I Dared to Dream by Stephanie Lee

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published 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, Thursday, and Saturday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

First, a word about words. I Dared to Dream uses the word “bitch” quite liberally and precisely, so it’s hard to avoid when describing the book. But I’m not a big fan of that word, so I’m going to be replacing it throughout this review with the word “sandwich.” I apologize in advance for any confusion, and for everything I do in general on this blog. Also, a serious trigger warning: this book contains sexual violence, and we will talk about it in this review.

I Dared to Dream is a dark romance by debut author Stephanie Lee. It is the story of Summer Lynn (whose initials are the same as the author’s, hmmm…), a young professional who just can’t convince life to stop kicking her ass, so she decides to kick a little ass of her own. Not her own ass, mind, someone else’s. And now I’ve said the word ass too many times for someone who just wrote a preamble about not using offensive language. Can’t be helped.

Summer Lynn is bland and boring. At 31 she works a dead-end job at Office Company, and has no friends other than her cat. This is mainly due to the fact that the office is populated exclusively by catty sandwiches who have no work to do all day but ruin the lives of their coworkers. We’ll see later that this is not unusual behavior for a group of women, of any age, and is in fact just default human female operation. Her boss, Bill Lumbergh, is a total son-of-a-sandwich who continually passes her over for promotion, despite her superior work ethic and performance, in favor of pretty girls. Holding court among these superficial pretty girls is Krista, Queen Sandwich. Krista orchestrates a smear campaign implicating Summer Lynn for going out for drinks one night before work. Lumbergh suspends her without pay while telling her how disgusted he is in her, which… I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure your boss isn’t supposed to put that much mustard on a disciplinary action. But Krista isn’t the only sandwich in this office. Superficial evil pretty girl Madison exposes one of the boss’s sexual conquests, Leah, by emailing out a sex tape. Lumbergh covers his ass by firing Leah, and comforts Madison as she cries crocodile tears. Summer Lynn spends most nights crying herself to sleep on the floor of her closet over old magazine clippings and a bottle of wine. She longs for a better version of herself, one with 90s-era Long Island tattoos and a devil-may-care, boss-ass sandwich attitude.

“[Madison] had been pining over [Lumbergh] for years now, to no avail. He wasn’t interested in an almost 40 year old full figured woman… Besides, everything about her was fake and contrived to try and make herself into something she didn’t hate.”

This brings us to an extended flashback in which we learn just what brought Summer Lynn to such depths of despair and self loathing. In college she studies too hard to have any interest in sex, or to leave the room when her sandwichy roommate brings home a boy. But then she meets Braxton. Braxton tells her she’s not like the other stupid superficial evil pretty girls, so they make out and have sex and stuff. Summer Lynn is instantly amazing at sex her first time (hmmm…). Braxton takes her to his sexy brooding spot, where he confesses that he has wealthy parents who are very exacting and expect him to marry a stupid superficial blonde evil pretty girl. But they trade I love yous anyway. Braxton can be a bit dominant, and Summer Lynn insists that nice, gentle sex is a myth perpetuated by women. So everything’s going great.

But Summer Lynn’s quest to become a valuable person (Hard work! Hot boyfriend!) is interrupted by the arrival of her stupid perky superficial blonde evil pretty girl sister, Sophia. Summer Lynn hates everything about Sophia, from her stupid sandwichy face to her stupid sandwichy voice, and the way she has had everything handed to her throughout her stupid sandwichy life. This is where things get dark, so I’ll run through it as quickly as possible. Here goes. Braxton shows up drunk one evening and violently rapes Summer Lynn. Even though she forgives him, he soon dumps her for Sophia, who has been infiltrating their relationship from day one and when confronted calls Summer Lynn a whore. At this point Summer Lynn starts to spiral. She remembers all the times her mother called her fat, or her sister told her to kill herself, only to later ask for money. A therapist looks at her as if the young woman is wasting her time. When she discovers she is pregnant from that fateful night, she moves into the back of a bookstore to hide from the rest of the student body. But some stupid perky superficial evil blonde pretty sorority girl finds her in the stacks and pours insults over her head about how Braxton is lucky to be marrying Sophia, a superior woman of a more elite class. While preparing for the birth of her baby, Summer Lynn is lured down a dark alley by a recording of a crying infant, where she is stabbed, causing the death of her baby. And that’s where our story returns to the present day.

I really tried to make that as painless as possible, but seriously, this book is basically one long Mister Bill sketch with the claymation puppet replaced by Summer Lynn’s self esteem. Our cartoonishly battered protagonist is smacked from one horrible nightmare to the next, pausing occasionally for sex scenes. Besides the creeping suspicion that at any moment this could turn into a snuff piece, what held me back from really feeling the emotional impact of these tribulations was the way Summer Lynn herself is written. From cover to cover she is petulant, judgmental, and every bit as shallow as the women she despises. Her constant complaining about fakeness make her sound like Holden Caulfield if he switched bodies with Murphy Brown. An inability to root for the perspective character makes all that violence and cruelty feel gratuitous, like I’m watching security camera footage of a car crash.

More than anything else, I Dared to Dream is a carnival ride of petty hatreds. Summer Lynn hates hipsters, cold weather, text messages, words that are slurred, words that are too enunciated, and colonial-style houses. She hates women, but this last is forgivable, since she lives in a world where every woman is an eldritch horror, shambling out of the ocean with the sole purpose of setting Summer Lynn’s life on fire.

Curiously, she doesn’t seem to hate men, even though every single man in the story is a sex predator, except for one who is gay. Now, I’m not out here crying into my beer about the misrepresentation, objectification, or villification of men in romance novels. Quite the opposite. I’ve read too many books about a shirtless lumberjack with a dubious understanding of BDSM to stand on that soap box.

But it’s telling that men in this book are the only ones who have to earn their spot in Hell. This makes I Dared to Dream a photo negative of The Traveler, a book about a young man who falls in love with a giant talking spider. In that book, which completely exists, our protagonist is a man in his early thirties whose mundane life is going nowhere, but love comes to him anyway, and he learns to be vulnerable and giving. I’m probably reading too much into the gender difference between those two books, but have you ever seen that Mitchell and Webb sketch about commercials for women and men? If you have, you know what I mean when I say I Dared to Dream is the book version of “Women: sort yourselves out,” and The Traveler is the book version of “Men: shave and drink beer, because you’re already brilliant.”

OK, back on topic. It’s difficult to tell what Summer Lynn hates more, the world, or herself. Our protagonist only admits her strengths when contrasting them to the many deficiencies of sandwiches, or to the lack of recognition that the world bestows upon her. Some of the most visceral abuse she hurls is directed at her own shortcomings, like not having a lip ring. She longs to be someone else, even though no one else seems to be any good, either. I spent less time wondering how Summer Lynn would get even with the world, and more time wondering when she would finally name the monster that is stalking her: depression. Depression often takes the form of blaming one’s self-loathing on external circumstances, and Steph- I mean Summer Lynn’s custom-built world provides plenty of horrible external circumstances to validate this belief (with bonus “therapy is useless” trope!). Within the logic of the book, it is not obvious that the problem is one of mental health, because the smoke screen that depression uses to hide from its host is built into the reality of the story, not by its characters, but by its creator.

What I’m saying is, whether she intended to or not, Stephanie Lee has written a book about the depression of an author. Is this what dark romance is? Asking for a friend. Looking through the offerings on Amazon, one would be forgiven for assuming that dark romance is the place we go to let our fears excite us without anyone else looking or judging or calling the police. Undeconstructed fantasies of captivity, assault, and murder abound. I think I am too much the sort to ask questions like why or who or what the hell is going on to really enjoy books like this. But if you’re looking for a sexy story about a woman who is savaged by a brutal world only to sandwich-slap the world in return, then I Dared to Dream is your book. It’s a reasonable four dollars on Kindle.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

In Our Darkest Hour by Ron Wilkinson

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

In Our Darkest Hour is a military historical novel by debut author Ron Wilkinson. The story follows captain Alan Lee R.N. DSO MiD as he guides the heavy cruiser HMS Preston through the first few grueling years of the Second World War. With the help of her intrepid crew, the Preston plays a pivotal role in numerous battles across the Mediterranean theater.

HMS Preston sets out in the spring of 1939, before hostilities began, on a routine mission to the Pacific colonies, followed by a not-so-routine interception off the Atlantic coast of Africa. She goes on to perform several missions to Malta and Alexandria, protecting supplies and troop movements across the Mediterranean. On more than one occasion the ship finds herself in the Indian Ocean, facing exotic dangers on the fringes of the war. Her equipment includes sea planes, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy artillery, all employed expertly by our seasoned captain. For the first few chapters, I was having a great time taking in the extraordinary level of detail in the author’s descriptions. Wilkinson has clearly done his homework on gun calibers, mid-century slang (except for the use of “A-team,” which isn’t attested before the 60s), and wartime logistics. There were a lot of info dumps, but I was eager to see what all this detail was serving. As I kept reading, it became apparent that this was it. There is no plot, no progression. The technical details are the story. This is the novelization of one of those “how to spot classic ships” books your father-in-law has on the back of his toilet. It’s like reading the Wikipedia article about whatever real ship the fictional Preston was based on. And honestly, who hasn’t gone down a Wikipedia rabbit hole a wrote a book about it? You know what? I feel like I’ve lost my train of thought. Let’s start over.

In Our Darkest Hour is a naval terminology simulator by HMS Ron Wilkinson. The story follows captain Alanly R.N. S.O.B. as he guides the Proud Preston through some body of water or other back and forth, again and again, until he’s out of war. There are Italians on several occasions, which can only serve to elevate a book in my opinion.

After her initial action in the Atlantic, HMS Preston sneaks across the Mediterranean to Malta, the besieged Allied naval base deep in the heart of the Italian Navy’s sphere of influence. Afterward she seeks repairs in not-quite-ally-yet America, and charges back into the fray. She aids the British in Egypt who are bracing for Rommel’s inevitable advance, and evacuates troops from Greece after it is overrun by Axis forces. The dramatis personae include Germans, who are constantly amazed at just how gritty and determined those English boys are, and some Italians, who initially show up off the coast of Spain and conscientiously sink themselves. We almost never get a precise date, even though years are zipping by over the course of the Preston’s active service, so it’s never clear when the war will be over or when the crew, and more importantly I, can go home. There are sudden switches of tense and point of view, adding to the dreamy sense of disconnectedness. And through it all Ron Wilkinson is having the time of his life, making pew-pew noises under his breath every time the Manchester aims its double caliber quarter inch millimeter topside firing guns. Not to be confused with the aftwise fifty grade bosun’s cannon, or the… OK, I’ve lost the plot again. Let’s try this from the top, one more time.

In Our Darkest Hour is a model train procedural by Winston Churchill. His Majesty’s story follows registered nurse captain Alan Lee III as he flees deeper and deeper into the psychotic delusion that he is commanding officer of a bathtub flotation device called the Preston. Sometimes he believes himself to be a German U-boat commander, for which he is sentenced to several weeks confinement in New Jersey.

World War Two is the heroic tale of one tiny island nation’s plucky determination to not give up, and against all odds maintain their global naval hegemony and exploitative colonial empire. It’s an underdog story, really. HMS Preston protects the British troops minding their own business in Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt, Athens, Yemen, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Anytime the Italians show up and perform some dastardly crime like sink British ships, the virtuous crew of the Preston correct the balance sheet by sinking some Italian ships instead. Eventually the black and white morality of the story make it stop reading like a war between two geopolitically opposed governments, and more like the tale of the luckless heavy cruiser who just can’t catch a break. After countless cycles of rushing into danger at the hands of rabid Fascists, receiving danger, and fleeing danger, the ship starts to feel like a cheerleader in a slasher movie that’s on its fourteenth sequel. Don’t go into the Aegean after dark, Preston! There are Italians on the loose! This is why you keep getting your fo’c’sle blown off, Preston. When will you learn?

Look, obviously I understand that there are people in this world who want nothing more than to read the ongoing adventures of the thirty-seven inch forecannon that could, and World War Two nostalgia is alive and well on both sides of the pond. If your goal is to find something packaged as narrative fiction that satisfies your craving for technical detail, or if you’re the sort of person whose favorite part of any science fiction set is the greeble, then this is your book. The only caveat is, Ron Wilkinson seems to have run up some serious debts researching this thing (pew pew!), because it costs seven dollars on Kindle. Seven entire dollars. Maybe this is a Father’s Day gift, but otherwise I can’t recommend it until the price comes down. Or if you have Kindle Unlimited, in which case welcome to the loony bin; I’m sorry but it doesn’t get better.

Bonus Content: Life is a Movie by Samman Akbarzada

Since this installment was a little short, I thought I would throw in a legitimate recommendation. Life is a Movie is the story of a woman and her son, brutalized by the Taliban, who struggle to have a better life. Even if it weren’t ludicrously topical right now, this book would have the unusual distinction of being too good to ridicule on this blog. Since I started downloading every piece of trash that Amazon sends my way, I’ve discovered that obscure self-published books have no upper limit of quality, and this is a book that easily deserves a place among traditionally published works on your bookshelf. Seriously, check it out. Life is a Movie by Samman Akbarzada. It’s literally one seventh the price of the book I just read about naval gun turret diameters.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

The Traveler by Deborah Dugan

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

Oh boy, science fiction! What a welcome departure from the romance and fantasy that clogs the ranks of new releases. Just listen to author Deborah Dugan talk about the metaphysical:

“When writing a book, each question requires a plausible resolution within the context of the story. There are permutations within each resolution, expanding outward like ripples from a stone thrown into still water, which take the author into the if/then zone.”

This is it. It’s finally happening, people. I am going to love this book. What’s it about? The Traveler is a science fiction story that mostly centers on the budding romance between a young man and a spider. Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s good too. If nothing else, this blog has taught me to just George Bush my way through unpromising ideas. Let’s see where this goes.

Our perspective character Tristan, Trixie to his friends, lives a very ordinary life. Like, Privet Drive ordinary. He’s in his early thirties, lives alone, and works at a thankless corporate job that actually sounds on paper like it would be pretty good. You know the drill, rom-com protagonist. He lives in Region, where there are frequent weathers. He watches sportball game with his friend Dan from office. I’m running over this stuff pretty quickly, but Trixie treats us to exhaustive descriptions of every aspect of his life, from the amount of sugar in his current cup of coffee, to the amount of sugar he would normally have put in his coffee. The bonkers level of detail is constant, and we’ll revisit this later but before life imitates art I really want to move on. Trixie Bradshaw does have one special quirk, as is required by custom. He is arachnophobic.

Then one day a large tarantula named Harry crawls out of his bathroom vent and makes a bashful introduction. The two new roommates sit down to a cup of Joe and a croissant, and determine that each of them is safe with the other. Trixie finds it hard to overcome his arachnophobia, but comes to appreciate the way Harry has shaken up his boring life. Of course, Harry isn’t really a spider. Spiders don’t normally talk, for one thing. Harry is something else, which isn’t fully revealed until the end of the book. The phrase “what the hell is going on” gets tossed about far too flippantly, but I think it’s appropriate here. Though he struggles to explain what he is to his new (and only) friend, Harry does manage a breakdown of auras, string theory, and the resonant frequencies of each individual. The physics of vibration is what allows him to calm Trixie’s fear, through subtle wigglings of his body hair that affect and assuage the young man’s anxiety.

Personally I don’t mind spiders. I don’t love them, but I certainly find them less repulsive than, say, iceberg lettuce-based salads. And Dugan manages to make her descriptions of Harry surprisingly charming, so to any readers out there with a problem with spiders, don’t worry; that’s not the thing that’s going to break you.

Since they have the whole weekend, Trixie and his new friend Harry decide to watch a movie together on the couch. We get an explanation of how Trixie comes to trust Harry enough to sit next to him, and how he comes to care about Harry enough to give him a good spot on the arm rest of the sofa. For his part Harry learns to trust someone more deeply than he has in the past, what with the whole looking like a walking nightmare and all. Even though there are other movies to watch, they choose the Matthew Broderick Godzilla. And love it. This is never explained. And have I mentioned lately that what the hell is going on?

Now fully in love with the spider, Trixie goes to work on Monday and we meet colorful characters like Dan and Girl. We also find out that while Harry and Trixie learning to love one another is the main plot, it’s also a framing device for vignettes from Harry’s past. A full twelve percent of the book is dedicated to a flashback of Harry escaping a murder of crows to get into Trixie’s house. It’s an extended flashback in which a talking spider hatches a convoluted plan to get away from birds. You see, he has to tie snow pea tendrils to a zinnia flower, so he can create a diversion, and boy does it not go according to plan! Have you ever played a game called Frog Fractions? If you have, you’ll know what was going through my mind after a few dozen pages of this.

The story bounces between Trixie and Harry tossing cute couple banter back and forth like a beach ball, flashbacks to Medieval times, the aftermath of Trixie’s failed relationship with Selfies-and-Makeup, a Subway restaurant, hilarious “therapy spider” hijinks, an impromtu catbox made from coffee grinds, and labyrinthine descriptions of Trixie’s painfully mundane life. I’m worried you might think I’m being glib when I call this a romance. But this is not subtext. It may not be a sexual relationship, but Tristan and the bathroom spider are in love, and the plot follows the beats of a romance story.

Now by the conventions of narrative fiction, there are only two ways a romance like this can go. Option one is a contrived misunderstanding, probably involving Tristan taking advantage of his new freedom from arachnophobia to get a job at the exotic pet veterinary clinic, only to be spotted by Harry while tending to the injured gams of a beautiful lady spider. The other option is that society or circumstance cannot allow these two star-crossed soulmates to be together (probably because they’re a man and a spider), and they must battle against fate to be together. I won’t tell you which way it goes, but when it goes, it goes all the way.

Science fiction is a genre trapped in a web of interlocking opinions and definitions. You can’t swing an improbability drive without hitting someone eager to gatekeep what is and is not SF. We get a mention of string theory in this book, and some speculative evolution, so I’m just going to bang my pathetic little gavel and say it counts. But is it good SF? Asimov famously posited three kinds of science fiction. There’s gadget fiction, like those golden age stories about shooting the moon in the eye with a man bullet. There is apparently adventure fiction, where the science is a dramatic prop for the action, like a ninja movie where all the ninjas have laser shurikens, but we’ve all agreed to never write these anymore. And then there’s social fiction, in which the science is just a catalyst to a more pressing personal drama. This last is often treated as the “best” one, because those gatekeeping nerds ruin everything. In the sense that The Traveler consists almost exclusively of personal drama brought into motion by a robot/alien/whatever giant talking tarantula with string theory powers, I would say it’s solidly in the third category. And that makes it the best kind of science fiction. QED.

In all seriousness, “love laughs at locksmiths” isn’t an unprecedented message for a SF story to have, and you can tell the author has a real knack for the kind of cute repartee this approach requires. Once I got past the fact that I was reading a love story between a man and a spider, and I mean seriously what the hell is going on, I had to admit, the quality of the prose is excellent. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of evocative, grammatically coherent writing, Deborah Dugan is easily on par with many traditionally published authors. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a career writer who simply adopted a pseudonym because it was just too embarrassing to attach their name to a story where Arthur Dent crushes on Shelob for a hundred and fifty pages. If you like platonic romance or you’re the absolute worst kind of furry there could possibly be, this is a must. It is more than worth the three dollar price tag on Kindle.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

Michael’s Wing: A Paranormal Fantasy by Sakari Lacross

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

Today we dig ever deeper into the unforgiving wasteland of urban fantasy. Michael’s Wing: A Paranormal Fantasy is a novella by the author known as Sakari Lacross (more on that later). Lacross is primarily a poet, and as far as I can tell this is their first and only work of narrative fiction. In the story, a group of four brothers must save the world from the sinister designs of the archangel Michael.

Quenton-with-an-O lost his fiancée Olivia to a drunk driver named Berry-with-an-E, and now sees her ghost every night. His brothers Damian, Eric, and Devin move in to help him through his depression and apparent mental health crisis. His therapist Alexis, who seems to make daily house calls, joins forces with the three brothers, and then basically disappears from the story. Torch passed. Also making an appearance is neighbor Brittney, who drops off a pie and is hot. Eric wonders if Brittney is just what Quenton needs to help him move on, while Damian wonders if she’s just what Damian needs.

Olivia continues to appear to Quenton. But he isn’t seeing things; Olivia is real and urges him to seek justice for her death. Or rather, someone taking Olivia’s form. It turns out that the archangel Michael has been using Olivia’s spirit to get to Quenton, whom he wants to use as a vessel. We’re told Michael needs hosts to function in the real world, but it’s not clear why he is fixated on inhabiting Quenton’s body when anyone else seems to do just fine. Michael’s knowledge of the world must come from watching the Discovery Channel, because he is sickened by the human race and intends to “purify” it. Quenton will then be lobotomized, or delivered safely to the afterlife to be with Olivia. Not surprisingly, Quenton rejects this plan, and Michael immediately moves on to Damian in the guest bedroom. Initially Damian pulls a gun on him, which is a normal thing to have under your pillow when you visit someone’s house while they’re suffering from a mental breakdown. Michael uses Brittney’s image to calm Damian, but before we can get some wacky, comedy of errors erotica, Michael drops the act and makes the same offer as before. Damian agrees, on the condition that the archangel also cure his brother’s depression. And that’s the end of Act I.

We have acts because the whole thing is written something like a screenplay, though not formatted quite the same way. This is explained in a preface by the author as a way to “get straight to the point,” and cut out all the faff and filler of descriptive text that create a “lack of excitement.” Other authors may chase word counts, but our boy chases a vision. And I’m all for it. If we wrote the way our 9th grade English teachers wanted us to, we’d just be traffic cops for words. So how does this grand experiment that dares defy the conventions of a tired industry fare? Is this book a hidden masterpiece?

No. I get that’s a low blow on a blog where a failed writer sucker punches fledgling authors the day their book comes out. But bear with me while I turn the screw anyway.

The plot plays out like it was drafted as an ad-lib, then stuffed with foreshadowing in editing to create a seamless product. Only the end result doesn’t feel any less random. When Quenton starts blasting away with a handgun, the fact that we saw Damian whip it out on some lady in Act I does little to help me make sense of what I’m reading. It’s like Chekhov’s Gun, if in the first scene someone points to the rifle on the mantelpiece, and in the next chapter they’re playing quidditch with it. There are entire scenes where the main characters simply have things explained to them because the plot is out to lunch. Without spoiling too much, the story becomes a murky kitchen sink full of curious and terrifying choices. Things make no sense, and they’re so casual about not making sense, as if every novel has a scene where the heroes bludgeon innocent people in a church.

The prose is similarly weird. Throughout the story I assumed I was reading something written by an author whose first language is not English. There are awkward phrases like “mental meds,” “mess-maker,” and “sitting in patience” that make me feel like I’m reading a slightly parallel dimension version of English. It’s like when you meet someone named “Alun” and you’re not sure for a second if you’ve slipped into a wormhole. People address random strangers as “civilians,” call each other “big brother,” travel a road called “the I-107,” go to the “relic museum” downtown, and use remorse as a verb. Call me picky, but I don’t think all of these deviations from standard practice are intentional.

The version of Christianity Lacross is working with seems to be one of his own invention, which adds another layer to the mystery. Michael wants to rid the world of moral degeneracy, but also lets it slip that he wants to make the world “safe for kids and the elderly” which sounds less Old Testament and more Tipper Gore. His conversation with deities from other religions (oh yeah, spoilers—there are deities from other religions) is simply wild. They call him a “fairy,” to which he replies “respect my culture,” suggesting that in this universe the awkward balance between political correctness and petty intolerance in the real world is perfectly mirrored among divine beings themselves. The Judeo-Christian god is referred to as the god of creation, in more or less the same way that Poseidon is the god of the sea, or Anoia is the goddess of things that get stuck in drawers.

This left me wondering who this Sakari Lacross is. They say in poker you don’t play your hand, you play the person sitting across from you. Reading their emotions and intentions is what the game is all about. In that case I’ve been playing poker with Sakari Lacross for most of the afternoon, and I guess I lost because I read Michael’s Wing. Imagine my surprise when I reached the end of the book and discovered that Sakari Lacross is actually Mike from Cleveland (via Phoenix), and the prose in this book is not so much the imperfect acquisition of a second language, as the product of the Arizona public and charter education system. I’m not trying to be mean (though as a shriveled up, misanthropic old lady shouting into a blog I can see where you would get that idea); I just have an unhealthy obsession with the people behind baffling books.

I couldn’t help peeking a little further down the Sakari Lacross rabbit hole, since it’s a rare luxury for anyone featured on this blog to have an oeuvre to paw through, and I was curious how a poet could write prose that made me feel like I was losing my ability to read. All I found was a collection of poetry entitled PTSD, apparently about breakups. Someone on Goodreads gave it three stars and called it “good,” which just goes to show what a precious place Goodreads is compared to Amazon, where three stars is the rating you give a book when you hate it so much you can’t see straight. And that’s where I stopped, because I’m not reading breakup poetry called PTSD. I read a sex book by an old man with a popcorn fetish, but even I have limits.

Usually at this point I say something like “read this book if you enjoy feeling like your head is a microwave full of forks.” But honestly, the number of people out there who will unironically like Michael’s Wing: A Paranormal Fantasy is not trivial. The story is amateurish, but always engaging, and at two dollars on Kindle, it’s priced perfectly.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

My Accidental First Date by Casey Morales

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

Ever wonder what you would get if you crossed Boy Meets World with Tom of Finland? My Accidental First Date by debut author Casey Morales is a memoir about a young man’s awakening following a fateful encounter in the late summer of 1994. This is just the sort of good, clean, sticky fun I’ve been waiting for on this blog. But my luck being what it is, the book is equal parts guilty pleasure and guilty punishment.

Michael, bored at home on a Saturday afternoon, picks up the booty call meant for his roommate. Mystery caller Joseph doesn’t miss a beat and asks Michael to the movies instead. Starting at Joseph’s place, Michael lets us know just how gorgeous this strange man asking him to the movies is, in a purely heterosexual way. This is one of those things where fiction can’t cleave too closely to real life. Here in the world of real humans a straight man can notice that another man’s cheek bones are such a work of art that they are in real danger of being stolen by the British Museum. But in a book with a shirtless dude on the cover, this just makes Michael seem even dumber when he fails over and over to notice that he is gay as a picnic basket.

The fact that they had so many quality new releases to choose from that they didn’t bother to pick until after meeting at Joseph’s condo filled me with nostalgia. Let me just look at my local AMC’s showtimes. Ah, yes, Paw Patrol: The Movie, The Suicide Squad, Don’t Breathe 2, and the most anticipated film of 2015, Black Widow. But I guess the 90s weren’t all fun, games, and being able to support a family on one income, because the movie they end up seeing is Threesome with Stephen Baldwin. Michael, oblivious that this is a date for several more chapters, walks to the theater with his new pal, and notices that on this humid, sexy day Joseph’s curls are sitting just perfectly, and also his nipples are happy. I don’t know what that means, because it’s not cold outside, just the opposite. Does “happy nipples” mean sweaty nipples? A preview for Caligula plays before the movie, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but maybe it’s the Peruvian soap opera Caligula, I don’t know.

The two share an enticing bag of popcorn and a Sprite. The buttery sex corn and gargantuan drink with one straw for them to both suck on compete for page real estate with a shockingly hostile description of an overweight woman for reasons I still do not understand. Honestly, Michael hates fat women who exist more than words can say. Little by little he realizes that the movie they’re watching while trapped in a room with a large female person has gays in it! And that’s where I will leave you, in the capable hands of Stephen Baldwin and leather-upholstered stadium seating.

Most of the time when I read a first person perspective that’s presented in a very Tom Sawyer, “let me tell you about the time” voice, I don’t assume that I’m reading actual autobiography. But Morales writes with such an incriminating Gen X accent that, whether he shared a wet bag of popcorn with a guy named Joseph or not, I feel like I’ve stared directly into his unvarnished personal history. This is a 1994 where people name their cars Betty, call things they like “little puddin’s” or “that damned twinkle,” and use words like knickknack, minx, and poopedness. The nostalgia needed to write “his sensuous Orville Redenbacher breath” is so localized within a section of late twentieth century middle class American life that I almost feel like Casey Morales has given me his home address. No one could fake this.

The action is simple enough, but gets squished between digressions on various relevant or non-relevant topics. We get a description of the car that nearly totaled ol’ Betty. We get a story about how working for a local politician gave Michael a free movie pass, and how he felt guilty about it (Imagine—seeing a movie for free! Who could live with such crimes?). The lengthy paean to stadium seating, the hot new innovation in movie theater design, left me wondering if maybe our author went on this date in 1974. We hear endless details about his Christian upbringing and love for green Boy Scout socks. There’s a fable about a Native American medicine man and his message of Catholic guilt. There are several places where the word “anyway” gets its own paragraph. Flipping through this book is like listening to your dad’s friend at a barbecue pay out a long, meandering story, in the hopes that it will eventually turn into gay erotica.

And it does! I won’t spoil it too much, but suffice it to say, there are penises in this book. Of course, it wouldn’t be possibly-Boomer-posing-as-Gen-Xer erotica without some good old fashioned creepy sex tropes. This is one of those stories where people push through another person’s resistance because they’ve read the book and they know it ends well. But our reluctant gay-to-be Michael gives plenty of signs that he is not interested in Joseph’s advances at first, including at one point looking “scared to death,” only to be creeped into submission. Massages, man. If only Aziz Ansari had known about the power of massages. The version of gay life portrayed here is understandably dated (it took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that the fact Joseph owns antiques was supposed to be a giveaway), but this is a pretty cringy way to write any sexual encounter that is being portrayed as a positive moment in a young person’s life.

I understand that I am the last person to evaluate one of these books as good or bad. How do I even determine if this is worth your time when there are literally hundreds of gay romances published on Amazon every nanosecond? And what are my credentials, anyway? If a normal person faced the profundity of what I don’t know about sex, it would look like the theater scene in A Clockwork Orange. But I will say this. I expected a book with some dicks in it, and I got a book with some dicks in it. That’s gotta be worth something.

On a serious note, however, four dollars is a little steep for the length. Maybe wait to pick it up during a promotion.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

Rutchit: The Adventure Begins by Richard Rogers

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

I’ve read a lot of books about the gradual erosion of sanity, about a mind being chipped away like a boulder by the sea. But it’s a rare treat when the piece-meal psychological breakdown is the reader’s. Rutchit: The Adventure Begins is definitely a book. That is one fact I can pin down and not expect to fly away the moment my back is turned. It was probably summoned into existence by a real person named Richard Rogers, and was published less than twenty four hours ago when this post was made. At least, I think so. Right now I wouldn’t be surprised if I looked in the mirror and saw Robin Williams from Jumanji staring back at me. I wish I could tell you what this book is like, really I do. But I can’t. I can only try to explain what happened to me when I read it. I promise I’m not crazy.

Rutchit: The Adventure Begins follows Rutchit, a Rutchiti warrior and Chosen One as he and his revolving cast of friends battle a revolving cast of enemies, most of whom are also Rutchiti warriors. The story mostly consists of a series of battles and maneuvers between the two shifting groups, with some travel and fetch quests thrown in for good measure. Let me see if I can summarize the prologue. We start in 1720 somewhere with the trial of Crazy Fred, who escapes confinement. He battles and kills the leader of the Rutchiti before being killed by Dominick. But Fred’s supporters revive him with a Rutchiti stone, only his name is now Ricardo, which isn’t a name he chose but he likes it enough that he gets upset whenever people call him Fred from this point on. Ricardo then kills Dominick, who is also revived, but I guess they pulled him out of the printer too early because he comes out ugly and has a tail and also his name is Sinserious now. There’s a kidnapping, a showdown, a rematch between Sinserious and Ricardo, and the conspirators are sentenced to death by whale while Ricardo’s minion Mookcoo flees in a balloon. It’s now around 1980, and Sinserious meets and picnics a girl named Lily. The progression goes as follows: picnic, cohabitation, pregnancy, miscarriage, wedding. Then two more babies are born, Twinkle-Star and Rutchit. But gasp! Ricardo is back! In his efforts to kill the two babes he mortally wounds Lily, who Sinserious must then dispose of in a volcano.

And that’s where our story proper begins. The entire thing is written in the same voice, with the same slang and spelling errors (the consistent “could of”s are easy enough to tune out, but it took me a while to understand why someone would “elect” out of an airplane), rarely punctuated, with no paragraph breaks, and not properly formatted for Kindle so it lacks discernible line breaks as well. Oh, and every word is capitalized, which I legitimately did not notice for hours because it was the least distracting thing on the page. Here’s a representative sample, although for full effect you’ll need to pretend there are a few more cutaways to characters shouting early 2000s internet slang at each other:

“Then 3 Vampire Bat Birds Attacked And Rutchit Got Smacked Around And Kicked Until Him & Sasquash Teamed Up To Deal With The First One By Having Sasquash Distract Them Long Enough To Charge Up His Rutchiti Blast To Blow It To Bits.”

Sasquash is a lion friend. I’m pretty sure he showed up in chapter three, because these are my notes from chapter three:

“Rutchiti jet fighter, serpent slash, Sasquash, Rutchiti = planet?, escape parachute, whale shark = Adam Jesús”

The plot is cyclical, with each crisis leading into the next without betraying any hint that the previous plot point has been resolved. Every battle plays out as a slight variation on a pattern, often involving the same people in the same location as a previous battle. The oozing sponge of a plot, combined with the edgeless run-on sentences creates the feeling of a Nichiren Buddhist chant or a Shephard tone; it gives the illusion of progress without leaving one spot. I found myself looking down at the percentage in the bottom right of my Kindle every few minutes, just to ensure it was still going up. I’m almost surprised it never winked at me. At some point our heroes visit a nearby galaxy, encounter talking trees, and visit a candy castle. There’s a fight in which they are briefly pulled into the “3-D dimension,” then safely returned, leaving me to thirst for explanations I knew I would never taste. I won’t spoil the ending, but honestly I could just say anything. How do I even know what I read?

Any time I feature something on this blog I want to make sure that I’m not doing anyone dirty. At first glance this looked like something Neil Breen would cough up after swallowing a typewriter, i.e. fair game. But as soon as I started reading the book this assumption was shattered, and replaced with coruscating layers of urgent bewilderment. Was this written by a ten year old in Serbia, and I am the literary equivalent of someone hurling insults at children on a Minecraft server? The idea occurred to me that this was never intended to be judged as a piece of literature, but was cobbled together by a group of students as a class project. Another idea came slowly into focus as I read. You may remember Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle from Saved by the Bell. In real life Voorhies suffers from Schizoaffective Disorder, and wrote a book in 2011 in which every page looks like this:

By, the, tides, we, have, carry, to, the, answer, and, rotation, of, the, prime, station, of, known, proof. That, the, composite, effective, has, windtried, the, focal, placement, of, real, treasure.

Could I be taking the piss out of someone with a similar condition? A quick search brought me no closer to understanding, though it seems that the book was the product of a would-be video production company. Someone has been creating Twitter, facebook, and Youtube accounts for Richard Rogers, RutchitiWarriors, RutchitVideo, etc., but they are almost entirely empty, and mostly interact with each other.

Would I wish this fate inflicted on another? Kind of. Once I squished my brain back into my ears, I was impressed at the level of follow through in Rutchit: The Adventure Begins. This book made me feel like I was being gaslit by the universe for hundreds of pages without interruption. The current price is five dollars on Kindle, which is way too high, but if it’s ever on sale, pick it up just to confirm that it is real, and I didn’t imagine the whole thing. I promise I’m not crazy.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

The Soul’s Aspect by Mark Holloway

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

In our inaugural installment, we’ll be looking at The Soul’s Aspect, a YA fantasy novel from debut author Mark Holloway. This may sound like a dangerous precedent to set, but hear me out: I’m going to walk you through most of this book. I won’t spoil the end, but we are going to gawk and gape our way through the strange reptile house of fantasy tropes that Holloway has seen fit to build. You’ll see why I’m doing this.

We begin in a small farming village with about a half dozen named characters, including our young protagonist, Kermit. The widower father makes vague allusions to the Jedi that his cousin’s former roommate once knew, and gives his son a debilitating concoction that’s totally not dulling his secret Jedi powers. Honestly, this isn’t the worst foreshadowing, because in this teenage power fantasy we know the lad has to be a Jedi sooner or later. But at this point I think it would be more of a surprise to find a picturesque hamlet whose chief export is anything other than protagonists. We also get our love interest, Eva. Better get used to that name, because you’re going to see it a lot in this book, and most of it consists of Kermit repeating her name over and over (sometimes augmented with descriptions of hair color), because we learn bugger all about her. She is the first act love interest Mark II, less two dimensional damsel in distress, and more two dimensional blandly competent person who has even less reason to settle for this dork. Oh, and one more detail: her family makes candles. Is this a fantasy trope, or am I going crazy? It seems like the home town love interest is always a chandler in these things. I’m not complaining; I think this is a positive development in metafiction. Anyway we’re calling her Molly from now on for no reason, no reason at all.

Kermit spends his days being told by every living creature on Tatooine that he needs to tell Molly how he feels, which is our first of many tropes that really need to go away. I don’t know how clearly you all remember adolescence, but I don’t remember a time when emotionally burdening others with my awkward desires was a good idea. Of course it’s fine; she’s totally into him because he’s the protagonist and oh look, it’s another trope that needs to die a horrible death. Luckily, before Kermit can monologue about how much he hates sand or whatever, a Grisha comes to town and takes Kermit away for his training. Since this is mandatory military training imposed by an occupying power, I was surprised to read this described as a “rescue,” but hey, parents be trippin’. Kermit disowns his father and says his farewells to Molly, who is remarkably chill about having a kidnapped wizard boyfriend.

So obviously in this teenage power fantasy, our protagonist is a prodigy in magic. Magic in this world is presented as mechanistic, and for a few pages I wondered if the twist was that it’s just steam and the simple farm folk of District 12 can’t wrap their minds around such a concept. But no, it’s standard sword and sorcery magic. We have two countries, the conniving wine sippers known as the Vin, and the hearty ale-quaffing rustics known as Caesarians. They have some other name, but that’s the only way you’re going to be able to read it so don’t fight it. Anyway, the Jedi whisks Kermit off to Hogwarts and along the way we meet obvious future sidekicks Ensign Kif and Broch. Broch is described as a philandering, self-absorbed, privileged student, so good luck not calling him Brock Turner in your mind for the rest of the book. Don’t worry, he’s gay. It’s fine. Kermit saves Brock’s life using a diagram he found in a book Ensign Kif showed him to stop a deadly infection. This establishes two things: first, that given sufficient talent, magic in this world works like youtube tutorials, and second that our protagonist is effortlessly, one might almost say suspiciously, perchance even foreshadowingly, good at magic.

Kermit’s excitement at approaching the Little Palace gives us our first glimpse at our target audience, when he complains that he never made many friends back in Uwe Bol Village because he was a specky, medicated indoor kid obsessed with books. YA fantasy always appeals to this demographic, but part of the power fantasy usually involves becoming the celebrity jock, and I found it quite refreshing that for the entire book our reader insertion main character is an utterly hopeless dweeb. Apparently he thought this was going to be a rather perfunctory abduction, because he is surprised to learn that the training generally lasts three years, maybe two for the very advanced. Incidentally, this is also how long it takes to graduate law school.

Buckkeep School of Law exposes our plucky hero to some new ideas. The sight of a woman doing a thing causes him to shrug his shoulders and wonder why we don’t just all not have any sexism (I mean, we’re still not going to pass the Bechdel test, let’s not be hasty). This is another classic trope that will pop up a few times: our reader insertion has to expressly assure the audience that his moral sensibilities are strictly modern. In The Soul’s Aspect this is always done as clumsily as possible, and usually leaves me confused because we rarely get any context for these beliefs. We don’t know how open-minded society is in general, and on the rare occasion that Kermit has to change his perspective, it’s not clear that he had any strong preconceptions in the first place. We get some similar head-cocking and shoulder-shrugging as Ensign Kif tells us a little more about the aspect, the substance that binds together the flow of energy and all living things.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am a sucker for good worldbuilding. And when I say “sucker,” I mean it. You can sell me a full price ticket to the worst movie of the year if there’s an extended scene in which Alfrod The Wise explains how furlongs are measured differently in each province of the realm. I once sat through the entirety of Shadow and Bone, and it sure wasn’t for the creepy teen-girl-gaze gay sex. A boilerplate fantasy novel can keep me in my popcorn if it just metes out enough information about language, culture, what people eat when they’re hungover, etc. So I was disappointed when they finally get to Buckkeep School of Law and it’s just nothing. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the entire campus as a series of gray concrete hallways like some Brutalist university parking garage, because I had nothing else to go on. They have zipline elevators, and various rooms with names like “dormitory” and “study hall,” and I guess there’s a lake nearby? But who knows what any of this stuff looks like, or smells like, or tastes like. Come to that, Holloway has a habit of telling me about things I would rather feel. Apparently sometimes there is incense, but I don’t know what kind. Sometimes the characters eat food, and we get descriptions like “a bowl of rice and some eggs.” The main character eats curry for the first time, and calls it “spicy,” so I guess I should be grateful for that. I Guess what I’m saying is that this setting is such a blank slate we have no choice but to goose it up a little as we go.

Kermit wanders his way through the second act from room to room, generally overwhelmed by Vin racism, academic regulation, and naked public bathing. One of the aspector teachers kills a rat, so that’s them confirmed for villains later in the book. The roommate triumvirate is complete with the arrival of Thain Longbottom. Kermit is learning to use magic for evil, and to his dismay this includes gym class. I cannot explain to you how much I love the fact that the latest challenge to face this magical prodigy in a power fantasy for teenagers is running laps. The Supreme Soul gives him a side hustle among the seers, the monk-like order parallel to the aspectors, and Kermit’s life settles into something resembling a routine.

At one point Brock is forced to work at the library as a punishment, which checks out because he is currently studying fabricating, which is basically wizard engineering. True story. I once asked a graduate of an engineering school, who lived on campus, where the library was and got “I don’t know” as a response. These are the people building your freeway overpasses. Anyway the library smells like garlic bread and just-blown-out birthday candles because every library should smell amazing and who’s going to argue with me about what the setting is like? Mark Holloway? There the gang meets Atlanta the librarian, who copy-pastes the author’s worldbuilding notes about the heretical religious side of the aspect. Meanwhile capitalism strikes again, because apparently conscripted military service is not free, and Kermit gets a job at the local watering hole when he’s not becoming exponentially stronger in the use of magic. I can’t recall anyone explaining what prevents wizards from just magicking their way through a part-time job, but I guess it’s not allowed. As Kermit starts to learn more about the aspect and his own abilities than he is meant to know, and the three Caesarian students learn the extent of their second class citizenship within the Vin empire, they begin to hatch a plan to train themselves in secret. When their training brings them closer, Neville and Brock fall in love. Kermit assures us over and over that he approves of his friends being gay, but honestly he could save his breath. The Sword of Damocles is dangling so low over these two it’s peeking into frame like a poorly handled boom mic.

The training becomes more intense as Kermit’s abilities agitate the Vin leadership of Buckkeep School of Law. P. E. now includes sparring practice, and Kermit is deliberately paired up with Frinkle, the rich, racist bully. This really highlights some of the weaknesses in unrelated and legally distinct works like Harry Potter: if Malfoy had just focused on getting swol, he could be his own Crabbe and Goyle. Again, there is no solution to Kermit’s physical limitations. He just gets the snot beat out of him repeatedly, and it never gets any better. I love it so much. The scene is set for the ultimate showdown, in which Kermit and his friends must face the wrath of irate school administrators.

As I approached the final act of this book I felt like I could predict everything that was to come. I had already reached the point where anytime a new character appeared I was immediately replacing their name in my head with the corresponding character in Harry Potter. I had it all mapped out: Ensign Kif’s redemption arc, Molly’s urgent distress message, the wacky escape through the sewers, the decisive battle against mini-boss Frinkle. I really was not prepared for what I read. The ending of this book is bananas. If you take those words literally, and assume the third act of The Soul’s Aspect is just sketches of bananas in different lighting conditions, you still would not be prepared for how off the rails this thing goes.

I originally felt bad about spoiling most of the book and ridiculing a debut author for leaning so heavily on tried and true genre tropes. But as I started writing I realized that I was going to get to the end of this rant with a pretty solid recommendation. The Soul’s Aspect is brazenly cliché, and doesn’t always pull off those cliches well, making me nostalgic for earlier iterations of the same ideas that did them masterfully. But I was never bored, even when I was rolling my eyes in disbelief, and I wasn’t kidding about the ending. It’s worth it. So there you go, Mark Holloway, by way of apology I’m telling people to go buy your book. It’s four dollars on Kindle, and I can only assume there will be a whole trilogy about the continuing antics of Kermit the Wizard.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.