The Bookshop on the Corner


I was looking forward to reading the hopeful story of a young woman who loses her job, takes a risk, and finds her way against all odds. Instead, this is a story of young woman who clears every hurdle with apparent ease because she is cute. This novel is the literary version of a Hallmark Channel movie. Some folks love Hallmark Channel movies and that is perfectly fine. I am not one of those folks and so I found this book frustrating which is also fine. Author Jenny Colgan has built a bestselling career out of writing novels of this style and cheers to her for that. There is an audience for this style of book, but I am not a part of it.

Nina Redmond is a young librarian who is kicked to the curb when her library branch in Birmingham, England is shuttered in favor of a new media center. Now jobless, she has to decide what to do. Nina is a book hoarder with stacks of books choking the pathways of her home and in this trait, I identified with Nina. However, her roommate has had it up to here with the clutter and demands Nina sort it out. Being an avid reader who loves the challenge of suggesting the perfect book for her library guests, Nina decides she will continue to pursue a book-related career and convert her collection of books into a bookshop. She buys a van (I am thinking this van is what we in America might call a box truck), converts the inside into a mobile bookshop , and moves to the Scottish Highlands to cater to the village folk who have not had access to a bookshop or library in many years. While I admired Nina's gumption, this is where the novel falls apart for me.

The entire venture is just too easy for Nina. She never seems to struggle. She says she is struggling, but we never see it. Her bank account is never in the red even after buying a van and moving to a new country. She finds her new residence without having to search or worry about being homeless and it isn't a drafty one room apartment above the pub. No, her new home is a barn that has just been converted into the perfect single lady's home with brand new appliances and 5-star-hotel-quality furnishings. And of course the owner is leasing it for well under market value. And of course the owner is a single, hunky Scottish farmer who harbors an attraction to Nina. I understand this is a fantasy novel, but for the love of books, let me see the hero on the brink of complete failure for a while before she triumphs. Make Nina have to take that cold and noisy room above the pub for a while and be hungry sometimes. Make Nina have to sleep in the truck a few nights and cry herself to sleep, frightened and alone, as she wonders if she has made an awful mistake. Let me see her go several days without a customer because she chose to settle in a small village with a limited customer population instead of what seems like every person in the village clawing at her truck for new books every day because they apparently have unlimited disposable income. Let me see her go from destitute to success through hard work and difficult trials. Instead she arrives in the storybook village, finds her awesome home, and is an instant success the moment she opens the bookshop to the public. The conflicts Nina does experience, some of which are subplots that are discarded without ceremony when the author or protagonist grows bored of them, are superficial compared to the conflicts she should have experienced to make this a journey a fulfilling adventure. 

I purchased this novel because I had just finished reading the challenging The Handmaid's Tale and needed a palette cleanser. While this was an easy read, it was not a satisfying one. I am glad that I expanded my horizons a bit with a genre I do not often touch, but as with each time I read one of these, I am reminded why I do not often read them.

Browse: The World in Bookshops


It is appropriate that I first saw a copy of Browse: The World in Bookshops in a brick-and-mortar bookshop as opposed to a retail dot com like Amazon. I have always loved bookshops. When I was old enough to leave the house on my own and possessed the means to locomote, I would pedal my bicycle to my local Bookstar and sit in the science fiction section, my saucer-wide eyes gazing up at names I would soon grow to love and respect: Bradbury, Gibson, Heinlein, Robinson. I was not yet old enough to have a job and thus did not have spending money so I just looked at these books and strategized which one I would buy first. I do not recall which one I had decided would be my first purchase and I doubt the one I had decided I wanted first ended up being the first book I bought with my own money. Those memories are inconsequential. The important memories are the ones of the bookshop itself. I ended up working at that bookshop during my university years and never tired of seeing kids walk into the shop, sit on the floor in the science fiction section for an hour, and then leave without buying anything. Those kids were me less than a decade earlier and I suspect a couple of those kids, or kids like them, replaced me when I stopped working at the bookshop.

Browse: The World in Bookshops is a collection of essays by sixteen different writers from around the world. I enjoyed all of the essays selected by editor Henry Hitchings with the exception of one piece that read like the script for a commercial. Some of the memories shared by the writers are happy, others are melancholy, and one is shocking and offensive (can you imagine the proprietor of a bookshop treating someone that way?), but all provide a wonderful view of the effect various international bookshops had on the writers who visited them. I am grateful to these writers for transporting me to their home bookshops of Egypt, Nairobi, and Colombia.

Each individual essay is short enough to be read in a single sitting if that is how you prefer to consume such content. As I have stated several times before, I am a slow reader but even I was able to complete this book in four sittings over the course of five days. I mention this only for those of you who, like me, are short on time and long on TBR.


To this day, when I visit a new city, I try to find a local bookshop. I am not always successful as the convenience of online shopping has had the same terrible effect on small bookshops all over the world, but my experiences in places like The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, California or Shakespeare and Company in Paris, France (pictured left) are treasured memories. Visiting physical bookshops is important, I think. Libraries, too, though I must shamefully admit that I have paid little attention to my city's library branch. These places are not just about stacks of bound paper with words printed on them. I feel pretentious saying bookshops and libraries conjure fantasies of scholarly discussions, heated but respectful exchanges of conflicting ideas--such events do not seem to happen in bookshops today like they used to, or at least like the books I read claim used to happen--but that is how I feel when I enter a bookshop. Hallowed halls and whatnot. As convenient as online shopping is, I will always prefer spending a couple of hours browsing in person, papercuts and all.

Different Seasons


Stephen King again? I do seem to feature him a disproportionate amount, but this time with good reason. My friend and now colleague Jeff Garvin and I have launched a podcast, the first episode of which is now available on iTunes, Stitcher, or directly on our website. This is the special project I teased in my July article about The Writer's Journey and I am relieved that it is no longer a secret. As hosts of The Hero's Journey Podcast, Jeff and I will examine classic and contemporary literature and cinema through the lens of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey and using Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey as the modern guide. It has been a challenging and exciting and, as we raced toward release day, terrifying project. The podcast is all about the common elements of the path the hero takes in almost every story. Episode 0 introduces the concept of the project using examples from Star Wars and Harry Potter, but our first official episode focuses on the Stephen King novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" which was published in 1982 in the collection Different Seasons. We also cite Frank Darabont's wonderful film adaptation The Shawshank Redemption.

For the project, we tasked ourselves only with reading the first story, but I enjoyed it so much that I just kept going and in short order, reached the last page of the entire book. I had not intended to write a blog entry about just the one story, but since I ended up reading all four of them, I figure I might as well exercise the writing muscles once again. So here are my brief thoughts on the lovely Different Seasons.

Hope Springs Eternal

"Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is just the first of four novellas in the Different Seasons collection. It is worth noting that none of the stories in this early Stephen King work are horror stories, proving once again that the man is not just a horror writer. After reading this novella, I was surprised at how lukewarm I felt about it. This is one of those rare instances where the film is better than the source material. King's story is good, but the Frank Darabont film elevates the story and the characters to a much higher level. I have seen the film a dozen times or more and rank it among one of the best films ever made so I am sure I am being unfair to the novella. It is difficult to be objective in this situation. Much of the film's script is a verbatim transcription of the novella so much of that wonderful dialogue is credited to Mr. King, but Darabont's script includes significant changes that tighten things up. Byron Hadley, the cruel captain of the guards, plays a much smaller role in the novella, but the film turns him into a major adversary to great effect. Similarly, the warden Norton is just one of four wardens who run the prison throughout the novella, but the film conflates those into one superb villain played by Bob Gunton in the film. Because the novella has so many wardens, their impact feels minimal and maybe that was intentional on King's part. The prison staff comes and goes, but the inmates remain for the long haul. The film needed a Darth Vader so creating one single warden who antagonizes the inmates from the beginning was an excellent choice. If we are going to side with convicts, we have to hate the man who rules them. For the most part though, if you've seen the film, the novella will not present any surprises. It is still well worth reading.

Summer of Corruption

Following "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is "Apt Pupil". Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer followed up his stellar debut feature film with an adaptation of this novella. It was not received nearly as well as his crime drama and I am sorry to say I have little memory of the film Apt Pupil. This novella, on the other hand, is outstanding and would be my favorite of the collection were it not for the story that follows it. A chilling examination of sociopathy, "Apt Pupil" tells the story of Todd Bowden, a bright, All-American thirteen year old boy who has discovered that a former Nazi officer is living in his neighborhood. Todd is fascinated by the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Jewish people during World War II and wants to hear the stories directly from someone who personally committed those atrocities. This is not just youthful curiosity, however. Todd derives a sick pleasure from these stories and soon embarks on a path of atrocities all his own. The story is frightening in its plausibility. Todd and Herr Dussander are loathsome characters and I found myself reading voraciously, hoping they would both suffer justice. A brilliant story and one of the best of the collection.

Fall from Innocence

The third story in the collection is "The Body", the inspiration for the 1986 Rob Reiner film Stand By Me, which had a profound effect on me in my formative years. The film is good, but the novella is stellar. Like the previous story, the film version is nearly identical to its source material, but in this case, the source material is the better experience. "The Body" is the story of four young friends who set out to find the body of a boy who had recently gone missing. If you have seen the film, you know that the story is not about the dead boy. The journey is greater than the destination here and the boys' experiences during their search and how those experiences impact the boys' friendship are the true subject of the story. I saw the film at a young age, roughly the same age of the boys in the film, and now I read the novella with a sense of nostalgia and longing, just as it is written by adult Gordie. This is my favorite of the four novellas in the collection.

A Winter's Tale

In the final novella, "The Breathing Method", a is invited by a partner at his firm to join an exclusive club. The club's headquarters has a large, stone hearth with a roaring fire, an extensive library with mysterious books of which he has never heard, a butler who speaks little but always has a glass of scotch ready when you need it, secret rooms with tiny doors. Each Christmas, one member of the club tells a story by the fire. This year, a retired doctor tells a tale of his younger years when his medical practice was new. An unmarried woman seeks prenatal care, socially frowned upon at that period of time, but the doctor agrees to treat her. What begins as a mundane story about the relationship between a young doctor and his patient during her pregnancy ends with a supernatural twist. This is definitely the strangest and most disjointed of the four novellas. So much time is spent on the man joining the club and his odd experiences within that I thought this was his tale, but all of that just serves as a conduit to transport us to the point where he hears the aging doctor tell his story. The real story is about and by the doctor so I wonder why King did not just start the story with him rather than insert him into this other strange tale that does not actually go anywhere. As good as "The Breathing Method" is, it is my least favorite, a statement that meant to elevate the other three stories rather than demean this one.

What struck me with this collection is how each novella featured literature and storytelling as a part of its narrative. In "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption", the story is a journal written by Red and Andy spends considerable effort to expand the prison library. In "Apt Pupil", Todd tells his parents he is reading classic literature to the sweet old man down the road. "The Body" is a story written by an adult Gordie who has matured to become a published author and within the novella are shorter stories written by a younger Gordie. In "The Breathing Method", the club members tell stories to each other when they are not reading from the club's extensive library. Books and writing are often a feature of Stephen King's novels. Misery is about a famous author held captive by his "number one fan". The Dark Half is about an author who disposes of his literary pseudonym in a mock burial only to have the alter ego manifest itself as a physical being and terrorize the author and his family. This was a cheeky meta novel written after King was exposed as the true talent behind the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The Shining and Bag of Bones also feature authors as the central character. King's love of reading and writing is all too apparent throughout his body of work and it is difficult to resist being infected by it. Why would I want to resist anyway? This is one infection I will happily host and spread.



When I was approximately twelve years old, I experienced my introduction to Stephen King when I read the unabridged edition of The Stand. My parents raised me to be a reader so I had read hundreds of books but they had all been age-appropriate: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Bridge to Terabithia, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Old Yeller, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and any number of Newbery Award winners my mom would bring home to feed my brain. Stephen King's The Stand was my first adult novel. Being the age I was, it felt dangerous and exciting to be reading that book. Even as I and the books I had been reading grew from elementary school to junior high school, nothing had yet reached the level of scale and depth I would experience with The Stand. It took me an entire summer to read it, but I adored every page and became a Stephen King fan for life.

Fast forward a couple-few decades and King is writing books faster than I can read them. Every time I feel like I have made some good headway into his body of work, I glance at an updated bibliography and am stunned by what I see. A year ago, my friend Jeff began pestering me to read 11/22/63. I owned a copy, a gift from a friend if I recall correctly, but I kept postponing it. This is a big book and I had allowed the volume of the novel to intimidate me. I am not twelve anymore and I had convinced myself that I did not have the free time to devote to such a large novel. Why not, though? I read the equally robust Under the Dome a few years ago and adored it. I had devoted time to books one and two of Patrick Rothfuss's beefy Kingkiller Chronicle. I was making excuses, weak ones at that, so I finally dove in.

Stephen King is known for his horror novels, but he has not limited himself to the genre. He branches out more often than most people realize and when he does, I find the result just as satisfying. 11/22/63 is just one of King's several non-horror novels and it is superb. A modern moral question with which we are often presented is whether we would travel back in time to kill an infant Adolf Hitler if we had the opportunity. King explores a similar argument in 11/22/63, but instead of asking whether it is OK to murder a baby if you know it grows up to be a monster, he suggests a more heroic path and asks what would happen if someone had the chance to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is a brilliant novel, masterfully constructed, and so much fun.

When English literature teacher Jake Epping is shown a portal to the past tucked away in the storage room of his neighborhood diner, he is not sure he believes his eyes. The diner owner, Al, says the portal always exits the same date and time in 1958 and he has been using it to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. Now, Al has taken ill, is unable to continue, and needs Jake to take his place. He warns Jake, though, that the past does not want to be changed and it will try to stop him every step of the way. With the portal dumping him into 1958, he will have to wait five years before he can attempt to stop the 1963 Kennedy assassination. That is a long time for the past to fight back. Jake agrees to take on the challenge and what follows is a wonderful story of perseverance and consequence.

I worried that the five-year gap Jake has to fill before he can attempt to save Kennedy was going to be a long-winded slog, but I should have trusted Stephen King. I was absolutely fascinated by Jake's activities during that period. As time marches toward the inevitable, Jake takes the opportunity to practice changing the past to varying degrees of success, all of which threaten his ultimate goal. Stephen King has always excelled at character. Whether his novels focus on a small number of characters or feature a huge cast, his characters are complex, interesting, and devastatingly human. They represent the best and worst of humanity and with a few exceptions, all are plausible. King introduces Jake to some great characters and even manages to humanize Lee Harvey Oswald. I am not saying the guy was a lovable chap I would invite over to watch Game of Thrones, but I found myself recognizing Oswald as something more than a simple villain and that is a testament to Stephen King's otherworldly ability to write characters who inspire one to read well past one's bedtime, even on a school night.

For longtime King fans, this story fits nicely into his established literary universe and there are references to previous works that I suspect will delight you. If this is your first Stephen King novel, there is no reason whatsoever for you to not enjoy this amazing story fully even without the knowledge of King's previous work and settings. Time travel is a difficult subject to write convincingly because there are so many questions, so many logical arguments. King's solution to this conundrum—I do not read a lot of time travel stories myself so it may not be entirely original—erases the need for these arguments and allows the reader the glorious freedom to just enjoy the story as it is presented and if one allows oneself that beautiful experience, the reward is so well worth it. This story is thrilling, intense, and full of moments that will make you forget to breathe, and if you are the type of person who enjoys a bit of romance in your novels, this story will kick you in the teeth. Is this book sitting on your TBR pile? Put it on the top. Right now. I will allow you to finish your current read, but 11/22/63 needs to be next on your list. I am not even kidding.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck


As humans, we spend a lot of time and energy on things that deserve neither. Just the other day, while driving home from a particularly difficult day at work, I was in my car waiting for a red light to turn green. As the light turned green, the car behind the car to my left blared its horn as though the driver next to me had been asleep at the wheel. I spent the next ten minutes being livid at the arrogance and impatience of the jackass who honked their horn. And why? I felt a profound sense of injustice. I was angry that the person who honked their horn was being an asshole and was going get away with it with no repercussions. I had allowed myself to be negatively affected by someone else's inconsiderate behavior and this is exactly the type of thing Mark Manson warns readers against in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.

For readers sensitive to or just do not care for profanity, steer far clear of this book. If the title alone is not a clue, profanity infects the entirety of this book. I am not sure why. Does Manson just speak like this or is this a gimmick used to set the book apart from the thousands of other "how to be a better person" books available in bookstores? We all swear from time to time and a well-placed f-bomb is effective and can even be humorous, but the liberal use of profanity causes this book to lose credibility. I found it juvenile and unnecessary.

I disagreed with many of the major points presented in this book. Early on, Manson states that what most people consider life problems are really just side effects of not having anything more important to worry about. If I can call back to my personal experience from the top of this article, there are several possible reasons for such a reaction. In my own case, I can point to three: 1) I had a rough day at work and was already on edge, 2) injustice always upsets me, and 3) I struggle to properly channel my anger. This third reason is the most important and the most embarrassing and painful for me to admit. I dealt with anger management problems well into my twenties and only recently have I learned to deal with the unreasonable anger I often feel. Most of the time, I do well, but when I am in a tender state such as after a bad day at work, my fuse is short, my trigger sensitive, and it does not take much to set me off. I suspect this is true for many people. Spend any period of time reading the comments section of YouTube, Facebook, or any other major news, social, or entertainment site and you will find a cesspool unbridled vitriol, hatred, and ignorance. Or how many times have you been at Starbucks and listened to a customer scream at the barista because they accidentally put whipped cream on the mocha when the customer clearly stated they did not want those empty calories on their 290-calorie dessert coffee beverage? These are not people without any other problems who choose to berate baristas. These are people with unsorted priorities or a temporary mental disorder brought about by an overabundance of other problems they are struggling to deal with such as an unpleasant job, loss of job, dissolution of marriage, drowning in debt, death of a loved one, or any combination of these. Perhaps they have a permanent, untreated mental disorder, but that is the subject of a different book.

A bit later, Manson claims "Much as the pain of touching a hot stove teaches you not to touch it again, the sadness of being alone teaches you not to the do the things that made you feel so alone again". This is a ludicrous statement. I know a large group of people who are doing everything right when it comes to dating and just cannot find the right person. To boil their struggle and frustrations to down to such a simplistic root cause and to suggest they just haven't learned not to touch the hot stove is asinine. 

At one point, Manson suggests whittling your life down to the point where you have fewer choices about anything because the more choices you have, the less satisfied you are with the choices you make because you will wonder what would have been had you made a different choice. Manson then suggests that the more experiences someone has, the less satisfied they are with those experiences and thus they should have fewer experiences. He claims to have visited an astounding 55 different countries and that the first five were great experiences, but each subsequent country and culture grew less impressive. How awful for him! And for him to suggest that people should limit their world to a single geographical area so they can stop being disappointed by visiting new countries is itself a disappointing statement and I think speaks volumes of Manson's character. Not many people have the opportunity to travel to a single foreign country let alone 55. I am fortunate to have visited 9 foreign countries so far and each experience has been a gift of broader world view, cultural education, and human understanding. I say that if you have the means to travel, travel as often and as far as you can. Eat the local food, walk the streets, make an effort to learn the language. I suspect you will return home a better and more educated person.

The news is not all bad though. Manson does offer some gems of wisdom. They are good reminders to those of us who have lost our way and one of these hit pretty close to home. As a young man, Manson dreamed of being a rock star. He fantasized about it for years but nothing ever came of it because one day, he came to a disappointing conclusion: he did not want it enough. He was not willing to suffer the struggles and failures all musicians experience on their road to success. Manson's point is "what pain do you want to sustain?" Do you want something bad enough that you are willing to suffer to attain it? If not, then you are wasting your time and should find something else to do. This slapped me right across the face and the truth was painful. Since I was a little kid, I have enjoyed writing. I wrote a decent murder mystery when I was in elementary school and my teacher encouraged me to continue writing. I fantasized about being an author and every time I read a great book, I dreamed about how fulfilling the author's life must have been and fantasized about how my life would be when I was a successful author. Decades later, I have written exactly one unpublished novel, I am not an author and the reason for this, I realized as I read about Manson's rock star dream, was that I had not spent the time struggling through the hours of bad writing to get to the good stuff. I had not experienced the disappointment and frustration of receiving countless rejection letters from publications and publishing houses. I battled the blank page and I let it beat me. I did not want it enough. That admission is a dagger through the heart.

What does all of this have to do with a subtle art of not giving a f*ck? Throughout the book, Manson encourages the reader to decide what you want to spend your limited resources caring about during your life. He goes off on several tangents, he makes some silly statements, but dig through the muck and you may find that the primary message is a good one. Stop wasting your energy on stupid things. There was a wildly popular book twenty years ago called Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. I am going to suggest The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck is the modern version of Richard Carlson's blockbuster, but I do not see Subtle Art having the same legs. The presentation and profanity are going to turn a lot of readers away. I have already heard firsthand accounts from people who ditched the book halfway through. Those readers who stick with the book through the end might find some nuggets of truth waiting for them. That said, I find it difficult to recommend this book to friends and family. As Manson says, we have a limited number of f*cks to give during our short lives and even though this book is short, the people I know personally probably want to spend their f*cks on other things.

Trigger Warning

Two articles ago, I stated that I have started reading short stories between full-length books. Now I have made a liar of myself because I just read the entirety of Neil Gaiman's short story collection Trigger Warning all at once. The fact that this book was loaned to me may have inspired the straight-on-til-morning approach. Too often will someone lend a book to me that I do not read immediately and it ends up sitting on the floor where I stack books I do not own until I grow tired of vacuuming around it at which point I move it to a shelf or table until I grow tired of dusting around it at which point I either read it in a huff or just return the poor thing to its owner, unread. I am trying to change that behavior and so started Trigger Warning straight away.

I had never read Neil Gaiman before, which sounds sacrilegious for a person who claims to be an avid reader, but seeing as how there are thousands of authors and millions of books, I grant myself a pass. One simply cannot read all the things, but Gaiman seems so beloved by so many that I felt I was missing out. This feeling has grown especially strong in recent months as the television series American Gods, based on Gaiman's novel of the same name, became appointment television and water cooler material for so many of my friends and colleagues. I have now read Gaiman and I am pleased to be able to say that, but after finishing Trigger Warning, I do not feel as though I understand the depth of the man's talent everyone else seems to recognize.

While some short story collections are a series of tales written in an author's established style and voice, other collections can serve as a sampler platter, allowing the author to experiment with styles and subjects. Trigger Warning is certainly the latter and Gaiman earns points for that. He peppers poetry throughout the book and presents original stories featuring other authors' characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. I particularly enjoyed the Doctor Who story "Nothing O'Clock" though I have no frame of reference because I have never seen a single episode of the television series, a fact my friends who number among the show's fans will not let me forget. Some of Gaiman's other stories are creepy ("Click-Clack the Rattlebag" made my hair stand on end), some fantastic ("The Thing About Cassandra" is one of those stories that makes you say whaaaaaat), some melancholy. "The Sleeper and the Spindle" is an excellent re-imagining of the two classic fairy tales "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Gaiman also revisits his American Gods protagonist Baldur "Shadow" Moon in a new, original story--and one of my favorites of the entire collection--"Black Dog" as an English countryside thunderstorm forces Shadow to take shelter in an English pub nestled in a picturesque town with a spooky secret.

The best story of the collection has to be the award-winning "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...", a revenge story of high caliber. The story is so good that Gaiman took it on tour. Beginning at the Opera House in the stunning Sydney, Australia--which is well worth the trip if you have ever had the urge to visit--and eventually traveling to the United States, England, and Scotland, Gaiman performed his story before sold-out concert halls backed by the Fourplay string quartet with original artwork by Eddie Williams projected on a screen above the stage. It sounds like it would have been a wonderful experience so I have been searching the Internet for a recording. All I have found is the audio version which lacks Williams's artwork, but I may spring for it if I cannot find a video recording.

These gems aside, I found many of the stories forgettable and it is disappointing that I have to say that. After I finished the last story, I flipped to the table of contents to review the story titles and discovered I had little to no memory of many of them and it took a skim to jog my memory. They can't all be winners, but I find myself wondering if this collection is a good representation of Neil Gaiman. I am going to have to find another volume of his works and give him a second try. I hear Good Omens is great, and American Gods. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book. My favorable memory of the good stories far outweigh the unmemorable pieces so my overall experience was positive. That is the great trait of short story collections though, isn't it? If you do not care for the piece you are reading, there is another a few short pages away that you might enjoy.

Have you read Neil Gaiman? Do you have any recommendations for which of his works I should try next?

Blades of Winter

During the Spring of 2016, I read a back issue of Analog (November 2014). The Further Reading section of the magazine suggested several novels including G. T. Almasi's debut Blades of Winter. Analog's description of the book interested me enough that my brain filed the title and tucked it into the fleshy folds of my brain. Nearly a year later, I was browsing the fiction section of my bookstore when I saw the title again, emblazoned across the image of a redheaded young woman, stylish and sexy in her black leather outfit, perched on a rooftop in Paris with her assault rifle. I felt that brief electric surge of recognition and knocked the book into my shopping basket.

Blades of Winter is the first installment of the Shadowstorm series. Through some awkward blocks of exposition, readers are informed that this is an alternate history. Hitler's Germany was one of four victors of World War II along with China, Russia, and the United States of America. The victors carved up the world, creating large swaths of territory operating as vassal states of these major powers. Do you recall the real nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia after World War II? In Blades of Winter, the new world powers engaged in an arms race like no other, involving human cybernetic modification. This is the adventurous aspect of the novel that most interested me. As the story opens, we are introduced to protagonist Alix Nico, a nineteen-year-old Level 4 Interceptor as she gets herself into some bad trouble in New York City. This opening scene is --if I may be blunt-- badass and a wonderful introduction to the setting and our hero. The author does a great job of dangling carrots, enticing the reader to charge forward so they can learn the truth about whatever Alix just did and how she possibly could have accomplished such an impossible feat. It reminded me of the first time I watched Neo dodge bullets in The Matrix.

Alix is a member of ExOps, an American shadow organization populated by skilled military operatives who have undergone invasive surgeries to enhance themselves with advanced cybernetics to increase their field effectiveness. The other major powers have their own organizations though, so Alix and her colleagues enjoy no significant advantage on the field of battle. ExOps agents are sent into the field in small strike teams. Team members are awarded levels commensurate with their experience and operational success and earn cool titles like Infiltrator, Vindicator, and Liberator that describes their battlefield role. How would you like to have Vindicator on your business card? Alix is young and brash, constantly pushing the limits of her ability, often endangering herself and her team much to the chagrin of her superior officers. Her behavior is understandable though, as her father was the most talented ExOps figure in history until he disappeared. Alix has big shoes to fill and a legacy to live up to.

For the vast majority of the novel, I enjoyed the experience but in the early chapters, I found myself criticizing the author's writing in isolated pockets. At one point, Alix is under enemy gunfire and has taken cover behind a "crate of stuff". Stuff? I was irritated that Almasi cheated me out of a better picture of the situation by plopping a nondescript "crate of stuff" in the scene. Similar descriptions are used elsewhere, but I finally understood what was happening. It was not Almasi being lazy, it was narrator Alix being a teenage superspy concerned more about being shot than reading the shipping label on the crate of stuff to find out whether she was hiding behind a box of teddy bears or replica 15th century Ming Dynasty vases. Alix cares about survival, earning more powerful and cooler cybernetics, and taking out the bad guys. She does not care a lick about what is inside the crate of stuff behind which she is hiding. Once that realization clicked, I instantly forgave Almasi for what I had decided was bad writing and gave him credit for character development.

Throughout Blades of Winter, readers are treated to a globetrotting adventure as Alix and her team are deployed to exotic locations in an attempt to unravel a conspiracy that may reveal the true fate of Alix's father. The info-dumpy alternate world history blobs aside, Almasi does a good job of setting the tone and style of his novel through the use of chapter interstitials such as of newspaper articles, data files, and operation reports. These brief excerpts provide useful information and are a welcome break in the fast and frantic pace of the story.

I do not often read action novels like this, but I found myself enjoying Blades of Winter and plan to seek out the second volume of the series, Hammer of Angels. It is popcorn cinema in print form and just as I leave a fun action film feeling entertained, so did I feel as I read the last page of Blades of Winter.



I do not often read short stories. There is no good reason for this other than I find myself picking up a full-length novel most of the time when I am in the mood for fiction. On rare occasion though, I find myself with a short story collection in my hands. I discovered Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams sitting on the New Science Fiction Releases shelf at my local bookstore… X number of years ago. Holy smokes, I just opened the book to the publisher page to check the book’s publication date and found the retail receipt, yellowing and so faded that the print is barely legible. February 23, 2008.  Okay, so I have owned this book for nearly ten years. Like I said, I do not often read short stories.

A couple of years ago, however, I decided to read a short story between each book or two. This would allow me to continue reading something while putting my thoughts together for my blog entry about the previous long-form work. The practice has worked rather well and I have read some excellent short stories recently, be they in short story collections like Wastelands or in literature magazines like Tin House or Analog.

Wastelands is an impressive anthology of post-apocalypse stories written by some literary stars like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Octavia Butler. It also introduced me to several writers who may be known to more prolific readers than I but who are new to me. Discovering a new writer is such a treat and that is the greatest benefit of anthologies such as these. All of the stories in Wastelands are good and some are downright great. I read the book over the course of a few years and do not recall every story, but a few notables stand out in my memory. “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin was the first story in the collection that elicited a palpable emotional reaction. Cory Doctorow’s “When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth” is funny, not in a comedic way but rather in its truth and plausibility. I suppose that makes it frightening as well, but all of the stories in Wastelands are frightening in one way or another. “The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt and “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett Jr. follow resourceful wasteland entrepreneurs traveling from town to town with their carriages of curiosities, trading pleasure and fascination for another gallon of rare gas or a hot meal. I found myself amused that, when civilization falls and society reverts to tribalism, there may still be traveling showmen doing what they know how to do to, hoping the people they meet want what they have to offer enough to pay for it. “Killers” by Carol Emshwiller tells the story of a young woman struggling to survive in a remote town years after a domestic war has plunged her nation into a pre-industrial period. Maybe the war still wages. They do not know because the men who went off to fight it more than a decade ago have not returned and the modern society and infrastructure has collapsed so there is no news, no radio. Then a mysterious man appears at her window one night, filthy and starving. Who is he? Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World As We Know It” was a different kind of apocalypse story. It was deeply personal and the second story in the collection to cause some feels. I loved Bailey’s writing style and would like to read more from him. There are many more stories in this anthology, all of them well worth reading.

The most terrifying aspect of apocalypse fiction is that so many of the situations presented in the stories can actually happen. Perhaps these tales can serve to as a warning and help us prepare. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a great anthology, the first compiled by editor John Joseph Adams. He has opened my eyes to the true value of story anthologies and you can bet I will more willing to grab one off the shelf if I see his name on it. I highly recommend it for fans of the apocalypse subgenre, but I think any science fiction fan would enjoy it. Even readers of more mainstream novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find a lot to like in this collection even if they claim to not enjoy genre fiction.

The Writer's Journey

In previous articles, I have stated that I had wanted to be a fire truck and an astronaut when I was a child. As I grew older, I discovered literature and creative writing and decided I would be a writer instead. Throughout junior high (middle school to some of you), high school, and college, I took a series of writing classes in which I was assigned a wide variety of projects from short stories to poetry to journalism. While attending college, I took a job at a local bookstore so I could surround myself with the words of others. I attended seminars and readings hosted by published authors. As I listened to them share their stories, rapt, I knew I would be one of them one day. The thing about being a writer --and every writer will tell you this-- is that you must write constantly. It has to be in your blood. If a writer is not writing, they are thinking about writing. And as time marched on, I realized that was not me. I enjoy writing as a hobby, but I knew I was not going to be the one to write the next great novel. I found myself lacking not just the discipline, but also the creative spark. My brain was not constantly burning with ideas like so many authors claim. It was a disappointing realization. It always hurts when a dream dies and I experienced a period of mourning.

I still have people in my life who encourage me to continue writing, to increase the volume, to elevate my craft. One of my greatest champions has been my longtime friend Jeff Garvin, who knows how difficult the journey is having become a published author with 2016's Symptoms of Being Human. In March 2011, we agreed to hold a personal NaNoWriMo (the official event is held each November), challenging each other to write a fifty-thousand word novel by the end of the month. We both achieved the goal and our respective first novels will probably never see the light of day, but Jeff continued on the fiction track and I turned my attention toward commentary, launching this website.

The main purpose of bookthump was to serve as a central repository for my experiences --nonsense or otherwise-- with the books I read. Too often have I been asked by a fellow reader for my opinion about a book we discovered we have both read and equally often I have had to admit I have little to no memory of the content. I think of this site as a book journal. It is not the fulfillment of that wide-eyed student's dream of being the next great novelist, but it does satisfy the needs of the adult I have become.

Years ago --I believe we were still in college-- Jeff gave me a copy of Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. At the time, I was secretly wrestling with the death of the dream, so it was both a heartwarming and heartbreaking gift. I gave it a prominent but permanent place on my bookshelf for years, knowing I might never read it for fear of tearing open ragged wounds. Then, in late March of 2017, Jeff approached me with an idea for a project. Hollering at each other over the cacophony of a local brewery's tasting room, we discussed this project that would require us to read Vogler's The Writer's Journey and mythologist Joseph Campbell's famous The Hero with a Thousand Faces. "Read Vogler by the end of April," he said, "Campbell in May". I threw back the last drops of the session IPA I was drinking and confidently agreed that I could meet those deadlines. Turns out I did not meet those deadlines because reasons, but I did finish The Writer's Journey on the last day of May.

Vogler's book is, as the author himself states in the preface, an "accessible, down-to-earth" modern version of Campbell's famous work. A student of Joseph Campbell, Vogler admits Campbell may be overwrought for current audiences because he cites so much ancient mythology and psychoanalysis that are no longer part of contemporary popular culture. I have recently started reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces and have found that the references Campbell makes are either entirely foreign to me or are completely different from what I recall. I used to love reading mythology when I was in elementary school, but the versions of the stories I read had been edited for young audiences. I feel like I need to camp out in the Mythology section of my local bookstore and absorb the adult versions of these stories.

In The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler takes the common story elements recognized by Joseph Campbell and analyzes several modern works such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Pulp Fiction (1994), and the 1998 recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Titanic. I found his analyses fascinating. That these starkly different stories share similar story elements was illuminating. I began thinking about my own works of fiction and was stunned to realize I had constructed my narratives in similar ways without even realizing it. Recalling some of my favorite stories, their frameworks share many of the elements Campbell and Vogler identify. This is not because authors steal from their predecessors. It is because good storytellers recognize the elements and structure that make a story connect with audiences. Readers enjoy novels about normal people who face extraordinary circumstances, perform heroic feats, and have spectacular adventures. Such stories allow us to escape our ordinary lives and let us fantasize about being someone greater than we are. This book opened my eyes to something that had always been there, lurking in my subconscious. No "Eureka!" moments, but there certainly was a considerable amount of chin-scratching.

Days after having finished The Writer's Journey and having started Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I feel a charged sensation, that fidgety buzzing one feels when their mind has been introduced to an exciting new concept. I am interested to see how this new perspective affects my future experiences with books and films. My journey continues...