Published: November 15th, 2016 Publisher: Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Short Stories Format: Audiobook Length: 5 hrs and 46 mins
Good Behavior is simultaneously the definitive collection of Letty Dobesh stories by Blake Crouch and no longer the definitive story of Letty herself.
These stories were originally published as three separate novellas over the course of a few years. As of 2016, they are also the basis for a TNT series starring Michelle Dockery in her first post-Downton role in an ongoing series. This volume collects the stories along with author commentary.
However, unlike other book adaptations, I think I might recommend watching the show before reading Good Behavior. These stories read a hell of a lot like the rough draft of the show, and might best be appreciated with that in mind.
Crouch’s commentaries reinforce this impression. He discusses how he and the show’s co-creator adapted and cannibalized each story for the show, and it’s obvious that he thinks the adaptation is an improvement.
He points out more than once how the stories as written didn’t match the tone of the show or how tweaking events and characters for the adaptation opened things up in new and exciting ways.
As I listened to the audiobook, I oftentimes found myself thinking “Letty wouldn’t do that” or “this isn’t a Letty story”. Michelle Dockery’s portrayal is so compelling that I couldn’t picture the character any other way.
That said, I did enjoy reading Good Behavior. That’s especially surprising after I gave up on Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy after two books. I just couldn’t work up the energy to care about the finale, and I barely enjoyed the second book.
It helps that Letty is a much more interesting and likable protagonist than the main character in Wayward Pines, who spends most of his time hitting his head and blacking out. Also, it felt like Crouch had a better handle on style and language in these stories. He pulls off a few clever turns of phrase here and there that add a nice noir flavor.
Ultimately, I do recommend picking up Good Behavior, but only as supplemental material for the show and not a true standalone work. In fact, this collection is entertaining enough that I’m willing to give Crouch another chance, especially since he had a hand in writing the show.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to the audiobook version.
Published: December 1st 2015 Publisher: Audible Studios / Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Comedy, Short Stories Format: Audiobook Length: 4 hrs and 28 mins
Bream Gives Me Hiccups is actor Jesse Eisenberg’s debut short story collection. Although it doesn’t feel like a vanity project, it is definitely a little derivative. Eisenberg’s work is in the same wheelhouse as Woody Allen’s short fiction, and doesn’t always fare well by comparison.
Most of the stories in Bream Gives Me Hiccups are slight comic riffs on a premise. The joke is oftentimes spelled out in the story’s title. When these shorter pieces are good, they deliver some of the best laughs in the collection. When they’re bad, they’re almost entirely forgettable.
Included with the short pieces are two longer stories that appear at the beginning and middle of the collection. The title story, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is one of the best in the collection. The second long piece, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is easily the worst.
One thing Eisenberg does to set himself apart from Allen is make his characters seem like real people with emotions. He only succeeds intermittently, but when he does, the stories are particularly good. Allen is by far the better writer, but the characters in his fiction were always held at arm’s length.
Section I, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is framed as a series of restaurant reviews by a nine-year-old. Each review quickly devolves into a rundown of the main character’s life and troubles – with his divorced parents, his best friend, and the kids at school – and the result is both hilarious and affecting.
Section II, “Family”, mostly consists of a series of extended jokes from the perspectives of Eisenberg’s family members (real or imagined). There are a few standouts here: “Separation Anxiety Sleepaway Camp” is an absurdist exploration of childhood neurosis, and “My Nephew Has Some Questions” is by far the best example of Eisenberg committing to the game of a joke.
Section III, “History”, is all bits and no characters. I remember laughing once or twice at this section, but the stories didn’t leave much of an impression. Also, the joke in “Marxist-Socialist Jokes” is that they’re all non-jokes, which is just annoying.
Section IV, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is where this collection went off the rails for me. In a series of letters to her high school guidance counselor, a spoiled freshman rants about everyone and everything in her life. There isn’t much of a narrative arc, and the main character doesn’t learn or grow by the end of the story. Eisenberg doesn’t appear to have any sympathy for this horrendous character, so it’s hard to understand why this story spends so much time with her. The end result is both tone-deaf and misogynist.
Section V, “Dating”, lands with a thud. I wasn’t particularly entertained by four variations on a bar pick-up, and found this section completely skippable.
Section VI, “Sports”, was also pretty lame. “Marv Albert Is My Therapist” is only mildly funny if you know who Albert is. “Carmelo Anthony…” is slightly entertaining because the Eisenberg character is completely delusional about his “pickup game”.
Section VII, “Self-Help” brings in some much-needed darkness with “Smiling Tricks” and “If She Ran Into Me Now…”, both of which feature delusional and/or downright psychotic main characters. It also helps that neither story overstays its welcome.
In Section VIII, “Language”, the best story is “My Spam Plays Hard to Get”, in which even scammers don’t want to steal from Eisenberg. “Nick Garrett’s Review” has a fairly obvious twist, and the remaining stories are unremarkable.
Section IX, “We Only Have Time for One More”, just feels unnecessary.
So, to summarize, although there are definitely worthwhile stories and the occasional bright spot in this collection, the second half almost sinks under the weight of unpleasant characters and unremarkable stories.
It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed several of the stories and wish the overall collection was that consistently good. However, I’m still willing to recommend picking up this collection because of the handful of truly great stories. I’d also recommend picking up the audiobook version so that you can hear these pieces performed by the author.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I actually listened to the audiobook version from Audible. Go figure.
Published: February 3rd, 2015 Publisher: Random House Genre(s): Short Stories, Slipstream, Fantasy, Surreal Format: Audiobook Length: 9 hrs and 57 mins
Kelly Link has a knack for expertly juxtaposing weirdness with the mundane, and it’s basically catnip for my reading soul. Get in Trouble is no different.
However, one thing I noticed as I read is that only a handful of these stories are terrifying, which is a change from the norm. Link never really writes flat-out horror, but she has a way with chilling details and building suspense.
Although her talent for disturbing atmosphere does still come into play, Link spends most of her energy creating real, lived-in characters that leap off the page. In many ways, Get in Trouble finds her in transition; it’s still odd and unsettling, but it’s also some of her most accessible work.
The audiobook version, narrated by a full cast, features both familiar and new voices, some of whom are better than others. Tara Sands, who reads Secret Identity, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Ish Klein, who reads The New Boyfriend, has a high-pitched voice and staccato delivery that actually adds to the strangeness of the story. The only narrator I had some trouble with is Susan Duerden, whose odd cadence and breathy voice was very distracting at first.
“The Summer People” read by Grace Blewer
Fran and her (alcoholic, absentee) father are caretakers for vacation summer homes. Most of the time this just involves cleaning up after out-of-towners, but sometimes Fran has to deal with a different and far more dangerous type of summer people. This story starts out slowly, but Link steadily builds the danger and weirdness until delivering a punch of an ending. My only complaint is that the audiobook narrator completely ignores Fran’s accent.
“I Can See Right Through You” read by Kirby Heyborne
The Demonlover, aging star of a massively popular supernatural romance, reconnects with his former co-star/girlfriend as she films a TV segment about mysterious disappearances at a nudist colony. This story actually manages to humanize a celebrity couple who bear a very strong resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. That said, the story opens with a prologue that feels completely disconnected from the main plot, and the ending is both sudden and unexpectedly surreal. I enjoyed the middle, but I’m still not quite sure what to think about the rest of this story.
“Secret Identity” read by Tara Sands
Told in the form of a confession and an apology, this story relates the adventures of a sixteen-year-old girl who travels to a New York hotel to meet a man more than twice her age under false pretenses. When she arrives, she discovers that the hotel is hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and another for superheroes. Much to her dismay, everyone assumes she is there to audition as a sidekick. Easily my favorite story in the entire collection; the main character is sympathetic and relatable even when she does terrible things. I also loved how Link plays with the idea of “secret identity” throughout.
“Valley of the Girls” read by Robbie Daymond
Decadent rich kids fight and fuck and build pyramids to house all of their worldly goods while lookalikes called “faces” make public appearances in their names. This story felt a bit overstuffed – too many disconnected ideas and not quite enough character development. Either “faces” or the Egyptian aspects of the story would have been enough to carry it, but both together are a bit too much. Ultimately Link doesn’t spend very much time exploring the concept of “faces”, so it just ends up confusing things.
“Origin Story” read by Rebecca Lowman
A small-town waitress spends the night with her former boyfriend, a now-famous superhero, at a dilapidated Wizard of Oz theme park. They have sex and talk about life, slowly but surely revealing shared histories and the intimacies of a long friendship. As they speak, we get glimpses of the strange world around them, full of mutants and people with superpowers. This story was a little willfully confusing at first, but once I got into the world, I definitely enjoyed it.
“The Lesson” read by Cassandra Campbell
Tan and Harper decide to attend a wedding held on an island despite the fact that their surrogate, Naomi, is in danger of delivering their baby prematurely. This is definitely the most realistic story Link has ever published, but there are still a few quirky touches and moments of strangeness. I liked this story, but I spent the latter half waiting for supernatural occurrences that never arrived.
“The New Boyfriend” read by Ish Klein
Immy and Ainslie are best friends, but Immy kind of hates Ainslie for getting everything she’s ever wanted and more. Especially her “boyfriends”, which are actually lifelike robots entirely devoted to their owner. When Ainslie receives a new boyfriend for her birthday, Immy’s jealousy overwhelms her, and she takes drastic measures. This was probably my second-favorite story in the collection. The narrator’s flat affect and unreliability paired well with the creepy concept of a “ghost boyfriend” who might be possessed by a real ghost.
“Two Houses” read by Susan Duerden
Astronauts on a long-haul spaceship – the House of Mystery – tell ghost stories during one night of their years-long trip to Alpha Centauri. This story was a mix of sci-fi and the supernatural, and although it builds to a particularly creepy moment at the end, it mostly relies on atmosphere and not plot or character.
“Light” read by Kirsten Potter
This story is so full of strange details that it’s nearly impossible to summarize properly. An alcoholic woman with two shadows works security at a company caring for “sleepers” – people found randomly lying asleep on the ground. She visits pocket universes, sleeps with the occasional wolf-man, and fights with her troublesome twin brother, who sprung forth from her extra shadow. Although I did enjoy this story, the strangeness was at such a high level that it was kind of overwhelming at times.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley… and then I listened to the audiobook version on Scribd instead. It was worth it!
Published: February 24th, 2015 Publisher: Random House Audio Genre(s): Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Surrealism Format: Audiobook Length: 4 hrs and 22 mins
The only thing I remember about Jonathan Lethem’s first collection of short stories is that he really liked abrupt endings. Lucky Alan is no different. Sometimes the endings work, and sometimes the stories just feel unfinished. That’s probably why this collection has so many one-star ratings – people assume that Lethem is trying to palm off his fragments on an unsuspecting public, and they react with vehemence.
Thing is, I think the one-star critics are being overly harsh. Yes, a few of these stories are duds, but the good ones far outweigh the misses, and it’s possible that Lucky Alan is Lethem’s strongest collection (although I’d have to re-read his earlier work for a definitive verdict). It definitely made me want to pick up his most recent few novels, and I haven’t been as interested in his work since he starting writing in a more exclusively literary vein.
Although I definitely recommend listening to the audiobook version of this collection – the narrators are all pretty great, even Lethem himself – all the stories (but one) are available online from their original publications.
“Lucky Alan” read by Mark Deakins
Very much about New York and the people who live there. An actor and a theatre director strike up a casual friendship, and one day the director tells a story about his fraught relationship with a neighbor. Subtle but great. All about small details and the way people perceive each other and themselves.
“The King of Sentences” read by David Wain
A couple is so obsessed with an author they call “The King of Sentences” that they travel to his hometown and stalk him until he appears at the local post office. The object of their affection responds with distaste but it doesn’t faze them in the least. Heightened and satirical but still entertaining – I could almost picture this as a sketch on Portlandia.
“Traveler Home” read by Mark Deakins
A man known only as Traveler survives a blizzard along with his dog, only to find a baby under odd circumstances. Lethem uses a stilted, affected style here that I found distracting. This out of all the stories felt the most like it was the first part of something unfinished.
“Procedure in Plain Air” read by Amy Landecker
A road crew digs a hole in a sidewalk outside a coffee shop and puts a prisoner inside. The only witness feels responsible for the nameless, voiceless prisoner and decides to keep watch. I think I liked the oddness of the situation more than the story itself, which felt lacking in incident.
“Their Back Pages” read by Isaac Butler
Characters from classic newspaper comic strips crash-land on an island and slowly but surely devolve. This is probably the most stylistically ambitious of the stories in this collection, alternating between descriptions of comic panels and more traditional narrative scenes. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this story, but once I caught on to what was happening, I really enjoyed it.
“The Porn Critic” read by Bruce Wagner
A man writes reviews of porn tapes for his job, but it ends up interfering with both his reputation and his personal life. This felt a bit reminiscent of a Woody Allen story in some ways, although far more realistic than most of Allen’s fiction. Both this and the title story are very stylistically similar, and both feel like they are specifically about New York City.
“The Empty Room” read by Michael Goldstrom
A man designates one room in his house as the “empty room”, explaining to his family that they aren’t allowed to leave anything in the room once they finish using it. Over time, he ends up basically living in that room, away from his family. This story had a nice undercurrent of surrealism that helped bring home its more allegorical aspects. Additionally, although the ending is sudden, it works really well for the material.
“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” read by Jonathan Lethem
This story has one joke, really: that if a blog is like a house, a banned commenter is the rotting corpse left resting on the threshold. Once the joke becomes obvious, Lethem just keeps hammering it home. This is the only story in the collection that I’d consider an absolute dud.
“Pending Vegan” read by Mark Deakins
A man who has stopped taking his antidepressants goes to SeaWorld with his family despite his looming sense of disaster. For whatever reason, this story wasn’t particularly memorable. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t really hold my attention, either. The main character’s anxiety and endless worrying didn’t really add up to much in the end.
Edited by: George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois Published: December 3rd, 2013 Publisher: Random House Audio Genre(s): Fantasy, Science Fiction, Crime, Historical Format: Audiobook Length: 32 hrs and 49 mins
Dangerous Women is one of George R.R. Martin’s many side projects. The pedigree of contributors is excellent, but the quality varies, sometimes wildly. Of course, that’s true about most short story collections, even those largely considered masterpieces of the form.
The nice thing about Dangerous Women is that a large percentage of the stories are worth reading and most tie in to the overall theme fairly well. On that level, the collection is a success. It’s also an excellent collection to pick up in audio because the talent on offer is both varied and impressive. Actors like Sophie Turner, Iain Glen, Claudia Black and Jonathan Frakes all narrate, as do audio mainstays like Scott Brick.
One thing to keep in mind is that a few of the stories tie in to existing series and may constitute spoilers if you aren’t caught up. The Jim Butcher story takes place late in the Dresden Files series, and Lev Grossman’s story is a direct prequel to the upcoming third novel in his Magicians trilogy. I wasn’t necessarily current on all the related works, but for the most part I was able to enjoy the tie-in stories on their own merits.
Dangerous Women also isn’t a strictly SF&F anthology, including several crime, historical and literary stories in the mix. Some of those stories are the best parts of the collection, but if you are particularly stringent about your genre tastes, you may come away disappointed at the balance between SF&F and other genres.
As for the individual stories, capsule reviews follow after the jump.
The thing I noticed almost immediately about this story was the language. McDonald definitely has a way with words:
Ocean cold was beginning to infiltrate the wetsuit but the slump of a wave, the side-slip of a gull on the air, the sudden hiss of eddying drizzle; all said stay, speak.
Driftings tells the story of an artist who lives in a seaside town and spends his time scavenging the shore for items washed away during the Japanese tsunami. He takes what he finds and builds bizarre sculptures in his house, which is almost entirely full of the sea’s detritus. One day he meets a mysterious girl… and I don’t want to say too much more than that.
The pleasure of the story rests in its simplicity, in the slow creeping otherworldliness that builds one paragraph at a time. McDonald doesn’t provide any kind of pat explanations for what is going on, and the ending throws a nice little curveball. Highly recommended.
On the other end of the spectrum is The Taste of Starlight by John R. Fultz, which is included in the print and audio versions of Lightspeed: Year One. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version on and off for a few weeks now, and most of the stories so far have been pretty decent, with a few standouts like the Catherynne M. Valente story I discussed last week. I’ve found something to like about pretty much every Lightspeed story I’ve ever read or listened to, but there had to eventually be an exception, and this was it. It has certainly stuck with me, but not in a good way.
The Taste of Starlight tells the story of a doctor on a seven-year interstellar mission to a far-off colony. A systems malfunction causes his cryopod to open early, and he becomes the only person awake on the ship with more than a year left to go before landfall. He discovers that there aren’t enough emergency rations to last him for the whole trip… and I’m sure you’ve figured out where this is going.
I don’t remember exactly when I started guessing that he would resort to cannibalism, but it was definitely telegraphed pretty early on. Sure, the main character eats all the emergency rations first and does his best to live without food for as long as possible, but there comes a time when he decides that the “mission has to succeed” because a starving colony is depending on his expertise.
When he finally got around to eating someone, I checked the timer and discovered that I was only about a fourth of the way through the hour-long story. Checking the time in the first place is a bad sign, but I kept listening because I wanted to see what the author had to say that would take another forty minutes.
It turns out that most of this length consists of increasingly gruesome descriptions of the main character torturing, mutilating and eating his crew-mates. We are told that the ship isn’t equipped with cold storage (or backup cryopods, for that matter), so the doctor has to keep his victims alive to prevent the meat from spoiling. At first he sedates them, but eventually he runs out of medicine and stops caring. Then he starts taking culinary pleasure in the various body parts he’s eating, and the author goes out of his way to top himself with nauseating details in every paragraph.
Ultimately the story is just gratuitous. The basic structure is entirely predictable, so the only thing that makes The Taste of Starlight unique is a grotesque fixation on the particulars of eating a dozen human beings. If the author was trying to make a point about the potential horrors of space travel or the darkness hidden in the human soul, he drives it into the ground and then keeps going.
I first heard of her thanks to the novel Palimpsest, which was nominated for a Hugo and which I checked out from the library (but did not actually read). The thing about Valente is that her prose is thick with imagery and convoluted sentences. The effect is beautiful, but her writing can be a bit difficult to parse if you aren’t in the right mind-frame. Even the first Fairyland book was far more descriptive than your average middle-grade novel.
However, I’ve had good results by listening to the audio versions of her stories. Thankfully much of her recent work is available in audio, and a number of her short stories have been recorded for fiction podcasts, so there are a wide selection of excellent places to start with her bibliography.
How to Become a Mars Overlord is, much like it sounds, a primer on becoming overlord of your very own version of Mars. You see, it turns out that some analog of the fabled red planet exists in every galaxy, and ambitious overlords across the universe have been striving to conquer it throughout history.
The narrator describes various shining examples and cautionary tales for the edification of his audience of aspiring despots, and each is both strikingly alien and gorgeously imagined thanks to Valente’s luxuriant prose. Additionally, the narrator of the audio version, Robin Sachs, is a pitch-perfect choice for the character. Sachs is arch, knowing and oh-so British, and Valente’s words roll off his tongue with precision and aplomb.
The story doesn’t have an overall narrative arc, but the series of vignettes about various Martian overlords paints a picture of a strange and wonderful world that harkens back to the science fiction of old while twisting it into something modern and far more surreal.
I’ll definitely be checking out more of Valente’s work (and giving Palimpsest another chance) very soon.
I really don’t mean to be a Mulholland Books fanboy, I swear, but they just keep announcing such cool stuff that I can’t help myself. Their newest announcement ties in two of my favorite things: videogames and crime fiction. It turns out they’re going to release a tie-in volume of short stories involving characters from LA Noire, Rockstar Games’ upcoming game about a 1940s police detective.
I’ve already pre-ordered the game, after hearing only a handful of details. For example, it stars Aaron Staton from Mad Men, and is reported to have some of the most detailed facial animations in any game to date. It also has a fascinatingly complex interrogation gameplay system that immediately piqued my interest. I may very well end up reviewing it on GamerSushi, the gaming website run by some of my friends.
However, this announcement regarding a short story collection has cemented my firm belief that Rockstar knows their stuff. Writing is one of the areas where videogames still feel a bit anemic, but the calibre of talent assembled to write stories in the LA Noire universe makes me hope that the game will also have a robust and well-developed story.
Right off the bat, they’ve got my attention with Duane Swierczynski, who recently became my new favorite author after I read and reviewed his upcoming book, Fun and Games. However, I’m blown away to see such luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Joe Lansdale, Lawrence Block, and Andrew Vachss included as well. Mulholland will be releasing each story online over the next few weeks, and I look forward to reading and discussing them. I only wish all media tie-ins would bring this much quality to the table.
Published: February 12, 2008 Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Genre(s): Fiction, Slipstream Format: Hardcover Pages: 244
I was drawn to this collection of short stories by two things; first off, the cover is gorgeously designed, evoking both the period setting of many of the stories – the 1950s and 1960s – and the unsettling, off-kilter themes that resonate throughout the collection. Secondly, I’d heard of Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist“, which was adapted into a film that was unfairly compared to The Prestige because they were both period stories about magicians. I liked the movie enough that I wanted to know more about the author, although I’ve read that the story is very different from the movie.
It’s rare to find a truly consistent short story collection; in my experience, even the best authors swings and misses in this kind of collection. I read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things earlier this year, and those stories alternated between gorgeous, disturbing, and incredibly slight. Dangerous Laughter has a few stories that I felt miss the mark, but by and large Millhauser’s collection is one of the strongest I’ve read in a long time. The stories alternate between macro-level narratives that read more like entries in a history book, and more personal stories that focus on specific characters. In general, my favorite stories fell in the latter category, but all of the stories in this volume have something to recommend them.
The first truly stunning one is “The Room in the Attic”, which tells the story of a young man who befriends a girl that lives in darkness. During his junior year at school, the narrator, David, befriends an odd, bookish new kid named Wolf. One day Wolf invites David over to his house and introduces him to his sister, Isabel, who lives in the attic room and keeps her lights turned off at all times. Wolf tells David that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but that she seems to like him, and David begins regularly visiting Isabel in her attic room.
They dance together in the dark, play games, and talk about anything and everything. Soon enough David is spending more and more time with Isabel, and can think of nothing else but his daily visit. Eventually the idea of Isabel looms in David’s mind, and her invisibility becomes an indelible part of her personality for him, until he is no longer sure he wants to see her face. I loved the way this story every-so-gently tweaked reality and played with symbolism; it manages to fill something seemingly mundane with incredible power.
The title story, “Dangerous Laughter”, also plays with something apparently normal that becomes twisted and strange. It focuses on one summer when a group of students start playing a game where they gather in secret and laugh as loud and long as they possibly can, until they are exhausted, spent. Eventually they form laughter salons, each with its own specialty, and the games start turning into a ritual.
The laughter salons seem both innocent and deeply, darkly personal; where other games like spin-the-bottle or seven minutes in heaven are naive or childish approaches to sexuality, the laughter games seem to tap into something more primal but similarly illicit. Things start getting even more intense when a formerly anti-social girl joins the laughter salons and starts laughing harder and longer than everyone else. This story perfectly captures the lyrical mysticism and strangeness inherent in those bygone teenage summers, and quickly became one of my most favorite in this collection.
Other stories in the collection deal with creativity (“In The Reign of Harad IV“), spirituality and belief (“The Tower”), identity (“The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman”), and more. Although at first they may seem gentle and understated, many of them are filled with a creeping tension or an impending sense of tragedy. Few of the stories wear their fantastic nature on their sleeves, but all of them are just a few steps to the left of reality, edging into more unsettling territory. More often than not, it was just enough to get me thoroughly hooked and keep me reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more by Millhauser very soon.