never truly know a person. The fear that might be a psychopath playing with your kids at the neighborhood barbecue. You know, basically everything you see on the Lifetime channel.

But it’s fascinating to see a writer as versatile as this. I think I’m going to check out even more of his stuff because he has a knack for story-telling I haven’t seen in a long time. Not to mention his genre-blending skills are right in my wheelhouse.

The Books I Read: November – December 2021

bookshelf books

Truth of the Divine (Noumena #2) by Lindsay Ellis

This is the second book by Lindsay Ellis, famed (now ex-)YouTube video essayist, which continues the story of Cora–a young woman who made first contact with a set of very uncommunicative aliens. One in particular (Ampersand) and she have some kind of bond that’s hard to explain but is essentially love-based-on-shared-traumatic experience.

Well, in the second one, the aliens are just as uncommunicative to the point of maddening. Don’t get me wrong, the beginning is strong. Cora is experiencing some severe PTSD from the first book, having A) failed to save a baby alien B) gone through this horrific adventure of chases and escapes C) been eviscerated then put back together. But Ampersand is here to make her feel better. She’s currently working for the CIA getting the aliens to communicate and share information about what other interstellar entities might be coming. Yet, they apparently don’t pay her and she still lives in poverty.

I would call it a political science-fiction thriller. It’s largely about the public discovery of aliens and how everyone reacts (spoiler: not well, as this novel is colored by Trump-era covid wash so it’s not exactly a “Men In Black” romp). Ellis has improved on her prose–there are fewer clunky phrases like “It was a manual car with a stick shift.” She’s improved on her story structure and characterization (both new and old). But she hasn’t improved on brevity. Since it’s first person POV, there is a lot of “thinking”.

It didn’t make me cry like the others claimed to have because it’s less about the Transformers-style love story. In fact, Ampersand is largely absent from this volume. And when he’s around he’s even more taciturn, worse than a Jane Austen male protagonist, which makes the book frustrating. Basically, he’s being a total bitch. This is a dark book (as far as relationships go), and its more about psychological trauma and trying to be a valid human being when that casts a pall on everything you do and are.

So if you’re coming here to see more of the alien-human romance, you’re going to be disappointed. If you looking for more “what are the politics of aliens coming to America”, then this is what you’re looking for.

Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies by Derek Delgaudio

Like a lot of people, I came to Derek Delgaudio from his Hulu special “In and Of Itself“. It’s part magic show, part stand-up, part TED talk and everyone on Twitter was talking about it. I loved every second. So of course, I looked to see if there was more. And this was it.

This is more of a memoir–a tale of how he grew up and became a sleight-of-hand master. But Derek Delgaudio cannot be defined because he’s both a walking contradiction and an antiquity. A likable liar. A loveable cad. Neil Gaiman said that “magic (like fiction) means someone stands up on stage and says ‘I am going to lie to you’ and you accept the lie because you want to.”

Fortunately, this book isn’t as “pull the wool over your eyes”. Probably because it’s harder to do card tricks in the written word. But also because you probably want to figure out how such a man exists. It’s all about truth vs. lies, who plays who, who can you trust. He can do with words what he does in his special.

This book expounds on the details he touches on in his special, like his lesbian fire-fighting mother and his… well I wouldn’t call it stage fright, but part of the reason he’s the master of his field is he doesn’t like performing. But he can do the same thing over and over and over, practice and practice and practice the same motions to 10th degree black belt level and never get bored.

Derek Delgaudio is the honest cheater. The Sting transformed into a force for good. If you saw the special, you’ll want to read the book. If you read the book, you will want more. It certainly did for me.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

At first, I thought it was a pretty good examination of high school life and the social world of teen girls. But it also feels like high schoolers and death is a weird combination and there seems to be a lot of it out there (Thirteen Reasons Why, If I Stay, All the Bright Places, The Fault in Our Stars, The Lovely Bones). You’re eighteen and you got your whole life ahead of you. Nothing but potential. Death should be the farthest thing from a teen audience’s mind. However, I’m forty years old. Given all the other males in my family, I’ve got maximum twenty years left. I see death around every corner.

But tragic death makes for good story fodder, I guess–a young life gets cut short, either by accident or volition.

In Sam’s case, it’s by accident… over and over and over. She’s in a Groundhog Day scenario where the last day of her life keeps repeating because she needs to “learn a lesson” about not being such a bitch. And she is Mean Girl Alpha Plus.

The book starts by introducing some girls who are equal parts complex people and the worst girl in the room. I had to ask myself multiple times “is this how people really act?” And given that this was going to be an “It’s a Wonderful Life”/”Happy Death Day” where I’d have to basically experience the same day over and over with the worst people ever, that’s where I close the book.

I stopped for two reasons. 1) I am not the intended audience for this (see above statement about being a forty-year-old male). 2) It’s taking me back to high school too much. It’s too frustrating to read and the last thing I want these days is to feel more depressed. None of the content matches up with my own high school experience nor my daughters’.

These girls are so barbarous it’s bordering on assault. For example, they find tampons in a girls’ bag at a pool party and then throw them into the pool at her. Do you want Carrie? Because that’s how you get Carrie. I didn’t see where/why Sam and her clique had to be so atrocious and cold-blooded to anyone other than themselves and the “cool” guys. Does this kind of behavior just come out of nowhere? It’s got to have some origins.

That’s sociopath behavior, not teen girls. I had a miserable high school experience, but no one was cruel or mean for no reason. They did it because they were assholes and jerks, but the level of mistreatment was never at this level. And according to the book, it’s this behavior that made the girls popular. Parties and drinking and slutty outfits, like everyone wanted to be them. No one in their right minds wants to be these nutjobs.

All girls have periods. What does it serve them to call a fellow out for this? And where are the girls who would be on her side? Even The Swap wasn’t this implausible.

Maybe I have a thing about high school forming who you are for the rest of your days because I still think about high school all the time, and it’s always in the form of regrets. Maybe that’s the regret part of it. The story itself is themed around the regrets one has, even over a short life.

I think this book’s audience is women who were popular in high school but now have a little perspective to think that maybe all their actions and inactions weren’t as kosher as they thought. And that’s definitely not me.

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s short and colorful. The premise reminded me a lot of “The Little Trashmaid”, which is an excellent webcomic, or Waterworld/Mad Max starring Pippi Longstocking (minus the super-strength).

Tetley Abednego lives on a garbage patch where Britain used to be. The world is a post-apocalyptic trashbin divided into categories (e.g. pill island, electricity land, clothing world, etc.) I imagine it’s like Super Mario World but designed by Oscar the Grouch. But she loves it, and she can’t imagine living without it. She’s got the pure heart of a dumpster diver fascinated with refuse. Part archaeologist, part craphound. She’s a great character.

I guess you could call it absurdist speculative fiction? The text style is what I call “prosetry”–imagery heavy and plot light. Every sentence pops, but does it lead to a proper conclusion? Does the story result in a “Satisfying Reader Experience”(TM)?

I’m not sure, I guess it depends on what you’d be satisfied with because the story timeline jumps around, and I don’t like that. It provides an artificial puzzle that feels forced in there so the reader can feel “clever” or gives them something to “do” while reading.

But despite that, I liked it and I’d recommend it.

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass

“High impact techniques” is right. These lessons are so advanced, non-Proust scholars will have a hard time parsing them out. The lessons within are hard to tease out or implement. It proposes a lot of questions, but doesn’t give you a lot of answers. However, it does have examples and writing exercises.

If you’re the type of person who’s reached that level of art that you’re asking the advanced questions, then you might not need to ask. You might need to figure out how to let the art speak for itself. If you try and engineer a story that hits every single mark for every single character, setting, and plot point, then I’m afraid you’ll end up with a mishmash that reaches everyone and pleases no one.

Because stories are like food. If you combine all the edible ingredients from a cupboard, you’re going to make crap. There have to be some absences. Even the best writers can’t write a book that explains everything, that hits all the notes. Some people hate stuff just by their nature of other people liking it. An audience can sniff out unauthenticity, and if you’re following these guides to a T, I think you would end up with garbage.

I mean, the basic message is that you need to have two things: beautiful writing and intriguing story. How you get that, I still don’t know. I know the best stories have an emotional impact. I don’t know if fulfilling those exercises will result in a better story.

The problem I’m noticing with high-level books about writing is that you won’t be able to answer every single question they ask. The questions are trying to get at every possible flavor of a good story. But you can’t have every possible flavor in a recipe. You can’t put “sweet” into fried chicken or “sour” into breakfast cereal.

Can I recommend this? No. I wanted to read this because it’s by Donald Maass, an actual agent who owns his own agency. I’m sure he’s read his fair share of books. He tells you what questions you need to ask, but not how to execute those questions in the story you’re writing.

But if I can retain 10% of what I read from this book, then it’ll be worth it.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Hell, yes. Smartass scientists. Using cool math to figure out problems. Space travel. Single POV narrative of a man against the coldness of space?

Andy Weir’s first book was about a man stranded on Mars, revolutionary for its use of accessible science and character-less POV. His second book was about a colony on the moon–a lot more characters and modern storytelling, lighter on science.

This book is like a combination of those two, and I think it’s Weir’s best work. The puzzles aren’t as “hard” as The Martian and the social commentary isn’t as heavy-handed as Artemis. For some reason, Weir does better when there is little to no supporting cast.

A man wakes up on a spaceship heading… somewhere in deep space. He’s the only one aboard and he has amnesia. As he gets his post-coma memory back we learn why he’s here and what he’s trying to do. Honestly, I’m loathed to give details about anything because the less you know going in, the more fun you’ll have.

It’s full of heartbreaking plot twists, warm fuzzies, precious moments, and surprises. It made me feel things, which almost impossible for a book to do. And yes, stuff is scienced the shit out of.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

It was well-written, but just too long for my tastes. The prologue alone took me a night to read. It’s not fancy language–the prose is quite reachable and understandable. But I could tell there were going to be a lot of characters and settings.

There are few physical descriptions so you’re free to imagine the characters as you want. But that can be a problem. For example, there’s a slave race called the Skaa, but you don’t know if they’re physically similar to the dominant race or if they’re some other species. I was thinking they looked like the aliens in Oddworld at first.

It’s too bad you can’t read a fantasy story without needing to invest 18 hours (plus whatever other books there might be in the series). I stopped reading at 14% and it was mostly because of the characters. None of them had any distinguishing characteristics and I couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe I’ve been ruined by other, more memorable fantasy heists like Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Now those had some memorable, charismatic people that were worth investing time in. In Mistborn, I really only wanted to spend time with Karsier, and he wasn’t much. I felt I could get just as good a sense of the story by reading the Wikipedia summary on it.

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: 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.

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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

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

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

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

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

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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.


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

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

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.

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 unnecessary 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

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

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

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

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
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

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

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

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.