Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Speculative fiction that stays with you

White City

By Seb Doubinsky

Publisher: JournalStone - Bizarro Pulp Press 

Pub. Date: January 31, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Seb Doubinsky's White City is a little hard to categorize. Published by Bizarro Pulp Press, it isn't really that Bizarro at all. Its story is fairly straight forward even if spiced up by a few poems and diary entries that gives us subtle hints of what is happening. It may be called slightly avant-garde but only to those who haven't delve into the more adventurous areas of science fiction. While reading it, I could not help comparing it to some of the works of Phillip K. Dick, not because of style but because Dick dealt with many of the same themes of government and authoritarian rule. Few writers since Dick and in the related genres have really dared to seriously explore these areas. I would say Seb Doubinsky's book handles class and racism better than any work I have read in speculative fiction in a long time.

So here is the basic idea. The story happens in an alternate reality, The Nordic Alliance. It sounds a lot like ours, having been through World War II with Hitler and the Third Reich. The Nordic Alliance seems to have kept many of the antiquated and dangerous ideas of World War II and before. It seems to be a divided and loose alliance of city-states that are ruled and governed by various factions. White City is a wealthy district of the North Alliance capital, Viborg City. It is a haven for the rich and privilege without the racial and class conflicts of the other districts. It is dull and boring and everyone wants to live there. Again, not too different from some of our own upper 1% areas of wealth and privilege. Yet violence happens in this favored district when the brother of a powerful industry heiress is killed. Three people are brought together in this event; Leila Bogossian, a reporter who sees this story as her catapult to success, Lee Jones Jr., a young writer in his father's shadow who find in the event an inspiration for his own novel, and Sigrid Wulf, a skilled but sometime insubordinate detective who isn't taken in by the red herrings and propaganda that follows the crime.

The reader follows these three protagonists in brief alternating chapters sprinkled with those previously mentioned short poems and partially revealing diary entries. One of the intriguing things in this novel is that the author isn't so much interested in fleshing out his characters as in creating a three dimensional society and city. Viborg City with its three classes of Cash, Credit, and No-Credit manages to be a distinct alternate universe yet all too often sounding like our own. The author's characters work primarily as ones who are trying to find meaning in a world with a stagnant society and a decadent ruling class. Their individual methods of finding that meaning both define themselves and lead to their different fates at the end of the novel.

Getting to that end is half the fun. The big reveal is not really that difficult to figure out. Doubinsky aims for bigger game. White City is a quiet read. There is only one really violent catalytic event and no real fireworks of the type one might expect in a novel that is half speculative fiction and half mystery. It may be part sci-fi and part crime noir but it is 100% socio-philosophical exploration. The fact that you may not realize this until the end is a credit to Doubinsky's quiet but deep style. The author has a way with words but doesn't fling them around gratuitously. Every phrase has a meaning, even those little poems. When Lee Jr. sips Cognac and Doubinsky writes "Lee found his tasted strangely bitter. But maybe it his soul he was tasting", you know actually what is going on in Lee's mind.

Seb Doubinsky is now on my list of writers to watch. This is the first book of his I have read but it is a quiet little revolution. if this is typical of his writing, it will not be long before others also add him to their "Ones to watch" list.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Dark and awesome short fiction

Misery and Death and Everything Depressing

By C. V. Hunt

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub. Date: December 16, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

If you are looking for stories full of happiness and life and everything Disney, then C. V. Hunt is probably not the one to run to. She doesn’t just dwell in the shadows but in a deep dark cave. With a flashlight. But no batteries.

Yet that doesn’t mean Misery and Death and Everything Depressing doesn’t have its moments of humor albeit very dark. It is also full of deep reflection and makes you think a bit about what an odd deal this thing called “Life” is. Something that is often defined not by the light but by the ever-threatening and sometimes overwhelming darkness. V. C. Hunt may be called a writer of horror but I find her to be an astute observer of human nature who wraps her insight in the blackest paper she can find.

There are seven pieces of fiction in this 134 page book. While some of her previous fiction has a surreal Bizarro tint to them, these stories seem more engulfed in real life even when a supernatural or impossible situation comes up. “The Quarry” reads like a crime noir where two misfits commit a crime. Yet we are shocked by the ending even though the author was clever enough to give us a hint at the beginning. “No Room for a Child” may be the closest thing to a traditional horror or ghost tale and it is a really good one with a twist only Hunt can conjure up. “Human Contact” goes a different way. It is a “slice o Life" story that I would expect to find in a typical literary journal. It touches on the issue of human intimacy in a disturbing but thoughtful way. But the mini-masterpiece in the collection is “Baby Hater”. It is the type of story that repulses you yet keep you enthralled to the end. You may even feel a little scared that you are actually identifying with the protagonist…and you just might. This tale alone is worth the price of admission and more.

I wish I could say they all work but there are a few that don’t, at least in my mind. “To say Mother Teresa was shocked when she woke up in Hell would be an understatement” is a great title but it houses a brief story that is basically a one punch jab. “Last Woman on Earth” is essentially a suicide story with little to distinguish it despite the interesting apocalyptic set-up. And the last story grabbed me from the beginning yet left me hanging. Probably intentionally but hanging nonetheless.

Yet the rest of the fiction more than makes up for them and shows Hunt at her best, especially that devilish awesome “Baby Hater”. This would be a good introduction to Hunt’s complex but depressing world as it shows off a number of her strengths and her ability in several genres. A highly recommended read to those who wish to discover an under recognized writer.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A look at life, celebrity, and mortality

The Wonders

By Paddy O'Reilly

Publisher: Washington Square Press 

Pub. Date: February 10, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

The Wonders is about a "freak show". But then again, it isn't. While the traditional freak show offered human abnormalities of nature, the three protagonists that make up the touring attraction in Paddy O'Reilly's sensitive and thoughtful novel became what they are later in their life and through three different medical circumstances. Kathryn is cured of Huntington by a unique treatment that leaves her covered in black wool. Christos is a performance artist who has wings transplanted into his back. Leon has an artificial heart that resembles clockwork and is visible through a transparent window in his chest. Rhona Burke, an entrepreneur who has had success with various circuses and side shows bring them together for a 21th century celebration of oddities.

Paddy O'Reilly is an Australian writer who has a light touch and a subtle wisdom. Her style is easy going even though her themes in this book can be on the heavy side. She explores a number of topics including the role of the celebrity, our perceptions of what it means to be human (and humane), and our obsession with our own mortality. Most of the book is through the perspective of Leon. After multiple heart attacks and heart transplant rejections, he receives an unique artificial heart. He is naturally a quiet and somewhat isolated man who is given the chance to live out his life and to be able to risk his emotions again. Kathryn goes through life as a victim with her words and wit as her only weapon and sees her new role as performer as a way to become independent and to fulfill her wish to live alone on an island. Christos is the only one who chose his uniqueness, becomes defined by it, and strives for control over everything and others. It is Rhona who runs the show, so to speak, and she strives to balance both her no nonsense business sense with her sincere concern for the three singular individuals she brings together. She tries to prepare them for their celebrity knowing t will change them and will introduce them to other aspects of human nature that one may not want to see.

The real wonder is how this novel breezes through some heavy topics and still manages to tackles them with ease. I am reminded by her style of John Irving, especially of The World According to Garp which tackles some of the same themes. The Wonders is a bit of a wonder itself as we become involved with the three main characters as they deal with their inflictions and the notoriety it brings them. One ongoing theme is how they perceive their own humanness versus how the spectators view it with their own baggage and interpretation. How does one remain true to himself when even the most trusted person admits to the exploitation that comes with the territory?

There is lots to explore in this book but what makes it so good is that you can simply read it for the pleasure. It is both amusing and sensitive while examining important parts of the character's lives . Eventually there is danger and possibly even tragedy with hard choices for our protagonists but it is packed so well into the book that we become surprised at the turn.

The book was a surprise to me. I have not heard of the author before this and didn't know what to expect. In a lot of ways it comes across as a bit of existentialism without the heaviness and the cynicism. It is a positive existential novel which makes it a bit of a find and a bit of a contradiction. It is not a prefect novel . There are interactions between the characters that never really take off. For instance, Leon's romance with his doctor seems forced and there is never any real passion in it. Also, there is an ongoing situation with Leon and the maker of his mechanical heart that starts as a strong plot point, is dropped, then comes back at the end. I brings with it an important turn of event at the climax but it also felt a bit manipulative. Yet taken as a whole, the novel is magical and begs for a second reading for parts that you know are there but may have missed in all that literary magic going on. The Wonders is the first really great novel I have read in 2015 and it may be hard for the rest of the contenders to surpass. We will see.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A dark fantasy that doesn't deliver

Masters of Blood and Bone

By Craig Saunders

Publisher: DarkFuse

Pub. Date: February 3, 2015

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

In Craig Saunders' Masters of Blood and Bone, we meet Matthew Doyle Holland, a man who knows death and hurried many to their death. He has a daughter named Ankh who may be the only person he really has feelings for. But Ankh is soon trapped, in a book of all places, by a vengeful God who is out to conquer the world. Holland is set to battle the Gods and save his daughter.

If only this book was so direct and clear. And if only I could care.

Masters of Blood and Bone was a drag for me to read and the fault mainly lies in the characters. Holland is a boring pompous old killer whose love for his daughter never really comes through in the pages. She comes across more like a possession to him than a daughter. His daughter comes out no better. In a dark fantasy like this one, characterization is the key and in this book, the key is broken from the beginning. So we are left with Saunder's ability to build a fantastic world with words. He fares much better here. His dark blend of modern horror and mythology is quite interesting to read yet, without the protagonists to push the story, it does not gel too well. it is too bad because there seems to be a real talent here. While there were moments that took off, for the most part I simply struggled with trying to care and hence was happy to finally come to the end of a long journey in a surprisingly short book. This may appeal to some dark fantasy fans but it did not involve me nor did it succeed as a horror novel. Not recommended.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A trip down the rabbit hole

You Might Just Make it Out of This Alive

By Garrett Cook

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Pub. Date: January 17, 2015

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

I must admit Garrett Cook sometimes exhausts me. His writings usually goes at breakneck speed. The imagery is nonstop as well as the sex and violence. A Garrett Cook story is not for the easily offensive. Yet the exhaustion is much the same as a roller coaster where you are left with your heart in your throat, your stomach in your mouth and you are screaming, "Let's go again! Again!".

You can't say the author doesn't warn you. His new collection of short fiction is appropriately titled You Might Just Make it Out of This Alive. It is a trip down the literary rabbit hole. The fiction of Garrett Cook has a manic dadaism reminiscence of Manga as drawn by Dali and directed by Bunuel. The strangest stories are crowded with run-away images, like the first one, "Re-Mancipator" where a plague of Lincoln Zombies are hunted down by John Wilkes Booth and Marilyn Monroe. Other stories in the collection that feature this Bizarro overload include "The Adventures of Blackmetal Bjorn and Accomplice Boy...in Technicolor!" " and "Dieselpig". Cook definitely knows how to write catchy titles. Yet while these are fun pieces destined to boil your brain they seem to wear you out quickly. Unlike his almost-a-novel Time Pimp, where he takes time in his manic storm to create a full world, the ideas in these stories speed through without time to simmer, somewhat destroying any nuances. But they are still amazing pieces of strangeness that I highly recommend.

Yet there are some stories in the collection that seem more than flashy comic masterpieces. They show a more nuanced side without sacrificing the weirdness, the sex and the violence. Most of them involve intimacy, often meaning both the pursue and the fear of. which seems to be a constant theme in Cook's works. "Beast with Two Backs" still haunt me. Using the image of the freak show, it explores the merging and ripping of psyches in sex. "Along the Crease" seems somewhat similar and may be my favorite story in the book. It follows a relation that could end the world, as our protagonists are warned of by the angels. How does one respond? Do they become altruistic and ignore their own needs or indulge in an act that will fulfill them while insuring mass destruction? It is a heady story that succeeds through Cook's intense Bizarro style.

The nice thing about the author is, whether he throws out all rules in a psychedelic cartoon smorgasbord or explores those dark and scary corners of our psyches, he is still Garrett Cook. He is unique. Sex and violence permeate every tale and is always part of the Cook landscape. There are plenty of good stories here and just a couple head scratchers. Other tales I like include "The Donor" which disturbs me to review because I have to say "sensitive", "beautiful" and "cannibalism" all in the same sentence. There is also "Hit and Fun" which is sort of like a father and son tale yet sort of not.

The bottom line is that the author knows how to write. He also knows how to scare you and baffle you and revels in doing both in the same story. If Garrett's images and manic writing gets ahead of him occasionally, don't worry. The next story will pull you back in and, if lucky, you might just make it out of this alive.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The 21st century Holden Caulfield?

Dodgeball High

By Bradley Sands

Publisher: Eraserhead Press 

Pub. Date: October 1, 2014

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

An open letter to Holden Caulfield.

Hello, Mr. Caulfield.

It's been a while since we first communicated. Over 50 years to be exact. That was when you were slumming away on your forced vacation by expulsion from Pencey Prep . Thanks to your friend, J. D. Salinger, you have become the world's most famous slacker. All this time and you haven't aged a bit. That is one of the advantage of being a literary fictional icon. But another thing the years hasn't change is this...

You are still a whiny bitch.

Well, it is time to get over yourself because in the 21th century you have a replacement. His name is Justin Lucas and he is, in his own words, "Very handsome, nice, smart, athletic, and funny. I'm the coolest kid on the planet". He is a lot like you. He clearly thinks he is cooler than he really is. But he doesn't whine about no wimpy private academy. He goes to a real school...


Yes! The same school immortalized in Bradley Sand's novel of the same name. (That mean that the title of the book is Dodgeball High, Holden, since you are a slow learner) While you are bummed about losing fencing equipment, Justin is dodging exploding and spiked balls in a game where losing is often fatal. Where you moan about the hypocrisies in life, Justin is maneuvering in a school that celebrates them while grooming its students to be world class psychopaths. Where you just moan about having sex, Justin is screwing a girl that likes to kill her partner and eat his heart. Now that is real teenage angst!

And Dodgeball High is funny too. Justin has enough to worry about with just staying alive. But he still has time to prim his awesome mustache and cover his stupid lines with "Just Kidding!". Plus considering how violent this school is, Justin always knows his priority...

Girls punching dudes in the face is kind of messed up but sort of sexy, which is even more messed up since my turn-ons usually include giant titties shaking rather than extreme violence.

So here is what I think you should do, Holden old buddy. Read Dodgeball High and enter the 21st century. Introduce yourself to what may be the funniest and most accessible book in the Bizarro genre. A book where extreme violence and extreme laughs exist on every page. A book that asks the question; Does true love exist or is it just a depository for dismembered body parts? And don't worry about finding a hidden message that will transform the next generation. There may be one but I doubt it. If you do find one, don't tell me what it is. It might mess up the fun.

So Holden. that is pretty much it. Don't take me wrong. You are still OK for a whiny bitch and Catcher in the Rye is actually a very cool book. But it doesn't hold a candle to deadly dodgeball games, a homicidal principal, and genocidal sport teams. Enjoy, old buddy.