In 2013 CBAY Books (which, I was happy to discover, stands for Children’s Brains Are Yummy Books) held their first writing contest, and I was the first winner in the Middle Grade category. The manuscript I won with clocked in at 15,000 words, but my wonderful editor, Madeline Smoot, suggested it would be a much stronger novel at 30,000 words. Turns out she was right.
Fast forward to 2014, and Trapped In Lunch LadyLand was born. Did my life change? Was I able to quit my job and become a full time author? Nope. But having a published novel was way up there on the bucket list. I had a book signing event at my local Barnes & Noble (no indie bookstores in my neck of the woods, unfortunately), which was a blast.
The very best part of the whole publishing experience, though, was doing school visits. I did a bunch, reading to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, taking questions, and generally being flabbergasted by just how smart and funny they were. Kindergartners wanted to know what kind of pets I have, and told me in great detail about theirs. By fifth grade they were asking how advances work.
So what’s Trapped In Lunch Lady Land about? Here’s the elevator pitch:
Josh and Patty Anne aren’t exactly the best of friends (ok, they detest each other), but after they both end up trapped somewhere beneath their school in a land made completely of school cafeteria food, they quickly learn they have to work together if they want to survive. With the help of some unusual friends they meet along the way, the two must brave countless dangers unlike anything in the normal world. If they can survive the skybeater, the canisaurs and the tater-tot throwing ladle monsters, Josh and Patty Anne might just make it home alive.
Interested? Know an eight to eleven year old boy or girl who might be interested? You can check it out on Amazon at:
The title of Joe Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings was inspired by the words Louis XIV had cast on the cannons of his armies—Ultima Ratio Regum, Latin for “The last argument of kings.” A declaration of war, in other words. Like the first two novels in the epic First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself and Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings is about war, in all its permutations. Battles between massed armies, one-on-one to-the-death clashes, the political machinations that guide the various skirmishes, and finally violent internal battles with characters’ very souls at stake.
If you’ve read the first two novels in the trilogy (and if you haven’t, you really should before reading Last Argument of Kings, as taken together the three books tell a cohesive, continuing story) you’ll be happy, or not so happy as the case may be, to see many returning characters. Logan Ninefingers, the Bloody-Nine; his companions from Before They are Hanged, Bayaz, Ferro, and Jezel dan Luthar; Superior Sand dan Glokta; Ardee West; The Dogman; and many others, all of them traumatized to greater or lesser extent at the beginning of the novel.
I don’t like to do plot recitations—I’m not fond of them myself, and they’re easy enough to find elsewhere. Instead, that list of characters above brings up the first of three things I do want to talk about here, three of the many things that make Abercrombie, to my mind, the preeminent author of grimdark fantasy working today. I’m speaking, of course, about his characters. Love them or hate them, Abercrombie’s characters are fully realized people with deep backstories, deeper flaws, strengths and weaknesses, love and pain. They are prone to self reflection, although not always honest about it. And each and every one has taken a rough and violent road to get where they are now. Abercrombie’s physical descriptions can be brutally devastating, but I think he loves them all.
Next up, world-building. The world of the First Law trilogy is extravagantly imagined. Abercrombie has worked out everything in granular detail. The settings, whether a rocky mountain stronghold or a richly appointed palace, a desolate, forbidding forest or a king’s bedchamber, are lovingly described. The political intrigue, at the national, local, and personal level, feels authentic. It feels right. There is magic in the world of the First Law, and like everything else, Abercrombie’s magic systems are internally consistent and well thought out. Magic in this world has weight and consequences. It’s not to be trifled with.
As mentioned, Last Argument of Kings is about war, about battles large and small, epic and intimate, and this is where Abercrombie truly excels. When describing sweeping, large scale battles, it never feels like he’s just moving chessmen impassionately around a board. You never forget that these are living, breathing, dying people, that these are individuals, not mindless hordes. When it comes to descriptions of hand-to-hand combat, Abercrombie makes you feel every punch, kick and stab. The only other author I know with a comparable gift for the mechanics of fighting, for the raw emotion and sheer physicality, is Joe Lansdale.
Last Argument of Kings is a dense, massive, brutal work of art, and there’s more. Besides the First Law trilogy, there are currently three other books set in the world of the First Law—Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country. A new trilogy is also on the way, with A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace already published. So much Abercrombie goodness!
I drew both of these for my Redbubble.com shop, but they got flagged. Weird, as a search for “Yoda” delivers more than 4,000 returns, and “Lord of the Rings” more than 5,000, but it’s not worth fighting about. Anyway, I loved working on both of these, and I learned a little more about using the Apple pencil with each one.
I originally wrote this as a guest post on another blog, but I never posted it here.
The youngest of my three kids, a daughter navigating her junior year of college during this pandemic, is halfway to turning 21 as I write this. Which means we no longer have any teenagers in the family, let alone high school kids. I’m not really sure how that happened.
My wife and I are both readers, and we naturally shared books with all our kids from a young age. But there’s something special, downright sacred and altogether delightful, about sharing the perfect book with your kids when they’re in high school. That’s the age where, if you get lucky and choose wisely, if the stars align, the book and the child will connect in miraculous ways. It’s been my experience, at least, that some books we read in high school become touchstones, favorite texts we reread and treasure. This is not an exact science, every kid is different, and I certainly had some missfires. But when you get it right it’s uniquely satisfying.
Here are some of the books where I got it right.
CRUDDY by Lynda Barry
I said above that every kid is different, and not every book is right for every kid. Cruddy, an illustrated novel, is a case in point. Cruddy is not for the faint of heart. The story of Roberta Rohbeson, who lives in “the cruddy top bedroom of a cruddy rental house on a very cruddy mud road” is filled with horrific violence, rampant drug use, and pain. It’s also one of the most deeply humane, heartbreaking yet surprisingly hilarious, and truly original novels I’ve ever read. If you’ve ever read Barry’s weekly comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, then you can already guess that her illustrations enhance the story in brilliant and unexpected ways. For mature older teens.
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA by Dorothy Allison
Bastard Out of Carolina is basically fictionalized autobiography (her book Two or Three Things I Know for Sure covers the same material in a nonfiction format), and much like Cruddy, it deals with difficult subjects, including child abuse and incest. Set in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s, Bastard tells the sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, and always moving story of Bone Boatwright as she navigates adolescence through troubling waters. Bone, a stand-in for Allison, is the kind of rare protagonist you will cry for, howl in rage for, and fall in love with. This book is sometimes hard to read, but Allison’s incandescent language never allows you to look away. Read this, and then read Two or Three Things I Know for Sure to meet the real people behind their fictional counterparts, photos included.
HIS DARK MATERIALS by Philip Pullman
This is my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time (sorry, Lord of the Rings) and I suggest it to pretty much everyone. Maybe you only know it from the not particularly good movie version of the first volume, The Golden Compass, or the better, recent Hulu adaptation. Maybe you’ve only read The Golden Compass, and not the other two volumes, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Here’s the thing—the trilogy gets better as it goes. By the end, it’s a complex examination of morality and religion, all wrapped up in some of the most beautiful fantasy world building ever commited to paper. Every character is memorable, every scene exquisitely rendered. There’s breathtaking adventure and genuine sorrow. Some readers have taken issue with Pullman’s treatment of organized religion, and I’ve seen charges of racism leveled concerning some characters. This is fertile ground for discussion, just one more reason I find the sharing of books so rewarding.
BOY’S LIFE by Robert McCammon
McCammon is known chiefly, I think, as a writer of intelligent thrillers and apocolyptic horror (Swan Song belongs on the same shelf with Stephen King’s The Stand). This is something else entirely—part murder mystery, part the exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures of a twelve year old boy and his friends in small town Alabama in the early 60s. Boy’s Life is infused with a childhood sense of wonder, nicely spiced with moments of magic realism. The reality of southern racism and poverty is not shied away from, but it’s tempered with a genuine but clear-eyed feel for life in that particular time and place. Quite simply, one of the best coming of age novels ever written.
EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire
By the time this novel came along, I only had one child still in high school, my youngest daughter. I handed it to her the moment I finished it. In Every Heart a Doorway, McGuire asks a deceptively simple yet profound question: What happens to all the children who enter portals to other worlds, and then come back? We’re introduced to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, a sanctuary for those children whose parents don’t know how to deal with them, and to several of the kids now trying to make their way through our drab, dissapointing world after having left the magic behind. There are now five novels in the Wayward Children series, each one a small wonder of whimsical, ravishing storytelling.
BLOOD SPORT by Robert F. Jones
This one is a little different. Blood Sport was published in 1972, and a found a battered paperback copy a few years later, when I was in high school. It blew the top of my head clean off. Fast forward to my son’s high school years, and I couldn’t wait to share it with him, but…but, Blood Sport is extreme. It’s the fever-dream story of a father/son canoe trip down a mythological river, chocked full of magic realist imagery and audacious language, but also brutal violence, explicit sex, and some truly squirm-worthy scenes. The time had to be right. When he was sixteen, he and I joined his Scout troup for a father-son canoe trip on the French River delta in Canada, and I felt like the planets had alligned. It was indeed the perfect time.
BONUS: THREE RECENT BOOKS THAT ARE GREAT READS FOR HIGH SCHOOLERS
WANDERERS by Chuck Wendig
A big, meaty, doorstop of a novel, with big, meaty ideas. The story of a world-wide pandemic with echoes of The Stand and Swan Song, but very much its own thing. Heroic, flawed, altogether believable characters, and science that seems frightenly prescient.
GIDEON THE NINTH by Tamsyn Muir
I can’t really sum this novel up better than Charles Stross does in his cover blurb: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” Just to add—so many skeletons! A gonzo masterpiece.
WHEN WE WERE MAGIC by Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic revolves around six female friends who all share the ability to do magic, and one boy who is dead, accidently, at the hands of one of those friends. Gailey excels at navigating the complexities of friendship, and her descriptions of how magic works are breathtaking.
A couple of months ago I bought an I-Pad and an Apple Pencil. I realized quickly what a fun and versatile drawing tool I had with the combination, and an idea was born. Introducing Fan-tasm, a redbubble.com shop featuring artwork inspired by iconic books and movies. I’m working fast and loose, and really enjoying the process.
Here’s the link to my shop:
And here are a few samples of the kind of work I’m doing for this. I plan on adding lots more designs in the coming days. I’m also more than happy to take suggestions, or even custom orders. Drop me a line!
As I write this it is Labor Day, 2020, here in Northeast Ohio. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic, we had plans for the day. A little yard word early, then a socially distanced backyard cookout later with my mom and stepdad. Nothing big, but something to look forward too.
Then we woke up to rolling thunder that rattled the windows, lightning that lit up the roiling grey clouds, and slashing rain that refused to let up. By noon there were two ducks swimming in the newly formed pond behind my house. All of our plans, modest though they were, ruined.
And…I don’t care one little bit. We spent the day holed up in our comfy little sunroom, watching the sky light up and listening to the rain beat against the windows. I munched on snacks and drank iced tea (take away my writer’s license if you must, but I’ve never liked coffee).
Mostly, I read. A lot. I usually read at night before bed for the most part, so this daytime reading was luxurious, glorious. I made headway in the enormous, wonderful novel I’m reading now (Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie, review to follow eventually) without worrying about what time it was, what I should be doing rather than reading. It rained, and I read, and it was the best day I’ve had in quite a while.
Through the course of eleven novels and one short story, James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, has been through a lot. The nephilim (half human/half angel) has fought demons in hell’s arena, spent some time as Lucifer himself, and died and been resurrected more than once. Back home in L.A. he’s tangled with ghosts, monsters, and more demons, sparred with God and gods older than that, worked for and against L.A.’s magical underground the Sub Rosa, and dealt with Hollywood scumbags who are sometimes the biggest monsters of all.
Ballistic Kiss, the eleventh novel in the Sandman Slim series, finds Stark at a crossroads, besieged with self doubt and not sure where he now fits in with his circle of friends and loved ones. Besides his usual crew—Candy, his monstrous on-again off-again love; Janet, purveyor of donuts, possible new love; Kasabian, human head on a mechanical body; Vidocq, immoral alchemist; and Carlos, bartender at the Bamboo House of Dolls—Stark must deal with the continuing angelic war in heaven, an infestation of murderous ghosts in L.A.’s Little Cairo neighborhood, and the Zero Lodge, a group of high-stakes adrenaline junkies.
As you may surmise from the above description, Ballistic Kiss, and every Sandman Slim novel, is an anarchic thrill-ride through the streets of L.A., with side-trips to hell and the Room of Thirteen Doors. Kadrey excels at the very many things that make the Sandman Slim books such glorious fun. He writes believable, fully-realized characters, whether they’re fully human or not. His action sequences and descriptions of violence are ballets of mayhem. No matter how crazy the scene, you always know what’s going on. His sense of place is second to none—L.A. is almost a secondary character, lovingly described in all its opulence and and decay.
Kadrey’s world-building started out strong from the beginning, and he’s expanded on it with each novel, from L.A.’s magical underworld to heaven, hell, and places in between. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of christian mythology and angelology, and he uses it to expand his world in surprising and satisfying ways.
It’s almost embarrassing how much I’ve loved all the Sandman Slim novels, and Ballistic Kiss is no exception. If you haven’t read them, now is a good time to get caught up, as Kadrey has announced that the next one will be the last.
I’m participating in a flash fiction competition where we’re given three prompts—a genre, a location, and an object—and must write a short story of 1,000 words or less. For the first challenge, my prompts were historical fiction, swamp, and pillow. I’m really happy with the result:
The swamp was different in Ohio, different from what they’d crawled through in Louisiana.
Down there they were wet more often than they were dry, waist deep in the muddy water, weaving between cypress trees draped with spanish moss. Snakes big around as a man’s arm hung from the trees, and the hot, thick air hummed with mosquitos.
Third night on the run a gator took Leon. He was six years old. One minute he was stepping down off one of the rare dry, grassy hillocks where they had stopped to rest, trying not to lose his footing on the slick cypress roots and go under. Then a gator had its jaws clean around his narrow chest and started to roll, tail thrashing, roiling the water, red blood mixing with the brown.
Judah planned their escape for months, starting right after his wife Mina died of an infection that went bad. The overseer had begun to take an interest in his daughter Delphine, not yet thirteen. Judah could not abide that. He gathered what food he could—they would have to make it through the swamp and all the way to the station in Jackson. An old woman named Maria had helped keep an eye on Delphine after Mina died, and Judah promised to take her and her grandson Leon along.
The four of them slipped away quietly the night of a party at the big house, lost themselves in the festive chaos. Judah had the food and the clothes on his back, Maria a small bible. Delphine carried a burlap sack that held her mother’s pillow.
The pillow had been Mina’s prized possession, a gift from the boss’ grandmother she tended to. It was down filled, trimmed with lace. Judah told Delphine she had to leave it behind, but she was adamant. She said, “Papa, this is all I got left of Mama. I’ll carry it, you don’t have to. Mama never laid a free head on that pillow. I’m gonna keep it wrapped up safe and clean, and I won’t lay my head on it until I know we’re free.” Judah started to argue, but he saw the same fierce look in Delphine’s eyes he used to see in Mina’s, and he let it be.
Delphine was true to her word. She kept that pillow swaddled like a baby, kept it dry through the swamp and all the way to the Jackson station. They were taken in there, given a hot meal and a place to sleep. From there they made their way to Montgomery, then Nashville, and Frankfort, Kentucky. In Frankfort they heard that two teams of slave catchers had been hired to track them. It was decided they had a better chance if they split up, and Judah and Delphine continued on alone.
They crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati, huddled in the bottom of a jon boat, covered with a tarp. A preacher dressed as a farmer met them with a hay wagon on the Ohio side. The wagon had a false bottom Judah and Delphine crawled into, stifling hot, black as pitch. They were stopped twice on the way north. Judah held his daughter close, both of them numb with fear, as they listened to slave catchers try to bully the preacher. The preacher remained calm, serene, unflappable, and in both cases the slave catchers finally walked away, frustrated.
They parted ways a little north of Lima. They were staring at a wall of trees that went on for miles in both directions. The preacher said, “This is the Great Black Swamp. There are easier ways to reach Lake Erie, but this is the safest. Not even the slavers will follow you in there.” The preacher handed Judah a compass, and they shook hands. “Stay north. When you come to the Maumee River, follow it to the mouth and wait. Stay hidden. A week from now, a fishing trawler will anchor in the bay, with three lanterns hanging in the bow. They’ll take you to Canada.” They shook hands again.
If the Louisiana swamp was unending muddy water, cypress trees and hidden dangers, the Great Black Swamp was mud. Cottonwood and sycamore forests, the trees so close together you could barely squeeze through, grassy lowlands, and everywhere deep black mud that sucked at your feet, sucked the energy, the very life from your body. One thing was just the same as the other swamp, and that was the mosquitos, great clouds of them.
When they finally reached the Maumee, Delphine burst into exhausted tears, and Judah felt his own eyes well up.
They had been holed up for three days in a grove of trees on the banks of Maumee Bay when the trawler arrived, three lanterns shining brightly in the dark. Judah and Delphine were both sick with fever, half starved. A small skiff rowed in to take them out to the larger boat. Delphine hugged the burlap sack to her chest.
Lake Erie looked like rippled grey glass beneath a canopy of stars. The ship cook fed them bowls of stew until their bellies were full. The captain offered them a place to sleep below deck, but they chose to stay above, settling in near the bow, the lanterns above them. “Are we really free, Papa?” Delphine asked.
“We are,” Judah answered. “When we dock, we’ll be in Canada. We’ll make a new life. It’s what your Mama would want.”
“Then I think it’s time,” Delphine said. She untied the twine that held the burlap sack closed, and removed the pillow. It was clean and dry. Delphine made a nest in a pile of fishing nets on the deck. She placed the pillow carefully, and laid her head down. As she drifted off to sleep, Judah heard a whispered, “I love you, Mama.” Judah was soon asleep himself.
I finally broke down and got an Apple pencil to use with my iPad and, wouldn’t you know it, I love it. I can tell there’s going to be a steep learning curve to really figure out everything it can do, but here’s my first attempt. All things considered, I’m happy with it.
Here are a couple more examples of the poetry I was writing when I first started writing poetry. Is it good? Nope. But it started me writing, and I will always be happy about that.
THE KINGDOM OF CADABRA
In the air beneath the surface of the golden lined clouds, In the turning, brewing breezes like a falling silver shroud, In the burning of the thunder, in the freezing of the night, Lies the Kingdom of Cadabra, spreading far to left and right.
It’s a land where time is twisty, where years are but a jumble, Where gypsies do their dances while they prophesize and mumble. It’s a land where fire-spitting rockets fly alongside brooms, And atoms vie the esper force in many-crystaled rooms.
Pilgrim prudes and pagan gods coexist so nicely, And beggars beg for glowing gems, expensive, even pricely. The royals frolic merry at their happy final fling. In the burbling wine of apricots fly dinosaurs with wings.
Witches brew and white-foamed beer mix in velvet lined seas, And pinkly glow the elephants, with tiny, dimpled knees. Schooners fit with milky sails fly ever swiftly by, In the Kingdom of Cadabra, in the softly glowing sky.
A wrought iron fence, tall and black, encloses the graveyard— a twilight boundary between different worlds. The gate is rusted. It comes open at a touch with a flurry of fine red dust. Slippery with dew, the gravel path is unkept, overgrown, nearly invisible beneath the moonless night. It twists and turns into the rustling grass, into obscurity. Shadows flit between trees in imitation of lost spirits, or spirits in imitation of shadows. The headstones are islands of marble in the low-lying sea of mist. Crimson-veined and distant, monuments in the corridors of time. In the far corner something moves. The mist parts to reveal a woman bent over a grave, the angled planes of her shoulder like atrophied wings, taut against the faded fabric of her coat. She lays wilted flowers beneath a wood cross, not marble like the others, and falls against it. The mist swirls, closes.
An unabashed, yearning love song. Not my usual style, but every once in a while I write one.
so here we are again like so many times before you crying in your beer, me trying to ignore how the bar lights sparkle in your eyes even through the tears how many times I’ve heard this same old story through the years so I hold your hand and tell you things will work out for the best and I ask myself again how I got into this mess
(CHORUS) baby I got heartstrings that never been played I try to see you differently but these feelings just won’t fade come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise
so here we are again like so many times before spending all night talking, sharing hopes and dreams and more I wish that I could reach out, cup your face between my hands tell you I won’t hurt you, tell you let me be your man I won’t take your heart for granted, and I won’t tell you lies so look at me and try to see this lover in disguise
(CHORUS) baby I got heartstrings that never been played I try to see you differently but these feeling just won’t fade come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise
(BRIDGE) so here we are again like so many times before but now my heart is open wide and I’m standing at your door take me in yours arms and try the two of us on for size and spend a little time with your lover in disguise
(CHORUS) baby I got heart strings that never been played please try to see me differently ’cause these feelings just won’t fade come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise
Small town East Texas in the 1960s. A Korean War vet car salesman/repo man not afraid to bend, and sometimes break, the law. a curvy blonde femme fatale with an abusive husband. A drive-in, and a pet cemetery with just one actual occupant, a horse. A beautiful Cadillac. Throw in a kidnapping, violent cops, more than one double-cross, and a heaping dollop of sixties era racism, and you have the ingredients for Joe Lansdale’s new, altogether delightful hardboiled crime novel, More Better Deals.
Lansdale plays in just about every genre sandbox—horror, fantasy, western, historical, mashups of all of the above—and does every bit of it exceptionally well. But where I think he truly fires on all cylinders is when he writes about crime and criminals. I’m thinking of novels like The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Edge of Dark Water, and Cold In July; plus, my personal favorites, the Hap and Leonard books, for my money the most consistently entertaining series being written today. Lansdale’s bad guys are almost never big time masterminds engaged in multi-million dollar heists. His criminals are small town, down on their luck, desperate losers. They may be unrepentant scumbags who revel in evil, but just as often they’re sad flakes caught between a rock and a hard place, who make one too many wrong decisions they can’t walk back.
The characters in More Better Deals for the most part fall somewhere in between those two extremes. They’re all at least a little bit mean, if not downright evil, and they give in to their baser instincts without much arm twisting. They’re good looking, even charming, but the beauty and charm are hiding an ugly darkness, and a bald cynicism. When things go bad, and they damn sure do, every single character decides to go along for the ride.
Two more things I want to mention.
I said at the beginning that More Better Deals has something to say about racism. Lansdale often talks about race and racism, and he always does so in a way that’s straight forward, sometimes painful, always thoughtful, and most of all uncompromising. He may make you uncomfortable, but I think that could say more about you than him. Every bit of this is true in More Better Deals. It gives the novel an added layer of moral complexity that deepens the story.
Lastly, Lansdale is, I humbly suggest, the best writer of dialogue working today. Listening to the rhythms of his characters’ speech is like listening to rough poetry—smart-assed, funny, threatening, and pathetic, sometimes all at once.
Read More Better Deals, and experience the exhilarating enjoyment of a writer at the very top of his game.
Many years back I worked with a a start-up kids TV show called The Magic Easel. Part of my job included designing the show’s opening sequence, which was a tour of the small town where the show was set. Just about all the art has disappeared into the great unknown, but here are some of the town sketches, plus the one piece of finished art I still have.
I know I’m late to the party, and I have no excuses (except there are just so many books in the world to read, and so little time), but the first novel by Jones I read was Mongrels. Mongrels is a southern gothic white trash werewolf epic distinguished by brilliant storytelling, impeccable pacing, characters who feel lived-in and true, and the reinvention of a sub-genre’s tropes that feels wholly original. Yeah, I liked it. Here’s my review, if you’re interested: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/01/23/book-review-mongrels-by-stephen-graham-jones/
Good news is, I think The Only Good Indians, Jones’ newest, is even better. It’s the story of four best friends, the incident ten years past that ties them together, and the supernatural entity that holds all their fates. The Only Good Indians is emotionally devastating, harrowing, sometimes gut-wrenching, with moments of body horror that are delightfully disturbing. The violence doesn’t just include humans, but animals as well, and it’s just as sad and painful. Jones excels at pacing, at ratcheting up tension to a nearly unbearable level and then sustaining it. Even in the quietest moments of the novel, whispered conversations under the stars, the tension is always there, waiting to spring. It’s exhilarating, if you can bear it.
Nearly every character in the novel is Native American, either Blackfeet or Crow, and the care Jones takes to make them feel achingly, painfully real, to give them not just a back story but a history, even a pre-history, is revelatory. It feels…authentic, I guess is the word I’m looking for. The way they talk, the rhythms of their speech. Where they live, from the reservations they grew up on, and where some still live, to the suburbs where they try to escape to. The familial and friend relationships are tangled and troubled, with love both alive and very much squandered. Much like with Mongrels, the characters and settings feel lived-in. Jones clearly knows and respects his characters, and he doesn’t do them the disservice of making them nobly one-dimensional. They have faults. In many cases they have not treated their loved-ones well. They haven’t treated themselves well. This makes them all the more human, which makes what happens all the more shattering. The supernatural entity, which I’m purposely not describing because discovering it for yourself is part of the fun, likewise feels authentic, it feels organic to the story. Inevitable.
Another thing I want to mention: Jones’ handling of action rivals that of Joe Lansdale and Joe Abercrombie. Whether describing a desperate escape from supernatural horror across the frozen grassland, or a game of basketball with life or death stakes, he makes you feel every drop of sweat, every sharp intake of breath. No matter how complicated the set piece, how many pieces in motion, Jones’ descriptive powers never flag. The Only Good Indians is filled with muscular, visceral, heart-pounding action.
Okay, one more thing. Interspersed throughout the horror, when you least expect it, are moments of well-earned humor. The four friends have the kind of comfortable, easy, smart-assed humor with each other that, once again, feels real. Their conversations were some of my favorite parts of the novel.
The Only Good Indians is getting plenty of laudatory press, all of it richly deserved. Listen to the hype. This is immediately on my short list for best novel of the year.
Iwrote this piece of flash fiction to be a bit of a short, sharp punch to the gut. I hope it succeeds. It first appeared in a literary journal called Iceberg.
The girl surfaced into consciousness briefly to the smell of pine trees, eyes still squeezed tightly shut. Her body lurched violently and a wave of nausea washed over her. She sank back into darkness.
She choked back the urge to vomit the next time she came to and cautiously opened her eyes. Her vision swam, doubled, refused to clear. There are the pine trees, she thought. But why are they growing in the sky? Darkness again.
When the girl awoke for the third time the nausea had subsided and she could see, but that only made things worse. She was in the back of a van. The pine tree sky forest resolved itself to be dozens of pine tree shaped air fresheners hanging from the ceiling. They bounced and swayed together with the movement of the vehicle. The van had been stripped to bare metal, the walls and floor filthy, caked with rust and dirt. The pine trees could not completely mask a foul smell that filled the small space.
The girl was sprawled on the floor as if she had been thrown there. Her head throbbed, and a sharp pain burned between her shoulder blades. She tried to sit up and realized her hands were tied tightly behind her back. Her legs were bound, knees to ankles, with duck tape. The girl pushed with her feet until she was wedged against one wall, and managed to sit up. She looked toward the front of the van. She could see through a half-open metal door into the cab, where a middle-aged man was driving. His hair was cut short, and he wore old-fashioned black-rimmed glasses. The girl noticed that one corner of his glasses was wrapped with tape. The man was wearing dirty coveralls, and leather gloves even though it was stifling hot in the van.
The girl did not panic. She had been trained for this. She knew exactly what to do, what to say.
“My father will pay whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt me,” she said in a strong, clear voice. Her father was very rich, and had long been fearful that someone would kidnap one of his children. He had drilled them all on how to act should the unthinkable happen. Be cooperative. Be respectful. Do not show fear.
The man glanced back at her in the rearview mirror. “What’s that, honey?” he asked.
“I don’t know how long we’ve been driving, but I’m sure my father knows I’ve been kidnapped by now. He’ll be waiting by the phone for your ransom demand.” The girl tried to sound brave, but she heard a little quaver in her voice and it annoyed her.
She could see the man smile in the rearview mirror, and she thought, it’s going to be alright. She forced a smile of her own and said, “Please, sir. I’d like to go home now.”
The man turned his head so he was looking at the girl directly. “Darlin’, you got it all wrong,” he said. “I don’t know who your daddy is, and I don’t care how much money he has. There’s not gonna be any ransom.” He turned back to face the road and said, more to himself than to her, “That’s not why I took you.”
When I was a wee lad (okay, Junior High), I began to realize that creating art would be part of my future, and given that, I also began to notice the work of artists whose work I admire. Funny thing, though. While I appreciated many fine artists, particularly Dali and the other surrealists, the artists I gravitated to were illustrators—comic artists, magazine and book cover illustrators. They were doing the work I wanted to do. Here are some of those illustrators, the ones that made me want to be an artist. This is off the top of my head, and certainly not a complete list. I’ll start with the three illustrators mentioned above.
VIRGIL FINLAY and HANNES BOK—I’m lumping them together because for some reason I always think of them together. Both did extraordinarily imaginative, extraordinarily detailed work for pulp magazines on crappy pulp paper that in no way did their work justice. Truly inspiring. http://www.artnet.com/artists/virgil-finlay/
STEPHEN FABIAN—I discovered Fabian in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and his work immediately stood out for the texture and shadow of his work. https://www.stephenfabian.com/
FRANK FRAZETTA—I came of age in the seventies, so of course Frazetta is on this list, and not just because of his voluptuous women. His paintings have so much power, so much purpose. He’s a master of competition, and I love his paint handling. Boris Vallejo was working at the same time, in much the same market, but I always loved Frazetta more. As excellent a technician as Vallejo was, he was a little too polished for my taste. Frazetta was just more exciting. http://frankfrazetta.net/
ROBERT CRUMB—Crumb is a master, pure and simple. Consummate style, humor, storytelling, and above all exceptional pen and ink technique. Hey may be a curmudgeon, but he’s my kind of curmudgeon. https://www.crumbproducts.com/
BILL WATTERSON—Speaking of curmudgeons, Watterson is another one. Calvin and Hobbes is, to my mind, the finest comic strip ever made (nods to Doonesbury and Bloom County as right up there). Beautifully loose, expressive brush work. Watterson walked away from it when shrinking newspaper comic sections pissed him off. He lives not far from me here in Northeast Ohio, and it makes me happy just knowing he’s there. https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes
WILLIAM STOUT—Another graduate of underground comics, Stout is just one helluva illustrator, with exquisite line work and amazing detail. Not as well know as he should be. https://www.williamstout.com/
LEO AND DIANE DILLON—I worked my late teen years at a Waldenbooks, and Leo and Diane Dillon were responsible for some of my favorite book covers. An interracial married couple, the Dillons have a unique style all their own. Their work is instantly recognizable. http://leo-and-diane-dillon.blogspot.com/
MURRAY TINKLEMAN—Often, right next to cover art by the Dillons, you’d find cover art by Tinkleman. His densely cross-hatched artwork is also instantly recognizable. http://tinkelmanstudio.com/
DONALD ROLLER WILSON—Chances are you may not have heard of Wilson, and that’s a damn shame. Richly realistic, yet utterly fantastic, often hilarious, often featuring animals of all kinds. Wilson is a true original. https://donaldrollerwilson.com/
ROBERT TUBBESING—Unless you grew up in Northeast Ohio, you probably haven’t heard of Bob Tubbesing, either. He taught commercial art at Maple Heights High School, my alma mater, and at Cooper School of Art, which I attended as well. Perhaps more importantly, he did some of the most inspiring pen and ink work I ever saw, filled with mysterious imagination. I believe he had some success as a gallery artist, but I couldn’t find any decent art links to include here.
Looking for links to include here, I was thrilled to discover that many of these artists are still doing exciting, vital work. Have a look for yourself, and get to know these inspiring illustrators.
Flat on my back staring up at the sky watching the cloud caravan sailing by holding the grass as the earth spun around feeling the dew still wet on the ground I closed my eyes tight, imagined myself spinning through space on a trip somewhere else my feet like a comet burning a trail light years behind me, straight as a rail then a shadow crept in and eclipsed the sun I opened my eyes and knew you were the one
pull me down, hold me down plant my feet on solid ground baby be my gravity can’t you see I need you to be my gravity can’t you see I need you to be my gravity
there I was flat on the bottom of the pool holding my breath like some kind of fool thinking about God, thinking about death thinking I should open wide and drink a deep breath I imagined my friends all gathered around and me in the coffin, not making a sound they’d stop one by one to pay their respects then move on, my dear dead soul to dissect but a face swam above me, bright as the sun I opened my eyes and knew you were the one
pull me down, hold me down plant my feet on solid ground baby be my gravity can’t you see I need you to be my gravity
please pull me down, hold me down plant my feet on solid ground baby be my gravity can’t you see I need you to be my gravity
In the space of just a few years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors. Check that, one of my favorite authors, period. After Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Cabin at the End of the World, and his short story collection Growing Things and Other Stories, Tremblay is one of the few writers whose new work immediately goes to the top of my TBR pile.
Survivor Song might be his best novel yet, and that’s saying something.
The bones of the story are deceptively simple—a fast-acting, rabies-like virus is rampaging through Massachusetts, infecting mammals, humans included, at a terrifying rate. The main characters are two women, a pediatrician and her extremely pregnant friend. The friend has been bitten by an infected man, and may be infected herself. We follow the two of them over the course of just a few frantic hours as they navigate the chaos of a town overwhelmed by a catastrophic emergency.
What Tremblay does with this setup is breathtaking. Imagine being aboard a runaway freight train heading for a cliff, knowing with painful certainty that the end is coming but being powerless to stop it, knowing that people we have come to know are on that train and we can’t save them. That is what reading Survivor Song is like. The novel starts at breakneck speed and then accelerates, and keeps accelerating, twisting you up tighter and tighter. By the end of the book I felt wrung out, both physically and emotionally.
Given the thrill ride he’s built here, Tremblay doesn’t sacrifice nuance, he doesn’t sacrifice fully-realized, characters that you feel deeply for. There are meditations on the nature of friendship that are surprising in their depth. And even though the book deals with an event that is effecting a lot of people, it is sometimes startlingly intimate.
The science here is terrifying in its believability. With the current state of the world, Survivor Song feels not just plausible, but prescient. In that way it reminded me of Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, one of my favorite reads of 2019. This novel could bookend that one.
One final thing. There is a chapter in Survivor Song, an interlude. Without giving anything away, I think this chapter features some of the finest writing Tremblay has done—it reaches a sustained emotional resonance, a horrible inevitability, that will rip your heart out. It just about broke me.
My son ( a high school English teacher) and I share a love, maybe even an obsession, for genre fiction—horror, fantasy, science fiction. This love extends to movies as well as books, and not always the highest quality of movies. There’s a lot to appreciate in even the cheesiest of 70s and 80s slasher movies and all the tropes associated with them. Movies like Scream and Cabin In the Woods got a lot of mileage out of unkillable killers, horny teenagers, and of course, final girls.
Which brings us to this indie gem of a poetry book, I Am Not Your Final Girl. I recently turned 60, and my son gave me this slim, unassuming volume as a perfect birthday gift. Holland does something amazing here. She takes what in other hands could have been a whacky idea—write a series of poems celebrating the final girls (and some who didn’t make it) of movies from throughout history—and invests the poems with so much heart, pain, triumph, tragedy, inspiration, and most of all humanity, that I read through it twice in the same evening.
Each poem is dedicated to a specific final girl, from a specific movie. If you’re imaging that the poems are just retellings of the movies, think again. Holland uses the characters for jumping off points, for heartfelt meditations on sexuality, feminism, violence, sorrow and redemption. Some of the poems are triumphant, some overwhelmingly sad. Many of them are revelations. Holland demands new evaluations of even the slashiest of slasher movies.
Whether you’re a fan of slasher films or not, and you’ll probably get even more out of it if you are, get yourself a copy of I Am Not Your Final Girl. Do it for yourself. Do it for Laurie Strode.
Friends, family members, and probably a good number of perfect strangers, know that I read a lot, and their first question (actually their second question, the first is usually what are you reading now?) tends to be who’s your favorite author? My answer to that question has changed over the years, but nowadays, more often than not, I say Joe Lansdale.
Lansdale writes a little bit (actually a lot) of everything—horror, crime fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, you name it. He does it all well, and with the Hap & Leonard books, he’s writing the most consistently entertaining ongoing series currently in existence.
All of this is to say that I was tickled ten shades of pink to be able to read Big Lizard, a new novel he wrote with his son Keith. Big Lizard is available for pre-order now (https://subterraneanpress.com/big-lizard) from Subterranean Press, and will be published in October. Jump on the bandwagon now, kids, this one’s a keeper! If you’ve read Lansdale’s Drive-In novels, he’s playing in the same sandbox here. Much like those novels, this is balls to the wall, gonzo storytelling at its finest. It features a rag-tag group of heroes, including an overweight security guard, a talking chicken with an eye patch, and a teenage tech genius who lives in an abandoned Noah’s Ark replica. Oh yeah, the security guard metamorphosizes into the Big Lizard of the title. There’s a deadly supernatural ritual that goes horribly wrong, and some interdimensional travel into the literal fires of hell. Also, lots of fried chicken and biscuits.
Did I mention the giant, homicidal chicken? There’s a giant, homicidal chicken, who turns out to be Big Lizard’s nemesis. Because, what Big Lizard also is, is a super hero origin story, and every super hero needs a nemesis. The Lansdale team delivers in every way here. Big Lizard is laugh-out-loud funny, profane, and brimming with cartoony violence. It’s also brimming with startlingly original language. Both men have a gift for describing what should be indescribable.
Do yourself a favor, and pre-order this novel now. You’ll be glad you did.
I woke to the pitch and the roll of the deck, with a rope at my neck and rough planking beneath me, the foaming white sea spray trying to reach me, the sky a dark yellow that whirled above me, and two pale red suns that the sky bled and ran. I felt a soft touch and my fingers met silk, and a girl with no eyes took me up by the hand. Guided by fingers that slid along railing, her hair whispering back to the sea wind’s lost wailing, she led me past crewmen that bent at their oars. With lean muscles straining and braided hair trailing, they sliced at the water that tumbled and roared. Each face looked up as we walked slowly past, and each face was eyeless, from one to the last. She led to a place at the end of the oars. I sat and took hold of the long wooden handle, and lost myself soon in the rhythm and pull, in the flapping of wings and the screaming of gulls, in the slapping of water ‘gainst the barnacled hull, in the two suns that set and the three moons that rise, in the dark yellow sky that whirls and sighs. I am a sailor on an alien sea. I have only the gulls to talk to me. I have only the wind to hold me up straight and tall, only my eyes to search for a shore that we never will see. And a long ago dream that answered the call.
I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers a couple of years ago. I went in blind, knowing only that it generally fell into the category of space opera, and that it had good word of mouth. That good word of mouth didn’t begin to prepare me for the delights of this novel. Chambers gave me a fully realized spacefaring future, then layered in quirky, fully realized characters, highly developed yet believable tech, a captivating story, and one more thing that catapulted it into the stratosphere: the best, most humane AI I have ever read.
As it turned out, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was actually the first in the Wayfarer series. A Closed and Common Orbit, the second book in the series, is, if anything, even better. It follows a couple of characters from the first novel as they make their way through an adventure planet side, while simultaneously taking us through the harrowing childhood of one of those characters.
Chambers is firing on all cylinders here. The environments are richer and more complex, the stakes higher, the space opera aspects of the story a ridiculous amount of fun. We are introduced to a wider, more varied assortment of alien civilizations, and each one is fully realized.
The journey Chambers began with AI in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is amplified here. She writes AI characters that are just as real, and just as humane, as the humans and alien lifeforms that populate the novel. A Closed and Common Orbit has a lot to say about the nature of sentience, about what makes someone who they are. Chambers writes with warmth and confidence, but also with a questioning intelligence, about family structures, friendships, and gender roles. All this, and a rollicking nail-biter of a story.
In case it’s not obvious, I loved this novel! The third book in the series, a stand-alone called Record of a Spaceborn Few, is already on my TBR stack.
We haven’t spent a night apart Since I first took your hand in mine Our lives forever joined together Like grape vines intertwined We’ve driven down some bumpy roads Without a light, without a map The two of us we always knew We’d somehow make it back
(chorus) I don’t need a choir singing I don’t need angels winging I don’t need a cloud with a view Heaven better be something special To be half as good as life on earth with you I don’t need those golden gates I’m in no hurry, I can wait I don’t need a sign to know it’s true Heaven better be something special To be half as good as life on earth with you
Images of days long past Like breadcrumbs floating in wine Surface now and then Golden moments out of time Every time I lose myself In long forgotten memories And travel back on through the years Your smiling face is all I see
(chorus) I don’t need a choir singing I don’t need angels winging I don’t need a cloud with a view Heaven better be something special To be half as good as life on earth with you I don’t need those golden gates I’m in no hurry, I can wait I don’t need a sign to know it’s true Heaven better be something special To be half as good as life on earth with you
Grady Hendrix is the author of several well-received horror/comedy hybrid novels, including My Best Friend’s Exorcism, We Sold Our Souls, and the recent The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I first got to know him through Paperbacks from Hell, his deep dive into the glorious world of 70s and 80s paperback horror fiction, for which we share a profound love.
I have a confession, which is that, despite having been told for years that Hendrix is the real deal, Horrorstör is the first of his novels I’ve read. I’ve had it on my TBR stack for a while, and my son kept telling me how much I would love it, but there are just so many damn books in the world, and so little time. Finally, I read that Horrorstör had been optioned for a movie, so I pulled the trigger. I’m so glad I did!
Horrorstör takes place over the course of one night in an Orsk Furniture Superstore in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Orsk is patterned after Ikea, right down to the individual room settings and the nearly pathological design of the path through the store. The morning shift has been arriving to unexplained nightly damage—broken furniture, smashed glasswork, disruptions in the pristine store layout. In order to solve this riddle and get the store back on track, three store employees (and two other employees with their own agenda) stay the night to discover just what’s going on.
The novel begins as a relatively light-hearted romp. Hendrix has an easy way with humor, as he allows it to occur naturally from the characters we meet, and the situations they find themselves in. It’s not forced. He takes his time, letting us get to know, and mostly like, these people. They’re three dimensional, not stock, cardboard characters. Then darkness, and madness, descends, and let me tell you, Hendrix can write the hell out of all-out horror. Once he starts twisting the screws, shit gets real. He has a masterful sense of pacing as he puts these characters I’ve come to identify with through the wringer. This is scary stuff.
That’s the basic set-up, but it’s not what makes this such a memorable novel. See, Hendrix is either one helluva researcher, or he’s spent a lot of time in Ikea, because his attention to detail, his sense of place, the specificity he brings to the story, is what puts this book over the top. Horrorstör looks and feels like an Ikea catalog, from the shape of the book, to the illustrations that pepper the pages and become increasingly macabre the deeper you delve. He puts you in the store with such a solid, concrete reality, that when the supernatural mayhem begins twisting and shredding that reality, it’s that much more jarring. Everything about Horrorstör, every little detail in book design, adds a richness to the novel.
On a personal note, when I say Hendrix gets the details right, that extends to the Cleveland setting. As a Cleveland native and fan, I get annoyed when writers are sloppy about describing my city. Hendrix is dead on. I could hop in my car and drive to the Orsk store.
Horrorstör was published in 2014, and I’m sorry it took me this long to read it. Get it now, before the movie comes out, and be prepared to be thoroughly frightened, and thoroughly entertained.