The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: A Beautifully Written Fairy Tale that Really Didn’t Do Anything For Me

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn

by Peter S. Beagle

Paperback, 294 pg.
ROC, 1991 (originally published 1968)

Read: December 13-18, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

This is the tale of a Unicorn—quite possibly the last in the world (hence the title). On some random day, she discovers that she might be the last of her kind, and so leaves her forest to go throughout the world, searching for others of her kind.

She falls into some trouble after a while, and is helped out by a magician she comes across who ends up traveling with her, as well as a woman associated with a band of outlaws who is looking to get away from them. They travel until they find the cause of the disappearing unicorns and seek to return them to the world.

This is some of the best prose that I read this year. The language is just beautiful. There were several times I had to stop and reread a sentence/paragraph/passage three or four times because it was so good. More than once, I had to force myself to move on or I’d never have made any progress in the book.

That little quotation at the beginning is just a taste of the meta-commentary on fairy tales (specifically) or story (in general) scattered throughout the book. I laughed a lot at some of them, and thought all were very thought-provoking. It’s like a more ambitious <b>The Princess Bride</b> in this regard (probably others, too, now that I say it, but I don’t have time to tease this idea out).

I dug the characters—Schmendrick the Magician (the world’s worst) was wonderful. Molly Grue is an inspired creation, and the kind of character more people need to write. And, of course, the Unicorn herself…

There were several scenes that were just delightful—unique, entertaining. When not unique, Beagle is playing with, twisting, riffing on fantasy/fairy tale mainstays.

But when you put them all together . . . I just didn’t see the point. A combination of these characters, these scenes, and the meta material alone should’ve been a home-run for me. Throw in that language? I should be making plans to re-read it regularly. But somehow, the whole ended up less than the sum of its parts. I just didn’t care about any of it, it never connected to me. I spent so much time trying to figure out why that was the case—and I got nowhere. I’m going to have to try in a couple of years again, see if it was just bad timing or something.

This is one of those books that everyone loves—and as far as I can tell, there’s plenty of reason to love it. Sadly, I didn’t. If you haven’t read this yet, you probably should—I just hope it works out better for you.


3 Stars

✔ A classic you’ve been meaning to get to

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

46% Better Than Dave by Alastair Puddick: Dave meets a better version of himself

46% Better Than Dave

46% Better Than Dave

by Alastair Puddick

Kindle Edition, 245 pg.
Raven Crest Books, 2019

Read: December 14-17, 2019

No matter which way I looked at it, I was now inexplicably living next door to another version of myself. Another Dave Brookman. A richer Dave Brookman. A more successful Dave Brookman. And though I didn’t like to admit it, he was clearly also a slimmer, fitter, more handsome Dave Brookman. It was as if he was better in just about every single way. And, whether it was his intention or not, he was making the old Dave Brookman look bad. Really bad.

To say that our narrator, Dave Brookman, is surprised to find out his new neighbor shares a name with him. He shortly learns that they grew up near each other and are in the same industry. The coincidences are mindblowing. But as our narrator starts comparing the two, he keeps thinking that the “new” Dave has it better—from a literal ex-model wife to a flashy car, and all points in between.

But just how much better is “new” Dave? “Old” Dave puts together a spreadsheet assigning numerical values to various attributes/possessions and ends up with the titular value:

I sighed loudly. Of course, I’d expected there to be a difference. I knew he would come out on top. But 46%? That was nearly 50%. And 50% was half. So New Dave was nearly a whole half better than me. How could this be? What the hell had I done with my life? Had I wasted the opportunities we apparently both shared, as New Dave took full advantage of them? What could my life have been if I’d made different decisions along the way? Would I have my own company and a flash, expensive car? A house with a new extension and swimming pool? Would I be married to a former model, and have robotically clever children?

Dave spends weeks obsessing over this idea and dives into a (very one-sided) competition to become the “better” Dave. Which is ridiculous, preposterous and unsuccessful. And that’s before his wife finds the spreadsheet. After that things go from bad to worse, and then worse. Until they don’t.

It’s a great concept, it hooks you right away. But it’s what happens after the hook that’s vital—how successful is that? Well, that depends on how you read the book.

If you are looking for any real degree of realism, it’s just too hard to swallow. But if you look at “old” Dave as a character in a comedy—he’s a lot of fun. He’s really a decent, successful guy with a good family. At least until his neighbesis (his word) moves in and he becomes an obsessive, jealous mess. In his less-obsessive moments, he seems like a decent, likable guy and it’s these moments that keep you reading. In his most-obsessive moments, he makes it hard to stick with. It’s quite the balancing act that Puddick tries here, and generally, he succeeds.

Everyone else in the novel—”new” Dave and his family, Dave’s family and co-workers—all seem perfectly normal and well-adjusted. Their reactions to him are perfectly rational and understanding, too. This both highlights his irrational behavior and makes everyone else the “straight man” to “old” Dave. Without that, I think the whole thing would’ve collapsed.

Puddick has given his readers a sweet and funny novel about obsession, jealousy, and what happens to someone when they lose sight of what’s important in life. If you’re looking for a fast and fun read, you’d do well to give this a shot.


3 Stars


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

Love Books Group

Not-So-Common People by T Gamache: Family disasters bring out the best in this protagonist

Not-So-Common People

Not-So-Common People

by T Gamache

Paperback, 209 pg.
Indie Owl Press, 2019

Read: November 27-28, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

” . . . I don’t want to surprise you.”

Surprise me, hell I’m Captain Blindside lately! Every time I turn around one of my siblings is tossing a proverbial bombshell in my direction. I’m barely keeping this crap together, Calvin! When did it become a good idea to throw your emotions at Nathan? I’ll tell you when, NEVER! I’m the introverted, quiet, keep to myself guy in the family. Not the “hey, here’s our crazy laundry” guy!

Nate is a self-professed music geek/snob. That’s his primary description. He’s also a hipster barista with control issues (which he keeps hidden most of the time). He’s around thirty now and should really be making an effort to do something with his life/college degree rather than work part-time at a coffee house. This novel isn’t so much a coming-of-age novel about Nate, as it is that external forces impose age/maturity upon Nate. Which is a great and novel way to approach this kind of character.

I was trying to come up with something to say about the other characters in the novel, and realized that I really didn’t get enough of any of them, except maybe Rick and his parents. I do think they’re probably well-developed and three-dimensional, but there’s so many of them (including people who are maybe around for one scene—like various co-workers) that they can come across as flat and two-dimensional just because we don’t get to spend that much time with them.

For starters, we’ve got Claire, the BFF and roommate—always good for emotional support and sage advice; Frank, his other roommate; Gary, Frank’s fiancé; and Rick, the proprietor of Nate’s record shop—a frenemy of sorts. There’s Nate’s parents and then his siblings—Graham, the Type-A businessman; Calvin, the Lutheran minister; and Marcie, a housewife and mother. Last, but not least, we have the object of his affections, Anne, a little quirky, a little geeky, and driven to succeed.

In the weeks following a fateful Thanksgiving, each of his siblings goes through a major life-changing event (or series of events). And for reasons that he cannot understand, they turn to Nate. Not only do they turn to him, he steps up to help (which might surprise him more than the fact that they came to him for support). Sure, he doesn’t always know what to do for them (this is where Claire and Frank come in), but he’s willing.

In the middle of all this induced maturing, Nate meets Anne. Who is charming, attractive, and funny. Nate falls for her—probably in a ridiculous way—in a time when that’s the last thing he has time for.

While his siblings are reeling and he’s twitterpated, Nate realizes that his life needs some less dramatic life-changing, too.

We really need more time with Anne—it’s hard to buy how involved he gets given their time together (but, it’s cute and you do want to root for them to have a Happily Ever After). And it would be good for us to get more time with the siblings and roommates, too—they all need a little more space.

I have issues with Calvin being a Lutheran minister. If he was some sort of Methodist or non-denominational minister, I’d buy it. But he doesn’t seem that Lutheran to me (he’s definitely not a Missouri Synod or Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran; and he’s not believable as a ELCA minister, either—but that’s closer). I definitely am uncomfortable with the way his religious activities are portrayed, but I can understand why an author would characterize them in the way that Gamache does.

This is a sweet story, a touching story, with a very likable protagonist (even if he wouldn’t believe me saying that), and you can’t help but want to cheer all these characters through their lives being upturned. If my biggest complaint is that we don’t spend enough time with the characters, I think that’s a pretty decent compliment. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion. I appreciate getting the book, but not so much that I altered my opinion.


3 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Friends: A Cultural History by Jennifer C. Dunn: The One Where I Liked 2/3 of a Book.

Friends A Cultural History

Friends: A Cultural History

by Jennifer C. Dunn
Series: The Cultural History of Television

eARC, 288 pg.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019

Read: November 15-December 3, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


I’ve only read one other book in this series (Gilmore Girls: A Cultural History), which led to me expecting a few things from this book—most of which I didn’t get (which is both a positive and a negative comment). I’m going to try not to spend too much time comparing the two books because it seems unfair—but it’s inevitable, so . . .

When I requested that Gilmore Girls book on Netgalley, I noticed the publisher had a similar title about Friends available—and who doesn’t like Friends? So, I requested that one, too—really diving into The Cultural History of Television. Granted, Dunn has more episodes to work from, but she does a better job of getting examples from all over the series—using different episodes/lines/characters to make related points rather than grabbing the same episode/line/character over and over and over again. One of the biggest strengths of the book is the depth of examples she musters for almost every point, reading this book is almost like binge-watching the entire series.

She begins with a chapter describing the success of the show, its place in the history of sitcoms—building on what had come before and shaping its successors. Then she moves on to looking at the impact of the show, its characters, and its actors on mainstream American pop culture—I do think she tried to make a little more hay than was warranted with some of the intertextual links she made in this chapter, but it came across as a quirk rather than a flaw. The third chapter discussed the way that the show replaced a biological family for a found family of friends as the core relationships for the characters. I really appreciated this section of the book and it gave me high hopes for the rest.

The third section of the book explores the legacy of Friends on American—and global—pop culture, as seen in fashion, music, memes, the way we talk (e.g., try to tell someone to pivot without invoking Ross trying to get his couch up the stairs), and the actors’ future roles and shows. This part wasn’t as strong as the first part of the book, but it was entertaining and an interesting way to think about the show. Dunn follows that with her list of the best 25 episodes, including an episode synopsis and a few sentences describing why that episode made the list. Fans will quibble over this list (for example, I think she got 15-18 of them right, and I can’t understand why she picked the others)—but I can’t imagine any fan not enjoying reading it.

The thing that makes me reticent to heartily recommend the book is the second section of the book, which includes the chapters: “Friends Happy Not Doing Too Much,” “Friends Happy Not Thinking Too Much,” “Thin, White, Upper-Middle-Class Friends,” and “Stereotypes, Sexuality, and Friend-ly Tensions.” Dunn states that this section “interrogates cultural identities represented on Friends.” There is a lot of interesting material presented in this section—whether you ultimately agree with her analysis or not—and most of it is well-presented. However, it’s a pretty problematic section. First, it assumes the readers will share her Progressive views (or at least hold ones close to hers) and that 2019 Progressive positions ought to provide the basis for evaluating the shows portrayal of characters/issues/themes, rather than the standards of the time the episodes were produced.

I’m not going to get into a point-by-point evaluation of these chapters, that’s not what this post is about, I’m just looking at this broadly. For example, Dunn begins her chapter on the anti-intellectual bent of some of the humor by pointing to the re-election of George W. Bush as president as one bit of evidence to the rise of anti-intellectualism in the era. I’m not sure I see the wisdom in insulting conservatives, Republicans, or moderates who voted for Bush and who enjoy discussions of a beloved sitcom and might be reading the book.

Yes, the writers couldn’t have made many of the jokes they did if the show was being produced now—but I’m not convinced that means they shouldn’t have then. At one point (at least) Dunn does concede that 2019 standards are different from those of that era, but it doesn’t stop her from criticizing aspects of the show for being products of their time. It seemed to me that at any point where she judged the show’s treatment of something in these chapters, she condemned it rather than look for an opportunity to be charitable. Now, there is a certain amount of intellectual stimulation and pleasure to be found in arguing with a book—and my notes indicate that I did a lot of that during these chapters—but at a certain point I started wondering why someone who clearly disapproved of so much of the show would watch it as much as she clearly has. To me, that detracts from the overall experience.

I’m not trying to suggest that Dunn’s criticisms are baseless, or that I disagree with everything she said in this section. I just think she comes across as unexpectedly antagonistic to the show and doesn’t do herself any favors with many of her readers.

It’s annoying that I had to spend that much time attempting to explain my problems with that section—it’s dicey so I tried to do a good job of that, but now that’s taken the majority of my space here. By importance, it should be about 1/3 of what I say about the book (maybe 40%). But to expand my comments on the rest would render this too long to read (and write, honestly).

I had one other stumbling block with the book—but this is more stylistic and is easily forgettable. You’ve probably read or heard the line: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” I’ve seen it variously attributed, but E. B. White seems the most likely candidate. It’s a trite observation by now, but mostly because it’s true. Dunn explains too many jokes for little profit—generally, they’re jokes that don’t require an explanation in the first place (especially for fans who know the joke, but I think it’s true regardless) and her explanations frequently border on condescending. White (or Twain or whoever) would probably have been willing to say “Explaining a joke or a meme” had they been aware of the concept. Neither one of these things is a major issue, but it grates on the nerves and makes the experience less positive

Ultimately, while I enjoyed the Gilmore Girls entry more, I think this book makes the series seem more promising and will likely lead me to read more of it. On the whole, this was a very enjoyable read and die-hard fans will easily dive into most of the book and relish the experience. And even on those points, a reader will disagree with her on, they’ll enjoy ransacking their memories for counter-arguments. Really, this is an excuse to think deeply about a favorite show for however long it takes you to read 300 pages, not much wrong with that.


3 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this opportunity.

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Dawn of Dreams by Bronwyn Leroux: Preventing an Apocalypse in this Futuristic Fantasy

Dawn of Dreams

Dawn of Dreams

by Bronwyn Leroux
Series: Destiny, #1

Kindle Edition, 298 pg.
2017

Read: November 22-25, 2019


Jaden is out hiking with his friends on a mountain near their home during a school break. Suddenly, Jaden sees a large, monstrous, hard-to-describe bird-like creature. The rest of the group seems oblivious, and Jaden begins spending a lot of effort to convince himself he’s seeing things. Even taking bonus trips to the same point, and trying to record his sightings. The videos show nothing, but the way they show nothing convinces Jaden that he’s on to something.

Which really isn’t that reassuring. Why can’t anyone else see this beast? Why can’t the video show it?

Shortly after this, he meets Kayla, a new girl in the neighborhood. They’re hanging out at a park when the creature shows up, and not only can she see it—she’s been having similar experiences to Jaden. It’s somewhat reassuring that there’s someone else out there seeing it—but the questions keep piling up

It’s not long before they begin to see there are other similarities in their lives—clearly, there’s some sort of connection that goes back generations in both of their families. Throw in some artifacts—and other creatures that only Kayla and Jaden can see, and the questions pile up faster than the answers can keep pace with.

In a matter of days, their lives are no longer the same and the challenges that await them personally are so beyond anything they’d previously thought possible or likely.

Jaden is almost too perfect—smart; a real technical wizard (beyond his years and peers it seems); at least moderately popular; humble; a supportive and understanding child/grandchild; very athletic and annoyingly good at video games (just ask his friends). I’m not sure we saw a single weakness to him—despite that, I found myself liking the kid.

Kayla’s a bit more realistic—she’s clever, too; athletic, really into video games; but she’s not as good (at anything) as Jaden. She has skills that he doesn’t, thankfully. She’s had a harder life, you can sense, but don’t get all the details about. She’s easier to believe as a character, but I’d like to get a few more details about her past.

Jaden’s old friends—and Kayla’s new ones—aren’t around enough for us to get more than a vague sense about. But their families are involved a lot more than your typical YA families are—this is a pleasant change, but Leroux still spends a frustrating amount of time with the parents (mothers, to be specific) hinting at things going on in their lives rather than coming out and just telling the reader (whether or not the duo learns anything ) what’s going on.

The realities the pair discover and are exposed to are interesting, and I’d really like to see what Leroux has planned for them in the future. All the magical/otherworldly/unusual creatures they (and the reader) meet are well-designed and executed.

A couple of things I’m not sure about—first of which is the pacing. The book feels like it’s all set-up. All the conflict, all the challenge is in the future—Dawn of Dreams is just setting the stage for the series as a whole. I’m only guessing here, but my gut says I’d be more satisfied if books 1 and 2 in this series were combined into one, lengthier volume. Imagine if Tolkein had stopped The Fellowship of the Ring after the Council of Elrond and then started a second book for the trip through the Misty Mountains and the rest. I didn’t really have a problem with the slow pace, until the book ended and I was left wondering why I didn’t get more.

I’m not sure what’s gained by having this set in 2073 instead of the present day. I’m not saying there was a problem with it—I liked the slightly advanced version of the world, I’m just not sure I get the point of putting things there. I’m also not sure where this took place—there’s no reference to local flora or fauna, or even just a geographic place name.

Neither of these points really changed what I thought about the book, they just left me wondering more than I should have. There were some things that bothered me.

Leroux likes her adjectives. She more than likes them—she overloads the text with them (either especially at the beginning as she introduces the characters and world—or I got used to it as the book progressed). I appreciate her attempt to paint a picture with words, but it frequently felt to me like she’d never use one adjective if she could use three instead. Her adverb use is almost as bad at times, but it’s not as pronounced.

Beyond that, I’m not crazy about a lot of her word choices. In her attempt to vary her vocabulary, she often ended up grabbing the wrong word for a situation. I’m not talking malapropisms. But words that mean almost what she’s clearly going for, but aren’t quite right. Almost like Joey Tribbiani’s use of a thesaurus when composing a letter of recommendation. The result too frequently proved a stumbling block to the story. It’s like if your radio was tuned to 98.8 FM when the station is 98.7—you get a pretty good signal and can hear everything, but occasionally you get too much static with your music, ruining the song.

I don’t like bringing up those two points, because there’s a real earnestness to the novel. It’s not that Leroux is being negligent or careless in her writing, on the contrary, I think she’s trying too hard and ends up getting in her way. If she’d dial back on the effort a bit, focusing more energy on the plot and characters, I think the book would be more successful.

I liked the story, I thought the characters were fine—and I definitely want to spend more time with them. I’m just not crazy about the writing—which is a fairly important component of a book. So I can’t recommend this as heartily as I want to.


3 Stars


My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

Thieves by Steven Max Russo: 2 Crooks, 1 Realtor, 1 Housekeeper and a Whole Lot of Thievery

Thieves

Thieves

by Steven Max Russo

Kindle Edition, 280 pg.
Down & Out Books, 2018

Read: November 11-15, 2019

Last month, I posted my thoughts on Steven Max Russo’s second novel, The Dead Don’t Sleep, and now I get to focus on his first book.

Skooley (I kid you not), is a small-time criminal with aspirations of greater things (and, let’s be honest, delusions of at least a bit more grandeur than he actually possess). He runs afoul of actual bad guys in Florida and makes himself scarce, hiding out in New Jersey for awhile. He gets a job in a restaurant and meets Ray. Ray isn’t as an accomplished thief as Skooley, but he’d like to be. And he knows where to start: their fellow co-worker Esmeralda had an idea.

You see, she’s got aspirations and dreams of her own. Hers are on the legal side, it’s nice to say. She’s a housekeeper, a restaurant hostess at night, and does some grunt work at a hair salon when she’s not working as either of those. She’s trying to save money for beauty school while taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She’s making progress, but it’s slow and she could really use a little boost.

Esmerelda tells Ray about the owners of a house that she cleans who take off for a month or so every year at this time. They’re the kind of people who leave cash and expensive things around with no one to check on them. Ray tells Skooley.

So Ray and Skooley break and enter, with the idea of spending a couple of days carefully and thoroughly pillaging this house. Almost immediately, things don’t go according to plan and the three conspirators are mired in distrust, frustration, and assorted moments of larceny.

There’s a subplot involving a real estate agent named Loretta. She blows off a little steam one night after work by having a little too much to drink. Somewhere between being one and three sheets to the wind, she runs into Skooley on a break from his plundering. In case there was any doubt at this point for the reader, what happens next definitely qualifies Skooley as a villain. Other than that, it wasn’t until the very end of the book that I saw anything redeeming about this storyline. Once I did, it all made sense. But man, I spent a long time wondering just what Russo was trying to accomplish with it.

I wouldn’t call this fast-paced, it’s more of a slow-build. More than that, it’s steady and always tantalizing about what’s coming next. Steady enough that you won’t want to put it down.

This is really an Elmore Leonard-esque plot and batch of characters, but it has none of Leonard’s style. Which is not a complaint—I’m trying to describe, not challenge—if he’d tried, I’d spend a few paragraphs describing the ways that someone who isn’t Elmore Leonard shouldn’t try to ape his style. Instead, you get the same types of characters in tight situations, which is good enough.

There are really two conclusions to this novel—and both are a lot more satisfying than anything I thought the novel might be leading to. And the last line is a killer, make no mistake.

All in all, a solid Crime novel featuring lowlifes, misguided people, and a few hardcore bad guys. It’s also enough evidence for myself that I’m going to grab the next Russo novel in a heartbeat. I dug this one, I think you will, too.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion. I am grateful for that, but not so grateful that I changed my opinion.


3 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Hurricane Vacation by Heather L. Beal, Jasmine Mills: A cute little book with some important hurricane safety lessons for kids

Hurricane Vacation

Hurricane Vacation

by Dr. Heather L. Beal, Jasmine Mills (Illustrator)

Kindle Edition, 36 pg.
Train 4 Safety Press, 2019

Read: November 18, 2019


Heather Beal’s back with another book for early readers/pre-readers about natural disasters—this time (in case the title doesn’t give it away), it’s about Hurricanes. I really appreciate this way of educating children about these types of disasters—it’s not about facts and figures, it’s about assuring them that people can be safe in the face of disaster as well as helping them understand what’s going on.

Lily and Niko are visiting their family when a Hurricane watch is issued, so they join their family in preparing the house for the storm and getting ready to go to a shelter. Along the way, they learn about what a hurricane is as well as all the ways that people can protect themselves, themselves, and so on.

As with Elephant Wind and Tummy Rumble Quake, the information is given in an accessible way that’s mildly entertaining. Beal did a good job interweaving the information with interaction with the characters—even young readers/listeners don’t want to put up with infodumps, I guess.

I’m not sure the part of the story about Niko’s missing stuffed animal really fit—it seemed like it was tacked on as an afterthought. It may not have been one, it just felt that way. It was nice to see everyone working to make Niko feel safe (and that his toy would be safe) during this—very reassuring.

The art was cute and helped the story—I particularly enjoyed the “eye” in the storm showing how the term was misunderstood.

Beal delivers another helpful book that should be of good use for parents/grandparents/teachers/caregivers trying to help children cope with and understand the ways this world can terrify them (and adults). Recommended.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion (above)..


3 Stars