Gaijin Monogatari by Jerome Baquilar

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

I have seen a classification of public restroom disasters based on the question word it evokes at first glance. Your “whats” and “whys” are bad enough, but if you make it to “how,” you know you’re in trouble. Pray that your experience stops there, and does not progress to the final question, “who.” It’s the same for books. When I find myself asking “what” and “why” a lot while reading, it’s bad. If I ask myself “how did it even come to this,” I am in for serious pain. But when a book is so baffling, so infuriating, so punishingly miserable that I ask myself “who in the Punctured Christ would subject another human being to this,” that is the only time I am truly happy. Gaijin Monogatari is what you get when you take the backdrop from Earthquake Bird or Lost in Translation, insert a less accomplished Wesley Crusher as the lead, and have the whole thing eat itself halfway through like Wet Hot American Summer, but without being a parody. None of these is a good thing, and I loved every second of it.

I’m going to front load the recommendation, because I have to spoil this book for you. It’s just something I need for me, OK? Pause here and go buy it, so you can follow along. You can get a paperback copy, or print the ebook, because you’re gonna want to take notes. Anyway, let’s jump in. The only name we know our main character by is Jay, and he lives in Denver in the year 2043. International travel (and, we later find out, social media) is difficult to the point of being nearly impossible, due to legal repercussions from the pandemic. But luckily, there is a service that uses society-wide memory scans to reconstruct other times and places, which you can visit in VR for a price. Jay travels to Japan, circa 2021. There’s a lot of directions you can go with this premise, right? Total Recall, The Matrix, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, the list goes on and on. We’re not doing any of those things.

“He was a medium build, not particularly thin or overweight, kind of somewhere in the middle.”

Jay wakes up on a suburban street in Zama City, south of Tokyo. The program usually provides you with a guide within the simulation, so he introduces himself to the first person he meets, who luckily speaks English. His name is Jerome. Yes, Jerome. It’s not subtle. Jerome doesn’t seem to understand what the deal is with this random twerp, but he politely drives Jay through the incessant clapboard and corrugated tin midrise of suburban Japan to meet his friend Michiko, who might be able to hold Jay’s hand more effectively. This was the first point in the book where I watched a potentially interesting plot device zip past the passenger window. You see, Jay is reluctant to tell Jerome that he is an AI in a simulation, because it is likely to crash the system. This opens a whole book of ethical questions that is firmly shut when Michiko shows full, untroubled awareness of being an NPC in someone else’s adventure.

Naturally, she takes him to Japanese Olive Garden, aka Saizeriya. This is when we establish a theme that will play on a loop until the last page of the book: every ordinary thing in Japan is amazing to Jay. The ramshackle Hoovervilles along either side of the street are “neat and cool.” The signs advertising noodles are “fun and interesting.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with being affected by prosaic things in a foreign country. What gets me is the one-two punch of Jay exclusively witnessing the most boring aspects of the world around him, while simultaneously having the descriptive power of a magic 8 ball. At the Olive Garden, he tries Mexican Coca Cola, and is impressed that it tastes more “clean and fresh and good” than American Coke. That’s just Mexican Coke. France has Mexican Coke. South Africa has Mexican Coke. That’s what Coca Cola tastes like in any country not built out of corn and deregulation. This happens constantly. “Wow,” remarks Jay, upon seeing the train station, “do you ride the trains often?” Mother fucker. You have trains in Denver. You’ve traveled twenty years back in time and you’re leaving your brain matter on the floor of Olive Garden because you got there on a beat-up privatized commuter rail line.

OK, I need to come clean. That one-two- punch ends in a nasty uppercut for me personally, because in pride of place on my elaborate shrine to my hundreds of pet peeves is my irrational hatred of Weeaboos. This hatred is going to develop in stages as we go through this book, but we’re currently at Stage 1, in which Japan is heaped with commendation for doing ordinary shit. I can’t tell you how many Americans I’ve met in Japan who accept illegal working conditions and an unheated apartment, because they are so honored to be walking on the same ground that gundams walk on or whatever. Yes, in case you haven’t guessed, I was once that very Weeabtrix I now despise, living in Japan at the bargain price of my own sanity. Let’s see our boy eat a sea urchin gonad that tastes like a balloon full of harbor water, and find out if it’s “neat.”

“He couldn’t help but think that as attractive as she was now, she must have been twice as beautiful years ago.”

Sorry, back to the story. Jay is sitting in the restaurant, taking stock of how hot his benefactor is. She’s well endowed, and in pretty good shape for her age, but the fact that she’s several years older rules her out as a potential love interest. The reason Michiko brings Jay to Olive Garden is to meet other potential guides on his journey. And wouldn’t you know it, before Jay even gets a chance to try the ketchup and hot dog spaghetti, some woman spills wine down the front of his shirt. Maiko, as it turns out she’s called, apologizes profusely. Jay gets a look at her, and notices that she is hot, and much closer to the Window of Bangability. Is this what it’s like to live your life as a cis-het man? Just scanning the room at all times with Terminator vision, but instead of looking for Sarah Conner it’s tits? Anyway, Maiko offers to wash his shirt if he comes over to her place. Once there, she strips his shirt off him, and suggests he get under the covers of her bed to avoid being embarrassed about having his shirt off. If you’re new to my little self torture chamber, you may not know just how tightly I’ve been clenched the whole way up to this scene. Gaijin Monogatari is a story where a nerdy college-age loser uses VR to meet women, and in previous works this premise has been used as a thinly veiled fantasy to finally get Jessie from third period to touch the author’s entire wiener. So to see that the first real romantic encounter is basically a random woman subjecting our protagonist to the D.E.N.N.I.S. system, I was both anxious and intrigued. But like the other potential plot twists that zipped past my window, the Japanese femdom utopia never materialized. Jay is still a virgin when he takes the walk of shame back to Michiko’s place.

Jay’s next big day out is with a girl named Ai, who brings along a couple of Japanese friends for an evening of beer and karaoke. You can probably guess how this goes. The beer is amazing, even though it’s Kirin, so it’s literally the sweat of Satan’s taint. Jay finds a banana to be more delicious than its American equivalent, and is impressed to learn that it is imported all the way from the Philippines (as opposed to those Colorado bananas he’s used to back home). The friends all have the same narrative voice as Jay, by the way, so when they describe Japanese customs or attractions to him, they stick to the same set of four adjectives: neat, fun, cool, and interesting. It’s like an Orientalist version of Delicious Dish with Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer. Jay quickly earns the admiration and respect of his companions by doing basic things. He can stand to the side when riding the escalator, which I guess they don’t do in Denver, so this is framed as a “Japanese” thing, and everyone praises him for “fitting in so well.” He’s met enough people by this point to have picked up the phrase “nice to meet you,” and when he whips it out everyone in the room is flabbergasted. It’s the most animu thing I’ve ever read, complete with diagonal cut-ins of background characters going “But that’s impossible!” This, for those keeping score at home, is Weeaboo Stage 2.

A lot of this can be blamed on the difference between visiting Japan, i.e. a brief romp through an Asia-themed amusement park, and actually having to live there, i.e. a Groundhog Day scenario but with even more stupid rituals. Consider the toilet-gradient. In a hotel, you’re likely to have a Western-style toilet, possibly even one of those robot toilets that sing Happy Birthday, so you go back to Dubuque and tell everyone they’re crapping in robots out there in Japan. Try the landlord specials that put the phrase “hole in the ground” to shame, or the one in my closet that doubled as the apartment’s only sink (don’t work too hard to visualize that). Have you ever tried to walk to work in Japan? Every square meter of the country is five railroads at once; they’re all privatized, and they all hate you. You can’t pass through a station without a ticket, because of the dangerous possibility that you will use this sudden embarrassment of mobility to reach a competitor’s station. If you live in a rural area, this means walking a mile out of your way to the nearest level crossing. And when you get to work, trying to kvetch about it to your coworkers is like trying to have a conversation with an answering machine, because they cannot conceive of anything better. Sure, visitors gawk at how the trains always arrive on time, but sit through a mandatory meeting during your planning period about better use of planning periods before you talk to me about Japanese efficiency. But hey, their Mexican Coke is very neat and cool!

“There was nothing else to say, Jay thought, so, McDonald’s.”

At this point we get a sort of second act low. Jay is interested in Ai, but scares her off when he mentions sleeping in Maiko’s bed the night before. He returns to Michiko’s only to find he is unwelcome there as well, after her boyfriend discovered a man was living there. Jay reflects on what a blow this must be to a woman of her age, to lose her last chance at happiness. She forgives him soon enough, but in the mean time it gives him an opportunity to spend more time with Jerome and his two children, Alexei and Danielle. Danielle is around his age, so naturally Jay asks Jerome to his face why the program is sending him Jerome’s daughter as a guide, when his previous ones have been romantic encounters. Jerome shrugs this off like it’s not something he’s going to have to repeat to the police in about six hours, and the youngsters go to Tokyo to see the sights. “The sights” mostly boils down to the parts of Tokyo that would be destroyed in a Roland Emmerich movie, but I guess you never get around to doing this stuff unless someone comes to visit, right?

Jay’s next guide is Yayoi, a girl who teaches him the basics of photography around Shibuya Station. She does this mainly without verbal instruction, because the guides are getting progressively worse at English. Not because Jay is getting better at Japanese, but just because. I was still clenched for the eventual transformation into a shameless dubcon power fantasy, but that’s not the turn this story was about to take. The two of them go to the Starbucks at Shibuya intersection, the famous one that all the videos of “busy Japanese intersection” are taken from. Jay is fantasizing about kissing Yayoi when she trips (while sitting in a chair), shouts “ayee,” and lands on his lips. Actually, I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet, but this happens a lot, where the narration tells us one thing, only for it to be immediately addressed in the action. Usually this takes the form of the narration and the dialogue endlessly parroting each other: Jay just had one more question. “I just have one more question,” said Jay. So we have secondary characters who use the same voice as the perspective character, and all of them are mirrored by the narration. Should make the sex scenes more interesting, if they ever happen.

“As Jay observed the woman, he realized what a pretty sight it, or she, was.”

Yayoi is replaced by Akane, a hot girl who takes him to Akihabara, which you may have heard is famous for maid cafes. Jay thinks nothing of picking out a maid from a lineup to serve him and his date tea and omelets. Now fully dependent on a translator app, Jay and Akane talk about baseball and Star Wars. Jay reveals that he has no knowledge of dogs or cats, but finds them “cool and fun.” The pair buys tickets for the next day’s baseball game at 7-11, which amazes Jay both for being a place to buy baseball tickets, and for existing at all. He seriously considers pursuing a romantic relationship with Akane during the time remaining to him inside the simulation. For the third time, a possible interesting plot complication zips by, in which Jay tries to play out his bodice-ripper fantasy in a fake scenario under a time limit. But instead, we get something I never saw coming.

The first thing that threw me was when Jay met his own grandmother, and took her out to Burger King. I wish I had more context for you, but that’s just how it unfolds. He seems only mildly surprised that she’s there, even though she’s the one who had to explain to him that they’re related. Or rather, that she is the VR representation of an AI based on his grandmother’s memories. Then she reveals that her husband is Jerome. If you’re following along, that means that Jay and his grandfather did not recognize each other, and also Alexei and Danielle are Jay’s uncle and mother, respectively. Does he not know that his mother’s name is Danielle? This adds another layer of bafflement to the scene where Jay is confused that the program wants him to hang out with Danielle in a non-romantic way, given that he’s speaking to people who all have the same names as his immediate family. So without warning, the story pivots from an abortive harem fantasy to a Becket play about spending wholesome time with his American family who live in Zama City.

And then! And then, we find out that Danielle and her husband have already had their first child, so apparently Jay was born in Japan. And Jay isn’t even his real name! Schoolyard bullies of near-future Denver started calling him “Japan Boy,” or “J-Boy,” which our protagonist reclaimed as “Jay.” I flipped back to the first chapter, looking for some clue about all this. When Jay is getting hooked up to the VR, he tells the tech that “his family loved it” in Japan, but neglects to mention that a) he was also there, and b) he is missing the part of his brain that stores facial memory. “I used a false name on the form, by the way,” he goes on to not tell the tech. His family are ecstatic to spend time with him, which in my pessimistic brain raises further urgent questions. Do these AIs cease to exist when he logs out, or do they just go into storage? Jay meets another time-visitor to 2021 Japan named Mion, so it’s a possibility that these characters just hang around indefinitely, forever reliving 2021 in case any tourists show up, while another set of AIs infinitely loops 2022 for a different set of tourists. Jay has no time to focus on these questions, because just before his time in the simulation is up, he returns to hot milfu Michiko, who strips naked and tells him about the Genji Monogatari.

The Genji Monogatari is an unreadable tome in which some nonce who kidnaps a ten year old learns that life is pointless (if you like allegorical Buddhist literature, I would recommend The Cloud Dream of the Nine). But I guess Jay has gone on some journey of self-discovery and shit, so whatever. He’s Genji now. In case the subtext wasn’t already blinding, some minor character points out that the reason Jay gets on so well with cute Japanese girls, and can figure out how to stand on an escalator and say hello, while being such a pathetic loner in Denver, is because deep down he has a Japanese soul. This is Weeaboo Stage 3: Exoticizing foreign cultures to cope with your own inferiority complex. Sure, in America you might be the left half of that Virgin/Chad meme, but in Japan, you will be cool. You’ll dance with their wolves, kiss up their ladies, and everybody back in Denver will be jealous. The story ends with Jay using his contacts in Japan to secure the nearly-impossible task of moving to Japan, and in the airport remarks that he feels like the “luckiest, most loved person in the place.” This is objectively true, and that’s a bad thing.

“Never had any experience with cats.”

I did a lot of complaining about the first part of the book for being such an insipid fantasy. It’s like those author insert Star Trek fanfics, but instead of effortlessly perfect teen genius Mary Sue, the protagonist is Reginald Barclay, the guy who fails performance reviews and spends too much time doing “something” in the holodeck. It also takes a page from bodice rippers set in World of Warcraft, but instead of a large n’ lusty swordsman, the protagonist feels his sciatica threatening to act up, so he just stays at the tavern until last call. It bears some resemblance to a harem story, but the protagonist is a fizzle that no man or woman in their right mind would want to sleep with. Wait, that last one is just Tenchi Muyo. I think I may have solved the riddle. But somehow the ending makes it worse.

Besides the moral qualms around ethnic essentialism, this sort of fantasy runs into the problem that Japan sucks (yes, I am doing the same thing I’m complaining about; try to keep up). I have always been of the opinion that Americans who are easily impressed with Japan are not good people. People who like plastic smile politeness are people who are fundamentally uncurious about what people around them are really thinking and feeling. People who eagerly absorb the constant back-patting for knowing two words of Japanese do not stick around to see that praise dry up once you are fluent enough to understand what people are saying around you. I mean honestly, what’s the appeal of a maid cafe? Is it a sex fantasy so milquetoast that it forgot the sex, or is it nostalgia for a time when the labor market was even more dystopian than it is now?

The clunky writing doesn’t alleviate any of this, but adds another layer of weirdness to explore. There are lonely “thoughs” with no obvious point to contrast against. I’ve already mentioned the hall of mirrors of having all characters plus the narration repeat the same ideas in the same words over and over. On rare occasion we are directly told a secondary character’s thoughts, which is extremely unsettling in a narrative otherwise in third person limited, especially when our perspective character is struggling to interpret what’s going on around him most of the time. Something I should address is the fact that the author may be from the Philippines, and it is possible that English is not his first language. Foolish people might take this to be a reason to leave this book alone, and not pick at its every loose thread. This is nonsense. Besides the obvious fact that millions of Filipinos speak fluent English, you don’t have to speak flawless English to write a good book. I taught ESL for years; my brain auto-corrects most common errors. I couldn’t care less if an author uses the simple past where the present perfect would be better, or says “all intensive purposes.” What I care about is things like “the room had brownish-themed accents.” What the fuck is that? What does that mean?

I started this rant with a recommendation, and I stand by that. This book is an encyclopedia of Weeaboo brain-curse, with hypnotically bad writing, plot holes so blatant they are entertainment unto themselves, and a protagonist limper than Olive Garden linguine. Reading this book should be mandatory for writers, travelers, and anyone who has ever thought about going to Saizeriya. Seeing the world through the eyes of a case study in mediocrity like Jay is like staring into a yawning abyss, only to find that it’s about three feet deep. I cannot recommend Gaijin Monogatari enough. It’s eight dollars on Kindle. Buy it. Educate yourself. Just whatever you do, don’t go to Japan.

N.B.: This one got a little long and personal, which is perfect because I want to make these reviews more in-depth and less frequent, so I’m switching to a once-a-month format. Hopefully this will allow me to bring you more apoplectic rambling about even stupider grievances.

The world would be better off today if George Bush’s response to [the existence of Japan] was to do absolutely nothing.

The Vigilance of the Angels by Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax

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

Have you ever looked at a noun without an adjective, and just seethed with anger? Have you ever wanted to rub all the punctuation out of a book until reading it out loud sounds like the Sardaukar throat singing from Dune? Well, this is your book. The Vigilance of the Angels is a smelling-burnt-toast simulator by Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax.

Our story takes place in a fictional town called Prize County, in Georgia. That’s right; we’re back on my home turf, baby! And wouldn’t you know it, I have comments about Prize County’s geography that absolutely none of you asked for. The fact that the town and county are used interchangeably is actually fine. We do that a lot because we can’t read. More important is the fact that it’s described as thirty miles west of Atlanta, but one day’s ride from the mountains. So this must be the type of west that’s straight north, again a common and understandable error in Georgia. The bigger problem is that this places Prize County smack dab in Cherokee County.

For those who don’t know, Cherokee County competes with Jimmy Savile’s rec room for the title of Most Cursed Place on Earth. Just to give you an idea, Cherokee County has an official language. So when you go there, you’d better not be some interloper who fails to assimilate to the local culture. Guess what Cherokee County’s official language is. Go on, guess. Did you guess Cherokee? I’m sorry, that’s not correct. Cherokee County is also the place Fuckface is from (whose name I will not repeat), the man who killed eight women, including six Asian women (whose names should not be forgotten). Not to suggest that Atlanta proper has no history of violence and bigotry, but when the identity of the shooter was made public, the universal reaction in the city was “Fucking of course.”

You might think a racist murder spree would be a curious thing to bring up on a comedy blog about books. But murder and race, even some pretty uncomfortable depictions of racism, are central to The Vigilance of the Angels. In fact, this is one of those rare occasions when I have to include a trigger warning to anyone brave enough to follow the trail of breadcrumbs back to Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, PhD’s work. I don’t put trigger warnings on reviews of rape fantasies, but this book gets one for sure: The Vigilance of the Angels includes frequent use of the N-word and other racially hostile language. Like, a lot. Like, the n key on this guy’s keyboard is mirror smooth. We’ll get into how race is dealt with in the story, but you should know that up front.

Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, Esquire’s fictional version of Cherokee County circa 1908 is a small, idyllic town of Black farmers centered around a store, a church, and most importantly a school. There is one White family in town, formerly headed by Lazlo Keper, up until the moment of his murder. Deputy Brooks is tasked with solving the murder, and the gravity of this task weighs heavily on his shoulders. Not only was Lazlo a formidable person in life, but the longer it takes to solve his murder, the greater the risk of White vigilantes coming to do Brooks’s job for him. And in proper Cherokee County style, they’ll probably leave a bunch of random bodies in their wake and blame it on “having a bad day.”

The narrative jumps back and forth between Lazlo’s perspective as he lives through the Civil War and comes to settle in Prize County, and Brooks’s perspective as he tries to solve the case with the help of his girlfriend Sophoronia. In the Lazlo chapters, the perspective character is complex, with a lot of hidden nuance. But he’s kind of a jerk, at one point using the Civil War as a smokescreen to bail on an ex. And of course these chapters are… unflinching in the way they present a turn-of-the-century White American’s view of race. The Brooks chapters are a little more upbeat, with quirky relationship drama and walks through the pastoral landscape. But that’s also the part of the book where the Klan threatens to show up, so I guess it’s all pretty dark. Actually, I’m remembering now the parts that aren’t trying to be tragedy are some of the parts I enjoyed the least. There’s an extended sequence (and in this book, the word “extended” is not used loosely, see below) in which Lazlo buys and resells a case of Coca Cola, and it is interminable. The biographical and detective stories mesh reasonably well together, though neither one really succeeds on its own terms.

The thing that really drags The Vigilance of the Angels down, and probably the only thing anyone will notice if they flip through the first few pages, is the writing style. Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, Notary Public, writes in what I would call “Thesaurus Gothic.” If you’ve ever read the classic Eye of Argon, you know what I mean (and if you haven’t, look for that to feature in future installments). Entire paragraphs are subdivided by nothing more than commas, with every noun embedded in a phalanx of adjectives. Parentheticals that interrupt a sentence mid phrase? Lots of those. Adverbs on adverbs, describing how adverbially the adverbs adverb? Oh yeah. This book’s only review on Amazon says “I believe the author is trying too hard.” Here’s one of my favorite sentences: “[He had to bring them] Some news that might relieve them of the ghastly pain that stuck in their chests and caused racking, heavy heaving sighs to emit from their mouths, drawing as they did all of the body’s oxygen up through and past the throat and carrying with it heart wrenches that were as powerful as the anvil in the local smithy.” literally the entire book is like this.

As luck would have it, I have met Illinois National Guard Honorary Lieutenant Colonel Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax in real life. I doubt he remembers me, but the point is I feel entitled to stalk him on social media and see if this is just how his mind works. And wouldn’t you know it, he knows no other mode of communication. He “midwifes dreams” for a living, which took me a couple tries to parse. Multiple students on professor rating sites complain of “pretentious and condescending” courses. In case it isn’t obvious, I fully support this. Creators who commit to a character in all aspects of their lives will always earn my respect. And the man’s clearly ahead of the curve. Everyone has a coherent personal brand these days. It’s all about what personality you can sell. Tom Brady is out here telling people to eat five avocados a day and getting away with it. It turns out, all those cult of personality documentaries were small business webinars the whole time. Shine on, Eurovision Song Contest Third Runner-up Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, shine on. And to anyone interested in diving into this book yourselves, I would say it is unquestionably better than its first impression. The verbosity slacks off a bit over time, or maybe I just developed an immunity. And while there isn’t much to the plot, it does hit all the beats a detective novel needs to hit. I would recommend it to anyone with a high tolerance for cringe, on the grounds that you’re not going to find a lot of books that deal with these issues in exactly this way. I say this a lot, but The Vigilance of the Angels is definitely different. It’s three dollars on Kindle.

Rate My Professor banned me for insisting they bring sexy back.

Ancient Enemies by Thomas Fisher

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

You know I love to complain. Your girl’s on a first name basis with the manager. Maybe that’s why I keep reading random stuff on Amazon. Sometimes I find a real gem, a high quality book hidden in the noise. Other times I am in my element. Ancient Enemies is a random word generator by Thomas Fisher about lots of trains and no raccoons.

The first chapter establishes the backstory of our main character, Mark. The Lorians, i.e. the children of Lorias, have a festival called the Lorarian. With me so far? Mark’s dad is Mister Pride, the leader of their pride of Isharans (Isharanas are a type of Lorian, obviously). Mark is just an innocent lad/were-cat-creature, who loves to play “game of ball” with his friend Don. As in any good fantasy story, our perspective characters have names like Steve and Debbie, while everyone else is called Astrazion or something. Case in point, Mister Pride is named Herodotus. He puts on a hell of a Lorarian, and everyone gets good and drunk. And dead, because the wine was poisoned. See, there’s these bad hyena-people called the (checks notes) Caenons, and they’re attacking the shit out of the merrymakers with guns and fire. In the blood bath, Mark is saved by a man-cat-man who gets shot for his trouble, then watches his friend Don get trampled “like a sandwich wrapper,” which is a weird way to describe that, but honestly works really well. Finally the nefarious Caenons find Mister Pride. The Caenon commander does a “meat’s back on the menu” and has his soldiers kill and eat Mark’s dad, even though he could easily have beaten up a cowboy. In case any readers from the forties didn’t realize these are the bad guys, the Caenon are also textually compared to “little girls.” Reddit’s been trying to convince me for years that women are basically hyenas in disguise, so this kind of tracks.

Smash cut to present day high school. Except for the fact that there are guns, and a passing mention of humans and their “Christ god,” I had no idea this story took place in the real world until the now orphaned Mark started slumping through the halls of Hill Valley High like any other sullen teenager (tamping down his inherent awesomeness so as to avoid detection). This isn’t really a teen drama, though, as much as I wish the rest of the story would be about a talent show that has nothing to do with murdered parents. The Caenon commander has been spotted in the area, wearing a Calgary Flames hat (this is a very important plot detail, just trust me), and Mark decides it’s time for some good old revenge. The middle 90% of the book is a primer for the climactic battle in the penultimate chapter.

Not that it did me much good. I read chapter 19 twice, and now I can’t distinguish colors from tastes. I did a lot of flipping back and forth, trying to remember what clan of Gorgons the Praestors belong to, which is not fun on a Kindle. Finally I decided to break my own rule. When I read a book, I skip the prologue. If you want me to read something, put it in the book. I didn’t sign up to read the fan wiki about your book. My thoughts on prologues (mostly con) have been documented elsewhere, but know that it hurt me to go back and read the prologue of Ancient Enemies in a last-ditch effort to try to even. And it didn’t work! I got some origin story about the Lorians, but nothing that illuminated what in the hell was going on. This is all Tolkien’s fault.

Tolkien famously wrote a story to provide context for his invented universe, which he in turn created to provide context for his invented languages. He started with the toy trains and worked out from there. And it sort of worked, as long as you don’t read the Silmarillion, and skip most of the songs. So now this is just a genre of fantasy forever: show us your trains. Elaborate magic system that’s just steam power with extra steps? Whip out them trains! Twenty generation-deep family tree for the House of Protagonistia? Choo choo! In a pinch, you don’t even need to make new trains. You can write a story where there are ordinary raccoons, but they’re called “Bumblebears” or something. The real problem comes when the reader does manage to Google translate Bumblebear back into raccoon. Sure the narrative may be elaborate, but is there really that much story hiding behind all the capitalized words and proper nouns with apostrophes in them?

This is not an inevitable problem. Any time I talk about elaborate narratives based on nothing, another example comes to mind. No, it’s not sports, although the Calgary Flames always try to walk it in during the second half (how’d I do? I’ve been practicing). No, I am of course referring to raccoon youtube. There’s this man on youtube who owns his own raccoon. One day he decided to do a bracket-style competition to see which flavor of potato chip his raccoon prefers. I don’t remember which chip brand ultimately won, because here’s the important part: from the beginning, it is overwhelmingly obvious that the raccoon just likes food, and has no opinion about which flavor of potato chip she (it’s a girl raccoon) gets her eerily human-like hands on. But our boy is committed to the concept (I’m guessing he already had a thumbnail ready to go), so he spends the episode building narratives out of the random scavenging of a wild animal on his kitchen counter. “Oh, what’s this?” he asks in his best sportscaster voice, “She’s going back to the chili lime Sun Chips!” Yeah, no shit, they’re delicious. Just like the plate of cool ranch Doritos she obliterated two seconds ago. She’s a fucking raccoon! Part of me admires the determination of a man who will not abandon his idea, even as he sees it collapse before his very eyes. He is the Ed Wood of Youtube. The other part of me cheers on the raccoon, whose understanding of the situation is limited to: chips now, more chips, eat chips while human distracted. I relate to this creature more than any human I know, and she just keeps winning at eating chips. Go, you beautiful disgusting goddess, go.

My point is that weird fluff that tries to build a story out of nothing doesn’t have to be meaningless or boring. But unfortunately, Ancient Enemies falls into this trap. The toy trains never become interesting in their own right, nor do they reach the accidental transcendence of raccoon youtube. What we’re left with is a spelling test from an alternate universe. I always try to review books I can recommend to try and convince myself I’m not a bad person, but this time I might have to break my streak. If you are a fan of elaborate world building, and equally elaborate fight choreography, you might legitimately enjoy it. It’s three dollars on Kindle. And to any authors reading this, please, please, please: if you are going to write a prologue (and I strongly recommend that you don’t), make it an unrelated story about a raccoon. It won’t drag the book down any more than a typical prologue does, and at least I might be entertained for five minutes.

Everyone knows raccoons prefer all dress flavored chips.

Aliric: Vantric Prince by Iris Moon

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

I found the most confusing book. Super for real this time. But it’s not confusing in a ending-of-2001-a-space-odyssey kind of way. This is a sipping confusion, for connoiseurs. Aliric: Vantric Prince is an urban fantasy, or possibly high fantasy with a few real world details, that may or may not be a coming of age story or a romance, written like the literary equivalent of a municipal flag designed by a committee.

Prince Aliric lives in the palace of the Vantric Kingdom with his mother. One night she is murdered by some kind of mist creature, and when Aliric goes to investigate, he is knocked out. These mist creatures are described as strange to the point of incredulity, despite the fact that Vantrics can also turn into mist. Just to get it out of the way, here is an exhaustive list of things Vantrics can do: turn into mist, materialize objects, run at approximately 440 miles per hour (by my calculation; the book alternates between Metric and Imperial), and become bats. They sleep at night, are injured by sunlight, and their eyes glow funky colors when they’re horny, which would be really fun in Vantric high school and not traumatizing at all.

When Aliric wakes up, he discovers that he’s on death row for killing the queen, because the cops in Vantricland expect to find the killer passed out on the floor next to the victim with a concussion. Absolutely stellar police work. Kind of makes you understand how they managed to pin that murder on Amanda Knox. Oh, I forgot. They’re Italian. The Vantric Kingdom is in the Apennines, near the town of Castelluccio. I know what you’re thinking; is this Volturi fanfiction? But the Volturi are from a small town in Tuscany, while this is a small town in Umbria. Don’t you feel stupid? At first I assumed that calling the Vantrics “Vantric” and not “vampire” was one of those things where zoomers are too cool for existing vocabulary, kind of like how Weight Watchers is called Noom, and trailers are called tiny houses. But no, they’re not vampires because vampires also exist in this story. I’m not really sure why the Vantrics live in Italy, since it’s not clear how Italian they are and most of the story takes place in Canadian Asgard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Aliric escapes with the help of his late father’s “right hand male” (male and female are used exclusively to refer to men and women, so I guess we’re gender atheists in this universe), and makes it all the way to America, specifically Yachats, Oregon. He’s there because that’s where the vampires are according to “local folklore.” I assume he means Vantric local folklore, and not the scuttlebutt on the streets of Portland. The vampires are supposed to be in Yachats, because that’s where they settled after a war with another race, the Fae, seventy five years ago. Since the book takes place in 1999, this means that Aliric relies on folklore to tell him about things that happened in 1924. Vantrics are immortal, right? And they have books, presumably. It would have been less jarring if I didn’t know exactly when the story takes place, but we get Jack Bauer style time stamps at the beginning of every chapter and subchapter. Usually they are completely irrelevant, and sometimes there are typos. Since I didn’t know they were just there for vibes when I started reading, the first time I ran across one of these mistakes I wracked my brain trying to reconcile the unacknowlegded time travel subplot.

The bulk of the story revolves around the budding relationship between Aliric and Genesis Amelia Rodrigues, a half-Fae woman with a mysterious past, who is also inherently awesome at everything, and their journey to live with the Fae in southwestern Canada. The realm of the Fae, known as Ashintar, is a combination of fantasy elements from Tolkienian elves to Celtic brownies, and becomes the young couple’s new home as they figure their shit out. Without spoiling too much, the long arc for both characters is about finding a new home and new family, without needing to wrap up the crisis that set the whole story in motion in the first place. It’s a little anticlimactic, but it’s possible it’s intentional. I have a hard time telling with this book what’s intentional.

The writing style is reminiscent of what I like to call By The Way Gothic, in which every sequence is painfully bloated with extraneous detail, much of which never pays off or is repeated from a previous scene. You’re familiar with this from those classic novels where your ninth grade English teacher turns their chair backwards and says that Brahm Stoker was the OG Billie Eilish or some crap, but every page of the book is “and then Lord Flappyminge dusted his antique bust of Cicero, which adequately-craniumed readers will recall he acquired during one of his many uneventful trips to the Dinaric Alps, all the while going over the list of his other possessions, which include…” and by the second chapter you’ve sworn a blood oath to never trust an English teacher again. Iris Moon compounds the problem by explaining things in reverse, such as telling us that Vantrics can turn into mist only after our protagonist is baffled by a creature made of mist. More forgivable is the fact that she probably speaks English as a second language. The systematic fragments using participles as main verbs are not ordinary L1 English mistakes. Normally you go to Hell for making fun of people for not speaking English flawlessly (I mean, Jesus wept, look at me; I’m one night of restless sleep away from writing like Tommy Wiseau after a ministroke). But in combination with everything else, the fact that so many phrases are slightly off, and so many sentences don’t quite parse just makes the book difficult to slog through.

I haven’t even gotten to the sex scenes yet. Obviously there are sex scenes. At this point I’m surprised that HVAC handbook I read a while ago didn’t have gratuitous snu-snu shoehorned into it between the duct sizing chart and the extended job interview questions. The middle part of the book is largely dedicated to Genesis and Aliric making the vampire with two backs, and it follows the trend of doing too much and too little. I had to start skimming when I go to the line “I am going to lick your sweet nectar now.” On the one hand, this is the sort of direct communication we should be normalizing in sex. On the other hand, fuck that noise. Maybe all the dark romance I’ve been reading has led my subconscious to believe that true romance comes with a police report.

There are so many questions that ran through my mind while I read this book. Why does Aliric pick the pseudonym Jensen Jorgensteen to be inconspicuous in rural Italy? Do the Fae have Canadian citizenship? One question I doubt I will ever be able to answer about Aliric: Vantric Prince is whose fantasy this is. The “Silver Skeeter” trope of making the Vantric inherently awesome at whatever the moment demands feels like an ordinary teen power fantasy. But there are too many abrupt changes in tone to say with confidence that that’s what it is. There are five chapters in a row dedicated to parental bliss, and the perspectives in the sex scenes are all over the place. I know who this book is for, ultimately: the author. I don’t mean that as a dig. Everybody has a book in them that no one else will get, and that book deserves to be on Amazon like all the others. It’s just hard to pretend I’m offering useful advice to would-be readers when I myself have no idea what I just allowed into my eye holes. I keep making books sound awful and then recommending them, but honestly I think a book that makes your brain skip like a loose CD player in an Egyptian taxi can be a very rewarding experience. If you’re looking for something different, Iris Moon’s debut novel is ten dollars on Kindle.

If I could turn into a bat, I would do it to avoid paying taxes.

Their Precious Princess by Leslie Ayla

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

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a pretty little princess who wanted nothing more than the overbearing, possessive kindness that only four dudes at once can provide. Their Precious Princess is a (deep breath) polyamorous daddy dom age play erotic thriller, in which the classic romcom dilemma of too many boys becomes an asset.

Clara’s abusive husband Jasper leaves her, then her abusive mother leaves her by dying of cancer. After caring for her mother and having no one and nothing left in her life, Clara runs into an old friend at the funeral. Emmett lived across the street, with his step brothers Jacques, Fitz, and Liam, but they faded from her life after her marriage to Jasper. The boys are back in town to “claim what is theirs.” Emmett is the alpha, although we don’t use that term because this book is written in a universe where Omegaverse fiction also exists. We know this about him because he is enormous, and has a beard, though personally I consider beards to be the padded bras of masculinity. Liam is the softboy, and Fitz is the short, spunky one with a chip on his shoulder. Jacques is… also there, I guess. Clara has missed her favorite boys so much that when they return to her life, she faints. I think. I can’t keep track of how many times this woman loses consciousness. It’s like every chapter opens with her waking up in a bed trying to remember how she got there.

She wakes up this time and Fitz is feeding her, hopefully some iron supplements or something, while Clara treats us to a flashback of how things went down with Jasper. At some point in their young adulthood the five protagonists proclaimed their love for one another, because Leslie Ayla does not waste any time. Now stay with me, because this next part is a little much. Jasper chose this moment to do what Tutar Sagdiyev would call a “sex attack” to her. You’ve experienced a romcom before, so you know this means two things. One, Clara feels guilt that’s never fully interrogated as far as I could tell, and two, the Brothers Fuckamazov arrived just in time to witness what they assume to be a last-minute betrayal. Yeah, not the best trope to pull out of the bargain bin. Whatever happened to rattlesnake bites? Remember when it was routine for a major subplot to revolve around a rattlesnake bite? You could do a lot with that in a MMMMF age play romance.

Once she got the preliminaries out of the way, Clara gets down to business; she falls asleep, and wakes up in the next scene, where two of her new dad-brothers boarding the beef bus in the spare bedroom. Thus begins the long process of turning this poly-cute into a bone-fest. Along the way we have a shadowy crime lord, the return of Jasper, an abduction, a pet kitten, and an extended sequence in which Clara’s boys explain the house rules and corresponding punishments (to answer your question, yes, there will obviously be spanking). Ultimately there is an armed showdown, because lately all my dark romance TBRs feature protagonists waving guns around like batons at a parade. But all that is just a scaffolding to hang loving descriptions of five people boinking each other on a pile pile of teddy bears off of.

That’s what everyone is here for; how good are the sexy bits? As I’ve pointed out before, this is what makes or breaks this sort of story. I can’t begin to communicate how unqualified I am to try and explain what makes sex writing good or bad. I have less authority on that point than Jackie Weaver. So you’re just going to have to take my word for it that they slap. I mean, literally there is slapping, but you know what I’m trying to say. It got to the point that I had to stop reading this book in public, because the paranoia-center of my brain (a.k.a the gray, wrinkly part) came up with this cool new idea that what if I’m sweating or blushing or otherwise drawing attention to myself while reading my Kindle, and people start staring at me, wondering what kind of disease I have, figuring out that it’s a smutty book, and concluding that it’s Thomas the Tank Engine slash fiction and I just got to the knotting scene. And then I have to leave the country, and change my name, and that’s a hassle. Point is, Leslie Ayla knows how to make a hot scene sizzle.

We’ve got a couple of fetishes glommed together like some sort of sex chocolate in some sort of sex peanut butter. There’s the… what do we call this, reverse harem? That seems a little condescending, like calling women in medicine “reverse doctors.” Maybe “Xsome?” Basically, we get the whole boy band, so we don’t have to pick one, and then have buyer’s remorse when we realize the one we picked is the producer plant who’s secretly 35, and it’s too late to swap because your friends are all pretending to date the rest of the band. Look, growing up in the 90s was complicated. For Clara, though, it’s simple. Need someone to give you an Abigail’s Promise, but you’re interested in giving someone a Colorado Sleeper Car at the same time? No worries! With four boys, you can get stuffed, and have dicks left over to put on a big, bouncy, bi show for your entertainment.

The other angle is maybe a little more complicated, and that’s the little fetish. This is where I surprise my audience by forgoing my usual procedure of treating the fetishes in this book like the pages are radioactive. No, I’m not into DD/lg, calm down, perverts. I’m just saying, in this book the little fetish is baked pretty deeply into every aspect, so it’s more of a literary element. Everyone, the people, the animals, the spoons, everyone, is bigger than Clara. She is surrounded by stuffed animals and people who decide whether her life is full of pain or happiness. The deference she shows her childhood friends qua sex partners transitions seamlessly from the raunchy scenes to the boring ones. She spends so much time reminding us how exhausted she is after dedicating much of her life to taking care of others, that the opportunity to abdicate responsibility over her own life is presented as a satisfying catharsis. It’s like getting the girl after slaying the dragon, except the girl is four dudes who make you sit in timeout when you don’t swallow. Remember when I mention Omegaverse? So, in this story, one character reads an Omegaverse story to another character, and everyone acts like it’s totally normal. It’s like someone in a zombie movie watching a zombie movie.

You can probably guess if this witch’s brew of kinks is your cup of… witch’s tea. The execution shows the author’s priorities: get to the part where two to six people are churning butter the hard way, and put all your energy into that scene. Don’t think too hard about it, don’t fuss and fret over plot details. Just get to the point. If you’re into this sort of thing, Their Precious Princess is probably the best you’re going to get for a while. It’s three dollars on Kindle, the standard price for newbie self-published authors. Since this one came out in March, Leslie Ayla has published another reverse harem novel, and upped the price to six dollars. You can’t see it, but I am slowly nodding my head with tremendous respect right now.

Theoretically, a “reverse harem” should be a bunch of eunuchs guarded by a slut.

Him & I by Melia A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here in America, the drinking age is guns.

Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Hazelton by Charles Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, does anyone remember bees?

The Devil and the Tiger by Jackson Hinds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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