The Devil Pulls the Strings by J. W. Zarek

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

It’s midnight in Amazon Employee Work Camp 1, and that’s exciting, because whenever it’s a new day in Seattle I get new books! The Devil Pulls the Strings is an urban fantasy adventure by J. W. Zarek.

Our main character is Boone Daniels. Normally that might be silly and distracting, but don’t worry. Everything else is so silly and distracting that you’ll look back with nostalgia on the days when you thought naming your protagonist Bizarro Daniel Boone was weird. He is the lead singer of a band at the Missouri Renaissance festival and moonlights as a jouster. See, I told you. After crippling his best friend and bandmate over an airhorn blast, he promises to fill in at his friend’s upcoming gig in New York City. New York City is known for two things: inauthentic salsa and subjecting out-of-towners to wacky hijinks, so this should be good. Boone narrowly escapes being crushed by a murder piano and gun-toting goons, but luckily pushes Girl out of the way and into a waiting taxi. They speed off, only to discover that this is a magical taxi, mainly because they can afford the fare. It drops the pair off at the NYU campus, and Girl gets a name: Sapphire Anjou. Not sure what I was expecting, but it’s better than Girl. They head to Professor Wikhamby’s lecture hall where a violin competition is about to begin.

Throughout this part of the story we see various unexplained things happen to Boone. He has periodic visions of a boy in 1790 named Niccolo, the most recent of which included Sapphire in a supporting role. He receives a magical comb from a language-blending homeless woman which, I mean we’ve all been there. There’s a large cat that is clearly more than it seems. There are flocks of crows everywhere that only Boone can see. All of this mysterious stuff serves as a subtle literary technique called foreshadowing.

“Then you crash into me, and everything goes from rosy rainbows and merry munchkins to a piano and a dead body falling on me wicked witch style.”

Boone and Sapphire hide in a dark office building from the thugs pursuing them, and Boone fights to keep “the beast” at bay. We are told, in the most matter of fact way I can imagine delivering such information, that Boone is possessed by a wendigo, and that according to an Ojibwe shaman it will come out whenever he is in dark places. It probably sounds like I’m being glib and just talking about the parts that sound silly out of context, but did I even mention the severed hand in the copier machine? Or the water fountain that tastes like Doritos because the building is haunted? No, I did not. You’re welcome.

They finally reach Wikhamby, and Sapphire changes for the competition. Surprise! She’s a violin virtuoso. She comes out in a red dress, and our hero, who has apparently learned everything he knows about human society from Tex Avery cartoons, starts slobbering onto his own chin and making A-OO-GA noises. They sit through the professor’s lecture as he dismisses various rumors about Paganini and the Devil, in a subtle literary technique known as foreshadowing. Sapphire wins the competition by continuing to play after her instrument disintegrates, after the previous three rubes thought that a violin falling apart between your fingers was a legitimate reason to stop playing.

Now we finally get to the part where the wise old professor metes out a little exposition to get the first act really moving. It turns out, there are three pieces of music by Paganini that, if brought together and played in one location under the light of a full moon, will summon demonic magic. Nobody knows exactly what form this magic will take, but apparently NYU has decided that the perfect time to do this is at a charity gala in the park. That doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do, but neither does taking on a hundred thousand dollars of student debt, so clearly the people at NYU know something I don’t. These pieces of music are what everyone is after, including the armed men from earlier. Now it’s up to Boone and Sapphire to secure the three pieces of the Trifor- I mean, the three pieces of Paganini music, before the bad guys find them. Luckily, among Boone’s many skills is the innate ability to play any piece of music after hearing it once, which is told to the reader at just this stage of the plot as a subtle literary technique called foreshadowing.

In case you haven’t noticed in my rambling attempts to recount the plot, our hero is everything at once. He’s a wise-cracker who steals bread rolls from a buffet cart while pretending to listen to exposition. He can throw a bowl and deflect a bullet with it. Also, he speaks French; he’s possessed; he has advanced synesthesia. All of these traits are presented to the reader with a knowing wink, as if to say “Gosh, isn’t that an odd detail to mention here, in the nice cozy first act?” This man is Chekhov’s Museum of Military History. The Harry Potter epilogue couldn’t wrap up this many loose ends.

Usually I assume that these sorts of kitchen sink Marty Stus are author insertions, and given his bio on Amazon, it does seem that Zarek has a lot to say about his own life. Unlike the scuttling rat-people who make up most of the English teachers in Asia, he made something of himself and joined the FBI to fight pirates and make sweet love to canals. I don’t think I would enjoy reading his autobiography, but I do feel like I’m getting a delightful sneak preview of its tone and style in The Devil Pulls the Strings.

Is it worth sticking around to find out how crows and synesthesia team up to save the day? The fast pace of The Devil Pulls the Strings kept me from ever getting bored, and while the plot makes Boone sound obnoxious, the way he’s written is actually more charming than irritating. He feels like any of the Missouri Ren Fair musician jouster wendigos you’ve met in real life. The supporting cast is a bunch of sock puppets, but they get the job done. Overall it’s a perfectly fun little adventure story, and it’s literally a dollar on Kindle.

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

The Basis: String Theory and Buddhist Cosmology merged with revolutionary mathematics by Dawson Preethi

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

There are a lot of mashups in the world: The Grey Album, Good Omens, white wine and reality television. But author Dawson Preethi looked at this great legacy and decided that what the world really needs is a mashup of Neil Breen and Deepak Chopra. The Basis: String Theory and Buddhist Cosmology merged with revolutionary mathematics (the change in capitalization is not mine) is a philosophical treatise about fiction writing, the nature of the universe, Marxism, and Nirvana.

“So far as I am going to interpret Buddhist cosmology concepts in my own method of reassembling to create a set of rules connected with metaphysical activity, which could span with the assistance of physical laws, having a problem of placing them in the same backdrop of ‘reality’ is the challenge.”

I’m going to walk you through the first part of the book as best I can. Please bear in mind that while it may not make much sense to you, I am accurately representing what I experienced. Most of these reviews read like Kanzi the Bonobo’s book report on Infinite Jest, but this time it’s not my fault I swear. Our story begins when our protagonist Gananatha is held at gunpoint by a mysterious woman, known for now simply as X, who insists that he has stolen and revealed the details of her life through his work. He insists that this is impossible, as his stories are purely works of fiction. Then we cut to a different perspective character, Sirimanna, who is approached with a writing job. The shadowy revolutionary Konstantin asks him to ghost write a story about a violent revolutionary act. How this will manifest a real revolution remains unclear.

Gananatha listens to the mystery woman as she spills her life story. She wanted to be a writer and failed. She wanted to be a revolutionary, but fell into the ranks of fake activists exploiting the suffering of the real proletariat. One day she discovered that the stories in her own journal were appearing in literary magazines under the name of a man who works at a glove factory. Meanwhile Sirimanna calculates that he will need to write around two thousand words an hour all day to complete his latest gig on time, meaning he will need to approach the typing speed of Dawson Preethi. He creates seven characters, Alfa, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, and Eta and ponders what sort of psychology each will have. Looking to brush up on his Fukuyama, he visits the local library and accidentally swaps his bag for someone else’s.

“Lankathilaka Sirimanna began to cast a grandiose stare at Konstantin, imbuing his filthy face with a dramatic intellectual aspect and a profound contemplative expression.”

Lady X and Gananatha bond over their Buddhist faith. It turns out they have other ideas in common, as they discuss the nature of science, language, and planes of existence. Our protagonist insists that the work she is concerned about, the story of Walimuni, is fictitious, but a few details jump out at me during this conversation. First, he mentions in passing his friend Konstantin in a rare bit of foreshadowing. Second, the woman accuses him of parricide for astrologically predicting his father’s death. Sirimanna explains how the plot to blow up the Parliament of Tarantinoland will play out, complete with tunneling schedules. Then we are treated to a lengthy conversation between Alfa and Beta in the story within the story.

The argument starts, as all things do, with Hegel. Beta levels some tough questions about Hegel at Alfa, who admits that he has only ever skimmed the relevant works, and indeed it is quite likely that subsequent commentaries and Marxists have only skimmed them as well. Nevertheless, he is confident in his understanding of the text, and I gotta give a little credit to that kind of commitment. Also, it is perfectly acceptable to skim Hegel. This was an era when you just kind of said things, and if they felt thruthy to you, then you moved on to the next thing. And in fine nineteenth century German tradition, everything is written in a parenthetical within a clause within a sentence that is four pages long. After establishing that only betas read, the conversation moves on to revolution versus democratic reform. Point is, these guys are Very Smart, and probably explain to their date at Red Lobster what she should have done in her previous relationships.

“She straightens her armed arm in a straight line.”

It may sound like I’ve covered half the plot, but that’s barely a fifth of the way into the book. There is a whole chapter in which a man referred to exclusively as Ron Champ has a special code red and two cats dressed as people. I think. We get a chart of the various planes of existence and how many dimensions of time each one has (poor Neraya somehow has negative three?). At some point the narrative style shifts to a lecture, abandoning the dueling monologues of the earlier chapters.

I’ve been shielding you so far from Dawson Preethi’s writing style. I can’t say it’s bad, because it’s clearly hitting exactly the tone it’s going for. You know when you go to an art museum, and there’s a giant bronze sculpture of a non-Euclidian horse vagina, and you’re like “Wow, it took someone a long time to make this. They had to plan it, get funding, work hard on its realization. And maybe they ruffled a few feathers in the art world along the way.” And you’re glad that this thing has been added to art history. But then you look left and right at the other people in the room and realize you’re all staring at a horse vagina, and all you can think about it scrubbing this entire experience from your mind. Dawson Preethi is committed to taking forever to make a point and using words in ways I’m pretty sure he invented. Even Hegel would skim this. It got to the point where I started doubting myself and my own understanding of the English language. I would find my finger hovering over my dictionary app, the many voices in my head arguing over whether or not I have gone crazy (the small Frenchman won: I am perfectly sane). Then there are the references. They’re rarely integrated into the narrative, instead being laid over top as in “It was like Alice in Wonderland or Das Kapital.”

But this is a book that you can’t let go; your brain will not give up until it has made some kind of sense of it, like a sudoku that uses flavors instead of numbers. Besides the cliché pseudo-science about the Big Bang, string theory, and repackaged Indian mysticism, and mind-blowing nuggets of teen wisdom like “no living thing tells the truth” and “medical science comes from words,” there is a lot to sink your teeth into here. Preethi is obviously very well read. He is not only fascinated by big philosophical questions, but actually thinks about them and is eager to share what he has discovered. Just when the references get stale he’ll bring up Kung Fu Panda or the Muppet Show, and pull me back in. For four dollars, you can experience this unsolvable puzzle for yourself, and honestly I think some people might enjoy that. Just be prepared to read each sentence about three times to make sure you did it right.

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

The Muse of Kill Devil Hills: A Historical Fantasy by Mary K. Kaiser

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

My wife frequently asks me “Madeline, are you an internet bully?” to which I reply “If anything, I’m the victim here.” This week we have our first requested review, which means you all enjoy watching me roll a stone uphill for all eternity enough to poke me and offer a bigger stone. The Muse of Kill Devil Hills: A Historical Fantasy by Mary K. Kaiser follows Polyhymnia, the Greek muse in charge of church music, as she teaches her crush Wilbur Wright how to make airplanes.

Polyhymnia, Polly to her friends, is the youngest of nine sisters. Her job is normally to inspire people to come up with sick dance moves and Gregorian chants, but for some reason her latest project is to teach the mortals how to fly. Her sister Urania stops by periodically to dump a bucket of cold water on the whole idea. Urania can tell the future, and continually fails to understand how weird it is to mix past, present, and future events in a conversation. This is helpful for the reader, but pisses Polyhymnia off every time, which means she is obviously doing it on purpose.

Our heroine visits some of the early aviation enthusiasts, and tries to steer them away from starring in that famous montage of glider crashes that you’ve probably seen set to Yakety Sax. She briefly meets up with the Wright brothers, but at this stage there are other men, men with much, much bigger mustaches, who are bigger players in the aviation game. There’s just one problem. While Polyhymnia can take corporeal form, she cannot appear as a different sex than the one she was assigned by a bunch of dead Greeks. This means that no one listens to her. She goes from one inventor to another, offers some highly specific advice about aileron angles and widget flanges, gets completely ignored, and watches them glide off a cliff with only their mustaches to cushion the fall. This is the best plot device that has ever been written. So many authors struggle to give their divine characters a weakness to maintain tension in the story, and come up with elaborate schemes ranging from ancient blood pacts to crypto-Kryptonite. Meanwhile, Mary K. Kaiser is like “Nah. Just girl.” Polyhymnia offers her assistance to an august professor at the Smithsonian, and he places a coffee order for the whole office. Chef kiss.

After seeing the Wright brothers tinker with wing designs when they’re not working their bicycle shop, Polyhymnia becomes increasingly convinced that they offer the most promising chance of achieving heavier than air flight. Or maybe she wants them to quit their day job repairing DIY groin injury machines that make you sweaty and angry. Urania informs us that this is a foolish decision, since her prognosticating powers tell her that Langley at the Smithsonian is a more likely candidate.

Polyhymnia becomes closer to Wilbur as she offers subtle aid to the brothers. It turns out, Wilbur is unusual among mortals in that he can see her when she is in her ethereal form. She accompanies Wilbur on his early glider experiments, and joins him in his brainstorming sessions. As the two get closer, things slowly get steamy. Very slowly. One of the early highlights of their budding relationship is when she rides behind him on his bicycle, the closest mortals get to flying. This scene is unrealistic, since they are not both miserable and trying to cough up a fly, but otherwise it is endearing. Their flirting at this stage mostly consists of bicycle-based double entendres, because you can sneak the words “ride” and “hard” and “tube” into a conversation about bicycle repair fairly easily. Wilbur is thoughtful and kind, and for most of the book we don’t even know if he has his shirt off or not. He is the thinking woman’s lumberjack.

True to the mythical source material, Polyhymnia thinks and behaves more or less like a normal person smitten by a hot thinky dude. I won’t give away how the story eventually deals with the dilemma of an immortal being loving a mortal, because it doesn’t become a big issue until later, but it was all I could think about from the beginning. And it’s because of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead is an immortality simulator based on a hit TV show from many years ago called The Walking Dead. To maintain tension, the writers want you to know that anyone could die at any time, and no character is safe. For this threat to be valid, they need to actually kill off a large fraction of the fan favorites every season. And since the show is of legal drinking age by now, that means that everyone is dead, and everyone who replaced them is dead. Heroes, villains, the dog. All dead. The blood bath has reach such levels of Taylorisation that some characters’ entire arc consists of “Hi, my name is- ARGH!” What’s the point in carrying on when all the characters you’ve invested in are long dead, and the new ones discourage emotional investment with their mosquito-esque life spans? Being a Greek goddess must be like watching season 37 of The Walking Dead and trying to give a crap what happens.

Another point about our hapless help-meet Polyhymnia. There is a scene early on in which our protagonist remarks on a secretary’s obsequiousness, and compares him to the slaves of old. I thought that was a pretty cringey thing to say, like something my mom’s white lady friends would say on facebook. Then the pieces came together in my mind. She is European, and from ancient times. Polyhymnia is an Old White Lady. It all makes sense: her effusive praise of George Washington Carver, her constant complaining about the weather in Ohio, all of it. This is the story of your parents’ Boomer friend who sticks her nose into other people’s business.

Polyhymnia glared at her sister. “So much for my gang plow,” she said.

Meanwhile Langley is awkwardly stumbling his way to an airplane design, so the clock is ticking for Orville and Wilbur. Polyhymnia is fully invested in the brothers “winning” by this point, and urges them to step up their experiments. This is wonderful, because it takes them away from their iron-maiden-on-wheels shop, saving countless people from seeing themselves in the mirror wearing lycra shorts. The team returns to their launching zone on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Historical fiction and low fantasy are a classic pairing, and have been since Homer retconned the Trojan War. Also every vampire story set in Poorly Researched Colonial New Orleans (surely in Napoleonic times it was called the “Us Quarter”). But you rarely see it done with humor and a lighthearted tone. Kaiser’s characters all talk like old White people remarking that they “got here at the right time” at a Perkins, but that’s exactly what they should sound like. The book is polished enough that the jokes that don’t land don’t suck the air out of the room, and its quirkiness is more charming than annoying (a famously tricky target to hit). The Muse of Kill Devil Hills: A Historical Fantasy is five dollars on Kindle, and for once that’s priced just about perfectly.

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

When a Lobster Whistles on Top of a Mountain the Ballerinas Will Dance by A. A. Smith and Erin Camille Jackson

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

It’s a new week, and I’ve got something a little different for the dozen or so of you who misclicked on your way to an Aeropress forum. Today we’re going to be reading a collection of short stories. I don’t do those often on this blog, even though Amazon is constantly spitting them out, because generally the people who contribute to those things are not novices. If you think the author of Shirtless Lumberjack: Unshirted, Book 37 of the Where Is His Shirt Series is prolific, click on one of those collections of creepy pasta or sci-fi writing prompts and see how far down the rabbit hole goes. But this time we’ve got a fresh one. Or two, but really one. More on that later.

When a Lobster Whistles on Top of a Mountain the Ballerinas Will Dance is a short story collection by A. A. Smith and Erin Camille Jackson. Yeah, it’s a silly name. But ridiculous names are often the most memorable, which is a big plus for someone like me who could not recall the name of someone I just met at a party if a Bond villain strapped me to a laser table to get it out of me. I can forget someone’s name while they are saying it to me, creating an experience roughly along the lines of “Hi, I’m Blah.” I stole that joke from Dave Barry, but everyone who likes Dave Barry is too old to remember who said it first, so it’s my joke now. The point is I’ve never forgotten anyone named “Dragon” or “Hortence.”

The titular story is about a tank of lobsters at a restaurant, told by their military commander, Churchill the lobster. But we also have more serious fare. Especially dark is a quartet of stories named after the four horsemen of the apocalypse, though their plots are more contemporary than the dramatic titles might suggest. To take one example, the story titled War involves the lone survivor of his platoon writing letters to the families of all the men who did not come home, both to unburden himself and to fulfill his duty to his comrades in arms. It’s tragic, but also touching.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why do the lobsters need a commander? Well, this is no ordinary hodgepodge of lobsters. This is a squad of well-disciplined soldiers. Or they would be, if Churchill hadn’t wound up stuck in a tank with a bunch of amateurs. A “very practical lobster” who beams with pride at his restaurant’s usual efficiency, Churchill notices that one day the waitstaff are running around like hopeless crabs. He rallies the troops: Harlstons, Rocky, Hollywood, and Gator. A lookout swims to the edge of the tank to read the menu, because lobsters can read. Thus begins a daring tale of brave crustaceans in desperate times.

The story titled Death deals with a traveling healer who is more than he seems. Famine follows an ad executive whose needs can never be satisfied. Throughout the book we get serious themes treated in a thoughtful way. There is noir, poetry, baseball, and even a little speculative fiction thrown in. One of my favorites, and by favorite I mean it fills me with disgust and anxiety because apparently I need to talk to someone about how I enjoy things, is about a man losing a battle against an apartment full of bugs. The writing is vivid and for the most part professional quality. I can forgive the occasional “rod iron fence” if it comes with a man shooting a gun at cockroaches while sipping herbal tea.

So anyway, about those lobsters. It turns out the menu is, you guessed it, lobster, and Churchill must lead an audacious escape. I guess this restaurant installed that tank but never previously bothered to serve lobster to guests? There are twists, vegetable projectiles, brave sacrifices, cowards who redeem themselves, hoards of knife-wielding enemies, and exactly one pot of boiling hot water. Each lobster does his part, from the sturdy second in command to the preening metrosexual. And obviously, obviously, every time Churchill gives a pep talk it is completely bananas.

“We are not clams, with our foolish shells dug into the sand. We are not shrimp… the name itself says it all. We are not crabs, a frivolous group of creatures too disorganized and weak to achieve victory. We are lobsters.”

I always do some basic due diligence to confirm that the authors I shame, I mean feature, are debut authors, and not simply people who have been boycotting Amazon until they finally realized that Jeff Bezos is like the sun, and will be done with whatever he’s doing to us sooner the more fuel we give him. This research was especially important this time around, since A. A. Smith could be anyone. And it is. There are several authors with that name. I wasn’t sure if that was because A. A. Smith is a common name, or if it’s the literary equivalent of Alan Smithee. For those not in the know, Alan Smithee is the name you give when you’re so ashamed of the movie you’ve been working on for the last year that you don’t want your real name on the credits. Just finished editing together a Serbian porno about a roadside buffet and your mother follows your career very closely? Tell the studio your name is Alan Smithee. Just directed the fourth Hellraiser movie, and you made Ben Wyatt kill a lady and use her skin to make a demon? Yeah, ask them to make the check out to Alan Smithee. Names strike again.

So instead I focused on finding Erin Camille Jackson. I certainly didn’t find any other books by her, so that’s good. Then I found out there won’t be any more ever. You see, Erin Camille Jackson sadly passed away last year. Normally I read books at the beginning of a person’s writing career, and I feel confident giving them a playful elbow to the rib here and there, because their next book will be better, though not as good as the one after that. This time, there is no next book, and I’m elbowing the empty air with a stupid grin on my face like one of those Japanese cat statues.

When a Lobster Whistles on Top of a Mountain the Ballerinas Will Dance is a good creative legacy to leave. It’s nearly seven dollars on Kindle, but it’s worth a read, especially if you grab it during a promotion. The stories are polished, fun, and varied. This is your first chance to support one debut author, and your last chance to support another. And even if you don’t buy it, I’ll bet you won’t forget the name.

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

Tipu Finds Magic: A YA Fantasy Novel by Sue Doe

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

They say those who can do, and those who can’t review. If that’s true then I am a Shaolin master of reviewing, and you are all white belts in my dojo, so listen up. Tipu Finds Magic is a fantasy adventure story about a young man, a magical parallel world, and Vampire Republicans.

Our story begins when our protagonist Tipu explains that he is a dull, tedious person. What I gather is that he is a wealthy college student somewhere in Pakistan who is anxious about the way his life is going. Due to social pressure, he is pursuing an engineering degree, but what he really wants is to be a writer. This seems to be a trend: making a perspective character relatable, or making them good candidates for an adventure, by pointing out, at length, what an uninteresting waste of space they are. Does it hit a little too close to home that he’s an inept wannabe author? Maybe. What’s with all the questions, Colombo? He seeks solace in his friend Abdullah, complaining that his life does not have the meaning he expected it to by the ripe old age of twenty one. When his friend offers little comfort, Tipu starts crying. This causes Abdullah to feel “panicked and embarrassed, as he should be,” and tells Tipu to shut up. This is presented as a totally normal way to respond to your friend crying in public. Boys are the worst. And it’s not that I don’t find self-proclaimed losers relatable. In high school I lettered in quiz bowl. I just wish my escapism wasn’t curated by someone who’s eager to remind me I could be doing something more exciting instead.

Rather than go home with his driver, Tipu decides to go for a walk in the forest. Naturally, this forest contains a clearing with a gnome in it named Nomi. Our intrepid hero immediately starts having a dour conversation about life satisfaction with the creature, who speaks like a small child because, quelle surprise, that’s just what he is. At least the gnome doesn’t tell him to shut up. Instead, he offers to take Tipu to the Other Side through a magical portal shaped like a pool ladder. Once through the portal, we are treated to minimal description of this fantastical setting. Once or twice we are told it’s beautiful, and a few times our narrator simply admits he is bad at describing things and says “you’ll have to take my word for it, it was enchanting.” After one particularly flat description of some fantastical event he turns to the reader and asks “isn’t that weird?” Follow your dreams of being a writer, Tipu.

The message is pretty clear: adventure chooses you. Tipu tells us during his adventure that his life isn’t boring anymore, and it only took stumbling across an interdimensional portal for him to forget about his quarter life crisis. Among the gnomes (after the obligatory scene where he amazes them with a cell phone) Tipu learns that the Other Side is a highly regimented society. The gnomes dig holes, happily toiling for their masters, who are vampires. Apparently there are also wizards, werewolves, djinn, and dragons. The blurb says that this book combines European and South Asian mythology. I couldn’t tell you all the ways that Pakistani culture or folklore influences the setting or the plot, but there was one thing that I really enjoyed. The gnomes were brought to Pakistan by the English. They still call their parents abba and amma, but they’re transplanted English garden gnomes. Same with the vampires and wizards. The only creatures that I am sure are not European are the djinn, and they’re treated as pests. This is all treated as perfectly normal and I love it. In a pseudo-medieval European fantasy backdrop, the elves and hobbits or whatever are ancient beings that have always been there. But of course in Pakistan they’re the product of colonialism.

“I didn’t update you this morning because I felt it would become repetitive. I remember reading about these adventures in books, and they were so thrilling. I’m sorry I’m not giving you that experience exactly, but what can I say.”

The vampire in charge, a Red Queen equivalent named Hakim, finds out about this unlicensed human. Tipu and his gnome hosts are in deep trouble for breaking the rules, even though it was unintentional. How Kafkorwellian. This serves to underscore the unfairness of the Other Side, and Tipu has had enough. He teaches the gnomes to say “whatever, man” to their superiors, and to at least demand an explanation for all the digging. Personally I wouldn’t want to know what the vampire holes were for, but that’s just me. The gnomes, helpless in the face of precedent, are amazed at Tipu, who happily humansplains how things ought to work in a just society. You know those Divergent books? I always thought it was brilliant that those books follow the YA formula where the protagonist discovers she is member of hypercool subculture and also a special person within that subculture, but the thing that makes her special is that she is the same as the reader in that she can have multiple talents. I mean, those books in general give honest, hardworking dumpster fires a bad name, but that one bit is solid gold. Here we have the natural conclusion of that idea. Our YA protagonist is amazing and wonderful for being an oppressively ordinary person with no talents, who astonishes onlookers simply for originating from the same world as the reader.

The other thing I am reminded of is those Renaissance-era satires where the Pope is represented by like, a badger or something. Gulliver’s travels or Candide or The Dunciad. You know what I’m talking about: the protagonist finds himself in a land where everyone walks on their hands, and it’s an indictment of a recent glue tax in Scotland. The Other Side feels like a carefully crafted parody of social injustice, but its presentation is so on the nose, and Tipu’s solutions so naive, that it loses that satisfying bite.

Someone is bound to get something out of this. That’s something I’ve learned the hard way on this blog. It won’t be me, dear Lord no. But every book has something to offer somebody. Tipu Finds Magic: A YA Fantasy Novel can be heartwarming at times in its description of pastoral gnome life. If you can find the main character likable (instead of feeling a fight-or-flight response every time you see a talentless failed writer in print) then you’ll have no problem getting invested in his hapless revolution. Sue Doe (as in Nym, get it?) is perfectly capabale. The prose was utilitarian, but never confusing or ungrammatical, which places the book in an elite class among debut novels. It’s three dollars on Kindle.

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

Arc of Triumph by Paul Ehrmann

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Drive would have been a very different movie if it took place on the set of ‘Ello ‘Ello. Arc of Triumph is a historical race car book wherein some guy is surrounded by people and events more interesting than himself.

The story begins in 1937 in France where our hero Alex starts working as a mechanic for the eccentric car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti. In those days, if you wanted to sell fast cars to rich people, you made them go around and around in a circle very quickly. If they did circles quickly enough, they would get a special award, and the rich people would be convinced that the car was very fast indeed. Alex starts as a mere mechanic, but quickly becomes a driver when the old driver quits because Alex is too sassy. I had no idea this was a viable career trajectory, and I am mad that nobody told me. This is also when Girl makes her first appearance, and Alex falls in love with her.

A whirlwind montage of races culminates in a heroic almost victory against the Mercedes driver, who is backed by the Nazi government. Alex has to push his failing roadster over the finish line like Fred Flintstone, proving his determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Meanwhile Girl exists hot. Apparently she eats sexily? Or our protagonist thinks the way she eats is really appealing. It never comes up again. She does get a little characterization, in that she is an aspiring artist working for Bugatti, and a terrible cook with a violent temper. In other words, standard love interest. Because I was some kind of puppy-murderer in a former life, every time I read one of these books the sex scenes turn out to be excruciatingly detailed. This time we are treated to explanations of how Alex’s technique differs when using only the tip versus the whole shaft. I could have been a veterinarian.

Because girl, Girl is now upset that her sexy race car driver boyfriend works in such a dangerous business. She makes him an ultimatum: stop racing and go away with her to Paris (yes, nice safe Paris in 1937), or the two of them are through. Well, our boy is married to the asphalt so he competes in the Grand Prix, where he learns that Girl has taken some other lucky dude to Paris in his place.

The timeline now jumps to 1942, in the middle of the Nazi occupation in the north and the Vichy government in the south. Supplies are tight and times are tough. Bugatti agrees to make weapons for the Germans to keep his factory open. Alex has a Jewish friend, Louis, and by the laws of narrative fiction Alex makes it clear to us that he is just fine with the Jews. But you know who’s not fine with the Jews? Go on, guess! The Nazis comes for him, and Louis runs off. Someone mouths off that he’ll probably end up in a work camp, where he won’t last long because Jews can’t keep up with physical labor, to which Alex says that Jews built the pyramids. This stood out to me because it was a joke on Family Guy, not sure what else to say about that.

Bugatti is still focused on sales, and sends Alex to Paris to see if anyone there is still rich enough to buy a metal box that goes several times the legal speed limit and doesn’t have seatbelts. This is our hero’s lowest point, and he spends his time in Paris drowning his sorrows in alcohol and a dancing girl slash escort named Lulu. Unlike Girl, Lulu gets a name because I’m pretty sure “Lulu” is the title of the literary trope she belongs to. One night Alex sees a car stop in front of two German soldiers in the streets of Paris, shoot them dead, and then speed off. In that brief moment, he recognizes the shooter. It’s Louis, now working for the French Resistance. It turns out, the Resistance will soon have need of an ally with access to a factory that happens to be making German weapons.

Please note that this is only my understanding of the plot. Large sections of the book are written in a secret language to which I have no access. It is a language with words like “flange plate” and “tachymetrics.” From real life I know this language has a signed component, consisting mostly of constantly pulling up one’s trousers, and spitting on the ground. The only thing I can tell you about cars is that most days my body feels like the Bluesmobile hurtling toward Daley Plaza. Presumably very thrilling things are happening when the cars go around and around very fast, but I can only relate to you the glimpses that peek out through the jargon. Those glimpses become more common when the action leaves the racing stadium thing and goes back to personal drama.

I have always wondered what’s going through the minds of Girl in books. I mean, imagine you start dating someone because he’s a rocket-powered toothbrush tester, and then once receiving either the tip or the shaft, deciding that the macho risk-taking that made him an intriguing commodity is now a relationship deal-breaker. Did you not put two and two together that rocket-powered toothbrushes are dangerous? Did you seriously not understand the difference in technique between the tip and the shaft? This happens so often in books and TV shows that it has to be based on something. I assume it’s because your average young man writing a book has been trained that women have two modes: slut and mom. And in recent times, slutty mom. I wonder what it would be like if the much more thoroughly researched cars in this book followed the same logic:

“I put it into eighth gear (N.B. Sorry, I still don’t know cars), and slammed on the gas, pushing the engine to the breaking point. Less than a hundred meters from the finish line, my Bugatti 55 responded to my recklessness by turning into the other type of vehicle, a tractor. Why do cars always do that just when the race is getting good?”

But I must admit, Arc of Triumph is much less unimaginative when it comes to the protagonist’s journey. We get just enough weakness to humanize him, and just enough moral decision making to keep him an active, if reluctant, participant in the political events going on around him. He’s an anti-hero in the original sense, i.e. someone without heroic qualities who nonetheless wants to do good, not an unreformed jerk. Like all historical protagonists, we have to be spoon-fed reassurances that he doesn’t share the Nazis’ views on race, but at least at first he mostly hates the Nazis because he wants to beat the Mercedes team, which is a refreshingly selfish way to make your hero oppose the bad guys. Overall, Arc of Triumph was an above-average thriller with a setting that is probably very interesting to people who like cars and World War II. The five dollar price point is a little more than I like to spend on these things, but it’s hardly exorbitant. It would make a great gift for that Boomer car buff in your life. But be prepared to know, for the rest of your life, that the two of you know about the tips and shafts passage.

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

Indigenous, I Am by Niɬtooli Wilkins

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Roses are red, violets are blue. It’s hard to make jokes about heartfelt autobiographical poetry by someone far less privileged than you. Indigenous, I Am is a poetry anthology by Niɬtooli Wilkins.

When I found out that Niɬtooli lives in Minnesota, I was hoping for a poem about (pipe)line three. For those that don’t know what line three is, the internet has lots of cool cats to watch, and the main way to get internet is to find some dinosaurs that got squished up real hard. But the dinosaurs didn’t always get squished in the same place where you need to watch Maru sit in a box. Sometimes they got squished in uninhabited places like the ocean or Alberta. So you need to make a tube. In Minnesota, the squished dinosaur tube runs through native land and wild rice waters. Wild rice is objectively North America’s worst food, narrowly beating out KFC mashed potato bowls. The name “rice” evokes something fluffy and wholesome, but what you get is chewy cellulose that tastes like pencil shavings. Problem is, while we’d all love to see the end of wild rice, this would leave some Ojibwe and Chippewa with no financial recourse but to make us all addicted to gambling, and then we wouldn’t have any money left for internet. At least that’s my understanding.

But it turns out I’m ignorant as hell (who knew?) and Niɬtooli is a Navajo name. While her poetry touches on issues of Native life and identity, it’s far more personal than topical. The tone starts out dark with poems about childhood trauma, grief, and the negative self-image she internalized by being a woman of color. Later poems become more positive, touching on gratitude for a creator, seeing ancestors in one’s self, and taking pride in the body she has.

Plenty of Niɬtooli’s subject matter should be relatable to any reader, and her writing quickly gets to the emotional heart of an issue. Her poems about loss and family effortlessly put words to feelings I would struggle to explain. When my grandmother died there was no funeral because of Covid. And there was no one to commiserate with, since her long decline meant that everyone was too busy breathing for the first time in months to actually grieve. So I couldn’t figure out what ritual would make it feel real so I could start crying the poison out. I thought about wearing black, but the only black thing I owned was a giant sweater that was certain to draw negative attention in the summer heat. Sooner or later someone was going to ask why I wear the same sweater every day and why it smells like a varsity football team. I thought about changing my facebook profile picture, but that, upon further reflection, turned out to be a stupid idea. I could just change my profile picture to a jpg of the sweater and call it a day, but by that point the whole grieving process had become rather conceptual. And you know your girl will miss no opportunity for self loathing, so naturally the problem was that I was broken.

My point is that Niɬtooli is better than me at writing about grief, and everything else it turns out. The quality of the writing in Indigenous, I Am is not just good by the standards of this blog, where one side of the scale has three mid-century refrigerators to hold it down, but by the standards of real poetry for grown-ups.

Her technique focuses somewhat on meter and line length, but uses them more playfully than mechanically. Similar metaphors create repeating themes, with animal imagery especially common. At least once a page some turn of phrase jumped out at me as especially clever or poignant. What could seem like amateurish repetition of words proves to be quite deliberate over multiple poems. Like I just said, me trying to describe poetry is like a dog trying to describe an oil painting, so I’ll leave it to the professionals:

“I feel nude when I’m fully clothed; The heat of others’ eyes scorching my skin’s surface”

“Jagged beams of light poking my skin’s interior; Such a desire to exit my body and be noticed”

We are currently living in a golden age of poetry. Social media marketing and e-reader logistics make it possible for more poetry (and more poets) to reach us than ever before. This is a time when you can literally read a poetry anthology by Gabbie Hanna. In fact, if you really wanted to, you could read two poetry anthologies by Gabbie Hanna! I guess it’s less of a golden age and more of an alluvial gold deposit age, where you take your pan to the river and hopefully find a nugget after a few hours. My time panning through sand, rocks, and Adultolescence paid off big time in Indigenous, I Am. Who knows if I would have gotten to read Niɬtooli Wilkin’s words if she had written them twenty years ago. For that matter, since she’s apparently some kind of tennis champion in her spare time and has a life more fulfilling than reading debut novels on the internet, would she have even bothered to distribute them?

I am giving Indigenous, I Am a recommendation, without qualifiers or conditions. Since I so rarely get to do that, I am going to award this book one (1) gold star. It’s one dollar on Amazon.

Bonus Content: Six Word Reviews

Since today’s entry was a little short, please enjoy my six word reviews of some books that did not earn a full post on this blog:

Willow: A Friends to Lovers Romance by Renee Kiser – You can’t fix him. Just bone.

(U)topian by Dave Fin – Our hero sucks worse than Capitalism

The Shadow and Moon: Moon Curse by Kenzie Crow – Vampires versus werewolves versus the moon

Conspiracy of Cats by B C Harris – If Werner Herzog narrated Lifetime originals

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

Monster Girls Unlocked: A Mature Harem Fantasy Adventure by Justin Trublood

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 and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Monster Girls Unlocked: A Mature Harem Fantasy Adventure by Justin Trublood is an erotic tech startup adventure about a virtual reality boning simulator.

Our story follows Jace Trimble, a graduate student who has used his university’s computer infrastructure to make a virtual world of unprecedented sophistication where any woman who enters is instantly horny for him. Using the latest AI and a virtual reality rig, he is able to enter the- yeah, I get you, it sounds like the prequel to Ready Player One but with boobies. And I am perfectly aware that Ready Player One erotica has been a thing from day one. I found one particular author who started writing her slash masterpiece before she finished the book, and it looks like Helen Harris’ gender reveal happened to Samantha Cook instead:

“I’ve only had one girlfriend before,” Sam told me. “Back when I was sixteen. It lasted about six months, and then she broke up with me. Since then… nothing.” That made me look at him curiously. For some reason, I’d just assumed he was gay, because he had fallen for me knowing I was a guy.

Whoops! How embarrassing. I look forward to reading this lady’s debut novel on this blog. But there are a lot of different influences at work in Monster Girls Unlocked, and the first one we need to talk about is Gor. The first book, Tarnsman of Gor, is the story of a college professor who finds himself transported to a magical realm, and fits right in with the macho barbarians. It’s a world where every woman is submissive and sexually available, or quickly learns that this is what she truly wants to be. The series has a cult following, and supposedly author John Frederick Lange Jr. is still writing at 90, with the latest Gor book published earlier this year. See Appendix A for the greatest piece of writing set in the Gor universe, its glory undiminished by the fact that it is a parody.

Jace invites his large-breasted professor, Dr. Lana Laird, to share a beer and try out his new invention. For some reason, Trublood is obsessed with pizza and beer, and especially with women willing to consume pizza and beer. I hope he never finds out that I like pizza and beer. Oh, and we are constantly treated to updates on what Dr. Laird’s breasts are doing at any given moment. They strip down (Jace and Dr. Laird, not her boobs, although I guess it’s both?) and jump into the simulation, Jace as a heavy fighting character called a Tarnsman, I mean a tank, and Dr. Laird as a half-orc cleric with huge areolas. It might be my imagination, but is “sexy cleric” a video game cliché? Once inside, Jace explains RPG rules to his new companion. There are buffs, experience points, quests, turn-based combat, guilds, and everyone’s favorite: grinding! The AI manages various background characters to Turing levels of realism, and improvises new quests based on the flow of play and a character’s persona (which give them endorphin boosts, making the quests increasingly difficult to avoid). The realism of the game is so great that since Orcs have low intelligence, Dr. Laird can feel herself getting stupider and randier by the minute.

Dr. Laird receives a quest to have BDSM sex with someone nearby, but that will have to wait. Jace pulls the plug because she is getting too horny for his sense of honor. This gentlemanly behavior was premature, however, as it turns out Dr. Laird is just as horny in real life! She touches his entire wiener, and continues to have huge knockers. Consent established, Jace and his custom bimborc dive back into the simulation, where they fight a long and excruciatingly detailed battle with helpful popups telling us how many hit points everyone has. I’ve combed plenty of World of Warcraft and Ready Player One slash fiction in preparation for this review (see Appendix B), and I can’t find anyone out there writing such true-to-life descriptions of MMORPG combat in their erotic power fantasies.

This brings us to our first proper sex scene, where Dr. Laird grabs Jace with the intent to fulfill her quest of dominating him sexually. But Jace of Gor gets the better of her, ties her up, and makes her beg for his eight inch wiener (which is referred to throughout the novel as “Little Trimble,” before eventually being abbreviated to LT). They pop out of VR satisfied and eager to see where this technology can go. Dr. Laird’s perpetual motion breasts inspire Jace to add succubi to the game.

“He walked over to his prof who looked less and less like an authority figure and more like any other woman he’d known.”

It turns out, the shapely Dr. Laird thinks she’s fat, an absurd proposition in Jace’s eyes. This is the first appearance of a recurring theme in Monster Girls Unlocked: women don’t think they’re hot enough for Jace, and Jace assures them that they shouldn’t think so little of themselves, because they please his wiener just fine. His gestures toward body positivity reach only as far as “Who really liked twiggy girls, anyway?” They have some more sex in real life, and Little Trimble is now ten inches (keep that in mind). Jace is happy with the friends-with-benefits situation, and celebrates having a girl who “gives up the goods” and loves pizza and beer. This was about the time I started to wonder which part of the story is the teenage sex fantasy, the VR part or the part where a burnt-out grad student bangs his dissertation advisor.

They recruit Dr. Destini Oliver, an investor at the university who can help them set up a company to monetize Jace’s invention. It turns out, Jace has seen her around campus when she jogs late at night. “Not trying to freak you out,” he insists, “but you catch the eye on hot nights.” Dr. Oliver enters the simulation as a dark elf (with skin color sliders so it’s not racist, I guess?), and we are escorted through even more painstaking questing, combat, and leveling up. It becomes obvious that the alternate reality setting is having permanent physical effects on the participants in the real world, as we saw already with Little Trimble.

This begins phase two of Monster Girls Unlocked: A Mature Harem Fantasy Adventure. The remainder of the book revolves around the process of establishing and securing a startup around this new technology. The gang holes up in Tennessee somewhere, and is joined by some Becky named Bethany. Oliver walks us through the paperwork involved in patent applications and shell companies, and we hardly see any VR antics at all. But don’t worry. This is still a sex fantasy. Jace has sex with Destini Oliver, even though LT is now so gargantuan that mechanically it has become almost impossible. This limitation is conveniently forgotten when the two have “alternative entrance” sex aboard her personal G5. We’ve largely forgotten about the need for computers to enable Jace’s sexual needs, and the artful prestidigitation involved in swapping a fake-in-universe sex fantasy for a real-in-universe one is impressive. Gross, but impressive.

For once on this blog we don’t have any abrupt perspective shifts, so we get Jace’s uninterrupted view of the world. You have to really slip into Jace’s way of seeing things well to enjoy this narrative. His ideas about women are simply fact in this universe; breasts just do float around like that. And his backhanded attempts at kindness are presented as wise and empathetic. This is not a vicarious roll in the hay with a smirking, rapscallion anti-hero that you love to hate. If these moccasins aren’t just your size, you’re gonna struggle.

Normally I would follow this up with “well, I guess somebody out there will probably like this.” But this time I don’t have to guess. I grab books for this blog moments after they become available at midnight Pacific Time, but sometimes a few days go by before I get the review up. In this case, in the short time that Monster Girls Unlocked: A Mature Harem Fantasy Adventure has been on the market, it has proven wildly popular! It has six five-star reviews in the US and Canada. See Appendix C for examples. I have reviewed a debut novel alright, but it is hardly unknown. Do I sound jealous? Because I am. Justin Trublood has gained more acclaim than any of us ever will, by writing the erotic version of a twelve year old boy’s birthday party. And if history is any guide, he can keep this up until he’s 90.

Appendix A: House Plants of Gor

The spider plant cringed as its owner brought forth the watering can. “I am a spider plant!” it cried indignantly. “How dare you water me before my time! Guards!” it called. “Guards!”

Borin, its owner, placed the watering can on the table and looked at it. “You will be watered,” he said.

“You do not dare to water me!” laughed the plant.

“You will be watered,” said Borin.

“Do not water me!” wept the plant.

“You will be watered,” said Borin.

I watched this exchange. Truly, I believed the plant would be watered. It was plant, and on Gor it had no rights. Perhaps on Earth, in its permissive society, which distorts the true roles of all beings, which forces both plant and waterer to go unhappy and constrained, which forbids the fulfillment of owner and houseplant, such might not happen. Perhaps there, it would not be watered. But it was on Gor now, and would undoubtedly feel its true place, that of houseplant. It was plant. It would be watered at will. Such is the way with plants.

Borin picked up the watering can, and muchly watered the plant. The plant cried out. “No, Master! Do not water me!” The master continued to water the plant. “Please, Master,” begged the plant, “do not water me!” The master continued to water the plant. It was plant. It could be watered at will.

The plant sobbed muchly as Borin laid down the watering can. It was not pleased. Too, it was wet. But this did not matter. It was plant.

“You have been well watered,” said Borin.

“Yes,” said the plant, “I have been well watered.” Of course, it could be watered by its master at will.

“I have watered you well,” said Borin.

“Yes, master,” said the plant. “You have watered your plant well. I am plant, and as such I should be watered by my master.”

The cactus plant next to the spider plant shuddered. It attempted to cover its small form with its small arms and small needles. “I am plant,” it said wonderingly. “I am of Earth, but for the first time, I feel myself truly plantlike. On Earth, I was able to control my watering. I often scorned those who would water me. But they were weak, and did not see my scorn for what it was, the weak attempt of a small plant to protect itself. Not one of the weak Earth waterers would dare to water a plant if it did not wish it. But on Gor,” it shuddered, “on Gor it is different. Here, those who wish to water will water their plants as they wish. But strangely, I feel myself most plantlike when I am at the mercy of a strong Gorean master, who may water me as he pleases.”

“I will now water you,” said Borin, the cactus’s Gorean master.

The cactus did not resist being watered. Perhaps it was realizing that such watering was its master’s to control. Too, perhaps it knew that this master was far superior to those of Earth, who would not water it if it did not wish to be watered.

The cactus’s watering had been finished. The spider plant looked at it.

“I have been well watered,” it said.

“I, too, have been well watered,” said the cactus.

“My master has watered me well,” said the spider plant.

“My master, too, has watered me well,” said the cactus.

“I am to be placed in a hanging basket on the porch,” said the spider plant.

“I, too, am to be placed in a hanging basket on the porch,” said the cactus.

“I wish you well,” said the spider plant.

“I, too, wish you well,” said the cactus.

“Tal,” said the spider plant.

“Tal, too,” said the cactus.

I did not think that the spider plant would object to being watered by its master again. For it realized that it was plant, and that here, unlike on Earth, it was likely to be owned and watered by many masters.

Appendix B: Slash Fiction

The least cringe-inducing WoW slash fiction I’ve come across has been the Flynn Fairwind/Mathias Shaw pairings, since they almost always have two bearded swashbucklers being sweet and homoromantic. Here’s a sample:

“Oh, so you do relax,” Flynn said with a chuckle. “Now imagine feeling that for several hours. That’s comfortable. You should get to know it a bit.”

“Is that why you’re cuddling me right now?” Mathias asked him, sounding a bit unamused. Flynn fretted for a second, wondering if this was incredibly presumptuous on his part. He’d never really slept this close to the man—an almost comical realization, considering all the other things they’ve gotten up to in his bed.

“Yes?” Flynn tried. The man hadn’t pushed him away yet, so that must be a good sign. To Flynn’s great surprise, the man turned onto his side to face Flynn, then moved into the vacant space that was between them.

“I see,” Mathias said with a raised eyebrow, as though he was analyzing every detail. He lay his head on Flynn’s chest, and the captain was certain that he’d hear naught but the frantic beating of his heart. “I suppose I’ll give it a try,” Mathias said.

Appendix C: Praise for Monster Girls Unlocked

“I thought this was a great story about AI, game & hardware development, and corporate startups. Character and plot development was smooth and interesting. There wasn’t any editing or grammar that took me out the experience.”

“Great story I like how the irl world and the game world mesh together and change”

“It’s was an interesting take on the whole litrpg. This is the first where i see the development of the world and technology build. Live the diversity of the women and the in game characters.”

“Looking forward to see where this story will go. A new way to view this genre. Nice change to most stories in this trope”

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

Worlds Torn Asunder Book One: A Lgbtq Fantasy Book for Young Adults by Matthew Lawler

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.

Worlds Torn Asunder Book One: A Lgbtq Fantasy Adventure Book For Young Adults by Matthew Lawler is a work that asks two important questions. First, how anime can a book get? And second, can it get more anime than that? Also, you’ll notice the title says “a Lgbtq Fantasy,” not “an LGBTQ Fantasy,” so I assume Matthew Lawler means for LGBTQ to be pronounced like a normal word, not an acronym. Anyway, let’s dive into this YA l’gabutqua fantasy.

The story begins with mysterious creatures called shades, controlled by some unseen voice, running amok in a fantasy kingdom called Taneral. King Leandrel finds the required protagonist children in their designated farm village, along with a McGuffin stone. But before he can bring the children under his protection, their parents are disposed of by shades. Honestly, I cannot imagine the terror that must wash over a new father or mother’s face when they first learn their child is a protagonist. What’s that little Timmy? You’re impossibly good at sword fighting and magic, and you have a cardboard cutout love interest? I’ll just be going; you’re the man of the house now, Timmy. Family friend and citizen of the Valheim dimension “Cliff” adopts them as his own. And then the evil knight Tylosis murders the king and takes the kingdom for himself.

The story proper begins several years later in the village of Myrial, where Jack and Serra visit the grave of their late ersatz father, Cliff. Apparently step-parents are not immune to dead parents disease. New king Tylosis pays an official visit, to steal the stone and generally wreck shit. There’s a showdown at the cemetary, which I imagined including diagonal cut-ins of characters saying “His power is over 9000!”. The shades kill most of the village at the king’s orders, while he sends Jack to a prison ship. On the ship, Jack meets Mike, and they ménage an escape, I mean manage an escape. This whole time Jack has been hearing helpful voices, and now those voices manifest as a physical creature, a rabbit named Nimi. A storm capsizes the boat and washes our heroes onto the shore of a small island. Jake has a dream of New York City being destroyed by shades. Meanwhile Serra has been adopted by somebody for some reason, and she’s training to be a fighter. Channeling her Nigiri powers, she is able to fly, heal wounds, and create blades of air. Eventually her sushi abilities are enough to defeat her own mentor, and bring her closer to her goal of finding and saving her brother.

On the island the boys encounter teen heartthrob Daniel (cue the YA lugbtuq fantasy soft focus) and weirdo aristocrat Surreal, who teaches Jake how to sword fight. This proves to be difficult, as Jake was a “cry baby” as a child and so doesn’t take easily to physical combat. Wait, no accelerated fighting skills, no ready-made home town sweetheart… How is Jake even a protagonist? This must be one of those animes where the hero is some ordinary guy surrounded by more interesting characters. The lads learn to talk to a bird by emotionally bonding with it, and no, that doesn’t turn dirty. I was surprised too. The island party is completed when Serra finds an old ghost ship that takes her to her brother’s location. The ghosts, who clung to this life in order to deliver exposition, kindly evaporate once their job is complete, and the gang is back together again. And that’s when things get weird. Over the last few chapters, we’ve been shown glimpses of another perspective. Nick and Lella live in modern times and have some inkling of the existence of the shades as well. Then the evil voice controlling Tylosis sends him through a portal to current day New York City. The modern day parts have a superficially sci-fi feel to them, which often happens in “alternate universe” fantasy.

I know I say this a lot, but the writing and formatting in this book make me want to write “see me after class” on my Kindle. Paragraphs will randomly change margins. Page breaks will happen halfway down and mid-sentence. There are run on sentences and sentences inexplicably split by a full stop. Then/than is wrong approximately 100% of the time. And then there are the apostrophes. Dear lord, the apostrophes. You might think “Oh, Madeline, you delicate little petunia. Just accept that an apostrophe means ‘here comes an S,’ and spare your blood pressure.” You do not understand. I mean, yes my blood pressure looks like a Fahrenheit-to-Celsius conversion chart on a cookie recipe, but you cannot grasp how far these apostrophes have gone in order to ruin my day. There is an apostrophe in the word “keep’s sake.” Those dangly little bastards brought their own S! My mind has reached the point where every time I see a quotation mark in this book I expect it to pull apart into two taunting apostrophes. When I inevitably go to hell for ridiculing innocent writers of earnest YA lagabataquee fantasies, it’s just going to be apostrophes, poking me for eternity with their stupid little points. “What’s wrong?” They’ll coo in mock concern, “don’t you want to know when an S is imminent?”

In contrast, the character relationships are surprisingly strong. The goal of Jake and Serra to reunite is consistent, unlike similar stories where the protagonist forgets about their emotional entanglements whenever there’s a training mantage to get through. And despite the use of the word loogbitqu in the title, this is not a romance! There are just people who are gay and sometimes they do gay stuff, but mostly they have fantasy adventures. I must say, this is a refreshing change of pace from the usual queer content in YA fantasy, or at least the sort of YA fantasy I end up reading here, i.e. eye-wateringly explicit sex mixed with covertly anti-gay tropes.

“Jake felt Mike place one of his hands on his waste and he blushed his heart beating faster.”

I think we’ve all been there.

Like always, as painful as it was to get through Worlds Torn Asunder Book One: A Lgbtq Fantasy Adventure Book for Young Adults, I can see someone getting something out of it. You have to be willing to look the other way on a lot of basic writing mistakes, and in fact you may start to wonder if you’re the illiterate one for thinking that then and than are not interchangeable. But the reward is a fun adventure. And best of all, it’s free right now on Kindle.

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

Showdown! Succubus Temptations by Bednaya Nastya VS The Cookie Jar by Asheida Charles

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.

Two books, both alike in dignity, on fair WordPress, where we lay out scene. This is the first and hopefully last head-to-head comparison on this blog, in which we pit two new releases from the same genre against each other. In one corner we have Succubus Temptations: A Post-Apocalyptic Love Story, a sex fantasy about becoming a sexy demon during late-stage Capitalism, by Bednaya Nastya. In the other corner we have The Cookie Jar: Power. Pain. Pleasure, a sex fantasy anthology set in the Caribbean, by Asheida Charles.

OK. I’m done trying to fight it. This is just a sex book blog now. You’ve done it, Amazon new releases! Are you pleased with yourself? Everyone scroll back to the top of the page and write “FILTHY SEX BOOKS” across the screen. As someone who finds some excuse to look at her phone whenever an episode of The Bold Type gets too steamy, I cannot explain how much it pains me to comb through these books, taking notes, so that I can bring you the very latest in obscure smut content. You’re welcome.

In Succubus Temptations, Jennifer is a young woman in a world of the very near future, a world in which civilization is in a tailspin since the revelation that demons are real and walk among us. Of course these are sex demons like incubi and succubi. Jennifer is, at least at first glance, a regular human, but falls for an incubus named Mark who turns her into a filthy half-succubus. As a slashie, she has the disadvantages of being a demon and a human: she gets plenty of unwanted attention, but can still grow love handles and be mesmerized by a sexy sex demon. Luckily, Mark hits the road and she meets a new incubus named Jack. The two alternate between having all the sex and dealing with the daily tribulations of their new world.

Since The Cookie Jar is an anthology, and a good bit longer than Succubus Temptations, we’ll just be looking at the first chapter, “Taste.” On the fictional Caribbean island of Callaloo, Tinna reflects on her life as a married woman. She has a devoted husband, Bill, but he underperforms in bed, and besides she is curious about being with another woman. So naturally she explores this side of her sexuality with her niece-in-law Kassie. We get the obligatory resistance that all gay sex scenes must have, because in case it hasn’t been obvious for the last few years we’re living in the dark timeline version of Earth. But then Tinna and Kassie get to have passionate, detail-oriented lesbian sex. Again, because this is gay erotica, we know that everything has to go Pete Tong eventually, so the innocent, care-free situation of banging your husband’s niece can only last so long.

“Kassie’s rate of breathing went up from ten milliseconds to a hundred.”

As Succubus Temptations moves along, our characters try to adjust to their new situation. Sex demons don’t need to wear clothes or walk on the ground, so it’s hard to fit in. Plus there’s an apocalypse apparently. This part is never really explained. Sometimes the characters will walk past a car on fire, but people still go to work, get their prescriptions filled, and hang out at Appleby’s. Jack reveals that Jennifer was never half turned. She’s just a rare cross between a human and a demon (“like most traumas,” Jack informs us, “your parents did [this].” Wow, Jack). Needless to say the two have lots of sex. Jack, who is “barely even gay these days,” whatever that means, is really into biting, But even more prominently, Bednaya Nastya seems obsessed with gagging. Characters like to gag on stuff, and gag other people on stuff. It’s a whole thing.

Meanwhile back in Callaloo, Tinna is still at the lady parts buffet. The title refers to the author’s pet name for vulva, but we go from “cookie jar” to using words like “slimy” and “dripping” in less than a page, so the act gets dropped pretty quick. We learn that Kassie had a previous relationship with her friend Karla, which makes her initial hesitance look less like fear of discovering her own sexuality, and more just not wanting to have sex with her uncle’s wife. We get lots of abrupt perspective shifts, including at least one paragraph that switches to first person for reasons I still cannot explain. Anyway, it snuck up on me when Kassie’s mother Jane discovered the two naked in bed together.

Before we can choose a winner, we need to know the criteria of victory. It goes without saying that the quality of prose or plot progression is irrelevant. Since both stories have gone to the trouble to establish some background to the main action, I will award points for a convincing and interesting setting. More points are awarded for appealing sex scenes, and since this is sex fantasy and escapism is part of the fun, points will also be awarded for creating an appealing alternative from everyday life.

The boring dystopia of Succubus Temptations is certainly relatable, but I never felt like I was there. I wanted to see how normal people react to sex demons, and what exactly is happening in this apocalypse. The setting is clearly a backdrop for sex. And aside from all the gagging, the sex scenes aren’t bad. They’re presented as a guileless teen fantasy, complete with descriptions of length and girth. The unadorned language gets a little repetitive (I kept a running tally of uses of the word “clit,” but I can’t tell you the result because I scribbled it out and wrote “What am I doing with my life I have a degree” over it), but it works. The overall result, of wanton sex in a vaguely crumbling society, feels cathartic.

“A few days later Mark broke up with me because he wasn’t attracted to humans anymore.”

The Cookie Jar couldn’t be more different. There is intricate family intrigue against a Caribbean setting that is lovingly laid out. Charles is from Grenada, and effortlessly makes Tinna’s world feel real. After that, though, it’s a hot mess. Less classy Sandals beach resort and more sticky nightclub next to a marina. The thought of sleeping with a family member, even a non-blood relation, is not the scintillating escape from everyday life that will entice me to read a book. And the descriptions of sex, while spirited, are maybe a little too extra. Do I have to repeat the word “slimy” from before?

Ordinarily I would declare this battle a tie, given that both contestants made me want to burn all memory of sex from my brain with a laser. These books taught me to feel shame all over again like some kind of reverse Christmas miracle. So to break the tie, I will say that Asheida Charles should know better. Apparently, she is some kind of smart person with an MA in communications and non-fiction publications to her name. In a photo finish, you have to give the trophy to the runner with one leg, right? So Bednaya Nastya takes the first (and last) head to head mashup here on Hot Off the Presses. Succubus Temptations is three dollars on Kindle.

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