Month: June 2011

After Lyletown

In After Lyletown, K.C. Frederick presents the story of Alan Ripley, a man in search of a defining moment. The trouble for Ripley is that while his small circle of radical friends was busy botching their own version of a political revolution in the late 1960s, he was laid up in the hospital with appendicitis. As a result, Ripley missed out on a robbery that got one of his friends killed, landed another in jail, and sent the rest into hiding for the remainder of their lives. As a result (and despite his best efforts at putting the past behind him), Ripley spends the better part of the next two decades wondering what might have happened if he’d been in good health on the night of the heist. Would he have gone through with the plan? Would he have kept the plot from unraveling? Or would he have ended up dead, in jail, or on the run like the rest of his crew?

When his friend and co-conspirator Rory Dekker turns up after completing a twenty year jail sentence, all of Ripley’s questions and insecurities come boiling to the surface. Complicating matters is the fact that Ripley has made a comfortable life for himself. He has a law practice that pays the bills and, more significantly, gives his life a sense of purpose. He also has a wife and son who know nothing of his revolutionary past. Within this context, Dekker’s return presents a series of related quandaries for Ripley, not the least of which is reconciling who he is with who he used to be, all the while seeking the moment that will allow him, once and for all, to define his life.

Throughout the novel, K.C. Frederick proves himself a genius at engineering suspense. His preferred modus operandi is to lull his readers into a sense of complacency by offering stretches of calm that threaten to give way to calamity at any moment; whenever a sense of domestic bliss begins to settle over Ripley and his family, the proverbial other shoe is hovering somewhere nearby, waiting to drop as it inevitably must. What’s more, Frederick also endows his protagonist with a contemplative bent that takes Ripley beyond the realm of the merely sympathetic and into that of the philosophical.  Indeed, what separates After Lyletown from other novels of its kind is that Ripley’s dilemma is as much about evading the ghosts of his past as it is about searching for meaning amidst the chaos of life in the present. A profound, thoughtful, haunting tale.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Love at Absolute Zero

Love at Absolute Zero represents an experiment for Christopher Meeks in more ways than one. First off, it’s only available as an e-book, as Meeks, whose previous (wonderful) works include Months and Seasons and Brightest Moon of the Century, is working to generate some buzz for his latest project through e-sales in order to attract the attention of the book industry. Second, he’s stepping a little further afield of his usual comfort zone with this novel insofar as his protagonist, Gunnar Gunderson, is a physicist working on, among other things, creating new, theoretical forms of matter that exist only at absolute zero — an effort that Meeks, who teaches creative writing for a living, might otherwise know nothing about if not for his investigation of the topic for the purposes of writing this book. Yet despite the experimental nature of this, his latest work, fans of Meeks will be pleased to see that he’s still at the top of his game and more than capable of generating the kind of quirky character-driven fiction that we’ve come to expect from him.

This time around, the quirks belong, for the most part, to the aforementioned Gunnar Gunderson, a 32-year-old physicist who has just earned tenure at the University of Wisconsin only to realize that he’s more than a little bit lonely. His quest, then, is to find a mate–and find one quickly, as a glitch in his latest research project has just opened up a three-day window of opportunity within which to find true love. Apparently, though, Gunnar has never heard Diana Ross’s admonition against hurrying love — nor, for that matter, any love songs, for his romantic ineptitude is rivaled only by his brilliance in the physics lab. Indeed, among the especially comedic touches in the novel is Gunnar’s decision to employ the scientific method to attract a mate. And so Gunnar bleaches his teeth, gets braces, dyes his hair, opts for Lasik eye surgery , and eventually goes so far as to move to Denmark in his dubious quest for love. Thus while Meeks is, in fact, doing new things with this novel (as all artists must!), he’s also allowing his natural talents to shine through by focusing on that which makes his other works especially gratifying —  the quest for love, the quest for self-knowledge, and the quest for personal fulfillment.

As engaging as it is amusing, Love at Absolute Zero is, ultimately, a heartfelt study of the tension between the head and heart, science and emotion, calculation and chance.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s “My Father’s House” – by Lavinia Ludlow

It’s not Ben Tanzer’s fault, but after three paragraphs into his novella My Father’s House, it dawned on me that I’ve been reading a lot of cancer lately: Damascus by John Mohr, A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, the science section of every major newspaper, and each time I’ve had to put them down, on hold maybe, even still with Eggers’ masterpiece, because the topic of cancer induces a lot of stress. Chalk it up to early impressions in childhood, but cancer is a personal phobia, which made it extraordinarily difficult to read many of Tanzer’s passages, “maybe they will wheel us into some cold and antiseptic hospital room and put tubes into our lower back and then very slowly draw the bone marrow that could very well save my dad’s life. That would be something wouldn’t it? Sure it would, though this is assuming of course that he doesn’t die on the operating table, that his body doesn’t then reject the transplant or that some opportunistic infection doesn’t wreak havoc on his now compromised immune system.”

I know Tanzer’s work best in seriocomic form, themes usually include therapy sessions, running, a distant wife, cheating on that distant wife, beating the goo out of some guy’s face (even if it is imagined), but My Father’s House was a march in a different direction, packed with the dismal, the ugly, the realities of terminal illness. For me, it was like seeing my favorite comical movie star taking on a serious role, or vice versa. The vice versa tends to be a lot more lighthearted, seeing Christopher Walken on SNL is always a treat. But this wasn’t the vice versa, this was Tanzer exploring the complexities of a relationship, at times the lack thereof, between a grown man, his father, and his father’s deathbed.

The petite chapters were so symmetrically crafted that they could stand alone as flashes, one of Tanzer’s many talents. Most focus on the human experience, taking the reader through what it’s like to undergo overwhelming hopelessness: “It’s like once I allow myself to think about the possibility of his death all sorts of roads open up…He told me today that it isn’t his time yet, that he has things to do. I know that, and want to believe it, but this is bad, and who knows what’s going to happen. Also, let’s be honest, I can do other things, go to work, go for a run or watch the Knicks, but this is all I think about. In fact, I can’t even remember a time when this wasn’t our reality, and this is despite the fact that we’ve only been in this place for a week or so.”

I kept searching for some lightness in this book, and maybe I found it in the drop of some guy’s pants and then an Entenmann’s cake, but that was over in an instant, and then it leapt back into Debbie Downer: “Killing time, I never realized how terrible that phrase sounds when you use it at the wrong time, like when someone is actually dying.” I think the “Debbie Downer” SNL reference is appropriate, in fact, here is a quote from the book: “The show [SNL] is not funny anymore, but I watch it because my dad liked to watch it…because my dad will likely be dead sooner than later and I need to hold onto whatever I have of him.”

The writing is incredible, no surprise for a writer like Tanzer, and his storytelling ability has always been incomparable, but the incessant mention of grief, dying, wasting away, and the sheer hopelessness of his protagonist’s tortured soul overtook me like Mavericks’ surf. This book read more like a funeral filled with regretful and resentful eulogies, not necessarily one that celebrated life. Definitely worth checking out, just don’t start reading it on the way to a wedding or your kid’s birthday party.

- Review by Lavinia Ludlow

The Great Lenore

Imagine, if you will, a cocktail party attended by the greats of American literature. Washington Irving is there, asleep under a tree, perhaps. Emily Dickinson is busy being nobody in a corner somewhere. And Mark Twain is regaling a crowd of admirers, including Ernest Hemingway, with tales of the mighty Mississippi when in walks J.M. Tohline looking for Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who are both boozing it up on opposite ends of the room.

“Excuse me, Mr. Fitzgerald,” says Tohline . “Do you mind if I call you F?”

“That depends,” slurs Fitzgerald. “Do you mind if I call you J?”

“As in Gatsby?” says Tohline.

Fitzgerald stares at him, unblinking.

“Anyway,” says Tohline, “I was wondering if you’d mind having your photo taken with me and Edgar Allan Poe.”

Tohline nods in Poe’s direction. For reasons unexplained, Poe is asking where the nearest polling station might be found. He’s been promised a drink, Poe is in the middle of explaining as an old-timey photographer sets up his equipment and Tohline positions himself squarely between his literary heroes, an arm draped proudly over the shoulders of each.

“Hold still,” says the photographer as the flash powder goes up in a puff of smoke.

And out of the camera comes a sepia-toned Polaroid (don’t ask, just go with it, but if you insist, would you buy that the photographer’s into steampunk?) of an incongruous pair forced together by fate and the wide-eyed admiration of a heretofore unknown debut novelist.

Such is the effect, more or less, of reading Tohline’s The Great Lenore, a novel that, as the name suggests (and as my perhaps overwrought introductory remarks should make clear) takes its inspiration from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Poe’s “Lenore” and “The Raven.” Given the stature of the company that Tohline has chosen to keep, the author holds his own remarkably well.

The narrative follows the efforts of a struggling writer to get started on his second novel while simultaneously dealing with the comings and goings of the incredibly rich (and incredibly idiosyncratic) family living next door to his borrowed Nantucket estate. Things take a turn for the worse when a member of the family — the young, impossibly beautiful and equally charming Lenore — dies in a plane crash, and then a turn for the weird when (no spoilers here, as the twist is revealed on page one) she shows up one rainy night alive and well.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that a non-moneyed interloper name name Jez (perhaps pronounced Jay, if we give it a French twist?) is in love with Lenore despite her marriage to the uber-moneyed Chas Montana. The result is a tale of doomed romance with a Gothic twist — Gatsby on absinthe, as it were.

What makes the novel especially fun to read is watching Tohline weave the two strands of his narrative together in a way that’s strikingly contemporary. The Gatsby touches, for example, range from the subtle detail of untouched books in the family library to the borderline plagiarism of the concluding pages; compare Fitzgerald’s “we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—” to Tohline’s “We will run with heads held high, arms stretched farther… forever believing that someday—.”

Which isn’t a bad thing.

If imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, then Tohline’s borrowing — some might say “riffing” — isn’t a bad thing at all. The novel is Tohline’s homage to his literary heroes and, as an author, he has the good sense to steal from the best. What’s more, he brings enough of his own imagination to the table to make The Great Lenore entirely his own.

A tribute. A riff. An homage. A mash-up.

Whatever you decide to call it, The Great Lenore is, in the final analysis, a page-turner that introduces the literary world to an author with a clear and profound appreciation for the American literary canon.

- Review by Marc Schuster

Muktuk Wolfsbreath: Hard Boiled Shaman

Originally appearing in the pages of Cud (Fantagraphics) in the mid 90’s and then in a three-issue miniseries for DC comics in 1998, Muktuk Wolfsbreath has found new life in the form of an online graphic novel by wizard of suburbia Terry LaBan. Part Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy, part Sam Spade detective novel, Muktuk Wolfsbreath: Hard Boiled Shaman follows the adventures of the eponymous hero as he plumbs the depths of the human soul in prehistoric Siberia.

What’s especially striking about this series is that, as its epigram suggests, throughout the proceedings LaBan pays loving tribute to the classics of the noir genre. Our first glimpse of Muktuk is that of a reluctant hero: down on his luck and haunted by his past. Then in a walks a beautiful woman with troubles of her own. Though Muktuk never spells it out in so many words, it’s easy to imagine Humphrey Bogart narrating the opening frames of the story with something along the lines of, “Of all the bearskin tents in all the tundras in all the world, she had to walk into mine…”

From there, things take a turn for the fantastic as Muktuk gets drawn into a bitter confrontation across spiritual planes with his rival, Umiak Birdbutt. The result is a wild hallucinogenic ride that’s light years away from LaBan’s more recent depictions of the foibles of suburbia in the daily Edge City comic strip. Indeed, if Edge City represents LaBan’s day job, then Muktuk Wolfsbreath is where the artist/writer goes at night — to dream, to dazzle, to go a little crazy, and — most of all — to explore. Here, we see an artist experimenting with forms, mixing and matching to create something new. What’s more, the fact that LaBan is giving it all away for free makes it all the more appealing.

All told, a funny, inventive, and intriguing comic.

Click here to check it out!

–Review by Marc Schuster

Fight for Your Long Day

Do we have to follow protagonist Cyrus Duffleman into a grimy restroom at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and bear witness to his efforts at relieving himself? Yes, we do, because Alex Kudera’s examination of the life of an itinerant adjunct professor in his debut novel Fight for Your Long Day is as unflinching as it is exhaustive. To put it another way, Kudera takes us into the restroom with Duffleman because that’s how the life of an adjunct works — and trying to make ends meet by rushing from a gig teaching Technical Writing at one college to a separate gig teaching Freshman Composition at a school across town lends itself to a life largely spent relieving oneself wherever one can find even a moment of privacy.

Needless to say, Kudera’s novel is about much more than unpleasantness in public restrooms. Indeed, as debates over higher education heat up across the country, the role of adjunct or part-time instructors is coming under increasing scrutiny. A June 2008 article in The Atlantic titled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” has, for example, recently metastasized into a book bearing the same name, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that unions are stressing the correlation between better faculty conditions — particularly for adjunct professors — and student success. What Fight for Your Long Day adds to the conversation is a play-by-play depiction of a single “long” day in the life of an adjunct, which involves working at no fewer than four institutions, witnessing a political assassination, getting roped into a poorly-thought-out sexual escapade involving a student, and arguing endlessly with himself over a slew of intellectual and cultural issues revolving around race, class, and gender.

Adjunct instructors from the Philadelphia area will find this novel particularly interesting, as much of it is set in thinly-veiled versions of Temple University, Drexel University, and University of Pennsylvania. Having worked at both Drexel and Temple myself, I’d even go so far as to call the novel haunting. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kudera and I walked the same halls and taught concurrently in adjacent classrooms. As Fight for Your Long Day makes especially clear, the life of the adjunct can be a solitary one — and one rife with all manner of drama and intrigue.

- Review by Marc Schuster

A Few Words With GF Smith

GF Smith, the author of the Subjected trilogy, recently dropped in on SPR (in the virtual sense, anyway) to chat about his “sci-phi” series, writing, and e-publishing. Here’s what he had to say…

Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions for Small Press Reviews. Let’s start with your books. What is the Subjected series all about, and what inspired it?

The cover copy for the first book, SUBJECTED: Eye of God, pretty much gives the overview of the entire series:

*Daniel Jeremy Sayer has gone through more than his share of pain, loss, and frustration. Which leads him to ask some “Big Universe” questions: Why have we been subjected to this life? What on Earth is happening? Why the big mystery? Is anyone out there even listening?

When the answers start coming, in the form of a mysterious, seemingly benign, yet oddly inane individual from another dimension—Alien, or Angel, he’s not sure which—Daniel suddenly begins to question whether he really wants to know the answers after all.

Through tragedy, loss, coincidence and consequence, through frustration, anger, courage and faith, along with a touch of humility and humor, Daniel Jeremy Sayer unexpectedly finds himself being shown the metaphysical edge of human existence, whether he wants to see it or not.

The three book series delves sensitively, objectively, and sometimes humorously into the historically controversial and dichotomous relationship between Religion and Science, though it’s not a proselytizing or dogmatic work by any means. In quick terms, it’s about a guy who genuinely wants to know what life is all about…yet is really ticked-off at God for the way everything is—in his life, as well as in the rest of the world.

The inspiration for the series came from my own, life-long, internal struggle to—as Einstein stated best—to, “understand the mind of God.” On a side note: anyone who has ever been honestly mad at God will love this series, I think.

You describe your writing as “Sci-Phi.” Can you explain what you mean by that, and how it’s different from what might be considered more traditional Sci-Fi?

The term Sci-phi—which I like to use—denotes (as well as connotes) the relationships between Science and Philosophy. Simply put, the science part is like the lines of this text here…the physical part: the words describe, define, and delineate a particular subject or knowledge. Philosophy is like the spaces between the lines: there’s always the supposition that there may be more going on than what we know…more to a meaning. Philosophy asks the questions about the nature of being and knowing—origins, purpose, destiny.

Traditional Sci-Fi (Science Fiction), which is actually a huge genre, covers mostly technological advances—the real, or the imagined real—the future, space ships, space travel, astrophysics, etc. Everything from space operas, to time travel, to dissimilar life-forms on other planets, to whatever we can imagine those advances—realities—might be, given time and creativity. Again, that’s like the words in this text—matter and substance.

Again, the Philosophy part is the between-the-lines part: are the advances good, bad, infinite or finite? Are they purposeful? Do they enhance, or advance the Spirit, the Soul? Do they change us for the better…or the worse? Does the end justify the means? How did it all start in the first place, and where’s it going to end up?

Given this distinction, do you still see yourself as writing with the sci-fi tradition? Or do you see your work as separate from that genre?

Good question. I love both… always have. To me, the physical and the between-the-lines spiritual/essence side are not dichotomous at all—I personally can’t divide them into two mutually exclusive areas. So, I will be writing about both as long as I can. However, since a large portion of society still seems to suffer from the memetic programming of the past, and hence seem to prefer adherence to either one or the other, exclusively, I think I will continue to write about both as being two sides of the same awesome coin.

Along these lines, who are some of your favorite writers, and what books have influenced your work?

Oh, let’s see… Heinlein, Hubbard, Weber, Koontz, Roddenberry, Serling, Bach, Brown, Redfield, Cussler, Ludlum, Crichton, Carr, King, Baldacci, Von Däniken, to name only a few. I even like Sparks, Patterson, and Albom. Different books have influenced me for different reasons, as I suppose is the same with most people. Although they didn’t exactly write books, the most influential writers relative to my writing would be Gene Roddenberry (along with his show writers), Rod Serling, Dean Koontz, David Weber, and probably… I don’t know, all of them have had a huge influence on me.

I’d say I’ve read more of Dean Koontz than anyone else, though I don’t think I pattern my writing after his. I’m not into horror, but I love his other-than-natural, paranormal stuff: Watchers, Odd Thomas series, the Taking, Sole Survivor, One Door away from Heaven; there are a lot of them. And Robert Heinlein’s, Stranger in a Strange Land gave me a lot to think about. And of course, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series’ helped give me that between-the-lines curiosity and insatiable drive to question, which is dominant in my writing.

Where else do you find inspiration?

My own studies of Cosmology, Astronomy, Physics, and the Earth & Space Sciences have given me a lot of inspiration. I’m a big fan of Einstein, Hawking, Kaku, and of course Galileo, Copernicus, Hubble, Kepler, Newton, etc. all those guys from history. I also cherish the stories of the Bible, the life and passion of Christ, of Paul and the Apostles, and several of the Old Testament characters: Ezekiel, Moses, Enoch, David, etc. All of these—especially Christ—have driven me to question life, and purpose, and what the future holds for us…in life and after life.

But, I find inspiration from a lot of alternative things as well: Eastern and Islamic faiths, some new age stuff, mystical stuff, though it all makes me wonder about the nature of reality and being. I have to be humble and hold in reservation that my perspectives and interpretations may in fact be in error; just because I believe it may be so, doesn’t necessarily make it so!

How do you approach writing? In other words, how did you learn the craft, and where does it fit into your life?

I approach writing fairly methodically; this comes from the analytical/business side of me. When writing fiction or nonfiction I like to know where I’m going…for the most part. I like to have an overall understanding of what I want to accomplish and where I want to end up. But, within this method I still enjoy and employ the spontaneous eruptions of creativity that happen. And sometimes, these will even change the overall outline I’ve initially set. I try to be humble in my writing, and with the creative process. I think a balance of both brings about the best results. And it’s what makes writing such an enjoyable experience.

Writing, nowadays, is a huge part of my life. My children are grown and I feel a compulsion to get some of these things out of my soul and share them with others—especially my children and my grand kids. And, I somewhat feel a sense of obligation to do so as well. If it weren’t for all the aforementioned writers…I wouldn’t be who I am today. I just want to give back to life…not just be a taker, if you know what I mean.

At present, the Subjected is series is available only as an E-book. Why did you decide to go with this format, and do you have plans to publish a print version of the series?

Ebooks are the future. No different than Digital over VHS. It offers so much customization: font size, color, background, and style adjustment; they provide bookmark solutions, word meaning lookup, go-to page options, etc. It’s really a reader’s dream, and also the fact that I spent years querying agents and not getting one single request for even a chapter for them to review. Though I understand, it’s a tough business—publishing. They can only accept the best of the best to work with under their current business models.

I was adamant in my stand to NOT be self-published. But, after seeing the trends of publishing (Amazon just announced that they are now selling more ebooks than printed books) I changed my mind. Art is art, and all art is appreciated at varying levels of development. Ebooks are art, and although they should be as professionally created and rendered, as printed books historically are, I hold the belief that all art should have its forum. The art lovers have spoken! Plus, it’s a green technology, and that means a lot to me as well. One day my works will be available in print, but not until the demand requires it, and probably only in limited printings.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on marketing right now, for the SUBJECTED series. However, I am also outlining my next novel. No comment on the particulars, yet.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just a question (and possibly an encouragement) for your Readers:

Which is more precious: a thousand answers, derived from one questions, or, one answer…from a thousand questions? (*Hint, read between the lines…)

Thanks for reading, everyone!