Category Archives: #20booksofsummer

#20BooksofSummer: Birds of California by Katie Cotugno

Birds of California

Fiona St James was the star of one of the hottest family dramedies on TV in her younger days, until her spectacular crash and burn not only pulled the plug on her career but the series as well. A decade later, Fiona runs her parents’ printing business by day and acts under a stage name with a local theater group by night.

Fiona has little time or interest when former co-star Sam Fox shows up in her shop, hoping to convince her that starring in a relaunch of the show that made them famous would be good for both of them. Sam’s latest series has been given the axe and he’s looking for something to pay the bills and the growing mountain of debt he faces.

Against this backdrop, the two begin to reconnect and possibly become something more — something the tabloids would love to cover.

Katie Cotugano’s Birds of California takes its title from the fictional series that put Fiona and Sam on the map. The novel serves as a satisfying blend of tropes with two compelling characters that you can’t help but root for to put aside their egos and admit there is something deeper going on between them. Cotugano layers in a few interesting twists along the way about what led to Fiona’s spectacular public breakdown and implosion.

Overall, this is an entertaining story with two well-realized leads.

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#20BooksofSummer: Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Today Tonight TomorrowBefore she started her freshman year, Rowan crafted a list of things that would indicate she’d had the perfect high school experience. Many of those involved besting her class rival, Neil McNair.

In the final few days of her high school tenure, Rowan reflects that she hasn’t really checked as many of those things off her list as she’d like, but she can still complete the one about destroying Neil by becoming the class valedictorian. Except, Rowan doesn’t earn that honor and it feels like her entire high school career is going to be for naught.

Fortunately, there is still the final senior challenge/game that she can play, and finally best Neil. Until Rowan overhears some of her classmates talking about how much they hate her and Neil and wanting to destroy them in the game. Stunned, Rowan teams up with Neil out of a sense of self-preservation (and the fact that the prize money is really good). But over the course of the contest, Rowan begins to realize that Neil isn’t her enemy, but maybe something different entirely.

After praising Rachel Lynn Solomon for her well-crafted, mature characters in the rom-com Weather Girl, I find myself having to take off points here for Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow for falling into the traps and tropes of the young-adult rom-com.

To start with, it’s stunning to that it never crosses Rowan’s mind that her cutthroat competition to be at the top of her class in everything might somehow rub her fellow class members the wrong way. And maybe it’s been a while since I was in high school, but the sheer amount of time and effort that everyone has to put into this contest for the graduating seniors and the seriousness with which it’s taken just doesn’t ring. It feels a bit too cute and like something invented for a teen comedy that wouldn’t necessarily transpire in real life.

And while I can buy that Rowan and Neil have been secretly harboring a crush on each other all this time, the process of bringing them together doesn’t always ring true or come across as authentic.

Overall, there were far too many things that took me out of this story for me to fully enjoy it.

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#20BooksofSummer: Mini Reviews

Catching up on my #20BooksofSummer with a few mini reviews of some stuff I’ve read.

Brotherhood (Star Wars)Brotherhood by Mike Chen

While a lot of Star Wars fans are quick to criticize Disney for some of the choices they’ve made since acquiring the franchise, you’ve got to give them credit for getting a lot of things right.

Case in point: Brotherhood.

Set between episodes II and III, Mike Chen weaves a compelling tie-in story about the friendship of Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi. Not only does it add some nuance to the big-screen epics from the prequel era, but it gives new shades to the recently completed Obi Wan Kenobi. Continue reading

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#20BooksofSummer: The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay

The Pallbearers Club

Paul Tremblay popped up on my radar when Stephen King promoted A Head Full of Ghosts on Twitter. After being totally unnerved by Ghosts, I put Tremblay on the list of authors I’d follow for a couple of books and see where things went.

The good news is that, so far, that’s paid off.

Tremblay’s latest offering, The Pallbearers Club just may finally put him on the list of automatic “I will read anything this author publishes.”

While it’s not quite as spine-tingling as Ghosts, is just as page-turning and entertaining. Art Barbara is a high-school outcast, looking to enhance his college applications by starting a club. In this case, it’s the pallbearers club, a group devoted to attending funerals of the forgotten in the community and helping with various parts of the ritual. Flyers around town bring Paul into the orbit of Mercy, a mysterious girl who expands Paul’s musical horizons and may be more than she’s letting on.

The Pallbearers Club is a vampire story without necessarily falling victim to all the tropes of a vampire story. Art narrates most of the story, though there are edits made by Mercy and reactions to what he’s written. As a narrator, Art is self-deprecating and hyper-aware. As a critic, Mercy is spot-on at multiple points. The on-page banter between these two is delightful and part of what makes this novel so much fun.

The other is that Tremblay is clearly having a lot of fun with the horror genre here. The blend of horror with rock music history is one of the book’s biggest selling points. But it may be the point that divides fans a great deal — and from what I see in the online review world, this book feels fairly polarizing.

Put me down as loving it.

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#20BooksOfSummer: Boom Town by Garrison Keillor

Boom Town: A Lake Wobegon Novel

After finishing Garrison Keillor’s last Lake Wobegon novel, I felt like Keillor had reached a good stopping point for his fictional small town.

Alas, Keillor didn’t feel the same way and presents us with another novel set in his fictional hometown. But while The Wobegon Virus left me feeling satisfied, Boom Town felt a bit like a last-second renewal for a once great show that while it doesn’t necessarily tarnish the reputation of the show, doesn’t exactly do it any great favors.

Boom Town finds Keillor returning to his fictional hometown for the funeral of a friend and finding out that his hometown is finally getting with the times and changing in unexpected ways. In the wake of Covid-19 and people realizing you can work from anywhere (so long as you have WiFi), Lake Wobegon is surging again and the people moving into town are a very different sort (for example, they get the town to pass an ordinance banning the Norwegian bachelor farmers from sitting on a bench all day).

Keillor also reflects on his time, growing up in the town, and his first adult relationship in a pivotal summer. Years later, the object of his desire is dying slowly and Keillor has to come to grips with that, as well as offer observations of the status of marriage.

And herein lies my biggest issue with Boom Town. Keillor seems to fall victim to the same pitfall that plagued other male writers as they aged (Asimov, Heinlein). And that is, the novel feels like it has far too much of an interest and focuses on sex. I didn’t necessarily mind Keillor detailing his first sexual encounter (this isn’t a romance novel so it’s not graphic) so much as I felt like we kept coming back to it over and over again during the course of the story. Nor do I mind Keillor reflecting on being a sexual being. But at some point, it crossed the thin line from reflection to feeling like I’m reading the thoughts of a (for lack of a better term) “dirty old man.”

And I suppose that, as Keillor points out, an artist has to be more than just his or her most famous work. But I just never found the humor and observations to ring quite as true as some of my favorite Keillor stories from yesteryear.

Which is fine, I suppose. I can always re-read or listen to those again and remember why he’s one of my favorite writers.

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#20BooksofSummer: Normal People by Sally Rooney & This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

Normal People

About an hour into listening to Sally Rooney’s Normal People, a thought struck me — this is a romance novel with literary aspirations. And one that revelation stuck in my head, it was difficult to shake it for the rest of the novel’s run time.

Normal People languished on my TBR pile since I first heard the initial buzz about it. I’m not sure why really. I guess like Marianne, the book was content to to just sit there silently as I neglected it.

Marianne and Connell have grown up on different sides of the social strata in their Irish town. Marianne comes from a wealthy family who is emotionally distant and with a physical and mental abusive streak. Connell comes from a working-class background single mother who works for Marianne’s mother. Both attend the same school, but Connell is popular while Marianne is quiet and reserved.

The two begin a discreet relationship during the later part of their senior year, leading to all types of drama, angst, and misunderstandings. Both parties are concerned about social status and perceptions, though for very different reasons. We slowly uncover these as the novel unfolds. Continue reading

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#20BooksofSummer: Phasers on Stun by Ryan Britt

Phasers on Stun!: How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World

From 1969 to 1991, the only examination of what took place behind the scenes at Star Trek seemed to come from creator Gene Roddenberry. The self-proclaimed “Great Bird of the Galaxy” had a lock on the narrative associated with the creation and production of the series as well as the attempts to keep it alive over the years. Then, when he passed away in 1991, it felt like the dam burst with a lot of people with access and information about what happened behind the scenes suddenly publishing a memoir or a tell-all book.

As a fan who enjoys the peeking behind the curtain aspect of how my favorite shows are made and work their way to our screens, I lapped up a lot of those books with a spoon.

And while they were entertaining and informative, it wasn’t often that an author or creator really took a step back and a “long view” of the history and development of Star Trek.

Which is one thing that makes Ryan Britt’s Phasers on Stun one of the more interesting examinations of the franchise as a whole that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Britt picks out highlights from each era of the franchise, putting them into a perspective of what was happening in the franchise, pop culture, and the real world and the place Star Trek holds there. Each essay is a fascinating look at why the franchise has endured and how it has adapted and changed over time. Of particular interest to this fan were chapters on why DS9 and Voyager were touchstones for pop culture and have continued to resonate with viewers today — both new and old fans.

Britt’s conversational style and tone in each chapter make the book feel like you’re having a chat with a friend about Star Trek and, as with his Luke Skywalker Can’t Read collection of essays, makes me feel like if we were to ever meet and hang out, Britt and I might be friends.

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#20BooksofSummer: Audiobook Review: The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez

The Friend Zone (The Friend Zone, #1)

If you’re looking for a rave review of Abby Jimenez’s The Friend Zone, I encourage you to keep on scrolling. This isn’t going to be one. And in order to articulate why this one didn’t work for me, I will have to go into SPOILER territory. Consider this fair warning….

The story starts off with a meet-cute for Kristen and Josh, with a minor fender bender involving her best friend’s fiancee’s new truck and Josh’s car. Before too long, it’s revealed that they are both a significant part of their best friends’ wedding party and are suddenly thrown together to spend large amounts of time.

Kirsten is an independent business owner, making accessories for dogs including staircases to get up on beds. Josh needs a little extra income after his ex stiffed him with the bills for fixing up the house they shared. So, Josh starts working for Kristen and the sparks are starting to fly. Continue reading

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#20BooksofSummer: Audiobook Review: Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll: 4th Doctor Novelisation

Back in my early days of Doctor Who fandom, some friends caught a few moments of “The Power of Kroll” and incredulously mocked me because the Doctor somehow defeated a giant squid creature using a tiny stick. Of course, I tried to explain to them exactly what was happening in the scene and how it wasn’t really a tiny stick, but my pleas fell upon deaf ears and taunts about the budgetary limitations of my favorite show.

Years later, removed of the mocking jabs of my youth, I’ve come to see that “The Power of Kroll” is a rough draft for Robert Holmes’ triumphant “Caves of Androzani.” And while most fans will be quick to cry that its the scripts that make classic Who so special, the comparisons between “Androzani” and “Kroll” show sometimes there are other elements involved as well.

Pursuing the fifth segment of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana arrive on a moon of Delta Manga. A revolutionary station is processing protein from the swamp and sending it home to feed the greater population. One obstacle is a group of natives, who were displaced from Delta Magna originally and now stand in the way of full development of the small moon’s resources. Lurking in the swamp is a large creature, worshiped by the natives and known as Kroll. After some time being dormant, Kroll is on the move again — and is hungry. Continue reading

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#20BooksofSummer Audiobook Review: Doctor Who and the Face of Evil by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who and the Face of Evil: 4th Doctor Novelisation

Featuring one of the best covers in the Target range, The Face of Evil is a solid adaptation of a classic serial from an era when Doctor Who could seemingly do no wrong.

Originally titled “The Day God Went Mad” (at least according to fan legend), The Face of Evil is a tight, taut, confident four-part story from Tom Baker’s third season in the role of the Doctor. Fresh off his adventures on Gallifrey, the Doctor arrives on a jungle planet that he’s visited before and had a huge impact upon. However, the Doctor has no memory of his previous adventure there nor the damage he’s inflicted on the societies there.

Terrance Dicks fills in the gap of the Doctor’s previous adventure with a deft, concise backstory that places the original visit during a slight gap in the fourth Doctor’s first story, Robot. It’s hard not to wish that Dicks had a bit more time adapting this one and an expanded page count because a chapter detailing the Doctor’s first visit might have been welcome.

Instead, we get an adaptation of the solid script, complete with a bit of character work for some of the supporting cast. In many ways, this is Doctor Who‘s take on the original Star Trek trope of a mad computer holding a society hostage. However, there’s no Captain Kirk around to “Gracie Allen” logic said computer into submission. Instead, the Doctor has to find a way to undo an error he made in a post-regenerative haze.

In a season full of classic serials, The Face of Evil is another outstanding outing. The audiobook is full of the usual highlights from the Target audio range from sound effects to dramatic music. Louise Jameson turns in a solid performance for this one, though I will still argue her interpretation of Tom Baker’s Doctor doesn’t always necessarily ring true.

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