Authors: Joe Hill & Stephen King

Type: Fiction, short story (Kindle single)

Published: 2009

I read it: August 2015


About twice a year I dust off the Kindle to give it another chance. After charging it and up and becoming infuriated while I try to reboot it so it will function, I need something to make the medium exciting to me. I knew I had a couple singles on the device that I never got around to.

I went for Throttle because I knew it’d be a breezy read, and I was intrigued by the father-son authorship. I’ve heard good things bout Joe Hill’s novels, but I’m not sure when I’ll actually get around to one (they are as thick as his dad’s).

This is a pretty Kingian story about a motorcycle gang and their plans going wrong. The opening is a bit too much like a riff on Breaking Bad—there are drugs and unplanned violence, and a “what do we do now?” dilemma. The strong part is the character of Vince, an aging guy who is not all that bad, but whose son, Race, is a wild card who threatens to make a poor situation worse.

The action is good without being terribly gory, and the characters are focused, with few of the annoying Kingisms issuing from their lips. It was impossible to tell which author added which parts, and there is some serious Freud going on with the plot featuring a parenting/legacy theme. At any rate, I think the story has kept me interested in looking into more Joe Hill.

P.S. Apparently this tale was inspired by a Richard Matheson story called “Duel.” Anyone read it?

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Posted by on October 2, 2015 in Short stories


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West of the Moon

Author: Margi Preus

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2014

I read it: August 2015


In mid-nineteenth century Norway, a peasant girl’s mother is dead and her father has traveled to America with hopes of sending money back home. The girl, Astri, is sold by her aunt to the cruel Svaalberd, the “goatman.” To survive the ordeal, Astri replays her favorite fairy tales in her head, drawing parallels between the wondrous lands in her mind and her own dismal path.

Drawing on research of the time and place, author Margi Preus weaves childlike wonder with harsh realities in this story of a girl struggling to escape her fate. The narrator is stubborn yet open-minded, clever yet foolish. She experiences time and again the disappointment that her personal story does not fit her myths, and slowly collects her own nuggets of wisdom, like “It seems we have to be tossed every which way by each of the winds except the one we need.”

Parts of the narrative bleed into the fantastical, in a way that truly enhances the story. It’s a unique experiment in getting inside the head of a superstitious people, when fact and fiction were not so cleanly divided as they are for us today. Astri deals with abuse, disease, and death, and the tone handles these gracefully. A young reader could appreciate much of the adventure, while a teen or adult would see deeper reaches.

My favorite passage is one when Astri comes to terms with her situation and her own capabilities:

Soon I’ve run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I’m left with just this thin thread of truth. And that wiry, rough little thread tells me that if anyone is going to do any rescuing from this place, it’s going to have to be me.

At the end of the book Preus has included clarifying statements about some of the plot devices, explaining the modern terms for ailments that her characters didn’t have the right words for, or giving background to the spells and charms that they believed in. This is an excellent addendum to an already solid book, offering even more layers to the text. The book feels both modern and ancient, and helps the reader experience a life far outside, yet connected to, his or her own.

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Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Novels


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Get in Trouble

Author: Kelly Link

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2015

I read it: July 2015


This review was originally published on The Stake.

I gravitated toward Kelly Link’s new short fiction collection based on a compelling summary, thinking Link was a new name to me. But I dug around some, and was reminded of an older story of hers about a boy, the mother he lost, and the cat who tries to lead him to a new life. That was “Catskin” and it skirted deftly away from genre definition. Was it magical realism? Playful allegory? Just plain undefinable weirdness? I couldn’t say.

The stories in this new group are all vaguely fantastical, and it’s easy to see why the flap has supporting quotes from Neil Gaiman and Karen Russell. The opening story, “The Summer People,” is a lovely tale about a teen girl who has a responsibility to a supernatural house out in the country. It’s fascinating and unsettling, grounded yet mysterious.

Some of the stories that follow take a steeper trip into the dark, getting frank about ill-advised relationships. There are the ones about real superheroes (“Secret Identity” and “Origin Story”) as well as ghosts (“I Can See Right Through You” and “The New Boyfriend”), and the unreal elements are subtle enough to serve the stories instead of knocking them off course. I can only think of one, “The Lesson,” that could be read as straight up realistic, about a gay couple preparing for the birth of their child through a surrogate mother. It’s still a vivid tale though.

The book’s title is a good guide to these stories, several of which feature women (often young) coming to terms with who or what they want to be. A few specific mentions of the phrase include:

                But there was something about him, you just knew he was going to get you into trouble. The good kind of trouble.


                People with two shadows were supposed to get in trouble. Supposed to be trouble.

Each story has to quickly orient you to its own little world, which takes some paying attention. Get in Trouble is a tough one to read with distractions. But the not knowing is part of the propulsion, and Link is clearly in control. Several of these could be expanded upon, which makes me wonder which story might become her first novel. Not that a novel has to be the ultimate goal of every writer, but she seems up to the task if one of her tales can’t stay contained. I’d look forward to that book.

Or, let’s get an illustrator to team up with Link, and she can pen a strange superhero ghost story with the enhancement of visual elements. Now that comic would deserve my dollars.

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Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Short stories


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Go Set A Watchman

Author: Harper Lee

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: August 2015


After reading the C grade from The A.V. Club and the D+ from EW, I approached this book with great reluctance. Thankfully it was shorter than expected. The book both confirmed my general low expectations and also gave lie to some over-discussed plot points.

The book is only a draft. But a draft of what? All signs point to it being the precursor to To Kill A Mockingbird, which makes the most sense. It doesn’t work as a sequel—I’m pretty sure there are entire passages from the beginning of Part 2 that were placed into TKAM instead.  It also plays fast and loose with the fact that Jem is dead. On the other hand, a sequel is exactly what it could have been. All the pieces are in place, and with a far heavier editing hand it may have come into focus.

But the editing is pretty nonexistent. There are serious POV issues, with the flow switching from one character to the next midstream. On top of that, it switches from third person to first person within the same paragraph. The characters rattle off a host of literary and historical references without enough context or explanation. Huge chunks are just histories of the county and its people, instead of Jean Louise and her family specifically. These are more reasons why the book doesn’t work on its own merits—its only relevance is in our real world context of treating it as a museum specimen.

The story has basically two main arcs for Jean Louise: she wrestles with her heart about whether or not to marry Henry, and she wrestles with the frustrations of her town not being up to speed on race relations. The second arc comes down to her relationship with Atticus. And here is where the overblown article headlines had deceived me: Atticus has not fallen from savior to scoundrel between the two books. You could make the case that this is what the narrative intends for Jean Louise to think has happened (again, only if viewed as an actual sequel, which it fails at), but Atticus has simply entered a gray area. He’s an aging guy coming to terms with radical change around him. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also interesting and honest.

I’d go so far as to say the most infuriating part is the build at the end where Jean Louise repeatedly loses it. Perhaps this rang true for some readers, but it seemed too much for me. Maybe a teenager or twenty-year-old could harbor such shock and rage, but the character at 26? Really? She even commits a reductio ad Hitlerum during an argument. It’s pretty out there. The other reason it falls flat is our history with TKAM itself. This book has spawned the philosophy of asking, “What would Atticus do?” In GSAW, that phrase is actually used. It’s interesting terrain, but belongs either in a better book or left only to our public reading consciousness.

Also, the most shocking action wasn’t the racism stuff, it was when Uncle Jack hit Jean Louise in the face—twice!—because she was so upset. That this happens with so little comment is jarring to a modern reader. Especially when the narrative bends over backwards to cast Jean Louise as the Young Super Progessive.

Using phrases like “the narrative” instead of “the author” in this review bring us back to the central issue. To put it in the parlance of assessing our modern glut of pop culture: does this book earn its existence in any way? It does not. That’s not to say it’s thoroughly terrible—there’s a lot of potential here. I think it could work in a U.S. history and/or rhetoric class. The conversations about race, when placed into the context of how people in certain decades (which year did this take place, by the way? does it ever say?) thought and talked and acted, could be illuminating. Put the storytelling issues aside and there’s a lot you could do with the text.

Most people suspected this book would falter under the weight of Mockingbird, and they were right. The bright spot is the presumption about where this book came from: that someone, an editor maybe, read this and then convinced Lee to recraft her story. What she turned out was a brilliant, focused, tangible world that was less pedantic and more lasting. Isn’t this the ideal scenario for any book? That an author toiled away at characters and ideas, then was asked to abandon most of it so he or she could redirect it into something even better that they hadn’t glimpsed before?

I remember a book club when someone mentioned Harper Lee as an example of a person who had a single blazing story to tell. GSAW makes the claim hold up. We got the better story decades ago. We got the only story then. And I have no sympathy for people who worry that GSAW somehow diminishes TKAM. That’s the mindset people use when they say a movie or show has ruined a book for them. How is that possible? It’s just an extension, a different take. Don’t fret about the central texts you love. They are called timeless for a reason.

P.S. I can’t resist including a note about Jean Louise referencing the poem about “Childe Roland to the dark tower came.” Too cool! It might be the first time I’ve ever heard someone use that outside of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. It was a strange but welcome inclusion.

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Posted by on September 11, 2015 in Novels


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The Psychopath Test

Author: Jon Ronson

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Published: 2011

I read it: July 2015


Four days ago I was not reading this book, and now I’m already finished. It was prompted by a coworker bringing up some Ted Bundy facts, and then a few of us trying to remember the difference between psychopath and sociopath. My wife had this book on our shelf for years after she read it, so I figured it was finally the time to catch up.

Jon Ronson puts the “journey” in “journalism,” framing his book around his own somewhat accidental plunge into some strange corners of psychology and psychiatry. It starts with a mystery and speeds along from there, as Ronson tries to figure out what’s behind psychopaths. These people, as defined by Bob Hare (who made the psychopath test or checklist), are:

“Predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse. What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony.”

We know these types from movies and TV (think of the horrific killers from the British drama Luther). An early statistic from the book is that possibly one in one hundred people in the regular population are psychopaths, and that the prison population probably has a higher percentage. This is all strangely disconcerting to both Ronson and the reader, and there are some fascinating yet grisly tales around the people he researches and interviews. It makes you want to look over your shoulder while walking down the street.

Ronson spends a lot of time prying into the hypothesis that psychopaths thrive at the top levels of the corporate world, and also wonders whether journalism itself has a hand in putting mad people on display. Ronson tries to strike a good balance between believing that psychopaths are indeed identifiable and questioning whether over-diagnosis is a particular problem. There’s a lot of gray in here, and the book ends with few tangible conclusions. For example, the stat about one person in every one hundred being a psychopath, while memorable and used on the back of the book, is never verified in the slightest. Even our initial question went unresolved:

You may be wondering what the difference is between a psychopath and a sociopath, and the answer is, there really isn’t one. Psychologists and psychiatrists around the world tend to use the terms interchangeably.

Another reason this book struck me as the right one to read was its loose parallel with Incognito by David Eagleman. Both are unintimidating paperbacks with yellow covers, and both try to pull back the curtain between what we know and what we think we know about the brain (though Eagleman’s is a lot more scientific). Also, I was reading Incognito in the hospital in the days leading up to Isaac’s birth two years ago last week, and I remember hoping so much that he would have a more or less normal brain. Now we’re preparing for the second baby and I’m hoping the same. It goes without saying that there are crazy, dangerous people out here in the world. I apologize in advance, my son.

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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Non-fiction single subject


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Eden West

Author: Pete Hautman

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: July 2015


This review was also published on The Stake.

This is the story of Jacob, raised in a cult in rural Montana since age five. He’s about to turn 18 and faces a life of dutiful faith, with a wife chosen for him. His straightforward path is shaken up by two outsiders his age: one is another young man who has arrived as a new recruit against his will, and the other is a young woman who lives on a ranch that shares a border with Nodd, the home of Jacob’s people. Though their community is small, they do not think of themselves imprisoned on a parcel of land. Instead, the fence that Jacob surveys on his rounds is “a strip of armor, a strand of chain mail that made us stronger, a shield to protect us.”

Pete Hautman effectively blends a few of his past ideas into a unique study of an isolated community. He takes the religious questioning from Godless and the honest budding love from The Big Crunch to concoct a slower, more deliberate story that blurs the line between YA and regular adult fiction. Jacob’s story is superficially about teenagers, but has a rounded cast of adults who are just as integral as the few young people. The book has a serious tone because Jacob is a rather serious person, and it has a slow pace because life for the protagonist has been relatively simple up until this point. Each bit of new information is cause for reflection.

“There is a thing I do that frightens me, but I cannot resist.” This is an opening sentence of a chapter from inside Jacob’s head, and a lot of the novel is about his internal struggles with purity and righteousness, both sexual and mental. Those in Hautman’s audience who were raised in some version of Abrahamic religion can probably connect with the concept of the weight of sin, which haunts Jacob continually. At one point Jacob justifies his actions by realizing that he is too far gone, and therefore may as well “sin avidly, hungrily, ardently.” It’s the same realization that Huck Finn has on the river, because he is also trapped between faulty teachings and the whispers of his own conscience.

Readers are asked to put themselves into the shoes of these isolated people, who were not portrayed as particularly violent or crazy, just alone. When outsiders come knocking, it makes sense that the devotees would think they are here “to undo us with their lies and their hatred.” Even if the lies and hatred are imagined, the influence of the outside world probably would indeed “undo” them. Their mindset is one of a small tribe in a former time, and there is no reconciling their efforts with modernity. Jacob slowly comes to realize that he will be forced to painfully confront the frightening outside world, or forced to painfully embrace the coming endtimes and pray all the harder. It’s not an enviable choice.

There are more exciting books out there, but this one is far from boring. In fact, the cadence of the language cast a sort of comforting spell over me, and I rather looked forward to reading on because of the careful unfolding of Jacob’s transition into adulthood. It’s dramatic without being flashy, and suggests a realism that few books about religion can probably reach.

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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Novels


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The Martian Way

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, short stories

Full title: The Martian Way and Other Stories

Published: 1955 (this collection), 1952-1954 (original stories)

I read it: July 2015


This $2 paperback caught Laura’s eye because the weekend that we perused Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, we were partway through reading The Martian. Used bookstores are great places to poke around for some Asimov, and this one in particular with its clever red page edges was a clear winner.

The title story is one of only four in this slim collection. It tells the tale of a few “Scavengers” out on a routine, not-quite-legal mission. They are Martians, a few generations from the first colonizers of Mars. They travel space in pairs to scavenge water from the atmosphere, which they need for their planet. The water comes from Earth, after being released by spaceships that need it for propulsion. Earth politicians get it in their head that the Martians are opportunists who are effectively stealing Earth’s resources without permission. In turn, the Martians write off those on the boring planet as “Grounders” and “dirt-eating farmers.”

This tale is about human expansion into the universe, and overall is daring and celebratory in a manner that Carl Sagan would appreciate. It’s not without its drama—the Scavengers fret about leaving family behind, keeping up their profession, and risking their lives to venture further out and become independent of Earth. The phrase “the Martian way” is spoken by the characters to capture this sense of enterprise that the Earth folk lack. There’s also the passion for aesthetics that Asimov is familiar for, when he writes about the feeling of the explorers drifting through space and finding “complete peace in the middle of a beauty-drenched universe.”

The second story, “Youth,” also focuses tightly on its title. A bit thin on story development, it tells parallel stories of species crash-landing and first being discovered by the youth of an alien planet. It basically serves to reemphasize the point that a discerning extra-terrestrial visitor “would not harm the young of an intelligent species,” at the very least for the sake of its own safety. The story is very pro-youth, pro-patience, and anti-shoot first, ask questions later. Score another one for Asimov.

“The Deep” kicks off with a great first sentence: “In the end, any particular planet must die.” It nicely echoes the previous story in that it features a species that could be the same as the aliens presented in “Youth,” as if Asimov finished one story only to furiously start another before he lost a new thread. “The Deep” once again explores colonization and expansion, the concepts of humanness vs. alienness, and, most specifically, the mysterious qualities of a parent-child bond. It’s one of the strongest entries, along with the final selection, “Sucker Bait.”

The fourth story is the longest, probably enough to earn it novella status. This made me wonder why the entire book wasn’t called “Sucker Bait,” but I suppose that’s not quite as appealing as the chosen title. Either way, it’s a quality tale that Asimov uses to bring several of the book’s themes home. Psychology is big here, focusing on the capabilities of special humans instead of alien intelligences. Civilization’s expansion and need for more space is the central driver as a specialized crew explores a planet that houses a mystery: the complete death of earlier colonizers. The thirst for knowledge is balanced with the awe of space travel (“figures are one thing and stars are another”) and human unease of confronting the unknown raises interesting questions (at one point a character points out, “You’re watching the birth of a superstition, and that’s something, isn’t it?”). An intriguing slice of humanity is packed into “Sucker Bait.”

This book strikes me as an appropriate starting point for a newcomer to try out Isaac Asimov. I’d recommend these four stories over the mostly shorter, but less impactful, ones in Buy Jupiter. And you can get the full breadth of the author’s style and interests without being pinned down to a novel. It’s still no overstatement that the covers of these books boldly proclaim him to be the master of science fiction.

Cover art corner: Speaking of covers, this one is gorgeously effective. A strange planet hangs in a rainbow of colors. The top half shows a glistening mass of designed structures, its middle is circumscribed by a zipping spacecraft, and the bottom half is covered in dimness and cracking foundations. A satellite burns in the distance, and a probe or ship floats from the foreground toward the planet. Someone at Fawcett Crest 60 years ago knew what they were doing.

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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Short stories


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