Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets

Author: Jacob M. Appel

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2015

I read it: April 2016


I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

Appel is a solid writer for readers wary of giving short stories a try. These stories are straightforward but provide just enough quirk, with endings that make sense given the metaphors. While the writing touches on intellectual subjects (there are at least a couple higher education settings), the emotional drive remains the core for the characters.

A couple stories have an explicitly strange premise, such as the title story (the main character is an alien) and “Resurrection Bakeoff” in which citizens unexpectedly return from the dead. Overlapping themes in the stories include naturalism (“Phoebe with Impending Frost”), elderly suitors (“Invasive Species,” “The Orchard”) and dealing with parental death (“The Grand Concourse,” “Shell Game with Organs”). Several stories include more than one of these concepts, and most feature a floundering male protagonist trying to balance life or love.

One strength of Appel’s writing is his solid grasp of American places and types of citizens. I could buy every setting, such as this description of following a doctor through a hospital: “When we arrive at his office, we’ve somehow jumped from the twelfth story to the fourteenth without switching floors. Medical magic.” My favorite story might be “Measures of Sorrow,” in which an uninspired grad student is forced into friendship with a quixotic immigrant taxi driver who needs instruction on wooing a local woman. The intersection of these two lives makes the story crackle.

For a free Appel, I can’t complain about this sweet, refreshing snack of stories.


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Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Short stories


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The Phantom Tollbooth

Author: Norton Juster

Artist: Jules Feiffer

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1961

I read it: April 2016


The Phantom Tollbooth is a fantasy for obsessive readers, or at least the word-savvy. Milo drives a small car through a portal, but this Narnia is not quite as tactile or grounded as your standard tale. With a dozen puns per page, it’s a book about ideas that uses the structure of a whimsical adventure to lead the reader along.

The whole thing is a lot of fun, but then again as an adult I get most of the jokes. (A few are outdated. Like the creature DYNNE who represents a “din” of sound. I’m not sure I’ve ever used “din” in regular conversation.) What reading level is this book aimed at? I suppose a young kid could enjoy some of the goofiness, what with the watchdog Tock and the Humbug as the two main sidekicks. There are kings and princesses and witches (the “Which”). But it would take years of reading regular stories and being pretty good at vocab to pick up on everything that’s going on.

The text is the point of the book, but the drawings are its soul. Maurice Sendak, in his appreciation at the beginning, praises Feiffer’s “superb scratchy-itchy pen drawings” as done by “that rare artist who can draw an idea.” The drawings capture the spirit of the book perfectly, to the point that in one place Juster comically just shrugs and, after giving a paragraph of description, states, “Perhaps if you look at the picture you’ll know what I mean.” I enjoy collecting exceptional examples of the artist/author match (The One and Only Ivan, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Wildwood), and this book seems to be a gold standard.

I can understand criticisms that the book is a bit too episodic and committed to its own cleverness. It cuts both ways. There may be a bullseye lesson, like the Mathemagician’s remark, “You’ll find that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.” But at other points, especially toward the end, too many ideas vie for space and fall flat. (Of the demons in the Mountains of Ignorance, the Threadbare Excuse and Gross Exaggeration make perfect sense. But what’s with the Horrible Hopping Hindsight or the Triple Demons of Compromise? Are these concepts inherently evil? At this point in the story, there are not enough pages left in which to elaborate.)

I almost forgot—I read this entire book out loud. I split the project between the toddler’s bath times and the baby being awake at absurd hours, so between the two of them they got the whole story. It was a blast, because the zany characters lend themselves to a variety of voices. I don’t think my audience fully appreciated it… but I’ll consider it a warm-up for when they really want to travel into the tollbooth.


Posted by on May 20, 2016 in Novels


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Under Wildwood

Author: Colin Meloy

Artist: Carson Ellis

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: The Wildwood Chronicles (#2)

Published: 2012

I read it: April 2016


Winter in Wildwood. An assassin tracks Prue McKeel, while Curtis undergoes bandit training. The two eventually meet again, and do go underground, though that whole episode doesn’t happen until about halfway through the book. A lot of the action centers on the new characters.

Curtis’ grieving parents, before going on a wild goose chase to try to find him overseas, plop his two sisters in a local orphanage. The sisters, Rachel and Elsie, soon discover that the orphanage doubles as a sweatshop. The steaming and clanking servitude is a distinct counterpoint to the natural wonders of Wildwood, bringing to mind Saruman’s plotline from The Two Towers. And lo and behold, here we have the second book in a trilogy, trying to work as both a novel and a bridge. The orphanage stuff is refreshing and introduces a few new allies and villains. (One place it dips into corniness is when the machine parts industrialist, Joffrey Unthank, refers to himself as an actual “Titan of Industry,” part of a buffoonish enclave of selfish capitalists. Meloy can write grayer shades than that, so it’s a bit of an eye-roll.)

As for the “under,” Prue and Curtis end up in the company of moles and help them fight a miniature battle. Amusing and (thankfully) brief, it serves more as plot machinery than anything else. The younger readers might appreciate it, and it does offer a breather from some of the uglier aspects of the story (child servitude, stories of bodily punishment), but it mostly just offers a good title for the book. It’s not the part of the story that I think of the book as being about.

Overall, this installment is more or less as good as the first, a string of small episodes that interlink into a wider fantasy drama. You just have to get over some of Meloy’s wordiness, such as a character seeing “what could only be described as” the thing she is seeing. Well, yes. Just describe it. Otherwise, the series remains a perfectly serviceable adventure tale.


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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Novels


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The Lost Machine

Author and artist: Richard A. Kirk

Type: Fiction, novella

Published: 2010

I read it: March 2016


I read the free online version of this book at Weird Fiction Review.

Here’s a nifty little tale that is set in a past/future of uncertain orientation. It starts in a crumbling jail with one Lumsden Moss able to walk out after his keepers have died, and he quickly bumps into Irridis, a super cool character with a masked face and little mirror fragments that orbit his head that can be ordered to inflict vicious wounds and then be retracted like reusable bullets.

So there’s your “weird fiction” genre box checked.

The story expands a bit to include artificial intelligence, decaying cities, witchcraft (of a sort), and old feuds. Yet it remains mostly compact, focusing on Moss and Irridis traveling as an unlikely duo to retrace Moss’ past actions and their consequences. Along the way, he muses on cages of a less material type: “Life, he thought, is a series of nested prisons. Escape one, and emerge into another.”

Kirk’s story is supplemented by his own sketches. While appealing, I wish there were more of them. In the interview attached to this story, the author/artist offers an intriguing opinion about how art and text should work together:

Illustrations are an invitation to the reader to visualize, by providing a pause for the reader to reflect on the story. They are a part of the design that makes reading a physical book a visual pleasure. For this reason, the placement and style of illustrations in a book is very important. The art should flow with the story and not be a jarring interruption. … You can read the story without them, but their presence somehow opens up space around the narrative for the reader to occupy.

Kirk’s illustrations would work more effectively in a traditionally bound book, and it sounds like that very thing is on the way. He’s on track to publish a full novel which may feature characters from The Lost Machine, and I look forward to occupying that narrative and its opened spaces.


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Posted by on May 6, 2016 in Novels


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Fox 8

Author: George Saunders

Type: Fiction, short story (Kindle single)

Published: 2013

I read it: March 2016

fox 8

Our book club just finished discussing Tenth of December, and someone commented about how the medium of the short story encourages artistic ambition when it comes to form. Saunders is all about form and the lyricality of language (not to the detriment of emotional impact, thankfully) which is further evidenced by a conversation between him and David Sedaris. He talks about following the story where it leads, and how avenues and detours can hinge on a single sentence, word, or syllable.

“Fox 8” is a letter written by a fox. It’s a completely misspelled, completely charming tract from an animal who discovers a “most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music!” Well, Mr. Saunders is in full command of his skills, because what he creates sounds amazing and prety and grate.

Plotwise, the story is kind of a super tight Watership Down, about a lower mammal coming to terms with encroaching humans. The poor fox has a childlike outlook, full of optimism and wonder (“Yumans! Always intresting.”), which inevitably sets him up for crushing despair. He basically wants to know wtf is up with human contradictions. You can see some of Saunders’ pet philosophies slipping in here, like when the fox wants to make peace with bears (bares) and “give them a speech about being nise.” A similar line popped up in “Tenth of December” when a dying character was regretting that he’d never be able to give his speech on compassion. Saunders did give that speech.

I read this story twice, because after the linguistic ticks lodged into my brain I wanted to keep hearing that music. Not to mention letting the beautiful and devastating realizations sink in, which can make you float on a sunny day or pop and descend so heavily. Sometimes it all hinges on a werd.


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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in Short stories


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The Girl on the Train

Author: Paula Hawkins

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: February 2016


They kept saying it was the new Gone Girl, so what else is there to do? Read it and compare it to Gone Girl.

The story has its similarities, to be sure. Marital dysfunction is the primary driver. Multiple narrators keep the reader guessing. Things go from unsettling to pretty dark. It’s all a big whodunit wrapped in blood and lies.

The main difference would be the protagonist’s alcoholism. This adds a nice layer of reality to the character of Rachel. You’ve got to feel sorry for her—jobless, nearly friendless, and forced to pass her old London neighborhood on her daily train ride. She’s a voyeur who obsesses about her ex and his new wife, as well as a seemingly idyllic pair of neighbors. Because she can’t move on in life, she gets wrapped up in other people’s dark domestic dramas.

It’s a fine premise, but I can’t say the book held my attention very well. Billed as a page-turner, it became the opposite due to the three narrators feeling so same-y. Megan and Anna, though ostensibly unique, feel like they sprout from the same narrator. And that’s my main issue: one of narration, of point of view.

For better or worse, I subscribe to the David Morrell school of thought about first-person perspective. In Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, he lays down strict limitations: “Not many stories are suited to the first person. Form should follow function. Viewpoint should have something to do with the narrative’s theme.” That is, the first person angle can’t be “all surface.” It has to cover deeper layers.

Hawkins is half-justified in her approach. Her function is for Rachel to be a drunk who blacks out. So there’s some mystery to how the character recalls events, hence the form of first-person. But why are the other two characters written that way? One of them goes so far as to admit, on the topic of keeping a diary, “I could never write down the things I actually feel or think or do.” Yet this is exactly what the character is doing! It’s all there in the “I” statements.

One last critique before I let this book off the hook (and it’s a book plenty of people will enjoy, which is fantastic). The damn title. Okay, so we have this tiresome “girl” pattern in publishing, and that’s just something to live with until it fades away. I doubt authors have a whole lot of say when someone suggests this angle for marketing. But if this drudgery is necessary, at the very least is it too much to ask to have “girl” be accurate? A girl should be an actual girl. There are some who get it right (The Girl in the Road) and others who cause the cringe (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Guess which category this book falls into? She’s a woman on the train, people. It’s not that hard.

And… scene. Black me out.


Posted by on April 22, 2016 in Novels


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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Author: Sherman Alexie

Artist: Ellen Forney

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2007

I read it: February 2016


The basic premise is best summed up by the narrator at the beginning of chapter two: “I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation.”

Junior has had enough of this lifestyle and the sad lives of those around him, so he gets it in his head to attend the mostly-white high school in the nicer nearby town. In this way he becomes a “part-time Indian,” who is not fully accepted in either community. During the school days he is known as Arnold, an extreme outcast. Is his diary “absolutely true”? Does he really counterbalance embarrassing moments with keen insights and dramatic gestures, like getting a sort-of girlfriend or winning over the local jocks? It’s a stunning title with a lot of implications for its contents.

Junior/Arnold’s journey is an example of what blurbs proclaim but which is rarely true: a story that will make you laugh and cry. I really do think I choked up and chuckled out loud multiple times. Arnold’s life is sad as hell, and the work is a distillation of all the topics that Sherman Alexie has covered in his adult writings: reservation life, alcoholism, depression, generationality, culture, Indian-ness, and the weight of death. The teenage protagonist navigates these realities with in-the-moment wit:

It was lunchtime and I was standing outside by the weird sculpture that was supposed to be an Indian. I was studying the sky like I was an astronomer, except it was daytime and I didn’t have a telescope, so I was just an idiot.

A half-page later comes an even better joke, but it’s better to discover it for yourself. Big realizations can also take the reader by surprise, like when Arnold reflects on why he draws cartoons (perfectly executed by Ellen Forney):

I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world. I use them to make fun of the world. To make fun of people. And sometimes I draw people because they’re my friends and family. And I want to honor them.

This is a quick read packed full of variations on truth, whether absolute or not. Another one of its magic tricks is surely the goal of most art: to reach universality by traveling roads of specificity. Arnold’s journey may seem one-of-a-kind, but it’s achingly human all the same.

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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Novels


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