Vacation Reads: Part 4 (The October Country / Jane Eyre / Re-Reads)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each. This will be the last in the series, covering my last couple of reads and including some brief capsule reviews of some re-reads I did.

the-october-countryRay Bradbury’s The October Country is often held up as the closest Bradbury ever came to doing a horror anthology, and while not every story here is a dark one, there’s no shortage of nightmares here. There’s “Skeleton,” in which a man becomes horrifying aware of the bones within his body and becomes convinced that they’re trying to take over his life; there’s the surprisingly nasty ending of “The Man Upstairs,” in which a young boy becomes convinced that the lodger living upstairs in a vampire; and there’s “The Small Assassin,” about a possibly murderous infant, and a story that has one of the nastiest last lines in memory. In other words, there’s plenty of darkness here, and while Bradbury isn’t going to be mistaken for the full-fledged horror of a King or a Barker, there’s some wonderfully dark, Gothic material here.

But more than that, there’s the imagination and heart that Bradbury was so known for, and no story better unifies those ideas than the wonderful “Homecoming.” A favorite of Neil Gaiman’s (and the influence on Gaiman’s world is evident), “Homecoming” tells the story of a family of monsters – vampires, ghosts, and more – coming together for a family reunion, all told from the perspective of the one “normal” child in the family. It’s sweet, heartbreaking, and ends on an optimistic and heartfelt note that made me smile. Or take “The Emissary,” about a young boy, confined to his room because of sickness, who experiences the world entirely through his roaming dog and the visitors he brings home – a story that opens with wonder and heart, slowly turns to heartbreak, and then becomes terrifying. And that’s not all – once you add to the collection some stories that show off Bradbury’s rich sense of humor – the elderly woman who refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman,” or the ridiculous satire of trend followers that is “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” – and you have a wonderful collection that reminds you what made Bradbury so special. Rating: **** ½

492864909As an English major, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the fact that I had never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It didn’t help that I knew – or, at least, I thought I knew – most of the story already, having absorbed it through references, parodies, English classes, and other books (most notably Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is a must read for any literature fans out there).

Of course, I should have known better; stories, of course, are not about what they’re about, so much as they’re about how they go about it (to paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert). And while I knew a lot of the basics of Jane Eyre‘s plot, what I didn’t know about was the book’s assured, confident narration throughout, turning Jane not into a passive participant in her own life, not into the socially conscious protagonist of a Jane Austen novel, but into someone unique and complex – a woman who demands to set up her own life and be beholden to no one, a woman not defined by her looks but by her mind, a woman who dedicates her life to others who are in need of help, without regard for what it does for her social standing. The argument that Jane Eyre is an early feminist work is an easy one to make, but that doesn’t make it any less valid; Jane is a complex, enjoyable, intelligent, witty, and kind-hearted character, but one who feels fiercely independent and well ahead of her time.

For all of that, I still struggled with Jane Eyre at times; it features that most romantic (the literary movement, not the emotion) of traits: bloat and verbosity. The book has a tendency to belabor things sometimes, with dialogue scenes particularly tending to go on for a bit. In general, there’s a sense that Jane Eyre could probably lose about 10% of its words and improve greatly, but that’s not the fault of Brontë, who was merely writing in the service of her times, and whose book suffers the same faults as some other iconic works. On the whole, though, Jane Eyre lives up to its reputation, feeling groundbreaking and interesting, and giving us a lead character for the ages – one that feels relevant and compelling even now, after so many years. Rating: **** ½

And finally, some brief thoughts on some re-reads I did over the vacation, each of which I’d give an easy five stars, for very different reasons:

  • As I mentioned in my review of The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly’s novella “The Fractured Atlas” (featured in his anthology Night Music) is worth re-reading before you pick up that book. But it’s also a novella worth reading for any fan of horror. Composed of five separate stories, all of which flow together in different ways, Connolly’s novella tracks the history of the titular occult manuscript back for hundreds of years – and the mysterious forces it unleashes around it. From shadowy figures to nightmarish creatures in drains, from faceless children to demonic soldiers, Connolly’s imagination has rarely been allowed to roam this freely, nor has it allowed itself to go this dark. Indeed, the fourth piece of the novella, entitled “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms,” is perhaps the most frightening thing Connolly ever wrote – and that’s not something you say lightly. I’m a Connolly fan anyways, but if you’ve ever been curious, you could do far worse than starting with this incredible piece of horror. Just don’t go in expecting something too light and fluffy.
  • J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics is one of the best review copies of a novel I ever received – a book that wasn’t just “good by self-publishing standards,” or “better than I expected,” but honestly, truly, legitimately great. There’s no small amount of Terry Pratchett here, but Pike succeeds by using Pratchett not as a pure model, but as an inspiration. Yes, he crafts a fantasy world that closely mirrors our own in many ways; yes, he uses the plot of his novel to satirize elements of modern society (in this case, the inflationary bubble caused by investment capital, as well as RPG video game tropes – yes, he does both of those, and does them both ably). But Pike does it in a way all his own, interweaving humor with rich character depth, social commentary with fantasy action, delivering great comic prose that can shift to heartbreak when you least expect it. That Pike gets compared to Pratchett is no big deal; that he holds his own in that comparison, and delivers one of the richest, funniest, most satisfying pieces of fantasy I’ve read in years – well, that’s no small thing. (I’ll have more to say about Pike when I finish his long-awaited second book, Son of a Liche, within the next few days. Short version: it’s every bit as good, if not better, than Orconomics.)
  • What is there to say about Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that hasn’t been said before? It doesn’t matter that I’ve read this book a dozen times or more; it doesn’t matter that, between the book, the TV version, the film, the computer game, and especially the radio series, I could all but recite the story and most of the gags. Every time I open Adams’ pages, I find myself caught up in his weird, hysterically funny world, and I laugh anew as though I’ve never read it before. Even now that its familiarity has dulled its impact among fans, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this book felt – and still feels, after so many years. Its imagination is incredible, its comedy is hilarious, its writing is sharp and trenchant, and its plotting surprisingly tight. There’s a reason it casts such a long shadow over the world of humor and science-fiction.
  • I think I’m supposed to hate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye now – or, at least, I kind of expected to. Yes, I loved this book in high school, when I empathized so much with Holden Caulfield’s feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger at the world, and disdain for the hypocrisy of the people around him. But I expected to find him whiny and mopey as an adult…and instead, couldn’t help but have my heart break for him all over again. Maybe it’s the way that Salinger’s rambling, easy prose so accurately captures the tumult of emotions that comes with adolescence; maybe it’s the constant sway of emotions that nails the feelings that come with depression and anxiety (I say, from experience). Maybe it’s just the constant sense that the world is broken, and that the innocent need protecting, and that justice isn’t being served – a feeling that hits home all too well. But whatever the case, The Catcher in the Rye worked for me as an adult every bit as well as it did as it did in high school – maybe more so. It’s hard to think of another book that so accurately captures the feelings of adolescence and the pain of depression so universally, even though it’s inextricably linked to a place and time.

Amazon: The October Country | Jane Eyre | Night Music | Orconomics | The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Catcher in the Rye

Bibliomysteries by Joe Lansdale and Laura Lippman

Sometimes, nothing scratches a reading itch like a good short story, and what better hook could you have than to have mysteries about books? That’s the premise of the Bibliomysteries series, which started life as an anthology, but now has been released as a series of digital shorts, letting readers pick and choose the best of the series, or just finding the work by that author you love. For me, I picked two – an author I was curious about, and one I already loved – and got pretty solid results.

17163066I had never read anything by Laura Lippman before reading The Book Thing, which finds a young woman trying to help a local bookstore figure out how and why its stock keeps disappearing. Lippman’s got a great reputation as a writer, and while The Book Thing wasn’t really what I expected, that didn’t keep it from being a great read. It’s set in Baltimore, and Lippman brings every element to life, from the wandering man everyone knows to the business of an independent bookstore, and does it with heart and warmth.

The mystery element of The Book Thing is no great shakes; suffice to say, most readers will figure it out quickly, but so do the characters, if we’re being honest. Instead, Lippman is more interested not in what’s being done, but in why it’s being done, and that gives The Book Thing an empathy I didn’t really expect. No, as a mystery, it may let you down a bit, but as a compelling little read and a nice piece of short fiction, it’s satisfying indeed, and has me curious to try out more of Lippman’s work. Rating: ****

35432735Anyone who’s read this blog long enough knows my love of Joe Lansdale in general, and his Hap and Leonard series more specifically. (You can find all my reviews of them here.) Suffice to say, I deeply love Lansdale’s Texas drawl, and I love even more Hap and Leonard, whose friendship is deep, even as their banter and smart-alecky nature makes me laugh and drives each of them up the wall.

So it’s no surprise that I loved Hoodoo Harry, in which our heroes are nearly run down by a runaway bookmobile that seems to be being driven by a young child. The child dies in the accident, which is bad enough, but what’s strange is that the bookmobile in question has been missing for years. So where was it? And why is it back now? The mystery here is deeply satisfying, despite the short length of the story; Lansdale has a way of conveying the past of things quickly and easily, and his lived-in world is full of subtext, complicated racial pasts, and more. Hoodoo Harry is no exception, as a quest to figure out where a bookmobile comes from stumbles across some dark secrets – and a lot of missing children, maybe.

As always with Lansdale, he has a way of handling dark material smoothly, bringing a crackling wit that can lighten the mood without ever disrespecting the grim nature of his stories – and trust me, this one gets dark. Even so, Lansdale makes it all work, giving us a rich mystery, a complex world, and all of the great character work he’s known for, only this time its in a small, easily digestible package. In other words, it’s business as usual for Lansdale. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: The Book Thing | Hoodoo Harry

This is How You Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki / *****

1845874338In 2010, a group of authors published a collection called Machine of Death, all of which revolved around a simple premise: what if there was a machine that told you, with 100% accuracy, how you would die? And it did so in simple little phrases…but maybe they weren’t always literal. For instance, “OLD AGE” could mean the obvious, or it could mean you got hit by a car driven by a senior citizen whose senility should have kept them from driving. You get the idea. The collection was fantastic – I was a big fan – and even if some of the stories got a little redundant (there are definitely a few too many takes on the origin of the machine), it was still a great idea.

Even so, I wasn’t sure we really needed a second collection, which kept me from jumping into This is How You Die for a while. I loved the first, but couldn’t we be running this into the ground? And could the collection really improve on the first?

The answer, it turns out, is a resounding “yes“. This is How You Die looks at the original collection, thinks “What could we do better?”, and then does it, delivering a wildly ambitious follow-up that stretched the boundaries of the theme as far as they could go. No more origin stories; no more redundancy. Instead, the editors challenged the authors to really take the concept and run with it, and what you get is an incredibly diverse selection. One story, John and Bill Chernega’s “Meat Eater”, takes the form of a government pamphlet designed to help children understand the Machine before their required testing. Another, Ed Turner’s “In Battle, Alone and Soon Forgotten,” gives us a fantasy story, telling the story of a young orc who’s tired of being cannon fodder for evil wizards, and wants to be so much more in life. Then there’s “Apitoxin,” by John Takis, who gives us a true Sherlock Holmes story using the Machine.

And that doesn’t even begin to really touch on some of the variety that remains. “La Mort d’un Roturier,” by Martin Livings, gives us a period piece with a brutally dark historical twist I didn’t foresee. Ada Hoffman’s “Blue Fever” gives us a high fantasy feel, telling the story of a court musician who sings about her lord’s death for his glory. Tom Francis gives us the perspective of a supervillain’s henchman who has to find a way to accommodate the death sentences of those fighting his master in “Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence”. And, of course, there’s Richard Salter’s incredible “Your Choice,” which gives us a Choose Your Own Adventure story that manages to be both incredibly gripping, well written, and also conveys the power of the Machine in a way that’s hard to describe.

There’s literally – and this is an incredible rarity – not a bad story in this collection, and what’s more notable, not a one that’s like any of the others. From fantasy to science-fiction, from steampunk to high school drama, from animal violence to heartbreaking relationships, from love letter to science to military combat, every story finds not just a new angle on the Machine of Death, but a whole new approach, period. It’s the best possible outcome of a collection like this – it gives you more range and variety, and shows you just how far you can take a single premise and what you can do with it. I absolutely loved it, and I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but it’s head and shoulders above even the great original collection.


First Love, Last Rites, by Ian McEwan / ***

3526A few years ago, I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a truly incredible book that pretty much floored me on every imaginable level. Ever since then, I’ve been curious to check out more of McEwan’s work, to see how it compared to that modern masterpiece, and learning that First Love, Last Rites was a collection of short stories sounded like a great place to start – it would give me a bit more of a sampling of his work, a wider array of experiences that McEwan could create.

Now, I didn’t realize when I picked it up that First Love, Last Rites actually represented McEwan’s first published writings, and that they largely represented the author’s attempts to experiment and find his voice. Had I known that, I doubt I would have jumped in here; I’d probably have gone with something more polished, or something closer in his career arc to Atonement, at least chronologically. As it is, First Love, Last Rites is a pretty far cry from Atonement in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the grim, disturbing subject matter. At the time, McEwan had the nickname “Ian Macabre,” and it’s not hard to see why – this is a collection of horrors, from incest to sexual abuse, from rapists to murder, almost always told from the point of view of the criminal. And, as he did in Atonement, McEwan immerses himself deeply in the characters’ perspectives, which means that there’s no moral judgment, no sense of justice or morality. These characters often get away with their actions, without even a sense of guilt, and that can make these hard to take. (That the eBook version I read opens with the story “Homemade,” which involves a confident, amoral teenager’s efforts to rid himself of his virginity through deeply upsetting means, didn’t help me to get adjusted into the book quickly; indeed, it almost put me off reading the rest, just because I wasn’t quite aware of what I was getting myself into, and because the story’s perspective is so vile.)

And yet, in a lot of ways, you can see many of the same skills that McEwan would put to work in Atonement getting their trial runs here. His empathy and ability to truly step into someone’s mind; his knack for watching events unfold without introducing morality or judgment into the writing; his insistence that the reader interacts with the text to unpack some of the meaning. And at times, as repulsive as his characters are, McEwan still knocks you out; my personal favorite is “Conversation with a Cupboard Man,” a long confession by a deeply damaged man whose mother infantilized him to a toxic degree and left him barely able to function in the real world – it’s a story that reminds me of the depth and nuance that someone like, say, Thomas Harris would bring to a similar character.

There’s little way to walk away from First Love, Last Rites and not feel like you need a bit of a shower. The actions depicted here are toxic, and even if McEwan is accurate in the way masculine drives and the demands of society so often push them in horrible directions, that doesn’t make the collection any more pleasant to read all in a batch like this. But there’s no denying the talent that McEwan was bringing to bear even here, in his earliest work, and it’s to his credit that the stories are as engaging as they are, even as they disturb. They’re not perfect by any means – the title story gets too pretentious with its symbolism for my taste; “Cocker at the Theatre” really only has the advantage of being short; several feel like experiments in amoral perspectives more than they feel like full stories – but they’re fascinating glimpses as to some of what would make Atonement great. I still think my next taste of McEwan will be something more modern than this, though.


Two horror shorts by Jason Arnopp

A few months back, I read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks, a fiendishly clever and twisted piece of unreliable narration that tells of the title character’s last days, in a posthumously edited manuscript that…well, it’s hard to explain. The short version is, Jack Sparks gripped me from the get-go, creating a rich world all through a compelling narrator’s voice, then plunging me into a twisty, unpredictable, bizarre story of ghosts, haunting, and the supernatural. So, finding out that Arnopp had not one but two short pieces available for incredibly low prices online, I wanted to check them out and see if Arnopp was a one-trick pony or not.

51kdfssa4ilBased off of A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home, the answer is definitely not. Taking the form of an anonymous letter written to a new homeowner, the letter tells the story of the home’s previous occupant, who came to realize that they were feeling less and less well-rested the longer they lived in the house. And then, there’s the night she wakes up in the middle of the night and understands why. Entirely crafted in the second person, A Sincere Warning features so much of what made Jack Sparks so great – great, unsettling horror, yes, but also a wonderfully complicated narrator whose voice tells you more about them than any exposition ever could (and who begins to reveal more and more the longer the letter continues), written with supreme control and a wonderfully natural feel. The second-person narration works better than you’d think, adding to the unease, but really, this one is a testament to how good Arnopp is as a natural writer of dialogue, making it all feel real and plausible. It’s slight, sure, but that comes along with the tight length, and really, it’s hard to argue that adding more would have made it any better. Still, it means it’s a bit of a popcorn read – it’s just a good one. (Also, apparently you can have the story sent as an anonymous letter to a friend, which sounds like an amazing idea.) Rating: **** ½

28961798But once I finished A Sincere Warning, I found that Arnopp offered a free novella for signing up for his newsletter. As a result, not long after, I found myself reading American Hoarder, which finds an unnamed narrator discussing the fabled “lost episode” of the titular reality TV show. You can guess from the title what kind of show this is, and Arnopp has a lot of fun giving us the perspective of a jaded, long-suffering professional on shows like these, with discussions about the ideal arc of the show (initial help leads to first effort, which has to relapse, which has to try to redeem), the best houses, the most disturbing collections, and so forth. But we know, given the nature of most of Arnopp’s work, where this is going – and it won’t be pretty. Hoarder doesn’t work quite as well as Warning does – the horror here feels a little more abstract, and the ending of the story doesn’t really give a great final sting so much as it feels a little confusing. (The ending of the main story, anyways; there’s a nice little stinger that will appeal to fans of Jack Sparks.) Nonetheless, I still enjoyed American Hoarder; once again, Arnopp’s knack for bringing voices to life is really great, and how much he’s able to really build not only this character, but the whole setting of the story, in such a short time makes for a solid read. It’s not his best, but it’s still a good story, and the writing is so enjoyable that I’m fine with some of the weaker plotting. Rating: ****

A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home (Amazon) | American Hoarder (

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell / ****

9780307947475In some ways, I wish I had read Karen Russell’s short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove before I started reading the stories and work of George Saunders, because there are so many times that I couldn’t help but compare the two writers. Both are writers who eschew the literary pretensions that come along with so many modern “literary” writers, instead dabbling in magical realism, horror, and other fantastic elements. Both are dryly funny, mixing satire and odd humor with more thoughtful content. Both write beautifully, crafting exquisite phrases and fascinating descriptions that make their stories more satisfying than many whole novels by lesser writers.

And yet, the Saunders comparison hurts Vampires so much because of the fact that Saunders is, quite frankly, better at stories than Russell is. Take the title story, which follows a pair of vampires as they navigate their centuries-long relationship. It’s an offbeat story, with imagination to spare, but falls back into the cryptic, symbolic, vague ending so popular with “literary” fiction. That problem haunts the similarly promising but ultimately frustrating and irritating “Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”, in which a young man seems to be getting messages from the cosmos via a swarm of seagulls…and nothing else ever becomes clear or meaningful. And while “Proving Up” opens with a science-fiction take on the Homestead Act and the way we all find meaning in our possessions and property, the ending doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of the story before it, and left me wondering what I was supposed to get out of it.

And yet, some of the stories are pure joy. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a hilarious riff on sports tailgating, one that finds spectators cheering the “Food Chain” game, hoping against hope for the underdog krill to finally devour whales, all as the narrator gradually reveals more and more of his own personal history. There’s also the gleefully weird “Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which a number of former American presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses in a country barn for no apparent reason. Both of these stories steer into their absurdity, embracing the anarchy and silliness and letting the richness come from not only the weird world, but also from the way Russell keeps it grounded in her characters. In similar ways, there’s “Reeling for the Empire,” which follows a group of Japanese girls who have been drafted into silk production for the Empire…by means of turning into silkworms. The result is fascinating and incredibly strange; yes, it’s ultimately a little overlong, and feels a little aimless, but the imagination and writing are superb. Best of all is “New Veterans,” the story of a massage therapist who’s assigned to help veterans returning from the Middle East conflicts. What starts as the most grounded and plausible story takes a surreal turn early on, and ends up becoming a thoughtful, complex meditation on memory, healing, pain, and regret, all while managing to be a story about a very vivid tattoo whose realism becomes unsettling.

I want to be clear – I liked a lot about Vampires in the Lemon GroveYes, I couldn’t help but compare the collection to another author, one whom I love. And yes, it might not help that the collection’s weaker stories are in the first half, setting things off to a lackluster opening. But the more I look over the contents, the more I find to like about the collection. Moreover, the fact that Russell is so open to genre fare – to fantasy, to science-fiction, to magical realism – that’s no small thing. Yes, I’d like her to lose her most “literary, New Yorker” tendencies. But there’s a lot here to enjoy, and I’ll definitely try on more of her work for size.


Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.