Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pretentious, tedious, and frankly just not that good: NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes

New Directions
$14.95 trade paper, available since 1936 for some reason

Rating: 1.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Nightwood, Djuna Barnes' strange and sinuous tour de force, "belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch" (TLS). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes' novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe's great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous. The outsized characters who inhabit this world are some of the most memorable in all of fiction—there is Guido Volkbein, the Wandering Jew and son of a self-proclaimed baron; Robin Vote, the American expatriate who marries him and then engages in a series of affairs, first with Nora Flood and then with Jenny Petherbridge, driving all of her lovers to distraction with her passion for wandering alone in the night; and there is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor, a transvestite and ostensible gynecologist, whose digressive speeches brim with fury, keen insights, and surprising allusions. Barnes' depiction of these characters and their relationships (Nora says, "A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own") has made the novel a landmark of feminist and lesbian literature. Most striking of all is Barnes' unparalleled stylistic innovation, which led T. S. Eliot to proclaim the book "so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Now with a new preface by Jeanette Winterson, Nightwood still crackles with the same electric charge it had on its first publication in 1936.

My Review: Serial adultress and all-around malcontent Robin leaves her too, too unendurable husband "Baron Felix" after presenting him with the desired heir...only the child is crippled...and takes up with Nora, a whiny dishrag of a nothing-much who represents Robin's desire for dreary domesticity. Needless to say, Robin can't stand too much of that and leaves Nora at home so she can cavort and disport herself with all and sundry. While so doing, Robin meets Jenny, a serial widow (why does no one wonder how this dry, juiceless woman LOST FOUR HUSBANDS?!) and a sociopath whose sole pleasure in life is making others unhappy. Bye bye Nora, hello Jenny, and ultimately Robin seeks the help of Dr. O'Connor, a male transvestite and fraudulent medico, with predictable results. The ending of the book is one of the weirdest I've ever read, involving Nora, Robin, a dog, and a truly weird accident in a church.

Queer Ulysses. Famous for "raunchy" sex descriptions,most of which would not raise a Baptist preacher's eyebrows in this day and time. Dreadful, sesquipedalian sentences recounting unpleasant peoples' doings in endlessly recursive and curiously directionless arabesques.

Do not read this after the age of twenty-four. It will cause your nose hairs to ignite and your T-zone to break out in painful cysts. Seriously...don't.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

MONGRELS: A Novel by Stephen Graham helluva fine YA tale


William Morrow (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$12.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A spellbinding and darkly humorous coming-of-age story about an unusual boy, whose family lives on the fringe of society and struggles to survive in a hostile world that shuns and fears them.

He was born an outsider, like the rest of his family. Poor yet resilient, he lives in the shadows with his aunt Libby and uncle Darren, folk who stubbornly make their way in a society that does not understand or want them. They are mongrels, mixed blood, neither this nor that. The boy at the center of Mongrels must decide if he belongs on the road with his aunt and uncle, or if he fits with the people on the other side of the tracks.

For ten years, he and his family have lived a life of late-night exits and narrow escapes—always on the move across the South to stay one step ahead of the law. But the time is drawing near when Darren and Libby will finally know if their nephew is like them or not. And the close calls they've been running from for so long are catching up fast now. Everything is about to change.

A compelling and fascinating journey, Mongrels alternates between past and present to create an unforgettable portrait of a boy trying to understand his family and his place in a complex and unforgiving world. A smart and innovative story—funny, bloody, raw, and real—told in a rhythmic voice full of heart, Mongrels is a deeply moving, sometimes grisly, novel that illuminates the challenges and tender joys of a life beyond the ordinary in a bold and imaginative new way.


My Review
: This novel was born from a short story that Author Stephen collected in After the People Lights Have Gone Off (q.v.). It is a take on the werewolf legend that is, not to beat around the bush, completely and utterly his own and therefore exciting, involving, and deeply relatable. Like his fiction is in general.

What makes this so deeply and deliciously devourable is the way it takes us into the misery of being Othered in our modern Murruhkuh. There's the level of supernatural Otherness, of course; but as a result of this inborn, intrinsic Othering, the people who have it in them are forced to the lowest and least desirable options for survival: Migrant workers are the base of the modern food chain and are treated accordingly. That is, as the slaves they are in all but name. And, if our country doesn't pull its head out of its collective ass, things are about to get a whole lot worse for the Othered.

Different post...sorry. The blizzard coming has me edgy.

What Mongrels does that other werewolf fiction does not do is to make the quotidian decisions of life, of adolescence in particular...what it takes to have a significant other, for example:
Just when I thought I’d figured out what made a girlfriend happy, what would make one stay, I would do something wrong again and that would be that.

“Something wrong, like, I don’t know, like eating their pet goat?” Libby said, without looking over from the game show glowing all our faces light blue.

into the fictional universe's center. That will indeed make a lass's heart colder and her mouth set harder towards one, indeed...and while I'm here, let me note that Author Stephen's choice to use our PoV character without a name (or without one we know) but a shifting series of labels, eg "the reporter", makes his adolescence all the more touchingly obvious and honest. He's himself, he doesn't need a name inside his head; but he's trying on new identites, seeing which ones might fit. Yet everyone else has names, just like our own internal monologues give them. It's another technique to give the adolescent within the reader a strong and lasting handhold into the shifting (!) and unstable reality of not belonging. Of Being Other, being Othered, and knowing in your very deepest parts that you are, in fact, Other.

Not allowing others' Othering of you to take, to resist it internally, to make your Other from a label into an Identity, is one of the central struggles of adolescence. I know because I was Othered by gayness. I know because I watched my entire peer group choose up sides in the culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s, and I was never in the majority. And thus it is that, at *ahem*ty-plus years of age, that I can find myself in this story of a werewolf whose membership in even his birth community is not assured...he hasn't fully made it. He is just...hangin' there.

If blood and gore are hard-pass material for you, by no means should you try this read...or any other Stephen Graham Jones read. If you're thinking this story will scare you and keep you awake, I don't think you need to worry. The atmosphere of dread is situational. It's a spice used to make this a rare and precious dish not another Wednesday-night stew. I think the most important question to ask yourself before picking it up is, "how much longer do I want to ignore how many wonderful stories there are that I think I won't care about?" Break your cycle here. Learn about the reality of Othering and its huge personal and societal costs without being smacked around by Facts. Let the Truth work her mystical wiles on you instead.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

CALIFORNIA BONES: Unsettling, exciting beginning to a series

CALIFORNIA BONES Daniel Blackland #1
Tor Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.

When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.

Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch's storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian's sword, an object of untold power.

For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There's Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel's ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.

Extravagant and yet moving, Greg van Eekhout's California Bones is an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality--different from the world we know, yet familiar and true.

My Review: Want to know something amazing? My assisted-living facility's library, which I created from my own library, cannot keep this book on the shelves.

So what, I hear you think really loudly. So this: I'm in a place where I'm young at 55...most of these eager readers are over 70.

This gives me the happy. It proves to me that, if you tell a good story well, people it with easy-to-relate-to characters, and pull no punches, any and all ages will grab and snatch and fight to get their shot to read it.

I'm no fan of teen heroes, get highly irked by teen angst, and never want to hear the phrase "coming-of-age" again; I am usually bored into a coma by magic; altogether this book should have made me sleepily grouchy. Instead, I was flipping pages and holding my breath, and so are all the library users I've spoken to.

For me at least, one of the main appeals is the future L.A. van Eekhout posits, a place turned into a quasi-Amsterdam by the devouring sea. I love that idea mostly because I don't like California despite being born there. But also and more positively, I got the image fixed in my head immediately, enjoyably, and permanently. Now I see photos of the real L.A. and feel confused...where's the sea?

Greg van Eekhout changed my image of a place I've been to a zillion times. He's that much of a wizard with his words. I can't wait to be able to afford the next two books! C'mon February, Daddy needs new books!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

THE BULLET-CATCHER'S DAUGHTER, Author Rod Duncan's "Gas-Lit Empire" starts its fall

THE BULLET-CATCHER'S DAUGHTER The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, Book 1
Angry Robot Books
$7.99 mass market paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Elizabeth Barnabus lives a double life—as herself and as her brother, the private detective. She is trying to solve the mystery of a disappearing aristocrat and a hoard of arcane machines. In her way stand the rogues, freaks and self-proclaimed alchemists of a travelling circus.

But when she comes up against an agent of the all-powerful Patent Office, her life and the course of history will begin to change. And not necessarily for the better…


My Review: Fantasy novel. Four-and-a-half stars. Why are you still staring at this screen? Click over to Amazon or whichever bookery you patronize and order one. It is a Moral Imperative. Seriously.

1/19/16: A few private messages suggested I expand on my exhortation. Okay, here goes: Any writer who can, WITHOUT infodumping, bring me directly into a fantastical and outrageously unlikely alternate steampunk world earned your scarce book-buying dollars. He made me *believe* that, in an illusory world, illusionists could be so important and so vital that the law enforcement agency of the whole world will hunt them down and imprison them. He gave such reality to the conundrum of how to simply exist as a woman in the world he's made that I was wincing, squirming, and blushing for the privilege that being male has always brought.

Please believe me...this is powerful storytelling talent working so smoothly you can't feel the strain. I loved the first book, and am 50pp into the second. This is the shazizzle, as we used to say years ago. Not least for the cross-dressing hero/ine...and surprisingly, to my untrusting soul, the mystery was actually very involving as well. To my surprise, the deus-ex-machina syndrome I was fully prepared to Loftily Ignore wasn't there! Author Duncan played pretty much straight with his readers. I like that a lot.

I'm also duty-bound to reveal that Author Duncan is a social media acquaintance of mine as a result of my fanboying about these books. He takes beautiful photographs as well as writing lovely fiction. Howsomever, I read and reviewed the books before I found all that out.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Essays, only not boring: LUKE SKYWALKER CAN'T READ is a dessert case of deliciousness

Plume Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: “Ryan Britt is . . . the Virgil you want to guide you through the inferno of geekery.” —Lev Grossman, author of the bestselling Magician's trilogy

Pop Culture and sci-fi guru Ryan Britt has never met a monster, alien, wizard, or superhero that didn’t need further analysis.

Essayist Ryan Britt got a sex education from dirty pictures of dinosaurs, made out with Jar-Jar Binks at midnight, and figured out how to kick depression with a Doctor Who Netflix-binge. Alternating between personal anecdote, hilarious insight, and smart analysis, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read contends that Barbarella is good for you, that monster movies are just romantic comedies with commitment issues, that Dracula and Sherlock Holmes are total hipsters, and, most shockingly, shows how virtually everyone in the Star Wars universe is functionally illiterate.

Romp through time and space, from the circus sideshows of 100 years ago to the Comic Cons of today, from darkest corners of the Galaxy to the comfort of your couch. For anyone who pretended their flashlight was a lightsaber, stood in line for a movie at midnight, or dreamed they were abducted by aliens, Luke Skywalker Can't Read is full of answers to questions you haven't thought to ask, and perfect for readers of Chuck Klosterman, Rob Sheffield, and Ernest Cline.

My Review: Well, that was fun. I live in a place where I am both the youngest and toothiest resident, so you can imagine what a pleasure it was to have someone to geek out with, even if his side of the conversation is on dead tree remains and my side (often shouted) scared the Wink Martindale out of the older and less dentally endowed residents.

Points where I agreed with Mr. Britt outnumbered the annoying points where he was so clearly *wrong* that my blood pressure spiked to most unsafe levels. On the sternly delivered advice of a medical professional, I will limit myself to mentioning the merest and mildest of these latter: STOP WITH THE FOOTNOTES ALREADY! WHEN YOU HAVE TO USE THE DOUBLE DAGGER AND THE BOOK IS NOT A LAW BOOK, YOU'VE GONE TOO FAR!!! *ahem* For the typographically challenged, look on p128 in the Doctor Who essay at the third footnote. Seriously now, Mr. Britt, The Mezzanine was published by Nicholson Baker in 1988. That was the last time heavily footnoted light reading was fun.

Oh well, I'm already purple, might as well: Back to the Future?! What the hell?! There are people with such, such, polite words fail me, bland tastes that they're fans of these extremely boring cinematic nap-fests? Assuming you're now nodding, Mr. Britt, brings me to the question, "SO WHAT?? Why waste 15pp on such, such, polite words fail me again, white-bread mouth-breathers' silly addiction?"

*ahem* So, with my ranting, I've proven the market for this book exists and is most broad indeed, if it includes my superannuated self. And as mentioned above, I mostly liked and agreed with his essays, especially "I Know It's Only Science Fiction, but I Like It." The mixed pleasure and pain of an adult idol making time for a personal private conversation...and then whipping out a unforgettable. That's a lesson that will stick.

Essays on Dracula-as-hipster, a metric fuck-ton of Star Wars chatter, not one single word about Firefly because he straight up admits (in one of those pernicious footnotes) that he doesn't like Firefly, encomia of a weird sort piled on the already overpowering piles of plaudits about Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek and Tolkien and comic-book's dizzying how many oars this one, uncloned man has in the waters of geekdom. (I'm certain he's not cloned because if he was the street cred it would give him would necessitate discussing it.) That he makes a living while wending his way through the thickets of prickly fandoms is amazing to me. I'm thrilled and delighted that it's possible to be an essayist whose topic is the entertainments of the hoi polloi. Way too much derivative, repetitive thinking, writing, and publishing has taken place on ever-smaller slices of Highbrow Kultur, and I cheer and clap for all the intelligent analysis finally being applied and celebrated these past two or so decades.

With any kind of justice, Professor Britt's class on the Skywalker clan and its deeper meanings will outpace the registration numbers of Philosophy 201: The Stoics five-to-one. Now all we need to do is get him that university job so he can publish while the moldy oldies perish.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Fifteen Months Away, and the FIRST review is a poetry book!

Lavender Ink
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Mark Statman's recent books are Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose, 2010), poetry, and the translations Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa (University of New Orleans Press, 2012), and, with Pablo Medina, García Lorca's A Poet in New York (Grove Press, 2008). An Associate Professor of Literary Studies atr Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, he has received a number of awards and fellowships from, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Writers' Project, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. His work has appeared in nine anthologies, and such publications as Tin House,Hanging Loose, South Dakota Review, and APR.

My Review: This being a book of poetry, it's astonishing I'm rating it over 2 stars. This book earns every one of those stars. It's made up of simple language, simple structure, and simple images. As is the case in the very best writing, that very simplicity results in crystal clarity. Statman adds beautiful, prismatic cuts, startling the attentive reader with dazzling moments of grace:
X. when you get caught
deny the part
that makes you sad
look me in the eye
and say
so now I know
who you really are
The last part of a poem called "Listener in the Snow." It cost me a bit of time to process the fact that this Brooklyn-dwelling, New-School teaching ambulatory example of why I don't like poets has just seduced my aesthetic brain. I'm a fan now. No one is more surprised about it than I am.