Him & I by Melia A.

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

What’s the difference between a sex predator and a hunky dreamboat? Depends on whether you’re asking about the length or the girth. Him & I is a dark romance about an eighteen year old American girl named Hailey, who has a long, hard, journey into adulthood.

Hailey lives a celibate life to focus on her student career, which seems to be going great but this is the last you’ll hear about it so who knows. She is best friends with Kevin Smith’s daughter from Cruel Summer, and has two siblings: a twin brother, and a younger sister who is apparently evil. We are just told this by the main character, and whenever the sister appears, Hailey is immediately screaming at her for being a horrible person and ruining everything. One day on the set of The Office, Steve Carrel decided “I’m just going to hate Toby.” And that became an unexplained recurring joke. Michael Scott says things like “I were in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Toby, and I had a gun with two bullets, I would shoot Toby twice,” and it’s never explained. It’s the same kind of energy with the sister. But I’m getting bogged down in the details.

Hailey is still in love with her ex Kayden, or Jayden, or Ayden, or whatever. Mid-conversation with Kevin Smith’s daughter she gives us a flashback about how they met at a gazebo (seriously, am I being targeted by big gazebo?). She assures us she is not naive, but she was “on cloud nine” because they were “written in the stars.” That’s a recurring theme: cliché metaphors, mixed and sprinkled at random. At one point we are asked to “imagine being on the same path as someone and suddenly you’re on different pages of the same book.” Whatever. Teenagers repackage awkward groping at the movies as unprecedented romance all the time, so this is just a window into the mind of our protagonist.

One fact we establish right away about Hailey is that she is eighteen. You hear that? Eighteen point zero years old. Fully legal. This means the she can celebrate her birthday in her dad’s club, where alcohol is served (The author is not American, which will become obvious later if it isn’t already). I assumed Hailey’s age was signposted to assure the reader that all the steamy high school sex antics aren’t creepy, but it turns out this is a dark romance, so the shit that Hailey is subjected to mostly does not have an acceptable age threshold. Speaking of wacky sex horse play (I should go back and hyphenate that, but I’m not going to), Splayden is at the party, in accordance with narrative tradition. Now we get to see this beefcake in action. How does he sweep her off her feet? Mostly he just ignores whatever she tells him, coerces her into a dark room where he pulls off her clothes, and generally acts like what pickup artists tell you is supposed to work on girls. Of course, it works on Hailey because surprise! Pickup artists were right the whole time! Just treat women like something a movie theater janitor would scrape off their shoe at the end of the day, and achieve success! But before Fnayden can neg her about her back rolls, evil sister shows up, causing a ruckus. This calls for apoplectic screaming from Hailey, before 7ayden and Hunter join forces to calm the situation.

Oh yeah, Hunter. Stupid sexy Hunter. He thinks he’s so great just because he’s so great. On the way to the extremely American discotheque party for drunk babies, Hailey drives her BMW into Hunter’s Ferrari (it’s never explicitly mentioned that these people are all rich, so I’m going to assume this is just supposed to be how normal Americans get around town. Or maybe Hailey is rich because “club owner” is the highest echelon of European society, as opposed to in the States, where it is one rung above “man who owns his own shovel”). Stupid Sexy Hunter insists on repairing the damage to her car to keep it a secret from her dad, and takes the keys right out of her ignition. People are constantly taking things from Hailey in this story.

See, the thing is this is a dark romance, which is a genre for people whose fetish is red flags. I’m not trying to shame, but it’s difficult for me, because projecting is my main defense mechanism when there is something I fail utterly to understand. The sexy man-chunks in this story are constantly gaslighting Hailey, inserting things in her without consent, and delighting in treating her like an old gym sock. And she loves it, because this is your fetish, too, dear reader. Case in point, Caleb. Caleb is a pushy, violent misogynist. Jackpot, right? No! Caleb is an antagonist. What separates him from the guys who are playing dick-pong with Hailey as the ball? If shock, hate, and fear are Hailey’s aphrodisiacs, how does she distinguish the good and bad love interests? It’s the same way you know that Malfoy making fun of Molly Weasley’s weight is bad, while Ron making fun of Dudley’s weight is good fun; the value of actions is a function of which team a character has been sorted into during the drafting stage.

To get back to the plot, there’s an extended will-they-won’t-they-get-on-with-it between Hailey and Aydnayden, an obligatory love triangle with SSH, some cloak and dagger drama around Kevin Smith’s daughter that ends with people getting killed. Oh yeah, throughout the book people just whip out guns, because America I guess, and the climax is like the end of Hamlet, but all the characters have guns, and all the actors are guns, and Denmark is a gun. Hailey gets almost as many guns shoved in her face as dicks, and she’s equally blasé about it. Honestly, after a hundred pages of our leads being cute and coy to one another, it was a nice change.

Melia A. made a name for herself in the world of online long-form fiction, i.e. modern LiveJournal but we all agree not to call it that. Currently she is very active on Episode, which I gather is Wattpad for zoomers, but more polished and less collaborative. Given that your intrepid author’s attempts to understand the youth are about as successful as Praeger U’s efforts to convince me I should be grateful for landlords, it’s hard to give my usually brilliant analysis on the literary origins of this book. I get a little Cruel Intentions, with the rich, violent teenagers. There’s also an attempt at a certain kind of narration, with a casual, “Oh, I didn’t see you there” style. We’re constantly being told things “by the way.” What by the way, narrator? You’re in charge of this five cent pony show; is this detail important or isn’t it? You made us sit through a finger-banging scene between two people who hate each other, but you’re hesitant to overshare now? I haven’t talked much about the parents. The way they are always on their kids’ level when it comes to drama feels very Disney movie to me (When mom sees one of her daughters screaming at the other to point of dry heaving because so-and-so kissed such-and-such, the adult’s response is “Gasp, did you really kiss him?!?”).

As usual, I sound way more negative than I feel about Him & I. The sexy parts come out of nowhere and are probably triggering for anyone who’s not into dark romance, but if you can turn off the top and bottom of your brain (i.e. the parts that are telling you consent is important, and that there is danger), the middle part will tell you that these scenes are very well written. I can see why Melia A. has a following when it comes to good, smutty fun, and I’m well aware I’m not the target audience. If you’re… doing whatever nasty things go on over at Episode (am I even saying that right? Can someone tell me what “bet” means?), and you want to upgrade to a thick, juicy book, Him & I is probably for you.

Here in America, the drinking age is guns.

Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Normally, when one goes mad with power, a crucial prerequisite is to have actual power. Never keen on reading the manual, I have decided to skip a few steps and drag a seventeen year old author into the pathetic kangaroo court I call a review blog. That’s right, your girl is now dunking on literal children on the internet for your amusement. I cannot sink any lower without dressing up as a cat and making ASMR sourdough tutorials, so don’t give me any ideas. Into the Wind is a YA fantasy domestic drama in which Zephyr and her friends restore proper order to their village.

Zephyr, who is the daughter of the chief and who may or may not be the last airbender, is overdue to be married. Mom is dead, in keeping with local custom, and Chief Dad is tasked with finding a man sturdy enough to become chief one day. In the mean time, Zephyr plans to move in to the sorority wigwam with her besties so they can have some privacy while they watch Meg Ryan movies and have pillow fights. That’s a little anachronistic, but maybe the pillows are raccoons. Zephyr is stifled by the demands of propriety, the pressure to work in a certain way at a certain time, with no breaks to dance like an idiot over a bowl of porridge. At the same time, she dreams of a “godly man who loves the Protector,” and she shows no compunction against one day becoming “Chieftess” (a word which, for once, my spell check and I are in agreement about).

That’s the bird’s eye view, but on the ground what we get is a dinner scene where our principle characters hide from the rain, then a breakfast scene where everyone decides what kind of porridge they want, and an extended scene where villagers are going around repairing minor damage caused by last night’s rain. Once the buckskins get hung up and the dogs get wrung out, Chief Dad has made his decision. Zephyr is to marry the Head Warrior, an arrogant, unlikable man. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Chakotay. You can see what this setup is. It’s just Pocahontas. We’re reading the novelization of Pocahontas. Take that, you filthy Zoomer! You think you’re so great for being able to bend over without waking up the cat. Wither and wince as my vorpal red pencil goes snicker-snack across your precious manuscript!

Except it’s not Pocahontas, though. As soon as Zephyr draws a dick and balls on the marriage contract before handing it back to the men planning her future, another character steps into the spotlight, Stiff Arrow. Abigail Jeanne snuck this guy in as the obligatory hometown friendzoned twerp, but then a couple chapters in reveals that Stiff Arrow eschewed the position of Head Warrior so he could be assigned to the heir apparent’s personal detail. So that’s our real setup, right? Zephyr has to figure out that the right guy for her was under her nose the who- oh, no. She figures out immediately that she likes him better. If I had a nickel for each fake-out inciting incident in Into the Wind, I would finally have a book that earns me money.

Without spoiling too much, John Smith never shows up; the giant dome hiding them from modern society doesn’t collapse; the framing of the story never becomes anything other than the dynastic politics of a small village. That, on top of an agonizingly slow build up featuring several flavors of porridge, should add up to a slog. But it mostly avoids that fate. Mostly. There were plenty of chapters where I wondered “is this the point? We’re just cooking porridge? Is this porridge porn?” It’s not a typical coming of age fantasy novel where the curtain pulls back on a larger world, nor is it a quick and easy “let’s all share Virginia” Disney story. But it also isn’t one of those painfully slow slice of life animes where the main character is always running to nowhere with toast in her mouth.

As an aside, I’ve broken my own rule comparing Into the Wind to Pocahontas. I hate it when people compare things to Pocahontas, because Pocahontas is nothing; it’s like saying that something tastes like chicken. Case in point, Avatar. When people aren’t calling it “Dances with Blue Wolves,” they’re accusing it of being a Pocahontas rip-off. But Avatar is so much less than that. It’s a nearly verbatim copy of an early Ursula K LeGuin novella called The Word For World Is Forest. Whenever I see someone compare Pocahontas to anything, I think “you could be peeling back so many more layers of this onion,” and now I’ve done that very thing. I guess I’m just salty because Pocahontas was the first Disney movie to disappoint me. For me, as one single disgruntled child (imagine me as I am now, but even smaller and holding a balloon or whatever it is children do with their time), the Disney renaissance ended when Pocahontas failed to live up to the hype.

Into the Wind does not disappoint. While the main character is clearly a power fantasy author insert, she never reaches the level of a Mary Sue, partly because she has her own complex inner life. In general, young people in this book have a complicated relationship to tradition, embracing parts while balking at others, and it works pretty well. The world building is a sometimes cringy Native American analog, and the names are all over the place (I blame Eragon for establishing the precedent that one village may contain people named “Galadyrionx of the Crimson Blade” and “Steve”). The constant made-up words for things that could just be English is a little try-hard. But usually I find myself flipping through a terrible fantasy story that is carried along by its world building, and this was the opposite; I didn’t care that the continent people live on is literally called “The Continent,” because for once the story was actually engaging. Am I bitter that someone still picking amniotic fluid from their hair can write better characters than me? Shut up, no one asked you. Just read Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne. It’s four dollars on Kindle.

Ursula K LeGuin is a ripoff of a short story by Ursula K LeGuin.

Finding Hazelton by Charles Angel

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Have you ever wondered “does anyone ever not win the grudging respect of an asshole? How come it seems to happen to everybody else but me?” Well, sometimes you have to have an ace up your sleeve. And a car. And maybe a gazebo. Finding Hazelton is a reverse Green Book drama by Charles Angel about a kid who drives some old fart around a small town in Pennsylvania.

Our protagonist Shawn grew up in a trailer park with his great-aunt, and now struggles to pay for college, especially since his scholarship has been canceled (take notes, kids: in fiction, shitty news is called the “inciting incident”). Luckily, having a rough go of it in life has not turned our Shawn into a red pilled Bernie bro who’s obnoxiously into mixology and gate keeps anyone who says they like video games. But he has become a bit of a grumpy nihilist, much to the disappointment of his classmate Lea. Lea believes in kittens and rainbows, while Shawn counters that kittens and rainbows aren’t real. Due to lack of funds, Shawn gets a job at a company that apparently… OK, so as best I can tell, this entire company exists to drive assholes around town? Like, you’re a cross between a taxi driver and a chauffeur, but you can only take passengers that treat you like shit. It’s like role-reversal Uber. His assigned jerk-wad is Paul Mazzi, who needs to get driven back and forth to the clinic to have the stick removed from his backside. Luckily, we get a few other perspective characters to break up the narrative, the main ones being Shawn’s great-aunt Tee Tee and some rich sad guy named Scott Preston. Tee Tee agonizes over whether or not she should tell Shawn the secret of who his father is, a secret Shawn’s mother took to her grave. Scott Preston dedicated his life to work, especially since the woman he loved left years ago, and now looks upon his empty life with regret.

I think you can follow where this is going. From the first few chapters it’s obvious that Paul Mazzi is Shawn’s father. What? You thought it was Scott Preston? Oh, sweet summer child. Spending my free time indiscriminately swallowing whatever falls off the Amazon conveyor belt into my gaping maw has given me the ability to spot a red herring from a mile away. Also I know what knotting is now, so maybe my maw should gape a little bit less. It doesn’t help that Finding Hazelton is more bloated than the Hindenburg on fiber supplements. Every character has their own front loading, from Tee Tee’s Hamlet-style dithering over the Big Dark Secret, to Scott Preston’s whiskey-soaked allusions to The Bad Times. The plot gradually spirals toward some kind of point, and in the process circles closer and closer to the gazebo. I swear more than half the times I have seen the word gazebo in my life occurred while reading this book. Paul and Scott are both weirdly nostalgic for this damn lawn fixture, and I honestly don’t remember if it’s about their high school football glory days or if that’s where they took turns on Shawn’s mom. All I remember is the word gazebo, turning in my brain with little Marimekko Austin Powers flowers popping all around it. I’m not a fan of nostalgia as a plot device (Hey, remember bees?), but I will give the book credit for understanding that nostalgia is basically a synonym of depression, and not something fun and wholesome. Eventually the gazebo gets repaired, Shawn stops being sullen and achieves Lea, and everybody’s happy, except for the sizable chunk of the cast who are dead. But that’s not what we need to talk about.

We need to talk about Lea. No, this isn’t the part where I reveal that Lea is in prison from killing John C. Riley with a crossbow. That would be agency. No, our dear Lea is what I call a glove girlfriend. Actually, I can’t believe that I invented that term. I must have heard it from someone smarter than me, because I’m an impostor and any day now my university is going to call me up and say so sorry, there’s been a clerical error. You were supposed to get the certificate that says “moron.” I’ve tried to google it, but the closest I’ve ever gotten was an article called Sexiest Opera Gloves on Female Anime Villains, so… rabbit holes in rabbit holes. Anyway, the glove girlfriend is distinguished from the adjunct girlfriend (aka Daisy Duck Syndrome) by not necessarily having a personality similar to the protagonist. Instead, her main personality trait is that she has been waiting her whole life for the male lead to come along and complete his personal growth quest so she can date him. Good authors remember to include some reason why she won’t date him before he slays the dragon or wins Ru Paul’s Drag Race or whatever the main story line involves, given that she’s in love with him from page one. It’s usually something like she detects that he hasn’t yet reached his final emotional evolution or something. I get it. Who’s chasing Diglett when you could have Dugtrio? Amirite, ladies? By the end of Finding Hazelton, when Lea’s hard work of sitting around waiting for Shawn to get off his ass and do the plot is rewarded, she says “You have always had my love, Reade- I mean, Shawn. From the very first day you helped my parents unload my car. You are authentic. Sometimes that isn’t easy, or even pretty, but it’s what I crave more than anything in this world.” I mean barf, right? Is it just me? Does anybody actually enjoy it when I whinge about subterranean sexism in self-published books? Am I the weird one here? OK, I guess I answered my own question.

When I read that line, it reminded me of the movie Super Dark Times. In that movie, the narrative follows two boys who go through a very traumatic experience, and there’s a girl they both like. After the main climax of the film you get a brief scene with just her; the two boys are long gone. And then you stop and think “wait a minute. Didn’t the first scene also only have her in it?” It forces you to rethink whose story this was the whole time, even though outside of two scenes totaling maybe four minutes the camera never follows her perspective. It’s a great exploration of how characters who are largely mute as far as the language of cinematography is concerned could be significant in the story (Also, the actress’s real name is Cappucccino; basically everything about her screams we should be asking women more follow-up questions). I spent a few chapters in Finding Hazelton fantasizing about an alternate universe in which Lea has some kind of growth, which given that the only set up we have is that she is in love with Shawn would necessarily take the form of realizing she’s too good to wait around for him. Or if not growth, maybe a twist? Like, it turns out she’s a serial killer responsible for Shawn’s mother’s death, or a landlord or something. Anything that would give her some narrative reason to exist. But no. She am glove.

It’s hard to make up my mind if I like this thing or not. It loses points for taking its agonizing time paying out plot points the reader has already predicted, for a cliché love interest, and a painfully flat main character. But the sentence-by-sentence writing is good. I never cocked my head at a turn of phrase like I was reading the diary of a space alien, or read a line several times to decode what the author was trying to convey. Charles Angel is like one of those little league teams that can’t score for shit, but their fundamentals are great. Maybe he just needs a really wacky writing prompt. In any case, I’ve definitely spent four dollars on worse things than Finding Hazelton. Check it out if you’re nostalgic for gazebos.

Seriously, does anyone remember bees?

The Devil and the Tiger by Jackson Hinds

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Have you ever wondered why men’s razors have names like “Mach Power Turbo” and “Fusion Champion Stealth?” The real reason is so women won’t jump ship and save themselves a dollar worth of pink tax. Seriously, whose dignity is worth so little that you’ll shave your legs with a razor that would laugh at its own Goodfellas references on a first date? But there is a deeper reason. As hard as it is to believe, let alone stomach, some people look at a small wand designed to make their face youthfully smooth and epicene, that calls itself the Titanium Rat Fucker 9000, and reach for their wallet. These enigmatic creatures of the sports-couch, these are the people for whom The Devil and the Tiger was written. The Devil and the Tiger is a blood spatter analysis textbook perpetrated by Jackson Hinds.

Normally I run through the plot to give you an idea of what I went through and what species of cymbal monkey promenades up and down the author’s brain pan. But I couldn’t do that this time. I truly couldn’t, for three reasons. First, this brick weighs in at almost three hundred thousand words. I swear to God I felt it when my Kindle finished downloading. More importantly, The Devil and the Tiger is like one of those scenes in Game of Thrones where I just sit there, like a dog in front of an oil painting, trying to figure out what a non-psychopath is supposed to be getting out of it. You know the ones, where the camera zooms in on some murder-rape, and you can barely hear the dialogue over the sound of the director licking his lips. The third reason is that the book is almost three hundred thousand words, because these two facts compound on each other, back and forth, forever. There are only so many times I can read about what a dying person’s tears taste like or what crunching bones sound like before I have to cleanse my mind of all that negativity with a soothing podcast about a white lady yoga murder cult. So instead of the whole enchilada, we get tapas. In other words, I’m just reading the blurb. I can already tell you this is a great blurb, and I’ll use the bits and pieces of the book I read through my fingers to determine how accurate it is.

The magic begins with the tagline: “When madness wars against madness, madness wins.” I know what you’re thinking: this is amazing, how could this book be anything other than comedy gold? I already had questions going into the first page, like “doesn’t madness also lose?,” which is always the mark of a good blurb. But later my question was “what madness?” Madness, to me, implies psychological horror, not watching a series of furries get turned into chunky marinara. Oh yeah, it’s also furries. There’s a lot about this book that just seems to… be there. Like, details of how the magic system works or how politics differ from our own, or special hyper-awesome bullets, explained in a footnote and never mentioned again. Generally I would forget that the characters were furries while they were doing detective stuff or assassin stuff, then read something like “her ears flattened” or “his baculum extended,” and spend a few seconds making a rebooting noise in my brain.

On cue, the blurb gives us an intro to our protagonist(s): “An agent of the law, sick with grief. A rookie cop who trusts no one. A new convert within a radical, dangerous syndicate. A mobster on his way up in the world, with all the danger that entails. A ruthless vigilante, always in total control. Their paths cross and weave into a fuse that’s already lit.” I know, I know, you don’t believe me that this isn’t the greatest book ever. I was more excited when I read this than I was when I found out the hotel in Trixie Motel is a real place. How do you weave a lit fuse? But once I started reading I was more disappointed than I was when I found out a night at the Trixie Motel costs $550. The main characters, so far as I can tell, are the dour cop… ferret… thing? lady? and an assassin who spends his time reminding the reader how awesome he is while turning the municipal population into pink mist. There’s just something about this kind of character played straight that bothers me. Killing people, sure, that’s a storytelling trope that’s been abused since Homer. But reveling in suffering, dropping little hints about how big your muscles are or how many women can’t stay away from you, it’s coded Bad Guy in my brain, and the longer the character continues to be presented as a sympathetic protagonist, the closer I get to being Norman from Star Trek, smoking at the ears. It’s like if the Thin Blue Line flag was a person, and never gets their comeuppance.

Then we get the best part: “This story just might shock you. If you’re looking for a tightly-packed, relentless thriller that vehemently refuses to waste your time, give this book a try. If you’ve ever been curious what it’s like for a book to hit full-throttle from the start and keep you front-and-center, right where the story matters most, in every scene, this story was custom-built to scratch that itch.” What can I even say to that? Who on this mortal coil has an advocate who will speak for them as passionately as this blurb brags that the book is about the story that’s in the book and not something else? It’s this kind of Labrador Retriever sincerity that almost makes me wish I could stomach a book about people getting shot full of so many holes their duodenum falls out by a lead who turns to camera and call you a beta cuck.

I am struggling to figure out to wh’mither I would recommend this book. If you’re a teenage boy who’s going to end up on the news some day, and you’re looking for a power fantasy that will take you the rest of the year to read, this is your Twilight. It’s eight dollars on Kindle (about 364 words per penny), and God knows I’ve recommended worse. Maybe give it a try if you’ve got a strong constitution and you’re into furries… I guess I only need to mention one of those. Just buy it. Maybe Jackson Hinds’ next book will put all of that psycho energy into unforgivable sex atrocities and I can finally relax.

What if Infinite Jest and the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan had a baby? And ritually ate it?

Life After Life: The Book of Magic Knowledge by Melinda Jones

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

I’ve watched all the trashy TV. There’s none left. It’s either wait for them to make more, or watch a documentary about aluminum foil. The Circle? F-Boy Island? The Turkish remake of Honey Booboo? I’ve seen them all. I’ve seen the Ninety Day Fiance spinoff where Big Ed tries to sneak a Cambodian child through customs. I’ve seen The Real Housewives of Dubuque on Iowa Public Television. And it goes without saying I’ve seen every cult show, from the one about Japanese suicide cults, to the Married at First Sight / FLDS crossover. Desperate, I turned to the world of self-publishing to satiate my unquenchable desire, and the first thing Amazon hurled into my sarlacc-maw was this. Life After Life: The Book of Magic Knowledge is a book about the nature of the universe, life, death, and esoteric vocabulary by Melinda Jones.

The story revolves around Ian, a suicidal young man with a girlfriend named Inna. She takes him to see her guru, Master. He seems to be instantly on board with the whole thing, but we don’t really have time to get any confirmation that he’s cured before the SWAT team shows up and starts busting “terrorists.” Master is the head terrorist (“You shaman,” as one of the cops calls him, because that’s definitely a real insult made by a real human), but Ian’s cure is undone, and he finally gets around to killing himself. Everyone is super bummed, but we have no time for them, because we are treated to Ian’s journey through the afterlife, an allegorical odyssey that features both astral karate and interplanetary karate, which are apparently different. There’s a lot going on in this book, but I’ll go over some of the key points of the first few pages. Basically, when you have bad emotions it sends bad jellyfish thetans after other people. But also you are affected by your own negative emotion jellyfish thetans, and you could reflect other people’s bad thetans if you were positive enough, so it’s ultimately your fault. We see this play out when Ian overhears one of his “rivals” badmouth him by saying that Ian is gay, and he had sex with him. This really seems like a self-own if you’re the sort of person who thinks it’s not cool to be gay, but for some reason Ian takes issue with this feeble attempt at a diss, giving us a front row seat to how the bad juju jellyfish work. Apparently women can use this process to emotionally manipulate people, because their “emotional core is stronger.” We also get drivebys of the various Abrahamic religions (termed “egregores” here, more on that later), represented by angry clouds. Ian settles down to a conversation with his ghost grandparents in pergatory, who blame civilization (i.e. slavery) for the sad state of the world. There’s so much more, but I’ll cut it off there, because the most cursory summary of the whole plot would take forever and you wouldn’t believe me anyway.

I really don’t know where to begin with this one. Once I made the initial mistake of trying to figure out what the hell I was reading and why, the rabbit hole proved to be more labyrinthine and bottomless than a Wookiepedia article about space toast. Want to know about Enochian ritual? Better google chaos magick. Want to know what that is? I hope you’re up on your neo-pagan hermeneutics. Just to give you a taste of the personal version of that tilt-a-whirl from The Sand Lot I’ve been dealing with, I tried various combinations of buzzwords, and got a hit on “Osho” and “egregore.” It was a blog rant with a healthy application of caps lock, and appeared to be Russian, which was very exciting because of the Russian names in the early chapters of Life After Life. I’ve found Melinda! But no, this blog was decided anti-Osho, linking him to NWO underground bunker builders who seek to spread Satanism and shut down blogs that expose them. I would link to it (shockingly the NWO hasn’t taken it down yet), except that it’s more anti-Semitic than Mel Gibson asking for a discount. Some outstanding questions include: who is Melinda Jones, what is this book trying to do, and who is it for?

I spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out who Melinda Jones could be. The book is obviously written by someone who speaks English as a second language, and it’s not Indian English. Phrases like “day-today,” “into even a deeper dream,” and “‘Now then,’ started her story Sapphire” point to a European origin. The book has some Russian names in it, and the website it’s pushing (see below) is run by a German. As fun as it is to finally put those years of teaching ESL to use, I can’t blame this book on a lack of English ability. The characters fail to behave like human beings at such a fundamental level, I can only assume they spend the whole book converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. I can’t even figure out what this book is trying to sell me, because I cannot figure out what religion is even being hawked (especially since they won’t get back to me about the seminars).

Who is New Religion for, in general? Besides that girl you know named Becky whose profile picture is her in a sari clutching a heavily drugged tiger cub. The target audience is anyone on the spectrum between “disenchanted and high” and “vulnerable and in pain.” No doubt Jones’s way-too-effusive ARC reviewers fall somewhere on this tragic rainbow, insisting that reading and re-reading this book saved their careers, marriages, and in one case a cocker spaniel. That seems like a long time to hang onto an ARC, but maybe Melinda was in no hurry. In many cases, people come out of these new religious experiences having made some improvement to their lives, and in some cases they don’t. I’m not a doctor and this isn’t your anti-cult podcast of choice. The main issue comes not from how ineffective a cult might be at solving the problems people bring with them into the cult. Hell, whiskey has solved none of my problems so far, and I still consult it every time I have a question about the universe. But whiskey makes no promises, and waits patiently on the shelf. I mean, my whiskey does promise that it is “gluten free” because this is the stupidest of all possible worlds, but other than that, it’s pretty unobtrusive. Self-improvement cults become a problem when they seek out susceptible people, promise them the moon, blame them when things don’t go well, get them to freeze out their other support networks or medical professionals, and milk them for all they’re worth. Life After Life doesn’t do all of those things, but it comes close in a few places.

It’s clear which kinds of vulnerable people are being targeted here. The whole issue of suicide deserves thoughtful commentary and empathy, but instead gets pseudo-science delivered by the Swedish Chef. “People who commit suicide do so because they do not understand themselves, their tendencies, and the people around them.” But don’t worry, Jones “spoke with many leading psychiatrists and psychologists.” That’s one of the things that makes me wonder if this book was written by a space alien: the idea that you can just say that medical professionals vetted and approved your work, and expect people to believe you. It’s part of a larger doctrine preached in Life After Life, that the key to success is simply to trust in your teacher, some of whom openly have “superpowers,” and who can conveniently be found offering seminars on the author’s website. “All you have to do is concentrate on the teacher and receive what he gives.” Doctors just give you pills, and friends just tell you to put down the tiger cub and run.

Melinda Jones, or whoever is the author of Life After Life, is a blatant monorail salesman. The book combines every cringy new age trend with every cult gimmick, which kind of makes it interesting as a compendium of Every Bad Thing. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone spend money on it. As for the seminars, I tried to sign up on their website, but they never got back to me, which is a mystery. Anyone could look at me (or my Uber Eats cart) and see that I don’t have any functioning-support-network-thetans. Maybe I just have a bad aura. As before, post will be spotty for a few weeks this summer. Feel free to keep recommending books to fill my vacation TBR. The punishment helps to counteract the inherent guilt I feel at doing anything remotely fun.

My wellness webinars all just turn into mok-bangs because I cannot not eat on a zoom call.

Vigilant by Will Bowron

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Ever since I saw Super I’ve never really been able to get invested in a traditional superhero story. What’s the worst thing about superheroes? Cheesy outfits? Police collusion? Zack Snyder? Vigilant by Will Bowron, book one of the Hudson Saga, suggests that the worst thing about superheroes is what they inspire in the rest of us.

Taylor (played in my mind by a Cronenburg amalgamation of every actor who has ever played Peter Parker) is a journalist who gets the scoop of a lifetime: a televised interview with the enigmatic Hudson. In this newsroom the part of Sassy Gay Bestie who has nothing in their life other than helping the protagonist on their emotional journey is filled by the station manager. But it’s OK, because Jake brings up some good points, like “Don’t do it” and “Seriously, though, are you sure you want to do this?” I’m being too hard on Jake. He’s alright. Unlike Alice, who is dead as shit. That’s Taylor’s formerly alive ex-wife, whom he has only recently stopped mourning. This is all connected in some way that Bowron chooses not to tell us just yet. This story has more teasing and front loading than one of those creepypastas called “I went into that one forest with Steve and you’ll never guess why I wish I hadn’t.” Taylor is determined to do the interview, and travels across the river and out of West Ham to the Hudson mansion. No, not that West Ham. They live in a place called West Ham, and it’s a fictional city in America. Don’t ask me why. On his way out of the city, he comes across a homeless person whom he treats with about as much dignity as an ugly horsefly. The guy asks for the time, and Taylor assumes he’s after his watch. It’s gratuitous and comes out of nowhere, and I couldn’t make up my mind if this was Bowron showing us that Taylor is actually the villain, like when Johnny Depp throws a lizard friend out of a flying stagecoach, or if the author thinks this is how normal people interact with the homeless. Seriously, Taylor calls the man a “whino.” That’s not Bowron telling us about Taylor’s bad spelling or something.

Then we cut to the next chapter, and I was sold (see? Front loading is easy!). The next chapter follows Sam, the homeless man who asked for the time (played in my mind by Aaron Paul). Sam’s life on the streets is tough, sketched out in brief but vivid detail. We get running tallies of his daily anxieties around food, shelter, and his fraught relationships with other people living on the streets. Oh, and the vigilantes. Apparently West Ham has gangs of thugs- again, not THAT West Ham- who roam the streets looking for alleged criminals to beat up. Sam needs a jacket to survive the coming winter, so he heads to the Salvation Army. The latte-quaffing, collar-popping middle class employees refuse to help him get his hands on a jacket he can’t afford in a scene that is both cartoonish and effective. Eventually Sam breaks the impasse by breaking a guy’s face and high tailing it with the jacket. Only once he gets to safety does he realize that he left his bag when he ran off. Out of the frying pan, into a larger, hotter frying pan. There’s nowhere to run from the vigilantes who have largely taken over day to day policing in the city, but maybe Violet will help him, or at least shield him from Davey. Seriously, every chapter ends with one of these transitions.

And they work pretty well. The suspense never becomes too obnoxious because the pace is quick and the characters are interesting enough to make you actually want to know who Davey is. Teases usually get resolved in a chapter or two with a satisfying reveal, which basically makes this book a unicorn. I only covered the first two chapters, because for once I don’t want to spoil too much; some of the early twists are pretty snappy. We get other perspective characters, too, from horny Jessica to hoary Hudson, and they all work reasonably well. I go back and forth on Bowron’s presentation of some of the characters. We really get to feel for Sam. But his humble background is partly shown to us by the fact that he can’t spell, which is very cringe (Lord knows I’ve seen some awkward representations of homelessness and classism on this blog). He acts like a selfish jerk, above and beyond anything that would be strictly required by his situation, but never to the point that he becomes unrelatable. Taylor and Sam take turns being unsympathetic, and I am surprisingly here for it. I guess it works especially well for tragic people like me; I am my own frog and scorpion, trying to cross a river. I also went back and forth on what I thought Bowron was trying to say. It’s never clear what the characters are saying as an allegory for everything that’s wrong with the world, and what they are saying as a mouthpiece for the author. I guess that’s a good thing? What is happening? Is this… literature? Is this what literature is supposed to feel like? What the hell is this poindexter doing on my blog? Somebody bonk an orc and bring the world back into balance, please.

This is one of those rare situations where I recommend a book without hesitation or reservation. In places Vigilant is a bog-standard crime thriller, but it’s well-crafted and just unusual enough to peek above the crowd. It’s five dollars on Kindle. Reviews might be a little spotty this summer, as I will be traveling around the United States. Thanks to my Protestant upbringing, part of my brain will always see vacation as just unemployment that you have to pay for, so no doubt I will be miserable the whole time, and tell you all about it when I return.

My favorite creepypasta is called “I like big butts and now I wish I hadn’t.”

Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above by Tony Woods

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

First off, I want to stress that I believe in everyone’s freedom of religious expression. I have no intention of belittling or disrespecting anyone’s beliefs. But hear me out: is Christianity an MLM? Tony Woods seems to think so. Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above is a getting-unsolicited-messages-from-the-girl-you-went-to-high-school-with-who-never-left-her-hometown simulator about an old man on walkabout.

The plot of Reaching the Heights is an allegorical tale of a pilgrim known only as Friend, but whom we’ll call Blony Bloods. In a move that causes fear and confusion to his long suffering wife Wife, he obeys without question God’s command that he go on a spiritual journey, combining the plucky resourcefulness of Pizza Rat with the smug dogamtism of a CrossFit trainer. Some guy named Charlie takes Blony to a spontaneous get together that sounds kind of like that apocalypse deli on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Blony is joined by his son, whom he is promptly instructed to sacrifice. Then we get a long list of agents of Satan who try to tempt Blony off his path. They start with what I would call reasonable talking points like “Woah, crazy about your kid, right?” and move on to fiendish enticements like “But no, seriously, you should probably get a second opinion about all this.” There’s an archangel named Jake, and a literal scapegoat, who apparently works for the devil… I’m no religious scholar (case in point: are communion wafers still vegan if you believe in them? I have no idea), but I don’t think that’s what scapegoats do in Hebrew scripture.

Much like Star Wars, the story here is really just a scaffold to hang fun set pieces that turn out to be thick with religious symbolism. All the classics are here. You’ve got God working in mysterious ways whenever something bad happens, which undermines Satan’s whole thing of “No, seriously, that’s pretty fucked up, Bro.” I guess the “God is always right because he is right” angle is to be expected. Again, I’m not here to badmouth anyone for having faith in an idea. I do, however, take issue with the discussion questions. Oh, did I not mention this book comes with its own homework? The discussion questions at the end of each chapter peel away the paper thin veneer of allegory and lay the theology bare. The idea of a dedicated pilgrim on a vaguely defined trip to the heavenly kingdom is replaced by claims that the whole world is scarred by sin, and everyone has to pick a master whether they like it or not. Maybe I listen to too many pod- OK, not maybe. I do listen to too many podcasts, but this all feels like all the stuff they talk about in the first episode of a six-part series called “storming the armed yoga compound” or something. Be vigilant, pilgrim! The world is full of enemies, chief among which is the notion that maybe you’re not currently on the right path in your life. Jettison anyone who sows doubt in your mind, and always remember that God could beat up a cowboy if he wanted to.

Like I said, I don’t take any joy in denigrating anyone’s religious beliefs. And I understand that this is a tender subject since the book is semi-autobiographical. But that’s just the point. The author is a missionary. Nobody’s out here getting close to God as a missionary on their own. It’s all about the size of your downline. I know this, because the moment someone finds Jesus they turn to me, the most debauched, hopeless, cheerfully ruined person they know, and tell me about all the exciting opportunities that await me in the next life. New converts look at me the way a guy who just bought a Japanese sword looks at a watermelon on a stick. This is when I think these belief system become a problem: when they are less about what you believe and more about what everyone else believes.

Do I recommend Reaching the Heights? Probably. I almost always advise people to pick up whatever I review, because it’s usually entertaining horse malarkey. This one almost reads like a Chick Tract, or a pamphlet you didn’t ask to find under your windshield wiper when you come out of the Save-U-Right. But I think I can still recommend it as an object of curiosity for anyone who finds contemporary religious writing interesting. It’s four dollars on Kindle. Let’s reflect on what we learned. Since I am a merciful demon, I will not subject you to discussion questions. Instead, here are some religious jokes I made up or improved upon:

How do you stop a Baptist from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Invite two Baptists. How do you stop two Baptists from fucking when you invite them over for dinner? Invite three Baptists. How do you stop three Baptists from kicking you out of your own dining room and turning it into a church with a shared mission and doctrine? Invite four Baptists. How do you stop four Baptists from singing barbershop at you? Invite five Baptists. How do you stop five Baptists from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Tell them you’re a Methodist.

A respected imam called a global conference to reform Islam, and decide which bits they should keep or change. The Kazakhs asked to scrap the prohibition against alcohol. The Saudis asked to stop giving to the poor. The Turks insisted it was too hard to fast when your food is so delicious, and the Indonesians grumbled that Mecca was too far away for a pilgrimage. The only thing that everyone could agree on was that their favorite thing in the world was complaining about Jews. The imam furrowed his brow and asked if this was really what everyone wanted. “Fine, then. It’s decided,” he said. “We’ll all convert to Judaism.”

Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Life is suffering.

Timmy’s mother asked a priest to talk to her son about the indiscretions he got up to in his bedroom at night. Father O’Malley took him aside after Mass and told him that anytime he touched himself, all his dead relatives were watching. Little Timmy thought about this for a moment, then asked “Is that why you always tie me up first?”

I always start Confession with a table of contents.

Realm of Monsters by Eve Roxx

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

What do you look for in your erotica? Nonsense? Faff? Extraneous things like relatable character motivation? You’ll be getting none of that claptrap from Eve Roxx, and you should thank her for it. Realm of Monsters is an isekai erotic fantasy that asks the question: how many dudes can you stack on top of yourself before it compromises your structural integrity?

Madison is playing the bouzouki in her apartment when our story begins. This establishes right away what an insatiable strumpet she is. That’s story telling right there. Actually, I get the impression this woman does enough pearl diving that the downstairs neighbors are complaining about water damage. Of course, we don’t know right away that she’s in her apartment; instead we are treated to her fantasy of boinking her cop partner on a stake-out, with a brief aside about how hot it would be to bring any of the other hard-bodied young men on the force into the mix. Make note of that, it’ll be a theme. Storytelling! Honestly, I’m pleasantly surprised that our protagonist has a discernable personality at all.

While Madison is ringing the Devil’s doorbell, someone rings her actual doorbell. Just kidding, they don’t. They kick it down because they’re the SWAT team. At first, Madison has trouble processing this, and her first instinct is to incorporate it into the fantasy, like a fire engine that blasts past your window while you’re having a dream about pirates or something. But alas, it’s a very real SWAT team, and since Madison is white and a cop, they do her the favor of arresting her alive, on the charge of murdering her boss.

This notion of half the police force in riot gear going absolutely nuts on a woman in her living room is thematically appropriate, since Ev- I mean Madison’s big Thing is group sex. That’s a fine kink to have if that’s your thing, but it’s definitely not for me. I have enough anxiety about disappointing one person at a time. I mean, how do you even keep track of whose hand is where, especially when everybody is covered in the same sweat and lube… Uh, sorry I got distracted thinking about sports.

Anyway, I love this scene. When I first started reading, I was ready for some generic crypto-prologue about a mashed potato sculpture qua protagonist and her shitty job at the not-getting-pounded factory. Instead I got a shameless fantasy that combines blatant violations of HR’s Me Too era dating policies with not even doing your damn job in the first place, a heroine who is so horny her brain fog is only gently wafted out of the way by armed intruders, and a fantastic hook to draw me into the next chapter. Bravo, Eve Roxx.

So there’s a sham trial in which Madison is convicted of killing her extremely murdered commissioner. They planted the weapon on her, put a manifesto on her computer, CGI’d a deepfake of her saying she wanted to kill her boss, jammed a “you’re fired, Madison!” note into the dead woman’s hands, sprayed Madison’s DNA on every surface of the room with a Windex bottle, collected an army of supposed eye witnesses including the Pope and a bald eagle, created a profile for her on KillYourBossWithBullets.com, and invented the entire future predicting apparatus from Minority Report. You know, all the lengths you have to go to to convict a cop of wrong-doing. Apparently, Madison made their job easier by facing disciplinary action in the past for… you guessed it! Beating up a child molester. This is such a default way to show what a loose-cannon-Johnson cop protagonists are. Where are the cops who are on thin ice because they refuse to upgrade to the latest broken version of Google Calendar? Are there no more heroes left?

You probably guessed someone has framed Madison to use her for some nefarious purpose. Instead of going to cop prison (another fantasy trope), she is carted away to a secret science location, where Elon Musk and some scientist with a severe ponytail and glasses (No, she doesn’t get a makeover later; I was surprised as well) shove her into a secret science room and pull a lever. This zaps her into some mysterious realm… a monstrous realm, one might say. Waking up in an unknown place after being subjected to terrifying experimental procedures, Madison hears the rhythmic, rutting sounds of a man in the throws of passion, through a wall that appears to have no door. Now, try and guess what is going through our protagonist’s mind at this point. If you guessed “She is angry and sad that she cannot get through the wall to the sex that is probably happening on the other side,” you win. Actually, we all win. This woman is amazing. The middle of the book consists of Madison settling in to this strange place, and the three juicy cock monsters who inhabit it.

The titular (heh) Realm of Monsters is a place where there’s foosball and air hockey, a world where jacuzzi water makes great lube and nobody ever feels jealous or itchy. Madison finds herself in plenty of Xsomes, but never the “Devil’s Threesome” with another girl. In fact, in a curious distaff case of the Not Gays, Madison takes every opportunity to remind the reader how unappealing she finds every woman she knows, up to and including the evil scientist lady who zaps her to the Bone Zone. I guess if you’re going to write a straight power fantasy orgy simulator, you could do worse than being the meat in a double-decker sex hoagie, half a dozen chunky kielbasas rolling around your plate… I mean, if you’re into that. I don’t see the appeal. Shut up, you’re confused.

This book is adorable. I didn’t even talk about the ending, with what is possibly the most petty, trivial, satisfying revenge subplot that has ever gone down in a fast food restaurant. That’s what I like to see, bringing it home after a couple hundred pages of dick Jenga: wacky hijinks. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice Eve Roxx out here making up categories so she can be Amazon’s best seller in “Occult Occultism.” Fully earned, fair and square. Realm of Monsters is a delight, and it’s four dollars on Kindle.

Does eating an entire pizza by myself count as getting laid?

The Odd and the Dead by Jody Smith

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Remember when books were gross and fun as hell? Like, those beat-era paperbacks that Charles Keating got mad about, and presumably also hard as a bar of steel? Remember rewinding Day of the Dead so you could watch Joe Pilato get turned into string cheese a second time? Jody Smith remembers. The Odd and the Dead is a being-covered-in-tiny-wet-bugs simulator, and horror anthology.

I’ll take a deep dive into one story, The Boyfriend, but they’re pretty much all in the same vein. Our protagonist, Justice, lives in a vaguely defined postapocalyptic Buffalo. The original draft of this review had a series of jokes about how one might distinguish postapocalyptic Buffalo from regular Buffalo, but in light of recent events I think I’ll just link to this food bank that serves the Kingsley neighborhood and others. Now that we’re all miserable, that’s actually the perfect mood for reading this story. Jody Smith paints a disgusting picture on a dirty canvas with bear bile. And the picture is a butthole. Justice works a five-to-nine at Globodyne or whatever Fafkanopticon passes for an employer in this future dystopia, where she is constantly pressured to find a mate so she can advance in a society trying to shore up its population. Around her, gaunt survivors shamble down the ruined streets of Buffalo, riddled with disease and with no hope for a better life. God, how am I supposed to not make fun of modern day Buffalo? It’s right there! I guess I could tell you about Homespace instead, a charity that helps young women in Buffalo forge a better life for themselves and their children. One day, Justice learns that she is up for a promotion, but it’s not right for a manager to be single. She makes up a hasty lie about a Canadian boyfriend, and proceeds to stress and fail her way through the sitcom plot of trying to find a male who doesn’t suck to rope into her scheme.

The defining feature of this story is that Jody Smith hates your lunch. Jody Smith doesn’t think you and your lunch should be friends anymore, and intends to do something about it. The Buffalo of the future is full of danger and disease, and people die in ways that are at once quick and ridiculously graphic. Smith types out loving descriptions of human bodies bursting like time lapse footage of fruit on a hot day, and you can hear the squelch of the author’s clammy tentacles on the keyboard. Jody Smith loves this shit. Oh, speaking of, every sort of bodily discharge is involved as well. Normally I would include that to say “do not read this book,” because even I, give-me-every-dubcon-shibari-tickling-you-have Madeline, have standards. A list of my least favorite things would begin with private dog parks, the State of Indiana, and bodily functions in books. But the visceral body horror is purposeful, and believe it or not builds up to the final twist. Somehow all the ooze and slime really makes you feel like you inhabit the body of the protagonist, makes you feel like you’re in a miserable, inescapable hellscape, also known as every day in Buff- God damnit! OK, look, PUSH Buffalo is an organization working to end the lack of affordable housing, one of the main engines of inequality in the Buffalo area.

If you’re anything like me, you live your life like it’s a mission to ruin the recommendations algorithm for all the friends and loved ones you’re stealing streaming passwords from. Your girl will never say no to a sci-fi horror offering, be it a tongue-in-cheek slasher in space like Alien, or that one where Elizabeth Moss runs from a gaslighting CGI shimmer for two hours. It’s such a natural combination for a pessimist like me: speculation about the future and scaring the hell out of myself. But sometimes I’m not fully on board with what authors think will make their stories scary.

There’s a theme running throughout science fiction that it would blow a person’s mind to realize how insignificant they are compared to the crushing enormity of the universe. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (admittedly not a horror story) this is made overt: grasping the scale of the universe and oneself in relation to it drives people insane. I’ve always wondered what kind of sociopath would have this reaction. Who thinks that they are important? Who is surprised to learn how paltry they are in the grand scheme of things? Every time I read scenes like this it makes me want to give the tears in the rain speech about all the bullshit going on in the part of my brain where I’m apparently supposed to store my feelings of enduring specialness.

Similarly baffling is the Lovecraft truism that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Like, literally what? My internal demons and I laugh over salad about how stupid this idea is. What’s scary is all the stuff that’s chasing me of my own creation, the stuff I know every contour of. What’s scary is that any of those voices in my mind might be right about me. Bleeding Christ, give me the unknown! Give me whatever bashful, Disney-eyed beast slouches toward the Bethlehem of your untroubled mind, Howard Phillips. Swapsies, no backsies. Jody Smith gets it. The Boyfriend draws all of its creep factor from what the protagonist knows that no one else does.

I usually avoid short story and poetry collections, because I’m worried I won’t have enough to say, and I can’t let my readership the size of a middle-class Protestant family down. But maybe I should rethink that, because it’s been a while since I enjoyed something this much (and the last anthology I read wasn’t bad, either). Is it revolting? Is it scary? Does it make you clench every time you turn a page? Do I need to examine why I giggle at descriptions of people’s skin being sloughed off their bodies while a bus driver clicks his tongue at the mess? Yes on all counts. If you’re looking for something disturbing, you could do a lot worse than The Odd and the Dead. It’s one dollar on Kindle.

Ask me how I know Lovecraft never met a clown.

Through The Ages (The Fox and Crowe Chronicles Book One) by Sarah Allder

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Through the Ages opens with our protagonist Eliza Fox strolling down the leaf-cobbled streets of a quaint New English town. She stalks some old couple as they shuffle between the haberdasher and the malt shop or whatever it is old people get up to, and seethes with jealousy. You see, Eliza is one of those TV child stars. Her family does a ghost hunting show, and it sucks. The lifestyle, not the show. I haven’t seen the show, but given what an easy mark I am when it comes to reality television, I’d probably watch the whole thing. Eliza’s mother is a domineering figure whose only concern is the care and feeding of her baby, the show. Eliza is a loose cannon who’s on thin-ice-Johnson, and also fat. Gotta make time to give your daughter an eating disorder. The real world is hardly any better, full of fawning stans who don’t get how their voyeurism affects her, or boys who don’t want to date her because of… I don’t know, pointy elbows I guess. A few minutes alone in a sleepy little town is the only vacation she can look forward to.

In general Sarah Allder does a good job of making minor celebrity look like a prison sentence. But I never find it very compelling when the protagonist starts off in sad, Debra No-Date territory. It’s a romance. We know the hunky guy is going to be obsessed with her in, like, two paragraphs. Just watch. In the cute little cafe, Eliza gets accosted by a human Star Wars crawl, who presumably wanders the Earth seeking young protagonists with the whiff of a Scene I fade in still hanging off of them, so she can swoop in and tell them why nobody in town crosses the tracks after dark. Margie, Arg to her friends, tells Eliza about the Crowe Manor. So, rewind. The Fox Family Ghastly Ghosts n’ Friends is in town to do a bit on the Crowe Manor, so they can pretend to be scared and exploit society’s desire to believe in something frightening that’s not climate change for once. Luckily for us, Eliza didn’t do any research, so she gets to sit and listen to the local chamber of commerce list all the bad things that happen there, in accordance with Massachusetts state law. The keystone of the story is the murder of William Crowe by his incel failson brother Oliver.

And boy, does she get into it. This lady delivers exposition like a coal barge. As it went on and on, the backstory started to blend psychedelically with the other conspicuous feature of Allder’s writing: the fact that she needs to tell you every inane detail. We read about a phone coming out of a threadbare cardigan pocket; we read about it descending back into said cardigan pocket. Strangers momentarily pause as they walk down the street, then, after that, continue walking in the same direction. We receive regular updates on the state of puddles. There is a running subplot about a cup of tea that goes from being slightly too hot to moderately hot, to just right. There are rocks on the sidewalk. But wait, there’s less! Pumpkin spice lattes get a sociological breakdown, while tea gets a nutritional one. Then it all loops back to Margie Barge, who is still talking about this one house through history like it’s the architectural equivalent of Black Adder. It’s like Allder is stalling for time, but then the thing she doesn’t want to get into yet is also an interminable wasteland of chatter anyway, so the prose cycles back to counting spots on the linoleum like it’s bored with itself.

But luck, Hunk Dude is here (see, I don’t you). William Crowe is a ghost, and wears ruffles because this is that kind of romance. He is immediately obsessed with Eliza and doesn’t think her elbows could pop a balloon at all, no matter what her mother says. Not only is he infatuated with the certain… energy, the certain… je ne sais quoi, the certain… protagonistness of this young woman, but he also muses to himself that she might be “the one.” If you’re like me, you have the same thought about all these romances with a hot guy from Kate and Leopold times. He’s… He’s gotta be super racist, right? Or sexist? At the very least, he’s going to “just have some questions about crime and Black culture.” And he’s going to talk funny. There’s this thing called the Kissinger age. See, Henry Kissinger and his brother came to American when they were fifteen and fourteen, respectively. Walter Kissinger lost his accent, while Henry Kissinger spoke with a distinct accent until his death in (checks notes) Jesus Christ, he’s still alive? The point is, anyone who’s old enough to have hot, consensual Bridgerton sex with (OK, bad example) does not have full linguistic plasticity. As the centuries go by, they’re just not going to keep up. Our boy Billy is definitely going to speak in Gregorian chants. About ethics in games journalism. I can’t be the only one who thinks this when reading these books, right?

I’m not going to spoil the middle any more than to say that there’s sock-hop-and-Suzie-Q time travel, chosen one underworld transiting, and of course breakfast in bed. But I could. I could spoil all of it and it wouldn’t matter, because about ten pages before the end of the book Sarah Allder stomped her manuscript into the garbage and wrote the ending to another book instead. I can’t even describe to you the experience of feeling my Kindle administer Ambien directly through my eyeballs for hundreds of pages, with entire subchapters dedicated to the texture of water droplets falling on a newspaper, or the progress of a boiling pot of water, only to be picked up at the very end and thrown off a building. I wish I could tell you all about it, but even if I wanted to I don’t think I could.

This is the sort of thing that makes me appreciate indie books. There are just so many people throwing spaghetti at the wall, and every once in a while somebody runs out of spaghetti and just throws a live squid against their kitchen tiles. Does Through the Ages work? Who knows, who cares? But it’s the first part of a trilogy, and it definitely hooked me, so I guess? Through The Ages is five dollars on Kindle.

Hamilton rearranged for Gregorian chant actually doesn’t sound that bad.