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Monday, September 19, 2016

The Books I Read: July - August 2016


Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

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

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

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

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


Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (unfinished)

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

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

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

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


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I read one-quarter of it in a day.

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

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

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

The Third Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen

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


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

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

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


Hero-Type by Barry Lyga

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

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

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

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

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


The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

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

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


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

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

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


Village of the Mermaids by Carlton Mellick III

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

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


Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino

So... Ursula is Cthulhu.

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

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

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