Monday, December 29, 2014

King's new novel: Firmly in the middle of the pack


By Stephen King

Publisher: Scribner; 1st edition 

Pub. Date: November 11, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I sometimes get the feeling that Stephen King, in his relatively old age, is looking for the Big Picture. Gone are the the days where the scare was everything, if that time even existed for King. In many ways, King is looking for relevancy in his newer works more than he may have had before. I really got that feeling with 11/22/63, a reflective opus that looks at where we have been, what we lost, and the futility of finding it again. His new work, Revival has a similar feel to it. The novel centers around Jamie Morton as he grows up, makes mistakes, and revives a perilous relationship with his church's pastor. Charles Daniel Jacobs is a charismatic minister but when his wife and child dies in a car accident, he delivers a devastating sermon that results in his removal as pastor and from the town. Jacobs has an obsession with electricity, particularly something he calls "secret electricity". Jamie grows up, becomes a musician and struggles with his own demons in the shadow of lost family and drug addiction. He meets up with Jacobs later in life and the ex-reverend is now heading a revival type healing tour with people who claims to have been healed. Jacobs also heals Jamie but he can't get over a single thought. "I've lost something".

King's new novel fits firmly in the mid-ground of his writings. He has a mission and he stays with it as it develops slowly. A little too slowly for this reader. There are very few shocking ad scary moments until you get to the end. But the ending makes up for all that lull. This may be one of the best endings in any King novel. Yet I didn't think the rest of the book was worthy of it. Jamie felt a little too formula; good kid strays, comes back, explores the mystery of his ex-mentor, etc. I didn't get a good round view of his character. Jacobs fares a little bit better but rarely going beyond the mad scientist stereotype. Yet like all good King works, it manages to gel together at the end. It's good but not great. I didn't get the sense of urgency that I felt in 11/22/63 nor the dread of death and the unknown that I felt in Pet Sematary which explores some of these themes in a more terrifying way. Overall, it is an above average novel by an author whose work I expect to go over the bar by miles. I do recommend Revival but there are many books by King I would recommend first.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Best of 2014

It is that time of year again. I am putting forward my list of the 10 best novels of 2014 for everyone to see and comment on. This year we had a fairly good crop. As usual the novels range from bestsellers to the obscure, from mainstream to experimental. I will add some separate categories to single out honorable mentions. With the exception of number one, which is my choice for best of the year, they are in no particular order.

1. The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World by Brian Allen Carr
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
3. Perfect by Rachel Joyce
4. Bird Box by Josh Malerman
5. The Troop by Nick Cutter
6. Hell’s Waiting Room by C. V. Hunt
7. Kumquat by Jeff Strand
8. Dream of the Serpent by Alan Ryker
9. Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
10. Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich by David Agranoff

And the honorable mentions…

Best YA novel: The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson

Best new series: Z Plan by Michail Lerma

Best short fiction collection: Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned by Jonathan Woods

Best novel in 2013 that I waited to read in 2014: Time Pimp by Garrett Cook

Best WTF! Novel: Zombies and Calculus by Colin Adams

Best periodical or journal: The Lazy Fascist Review

Best non-fiction: I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom's Highway by Greg Kot

That wraps it up for this year. Have a great holiday season and happy reading for next year.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A coming of age novel that doesn't come of age

Drinking Until Morning

By Justin Grimbol


Publisher: Atlatl Press 

Pub. Date: September 9, 2014

Rating: 2 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Books like Drinking Until Morning leaves me feeling very conflicted. From the first page it is clear that Justin Grimbol has a style of writing that must have been a gift from the Gods, presumably the same ones Charles Bukowski prayed to. I really loved the first third of this relatively short novel. Then it seemed to sink into a rut. Justin Grimbol's protagonist, whose name is Dustin Grimboli, seems human and vulnerable at the beginning yet soon he sinks into just being pathetic. It is Grimbol's direct but darkly poetic writing that got me through the book but after the end it was "Is that all there is?". I loved it and hated it but not in the way that Less Than Zero and American Psycho made me more aware of the nihilistic underpinnings of the modern American lifestyle. Drinking until Morning just made me feel nihilistic, not unlike another gifted writer Chuck Palahniuk. . It was the first part where Dustin is struggling with the loss of his girl friend that got me. It was frank and uncomfortable in a way that the reader can relate. Yet it is dropped quickly and Dustin wanders pointlessly through living with a crazy aunt and hanging out with the Rugrats, a group of brats that can only be called losers. The autobiographical nature of the novel is obvious if only from the name the author chooses for the main character. Yet a stagnant life isn't worth reading about and I doubt if the author has a stagnant life. Even Holden Caulfield and Sal Paradise managed to make something out of their seemingly pointless wanderings. I look forward to reading another Justin Grimbol book if only for his prose. Even I have to admit that anyone that I compare even negatively to Bukowski, Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis has tons of good stuff going for him. I hope I can relate to his next book more than this one. That may be the issue. From the other reviews many seem to relate to this book, presumably younger readers. I wish them well but this one...not for me. Until then, two and a half stars.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A mystery about new and old Hollywood

Angel of the Abyss

By Ed Kurtz


Publisher: Darkfuse

Pub. Date: December 2, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars.

At the start of this atmospheric mystery Angel of the Abyss echoes Indiana Jones more than Sam Spade. Film archivist and wannabe movie maker Graham Woodward gets a call about a long lost film. It is titled Angel of the Abyss and was the only film starring Grace Baron, an actress that disappeared after the film was made. A rich woman in Hollywood wants him to look at the film and pays for him to come to California. But when he arrives he finds the woman dead. Pretty soon, he is being shot at too and his ex-wife who lives in California is also missing.

So we enter at the prospect of finding "the holy grail" of silent films and soon blend into a parade of bad guys and suspects as our hero attempts to find out why anyone wants him dead and why death and violence follows the film. We also get a slacker sidekick who gets some of the the first person narration along with Graham. It is a fun ride to the end. As if that is not enough, there is an alternating third person narrative in the form of the making of the film in 1926 through the eyes of the unfortunate starlet Grace Baron. It's that switching back to past and present that makes this such a good novel. Aside from worrying about our hero, we get a nice glimpse of the victim and a tasty look at Hollywood in the silent film era. It is a lot to handle in a relatively short novel but author Ed Kurtz handles it like a pro. While the novel has some Raymond Chandleresque echoes, mainly due to the LA setting, the main protagonist is not a detective but just a poor working guy who gets into a mess and finds he has the cajones to fight it. I like that. The only thing that keeps this from going out of the ball park is that it feels a bit formula at first. It doesn't feel like it is going anywhere new and the mystery is a bit easy to figure out. Perhaps it was a little too short for its own good. But it is still a really good read by a writer that has what it takes to go the distance. If you like mysteries, especially those that delves into Hollywood and the alternately glossy and gritty shades of its past, then you will like this novel. Three and a half stars.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A highly recommended literary review

Lazy Fascist Review #1 and #2

Edited by Cameron Pierce.

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press

Rating: See below

Everyone should read a literary journal now and then. The good ones do more than give you a sampling of new writers and material. They give you a break from the mainstream dribble that drowns us in a commercial sea of the expected. Not that I have any thing against the New York Times bestseller list, mainstream magazines, and the pulp jungle. But the real reader seeks the unexpected, those writers that bury us in words that tear at the fabric of our existence.

Lazy Fascist Review is a different type of journal. It is published by Lazy Fascist Press, an imprint of Eraserhead Press which primary deals in Bizarro Lit. Eraserhead’s other sibling is Deadite Press which goes more into horror. Yet Lazy Fascist, under the capable hands of Cameron Pierce, seems to be the most literary of the three, perhaps more accepting of experimenting and not tied down to any particular genre. Their novels seem to have no clear boundaries except to awe and impress and ranges from Bradley Sands’ surreal humor to Andersen Prunty’s existential horror to Brian Allen Carr’s sparse landscapes of angst and dread.

Lazy Fascist Review is a twice yearly publication with two issues currently out. Aside from that, it does not appear to have a regular publication schedule nor a subscription option. It sells right along with their other novels so it may best be called an anthology rather than a journal. It features both prose and poetry yet there seems to be no real theme except that it is prose and poetry way outside the mainstream and it makes you think. In the Lazy Fascist review, writing is a serious business. Yet not so serious that the journal doesn’t throw out a little twist. Along with the prose and poetry, the journal also features a look at an obscure brewery while the editor, Cameron Pierce, suggest pairings of a quality beer with each work. Beer tasting reviews are also featured. I am not likely to test out these pairings thanks to my recently acquired hops allergy, ending my beer days. Perhaps someday they may try a wine tasting issue which would be more to my liking and limits. However, kidding aside, this little quirk is what makes Lazy Fascist Review different, pairing very different and serious writing with a casual and slightly droll setting.

Lazy Fascist Review #1 starts with its best: “In The Neighborhood” by William Boyle. It begins fairly mainstream yet becomes dark and decadent quickly. It is a delightfully uncomfortable tale that tells the reader this particular journal is not going to shy away from those topics some call taboo. It is the most daring work in the first issue. Yet “Tenth Century Man” by Mike McGinnis is just as dark and lends a Southern Gothic feel to a tale of wanton murder. Between these two works are equally high quality stories by Juliet Escoria, Elizabeth Ellen, Hernan Ortiz, and Monica Storrs. There is also an exquisite and complex poem by Ben Spivey & Ben Fitzpatrick. While I cannot find any specific thing to complain about in any of these works I did think that, with the exception of the Mike McGinnis piece, there was a continuous feel of suburban angst, dark yet not really that far from the bulk of stories you find in most literary journals. Yet if any one of these authors show up in my radar again, these samples will certainly leads me to devour their next stories, poems or novels. In that way, the journal is a success. Overall, a quite exceptional debut yet a little more conventional than what I would expect from the Eraserhead / Deadite / Lazy Fascist triumvirate. Three and a half stars. Aside from the prose and poetry, there are interviews with writers Dennis Cooper and Tom Piccirilli plus book reviews and the aforementioned beer tasting reviews.

The sophomore issue, Lazy Fascist Review #2 picks up the pace quite a bit. Editor Cameron Pierce feels a little more relaxed in this one, regaling us with a look at salmon season on the Columbia River then effortlessly easing us into what to expect with the rest of the journal. There is a bit more edge in this issue and a bit more challenge. I am not sure what to think of Kevin Mahoney’s “Nelson Gets it All” except that its free flowing depiction of sports violence and thinly disguised eroticism reminds me of a bit of Jim Carroll .Yet Mahoney’s style grabs me more quickly and tighter. “The Waiting Room” by Cody Goodfellow is a mischievous bit of chaos that is also a strange love story. “Hector on the Continent” by Violet Levoit doesn’t grab me like the other two, feeling wandering and unfocused yet it is still interesting. But the stunner in this collection is “The Abortionists” by Scott McClanahan, the closest thing to a horror tale in the bunch and emotionally ripping. Rounding out the issue is a poem by Lucy Tiven, a brief, funny and silly piece called “Robots I’d Like to Fuck” by Dena Rash Guzman and a couple photo collages by Kevin Sampsell. Pierce continue his beer tasting reviews with a different brewery and there are more book reviews. The quality in issue #2 is a little more uneven in quality than the first issue yet still higher than most literary journals. Yet this is actually a plus as that unevenness is a result of widening the variety and providing a stronger sense that the reader will be challenged by topic and style. This issue comes out a strong four stars.

The bottom line is that this is a periodic review that I will continue to look forward to. With Cameron Pierce at the helm, himself a daring and talented young writer, I have strong expectations of continuing high quality and equally strong expectations that the next issues will be just as willing to stretch literary boundaries.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Motherfucking Sharks

By Brian Allen Carr

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press 

Pub. Date: October 20, 2013

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

There's something to be said for having your own review blog. I reminded myself of that after perusing the Amazon reviews for Brian Allen Carr's Motherfucking Sharks which recently won the Wonderland Award for best novel of the year. Here is a critically acclaimed novel of which Amazon boldly state the title in their pages. "MOTHERFUCKING SHARKS!". Yet not one review on the same Amazon page will have the title in the review. Why? Because any review with obscenity in it is immediately rejected! As of this date, Amazon has not yet admitted to the irony of this.

I mention this just to illustrate how weird our reality is. Logic often flies out the window and the only way to deal with it is to reject logic altogether and go with the flow. It was once said, "Fact is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense". I often think the Bizarro writer is saying "Why?" to that statement. If reality is not logical, why should fiction be logical? Would not a senseless reality be better illustrated in senseless fiction?

I don't know if Brian Allen Carr would agree with the above statements but his novels are certainly loaded with the illogical. Yet they stay rooted in our reality in sort of an extreme magical realism. I have read two novels by the author and I am tempted to call him the Ionesco of Bizarro. There is a bit of surrealistic dadaism in his writing yet placing that in the sparse, unforgiving, and very real landscape of West Texas is just short of brilliant. In Motherfucking Sharks (God! I love that title!) Carr's version of people turning into rhinoceros is sharks swimming in the desert, coming out of puddles in a desert storm and annihilating everyone in sight. Throw in the harsh realities of desert life and a bit of cannibalism ("That's not mule.") and the reader cannot help to think that he has stumbled into a different type of existentialism in which Godot has actually arrived armed with shark teeth. blood and mule stew that isn't mule.

I have been reading a lot of Bizarro fiction lately. I have stated in the past that I predict the best writers of the future may be languishing in the literary ghetto of Bizarro. Of the many worthwhile writers just beneath the surface in the field of Bizarro lit, I have also placed myself out on a limb by suggesting that two writers in particular, Andersen Prunty and Cameron Pierce, are most likely in the future to find themselves breaking through into the literary mainstream. Today I add the name of Brian Allen Carr to that very short list. Read either Motherfucking Sharks or The last Horror Novel in the History of the World and I think you will see what I mean.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Libraries have basements?

The Strange Library

By Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Knopf 

Pub. Date: December 2, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


 The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami is both different and very typical for the author. First written in 1982 but first published in 2006, this newly released version is made so much more unusual being presented in its odd paperback design with quirky illustrations by Chip Kidd. I can see this being instantly picked up by the Murakami completist and those wanting a different literary Christmas present. I am sure the December 2014 release was not coincidental. It reads a bit like a children's tale yet you may not want it for your child especially if you are encouraging them to read! The idea of a man who forces a boy to read so he can suck out his information filled brain may not go well with some. Yet it is the kind of strangeness we expect from the author most unjustly ignored by the Nobel committee. As the story starts, the young protagonist goes to the library and is sent to the basement to find more books. "Libraries have basement?" was pretty much my response as well as the boy's yet he diligently goes down the stairs. When he arrives he is trapped by an old man and forced to read books about Ottoman tax collectors. In typical Murakami style, he meets a sheep man and a mysterious girl who also are trapped. There is not much more of the story except for them to attempt to escape but it fits right into the author's world borrowing a little from his other works yet being its own kind of fable without a moral. Overall, it is a fun romp made even more mysterious by the aforementioned illustrations and book design. Mandatory reading for the Murakami fan and just a wild little ride for everyone else.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A hybrid novel of sci-fi and mystery

Lock In

By John Scalzi

Publisher: Tor Books 

Pub. Date: August 26, 2014

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 4 stars

Lock In is an intelligent combination of science fiction and mystery. I hesitate to call it a thriller mainly because John Scalzi's heart seem to be primarily into the repercussions of his creative idea and only secondarily into the goal of suspense and keeping us on the edge of our seat. That isn't to say it is not exciting. The author knows how to spin a good yarn. It's just that it works mainly as a fast moving tale of future technology and an analogy about the way technology in the midst of disasters and social upheaval may change our perspective on reality.

An epidemic of an influenza-like pandemic has resulted in millions being afflicted with Haden's Syndrome, "a condition that results in the complete paralysis of the voluntarily nervous system", usually referred to as "Lock In". However the afflicted person's minds are alert and fully functional. This leads to a series of technological and neurological break-throughs that enable the victims to interact through virtual technology and also through a form of mind transfer to people call Integrators. While this is liberating for the afflicted, it also causes a shift and division within Society. Into this scenario steps Chris Shane A "Haden" in his first day as an FBI agent. When someone is killed, the only eye witness who also happens to be an integrator who is suspiciously muted regarding his involvement in the incident. From this point on, Chris and his partner Vann become meshed in a plot involving powerful entities and hidden conspiracies.

Lock In seems part William Gibson, part Phillip K. Dick but still all Scalzi. He is an excellent storyteller capable of combining intrigue and action with a technical plot. He can also make a virtual existence come alive on paper. I would say he does this better and more realistically than Gibson. But as good as it is, it never makes the leap to mesmerizing. Many of the themes do feel a bit rehashed which slows down the intensity of the plot for me. Having said that, I did think it was well thought out and merged mystery and sci-fi quite well. I think this would be an enjoyable read for either the science fiction reader or the mystery aficionado. If it didn't wipe me out, I still really enjoyed reading it.