Tuesday, May 27, 2008

REVIEW: Do the Math by Philip B. Persinger

DoTheMathCover.jpgPLOT

William Teale, long ago a math prodigy, now spends his time teaching at a small university in the Hudson River valley. He is deeply in love. But not with his wife.

Virginia "Faye" Warner, William's wife, is a romance novelist. Her books all follow a rigid -- and successful -- formula. But her reality falls fall short of her fairy tale public fa├žade.

Claire is the woman William lost twenty-five years ago -- and never forgot. And now, by chance, she has shown up again.

Roger, William's graduate intern, finds himself bearing witness as the destinies of William, Virginia and Claire intersect during the course one fateful school year. But in Virginia's romance novels, the rules of love are clear. In the real world, affairs of the heart are rarely so precise -- or straightforward.

MY TAKE

To its credit, Do the Math is not a novel of overblown passions. To be sure, there are momentary explosions, both of fire and of humor. But the strength of the novel lies in its tender, sympathetic portraits of the lonely and middle-aged trio at its core: William, a man trying to do right by his wife, even if that means stifling his own happiness; Virginia, a woman who, in her own fashion, is just as trapped as William; and Claire, the "other woman" who is flung by fate into the middle and who, perhaps not entirely unwillingly, is unable to extricate herself. Because these characters feel genuine, we care about their story, even if it does not involve the standard young hunks or ladies with heaving bosoms that lie at the heart of most romance tales.

So the fact that Do the Math does not rise to the extravagance of a typical romance novel (no pirates, for example, and the coma and hospital romance aren't what one might expect) does not detract from the novel at all. Rather, the book's unaffected elegance and overall good humor (combined with Roger's charming narration) more than carries the reader through. And given that the novel's primary conceit is to explore an ultimately unanswerable question -- whether true romance can be boiled down to a logical equation -- the fact that Do the Math nonetheless both satisfies and is satisfyingly unpredictable right through to the end is a testament to author Philip B. Persinger's achievement (and, perhaps, to how unimportant the question really is).

AVAILABILITY

Do the Math is available as a $17.95 paperback (or a $27.95 hardcover) from iUniverse, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. Author Philip B. Persinger also maintains a very bare-bones website for his novel here.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION

Love is, of course, a fundamental, ancient and ever-fertile subject for all manner of art and expression. On the lighter side of the spectrum, check out Erin Cosgrove's hilarious, smart romance novel parody The Baader-Meinhof Affair ($14.95 from Amazon; out of stock at Barnes and Noble). Some bonus material is also available at her website here.

On the far opposite end of the range, Daniel Johnston's majestic, tragic, beautiful, utterly heart-rending "Some Things Last A Long Time" (originally from his album 1990) is absolutely not to be missed. Johnston is definitely an acquired taste (see a detailed discussion of his life and music here), but the raw emotion of this song blasts through the substantial technical limitations of the recording. "Some Things Last A Long Time" can be purchased as an individual track, as part of the 1990 album, or as part of the wonderful introductory compilation Welcome to My World, which is available from, among other locations, either eMusic or directly from Johnston's webstore.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

REVIEW: Stray Not Beyond by Michael B. Pinkey

StrayNotBeyondCover.jpgWARNING: mild spoiler ahead, for those who like to know no more about a novel's plot than what the back cover reveals.

PLOT

All Irving Carlisle wanted was to find some more Suttlespyce (Number 17), the finest pipe tobacco he had ever smoked.

All Irving found in Otterwood, North Carolina -- home of his beloved Suttlespyce (Number 17) -- was some decidedly unfriendly locals.

Then he got lost, and found something else, too. The entryway to a different world. A very unpleasant different world.

MY TAKE

Is it fair to criticize Stray Not Beyond for not telling the story I wanted it to tell? I've previously discussed the frustrations of having a novel side-step a specific plot point I found particularly intriguing in favor of pursuing a different agenda. But Stray Not Beyond takes the problem -- and thus my dilemma -- to an extreme.

The novel starts on a folksy, low-key note, as Irving recounts how a sample of the preternaturally sumptuous Suttlespyce (Number 17) pipe tobacco arrived, unsolicited, in his mail one day from a Theodamus Rroyhall in Otterwood, North Carolina, and how Rroyhall equally suddenly stopped responding to Irving's orders two years later. So Irving sets off for Otterwood to investigate.

In Otterwood, the locals start by giving Irving the run-around, and then become even more hostile when Irving persists. And although the novel's tone becomes increasingly dark, I thought I knew, at least generally, what I was in for: the story of Irving's investigation into the mysterious Rroyhall and his Suttlespyce (Number 17). I wasn't sure how dark the story would get, or exactly where the plot was headed. But the laid-back, appealing narrative style and intriguing plot had me primed and eager to see how the mystery would play out.

But then, on page 56, everything changes. Irving finds himself no longer in Otterwood, but in a quite literally different world altogether. From that point, the novel proceeds through an episodic series of surreal, hellish encounters as Irving struggles to find a way home. Although author Michael Pinkey ultimately does tie everything together in a fairly satisfactory manner, the story of Rroyhall and Suttlespice (Number 17) -- and, indeed, any story beyond Irving's bare struggle for survival -- takes a distinct back seat for the remainder of the story, as Stray Not Beyond essentially becomes a travelogue through a nightmare.

To be fair, Stray Not Beyond is a very well-written travelogue. Pinkey recounts the individual elements of Irving's nightmare journey with consummate skill, and individual scenes are genuinely creepy and effectively convey Irving's desperation and hopelessness. Unfortunately, these scenes never come together into a compelling overarching narrative: they remain a serial assortment of disparate events.

And so Stray Not Beyond is, above all, frustrating. Through page 55, I did not know exactly where the story was going, or even what genre the novel was going to end up being (it seemed capable of going anywhere from whimsical rusticity to black comedy or even violent thriller), but I did expect that the story as already started was going to continue. Unfortunately, when Irving loses his way, so too does Stray Not Beyond.

AVAILABILITY

Stray Not Beyond is available as a $14.95 paperback (or $24.95 hardcover) from Barnes and Noble or Amazon or direct from iUniverse. Pinkey -- who appears to date not to have published anything else -- also maintains a bare-bones website for the novel.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION

David Zimmerman's Socket (available from Barnes and Noble or Amazon) also goes in a different narrative direction than I had initially expected. However, I have to admit that Zimmerman's direction works beautifully; indeed, Socket has quite simply become one of my favorite novels, period. I have more to say about Socket, but consider this a cliffhanger: check back next week for my review roundup of the last decade of winners (including Socket) of that thirty-year Labor Day weekend tradition, the 3-Day Novel Contest.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

REVIEW: Aftermath by Brian Fischer-Giffin

AftermathCover.jpgPLOT

A plague has descended in the wake of a passing comet. Most people are dead. Biker Talon Willis is one survivor. Teenaged Tahnee Goss is another.

But living through the plague is one thing.

Living through the aftermath is quite another.

MY TAKE

If you're looking for a basic, bread-and-butter post-apocalyptic tale, Aftermath will likely satisfy. Fischer-Giffin's writing (which alternates between Talon and Tahnee's diary entries to tell the story) is straightforward, engaging and, of critical importance, brisk. Fischer-Giffin keeps the action moving forward at all times, which is exactly the right approach. Most readers of Aftermath likely will already be familiar with the conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre, and Fischer-Giffin hews closely to them in his episodic tale, up to and including the expected climactic battle between the forces trying to rebuild civilization and the eeevil marauders out only to rape and pillage. Accordingly, because we readers know what to expect, there is no need for Aftermath to linger; rather, it is a locomotive, allowing us to enjoy the ever-changing scenery, even if we are already familiar with the journey as a whole. (And, to be fair, there are some welcome, if mild, deviations from what I predicted when I started the novel: biker Talon does not turn out to have quite the heart of gold one might expect (tarnished bronze is more like it), and teenaged Tahnee, even making allowances for the fact that her family and friends are dead and she's living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, is, amusingly, really quite insane.)

AVAILABILITY

Aftermath is available from Lulu as a $3.75 pdf download (or a $19.50 paperback). Fischer-Giffin also maintains a MySpace page.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION

Aftermath may not be particularly innovative, but sometimes telling a simple tale in a straightforward manner can be more fun for the audience than would be a more unconventional narrative. For example, I enjoyed the short film Postapocalyptic Sandpit for most of its increasingly outlandish running time. But as it entered its more surreal final moments, it lost me entirely, both in terms of literal narrative and emotional response. By contrast, I can enjoy the new-wavish song "Among the Ruins", a straightforward soundtrack to the loneliness of life in the post-apocalyptic world by long-dissolved punk 'n' roll band the Vee Gates (which bills its music as "post-apocalyptic rock"), without reservation.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

REVIEW: Vegetation by Mark LaFlamme

VegetationCover.jpgPLOT

Diana Luce loved plants. And they loved her.

Diana's husband, Bertram, didn't particularly love plants. Or her.

So Bertram murdered Diana.

And the plants are not pleased.

Not at all.


MY TAKE

There is not much plot to Vegetation. It is a tale of vengeance for murder, pure and simple. Except that the avenging party is not a bereaved family member, is not even human, but rather happens to be the collective flora of the world. Even so, it is apparent from the start exactly where Vegetation is headed.

So the pleasures of Vegetation do not lie in intricate plotting, although the plants devise many clever means of attack. Rather, the fun -- and there is much fun to be had -- comes from two sources. First, there is author Mark LaFlamme's dry, darkly humorous writing. LaFlamme's omniscient narrator is almost another character in the novel, stepping in to further belittle Bertram and almost giving a voice to the plants who, of course, are unable to actually speak for themselves. For example, when Bertram feels wronged by a bank teller early in the novel, he longs to drive away dramatically after verbally harassing her. But as the narrator makes clear, Bertram is not quite up to the task:


He was so angry, he even considered squealing his tires to add exclamation to his dissatisfaction. Sadly, he did not know how it was done.

And again, the narrator laughs with us (and with the plants) in setting the stage for another floral assault in Bertram's own bathroom:


Two things he learned very quickly: the rigid, pointed leaf of a Mother-in-Law's Tongue was as capable of piercing flesh as a combat knife. And a cactus does not belong in the bathroom.

Vegetation's other amusement, while perhaps more base, is no less genuine. For Vegetation is a novel for those of us who can admit that, on some level, we enjoy seeing evildoers suffer. Sure, some might argue that finding amusement in the torment of another, regardless of whether that person can be said to "deserve" his fate, only deadens the soul and begets more violence. And perhaps those people are right. But regardless of whether it is ennobling, the desire for vengeance is powerfully present in the human psyche. Watching it played out, even (or perhaps especially) in a fictional context (where no one is truly harmed), can be very cathartic. And seeing the pompous, amoral Bertram Luce increasingly harassed by the plants -- the novel makes clear that they are proponents of playing with their victims -- on the road to his ultimate punishment is, to be frank, emotionally satisfying.

But Vegetation actually is not quite so simplistic. LaFlamme goes out of his way to give us the background of Bertram's wretched childhood, so we can better understand the man (and the murderer) he grows up to be. As a result, we are not allowed the unfettered glee of uncomplicated justice. We know how Bertram came to be a monster, and so, even while applauding the plants' revenge, we also sympathize with the boy he used to be.

Yet LaFlamme's sympathy for Bertram, in turn, also is not quite so simplistic. LaFlamme comments on one occasion (after an incident during which Bertram has been brought especially low) that, if Bertram could only maintain the fleeting feelings of empathy and contrition he has been forced to experience, the plants might back off of their retribution. Bertram, however, is incapable of real change. So perhaps we are meant to understand that Bertram is beyond redemption after all, and that his punishment truly is deserved. I don't know if there is a right answer. But I credit Vegetation for being smart enough to raise the question, and nimble enough not to let it detract from the novel's overall fun.


AVAILABILITY

Vegetation is available in paperback for $15.95 from BookLocker, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. LaFlamme also maintains a website that includes further information about Vegetation and LaFlamme's two other novels, several short stories for free download (and links to a couple more shorts available through Amazon), and lots of other additional content.


BONUS RECOMMENDATION

For more about the nature of vengeance, check out "Vengeance is Ours," a fascinating article recently printed in The New Yorker magazine. Or, for a more musical analysis, check out alternative industrial band Comrade Kommissar (on Four Control Records). For me, the highlight of From out of Nowhere (2004), Comrade Kommisar's only album to date, is "Revenge," on which the Comrade affects a laconic, lounge-esque baritone over a mid-tempo, dark alternative backing to extol the fine art of getting payback:


It has to be dangerous
It has to be refined
It has to be skillful
You need to take your time

Really, what more is there to say?