Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland: Bracken MacLeod’s 13 Views of the Suicide Woods

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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In Bracken MacLeod’s first collection, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods, the writer behind Stoker-nominee Stranded and the novel Mountain Home presents 19 stories that are a little too genre-gritty to be “literary”, but also too literary to be full-on genre fare.  MacLeod straddles the line between brutal violence–the don’t-assume-hippies-are-pacifists “Blood Makes the Grass Grow”–and haunting melancholy–the near-flash piece “Khatam” that closes the book.  When the supernatural comes into the story–it doesn’t always–it’s seamless and unobtrusive, almost as if it’s expected to be there.  In other words, if Jim Thompson or Shane Stevens were to write the current genre-darling of the reading class, magic realism, they might write something like 13 Views of the Suicide Woods. 

This is not my first exposure to MacLeod–I sang the praises of his novel Stranded in another Wastelands Dispatch. As such, I had an inkling of what to expect.  Still, however, a reader can marvel at the way MacLeod offers a triptych of viewpoints in collection opener “Still Day: An Ending”–more of a set-piece that a full story–between mundane modern life, natural beauty, and stark violence.  Personal favorite “The Boy Who Dreamt He Was a Bat”–doesn’t grind its message and subtext in the reader’s face, but it’s there if you want it.

If literature is a kind of never-ending buffet, with each little marketing-invented subgroup given its own table for its food, MacLeod’s work bounces between noir, full-on horror, and magic realism.  Often, the characters are more important than the plot (which doesn’t mean that plot doesn’t take place), examining the reactions they have to whatever situation they find themselves in.  MacLeod is interested in this–an examination of reaction in the moment something happens.  He does this without any melodramatic panting and ruminations, not focusing on the before and the aftermath, but that very moment itself, leaving the reader to surmise how (or if) these people recovered from the situation, and when a story lingers (many do) it’s because of this fact.

The stories might not be for everyone–MacLeod goes out of his way to avoid beating anyone over the head and his subtlety might be off-putting to someone looking for gore and violence with both barrels.  When violence does come–in the previously mentioned stories, or in “The Texas Chainsaw Breakfast Club, or, I Don’t Like Mondays”–it is all the more shocking because MacLeod doesn’t telegraph it; he’s not the writer who’s going to hype the awful that’s coming.

Still, though, each of the 19 stories in this collection shines with its own light, distinguishing itself from the others and never becoming that dread of collections–the blurring from one story to the next.  Any one of these could make a reader a fan of Bracken MacLeod and force them to track down his longer works.

You can pick up 13 Views of the Suicide Woods here.

You can pick up Stranded here.

And, hell, you can pick up a copy of Bones Are Made to be Broken here.

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Story sale and how 2017 is shaping up

So, over on the most social of medias, this happened:

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I’m pretty happy about this; Unnerving Magazine, edited by Eddie Generous, has been on my radar for a while; I did a What-Are-You reading guest post in October of 2016, and the the magazine reviewed (favorably) Bones Are Made to be Broken.  Earlier this year, I get an e-mail from Eddie asking if I’d be interested in selling him a story.  Given the work he’s already published–by John F.D. Taff, James Newman, Jessica McHugh, and others–I was intrigued and agreed, immeasurably pleased (I’ve had an uptick of people asking for stories since Bones came out, but that doesn’t make each one any less appreciated; “Hey!  People want my shit!” I think, and then wonder why they’re asking, given the word choice just used).

“The One Thing I Wished for You” is about fathers and daughters and wish fulfillment and the costs that fulfillment incurs.  I made one beta-reader cry (she also cried when she did the beta-read for “All That You Leave Behind”) and another beta-reader’s comments in the Track Changes of my manuscript were filled with oh-lord-no (in a good way, not this-is-terrible way) type reactions.  So, you know, the sun-on-my-shoulders, feel-good fare I’m getting a rep for.

The story will be showing up this summer; as of now, that’s three stories slated for sometime in 2017:

  1. “The One Thing I Wished for You” – Unnerving (summer)
  2. Reprint story (the publisher wants to announce the TOC, so I’ll hold off trumpeting anything) – Summer
  3. “How I Became a Cryptid Straight out of a 1980s Horror Movie” – Space & Time (go buy their current issue; my dude Bracken MacLeod is in it) (also, I’m noodling a haunted house story in the same sandbox as this murderous, sentient-lake story, so there’s that)

There are two requested stories with editors right now; if the editors dig them, that’ll mean I’ll have five stories this year, with four this summer alone.  That’d be cool.  (This ignores a novella slated for 2018; another novella I’m collaborating on that, if accepted, would be in 2018, and two other requests for books in 2018.)

So, that’s my Saturday.  And how are things on your end?

Go buy the latest issue of Unnerving Magazine (with stories by Jess McHugh and James Newman) here.

Go buy Bones Are Made to be Broken and support my selfish habit of writing for money here.

 

Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Max Booth III’s The Nightly Disease

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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Oh, Max.  Ohhhhhh, Max.

I’ve known Max a long time; when I worked for one publishing company, I edited his first novel, Toxicity.  Last year, he coaxed one of my currently-favorite stories out of me when we got to talking about Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters (the story, if you’re curious, is “All That You Leave Behind”, which appeared first in the anthology Lost Signals and then was reprinted in my collection Bones Are Made to be Broken).  His short stories, to me, have always been grounded, while his novels are gonzo explorations of a (you would think) simple what-if; he throws as much shit at his characters to see what sticks and what they can dodge and he grows bolder with each novel he writes.

For the TL;DR crowd: There’s a reason I tend to think of Max Booth III in “rabid wolverine high on angel dust”; in his fourth novel The Nightly Disease, he writes a story that only the bastard child of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino, with equal amounts of absurdism and over-the-top violence, intermixed with depths into the main character that are, actually, more startlingly real than the goofy violence.

The Nightly Disease is about Isaac, a night auditor at a mid-tier hotel in the guts of Texas.  Living a life best encapsulated by Trent Reznor’s “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” in 2004, a moment of selfishness, mingled with a moment of intense loneliness, soon spirals out of control in the most ridiculous, but oddly logical way.

The novel takes huge chunks of Max’s actual life–motel life, his job, the chronic masturbation–and fictionalizes them, passing it all through a filter in Max’s mind that no man should behold.  Throughout all of it, fatalism permeates–you know that, even if Isaac survives, he won’t change and, ultimately, he’ll wind up in exactly the same situation as at the start of the novel.

The story SHOULDN’T work, but does; Max’s prose line always read, to me, like he’s sprinting along a high wire, with only one false turn of phrase or sequence to send him and the story plummeting to mutual, glorious death; as he gets more confident and skilled, it becomes more like sprinting across a balance beam and the likelihood of him (and the story) failing becoming slighter.

The absurd elements (they all involve owls) are handled deftly; you could make convincing arguments that either they really happened or Isaac is really cracked.  Either one works.  Usually a writer tips their hand pretty definitively, or at least leans to one side, but the lunatic portions of our program are left completely to the reader to decide on.  I find that neat.

What struck me most about the novel is that Isaac is probably the worst hero–but also probably the most realistic because the dude, in his decision-making, is as shortsighted a person can be…which is fairly representative of the world at large.  The reader keeps hoping Isaac will make sense and the right decision but, no, he left-turns into utter disaster and you can only shrug and go, “You know, that actually makes sense.  The big, dumb idiot.”

In the end, The Nightly Disease follows what can now be typified as a “Max Booth III novel”: violent, absurd, fun to read.

You can pick up a copy here.

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A Reviewer in the Wastelands

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The TBR pile (on top of my ego-shelf), April 2017

 

I see it periodically on the Internet–a reviewer stating that they won’t bother reviewing stuff they don’t like because, why bother?  There are only so many hours in a day, so much to possibly review, and–fuck–most of us aren’t getting paid.

I’ve been thinking of that a lot recently–unsurprisingly as Bones Are Made to be Broken (insert subtle link to go buy my book) ends its fourth month out in the marketplace.  To date, Bones has gotten nine major reviews; made three “best-of” lists; and briefly flirted, in the “Long Fiction” category for the title novella, with a Bram Stoker nomination.

But the reviews, those that have come in and those potentially still-to-come (I think there’s one more around the bend–I sent a copy off to a place who would then offer it up to its stable of reviewers for any takers; we’ll see eventually if that happens), are the things I keep coming back to.  Because of what was mentioned above, why reviewers do it, and why I kinda miss it (?).

My first writing job was as a reviewer.  It was college and I’d fallen into journalism (as a rule, undergrads going for teaching degrees don’t have a lot of course-time for anything unrelated to education–as in, any.  None.) because, a, my girlfriend at the time was a communications major and, b–dammit, I want my name in print.  I eventually got a column (where I once spent an entire column planning my eventual funeral, because why not; I’m gonna have a marching band), a bullshit job title to justify paying me (except for the editors, contributors received either course credit or a “Hey, thanks!”), and a fuck-tonne of experience writing and editing.  (A lot of writers start out in journalism and there are numerous reasons why it’s a fantastic idea.  I’ll talk about it more at some point.  Maybe.)

Reviewing’s weird–of all the various sections of an outlet, it’s the most overtly I’m-talking-to-you-the-reader.  You have to encapsulate the entirety of a piece of art, without spoilers, give the reader a decent what-to-expect, and make a judgement on it.  But, throughout all of that, you’re holding forth to a reader about something.

There’s a certain amount of ego that comes with that that probably seems quaint in these everyone-has-a-fucking-Facebook-Twitter-Snapchat-Instagram-Tumblr-YouTube-platform times; why does your opinion matter more than some dumb fuck on a street corner lecturing pigeons?  Besides the paycheck, that is (maybe; I’m gonna come back to that)?

But, flipping that, reviewers are the audience.  They’re the stand-ins, the avatars.  They go to these movies, listen to these albums, play these games, read these books to help guide a potential future participant.

I’m weird–I like reading reviews after watching this show, reading that book, and seeing if my views jibe with the reviewer.  They don’t, usually, but it’s fun to compare notes.

But reviewing’s undergoing a sea-change–has been for a while, actually.  There’s always been some form of Amazon/Yelp/Goodreads out there (in the pre-Internet days of yore, we simply called that shit word-of-mouth), but now review sites pop up all over the place–some are built with some form of solid foundation and goal and focus, while others are a barely thrown-together blogspot website (is it me, or has blogspot become, like, the Geocities of the new millennium?  Not like WordPress, though–that shit’s gonna be around forever!).  But, they exist.  They, occasionally, post content.  They review.

Why?

This is what I keep coming back to.

I’m one of those fuck-you-pay-me writers.  I don’t work for free.  I won’t work for peanuts, particularly if I don’t know who the fuck you are (if there’s an opportunity I think is cool, I’ll lower my asking price, but that doesn’t happen often), and I sure as fuck won’t do it “for the love”–a concept I feel is so pungently obnoxious that it’s a blight on our industry, which is propped up by a legion of people too inexperienced to know any better.  We work hard for our art, amateurs and pros alike; goddammit, if there’s money to be had for said art, even pennies, then it better well fucking end up in our pockets.

Naturally, this thinking extends to journalism generally and reviewing in particular.  Of my nine blessed reviews (that’s not sarcasm; those fucking people rule), I would guess maybe three were by people paid by the outlet publishing the review and I feel I’m being generous there.  So, following the logic of not bothering to review things they don’t like, I guess I won on that one (all nine have been awesome, if you haven’t already gone to the Press link at the top of the page to see for yourself).  Because, if you’re not getting paid, you have to be highly fucking motivated to want to talk about this piece of art you’ve experienced.

(Side note: a part of me quails at constantly calling my stories about vampires, ghosts, nervous breakdowns, and dissolving relationships “art”.  I tell that part of me “fuck you.”  The shit we do creatively is art–especially if it’s terrible.)

But what if the book sucks?  How motivated are you to talk about it?  Shit, how motivated were you to finish it?

To get back to my roots a little, I’ve been writing reviews for the Goodreads Reading Challenge I’m doing (tangent; I’m going to fail hilariously at reaching my goal) and I’ve been wondering what I’ll do when I get to a real clunker.  I mean, I’m not getting paid for this; I’m just talking about the books I’m reading.  My page views are hysterically low, so it really is just me blabbing about something to myself.  Will I bother with a bad review?

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Oh, fuck, yes.  In spite of enjoying talking about the shit I love, I also enjoy shit-talking the shit I hate.  I can be constructive, I can be clear in my points, but I shit-talk (I once read The DaVinci Code, at the height of Dan-Brown-mania, for the sole purpose of tearing it apart and spiting my mother, who told me I couldn’t talk shit after reading a few brief passages; I enjoyed the fuck out of ripping it up;  I also have a weirdly sarcastic relationship with my mother) and love doing it.

Also, it’s…good?…to be negative every once in a while.  It balances out all the praise being heaped.  Listen–in disciplinary practice (listen to this, I’m a teacher, here), neither all-negative nor all-positive reinforcement works.  You have to balance that stuff out.

Same with reviews.  I unconsciously tune out reviewers who only ever say these awesome things about these awesome pieces of art.  When everything is awesome, nothing is awesome.

But when you get that balance?  Oh man.  Example, I’m a big fan of the site Dead End Follies–and not just ’cause Benoit (I don’t know how to pronounce his name and just call him “Benny” in my head) sang the praises of Bones.  When he likes something, he will break it down.  But when he hates something?  Oh man, he will break that shit down.  Immediately, his review of the film Joy occurs to me.  It’s a great one.  Go find it.

And that’s the point.  Reviews are good or bad or indifferent–but they matter.  Good or bad.  That shit adds up–particularly if you’re an artist, who, at the end of the day, just wants to know that something they made left something of an imprint on the audience.   Again, good or bad.  You read/watched/listened/played something?  Talk about it.  Rant about it.  Sing its praises.  Whatever effect it had on you.

You don’t have a site of your own?  Use the digital bulletin board of Amazon (I don’t know if there’s any truth to the “Magic Number” of reviews to get more attention on Amazon, but why the fuck not go for the brass ring?) or Goodreads or, fuck, just your own goddamn social media wall.  But talk about it.  People want to know about this thing or that thing, whether to avoid or go hunting it down.

Tonight, for example.  I found one guy who’d picked up Bones Are Made to be Broken based on the strength of Shane Keene’s review of it over at HorrorTalk.  Upon hearing this, some other dude went and picked it up.  All because people were talking about it.  That shit’s cool.

As for me, I like reviewing the things I’m reading, if only because writing shit out has always been the best way for getting my head in order, even when I hate something.  So, if nothing else, being stranded in the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland has gotten me back to thinking that way.

So, do your part.  You can start by buying my book and, when finished, writing a review on it.  Good or bad.

BonesReviewsAreIn

Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland: Jonathan Maberry’s Predator One

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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And, oh, look at this–I’ve finished the Joe Ledger series (as far as I can, anyway; there are two more after Predator One, and Maberry’s writing another).  The next book I read in the Wastelands will be a comic-criminal book by Max Booth III–about as far as you can get from the tech-heavy, world-hangs-in-the-balance thriller-isms of Joe Ledger.

For the TL;DR crowd: Joe Ledger’s seventh adventure, Predator One, sees Maberry using a particularly tech-heavy conflict to lay Ledger & Co. low, resulting in a brutal climax that will leave the reader wondering if anyone–even near-sainted Rudy–will have any humanity left after the dust settles.

In my last review, for Code Zero, I said that the novel–marketed as a sequel to series-starter Patient Zero–felt like a continuation of a plot thread initially spooled out in Patient Zero, then continued in The King of Plagues.  By this same logic, Predator One feels like another continuation of that, with the Seven Kings returned, in a way, to menace Ledger and the DMS, further.

Actually, to be honest, out of the seven books, only two aren’t directly connected to one another–The Dragon Factory and Extinction Machine.  The other five novels all continue with this element or that element–either villain or methodology.

The same can be said here.  Predator One posits a sort-of return of the Seven Kings, unleashing what is essentially their Doomsday Scenario (while their plot in The King of Plagues was horrific, it was also controlled; in Predator One, the resulting damage is global).

The story reads in typical Maberry fashion, with a minor (relative to the remainder of the book) event pulling in the DMS and Joe Ledger in an escalating series of traps and set-backs, escalating the action and ratcheting up the tension until the climax explodes.  Seven books in, the reader knows the cast of characters and, even if readers are new to the series, the ease in which Maberry writes of each, along with their backstories, helps the reader climb in.

Predator One, from the perspective of someone reading merely for the action and the tension, is almost more explanatory-heavy than previous efforts; with the plans being deliberately about tech and computers, Maberry can’t just get away with “shit blowing up and computers going SkyNet on all our asses”.  So, there’s more pausing to explain here.  Now, Maberry has always had discussions of what’s causing the events–usually in discussions Ledger has with Dr. Hu or Bug, the DMS’s resident doctor and computer-nerd, respectively.  While the circumstances are similar to prior novels, they take longer and there are more of them so that the events make sense.  This doesn’t detract from the story–y’know, in that way some SF novels have; where the cleverness of whatever idea the writer has overshadows the goddamned story itself–but the reader notices.

The reveal of the Big Bad comes as no surprise, but I have to wonder if it’s supposed to?  They don’t say the name until nearly the end, but the reader puts the pieces together as soon as the character comes into a scene.  It’s vaguely irritating that the story doesn’t acknowledge it until later–but, then again, if everyone involved (except Ledger, who learns the same moment that the story finally names the Big Bad) talked incessantly about the identity, it would come across as hackneyed and forced, and Maberry doesn’t tend to traffic in that.

The brutality of the climax was startling, too, but in a way that makes sense–when the violence is at its fever-pitch, it comes from a place where the heroes are sure they lost, so they just don’t give a fuck, anymore.  It raises interesting questions Maberry might have to answer in later books.

The one wrinkle is the character Nicodemus, first introduced in Assassin’s Code and returning here.  For all the SF-elements, Maberry writes human, grounded stories–everything has an explanation, no matter how far-fetched it might sound.  Nicodemus is, at this point, outwardly the only supernatural element with no ready-made, grounded (ish) explanation and you get the feeling Maberry’s almost writing himself into a corner with the character.  I don’t know if he’s holding back on making Nicodemus the Big Bad of a later book–at this point, he’s merely been a guy on the peripheral–but his presence is fairly jangly.  Because of the world Nicodemus exists in, it feels like a double-edged sword–either sacrifice the grounded nature of the books, or lose the menace that comes from Nicodemus’s seemingly supernatural presence.

But all that will have to (maybe) be answered in later books.  For now–until I get more books in the series–I’m done.

Next, I go down to a surreal version of Texas in Max Booth III’s The Nightly Disease.

When Fangoria unexpectedly reviews your book

With BONES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN Anderson announces himself as a major talent in the dark fiction realm, capable of fashioning imaginative, bold visions and conceits powerful enough to “subdue the confident bluster of our day,” stop us in our tracks, and provoke us to consider the existential conundrums we can only really grapple with when we’ve been jolted outside of the constructs of our normal everyday experience.  – Shawn Macomber, Fangoria*

So.

That happened.

The magazine, that I’d read for ten years, reviewed my book.  The magazine that, through their book reviews led me to picking up Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero, Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, and David Wong’s John Dies at the End, reviewed Bones Are Made to be Broken…and liked it.  Indirectly, Fango led to my friendship with Maberry and, directly, led me to suggesting I Am Not a Serial Killer to student after student for the past seven years, which then led them to the rest of the trilogy.  (Even more indirectly, it led me to suggesting Maberry’s Rot & Ruin series to a kid and my school library to buying the whole series; they’ve since had to buy the series twice more because they’ve been read to tatters.)

It comes more mixed than it would’ve otherwise; Fangoria has not had the best few years, he says with something like an understatement, and they haven’t printed an issue in a long time.  There are a fuck-tonne of reasons, but I’m not in-the-know enough to speak on them with any degree of confidence.  Google that sucker.  You’ll find all the info you need, often from the mouths of people who’ve actually worked for the magazine, and you can draw your own conclusions.

It’s not bias or slant when I say that Fangoria isn’t what it once was and, if there is a slant there, it’s one with sadness.  Fango was the one magazine I read regularly.  The only magazine I had a goddamned subscription to, for years.  Most of the time, I pick up a magazine issue that interests me.  Not so with Fango; every issue had something for me.  I still have a stack of issues on my shelf that I’ll pull down and read periodically.

So, a bit of sadness at the state it now exists in.  I’m not alone when I hold out hope that’ll it climb itself out of whatever hole it’s in .  But Fangoria still holds a sway over my thoughts that, when I found out the review had been published, I squee’ed.  I couldn’t help it and, in my head, it still feels surreal.  (Of course, I found out at work, where the network firewall prevented me from reading the damned thing; the same firewall also prevents me from going to Dead End Follies.)

Fangoria fucking reviewed me.  Goddamn, son. Another “Are you fucking kidding me?” review, on top of all the others I’ve gotten (it is not bullshit to say that every review has surprised the fuck out of me in its content, thrust, and point).

You can, of course, pick up Bones Are Made to be Broken here and here.

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*FULL DISCLOSURE: Shawn Macomber, the reviewer, is a regular writer and worker at Fangoria; he and I also shared TOC pages in the anthology Savage Beasts, edited by Sharon Lawson and Anthony Rivera.