Thursday, March 27, 2008

FreeBooks #10: The Adventures of Portly Boy by Ray Weeks

AdvOfPortlyBoy.jpgHoward McKay isn't really a superhero. He doesn't have any superpowers. In fact, he's a fat alcoholic, who only dresses up in a fluorescent yellow body suit (complete with pink running shorts and boots) because of an unfortunate incident in which he mooned a judge during a drunken romp through the park. As his punishment, the vindictive judge sentenced Howard to an even more unfortunate community service sentence: to patrol the city streets as a citizen watchdog, while dressed in the rather unique aforementioned ensemble.

Moreover, The Adventures of Portly Boy isn't really a novel. Rather, it is a compilation of the first 37 installments (of a total of 69) of a meandering serial narrative that author Ray Weeks posted on the Strangelands website between March 2004 and January 2007 (to go directly to the Portly Boy part of the website, click here). Because Chapter 37 ends at something of a natural (if abrupt) breaking point, Weeks evidently decided to make those chapters available as a free, convenient pdf download from Lulu (and also as a $16.67 paperback, for those who want a more corporeal embodiment of Portly Boy's adventures).

So, for many reasons, Portly Boy is not really a "superhero novel." It is, however, absolutely hilarious. Weeks has a light touch and a genuine gift for situational humor. Howard is an appealing schlub protagonist, and the supporting cast of cut-rate sidekicks and not-so-super villains are appropriately eccentric and amusing. Howard's adventures are consistently fun and, amazingly enough given the glib nature of the entire enterprise, manage to be genuinely tense and exciting at times.

To be sure, the serial nature of Portly Boy's origins, where the original episodes were stretched over a period of nearly three years, takes its toll. Certain jokes are repeated over and over. Nor is there more than the barest whiff of an ongoing plot. Yet none of that undercuts Portly Boy's essential good humor or entertainment value, and I look forward to reading the remaining uncollected adventures (nearly as extensive as the adventures collected in this book) available at the Portly Boy website.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

REVIEW: Eerily Familiar by Darren Lamere


Tom Morrow awakes to a message on his bedside pad. It says that Raquel, who was murdered three years ago, is still alive. And it appears to be in Tom's own handwriting.

When Tom goes to visit Raquel's grave, someone is already there. Someone who looks a lot like Tom. Someone who, unlike Tom, remembered to bring a boombox to play Tom and Raquel's song.

More than just his girlfriend, Raquel was -- and remains -- the center of Tom's world. So Tom needs to figure out what is going on. Especially when her doppelgänger shows up as well.

But each step is accompanied by a profound sense of déjà vu. Back to three years ago. When Tom first investigated the truth behind Raquel's death . . . .


Eerily Familiar is smart. The first half of the novel captures the reader in its baffling, David Lynch-style universe as Tom -- both in the present and, in alternating chapters, three years in the past -- investigates Raquel's death. But unlike many novels that rely upon cryptic happenings for their plots, first-time author Darren Lamere actually plays fair: halfway through, he explains the peculiar happenings, in a way that makes sense and is consistent with everything we've read so far.

What makes this impressive is that the explanation in no way diminishes the remainder of the story. Often, when a novel or movie depends upon apparently inexplicable circumstances to drive the plot, the story can no longer sustain interest once the explanation is revealed. The moment that Tom uncovers the truth, I braced myself for the novel to lose its enjoyably enigmatic tone.

In fact, Eerily Familiar only becomes richer. The explanation of one mystery branches off into several new complications, and the full implications of the situation are thoroughly explored. With each development, Lamere treats the reader fairly and with unbending intelligence, as what we thought we knew reconfigures itself to incorporate ever more intriguing situations. Yet throughout this process Lamere's first person narration remains impressively clear, so that, as confounding as events may become, we never have any difficulty in following the story.

Unfortunately, despite its prodigious strengths, Eerily Familiar is a little too bloodless to be fully engrossing. Although my mind was constantly entertained, the novel fails to achieve equal emotional heights. Events occur that should be extremely poignant, and, indeed, Tom duly talks about his inner upheaval. Yet Tom never really comes alive for the reader, and so his pain does not effectively translate into a shared emotional response. Lamere is clearly an extremely skilled writer, and he does wonders marshaling his detailed plot into a coherent, entertaining whole. My only hope -- and my genuine expectation -- is that next time, his characters will be as fully developed.

P.S.: This is a minor point, but cute names are almost always distracting. "Tom Morrow" is no exception, and is the one place where I felt Lamere was trying to be too clever.


Eerily Familiar is available from iUniverse or Amazon as a $19.95 paperback, a $29.95 hardcover, or a $6.00 DRM encrusted Adobe ebook. As far as I can tell, Lamere does not maintain an author website.


Eerily Familiar's chilly conceptual intensity reminds me a lot of Primer, the $7,000 indie film from 2004 that reduced the mysteries of time travel to a simultaneously baffling yet workaday reality. Primer, like, Eerily Familiar, thoroughly engaged my mind, and was genuinely worthwhile for that reason alone, but ultimately failed to fully progress beyond being an extremely clever intellectual exercise to become emotionally involving as well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

FreeBooks #9: Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty

PfK.jpgLaura "Keepsie" Branson is in the Third Wave of people born with superpowers: anyone who tries to steal from her gets frozen in place. A few years ago, her power was judged inadequate, and her application to train with the First and Second Wavers at the Seventh City hero Academy rejected. So now Keepsie quietly runs her bar, catering to her minor-league peers. Until she suddenly finds herself at the center of an epic battle between the mightiest heroes and villains of Seventh City, and Keepsie and her friends discover that it is up to them to save the day -- if they can figure out whose side they're really on.

Mur Lafferty's Playing for Keeps is an intriguing but imperfect effort. Lafferty is a clearly a talented writer, and her colloquial style, appealing common-folk (if superpowered) protagonists and skill with action scenes go a long way towards holding the reader's interest. The story, however, does not feel fully developed. The novel is paced a little oddly, with Keepsie and her friends doing a lot of running about that doesn't seem to advance the plot. The motivations of both the "heroes" and "villains" that Keepsie must confront are at times unclear, and their characterizations feel similarly inconsistent. Nonetheless, Playing for Keeps shows tremendous promise both in its writing and its basic premise, and, given the near-cliffhanger nature of the book's conclusion, we will hopefully see more, better-realized adventures of Keepsie and her crew.

Playing for Keeps is available in several different formats, including as a free download (or a $16.99 paperback) from Lulu or as a free audiobook from PodioBooks. Check out the very thorough Playing for Keeps website for other options and extras; Lafferty also maintains a general website here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

REVIEW: Voltage by Justin Conwell


After attempting suicide, Eric had his self-destructive thoughts blasted out of his head through Electro-Convulsive Therapy. Unfortunately, the therapy also stole his memory of what drove him to suicide in the first place. Even worse, it tore away the creative part of Eric's brain, leaving the former painter without the inspiration to do much more than work as a clerk at the local discount store.

Now a year has passed, and Eric's daily routine is upended when the latest load of donations includes a box filled with ashes and labeled "Harold." Pressed into a road trip to bring Harold's remains back home, Eric finds himself forced to confront both his current life and the past that got him there.


Over a year ago, I wrote a brief review of Saints Visible by "Justin Gil." I described the novel as a "charming, folksy tale" with considerable "laid back charms," although I found the resolution to be "rather abrupt" and "too easy."

I have been told that Voltage, attributed to a "Justin Conwell," is in fact the same author's second novel. Based on the evidence of the two books, I certainly believe it. Voltage demonstrates the same strengths as Saints Visible: a clear, inviting writing style that immediately draws the reader in. Voltage, however, is a considerably greater triumph, as it marries those strengths to a much more mature and involving story.

With its themes of suicide and long-buried memories, the novel may sound exceedingly glum or melodramatic. And indeed, as one might expect, Eric's buried memories do conceal a tragic story that ultimately impact his present as much as his past. However, Voltage is not a melodrama. Rather, Voltage is a tragedy, in the most positive (if not quite Grecian) sense of that word.

Like any good tragic hero, Eric is both deeply flawed -- indeed, infuriating at times -- but also deeply, recognizably human. Conwell draws us into Eric's tale slowly; although dark rumblings can be heard from the start, the early part of the book is fairly relaxed, and even whimsical. But as the story progresses, we grow to care about Eric and his traveling companions (including romantic interests both actual and potential). When Eric's failings and history inexorably surface, there is nothing flashy or over-the-top about the results; everything in Voltage feels real, and plausible. And this quiet power makes Eric's journey all the more affecting.

Indeed, by the end of the novel Eric and his friends have all learned, in one way or another, that you cannot run away from your past. This is, of course, an ancient literary theme, dating back (at least) to the aforementioned classical Greek tragedies. Yet Voltage distinguishes itself through compelling characters that make its exploration of this well-worn trope feel fresh, powerful, and, ultimately, heartrending. Saints Visible was worthwhile as a cute "feel good" book; Voltage, by contrast, is a genuine work of art.


Voltage is available from Lulu here as either a $0.50 download or an $11.99 paperback. Saints Visible is also still available from Lulu, either as a free download or an $8.56 paperback. The author does not appear to have a website; nor am I aware of any other books he may have written, whether as Justin Gil, Justin Conwell, or some other pen-name.


The Sheds have made all four of their folksy rural rock albums available for free download, and I strongly recommend that you take them up on their generosity. Each is strong, but the most recent two -- The Sheds Quit Smoking and You've Got A Light -- are especially stunning. The Sheds sing about the small issues of day-to-day living, and, appropriately enough, their songs encompass the gentle humor, quiet yearning, and upbeat joys of everyday life, while also maintaining a consistent and intense melodiousness. These guys should not be missed.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

FreeBooks #8: Deadolescence by Robert Devereaux

Robert Devereaux's Deadolescence (A Tale of Love and Sacrifice) is a slippery customer. The story is set in the Demented States of America, where violence is a way of life and decent people live in threesomes (so long as the threesomes are mixed-gender; after all, same-sex threesomes are just wrong). To prepare them for the rigors of adulthood, high school seniors undergo a deadly prom night rite of passage: one couple is picked at random to be slaughtered by a designated slasher, chosen from the ranks of the high school faculty. This year, however, something has gone very wrong at Corundum High. And a lot more than one couple's blood is going to be spilled. . . .

At first, everything about Deadolescence seems too blunt. The satire is obvious: the President of the Demented States of America is a literal puppet, for goodness' sake. The violence (and there is a lot of it) is graphic, gory and extreme. So is the sex; there is stuff going on with piercings and zippers that I really don't want to think about any more. Be warned: this book is not for the squeamish.

But once I acclimated to the excess (more or less; the finale takes it up another notch and truly made me squirm), I was able to appreciate the novel's considerable strengths as well. The story as a whole is smartly paced and plotted, with an effective conclusion that thoughtfully, if gruesomely, caps all that came before. There are also tinges of subtlety and humor amidst the novel's extremes, whether in the amusing portrayal of anti-government crusaders or in the more quiet moments of genuine fear, such as when a young girl must hide in a closet while unspeakable things go on outside.

Perhaps the most surprising -- and ultimately telling -- aspect of Deadolescence is how much we come to empathize with, or at least understand, the students, teachers and parents of Corundum High. Violence and the infliction of pain are fundamental parts of life in the Demented States of America. The characters who inhabit that world, naturally enough, largely tolerate (and even endorse) the society in which they have always lived. As a result, they accept and do things that we, as readers in the United States of America, might (and hopefully do) find barbarous. Yet even if we don't always agree with their worldview, we can at least begin to understand it, given the context in which it developed. Despite our profound differences in values, we can even relate a little bit, as we wonder how we would behave if we grew up in their world.

I don't mean to make too much out of Deadolescence. It is, in essence, a slasher film in novel form. But as such things go, it is an especially fine and intelligent slasher film. It is filled with effective gore, real frights, and good characters, is thoughtful enough to have real substance, and is great fun to boot.

As of this writing, Deadolescence is available for free at the author's website. Grab it while you can; Devereaux has promised to try to bring the book to print, either from a traditional publisher or, if necessary, POD. (And I must say, in the event that you don't read this until after the novel is no longer available for free: if you can stomach extreme horror, Deadolesence is well worth paying for). For more graphic violence-and-sex fun, this time set in a world where Santa Claus and fairy tales are real, check out Devereaux's equally extreme Santa Steps Out, published by Leisure Books and available used on Amazon.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

REVIEW: Perchance to Feast by Ellen Belitsky


Sixty years ago, the cosmic imp Chance, in his eternal quest for entertainment, set a scheme in motion. He contrived to inspire Sadie and Lillian, best friends at Hometown Junior High, to write the story of Subring, a hellish realm where the mean girls who bullied them would be punished. Scared of their own creation, the girls quickly abandon the story. But dark ideas, once loosed, are not always easily buried.

Now, decades later, Chance is ready for the grand amusement to begin. A new generation of Hometown residents, including Sadie's own granddaughter, have been set in motion and are ready to assume their roles. And Subring is ready to be unlocked.


I expected the worst from Perchance to Feast. The back cover description seemed to promise a twee fairy tale. Based upon my own prejudices, the author bio (Ms. Belitsky describes herself as a "retired teacher" who "is passionate about peace, the environment, the Bill of Rights and all things built of words") appeared even worse. I knew I was being unfair, but what could a retired teacher have to say to someone as jaded as me? And the first few pages -- told from Chance's point of view -- heightened my fears. They struck me as overwritten, filled with alienating alliteration and the typical "look at the superior cosmic being who happens to find amusement in playing with humans" clichés that I have seen so many times before.

And, to be honest, Perchance to Feast does lack a certain professional polish that betrays its POD origins. The (thankfully few) passages told from Chance's perspective continue to be heavy-handed. Similarly, Sadie's dialogue, filled with "Oy!"s and noun-verb inversions, is less colorful than it is a caricature (she is a Russian immigrant). And Ms. Belitsky's decision to use on-the-nose names for places and off-stage characters (the novel takes place in "Hometown," which is home to both "Hometown Junior High" and snooty "Classical Academy;" "Mr. Cleanitup" is the janitor, while "Mrs. Fuddydud" and "Mrs. Stickler" are teachers) is not so much clever as evidence that Ms. Belitsky was trying too hard.

But my reservations soon fell away, and I suddenly realized that I was truly enjoying Perchance to Feast . The novel quickly hit its stride once the POV shifted from Chance to other characters and the story began to unfold. Yes, the novel is essentially a fairy tale about a brave young girl foiling the plans of a grotesque evil queen. However, Perchance to Feast is anything but twee. The story is surprisingly dark, mature and involving. Although Subring does not open its doors until the last portion of the book, Ms. Belitsky holds our interest throughout with an interesting backstory and a slowly escalating tension, with a fully satisfying resolution.

Indeed, the many successes of Perchance to Feast easily overcome its few stylistic failings. In particular, Ms. Belitsky's handling of one of the novel's underlying themes -- how stories impact our lives -- is impressively graceful. Novels dealing with "the power of the imagination" are often uncomfortably blunt and, quite frankly, unimaginative. But Perchance to Feast handles this theme deftly. The novel may not exactly be subtle; after all, the premise of the novel is that Chance has manipulated the cosmos so that the imaginary Subring will intrude on the real world. But Ms. Belitsky's handling of this subject is elegant and low-key, allowing the theme to play out naturally and without becoming overbearing.

Ultimately, however, it is Ms. Belitsky's handling of her characters that is particularly accomplished. The more "down to earth" characters, such as Lillian (an elderly woman for most of the novel) and Sadie's grand-daughter Karma Robin (a thirteen year old who likes to be called K-Rob) all feel genuine, despite the range in their ages and personalities. The more "extreme" characters such as the villainous Hera, the drama teacher at Classical Academy, are so (entertainingly) monstrous as to be almost inhuman. Yet both types of character work well on their own and, impressively, this contrast does not tear the novel apart. Perhaps the ability of these disparate characters to co-exist is due to Ms. Belitsky's decision to keep them apart for most of the novel, until the situation is so out-of-control that the mashing of the ordinary and the extreme seems reasonable. Or perhaps it is because Ms. Belitsky succeeds in giving us just enough background detail about even the monsters so that, ultimately, they don't seem quite so inhuman after all.


Perchance to Feast is available for $15.95 from iUniverse or Amazon. (As always, iUniverse has a free preview of several pages available.) Ms. Belitsky writes a blog about the novel called Perchance to Publish; she has written several interesting posts about the benefits and frustrations of publishing through iUniverse, including a couple that reveal how such an interesting novel ended up with such an uninspiring cover.


Extraordinary(s).jpgBack during the initial run of this blog, John Purlia sent me a review copy of his novel The Extraordinary Adventures of the 25 Year Old Birthday Muse (available from Lulu through a special link available on request from the author). I didn't review it at the time because I didn't know quite what to say. In large part, I still don't.

Extraordinary Adventures is an episodic fairy tale about Kathy, muse of Gardening, Fashion and Photography, who wishes on her twenty-fifth birthday to "finally find the artist whom I shall inspire." She is immediately cast from Olympus in order that she might better chase her dream. What follows is a series of agreeable encounters with quirky people and places (illustrated by full-color reproductions of masterpieces of mythologically inspired art), events that, while individually interesting, lack conflict or narrative drive. I enjoyed Extraordinary Adventures, the same way one might enjoy a languorous stroll through a local art museum on a hot afternoon: a pleasant diversion to be sure, and worthwhile in its understated charms, but, ultimately, not fully inspiring.