2008 Texas Laureate Larry D. Thomas has released another wonderful on-line chapbook through Right Hand Pointing (www.righthandpointing.net). Titled Ja2008 Texas Laureate Larry D. Thomas has released another wonderful on-line chapbook through Right Hand Pointing (www.righthandpointing.net). Titled Jake & Violet (Terlingua, Far West Texas), the narrative sequence of poems centers on a veteran gripped by the ravages of PTSD and his long-suffering wife. Exploring their psyches with delicate but unblinking compassion, Thomas crafts harrowingly beautiful images, as when “Mexico looms / just to the south of them / like a mute, staring stranger” or “Violet / watched his brutal crawl / toward the distant homeland / of his Self.” Jake struggles with the help of his half-Mexican, lore-wise partner to navigate his bifurcated soul, always careful of “the savage beating / of his heart / ticking in his body / like an IED / of solid muscle,” never certain “which of his two distinct // pairs of eyes will gaze / upon the uncharted day / of gall and brutal light.”
One of the most gifted and big-hearted wordsmiths in Texas letters, Thomas weaves distinct, rounded lives out of moments and glances and sets his noble creation to roam freely, like some virtual bison, upon the vast fields of our souls....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 10, 2016 edition of The Monitor
I think it’s safe to say that “Mongrels” is one of Stephen GrahamA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 10, 2016 edition of The Monitor
I think it’s safe to say that “Mongrels” is one of Stephen Graham Jones’ most personal novels yet, even though it’s ostensibly about a family of werewolves.
Along with spending many of his formative years as the only Native American kid in a small West Texas town, Jones crisscrossed the country in his youth in many a broken-down truck. To this day the acclaimed author and professor seems to feel the stamp of the open road on his soul, as indelible a mark as the ostracization suffered be all marginalized families.
“Mongrels” opens with an unnamed young narrator living with his grandfather, an acerbic old man who tells tall tales about being a werewolf, much to the chagrin of the boy’s Aunt Libby and Uncle Darren (who imply to him that they are simply outsiders in their rural community).
But at a moment of crisis, the boy discovers the truth: all of his living relatives are werewolves. Soon he finds himself living on the road with Libby and Darren, their peculiar needs and customs keeping them from staying more than a few months at any one place. As his understanding of the nature of werewolves deepens, the boy at first embraces what may be his destiny with feral glee. With the passing of time, however, the gravitational pull of the rest of society complicates his relationship with his aunt and uncle.
The multiple conflicts with neighbors, law enforcement and social institutions are heightened by the fact that the narrator may not have actually inherited the family curse. Adjusting to that possibility, imagining himself nonetheless part of circle of loved ones with whom he doesn’t share an essential quality, makes the boy a rich, compelling and wholly empathetic character.
Jones has explained in interviews that “Mongrels” got its start as a cycle of short stories that he stitched together with a series of third-person vignettes (each of which refers to the protagonist by a role he plays or pretends to play: “nephew,” “biologist,” etc.). Like the lives of its characters themselves, this disjointed, episodic structure may baffle or frustrate some readers, but to my mind it’s a brilliant stroke of luck. The last thing I wanted was a novel version of “Teen Wolf.” Jones has given us something vastly richer and more rewarding.
The plight of the family can be read as a metaphor for that of any immigrant or minority clan whose lifestyle and traditions are at odds with a community that views them with deep distrust. The protagonist’s internal war — the existential question of whether to embrace his heritage or abandon it to pursue a more mainstream life in the larger social sphere — is one that will resonate with all daughters and sons of fringe folk....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 27, 2016 edition of The Monitor
An old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial once declared, “Two grA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 27, 2016 edition of The Monitor
An old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial once declared, “Two great tastes that taste great together.” Over the course of several lunch hours this week, I got to devour the literary equivalent of that classic blend. Or did it devour me?
Genre darlings Cameron Pierce and Adam Cesare have teamed up before, most notably for their great monster novel Bottom Feeders, which featured remarkably scary killer catfish.
Cesare, a Philadelphia-based horror author with a background in film, has been widely published to much critical acclaim. His monthly column at Cemetery Dance Online — Paper Cuts — explores the often at-odds worlds of written and filmic horror, a chasm the author seeks to bridge in his criticism and novels.
Pierce is the very definition of a bridge, a writer/publisher who got his start in the gonzo sphere of bizarro horror but who has steadily widened the gyre of his undeniable talent into affecting poetry, hard-boiled prose, and incisive essay.
Combining the eccentricity of Pierce and Cesare’s cinematic horror, Crawling Darkness (Severed Press) reads like the rabid child of Slither and Jaws with Quentin Tarantino directing. The story takes place over a few days in that part of Philadelphia that lines the Schuylkill River. Some sort of shadowy government experiment has produced a ravenous species of cunning, bioluminescent eels that — when together in a swarm — can devour a human being in minutes.
The story starts with a few isolated attacks, witnessed by or involving what seem unrelated individuals: an affluent jogger, a conspiracy theorist searching for her alien-abducted husband, a mentally unstable man obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, a lowly employee of the Natural Sciences Museum, a Fish and Game agent. As the eels begin to reproduce at an exponential rate and flee the river during a rainstorm, the hidden connections among these characters are gradually revealed, and the organic narrative that emerges is handled with deft and theatrical ease.
The story slides in quasi-parody in spots, especially as concerns the government operatives who bungle their attempts at stopping the eels. This ineptitude leads to an abrupt and cataclysmic ending that — while consistent with the general failure of authorities to do anything useful against the eels — felt a little too easy (though it certainly was amusing).
Though I wasn't ecstatic about the resolution, the amazing writing, great dialogue, and horrific action sequences (frying pan! eels in the toilet!) made the book an entertaining and worthwhile read for any fan of B-movie monsters. Here’s hoping Cesare and Pierce collaborate often, plumbing the depths of rivers, lakes and our collective pool of primal fears....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 20, 2016 edition of The Monitor
American author, essayist and poet Ana Castillo has had a storied aA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 20, 2016 edition of The Monitor
American author, essayist and poet Ana Castillo has had a storied and critically acclaimed career, garnering national recognition like the American Book Award given her first novel, a Carl Sandburg Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in fiction and poetry and in 1998 Sor Juana Achievement Award by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago.
In both her scholarly and creative work, Castillo has explored with unflinching truthfulness issues of race, gender, ethnicity, class and orientation. Perhaps most significant has been her tireless championing of what she terms Xicanisma, intersectional Chicana feminism in an increasingly backward and hostile political climate.
Though she has taught classes on memoir writing down the years and mined her own life to craft her literary projects, Castillo had never written a truly autobiographical work until her latest book, Black Dove: Mamá, M’ijo and Me (The Feminist Press). The title is taken from the famous song “Paloma Negra,” composed by Tomás Méndez, the second line of which mourns “no sé si maldecirte o por ti rezar” (I don’t know whether to curse you or pray for you). These were the words Castillo’s mother said to her as she left, a rebellious youngster, to make her unique way in the world.
This tension between mother and daughter infuses the emotionally charged reflections in Black Dove, as Castillo gradually comes to a hard-won understanding of the vicissitudes of (single) motherhood and a renewed respect for the struggles of poverty and racial tension Latinas face as they raise children in the United States.
Topics in the memoir range broadly: the contrast between Castillo’s sexually empowered, big-dreaming Tía Flora and her more reserved mother; the role of tortillas in Mexican-American culture and her own childhood; her teen years in late ’60s and early ’70s Chicago, balancing her own heritage with Black popular culture and hippie leanings; her family’s lack of interest in her college studies and the multiple horrible encounters with men that began to color her view of that sex.
But the beating and bruised heart of Castillo’s tale is her love for her only son, his many struggles as an adult and his eventual arrest. Watching her child be swallowed by the unwieldy and ugly penal system is one of the most difficult moments in her life. As she grapples with her own disappointment and the healing of their relationship, the author weaves a cohesive weft of communal plight from her family’s roots, her personal journey across the globe, and her son’s harrowing incarceration.
Embedded in this beautifully written tapestry are candid examinations of her own sexuality — including her long-term relationship with the woman who helped her raise her son — the restorative nature of writing, and the realization of how her own mother’s stern, solitary personality is reflected in her own
Black Dove is a masterful addition to American literary non-fiction, both solidly a work of Xicanisma and a moving life story that will resonate with readers of any background whose voices have been forced into the margins. Ana Castillo stands as one of the pillars of Chicana literature and scholarship — alongside other greats like Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros — I encourage you to give the book a read....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 13, 2016 edition of The Monitor.
Gabino Iglesias is a true wordsmith, making his mark in recent yeaA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 13, 2016 edition of The Monitor.
Gabino Iglesias is a true wordsmith, making his mark in recent years as a reviewer, essayist and writer of dark, visceral fiction. The Austin-based Boricua slings English as well as Spanish, and his latest novel uses that linguistic prowess to devastating impact.
“Zero Saints” (Broken River Books, 2015) centers on Fernando, a rough-and-tumble gunsel from Mexico City. When things go south for him, he flees north, crossing the border and winding up in Austin, where he is taken under the wing of petty drug lord Guillermo and his santera wife Consuelo.
Much of this backstory is revealed through rich, second-person vignettes that arise out of Fernando’s dense and philosophically complex inner life. He’s the sort of hard-boiled yet very human character who, marginalized by the systems of the world, has found a way to live by a solid code in the morally gray underbelly of society. Key to his survival is a devotion to la Santa Muerte, that Holy Grandmother Death whose sickle is said to protect such men when they turn to her for guidance.
Fernando has to depend on his dark faith more than ever when a group of heavily tattooed and possibly demonic mareros — members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang — decide to edge into territory Guillermo manages for his cartel bosses. As Fernando grapples with his own fear and sense of impotence, he finds himself push into revenge when the mareros begin to harm the ones he loves. With the help of a Russian hitman and a Boricua mob enforcer — plus the aid of ancient gods and Death herself — he’ll have to face down some of the most brutal denizens of the dark.
One of the most amazing — and inexplicably controversial for some — stylistic devices in this tour de force is Gabino’s use of Spanish. There are a couple of ways he employs the language: embedded in the first-person narrative without translation (much like we see in Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy”), either purely Spanish or within sentences via code-switching; and in characters’ dialogue (which is where a less fearless writer would restrict it).
Being bilingual, I was excited and wowed by the author’s technique, which made Fernando’s world feel utterly real. To those who have complained about not understanding, I’d respond by first paraphrasing Junot Diaz: some fools will read a book full of an invented language like Tolkien’s Elvish or Nadsat in “A Clockwork Orange,” but drop in a few words in Spanish, and they lose their minds. Furthermore, Gabino cleverly does the exact same thing with the Russian hitman, and I had no problem at all getting the gist of his dialogue.
Ultimately, Iglesias employs the tropes and straightforward plotting of crime fiction to explore heady themes of heritage, colonialism, immigration, religion and family in a propulsive, gut-wrenching and deftly controlled narrative. I’m thrilled to witness the advent of barrio noir, and I can’t wait for more from Gabino Iglesias, hopefully featuring this unforgettable protagonist....more
Scott Nicolay’s “Noctuidae” (King Shot Press, 2016) continues that author’s exploration of the New Weird. Three canyon hikers — former archeologist SuScott Nicolay’s “Noctuidae” (King Shot Press, 2016) continues that author’s exploration of the New Weird. Three canyon hikers — former archeologist Sue-Min, her boyfriend Ron, and Ron’s obnoxious friend Pete — set out to explore a relatively unknown canyon in Arizona. As darkness falls, they take refuge in a shallow cave. But in the depth of the night, something unspeakable emerges just outside, a sort of carnivorous flower whose extra-dimensional nature seems confirmed by the odd, shifting (fourth-dimensional) blobs that pass through the cave.
Narrator Sue-Min finds herself caught between the horror outside and a repugnant man within the confined space, and her handling of the situation is deft (even if Pete’s characterization is occasionally more heavy-handed than necessary). True to his creative philosophy, Nicolay allows the mystery and dread to deepen to an abrupt terminus, leaving the reader reeling and pleasantly disturbed.
Written with accomplished style and carefully constructed atmospherics that arise from natural surroundings, “Noctuidae” further cements Nicolay as a weird force to be reckoned with....more
In his latest collection, Soon after Rain (Wings Press, 2015), Hoggard effortlessly threads his love of nature, travel, poetic form and classical liteIn his latest collection, Soon after Rain (Wings Press, 2015), Hoggard effortlessly threads his love of nature, travel, poetic form and classical literature with wry wisdom about the human condition. The result is a brilliant display of atmospherics — literal, metaphorical and artistic — that further cements Hoggard’s place in the Texas pantheon. Particularly beautiful are “The Artemesia Suite,” a series of ecphrastic pieces based on the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, and “Odysseus Sowing Salt,” with its poignant nuances of long-enduring love....more
Last year, Slough Press released the first book of poetry from Gabriel Sánchez. The Fluid Chicano is an exploration of place and identity along the RíLast year, Slough Press released the first book of poetry from Gabriel Sánchez. The Fluid Chicano is an exploration of place and identity along the Río Grande. It’s a passionate, lively debut that reflects deeply on heritage and the renewal of the self. Stand-outs include “The Wall Is Coming Down,” a rousing call to action; “I Am the Bridge,” in which Sánchez clearly situates himself in a nepantla or ideological frontier not only between American and Mexican, but between Chicano and “born-anew Chicano,” transcending even the strictures of revolutionary identity to encompass all worlds....more
“The Elvis Room” by Stephen Graham Jones (“This Is Horror,” 2014) tells the tale of a young scientist who steps beyond the boundaries of empirical eth“The Elvis Room” by Stephen Graham Jones (“This Is Horror,” 2014) tells the tale of a young scientist who steps beyond the boundaries of empirical ethics as he tries to help a woman who’s convinced she’s being haunted by the ghost of her twin sister, whom she absorbed in the womb. In his do-gooder zeal, he ruins his career and loses his livelihood.
In short order he finds himself on the fringe of respectable science. Just when it seems he’ll never make his mark, he stumbles across a pattern of possibly supernatural events in otherwise nondescript hotels. It seems hotels keep one room empty, always, on the off chance that someone famous — like the King himself — might come along. The scientist dubs this the “Elvis Room,” and he uncovers a chilling trend: when all the other rooms are full and that room is booked as well, people die.
As the scientist spirals deeper into his obsession, we the readers are faced with his unreliability as a narrator, finding ourselves challenged to determine what is really happening and what is just a product of his broken mind. The reveal, when it comes, is deftly handled, a twist that adds to rather than undoing what’s come before. As always, Jones’ originality and narrative prowess blew me away....more
Margo Tamez is a scholar and poet with roots in the Lipan Apache/mestizo community of El Calaboz in the Río Grande Valley of South Texas. In her 2007Margo Tamez is a scholar and poet with roots in the Lipan Apache/mestizo community of El Calaboz in the Río Grande Valley of South Texas. In her 2007 collection Raven Eye, she combines indigenous traditions from her braided history to reflect on the marginalization of native peoples — and especially the women of those cultures.
Subverting Western literary norms to craft a contemporary indigenous poetics, Tamez unflinchingly explores violence and subjugation while also celebrating sexuality and self-determination. To read these harrowing pieces is to glimpse the poet’s “morning prayers,” what she calls the “yolks of my body / Stories we must tell to undo / What has been done.”...more