Monday, 4 June 2012

The Pile Jumpers: Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

I've been chewing through Joe R. Lansdale's back catalogue for a while now, and I try to read chronologically. However after reading this interview between Mr Lansdale and Mr Andrew Vachss I snuck over to the Kindle page for Edge of Dark Water and downloaded the sample. Just the beginning, just to see what it was like.

It was like, great.

The moment this book jumped my TBR pile was the moment the local sheriff shone his flashlight on the protagonist, a sixteen year old girl, and she described the light wandering over her body as feeling like a "hot yellow tongue". In the context of the scene--she'd just told us about her creepy, groping father who was standing nearby--it was a great simile. It hit a nerve, pushed a button, made me feel sick and interested. I can't say I hit 'Buy' right then and there--seduced or not, I'm not in a position to splash out seventeen bucks for an eBook that can't even be loaned on to friends--however I quickly ordered my local library to buy a paper copy and I sat on my hands til it arrived.

Quick plot overview: three teen protagonists, a rural setting, a mystery core (dead girl fished out of the water), a quest (to scatter her ashes in a better resting place), a road trip (by way of river raft). Adventure, injury and menace, death and dismemberment, and oh yeah, a big bag of stolen money. It's set in the Great Depression, which I didn't even realise until well past the halfway mark when the heroes ran into a band of Joads caravanning away from the dust bowl. The backwoods can be timeless like that.

Why did I love Edge of Dark Water so much? First of all, it's bleakly funny. There's a kind of wit that you usually only hear among people who are rural, indigenous, dirt poor, or a combination thereof... I guess you'd call it 'folkloric humour' (probably grown out of oral storytelling, if you want to get all anthropological about it). It's full of salty wisdom and sharp observations that can cut a person down to size; the sayings are utterly local, yet mysteriously global. This book is full of them, and it delighted me.

Edge of Dark Water doesn't fit any one genre. Thriller, crime, literary, horror, mystery, YA, I don't know. I can see Steinbeck in there, I can see Twain. I also see resonances with my beloved Night Of The Hunter: kids on the run with a big sack of other peoples' money, bad dudes hunting them, the seemingly endless search for refuge.

Mr Lansdale uses his story to talk about things that matter. There's a constant, dizzying shifting between kindness and cruelty in this book: the kindness of strangers, the cruelty of family, then vice versa, then back again.

I like the spiritual/religious dimension to the tale, the way the characters compulsively weigh their sins: I did something bad, but that guy did worse, does that redeem me? or I have a reason, is that an excuse? The darkest character of all, a feral river-man named Skunk, is supernaturally and mythically evil, yet he's revealed to be a 'hurt person who hurts people'... where does he fit on the karmic or heavenly spectrum?

All the while these big ideas are playing out, scary and grizzly stuff is happening and the characters are finding bravery and grim persistence they didn't know they possessed. They're spinning along the rough river getting hurt and hurting others, the pain and violence pushing them into new formations, into a kind of family.

I loved Edge of Dark Water and will undoubtedly read it again.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Pile Jumpers: In Loco Parentis by Nigel Bird.

Mr Bird, I know you are a self-proclaimed "mostly nice guy" and have offered on your blog to send free copies of In Loco Parentis to those who want one, but I'm telling you here, do not give this book away. You've written something special and three bucks is an absolute steal.

The Kindle sample sucked me in right away. It's not the crash-bang action-packed opener I ask of my young screenwriting students. There's no clanking regional patois to suck in my primal pre-linguistic brain, like a riddle that needs answering. Just a conversational tone, a familiar setting seen from the other side of the desk, and a man to take us through it, a lonely and confused thirtysomething primary-school teacher named Joe Campion.

Teacher Noir is a great hook but this story's not really 'about' teaching. Joe does his job with integrity but I wouldn't say it's his vocation, it's just the place he goes every day, a place where he bumps up against bureaucracy and mediocrity, where he gets bitten by stimuli that set him reeling, spinning between homes, between peace and violence, between his laddish drug-loving youth and his crummy, lonely adult existence. Primary school is a great setting for a tale of personal downfall, the innocence of the kids a perfect offset for Joe's hopeless, buried rage.

The highest compliment I can pay In Loco Parentis is that it's instinctively written, and this makes sense because it's also the nature of Joe. He's a study in what happens if you do whatever you feel, whenever you feel it. This is how you shake up your boring life, folks, just put pleasure and the senses first and stuff all the rest.

I agree with the Amazon reviewer who said the manuscript was "stripped bare"; the red pen has been artfully applied and the story is stronger for it. I don't usually care for present tense narration, even less for tense-jumping between past and present, but it was a perfect choice for this book.

I loved the little wisps of paragraph, the short scenes that were woven together so intuitively. In Loco Parentis isn't a 'plotty' book, it's more like poetry (the fluid and easy spoken-word kind, street poetry, not the dense and inaccessible wordgames that fill the ruling-class anthologies). I think that's why it jumped my pile so easily; reading it was like falling into a moving river (yeah, if you've seen that episode of I Shouldn't Be Alive where the father and son are dragged along by their faces under an ice shelf!)

In the final chapters I began to anticipate 'dying like a dog' with Joe, as we did with Kafka's hero in The Trial (Joe Campion, Josef K? Coincidence?) and the feeling of dread was palpable. Mr Bird is a master, though, and every time you think you know where he's going, he listens to his artistic gut and eludes you again, leading you finally, heart in mouth, all the way to the End.

Get this book on or Amazon UK and plonk it right on top of your pile.

Here come the changes.

I know I'm not the only reader with a gigantic, festering, rapidly multiplying To Be Read pile.

Most of us place new books into a queue as we acquire them. If we pay attention, most of us probably already know which ones we'll get to soon and which we'll return to the library unopened--or shove onto a dusty bookshelf--with a guilty pat on the cover and a promise to return in a few months.

There's actually a lot of guilt involved in managing the TBR pile, especially for those who have friends' work waiting in there to be read and recommmended. However, sometimes a book comes along that just grabs you so hard that you forget the pile even exists. You sit down and you read the thing immediately, cover to cover, enjoying every moment.

Wouldn't you like to write that book? I sure as hell would.

I'd like to start a new post series here on the blog, and I'm calling it The Pile Jumpers. Not really reviews as such, just a bit of discussion about the books that have jumped my own TBR pile and a few thoughts as to why.

I'm also starting a post series dedicated to short story eBook collections. It's called Pick Of The Litter, and in it I'll share my thoughts on my favourite, standout short story within each collection. I'll start with the (mostly crime/noir) collections currently living in my Kindle, so that should see us through to summer.

Uh, that's the Southern Hemisphere summer...

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The story and the book.

My little girl asked me the other day: "Are a story and a book the same thing?"

Good question, kid.

We talked about Snow White and the many versions we've seen and read, from Mirror Mirror and The Fairest of Them All to the Brothers Grimm version and the older folktales. I told her, "you hold a book in your hands but you hold a story inside you, and if it's a really good one it will stay there forever."

Stop rolling your eyes. It's the truth.

Every couple of days I do the rounds of flash fiction websites -->. There are some wickedly talented editors and curators out there (oh yeah, writers too) and you never know when you will find something compelling and original and crazy, crazy good.

A handful of short stories have lingered within me over the past nine or so months, tossing and turning long after page and browser and Kindle screen were history. I'm still pretty nervous about formally 'reviewing' (I don't feel possessed of any authority to criticise others' fiction writing, especially not when I'm jammed up like a twenty dollar printer) but I would really like to mention three exceptionally sticky tales.

The first is William Dylan Powell's 'Road Kill'. I read this on The Flash Fiction Offensive last year and then over summer I lost track of it, couldn't recall where I had found it or what it was called or who wrote it... but I tell ya, I didn't forget one character, one mood shift, one feeling. I searched everywhere for it, Googled it, read back through bloggers' flash fiction reviews, no luck. Finally a couple of weeks ago I leapt upon the Spinetingler Award nominee list and there it was, it was called 'Road Kill', of course it was.

I read it again, it got me again. Please go read this story if you haven't already, it's a knockout.

Another story that snagged on my heart like a fish-hook is the first story in Heath Lowrance's eBook collection, Dig Ten Graves. It's a sad little stunner called 'It Will All Be Carried Away'. I think of it as 'The Charon Whitfield story' and this is a good sign for me; my test for a well written, well performed screen character has always been whether I can remember the character's name (as opposed to the actor's) for a long time after the film or TV show finishes. Well, Charon Whitfield is as real as my best friend and the protagonist's voice is still ringing. I can't forget his shameful, spiteful, remorseful reminiscences, and that's not a bad thing at all.

The third story I want to mention is a Joe R. Lansdale tale I found in Stories: All New Tales, an anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. Mr. Lansdale's piece is called 'The Stars are Falling' and it's a beauty. It's the story of Deel Arrowsmith, a World War One soldier who returns home to East Texas so shell-shocked he's not sure if he's really dead or alive. He arrives back at his cabin to find his young wife and son, counting him dead, living it up with a handsome young neighbour. All the good stuff follows: jealousy, revenge, love, longing, secrets, war, brutality and death. I felt for Deel and I really wanted him to triumph, I think I still do.

Every time I cruise the websites and publications, anthologies and blogs, I'm looking for that connection. I want to be moved and torn up and tormented. I have to wonder, though, what it is that makes a particular story to stick to us as individuals:

Is it a narrative voice that strikes a harmonic chord?

Perfectly timed ideas that help us make sense of where we're at?

Themes that connect to our own?

Characters who remind us of our loved--and hated--ones, of ourselves?

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Back in the saddle again.

Well, that was a longer-than-intended writing hiatus (which leads me to question: can it really be the thing you were born to do, if you can stand being on this planet three whole months without doing it?)

My family break is officially over. The wheels are firmly on the wagon and it's rolling along. This week I felt the unfamiliar rumble of boredom and that's how I know it's time.

My screenwriter friend and I were talking last night about 'putting down the pen' on a writing project and how it's a lot like taking a break from an intense love relationship: when you get back together down the track, the hope is that you'll both reintegrate seamlessly, like the final act of a well-written romcom (in the days when there was such a thing). You'll rediscover each other with all your new parts and experiences and hopefully you'll hold a newfound appreciation--or at least an acceptance--of the other's more irritating ways, as well as your own.

In the best case, the new-yet-oldness of it will feel sublime and predestined and just plain great... but the reality is, unless you commit to some pretty tiresome reconstruction, it's more likely to feel awkward, forced and frankly a bit of a letdown.

So for me, three months out of action, it's time to 'do the work' with this creative reunion. Less love and inspiration, more effort and discipline. Just until we're back on good terms, although mere speaking terms will do for starters.

I didn't even read over summer, although I bought plenty of eBooks and squirrelled them away (or pouched them away, this being the land of marsupials and all). Hoping to post reviews very soon for the books at the top of the pile.

What I did during my hiatus, alongside caring for personal responsibilities, was inhale Westerns. Movies, TV and short stories.

I started off by revisiting all three seasons of Deadwood (Ah, Joanie Stubbs, the danger of a living heart in all that death!) then I jumped all over the genre and its hybrid forms, from Shane to Calamity Jane, from Deadman's Road to The Proposition, from doco series Cowboys and Outlaws to Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience. Peckinpah, Ford, Hawks, Leone and all the artists who love them.

Westerns are so, so, so... good. Every word, every frame soaked in story. Heroes, antiheroes, archetypes and myths. Period costume, edible design and exquisite language. Sex, morality, dirty violins and revenge. Colonial brutality, original title and the hot blood-call of the land issue. The western is, I've come to realise, a complete artform, it needs nothing else.

This thought has sparked a direction and I'm going to follow it, like a new cologne on an old boyfriend.