Book review: 5,000 Writing Prompts

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More by Bryn Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I did not read all 5,000 prompts.

But I did read most of them, actually, not just to get the inspiration, but to get an overall feel for how Donovan puts together her lists. Quite often you can see her riffing on a theme or flipping a prompt to generate another (“Write why you like scrambled eggs. Or why you hate scrambled eggs with the fire of a thousand suns.”)

There are a few things Donovan does that elevates this above so many other writing prompt books or websites:

  • Quantity. Yes, sometimes size does matter! The sheer volume of prompts means you’re bound to find some that appeal to you, even if you use her method of randomly picking one.
  • Speaking of randomly picking one, Donovan directly tackles the purpose of the prompts and suggest picking one to write every day for two weeks, to rekindle your interest in writing if it’s faded. This is an entirely sensible plan, but a lot of prompt books don’t address this at all, they just pile on the lists.
  • Speaking of lists, Donovan provides a great deal of variety and even the groupings that might seem marginal to you (for me it would be the poetry prompts) actually offer a lot of good ideas that can be applied to other types of writing.

Donovan offers commentary and background on some of her ideas, especially those that have cultural or historical significance.

Really, this is just a solid all-around collection. I expect to use a bunch of these prompts as I seek to re-ignite my own fiction writing (and if you don’t write fiction, there’s lots of material here for blogs and other forms of non-fiction writing). Recommended.

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Book review: Keep Going

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a delight. Austin Kleon not only has an awesome name, his art is a fun and quirky mix of collage, cartoons and wordplay. This is someone who sees art all around him, then dives in to make even more.

The focus on the book is primarily aimed at creative types, specifically writers and visual artists, but most people can glean useful stuff from the sensible, thoughtful ideas he shares. Many may seem common sense, like finding a “bliss station”–a space where you can focus on your creativity, whether it’s a physical spot or just time you carve out of the day–but Kleon presents them as a piece with his own thoughts, creating a unified, accessible whole.

Kleon emphasizes experimentation, not getting hung up on the pursuit of perfection, and focusing on making art that makes others–and yourself–happy. He is big on gifts, less so on selling your stuff on Etsy, or somehow trying to make money from your creativity (he is not opposed, as he does it himself, obviously, but warns of the danger in trying to commercialize something you love and are passionate about).

He urges the reader to take social media in small doses, to turn your day to day life over to a virtual “airplane mode” from time to time, to not focus on doing things just to generate likes or clicks.

Keep Going is a short book, all the better to get through it and start applying what Kleon advocates. I read this on an iPad Pro and definitely advocate reading it in a format large enough to appreciate the numerous sketches, cartoons and notes, whether it be through tablet or even quaint old paper. The illustrations are all black and white, so a larger e-reader should work, too.

A solid thumbs up for creative types seeking easily-acted on inspiration and tips, and still recommended to others for the positive approach to life.

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Book review: The Frighteners

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore by Peter Laws

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was better than expected. Going in, I was unfamiliar with Peter Laws, apart from the blurb for the book mentioning that he is a reverend and perhaps a seemingly unlikely choice to author a book about why we are delighted by things that scare us (he devotes an entire chapter on this near the end, and also addresses it at the beginning). A writer when not conducting church services, Laws has authored novels about a professor aiding in the solving of religious crimes, and also reviews horror and similarly themed movies for The Fortean Times, the delightfully wacky magazine devoted to the weird and out there. This is relevant, because Laws demonstrates wit and verve throughout The Frighteners.

Laws has done his research on why we seek out to be frightened by various things, but this is not a carefully considered study and analysis, it is very much Laws providing expert testimony and studies, while adding in a lot of his own personal take on the various spooky subjects, neatly divided into their own chapters. There are fictional frights—scary movies and TV shows, but also could-be-real frights like ghosts, werewolves, cryptids and more. Then there are the sadly real, like serial killers, their “murderabilia” and crush videos (don’t look up the latter if you are at work or anywhere else on the planet. Trust me on this.)

Laws doesn’t defend the more dubious aspects that some people seem to crave, but he does attempt to understand motivations. And he highlights that most of us—even people into murderabilia (mementos from famous crimes or killers) have our limits. For example, a couple that run a curio shop in York sells things like strands of Charles Manson’s hair, among other ghoulish “delights”, but the American half of the couple admits she turned down the chance to sell bricks from Sandy Hook, because she lived nearby and had no emotional distance from the killings.

A lot of the fare Laws covers is lighter, and even silly. Zombie-themed escape rooms are a big thing now, and Laws partakes not as research for the book, but because he just loves them so much (he went to Transylvania for his 40th birthday), going out of his way to squeeze every last bit of drama from them, like the hero of a horror film.

In the end I was carried along by Laws’ enthusiasm for the macabre and frightening, and his gleeful delight in the same. He provides enough research, expert interviews and other material to elevate the book well above “I like scary stuff, let me talk about it”, so if you find the subject matter interesting, this is an easy recommendation.

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Book review: American Nightmare

American Nightmare

American Nightmare by George Cotronis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

American Nightmare is a themed horror story collection, with every story taking place in 1950s America. Ultimately the theme doesn’t add much to the stories, serving mostly as window dressing (everyone smokes, for example), and the stories themselves are a mixed bag, typical of most horror collections. This is not a bad read, but you might want to wait for a dale price to grab it.

Also in the tradition of horror collections, a lot of American Nightmare is Men Behaving Badly, with abusive husbands figuring prominently. The real monster is us. And also the tentacled horror in the lake.

Story by story:

Grandma Elspeth’s Culinary Enchiridion for Domestic Harmony. An abusive husband gets his just desserts (or dinner, rather) while the son watches with horror and wonder. But mostly horror. A decent intro to the book and is the first (but not last) to feature tentacles.

CHIAROSCURO. A weird tale that swaps between first person POV for scenes of a soldier in WWII and second person for the then-present day of 1958, as the former soldier and now-detective with an odd affliction that prevents him from recognizing faces, goes after a murdering couple that dresses as Raggedy Ann and Andy.

The author repeatedly references famous paintings to literally illustrate scenes, lending an odd sort of whimsy to the story, but it’s bloody and violent and ends with a lot of gunplay. It almost feels like it would work better as a longer piece, but it’s an interesting and surreal bit of mayhem.

Bow Creek: Kids living in a bucolic small town discover All Is Not What It Seems and those who see the ark underbelly either join or die. The End. Really. Slight, perfunctory and did not really do much for me. It tries to create a 50s horror movie vibe (and references the same), but it only partly succeeds.

Glow: Frustrated teen finds space rock that seems to have something to do with Cthulhu. Screaming (of others) follows. Not bad, but given the potential it seems to fall short.

Lucy’s Lips: Misunderstood high school girl leaves town, comes back with the circus, may have some ties to Cthulhu. Sort of features tentacles and might be trying to make a statement (not a nice one) about promiscuity, whether by accident or design. Did not grab me.

Pear People from Planet 13. As you might guess from the title, this is a comedic piece that riffs on the monster movies of the 50s. Weirdly gory and a little too on the nose, maybe.

Ghost Girl, Zombie Boy and The Count. A self-loathing killer meets some very interesting kids trick or treating. Another just desserts story, but written with some verve and wraps up appropriately.

The Two Monsters of Levittown. A clumsy attempt to address Nazis, racism, medical experimentation and just who are the real monsters, anyway? This could have worked better, but the writing is just too unsubtle, bludgeoning all of its points like a mallet to the skull.

Double Feature: What seems like a charming story about a teen couple watching a double feature at the drive-in descends into horror at the very end. It’s not quite a twist ending, but I was almost disappointed by it. This is one where I felt the journey was more interesting than the destination.

In the Blood: Totally Cthulhu, complete with the tentacles. Military experiments on soldiers prove disruptive to a nuclear family. Violent, gory, with that air of hopelessness one expects from a good Old Ones story. Despite this playing directly into expectations, it was just okay. The 1950s/Cold War setting could have been exploited better.

The Black Pharaoh of Hollywood. An ancient pharaoh (are there other kinds, really?) uses a desperate screen writer to return to the living. This was is well-written, but is undermined by an ending that feels forced, not earned, particularly in how the protagonist makes his decisions. Good, but could have been better.

The King. An old woman/witch mails seeds that grow weird black oak trees that make people commit literal blood sacrifices. This one pays lip service to the book’s theme and is just weird. Nothing is really explained and sometimes in a horror story that’s for the best. There’s some characters-doing-things-to-advance-the-plot business here, which I hate more than weird black oaks that prompt blood sacrifices.

A Night to Remember. A cancer-ridden man in a dinner encounters a strange, possibly Lovecraftian fellow who has a message. The Titanic does not figure at all, sorry. This one goes for ominous and mostly works.

All the Marilyns. An unconvincing look at a smart young man who years to move beyond his small town and somehow turns into a murderous psycho. Maybe I missed the subtle transition, but it felt jarring and off-putting.

Looking back, it seems I didn’t care much for most of these stories. The majority are decent, but flawed in some way. You could probably do worse for a horror collection, but you can also do much better.

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Book Review: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At one point I was ready to give this a three-star rating, but in the end the sheer enthusiasm of Neil Patrick Harris over the things he loves won me over…to three-and-a-half stars, which I can’t actually assign on Goodreads. But pretend I can.

The section that nearly lost me was one of the fictionalized segments where Harris assumes a super-macho sex stud persona and involves Harold and Kumar. It was kind of gross and while I ain’t no prude, I didn’t find it at all funny, just…gross.

And that’s the worst thing about this autobiography. It deliberately subverts the entire genre by presenting it as a “choose your own adventure,” so the whole book, save for specific sections, is written in the second person, with each chapter giving you options on how to proceed. It took a bit to get used to, but I didn’t really mind it in the end. And if you ignore the choices and just flip the page, you can read the whole book (or at least it didn’t feel like I missed anything).

There are also recipes, magic tricks and testimonials of sorts from others, ranging from Penn Jilette to Sarah Silverman. Some of these are obviously done for comedic effect, others are more sincere. Illustrations and script fragments, self-interviews and more complete the package and while I can’t say it all holds together as well as it should, Harris’s fondness for performing and the adulation he has for those he admires and loves shines through brilliantly. It’s this core, along with witty observations of show business that really make the book worth reading.

And yes, there is a little dirt along the way, as Harris is not shy about pointing out other actors who may not be…quite up to standard. Or drunk. Or both.

The photos at the end, especially from when he was trying to be a super cool “straight” twenty-something, are hilarious and well worth checking out on a tablet or computer where you can see them in glorious full color. Conversely, the photos of him with his husband and kids are cute enough to be used as stock photos of wholesome gay parents.

If you’re looking for an eclectic, sarcastic biography of someone who loves show tunes, this will fill your very specific needs. If you’re hankering for a more conventional biography, you may find this particular take a bit lacking.

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Book review: Less

Less

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do not read a lot of Pulitzer prize-winning novels. In fact, it would be accurate to say I’ve read none.

But the 2018 winner, Less, was on sale and I said to myself, “What price would I pay to read a Pulitzer-winning novel?” And the answer was, “Less!”

Sorry.

This is a funny novel and I mean that in both common definitions of the word. It is breezy and witty, but also a bit odd in how it follows the meandering world-spanning trip of not-quite-self-discovery that Arthur Less, a soon-to-be-50 novelist, undertakes shortly after the story begins. Quirky details are the norm here and the narrator—intruding occasionally to make it clear they are an actual person telling the story, and not an omniscient unknown presence—lovingly describes the hapless Less with both affection and concern as he blunders through France, Morocco, Germany and other locations. Cast in vivid relief in the background is the imminent marriage of his younger lover Freddy, who left Less abruptly.

Less’s trip is stuffed with incidental details, side stories and diversions that somehow always prove interesting, no matter how inconsequential they initially seem, largely thanks to Greer’s droll wit and use of metaphor. Metaphor in the hands of a bad author is like expecting a five year old to whip up a seven course meal, but here Greer wields it like a master chef. Or something like that (I may be a bad writer).

Perhaps the single funniest moment (minor spoiler) is someone telling Less he is a “bad gay,” underscoring just how little he seems to understand others—or even himself.

This story certainly won’t be for everyone. The writing, though funny, is dense and detailed, and speaks of a class and world that many will only ever see from a distance, if at all. But Greer buoys the prose so beautifully, it’s difficult to not recommend, anyway. If you’re looking for an amusing examination of befuddled middle age, Less will give you that—and a little more.

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Book review: Surviving Death

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect a lot of people will have one of two reactions on reading this book. They’ll either roll their eyes and put it down, dismissing it as a bunch of non-scientific hooey, or they’ll allow themselves to admit that definitive evidence may be ever-elusive, but that Kean presents a strong set of circumstantial evidence to suggest that consciousness can and does exist outside of the human body, and can therefore exist after death.

Kean breaks the book into sections and devotes chapters to letting direct witnesses or participants tell their stories in their own words, ranging from classic out-of-body experiences. My favorite is a woman in hospital who floated around and outside the building while suffering cardiac arrest, spotting a blue tennis shoe out of sight on a ledge. A medical social worker later looks for and finds the shoe, which precisely matches the description the patient offered. This story is also a good example of the evidence Kean provides. While you can come up with ways the story might be faked–the patient and social worker may have conspired together, the patient may have planted the shoe herself before her hospital stay–they all seem highly implausible, but not quite impossible, always leaving some room for doubt for the skeptical.

Kean devotes further chapters to past life experiences, “actual death” experiences where the patient is clinically dead for a period of time, and a large part of the book to communicating with the dead through mediums and seances. Kean ends up inserting herself into the story after attending several seances in which she believes she is contacted by two spirits, those of her brother and Budd Hopkins, the UFO investigator, with whom she was acquainted. She also sees physical manifestations of objects like human hands forming out of ectoplasm. If it sounds weird, it’s because it is weird.

Kean admits as much while asserting that she always remained analytical, taking notes and doing all she could to establish the events were authentic and happened as she recollected.

The underlying thesis is that there exists two things we can’t really see or even prove. The first is psi energy–the ability to do things like move objects through thought alone (yes, just like Carrie, but with less burning-down-the-high-school), and the second is that each person has a consciousness or what some might call the soul, that resides within our brains and bodies, but is not bound to them, so that when we die, this essence or soul is released and joins others in another dimension that doesn’t quite overlap ours. It’s established that those in this other dimension cannot easily communicate with us, because they exist outside of regular physical space. But the other dimension is very groovy and peaceful and wonderful, and is why virtually everyone having a near-death or out-of-body experience loses their fear of death.

A good part of the book is spent on various observers debating whether the experiences are created by discarnates (spirits) or through the psychic energy of those who report seeing them. It is notable that those having this debate are only arguing between the two possibilities, not that the phenomenon is fake or staged in any way.

The evidence presented is about as good as can be expected and Kean comes down on the side suggesting the evidence points toward survival (life after death) rather than just being projections made by the living. I found few instances where I thought, “Yeah, but…” in the many examples provided, and this is a credit to Kean’s research and thoroughness.

It’s still all very weird, though.

I went into reading Surviving Death with an open mind, and I remain the same after. I can’t say I “believe” as I haven’t seen any of the things Kean documents, but I also can’t deny that any of it might be possible. I’ve long felt that the world we see and the world that is are two vastly different things, that we only understand a small sliver of what we consider reality. I find this intimidating, but also exciting. And in the end (no pun intended–well, maybe a little), the idea that death–something none of us can avoid–is nothing to fear, but rather something to embrace when it comes, is a welcome one, particularly in western culture where death is treated as something terrible. Myself, I want a wake, not a funeral, and if I am still around in some form post-death I would absolutely delight in freaking out any surviving friends by messing with them. In a good-natured way, of course.

I did feel that the final section on mediums and seances could have been trimmed a bit, as the material starts to feel same-y as Kean documents various mediums and episodes, but it’s a minor criticism.

If you are intrigued by the idea of the consciousness surviving outside the living body, and of life only being one part of the human experience, Surviving Death is easy to recommend.

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Book review: Transmission

Transmission

Transmission by Ambrose Ibsen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Transmission is a short, direct, no-filler, no subplot horror story with perfunctory prose that feels more like an initial treatment for something more substantial than a complete work.

It’s perfectly okay as is, but that’s my main issue–it’s just okay. Nearly every aspect of it falls short of its potential. The student protagonists of Kenji and Dylan are sketches and I never really felt much of anything for them. The Vietnam vet Reggie (you are reminded he is a Vietnam vet–for no real reason–so often it almost becomes part of his name) is a generic semi-retired guy who similarly has no life outside the narrow confines of the book’s plot. The characters feel like pieces put into play to be subject to the spooky goings-on.

The plot itself is one I’m a sucker for. As the title suggests, it’s about the transmission of a message from a mysterious woman who somehow gets herself into a World War II documentary and a song by an obscure band. The students and Reggie are compelled to decipher the cryptic message she speaks and from there both spooky and bad things happen.

All this is good and I kept reading to see what would happen, just as any author would hope for, but by the end I was left unsatisfied because the whole experience is a little too straightforward. By eschewing any subplots or supporting characters, by cutting away the rest of these characters’ lives, save for the bare minimum, I felt detached from them, instead of invested. And the transmission and the fallout of the successful deciphering (spoiler!) likewise left me wanting more. It’s all just a little too…little.

This is where really sharp prose could have lifted the entire story, but the prose only does its job, nothing more.

Transmission is not bad by any means, it just seems content to amble along instead of trying to fly.

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Book review: The Inner Runner

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You by Jason R. Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, some background: I’ve been running for ten years (since 2009 if you happen across this review some time after 2019), but I’m a late bloomer, as I was already 44 when I started. I can’t say I regret how fast my run times may have been in my 20s because I never saw them!

I’ve read a few books and lots of articles on running. When I began, I researched shoes and other running gear and am glad I did. I still cringe when I see other joggers on the trail in the middle of summer wearing sweat-drenched cotton t-shirts.

I came into The Inner Runner not as a neophyte, then, but as someone who has been running less lately due to knee and other issues. I felt like I was losing some of my mojo, so I figured this book might provide some inspiration. And while its fine for what it is, it didn’t really inspire me at all. Going for a run around the lake got me fired up again, though, and one of the mantras Karp repeats throughout The Inner Runner is to just run. So in that sense, maybe it has helped.

There are some nice success stories and anecdotes here about the running experience, but Karp seems at times confused about the audience. At times it feels like he is giving advice for the wayward runner, and at others it seems like he is trying more to entice newbies into the running life. I don’t think you can effectively pitch a book at both audiences, as their needs and motivations are going to be different.

Karp wears his biases openly–he prefers short, fast runs over longer, endurance-focused efforts, and he is a big believer in running being something that can undeniably make someone’s life better, through the discipline, focus and dedication it requires. He lists many benefits, such as how it is one of the most effective exercises for losing weight, but doesn’t shy away from potential downsides–leg and foot injuries being the prime examples.

I did have an issue with Karp’s repeated use of “pain” being a necessary part in improving your performance. Pain is not good, pain is your body telling you that you’re pushing too hard and should stop. Pushing through pain is not noble or brave, it’s dumb and greatly increases the chance for injury. Sometimes Karp uses the term “discomfort” instead and I actually believe this is what he really means most of the time, but word choice matters and I’d hate to have anyone read this book and come away thinking that if they aren’t hurting while they run that they are doing something wrong.

Overall, this isn’t a bad book. It has a lot of interesting background on the body science of running–Karp is quite knowledgeable on the subject, but it’s perhaps too long and lacking in focus.

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Book review: Flight or Fright

Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales

Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with most anthologies, this collection is filled with stories that are mostly fine, a few that are great and some that are merely okay. That Bev Vincent managed to collect enough stories based around a specific theme–terrible things happening on aircraft, makes the overall quality noteworthy.

All but two of the stories have been previously published, but given the narrow focus of the collection, it’s likely you will not have read many of them. Here’s a short summary of each. Overall I can recommend this collection to fans of horror or suspense. And if you read these stories while flying, I salute you.

“Cargo” by E. Michael Lewis is an effectively creepy opener in which a Loadmaster onboard a Lockheed C-141A StarLifter transport must deal oversee dozens of coffins being sent back to the U.S., straight from the Jonestown massacre. Things go bump in the plane.

“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle. This story has been scuppered by the inevitable march of progress in air flight (not to mention space travel), but it’s still a nifty epistolary of a pilot who dares to fly his solo aircraft into the unheard of reaches of 40,000 feet, where strange and hostile creatures are rumored to dwell.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson. This is easily the best-known story of the anthology, and if you’ve seen the classic Twilight zone episode, which Matheson also adapted, you’ll find it is largely faithful to the original story of a man convinced he is seeing a creature on the plane’s wing, trying to tamper with the engine. Chilling, suspenseful and an all-around good time.

“The Flying Machine” by Ambrose Bierce. An odd short short more about procuring investment from gullible types than flying (Bierce died in 1914).

“Lucifer!” by E.C. Tubb. A morgue attendant pries the ring off a dead body before it is claimed. He discovers the ring has certain unique qualities while abroad a flight and from there a devious mix of time travel and terror unfolds.

“The Fifth Category” by Thomas Carlisle Bissell. A man who worked for the U.S. government during the Iraq invasion, writing legal opinions on torture, earns himself a reputation for being a war criminal by some. He agrees to give a speech, with others, in Lithuania, then on the flight home, strange things happen that seem to relate to his defense of torture. This dark tale is wonderfully written, with prose that snaps and sparkles.

“Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” by Dan Simmons. A shorter piece in which a man feeling guilty of what he has done with his life, decides to do something about it while in a private jet full of executives. This one didn’t grab me and the rollercoaster analogy fell flat.

“Diablitos” by Cody Goodfellow. Ryan Rayburn III tries to smuggle a mask from a now-extinguished primitive people known as the Xorocua onboard a 727. The mask was worn in harvest ceremonies to summon Diablitos, or little demons. You know how you shouldn’t steal uranium with your bare hands? This story is kind of like that. And it is delightful.

“Air Raid” by John Varley. This is a weird time travel story taking place on a commercial flight in 1979 (the story was written in 1977) and I can’t really say much without spoiling it, but it’s a neat idea, filled with quirks and people just doing their jobs, however strange their jobs may be. Another good one.

“You Are Released” by Joe Hill. This story os one of two originals written for the collection and is my favorite. It’s a simple story–a group of passengers on a 777 are returning to Boston when the pilot announces a report of a flash near Guam. Details emerge that it may be a nuclear strike, and the various characters–an actress, an alcoholic, a MAGA adherent and others–begin to realize that a full-on nuclear exchange is likely taking place as they cruise 30,000 feet above what could be the start of the end of human civilization. Harrowing and authentic.

“Warbirds” by David J. Schow. An old flyer from World War II tells the son of a fellow flyer, now deceased, about the warbirds, strange creatures that he swears flew with them through their battles in the sky. This one has a haunting quality to it I liked.

“The Flying Machine” by Ray Bradbury. A short and dark tale sent in China in AD 400, in which the servant of Emperor Yuan spots a man impossibly flying, using some kind of contraption he has apparently built himself. The emperor, fearing what might happen if flight became more common–and the great defense of The Great Wall was trivialized–orders the flier executed, and swears the servant to the same, hoping to prevent anyone else from inventing another flying machine and using it for dark purposes. Well, we all know how that turned out. :P Bradbury writes well, as always, but the lesson here felt a little too on-point.

“Zombies on a Plane” by Bev Vincent. This is a short, slight tale about a group of survivors amid a zombie apocalypse trying to escape dodge on a small passenger jet. A twist ending of sorts and there are zombies, as promised in the title. A decent take, but nothing revelatory.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” by Roald Dahl. I adored this story, not just for the language, but also for the sheer earnestness of WWII pilot Fin, describing to his baffled comrades how he came back two days after a surveillance mission, long after his plane would have run out of fuel. Published near the end of the war, it brims with authentic detail as Fin depicts his trip into the light.

“Murder in the Air” by Peter Tremayne. A straight-up murder mystery on a commercial flight, with suspects, an investigation, the explanation and everything neatly wrapped up by the end, including, presumably, the body. Despite the gore surrounding the deceased, this is probably the closet the collection gets to high brow. There’s Latin and all that. I enjoyed it, though murder mysteries aren’t really my thing.

“The Turbulence Expert” by Stephen King. The other original story, this story hints at people who can see the future and conscript others to avoid worst case scenarios–in this case, potentially fatal clear air turbulence on commercial airliners. It’s fun and the characters are smart and witty and engaging. My one nit is the Mary Worth character (literally named Mary Worth) seems a little too quick on the uptake, given the oddities she is presented with.

“Falling” by James L. Dickey. Stephen King introduces this with, “Before you groan, shake your head, and say ‘I don’t read poetry,'” which is exactly where I stopped. It may be a dazzling poem and perhaps I will go back and read it one day. But not now.

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Book review: Dead Shift

Dead Shift

Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fast-moving and witty romp that starts with a cancer-riddled old man completing the proverbial deal with the devil shortly after being brought into Northcote Hospital. He summons Terrible Things, gets his just reward (not so good), then leaves the hospital staff to deal with the cosmic horrors he’s invited to our dimension.

Complete with a literal shout out to Lovecraft, Dead Shift is full of gruesomely gory scenes and characters both smart and sarcastic. They take the whole “world transforming into some unspeakable place” thing well, considering.

The story zips by quickly and though the climax is predictable, the journey getting to it is entertaining as the three central characters–a doctor, a pathologist and a staff nurse–team together to undo what the old man has done, showing resolve, ingenuity and that ineffably dry British wit along the way.

The only reason I rate the novel three starts instead of four (come on, Goodreads, add half stars already) is I felt there was an unnecessary tonal shift in the final scene. It is rather humorlessly grim, unlike all that came before it, and feels designed more to show off a shock/twist ending. As such, it left me disappointed, because the twist is trite and doesn’t earn the abrupt shift in tone.

Everything before is a spiffy take on the ever-growing library of Lovecraftian fiction. If you like yours with a dash of sarcasm and a handful of sensible characters that don’t behave stupidly to advance the plot, Dead Shift is recommended.

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Book review: Astounding!

Astounding!

Astounding! by Kim Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another short, breezy read. The elevator pitch might be “Road trip with my secret alien lover.”

Astounding! tells the story of Carter Evans, the editor of a high quality but money-losing speculative fiction magazine called Astounding! As he prepares the final issue, he drowns his sorrow in booze and meaningless sex with strangers. As opposed to meaningful sex with strangers, I suppose. While more than a little drunk, he writes a personal rejection letter to John Harper, a guy who sends terrible stories to the magazine every month, pleading that they be published. Carter doesn’t intend to send the letter, as it’s quite nasty, but being drunk and all that, off it goes.

He impulsively decides to apologize in person by driving from Seattle to Portland, where he finds John living in a small duplex. John looks like Tab Hunter, and all his furniture and belongings have a similarly vintage style. After the apology is accepted, John invites Carter to spend the night–on the couch–because the drive back to Seattle is long and it’s late. Carter agrees because he finds John super-hot. When they accidentally bump into each other in the narrow hallway as each prepares for bed the inevitable happens, then happens a few more times after that.

The story kicks into high gear when Carter’s friend, Freddie, an author of a Game of Thrones-style bestselling series, convinces Carter to join him and his partner on a RV trip to Yosemite. Carter impulsively gets them to stop in Portland, where they pick up John.

John is very polite and shy and charms everyone and is an alien in disguise. He wanted his stories published to serve as a beacon to his people-electrical beings without bodies–that he was ready to return home after a kind of fact-finding mission.

John and Carter (get it?) fall head over tentacles in love (kidding, there are no tentacles, though they get a mention), and this is complicated by John’s inevitable return home when that last issue of Astounding! hits the newsstands and his alien cohorts arrive to fetch him.

From here there are shenanigans, most of them occurring on the trip in the RV. The heart of the story feels almost like the travelogue of a good friend, recounting activities and meals, doing touristy things, braving the great outdoors where cellphones lose reception, all minus the boring slides (or posts to social media) you are forced to endure.

The arc of the story is predictable, but it’s presented so pleasantly and with such warmth that it feels like snuggling up with whatever favorite thing it is that comforts you. Most of the conflict is of the “breaking hearts” variety, Carter grows as a person, John grows as an alien-inside-a-fake-person and it’s all just kind of sweet.

I did find the ending a bit odd. Without going into spoilers, Carter recalls how he and Freddie define a “pancake part” in a story. It’s a scene that comes after the climax and denouement, being both unnecessary and making the story too long. And the final scene of Astounding! feels exactly like that. Still, it doesn’t detract much from what precedes it.

As expected in a story like this, the science is not exactly rigorous, bending to the needs of the plot, but there is a simple joy in watching a couple fall in love and remain smitten, affected only by external forces that seek to separate them. This is essentially light, romantic fluff with a science fiction twist, so if you’re up for that (with the requisite sex scenes, presented in semi-explicit detail), Astounding! may charm.

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