Sunday, February 17, 2019

Book review: A Dog Between Us by Duncan B. Barlow

A Dog Between Us by duncan b. barlow

Stalking Horse Press 244 pages

Coming in April 2019

I am not sure where to begin this review. While most who follow my blog know I review mostly genre novels that are Science or Horror fiction. I have to know Duncan for many years, our first books were released by the same publisher and I have followed his career closely since the beginning. I can't erase my bias towards him as a great person and artist but his last two books have still found a way to surprise me with their strength and depth. After the brilliant mind-fuck noir that was The City, Awake my bar was really high. There was a lot about that novel that made it my jam, so when I read about this novel I was not as excited. That being said I trusted Duncan Barlow and I am glad I did. On the surface, this doesn't sound like my type of book. An experimental character-driven story with no genre elements but grief and a feeling of dread through-out. for the record I don't just read genre, I love a character-driven novel as evidence check out my top ten last year with How to Set Yourself on Fire by Julia Dixon Evans. It also does two things I normally don't enjoy. This novel is first-person with time jumps and doesn't follow any conventional rules of grammar. Normally if a writer chooses to write a whole novel without quotes for the dialogue that would annoy me. Very few writers can pull that kinda raised finger at grammar off besides Kathy Acker or Cormac Macarthy. In this narrative, it makes sense since the entire story is one of personal reflection by the main POV Crag. No one is speaking really. Crag is recounting the death of his father and their relationship. A Dog Between Us is a thrill ride or filled with laughs. It is a novel soaking with emotional richness driven by raw and heartfelt prose. This is the type of novel that leaves you wondering how much of this is autobiographical? There are moments of gut-wrenching grief that is so powerful it is like an emotional knife's edge. The story jumps back in forth between touching and heartfelt love, clumsy disregard of youth and adult reflection. Duncan Barlow will never be a mainstream artist he grew up in Louisville Kentucky's underrated punk and hardcore scene. He is known for his hardcore bands By the Grace of God and Endpoint, but it was his band Guilt that has no comparison. Probably Barlow's most personal band of the time it mirrors many choices he makes as an author. Experimental without being so weird that the artistry and skill are forsaken. A Dog Between Us is as close to a mainstream novel as I suspect Barlow will give us. It is weird, just not as gonzo weird as past efforts. I loved this novel would consider a masterpiece like the last one. A Dog Between Us is Duncan Barlow's best novel to date even if I personally prefer The City, Awake. This novel is up for pre-order. So reserve a copy so you can have it right away.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Book Review: Exploring Dark Short Fiction #3: A Primer to Nisi Shawl

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #3: A Primer to Nisi Shawl

by Eric J. Guignard(Editor)

Nisi Shawl (Contributor)

Michael A. Arnzen (Contributor)

Michelle Prebich (Illustrator)

Paperback, 188 pages Published December 2018 by Dark Moon Books

Hey, I was pretty excited to see the third of this series in my mailbox, the first two books in this series confirmed to me Eric Guignard was really on to an excellent format to highlight authors. I can think of probably thirty authors I would love to see in this series. The cool thing about this one was before I saw this listed in the last edition I had not heard of Nisi Shawl. So I read Everfair and while I respected it and could tell there were some good things going on in the post-colonial Africa steampunk alternate history novel but it just didn't hook me.

So unlike the first two editions, this was absolutely a primer to her work. I enjoyed reading about her history, the interview, and her essay. As always Arnzen's academic breakdown of the stories provided a lot of excellent insight. My favorite of the stories was the post-apocalypse story Otherwise. Set after a massive EMP event this story is probably the most straight forward narrative. That is not to say that there is not depth. Beyond the grim set-up, this story looks at class and consumerism.

"The Beads of Ku" opens the book with a very folklore inspired tale that sets the tone nicely. Most of the stories balance the feeling of folklore with surrealism that fits nicely in the realm of the Afrocentric genre. "Just Between Us" is a short but effective dark fantasy that has an interesting set-up about an apartment building with dead women everywhere.

I admit the surreal tale "At the Huts of Ajala" kinda lost me. I am sure that was user error. I liked how the story was framed I just didn't connect to it. The book closed out with three stories about a character named Brit. She has powers that look similar to "The Shine" from Stephen King's fiction but Brit's experience is so much more rooted in her cultural identity.

While I don't think I connected to this author I really respect what she is doing. Nisi Shawl is a talented brillant writer, I don't think her style will connect with everyone but this is a great way to check out her work. This series does it again and puts together a beautiful looking book. Serious readers of horror and dark fiction should not miss a volume of this series. It doesn't matter if Steve R. Tem or Nisi Shawl scratch your itch perfectly these volumes present so much to learn from they really need to be consumed.

This is #3 in the series I can't wait until I have a shelf in my library devoted to them.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle and Philosophy Edited by Bruce Krajewski & Joshua Heter

The Man in the High Castle and Philosophy Edited by Bruce Krajewski & Joshua Heter

Paperback, 256 pages

Published July 2017 by Open Court

This book was published in a series of books that explore the ideas of popular movies and TV shows. In my role as Co-host of the Dickheads podcast, I interviewed the co-editor of this book and he was kind enough to send us copies. The essays range in quality but the overall package is pretty insightful. They range from good to terrible just like short story collections. This book is mostly focused on the TV show and that is perhaps the least interesting aspect of Man in the High Castle. Looking at the philosophy of PKD and the book are far more interesting. Certainly, this book does touch on comparisons with the book and more than a few of the writers take on our boy Phil.

The book is divided into six major sections each of which has a title that plays on PKD titles. the two best and most rich sections to me were "The World Dick Made" and "Flow my Tears the Ethicist Said. Each of these sections had the most interesting essays that explored the concepts in the most fascinating ways. The least interesting section has several essays devoted to the I Ching called "Captives of Unchance." I mean that was kinda my least favorite aspect of the novel.

I did find my self noticing moments here and there in various essays when the author didn't even get the events or timeline of the TV show correct. One could argue that maybe they viewed the show from another reality but I doubt that. The best most informed essays made the best experiences. My three favorite essays were "Cruel Optimism and the Good Nazi Life" by Lukasz Muniowski, "What If your Hero Is a Fascist" by Bruce Krajewski, and "In the Neutral Zone, a Libertarian's Home is Their High Castle" by M. Blake Wilson.

Cruel Optimism and the Good Nazi Life deals with John Smith the American turned Nazi and Frank Fink the Jewish man on the west coast. There is room for more discussion here but introduces the ideas. Something we dealt with on the podcast at length was the idea that PKD was rightfully hard on the Nazis but gave the Japanese a pass in the narrative.

"What If your Hero Is a Fascist" is one we talk about in length during the interview with co-editor and author of this piece Bruce Krajewski. (Link below) Bruce uses quotes from PKD late in his life to point to statements he made that on the surface appear to support fascist leaders. Many of his quotes are disturbing but anyone who followed the man's life knows he contradicts himself. Either way those of us who are Dickheads need to contend with this.

Most interesting is one with a mile long title "In the Neutral Zone, a Libertarian's Home is Their High Castle." This author really thinks PKD is a libertarian. At least the author of this piece understands that PKD is all over the map with his views. This was one of the better researched and thought-out essays.

This is a cool read for anyone really wanting to dive into ideas behind the show and the novel. I think this is one that should be in libraries, I ask for it at your library, see if they can order it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Book Review: Journals of the Plague Years by Norman Spinrad

Journals of the Plague Years by Norman Spinrad

Paperback, 164 pages

Published August 1st 1995 by Spectra (first published 1990)

As a long time fan of Spinrad this book has been on my list for years. As a high concept dystopia written during the height of the AIDS crisis this novel is an important touchstone of how the genre dealt with AIDS. Did anyone else even touch this issue? Who would have the courage? I suspect if PKD had lived longer we might have gotten an AIDS allegory from him. None the less without ever using the A-word Spinrad delivers a truly underrated masterpiece of totally bonkers political speculative fiction.

It is important for those who were not alive at the time to understand what the atmosphere was like in the AIDS crisis. It was a scary time the disease killed so many in the early years it was a death sentence, compared to today when we have famous people like Magic Johnson who have lived with the disease for twenty years. AIDS fiction from the era like the film Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks or the mini-series "When we Rise" paint a picture but it is really interesting to see how Spinrad explores the issue.

Presented with a fictional introduction dated as from 2143 in a place called Luna City. I think the implication Spinrad was going for that these journal entries were compiled far in the future. The fictional introduction was written as if it was history is a tactic NS has used before most notably in his classic The Iron Dream. In the afterword, Spinrad explained that this book is actually what he considered originally as an outline for a novel. Spinrad's publisher told him it was an amazing outline but didn't think he could sell it as a stand-alone novel but offered to publish it in a collection.

It is written as a series of journals entries by four witnesses close to the events during the last years of the Plague in question. It might seem crazy in hindsight but Spinrad jumps off from that scary time to imagine a future where the idea of sex itself is so scary that very few "share meat" as it is disgustingly named in the book. Most have sex with machines until they become infected and then it is free love. San Francisco is one large Quarantine zone and orgy while the streets of the rest of America are patrolled by Sex Police.

I mean the back cover description almost under-states the weird nature of this book:

"The Plague's origins were mysterious, but its consequences were all too obvious: quarantined cities, safe-sex machines, Sex Police, the outlawing of old-fashioned love. Four people hold the fate of humanity in their hands... A sexual mercenary condemned to death as a foot soldier in the Army of the Living Dead; a scientist who's devoted his whole life to destroying the virus and now discovers he has only ten weeks to succeed; a God-fearing fundamentalist on his way to the presidency before he accepts a higher calling; and a young infected coed from Berkeley on a bizarre crusade to save the world with a new religion of carnal abandon. Each will discover that the only thing more dangerous than the Plague is the cure."

I can see why many publishers were afraid to touch this. The conclusions and ideas contained in this novel are by their nature confrontational and at times scary and gross. It is in the tradition of political science fiction like the Handmaid's Tale that takes extreme paths of speculation to make a point. It is a pessimistic novel that also sees the drug companies suppressing a cure, and a congressman with a plan to nuke the free-love Bay area.

Spinrad had a novel with a sex-fueled FTL drive and here magic sex performed by a woman know as Our Lady of Love is spreading the cure by sleeping with those dying from the plague. I am aware that has a weird male wish fulfillment to it, but I got over that. For the most part this is just a strange bizarro political sci-fi novel that deserves more attention then it has gotten. The number of hot-takes and crazy ideas per page are off the charts. This is one of the most gonzo sci-fi novels I have read in some time but it is also tragically thoughtful. I am way into.

Stay tuned for a bonus episode of Dickheads about this novel featuring Longtime activist and journalist Mark Conlon... recording soon not sure when it will drop.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Book Review: Getting Open by Tom Graham, Rachel Graham Cody

Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball

by Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody

Hardcover, 272 pages Published March 28th 2006 by Atria Books

My father taught at Indiana University, and the majority of sporting events I have been to in my life have been at IU. Some of my earliest memories come from the first season we had season tickets for 1981. That was the year Isiah Thomas lead the Hoosiers to the national title. While I have mixed feelings in hindsight about the Bobby Knight era of IU basketball I have Hoosier hoops in my blood. Martha the mop lady commercials make me emotional, the IU fight song gets me pumped even though personally I didn't go to IU.

So I was interested in this history not just as a IU fan but a fan of basketball history and Indiana state history. Getting Open is the detailed history of Bill Garrett - the first black player in the big ten. This is an important story about the integration of college basketball. While Garrett was the Jackie Robinson of midwestern college basketball it is important to note that outside the big Ten Black players were accepted to colleges in the west and even a few in the south. The Big Ten, however, was the most visible and popular conference in the sport at the time and in the early 40's they had "Gentlemen's agreement," not to recruit a black player. While that would have been better to call it an "Asshole's Agreement," but whatever. I am not going to say it was easy, certainly Bill Garrett dealt with may examples of racism. The history of racial prejudice in Indiana is not a pretty one. In the years after Garrett one player was murdered and the Klan blew up a black orientated store in downtown Bloomington. That said I happy to say his experience was not as bad as I feared. This book is a fun read if you are into the history of the sport, the story of Garrett's high school run to the Indiana state championship and the 40's Indiana march madness that inspired the national tournament was probably my favorite part. In this book, I learned so much about how the sport worked before TV coverage and that was interesting. In that context I learned little bits and pieces about Indiana. It was really interesting to learn that the Senate street YMCA in Indy was a cultral center where the black community organized. I learned that one of the first competitive basketball games out of Springfield Mass was in Indiana in 1896, and it was between the Lafayette and Crawfordsville Y's. I knew basketball was almost a religion in Indiana but this helped me to understand why. I really enjoyed this book, it is a fun and important history. I don't want to give away what happened to Bill Garrett but it is too bad it turned out the way it did.

Book Review: Beyond Apollo by Barry N. Malzberg

Beyond Apollo by Barry N. Malzberg

Mass Market Paperback, 153 pages

Published 1974 by Pocket Book (first published 1972)

John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1973)

The first read of my 2019 retro-sci-fi reads is a re-read of the Barry Malzberg classic Beyond Apollo. I first read this ten years ago, but I thought I would have more of context for it now. I did some research recently on BNM's career and history.

This short novel is the essence of out of date science fiction. It is about the first expedition to Venus a planet that we now know is too hot to visit. We have lots of great pictures in orbit but the idea of going to land on Venus is pretty silly. I like reading the out of date stuff because you get an idea of the imagination was at the time, in this case, 1972. Clearly, in the space race, the Apollo missions were coming to an end and no one really knew where the space exploration was going after the Apollo program. This story suggests a disaster during a 1976 Mars landing and the idea that we would be sending people to Venus in 1981 is pretty optimistic.

In many ways, BO is like a slightly harder sci-fi take on similar ideas that Lem explored in Solaris. He keeps it in the solar system and takes advantage of early 70's free love attitudes. I mean there is lots of adult language and tons of sex that feels very out of place and a bit awkward.

The narrative is told from the POV of Harry Evans first officer on the Venus expedition mostly in first person unreliable style. This works pretty well especially when his sanity starts slipping. Was he in psychic communication with Venusian Snake people or is he losing his mind? The theme of the novel appears about the idea that the vast-ness of space may just be too much for our puny little brains.

I am not sure I would call this short novel a masterpiece but it is a quick and interesting read. The author's contribution to the genre may be more as an agent and editor but he is giant and I give this novel a lot of respect. You have to keep the era written in mind or you'll have a lot to laugh off. That said I glad to have this on my shelf.

Note: This book was recommended to me by my friend Robert Garfat the first time I met him when I walked into his book store in Victoria Canada. I knew the man had good taste right away and left with this book and some Spinrad I came in there to find.

Book Review: The Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

The Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published November 2018 by Ecco

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the greatest writers living today and there are few who would argue against that position. It had been some time since I read one of her books and when I saw the title and read a brief summary I thought I needed to check it out. This book is very much a reaction to modern political issues and the Trump era it is not as direct as some might suspect. If forced to make comparisons I would say it is part Handmaid's Tale and part Philip K Dick's Time out of Joint. It is hard to explain how this worked without giving spoilers for the third act.

The book opens on a choppy in-direct narrative that gives background on the dystopia where the novel takes place. This country is NAS-23 a combination of North American countries loosely run by reality stars. Don't worry too much on the details JCO is not focused on them after the first few pages. We get short lists of rules, some history lessons. While JCO sorta breaks the rules with a series of info dumps, most of the world building is nicely slid into the narrative after the early chapters. After all this set-up we move into the story through the point of view of Adrienne who is arrested after giving her valedictorian speech. Her punishment to be exiled into Zone 9 for her university studies.

At first, it might seem like this Midwestern college town in Wisconsin is ideal but it is a bigger change than she expected. Exile includes teleportation back to 1959 - Zone 9 is a place in the past. The first act sets up the A Brave New World/ 1984 style dystopia and then takes a dramatic turn when the book goes back into time. JCO does a great job of contrasting the struggles of the past with stagnation of the present. That seems to be the over-arching theme, but don't worry knowing that going in doesn't weaken the vibe of the book. It is funny to me that some readers are calling this novel YA, it is simply that JCO is using many tropes of the YA dystopia genre as a starting point but there are several very heavy and deep themes of cold war politics, psychology and personal identity in this book.

Adrienne is a great character who seems to fit the genre stereotypes but her arc is not the same. While she briefly experiences social justice movements she doesn't end up leading the rebellion. JCO seems to want to make a point to the readers who relate to this dystopia heroes about the times when she was growing up.

It is easy at times reading this book to miss the sheer levels of genius at work, and this lends itself to thinking about it long after you close it for the last time. This is the first top ten read of the year contender and certainly a book I highly recommend it for my readers.