Thursday, March 26, 2015

Book Review: Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty

Read 3/4/15 - 3/16/15
4 Stars - Highly Recommended to fans of strange (and sometimes gag-inducing) short stories that focus more on the fucked-up-ness of the characters than it does of the situations the characters find themselves in
Pages: 132
Publisher: House of Vlad
Released: February 2015

In blogging terms, Brian Alan Ellis and I, we go way back. All the way back to January of 2014, when he contributed to our Indie Ink series. Since his demonstration of the fat-headed penis cleverly disguised within the body of the girl in his tattoo, I've reviewed two of his books - The Mustache He Always Wanted But Could Never Grow and King Shit. I've seen him half naked in a bathtub filled with books. I've squeeeed with joy when I discovered that he'd blurbed me on the back cover (and inside page) of his novelette, and nearly pissed myself when I realized I'd been included in the acknowledgments for this collection.

That's like a lifetime worth of events right there. And so it's strange to think I've only known about this dude's existence for 15 months. This right here. This is why I crush so hard on the self published and small presses, you guys. The appreciation I have for the work these guys do, the way they interact and connect with their readers, their "fuck it, count me in" attitude for all of the goofy stuff we put them through... this is the shit. This is why I do what I do.

And this is why I continue to push BAE's (heheh, bae, that's cute) stuff to the top of the review pile. Not just because he blurbs me because, hell, I had to like his stuff enough to say what I said about it. And not just because he publicly acknowledged me for supporting his work, because see that last sentence again. I push his stuff to the top because he writes good shit and he's actually really appreciative of the time we spend reading his shit and telling other people about his shit, no matter how we feel about his shit.

It's not like I'm running around 5-starring the hell out of his books, either. Mustache and King Shit both got  3 stars. Because they're not going to be for everyone. And because some of the stories, or vignettes, weren't all that crazy impressive. But BAE's stuff is pretty fucking solid. His stories are always about the underbelly of society and his characters are unlike any you've ever read about before and Ellis doesn't hold anything back. He doesn't cater to his reader. He doesn't worry himself with whether or not a particular story is going to be too much for you. He doesn't dress his characters up. He just lets it all fly. Or at least, that's the impression I get when I read his books.

Take this one for example. Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty is a collection of stories that, while they are not interconnected, equally showcase some pretty deranged and maladjusted people. His stories movie between genres. Or maybe he's creating his own. We'll call it Humoristic Bizarro Fiction.

The collection starts out pretty normal enough. We meet Flo and the late night patrons at the Holiday Diner. It's your typical "odd group of people who all get up in each other's business" story in which things go from calm to pull-a-gun-out-to-shut-everyone-up wild. Nothing we haven't seen for ourselves or read in the newspaper.

In Raven's Ladies, Ellis kicks it up a notch when we meet this dude who creates bogus profiles and pen-names to pick up "bitches" on various online dating sites. This partcular time, he lands a chick with multiple personalities and realizes that he has his work cut out for him.

An Object Never Before Put to Use also features a blind date, only this time the dude's a pathetic, suicidal recent divorcee who manages to screw the date up pretty badly.

But the further into the collection we go, the more messed up our characters become. The mother-daughter pair in The Proposal are an absolute bunch of crazies. Both pine over Annie's (the mother) boyfriend Peter and the jealousy drives them to do some psychotic, sadistic things to one another. This one was almost too much for me to take. Wait till you get to the fingernail scene, I cringed while reading it...and I still get the shakes every time I think about it.

Only BAE would create a story about a chick who falls in love with her girlfriend's glorious beard. Or one in which a stalker severs her old flame's dick. And the dick's got teeth. Actual fucking teeth.

Then things start to taper off and we're back in the land of the semi-normal. While I usually dislike infidelity in literature, I got a kick out of Flowers at Full Speed, which features a fabulous bunch of drunk and drugged up rednecks who find themselves in a bit of a love triangle when one dude just can't keep his dick out of the other dude's lady. And the collection wraps up quite quietly with The Floating Mickey Mouse T Shirt, in which two hotel employees sit on the curb, tossing back a bottle of wine, when a floating T Shirt approaches.

With an imagination like his, you never know where his stories are going to go. He's seen the best and worst of us. He knows our darkest, dirtiest thoughts. And he infects his characters with it all. If you don't find a piece of yourself buried within this collection, you have no idea who you are. And I don't trust you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Lavinia Reviews: Once I was Cool

Once I was Cool by Megan Stielstra
4 Stars
Pages: 212
Publisher: Curbside Splendor
Published: 2014

Guest Reviewed by Lavinia Ludlow

The conflict of growing up and inevitably “losing ourselves” affects us all. Everyone has to grow up and deal with inherited responsibilities of our situations—chosen or not—and how we work through those painful transitions is a test of our resilience and mind over matter. In this case, Megan Stielstra passed with flying colors. Once I Was Cool is a nostalgic look-back on the author’s life, illustrating a graceful transformation from awkward youth to adulthood where she has blossomed into a successful professional, wife, and mother.

She opens her collection with a simplistic, almost a dear-diary-like narrative, speaking to the reader as she reminisces about her early teenage years when she was fifteen, attending Lollapalooza, and “making out with boys who wore eye makeup.” Presently, she’s thirty-eight and living condo life, drinking Cabernet, and reflecting on just how abrupt the transitioned seemed to happen, and how in retrospect, she wished she’d known better:

“We hooked up, moved in together, got a dog, got married and now we’re supposed to buy a place ‘cause that’s the American Dream” sort of thing, because what if that dream changes? What if that dream is changing, right now, this moment, a plot-point on our historical timeline about privilege and ownership and societal norms and do you really want to buy this condo? I mean, far be it from me in the safety of hindsight to tell you what you should and should not do but man, if I could yell back across time to my younger self, I’d tell her, Honey—Rent.”

She waffles between periods of pride and uncertainty, not necessarily riddled with regret, but in need of validation of how, as the collection’s title suggests:

“Then I got out my cellphone and called my son’s godfather, my oldest friend, Jeff. ‘You have to promise,’ I said when he picked up. ‘Promise you’ll tell him that once, I was cool.’”

The theme carries over to other stories where Stielstra exhibits signs of a slight early mid-life crisis:

“Recently, I dropped a bunch of ecstasy and went to the symphony. A couple of lifetimes ago, I did this all the time: sinking down in my seat and wrapping the sound around me like a blanket, timpani dancing in my fingertips, the cello section syncing with my heartbeat. But then, what always happens happened: I got a job, got married, had a kid, and woke up one morning suddenly, surprisingly, a grown-up. What did you do when you realized you were…old?”

One slight snag in this collection: some of the narratives tailspin into how Stielstra has succeeded in life as a writer, mother, full-time teacher, how hot and amazing her husband is, which is fine, but at times, she lays it on a little thick and occasionally makes the book feel more like a HuffPost personal testimonial (particularly when the narration slips into informal raves) about how proud she is of her awesome life. Sometimes it felt as if she was trying to convince herself more than her audience. Staying focused on the stories versus internal reflection might have been a little more effective.

However, her zeal makes her collection (and personal journey) no less commendable. She has effectively illustrated what so many of us struggle with (and maybe cringe) when forced to reflect, or forced to confront those uncomfortable and often excruciating transitions between youth and adulthood. At one point, everyone is part of the upcoming generation all other generations are rolling their eyes at, and everyone inevitably ages into a generation of eye-rollers. As much as we would all like to stay cool forever as ageless Lost Boys inhabiting Neverland, life does not operate that way.

Many times, I was able to identify with the central theme, particularly becoming an age where I am starting to panic about being old and un-cool, and how the things I might be doing aren’t taboo anymore, they’re just sad and pathetic. At thirty-one, dropping E or staying out all night getting hammered and waking up in a public playground isn’t a scandalous naughty rush anymore, it’s just dumb. I’m twelve years too old to become a teen pregnancy statistic, and I’ve aged into that generation rolling its eyes at all those bright-eyed millennials who have never owned a compact disk or played an old school Nintendo, nor do they understand Office Space references—come on! Everyone has to know about Lumbergh, flair, and beating the shit out of a fax machine. “What’s a fax machine?” they ask. I’ve never used one either but at least I’ve seen the movie.

All in all, the collection has amazing personality, perhaps, I should say, the author has amazing personality. Stielstra takes us through her personal transformations over the years, we hear her first loves, her literary affair with Kafka, living abroad, pregnancy scares, and her lessons learned on dating, career, travel, and seeking out one’s self, even finding one’s voice. We see (and hear) how much this woman has transformed and matured from a young girl who:

“…wore combat boots, listened exclusively to Nine Inch Nails, and read waaaay too much Sylvia Plath for anybody’s health. My boyfriend was Ricky—he had green hair, AND a leather jacket, held together with safety pins. We’d met dissecting frogs in freshman biology, which in retrospect is an appropriate metaphor for our relationship.”

and grew into a responsible teacher, wife, and mother who now adores romantic comedies, flowers, and chocolates.

The coming-of-age stories are blatantly comical, and her eccentric openings reminded me of Scott McClanahan tales:

“In high school, a guy in my English class told me he was having recurring dreams about waking up as a giant cockroach.”


“When I was eighteen, I accidentally went to bed with a guy who had a glass testicle.”

Once I Was Cool highlights the most overlooked pieces of advice out there, that life is fleeting and no one should go along with a “once I get (or accomplish) this, I’ll be able to do this” mentality. We inevitably age out of our current set of circumstances, conflicts, and opportunities, and inherit new ones, and all the aspirations we carry into the next decade aren’t easier to accomplish when life throws new curve balls, be it economic, personal, physical, or emotional.

My last takeaway and the one that hit me the hardest, particularly as a book reviewer:

“Be honest in your assessment, be authentic in your language, but be nice.”

I give Stielstra heaps of credit for navigating through life’s major milestones and coming out the other side having stayed true to herself, her family, and her art. She maintains a household, a family, and a career, on top of being a major literary influencer. Megan, you’re (still) more than just cool, you’re fucking awesome. 

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Audio Series: Stevie Edwards

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen."  was hatched in a NYC club during BEA back in 2012. It's a fun little series, where authors record themselves reading an excerpt from their own novels, in their own voices, the way their stories were meant to be heard.

Today, Stevie Edwards helps us dust of this series as she reads a few poems from her latest collection Humanly. Stevie is a poet, editor, educator, and an advocate for mental health awareness. She is currently Editor-in-Chief at Muzzle Magazine, Acquisitions Editor at YesYes Books, and a Lecturer at Cornell University. Her first book, Good Grief (Write Bloody 2012), won an open manuscript contest and received two post-publication awards, the Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze in Poetry and the Devil's Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University - Carbondale. Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Rattle, Devil's Lake, Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University and a BA in economics and English from Albion College.

Listen to Stevie read a few poems from her collection by clicking on the soundcloud link below:

The word on Humanly, (lifted with love from goodreads):

"Stevie Edwards’s Humanly bravely and vulnerably confronts the complexities of living with mental illness in a voice that is equally feral and crafted. Through a gorgeous and gorge-filled landscape, these poems struggle with dislocation, past sexual trauma, grief, the chronic looming of psychiatric wards, and a constant attempt to redirect patterns of suicidal ideation."

Advance Praise for Humanly: 

“In Humanly, Stevie Edwards wakes us into our own bodies with her fierce honesty:The first time I tried to slip my outsides/I failed. This is a courageous book of startling images and original voice that surges beyond the difficult questions: If I string the night between two fence posts, /one side heaven and one side hell… Or: I was/watching myself in the hotel mirror to make sure/my body was still happening… Edwards blows the doors off the outer body, delivering us to the beating heart and the inner doors of human mercy. Humanly burns need and desire into the sound of survival: a prayer/in praise of the groaning in the backroom:/Let each body be loved until its end.”
—Jan Beatty

"With an unpredictability that alternately jolts and mesmerizes, Stevie Edwards has crafted an intricate exploration of life as we'd rather not know it. There is much in these stanzas to jolt and unsettle--stark crafting and a relentless respect for the possibilities of word create a tension only felt in the presence of revelation." 
—Patricia Smith

"If I had never before heard anyone say 'Art Saves Lives,' I swear on the bullseye of my own wrist, I would have run through the streets screaming it the moment I finished this book. I want everyone who has never believed in the possibility of being given back Time, to read these poems. Not a moment of grief denied, and still, each turn of the page, a vaulted ceiling in my heavy heart. What a generous and intensely vulnerable offering to our survival this book is.
—Andrea Gibson

Monday, March 23, 2015

Page 69: Archivist Wasp

The Page 69 Test is not mine. It has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....

In this installment of Page 69, 
we put Nicole Kornher-Stace's Archivist Wasp
which is scheduled to release in May through Big Mouth House,  
to the test.

Ok Nicole, set up what we are about to read on page 69 for us.

By now, sixteen-year-old Wasp has spent three years as Archivist. Dedicated to a goddess of the dead, her job is to capture and study ghosts to learn about the long-gone, pre-apocalyptic world Before. Each year, to maintain her position, she's pitted against the other goddess-dedicated girls in ritualized single combat to the death. Meantime she's ostracized from the town, their priestess and scapegoat and intercessor with the dead, and as such respected and hated and feared in pretty much equal measure. Unfortunately for her, the only way out of this system is to be killed and replaced. Or escape, which she's attempted and failed at several times. Page 69 finds her in a despairing place, convinced she's run out of options, briefly contemplating suicide as the only remaining exit door she sees. And deciding instead to embark on a last-ditch effort to earn her freedom her way.

What is Archivist Wasp about?

It's the story of how a far-future post-apocalyptic ghosthunter priestess makes a bargain with the ghost of a near-future genetically-enhanced supersoldier to find the long-lost ghost of his partner somewhere in the underworld -- and, on the way, figure out how to earn her own freedom. But when you strip the plot away, what it's about is being terribly alone and then, against all odds, finding your people. It draws from mythology, comics, The Golden Bough, ridiculous action movies, all sorts of stuff I desperately love all mashed up into a ball and rolled down a hill to see where it goes. I've had several readers independently tell me it "reads like a fucked-up Miyazaki movie," which is a way better elevator pitch than I could have ever come up with on my own.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the book is about? Does it align itself the novel’s theme?
I'd say it does. Page 69 is a major turning point for Wasp: if this were a Hero's Journey, this page would find her caught between Refusing the Call and deciding hey, on second thought, an adventure might be just the thing. It also shows her in the painfully awkward outset of an Unlikely Alliance, when it's about 95% Unlikely and 5% Alliance -- not only that, but the more Wasp and the ghost get to know each other, the more parallels she discovers between her situation and his. She's spent her life completely friendless, and this is her first tentative step toward learning how to trust, find her place, belong.


Page 69
Archivist Wasp

[She pictured her ghost] walking, a knife in its back, savaged by shrine-dogs, a green stone on her tongue as befit a dead Archivist. Dying all over again, with every step, of shame.

Her gaze fell on all those shattered jars, putting her in mind of other options. It wasn't that she was afraid to die, or afraid of pain. How many times had she drawn blood with the harvesting-knife to bind a ghost? How many wounds had she taken in combat and walked from? It couldn't hurt much worse, and if it did, she wouldn't mind for long. Already she could see the Catchkeep-priest's face when he found her on the floor, bled out and smiling. Let the upstarts fight over the knife and the saltlick and the rotting little house. Let the system dissolve altogether, and Catchkeep's stars tumble from the sky to burn this whole place down. She was done.

                The harvesting-knife in her hand felt like an extension of her arm. She'd taken good care of it, kept it clean and polished and so, so sharp. It had drawn her blood countless times and she could depend on it to cut clean. So clean that, for a few precious seconds, she knew she wouldn't feel a thing.

                She set the blade longwise against the blue vein in her wrist, drew a steadying breath through gritted teeth — and stopped.

She probably will not want to be found. But she is worth finding.

The thought went rolling around her mind pleasantly, like a smooth stone. There was a certain agreeable novelty to having value attached to her actions. Not her actions as Archivist, as the puppet of a goddess, as Catchkeep's-bones-and-stars-Her-flesh, but her actions performed through her choice, her risk, her boldness.

In the face of it, sitting there, giving up, she felt foolish and ineffectual. What she was doing was no answer at all. She [couldn't win this way.]


Nicole Kornher-Stace lives in New Paltz, NY, with two humans, three ferrets, and more books than strictly necessary. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Archivist Wasp is her second novel.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Audiobook Review: Grundish and Askew

Listened March 2015
4 Stars - Highly Recommended to fans of well written and hilariously raunchy bromance fiction, and huge kudos to Eells for a kickass narration
Length: approx 8 hours
Narrator: Brandon Paul Eells
Publisher: Vicious Galoot Books / Audible
Released: 2014

I have a confession to make. This is not my first dance with Grundish and Askew. I read the book when it was first self published back in 2009 and my fondness for these never-do-well knuckleheads goes back farther than I've been blogging! So when Lance Carbuncle reached out to me a few months ago and asked if I'd give the audio a listen, you sure as shit better believe I said yes, I did.

I had so much fun getting reacquainted with the characters this time around. And Brandon Paul Eells, the audiobook's narrator, did a bang-up job giving voice to the bizarre world in which Carbuncle has placed them.

How I missed our dimwitted duo.

The big ole bear of a man Grundish - always willing to take the heat for his overweight goofball of a BFF Askew, serving time in the big house so he don't have to, getting his rocks off by squatting in homes while the owners are away, leaving a unique and stinky "calling card" of sorts behind as a warning for them to appreciate the things they have.

The chronic word-abuser Askew - who regards Grundish as the brother he never had,  frustratingly unable to control his ridiculously inappropriate and awkward impulses, a ticking time bomb of a bastard who just keeps fucking things up for everyone.

This down-on-their-luck two-some can't seem to catch a break, and the longer they stay in one place, the quicker things go from bad to worse for them and everyone around them.

There's the kid that mercilessly teases Grundish as he works his street-corner-standing, arrow-sign-wearing shit-end job, who gets a Reservoir Dogs reception when Askew finally catches up to him. And the unfortunately messy death of the 25 cent tipper.

These guys end up pairing off with Askew's poor ole one-lunged, second-hand-smoke-sniffing, make-a-meal-outta-whatever's-lying-around Great Aunt Turleen as she gets swept up in all the hubbub when her nursing home kicks her out for strangling the staff dog - god, this shit must run in the family. And a knock-kneed, quiet-mouthed hooker joins the group as an accessory to murder when they turn tail to ditch the fuzz, who're finally on their trail and looking to lock the boys up for good.

There's also a prosthetic penis, some skanky gas station bathroom sex that might cause your stomach to wretch, a couple of feet-licking dream dogs, and a dead Mexican who ends up tied to the top of Alf, the sweet and smelly vomit-ball-hacking Sacred Burro.

The writing is wickedly smart and the raunch-factor is cranked up to an all time high as Carbuncle foreshadows the hell out of this buddy story. The Of Mice and Men references are like whoa and only a dolt like Askew wouldn't be able to smell what's coming for these two numbskulls.

Though the writing's on the wall from the very beginning, you can't help but find yourself happily tagging along cause you know it's bound to be one helluva ride - head out the window, wind in your hair, fancy french cigarette stuck between your two front teeth, smiling and gagging the whole way there....

You can grab it on audio now and the join the Author/Reader Discussion this April, when both Lance and Brandon swing by the TNBBC goodreads group to hear what we have to say about the book!

The discussion runs from April 20th through the 26th right here. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Product Review: Gone Review Part Deux

We're back with another product review for Gone Reading, the wonderfully bookish website that was founded back in 2011. Their mission, to sell brilliant products that will enhance your reading life.

Last August, the company reached out to me and sent along a few items to review. You can read about those here.   I still have the Mark Twain oil diffuser on my desk at work, though the scent is not nearly as strong as it once was, and I'm still happily using the stack of bookmarks they sent over (though I guess once I run out that's it, because I can't find them on the website anymore).

I must have done a pretty ok job at spreading the word last time because they've added some new stuff to their catalog and shipped me over a box full of cool bookish goodies again. I'm quite the lucky duck.....

Shall we take a look?

The Total Package

This time around, the box was packed to the gills with Styrofoam peanuts and you can see why. I was thrilled to see this awesome book shaped plate, a Great First Lines of Literature mug, and a Book Well Read 2015 easel back calendar.


This 6 x 6 1/4 desk calendar fits perfectly on my desk at work. And it was just what I needed - I create training plans at work that require dates to be input for meetings and reviews and all that jazz. Before this calendar arrived (mostly because I am just the laziest person ever), I used to use my computer calendar - you know, that ridiculous little thing in the lower hand corner of the screen that pops up to run my date ranges. Now I can look straight ahead and see the entire month at a quick glance. And it features cute little vintage pieces of art that reflect a love for reading.

(Look to the right of the calendar and you'll see the Mark Twain oil diffuser I told you I still use!!)

$12.95 (mug) and $9.99 (plate)

I am so in love with this mug and plate I can't even tell you! That's my morning coffee and a coupla chocolate chip cookies. The perfect way to wake up in the morning.

And this is lunch. Grilled cheese and vegetable soup. The mug doubles as a small soup bowl quite nicely. It's just short and round enough. The interior color of the mug is this gorgeous blue, and I love the fonts and color for the text all around the outside. 

If you enlarge this photo, you'll see they list the title of the book for each opening line that is featured on the mug. I knew more of them than I thought I would. And, you gotta love the sense of humor here. Did you see that final line of text there at the way bottom? "For best results, use other side". hehehe.

If you're not into the opening lines of classic literature, Gone Reading sells a few other cool mug options, like one for Banned Books, or all Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt V, and Mark Twain...

And in my opinion, the only thing that would make the book shaped plate better would be if it was covered in bookish text too. That would be HOT!

So go and get yourself some awesome bookish goodies over at Gone Reading... I'd love to hear what you bought!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Where Writers Write: Chris Cander

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 credit Sara Huffman

This is Chris Cander. 

Chris is a novelist, children’s book author, freelance writer, and teacher for Houston-based Writers in the Schools. Her most recent novel, Whisper Hollow (Other Press) published on 3/17, and her novel 11 Stories, published by a small press in Houston, was included in Kirkus’s best indie general fiction of 2013.

Where Chris Cander Writes

Each of us begins with a sense of place. Place is an essential and inexorable part of our understanding of the world, and later, ourselves. Place is where our families of origin forged their lives. It may be where we were born, grew up, experienced our most mundane or our most profound moments. Even when we wander, we remain deeply rooted by the memories of those physical spaces we have occupied. The very common question, “Where are you from?” confirms the inherent link between place and identity, suggesting, even, that we are not just from a place, we are that place. For these reasons, I am reverent about the settings I choose for my fiction—and for myself.

Virginia Woolf said, “A woman must have…a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I feel very fortunate to have one. My home office is a refuge and sanctuary, a place where I keep and create stories. It’s also a magic portal to the other, imaginary places where my characters live. Just entering the room is like stepping onto a storied path.

Take a look around. Here is the desk I bought for $100 when I was a college freshman. There are my retired taekwondo belts (the current one hangs on the door for easy access.) There are the paintings I bought from a street artist; when I need a yes-or-no answer I have only to consult the wall. Here is my cowhide rug, because my home is Texas. There is the chest my grandfather made for me out of West Virginia cedar when I was born. It’s filled with my childhood treasures, and bears the overflow of books that don’t fit on my shelves.

All around, these bookshelves hold not just my favorite books, but also photos and drawings by friends, little mementos and souvenirs and items that inspire or are inspired by my fiction. Here is the shelf just to the left of my desk that is a little altar to my novel Whisper Hollow

There’s a photograph by Don Davis of a cemetery in Centralia, Pennsylvania that inspired the pried-open border around St. Michael’s cemetery in my novel. There is a jar with bits of coal that I picked up along the side of a railroad in southern West Virginia when I was doing research. There is the angry, wind-up nun that reminded me of Myrthen, the angry, would-be nun whose obsession fuels much of the story. There is a print of the photograph “Sasha and Ruby” by the German photographer Loretta Lux that I found long after imagining the characters that eerily reminded me of Myrthen and her twin, Ruth. (Equally eerie is that my daughter’s name is Sasha.) Next to it is a funny German cork that my mother bought in Kaiserslautern about fifty years ago. Out of view is a candle with the name “Cabin Fever” that burned as I wrote about Alta’s cabin in the Hollow. Finally, there is a bear sculpted from coal and a stained-glass ornament in the shape of West Virginia, where my mother grew up. These things connect the two places: that of my mother’s home state, and the fictional setting it inspired.

In her book On Writing, Eudora Welty talks about the importance of place. “Place being brought to life in the round before the reader’s eye is the readiest and gentlest and most honest and natural way this can be brought about, I think; every instinct advises it. The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.”

Maybe it’s superstition, or simply comfort, but I like to think that by working in a sacred place, surrounded by books and art and amulets, I’m better able to realize the places created by imagination, and animate them for the reader.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ain't No Lit Like Drunken Lit

It's a Saint Patrick's Day edition of Books & Booze, where a few of our review contributors share their favorite drunken literature. (I even turned the ole Books & Booze logo into a trippy green 4 leaf clover!) Rather than boozey recipes, today you'll just be reading about books we've loved that love themselves a little liquid courage:

Drew's Boozey Picks:

Ablutions by Patrick deWitt.

A strange little novel about a bartender who wants to be a writer. He starts drinking a lot and ends up falling down a personal (and kinda crazy) rabbit hole.  Plus, you can read it in an afternoon before you head out to the bars.

Damascus by Joshua Mohr.  

My first dance with Mr. Mohr and a turning point novel for me professionally even if I didn't realize it at the time.  Set in a dive bar in the Mission, populated by some of the quirkiest and weirdest characters ever assembled, I still take immense joy in recalling this one.  Plus, it gets some still-potent licks in about politics and art.

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski.  

My first Bukowski and it made me realize what the fuss is all about. His prose is simple and fun (also funny) - but boy oh boy do they drink a LOT in this one.  Superhuman amounts.  Which is part of what fuels the humor, I think.

Lindsey's Boozey Picks:

Bang Ditto by Amber Tamblyn

From “Gene Diamonds” - “She drank an entire bottle of tequila,/then ate the worm at the bottom.”

This collection is a look inside the life of a young actress. It’s smart, trite, fun, thoughtful and maybe a little immature. Basically, it’s what everyone felt like in their 20s, only with better professional connections.

Hearts Needle by W.D. Snodgrass

From “Returned to Frisco, 1946” - “Served by women, free to get drunk or fight,/Free, if we chose, to blow in our back pay/On smart girls or trinkets, free to prowl all night/Down streets giddy with lights,/to sleep all day,”

Snodgrass is said to be the father of confessional poetry, even though he hated the label. Like most confessional poets there is some mental illness, some obsession, some drugs, and some drinking. Not always the most lighthearted read, but every night out drinking has a few downers.

Drunk by Noon Jennifer L. Knox Bloof Books 2007

Just read the entire book. Every single page. And then get every other book that Jennifer L. Knox has written. Reading Knox’s poetry is kind of like being drunk, without the calories or the hangover.

Life Studies and For the Union Dead Robert Lowell From Life Studies
From “To Delmore Schwartz” - “ We drank and eyed/the chicken-hearted shadows of the world./Underseas fellows, nobly mad,/we talked away our friends.”

A confessional poet, like Snodgrass, you’ll find a lot of darkness in Robert’s Lowell’s most famous collection, Life Studies. “To Delmore Schwartz” is one of several poems in the double feature book, the second half being For the Union Dead, that features alcohol, but this is a more light hearted read. The two poets used to be roommates and Lowell chose to give readers a glimpse into the life they led together. “The Drinker” from For the Union Dead is a more sobering look at the effects of alcohol.

The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton

From “Barefoot” - “Do you care for salami?/No. You’d rather not have a scotch?/No. You don’t really drink. You do/drink me.”
From “Cigarettes and Whisky and Wild, Wild Women” - “Do I not look in the mirror,/these days,/ and see a drunken rat avert her eyes?”

Probably the most difficult poet on the list, Anne Sexton wrote bluntly about mental illness, abuse and sex. She also touched on the highs and lows of drinking. This is the poet you read the day after a binge for a touch of perspective.

From “Anxiety” - “I have a drink,/it doesn’t help—far from it!/I/ feel worse. I can’t remember how/I felt, so perhaps I feel better.”

If Anne Sexton is the morning after hangover cure, Frank O’Hara is the party. Often I feel like I’m sitting in a smoky lounge, people watching, nursing a drink and enjoying live jazz when I read O’Hara’s poems. 

Maggot: Poems by Paul Muldoon

From “The Rowboat” - “Every year he’d sunk/the old clinker-built rowboat/so it might again float./Every year he’d got drunk/as if he might once and for all write off/every year he’d sunk”

Paul Muldoon is experimenting with form in Maggot, and at times the rhyming lines feel like the chant you would here in a dank pub or at a futbol game. 

*Poetry Drinking Game Bonus Points

Read Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, because he got into a drunken fight with Ernest Hemingway in Key West and broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw.

Read Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge by Delmore Schwartz because he used to hang out and drink with writers like Robert Lowell, John Barryman and Saul Bellow, and he inspired musician Lou Reed.

Lori's Boozey Picks:

Braineater Jones by Stephen Kozeniewski

Ah yes, a good ole crime noir where the zombies must ingest immense amounts of alcohol to remain limber and coherent. It soggens the brain and halts rigor mortis in its tracks while also calming that nagging hunger for flesh. A really well written, brain tickling read. 

A Deep and Gorgeous Thirst by Hosho McCreesh

Who doesn't love good poetry, right?! How about poetry so drenched and drowning in booze that you feel all buzzed and blissful as you read it? Hosho's collection is all about getting the drink on. So much so that he even fashioned a Books and Booze post for us. 

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

It's set back in the 1880's in a BROTHEL for the love of god! You can't get more boozey than that! Drinks, Girls, and Puppets, people. This book is one of the most lusciously decedent things I've ever read. Go on and get drunk on her words.  

Whiskey Heart by Rachel Coyne

The protagonist in this novel was surrounded by people who abused the drink - a father who hid so many bottles around the house that she is still uncovering them years later, a cousin who drank to hide her inability to love. It's all about how deep the drink can cut you. 

Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr

God I have a hard core crush on this guy. He gets it. And he writes it like no body's business. Here we have a crappy relationship gone so much worse when our protagonist takes advantage of his girlfriend's drunken stupor and does a thing he will soon live to regret.. the guilt practically eating him alive. Yummy stuff, this!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Page 69: Vermilion

We're kicking off a new series here at TNBBC, though it's not new to the world. The Page 69 Test has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....

In this installment of Page 69, 
we put Molly Tanzer's Vermilion, which will be release in April by Word Horde, to the test.

Ok, Molly, set up what we are about to read on page 69.

Vermilion is a weird western/steampunk set in 1870.

In this scene, my protagonist, Lou, is in the basement of Madame Cheung's Flower Garden, a respectable whorehouse in San Francisco's Chinatown c. 1870. A mysterious crate arrived that day, addressed to Heunggu, one of the prostitutes, full of bottles of what appear to be a quack tonic, but also the corpse of one of Heunggu's sons, who has been missing for some months. Lou's a psychopomp by trade, meaning she helps the restless dead find peace, and she has an arsenal made up of both traditional Taoist necromancer's tools, and arcane inventions of her own. The body in the crate is spiritually rotten, likely from a traumatic death (he appears to have suffered great violence before dying), and so Lou is helping the remnant of the young man's soul pass into the next world by cleansing him of any spiritual impurity. He's becoming geung si, which is a sort of cross between a vampire/zombie in Chinese lore, and his mother Heunggu, and Lou's mother Ailien are both present for the exorcism.

A few pages before, the geung si awoke but Lou managed to get him under control pretty quickly, but that's why Lou's mom is snipping at her, because they're pretty nasty undead creatures.

What Vermilion’s about:

Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.

When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.

On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the book is about?

Yes, I do think this passage can be seen as synecdochic of the novel. Not only is Lou literally using vermilion in this passage (the geung si is immobilized by a vermilion-inked ward she slaps on his head when he first awakens, on the previous page), she spends quite a bit of the novel exorcising the dead and putting the undead to rest. Lou's a consummate professional, so she's concerned with not only dong it the right way, but the respectful way, and her thrifty nature is actually a motif, as well. 

Also... not to give away too much, but this body in the crate provides several major clues toward the solving of the central mystery of the novel, which makes page 69 a slam dunk of relevance, come to think of it.


Page 69

…Now that he was on his back, his arms and legs were sticking straight up, which meant as Lou worked his feet hovered above her head on one side, hands on the other. The only way to fix the situation was to finish the exorcism.

Once she had him in position she retrieved a black velvet pouch from her satchel. Loosening the neck, she poured out a small handful of sticky rice into her left palm.

“What are you doing?” asked Heung-kam, who had apparently come up behind her. Lou almost jumped out of her skin.

“Oh. Uh... he’s becoming geung si. I’m helping him pass on, so he can rest.”

Heung-kam furrowed her plucked brows. “Can I help?”

“Yes, actually,” said Lou, pleased. Perhaps if she sent Heung-kam on an errand Ailien would go with her. “If you could get me a kettle of hot water, some black tea, and a tea bowl, that would be a big help. Do you have one he used to drink from?”

Heung-kam nodded eagerly. “Yes, and some of his favorite tea.” She paused. “Is all this necessary? Could we not just bury him?”

“It has become necessary,” said Lou, and with an apologetic shrug, turned back to the corpse. She heard footfalls on stairs behind her, but only one set. Her teeth clenched when she heard Ailien shift a little on the divan.

“Sticking around?” she said without turning.

“Yes,” said Ailien. “Just in case you let that geung si awaken again.”

Lou smiled ferociously. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of Mr. Vampire over here.”  
Lou upended the palmful of rice over the young man’s throat where it 
formed a loose pyramid of white grains. The soul reacted instantly—the purple-red lazily circulating through his veins began to writhe purposefully, and then receded into the carotid artery.

Lou’s father had described this phenomenon as the attraction of imbalance to balance. Sticky rice, long understood to be one of those rare, perfect expressions of yin and yang, was the ideal reagent for this particular process. Lou had seen other psychopomps use a host of different catalysts, from dragon bones to chemical powders, but sticky rice was cheaper than anything else, and easily replaceable, too.


Molly Tanzer is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of two collections: A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist, 2012) and Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations (Egaeus, 2013). Her debut novel, Vermilion, is forthcoming from Word Horde in April of 2015, and her second novel, The Pleasure Merchant, is forthcoming from Lazy Fascist in November of 2015. She is also the editor of the forthcoming Swords v. Cthulhu (Stone Skin Press) and an issue of The Lazy Fascist Review (Lazy Fascist). Her Lovecraftian fiction has appeared in venues such as The Book of Cthulhu (I and II) (Night Shade), The Book of the Dead (Jurassic London) and The Starry Wisdom Library (PS Publishing). She has had additional short fiction appear in Schemers (Stone Skin Press), Running with the Pack (Prime Books) and The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, among other places. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat.