Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kelsey Reviews: Goodbye Babylon

Goodbye Babylon by Seb Doubinsky
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of experimental literature
Pages: 270
Publisher: Black Coffee Press
Released 2012

Guest reviewed by Kelsey Lueptow

Seb Doubinsky’s book Goodbye Babylon is a postmodern, experimental story with some fluctuating aspects of absurdism. It challenges historical and contemporary beliefs regarding literature, war, systems of ideology, and other power structures. As Michael Moorhead mentions in the introduction, “Seb Doubinsky . . . has an enthusiasm for the ridiculous.” That simple line breathes light on the instant and constant shock of form and content.

The most notable and enjoyable aspect of this novel is its shape-shifting form. At first glance from font to margins and chapters, this seems chaotic and unruly. In fact, the opposite turns out to be true. It is split into three sections with some unique storylines, characters, grammatical rules, and narrative games to different parts. Section one dips the toe into the stylistic realm of this book. It introduces wide margins, very short sub-chapters within longer divisions, and braided narrative perspectives that are unique but normal within the confines of this literary experience. At first it feels jarring, but then the rhythm sets in. Entering into the quirky style of this book also baptizes you into the world where dogs turn to fish, Wile E. Coyote is a psycho killer, and all the men are misogynists.

The physical absurdism of the first section comes from a protean, self-aware K-9 narrator woven into the mix; even more pervasive and absurd, however, is the terrifying misogyny in the male character’s voices. The only woman with a voice, a perspective, a purpose in life beyond serving men is, of course, the lesbian bitch Sheryl. Absurd. Even the dog hates the woman who embarrasses him by not letting him finish on her leg. The men habitually objectify and degrade the women around them—all the women around them. Through declarations of love, lust, and admiration, these same men demonstrate abusive mentality. Absurd, right? The writers are unsung heroes and sympathetic alcoholics. The military leaders are inspirational because they are ignorant of the true reasons for war. They are just doing their jobs. This basically sets up the rest of the story where even though the characters, points of view, and plots change everyone is just doing what they’ve always done. What they’re supposed to do.

The second and third sections reinforces the sensation of chaos by altering the formal rules, casts, and settings. This works to shift the ground beneath readers. The absurdism of the second section comes from some surreal dream communication and telepathy within a traditionally rational, empirical profession of detective work. The absurdism in the third section is the most pronounced: the ancient city of Babylon is a contemporary place that one could conceivably visit. However, the laws of murder, business, and literature are bizarrely linked in the city’s infrastructure.

Throughout the book, the seemingly chaotic and unruly form is actually highly restricted. Just as the margins are pressing the parameters of the page into tight, square boxes, the angle of the story and the information being pumped into the public is all restricted and edited before it is broadcast for consumption. Everything is viewed through the lenses of the criminal characters, the journalists, the film crew, the television screens. Accordingly, the brutally focused reporter Sheryl is the only character that transcends all sections of the book. With everything being so heavily filtered and controlled, the chaotic nonsensical messages that are actually carefully crafted.

Although there are incredibly intricate formal and thematic elements one could explore for days, I am giving this book 3 stars due to a few significantly restring features. First of all, the initial section is strewn with physical and psychological abuse of women—including a truly triggering rape scene. Although, as I mentioned before, I do believe that is constructed to move forth an ideological absurdism on which to base the book, it was very hard to read. I would assign it an explicit trigger warning. Beyond that, this book will appeal to an audience with very specific stylistic tastes for experimental literature. You really shouldn’t approach this book looking for a straightforward narrative plot or if you like to maintain your personal comfort.

Kelsey Lueptow is a mumma-writer at Diary of a First Time Mom and a graduate student at Northern Michigan University.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Page 69: Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail

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 Kelly Luce’s Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail  to the test.

OK, Kelly, set up page 69 for us.

Page 69 falls right in the middle of a story called "Pioneers." It's about a married couple living in Japan--the wife, Yumiko, is Japanese, the husband, Lou, is Canadian. They're struggling with infertility and Yumi's previous abortion, as well as the installation of an unwanted western-style toilet (and accompanying work crew) in their apartment. Right before we get to this page, Yumiko and Lou spend a crappy day at the beach, and hope the work crew will be cleared out by the time they return home. Yumiko recalls Lou's least favorite thing about Japan: the bosozoku, or "noise gangs" and a time he climbed onto the roof and threw eggs at the bikers. 

What Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is about:

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail will introduce you to many things—among them, an oracular toaster, a woman who grows a tail, and an extraordinary sex-change operation. Set in Japan, these stories tip into the fantastical, plumb the power of memory, and measure the human capacity to love.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the collection is about? Does it align itself the collection’s theme?

 This page does hit on some of the book's themes. The absurd situations one finds oneself in when living in a foreign country--Lou would probably not be throwing eggs at teenagers or sleeping on the roof back in Canada--and the fragile web that is marital communication. The fact that Lou and Yumiko were raised in different cultures, and talk to each other in his native language, not hers, adds layers to the relationship that were fun to peel back. Communication and connection--or lack thereof--comes up a lot in these stories. Many of the characters have a deep sense of longing: longing to know the future, even if it means listening to a psychic toaster ("Ms. Yamada's Toaster"), longing for a lost sibling so strong it's literally transformative ("Rooey") and the dual longing to be unique, yet part of something that--who knows?--might lead one to grow a tail. 


Page 69
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail

After some confusion and yelling, the roar of engines faded. Smiling in the dark, she thought: a Japanese man would never have done that.

“He took out the toilet!” he called.

“Yeah,” Yumiko said slowly, “he mentioned putting a new one in.”

“You knew about this?”

She shrugged. “Only since the morning. It will take a little longer, but won’t it be nice to have a normal, you know . . . king’s chair?”

“Throne. It would be nicer to not have my house torn apart.”

“Miura-san thinks he was doing something nice for you.”

“I don’t need a special potty because I’m a gaijin.”

“It will be nice for me too, recently most places don’t use—”

“And he’ll expect me to be so grateful,” Lou went on, and bowed deeply, throwing his arms out to his sides.

“Yes, I’m so indebted to you, I can’t use my kitchen, my apartment’s flooded, and everything reeks.”

“We could go to my parents’ home. They really— what?” He was staring at the metal ladder that led to the roof, looking suddenly enlightened. He said, “No. We’re definitely staying here.”

“You have an idea.”

“We’ll move onto the roof.” He rubbed his hands together. 


Kelly Luce's story collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail (A Strange Object) won the 2013 Foreword Review’s Editors Choice Prize in Fiction. Her work has appeared in the Salon, O Magazine, Crazyhorse, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature, and other publications. She’s the editorial assistant for the O. Henry Prize anthology and editor-in-chief of Bat City Review. She hails from Illinois and currently lives in Austin, TX.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Giveaway: Grundish and Askew

Since July 2010, TNBBC has been bringing authors and readers together every month to get behind the book! This unique experience wouldn't be possible without the generous donations of the authors and publishers involved.

It's the first of the month and you know what that means.
It's time to bring you April's Author/Reader Discussion Book!

We will be reading and discussing Grundish and Askew
with Lance Carbuncle

This book contains some pretty explicit descriptions of sex and sex-ish things.
If you've got a great sense of humor about raunchy content, this book will be perfect for you!!

Lance Carbuncle has generously made 21 copies of his book available:
10 audio downloads, 10 ebooks, and 1 signed print copy to one lucky winner! 

Here's the goodreads description of the book:

Strap on your athletic cup and grab a barf bag. The Dr. Reverend Lance Carbuncle is going to kick you square in the balls and send you on a wild ride that may or may not answer the following questions: what happens when two white trash, trailer park-dwelling, platonic life partners go on a moronic and misdirected crime spree?; can their manly love for each other endure when one of them suffers a psychological bitch-slap that renders him a homicidal maniac?; will a snaggletoothed teenage prostitute tear them apart?; what is the best way to use a dead illegal alien to your advantage in a hostage situation?; what's that smell?; and, what the hell is Alf the Sacred Burro coughing up? Carbuncle's latest offering, Grundish and Askew, ponders these troubling questions and more. So sit down, put on some protective goggles, and get ready for Carbuncle to blast you in the face with a warm load of fictitious sickness. Reader Views 2009 Literary Awards, First Place, Humor Category - This book could easily be the sleeper of the year Reviewer Magazine - an imaginative, almost hallucinatory tale of madness, traveling and free spirits doing what they want. The Daily Loaf - Think of those grungy, maggoty knuckle-dragging villains in Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey novels. Those morons are *%#*ing Osmond family teasippers compared to the crew Carbuncle has created.

This giveaway will run through March 9th. 
Winners will be announced here and via email on March 10th.

Here's how to enter:

1 - Leave a comment here or in the giveaway thread over at TNBBC on goodreads, stating what format you prefer (choose one option from above).

2 - State that you agree to participate in the group read book discussion that will run from April 20th through the 26th. Lance Carbuncle has agreed to participate in the discussion and will be available to answer any questions you may have for him. 

 3 - Your comment must have a way to contact you (email is preferred). 


 *If you are chosen as a winner, by accepting the copy you are agreeing to read the book and join the group discussion at TNBBC on Goodreads (the thread for the discussion will be emailed to you before the discussion begins). 


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kate Reviews: Craving

Craving by Esther Gerritsen, translated by Michele Hutchison
5 stars – Highly Recommended by Kate
Pages: 177
Publisher: World Editions
Released: Jan 2015

Guest review by Kate Vane

Some books draw you in with an intriguing premise, extraordinary characters or dramatic locations. I’m just as fascinated by writers who create something entrancing out of the everyday.

Craving is the story of an apparently ordinary family in an unnamed Dutch town. It begins when Elisabeth has a chance meeting in the street with her adult daughter, Coco. Elisabeth takes the opportunity to tell her some important news – she is dying.

The dark humour of the book is immediately apparent. Coco cycles away, filled with excitement at the news, calculating how she can manipulate it for her own ends. Elisabeth is left with an awkward sense that she hasn’t quite dealt with this as she should.

Elisabeth is described by her family as having autism. She struggles to negotiate the complexities of her relationships with her ex-husband and daughter. She feels more at ease with her hairdresser.

Coco soon moves back into her mother’s home. This is less an act of compassion than an attempt to provoke her boyfriend, whose interest in her is waning. When mother and daughter are thrown together, the tensions between them are highlighted. Coco constantly seeks sensation – overeating, sex in public, petty acts of destruction. Elisabeth longs for calm and order. Coco wants answers about her past but for Elisabeth the questions make no sense. 

The author of Craving is also a playwright and this book has some of the feel of a stage play. It takes place in a small number of locations and the encounters between the characters are tightly drawn. Elisabeth’s inability to understand the dynamics of her family is at times poignant, at others funny and occasionally enviable. While those around her are weighted down with guilt and empathy, she is free to say what she thinks – with comic consequences.

However, the author also takes us deep into the characters. She shows the ways that Elisabeth and Coco have shaped each other. In particular, she gives us a sense of what it would be like to be Elisabeth – what she sees, what she fails to understand but also the perceptions she has that others lack – her faithful memory, her sense of the texture of things, the taste and scent of emotions and events.

I was almost afraid to get to the end. I didn’t want melodrama, but nor did I want another literary novel which is beautifully written but unresolved. I needn’t have worried. In keeping with the rest the end is subtle but startling.

Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Jessica Goodfellow Recommends The Book of a Hundred Hands

Writers Recommend is a series where we ask writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 

Jessica Goodfellow Recommends The Book of a Hundred Hands

I recommend reading the work of Cole Swensen, a poet who enters each of her subjects so deeply as to inhabit it, but who then leaves it to the reader as an abandoned and haunted house. Each of Swensen’s books has its singular ephemeral obsession: for example, Gravesend (University of California Press, 2012) is possessed by ghosts, The Glass Age (Alice James Books, 2007) revolves around (what else?) glass and windows, and National Book Award finalist Goest (Alice James Books, 2004) tries to capture light in its hands.


Speaking of hands, perhaps the most accessible of Swensen’s books is The Book of a Hundred Hands (University of Iowa Press, 2005), perhaps because its subject matter, hands, is one of the least ephemeral among her topics. These one hundred poems include ruminations on history, anatomy, basic functions such as gripping and grasping, hand gestures, handwriting, shadow puppets, art-making, and sign language. One of the sign language poems, “Thinking and Feeling,” begins “For instance, happy. That’s far away. So we gesture a little to the right of the head / in the sensation of / I couldn’t say. / A chime in a cell.”  Swensen uses jagged and staggered spacing along with wildly varying line lengths to mimic the movement of hands sweeping here, then pausing over there to form intricate finger movements. The poem ends with “We place / an inch and a half behind your left shoulder / a bird the size of a thumbtack. / You have to keep it happy forever.”

Swensen’s subjects are clearly researched with rigor, and yet her fragmented lines and loosely tethered imagery reveal only the essence of hands, ghosts, glass—whatever the graspless subject is. There’s a certain egolessness to having done all that work, but then winnowing one’s labors to an evocative nucleus. As a result, the reader gets the benefit of Swensen’s fixations with none of the accompanying mania. Well, maybe a bit of the mania. Enjoy!

Poems available online from The Book of a Hundred Hands include:
“The Hand’s Testament” (http://www.cstone.net/~poems/handsswe.htm)
“The Hand Photographed” and “The Hand Etched in Glass” (http://thepoetryexperiment.blogspot.jp/2005/08/cole-swensen-two-poems.html)
“The Hand Painted In” and “The Hands Testify” http://jacketmagazine.com/19/swe1.html


Jessica Goodfellow’s books are Mendeleev’s Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015), The Insomniac’s Weather Report (Three Candles Press First Book Prize winner, reissued by Isobar Press, 2014), and the chapbook A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (Concrete Wolf, 2006).  Her work has been featured in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and forthcoming in Motionpoems Season 6. She has received the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal. A graduate of Caltech, she lives in Japan.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mark Pothier's 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 Mark Pothier gives his story single, The First Light of Evening, the drink treatment.

Two "First Light of Evening" Martinis

Gentle Book & Booze Lover,

You might think, gazing at the cover of The First Light of Evening, with its empty wineglass and someone's smoke seductively wrapping around it, that this story of a middle-aged man left by his wife to reflect on his self-reflections involves some drinking. And you would be right. Our hero, Jim Finley, starts talking to us, or himself, over cocktails. He describes how he's dealing with his wife's departure, his grown kids, his growing coziness with the possibility he'll never be a writer, and how he loves sitting on the back porch by his books, watching the sunset, quoting Wallace Stevens, listening to jazz, and drinking… gin. No wonder Jim's son, home for the summer from college, never stays past supper.

One could say the story starts with cocktails, empties a bottle of wine, and ends just after a digestif interruptus at the edge of San Francisco's Ocean Beach. But because Jim is such an Unreliable Narrator — and which of us, Dear Drinking Readers, is not? — it's hard to know just how lit he truly is. He's as attracted to his own melancholy as he is to Caroline, sitting right next to him, who, that evening, slips onto his back porch and tries to get him outside. It sometimes sounds like he's nursing a grudge rather than a drink. (Even his hero, Wallace Stevens, lived a double life of sorts, gaining notoriety both as an insurance exec — "The Dean of Surety," he was called — and as a pissy lush when vacating in Key West, where, at 50, he once foolishly put up his dukes with a 30-year-old Hemingway.)

To wit: We're on shifty ground here. So I offer you two martinis, one real and one a little more or less so. Both are consumed within First Light of Evening, and you can easily try this at home while reading.

This first is my family's Go-To Drink, by the way, but I'll henceforth name it after this story, since the latter grew out of a writing prompt where I had to narrate a real event from the opposite point of view. In this case, that event was a first hug, two decades ago, that my father gave me soon after my mother left him (and after I, btw, had been dumped by a girlfriend). My father, unlike Jim Finley, quickly got over himself; he's not one to be undone by sentimentality, and he's now happily remarried. He's also a near a teetotaler — who "splits a beer"? — but whenever we get together, we always drink this martini. Relaxed chatting and mediocre jokes ensue.

The "First Light of Evening" Martini, #1
  • 1 olive (dropped into Appropriate Stemware)
  • 1 splash dry vermouth (any quality will do, as you won't taste it)
  • Beefeater gin, kept ever-ready in your freezer, poured to top

I do have bartender friends who lovingly make high-grade cocktails, and who wince at the frozen liquor ("It can bruise the spirits"), but rest assured that all of them suck these back when I'm pouring, and they do not complain. And yes, I have tried many, many other gins, but none satisfy my gene-pool's palate like Beefeater. Honest, we've tried. My sister and I once even got some precious Dutch stuff in a stoneware bottle, but still, in unison, we spit.

What's also cool about keeping the gin in the freezer is that, once mixed, this martini travels well in a thermos, for your on-the-go needs. My father, who lives back east and doesn't travel well, has come to San Francisco three times — for our wedding, for our first-born, and finally, as a kindness to us. Late in the afternoon he arrived on his last visit, I packed up a transport unit of Recipe #1 (olives separate, please), and took him out to sit on the same beach where Jim Finley's date ended (in the story) so we could toast ourselves into the sunset. We had a Singularly Good Time, happily far from the sad, morose days we'd shared two decades ago — far from the sort of moping that led to this, the second martini Jim describes at the end of his story:

The "First Light of Evening" Martini, #2
  • 2 pieces Appropriate Stemware (from Goodwill if you do this for fun, or priceless, shared heirlooms if you're really pissed)
  • 1 toaster (round-edged and chrome works best)
  • Bright overhead kitchen lighting

This one is for rare and unpleasant occasions. First, stand in the brightly lit kitchen. Pretend you're about to make a couple of the Recipe #1s (above), and reach up into the cupboard. Take down the two glasses. Suddenly realize that you're all alone, and remember why. Call fully to mind the One Who Done You Wrong. Seethe. Mutter, "You can have her/him" and then yell it again, loudly, as you toss one of the glasses over your shoulder. If, for some reason, that glass doesn't break, shatter it in the sink. Look at the scary mess you've made — all those shards! — and then catch your reflection in the toaster. Check out how smart and righteous you look when you're seething. Not. Allow it to slowly dawn on you that the only person who can get your shit together is you, because you're the one, ultimately, who's holding it all.

Then, run out to see someone you love to talk to, prepare Recipe #1, and — Salut!


Mark Ernest Pothier's first published story won a Chicago Tribune/Nelson Algren Award in 1994. He wrote weekends and after-work for the next 15 years, until the editor at Kindle Singles resuscitated his fiction career by picking up two of his stories, "The First Light of Evening" and "The Man Who Owns Little," which have been downloaded by more than 16,000 readers and produced by Audible. He lives in San Francisco's Outer Richmond district with his wife and kids, holds an MFA from SF State, and is polishing his debut novel.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: This Boring Apocalypse

Read 2/17/15 - 2/18/15
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of the Blake Butler and Ben Spivey style literature
Pages: 122
Publisher: Civil Coping Mechanisms
Releases: March 2015

I should start a "Note Worthy" review series, specifically for the books I've taken notes on as I read. I feel like this is becoming a recent trend. First, for The Country of Ice Cream Star, to keep track of the amazingly beautiful, but initially complicated, invented dialect. And now for This Boring Apocalypse, which is just one of the most bizarrely written lit-fic novels I've read in a long time.

Here we have a woman who attempts to eat, and then begins to dismember, her girlfriend. Like, literally removes her body parts, starting with her legs, which she carries around with her and stores in her closet. What initially appeared to be a tender sexual act suddenly becomes tainted by her fear that her girlfriend is cheating on her, and so next she removes her arms. To keep her captive. And then she wants to reduce her to her smallest functioning parts, so she begins to remove the organs and then her head. So all she is now is just a hollowed out torso. Fucking weird, right? It's almost like she's playing with a doll, or a toy. There's no blood. There's no fighting. There's just this pop and bam! Body parts removed.

And like a kid who grows bored with their toys, our narrator tires of the girlfriend, disposes of her and chases down a man to play with. She wastes no time in removing his arms and legs. Pop. Pop. Off they go.

Then she sulks because she feels her own body is in control of itself and she desires to be in control of IT. While trying to control her body, she injures herself. This injury, which festers rapidly and painfully, ends up re-birthing her girlfriend. What the fuck, right?

As she's nursing her festering wound, she says "it is important to become part of the horror, lest we'll be controlled by it. Then the horror will overwhelm us. But if we are a part of it, we can at least control the part of it we are." And that's basically what the rest of the book amounts to, her need for control, at all costs. Of herself and of others. Whether this stems from a desire for companionship, or a place of intense jealousy, we ultimately find ourselves sucked down into her diseased brain. A mental rabbit hole we cannot claw our way back out of. It's a complete horrorshow.

People are planted in the ground by their feet and become trees, lab rats don white lab coats and perform experiments on infants, people she tires of and lets go return to her in the strangest ways... it's like an apocalypse of her mind.

Told in short, fantastical chapters, This Boring Apocalypse is a fast paced, increasingly bizarre novel filled with the surreal and distorted imagery that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Jillian

Read 2/12/15 - 2/16/15
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of litfic where all of the characters are depressed, miserable, and slightly manic
Pages: 150
Publisher: Curbside Splendor Publishing
Released: February 2015

Is Jillian this year's most un-feel-good book of the year? Quite possibly. And depending on how you like your literature, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

But fair warning girls, get out the tub of ice cream. Or the tube of cookie dough. Or whatever your comfort food of choice is. Because not only has Halle Butler gone and created herself some of the most depressing, manic, and miserable characters you'll ever meet, she's also somehow managed to pull off this neat trick where her book becomes a mirror that reflects all of your shit back at you, too.

You'll meet Megan. We get to hang out with her quite a lot. She's fresh out of college and hates her dead-end job at the gastroentrologist's office, where she views and files images of diseased colons. Yeah, I know. I'd hate that shit too. (haha, get it? Shit?!) She shares this small office space with Jillian, a super-chipper, super-fake thirty-something single mother who would drive ME up a wall. She's dating Ryan, who drags her out to parties where she has to hang out with people she doesn't like. The only way she can tolerate hanging out with these people is to drink. When she drinks, she says dumb, bitchy shit, and sulks over it the next day. Her best quality? Ranting to Randy every evening about all of the nutty and obnoxious shit her co-worker Jillian does.

You'll get to hang out with Jillian, too. She's an absolute basket case. She's broke as hell but blows money like she's made of it. She can't afford to keep her kid in daycare yet she can rationalize spending seven dollars for a starbucks coffee every morning on her way to work (I'm more of a Dunkin fan, myself but yeah, $15 smackers a weekend on Chai Tea and donuts biatch!). She can't pay the bill for her traffic violation but she goes ahead and adopts a shelter dog, and leans heavily on the good will of her neighbor Elena. She's not living the life she believes she's owed, but it's ok because she's living in a dream world where things will get better. Her best quality? She's a fucking riot when she abuses pain pills.

And because the story is told in close third person, we get to swing back and forth from character to character - cringing as we see how Jillian tends to her son and their dog; feeling embarrassed for Megan as we watch her cry on the floor of the shower. We're privy to Randy's inner most thoughts about Megan and their relationship. We're witness to the way Jillian's neighbor Elena gets revenge on her for all of the weeks Jillian's taken advantage of her. And we shake our heads because we are them. In little ways. In the smallest moments. We have done what they are doing. We have thought what they are thinking. We have hidden from our problems, feigning ignorance and telling ourselves lies until we believe them. We have felt the horrible crushing weight of our own self-hate, and thrown that hate onto others, only for them to throw it right back on us.

While I wasn't a fan of the passive-aggressive ways Megan and Jillian dealt with their issues (I HATE passive-aggressive people!), I did appreciate the message buried beneath all of their bullshit. It's a pretty poignant look at how what we do shapes who we are. We own where we are. We created the situation we have found ourselves in. Whether we act on it or we ignore it, we are the only ones who can do a god-damn thing about it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Read 2/03/15 - 2/12/15
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended to fans of post-pandy fiction. This one's unlike any you've read before.
Pages: 592
Publisher: Ecco Books
Releases: March 2015

It's a great time to be a reader if you're into post-pandemic dystopian literature, isn't it? Lately, it seems as though every author out there's devising new ways to bring about the end of the world. And what I find most interesting about this sub-genre -the post-pandy genre- is the fact that these stories aren't actually concerned with the trigger, the thing that brought about the near-end of humanity. Because the trigger is simply a catalyst. The meat of these stories is in the aftermath.

Take Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. She brought about the near-end of the world with a nasty, aggressive Super-Flu. Sure, she has to lay down some groundwork for it, but the bulk of her book focuses on what, and who, remains foremost in the survivors' minds. What are the survivors latching onto? What is keeping them human? What connects them to others? In her case, it's art and theater and culture.

Or we can look at Carola Dibbell's The Only Ones.  In a near future, a series of back-to-back viruses and infections plague the country and wipe most humans out. People are still getting sick and dying and this novel's concerned with just one thing... keeping our species from going extinct. So Carola's focus turns towards genetics and cloning and playing god by manufacturing hope for humanity in a petri dish.

True to the post-pandy formula, Sandra Newman infects her world with a strange virus that initially rocked the United States ages ago and which now lingers dormant inside every child, killing them slowly and painfully before they reach the age of twenty. Hers is a world containing only children. Hers is the country of Ice Cream Star and let me tell you.. what a country it is!

The novel is told from the point of view of Ice Cream Star, our fifteen year old protagonist, and is written entirely in a made-up dialect, with no glossary of terms in sight (more on that later). She and her brother Driver are part of the upper echelon of a small nomadic tribe of children who make their home in the woods of Massa(chusetts). Ice Cream's group refer to themselves as "tarry night sorts" (dark skinned) and operate under a hierarchy that is greatly influenced by the disease they call posies.

It is through Ice Cream's narration that we discover the "Nighted" States was once, way before her time, evacuated under the threat of this disease. If her bunch be "tarry night sorts", then where did all of the white people go? She ponders on Europe - a name that appears in the evac notices that still linger here and there in the abandoned homes they raid - as a place more likened to hell and myth than an actual, honest-to-god country people fled to, because of the occasional sleepers they come into contact with - the dead, skeletal bodies of those who died from the initial outbreak.

Their laws and rules are also mostly guided by superstition and fables.

There are other neighboring "tribes", that function under their own set of laws and rules, with whom Ice Cream and her group interact - the Christings, who are godly church-going people; The Lowells, who live in an abandoned mill and act as laborers and merchants; and The Nat Mass Armies, a military-like group of males. And when Ice Cream and her crew unexpectedly stumble across a grown white man hiding out in a sleeper's house during a routine raid, everything they thought they knew about life and the disease that claims them all at such a young age is about to change.

This 'roo' convinces Ice Cream Star that his people have a cure for their posies, and as her brother begins to show signs of the disease, she becomes determined to get her hands on it. What follows is a story of hardship, heartbreak, betrayal, and redemption.

The Country of Ice Cream Star immediately brings to mind Lord of the Flies. In this brave new world of parentless children, and of children having children, new societal norms and agreements have replaced the ones we typically function under. For example, women (or, more correctly, girls) can and do fight in wars but mostly lack social status. The Nat Mass Armies toss their unwanted female-born children to the Christings, kidnap others to keep as sex slaves, and are allowed to "choose" one against their will to become the Queen of the newest Nat Mass Army king. Inter-group pairings were looked upon as necessary strategic moves. Girls, once they hit their teenage years, were strongly urged to reproduce, in order to keep their tribe's numbers up. The Christings men, though claiming to follow the word of God, kept multiple wives. And one particular 'Panish' group with strange Catholic obsessions hand-select a man and woman, usually against their will, to become their Maria and Jesus, while they assigned "apostles" to manage and maintain their city laws.

This book also has strong similarities to Clockwork Orange. In the Country of Ice Cream Star, they all speak in a mish-moshed version of English, where most words lose their first letters (tober, vember, cember for the months of the year; lastic, lectric, larm, magine all have their opening vowels dropped) and others are just plain ole made-up.

Try this on for size:

"Ya, this been feary day, because we find a sleeper house. In houses with these dead we take no loot. It be unlucky wealth. Nor is good taboo to leave the house. Must rid it with clean fire."

Words like "vally", "bone", "bell", and "gratty" are defined only by their intended use within a sentence. And most of the time, you need to see it appear three or four times before you truly grasp its meaning. So, how does one keep track of all of this incredibly ambitious and strangely beautiful dialect? Well, like this...

Honestly, I don't know how I would have made it past the first 50 pages without these notes. Being locked inside a single character's head for ~600 pages is one thing. Being locked inside Ice Cream Star's head, with this trimmed down but highly complicated dialect, was an entirely different animal!

Difficulties with decoding the dialect aside, by the time I read the first paragraph I knew I was in this for the long haul, For all of her flaws and naivety, I found Ice Cream to be incredibly charismatic. I was entirely too curious to follow her around to even consider putting the book down. You wanted to be there as she comforted her dying brother, as she rallied her tribe to stand alongside the roo to fight for the cure, and as she fought, struggled, and escaped whatever perils came their way.

Sandra Newman has crafted a fascinating and frightful alternate future, one that pulls you straight down into its very heart, though it's the unique language of Ice Cream Star that holds you there tightly. It's heady and ballsy and manages to break every dystopian barrier there is with a sophisticated ease.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Brandi Wells' Would You Rather

Bored with the same old fashioned author interviews you see all around the blogosphere? Well, TNBBC's newest series is a fun, new, literary spin on the ole Would You Rather game. Get to know the authors we love to read in ways no other interviewer has. I've asked them to pick sides against the same 20 odd bookish scenarios. 

Brandi Wells'
Would You Rather

Would you rather start every sentence in your book with ‘And’ or end every sentence with ‘but’?
-I think I’d rather end every sentence with ‘but,’ because I love negation, even if it’s only implied or hinted at.

Would you rather write in an isolated cabin that was infested with spiders or in a noisy coffee shop with bad musak?
-The isolated cabin with spiders. I don’t really mind spiders, but I can’t work with any noise. In Alabama there were a couple spiders that lived in my shower, though they stayed up near the ceiling. I called them my shower spiders. I watched one of them catch a fly and wrap it in web once.

Would you rather think in a language you could understand but write in one you couldn’t read, or think in a language you couldn’t understand but write in one you could read?
-I’d probably go insane if I thought in a language I couldn’t understand.

Would you rather write the best book of your career and never publish it or publish a bunch of books that leave you feeling unsatisfied?
-I guess I’d rather write the best book. Maybe I could keep writing shitty books after that.

Would you rather have everything you think automatically appear on your Twitter feed or have a voice in your head narrate your every move?
-I think I’d rather have a voice narrate. I would be hopelessly embarrassed for everyone to know what I’m thinking. “My armpits itch-I wonder if it’s my deodorant-Can anyone see me scratching my armpits?”
Would you rather your books be bound and covered with human skin or made out of tissue paper?

-I’d rather the books be made of tissue paper. The skin would probably freak me out. Books with animal skins freak me out too.

Would you rather read naked in front of a packed room or have no one show up to your reading?

-I’d rather no one show up for the reading, which isn’t outlandish at all.

Would you rather your book incite the world’s largest riot or be used as tinder in everyone’s fireplace?
-Did they read the book before they burned it? Maybe? They at least got it somehow. It seems okay that they burn it afterward.

Would you rather give up your computer or pens and paper?
-Pens and paper. Please, never my laptop. I feel like I’m in a sort of romantic relationship with the laptop.

Would you rather have every word of your favorite novel tattooed on your skin or always playing as an audio in the background for the rest of your life?

-I wouldn’t mind having all the words on my body. I’d maybe need to work on having a bigger body though.

Would you rather meet your favorite author and have them turn out to be a total jerkwad or hate a book written by an author you are really close to?
-I’d rather my favorite author be a jerkwad, which has probably happened to everyone several times over. NBD.

Would you rather your book have an awesome title with a really ugly cover or an awesome cover with a really bad title?
-I’d rather it have an awesome title and bad cover. This was the hardest question of the group.

Would you rather write beautiful prose with no point or write the perfect story badly?
-I love beautiful prose with no point.

Would you rather write only embarrassingly truthful essays or write nothing at all?
-Embarrassingly truthful essays seem okay.

Would you rather your book become an instant best seller that burns out quickly and is forgotten forever or be met with mediocre criticism but continue to sell well after you’re gone?
-Instant bestseller that burns out quickly. I don’t care what happens after I’m gone. I’ll be gone.

Brandi Wells is the author of Please Don’t Be Upset (Tiny Hardcore Press) and This Boring Apocalypse (Civil Coping Mechanisms). Her writing appears in Denver Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Paper Darts, Folio, Chicago Review and other journals.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Drew Reviews: Komodo

Komodo by Jeff VanderMeer
5 Stars - Highly Recommended by Drew
Pages: 35
Publisher: Cheeky Frawg

Guest review by Drew Broussard 

The Short Version: The story of an ordinary woman, plucked from her (our?) plane of existence by transdimensional beings kind of like angels to do special-ops type work for them that might just bring about the end of the multiverse. Also there are ghost frogs and transdimensional komodos and a whole host of other weird things.
The Review: Well, fuck. 
I've been a fan of Jeff's for a long time but I had no idea just how weird he could get until now. And I say this having read his Ambergris trilogy, full of mushroom-people and squid festivals, as well as the Area X trilogy, with its brightness and tunnel-that's-a-tower and mice-washing - I mean, I knew he was weird. But this takes the cake, in the best possible way.
This novella - almost more of an individual short story, really - will take you maybe less than a half hour to read, but it almost demands that you turn around and start reading it again. Not that I think you'll understand it any better, necessarily, but you might glean some interesting secondary details. See, our narrator is a woman recounting what seems to be a weird children's story at first.  Or, well, she's talking to a child at least and the things she's making up are strange enough and even a little silly... but, no, they're real. Whatever's going on is really going on - and as the story goes on, it's either that the narrator stops trying to make analogies or we, the reader, have gotten used to the ones that are being made and so you find yourself in short order nodding away at the appearance of a dead rotting bear that is in fact not dead nor is it actually a bear, rather another strange transdimensional creature, described as "something ancient from the future, a refutation of everything you think you know about physics."
I mean, okay. Sure. You will know better than I whether or not you're the sort of reader who can get on board with this sort of thing - I, blissfully and happily, happen to be one of those.
Although it wasn't always that way. There was a time when I might've looked at the weirdness of this story (which actually masks a pretty ordinary operative-gone-rogue plot, in some ways) and been completely turned off. But the thing is, the thing that makes Jeff's work (and the work of the MiĆ©villes and Ciscos of the world) worthy is that it doesn't wear its weirdness on its sleeve. It isn't trying to show off, to preen and primp and do acrobatics with language in order to make you think that you must not be worthy if you can't understand it. No, it's just really honest and open and telling a good story. If that story happens to deal with the multiverse and an "angel" called Gabriel and, briefly, ghost whales... well, okay. As long as you're telling me a story, you can put in whatever you want. I'll be there. And this is Jeff's gift: he can make the weirdest thing you could possibly imagine somehow, well, imaginable. The descriptions in his story (of that bear, of the "angels", of the many other weird creatures and species and things that pop up) quite often don't make a lick of standard sense and if you try too hard to imagine them, you might pass out. But the ability to ride Jeff's delightful prose into a sort of liminal craziness allows you to imagine without directly imaging, if that makes sense - saving your sanity while still creating for you the enjoyable experience of imagining something as you read. 
I could go on about this at length, but it's probably faster for you to just go find the story and read it.  That is, if you don't mind getting a little (read: a lot) weird.

Rating: 5 out of 5. A blast. Many many times weirder than anything in the Ambergris or Area X trilogies, in the best possible way. If you're a fan of VanderMeer, you ought to check this out and see just how wild the man's imagination can get.  If you aren't a fan of VanderMeer yet, go read City of Saints and Madmen or Annihilation and get a little taste of what's to come. Jumping into the deep end is dangerous, for you and for others - but I promise the water is fine either way. Just look out for the...

Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble.  He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.