Lee Child shorts: “Public Transportation” and “Wet with Rain” (audio)

“Public Transportation” was available from Audible as a standalone short (originally from the collection Phoenix Noir), and “Wet with Rain” comes from Exit Wounds: Nineteen Tales of Mystery from the Modern Masters of Crime. They were, I think, 13 and 28 minutes respectively, give or take. Just a few quick indulgences during a drive to the next county to my local bike shop.

Classic Child, so not much to report here, but in the best ways. “Public Transportation” offers a surprise twist and no serial characters. A cop is talking with a journalist about an old unsolved murder case; we get a fairly quick summary of the crime, the investigation (in hindsight, botched), and the problematic conclusion eventually settled on by the police department. “Wet with Rain” is also Reacher-free, but slightly more involved. We get a little less context, but eventually understand that two Americans with a certain agency have traveled to Ireland to run a secret operation, about which information is doled out slowly and out of order, so that we’re still putting things together even as they happen. Each of these stories represents a sort of puzzle – for the reader and for the players involved. Only one has a quick punch of a surprise; the other is more of a slow burn. And, again, neither involves our hero Reacher. But each serves as a good example of Child’s skill with intrigue, detail, and apparently effortless storytelling (which actually may be the hardest kind), as well as a certain dark side of human nature. I enjoyed both as quick jaunts, and would love to have access to more of the same: quick, punchy stories by authors I know I love. My lifestyle doesn’t support longer audiobooks these days. Look for more podcast reviews to come, I guess…

“Pursuit as Happiness” by Ernest Hemingway

In June of 2020, The New Yorker published a previously unpublished Hemingway short story, “Pursuit as Happiness,” here. “That year we had planned to fish for marlin off the Cuban coast for a month,” it begins. The narrator is a writer named Ernest Hemingway, but the author’s grandson (who unearthed the manuscript) reads it as a work of closely autobiographical fiction, and certainly for Hem the line was well blurred; I am comfortable with this classification.

The New Yorker‘s illustration

Similarities in subject matter with The Old Man and the Sea are obvious, but it’s a very different story in its events. The Hemingway voice is clearly recognizable. This narrator/protagonist/version-of-Hemingway is in search of really big marlin, and he and his friend/charter boat captain, Mr. Josie (whose boat is the Anita, but I think we recognize the Pilar) are doing some fine fishing, but they haven’t found the big ones. They keep extending their trip, even though they’re on credit; Mr. Josie encourages Hemingway to write for a little income. He drinks. They get a truly big fish on the line, but it doesn’t go as it should. Again, you see the parallels, but this is a story of its own.

There is less finality here than in The Old Man and the Sea, more optimism. The other is the more masterful story (and longer), but this one has a lot to offer. Even the title nods at something my fisherman friends say: we call it fishing, not catching; pursuit as happiness. This sanguinity is uncharacteristic for Hemingway, and I’m not surprised he followed Old Man rather than this one. But this one is awfully rewarding, too. And it was (of course) an absolute pleasure to find a new Hemingway story to fall into. Familiar but new.


Rating: 8 fathoms of line.

“Home Habitat Range Niche Territory” by Martha Wells

What I loved most about this short Murderbot story is that it’s the first I’ve read that’s not from Murderbot’s point of view. For the first time, we view our hero through someone else’s eyes: those of Mensah, its friend and sort-of boss (protector? patron? owner?) for most of the series, so hers is a sympathetic, wryly humorous perspective, and loving. It’s the briefest glimpse of events, again: basically an excuse for SecUnit (aka Murderbot) and Mensah to interact, so that the latter can show us the former from a different angle. (It also provides just a hair of perspective on Mensah’s trauma.) Like last Friday’s story, it would serve as a pretty good intro to the series, although it’s more of an outlier. Again, it’s another treat of a small reentry into this world that I so appreciate.

I hope Martha Wells is off writing right now.


Rating: 8 free sessions.

Thanks for bearing with these short stories & reviews, folks – we’ll be back to whole books again soon.

“Drive” by James S. A. Corey

Another short from one of my favorites series, “Drive” briefly profiles an inventor and his invention, which we’ve been aware of as a sort of fact-of-life technology in the rest of The Expanse: here is Solomon Epstein, and his Epstein drive. We meet Solomon en media res, mid-experiment, as his improved drive turns out to work but also threaten his life. In this timeline, he struggles to save himself, while interspliced scenes show how he got here: glimpses of who he was, in particular with the woman who became his wife. It’s awfully moving, actually, a very fine, clipped view of a human with no villain to him (rare in this fictional world). I am again impressed with Corey’s skills, and I can’t wait to find more of this world, the expanse that appears in the final line of this lovely, sad, stand-alone story. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 8 bits of colored glass.

“The Future of Work: Compulsory” by Martha Wells

A very short story, but a satisfying little fix for my need for Murderbot. And actually, this one would make an excellent introduction (and clearly is designed for those unfamiliar with the character, as it economically sums up the needed background in a way that is not at all awkward – no small feat). It’s just a very quick episode, and I think early in SecUnit’s governor-module-free life. It’s still working out how it feels and thinks, because “apparently getting free will after having 93 percent of your behavior controlled for your entire existence will do weird things to your impulse control.” Also, “What’s the hurry? I can always kill the humans after the next series ends.” Which is kind of perfect as an encapsulation: the humor, the darkness, and the entertainment addiction. I love it.

Real quick and easy; think about checking it out here.

“The Butcher of Anderson Station” by James S. A. Corey

Just a quickie here: this short story establishes the history of Fred Johnson, aka the Butcher of Anderson Station, in The Expanse universe. It only makes me want more from this series, of course. The story handles two timelines. In one, Colonel Fred Johnson is ordered to retake the captured Anderson Station, and he does so, making what appears to be the wisest military decision along the way. Then he gets some new information. In a parallel story that takes place later, the OPA’s Anderson Dawes wants to talk about it with Fred. The story cuts back and forth between the two. By the end of this quick installment (36 pages, I’m told, in print – I’ve got an ebook version), we see the Fred Johnson that we’ll meet in the bulk of The Expanse. Dawes is also a recurring character; the rest (those central to the novels) are absent here, but it’s absolutely the story of Johnson himself, so supporting characters are mostly extraneous.

This story has it all: space jargon, tough decisions and moral quandaries, interesting characters and rich world-building. It whets the appetite nicely and I’ll be looking for more Expanse, as ever.


Rating: 8 seams.

Born Into This by Adam Thompson

These cunning, clever, piercing stories of marginalized indigenous Australians are both compelling and illuminating.


Adam Thompson’s Born into This is a striking collection of hard-edged, penetrating stories set primarily in the Australian state of Tasmania and wrestling with issues of race, colonialism and individual agency. Every story features Aboriginal characters, generally in the central role; the various experiences and complexities of this identity (which the author shares) form the heart of the stories’ combined impact. The collection is loosely linked by recurring characters and settings: an act of angry protest at the center of one story reappears as a minor annoyance in another. An island on the Bass Strait is home to a family over generations.

The collection opens with “The Old Tin Mine,” a story about a bitter, aging guide at a “survival camp” for city youth, who may be nearing the end of his career. “Honey” offers a cold, brutal, satisfying justice in the face of hate. In “Aboriginal Alcatraz,” a man wrestles with a life-changing decision in the midst of a storm, building to an ironic conclusion. Some stories lead with forceful blows, others sneak in to nag at the back of the reader’s mind: an alcoholic recalls the worst thing he’s ever done; a young man views a current love affair with cynicism. In the title story, a young woman fights an inherited losing battle involving eucalyptus plants. Working in the woods “was like looking into a mirror.” In “The Blackfellas from Here,” a young activist proposes an extreme and perhaps unrealistic, but also perfectly reasonable, resolution to a controversy. These punchy tales question family ties, infidelity, superstition and who has the right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

Thompson’s characters are stoic, taciturn, often blue-collar. They struggle with racism, exploitative economic systems, class tensions and the disappearing natural world that a culture once depended on. Their reactions to these challenges range from rage to lethargy; their stark stories are frequently, quietly, brutal. The lives and attitudes of these characters vary, offering a revealing set of perspectives on the contemporary landscape. It is not all bleak: Born into This contains as well dark humor and even slim strands of hope. Thompson’s prose style appears blunt at first glance but shows nuance. His 16 stories are unyielding in terms of their values, yet somehow deft, even delicate in their storytelling and various voices. The overall effect is understated: simple, unglamorous lives and events crescendo toward a thought-provoking and memorable whole. Even (or especially) in its quietest moments, this is a haunting debut collection by a skilled writer.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 eucalypts.

“The Christmas Scorpion” by Lee Child

Very short review for a very short story – I love that I can use my local library to catch up on all the little Reacher snippets I may have missed! This one took just a few minutes to read. Reacher heads south for the winter, by habit, because he doesn’t like the cold. But he finds himself outside Barstow, California in a freak blizzard, and then is quickly sucked into a plot involving a foreign dignitary and a mysterious would-be assassin. It’s a fun Reacher-style puzzle, with building tension and a whodunit, but actual violence is minimal.

Despite the title, this is not a Christmas-themed story, although there is snow.

The short format doesn’t leave room for much development of Reacher or the other players, so I think this one reads best for preexisting fans who know the background – not a great entry point for newcomers, because there’s not enough background. (Short stories are hard. This one relies on the rest of Child’s body of work.) But as a quick hit for the fans? I loved it.


Rating: 7 shadows.

Original Short Stories, volume 1 by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve reviewed a few stories from this volume in the past, but only after years have I finished reading the whole thing. It’s odd to know Maupassant as a literary figure but to have read so little of him. (I taught his story “The Necklace” this past year, but otherwise, these collected stories are the bulk of what I know of his work.) As a general impression, I appreciate his knack for description, and I see what Hemingway admired* and learned from**. The simple, strong statements, including judgments couched as description, felt familiar. I frequently found the stories to be vicious, though, and often rather gratuitously so. Sometimes this brutality felt like justice (“Mademoiselle Fifi”), but often it felt a little senseless. I frequently missed the final ironic turn for which “The Necklace” is so known.

The first four stories I’ve reviewed here pleased me more than the final eight; or maybe it’s that they began to run together. They certainly share subject matter as well as style. Maybe it’s not the moment for Maupassant in my life, or maybe I’ll keep my eyes open for a different collection.


*Hem’s recommendation is actually to read “all the good de Maupassant.” Whatever that means.

**He also thinks he surpassed Maupassant in the end, so there you are.


Rating: 6 expensive oil paintings.

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories by Lee Child

All the Reacher short stories! I thought I could take this one in chunks, but no: I stayed up later than I should have to rush through the whole thing, as per usual. I loved it.

I’d read “Second Son” before, but I was glad at another chance. It’s definitely one of those that requires a suspension of disbelief, as Reacher at (I think) thirteen is just a slightly smaller version of himself: badass, a fighter, and very clever. He solves two mysteries for the MPs, which seems a bit unrealistic, although also an excellent backstory for a later MP.

I’d also read “Small Wars,” but I doubted my memory of the ending, which made it fun again. There is an element almost of a Poirot-style detective in Reacher’s intuition, his ability to take scattered facts and build a whole story out of them.

Some of these stories star Reacher in adulthood, in his post-military rambling stage, which is when most of the novels are also set, and some see him still in the Army. But we also have several instances of teenaged Reacher. These are fun for me, although they make that mistake, as mentioned above, of treating younger Reacher as a miniature (still very large) version of adult Reacher. Whatever; it’s a departure from realism, but the Reacher corpus is not about hyper-realism. “Everyone Talks” is told from the first-person perspective of a character who’s not Reacher, and according to my memory, that’s unique. I appreciated the variety, being a bit outside his own perspective. By contrast with longer stories of 40+ pages (“High Heat” runs over 70), some of these stories are very short, almost vignettes, and might serve as character studies of Reacher himself: what does a guy like this do in a particular situation, that sort of thing. He’s a problem solver, he’s a hero, he’s an eccentric, he does the right thing. He’s a romantic, and a sexual creature, and he uses his fists, but with a code.

As a collection, I think No Middle Name is an excellent addition to the Reacher world, satisfying fans’ desires both for plot, storytelling, and action, and the Reacher character himself. (Also the odd romance or sex, which I think is a well-established if secondary element.) Longer, more involved stories come earlier in the collection; it wraps with several shorter ones. The final story, “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” (reference to the Hopper painting), felt like the perfect closer. Again, I thought short stories might help me take smaller sips of the fiction I love, but I ended up binging as usual, so consider that a warning of sorts. Possibly a good entry point for a curious reader. Certainly, a great read for the established fan.


Rating: 8 lines of adult dialog.
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