Intraterrestrial book kindle sci-fi brain injury aliens candle science fiction Nicholas Conley Misti Pyles

Here come the Intraterrestrial reviews!

The ebook edition of Intraterrestrial has been out for a few weeks now—though the paperback is still coming soon—and the reviews are starting to roll in. Here are some highlights!

“Creatively mingling reality and science fiction, Nicholas Conley crafts a mind boggling, intense story. It left me soul searching, a little heart broken, and overwhelmingly in awe of the way he weaves not only Adam’s story but that of his mother, Camille.”

– Shelley, Nerd Girl Official

 

“Intraterrestrial deals with some heavy topics: brain injury, bullying, and finding your place in the world when you’re different than everyone else.”

– Misti Pyles, My Trending Stories

 

“There is some Descartes-ian philosophy thrown in here too, which is always fun.”

– Sean, ReadWorldBooks

 

“This is a very good story. It has several tough issues that are discussed and will make you think about if you were in the same situation.”

– Jessica Bronder, JBronder Book Reviews

 

“The scenes with Adam’s mother Camille should have seemed boring and dull in comparison to Adam’s journey. On the contrary, her character arc and voice were just as engrossing. The ending to both character’s journeys tied up neatly, but still packed a satisfying emotional wallop.”

J.L. Gribble

 

“This book reminded me of my childhood. I grew up behind a gas station. My playground was a shed in the back of the station. It was used for car parts, old radios and such. With my spacecraft set up, I blasted into outer space.”

– Randy Tramp 

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Pale Highway: Links, Reviews and More!

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Greetings, everyone!  It’s now been a week since the ebook edition of Pale Highway was released on Amazon, and the ensuing whirlwind of activity has been a lot of fun.  So far, Pale Highway has climbed up in the Amazon Kindle Store to a rank of #12 in the “Alzheimer’s Disease” section.  Since then it’s slunk back down, but with an upcoming blog tour in November, reviews starting to come in, and the print release still a month away, I look forward to seeing it bounce back up there again soon!

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Reviews are starting to appear on both Amazon and Goodreads.  On Examiner.com, Misti Pyles writes the following:

“Pale Highway is a fast-paced ride into the mind of a man struggling against one of the most horrible diseases on the planet. Gabriel’s past is told in flashbacks to his youthful brilliance that contrast sharply with his Alzheimer’s symptoms. The enclosed world of the nursing home is his reality, and the other residents are vibrant characters who don’t understand Gabriel, or his struggles to save them. Even Gabriel doesn’t fully understand himself, but he wants to. Pale Highway brings his struggles for survival along with his fierce desire to hold off his symptoms long enough to save everyone around him to brilliant, beautiful life.”

 – Misti Pyles, Examiner.com

Also on Examiner, I was recently interviewed by John Valerie.  In the interview, we discuss Pale Highway, Alzheimer’s, and my inspiration behind the novel:

Hartford Books Examiner: “Pale Highway” is a sci-fi novel that holds cross-genre appeal. Who do you envision as the book’s audience — and in what ways can such broad appeal both help and hinder marketing?

Nicholas Conley: I feel that the audience for this kind of story is diverse, as the subject of Alzheimer’s is something that impacts an enormous number of people. Since I started writing about Alzheimer’s, I’ve been astonished by just how many people have passionately written to me, to tell me their story, to talk about how Alzheimer’s has changed their lives in one way or another: people with Alzheimer’s, their family members, caregivers, healthcare professionals. And at the same time, while witnessing such a genuine response, it’s then rather shocking to watch how just little attention our popular media gives to people with Alzheimer’s. The media generally looks away from dementia, jokes about it or makes it into a minor subplot, when it’s a condition that’s fully worthy of being front and center.

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Believe it or not, but there’s still more! On SFFWorld.com, I wrote a guest post where I discuss the value of speculative fiction, and why the battle between it and literary fiction should be put to a rest. To check it out, follow this link: The Value of Speculative Fiction

There’s this strange idea that literary fiction and speculative fiction are in fierce opposition to each other, but in reality, both forms of literature are nothing but different techniques in which to tell a story. There’s this even stranger idea that speculative fiction—call it genre fiction, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, you get the gist—is somehow “lesser” than literary fiction, and thus that it must be looked down upon, and put on a lower shelf. This attitude leads to bizarre developments, such as how Kurt Vonnegut—who is clearly a science fiction author, considering all his writings about Tralfamadorians, timequakes, and more—is not generally regarded by the literary establishment as a writer of science fiction, mainly because the cultural importance of his work means that if they were to admit such a thing, they would also have to acknowledge that sci-fi can be just as significant as literary fiction.

In addition, we still haven’t discussed the upcoming blog tour in November. Pale Highway‘s tour will be hosted by Sage’s Blog Tours, and so far is set to include reviews from such excellent blogs as Book to the Future, Stalking Shelves and Big Al’s Books and Pals.  For more information on the Pale Highway tour (or contact details for any bloggers who might be interested in joining up!) check it out over at Sage’s Blog Tours.

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More updates coming soon! Cheers to all of you who’ve been here since the early days of Writings, Readings and Coffee Addictions, and also to the many others who have joined up along the way. If it were possible for me to send all of you a digital cup of celebratory coffee, I would.

Pale Highway on Amazon

Goodreads

Finding the Radius of Dave Eggers’ THE CIRCLE

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Instagram. Snapchat. Facebook. Twitter. Ello. MySpace. Text messaging. Google. Skype. Social networking has become a daily part of life. It’s an easy way to keep in touch. A fun way to present oneself to the world. A marketing opportunity. But as social networks become more and more integrated into society, mankind finds itself standing on the edge of a cliff; what happens if and when social networking is transformed from a fun, leisurely hobby into a stressful requirement?

In 1984, George Orwell presented a world wherein starved, languishing human beings were battered down and forced to surrender their right to privacy, under the threat of a heavy boot. Humans became like cattle, constantly under the surveillance of a looming telescreen and the threat of corrective torture.

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Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2103, presents an equally terrifying idea: that humans won’t be forced to surrender their right to privacy, but will instead do it willingly, and with open arms.

The Circle is the story of Mae, the new employee of the Circle, the biggest technological corporation in the world. The Circle, in this science fiction timeline, replaced Facebook, Twitter and other social networks by consolidation and transparency; it combined all of the users internet accounts into one, requiring verification of that users identity by the use of his or her real name, social security number and other personal information. When Mae first begins work at the Circle, the glorious campus she works at is blissfully utopian, and while it never becomes any less utopian, the reader slowly discovers the dark side of paradise. This isn’t a dark, dirty dystopia, where society is downtrodden and poor; the society of the Circle is everything it sets out to be, fully capable of solving every problem that society has ever faced, with only one major cost:

Privacy.

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Because when privacy is taken away, no crimes will be committed. Without privacy, people won’t drink too much, won’t pick up bad habits, won’t do anything that they wouldn’t want everyone else in the world to see them do.

That’s the most horrifying aspect of Eggers’ novel, when it comes down to it. Not just how relevant it is—and it is very relevant, in this new digital age—but that it truly, gutturally shows the deepest flaw in the utopian dream. Eggers isn’t content to simply find cracks in the idea of a utopia.  Instead, he shows how the entire concept is inherently destructive to everything it means to be a human being.

The Circle depicts a world wherein people voluntarily put all of their personal information out there, publicly, while managing an increasingly enormous array of social networking connections—and as a result, these same people become increasingly paranoid, uber-sensitive and emotionally vacuous. What makes The Circle so terrifying is how realistic it feels, how easy it is to imagine an entire civilization surrendering itself to a technological monopoly.

The Circle is the sort of novel so disturbing that it makes it hard to sleep at night. Eggers cuts right to the heart of contemporary society, removes it from our collective chest—bloody, wet and throbbing—and forces us to look inward again, to find the true, private identity inside ourselves, instead of constantly stabbing outward for fake, shallow forms of happiness.

KIN, by Kealan Patrick Burke: The Story After the Story

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With some degree of variation, almost every slasher movie ends with the same scene.  It’s a scene that we’re all too familiar with.  A climactic moment that has been permanently etched upon our collective subconscious.  It’s a a common trope, a sequence that has become so familiar that even those who’ve never watched a horror movie know this scene by heart:

Once the carnage is done and all of her friends have been killed, the lone survivor – always a girl, usually a virgin, usually covered in blood and either sobbing or desensitized – stumbles away from the defeated killers, and she finally escapes from the horrific place she’s been trapped in.

That’s how all slasher stories end. It’s how they always end.  The basic formula has varied little since Tobe Hooper’s classic ending to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and one of the more recent movies in that franchise – the 2006 prequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – pulled out a surprise ending by deliberately subverting the audience’s familiarity with this famous sequence.  Still, for the most part, slasher movies tend to follow a pretty steady formula.  Sure, sequels happen, but these sequels will usually repeat the same formula with little connection to the prior entry, and usually with a brand new cast of teenagers for the killer/s to slaughter.  Lather with blood, rinse, repeat.

There’s a lot to recommend about Kealan Patrick Burke’s excellent 2012 novel, Kin.  It’s terrifying, moving and uniquely put together, with masterfully-worded prose and a storyline that absorbs the reader’s full attention like a sponge.  But the immediate thing that sets Kin apart, from the very beginning of its opening paragraph, is its take on the famous bloody girl running away sequence.

Unlike most slasher films, which end on this sequence, Kin makes the intriguing choice of setting that sequence at the very beginning. 

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Burke’s novel opens up with Claire Lambert, the only survivor of her friends, who after being tortured by the Merrills – a psychopath family with cannibalistic tendencies, ala Texas Chainsaw‘s Sawyers – escapes from their clutches half-dead, naked and bloody. She stumbles into the road, where she is picked up by a boy and his father – a father all too aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of his actions, but unable not to help. Now, tensions are ramped up. The Merrills know they have to get out of town fast, but first they have to quickly kill anyone who could testify against them.

As all of this goes on, Kin also introduces two parallel storylines that eventually tie into the main narrative. In one, a waitress with a dark past is brought back to her old life by an unexpected visitor. At the same time, a soldier—fresh out of Iraq and plagued by PTSD—finds out this brother was one of the victims of the massacre that Claire escaped from, and he readies himself to engage in a vengeful war against the Merrill family.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kin begins where other stories end—after the slaughter, after the war, after the pain has already been inflicted—and it tackles the questions that any such violent incident would undoubtedly raise.

Seriously, what happens after the girl gets away from the psychopaths? What happens to the homicidal, cannibalistic family that accidentally let her escape, now that she’s surely going to tell the cops? What happens to the girl, who would have to be pretty damn traumatized by this point? What happens to her family, who now has to take care of her? And what happens to the innocent people who picked her up and saved her? If the family wants to get rid of all the evidence, are the father and son also at risk?

By asking these questions and placing this post-slasher scenario inside what is essentially a Southern Gothic novel, Kin brings new depth to a tired genre. It shakes up the format, explores characters that could’ve been stereotypes, and brings a full scope of emotions to the proceedings; yes, this novel is scary and yes, it’s violent, but it’s also a novel that isn’t afraid to create characters that the reader deeply cares about. It’s a book that can both grab your heartstrings and then rip them out in the next moment.

At its core, Burke’s Kin is a novel about the pain, stress, anxiety and devastating grief that follows a traumatic event. It shows what happens after the scars are inflicted, and how the pain of trauma has a residual effect that trickles down through one’s life and impacts one’s loved ones. Every violent action has consequences, and Kin pulls back the curtain on the aftermath.

A slice of Aronofsky’s “Pi”

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Truth is a complicated, abstract idea, and truth seekers come in all forms. Some search for truth in religion. Others do it through art. Some seek to find the truth within numbers.

Max Cohen, the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s debut film, Pi, is a man of the latter category. “One, mathematics is the language of nature,” he states. “Two, everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.” Despite the urgings of his mentor, Sol, Max is a man driven by a quest for meaning – a man driven to the point of obsession, obsession with the very numbers he seeks the answer from, obsession that leads to hallucinations, paranoia and, by the startling conclusion of the film, a complete mental breakdown.

Pi is a dark, intelligent psychological thriller, with a tone and style somewhere between David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. It’s a daring film that asks a profound question. A question that has haunted men for millennia, and that we may never find an easy answer to:

Is there meaning in life, nature and the universe—a pattern that brings it all together, perhaps? Or is everything simply chaos?

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Pi , like much of Aronofsky’s work (including the recent Noah) is an intense examination of a man’s search for God. It’s about a quest for truth. And like many similar quests in fiction – from Victor Frankenstein’s monster to Johnny Truant’s book obsession in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – the road that Max goes on is one fraught with deadly ramifications upon his psychological state, finally leading to a shocking ending that’s not easily forgotten.

Though Aronofsky has directed many films since 1998, Pi remains– to me, at least – his most fascinating work.

 

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The True “Hero” of Breaking Bad

Before we begin:

WARNING, THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE BREAKING BAD FINALE.  YOU ARE NOW WARNED!

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 Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what, 60? He’s just gonna break bad?

– Jesse Pinkman

If there’s one thing that last Sunday’s epic Breaking Bad finale, Felina, demonstrated, it was that—from the beginning to the end, from the start to the finish, the plunge to the crash—Breaking Bad was a Greek tragedy about a man named Walter White, as he went from Mr. Chips to Scarface, repressed high school chemistry teacher “Mr. White” to commanding drug kingpin “Heisenberg.”  In the end, Walter’s story finally comes full circle; he returns “back from the dead,” moving through the landscape like a ghost, tying up all of the loose ends that his reign of terror left behind.

But even though Walter has always been our protagonist, our eyes and ears into the New Mexico underworld—he isn’t our hero.  How could he be?  While we might understand Walter’s dilemma, and at times we might even relate to his suffering—the suffering of a brilliant, ambitious scientist who, after being trapped in domestic life for over a decade, breaks out as a terrifying force to be reckoned with—as the last few seasons have gone by, we’ve slowly lost the ability to sympathize with him much anymore.  The Walter White of Breaking Bad’s fifth season has become a reprehensible monster.   A sick, depraved, megalomaniac who long ago sold his soul to Mephistopheles in blue crystals, through countless murders, explosions, catastrophes and finally the poisoning of a child.

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No, by the end, Walt truly has become an irredeemable character.  But even when the narrative of Breaking Bad reaches its lowest point—even as it plunges into the total blackness of immorality that the characters once tried so far to avoid—there’s always been one character who doesn’t quite fall into the abyss.  One character who, through all of his suffering, horrifying mistakes, immoral decisions and brutal hardships, we never quite gave up on.

That character, of course, is Jesse Pinkman.  And it’s the closing of Jesse Pinkman’s story arc that, in many ways, is what makes Breaking Bad’s finale so tremendous, so perfect—because even though Breaking Bad was always the story of Walter White’s corruption, it’s also been the story about the sufferings of a troubled kid who was never given a chance to live.

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When you think of it, he didn’t really have a chance in the early days. Walt said, ‘You either help me cook meth and sell it, or else I’ll turn you in to the DEA.’ So this poor kid, based on a couple of really bad decisions he made early on, has been paying through the nose spiritually and physically and mentally and emotionally.

– Vince Gilligan

Now, don’t get me wrong; Jesse is hardly an angelic character.  For one, he’s a meth dealer.  A meth dealer who, at one point, goes so far as to attend a support group just for the purpose of selling meth to former addicts.  Throughout the course of the series, Jesse does some pretty disgusting, terrible things—but unlike Walt, who continually justifies his actions with excuses about “family,” Jesse actually feels guilt.  He recognizes the horrible things he’s done instead of blaming them on circumstance (or making excuses about family), and he desperately tries to repent for his dirty actions.

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It’s interesting to watch the two characters evolve, side by side.  At the beginning of the series, the audience isn’t given many reasons to like Jesse.  He comes across as a druggie burnout, a loser, a wannabe gangster without many morals, a street kid who probably came from a difficult, abusive family.  The contrast between him and Walt is immediately apparent; Walt, other than his drug dealing ambitions, is very much a “by the book” sort of figure, the kind of guy who, after accidentally hitting a traffic cone, will make a point to get up and put it back in place.

Well, in the pilot, I thought he was just this black-and-white character, this lost kid without any hope, really. But as the scripts were revealed, there were more and more layers that were also revealed for me: He didn’t come from a battered home. He came from a middle-class home with good morals, but I think maybe a little bit too much pressure on him. But when you meet the family, it just really showed that he had a heart. He’s a good kid; he’s just struggling in many different ways. And then obviously throughout the series, he dives deeper into that. He has a huge heart; it just got messed up.

– Aaron Paul

The first time we see that there’s more to Jesse is when we meet his overachieving, proper, middle class family, and see the way they’ve disowned him, rejected him and made him feel like a failure.  And soon, when the masks start to crumble, we see the truth; while Jessie is morally ambiguous in many ways, he is a kid who, when put up against a wall, always tries to do the right thing.  He doesn’t want to kill people, he cares about protecting children, he—other than occasional stints on the dark side—wants to have a better life, but is plagued by the same intense self-loathing, the need to rebel that led him to drugs in the first place.

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Walt, on the other hand, turns out be hardly the paragon of values he initially presents himself as; his ethics exist only on a surface level, largely as a way to conform to society’s boundaries.  Walt is never terribly haunted by the murders he commits.  He develops an exceptional ability to rationalize his crimes, so that, no matter what, he’s always in the right.   Jesse, on the other hand, is tortured by his actions.  He knows what he’s doing wrong, he just doesn’t know how to break away from his seemingly predestined path to failure.

It’s ironic, really, how the initial appearances of these characters deceive us.  Jesse at first appears to be perfectly molded into the drug scene, but in reality, he’s an awkward fit; he’s not someone who is capable of the sort of violence, ambition or ruthlessness that turns a person into a Tuco or a Gus Fring.  He’s actually a fairly harmless and naive jokester, a kid with no hopes in life, a kid who seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd and doesn’t know what else to do.

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Walt, on the other hand, turns out to be a perfect fit.  Beneath the innocent-looking chemistry teacher was always lurking an ambitious overachiever with big dreams, as revealed in the flashback sequence that shows a younger, leather-jacketed Walt and Skylar buying their house.  And when that failed ambition is coupled with a lack of respect, past rejections—namely, the Gray Matter debacle—and the insult known as “lung cancer” is added to his prior injuries, the result is that Walt becomes coldblooded, merciless figure who ruthlessly takes control of New Mexico’s criminal underground, toppling anyone who gets in his way.

While both characters plunge into the dark side, it’s for different reasons.  Walt does it out of ambition, to build an empire, for power.  Jesse’s darkness is caused by guilt—guilt for the death of his girlfriend, the murder of Gail, and so on.  Jesse convinces himself that he’s “the bad guy”—but he never quite accepts this, because he isn’t.  That’s why, even as Walt gets colder and colder, Jesse only gets more and more vulnerable. He’s a good guy, a bright kid with a wounded soul, who just needs the right guidance.

Unfortunately, instead of getting a strong, supportive mentor, he got Heisenberg.

Walter White Breaking Bad

No, Jesse isn’t innocent.  He’s a criminal—but in the end, he’s also far more of a victim than he is a victimizer.  Unlike Walt, Jesse – after making his first set of mistakes – never really got the chance to build a better life or move on from his past.  He didn’t have a family or career to fall back on. He never had a chance to get out of the business and make something of himself.

And truthfully, in the last few episodes of the series, Jesse receives the exact punishment he feels he deserves for his sins.  He is imprisoned, chained up for at least a year and forced to cook meth for neo-Nazis, with no hope of ever escaping.  Jesse pays a heavy price for his actions.  And that’s why, at the end, Jesse is the one who escapes and can begin again—whereas Walt’s fate in Hell is sealed.

But as Jesse drives away, as he escapes from the cage he’s been trapped in since high school…is there hope?

Jesse is a leader who thinks he’s a follower.

Vince Gilligan

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Jesse’s final fate is, as is the case with many  final episodes, deliberately left vague so that the audience can make up their own mind about what happens.  But it seems to me, that as we see Jason driving away, laughing, tears in his eyes—and after seeing the flashback to him making the box, earlier in the episode—that now, after everything Jesse has been through, he’ll finally get to begin again.

Jesse’s done his time in Hell, but unlike Walt, he refuses to be unalterably corrupted; the fact that Jesse doesn’t kill Walt in the end, like so many of us expected him to, is an amazing revelation.   Also, notice the positioning of the characters in this picture, an image that has been making the rounds on Twitter:

breakbad last look jesse

Breaking Bad is a series that, from the beginning, has used highly cinematic imagery, repetition, color coding and cinematography to convey deeper meanings.  The similarity between these two sequences is not a coincidence – and it’s not a minor callback, either.  Sure, it certainly is there to show how tired and haggard both characters have become—it obviously displays how much pain they’ve been through in the last two years, and how roughly they’ve come out of it.  But there’s far more to it than that—and the placement of the characters in this shot is so brilliantly subtle that I still can’t believe how well done it is.  The sequence shown above, from the final episode, is a deliberate mirror image of the sequence from the first episode, with one hugely important difference:

The characters are reversed.

Consider this.  In the sequence from the pilot episode, we have Walter White coming from the foreground, our side of the TV screen – which is where we are, right?—and then Jesse is standing in the back, at a distance.  Why?  Because at this point, Walter is us.  Walter is the good guy, whereas Jesse is a symbol of the dark, criminal future that Walter is being tempted by.  Jesse is on the wrong side of the tracks, Jesse is a drug dealer, and Walter is walking toward him, joining him.

But now, look again at the shot from Felina, the finale.  Notice something?

This time, Walter is on the dark side.  Walter is the bad guy, Walter is the one facing us, openly displaying the monster he’s become.  And now, Jesse—the former drug dealer, the one we originally thought was the bad guy—well, it turns out that Jesse is now on our side.  He’s us.  And unlike Episode 1’s Walter, who was going into the darkness (which was Jesse), this new Jesse that we see in the finale episode is actually escaping from that darkness (which is Walt).

It’s a fantastic twist, really, as well as a brilliant, morally complex statement; the character we rooted for at the beginning has become the villain, and the “druggie burnout” we initially wrote off turned out to be a flawed-yet-decent human being with a moral compass, values, and everything that we originally thought Walter had.

Jesse is the hero—a tortured, sometimes fragile “hero” who has made some pretty bad mistakes, but has paid the price for them, and wants to redeem himself.  Jesse deserves his escape.  He deserves the new life that he can now create for himself out in Alaska, New Zealand or wherever he chooses – because finally, whatever he does now, it’s his choice. 

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Again, compare this to Walter.  While some reviewers believe that Walter has a redemptive arc in the final episode, I find that reasoning rather flimsy; while Walter certainly does make a few redemptive actions—revealing where Hank’s body is, saving Jesse’s life, etc—he clearly doesn’t actually redeem himself, because he doesn’t have any regrets.  Even at the end of his life, Walter refuses to feel regret.

Really, let’s look at this honestly.  Why does Walter come back?

To tie up loose ends.  To get even.

Sure, he finally admits that his actions throughout the series were for him, not his family—but notice how when he admits this, when he says that being Heisenberg made him feel alive…it’s not that he’s regretting his actions, it’s just that he’s not making stupid excuses for them anymore.  He is a man fully conscious of how terrible he is, but he’s also a man who ceased to care about morality a long time ago.  He cares about his loved ones, sure—Jesse included—but moral values?  Ethics?  Doing the right thing?  Walter doesn’t care about that one bit.

And at the end, the very end, when he goes into the meth lab…instead of being filled with regret or pain, instead of mourning over the many lives he’s ruined, he looks at all of the chemistry equipment affectionately, proudly.  He seems to reminiscence on the empire he built.  He’s proud of what he did, and that’s why, as he dies, he dies with a smile on his face—because in the end, Walter proved to be a man who could never, never admit his own failures, not even to himself.  To Walter, pride was everything.

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Walter White is one of the most powerful characters in TV history, with an absolutely incredible performance by Bryan Cranston and a fantastic writing team behind him.  He’s a character that manages to be both likeable and unlikeable, sympathetic and malicious, protagonist and antagonist.  He’s the reason that Breaking Bad is the series it is, and he’s a character that will live on in TV history forever.  But without Jesse – without the flawed moral compass that Jesse came to provide, as the series went on – the series would not have been the same.  The twisted father/son dynamic between these two characters was by far the most important relationship of the series.

Yes, Walter’s downfall was the backbone of Breaking Bad—but Jesse was Breaking Bad’s heart.

-Nicholas Conley

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Stephen King’s Joyland: Not Quite What it Seems

It’d probably be an easier task to name all 196 countries in the world than it would be to name all of the many, many novels written by Stephen King.  Keep in mind, this is the same guy who invented a pseudonym just so he could write more books a year than his publisher allowed.

Seriously, go ahead, name all of them.  Try.

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Still, King’s worldwide popularity is not without good reason; I’ve often said that despite his enormous fame, King is actually immensely underrated as a writer.  All too often, King is stereotyped as “the scary guy” without due credit given to the enormous variety of content within his work, the depth of his themes, and the wonderful uniqueness of his “old campfire story” prose, which casually jumps in and out of timelines, characters and plot lines with the sort of ease that only a master storyteller can pull off.  Yes, King’s horror work is absolutely fantastic—almost any contemporary genre author, myself included, will name King’s horror/suspense work as being a huge inspiration—but to stereotype King as a “horror” author is an injustice to the stunning diversity of his work.

Whether he’s writing about a dark, monolithic nexus of all realities, a virus raging across the country, a haunted pink Kindle or – in his newest novel, Joyland – a touching bildungsroman about a lonely 21-year-old virgin working in an amusement park – Stephen King is nothing if not prolific, and he deserves a hell of a lot more credit for it.  To quote Mr. King himself, in an interview conducted by Neil Gaiman:

“I was down here in the supermarket, and this old woman comes around the corner this old woman – obviously one of the kind of women who says whatever is on her brain. She said, ‘I know who you are, you are the horror writer. I don’t read anything that you do, but I respect your right to do it. I just like things more genuine, like that Shawshank Redemption.’

“And I said, ‘I wrote that’.

And she said, ‘No you didn’t’. And she walked off and went on her way.””

– Stephen King

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Joyland, King’s latest effort, is an example of how even King’s non-horror work is often marketed as such.  Don’t believe the pulpy-looking cover;  while it’s a nice painting, it doesn’t accurately depict the feel of the book.  Yes, there is a serial killer/rapist.  Yes, there is a spooky ghost story to be found.  But no, that’s not what Joyland is really about.

On the contrary, Joyland is a small, self-contained memoir-type story, more similar in nature to tales like Hearts in Atlantis.  While many fans might overlook Joyland, or simply view it as a brief pit stop on their way to King’s next novel – the highly-anticipated Dr. SleepJoyland is a novel well-worth reading.  It’s the sort of book that a writer only writes out of a genuine love for the craft.

So, okay.  If it’s not about a ghost story, what IS Joyland about?

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Joyland is, at its core, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of 1970s North Carolina.  Joyland tells the nostalgic tale of Devin Jones, a likeable, everyman UNH student who takes the train down the east coast to work as a carny in the “Joyland” amusement park, while he slowly nurses his first broken heart.   As Devin dances around the park in a giant dog costume – humorously referred to in the narrative as “wearing the fur” – Devin works out his demons, makes friends with his fellow carnies, and forms a powerful connection with a disabled boy and his mother – a disabled boy who has more to him than meets the eye.

As a current New Hampshire resident who went to high school down in North Carolina, both settings here ring very true—but that’s no surprise, as King has always been very good at establishing his characters in real places.

Anyway, once Devin begins to settle in, he learns that Joyland’s “Horror House” ride is haunted—haunted by the ghost of a young woman who was murdered during the ride, years ago.  The killer has never been found, and Devin makes it his pastime to try to piece together exactly what happened; this casual, almost-playful process gradually becomes far more dangerous, as Devin comes closer and closer to the answers he seeks.

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So yes, mixed in here, we have the requisite ghost/serial killer subplot, which moves the narrative along nicely.  But this ghost story is largely metaphorical; it primarily exists only to paint the picture of Devin’s coming of age.  The novel is written in first person by Devin himself, now middle-aged, as he reminisces on the excitement of his youth, while occasionally pondering on how quickly time can disappear behind a person.   In the midst of all this, King manages to sneak in a couple absolutely fantastic quotes, the kind he’s famous for.

 “I had it all planned out.  Of course, I also had marriage to Wendy Keegan all planned out, and how we’d wait until we were in our thirties to have a couple of kids.  When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap.  It’s only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure.  By the time you’re sixty, take it from me, you’re fucking lost.”

Don’t get me wrong, Joyland is far from being one of King’s best novels; it simply can’t compare to epic masterpieces like The Dark Tower, The Stand and The Dead Zone.  But then again, it’s not trying to.  As far as King’s smaller books go, Joyland is wonderfully well put together.  It knows what it wants to be – a nostalgic bildungsroman – and it succeeds at being that.

Still, there’s more to it than that.  Because even when King does write a smaller story like this one, he can’t help but reach a little bit higher.

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Joyland is more than a fictitious memoir; it uses the memoir format to paint a complete, bittersweet picture of a man’s life—his joys and his sorrows, his peaks and his declines.  Life isn’t simple; frankly, it’s often an incomprehensible mess, but as human beings we do the best we can, and we often succeed.  Good things happen—and so do bad things—but it’s the combination of all these things that make life what it is.  Sometimes, good people do get cancer, kids do die young and people are murdered…but at the same time, people do find love, they do overcome their personal demons and sometimes, people really do find happiness in unexpected places.

It’s a simple message, but a good one, and Joyland conveys it effectively.

-Nicholas Conley

“That room was where I sat up some nights with my stereo turned down low, playing Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, having those occasional thoughts of suicide.  They were sophomoric rather than serious, just the fantasies of an over-imaginative young man with a heart condition…or so I tell myself now, all these years later, but who really knows?

When it comes to the past, EVERYONE writes fiction.”

-Stephen King, Joyland.