Book Reviews

Do the Dead Dream?

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 10.37.25 AMFall is upon us and Halloween is nigh, so if you’re looking for a good scare (or several dozen good scares), then look no further than FP Dorchak’s anthology of short horror fiction Do the Dead Dream? Collected here are forty-five short stories spanning the entirety of Dorchak’s writing career, many of which originally appeared in such esteemed publications as Black Sheep, Apollo’s Lyre, and The Waking Muse. And in each story, Dorchak’s skills as a storyteller with a penchant for considering not just alternate realities but alternate ways of thinking about reality are on full display. In other words, Do the Dead Dream? isn’t just scary… It’s also deep.

Truth be told, things get deep pretty quickly (and literally) with a piece titled “The Wreck,” in which a diver is inexplicably and undeniably drawn to mysterious shipwreck at the bottom of the sea. In this story, gets at the heart of human desire — particularly that brand of desire that is rife with conflict: The diver in question knows that his oxygen supply is limited, yet he keeps pushing, keeps going deeper and deeper in search of the truth behind the mysterious wreck. What mysterious force keeps pushing him? Or, more accurately, what mysterious force keeps drawing him in? And, more to the point, the story all but demands, what makes all of us keep seeking truths even when doing so might work against our better interests?

The theme of searching for truth continues in the following story, “The Walkers,” which finds the member of a mysterious tribe of — well — walkers sent to the rear flank of a long march to check on rumors of death and destruction. Once again, the truth (as Fox Mulder used to say) is out there, but it certainly isn’t pleasant. Also bound up in this particular tale is some subtle commentary on class and knowledge. To wit: Do the upper echelons and decision makers of society know something the rest of us don’t? And would society fall apart if suddenly we all knew it?

Not surprisingly, the search for truth raises more questions than it answers throughout Do the Dead Dream, but for my money, that’s always a sign of good art. Indeed, it’s also a hallmark of all of Dorchak’s work, particularly his novels like Sleepwalkers and Ero. Additionally, this is a substantial volume — forty-five stories spanning nearly 500 pages — so the creepiness and intrigue will certainly carry you well past Halloween and into the new year — and probably beyond!

 

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Tracking the Man-Beasts

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 9.26.51 AMIt would be tempting to paint Joe Nickell, author of Tracking the Man-Beasts, as a bit of a wet blanket — like the well-meaning uncle who tells kids there’s no such thing as Santa Claus or the neighborhood know-it-all who has an answer for everything. But that’s not what he is — not even close. Far from being a cantankerous curmudgeon who laments humanity’s gullibility in the face of the seemingly inexplicable, he’s a clear-eyed, level-headed investigator who revels in uncovering the truth.

Given the proliferation of man-beasts over the centuries, Nickell is wise to divide his investigation into five categories: “Monster” Men (including a wide range of circus “freaks”), Hairy Man Beasts (of the Yeti and Sasquatch varieties), Supernaturals (like werewolves and vampires), Extraterrestrials (in various shapes and sizes), and Manimals (which take the form of either human-headed animals or animal-headed humans). Throughout the proceedings, Nickell offers a fascinating blend of historical context, pop psychology, and personal experience to explain the seemingly inexplicable. While several of the man-beasts in question are revealed as hoaxes, many others emerge as manifestations of humanity’s greatest hopes and fears. We see Yeti in the footprints of mangy animals because we want to believe that nature still holds mysteries. We see little “green” men in place of barred and barn owls because we want to believe we’re not alone. And, of course, we tend to see all of these phenomena in under cover of night because that’s when our fearful imaginations are most fertile.

While Tracking the Man-Beasts thoroughly debunks the mythologies surrounding many cryptozoological legends, the book’s ultimate revelation is humanity’s infinite capacity for ingenuity and imagination. To borrow a phrase from The X-Files, the truth is certainly out there, and Nickell’s investigation drags it, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the light of day.

The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 8.51.38 AMApologies to Nick Lowe (and, of course, Elvis Costello), but as I walk through this wicked world searching for light in the darkness of insanity, I do, in fact, ask myself if all hope is lost. So much anger, so much arguing, so much partisanship in all corners of the globe. It all makes me wonder why we all can’t just get along — or at least try to find some common ground once in a while.

Fortunately, a new children’s book by Scot Sax offers hope. In The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee, the title characters start off as rivals — each insect revels in ruining picnics and camping trips, but when they meet, they immediately see each other as rivals. Ultimately, though, they come to a realization that theirs is a rivalry based on trivial differences, and with a bit of soul-searching (not to mention some Googling), they eventually figure out that what they have in common is far greater than any trivial differences that might arise between them. And in the end (spoiler alert!), love trumps hate.

With charming illustrations by Molly Reynolds, The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee offers young readers an important lesson on appreciating differences and building friendships — not to mention some interesting information on bees and mosquitoes. It’s a welcome addition to any child’s library — and I can think of plenty of adults who can stand to read it, too!

Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-8-53-21-amIn Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television, Tom Powers examines Doctor Who, Torchwood, Red Dwarf, and Blakes 7. As the book’s title suggests, in addition to genre, one thing Powers sees as the common thread shared by the programs in question is that their heroes’ various journeys of self-discovery have as much to do with their sense of gender identity as they do with defeating threats from the near and far reaches of the universe. What’s more, Powers also argues that each show’s fan base has, over the years and to one extent or another, encouraged BBC production teams  to explore sexuality in ways that are both subtle and overt.

Specifically, Powers coins the term Continuum of Nostalgic Continuity to describe the complex relationships among television programs, their producers, and their viewers. Within this continuum, some fans demand that their favorite characters adhere to norms and mythologies established by early or classic iterations of the shows in which they appear, while more progressive fans imagine alternate realities for their heroes via various forms of fan fiction, cosplay, and speculative quasi-academic criticism of the shows they love. Caught in the middle are the shows’ producers who, in Powers’ estimation, walk a fine line between envisioning brave new futures for their respective shows and keeping the old guard happy. Or, in Powers’ words, the book explores the ways in which producers and fans are “continually engaged in an ongoing act of media synergy and conflict that distinctively shapes and stalls their gendered heroic SF mythologies.”

While a working knowledge of social theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau will certainly help readers make their way through Gender and the Quest, Powers is at pains to explain key concepts clearly and succinctly throughout his analysis. Additionally, his own apparent love for the programs in questions (early on he describes himself as an “aca-fan,” i.e., an academic who is also a fan, and therefore not entirely objective about his chosen object of study) does not blind Powers to the fact that many of his readers may not be overly familiar with the more obscure elements of the programs in question, particularly with respect to Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf.  Indeed, Powers comes off as most engaged with his material when he’s guiding readers through key moments of each show’s history, both onscreen and behind the scenes.

All told, Gender and the Quest is a thoughtful examination of the ways in which individuals and systems interact with each other to bring about change that applies not only to television but to society writ large. Ultimately, we are all simultaneously producers and consumers of culture in one way or another, Powers suggests, and in our roles as both, we shape the world we live in — even if we do so at a glacial pace.

And Party Every Day

300Anyone familiar with the KISS anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” will immediately guess how Larry Harris came up with the title for And Party Every Day, a memoir that focuses on his the years he spent working for his cousin Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records in the 1970s. What they may not realize, however, is that KISS was only one act in the veritable circus of stars that called Casablanca home during the entertainment company’s golden age — Donna Summer, the Village People, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic chief among them. Throughout the book, Harris details the wild risks that Bogart took in order to put his company on the map, and though his high esteem of the record exec’s business acumen in the early days of the company is clear, the author also offers a realistic critique of the choices that eventually led to Casablanca’s downfall. Taking a chance on KISS, for example, showed great foresight, as did signing a wide range of disco acts before the genre really took off. By way of contrast, putting out four simultaneous solo albums by the members of KISS and continuing to sign disco acts after the genre had peeked were a sign that things were starting to go south for the company.

Anyone with an interest in the music and culture of the 1970s will find something to enjoy in this memoir — so much so that if the creators of the recent HBO series Vinyl had based the show more concretely on Harris’s book, it might have been a hit. Indeed the yawning chasm between that series and And Party Every Day suggests that when it comes to the record industry, truth will always be stranger, not to mention more entertaining, than fiction.

 

One More Day

In her third novel, One More Day, Kelly Simmons deftly demonstrates that she is an author who is not afraid to take risks when it comes to the art of storytelling. The novel centers on a young mother whose child is snatched from his car seat while she’s tending to a particularly onerous parking meter. Roughly a year later, however, the child reappears for (as the title suggests) a single day before disappearing again. His reappearance and subsequent disappearance opens old wounds and forces the young mother to reflect on her marriage, her culpability in the disappearance of her child, and to come to grips with distant memories that continue to haunt her. In this respect, One More Day is similar to the author’s previous novels, Standing Still and The Bird House, both of which take memory and the tendency of the past to haunt the present as major themes. With One More Day, however, Simmons pushes into new territory, experimenting with unreliable narration and a healthy dose of magic realism. One also catches a very slight hint of Christian allegory a la William P. Young’s The Shack, particularly given the protagonist’s occasional reflections on faith in general and her relationship to her church in particular. Overall, One More Day is not only a mystery but an existential reflection on the frequently fraught relationships between the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead.

PS: Shout out to FP Dorchak: This one is right up your alley!

Murder by Jane Liddle – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

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Murder is a collection of succinct and dynamite flash fiction that stylishly focuses on the topic of, well, murder. The fast-paced stories range from 40-500 words, and collectively feel like a meal of amuse-bouches. Jane Liddle breathes life into a story in less than a single page, and often, a single sentence, creating an unparalleled literary density:

The student studied the man with the Bluetooth and decided he would be the one he pushed because he figured no one good would miss him. 

The juvenile delinquent grew from a juvenile delinquent to an adult delinquent. He did not last long as an adult delinquent.

The rioter had adrenaline and anger on his side while the teenager had only fear. The rioter swung his bat as if the teenager’s head were a fastball.

Liddle presents the overarching theme of murder through an eclectic mix of scenarios. Many murderous acts are driven by a combination of insecurity and self-hatred within the minds and hearts of cold-blooded killers. We are exposed to mass shootings, sociopaths swinging baseball bats or burning victims alive, to other incidents ranging from assisted suicide, negligent parenting, or freak accidents such as being trampled by a Black Friday-like herd.

After a while, page after page of killing sprees feel overdone, but perhaps this is Liddle’s intent: to prove just how desensitized society has become with violent video games, films, and real life headlines of humanitarian crises, atrocities, and war. Furthermore, justice for the criminals often flounders, and provides little closure to victims and their families. Many of the guilty respond to their sentencing with apathy, and carry on with their bland lives, whether free or jailed, and reflect little on the consequences of their actions:

He went to prison for life, which turned out to be only four more years, so his gamble paid off, or didn’t pay off, depending how you look at it.

The scoundrel didn’t intend to kill him, but wasn’t sad that he did. Men like that were not to be trusted. The scoundrel got three years in prison for manslaughter, but was out in one.

Liddle christens each criminal subject with derogatory names such as the “weasel,” the “idiot,” the “degenerate,” and the “scoundrel,” which double as the story title. Doing so evokes distance between the reader and criminal, in the way that news stories avoid releasing full names and instead rely on descriptions such as “male in his 30s.”

These violent narratives often feel pulled from the headlines and embellished with literary backstory. Each boasts a, “who’s tragic demise will encounter next?” and although one may assume this collection may only contribute to society’s desensitization to murder, these stories examine just how fragile life is, how easily one can become snarled in a situation where human life is extinguished. Whether the act is conscious and committed with intent (shoving someone in front of a train or taking someone out with a shotgun) or subconscious and committed without (a prank gone wrong), no matter the case, lives are irreparably altered. 

Available for purchase in an array of fun colors through 421 Atlanta

Released March 29th, 2016

68 pages