Fire and Honey by Trinity Rayborn

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

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to eat weird plants in the woods. Not very often, mind you, but sometimes. Fire and Honey is a sempai-noticing-me simulator by Trinity Rayborn that focuses on a young woman coping with immortality.

Our main character is Millie, a typical American teenager, who lives in Greece at some unspecified point in the past. All we know for sure about the setting is that there’s wheat, and if I had to guess what time period Trinity Rayborn thinks wheat is from, I’d guess middle ages. But we all know Greece jumped directly from pottery times to the modern nightclub era, so who can say. At least this suspiciously peaceful protagonist village has a national designation, putting it easily in my top 10. You might think Millie is short for something. I know I did. But no. There is one specific reason our story begins in a small village sometime in Greece, and that is ambrosia. Millie works on the farm alphabetizing the wheat and stuff, while her parents spend their time trying to find a suitor for her. I would just find the guy with the greatest enthusiasm for wheat, but what do I know. You don’t want me in charge of your pairings; I once fried an egg in mayonnaise. One day Dad gets the kids to gather around and listen to the latest retelling of the story of ambrosia, the plant of the gods, forbidden to mortal kind. Shockingly, we actually get to hear the story because these are fictional children that let you get through an entire story without interjecting their own suggestions to add a cowboy, or wander off to stick their tongue in a light socket.

Millie has heard this story her whole life, and doesn’t put much stock in it. Being a modern teenage from the country of America, present day, she is naturally skeptical of tall tales that could have an alternative explanation. She knows she is right, and she desperately wants to prove it to everyone so they will shut up about the plant. That’s it. That’s her motivation, and it plucked at the dusty strings of the splintery dulcimer I call a heart. I see this woman. I see her so hard it hurts inside. Apparently, the notion that this plant belongs to the gods is a strong enough prohibition that nobody has thought to just eat the damn thing, ever. Millie just walks up to it, yanks some leaves, and makes tea out of it. Did no one ever do this before? The legend says that the plant is associated with immortality. And even if it wasn’t, it’s a weird plant in the woods. The entire history of biology could be summarized as “What To Put In Your Mouth, And What Not To Do That To, With Examples.” Do they not have mall goths in Wheat Greece?

So ambrosia tea. It’s amazing. It tastes like that one artisanal cream soda your ex made you try and you can’t remember the name, but you can’t bring yourself to ask him, even though you’ve definitely thought about messaging him for the first time in three years to ask about it, because it’s THAT GOOD! It tastes like that. Again, no one has ever thought to do this, in a country where somebody thought to squeeze goat tits and ferment whatever came out, to great public celebration (I am referring to Steve Feta). How does it feel to be immortal? Why, it feels like get back to work! Millie doesn’t feel any different, and goes back to her ordinary routine of applying wheat ointment. But as the years go by, it becomes clear that she isn’t aging.

This is where Fire and Honey shows off one of its signature tricks: the time jump. Millie sits on the news that she’s immortal for fifteen years. She has a plan to leave town before anyone notices, but then they notice, because she waited fifteen years. This is presented as “Oh, snap! I didn’t leave fast enough, by like, one day!” Time behaves very strangely in this book. Much like wheat, it’s basically a plot device that does whatever Trinity Rayborn needs it to do. Caught, Millie is banished from the village. She accepts this as the punishment she “deserves,” which.. I feel like there could be some appeal, given that it’s been fifteen years and nobody has flattened their village with thunder bolts or horny swan-dudes or other Greek maladies. But Millie is forced to flee with little more than the clothes on her back, destined to roam the Earth alone forever. Or at least until she finds a suitable love interest.

Ultimately, this is a romance, and our protagonist has a serious problem when it comes to relationships. Anyone who wants to grow old with her is going to feel seriously misled. Personally, I think this is played up as a bigger problem than it should be. I understand not all men are mouth-breathing troglodytes who want a woman who never ages past 23, but… if you’ve got that in your pocket, lady, use it! You could date Leonardo DiCaprio, for extended periods of time. Years, even! Get him to put you in his will, and just wait till he makes a movie that requires him to get actual dysentery because it’s method. I guess what Millie really needs is a man who can understand her predicament. Perhaps a man, who travels through time much as she does. A sexy Korean archaeologist, perhaps? It’s something to think about.

Further time jumps bring us to Jazz Age London, only with corsets, because it’s also Bridgerton times, which also took place in a time without those stiff whalebone corsets, but… Oh, we’ve already jumped again. Millie makes her way back to Greece in the fifties, because that’s where the plot is about to happen, and it’s a great place to find sexy Korean archaeologists from the seventies. It’s complicated.

What makes it slightly more complicated is the language. Rayborn gives us a warning that she is a South African author, and thus writes in British English. I’m not qualified to decide whether that patois that Elon Musk’s family speaks counts as “British,” when it sounds like Australian spoken through a rubber band, but that’s not really the problem anyway. A bigger issue for me is that the book appears to be written by an alien. There are lines like “beautiful and fulfilling types of vegetables,” or “machines to make things faster.” Normally I would chalk this up to second language acquisition, but we’ve been explicitly warned to parse this as British English, so that’s the square hole my brain is trying to jam these round pegs into. To be clear, I’m not complaining about indie books being unedited. Usually that’s fine, and can even add to the entertainment value because I get to read about “flying dargons” and imagine what a dargon looks like in my mind. But Rayborn’s writing is just correct enough to leave me constantly wondering whether maybe I’m the one from another planet.

Fire and Honey is actually a lot of fun. The pace is blistering, but that’s because Trinity Rayborn knows what we’re waiting for. The fan service is efficient and effective. Millie is a relatable, if not always believable, reader insertion. And we all need more sexy Korean archaeologists in our lives. I mean you might have one already, but why not pick up a spare? The one caveat is that I can only recommend it if you have Kindle Unlimited, as it’s ten dollars for what is basically a novella. But assuming you don’t pay full price, you won’t regret it.

I got boned by Zeus, and all I got out of it was another one of Madeline’s crumby reviews.

His Forbidden Mate, by Julie L. Vance

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

This isn’t your ordinary dirty book, people. This one. This one is a lot. If you’re the sort of person who can read about a young lady being anime-awkward-horny around a snake because she just had an erotic dream about him and doesn’t know how to broach the subject, and you don’t have follow-up questions, then read on. Also delete me from your phone. His Forbidden Mate by Julie L. Vance answers the age old question: but what if the guy is a snake, though?

In proper “Trapped In A Island With Josh Hutchinson” style, our story strobes between the perspective of Aella, the scrappy female human protagonist, and Amon, her handsome love interest. The story begins as Aella, or Ella to her friends who are very keen to save one letter, tries to protect a young girl named Saphira from the Grays. OK, some background. We get a flashback in chapter one, which I must admit is very slightly better than a prologue, so it gets a hesitant thumbs up from me. Earth has been visited by Roswell Grays, aka those aliens that have been building pyramids and trolling Nostradamus all these years, only they’re real and they suck. Aella takes time out of her busy day of being chased by cliché 50s aliens to explain to the reader how the Ir’rlyeh or whatever the Grays call themselves came to Earth and started experimenting on random Earthlings for reasons unknown. They started a war that claimed the lives of our protagonist’s mother and father, along with billions of others, in the name of some unstated scientific curiosity. Seriously, it’s never explained what the Grays have to gain from performing bizarre experiments on unconsenting humans. Maybe they just have a lot of unfinished work to do on their BB cream. Whatever they want, in the present day Aella is cowering in a collapsed parking garage when some snake dragon aliens arrive. Aella treats these new aliens as just another threat and tries to fight them off, despite knowing full well that these are the new, good aliens who have come to humanity’s aid in the fight against the Rl’y’aeh. She’s injured in the scuffle and wakes up in the hospital.

Amon, her sex dragon benefactor, escorts the injured woman to a hospital, and falls into a very predictable pattern of behavior, like any good clockwork love interest. He is constantly fawning over how wonderful humans and Earth are. They’re so resilient! It’s so beautiful with its several colors of lake! Humans are the only race to resist the Rl’rl, and the Earth is the only planet with… clouds? It seems? The other thing he is constantly doing is bioluminescence, but we’re told that he did a little squirt of glowy stuff that normally signals when one of his species has found their One True Mate. Glad they spelled that one out for me. His 70s buddy cop movie partner Calliope thinks it’s for her, while we all know it was for the human lady bleeding out in a collapsed parking garage. Calliope spends a good chunk of the book begging to get plowed, but the triangular comedy of errors premise is dropped immediately, and she just turns evil instead, which was obvious from the beginning. We know she can’t be the one for Amon, because he wants “many hatchlings,” and she doesn’t want lots of babies (unlike you, reader!). Luckily she’s already painfully hard for the other fleet commander Malekith, so it’s fine. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine. But it wouldn’t be the Jedi if they didn’t have baffling rules against hard-bodied young people slapping their barely compatible flaps together. It seems Amon disobeyed the craven bureaucrats of the Galactic Idiot Council to intervene on Earth’s behalf, but I guess boning a human is harder to come back from than starting a war.

Despite being a furry (or a guess they’re called “scalies” when they’re a snake), Amon makes a perfect Austinian love interest. He is physically sturdy, emotionally uncomplicated, and initially supportive of all the stuffy traditions you can convince him to break with you. He exudes confidence, but not in a way that you can’t get him to pick you. I’m not sure if Fitzwilliam Darcy Esquire had reptilian hemipenes, but somebody out there has always visualized him that way, and this is their Twilight. The general premise of the book is bonkers, and only gets worse. There is a grand ancient alien story arc, even though the Grays’ motivations never really made much sense. Seriously, they could just steal our medical books. We even made an insultingly easy to follow TV show based on our most famous anatomy textbook. There is an egg-laying scene in this book. There’s even a unicorn, but Vance immediately informs us it’s not really a mythical unicorn as we know it. Thanks, Julie. I knew it wasn’t a real unicorn. I figured that out. But none of that bothers me. It’s not even the clit-bookisms. A clit-bookism is when an author, who I remind you is writing dripping, salty smut for money on the internet, is too bashful to say the word “clit.” His Forbidden Mate drives right down the grassy median by alternating clit with things like “her most erogenous nub,” “her awakened anatomy,” or “the little bundle of nerves between her legs.” Oh! I know! Is it her clit? It’s her clit that’s between her legs, isn’t it? Did I guess right, Julie? Did I win a prize? No. That’s not my problem. What broke me was simply the fact that this fifty thousand page grimoire of bonk-beasts was the straw that finally broke me.

I’ve read books before that made me feel like the orphanage lady from Fantastic Beasts, only with hucow and feet-fisting as the stand in for magical children. I try to remind myself that I, me, the author of this blog, am and is a filthy rat person who likes things that would redden the cheeks of Burt Ward’s parole officer. But it never works. My primitive monkey brain knows only two facts: bad thing bad, and other monkey who like bad thing also bad. It’s the same reason why, anytime someone tells me they like a food I personally find unpalatable, I just quietly wait for them to stop talking, while trying to ascertain what they think they stand to gain from lying to my face about something so trivial. Usually I get through a dirty book about asymmetrical butts or erotic ear cleaning out of a sheer fascination for anything that makes me uncomfortable, my self preservation and self destruction in perfect equilibrium. But sometimes a book tips the scales with one little drop of kink, and it happened in His Forbidden Mate when they got to the (entirely snake-based, by the way) lactation scene.

So… so, let me just work out at my own speed how a lactation fetish works. So there’s boobs, right? Feel free to check my math, but I’m sure we’re all onboard so far. And while much of the visible structure is what could be politely termed decorative, there is also a functional side to the human breast. I get that bodies are complex and wonderful, and they can be significant and purposeful in a lot of different ways. But not all at the same time, usually. Nobody says “Yeah, give me that hot load. I love thinking about all the PTA meetings we’re gonna go to because of your jizz. Let’s make this act of reproduction explicitly about child care.” So whatever, you cross the streams by incorporating milk into your love-making. And then, and I know this is part of it because it’s in all the smutty books don’t even try to fight me on this, you have to talk about it. You do your revolting business, and then you have some dialogue about how “these will make our babies grow big and strong, yum yum.” Yes, that’s right; this is now officially a sex-negative book review blog. Hide your perfectly healthy and harmless fetish about spanking or, I don’t know, Canola oil, because here comes another miserable old biddy to rid the world of any and all forms of fun. I am Zardoz. The penis is evil. The gun is good. You did this to me, Julie Vance.

Is this book for you? Probably. You’re all sick bastards if you read this far. His Forbidden Mate is four dollars on Kindle, which is pretty cheap for its length. It definitely delivers on the promise, or threat, of Na’avi snake sex, and I can’t say I’ve read anything quite like it before. Just buy it. Maybe you’ll get anime-awkward-horny.

My fetish is seeing Madeline in pain.

The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger: a Comic Novella by J. E. Honaker

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

What hot mischief is this? No longer content to watch my misery as I try to understand a book about sexualized zombies or author-insertion whale sharks, you sick freaks are now throwing each other under the bus. J. E. Honaker, the author of today’s sacrificial offering, was thrown in front of my dilapidated killdozer by his own sibling. Hopefully this will lead to some good old fashioned fratricide at the next family gathering. The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger: a Comic Novella is a high fantasy comedy about a valiant knight on a quest to save the princess.

“Why did little Suzy fall off the swings? She had no arms.”

Sir Ginger starts off strong with a description of Fantasy Kingdom 12b, ruled over by a beloved but sickly king. His unbearable daughter will soon inherit the throne, much to the dread of the general population. When she is kidnapped, the general vibe is one of relief, but the king, being a devoted father, seeks out brave knights to rescue his little petunia anyway. The only volunteer is Sir Ginger, a straight-man archetype with a puffed up chest and even puffier sense of honor. This is a great start. Even though it’s called a prologue, it’s clearly just a crypto-chapter, which is fine. I’m not even gonna dock it any points.

The docking of the points comes shortly after, when our perspective cuts to the kidnapper. Our well-evil Orwellian tower-dwelling ne’er-do-well sends a series of obstacles against Sir Ginger to slow his advance and provide an episodic structure to the plot, while trying to figure out what to do with his foul-mannered captive. But the shtick is that this villain is a “pimp,” who talks like a cross between Dave Chappel’s Rick James impression and a middle aged white person repeating Dave Chappel’s Rick James impression. Is the pimp voice racist? I couldn’t say. My “Speaking on Behalf of People of Color” permit was revoked when we as a society realized that it never existed. But it made even me uncomfortable, and I’m sick enough to make a joke below about someone dying in real life. The cringey pimp voice is a symptom of a larger problem with Sir Ginger, and a lot of comedy writing in general.

“Knock, knock. Who’s there? Not little Suzy.”

There’s a reason I don’t talk about comedies very often on this blog. Have you ever read a review of a fantasy parody or a rollicking romcom farce? They usually boil down to “Eh, what can I say? It is the way it is.” I’ve started numerous descriptions of comedies only to throw them away when I failed to communicate exactly what, how, and why it made me feel. Until Sir Ginger came along, and I was able to put my finger on what happened. That’s probably not a good thing.

The comedy in Sir Ginger is hit-or-miss (already a 50% higher hit rate than most comedies), and I think a lot of it comes down to the mix of Watsonian and non-Watsonian jokes. This is where I get to talk about the Obliterat. In The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger, the Obliterat is a giant rat that you summon for the purposes of squishinating your enemies. Obliterat is huge. And destructive. But Obliterat is also not too bright, and a total coward, so it mostly just runs away from danger and squishinates whatever is in the opposite direction from the gallant hero you’re trying to flatten under several short tons of rat meat. I like this. I like the Obliterat. However, shortly after his victory over the giant rodent, Sir Ginger has a dream about “nubile wenches who spread their legs wider than the Romanian gymnastics team.” How does he know about Romania? I’m not mad at the joke for being tasteless. If anything, you could double down on that without breaking the fourth wall: “a nubile wench who could ride two horses and a mule all at the same time.” OK, that sucks, let’s try again: “a nubile wench who could kick down two doors on either side of the street.” Man, I am bad at this. Maybe bluer: “a nubile wench who could donate a kidney by jumping up and down.” Too blue. Alright, last try: “a nubile wench who got a job as the village clock tower, but was fired because she couldn’t display 6:30.” There we go. Nailed it.

“What did little Suzy get for Christmas? A skateboard! Just kidding. She couldn’t open the box.”

Point is, if unlike me you were some sort of… talented writer person, you could come up with an in-universe joke. Breaking the fourth wall is best used sparingly, if at all. Since we’re talking about fantasy comedy, let’s talk about Terry Pratchett. In the first book in the Discworld series, The Color of Magic, there is a scene where the heroes briefly end up on a passenger jet, and it’s weird. Pterry rightly decided to not do that again. Instead there are (very!) occasional moments where the fourth wall bulges slightly; a character invents a camera and feels the inexplicable urge to call people “dahling,” for example. It’s as confusing to the characters as it is to the reader. But you wouldn’t see something like “Sam Vimes felt like a Kardashian when he stepped in front of the camera.” Should everyone be just like Terry Pratchett? Certainly not. He’s dead. But he’s a useful example of how you can make fantasy funny by hinting at the absurdity of our world while cheekily dancing around it. It’s like playing “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” with the gloomy dystopia we all live in. When Honaker keeps his jokes confined to the universe he has built, they do often land. I like that people call Sir Ginger “rusty,” because he’s a redhead but also covered in metal. He’s a thinker, our J. E.

I have a lot of problems with this book, but when the humor does land it’s good. I can tell Honaker puts a lot of thought into the flow of dialogue and the timing of punch lines. I’m eager to see where he goes next stylistically. Maybe he’ll take my advice and stick with a more diegetic perspective. Or maybe he’ll go the opposite route and go comprehensively bananas with fourth wall and cross-the-line-twice edgy humor. Either way, he’s one to watch. The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger: a Comic Novella is a short read, but appropriately priced at one dollar on Kindle.

If we pretend to laugh at Madeline’s jokes, maybe she will stop trying.

Infamy: The Godling Saga by Mohamed Omar

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

You know those moments when you suddenly realize how insufferably old and decrepit you are? I started writing this paragraph with “You remember Louis Black’s routine about candy corn?” Anyway, in the ancient times there was a comedian, and he asked the question about candy corn that no one else dared: why do we keep doing this to ourselves? I think of that every time I open a new “Turns out I’m a demon princess” novel. I keep expecting to find the one piece of candy corn that managed to escape the factory before the flavor-extractors and wax-injectors could do their filthy, Godless work. But alas, I just keep shoveling disappointing orange plastic into my gullet over and over again. And then there’s licorice, a favorite among enthusiasts who do not tire of telling me that I just haven’t tried the right licorice, and all I need is to wrap my gums around this weird pirate-themed candy from Groningen or something. So I do. And the result is always the same. Infamy: The Godling Saga, the first book in a series by Mohamed Omar, is like that salty Dutch nonsense that some people can’t get enough of.

“The supernatural world at one point wasn’t so secret. You know, when the time of man used to worship gods and the like, but with time, science came to be what we all feared and hated.”

This book starts with a prologue, and I hate it. You may think “Oh, quelle surprise! Hey everybody, drop what you’re doing; Madeline doesn’t like a prologue!” But this one is such a classic example of the flash forward archetype that I wish it had come out in time for my foaming rant about prologues in general. Our hero Malik starts the prologue giving the “tears in the rain” speech if Rutger Hauer was into My Chemical Romance and LiveJournal (I already said I was old, leave me alone), and then chapter 1 picks up with a happy family breakfast. It’s like the prologues are taunting me in real life now, and not just in my nightmares. We get a quick overview of the Blackwood family, including Malik, the skateboarding rascal, his sister Girl, and his parents. Mom writes African literature, while Dad drags the family all over the world to study ancient artifacts, which is apparently a job. It’s almost Halloween, and the four of them have just moved to Portland, nestled firmly in a part of the country known for three things: rain, hypocritically car-oriented development, and YA novels about comic book monsters, so we can see where this story is going.

At school Malik runs into friendly Jayden, hot girl Bianca, an emergency backup Bianca named Maya, and jock Nico. Thisis one of those high schools where the grown ups are thin on the ground, and thoughtfully stay out of the way of teenagers’ lives, especially when it comes to bullying. Actually, the whole town seems to operate on that principle. After school, Mom and Dad are having some mystery fight, so Mailk decides to go for a jog through the scary woods that are straight out of those nosleep stories called “Everyone in our town knows not to enter the dog park after dark and now I wish I hadn’t.” It’s literally called the Crimson Forest. As is tradition, a group of high school bullies spot Malik and decide to chase him through the woods with knives so they can stab him to death, the little scamps. But this is when things get interesting. A mysterious force overcomes Malik, saving his life and filling him with a power he does not understand. The jocks are now revealed to be hideous demons, all gnashing teeth and claws. A werewolf guardian arrives to help, and Malik joins the fight. He kills one demon, causing the rest to flee, but not before his protector is mortally wounded. The last words of the dying guardian are “find the wizard.”

“The ghost, for his part, had an arm that belonged to the demon, its blood dripping on the floor with a dark red pool emerging.”

If that sounds awesome, that’s because it is. At least in concept. I love a good kitchen sink fight scene. The more it sounds like it’s being improvised by a blood thirsty ten year old the better. Infamy goes on to develop this core idea of “everything, but at once” with councils and covenants of various demons and monsters, fragile ceasefires in ancient wars, hidden traitors close to home, and a demon prince possession. There is a genie-spirit-thing in Malik’s head, whom he immediately tries to free, and it’s like “Oh, no one’s ever tried to free me before!” Literally. Everything. But at once. Without spoiling too much, I have to mention that this part of Portland is some kind of sanctuary zone, and when demons try to pick a fight, the entire student body of the high school turn out to be various Universal Studios monsters and join the rumble. It’s like West Side Story if they were literal sharks (and literal jets? That one doesn’t fit as well). This is the first part of a trilogy, so eventually it comes to light that this whole thing might be bigger than Portland, and that maybe Malik and Bianca can’t date quite yet so they can have an Empire Strikes Back kiss, but less rapey.

Most of the book oscillates back and forth between boring exposition about how many different clans of were-marmot there are and crises that need to be solved with immediate punching. The fights usually feel unearned, like they’re just happening because we need an action beat. There’s a story in there somewhere, but there’s no flow. OK, this is going to be the pot calling the kettle literally a pot given how my own writing reads like the aftermath of two cats playing DDR on a keyboard, but Omar needed to hire an editor. He clearly understood the need to bring in outside talent, because he hired a great cover artist. Seriously, you can’t not love this cover, don’t even try. Illustrator Richard Sashigane is like Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Parisian sewers on his giant Chad shoulders, turning this book from something that could be overlooked into something that commands the attention of potential readers. But the phrasing is clunky, the sentences over-conjuncted, and the dialogue sounds like it was all spoken by the same person. If Team Omar had more nerds, it would be unstoppable. Nevertheless, this is a book that will satisfy a hunger for monstery demon high school dramas. If you’re trawling Amazon for anything that has teen werewolves, this is your jam. Infamy: The Godling Saga is seven dollars on Kindle, which isn’t a bad price given its hefty girth.

Much like candy corn, Madeline’s opinions continue to disappoint.

The Man Who Was Born In 9 Countries: A Novel by Tajo

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

Have you ever looked around at your life and wondered how you got to where you are now? I never thought I would be the sort of person who owns cutting board wax, but there it is, on my shelf next to some kind of… Arabic drum? And a broken diffuser. My shelf is truly a land of contrasts. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how half the stuff on my shelf got there. Some of it shows where I’ve been in the world, and some of it just shows the trip I made to Festival Foods when I was hungry and bought some kind of Finnish candy I’ll never actually eat. Tani Goldstein, writing under the name Tajo (no last name, like Cher), is a man from presumably any one of the countries not listed below, and he thinks about this question of life trajectories a lot. So a lot, in fact, that he wrote a book about it. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries: A Novel is not a novel, but an aesthetically jumbled collection of artifacts from imagined other lives, much like my shelf.

“My mother would say that I have the mind of a philosopher.”

Tajo begins with a brief introduction about himself, explaining how mediocre and pointless he is. A bold choice, but I respect it. He has apparently worked in PR, retail, and education, and what do you know? Your girl has worked in those fields, so I can confirm they are the most pointless jobs. But he wants to be a journalist! Also, he doesn’t care for screens and doesn’t get FOMO. Just your typical bro, hanging out at Applebee’s, working up the courage to flirt with the waitress. But what if he were an entirely different ordinary person? The nine countries Tajo imagines as his alternate homes are Russia, Japan, America, Greece, Hong Kong, Britain, Jordan, Israel, and India (I know! I was surprised he’s not from India, too). I’m going to walk you through just one of these, Russian Tajo, to see whether the grass is truly greener on the other side.

Our imaginary hero starts out in the closing days of the Soviet Union with a deadbeat German dad who has fine Finnish drinks. Tajo and his mom follow him to a stifling Russian compound in East Berlin, where the boy wonder struggles to fit in at school. He is “dominant among other children,” which I assume is code for being a loser who gets the borscht beat out of him on a regular basis. This is a theme, Tajo being alternately happy and miserable, while having very little agency over the process. Anyway, Dad blasts off with some chick named Tammy, and because he’s a super secret nuclear computer scientist, Mom can’t actually find him. And she’s not supposed to leave the compound anyway, so when she goes out in search of her top-notch husband, she is promptly sent back to Russia.

“I had no worries for the future, and my mother was also not worried about me.”

Tajo grows into a handsome highschooler. Filled with optimism for the country’s future under Perestroika, he turns into an oblivious himbo, merrily humping away at the student body. His girlfriend, considerably less optimistic, insists that all men beat-and-cheat, and he is no exception. Tajo obliges, because I guess you can’t be falsely accused of something if it’s true. This sets off a series of disasters in his life, chief among them being his propensity to wax philosophical about God and the subconscious (seriously, how is this book not Indian?). Other disasters include his time in the army as a “theater officer” (which I assume is part of the Soviet Union’s “pro-bullying” policies), the collapse of said Soviet Union and the ensuing social chaos, and the death of his mother.

Education policy is made using the model of a spherical algebra classroom of uniform density. Basic things like music or drama are never on the mind of reformers and administrators. You see this constantly whenever a school district makes a change to their Covid policy that segregates the grade levels, and only the next day is it brought to their attention that they don’t have the resources for seven orchestras and seven bands. If you’re an arts teacher, you’re lucky they even let you in the building. My point is, I have no faith that any education system is set up to successfully train anyone to be a “military theater officer.”

After deserting the army amid riots and shortages, our hapless handsome hero illegally moves to Germany to start a new life. Money is easier to come by, there are parties and friends to enjoy, and political freedoms undreamed of back home. Tajo is happy again, which means it’s time to go back to carelessly using women. Seriously, you don’t want to meet this guy when he has both feet on the ground. But once he gets kicked back to Russia (again!), he resumes a hardscrabble life as a journalist and meets the love of his life. Unlike him, she is a hard working, altruistic person, and they have two daughters together. The couple barely notices when Putin comes to power.

“My Russian obstinacy defeated my logic: I wasn’t prepared to give up.”

Then the repeating sine wave of Tajo’s life crests and his wife dies. So, for the record, you don’t want to be used by this man, but you also don’t want to be any woman who is a positive part of his life, either. He’s Captain Kirk. Tajo writes a scathing article about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine (that’s the 2015 one, not the 2022 one), gets fired, and goes to work for the white collar mafia. He shacks up with a woman he doesn’t love, and she’s mad because she loves him. I mean, who wouldn’t love this guy who keeps bloviating about how anything exceptional just leads to disappointment? Freedom and love are illusions, insists our broken middle-aged Tajo, and speculating about a happy future is pointless. Hopefully the girls don’t spend too much time at home with their dad.

I’ve become a connoisseur of the Mediocre White Man during my time rummaging through self-published books. The MWM is to be understood as a metaphor; as a literal description it would be very reductive and hurtful, and besides it is in no way limited to white people. Being an MWM is a state of mind, or rather a lack of awareness. Reading this book I felt that Tajo (the author) was curating nine MWM Tajos (the characters) for me, like a menagerie. At times it almost felt like the author was in on the jokes, and at other times it felt painfully sincere, as if these are real insights into the minds of young men tragically carrying unrecognized brilliance with them everywhere they go. It’s the kind of “how many layers am I looking at” piece of fiction that has you squinting at the page, like those second wave feminist books where you can’t quite figure out how intentional the racism is supposed to be. Nevertheless, some people will enjoy the meticulous, clinical breakdown of these nine life trajectories, with their attendant historical details. The research seems pretty good as far as I can tell. The translation by Judith Yakov is smooth and natural, and despite all the times I wanted to smack Tajo in the face, he does have a consistent voice as a character. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries is only a dollar on Kindle, so if you think it might be worth a glance, it probably is.

If we all band together, we can stop Madeline from writing crappy book reviews.