Two book reviewlets

Two days ago I reviewed Rin Chupeco’s The Girl From the Well, a book that I enjoyed an awful goddamned lot, and I mentioned in the post that due to a screw-up where I ordered the sequel without realizing it was a sequel, I had it on hand already and would be going directly into it. Well, I burned through The Suffering almost as fast as I finished Well, and while I’m not quite jumping up and down and shouting read this read this read this the way was with the first one, it’s definitely still a good read. Call it four and a half stars to the first book’s five; the POV character moves from the ghost to the boy she is (newly) possessing, and the two of them have basically evolved into a sort of supernatural, psychic version of The Punisher, seeking out and messily taking apart murderers of the innocent. The majority of the book takes place in Aokigahara Woods, Japan’s “suicide forest,” and it absolutely continues the original book’s excellent level of creepiness, but I really loved the narration style that the ghost had in the first book and the tone shifts a little from supernatural vengeance ghost to something that, possibly not intentionally, scans a trifle more superhero-ey, and mostly because of those two things it’s not quite the triumph the first book was. Definitely read Well, and allow your reaction to that one to determine if you pick this one up. I suspect most folks will want to read both.


Jon Richter’s oddly-named Auxiliary: London 2039 is a book and not a bullet hell video game shooter from the late 1990s, and it’s another book that I was sent for free, on the condition that I review it for the site.

Let me boil this down for you in the quickest way I know how: are you interested in reading a book that features rape robots? If so, please continue. If not, read no further, and go nowhere near this book.

This was a four-star or so read until the last 25 pages or so, and I have never seen a book more effectively shoot itself in the dick before than this one does. I’ve got it at two stars on Goodreads right now, and I genuinely might bump it down to one. Because this book starts off interesting– a sort of Lock Inesque gritty detective story set in a near future that is probably a little bit too close to now to be realistic (hi, Skylights!) that is as much science fiction as it is a murder mystery. The book goes a little bit off the rails in chapter three, where the following events happen:

  • Our hard-boiled detective hero, Dremmler, creeps on a woman on the train. He is wearing smartglasses called Spex, which inform him of the woman’s name, her age, that she is bisexual, currently single, and that she has no criminal convictions. He “discerns”– the actual verb used– her “ample” breasts. He gets an erection. On the train. While sitting across from this woman.
  • He goes home, where he is greeted by his live-in maidbot, who is wearing a French maid’s outfit. She offers him a beer, which he accepts, offers to pour the beer, which he rudely declines, then offers him a blow job. He accepts that as well. So I guess she’s a fuckbot in addition to a maidbot.
  • That is the entire chapter. It is three pages long.

We know entirely too much about Dremmler’s erections throughout this book, and there is at least one place where another character decides to sleep with him for no reason at all that I can discern. But the mystery, which involves a pervasive, all-knowing AI and a prosthetic arm that murders someone independent of the desires of the person owning the arm, was interesting enough that I kept going. Then there’s a chapter where Dremmler has a nightmare that he is actually someone else who is actually basically roleplaying Dremmler in a simulation (shades of Ready Player One,) and that person actually uses the word “misogynist” to describe Dremmler before dying messily and, okay, I guess that was just a nightmare after all, and Dremmler is real? Sure, OK–

And then in the last 25 pages the Bad Guys literally use the impending gang-rape of Dremmler’s ex-wife, a woman responsible for the death of his child, by a bunch of misshapen sex bots (the first robot to do the raping has a “foot-long” penis and a hammerhead shark’s head) as a means of extracting information from Dremmler, and then there’s an enormous, AI drone-driven massacre of “thousands” of people, and then the book ends with either a cliffhanger or Dremmler’s actual death at the hands of the AI.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

I did not like this book; I was liking this book with some reservations (there’s something hinky going on with almost every female character in the book, a few too many of which are described as Asian in a way that feels weirdly fetishistic to me, and then there’s the erections) up until the rape bots, and if I hadn’t agreed to review this in return for the copy that would have been the end of it, the book nearly being finished be damned. I hate to say “this is not a good book and you should not read it” about something somebody sent me for free, but … this is not a good book, and you should not read it.

#REVIEW: The Girl from the Well, by Rin Chupeco

(Rin Chupeco, autocorrect! Rin! Sorry about the typo in the headline.)

Let’s start with this: I apparently have no idea what makes a book YA, and I’m starting to think it really is code for “a fantasy book written by a woman” or, worse, “a book starring a young person,” without regard for content. Sarah Maas is the best example of this, as the later books in the Throne of Glass series include fairly copious amounts of highly detailed sex, and Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well is not only scary as hell but drops a “motherfucker” pretty early on in the text, and while it’s not super sweary in general it’s also not especially shy.

Not, mind you, that any of this is a bad thing, just that if you’re an adult and you generally avoid books with “YA” or “Teen” in their descriptors you probably ought to stop doing that, because it really does seem to be pretty meaningless as a category most of the time. This particular book doesn’t even involve a love triangle, which does seem to be a bit of a trope. No romance at all, actually.

No, what The Girl from the Well gives you is that rarest of things, to the point where I can only come up with a few examples: a genuinely scary book. I’ve read one other book by this author before and I didn’t especially take to it, but The Girl from the Well is squarely in my damn wheelhouse: a supernatural tale of possession, and evil spirits, and revenge, and murder, and to make things even more interesting it’s narrated by one of the ghosts, which was just a phenomenal way to approach the story, especially since the ghost isn’t quite sane. Chupeco uses this trick where she occasionally

uses

her line breaks

for emphasis,

and it wouldn’t work very well with a traditional narrator, but for an angry ghost it’s startlingly effective. You may be getting strong The Ring vibes from the cover, and there’s a good reason for that, as both The Girl in the Well and The Ring are based on the same Japanese myth, so there’s a very similar vibe, and if The Ring creeped you out this book is absolutely going to as well.

I pulled a move for this book that is really only possible when ordering books online, as I actually screwed up and bought the sequel, which is called The Suffering, first, because I didn’t realize it was a sequel. So I had to order this and just sort of hope that I’d want to end up reading both of them, which ended up working out great, since I don’t have to wait for it to get here now. I’m going straight into it, so we might have another review for that book in a day or two.

This is a great read, especially with Halloween coming up. Give it a look, and don’t let the YA tag mess with you. I promise I’m grown, and I loved it.

#Review: ANGER IS A GIFT, by Mark Oshiro

I wasn’t ready for this damn book.

My first exposure to Mark Oshiro actually happened because a mutual Patron suggested that Mark read The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 1 on their Mark Reads Stuff YouTube channel. I admit I feel a little special because, technically, they had heard of me before I heard of them. Which, take that, traditional publishing!

Anyway, they seem to have been enjoying themselves, and watching them read my book has been fun as hell, so I figured there was a good chance I’d like their work as well, and in that spirit I just finished their debut novel, Anger Is a Gift.

And it has kicked my ass. I made a terrible mistake last night while reading in bed; at one point I looked over at my wife (who is reading Harrow the Ninth right now) and said “This book is trying to lull me into a false sense of security. I don’t trust optimism any more. Something terrible is about to happen.”

And like ten minutes later I was so angry I could barely breathe, and any thought of sleep within the next hour or so at the least was banished. Not angry at the book, mind you, although I did come very close to tossing it across the room. Angry on behalf of Moss Jeffries, the book’s main character.

As the events of the book begin, Moss has been without his father for a few years. His father was shot by a police officer while leaving a local corner store with headphones on and hands filled with groceries. He attends high school in Oakland, CA, at a school that has recently begun a policy where students can be pulled from class, at any time, by school police officers to search their lockers. As it turns out, the cop in question already does not exactly have the rest of the student body’s trust, and this policy goes badly.

Which leads to metal detectors at the door. Which goes badly.

Which leads to the students planning a walk-out as protest. Which goes very badly.

I’m not going to spoil any more; suffice it to say that protest and police brutality and loss are strong themes of this book, and it begins with a handful of content warnings that maybe I should have taken a bit more seriously myself, because reading this book as a teacher of Black and Brown children in 2020 was very, very difficult. These kids are failed by nearly every adult in their lives– Moss’ mother is wonderful, as is his boyfriend Javier’s mother, but the school personnel and even some of the other parents are benignly neglectful at best and actively harmful at worst, and I spent as much time angry with school personnel as I did with the actions of the police.

I will admit that there were a few moments where I had thoughts of the Would they REALLY … type, mostly relating to various actions the police take regarding the protesters, and … honestly, there’s no excuse to be thinking something like that in 2020. Even if this was mildly unrealistic when it was released in 2018, it’s just not any longer. It’s impossible to have watched the actions of the police across the country this year with your eyes open and declare anything to be beyond them.

That quote on the cover of the book declares it to be “beautiful and brutal.” And … yeah. That’s a really good description of the book. Anger is a Gift was a hard book to read, but absolutely well worth it, and I think you will hear about it again at the end of the year.

#Review: Mortal Shell (PS4)

I did a curious thing while playing Mortal Shell. I was enjoying myself, but it’s a short game, and when I realized that basically all I had to do was to beat the final boss and I was done with it I actually stopped playing for almost a week. I feel like there’s something inherently contradictory about not playing a game because you don’t want it to end, but that’s what I did, and I just sat down and actually beat it on Friday.

Mortal Shell is a soulslike, a $30, 12-15 hour game created by a dev team of less than 20 people, and I think how much you like it will be determined by how much you like the Dark Souls/Bloodborne/Nioh/Sekiro style of games and how much you have been itching for a new one lately. For my part, I enjoy them very, very much, as anyone who pays attention to my game posts is surely already aware, so it was a pretty good time for me, especially at only $30. Your mileage may vary, of course.

The good stuff: Combat is surprisingly fun, and the weapons feel like they’re hitting and doing damage; there’s a good tactile sense to battles, and the game’s decision to replace blocking with a shield with a “hardening” mechanic, where you can basically turn your body to stone on a moment’s notice, mixes things up interestingly. Healing is tied to a few items that heal over time and don’t heal much at that, and a parry mechanic, where your counterstrike to a parry will heal you as well. I was never especially good at timing parries, but the better you are at that the easier time you’ll have while you’re alive.

There is no level-up mechanism for your character at all, although you can unlock passive bonuses and attacks for your characters by earning “glimpses” as you play. There aren’t really classes either, being replaced with four “shells”– basically bodies that your spirit can wear that have differing levels of health and stamina and different unlockable abilities. There are four weapons, each of which has two additional special attacks that can be unlocked by finding items in the game world, and each of which can also be leveled up in damage.

The thing is, unless you’re willing to do an enormous amount of grinding, there’s no way to unlock all the abilities for all of your Shells over the course of a single playthrough, and while you can (and probably will) find all of the extra-ability items for all four weapons in one playthrough there are not enough of the damage-increasing items to go around, and you can’t grind for those. So in practice, while the game offers some choice, you’re going to settle on one Shell and one weapon that you like pretty quickly (and the weapon will be the hammer and spike, because it’s notably superior to the other three) and you’ll max those out and that’ll be all you use. The weapon imbalance is so stark that I really don’t see anyone disagreeing with me about it; even people who are using other weapons online have been framing it as using the sword “instead of” the hammer, for example.

I was a fan of the sound design, although the music is forgettable– having beaten the game I can’t remember any of the main music themes, but the thwacks and thumps and ambient noises are pretty damn good. The graphics are … okay. Graphics are not something I usually even notice unless they’re especially noteworthy, but this game absolutely loves muted colors and grey and brown, and that’s really all you’re going to get. Level design is excellently twisty and turny and everything connects together nicely, but the quick travel item that you unlock toward the end of the game is very welcome and I never did get especially good at finding my way around, mostly because of the aforementioned sameyness of the graphics. There are a few clear landmarks that will help, but it’s mostly a matter of remembering what’s near each of the landmarks and then wandering around until you find whatever you’re trying to find.

The difficulty level is weird, too. The lack of healing items means that unless you master the parry and hardening mechanics you’re going to have a hard time until you get the hammer leveled up, at which point nearly everything becomes trivial. I had to fight the first boss with an unfamiliar weapon (the game doesn’t tell you what items do until you try them, and it turned out that the item I tried summoned a weapon I didn’t want, and didn’t have a way to turn it back because the level I was on was the one level where something happens and you can’t leave until you kill the boss, and I didn’t have the item to summon the weapon I wanted back) and that took probably an hour of trying, but every other boss, including the final one, I absolutely annihilated. I needed two tries on the final boss because it turns out that there’s a bug involving one of his attacks and your dodge, and if they both happen at the same time you get slammed through the floor of the arena and die. That was it.

Boss design was pretty cool, though, especially the boss of the obsidian palace.

So, yeah– Mortal Shell is probably a 7/10 or an 8/10 if you’re being generous, but if you’re as into the Soulslike genre of game as I am, it’s still worth checking out, particularly at the $30 price point. It’s not going to change your world, but it’s a pretty good time.

Next: beat Desperados III, which I bailed on when Nioh 2 came out.

Reviewlets: IF IT BLEEDS and THE VANISHING HALF

I finished a couple of books recently that I wanted to talk about and didn’t get around to, so I’m putting both of them into a single post.

And, hell, it ain’t like Stephen King needs my help. You already know what you’re getting with this guy; every word he’s ever written is a bestseller and there’s no one who reads who hasn’t read at least a couple of his books at some point or another. If It Bleeds, which the cover helpfully informs us is “NEW FICTION,” is another novella collection, and I’m mostly mentioning it just because I really felt like all four of the stories were winners. The title story is another entry in the Bill Hodges/Holly Gibney series, following up on the events of The Outsider, and at least two of the three remaining stories either managed to get directly under my skin or made me feel personally judged, so I’ve got to count that as a positive. In particular, the opening sequence to The Life of Chuck, which is about the slow and inexplicable end of the world, can’t really be read in 2020 without fucking with your head a little bit, and Mr. Harrigan’s Phone has a great sort of Apt Pupil vibe to it that I liked a lot. If you already know you’re not a fan this isn’t going to change your mind, but I am, and this is one of King’s stronger efforts recently.


While King has damn near 100% name recognition, I suspect a number of you haven’t heard of Brit Bennett, and The Vanishing Half was my first exposure to her work as well. This was another book that I picked up specifically because I’m focusing on books by women of color this year and the description caught my eye, and is yet another perfect example of why I do things like this in the first place.

There is no trace of the supernatural anywhere in this book, which also places it at least a little bit outside what I normally read; it’s set mostly in the past, but not quite far back enough (the story ends in the late 1980s) to really call it historical fiction, so do I have to haul out literature again? It’s a novel, we’ll leave it at that. The premise of the story is that two very light-skinned black twins are born in the town of Mallard, Louisiana, a place so small it doesn’t show up on maps. Eventually the twins basically flee Mallard in the middle of the night for New Orleans, and then separate from each other: one to pass for white and disappear into wealthy white society, and the other of whom marries the darkest-skinned man she can find and has a child that, by everyone’s estimation, looks nothing like her. The book then follows both characters and their daughters over the next several decades.

The book is all about how we construct our identity; nearly every character is either hiding part of their identity or fighting against the identity that society or biology has imposed on them or both, and I finished it in less than a day. It’s brilliant and you will see it again at the end of the year; right now it’s a top-5 entry and fighting with Conjure Women and Scarlet Odyssey for the top spot.