Spook Street

by Mick Herron
2017 Soho Press

Method of selection: Potentially racist titles
First sentence: Heat rises, as is commonly known, but not always without effort.
A good sentence: They were both uplit and downlit, these plastic springtime celebrants, and a piano tinkled melodious background nonsense for their pleasure…
Also good, even though I have no idea what it means: In its almanac of images, on a page already turned, the new year had been represented by sledges and scarves and friendly robins, but reality made few compromises, and life this side of the windows bore little resemblance to that enjoyed by the mannequins.

Did you know British people have their own slang words which they didn’t steal from America? It’s true! To learn more, I looked up “Britia” in the encyclopedia, since that’s where British people logically come from. Well actually the VERY FIRST thing I did was figure out what an encyclopedia is. Turns out it’s just Wikipedia that someone printed out and glued together for people in shitty countries that can’t afford a Samsung Galaxy S12k Championship Edition in White Gold. They should get more money.

According to the encyclopedia, there is no such place as Britia, but there is a place called British Columbia, so logically that’s where most of the people must speak British, while the rest speak Columbian. I’m very logical. See?

As it turns out, the word “spook” means a different thing in British English than it does in American English. In American English, the word “spook” is racist. It’s not the most racist word we have, maybe a 4 or 5 out of 10 on the Helms Scale, but it should be avoided while writing municipal regulations or testifying before a grand jury (unless you’re testifying about hauntings). In British English, it means a government intelligence agent. I guess intelligent agents are spooky and haunted? When I picked this book off the shelf I naturally assumed it was written by a white supremacist and the library where I found it was also run by white supremacists. Unfortunately Cambridge, Massachusetts just isn’t that interesting. All the racism here is bland and institutional instead of exciting and in-your-face with fire and stuff.

Instead, this book is about terrorism in England. It’s not about the street where all the black people live. Darn.

Here’s another fun fact: this book is not shitty. In fact it’s so not shitty it even tricked me into reading a prologue, and I wasn’t even upset when I realized it was a prologue. I don’t know why Mick Herron insists on such stupid titles. He’s written a lot of books with shitty titles, including Real Tigers, which is about fake tigers, and Why We Die, which about real tigers. He also wrote a novella, which is just a fancy way of saying, “I ran out of ideas before I finished my novel”. But that’s okay he’s still a good writer.

So buy this one, or pick it up from the library. But don’t let the white supremacists see you with it, or they might think you’re one of them. (Unless you want them to think you’re one of them, in which case, make sure they see it. Don’t worry, though, they can’t read, so you can tell them it’s about whatever you want. I told one of them it’s a book about white tigers, and he thought that was cool.)

Career of Evil


by Robert Galbraith
2015 Mulholland Books (Little, Brown)

Method of selection: Wanted to pick on a MALE author for a change. It backfired.
First sentence
: He had not managed to scrub off all her blood.

When you put “evil” in the title of a book, it makes it instantly shitty. It is the fastest 0-shitty track time possible. And the library had a lot of copies of this book. There will be a lot of opioid addicts trying to pawn this book so they need a lot of copies. Obviously shitty, right?

I did not know who Robert Galbraith was when I picked it up, but I quickly noticed the absence of any prologue, and dropped my opioid-taking device right there in the library among the other addicts. The publisher may have been jerking off while on opioids the day he was supposed to read it. Or someone tore all the prologues out to pawn them for opioids. But I checked all 1,100 copies on the shelf. No prologue (and someone stole my opioid-taking device while I wasn’t looking). Which means the author and the publisher both decided this book was good enough to start with the first chapter. Confused, and a little high, I turned to the first page, and to my complete surprise, it’s well-written, and that’s not just the opioids talking.

My confusion turned into insanity turned into cancer and they prescribed me more opioids. This is how addiction begins, and also how not shitty books should begin.

Every shitty book begins with a murder, an upcoming wedding, or a car ride. This book begins with a murder, an upcoming wedding, and a bus ride. Nearly a hat trick of shittiness. But the writing doesn’t fit. It’s good. So I looked up the author.

And…it’s JK Rowling, in case you didn’t already know. Talent can’t hide behind a shitty title and a shitty sexism-apologist pen name. And Rowling tried hard to make it shitty and failed. So in a way, it’s a failure, but in another way, it’s not shitty.

But why hide behind the pen name? Harry Potter fans are by now all in their 50’s, and they’ve experienced dozens of cancelled weddings and murders (often for similar reasons). Most of them have stalked people on a bus before (in hopes of interrupting their wedding and stealing their opioids). I think the fans can handle it (even if they can’t handle their opioids).

I’m still not going to read it. But if I saw you reading it on a bus I would not try to murder you and stop your wedding.

Other reviews: Helena Halme, Booking Mama, The Natterbox, Mugglenet

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by Alissa Nutting
Ecco 2013

First sentence: I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep.
First indication something is weird: …thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.
First confirmation that something is weird: All I could think about were the boys I’d soon be teaching.
Also enjoyed: …it hardened like the frosting of a confection and cast my excitement beneath a crisp, thin shell.
Number of terrible titles given to an otherwise great first novel: 1

Other reviews: Just a Lil’ Lost…, Jenn’s Bookshelves, Bookish Ardour, Bibliosaurus Text, Three Guys One Book

Bravo, Alissa Nutting, bravo. I grew up near Tampa, and expected that a book named after America’s urban carwash and mini-mall capital would itself be the literary equivalent of diarrhea on a humid blacktop parking lot (which I have seen and I gave it two stars). But you won me over in a page and a half. Alissa Nutting, you can write a goddamn sentence. It’s not snarky, it’s not over-saturated by sticky adjectives, and the subject matter is immediately interesting to perverts like me: a gorgeous 26 year-old married woman with a fetish for 14 year-old boys who goes into teaching middle school for the purpose of seducing them. Do go on…

The language becomes very sexual very quickly, but it doesn’t read like a romance novel. The main character describes in detail her attempt to cleanse and scrub her body with strawberry aromatics to a point at which “the slippery organs of my sex…taste like the near-transparent pink shaving gelée applied to them,” and “for the sandy rouge of my nipples to have the flavor of peach cream complexion scrub.” It’s playful without a heavy hand.

The story is inspired by the case of Debra Lafave, who you may remember from the news in 2005, when she was caught sleeping with a 14 year-old male student. Alissa Nutting claims to have attended high school with her near Tampa.

One downside to this work is that the subject material may be more interesting to perverted men than to women (except for Women’s Studies majors, who will surely appreciate the commentary on gender politics and sexuality) and a book by a woman, with a fuzzy cover (yes, it’s fuzzy) is going to be hard to market to the same patriarchy that the book is partially commenting on. Or something. My point is, it reads great, but who’s going to buy it? Unless there’s a vast unaddressed market of child molesters in North America. And if there is, why don’t I have more friends?

tampa-alissa-nutting-alt-coverAlso, I noticed this alternate cover for the book, which I assume was censored for American distribution, since we’re babies; and vaginas, and things that look like them, are scary and might turn us into rapists.

I’m going to read this one for real. I do hope it continues to read this intensely, and leaves the judgments on gender and sexual politics to me. Because I happen to LIKE my double-standards.

(PostScript: I could tell quickly Alissa Nutting is not from Florida. 1. She talks about “mobile” or “extension classrooms”. We called them “portables”. 2. Her main character mentions the weather channel predicting “record-high humidity”. There is no such thing in Florida. Every day is 100% humidity. 3. She says, “the temperature inside the faculty lounge was nearly unbearable.” This is impossible. Every room in a Florida school feels like a meat locker. The A/C runs full blast all night long. First period is never hot. It’s freezing.)

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by Lisa Gardner
2007 Bantam Books (Random House)

Method of selection: one-word titles

First sentence: My father explained it to me the first time when I was seven years old: The world in a system.
Notables: To this day I don’t know how many cities we lived in. Or how many names I assumed. And That was the first night my father slept in my bed.

I desperately wanted to hate this — you have no idea how desperately. The title is pathetic, the cover is trashy and simplistic, it’s a New York Times Bestselling author (who has a thing for one-word titles), and the synopsis is ridiculous.

Normally when I’m looking for books to write about, I read the first page and try to quickly decide if it is shitty, not shitty, or neither, in which case I move on to the next. But like a Stephen King novel, I found myself reading on for many pages, past my normal three, unable to determine whether it was shitty or not. And as I have discussed before, the ability to keep you reading is the mark of a good writer. This isn’t good, but it sneaks into the not shitty category because it moves quickly, displays action, sadness, and just enough gravitas to sustain me. I’m almost sad to not have the time to find out what happens. But not really sad.

Still, even six whole giant pages in, I was conflicted with this sickening sense of being infected, because I still wanted to hate it. And I suppose that’s the definition of prejudice.

But hell, talent is talent. Read on. You can always throw up later.

Other reviews: Material Witness, Novel Ladies, Duffbert’s Random Musings, Bundu Reviews

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by Gail Jones
2007 Europa Editions

Method of selection: one-word titles

First: A whisper: sssshh. The thinnest vehicle of breath. This is a story that can only be told in a whisper.
What got my attention: …her dress, the particular blue of hydrangeas, spattered with the purple of my father’s blood.

Other reviews: Reading Matters, Literary Minded, omphaloskepsis, Let’s Arise Again

I consider myself passably intellectual, but many of the books I like are not. It seems like more astute authors are just as likely to be poor writers (while more likely to be poor financially) as their trash paperback brethren, but they mask their ineptitude with vocabulary, complex concepts, and humor, as I have done with this very sentence.

So I get very excited to find a book that is a challenging read, but with language that still manages to flow, and to engage. Such is the case with Sorry by Gail Jones.

This book seemed to have everything working against it, with a plot involving a young girl in Australia, World War II, two intellectual but shitty parents, a deaf-mute boy, and a misfit aboriginal girl. And Gail Jones herself lives in Perth, which I’m told is the end of the Earth. It all sounds terribly boring, but the text is alive because Gail Jones is not a shitty writer, giving us gems like these:

  • …unseemly, but oh! vivacious with gore.
  • …to sense skin as a gift…
  • There might have been a snake in the house, for all our watchful attention.

It is not plain language, but rather precise language, and I was quickly swept into the anguish and tragedy of the story. While the writing flows, it is still challenging and at times one has to re-read whole paragraphs to take it all in, but this is a good thing. It is stuffed margin to margin with information, and that satisfies my intellectual urges while still stimulating my emotional ones. It reminds me a bit of Jeanette Winterson, who is one of my favorites.

Sorry is so not shitty, it’s actually good.

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Under the Dome

by Stephen King
2009 Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

Method of selection: Random number generator (really)
First sentence
: From two thousand feet, where Claudette Sanders was taking a flying lesson, the town of Chester’s Mill gleamed in the morning light like something freshly made and just set down.
Other uses for this book, after reading: use to mash woodchucks, use as a paperweight for smaller books during a hurricane

Before my review, you should know that I am already a Stephen King fan, but I had to choose this book because my random number generator took me to a shelf that was all Stephen King.

I know of no other writer who so swiftly draws you in and keeps you there, without complicated language or tricks. It is storytelling at its most basic. I chose this book out of all the Stephen King books because it was written recently, and I assumed that this late in his career, he must be losing steam. I was totally wrong.

The first thing you see in opening this book is a map of the town of Chester’s Mill, which immediately gives you all the sense of place you need for this story, and further suggests that things are going to get complicated enough that a map will be necessary (and at 1,071 pages, it better get complicated). There is also a list of all the people in the town on the day it is domed over, including three dogs.

The story opens on a banal scene where two people pilot a small plane over the town. At first I thought King had gone soft, until the second page when he announces “Their lives had another forty seconds to run”. Then we get a micro-story about a fat and happy woodchuck who gets smashed in half, followed by a description of the plane crash. So at the end of three pages I’m dying to read on and see what happens. And that’s what King does so well. Even though the writing isn’t always brilliant, at times even juvenile, you always want to see what comes next. King is one of the few writers that makes the very act of reading fun. Not shitty!

Other reviews: Den of Geek, Not A Fanatic, The Book Stop, HorrorScope

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The Human Blend

by Alan Dean Foster
2010 Del Rey (Random House)

First: “Let’s riffle the dead man.” Jiminy scowled at the newly won corpse and hopped to it.
Techo neologisms on the first page: Meld, mudbud, barker, fib, flexstent
Method of selection: Look at the cover. This has to be shitty. 

Call me crazy, but this book is not shitty. I expected it to be because it appears to be cheesy sci-fi. Only now have I learned that Alan Dean Foster wrote a lot of the original Star Wars, plus The Empire Strikes Back, and the first Star Trek movie. This guy has stratospheric nerd points, and from what I can tell, he knows how to write pretty well.

Foster drops us into a scene where two futuristic thugs have killed a man and are raiding his body for artificial parts, because in the future many people, called melds, have been modified in extreme ways, some as a form of criminal punishment. But rather than present a clichéd story about normal people versus androids, the thugs themselves are also melds, one whose legs have been modified for jumping and the other who has been modified to be unusually thin. And to my surprise it’s believable and invites some critical thinking about medical ethics. I was actually interested in where the story was going, and the technical descriptions were fun instead of cumbersome. For extra fun, the setting is a post-global warming Savannah, Georgia, which is loveably specific. Even the plot synopsis on the front leaf is compelling.

Other reviews: Functional Nerds, Owlcat Mountain, Bitchy Reader, The Merry Genre Go Round Reviews

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Toward the End of Time

by John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House) 1997

First sentence: First snow: it came this year late in November.

A great read if: you live in the city and fucking hate yourself
Method of selection: Wanted to trash John Updike

I’m so glad John Updike is dead, because now we don’t have to keep pretending we like him. And I’m going to stop pretending by actually liking this. I was convinced this would be shitty. Usually a book that starts by describing freshly fallen snow is going nowhere, and the mini-story of the mystical FedEx envelope that appears, mystically, at the door only furthered my shitty resolve. But as it so happens, on the morning I pulled this from the shelf I lived in the city and fucking hated myself, so it’s a great read. Updike gives us gems like, “Plastic shovels are an improvement — can you believe it? The world does not only get worse.” And this (from page four, which I made it to), “By daylight she pumps me full of vitamins and advice as if to prolong my life but I know her dreams’ truth: she wants me and the deer both dead.”

Things get even more exciting when you check the summary on the front flap: “A recent war between the United States and China has thinned the population and brought social chaos. The dollar has been locally replaced by Massachusetts scrip; instead of taxes, one pays protection money to competing racketeers.” This sounds like a conservative Republican’s wet dream. There was, however, nothing about this plotline in the first three pages, and I wonder if the publisher mixed John Updike up with Jon Updam, the famous author of such post-apocalyptic fiction as Regnar’s Fortress and The Last Dairy Producer.

The point is, I would take this one home, and did. Score one for the New York Times book reviewers, eight hundred million billion for shitty books.

Other reviews: BookmunchDamian Kelleher

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Chasing Fire

by Nora Roberts
GP Putnam Sons (Penguin) 2011

First sentence:
Caught in the crosshairs of wind above the Bitterroots, the jump ship fought to find its stream.

Worst sentence: Nerves. She could all but feel them riding along his skin.
Biggest surprise: not coming down with terminal leukemia while reading this

Let’s get a few things straight:
1. I have never read a romance novel.
2. I’m not sure why, because this was not shitty.
3. “Chasing Fire” is a double-entendre, for firefighters on one hand, and ill-advised unprotected coworker sex on the other. Unexpected pregnancy and HPV may result, but I only read three pages so I don’t know for sure.

I knew Nora Roberts was a supermarket paperback writer, but I did not know she was a romance author when I picked this off the shelf. It purported to be about firejumpers (firefighters who parachute into wildfires), but it was only from doing a little research that I discovered this is supposed to be a romance.

This is not a literary work, it’s a soap opera, but I’ll be damned to call it shitty. Believe me I’m as shocked as you. Nora Roberts has 209 novels to her name (wait…..210……211), and being a romance writer, and with a name in such a pointy font, she is clearly marketed entirely to women. Yet I turned to page four without hesitation. I expected it to be hacky and overdone, but with only a few exceptions, it appears to be good storytelling, about a small-town firejumping girl in love with a boyish firejumping guy. The dialogue is believable and the characters presumably have very good bodies. I’d read that.

Other reviewers: Rosario’s Reading Journal, Errant Dreams Reviews, RT Book Reviews, Smexy Books, All About Romance

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by Daniel H. Wilson
Doubleday 2011

First sentence: 
Twenty minutes after the war ends, I’m watching stumpers pour up out of a frozen hole in the ground like ants from hell and praying that I keep my natural legs for another day.

Made-up words: stumpers, hexapods, thrower (for flame-thrower), oddly
Best line: …the hoarse whisper of a hundred thousand explosive mechanical hexapods searching for human victims or …sticky, burning jelly coats the river of death.
Worst line: Spark. Whoomph!
You will enjoy this book if you also enjoyed: The Matrix sequels.

I wanted so much to tell you that this, the first book I am reviewing, is shitty. I specifically selected it for its ridiculous title, which cannot actually be the real title. No editor is that stupid. No editor at Doubleday. This is more like the title of a bad movie (upcoming movie is being directed by Steven Speilberg. Release date 2013).

It’s a familiar story at the beginning: robots rise up against man. Man attempts to fight back with flamethrowers (like in Alien except robots instead of aliens). The first three pages is actually entertaining and easy to follow, not overloaded with technojargon or melodrama, even though it drops the reader straight into a scene in which the main character is attempting to fight off thousands of tiny robotic creatures. Even Wilson’s slightly hackish repeated onomatopoeia, “Spark” doesn’t detract from the experience very much.

However, while I could see myself reading on to page four, I’m pretty sure from the look of the photo on the back flap that Daniel H. Wilson is the author of I Was a Balding Hipster Teenager, not the Carnegie-Mellon PhD in robotics with a wife and a daughter his bio claims.

Through freshly-installed braces: “Hey ladeeshhhhh….I’m shheeking a date for shophomore prom shhhhhkthpt.” (spittle flies everywhere).

No, seriously, I think this might actually be a good book.

You win this round, Daniel H. Wilson! Or should I say, Daniel H. KILL-son!

(Because he killed his son.)

(Not really.)

Other reviews: Grasping for the Wind, Fantasy Book Critic, BookThing, The Mad Hatters
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