Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fistful of Feet (review)

Fistful of Feet, by Jordan Krall

I've read a considerable amount a bizarro considering I only really started reading bizarro a couple of months ago. The more I read of particular authors, the more I get used to their style. Carlton Mellick III is certainly the most prolific writer in the genre (belting out new books left, right, and centre), but with those authors who've only got a few titles here and there, it's difficult to figure out exactly what they contribute to the genre until you read more.

Jordan Krall's Squid Pulp Blues was one of the first bizarro books I read (along with Mellick's Satan Burger and Cameron Pierce's Lost in Cat Brain Land). Now, I think what makes a good bizarro book is when the author tries to do something different, as opposed to tries to do something weird. Unique, as opposed to random. Squid Pulp Blues is a collection of three novellas, each connected through one crime-filled town. It's a weird, weird book, it's a no holds barred bizarro adventure, but it borrows stylistically from the noir genre. Fistful of Feet, evidently, continues on Krall's genre take on bizarro through its implementing of the western genre.

This is Krall's third published book and first full length novel, and I think as he progresses, his talent to tell a good story becomes just that extra bit better. I haven't read his first publication, Peacemeal June, which, from what I gather, is not so much a weird genre story, but a straight up bizarro story. I have, however, read his fourth published book, King Scratch, which was actually the first book he wrote. It's sort of like a predecessor to Squid Pulp Blues in its crime noir style, but I believe it's more for hardcore horror fans, as it takes precedence of fucked up shit over plot development. Which I guess brings me to Fistful of Feet.

It's a "weird western". That's a title that sums it up perfectly. It's a pretty wild novel, set in the town of Screwhorse, and follows Calamaro, a few other out-of-towners, and the townsfolk as frictions rise as crooks and cowboys and Indians draw themselves towards a chaotic, bloody mess. The local whorehouse specialises in some pretty weird fetishes, and while the simple townsfolk try to stand around and look innocent, they are anything but. Once this story gets going (and it gets going pretty early on), things quickly get out of hand, and stay that way for the majority of the book. At some points I just wanted the pace to slow down to build up a bit of tension, but this book is one of wild extremities. A lot of sex, a lot of violence, a lot of people getting what's coming to them.

As with Squid Pulp Blues, the narrative style of Fistful of Feet is one of disjointed, simultaneous plot lines. So while the plot runs linear, Krall is constantly switching between seemingly unconnected stories as they wind themselves towards eachother. The way certain plot points are foreshadowed in this book is probably my favourite part about it. Where certain characters or plots may seem to have dropped away to nothing, they're sitting dormant until the right time to make their dramatic entrance. It's not an easy thing to do with this style of narrative storytelling, but Krall pulls it off brilliantly. There were some points that I felt should have been pushed further in the book, such as the plot with the gold. It comes down to a matter of personal taste. I would have liked more suspense, and perhaps a closer correlation between the intersecting plot lines. But it's a great, weird, disturbing bizarro genre read, and I think Krall is becoming more ambitious with each book. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Zombies and Shit (review)

Zombies and Shit, by Carlton Mellick III

I don't really know where to start with this book. I was really looking forward to it. I'm not a huge zombie fan, and while I love a good horror book, I don't really read all that much horror. But as far as horror goes, this is like those horror movies that are ridiculously over the top, they're not scary, just disturbingly funny.

So, what is this book about? It's about a group of lowlife shitkickers and gutter punks who are dumped in a zombie infested wasteland to participate in a reality tv show called 'Zombie Survival'. It's pretty full on, with 20 participants featured as main characters, plus minor characters, plus detailed backstories.

I think what really separates this book from all the other zombie books around is the characters and backstories. Mellick has built up a corrupt post-apocalypse world where the majority of the world's population lives on an island called Neo New York. It's divided into four quadrants; Platinum, Gold, Silver and Copper. And that's pretty much how class is divided in the city. The show takes its contestants from copper and uses them to entertain the citizens of the other quadrants. This season of the show, however, contains contestants that are far more interesting than past seasons, with mercenary punks, androids and immortal lizard/humanoid creatures. Even the average contestants show a determination that exceeds expectations.

The concept is fascinating, and the action is brutally entertaining. And the stories that unfold are genuinely thought-provoking. From this book comes issues of race, class and corruption. Why save the world, when the guys in control have their every need catered for. There were parts in the book where I wanted to stop reading, or to just skip over them (I'll just skim over Gogo's story...) due to the graphic fetishised nature the story had adopted. But I guess that sort of stuff just works as a reminder that this book is a zombie book, and it's fucking hardcore. So I think a lot of people who don't read much horror/bizarro would probably cower away from this book, if you can trek your way through the disturbing parts, it's well worth the read. It's what you'd expect from a book called 'Zombies and Shit', but it's got that something else to it that is tragically sad, that the plight of humankind in the event of disaster is inherently futile. Carlton Mellick III certainly knows how to shock, but he also knows how to twist a seemingly self-indulgent story towards larger themes.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Starfish Girl (review)

Starfish Girl - Athena Villaverde

"So cute!" This novel(la) is Villaverde's first publication, and it follows the story of Ohime, the starfish girl, as she wanders joyfully through the post-apocalyptic wasteland of a corrupt and violent underwater civilisation. In her travels, she meets Timbre, who is a no-holds-barred sea-anemone assassin. She doesn't like to fuck around. Together they travel through the dangerous lands of their dome society in an attempt to reach a ship that will take them to the surface to restart civilisation on land.

This book is great for a first novel. It's a fun adventure with some great action sequences and some clever and interesting plot points. The style is gothic bizarro. It's not as fucked up as some of the other books I've read, but it's got a dash of shocking here and there.

Now, I read a while ago that Carlton Mellick III mentored her throughout the process of writing this book. After actually reading this book, I can tell. I've read six (well, five and a half, at the moment) of his books, but it's not until now, that I've read Starfish Girl and I'm reading Zombies and Shit at the moment that I've noticed the influence. I'm not talking about content-wise, as Athena seems to have her own stylised world building and characterisation down no problem, but her tendancy to transition to backstories on a regular basis is something that Mellick does a lot. And I must say that it's quite an effective story-building technique (considering I haven't picked up on it until now).

This, I think, is where the novel comes into full form. The characters and the landscape are richly detailed and entertaining, and while the narrative runs in a conventional, linear direction (beginning to end), there is still the impression of dense storytelling through the use of backstories placed in key points throughout the book.

I really enjoyed the book. I read it in one day (and that was taking my time, too), and I must say that I'll be looking for more from this author over the coming years. It's stylistic, it's fun, it's a lovely bizarro book, and it's got a playfully innocent exhubrance similar to Kevin L. Donihe's Washer Mouth. If you've never read bizarro before and you'd like to give it a sample, this book is a great start. It's got a couple of shocking parts, but for the most part, it's surreal and beautiful and gothic, it's captivating and charming, it's short but sweet.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Blankety Blank (review)

Oh my god this is now in my top ten favourite books of all time. Maybe even top five. Yes, get ready for a chunk of text dedicated to why I think this book is so damn good.

Blankety Blank, by D. Harlan Wilson

Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria is the thinking man's bizarro. It's sharp, it's intelligent, it's weird. It's a very well thought out and well written book. Damn, this book is good.

Ok, so here's how it goes:
Mr Van Trout is an asshole. He's a pretty big asshole, as a matter of fact. He has a massive silo in his front yard because he's better than everyone else. 'Vulgaria' is Wilson's construction of a dystopian suburbia. There's the neighbourhood families, the dinner parties, the kids playing in the front yard, yet most of the characters are obsessively selfish. Mr Van Trout is driven by materialism. His silo is a landmark of his success that he has to rub in to all his neighbours. There are obsessive bodybuilders, powerless superheroes, and couples obsessed with fitting into the social circle that is the vulgaria of Grand Rapids. Then Mr Blankety Blank comes on the scene. He's a serial killer with a barbershop pole for a head, and he's a true splatterpunk serial killer.

But forget about that for now. Yeah, it's a pretty absurd plot, and it is highly captivating, but you don't read this book for the plot. As with most books I like, it's the style that gets me. I love a book that's got a lot of style to it. I love seeing an author doing things differently, structuring things differently. To me, that's what makes this book. It's a fictional memoir. It reads very matter-of-factly, and it often runs off on tangents that are not so much part of the plot, but part of the setting, the vulgaria. Throughout the book there are short articles on things such as a brief history of werewolves, or a brief history of ripperology, or a brief history of silos. It sounds pretty boring, but the blatant falsehoods make this book what it is. They all work in some form or another to compliment the greater product that is the memoir. The novel goes from chapter to chapter, capturing the vital information. The dinner party where so-and-so weren't invited, or Rutger Van Trout building his silo or buying a new car, or the recent wave of serial killings and cryptic-yet-meaningless clues from the Mr Blankety Blank.

This book is brimming with its own histories it feels like there is so much more to this book than the hundred-and-something pages. They watch television differently. They watch irreality programs. They throw parties differently. They treat their children differently. They are the product of a different time and place that seems like it's a reflection of our own time and our own place. They become obsessed over their own self importance and their own intelligence. Rutger Van Trout's son is named Rutger Van Trout. One family named their daughter Sheba. They also named their dog Sheba. Some characters go by several names and personas. It feels like this book is on the brink of becoming horrifically confusing, but even where there's passages of dialogue where no distinct speaker is identified, the book still reads with a crystal clarity. Everything lends itself to some idea or concept, lends itself to adding context to the plot, lends itself to this or that or the other.

It's a social catastrophe of self-importance and assholery. I can't really say I noticed a difinitive protagonist throughout the whole book. The parents are assholes. The kids are little scumbags. Even in the presence of a brutal serial killer, it seems the biggest problems the characters have is one of a mild identity chrisis. Wilson has set this memoir up perfectly. It's like, what we'd be like if we were compelled entirely by our own greed and selfishness and our own egos. I guess you could extrapolate any number of concealed morals or meanings to this story, especially since its ending doesn't resolve very much at all, but I think I like the idea that Wilson was critiquing suburban culture and their over-emphasis on materialist needs and social status.

It's a fantastic, weird, brutally dysfunctional read. It's not for all readers, but it's definitely more than its synopsis. It's more than the weird false-factoids and surrealism. It's a top quality cult book that packs a punch quite like Fight Club or A Clockwork Orange or Less Than Zero.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Restaurant at the End of the Universe (review)

At some point this year I plan to write about something that's not a review, but for now, here's another book I've recently read, and something I can freely rant about.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams

Sometimes you get books that are popular that are one of those iconic novels that people rant and rave about like it's the best thing ever. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is kind of like this. And while I feel bad ripping on books that get a lot of people reading (especially when the author isn't around to defend himself), that is the case this time around.

For those that don't know, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is the second book in Adams' five part sci-fi comedy series, of which 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is the first part and the most familiar. I read the first book some time last year. I'd seen the 2005 film adaptation some years before and I quite enjoyed it. So I bought the first book and read it in a couple days and I quite enjoyed it. So I bought the second book and started it and fell flat. And I tried a few times since then, each time only getting a few pages in before asking "why bother?" and failing to come up with a compelling answer. I think it's the same sort of thing that stopped me about half way through the Great Gatsby and about 20-30 pages in to the Catcher in the Rye. Both supposed classics, both books that people love to death and tell me that I too should love.

But I committed myself to giving this book another chance, as I hope to give another chance to Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye at some point this year. You could argue that I've got the mindset stuck in me that I'm not going to enjoy this book, but for the amount of times I've tried and the book has failed to impress me, I think I've got grounds to base my opinions upon. Sure, I may have built up a bit of a grudge for the book, but all things aside, I finished the book in about a week, I think. It's a short book, but that first part took some real chewing on, to make it past the barrier of not giving up.

I guess I should talk some positives on the book, so as to not completely write it off as a book to avoid at all costs. It's got a playful exhuberance to it, a humour and strange logic to it that is very much in the same vein of Alice in Wonderland. The title " The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (aka: Alice in Wonderland in Space)" would not entirely be out of place. I'd probably enjoy it more if I didn't read so much weird books already. Weirder and more abrasive. Because I like my books to have a bit of grit, a bit of punch, a bit of edge to them. This book is something the child in me would love to read. I mean, I did read the first book before my weird fiction collection got too wild.

Another thing I like about this book is that it's got some interesting ideas going on. It's got its clever-yet-absurd twisted space logic going on, it's got moments of really well thought out ideas that seem to click together quite well. But I get the feeling that these ideas are too compressed, too thinly veiled to gather any momentum, and here is where I feel the book falls into its first major pitfall. It's a fast paced sci-fi absurdist adventure, yet it bounces from plot point to plot point with a nonchalance that is simply frustrating. Why do I care that these characters are currently hurling towards a sun in a(nother) stolen spaceship? Oh wait, I don't. And when Adams tries to explain some of his ideas, he structures them in the most awkward and clunky ways that not only is their meaning lost, but it reads really awkward. The prose is so inconsistent that the wit is often lost to boring and poorly phrased chunks of texts. It's like it's been left up to the reader to turn a blind eye to those numerous instances and skimming through the book as a light afternoon read.

I guess that's all the book really is. Something you just read to switch the brain off and coast along on the strange and surreal imagery. Sure, it'd work a lot better if the prose were fixed up a bit, but it's not a serious book. It's just something you read for some light-hearted fun.

And now I'm posed with a serious conundrum. Do I buy the third book now? For those of you who have read the series, is the next book any better, or is it more or less the same sort of thing?

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Flappy Parts (review)

Ok, so this year, I might try to unclutter things a bit by keeping  general housekeeping blogs separate from review blogs from more specific writing blogs. So while I've already got an abundance of things planned/happening in 2011, there's time to flap my mouth-hole about that stuff later.

Right now is all about reviews. And specifically, a review of a particular book. The first book I read this year, Kevin L. Donihe's "The Flappy Parts." I've also read Douglas Adam's "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", so hopefully I'll have a review for that book up soon too. I think I've set 2011 up to be a year for excessive reading. And probably excessive writing too.

So anyway, on to the flappy parts.

Over the past year or so, I've grown quite keen on poetry as an art form. However, something that's been holding me back from reading more poetry is that the really good stuff is usually quite sparse. Of course, it comes down to personal taste, so I suppose I should clarify where I stand on that matter.

I like stuff that's weird, smart, different, thought provoking, challenging, original. Basically, if you do something different with your poetry, I'll probably like it. And for the record, I like this book. As far as poetry goes, my personal tastes don't stretch too far. I've read a couple of verse novels by Dorothy Porter, and the characterised poems in Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk are my sort of thing. Efficient word usage, nice and punchy, yet uses the form of the poem to their advantage.

The Flappy Parts isn't all poetry. Almost everything is under a page long, but some pieces are more prose poems or flash fiction. It's a bit of a fine-line distinction, but I consider myself a fan of the flash fiction genre, and while it can work on similar principles to poetry, it is an entirely different form.

So in this book, we have a collection of poems and flash fiction totalling a bit over 110 pages. It's a small book, but it's got a lot of material here. I think I recall reading somewhere that this book is Donihe's collections of poetry over the past decade. Now, in terms of structure, I think Donihe's got a firm grasp of the poetic form, and he's adopted some interesting poetic techniques to add some depth to his work. No doubt I'll go back and read this again, to pick up on things I didn't get the first time around, and to try to figure out more of what the poetry means, if anything at all.

As with the bizarro genre, Donihe's poetry is awkward and weird and at times disturbing, and at times just completely jarring. The material in this book. It's been a few days since I read the book and there's not too much that's still fresh in my mind. I suppose I can blame my erratic reading habits for this, as I've finished reading one book and read about half of another book since then, so I feel like I haven't properly digested this work. Call that lazy reviewing if you like, I'm gonna call it a medium close up shot review. I get a good impression of what the book is about. Most of the poetry is good. Some of the poetry is really good. I can't remember reading anything I outright hated, but to be a human being, there are some poems that aren't as good as others. Medium close up shot. I can't tell you exactly which poems were my favourite because I didn't look that close (like the extreme close up shot where you can count the eyelashes) and I can't really give you a thorough detailing of the impression of the whole book because I haven't stepped back to see how the poems compliment eachother (landscape shot, where you can see the surroundings, the composition of the shot).

So, yeah, it'd probably do the book justice for me to read it again, and at some point, I am positive I will, but for now, there's just this (which I believe is still quite a passable review). I loved Donihe's novel, Washer Mouth, but his poetry has proved to me that he's not just your average weird author. He's a wordsmith. A flash fiction freak. A poet. And he knows how to get you thinking. I feel this book would be best read by those with a keen eye for poetry, and consumed and savoured on a poem-by-poem basis. There's a lot of great material here, it feels like somewhat of a shame to reduce all this poetry into one short volume. I read it in a single afternoon, and I think this book has so much more to offer than that.

P.S: Don't lick the page.