Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Oliver Serang Kidnapped My Blog: Audio Excerpts

(Oliver Serang is an American lecturer at Universität Bremen and a research scientist at Thermo Fisher in Germany, where he swims in the river during snowstorms. He has published papers on computational biology algorithms and is the author of the novel Stay Close, Little Ghost. He can be found at

Regular content will return next week!)

Here are a few short stories and excerpts from authors whose work I really love, and which resonates with my worldview (Ardour by Jonathan Keats, One Last Story And That’s It by Etgar Keret, Noah and the Flood by Jonathan Goldstein, Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and After the Storm by Ernest Hemingway). I also share a couple of passages from my novel Stay Close, Little Ghost, and briefly discuss exactly what I admire so much in those stories and what I wanted to create in my own novel.

I hope you love these stories as much as I do!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Oliver Serang Kidnapped My Blog: How Stay Close, Little Ghost Came To Be

(Oliver Serang is an American lecturer at Universität Bremen and a research scientist at Thermo Fisher in Germany, where he swims in the river during snowstorms. He has published papers on computational biology algorithms and is the author of the novel Stay Close, Little Ghost. He can be found at

He has kidnapped this blog.

Regular content will return next week!)

How Stay Close, Little Ghost Came To Be

The idea to write a novel came from a former colleague back when I was studying for my PhD. We were playing pool after midnight at a grimy bar when he said he'd found some short stories I had posted online and he said that he thought I should write a novel, just like that. I hadn't thought of it before, but the what if of the suggestion took hold. Writing short stories had felt somehow necessary to drain the pressure from an inner tank that I carried. Now I let the tank grow more and more full and told myself that I was saving it all for something important.

As I discussed subplots with friends, the sharp edges of the ideas chipped away until I swam in what remained: the painted walls that erupt into a storm and consume a woman, the X-Ray Specs that see people's most private thoughts, the lost secret city where you can sample the all-too-rare taste of true affection, the woman shrieking in the subway as she smears into a shadow on the concrete, and above all, the deep and sincere love of which we are genuinely capable, in spite of our many imperfections. These stories began to pulse through my daily life and through my dreams, until it started feeling as if I was living within a dream that I had created. And the thread running through them all was this: do we have value that doesn't come from our objective qualities, that doesn't come from winning some contest that could later be ripped out of our hands?

People who have read Stay Close, Little Ghost have asked how much is real and how much is fiction, but this question is difficult to answer. I felt I had two choices when writing as this character, to either distance myself from his perspective and sanitize any partisan emotion I may have, or to climb inside his head and turn it all up to 11, his flaws and virtues and everything. Because the subject matter was so important to me, I felt I must choose the latter or else it may ring hollow. And so I set out to live as deeply in this dream world as possible.

Years ago a woman in my bed shyly told me that she'd never seen a man naked, and I got out of bed and turned on the light and took off all of my clothes and posed forward and backward as the Vitruvian man. At the time, it was the gentlest thing I could think of to do, and its obvious symbolic implications-- trying to emulate perfection as deeply as possible for the joy and safety of someone else-- were accidental or subconscious.

But if I was to grow a new world in my dream, a world where people handled each other as gently as if the other were made of glass, this memory seemed like a wonderful seed to start with. And so I planted it and watered it and let the dream world grow unattended until it became a dense forest where I still often live. Just as the narrator's recollection blurs fantasy and reality, I have remained deeply ensconced in my dream that we are greater than the sum of our objective qualities, that real love can exist if we want it enough. And that is the reason that I wrote a novel.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Oliver Serang Kidnapped My Blog: Book and TShirt Giveaway

(Oliver Serang is an American lecturer at Universität Bremen and a research scientist at Thermo Fisher in Germany, where he swims in the river during snowstorms. He has published papers on computational biology algorithms and is the author of the novel Stay Close, Little Ghost. He can be found at

Regular content will return next week!)

As the first step in my five day guest appearance on The Next Best Book Blog, I’d like to thank Lori Hettler for her support of independent authors and publishing.

And second, I’m happy to announce a contest giving away 5 copies of my novel, Stay Close, Little Ghost, and a homemade screen print t-shirt (design and shirt shown below). The design was made in collaboration with German designer Saskia Burghardt, and features an eye-catching mathematical description of eternal love. 

To enter, please mark the novel as to-read on GoodReads , and if you win I will be in touch to get your shirt size (shirts are from H&M). It will be screen printed just for you!

About Stay Close, Little Ghost:

Stay Close, Little Ghost: A Novel from Tape Tree Press on Vimeo.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Love Water Memory

Read 7/15/14 - 7/17/14
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of "memory loss and love" stories, because lord knows this stuff's been done before
Pages: 326
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: (in paperback) January 2014

I'm going to come clean and state that Love Water Memory is not my usual fare. But you know this already. You're scratching your head as you look at this and you're probably wondering what prompted me to pick this up. I know. I know. And you're right. You are absolutely right. It's much too mainstream and the plot is just way too common to have caught my attention on its own.

So a disclaimer: the publicist for this book had reached out to me back in February and after discussing the premise, I felt it had a lot of promise as a group read for TNBBC. For that monthly Author/Reader Discussion series I host. I know juicy, conversation-sparking content when I hear it. So I planned to have the book and its author featured in the group in September. Can you believe September is only two months away? Where the hell has this year gone?! And so, based on my freak-out about the year passing by in a blink of an eye, and because I like to read what TNBBC will be discussing during these author events, I felt that now would probably be a good time to get my read on. And what a read it was.

So many things went through my head as I read it.

First. That title. Love Water Memory. It's got to go. I don't know why, but it really irks me. Maybe it's too much like Eat Pray Love? It just doesn't seem to fit the book well. And it feels waaaay too oversimplified. As if everyone who worked on the book decided "Fuck it. What three words will communicate to the audience exactly what this book is about?" Over on Twitter, I mentioned two alternative titles - "What Water Makes Us Forget" and "The Weight of Water"  (that second one is pulled directly from text found within the book, and is actual my favorite of the two). Either of those are preferable to me over its current title.

Second. That cover. What is it with floating, wispy, watery lady images lately? Is this a new thing? Is it something that's got staying power? It's been done. A lot. And ok, so I think I get what they're trying to do - see, the book opens with Lucie, our leading lady, suddenly becoming aware that she is standing knee-deep in the ocean, with no memory of who she is, how she got there, or why she is there. So if you want the cover to play off of that moment, play off of it. But don't have this wispy white dress floating off of a girl half submerged, who appears to be walking deeper into the water. It's just too, I don't know, YA-looking? Maybe that's what's bothering me?

So I call the cover "been-there-done-that". And now I have to call out the plot for the same exact thing. Please keep in mind, I don't read these kind of books on the norm so if I'm saying I know it's been done, isn't that kind of telling?

Not that I'm knocking the story. Listen, I admit to sitting down and reading the entire book in two days. It's engaging and kept me turning the pages. Not because I HAD to turn them, but because I wanted to. I enjoyed being taking on Lucie's journey of self-re-discovery, uncovering who she was and how she had changed after coming out of the disassociative fugue state that day she "awoke" alone and confused standing in the San Francisco Bay. It was interesting, the way we were led along by Lucie as she began to piece together what triggered her mental collapse, learning the secrets her aunt, fiancee, and even she herself had been harboring.

I thought the strangeness, the tension-filled awkwardness between Lucie and her fiancee Grady, who came to collect her from the hospital once she was "found" and of whom she had no recollection, was well written and also quite frustrating. All of the internal talk - the concern and worry they both had but failed to put into words, the tip-toeing around each other for fear of pushing too hard or being rejected -  seemed so unnecessary and yet, it was that very tension that Jennie Shortridge built her entire novel around. There were moments where you thought... ok, here we go, finally, some conflict, some "get it all out of your system and feel better for it later" head-on conversation, but every single time, Lucie and Grady, or Lucy and Helen backed off... waaaay off, and defaulted back to their internalization, rationalizing that the timing was not good, or just flat out chickening out. Now, the sadist in me was upset to see all of those opportunities go passing by, but the emotional me could see why Shortridge took that approach. It forced her to flesh the characters out more. It helped you connect with them as their individual stories slowly came to light.

Looking back on it all, Love Water Memory was a pleasant, kick-back-and-just-get-lost-in-the-story read. It required little more than just simply letting go and going with the flow.

Does the story eventually come to a nice, happy, satisfying close? Does Lucie get her memories back? Does she find out what triggered her disassociative fugue and get the closure she so desperately needs and longs for? Do things work out between the new her and her fiancee? Well, you're just going to have to pick up a copy and find out!

And oh the fun we are going to have discussing the ins and outs of it all when we host the book and its author in September! You'll come join us, won't you? Watch out for the giveaway, which will run during the first week of August. Land yourself a free copy so you can read it for yourself and then hit us up come discussion time! I wanna know what you think!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Where Writers Write: Darran Anderson

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!

Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

photo by Chris Kelly

This is Darran Anderson. 

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. He is the author of A Hubristic Flea (3:AM Press), Histoire de Melody Nelson 33 1/3 (Bloomsbury) and Tesla's Ghost (Blackheath Books). He is also the author of the forthcoming Imaginary Cities (Influx Press), Jack Kerouac: Critical Lives (Reaktion Books) and The Ghost Republics. He is the editor of the literary publication The Honest Ulsterman, having previously been a co-editor of 3:AM Magazine and Dogmatika.

Where Darran Anderson Writes

A Hubristic Flea is a chapbook taken from a journal I kept, having washed up in Cambodia in 2012. It was written as events happened, or shortly afterwards, on a little notepad I kept in my belt. My friend Chris Kelly lives in Phnom Penh and has been making a documentary there on human rights and land-theft, The Cause of Progress, for the past five years. So I followed him around the country for six months, from Ratanakiri in the remote North-East to the Cardamom Mountains in the South-West. At the time, the idea was to record what happened in the “I am a camera” mode of one of my idols Christopher Isherwood. I wanted to stay as dislocated as possible. A writing version of Vertov’s kino-eye, as absurd as that sounds. On the surface, this was to try to avoid falling into some typical occidental gaze but looking back, I think it was really because I wanted to lose, and possibly destroy, myself as much as humanely possible. Either way, it was impossible. The self seeps in, whether you want it to or not. I’ve put the final book (working title The Torrid Zone) into a time capsule for the foreseeable future, given it deals with real people and real events, life-changing in some cases and perhaps too close to the bone for the time being. The last time I read it, loathe as I am to have a point to the thing, it seems unintentionally to be about how friendship can pull you back from the abyss. A Hubristic Flea is a glimpse of that.

More importantly, it’s about Cambodia and the people there and what happens when you let the tape roll and try to commit everything to memory. At first, I had all these ridiculous psychogeography techniques in mind such as walking across Phnom Penh at night the way Dickens did in Sketches by ‘Boz’ to investigate the place. And it soon became clear I’d be killed doing such a thing. So instead I hung around, drifted, kept my eyes and ears open, tried to let the city dictate what it wanted to. And the stories come to you, in a thousand different ways and directions. Sometimes it’s a case of being careful what you wish for. A city like that has ghosts, living ones and dead ones and it’s hard telling who is who after a while, including yourself.

One interesting aspect from A Hubristic Flea is realising how subjective perception is and how memory is partially fictional. I can talk to people who were there at that time – at crime-scenes and ruins in the rain-forest, in the Sodom and Gomorrah side of the capital, on deserted islands in the gulf – and their recollections are completely different from mine, and both are completely different again to the notes I kept as it unfolded. The past, because it’s located in the mind, seems inherently deceptive. Every account is different, yet no one is lying. That’s a paradox we’ve yet to fully grasp but there’s a world to explore in it.

Thinking back now, even though it was only a couple of years, is like thinking back to a past life and at the same time it exists as an incredibly vivid and tangible film in my head. At the moment, I’m writing a book, inspired by Calvino and Borges, on imaginary cities for publication with Influx Press next year.  I’m staying in the woods in Fife, Scotland, where my fiancée grew up and where her family have lived since before the time of Mary Queen of Scots. The whole area is witch country and it still feels that way. There’s a dark magic to it for even a cynic like myself. During the day, you hear the crows conspiring in the canopy, punctuated every now and then by the thud of a shotgun in the distance, a jet fighter overhead or the old terrifying air raid sirens from the airforce base not far along the coast. Some days you watch the fog roll in from the sea across the fields. Other days, like today, there’s complete silence except for the rain and an ocean of trees rustling in the wind. It’s a long way from the tropics but it’s nothing really in the grand scheme of things and, as with the other cities in the book, it’s just a question of closing your eyes and floating away. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Indie Spotlight: Lauren Becker

Author Lauren Becker released a collection of flash fiction with Curbside Splendor last month. It's called If I Would Leave Myself Behind, and today she appears on the blog with an essay on the origins of those stories.

It's always interesting to me to hear how the content of an author's stories came about... what inspired them to write it, where were they when it all came gushing out, how long did it take to get it all down, how much of it is autobiographical....

In Lauren's essay, she answers those questions, and more.....


I tried to write about the origins of the book, but it didn't originate so much as generate. The stories were written at different times, over the course of five or six years, so, really, the only thing that provides a starting point is me. 

I usually find or hear or come up with a sentence and then write the story, not knowing where it will go. Sometimes I have an idea of where it will go, but I let thing unwind, and the ones that are my favorites are the ones that take me places that weren't the destination at all, and I know where they end, usually with certainty, which is kind of weird, but I like it.

For example, the story "What Morning Is" takes place during a power outage. Not intending to be literal, but having no choice but to work on my computer, as it was the only light I had, I wrote the story during the power outage. And the darkness turned into a sort of metaphor for separateness that light disguises. How we might see each other more clearly without television or meals or phones as distractions, and how these things are choices sometimes, and how sometimes they aren't. I sat in my dark apartment, alone, texting friends who lived steps away. I still don't understand why we didn't go to each other's apartments. Maybe our homes felt too intimate in the dark. I know that I felt acutely alone, and somewhat anxious, hoping my computer and phone wouldn't die. Wondering if they would hold out until morning, which seemed a long ways away. And how I would feel connected to the world. Or if I would.

The title story to the book, which became part of the novella, pretty much wrote itself. It's about visiting Austin from Oakland, and being more comfortable and feeling more safe, and imagining what it would be like to live in Austin. Whether I would leave some things I didn't want. And I knew that I wouldn't. And I moved here two months ago, and, I have to say, it's been a bumpy transition, and, though I like it here, I have, at times, been disappointed by my own responses to situations that feel familiar, but not in a good way. How they are the same as before, and I realize that part of me really did believe I could leave myself behind and become this totally new person. And how most of me feels good about having made the move at all. The story is prescient in a way. I did not expect to live here in Austin when the book came out. I don't know how else to say it, but this story guides me. Not toward disappointment, but toward possibility. 

There are other stories in the book that were born of moments or days or insistent memories. And there are some that come from random newspaper articles or sentences overheard in bars or on public transportation. Or of things I “stole” from other people, telling them I would use them if they didn’t.

Everything I write is a dedication in some way, I think, Some pieces are not generous or kind or happy. But the word “dedication” indicates an honoring or devotion to someone or something. I believe, honestly, that living with a story for the time it takes to write it, and after, is a kind of devotion. To the story, yes, and sometimes to people who helped or inspired the story.

Above all, writing is a source of healing or comfort to me. As a joke, I considered dedicating the book to me. And I never really thought about it, but maybe, above all, the stories in the book do honor their own origins. And maybe the acknowledgement of self – for any writer – is not so much as a joke as it is truth.  


Lauren Becker lives in Northern California, where she works in health care policy and advocacy. She is editor of Corium Magazine.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Audiobook review: Authority

Listened 6/26/14 - 7/7/14
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended to readers of Book 1, for, uhm, obvious reasons
Audio 10.5 hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Released: May 2014

WARNING: Do not read this review if you haven't read Annihilation. I'm about to spoil a whole lotta shit if you do....

So Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Not as chilling and creepy as Annihilation, but certainly not without charms of its own, either.

Authority picks up a few months after the events of Annihilation, with Jeff Vandermeer turning his sharp eye on the inner workings of The Southern Reach and the introduction of Control, its new Acting Director. Immediately, we itch to ask questions... where did Control come from? The old Director, the one Control is replacing, who was he/she? And Jeff does not waste any time filling in these blanks.

We discover quite early on that Control's mother works out in Central - a fancy name for Headquarters - and she pulled some strings to get her son into the position. He's a bit of a fuck-up, lets his emotions lead him around, but he's thorough and determined to get to the bottom of whatever the hell is going on at The Southern Reach. All of these Expeditions come and gone, and getting worse... what is actually going on over at the Border and within Area X? And how much of it is to be blamed on The Southern Reach's incompetence?

Control's first order of business is to interview the survivors of the 12th Expedition. That's right. I said it. The Survivors. What the...?! If you'll recall, everyone but The Biologist died in Area X, and the last we heard of The Biologist, she was walking to the farthest shores in search of her husband, who she felt certain was still out there somewhere. But, nope. Here they all are... well, almost all of them. The Southern Reach found The Archaeologist, The Surveyor, and The Biologist miraculously returned to the real world, with little to no recollection of the events that took place within Area X or of how they escaped it. The Psychologist, however, has not yet turned up.

Here, Control makes his first decision - he'll only interview The Biologist. He informs Grace, the Assistant Director, of this - she's a woman of many, many secrets who harbors a serious dislike of Control - and she promptly releases the others. So, it's Control and The Biologist. And she's behaving oddly. She's not playing along and her responses, vague and incomplete, end up only creating more questions for him. Control needs to understand what took place within the realm of the Border, what The Biologist - who's asked Control to call her "Ghostbird" because, she claims, she is NOT The Biologist - recalls of Area X, her fellow Expedition-mates, and how the heck she ended up back in the vacant lot.

In between the bouts of interviewing, Control gets to know his staff. There's Chaney, a strangely chipper gentleman who acts as Control's Chauffeur, making introductions, teaching him the layout of the land, and even driving him over to the Border so he can see it firsthand. He appears mostly unconcerned and unknowledgeable with the inner workings of The Southern Reach. Then there's Whitby, a scientist of sorts, who is obsessed with the Border and the secrets it contains. He's a weird one, Whitby, spending a lot of his time in the supply closet, and Control - like it or not - spends quite a bit of time with him, listening to his theories on Area X and the Border and what is it and HOW it came to be.  And of course, there's Grace, his Assistant Director, who seems dead-set on withholding information, only sharing details when Control's proven to her that he's already gathered intel on the things he questions her on. She's covering something up, or hiding something, and Control's not going to give up until he gets to the bottom of the Expeditions.

So in a sense, Authority is actually about Control's LACK of authority and the false sense of authority Central and The Southern Reach appear to be wielding around. Who can stand there and say they have authority or control over nature? Or unnatural events? Who can claim to have an event like The Border and Area X under control when they don't have a clue about how to it even came to be? Or what's controlling IT?

Where Annihilation shone a spotlight inside Area X, here, Authority tries to shine the light outside Area X, highlighting all of the cracks in the system, the confusion and curiosity of the 'Corporate Heads', and proves, once and for all, that no one has a fucking clue what the hell is going on.

Authority is not as fast-paced as it predecessor, and it reads like a true investigation would... ask a few questions, see what rabbit-holes it forces you down, change your technique and your focus, ask a few more questions, weigh the new information against the information you've already got, see what fits and what doesn't, pressure the interviewee, pressure your peers, look inside locked cabinets and behind sealed doors to uncover the secrets no one else wants you to see, ask the questions no one wants to answer and WHAM-O. By the end of the book, your head is spinning and everything you thought you knew about Area X and the Border and Central and The Southern Reach is simultaneously confirmed and thrown out the window.

So, does Authority give you answers to some of the questions you had while reading Annihilation? Absolutely! But, for every answer you get, Authority creates another question that is left hanging, which we hope are to be explored in Book 3.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Audio Series: Clarissa Angus

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen." is a special one for us. Hatched in a NYC club during BEA week, this feature requires more work of the author than any of the ones that have come before. And that makes it all the more sweeter when you see, or rather, hear them read excerpts from their own novels, in their own voices, the way their stories were meant to be heard.

Today, Clarissa Angus reads us two excerpts from the anthology My Baby Shot Me DownClarissa is a Londoner raised by wonderful Jamaican-born parents. Spoiler: she has no idea what she's doing, but sometimes she gets lucky with her writing. You can find her online at Ether Books, ABCtales, The Artillery of Words, and Litro magazine. Once, she got lucky and made the Bridport Prize Short Story Short List 2012. Then she got lucky again and made it into the Raging Aardvark Twisted Tales 2013 anthology. Incredibly, her dream of being included as part of the Liars' League (Hong Kong) came true. She's indebted to anyone who has ever thought her creative musings are worth a read.

Click on the soundcloud links to experience Playing and Big Girl, as read by Clarissa Angus:

The word on My Baby Shot Me Down:

Ten new women writers showcase an exceptional collection of poetry and prose. An incendiary blend of cerebral and visceral, this anthology presents a broadened view of the personal, political and social spectra. The unsettling beauty of the language is rendered sharp and transgressive, shot through with high-calibre comedy.

Expect full-bodied and full-blooded.

Grey areas of the gender-jungle and identity are explored alongside matters of love, family, relationships and sex, making for stark writing that is vital, refreshing and life-affirming.
*lifted with love from Goodreads

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Oliver Serang Kidnaps TNBBC

Waaaay back in March, I posted a proposal, one that would allow small press authors an opportunity to take my blog hostage and control all - right. down. to . the. very. last. sentence. - of its content for one entire week. Oliver Serang, author of Stay Close, Little Ghost, was the first to accept the challenge!

In just over a week, while I'm locked away in some dark closet or dusty ole basement, Oliver will be taking over TNBBC. He's got some great content lined up. I don't want to spoil it all for you - I mean, what's the fun in that, right?! - but I do know he'll be giving away some goodies, so be sure you don't miss out!

It all starts on Monday July 21st.

I'd say I would see you there, but... you know... I'll be kidnapped by then!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Audiobook Review: Annihilation

Listened 6/21/14 - 6/25/14
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended to readers who dig a big ole heap of eerie in their fiction and don't necessarily need to know what's going on to enjoy it
Length: 6 hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Released: February 2014

Holy Jeff "you've got my attention" Vandermeer.

Let me start off by admitting that Annihilation was a book I'd been hearing a lot about, but wasn't necessarily in a rush to get my hands on. All too often, the "most talked about" books turn out, in my opinion, to be big fat duds. Not that I doubt you, dear readers, but I find that, time and time again, when discussing books we consider "scary" or "creepy" or "disturbing", our experiences with them tend to run perpendicular, rather than parallel, to each other. The most recent example I have of this is The Three. Every review I read gushed over how creepy and scary that book was, how people weren't able to sleep with the lights off for days after reading it... and there I sat, waiting and waiting for it get creepier and scarier, and it just never did.

This, though? This book. It totally brought the creepy.

No. Wait. Not only did it BRING the creepy... it kept building the creepy up until it became flat out disturbing. And then it went and turned the disturbing right on its fucking head.

So the premise of Annihilation: something catastrophic has taken place in a corner of the world. A kind of invisible border came down out of nowhere decades ago and anything that was caught within its net was lost. Gone. Vanished as if it never was. This is referred to as The Event. The landscape, the ecosystem behind the border, has changed, morphed, in ways no one knows or can understand.  The land contained within it is referred to as Area X. And a group of people - part of a new government, a special branch, a highly confidential containment unit of some sort? - known as The Southern Reach have been sending Expeditions beyond the invisible border to research and observe Area X, and return with their findings ever since.

Only, when these expeditions return... when these people come back, IF they come back... they are changed. Not the same. In many different ways.

And what they claim to have seen, to have experienced, varies greatly as well.

Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition. And it is told in first person, through the eyes of The Biologist. Along with her were The Linguist - though she quit the group before they actually crossed the border; The Archaeologist; The Psychologist - the group leader; and The Surveyor. Each chosen for this expedition based on a particularly unique set of qualities or skills. And then they were stripped of their names, issued new names that corresponded with those skill sets, and put through grueling training sessions before they were packed up and shipped off to the border.

What they find within Area X, all recorded into journal entries by The Biologist, is unlike anything they have ever experienced before. Strange plant and animal life, a horrible keening noise in the night, a tunnel - or is it a tower? - that contains a string of living words on its wall, words that appear to still be in the process of being written by someone, or something, father down there...

Reminiscent of The Ruins and Fragment, Annihilation is very much a hybrid sci-fi thriller-slash-eco-terrestrial mystery of a book. The reader, following in the footsteps of The Biologist, is forced to experience Area X from her perspective. Which we discover, as we get to know her and the circumstances surrounding her personal interest in Area X (and as we learn of the "training" that she had been put through), may not be totally reliable.

Vandermeer exceeded my expectations with this creepy, eerily disturbing introduction into Area X and The Southern Reach. I am already in the process of downloading the second audiobook of the series, Authority, and cannot wait to uncover the secrets that it holds and further immerse myself into this terribly frightening and surreal world.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book Review: Graphic the Valley

Read 6/26/14 - 7/2/14
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of literature that delves deep into rights and wrongs without being preachy, of characters that appear to move very little but create wide ripples
Pages: 271
Publisher: Tyrus Books
Released: 2013

Tyrus Books is one of the more generous publishers I know. It feels as though, every time I turn around, they enthusiastically give away copies of their backlist titles, no strings attached, to anyone who happens to be online at the moment the request is broadcast. A few months ago, when a request for free copies went out, I decided to head over to their website and started sifting through the catalog. Up until that moment, though I had been following them on Twitter, I'd never owned or read any of their books. Their 2013 release Graphic the Valley caught my attention and within a few days, it was knocking on my front door

It's front and back covers refer to it as James Joyce-ian and a modern retelling of Samson and Delilah, and to both I say nuh-uh. No way. Don't let those descriptions throw you off because (one) a book could be one, or it could be the other, but there is no way any book could be both at the same time and (two) it's just so far from either that I'm actually confused by the comparisons.

Hoffmeister's writing flows like melted butter off the page. It smoothly transports us from past to present, transitioning itself in time and place with ease. He uses his words wisely, concisely. And it is my impression that this intentional brevity creates a more passionate, immediate picture for his readers.

On the surface, Graphic the Valley introduces us to Tenaya, a man-child who is born and raised in Yosemite. His mother and father, the only family he's really ever known. He's never left the Valley and only experiences the outside world through his interactions with the camp's seasonal patrons and the voluntary homeless "dirtbags" (his name for them, not mine) who set up temporary camp in the caves and natural lean-to's within the heart of the forest. What Tenaya knows of his people's history has been told to him by his father in the form of stories. He survives by scavenging bear-boxes, dumpster-diving, and living off the land. He is naive, though he believes in standing up for what is right and wrong. He is sentimental, for he desires to remain connected to his homeland while attempting to connect to the strangers who surround him. Tenaya is also incredibly heroic, though he doesn't really understand what it means to be a hero and is incapable of seeing how his actions create gigantic ripples in the world beyond his own.

If you read a little deeper, you'll discover the struggles of a family desperate to fight for a history they believe is being taken from them; of the invisible impact corporate growth and greed can have on the lives of those native to the land; a contemplation on how far a person is willing to go to make right all the things they perceive as wrong. And ultimately how those perceptions, limited as they are through the small scope in which they are viewed, might actually tear that family apart.

Hoffmeister pulls no punches as he forces his characters to admit the roles their lies and secrets and lust play in the fate of their own lives as well as in the fate of the Valley. And as the war against corporation growth begins to take human lives, those that are left behind must ask themselves, was it worth it? Are they still doing the right thing?

I think what I enjoyed the most, as I read, was how Hoffmeister shone a light on the lives of those who are frequently misunderstood and sometimes entirely overlooked without coming off as preachy. It gives you an appreciation for those who choose to live off the grid. And more personally, it brought back to mind the friend I had back in high school who took off for a month with only a backpack and a bicycle and the expectation that he could survive off the land and the generosity of strangers. And damn if he didn't do what he set out to do. At the time, it was a way of life I couldn't and wouldn't understand. Now that I look back on it, I have to wonder... what did that freedom feel like? And once you'd gotten a taste of it, how difficult would it be to willingly go back to the life you knew? To face the bills and mortgage payments and 9-5 grind again?

Graphic the Valley takes those questions and spins them around... what if that lifestyle was all you knew? Would you give up that kind of freedom, break away from it to live on the grid, like millions of others do, every day?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Timothy J Jarvis' Guide to Books & Booze

Time to grab a book and get tipsy!

Back by popular demand, Books & Booze, originally a mini-series of sorts here on TNBBC challenges participating authors to make up their own drinks, name and all, or create a drink list for their characters and/or readers using drinks that already exist. 

Today, Timothy J Jarvis gives a detailed synopsis of the his book The Wanderer, its boozey bi-parts, and ends with a strangely voluptuous drink complete with recipe at the end.  


I slightly dread having to give a synopsis of The Wanderer, let alone a terse summary, as it’s a touch sprawling, and I'm not at all sure what's it's all about. But if forced to offer a high-concept précis, it would go something along the lines of this: ‘The Highlander meets Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters, meets M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. With booze.’ Or, as its somewhat fustian immortal narrator might phrase it: ‘With topery, sottishness, and befuddlement.’ I’ve totted up all the instances of quaffing in the text (see below), and, well, there’s a lot. Many, many libations poured down throats in honour of Bacchus.

The Wanderer is a strange text, and its provenance is weird also. I found it in the flat of an obscure author of strange stories, Simon Peterkin, after he’d vanished in uncanny circumstances. I read it, and something about it persuaded me I should attempt to get it published. And the wonderful folk at Perfect Edge Books have obliged. I’m not quite sure, though, what The Wanderer is. Perhaps a fiction, Peterkin's last novel, or maybe something far stranger? Perhaps more account than story?

Much of it tells of its narrator’s trials in the far-flung future, at the end of the world, of his showdown with an old, old enemy. But another strand of the novel is a portmanteau horror or club story, told in flashback, and set some time in the early twenty-first century. The narrator gathers a group of unfortunate individuals to tell stories of dread, eldritch experiences they’ve undergone. Drink features heavily in these tales, indeed the protagonists of all, including the narrator, are drunk, or half-drunk at least, when they witness the rending of the veil, see the weird world beneath the skin of the mundane. But despite his experience, the narrator choses, as the place where the stories are to be related, a pub in London’s Borough area, just south of the Thames. And despite theirs, the others come.

English pubs are odd places. I came across the following apt quote, from  Kate Fox’s Watching the English, in Paul Ewen’s London Pub Reviews (a book in which, for our hapless ‘reviewer’, various old London pubs become loci of disconcerting, and frequently hilarious, surrealism): “Like all drinking places, [the pub] is in some respects a ‘liminal’ zone, an equivocal, marginal, borderline state.” And I would argue that old London pubs have a particularly strange charge, one that arises from their being crucibles in which different social classes, and various historical strata come together, react, meld, transmute – with alcohol as the catalyst.

And the pub in The Wanderer is distinctly an old London pub, a convivial antiquated boozer. Here’s how the narrator describes it:

“On reaching the Nightingale, I saw fitful flickering behind the frosted panes; a fire was burning in its hearth, and I was glad, because of the cold, the gusting wind, and because it would make the place even snugger. The pub’s board, a painting of the songbird it was named for, squalled as it swung restlessly back and forth. I went inside, looked about. Many of the pub’s appointments dated back to when it first opened, the late-Victorian period. The space was partitioned, by wooden screens inset with panels of etched glass, into a public bar and saloon at the rear; the island bar was mahogany with a pine counter, and had a canopy carved with a row of leering heads, Green Men, foliage sprouting from their mouths, wreathing their faces; and the walls were decorated with a lapis-tile dado and hung with fly-spotted mirrors in tarnished gilt frames. Apart from the wavering glow of the fire, the only source of light was a motley array of standard and table lamps, dim bulbs, but the effect was cosy, not dismal.”

So why the link between drinking and the weird vision in The Wanderer? Well, taking the book as a novel, it could be argued this aspect alludes to Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd”, a story that is specifically referenced at one point. It’s one of Poe’s most comical and grotesque tales. It describes the narrator’s encounter, while in a drunken stupor, with the eponymous entity, a creature described as follows:

“Hereupon I bethought me of looking immediately before my nose, and there, sure enough, confronting me at the table sat a personage nondescript, although not altogether indescribable. His body was a wine-pipe, or a rum-puncheon, or something of that character, and had a truly Falstaffian air. In its nether extremity were inserted two kegs, which seemed to answer all the purposes of legs. For arms there dangled from the upper portion of the carcass two tolerably long bottles, with the necks outward for hands. All the head that I saw the monster possessed of was one of those Hessian canteens which resemble a large snuff-box with a hole in the middle of the lid. This canteen (with a funnel on its top, like a cavalier cap slouched over the eyes) was set on edge upon the puncheon, with the hole toward myself; and through this hole, which seemed puckered up like the mouth of a very precise old maid, the creature was emitting certain rumbling and grumbling noises which he evidently intended for intelligible talk.”

The Angel of the Odd announces to the narrator, in heavy-accented tones, that he’s the “the genius who preside[s] over the contretemps of mankind, and whose business it [is] to bring about the odd accidents which are continually astonishing the skeptic.” The Angel has manifested before the narrator because he’s scoffed at the likelihood of such strange and terrible coincidences after reading a report in a newspaper of a bizarre death which he believes “a poor hoax.” The protagonist pays scant attention to the Angel, his contempt, after a time, driving the odd creature away. As a punishment, the avatar of chance then subjects the narrator to an increasingly absurd series of trials. The Wanderer, if fiction, could be running with Poe’s conceit.

And if it’s not fiction? Well, you can draw your own conclusions, I guess.

And what tipple to suggest, should you read The Wanderer (which I can’t necessarily recommend – I’ve not slept easily since I did)? I’d say it has to be a punch, partly because a diabolical Punch puppet is one of the forms the book’s major antagonist takes, and partly to honour probably the finest description of the concoction of a beverage in all weird literature – the following scene from Arthur Machen’s strange tale, ‘N’:

“‘What chops they were!’ sighed Perrott. And he began to make the punch, grating first of all the lumps of sugar against the lemons; drawing forth thereby the delicate, aromatic oils from the rind of the Mediterranean fruit.

“Matters were brought forth from cupboards at the dark end of the room: rum from the Jamaica Coffee House in the City, spices in blue china boxes, one or two old bottles containing secret essences. The kettle boiled, the ingredients were dusted in and poured into the red-brown jar, which was then muffled and set to digest on the hearth, in the heat of the fire.

“‘Misc, fiat mistura,’ said Harliss.

“‘Very well,’ answered Arnold. ‘But remember that all the true matters of the work are invisible.’

“Nobody minded him or his alchemy; and after a due interval, the glasses were held over the fragrant steam of the jar, and then filled. The three sat round the fire, drinking and sipping with grateful hearts.”

I’ll call my punch “Tartarean”, after Tartarus, the name used in The Wanderer for a dread eldritch realm that abuts this world and which the occultist can enter, and the unfortunate stray into, at certain liminal sites. It is a place, “never the same twice, sometimes lurid, grotesque, sometimes seemingly ordinary, but seething with menace.” As, I think, this drink rightly should be.

So, therefore, what should our punch’s ingredients be? I reckon every  intoxicating drink drunk (and all the coffees and teas, to keep us alert) in The Wanderer, plus a measure of absinthe, with genuine wormwood, for that authentic decadent weirdness, and, for spice, some of the dust that lies thickly over all in The Wanderer’s depiction of a desolated far-future world.

So here goes:

Tartarean Punch
To a large pan add:
A pint of lager
A pewter tankard of ale
Two espressos
More beer (it doesn’t really matter what kind)
Milky tea, two sugars
More coffee
More lager and ale
A vodka and lemonade
A gin and tonic
A porter
Two bottles of red wine
More wine (this is where refined drinking happens)
Hipflask of vodka
Vintage port
Yet more coffee (starting to get the shakes here)
Good quality cognac (another classy bit)
Rice wine
Firewater, one gourd
Rotgut (whatever that might be)
Several slugs of la fée verte (sod it, just glug the whole bottle in)
A handful of dust (with apologies to Thomas Stearns Eliot)

Heat gently, stirring the while. Remove from the flame when a pungent steam begins to rise. Leave to stand, for neither too little a time, nor too long. Ladle into punch cups. Settle back with a pipe of the finest aromatic flake. Savour. And await what may come.


Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His short-fiction has appeared in 'Caledonia Dreamin': Strange Fiction of Scottish Descent', 'Pandemonium: Ash', ‘3:AM Magazine’, 'New Writing 13', 'Prospect Magazine', and 'Leviathan 4: Cities', and he writes criticism for the and Civilian Global. In 2012, he was shortlisted for the Lightship International Short Fiction Prize. He lives in North East London. 'The Wanderer' is his first novel.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lavinia Reviews: Through the Windshield

Through the Windshield by Mike DeCapite
Pages: 486
Publisher: Red Giant Books
Released: June 2014

Guest Reviewed by Lavinia Ludlow

Through the Windshield is a commentary on resigning to a life of routines, sloughing through the seasons eating, drinking, smoking, engaging in fleeting dialogue with friends and acquaintances, and searching for absolution from loneliness and isolation in cold comforts like fleeting companionship and a day at the race track.

Told through the eyes of Danny, an Ohio cab driver, DeCapite builds and maintains a dismal tone throughout the book with stream of consciousness prose, and often draws on things such as weather patterns and inanimate objects to frame his protagonist’s morose and hopeless state of mind with:

“After a six-month diet of blues and greys I was back to white. I was an empty plate.”

“In the center of the room the heavy-bag hung still, in a kind of quiet conviction. There was a silence about the room that seemed never to have broken.”

Danny’s approach to life is classically evasive. He exhibits thinking and behavior widespread in contemporary society such as numbing himself with mundane errands rather than confront his lackluster life head-on. His dark and honest passages often reveal how a lack of ambition and fear of failure can lead to one of the most toxic states of mind in the human condition, which only further stunts him from rising to any potential and consequently, sets off a cycle of stagnancy.

“There’s that brief moment of guilt when you realize you’re alive and don’t know how to live, and you look at the sky and sun and feel like you should be doing something spontaneous or fulfilling . . . until you find one of the convenient excuses that’re always waiting for you to do nothing but go shopping or do the laundry or whatever.”

Occasionally, Danny breaks from his everyday mundane to make beautiful and often evocative observations of his world. They are; however, always through a layer of glass: his cab windshield or his apartment window. This segregation from his surroundings, and ultimately reality, gives the impression that he’s observing and living life through the distant view of a telescope.

The 486-page text was tough to conquer as much of the content is bogged with drab descriptions, list-like narratives, and inane dialogue between characters in a sort of “I walked here, I saw this, I thought about that, Ed said this, I ate that, made more coffee,” which left little to be interpreted by the reader. The narrative also sporadically switches from first-person narration to informal journal entries written in lowercase, and dialogues intermittently contain uppercase lettering, apparently depicting shouting, all of which breaks the somber and poignant tone DeCapite worked so hard to create.

Through the Windshield is one man’s depiction of how debilitating and spine-crippling loneliness can be, and how withdrawing into an unfeeling and mechanical state of mind stunts any possibility of personal, professional, and emotional growth.

Lavinia Ludlow is a musician, writer, and occasional contortionist. Her debut novel alt.punk can be purchased through major online retailers as well as Casperian Books’ website. Her sophomore novel Single Stroke Seven was signed to Casperian Books and will release in the distant future. In her free time, she is a reviewer at Small Press ReviewsThe Nervous BreakdownAmerican Book Review, and now The Next Best Book Blog