novella

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 

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Sex and Death – by Lavinia Ludlow

sex&deathThe dark symbolism behind the title Sex and Death reminds me of a line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps.” There’s a similar existential sense of “cradle to the grave” throughout Ben Tanzer’s new short story collection, and one overarching theme holds constant: each subject wrangles a hopeless sense of “what’s next and what if it’s all downhill from here?”

Many of these stories are about people trapped in transition between what they subconsciously view as the best times of their lives and the uncertain road ahead. Story titles hint at the aimless limbo one feels when standing at a crossroads: Dead or Alive, Drifting, Flight, and The Anatomy of an Affair. A few subjects grapple with the loss of a father, others contemplate affairs, and some panic about the looming responsibilities of building and supporting a family. Many reflect on their past, some with nostalgia, others questioning hope for a better future, but mostly, how to react responsibly, or at least without irreparably screwing life up for everyone.

This time, Tanzer changes up the demographics. No longer is the default a middle-aged white guy thinking about cheating on his wife. This time, we hear from a few young and impressionable boys, and a middle-aged female (although one does contemplate cheating). In Taking Flight, Tanzer explores her restlessness, loss of identity, and contemplation of an affair. The stream-of-consciousness writing evenly builds tension, and never rambles or drifts into emotional vomit. 

“…you look across the dinner table at your husband, the husband you love but are not sure you still want, the husband who sometimes feels like a sibling or friend, which is fine in some ways, there’s no animosity or sadness, it isn’t even stale exactly, it’s just good, comfortable, the date nights, the movies, the trips to his family’s cabin and the brunches every Sunday, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times strewn across the table…and wondering what you, an older, married woman, might be willing to do under the right circumstances…and how could you ever do that to him, you couldn’t, you won’t allow yourself to, right, no, never, not. Facebook though is safe…”

This narrative also explores the complex aspect of social media, how a news feed can make everyone’s lives look perfect, and how there aren’t always friends on that “friend list,” but frenemies boasting about their beautiful families and celebrations, lives cropped of marital fights, familial tensions, and photo-shopped to perfection, because no one posts about misery, existential crises, or relationship drama (except maybe that one Debbie Downer acquaintance we all have, or those dominating the newsfeed by live-Tweeting political rants). 

“…everyone seems so fucking happy, married to this person or that one, little hearts and hyperlinks everywhere. It’s infuriating. And just like high school, everyone has something you don’t, and yes they are happy to connect, but after that first exchange, nothing, it all fades, and though they update their status and leave wall messages for other mutual friends, they’re gone, moving on to new relationships, and new sets of photos, the promise of excitement and release, just one more click away.”

This story exhibits how technology has changed our interactions with one another, the expectations we’ve set for our own lives, injected us with the “fear of missing out,” and exposed us to a wide rage of temptations.

The collection still contains middle-aged married guys’ internal monologue that reads like a “choose your own cheating adventure, whether you act on it or not” book. These men feel smothered in their marriages, and they wonder if the best experiences and biggest thrills are buried in years passed. The tension and claustrophobic sense of being trapped between the good times and the next phase of their lives is often so intense, that these men sound as if they’re a breath away from totally losing it over something as simple as a heartfelt ad, like that one with Bowie playing in the background of the Audi Super Bowl commercial after the old man’s son comes over with his $300k car to give him the fleeting thrill of a test drive, reminding him of his golden age. In reality, this is something a son can only do if he isn’t a total fuck up, in jail, a pothead, or living in the basement mooching off his father’s 401k. Oh, and has the means to afford said $300k car.

All in all, Sex and Death illustrates that none of us are done “coming of age” just because we graduate high school or move out of our parents’ house. Life’s trials and errors (or failures) will continuously test our resilience, faith, and respect for others, but most of all, the respect we have for ourselves.

Disclaimer: you will get to the end of this appetizer-sized collection so much more, but when it comes to a prolific writer like Tanzer, rest assured many other courses will soon roll out of his literary kitchen.

Published in January 2016 by Sunnyoutside

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Ben Tanzer: is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards, Lost in Space, which received the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose Nonfiction, The New York Stories and now SEX AND DEATH, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men’s Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at tanzerben.com the center of his vast lifestyle empire.

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Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer dividing time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven (2016), explores the lives of independent artists coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Both titles can be purchased through Casperian Books. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her small press reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review. Her work can be found here.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Orphans – by Lavinia Ludlow

695-2In Ben Tanzer’s novella, Orphans, the world is a violent dystopia beyond salvation. Natural resources have dissolved, homeless encampments flood the shores, and the planet is an industrial wasteland. Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.” Human clones known as “Terraxes” tend to household duties when the breadwinners leave on business. “The Corporation,” a merciless version of “the man,” has eyes on everyone, and if civilians loiter too long on the sidewalk to beg for a job or protest government fascism, helicopters gun them down like enemy soldiers trying to cross no man’s land.

In the old city of Chicago renamed Sector Six, Norrin Radd embarks on the hopeless and self-defeating search for financial security, identity, and the ever-elusive American Dream. With a wife and son to support, he mans up and takes a job with Joyful Future Real Estate as a salesman who dupes the rich “1-percenters” into relocating to a planet with questionable potential and an unknown future.

Tanzer sets the mood well for his flawed protagonist, Norrin. He is haunted by mysterious traumas of his childhood–as a kid, he saw his father “snatched” by “The Corporation” and found his mother dead after she allegedly committed suicide. He’s treading through an economic recession–“I am tired of sitting down at the kitchen table every night and talking about which bill should be paid this week, and how that will be possible when there is no money,” and trying to stay alive in a merciless civilization that guns down civilians in cold blood and creates human clones for temp work and organs.

Like most of Tanzer’s work, chapters are fast-paced, succinct, and contain no fat, dead ends, or draggy dialogue. Background details unfold naturally through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and paint a vivid image of Norrin’s internal struggles:

“I should know what to say, loving someone means knowing what to say, or at least knowing how to fix something after you’ve broken it…Instead I am about to break something and I know it, but feel powerless to prevent it…because it’s easier to leave when you’ve fucked things up…I hate myself and my inability to express my fears to her, and this self-hatred quickly mutates into rage, and the rage needs an outlet, and she looks up at me, so sad and vulnerable, which makes me hate her more, and I suddenly want to punch her in her beautiful face, break it and break her…”

For the most part, Tanzer respects the sci-fi element by not overdosing on the bizarre. He writes about conflicts and struggles consistent with those that many deal with today: unemployment, poverty, marital strain, soul-sucking jobs, and personality disorders induced by early traumas. Tanzer also recognizes the social implications of introducing advanced technologies into a culture hardly mature enough for radical change, such as the distress and heartbreak that Norrin feels when he sees a Terrax acting as the husband and father figure in his own household. At times though, the story’s naming conventions come off as senseless and unintelligible. Titles like the “Joyful Future Real Estate” and the “Happiness Sector” make me question why a sophisticated society with commercial space travel and “Terraxes” would elect such asinine titles for its businesses and districts. If Tanzer was trying to mock society’s fall from grace, the inconsistent attempt falls flat.

Scene transitions are often disorienting (but unavoidable with flash-like chapters), and the ending feels like an anecdotal obligation jammed in a single wide-margin page. The stunted closing does no justice to the overall story given the futuristic setting and Norrin’s emotional state of mind, which Tanzer did such a phenomenal job developing throughout the novel.

All in all, Orphans is an imaginative and sobering tale of one man’s final attempt to rise above his inner demons, an economic collapse, and a floundering society. Highly recommended.

Check it out over at Switchgrass Books.

A Mere Pittance

PittanceCoverConsisting solely of dialogue, Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance is a subtle yet moving meditation on the transient and fragile nature of life and the relationships that make it meaningful. The novella follows a telephone conversation between a woman who’s lying injured–and possibly dying–in a hospital in an undisclosed country and her lover in the United States. As the pair talk to each other, at each other, across each other, and in each other’s general direction, what emerges is a tale of loneliness imbued with self-discovery. Ostensibly, the woman’s misery is a direct result of an accident involving a poison caterpillar, but her true despair stems from being an outsider not only as a member of her brother’s wedding party, but as a member of the human race. Her lover, meanwhile, obsesses somewhat selfishly over the meanings of words while taking occasional breaks to eat, drink, and be witty. His modus-operandi, it seems, is to keep the conversation light in order to avoid getting too deep with his wayward lover. Aesthetically, the result is a narrative that reads very much like a one-act play cast in the prose style of Don DeLillo or William Gaddis. Insightful as it is charming and bordering on the sublime, A Mere Pittance is anything but.

All proceeds from sales of A Mere Pittance benefit Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.

Badlands

I will gush in this review because I must. I read the last sentence of Badlands by Cynthia Reeves and could say nothing other than, “Oh my God.” I was challenged by this novella. I was mystified. I was enchanted, and I was taken in. But most of all, I was moved.

Badlands depicts the last hours in the life of Caroline Singleman, an erstwhile aspiring archaeologist who traded in her dream of uncovering Eden to raise a family with her husband, Daniel. Wracked with cancer, Caroline’s mind drifts from memories of her days in the field to hallucinations of the Lakota who perished in the Battle of Wounded Knee to moments of acute clarity in the here and now with Daniel and their children. Daniel, meanwhile, is struggling with his own ambivalence toward Caroline’s slow, tragic passing even as he discovers new details about his wife and her nearly forgotten past.

Given the subject matter, it only makes sense that this book offers some very heavy reading. At the same time, though, the hypnotic, dreamlike narrative coupled with Reeves’ poetic mastery of language makes for a transcendent reading experience. Stylistically, Badlands feels like a not-to-distant cousin of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or, in its more poetic passages, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Throughout, Reeves demonstrates that she can stand her ground with either of these literary giants.

A key theme in Badlands is the passage of time. Or, more accurately, the struggle, in the author’s words, to “pinpoint the moment one thing became another.” What, the novella dares to ask, is the difference between the past and the present? Where does yesterday end and today begin? It’s a conundrum that Reeves depicts with stunning clarity via Caroline’s obsession with the massacred Lakota, yet it’s the protagonist own gradual march toward her inevitable end that puts the finest point on the issue.

At some point, we’ll all face death. At some point, we’ll all experience the moment of crossing over, of changing from one thing into another. It’s what we do with all of those other moments — all of those “becomings,” all of those transformations from one day to the next — that matters, the novel all but cries out. Life happens in the interstices of time, yet it’s only in retrospect, only as we stitch together the aggregate impressions of memory, that we manage to make sense of it all.

All told, Badlands is a complex, beautiful, moving book from an author who understands better than most what it means to be human.

Review by Marc Schuster.

J.A. Tyler’s A Shiny Unused Heart – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

To me, J.A. Tyler’s novella A Shiny Unused Heart is an in-depth depiction of a man who loses his sanity the moment he hears he is a father to be. This book is hardly an easy read as it contains the incessant despair and hopelessness of a man who sees the conception and birth of his child as a death sentence. At times, his madness runs so deep, I swear I’m reading bits of Scott Peterson’s journal entries, as if a Chappaquiddick Incident is lurking right around the corner.

The novella opens with an unnamed protagonist in the heart of his conflict, teetering on the edge of suicide, or maybe psychosis. One page later, the book flashes to the beginning of this man’s journey where he appears to be quivering like a fifteen year old girl with a pee stick’s plus sign in hand: “Her, pregnant. Him, seeing himself falling away. Seeing himself falling down. Seeing himself tumbling. He sees it as a film reeling in his mind, a stumbling bouncing fall. Head. Knee. Ankle. Arm. He hears his bones breaking. He hears his bones crunch. He sees the world in trip, trip, fall. He flips and cartwheels, lands, splashing like dimes. His body shatters. Pieces swim in the tile and the perfect lines of grout. He is screaming and pushing. A body flies from his body.”

Though Tyler writes in poetic prose, at times, the melodrama (images of a horrific crash, being held hostage, suffocating in a coffin) becomes a bit overwhelming and takes away from the severity of what he’s trying to convey. “Ramming, running, he pushes off, trying to close an unclose-able door. He turns a key and an engine again. Towing his own heart behind him with a chain the size of the world. With a chain that fits in the palm of her hands. Straining against the friction of their bodies. Thighs on thighs. The asphalt black in his pupils, the way lust hovers, heatstroke waves riding the surface, surfing. Rolling. Surfacing only now and again. Surfacing, fireworks outside a tepid window. Chimes, bells, bliss, glory. A sun sized universe, lowering itself onto their backs, making them glow.”

Seasoned with the dark essence of Bukowski, J.A. Tyler harbors a dismal narrative voice all his own.  His prose is rich with analogies and raw emotion, his underlying motive laid out in a series of short chapters, think Ben Tanzer’s short and impactful style. A Shiny Unused Heart is an imaginative novella with a unique and contemporary perspective. It is currently available for purchase over at Black Coffee Press http://www.blackcoffeepress.net/

Snaketown

The short chapters of Kathleen Wakefield’s Snaketown read like a series of microscope slides. Ostensibly the story of a family’s search for a missing child, the novella also serves as a naturalist study of life in off-the-grid rural America. On every page, the author examines the relationship between setting and character, between the barren landscape of a largely abandoned mining town and its denizens, and, ultimately, between the world and humanity.

Snaketown begins with the disappearance of Caytas Buck, the youngest child of the Sibel clan, an allegedly inbred family scraping by on government handouts and odd jobs in their own little closed-in corner of the universe. “They seem confined within boundaries,” Wakefield writes of the Sibels in the precise diction of a sociologist or anthropologist, “as if on an island where only certain things grow, other things three-toed instead of five, winged instead of gilled, the Sibels moving within a range of their own isolation, their own limitations, the roads narrowing, the slant of the sun, their valley, their bend of the river, hogbacks, Mingus Mountain.” Even the disappearance of Caytas does little to bring the family out of their isolation as a mix of destitution, alcoholism, religion, and (curiously) pride keeps them from interacting with the outside world. Indeed, one thing that makes Snaketown so enchanting is Wakefield’s uncanny ability to move seamlessly from the perspective of the Sibels to that of outsiders, thus giving her readers a complex, layered vision of the family and its tragic relationship with the world at large.

To describe the novella solely as a naturalist study, however, is to do it somewhat of an injustice. While the first two-thirds of the book linger largely (and poetically) on the Sibels and their history in relation to Snaketown, the last third of the book sees the narrative morph into something of a page-turner, with the Sibels and the local sheriff racing against the clock and each other to discover what really happened to the missing Caytas. Blending hints of John Steinbeck and Deliverance, Snaketown is that rare gem of a book that is both poetic and gripping — not necessarily a “fun” read, but certainly thought-provoking, heart-felt, and compelling.