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 monthly. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
I miss Halloween. It’s the one time of year when people look at me and say “cool Tina Belcher costume,” instead of wincing and looking at their phones. But alas and alack, time marches on, and the pumpkin that scared us one day fills our pies the next. Racist Pilgrim Day is a time to reflect on what we’re thankful for, and I am thankful that no one checks to see if they know how to write first before publishing a book. And the best thing is, it keeps happening. Sometimes people write more than one book. In this month’s installment, I decided to check in with authors I’ve featured before on this blog, to see what they’ve been up to. Below are four books, some of them overt sequels, by authors who are no longer debutantes de plume. Have they improved? Have they gotten worse? Have they been replaced by a Russian AI? Let’s find out together.
The first book I reviewed on this blog was The Soul’s Aspect by Mark Holloway. I accidentally called him “Matt” while I complained that his book was just a jukebox musical about every existing YA franchise. But I didn’t hate it, so there was always the possibility that the second book would be good. Well, now’s the time to find out. The Soul’s Instruments is a book by Mark (not Matt, Mark) Holloway, in which some of the characters from The Soul’s Aspect try to pick up the pieces after the dramatic events of the first book.
The first book left off with Kermit, a YA protagonist who has somehow found themselves trapped inside an actual novel, having learned to harness the power of the Aspect. Some of his friends at the magical school for imperial super soldiers also survived, and the narrative of book two sometimes follows Broch (who has gone from privileged playboy to super murder killer, so he has graduated from me renaming him Brock Turner in my head to renaming him Brock Samson). The early part of the story is dominated by the handful of survivors fleeing the authorities that seek to destroy them, ruminating over the torture and abuse they faced at the hands of the monks who are silently taking control of the Vin empire, and committing sundry violent crimes in varying degrees of self defense.
I complained in the first installment that Mark Holloway’s descriptions relied too much on genre tropes and too little on actual information, leaving everything a sort of indistinct gray. It was a bit like combining every branded Lego kit in a 3D printer that only has one color of plastic; the shapes are there, but without any texture. Well, book two solves this problem by only using a single branded Lego kit: The Empire Strikes Back. This is the downer one, people. We had the coming of age one, now this is the downer one, with all the gore and disappointment you would expect. Everything is still an indistinct gray, but now it’s on purpose. Case in point, I specifically mentioned the perfunctory descriptions of ordinary things like food, so in what I can only assume is a personal attack on me, Holloway included an unnecessarily detailed description of a gray clam soup. I know Holloway was already writing the sequel before my review came out, but I’m still owned.
The best thing about The Soul’s Aspect was the batshit ending. This one seems to build up to a small battle in a border town, and a tense showdown between Brock Samson and Kermit, who have beef from the way they parted in book one. But then the aspect goes bananas, and there’s some general chaos that I won’t get into here, as it’s genuinely fun like last time. The problem is, it’s too short. The fun crazy bit is only a few pages long this time around, and I know it’s setting up the events of the third book, but damn it, if you’re going to make me sit through three hundred pages of purple dialogue punctuated by bloody viscera, give me a satisfying payoff. Overall, this isn’t a bad book, but this might end up being one of those trilogies where the middle one is mostly housekeeping.
Moving on. If you haven’t read the first installment of Deborah Dugan’s ongoing trilogy, you need to. I don’t say that because you won’t understand the sequel without context, although that is certainly true, but because I, personally, need you to read it. The Traveler book one is the story of Trixie, a triangle of unbuttered toast who walks as a man, falling in love with Harry, a mysterious giant talking spider. I anticipate push-back on this characterization, so let me just tell you now: you’re wrong, they are in love, and I will accept no rebuttal on this point. It may not be a sexual relationship, but it is an emotional connection indistinguishable from romantic love, and the story proceeds according to the narrative conventions of the romance genre, complete with wacky misunderstanding in the third act. At the conclusion to the first book, Harry went into hibernation, a state which could last for an indeterminate period of time. Harry has been around for billions of years, and his love may be long dead by the time he is able to revive himself.
Meanwhile, Trixie has settled down with his consolation Jacob, whose name is Elena. They play house, pick out curtains and cacti, and Trixie slowly nurses himself back from a deep funk. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we have to go back in time, because most of book two is a prequel. Trixie and Harry aren’t reunited until two thirds of the way through the book, and the rest is Harry waking up in various time periods and experiencing some kind of nebulous character growth. Maybe. I’m not sure what’s happening. Dugan has come to the conclusion that the best part of book one was the painfully detailed asides that withhold from the reader any explanation of how they meaningfully fit together. If you read book one, you will recall the series of chapters in which Harry outsmarts a bird by climbing a flower. I think. That memory has gone into the same hole I use to store explanations of fixed rate mortgage law and whatever people are saying on right wing philosophy subreddits. Book two scratches that itch you didn’t know you had by waking Harry up in caveman times. We get several chapters about his budding love for the human race in the body of a bigfoot, before waking up again as a spider in medieval times. Remember Brother Mark, and that guy with the donkey from book one? Well, they’re back, baby! Only Brother Mark is psychic, and also cats are psychic. Were cats psychic in the first one? That feels new.
Just as Trixie is starting to rebuild his life with Sally-Second-Best, Harry pops back into his life as a preying mantis. By the way, did you know it’s spelled “preying” mantis, not “praying” mantis? Because I didn’t. Apparently I have as much spelling sense as the Dutch. Since we’re most of the way through the book at this point, Dugan has to rush through the romcom sequence in which Trixie eases Elena into her new role in the polycule. She takes it well, but then what else is she going to do, date a man who actually loves her? The story ends on a high note, revisiting a moment from Harry’s time with Brother Mark, in which he directly experiences the infiniteness of the universe and the nature of the soul. In other words, Brother Mark was never psychic; they just had really good drugs in those days. The Traveler book two frustrated me with its unwillingness to give me more man/spider love, but on the other hand it did give me a better understanding of where Harry comes from. A lot of that should have been groundwork in book one, and it’s all two or three times as long as it needs to be, but it’s not bad. Once again I have to give it to Deborah Dugan; she knows how to write readable dialogue and likable characters. I wish she would stop being so coy about her arthropod fetish, but she dances around that bush with aplomb (not a plum—plums grow on trees).
Our boy Justin Trublood has been busy. After the meteoric success of his first book, Monster Girls Unlocked, he has been steadily crisping the world’s dirty socks with scintillating stories of super heroines who have their own butts, orcs who have their own butts, and (most relevant for today) witches, who also have their own butts. The appeal here is obviously good smutty fun, and while I am judgy and inherently mistrustful of anyone having a good time, I am also a horndog (hornbitch?) who is not above a good bodice ripping piece of trash. I am, however, clouds and clouds above the kind of gross teen power fantasy that runs through books like Monster Girls Unlocked. So I was intrigued by the turn Trublood’s subsequent books have taken. In many of them, the reader-insert twerptagonist is a conduit for powerful women to unleash their supernatural powers. Theoretically this could invest the female characters with some agency other than asking “what am I supposed to do with all these tits?” With that I introduce Justin Trublood’s sophomoric effort, Lust Witches #1.
Ordinary, unconfident Marion drives a Honda Accord and works at an accounting firm. He doesn’t have “enough money to be a snappy dresser,” which is what men say when they can’t pick out a shirt that doesn’t say Dave Mathews on it. And he’s our hero. There’s a recurring bit where he just doesn’t know basic facts, and it’s never explained. He lives in Houston but thinks the Astros are a football team. He goes to Cork and thinks the police there work for “Scotland Yard.” This book has a higher density of inaccuracies than the pledge of allegiance. I don’t know if this is Justin Trublood having as much patience for geography as J. K. Rowling has for looking up Asian names, or if it’s supposed to indicate to the reader what a thick plank of wood our Marion is. Either way, he’s every bit the cardboard cutout that his predecessor in Monster Girls Unlocked was. This is something romance fiction marketed to women does as well; whichever character you’re supposed to relate to most effortlessly must bring absolutely nothing of value. I feel like there’s a lesson in there somewhere about how writers view their audience, but that’s for another day.
Marion is hanging out at Starbucks when Morticia Addams notices him, and he starts nose-bleeding about it. But no sooner does sempai finally notice him than he is swept away from a group of kidnappers. Maybe I should back up. Marion has a mysterious book, and both the good guys and bad guys are interested in it. Or rather, in him, because through the book Marion is a familiar: someone with the ability to supply magical power to another. Morticia is part of a trio of sisters who want Marion for themselves. He visits their mansion where they all eye him like sharks circling a Baconator, and introduce him to their lawyer, who I guess also wants to fuck him. Right, in case you’re not familiar with Trublood’s ouvre, this is a smut book. The witches get the magic juice out of him, so to speak, by doing sex to him. Which they enjoy, for some reason. Seriously, they cannot get enough of this little dweeb. Luckily for him, all the magic ladies are total smoke shows, blue ribbons in their respective anime class. We’ve got your yandere, your acts-like-jail-bait whatever they call that in Japan, and most importantly, your voluptuous matron. Marion does not spare the details when he (immediately upon meeting anyone at all, mind you) gives us a running update on the comparative quality of butts. And one of the early trysts is with a lady of advanced middle age. Trublood repeats a really annoying thing here where “Don’t worry, you do in fact please my penis despite your age” is framed as some sort of heroic body positivity. You or I might take pause when our sex partner can’t stop negging herself, but Marion, he sees only an opportunity to lean in!
Still, there is something about Lust Witches that puts it well above Monster Girls Unlocked. Because the women are largely in charge of the situation, the power dynamic is reversed. You still have a male love interest with the charisma of a pile of toenail clippings who is inexplicably desired by every woman he meets, but at least he’s not manipulating anyone. In fact he spends much of his time reacting to stressful situations other people have put him in. He’s 20% less schlemiel, 35% more schlamazel. It turns out that’s the adjustment this genre really needed. I can’t say these books are ever going to be my cup of tea, but I have to give points for improvement. My preemtive cringe was mostly unjustified, as this book looks like a Claymore mine that’s secretly just a piñata.
Casey Morales is an old horny gay. He just sits in his favorite booth at Perkins in his Member’s Only jacket, writing his little books, and he doesn’t hurt anybody. Then I come along and I shit all over them. The first erotic masterpiece he wrote with his pen that’s made from the wood of a famous sailboat was My Accidental First Date, in which a young man discovers he is gay. Several installments in the “Oops I Penised” saga followed, until Morales broke new ground with Winning His Vote, the steamy tale of a gubernatorial candidate and his campaign manager. Actually, though this is canonically outside the “Accidentally Gay” cycle, it is in keeping with the overall theme, as David Reese, the candidate, identifies as straight at the beginning of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Joe, a campaign whiz kid, helps Marcus Sanchez become the first Republican Latino mayor of Nashville. Marcus and Maria are the Platonic form of shiny perfect people, so it’s easy for Joe to believe in them. Now he’s being tapped for the big time. Joe’s sassy gay bestie Pete, because even a gay man needs a sassy gay bestie sometimes, points out a super sexy, clean cut blond guy at Marcus Sanchez’s victory party, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s Joe’s next client, David. Joe and David start out professional, accidentally having flirtation thoughts that they try to suppress. David is a widower who loves attention, and Joe is a career-minded person with his own side piece. But they are inexorably drawn by their shared horniness to becoming a couple of gay Republicans together. And I know they’re Republicans, because Morales never mentions what political party any of these people work for. Also “grocery store owner turned first Latino mayor” is definitely the author insert in Marco Rubio’s anonymously written crime novel.
In My Accidental First Date, Morales doxxed himself as your dad’s fishing buddy in several places, including a comment about a lover’s “sensuous Orville Redenbacher breath.” You’ll be glad to know, he keeps up that practice in Winning His Vote. My favorite line is when a woman with a sparkling personality is said to “make Ronald Reagan look uncharismatic.” For younger readers, Ronald Reagan was a kaiju that came to shore in 1980 and was never defeated in battle. During its reign of destruction it was known by many names, including Abaddon the Destroyer, or Shulak the Lurker in the Dark. The Inca knew it as Supay, Lord of the Underworld. Republicans called Ronald Reagan “the Great Communicator,” because of its folksy demeanor. Imagine Saturn devouring his children, but he’s saying “aw shucks” between bites. Point is, no one under the age of sixty remembers Ronald Reagan as charismatic. That brand had a very short shelf life, so this is another ring in the redwood that we can use to date Casey Morales and place him in his cultural and political context.
But has he improved as a writer? My Accidental First Date had a few unintentionally creepy moments where people were a little… Aziz Ansari when they were told “no.” If you’re going to have dubcon in your book, it needs to be deliberate enough that the reader knows that you know that it’s all in good smutty fun. It’s a lot less fun if you’re writing The Story of the Eye, and it comes across like you think you’re writing To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Winning His Vote doesn’t have much in the way of dubcon, but it does show a marked improvement in communicating to the audience when the author knows that what’s happening on the page should not be taken as normal romance. Boundaries are respectfully acknowledged, and then Marie Kando’d right out the window, the way God intended. That’s what I call progress.
OK, four books, with mixed-to-positive results. I’ve read enough books that are a-sequel-to-a-book-you’ve-never-read-simulators that it’s weird reading something and thinking “Oh yeah, I remember the donkey guy who helped the spider get to the monaste- sweet Jesus I’ve wasted my life.” I like the idea of writers going on a journey that the readers can tag along for. And while today’s crop haven’t changed much, they still deliver the things that made them worth reading in the first place. As usual, I would recommend any of these authors if you fancy yourself an explorer of the more dragon-y corners of the self-published world map. In the mean time, I’ll be away for the holidays, and the sequel to this post will have to wait until next year.
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