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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: 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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#20BooksofSummer: The Club by Ellery Lloyd

The Club

Can we all agree to retire in media res? Or maybe just put it (and the unreliable narrator, for that matter) on the back burner for a couple of years?

Ellery Lloyd’s The Club establishes early that something nefarious has happened on the opening weekend of the exclusive Island Club — the latest in a long line of clubs where the rich and famous play in the lap of luxury. However, exactly who is murdered and why only slowly becomes apparent as the novel fills in a lot of gaps and introduces a lot of characters who have a very good motive to murder Ned Groom, owner and head of the Club, and a lot of other people staying on the island.

An interesting set-up for a locked-room mystery is pretty much squandered by the time we get around to the big reveals of who did what and their motive. The cast of this one is fairly large and each chapter rotates to the viewpoint of various characters with motives to do away with Ned, though it feels like a lot of the middle part of this book is treading water until Ned finally meets his final end (or does he?!? the book will tease).

As intriguing as the early set-up is, the central mystery itself is never quite as interesting as it should be. Part of that is Ned is portrayed as an all-around terrible person who really had it coming from a lot of the people on the island. While the book does try to create sympathy for everyone who comes into Ned’s sphere of influence, Ned himself keeps coming across as a complete jerk and you can see why people might stoop to murdering him. I suppose we don’t have to necessarily love the victim, but if everyone else can get time in the novel to be sympathetic, then so could Ned.

The Club isn’t necessarily one you’ll want to join for long. Try it at your own risk.

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#20BooksofSummer Review: Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Weather Girl

Like tie-in novels from my favorite pop-culture franchises, rom-coms are a great way to distract/entertain myself while working out or completing daily life stuff.

But every once in a while, one of those stories breaks out from the pack and surprises you in the most unexpected of ways. That’s exactly what Rachel Lynn Solomon’s Weather Girl did.

Ari Abrams has achieved her professional dream, working for the woman who inspired her to study meteorology at the station she grew up watching. But this dream isn’t exactly everything Ari hoped it would be since her would-be mentor and her ex-husband, Torrence and Seth Hale, spend more time feuding than they do running the station or mentoring the news staff. After a spectacular blow-out at the office holiday party, Ari and sports anchor Russell Barranger hatch a plot to Parent Trap the Hales back together, in the hopes of allowing the station to become more professional and for them to get the professional encouragement and guidance they crave.

It isn’t long before Ari and Russ begin to see each other as more than just colleagues helping their bosses get together. There’s already an undercurrent of romantic tension, one that slowly builds over the course of the novel.

What makes Weather Girl such a refreshing entry in the rom-com field is that both Ari and Russ have obstacles separately and collectively along the way to “happily ever after.” Ari and her mother are clinically depressed and Ari worries that her depression makes her “too much” for anyone who might find out the truth about her. Russell has a “dad bod” and a 12-year-old daughter who is into musical theater. Oh, and he hasn’t…ahem…dated in five years either.

As each obstacle arises in Ari and Russ’s journey together, the characters actually come together in a mature fashion and discuss the obstacles facing them. And while the truth isn’t necessarily a magic cure nor does telling it instantly fix everything, it’s nice to see characters interacting in a mature, believable fashion to overcome obstacles and not allow them to become bigger than they could or should be.

Even late in the game with a huge obstacle arises, it’s dealt with realistically based on what we’ve learned about the characters to this point.

A sweet, funny, authentic-feeling rom-com is nothing to sneeze at. And this may be why this one has lingered with me a bit after I finished listening to it.

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Review: Sparring Partners by John Grisham

Sparring Partners

Like Stephen King, John Grisham has earned a spot on the best-seller list for just about anything he chooses to publish. And similar to King, it appears that Grisham isn’t content to crank out the same book year after year to his adoring fans (I’m looking at you as the biggest culprit James Patterson)

This time around, Grisham offers up three novellas he says were written during the lock-down instead of a full-length novel.

Here are my thoughts on each of them.

Homecoming
Grisham returns to his world of Ford County and Jake Brigance. As a big fan of Jake’s, it’s nice to get to spend a hundred or so pages with him and the cast of characters Grisham has created. “Homecoming” centers on Mack Stafford, a former lawyer who got tired of his life in Clanton and disappeared three years before, leaving his family behind. He also took a large chunk of several settlements as well. Mack wants to come home three years later and see his family again. He reaches out to Jake and Harry Rex about coming home and the wheels start turning. Continue reading

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Review: Reckless Girls by Rachel Hawkins

Reckless GirlsReckless Girls is a case of the marketing team/dust-jacket writers completely misselling a novel and, thus, creating some expectations that the novel can’t and doesn’t fulfill. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad book, mind you. But I will admit I came away from this one a bit disappointed.

If The Wife Upstairs is an homage to Jane Eyre, this one is a homage to Agatha Christie mysteries. And since I’ve been immersed in a couple of Christie’s novels early this year, Rachel Hawkin’s Reckless Girls shows just how deceptive Christie makes constructing a locked-room mystery appear.

Lux McAllister left behind her life to sail around the world with her new boyfriend, Nico. However, the two have been stuck in Hawaii for a few months (worse places to be stuck, I guess). When a pair of college friends contract Nico to sail them to a deserted island, it appears that Lux and Nico’s dreams of sailing around the world are finally getting started.

That is until we get to the island and find another couple there and then a third boat shows up, disrupting the quiet paradise that everyone was hoping to find.

Reckless Girls spends a lot of its run time setting up the characters and the situation, including flashbacks of just about every major character who steps on stage, before the novel pivots a complete 180 in the last third and goes ape-poop crazy. And your enjoyment of this story is going to depend on a lot on just how much you buy into the pivoting the story does. This reader wasn’t necessarily sold by it and I kept finding myself rolling my eyes in the last pages as Hawkins piles on twist after twist, each one seemingly more outrageous than the last.

And yet, I see a lot of people on my timeline who love this book. So, maybe it’s just me finding it disappointing. Again, I think the marketing for this one really misrepresented it and ended up setting expectations that this one didn’t live up to.

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