Sunday, April 15, 2018

Life and death in Baghdad

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi

Penguin Books

January 23, 2018

5 stars

Hadi is a junk yard dealer living in one of the most ravaged areas in war-torn Baghdad. He is an eccentric man known locally as a teller of tall tales aka "pathological liar" but his latest story may actually be true. He has taken to scavenging for dismembered body parts of the war victims to make a whole "person". His vague objective is to deliver it to the authorities as a form of anti-war protest. But when the sewn together body comes alive the creature has his own mission; to avenge the deaths of those persons that now make up his animated form. Soon after his creation, reports of killings rise and are attributed to a grotesque looking individual who cannot be killed. Many people take an interest in Hadi's story including a reporter named Mahmoud and a brigadier general who seizes any opportunity to play the various factions of the unrest against each other. After all, is Whatitsname, the name Hadi gives the monster, any less horrific as what takes place everyday in Baghdad?

Frankenstein in Baghdad was written by Admed Saadawi in 2014 and won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in the same year. The first American publication occurred in January of 2018. While promoted as a horror novel, it far surpasses a simple genre. The reference to Shelly's Frankenstein monster is obvious but it is not the horror of the monster that takes center stage here. While Whatitsname is extracting the life from his victims, the range of terror and atrocities stemming from the war overshadows anything he could possibly do. Saadawi's novel has a a large quantity of characters. The "cast" list at the beginning of the book certainly helps keep them straight. It is essentially their story and not the creature's that is being told here. The "Frankenstein" of the novel pales to the atrocities of war and the resulting corruption on all sides. The author uses the Frankenstein legend to tell his own story and that is the story of the deterioration of Baghdad and its residents in the midst of an unending civil war.

Make no mistake. This is an anti-war story. Yet our monster is a sufficiently odd and unsettling one. Like the original Frankenstein, he is not always sure of his existence and purpose. Different people see it in different ways from his "creator" Hadi to a grief stricken neighbor to the madmen who become his assistants. Evil is everywhere in Sadawi's book but not always distinctly defined. I suspect that is a given in the war torn Baghdad of the 21st century

Frankenstein in Baghdad may be billed as a horror novel but it is man many non-fiction works. If I had to pigeon-hole it, I would call it a dark satire. There is much humor here but it is humor steeped in misfortune and misery. This is literary horror at its finest and one that should be read and appreciated way beyond the genre of horror. It may also be the best anti-war novel I've read in ages. This is an important novel and I do hope it is given the attention it deserves. The fact that this debut novel appears on the 2018 Man Booker International shortlist is an indication of its literary power. Do place this on your to-read list even if you are not necessarily a horror fan. This book may speak to you on a whole different level.

Monday, April 9, 2018

A missing girl in East Texas

Jackrabbit Smile

Joe R. Lansdale

Mulholland Books 

March 22, 2018

 4 stars

After reading 13 novels and a handful of short stories and novellas about Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, I do not just feel like I know them . I'm feeling like I am a part of their East Texas town. Hap and Leonard would be the two guys my parents would tell me to steer clear of and the first person they would call, reluctantly, if they got into a jam. As police chief Marvin Hansen would say, they are assholes and hardheads but he would trust them with his life.

Jackrabbit Smile has all the fixings of a Hap and Leonard novel. The duet is fronting their own detective agency, owned by Hap's old time girlfriend and brand new wife Brett. They are given a job to find a missing woman, Jackie aka Jackrabbit. Hap and Leonard are hired by Jackie's extremely racist mother and brother who gay and black Leonard pounces on like a cat and treat in his psychologically aggressive style like a chew toy. The job takes them to Hap's childhood stomping grounds Marvel Creek and they find out that the town has added a bunch of questionable characters that includes a white supremacist called Professor. Of course, the big question is; is Jackrabbit missing or dead and how was she involved in Marvel Creek's chaotic mix of low life schemers and racemongers?

There are always social issues of race and class lurking in a Hap and Leonard novel but novel #13 really brings them to the forefront which goes far to make it one of the best book of the series in a long while. We get all the snappy dialogue and hard ass action we would expect. Brett plays a minor role which is OK since the meat of the plot is always centered around the rapport of liberal and idealistic Hap and conservative and overly aggressive Leonard. But here is where I need to discuss something that is both disturbing and exciting that I am catching in the last two novels.

As the series goes, we always expect Leonard Pine to be the one most likely to kick ass. Hap kicks ass too but it is usually reluctantly. Yet as the last two novels plays out, and all the novels are in the first person perspective of Hap Collins, Leonard is more blatantly expressing a darkness that was always there. Hap realizes it and seems to know that he has no control over Leonard and that darkness. The thing is, after 13 novels, where is Joe R. Lansdale leading us? Will this bode well or ill for the macho bromance that is Hap and Leonard. I hope the author follows through on this because it could be taking the series out of its very popular formula and leading us in new and very tense territory. For this book, it is one of the thing that vaults this book out of the formula and keeps me guessing where the two friends may be headed. Do the other readers of the series agree with me or do they think I'm off the rails a bit? Let me know.

The Hap and Leonard series is one of those series that I highly recommend starting from the beginning. However if you are reluctant to do that, this one is stand alone enough to enjoy on its own merits. Ten to one odds though, after you are through you will be picking up the rest of them.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Golems, Mitzvahs, and a burning bush

The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook

Maxwell Bauman

CLASH Books 

December 12, 2017

4 stars

Upon reading the last page of The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook and putting it down, I began to mull over the lack of multi-cultural influences and references in Bizarro literature. Frankly, it is not a genre that encourages the liberal use of ideological, ethical, or religious references. Its surrealism and its tendency to stretch imagery to unbelievable levels don't always gel well with presenting ideas and humor of a down-to-earth ethnic and cultural nature. Yes I sure there are exceptions but none jump out at me immediately.

Except for Maxwell Bauman. The author has presented a sort of "cookbook" on how to meld the traditions of Judaism into the passages of horror and Bizarro. Here are a half dozen tales all centering around Jewish culture and traditions and all unique. Hail the birth Kosher Bizarro!

It is that weird and bizarre turn on Jewish myths and traditions that make the collection. The first story, "When the Bush Burn" is a take on Noah and the burning bush without Noah and that particular type of bush. "The Messiah in New York" is all about the coming of the Messiah. Unfortunately he gets a little carried away with the raising of the dead. "You've Lost That L'Chaim" Feeling" takes place in 1831 is both a love story and a ghost story. It's has a clever winsomeness for its rather Orthodox setting ("Granted, all the girls looked that way for modesty's sake, but something about Isha made Chaim hot under the yarmulke"). It also tells us what what spirits do for kicks. It's my second favorite piece of short fiction in the book.

"The Leviathan Blues" is about the Creation. It is the saddest story of the collection, sad and beautiful. The title story of this collection is just what is should be, a recipe or more accurate a set of instructions. It might come in handy if you ever need to make a Golem when the Nazi hordes invade.

The gem of the book though is "Baphomitzah", involving two twins who are about to have their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. It's a funny and eventually horrific tale of becoming 13 and being a insecure middle class Jewish girl with a touch of evil...or is it just teenage angst?... in her. It alone is worth the price of admission.

Themed collections based on ethnic or religious themes, rise or fall on the ability to install an authentic sense of culture in the stories. You wouldn't think that is easy when you are writing horror and Bizarro but these six stories succeed quite well. The short fiction is also less enmeshed with the usual excesses of horror and surrealism found in this genre. This book would actually be good for those reader who just want something different and not necessarily caught up in genres. I am not sure The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook would be rabbi approved but Maxwell Bauman should certainly be pleased with his finished product.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Working for the mob

Blood Standard

Laird Barron

G.P. Putnam's Sons 

May 29, 2018

4 stars


 Isaiah Coleridge is muscle for the mob. He is half Maori, very big, and amazingly intelligent for a man whose job it is to hurt people. He lived most of his life in Alaska working for the Anchorage branch of the Mafia but has recently barely escaped execution after foiling a made man's scheme to slaughter walruses and profit from the black market in ivory. He is given a reprieve though and is sent to a farm in the East Coast near New York which can best be described a retirement home / rehab for forcibly retired gangsters temporarily resting before they are hit again. While there, he meets a young girl who also had her share of trouble. After Coleridge saves her from an abduction she ends up missing. Not the kind of man to stay out of trouble, he begins to search for her and gets into another spider web of black ops mercenaries, crooked cops, viscous gangs, and spoiled rich brats.

Blood Standard is a rough edged story of the crime underground but is particularly one about a man who precariously leans between feeling at home with the violence and wondering if he has his own moral code that is more important than that of the mobs. Coleridge is a fascinating protagonist and there is lots of background that rounds him into a person you can admire in a way. Mystery literature is full of anti-heroes but here is a particular good one whose darkness and violent ways struggles to be in balance with his own personal code. Coleridge is talented in the witty comeback manner shared by many of the best hardcore stalwarts of the mystery genre and he has his share of sidekicks of the dubious variety. He is a bit like a Jack Reacher on the wrong end of the law. But what really sets this crime noir thriller apart is Laird Barron's very literary style that comes out like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet with a rural twist. The author is mostly known for his horror novels and this is his first mystery. That probably explains his darker than usual turn on the genre that is only lightened up a little by a wise guy sense of humor.

The main joy here is watching Coleridge battle against the odds and the guns. While he has the crime solving smarts, in most cases he just barges in like a organized crime Conan the Barbarian. Unlike Conan though, he has his tender side and can count without using his fingers. He even has some literary creds in his choice of reads. This appears to be the first of the series but stands alone with no real "cliff hanger". My guess is you will heartily welcome the second Isaiah Coleridge novel when it comes along.



Thursday, March 29, 2018

Keep digging!

He Digs a Hole

Danger Slater

Fungasm Press

February 14, 2018

4 stars

Harrison Moss decides to dig a hole. It isn't so much a desire as a compulsion and it may have something to do with the seed that he swallowed that came from the unusual tree in his backyard. He goes into the tool shed, cuts off his hands, and replaces them with digging implements. His wife Tabitha is understandably upset with this and his neighbors are a little confused. Yet this is nothing compared to what happens when Harrison and Tabitha falls into the newly dug hole.

Not all Bizarro novels are horror but this one certainly is. Yet Danger Slater is not happy with just scaring you and grossing you out. There is something else happening here. The author occasionally takes a Italo Calvino styled look at the mechanics of the novel, letting the reader look inside his mind. In doing so, he involves the reader and addresses the reader as the pages are turned. From the books I have read by the author I am fairly sure he has some kind of obsession with insects and he does not back down on that obsession. It is difficult to describe what goes on in this book except to say Slater has a gift at describing the grotesque. However among all the weirdness, this seems to be a novel about relationships, separations, and reunions. He Digs a Hole is a joy to read. No matter how strange it gets, the author still has both feet on the ground and knows the reader must see some type of connection between holes, bugs and their own life. It is a feat Slater completes effortlessly.

Yet it is important to state when all is said and done, this is a horror novel. There is much about physical transformation which puts it into the strange and uncomfortable genre of body horror. For those who can understand and revel in such weirdness, He Digs a Hole will be well received. It also will be well received by anyone who enjoys masterful writing.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Just another apocalypse

Hold for Release Until the End of the World

C.V. Hunt

Atlatl Press

January 1, 2018

4 stars

Currie lives in the city of Daxton (Are you sure you spelled that right?) and it does not sound like a nice place. She has a terrible crazy neighbor and a roommate named Kebin (Thank God you didn't spell that A-n-b-y) who pursues any monetary scam possible without consulting her. She is humiliated constantly at her job, and buying groceries seems like a good way to get shot. Oh, and there just might be an apocalypse complete with rampaging fires heading for Daxton.

Hold for Release Until the End of the World is a look at Mid-East America as might have been envisioned by Hieronymous Bosch. But what makes this one intriguing is how C.V. Hunt expresses this nightmare. It is with comic resignation and the sense it is just another day. This is maybe the author's funniest novel to date and "funny" isn't necessarily a word I would use regularly for her writings. Yet it is a "Shake your head" and "isn't that the way it always is" laughter that meets these outrageous and surreal incidents that the narrator regularly gets into. Of all the awful things that happens I am sure there is one or more that everyone can identify with. The novella is essentially black comedy and, as such, speaks to us even if we don't necessarily have a psychotic neighbor and corpses piled up in the back shed.

Oh. And CV. I still think you and you-know-who really need to consider moving.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Dinosaurs in the Amazon

Monsters in the Clouds

Russell James

Severed Press

January 29, 2018

4 stars

Grant Coleman is a paleontologist with a best selling novel and a greedy ex-wife. What few people know is that his novel is actually a true story about a cave in the southwest with huge scorpions, giant bats, and other creatures. He wrote it as a novel since he is afraid that making the unsupported claims of what he actually found would not bode well for his reputation. Thana Katsoros, a shady employee of a exploitative energy company (is there any other kind in novels like this?) enlists Grant's help using monetary encouragement and blackmail. They are going to check out an area in the rain forests of the Amazon that may still have dinosaurs or other supposedly long extinct creatures. Grant is hoping for a new discovery and excitement but doesn't necessarily want to relive the terrors of his last adventure. Of course, that is exactly what happens. It doesn't help that the trip isn't really what the organizer said it was and it doesn't seem to matter to her if some of the participants don't return.

Monsters in the Clouds is the second novel by Russell James that feature the amiable and somewhat harried paleontologist. The first, Cavern of the Damned, is a exhilarating mixture of giant monster movies and Jules Verne-like cave adventures. In this second book the author appears to be channeling a little Arthur Conan Doyle of The Lost World variety. Indeed, Grant feels like a bit of a stand-in for Professor Challenger although Grant is a likeable, less explosive type than Doyle's hot tempered protagonist. The similarity to The Lost World quickly dissipates though, mainly due to a more modern corporation conspiracy theme and the addition of a mild love interest for our paleontologist. Just like the first novel this is an equally fun ride that evokes the early pulp novels and those grade B horror movies with monsters and big creatures that shouldn't be big. Grant Coleman is a bit faster on the clever comebacks here and it suits him. There is an interesting array of companions for him to play against. A few are simply fodder for what attacks them but enough have an important role in the on-going tension of the book.

These Grant Coleman books are a hell of a lot of fun. Again, James places enough science in it to avoid a total pulp feeling but still remains quality pulp adventure. There are a lot of thrilling action segments. The one that sticks with me the most involves a jungle bridge that has a surprise to it. Monster in the Cloud qualifies as pure entertainment. That may not sound like much but how many novels have you read just for the visceral escape quality. Anyone wanting to write a horror or science fiction based adventure novel could learn something by either reading Cavern of the Damned or Monster of the Cloud. Despite a rather open ended conclusion that screams novel three. I still highly recommend this to any lover of adventure and monsters.