Reviews

Lovepain

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 10.12.18 AMAlthough Lovepain is by no means a suspense novel, Curtis Smith proves throughout to be a master of the suspended moment and a connoisseur of unresolved tension. The novel centers on a cuckold named Eli whose precocious young son, Mark, is as obsessed with birds as he is the disappearance of his mother. Eli, meanwhile, struggles to right the wrongs of the world by day in his capacity as a social worker and by night as the assistant director of the parish Christmas pageant, a role, like so many others in his life, he appears to have stumbled into by default. Complicating matters, a lynx has escaped from the local zoo, and one of Eli’s clients has found herself pregnant with the child of a small-time drug dealer.

Given the relative brevity of the novel (146 pages) in relation to the number of story elements, it isn’t surprising that Smith spikes the narrative with plot twists at fairly short intervals. As a veteran storyteller, however, he has the patience and wisdom to let each twist hang for a while — and often a very long while — before returning to it and eventually resolving it. When Eli spots a car accident on the side of the road in the opening pages of the novel, for example, something terrible is clearly afoot, but it isn’t until some pages later that the true nature of the unfolding tragedy becomes apparent. No spoilers here, but it has little to do with the car-wreck per se.

All told, Lovepain is an emotionally mature novel by a seasoned author with the good sense to let information sink in before letting the reader move on. The result is a haunting novel that explores the all-too-human desire to make the world right even as it crumbles around us.

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Bash Bash Revolution

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 10.48.56 AMDouglas Lain’s Bash Bash Revolution is an intelligent cyberpunk novel that comments — as cyberpunk novels tend to do — on the increasingly blurred line between reality and virtual reality in all of its forms. The narrative centers on a high-school dropout and semiprofessional gamer named Matthew Munson who watches somewhat helplessly as his world turns into a massive augmented reality arena almost overnight. Complicating matters is that his father is largely responsible for the shift. Further complicating matters is the looming threat of nuclear war. Even further complicating matters is the fact that Matthew has fallen in love for the first time in his life. As the complications pile up, the young gamer struggles not only to save the world from drifting inextricably into an artificial gameworld mediated by a computer program called Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky” to his friends), but also to consider the most foundational of existential questions: Does reality really exist? If so, what is it? And not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s so great about reality anyway?

Reading Bash Bash Revolution, one is reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode titled “The Game” in which a sinister plot sees the crew of the Enterprise turned to zombies after becoming addicted to a video game. Indeed, one of the more moving passages in the novel has the young protagonist bearing witness to his once-upstanding socially-minded mother succumb to the pleasures of game play after only one hit. Upon physically breaking the connection between his mother and the computer that holds her in its thrall, the protagonist-narrator relates the following:

“Wow,” she said. “That was amazing. Really real.”

“You were totally zonked out,” I said. “You fainted.”

“I…” Mom was looking in my direction but not really meeting my eye. What she was looking at was my hand, the hand I was using to hold her phone. “Matthew,” she said. “I’d prefer you not play with my phone. I don’t want you to waste my data or my minutes.”

That’s really what she said. That’s what she was worried about, apparently. Her data plan was suddenly of the utmost importance, and she snapped her fingers at me and made me hand her phone over. She didn’t want to hear about it, she said. She didn’t care what the phone had just been doing to her… She just wanted her phone.

So I did as she asked.

Needless to say, the novel speaks not only to issues that we might face one day with respect to virtual and augmented realities, but also to present-day concerns regarding screen addiction and our tendency to prefer data over lived experience. Fittingly, then, the novel is not set in some not-too-far-off future but in the not-too-distant past — 2017, to be exact. As such, the cultural references are chillingly relevant, and even as Lain paints Donal Trump with a somewhat comical brush, the humor is dark, dry, and of a gallows variety.

Ultimately, Bash Bash Revolution is about programming and the many forms that it can take. Yes, there is computer programming, But, as Matthew at one point reflects, “Human beings have programmed themselves” as well; “they have given themselves goals and set up axioms in order to live. They have done and continue to do this individually… They have done and continue to do this collectively… But all the while, as human beings make themselves, they also hide from themselves, they hide how they make themselves from themselves. They refuse to take responsibility for how their world works.” Or, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

A page-turner with a strong philosophical bent, Bash Bash Revolution is up there with some of the best VR-influenced sci-fi of the past thirty years and will sit comfortably with works like Snow Crash and Ready Player One on any reader’s bookshelf, virtual or otherwise, for years to come.

Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited

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First, a disclaimer: I’m the author of this book! With that in mind, allow me to note, in all humility, that Tired of California, brief though it may be (weighing in at a mere 25,000 words) offers an extremely thorough account of the Beach Boys’ career in the early 1970s, culminating with the recording of their landmark (if oft-overlooked) Holland album.

For decades, the story of the Beach Boys has been the story told in the 2015 Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy: Brian was the genius who put the band on the map, but a combination of drug addiction and mental illness led to his downfall. Some versions of the story, like the TV movies Summer Dreams and The Beach Boys: An American Family  also portray Brian’s “bad-boy” brother, drummer Dennis Wilson, as a doomed romantic figure whose drowning in 1983 cast a pall over the band’s fun-in-the-sun image. While all versions of this story have the band returning to their former glory in one way or another, they also leave out a brief period in the early 1970s when the Beach Boys were producing critically acclaimed albums that barely made a dent in the record charts. This period of dramatic artistic growth culminated in a prolonged visit to the Netherlands, during which the Beach Boys recorded the subject of my proposed book, Holland.

One thing that makes the Holland era so interesting is that it represents a time when the Beach Boys were trying to reinvent themselves. Central to this endeavor was the work of Jack Rieley, a somewhat shady character who insinuated himself into the Beach Boys organization and gradually took over. To give the Beach Boys new life in the public imagination, Rieley urged them to drop their greatest-hits concert act and focus on new material. He also launched a public relations campaign insisting that it was cool to listen to the Beach Boys again. This campaign, however, was built around the myth that Brian Wilson was still an active member of the band when, in fact, his participation in recording sessions was minimal. Nonetheless, efforts at conjuring the illusion of Brian’s participation led the Beach Boys to produce gems like 1971’s Surf’s Up and 1973’s Holland.

I could go on and on about this topic. Indeed, I have gone on and on about it, and I put all of my thoughts, not to mention a lot of research, into the project. If you’re curious, check it out on Smashwords: Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited.

Die Empty

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 9.20.47 AMHard as it may be to believe, Die Empty by Kirk Jones is kind of dark. The novel centers on an overweight insurance broker named Lance whose recent acquisition of the entire Masters of the Universe toy line has failed to brighten the onset of middle age or his sneaking and well-founded suspicion that his wife is having affair with his best friend and next-door neighbor, Dave. Complicating matters is the fact that Death — dressed in his traditional dark hood — has entered Lance’s life and offered him a deal he can’t refuse: a guarantee of forty more years in exchange for a lifetime of imagining creative new ways to help Death increase his body count. And, it turns out, the job is fraught with complications.

The humor throughout Die Empty is extremely dry, and the narrative arc follows a weirdness curve that can only be described as exponential. Things don’t just get curiouser and curiouser. They go bat-shit crazy in a David Lynch kind of way. Indeed, Jones’s blending of the mundane and the bizarre gives Die Empty the feeling of a cross between a film like Blue Velvet and a George Saunders story. That Jones narrates the story in second-person adds a layer of creepy intimacy to the proceedings. Imagine, for example, being told that you’re not only working for death and passively plotting to kill your wife, but also that you’re into a category of entertainment labeled “nun porn” and that a man with no pants named Gerald (who happens to be leading you to an abandoned cabin in the woods) may or may not be your father, and you’ll get a sense of the position Jones is putting you in when you sit down to read this novel.

As strange as it is, Die Empty is extremely accessible — particularly in comparison to  Jones’s 2011 novella, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, which is a fascinating if slightly bizarre read about a man who falls into a wood chipper and is reincarnated as a man-shaped mass of tears. Clearly Jones is an author with a vivid imagination and a penchant for oddness. With Die Empty, he uses those gifts to explore the meaning and potential meaningless of life in a world that often seems designed with only death in mind.

Hero-A-Go-Go!

61CDYqFHMlL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Michael Eury’s Hero-A-Go-Go! is a loving and meticulously-researched tribute to the Camp Age, an all-too-brief bygone era when superheroes and other pop-culture phenoms didn’t take themselves so seriously. Fittingly, Eury’s study begins with a meditation on what may represent the pinnacle of 1960’s camp culture, the Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Arguing that Batman in particular and the camp movement more generally emerged at a time of great tumult and uncertainty in American history, Eury provides a convincing context for anyone wondering how heroes like Super LBJ and Fatman (The Human Flying Saucer) ever gained traction — even briefly — in the American imagination. To wit: Camp provided an amusing and much-needed distraction from the heaviness of world events.

Beyond the first few pages, Eury shifts from examining the social context of the camp movement to cataloging the wide range of characters that the movement spawned and offering the inside scoop on how many of these characters came into existence. In addition to Batman, Hero-A-Go-Go! examines a wide range of (relatively) well-known campy heroes like Plastic Man, Maxwell Smart of Get Smart, and the Mighty Heroes, but where the book especially shines is in Eury’s excavation of obscure camp figures like Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, the Fighting American, and the Fat Fury (among many, many others).

Also noteworthy are Eury’s examinations of comic book incarnations of pop-culture icons like Jerry Lewis (whose adventures as a DC comics character had him somewhat inexplicably crossing paths with Superman, the Flash, Batman and Wonder Woman) and former US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose comic book alter-ego, Super LBJ battled Super Commie, Super Poverty, and Super “Ignerance.” Along similar lines, Eury also reveals some camp-ified versions of well-known comic books that (perhaps thankfully) never made it past the earliest pilot stages, the most egregious example being a proposed Wonder Woman series that imagined the title character as a socially awkward superhero living with her nagging Greek mother in a cramped apartment.

Eury also provides readers with a healthy selection of interviews with those most intimately involved in the creation of camp-age classics: Bill Mumy (Will Robinson of Lost in Space fame), legendary cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, and Dean Torrence (of Jan and Dean, regarding their album Jan and Dean Meet Batman) to name just a few.

All told, Hero-A-Go-Go! offers an exhaustive compendium of all things camp from the 1960s, the perfect read for anyone who loves comic books or simply thrives on historic pop-culture arcana.

Side note: I found Eury’s book to be so inspiring that I had to try my hand at writing and illustrating my own campy comic, the questionable results of which can be found here: The Indelible Half Halbert.

Do the Dead Dream?

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 8.33.15 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!

 

Dick Cheney in Shorts

Screen Shot 2017-09-05 at 12.54.49 PMMaybe it’s because he’s working with a new, more progressive press, but Dick Cheney in Shorts finds author Charles Holdefer in a puckish, experimental mood a few beats off from the more realist tone and style of his previous works like The Contractor and Back in the Game.  As the title suggests, the specter of former US Vice President Dick Cheney playfully drifts through this collection of short works and takes a variety of forms including (but not limited to) a curious if somewhat prudish customer in a “luxury pet shoppe,” a little boy with butterscotch hair who taunts his father’s demons, a figure very much like the historical Dick Cheney who shows up in short pants at a cookout attended by a man with a pair of horns protruding from his forehead, and — in the biggest stretch of the collection — admitting that he misled Americans about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In addition to Cheney, the figures who populate Holdefer’s imaginative landscapes include a man haunted by a phantom penis (a Dick of sorts, one is forced to wonder?), a syphilitic Bavarian baker who invents the fruitcake, and Leo the Lion of MGM films fame. Marked by a combination of repressed desire and existential angst, the characters all search for meaning against a backdrop of blabbering televisions and endless stretches of highway. In other words, these characters, as bizarre as they may seem, essentially inhabit the “real” world that you and I call home. This juxtaposition gives Holdefer’s fiction a dreamlike quality akin a David Lynch film in which identity is a fluid concept and the bizarre sits neatly and without comment next to the quotidian. Indeed, if the “Book Club Questions” that accompany Dick Cheney in Shorts (e.g., “Do you think enhanced interrogation would improve the honesty of your group?”) were ever actually used to guide a book discussion, Holdefer’s miracle would be complete as such an act would allow his fictive vision to bleed over into reality. Who knows, dear reader? Maybe you’ll be the one to make it happen.