Category Archives: Review

New stuff that happened in 2014

Wow, haven’t posted here in a while – all the action’s over on Twitter and FB, when there is action, which is irregular.

Which is not to say nothing has been going on. To wit:

My story “Bad Brother” went up at the always bad-ass Plots With Guns.

PWG-Winter2013-home

My story “The Cloud Factory” was translated into German. How cool is that????

pulpcore

The ever-cool Amanda Gowin interviewed me at Curiouser & Curiouser – coolest thing about the interview is we spend not one word talking about writing.

c&c

I also had a story called “A Straight Face” go up at the Chaing Mai City News site – for all I’ve written and am writing about Thailand, kinda crazy this is my first actual in-Thailand publication.

chiang mai cn

Finally, Liam Sweeny reviewed Moondog. In his words:

Most of the stories take place in Thailand, Laos, and other places in East Asia, while some are set in America. Thailand, specifically Bangkok, was a place that, before I read Moondog, was a place that seemed too chaotic and jumbled for me to hold it in my mind. When I realized the stories took place there, I was afraid I wasn’t going to like the collection. But Merrigan was able to capture the essence of it, to lift the veil of the Eastern world and show the grit and the grime, the hopes and crimes of a place that has a culture very different than mine, but nonetheless had the same heart. Merrigan was a perfect tour guide here.

md review

… and let’s hope there’s more, lots more, to come in 2015.

I’m running the Bareknuckles Pulp Dept. at Out of the Gutter & here is a review of The Disassembled Man

I’ve taken over as Editor at the Bareknuckles Pulp Department at the newly-revived Out of the Gutter. Got some great stories posted already, and from time to time I’ll post other stuff. Like this review of The Disassembled Man, below, which I’ve reprinted here:

****

The Disassembled Man
by Nate Flexer

Are bad men born, or are they made? I don’t know. Nate Flexer might, though. The author of The Disassembled Man is at least certain of one thing: a bad man can make things very, very much worse for himself. And the poor bastards around him.

Here’s the kind of ultra-antihero Frankie Avicious is:

I saw an old woman walking with a cane. Her hair was blue and she was wearing Ray Charles sunglasses. She was holding a flower purse. I asked her for the time, then shoved her to the ground. She fractured her hip. I grabbed her purse. As I fled the scene I rifled through the contents. Drivers license, American Express, dirty handkerchief, photo of her dead husband, photo of her ugly grandchildren, pack of gum. Twelve dollars in cash. I did some quick math. At this pace I’d have to mug more than 300 grandmas. That might take me all night.

This ain’t even close to what he’s capable of.

Frankie quits his job at an Arizona slaughterhouse by torturing a steer and setting it loose on the killing floor, determined to change his destiny, to climb out of his shithole on a vapor trail of cheap booze. His fat wife, who he hates, has a rich father, see. Oh, and he’s in love with a stripper named Scarlett Aces. Who just so happens to be under the protection of a local gangster. Meanwhile a mysteriously omniscient salesman keeps paying him visits, selling nothing but smug advice. Oh, and did I mention Frankie’s past is littered with bodies and blood? You might guess that this won’t end well.

I’m here to tell you: it’s worse than you think. Frankie Avicious relentlessly kicks against the pricks, but there’s always more, and they’re always coming for him.

Flexer is unflinching, man; nothing is too low for Avicious to stoop to, or Flexer to document. A gripe you could level is that no one, anywhere, seems able to grasp even the tiniest shaft of hope. Unremitting darkness runs the risk of collapsing into reverse-image sentimentality. It’s a tough line to walk, but Flexer manages it. The ending, true enough, will have you cringing from your Kindle. But it does let a little whiff of justice into the story, which you may or may not find a touch jarring, depending on your theological outlook.

The Disassembled Man is chockablock with moments you’re not sure you should be laughing at, but you do anyway, even as Frankie Avicious spins deeper and deeper into his own muck. Skeletons dancing on a shallow grave way out in the desert, passing a bottle of mescal around: you’re starting to get the idea. Totally contemptible and utterly dispicable, Frankie Avicious will nonetheless insist that you come along for the ride, and Nate Flexer’s got the writing chops to make sure you keep your hands and feet inside the car. You’ll be glad you weren’t made a man like Frankie Avicious. Nor born one, either.

Buy it here.

*Note: the title of this post is one of my favorite one-liners lifted straight from the book.

I'm running the Bareknuckles Pulp Dept. at Out of the Gutter & here is a review of The Disassembled Man

I’ve taken over as Editor at the Bareknuckles Pulp Department at the newly-revived Out of the Gutter. Got some great stories posted already, and from time to time I’ll post other stuff. Like this review of The Disassembled Man, below, which I’ve reprinted here:

****

The Disassembled Man
by Nate Flexer

Are bad men born, or are they made? I don’t know. Nate Flexer might, though. The author of The Disassembled Man is at least certain of one thing: a bad man can make things very, very much worse for himself. And the poor bastards around him.

Here’s the kind of ultra-antihero Frankie Avicious is:

I saw an old woman walking with a cane. Her hair was blue and she was wearing Ray Charles sunglasses. She was holding a flower purse. I asked her for the time, then shoved her to the ground. She fractured her hip. I grabbed her purse. As I fled the scene I rifled through the contents. Drivers license, American Express, dirty handkerchief, photo of her dead husband, photo of her ugly grandchildren, pack of gum. Twelve dollars in cash. I did some quick math. At this pace I’d have to mug more than 300 grandmas. That might take me all night.

This ain’t even close to what he’s capable of.

Frankie quits his job at an Arizona slaughterhouse by torturing a steer and setting it loose on the killing floor, determined to change his destiny, to climb out of his shithole on a vapor trail of cheap booze. His fat wife, who he hates, has a rich father, see. Oh, and he’s in love with a stripper named Scarlett Aces. Who just so happens to be under the protection of a local gangster. Meanwhile a mysteriously omniscient salesman keeps paying him visits, selling nothing but smug advice. Oh, and did I mention Frankie’s past is littered with bodies and blood? You might guess that this won’t end well.

I’m here to tell you: it’s worse than you think. Frankie Avicious relentlessly kicks against the pricks, but there’s always more, and they’re always coming for him.

Flexer is unflinching, man; nothing is too low for Avicious to stoop to, or Flexer to document. A gripe you could level is that no one, anywhere, seems able to grasp even the tiniest shaft of hope. Unremitting darkness runs the risk of collapsing into reverse-image sentimentality. It’s a tough line to walk, but Flexer manages it. The ending, true enough, will have you cringing from your Kindle. But it does let a little whiff of justice into the story, which you may or may not find a touch jarring, depending on your theological outlook.

The Disassembled Man is chockablock with moments you’re not sure you should be laughing at, but you do anyway, even as Frankie Avicious spins deeper and deeper into his own muck. Skeletons dancing on a shallow grave way out in the desert, passing a bottle of mescal around: you’re starting to get the idea. Totally contemptible and utterly dispicable, Frankie Avicious will nonetheless insist that you come along for the ride, and Nate Flexer’s got the writing chops to make sure you keep your hands and feet inside the car. You’ll be glad you weren’t made a man like Frankie Avicious. Nor born one, either.

Buy it here.

*Note: the title of this post is one of my favorite one-liners lifted straight from the book.

Jailbait Justice is a cracking good read

Jailbait Justice, by Danny Hogan, is one cracking good read.  23,000 words of pure pulp fun and at $2.99 on the Kindle, a pure steal.  Imaginative without skimping on the blood or the story.

I will tell you this, hand on heart, I ain’t good for much at all.  I can cook a meal fair enough and, when a nice tune kicks up, I have been known to dance in a way that’d attract the fellas like bees around honey.  That was about it except, of course, for killing.  And, in these wretched times, where a girl’s only chance is her old .44, it ain’t a bad thing to be good at.

Titular character Jezebel Misery St. Etienne (easily wins this year’s prize for coolest character name) is a gun for hire in postapocalypse Texas.  True enough, there are a couple plot holes here and there, but not so’s you notice enough to ruin the fun.  One of those books that will keep you reading just for the sheer joy of it.  Go grab it.  Published by the UK’s Pulp Press.

Post up at Dead End Follies, in which I heap praise upon Scott Wolven

Scott Wolven’s Controlled Burn: Stories of Prison, Crime and Men changed my writing life.  I explain how and why over at Dead Follies in the My Dark Pages feature.

I review a Stephen Graham Jones story over at Spinetingler

The story comes from the great anthology Warmed & Bound, edited by Pela Via.

It’s a fantastic story, too, more than worth buying the whole collection for.  But don’t take my word for it here.  Take my word for it over there.

Short Story Review: "Three-Legged Dog" and Single Sentence Animation

elBilling itself as “Reading That’s Bad For You,” Electric Literature proclaims that its mission “is to use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture.” EL is tired of hearing about the death of literary fiction. It believes in the future. You certainly have to give EL credit for trying.

Case in point: Single Sentence Animation. An animated short is made based on a single sentence taken from a short story featured in the magazine. This cunning little multimedia term hasn’t been trademarked yet, as far as I could tell. Here’s hoping the EL folks keep it that way, or maybe throw on a Creative Commons license. image

To get a grip on Single Sentence Animation, I read all the sentences in “Three-Legged Dog,” by Diana Wagman—captured in a Single Sentence Animation video (caution: sexually-tinged imagery). The story is about a man whose girlfriend has lost a breast to cancer. He is her first lover following the mastectomy. Rather than being repulsed, the narrator is strongly attracted to the young survivor, so fragile and strong. The closely observed details are all there, the feel of a grubby bachelor apartment, the ironic pillow talk, the stream of conscious associations:

My blue sheets were cool. My laundry was all in the hamper. She would be a chilly breeze in my arms. My sweat would evaporate, my skin prickle with goose flesh. I could pretend it was snowing outside. Snowing in southern California. With her, anything could happen.

It’s a clever enough story, in a writer’s workshop sort of way. The narrator insists on a cool detachment throughout, leading to a decidedly cold-hearted denouement and little in the way of development or disclosure.

But Martha Colburn sure liked it. Enough that she picked the following sentence, very much representative of the story’s spirit, and made a 1:55 animated short out of it:

I like the bare expanse of that half of her chest, an empty sky, an open question about what will happen next.

The short is quite a take on the story, an approach I’d never seen before. Like most innovations, this one is rough around the edges. For one thing, it only makes sense within the context of the story. Although this may not be a bad thing. Normally we tend to think of filmwork based on literature as possessing a life of its own. The animation here is an extension of the story, though. I like how the words remain primary, of necessity.

I don’t know if Wagman and Colburn collaborated on this project or not. I like to think they didn’t. I like to think Colburn read the story, and was inspired. I like to think that the written word still has the power to inspire, my reservations about this story aside, even in the age of the 30-second YouTube clip. To that end, let’s hope the folks in at Electric Literature keep up the good work, and prove this to be so.

First paragraph of “Three-Legged Dog”:

My girlfriend is missing her left breast. She has a horizontal scar across half her chest, like the seam of a pocket that holds her heart. She had cancer before I met her. I don’t mind. I once went with a girl who had multiple labia piercings and that was more annoying. This is kind of cool. The skin around the scar is darker than the rest of her as if shadowed by a permanent cloud. A constellation of tattooed points circumnavigates the incision: on her sternum, beneath her collarbone, under her arm, along her first rib. The radiologist put them there as guides. One night, I took a marker and connected the dots. No hidden picture emerged, just an awkward box around the void. I like the bare expanse of that half of her chest, an empty sky, an open question about what will happen next.

Purchase info for EL: Here.

Detail: The EL cover image is from the first issue, the one in which the Wagman story appeared. It is not the latest.  This post originally appeared on TeleRead.

Short Story Review: “Three-Legged Dog” and Single Sentence Animation

elBilling itself as “Reading That’s Bad For You,” Electric Literature proclaims that its mission “is to use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture.” EL is tired of hearing about the death of literary fiction. It believes in the future. You certainly have to give EL credit for trying.

Case in point: Single Sentence Animation. An animated short is made based on a single sentence taken from a short story featured in the magazine. This cunning little multimedia term hasn’t been trademarked yet, as far as I could tell. Here’s hoping the EL folks keep it that way, or maybe throw on a Creative Commons license. image

To get a grip on Single Sentence Animation, I read all the sentences in “Three-Legged Dog,” by Diana Wagman—captured in a Single Sentence Animation video (caution: sexually-tinged imagery). The story is about a man whose girlfriend has lost a breast to cancer. He is her first lover following the mastectomy. Rather than being repulsed, the narrator is strongly attracted to the young survivor, so fragile and strong. The closely observed details are all there, the feel of a grubby bachelor apartment, the ironic pillow talk, the stream of conscious associations:

My blue sheets were cool. My laundry was all in the hamper. She would be a chilly breeze in my arms. My sweat would evaporate, my skin prickle with goose flesh. I could pretend it was snowing outside. Snowing in southern California. With her, anything could happen.

It’s a clever enough story, in a writer’s workshop sort of way. The narrator insists on a cool detachment throughout, leading to a decidedly cold-hearted denouement and little in the way of development or disclosure.

But Martha Colburn sure liked it. Enough that she picked the following sentence, very much representative of the story’s spirit, and made a 1:55 animated short out of it:

I like the bare expanse of that half of her chest, an empty sky, an open question about what will happen next.

The short is quite a take on the story, an approach I’d never seen before. Like most innovations, this one is rough around the edges. For one thing, it only makes sense within the context of the story. Although this may not be a bad thing. Normally we tend to think of filmwork based on literature as possessing a life of its own. The animation here is an extension of the story, though. I like how the words remain primary, of necessity.

I don’t know if Wagman and Colburn collaborated on this project or not. I like to think they didn’t. I like to think Colburn read the story, and was inspired. I like to think that the written word still has the power to inspire, my reservations about this story aside, even in the age of the 30-second YouTube clip. To that end, let’s hope the folks in at Electric Literature keep up the good work, and prove this to be so.

First paragraph of “Three-Legged Dog”:

My girlfriend is missing her left breast. She has a horizontal scar across half her chest, like the seam of a pocket that holds her heart. She had cancer before I met her. I don’t mind. I once went with a girl who had multiple labia piercings and that was more annoying. This is kind of cool. The skin around the scar is darker than the rest of her as if shadowed by a permanent cloud. A constellation of tattooed points circumnavigates the incision: on her sternum, beneath her collarbone, under her arm, along her first rib. The radiologist put them there as guides. One night, I took a marker and connected the dots. No hidden picture emerged, just an awkward box around the void. I like the bare expanse of that half of her chest, an empty sky, an open question about what will happen next.

Purchase info for EL: Here.

Detail: The EL cover image is from the first issue, the one in which the Wagman story appeared. It is not the latest.  This post originally appeared on TeleRead.

Book Review: American Fever

Earlier this week, I took my family to get a seasonal flu vaccine. We waited in a line that extended to the sidewalk with hundreds of others, eyeing every cough and sneeze and sniffle with suspicion. This in my unassuming hometown (pop. 14000), where everyone knows everyone. Imagine such a scene in, say, New York.

AmericanFeverCoverIn American Fever: A Tale of Romance and Pestilence, Peter Christian Hall does, and doesn’t stop there. The story of a flu-obsessed blogger who predicts a flu pandemic and then records its ravages, Hall taps into a deep literary vein of paranoia. Having previously ventured into the epidemic-as-apocalypse genre myself, my expectations were high. True to form, this novel-as-blog soon had me wiping down every surface in reach with disinfectant.

Hall grapples with a thorny problem: how to create a live novel. The “hypernovels” of the 90s were dismal failures, I’m not sold on e-book chapter mashups, and Vooks manage to be both unreadable and unwatchable. American Fever is by far the best stab at the future of the novel I’ve seen. It also makes clear that live novels (livels?) have a ways to go. Someday when we’re reminiscing fondly on the dawn of e-books, American Fever may very well occupy pride of place among the original innovators. Its sophisticated approach, however, is not is not always backed by prose equal to its packaging.

American Fever’s hero is a blogger-turned-“flugitive.”  Observing the pandemic’s progression from his Brooklyn apartment with growing disbelief and anger as the sickness cuts down friends and strangers alike, he caustically comments:

“All I ever do is google.  What else is there to do … pray?”

A self-taught influenza expert, the Ayn Rand-loving blogger operates a “personal protection” business out of his apartment, selling masks and gloves and the like. Gradually he becomes something of an online hero, calling out an increasingly totalitarian American government for its misdeeds. Arrested and tortured on trumped-up charges, he flees the country with his socialist girlfriend and fellow flu survivor, but not before watching his beloved metropolis descend into barbarity.

American Fever is the first novel I’m aware of that is written entirely in a blogged epistolary style, complete with rabbit-hole references, pop culture innuendo and cutting sarcasm:

“For the sake of innocent readers I’ve acquired, I’ll explain that I don’t want to have to monitor the site for abuse. Nor will I host debates about what politician would make a worse president, or which movie star or pop singer is doing more to fight bird flu (“I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now/ entertain us”).”

The epistolary style has a built-in weakness: nothing can be experienced directly by the characters, only described afterwards. It’s a tough hurdle to leap, and Hall doesn’t always clear it.  The very structure of the book keeps us out of the heat of the action: the main character always has to return to his laptop. So we get secondhand reports, emotional recountings, snatches of scenes.

“Disorder has turned universal. Armed hospital invasions are common in blue states, red states, border states, states of anxiety, hopeless states. Is the State itself in danger?”

A single taut, well-written description of an armed hospital invasion would suffice for any number of notifications of such. Replete with Googled Wikipedic tidbits, the chatty tone and truncated sentences take American Fever dangerously close to pedestrian blog territory:

“So far my ‘hood merely looks like a police state war zone. We all still love one another. I didn’t feel afraid when I went out. The worst thing that happened was that I seem to have exacerbated my back injury climbing over debris on B. It hurts like heck. No, worse: It feels unprintable.

The East Village can survive this. It survived crack and yuppies.”

The end of American civilization witnessed via the witticisms of your neighborhood blogspotter: it rings a little hollow. I’m not sure this is the best vessel for a novel. I’m not saying it isn’t, either.  But the net effect is, when Hall does reach for more sophisticated language, he strikes a tinny note:

“Time melds itself like freshly bruised enamel paint, smoothes my days. I could run down the street naked and no one would remember, so long as I was back in my perch tomorrow.”

Nonetheless, American Fever gives us some tantalizing hints as to what a blogged novel could be, and to my mind represents a real advance in e-lit. The blog is chock full of lit savvy, which serves to further blur fiction and reality with links to Hall’s flu blog on the Huffington Post.  He also sells personal protection gear and “Cultural Merchandise.” Add in the fact that the book has an RSS feed to subscribe to, and what you have is a novel direction for the novel.

Books are meant to be finished, permanent projects; American Fever bristles with links (though these thin out as the plot progresses). How to keep the links current, and relevant?  Today’s fascinating article on Avian Influenza Age Distribution is tomorrow’s 404 Error. Should the effort even be made? I mean, I can imagine that in the near future aggregator bots will automatically update e-book links. (Which brings up another question: can you really be said to “own” an e-book if its links are constantly changing?) But if a book relies on constant link updates, or links at all, is it a book? And if not, what is it? American Fever doesn’t answer these questions. But it certainly puts them out there in a fascinating way.

For now, American Fever is live online. As of this writing, it’s on Day 156, of 220. I do wonder why you can only subscribe to the novel in-progress. Why not adopt an asynchronous approach, as in DailyLit?  How many readers are likely to read 156 blog entries to catch up with the story?  Not this one—I read American Fever on my Kindle via a PDF advance copy. (Which, in keeping with the FTC’s new book-reviewing guidelines, I hereby note is extant in my email, two computers, and my Kindle, so it is thereby safe to say I intend to keep it.)

All gripes aside, you’re missing something if you miss American Fever.  Start your reading here.

American Fever will be complete by December 2009.  The print / e-book release date is as yet undetermined, but the blog project will remain online indefinitely.

This post originally appeared at TeleRead.

Book Review, shaken from my stupor edition: Possessed By Shadows

I recently went through a print reading slump.  For some reason when I got back to the States about 6 months ago, I just lost all motivation to read anything much more challenging than a newspaper supplement.  I mean, I was still getting countless tens of thousands of words off the internet, but while that is reading, in that eyes were moving over words, it’s not reading, like eyes moving over, say, During the Rains.

Reading.

Reading.

Not that I didn’t try.  Oh, I tried.  Picked up Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust from the local library, a book utterly unavailable in my former Third World abode, which I’d been looking forward to reading for a long time.  Couldn’t get into it.  Tried Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I was forced to read in high school and wanted to come back to as an adult.  It didn’t take.  Went for Richard Ford’s A Piece of My Heart, which read like Cormac McCarthy For Kids.  Nope.

The obvious culprit: wireless internet and a lightweight, non-thigh-scorching laptop spewing out the ceaseless offerings of the google-deity.  And a comfy couch.  I’d never lived in a place with all three before.  I surrendered.  Wallowed in mudpits of sweet, sweet information.  (Though I never took to tweet-bleating.)

Probably a deeper malaise was at work.  Crossing the pond will do that to you, I guess.  More on that later, possibly, if ever I get on a confessional jag in these blog parts.  Better, it’ll get turned into some stories worth reading.

I use this long prologue by way of introducing Donigan Merritt‘s Possessed by Shadows.  This was the book that, a few weeks back, shook me from my stupor.  For an excellent full review, I direct you (once again) to Brad Green.  He gives the kind of write-up that does this fine book justice.

Also reading.

Also reading.

For my part, I’ll just say that I’ve thought a lot about Possessed by Shadows, and why it grabbed hold of my literary attention span where half a dozen other candidates – and not a ringer in the bunch – failed.  I still don’t have a good answer, but I didn’t want to put off writing this post any longer.  For one thing, I promised Donigan Merritt, who I now have the excellent good fortune to be in contact with and who is a regular EE commenter, that I would.  For another, a day that goes by when you aren’t reaching for Possessed by Shadows is a day you’re squandering.  I can’t pin down just what it is Possessed by Shadows has.  But it has it in spades.

Merritt pulls off the very tricky trick of writing about a foreign locale without being either smugly knowlegeable or all guidebooky.  Is Bratislava, Slovakia a place you’re dying to know about?  Me neither.  But Merritt makes Iron Curtain-era Czechoslovakia a grayly fascinating place, while sparing us the Wiki-isms a lot of writers insert like they’re being graded on it. He also writes compellingly about rock climbing, another topic in which I am marginally interested at best.  Same rules apply: no needless trivia, no constant assertion of authorial authority.

All this is to say nothing of the finely fluid writing and the carefully etched characters.  The opening scene on a California rockface will set your heart to going, so that you won’t even mind that one of the main characters gets cancer.

Possessed by Shadows is not without its flaws.  The plotline is a touch hackneyed.  (Come on: cancer?)  But that just shows how extraordinary this book is: I was utterly absorbed anyway.  Read the whole thing in two, two and a half sittings.  This is what books are supposed to do to you.  Grab you by the spinal cord.  Now, thanks to Mr. Merritt, I’m neck-deep in half a dozen books and willingly, gladly, regularly, setting aside the laptop.  I’m not able to offer up much better praise than that.

Click on the book cover to support Donigan Merritt’s literary efforts.  And do check out his blog for updates on what’s coming down his literary pike.