Back in 2010, the Virtual Artists Collective published a fantastic poetry collection by author and editor Jerry Craven, a true Texas treasure. “BecomiBack in 2010, the Virtual Artists Collective published a fantastic poetry collection by author and editor Jerry Craven, a true Texas treasure. “Becoming Others” is subtitled “dramatic monologues and soliloquies,” and Craven effortlessly moves between his own voice — distinctly Texan though well-traveled, multicultural — and those of his other narrators, who range from Londoner castrati to Venezuelan smugglers and an embarrassment of riches in between.
The language is amazing — rhythmic, with dense and memorable phrasing, lines that rush breathless or uncoil with languid abandon. Craven paints verse with indelible, ineluctable imagery that lingers in the mind, making the reader pause and struggle to return to the waking world after each final line.
Stand-outs for me were the compellingly romantic “The Ways of Water” and “Speak Me No Forevers;” “The Boys of Ho Chi Min” with casual death raining down; the stirring transcendence of “Three Prayers in a Sumatran Dawn;” “A Reason for Poetry,” with its achingly lovely final stanza; the evocative and nostalgic narrative of “River Jungle;” the horrible, ironic pathos of “The Flight of the Vietnamese General’s Wife;” the profound loss and love in “The Day of the Dead;” and the yearning to freeze the ephemeral explored in the amazing “Squandering the Moon.”...more
If you’re looking for a great, uplifting novel to read over the Thanksgiving break, I really recommend Steve Sherwood’s No Asylum (Texas Review Press,If you’re looking for a great, uplifting novel to read over the Thanksgiving break, I really recommend Steve Sherwood’s No Asylum (Texas Review Press, 2014). Clearly drawing on his college experiences working in a national park, Sherwood has crafted the engaging story of Aldo Springer, the former chief ranger of Rocky Mountain National Park, exiled not long after his divorce to a minor national historical site in western Kansas after shooting a pair of poachers.
When a woman convicted of murdering her own family escapes from a state hospital, she makes her way to the park and threatens to kill herself if Springer doesn’t give her protection. The ranger soon finds himself believing her tale of attempted rape and innocence, hiding her from the authorities and putting his budding romance with a coworker at risk to race against the clock to solve a 15 year old murder case.
Sherwood balances procedural mystery, romance and family drama with masterful ease, and in Aldo Springer he has created the sort of workaday hero that could handily anchor an entire series of such novels. Well worth your time!...more
Brady Peterson’s latest collection, “Dust” (Big Table, 2015), showcases some of the poet’s strongest work to date. Gifted like Seamus Heaney with theBrady Peterson’s latest collection, “Dust” (Big Table, 2015), showcases some of the poet’s strongest work to date. Gifted like Seamus Heaney with the uncanny ability to transform everyday reality and language into hints at transcendence, Peterson continues to explore favorite subjects and themes — coffee and Tuesdays, the inscrutable nature of youth and death, the slow entropic aftermath of war.
His poems are slivers of life that, laid one atop the next, build up to shivery and bittersweet epiphanies. Some of my favorites were the harrowing “Angel;” “What We Have,” in which coffee’s role as inadequate sacrament is explored; “Moloch,” with its indictment of the Beats; “Being,” with its hints at natural mindlessness; the failed insight of “A Refrain;” and the bittersweet nostalgia of “Holding Still.”...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the November 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Jesús Salvador Treviño is a trailblazer in Latino speculative aA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the November 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Jesús Salvador Treviño is a trailblazer in Latino speculative arts. His early career as an activist filmmaker documented the rise of the Chicano movement and the power of that work led to his becoming an award-winning television director, helming episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Bones, NYPD Blue and a host of other series.
Among his many creative endeavors are several books, including Return to Arroyo Grande, a short story collection that continues to explore the fictional border community established in The Fabulous Sinkhole and The Skyscraper That Flew.
The intertwined stories in this latest book dispense with some of the modern fads in genre fiction, taking an old-school approach to plotting reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. The inhabitants of the border town of Arroyo Grande find their lives shaken in unexpected ways as interdimensional rifts yank people and objects from one reality into another.
Yolanda Mendoza has to choose between immortal stewardship and her art career in “Where Lost Objects Reside.” In “Lost and Found,” her former boyfriend and nascent filmmaker “Choo Choo” Torres finds himself working at an amusement park where people disappear … and then are sometimes replaced by strange doppelgangers. During “A Tex Mex Night in Chelsea,” Yoli has to choose again between art and otherworldly artifact, and then her friend Jeannie gets a second chance at a long-dead love in “Builders of the New Templo Mayor.”
Of the remaining stories, the titular “Return to Arroyo Grande” stands out for me. A deceased matriarch appears to the scattered protagonists of the other tales, urging them to come home to fight against land developers looking to convert an old barrio into a gambling complex. The fantastic resolution to this problem harkens back to Treviño’s other collections in a richly rewarding way.
With this third book, Jesús Salvador Treviño is well on his way to crafting the sort of detailed fictional community that Rolando Hinojosa established in his Klail City Death Trip Series and in fact Hinojosa features briefly in one of the stories in a quick tip-of-the-hat cameo....more
Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most exciting voices in modern genre fiction, her Nigerian-American heritage informing her work in richly rewarding ways.Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most exciting voices in modern genre fiction, her Nigerian-American heritage informing her work in richly rewarding ways. An associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University at Buffalo, Okorafor has proven especially adept at tweaking elements of African myth and legend to fit seamlessly within the framework of modern fantasy and science fiction, whether YA or adult.
With Lagoon, the author takes on the alien invasion trope: a space ship plunges into the waters off the coast of Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. Yet Okorafor avoids the typical trappings of such a tale, co-opting instead the patterns of folktale to explore a city not often the subject of a major mainstream work of fiction.
Deeply philosophical and political, Lagoon uses its three protagonists — a marine biologist, a rapper, a soldier, all transformed by the aliens — and a host of supporting characters to take stock of what it is that makes us human, that makes us a community.
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor
America is zombie-crazy, no doubt about it. “The Walking Dead”A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor
America is zombie-crazy, no doubt about it. “The Walking Dead” is more popular than ever, there are dozens of movies about the undead, hundreds of books and zombie walks are now officially a thing, with hundreds of grown men and women dressing up as brain-eaters and shuffling around in public. The “zombie apocalypse” has firmly ensconced itself in our collective imagination.
So it’s refreshing to come across a collection like “Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead,” the latest from the unique mind of David James Keaton, recently released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. These nine stories and one novella brilliantly and with gonzo abandon infect every zombie cliché with literary insight before killing, burying and unearthing the resurrected remains for our delight.
The pieces, most occurring during or after the cataclysm, are awash in pop culture references and twitch with Keaton’s signature manic conversational style. My favorites were “Greenhorn,” which explores the question of what happens to zombies once they've shuffled their way down to the sea; “… and I’ll Scratch Yours,” in which specially treated undead appendages are sold as the perfect back scratcher; and “Zee Bee & Bee,” a witty yet heartfelt novella about a bed and breakfast that recreates the zombie apocalypse for discerning newlyweds.
Complete with a compelling introduction and an insane zombie movie drinking game, “Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead” is a must-have for undead enthusiasts everywhere....more
“Haints Stay” by Colin Winnette is a pretty gruesome “acid Western” that straddles the space between McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and Carr’s “Edie &“Haints Stay” by Colin Winnette is a pretty gruesome “acid Western” that straddles the space between McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and Carr’s “Edie & the Low-Hung Hands.” The novel centers on two brothers — Brooke and his transgender sibling Sugar — who have evolved into killers for hire. When payment for a job goes awry, they find themselves pursued through the wilderness, where they come across a boy with no memory they call Bird.
Their eventual capture sets all three on divergent paths that rain chaos on the lives of others before reconverging with considerable bloodshed. The tenacious hope of a widow, an orphan and the unexpected child of the brothers’ incestuous union provide a sort of tentative counterpoint to the symphony of destruction.
Winnette’s terse writing, fevered imagery, and pitch-perfect tone make up for some slightness of philosophical depth. Great read for a dark, stormy day....more
A wide variety of Western writing can be found in the enjoyable “Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West - Volume 1,” recently published by WolA wide variety of Western writing can be found in the enjoyable “Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West - Volume 1,” recently published by WolfSinger Publications. Editor Cynthia Ward has brought together an eclectic mix of reprints and originals from authors ranging from Connie Wilkins to Ken Liu, all exploring the nooks and crannies of the West from refreshingly strange and varied perspectives.
Ranging from strange tentacles that make saloon girls gunslingers, to Catholic priests aided by indigenous magic and gender-/race-bending of savior tropes, “Lost Trails” guides readers along the trackless wastes of the West to point out the long-ignored depots half-buried in the desert sand.
Delightful stand-outs for me were “How Five-Gashes-Tumbling Chaneco Earned the Nickname,” Rudy Ch. García’s rollicking tale of mestizo naguales and their 16th-century encounter with the Havasupai people of Arizona; Ken Liu’s “All the Flavors,” in which the Chinese God of War finds himself smack in the middle of the Gold Rush; “Midnight at the Lariat Lounge,” by Kathleen Alcala, in which an interstellar nomad is drawn by the uranium bust of the 1980s; and “Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus,” a gonzo steampunk by Ernest Hogan that features the remnants of the Mexican general’s airship-borne, laser-wielding army invading Hollywood.
Chock full of these and even weirder pieces, “Lost Trails” is worth saddling up for....more
Arte Público has just re-released the fourth Klail City book, Fair Gentlemen of Belken County | Claros varones de Belken (a nod to Hernando del PulgarArte Público has just re-released the fourth Klail City book, Fair Gentlemen of Belken County | Claros varones de Belken (a nod to Hernando del Pulgar’s Claros varones de Castilla, a series of written portraits of nobles in the court of Henry IV).
In a Faulkneresque braid of vignettes, Hinojosa continues to lay bare the soul of the Rio Grande Valley, following particularly cousins Rafe Buenrostro and Jehú Malacara though taking frequent detours into the lives, loves and losses of others in and around Klail City.
Rafe and Jehú return from Korea and take advantage of the GI Bill to attend the University of Texas, despite advice to the contrary from those who imagine a lowlier destiny for the young men. People they know pass away, oversees in the war or here in the mid-Valley. But the facts of existence remain the same, as unchanging as the brush land where these families have eked out an existence for centuries.
Deeply satisfying as a portrait of things as they were (and continue to be) in this little-explored corner of the world, Fair Gentlemen abounds with Hinojosa’s wry, bemused compassion and his incomparable ear for the speech of Vallucos from every generation....more
Carmen Tafolla, the new Texas Poet Laureate, collaborated a few years ago with artist Catalina Gárate García to create “Rebozos” (Wings Press, 2012),Carmen Tafolla, the new Texas Poet Laureate, collaborated a few years ago with artist Catalina Gárate García to create “Rebozos” (Wings Press, 2012), a series of breathtaking paintings accompanied by poems in English and Spanish. The subject of the series are women of many types, each with her own peculiar rebozo, a traditional shawl that arose as a blend of pre-Colombian and Spanish fashions to become the most distinctive accessory in Mexico. Tafolla’s insightful verse is perfectly married to the distinctive work of Gárate García as they explore mestiza femininity from “Soledad” to “Hidden Coves” in which mujeres are “Waiting” and “Longing” for love “Hasta la tumba.”...more
The 2008 Texas Poet Laureate, Larry D. Thomas, has an essential new book out from Texas Review Press. “As If Light Actually Matters” contains selectedThe 2008 Texas Poet Laureate, Larry D. Thomas, has an essential new book out from Texas Review Press. “As If Light Actually Matters” contains selected poems from all nine of his book-length collections, verse from most of his chapbooks and 40 new pieces. Bursting with his characteristically rich diction, keen metaphors, incisive grasp of human nature and magnanimous personality, these 216 pages chart the steady, rumbling rise of the “Buffalo” to the Valhalla of Texas letters. My favorites among his latest works are “Curandero,” “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and “Church, Taos Pueblo,” all three of which perfectly encapsulate the poet’s singular sentiment and sure stylistic choices....more
The tenth book of poetry from 2005 Texas Poet Laureate Alan Birkelbach was released this year by Purple Flag Press. “Meridienne Verte,” like the abandThe tenth book of poetry from 2005 Texas Poet Laureate Alan Birkelbach was released this year by Purple Flag Press. “Meridienne Verte,” like the abandoned “green meridian” of trees through France, confronts us with the juxtaposition of real and fantasy, of planned and actual, of grave and farcical, exposing the poignant truths about human nature hidden within our foibles, wisdom only exposed by deft, irreverent hands. Mining the quotidian, the fleetingly popular, the historical and the mythological, Birkelbach crafts quiet, gradual and winking verse that is both imminently accessible and enviously expert. Stand-outs for me were the title poem, “When They Choose to Talk” and “Playing Lorca’s Piano.”...more
Thomas Ligotti has been quietly turning out some of the most unsettling dark fantasy and horror short stories since the early 1980s, details of his liThomas Ligotti has been quietly turning out some of the most unsettling dark fantasy and horror short stories since the early 1980s, details of his life obscured by his reclusive nature and the chronic anxiety he suffers. Little by little, however, his reputation has spread throughout the indie literary community and the rerelease of his first two collections by Penguin Classics has cemented him as a writer of real stature.
“Teatro Grottesco,” Ligotti’s 2007 story cycle, is broken up into three somewhat interconnected sections. The tales in “Derangements” are almost metaphorical, full of strange landscapes and inscrutable figures that bear only a passing resemblance to our world, but that serve to underscore the depravity of existence. The most harrowing of these is “The Red Tower,” which details the rise and fall of a bizarre, parabolic factory.
“Deformations” showcases interconnected stories about two towns on either side of a border in which people go through the inexplicable motions of their lives, puppeted dumbly by the soulless Quine Organization. In “Our Temporary Supervisor,” we see the infernal lengths shadowy supervisors go to insure greater production, and the zombie-like way workers comply. Chilling.
The indie artistic community itself is the subject of “The Damaged and the Diseased.” In “Gas Station Carnivals” an apparent feud between artists devolves into madness and in “The Bungalow House,” a man’s obsession with performance art cassettes pushes him to track down their creator, only to find himself submerged even deeper in the “killing sadness” of existence.
Carefully constructing dread with deliberate pacing and accomplished, anaphoric style, Ligotti blends Kafka, Madchen, Murakami and Poe with a dollop of Schopenhauer. When he scours away the sheen of purpose from the world and exposes the dark within, you will be haunted by the vision for a very long time....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
John Skipp has won multiple awards for his horror writing, whA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
John Skipp has won multiple awards for his horror writing, which ranges from the screenplay for “Nightmare on Elm Street 5” to the novelization of “Fright Night” and many influential books and anthologies.
His latest collection, “The Art of Horrible People,” features powerful stories that explore creation, art and fascinating characters through a careful balance of horror and humor. “Art is the Devil” lampoons artists who think they are transgressive by having the Devil himself crash a bloody, pretentious show. “Depresso the Clown” pits a woman afraid of clowns against a hapless birthday-party performer. “Rose Goes Shopping” plays with the zombie trope, getting us to root for the undead over some particularly disgusting humans.
Other stories play with notions of death and identity, with the conceit of creation as birthing, with the interplay between cinema and madness and the broken, gritty heart of Los Angeles. The collection concludes with two non-fiction articles: One that explores the importance of separating art from the artist; the other that reflects on the fleeting beauty of a beloved pet.
Written with a lean, exhilarating and cinematic style, “The Art of Horrible People” is the perfect marriage of droll commentary on the human condition and blood-spattered bleakness....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Brian Keene is a respected indie horror writer who has been aA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Brian Keene is a respected indie horror writer who has been anthologized with the likes of Stephen King. His latest, “Where We Live and Die: Stories about Writing,” brings together an interesting sub-set of his short fiction: Horror stories centered on or thematically related to writing.
The most powerful of these is “The Girl on the Glider,” in which the haunting of an author’s home by the ghost of a dead teen dovetails with health and family issues. The building sense of dread and the poignant resolution stayed with me long afterword.
In “Musings,” an author runs into three mythic women who push him into a delirium of productivity. “Golden Boy” tells the unexpectedly touching story of a young man who excretes, weeps and bleeds pure gold; the way his loved ones milk him is clearly a metaphor for the consequences of a writer’s success. Returning to the conceit of supernatural inspiration, “The Eleventh Muse” ends with a twist that breaks writer’s block in a vicious way.
“The House of Ushers” details a bloody escape from the depths of hell. It’s followed by a clever mini-history of the horror genre that uses titles to narrate its evolution: “The Revolution Happened While You Were Sleeping (A Summoning Spell) – Remixed.”
Capped by the non-fiction “Things They Don’t Teach You in Writing Class,” Keene’s compelling collection features his assured prose, careful plotting, and hard-hitting emotional blows. Highly recommended....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 4, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Emerging over the last couple of decades, the New Weird is a vA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 4, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Emerging over the last couple of decades, the New Weird is a vibrant, growing genre of speculative fiction which boasts some of the most compelling writing of the 21st century. Jeff VanderMeer, one of its foremost figures, has defined the New Weird as “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”
Author Scott Nicolay, a former field archaeologist and teacher, set up some guidelines for his own forays into the New Weird in his “Dogme 2011,” stressing that stories should be atmospheric, that setting should be a vital element, that the normal tropes and monsters of speculative fiction should be avoided. Importantly, he cited Caitlin R. Kiernan’s rule of thumb: “dark fiction dealing with the inexplicable should, itself, present to the reader a certain inexplicability.”
This disciplined approach to the New Weird makes Nicolay’s first collection, Ana Kai Tangata, a compelling and unsettling read. Subtitled “Tales of the Outer, the Other, the Damned, and the Doomed,” volume pulls from the author’s wide experience and reading, presenting the reader with eight masterfully written narratives in which hapless protagonists have the cover of the cosmos ripped off for a brief glimpse at the vast, inscrutable indifference waiting just beyond.
The collection opens with the powerfully disturbing “alligators,” in which a New Jersey teacher’s life-long nightmare about a flooded quarry collides with urban legends and the Navajo traditions of his wife’s family to create a growing sense of unease that ends in an abrupt moment of obscure, fleeting revelation (a narrative pattern that undergirds quite a few New Weird tales, almost like the genre’s own twisted iteration of the Monomyth).
“The Bad Outer Space” is an exquisitely controlled tale narrated by a young boy who is gradually exposed to (and arguably corrupted by) normally invisible worm-like creatures entering our world from elsewhere to infest the people of his neighborhood.
“Eyes Exchange Bank,” first published in the anthology “The Grimscribe’s Puppets” (a tribute to Thomas Ligotti that won the Shirley Jackson award), is an amazingly constructed edifice of inexplicable dread. It is sandwiched between my two favorites, “Ana Kai Tangata” and “Phragmites,” both of which blend archaeology and hints of indigenous mythology (on Easter Island and in the Dinétah or Navajo Reservation) with broken male protagonists who find themselves thrust into deadly liminal spaces.
A similarly adrift man, in search of punk rock and easy sex, finds instead a crumbling abandoned convent teeming with unearthly amphibians in “The Soft Frogs.” Stranded in an acquaintance’s apartment in a strange building across the street from a stranger temple, the disaffected voyeur of “Geschäfte” finds himself and the edifice around him changing inexplicably.
Noir and New Weird collide in the novella “Tuckahoe,” which reads like the unholy child of Jim Thompson and Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” Detective Donny Cantú is investigating a horrible highway accident that has left three people dead and dismembered. The problem is that there are seven arms on the scene, not six, and that unexpected extra limb isn’t quite human …
Punctuated by the haunting art of David Verba, Scott Nicolay’s stories are like tenuous beams of light from a miner’s helmet that briefly illuminate grotesque, ineffable and prodigious forms in the dark, avid caverns of the unknown. A stunning debut from a new master of the macabre....more
From author and scholar Norma Elia Cantú and Chicana painter Marta Sánchez comes a lovely collaboration titled Transcendental Train Yard: A CollaboratFrom author and scholar Norma Elia Cantú and Chicana painter Marta Sánchez comes a lovely collaboration titled Transcendental Train Yard: A Collaborative Suite of Serigraphs. Ten poems in English and Spanish are paired with screen-printed artwork that evokes the train yards in Texas and Mexico, along with the immigrant experience tied to the rails in the Mexican-American collective soul. “Angels of steel whisper,” Cantú reminds us, “amid the silent noises of the yard.” Your heart will ache with separation and thrill with hope when you turn the last page.
Accompanied by essays from Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, Peter Haney and Constance Cortez, Transcendental Train Yard is a rewarding meditation on an often-overlooked element of Latina history....more