Category: Reviews

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries ^ Jack Trout3 out of 5 stars

Billed as essential reading for any marketer, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout is a quick read. It has quite a bit more substance than the Buzzfeed-esque listicle tone the title evokes now. While it’s over a decade old, the principles still hold true, though some feel like they could use refresh. Especially given the fact that the internet has created more room for innovation and successful companies to carve out a niche.

Which, in a way, this book successfully predicted. Law number 1 is if you’re not first, you’ve got quite a bit of work to do. If possible, you should always strive to create your own category. Instead of computers, go for laptops. Instead of laptops, go for netbooks, etc. etc. What this book may have predicted is how many people have become hyper-successful at carving out niches on the internet.

Several of the examples are dated, but most are still relevant today. For the everyday marketer at a big company, it may be a challenge to make some of the advice in this book actionable, given how slowly many large organizations change. But entrepreneurs and those with more power in massive organizations will likely find lots to sink their teeth into and apply right to their everyday careers.

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Super Better by Jane McGonigal

Super Better by Jane McGonigal5 out of 5 stars

I picked up this book after listening to her interview with Tim Ferris, which was sort of a reintroduction to her work. Back in 2011 she made a splash with Reality is Broken and gameification, but after that I’d lost track of her. Turns out she’d suffered a concussion and spent over a year overcoming debilitating symptoms and suicidal thoughts using a game as motivation.

Super Better is the refinement of that game, and over 400,000 people have played it to help deal with cancer treatments, depression, personal improvement and a whole host of different things.

The first portion of the book is the science behind the system. But instead of spending her time writing about her research, she delves into all the science done before Super Better. Then she validates the work of other scientists and pushes the realm of theory into actual practice with her own study. At the end of three chapters, you should be sold on the real impacts a gameful mindset can have on whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

The second portion of the book is a walkthrough for designing your own Super Better Since the system can be used to improve and be more resilient for anything, it’s less about solving a specific problem. It’s about helping you solve your problem. At the end of the book, you’ll have a goal, bad guys to fight, an epic avatar, allies, quests to complete, power ups, and hopefully a whole new outlook on the challenge you’re trying to overcome.

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Midwestern Gothic #19: Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic: Fall 2015 Issue 19And now, for something completely different! Our latest issue of Midwestern Gothic is all nonfiction. That’s right, essays and creative nonfiction inspired by the Midwest. We’ve only done this type of issue one other time, but this angle is a critical part of what makes up the fabric of the region.

While fiction and poetry can certainly expose and explore truths, hearing about someone’s direct experience or perspective is just as, if not more, powerful. A lot of our contributors filter their own experiences and culture into their stories, as most writers do. In some cases, the filter is dialed way up, obscuring the parallels you can draw between their own experiences and fictional experiences. But with essays and creative nonfiction, that filter is all but removed. That raw look at life in the Midwest is always a pleasure to read and edit.

Our hopes are that we can do this more regularly than every two years. Nonfiction writers sometimes don’t overlap with authors and poets, and it’s important to us to give this subset of the population a voice as well. One of my favorites from this issue is “Detroit, 2015” by Lori Tucker-Sullivan, a piece about her experiences with the city at different stages of her life, and of the city’s life.

Here’s an excerpt:

In 2010, after twenty-six years of marriage, my husband Kevin died following a two-year fight with cancer. As a widow suddenly faced with planning an unexpected second phase of my life, I decided to sell my home near Ann Arbor and move to Detroit. I am returning to the city of my birth. For me, this is an attempt to create a new story for myself. The narrative of my life, not unlike that of my birthplace, has jumped the tracks. I’m coming to terms with the fact that my life will neither be what I had anticipated, nor what it once was. I never planned to be a caregiver to a dying partner. As my children grow, I no longer have the same parental responsibilities. I may never again be a wife. I’ve learned how futile it is to believe you’ve written your story when fate wields such a capricious eraser.

Likewise, Detroit once had a bright future. In fact, it was often called “the city of tomorrow.” But as we look back now we see how tenuous a narrative that was as well. In reality it was based on unexamined assumptions: that a population segregated by redlining, discrimination, and fear would remain peaceful. Or that the city could thrive forever on the largesse of one industry that had no competition. Or that the vibrant middle class created by the manufacture of automobiles wouldn’t use the earnings, cars and newly paved freeways to flee the city.

Yet there is presently a feeling of slow and laborious rebirth. Officials are coming to terms with years of dysfunction and are taking difficult steps toward permanent change. In July of 2013, the city’s governor-appointed emergency manager filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, declaring the city unable to pay its nearly 20 million dollar debt. As the contentious process wound its way through the courts, residents and officials worked to find ways to save artwork and pensions, infrastructure and basic services. Now out of bankruptcy, the city is continuing on a mostly positive path forward.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic: Fall 2015 – Issue 19 for the rest of the story, and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Rapid Fire Book Reviews

The first month of my mini-retirement was blessed with little, if any, internet access, which means I need to catch up on the reviews for the books I read! Here goes:

Horns, by Joe Hill: 4 of 5 stars.
Dug this quite a bit – the premise of a random dude growing demon horns was explained surprisingly well and quickly, which gets you into enjoying the thrust of the book: exploring how you might solve your girlfriend’s murder if you had special powers that made people tell you their deepest, darkest secrets.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: 2 of 5 stars.
I’d really like to like Neil Gaiman more. Loads of people love him, and the premises of his books sound interesting. Just not a huge fan of his voice, I guess. I did like this better than American Gods, which wasn’t hard, but still. The world building was the best part about this book, I really enjoyed learning about the world of the dead with Bod. I didn’t enjoy how the plot felt like a bunch of vignettes strung together, and the conflict with Jack simply bookending the plot.

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White: 5 of 5 stars.
We read this classic aloud to our kids on the road trip. An audio book, narrated by Mommy and Daddy. I hadn’t read it since I was in elementary school, and it was great to go back and remember what I loved about the story. Plus, we found an old doodle of Charlotte I’d made in the back of the book! I hadn’t realized back then how simultaneously complex and accessible language and vocabulary is. Our kids loved it and begged us to keep reading when we needed to give our voices a break.

The Walking Dead: All Out WarVolume 20 and Volume 21, by Robert Kirkman, Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rothburn: 2 out of 5 stars.
This marks the end of the Negan story arc, which for some reason everyone is clamoring for them to get to in the show. I don’t know, I think Rick’s storyline has worn out its welcome with me. I would love to see something else with a truly new character in this world, or for them to just get to the point. The last interesting thing to happen in this comic was Rick’s proposal to get an army together and begin to kill off walkers and eliminate them, now that they have numbers. That was 4 volumes ago. Instead, they encounter a group of humans more dangerous than the walkers. Again.

Some of the Best From Tor.com – 2013 Edition: 4 out of 5 stars.
A solid collection of speculative fiction from one of the biggest names in the genre. Some of the pieces, like “Wakulla Springs,” were enjoyable to read but didn’t really contain enough fantastical elements for me. I enjoyed “Equoid” by Charles Stross the most – the premise of unicorns actually being a horrible Lovecraftian monster is humorous in and of itself and Stross absolutely nailed a light-hearted tone that counter-balanced the horrific images well.

Vagabonding: 4 out of 5 stars. I likely read this book a little too late in my escape from the typical 9-5. Already past my travel epiphany, this book doesn’t have a ton of things I found tactically useful. But, if you’re new to the life-changing philosophy type books (4 Hour Workweek, etc.) then this book is probably coming at the perfect time for you.

Mesilla, by Robert James Russell: 5 out of 5 stars.
Tight little western that you can knock out in a single sitting or a weekend. All the classic elements of the western are there, filtered through Russell’s honed literary voice. Treasure and riches? Check. Grizzled gunslingers? Check. A stark landscape for the villain to chase the hero across? Check. Thoroughly enjoyed this novella.

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Midwestern Gothic: Issue 18 Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic: Issue 18 (Summer 2015)

Another summer, another issue of Midwestern Gothic! It’s amazing that no matter how long we do this, there’s always wrenches and new wrinkles that get thrown into the process. This issue will always stand out to me (I hope, if it happens again I’ll probably get committed to an asylum) as the one we lost. In the midst of copyediting, my hard drive fried and my multiple layers of redundancy backups failed, sending most of the work spent laying out the galley and making copyediting changes into the ether. I gave myself a half hour to feel bad for myself and ate some fast food that made me feel even worse, and then got right back at it.

The positive that came out of that experience was that I was able to get reacquainted with the stories and poems inside. There’s something about laying out a galley and designing how the words appear on the page that’s very tactile, almost like you can feel the work taking shape. And it reinforced why I enjoyed one of my favorite pieces in the issue, “Gen-Mods,” by Brian Pals. When I tell people about Midwestern Gothic, one of my usual lines is that we’re more than corn and cows. Well, this story is all about corn. Specifically, a group of men rogueing corn for Monsanto. That’s probably why I liked it so much, that it took the stereotypes about the Midwest and corn and showed how tradition has evolved into modern reality.

Even though big farming has evolved into numbers and chemicals, there are still men walking the fields, tending to the crops in very different ways than years ago. And the dynamics of this manual labor, overseer and worker, take on a different tone. It’s a nuanced piece takes place in the midst of a prominent debate (GMOs, Bee Extinction, etc.) without an agenda. In other words, it reflects life in the Midwest, good, bad, and ugly. Which is exactly what we’re looking for. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s possible, walking corn, to sweat yourself dirty and all the way back around to clean again. Everything flushes out, and by the end of a hundred-degree day in the field, that wet wash sliding out of your hatband doesn’t even have the taste of salt to it anymore. Pure water.

You could maybe go a day without showering, but what Honzo never seemed to get was you had to change clothes. One season he wore the same T-shirt¬, 1998 Stanley Cup, Detroit Red Wings, for a solid week of work. I doubt he really smelled much worse after than he did before, though. Honzo was just naturally ripe. Maybe he had more in his system to sweat out than the rest of us.

Whatever Honzo’s aroma was, his phone call meant money. Not easy money, or even especially big money for what you had to do to get it, but roguing cornfields for a couple, three weeks of a summer could help pay down a lot of debt. For me, it was legal fees.

Honzo would contract acres from one of the seed companies—Pioneer, Monsanto,
AgriGold—and call the crew together. Me and Dennis, maybe another guy or two. We’d walk the fields, miles back and forth, with spades sharpened up to chop rogues or volunteers, types of corn that deviated. It’s primitive work of the hand and foot, a job that usually gets started around mid-July, the hottest slice of summer. The last time I worked with Honzo, though, it got hot in May, even hotter over a rainless June, and the call came a good two weeks early.

“Ready to rogue corn, Shcotty?” Missing teeth up front, Honzo had to kind of side-lisp any word with a hissing sound in it. He had a growl in his voice, too, like a dopey cartoon dog who cursed a lot. “Monsanto’s got acres, and they need that shit walked like now. $16 corn, some of it.”

The pay was by the acre, scaled to how hard the work was. A $16-per-acre field meant tough walking and a big-enough check, if you could work long hours with a small crew.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic: Summer 2015 – Issue 18 for the rest of the story, and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Exigencies: A Neo Noir Anthology from Dark House Press

Exigencies: A Neo Noir Anthology

If The New Black, Dark House Press’s first title, was the best of what was already out in the dark wild of the neo noir landscape, then their latest anthology, Exigencies, thrusts new progeny into the abyss with new twists on the genre.

Richard Thomas, the editor-in-chief is attempting to stake out a nuanced space in the oft over simplified horror genre. Most casual readers and non-fans may not think there are sub-genres to horror, likely associating their stereotypes about the genre to the limited experiences they may have with authors (Poe, Lovecraft, etc.) or even film. But they’d do themselves a favor by sampling this anthology, which applies a tone and aesthetic across straight horror, sci-fi, contemporary lit, and even fantasy. The space Thomas carves out is in feel, the “I’ll know it when I see it,” aesthetic, making this the perfect entry point into the new black for casual fans. Find something you like, then dig deeper.

Some of my favorite stories were “Cat Calls” by Rebecca Jones-Howe, which practically oozed sex from the page, but carried a latent undercurrent of threat and malice. The dread running under Letita Trent’s story, “Wilderness” was masterful and made me wish she’d extended the short into a full length work. (Maybe she has, be right back to go check.) The visceral violence of “Monster Season” by Joshua Blair actually made me put the book down for a moment and go grab a palate cleanser of something happy. And “Single Lens Reflection” had a certain poignancy to it that takes the expectation you’ve been given in the stories before and spins the genre on its head again.

Thomas says, “…in that pulsing abyss, that endless yawning void, there is a tiny light shining.” In some stories, it’s a glimmer of hope. In others, it’s the siren call, a trick to get you to break upon the rocks. In all the stories in Exigencies, it brings you in closer, calling out to the darkest things inside you.

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Midwestern Gothic: Issue 17 Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2014 Issue 16
The Spring Issue of Midwestern Gothic marks our entry into Year 4 of the journal, since we launched issue 1 in spring of 2011, this particular time of year serves as an anniversary of sorts and a marker of how far we’ve come. When folks ask at bookfairs if we’re new, I typically tell them that we’re not old, but not new either. I’m not sure when I’ll stop thinking of ourselves as a new entry to the lit scene, but it’s probably fast approaching.

It’s also interesting to me how different trends emerge as we put an issue together, and the trend that stood out to me this time around was how much short, short fiction we got. In a way, this almost feels like a flash fiction issue in that we received and selected more compact, powerful pieces of narrative than usual. One of my favorites from the issue was “Psychiatrist” by Corey Mertes, a short fiction about a strained relationship including a titular drinking game, which culminates in a pointed question designed to reveal a marital affair. The story examines the lead up to this moment from which there’s no going back and the fallout afterword in a way that perfectly captures the tension, second guessing, and “no going back” moments associated with decisions that come to define people. Here’s an excerpt:

She asks more questions. Rob replenishes drinks after everyone changes places for the third time. Allie thinks: Sometimes they tell the truth, other times they lie; sometimes they get up and move, and sometimes they don’t. Once in a while someone says “Psychiatrist,” but just as often they remain silent. She notices Suzanne can’t stop eating snack food and wonders if it is part of the game.

They change places after a lie, she notes, but not always—they move after the truth sometimes too. Where do they move to? Damn it! She hasn’t paid any attention to that. Now she’s really confused.

“Don’t be such a prude, Allie,” Greg says, after they’d been playing the game for half an hour. “Open it up a little.”

Everyone is laughing and having a good time except her. She tries to play along, to act the good hostess despite everything. Rule 6: Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. She asks Kristina when she lost her virginity, Andrew how many men he’s slept with. His response—fewer than fifty—evokes a selfcongratulatory chuckle from Travis, to his left, “Psychiatrist,” and then howls of laughter as everyone changes places again. Allie’s frustration escalates with each round. Why doesn’t Rob sense her alienation and come to her aid?

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic: Spring 2015 – Issue 17
for the rest of the story, and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Midwestern Gothic: Issue 16 Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2014 Issue 16
The Winter Issue of Midwestern Gothic is a little extra special this time around because it features the winners and finalists of our first ever Lake Prize, an annual awards for fiction and poetry that best represents the Midwest. It seeks to reward those who see the beauty of the region, whether that be quiet forests, gutted industrial wastelands, small towns or vibrant urban neighborhoods. The first time round, we got two stellar judges, Ander Monson and Mary Biddinger, and honestly, we couldn’t have been happier with the response we got to the contest.

While I loved all the Lake Prize entries, I wanted to highlight one of the other stellar pieces we published, “Longing” by Ben Tanzer. It’s a familiar scene to most folks, neighbors spending time together with their kids. But underneath that runs the protagonists desire for something different than what he’s got now. Is it freedom, is it the separateness that alcohol brings, or is it acting on the sexual tension he perceives between himself and the other husband? Longing, to me, is something core to a lot of the Midwestern experience – most folks have the responsibility and the integrity to hang on to something far longer than they should, even when what the desperately want and need is something else. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s what we, Lisa and I, do with them, Rita and Mark. Someone comes into a bottle of something new, different, on a work trip, or vacation, maybe from some random visitor from out of town, and we drink it until it’s gone, slowly for the most part, and civilized.

When the kids were younger we were more self-conscious about drinking until things got blurry or we couldn’t walk home easily. Back then there were diapers to change and bottles to heat-up.

Now we just let them run and run around Rita and Mark’s house, watching the same movies again and again, while we just drink and drink.

Tonight it’s whiskey.

I could tell you that I don’t have a problem with alcohol, but that’s what problem drinkers tend to say, and I am not a problem drinker.
They also tend to say that I only drink when I want to, that I can stop whenever I want, and that it doesn’t interfere with my life.

All of which I have definitely said, and all of which I mean.

Still, if you drink until things are blurry, and you cannot easily walk, and this despite the fact that your children are just steps away watching Despicable Me or chasing Guinea Pigs around the house, you might have a problem.

The real question I suppose is do I ever long for a drink, and the answer to that is yes, all the time. I can taste the alcohol hit my tongue even when it isn’t there, and feel the warmth burn the back of my throat.

So, do I long for that, that feeling of being both alive and dead all at once? Yes, endlessly.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic : Winter 2015 – Issue 16 for the rest of the story, the Lake Prize winners and finalists, and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Fig, by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

Fig, Sarah Elizabeth Schantz5 of 5 Stars

Bittersweet has never been as beautiful, heartbreaking, and provoking as it is in Sarah Elizabeth Schantz’s coming-of-age tale, Fig.

When Fig realizes Mama is sick, the deep love she bears for her mother becomes her burden as well. She takes on the fierce battle to help Mama reclaim her mind from a disease as constricting as barbed wire, schizophrenia. An insurmountable task for a six-year-old. Over the course of the novel, Fig makes daily sacrifices, ones she fully believes will make Mama whole again, but instead ends up losing herself in the process.

Schantz’s writing style can best be described as evocative, lovely and heartbreaking. She achieves clarity in communicating the raw emotion of her characters in a way that feels unrushed, yet there are no wasted breaths in Fig. Each word, sentence and paragraph reveals the unplumbed depths of the novel’s layers in a way that makes you want to gather the young Fig into your arms and say, “There, there. It’s going to be O.K.,” even though you can see no way out of the despair her family is trapped in.

While the book centers around characters with mental disease, I felt Schantz avoided making an overt, unearned commentary on mental illness, aside from that the people it affects are so much more than their condition. Schizophrenia and OCD manifest in Fig and her mother in good and in bad ways, and both are people that are worthy of compassion. Often, those who struggle with these types of conditions are ignored or broomed into the corners of society – Schantz shows us that these people are our mothers, our daughters, our fathers and sons. We should not relegate them to the edges.

The novel also explores the nuanced relationship between daughter and mother, girl and woman, self and other. It’s a rare debut from an author that bares the soul not only of the characters, but of the reader as well.

If you want to read and remember one book this year, make sure it’s Fig.

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Midwestern Gothic: Issue 14 Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2014 Issue 14
The Summer Issue of Midwestern Gothic took shape over the course of the last three months. When I take a step back and think about the process of the journal literally going from nothing more than changing a button on our submissions page to an actual book, it’s actually pretty insane to think about. Per usual, the submissions we got are top notch, and every period we turn away more and more that we genuinely like. A good problem to have, I think.

One of my favorites from this issue was something a little more contemporary, Jessie Ann Foley’s “The Day of New Things.” The story follows a corrupt politician’s daughter around the city after her father is sentenced to 150 years in federal prison. Outside of Illinois, it might seem far-fetched, but I think three of the last four Illinoisan governor’s were incarcerated. Pat Quinn – you need to be on good behavior. Part of what I love about this story is how it looks at how social media and news cycles completely break down and erode layers of privacy, something that is very uncomfortable for a Midwesterner. Even one as young as the main character, Sandy. Still though, she manages to find moments of peace, these beautiful moments of solitude as the world swirls around her. Here’s an excerpt:

“Hey, Twitter Stalker,” she said, brushing her hand against his bare arm. “Trade you some tequila for a cig?”
Kenzie was such a child of the digital age that even her spoken words were like text messages: the tone was impossible to interpret. Michael didn’t seem to even notice that she’d just insulted him. The two girls shuffled into the line behind him and his two friends.

“These are my buddies, Jordan and Aidan,” Michael said, handing Kenzie a cigarette and trying with all his might not to stare at her impressively cleaved chest. “This is Kenzie Hernandez and—uh—sorry, what’s your name?“ He looked at Sandy.

“This is Sandy Boychuck,” Kenzie said, before Sandy could warn her not to reveal her last name. Jordan and Aidan, who wore flat-brimmed hats just like Michael’s, looked up from their phones. One of them, with reddish hair that was almost iridescent in the setting sun, squinted at her.

“Wait, Boychuck like the cop guy?”

Sandy said nothing, but straightened up her shoulders and stared at the boy evenly. It was the hard-assed look of a cop’s daughter, daring him to continue his line of questioning. He didn’t, but his finger trembled over his phone screen. She could see that he was just waiting for her to walk away so that he could tweet it out into the all-seeing world:

Holy shit hanging out with Boychuck’s daughter yes THAT Boychuck #150years

Inside the DizzyVision show was like being at a high school dance, except with better music and more drugs. No one there was old enough to buy a beer in the bar area, but everyone had arrived either already drunk or rolling. A relentless light and fog show intensified the effect of the tequila-Gatorade mixture, and Sandy caught the white of Kenzie’s eye, the flash of Michael’s fake diamond earring, before losing them to the anonymous thumping crowd. The two Brazilian DJs stood in the middle of the stage, crouched over their turntables like monks huddled in prayer. The beats they produced were so deafening that it was hard for Sandy to think or breathe or move. She hadn’t eaten anything since the ham sandwich on her lunch break, and the tequila sloshed in her empty stomach. She stumbled up the stairs, chased by the whoomp of the music and the jagged motion of the lights, and found the women’s bathroom just in time to spray a toilet seat and part of the toilet paper holder with a green jet of puke. Her body purged of the spiked Gatorade, Sandy felt better immediately. She wiped her mouth at the mirror, feigning innocence when a girl in a turquoise wig walked into the bathroom and proclaimed, “Um, someone just effing vommed in here.” Sandy fluffed her hair, folded a stick of gum into her mouth, and walked out of the bathroom and straight into Darry’s chest.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic : Summer 2014 – Issue 14 for the rest of the story and many others inspired by the Midwest.