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The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

“Some people know things about the universe that nobody ought to know, and can do things that nobody ought to be able to do,” he said. “I am one of those few. Let me show you.” – The epigram to “The Horror at Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft

This novella takes its inspiration from “The Horror at Red Hook” both in the magic and terror of the urban landscape as well as Lovecraft’s blatant racism. In this “maze of hybrid squalor,” LaValle takes the story to another level and does so with it more sophistication than Lovecraft could ever have hoped to achieve.

H.P. Lovecraft has left a disturbing legacy and The Ballad of Black Tom is one way to account for it and confront it. There is evil in the world and it must be addressed. Some may succumb to the temptations of power derived from the Great Old Ones. Some may lose their soul in the pursuit of justice. This is an original take on the Cthulhu mythos and a marvelous horror story in its own right.

Character development, plot, dialogue and a genuine sense of supernatural peril thrive in LaValle’s hands. This is both a worthy acknowledgment to the craft and innovation of Lovecraft and an indictment of his flaws done with superior skill and subtlety.

Chris Sharp Interview

Charlie was fortunate enough to get the chance to sit down with Tor’s author Chris Sharp, and talk about his upcoming book, Cold Counsel. Below is the transcript of the interview in its entirety. Chris and Charlie discuss everything from the new book, to good and bad ‘writing days.’

Chris’ newest novel is set to be published on February 21st, 2017. To pre-order a copy of Cold Counsel click here: Pre-Order Cold Counsel, and to learn more about the book, Chris, and Tor, click here: Tor Publishing. Enjoy!

 

(CC) Before getting into the writing talk, tell me a little bit about yourself. Who is Chris Sharp?

(CS) A middle-aged dreamer with a propensity for long-winded storytelling, a fierce resistance to adulthood, and an optimist’s belief in magic—within the hardened shell of a pragmatic pessimist.

Grew up in the suburban wonderland of Alexandria, VA making home movies and playing RPGs with my friends. Did some college, moved to Brooklyn and worked in film and commercial production for 16 years—often with those same friends—while writing books at night.

Now I’m in MA, with a wife, kid, and cat; writing as much as I can and trying to get as many of these stories out of my craw in some form or another.

(CC) Sixteen years is a long time, was it difficult to leave the film and commercial production business behind and pursue writing?

(CS) Yes it was.

I had always worked toward and hoped to do both, and I still do. But now I’m coming at it with writing, rather than producing, as a primary focus.

The thing I’m currently writing is a screenplay.

(CC) Onto writing, why do you do it? What is it about the craft that not only brought you in, but keeps you coming back for more?

(CS) I’ve wanted to weave epic stories into the world since before Pre School. I think I’m only a somewhat more realized version of who I was at the age of five. The writing of long-winded books seemed the most natural and expedient way to focus/excise some of the stories I had brewing. The first thing I wrote to completion was a 270,000-word dark fantasy novel about schizophrenia, the slow death of myth, and Jungian archetypes of dream. It was all a bit much, but one day I hope to turn it into something swell. The writing of that was like my own self-taught MFA. Learned a lot, kicked the shit out of my ego, and caught the bug. Not sure if I’m any good at it yet, but can’t seem to stop. I hate reading the stuff that I’ve written, which may be part of the problem.

(CC) This book sounds epic. When do you plan to re-visit it, and what do you think has to be done to it?

(CS) It was certainly epic, but there were many things wrong with the execution. I need to go back to square one and re-produce the story in a streamlined, less autobiographical way from start to finish. Maybe even without looking at the original. There are certainly some salvageable and even some good segments, but a full reboot is needed across the board.

Not sure when I’ll delve back in. My wife and I have come to jokingly refer to that book as the Monster. We’ll see what happens. Some day the Monster will escape its cage, and in some ways, with Cold Counsel, it already has.

(CC) Since you’re not big on reading your own work, how terrible is the editing process?

(CS) I’m getting better at it—in less of a rush to get through it, and more forgiving of my sloppiness and screw-ups. I do tend to avoid reading my stuff once it’s out of my hands and published. I still find mistakes in my sentences that drive me crazy, and not being able to go back and fix them has been known to send me into a negativity spiral about the worth of the entire work. I get over it fairly quickly and keep working, but it’s not the best way to waste time.

I definitely prefer first drafting, but I’m starting to find some real enjoyment in the reworking and polishing stages as well, and there is no arguing against the necessity of drafts 2-infinity.

(CC) We all have good days and bad days, so tell me, what is a good ‘writing’ day, and what is a bad ‘writing’ day?

(CS) A good writing day is when I actually get a nice chunk of time to focus on writing—and don’t get sucked down the negativity vortex of our world’s current state. Just the simple act of focusing on writing is calming. I love first drafting; the cursor on the cusp of blankness is my happy place.

A bad writing day is when the brain won’t settle on the story at hand, or when I go over words that are supposed to be good, but aren’t, and I can’t figure out how to fix it.

(CC) If you had to pick, what three novels, would you say, have influenced you the most?

(CS) Watership Down by Richard Adams: I think it was the mythology of the rabbits that spoke to me most. It seemed so real to me, El-Ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlay, and if the rabbits had mythology, then so did everything. That was a world I wanted to live in.

The Silmarillion by JRRT: I carried a picture of Bilbo Baggins that I’d cut out of the TV Guide from the Rankin Bass Cartoon in my Velcro wallet in Pre School. Used to play Frodo and Sam with my chums. But it was the blocky and elevated language of the Silmarillion that really blew my mind; so much history, detail, language, and depth—all in broad strokes. It’s like reading the bible of the elves, and just like with those rabbits, the mythology of it seemed real to me. For a fantasy construct to make me believe that felt powerful. That was what I wanted to do.

House of the Dreaming Door by Chris Sharp: This one, the aforementioned 270,000-word monster, was my attempt to emulate the works above. I failed. I’ll let that one speak for itself, when and if the time comes for its excavation.

(CC) I think that it’s great that you picked your first novel as one of the most influential. Do you think that all writers need to write that first book that doesn’t necessarily work to get it out of their system? Is writing that first novel more important or beneficial than the formal education?

(CS) I never had a formal writing education outside of English classes in high school and college, so I can’t say if just jumping in and doing it is more or less beneficial than an intensive program. There is plenty that I wish I’d learned prior to setting out, and a lot to be said for the structured, communal aspects of writing that you might get in an MFA program. I see writers who are skilled and motivated by creating and fostering a writer’s network around them, and I’m a little jealous of that. For me, such a network seems less helpful amid the varied stages of writing a story, but I think it’s invaluable for when you’re going out with work and hoping to get a foothold in the business.

But I do think that in the creative pursuits, whether its writing books, making movies, or anything else, there can be no substitute for throwing yourself into the mix and trying your hand at the thing you want to do.

While I was writing that first book, and now again with the benefit of hindsight, I loved the experience and value it as highly as anything I’ve done. But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention the handful of years in between then and now when the avalanche of rejection and my failure to make that attempted opus find an audience didn’t crush my soul and fill me with doubt.

Maybe a good short story or three is a better way to start out…

(CC) What are some of your other non-writing influences, and what have you picked up from them?

(CS) I borrow and steal from everything I read, watch, and experience. I love movies and television, and enjoy trying to write for screen as well. My book writing can sometimes get a little light on the description because of it, and my screenplays tend to be a little too wordy.

(CC) Now, tell me about the new book, what’s it about?

(CS) It’s a reimagining of Norse mythology in a post-Ragnarok world from the vantage of the angry losers of the ancient Vanir/Aesir war. It’s also a ferocious coming-of-age/revenge yarn about a boy, his aunt, and his ax against the backdrop of a dying dreamland. The boy is the last troll to survive the genocide of his race, his aunt is the masked reincarnation of an ancient goddess consumed by anger, and the ax is a possessed relic from the storied age of giants.

There are no humans or easy heroes to hold to, but you’ll find yourself rooting for a loveable band of bloodthirsty killers, and wishing for more at the story’s close.

It’s fast, furious fun for the whole family, if the family isn’t afraid of harsh language, brutal violence, and reveling in the fodder of nightmares.

(CC) Favorite bloodthirsty killer? Go.

(CS) My cat, Goblin. (R.I.P.)

(CC) Did the concept for Cold Counsel practically fall out of the sky, or did you have to do some digging?

(CS) The protagonist, the troll, SLUD, was first summoned up through the rolling of dice for the Palladium Fantasy RPG in the seventh grade. I used to doodle his picture in my notebooks and write epic verse in his honor. I’d always thought to write his origin story some day, and started it on a whim with the notion to write a little and sell it as a serialized novel… No takers.

But I was in an angry place at the time, and this angry story kept coming whether I was ready for it or not. I’d been disheartened by the underwhelming sales of my first published book, depressed by the direction some of my life choices had taken me, and penned inside by the brutal New England winter of 2014. SLUD’s story was the most fun I’d ever had writing. It was started as an exercise in speed and brevity, but metastasized into the book it is today.

(CC) Tell me about the process, did you do some major outlining and plotting prior to putting the pen to page, or did you just sit down and start writing? How do you usually work, was writing Cold Counsel any different?

(CS) I just sat down and started to write. That seems to be my usual approach, though I am certainly not afraid to do some note taking, plotting, and research type behavior throughout.

Cold Counsel came more easily than previous efforts. I had thought about SLUD for many years, and developed bits of the dark world he’d inhabit in the writing of my first book. It spewed out in a big bloody mess over the course of a few months, and hasn’t changed too much since.

(CC) SLUD’s story had been sitting with you for quite some time; why do you think that now was right time for you to get it right?

(CS) I didn’t, SLUD did.

(CC) What were some of the best/worst moments that you experienced while writing Cold Counsel?

(CS) The writing itself is always the best part. For me, a swollen sense of worth and expectation accompanies the typing of that final page, and all that comes after is a slow deflation back to reality.

(CC) After completing a draft (first, second, final) do you celebrate, or are you saddened that you’re one step closer to finishing and deflating?

(CS) I don’t really celebrate, but I think that’s a bad habit. You should celebrate every step; just make sure that you don’t get complacent and stop stepping. Writing can be an isolating existence. Little bits of self-acknowledgment along the way are healthy, and if you can get another to participate in that celebration it makes it seem all the more legitimate. If you are still hunting for an audience and starving for validation, the vacuum can get filled with confused echoes from yourself. Sounding boards of love are beneficial.

The best remedy for deflation is starting something else as quickly as possible.

All of us at The Brazen Bull thank Chris Sharp and Tor for the opportunity. Again, to pre-order a copy of Cold Counsel click here: Pre-Order Cold Counsel, and to learn more about the book, Chris, and Tor, click here: Tor Publishing.

The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

The Fortress at the End of Time | By Joe M. McDermott
Published by Tor | Available January 17th, 2017

Modern SF at its best, Joe M. McDermott’s newest novel, The Fortress at the End of Time, is an excellent piece of existential literature.

The Fortress at the End of Time is centered around a military officer’s clone who is shipped to a terribly lonely outpost at the edge of the galaxy. And the interstellar war that requires such a posting of personnel has been over for decades. Here, McDermott showcases the other, less glamorized, side of war, and does so with an intimate style and voice that conjures feelings of utter desolation.

The Fortress at the End of Time is a dark examination of life and of its (perhaps) meaninglessness, and while it is far from ‘thrilling,’ readers will find themselves swallowed by an inescapable void upon reading the first several pages.

Clearly, this is one of the better pieces of SF that I have read thus far. I absolutely recommend this novel to fans of both SF and existential literature. You won’t be disappointed.

The Fortress at the End of Time is being published by Tor, and will be available for purchase on January 17th, 2017. You can currently pre-order the work by clicking here: Pre-order The Fortress at the End of Time

Score: 8.5 out of 10

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones Review

My first encounter with this author was in his werewolf novel Mongrels which I thoroughly enjoyed. Mapping the Interior is another story about family dynamics and history with the terror ratcheted up. We are introduced by way of a horror story to twelve-year-old Junior who carries the stories of his culture and long dead father. He also sleepwalks and he sees ghosts. But this story isn’t really about ghosts is it, just like Mongrels wasn’t about lycanthropy? 

Once again Stephen Graham Jones takes the heart-ache and loss within a broken family, places the telling in the context of the supernatural, and reveals truth. The struggles, ongoing dread, and helplessness of the pre-teen man of the house become that much more intimate and appalling.

I’ve read several Tor releases recently and this is the shortest one so far. At barely fifty pages, I would rather see this in an anthology than a stand-alone release, but that’s on the publisher, not the author. I’m not going to be like those one-star Amazon reviewers that complain about packaging.

 

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior will be released June 20th, 2017. Click here to get a copy!

Book Review: The Dinner Party: Stories by Joshua Ferris

“There was dim light coming from the dark room and he was suddenly irrationally afraid, as he had been as a child, that if anyone stepped inside, if she stepped inside, she would plummet to the center of the earth.”

For those unfamiliar with Joshua Ferris, myself included, what better introduction is there to a critically-acclaimed, award winning-author than a collection of short stories? As introductions go, I’d have to say the pleasure was all mine. In The Dinner Party and Other Stories, Ferris proves to be a masterful storyteller who captures self-doubt, miscommunication, and uncertainty with exquisite deftness and beauty, and left me hungry for more.

Making an impressive first impression, Ferris serves his readers a variety of compelling tales with unusual twists. Each of the eleven stories in The Dinner Party is a mini-feast, some slightly more satisfying than others, but all deliciously rich and unexpected. From “A Night Out” and “More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)” to “The Breeze”, his stories range from random acts of temporary insanity to insightful studies of emotional hunger and fear of futility, and yet at no time do they feel overly heavy thanks to the author’s sense of timing and humor.

The writing is crisp and the stories move, mostly at a city pace, but what stood out most for me was the various array of intriguing protagonists. Like the vegetables in his title story, Ferris’s characters are all “bright and doomed”. Neurotic, deluded and perfectly flawed, they each find themselves caught “abruptly in the middle of something” and are often guided by their own worst instincts. Yet despite the loneliness, despair and desperation, there are instances of hope and for a select few, maybe even redemption.

Click Here if you would like to purchase a copy of The Dinner Party: Stories

 

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos | Review

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
Bloomsbury Publishing
February 28, 2017
(320 pages)

I had been under the impression that good memoirs could only be written by those people who have had lived extraordinary lives. Whip Smart, the story of a college age dominatrix certainly fit into that preconceived notion. This new memoir, however, centers more on the ordinary. Here, we are given the easier to identify with experience of love and loss. We see the limits of devotion and the hunger for a solution to the story of oneself. Doesn’t everyone want to be loved? Don’t we all want to know where we came from? The examination of how these questions intertwine makes for a beautiful and compelling journey.

A few pages into Abandon Me, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s emotional truth of “Loving is so short, forgetting is so long” from “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines” came to mind, hitting me with the same gut punch reminder of how love is often all consuming. Where Melissa Febos’ prior memoir Whip Smart lived in the dark, Abandon Me runs to the light, but both stories nonetheless are about transformation. Here, we see the aching truth about love, how it is craved, and how it must be survived. In this return to the life of a former dominatrix, there still is beauty and pain for all to see, but this time it is expressed in a journey out of one relationship and into an understanding of personal history.

Intimate and heartbreaking, this is the story of endurance through hope and grace despite tendencies to do otherwise. This is a marvelous glimpse into what love makes us do and feel and what it allows us to become.

Thanks go out once again to NetGalley for the review copy. Abandon Me is to be released in February 2017 by Bloomsbury Books.

Book Review: Birthrights by J. Kyle McNeal

“But as ages slipped like grains through a sieve, the borders failed. Dragons, the fearsome spawn of the Maker, Steppe, were the first of the other races to reach the Land of Anon. Thus, like ants drawn to ripened fruit, Man, the race created by Jah, arrived. Men stumbled, parched and pitiful, from the desert sands and washed ashore like drift from the ocean.”

Epic Fantasy should stay with you, just as the feculent odors of the town of Dung cleave to its residents in J. Kyle McNeal’s debut Birthrights. But in Book One of The Revisions to the Truth series, the fantasy dissipates a little too quickly.

From the opening scene on a bloody battlefield, where decisions are made that will affect generations to come, I hoped to be pulled in deeply. The storyline, which revolves around two young men “entangled in a world of treachery” who must question all they know to be true and forge a path into the unknown, is well thought out but lacks the dramatic and emotional intensity necessary for the subject matter.

Instead, the novel reads like a young adult novel, with more focus on the two main characters’ identity issues (how they fit in, how they can prove themselves, whether they will get the girl), than the immediate crises at hand. And while that may be understandable taking into account the young lead characters, other older characters are treated similarly. For example, when the most powerful figure in this world, the First Lord of the Council of Truth, visits the Cache, a top level brothel, he is practically giddy with anticipation.
McNeal writes “When the knock finally arrived, Artifis tensed, his fingernails scraping rhythmically against the ridged bed cover. The first moment of introduction was his favorite of the experience. “Come in.” His voice cracked like a teenager’s.”

Other love scenes were equally awkward.

What I desperately craved reading this novel was grit. I wanted to be lost completely in this world and feel for these characters, but their lack of complexity and individual voice prevented a stronger connection. What kept me reading were the eloquently written and beautifully detailed background history and lore at the start of each chapter. Here was evidence of McNeal’s skill as a world-builder. My hope is that as these characters mature in the following books in this series, McNeal becomes more consistent. Bring the tension and the grit.

Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers: The Rise of Motörhead by Martin Popoff Review

The one Motörhead song that everybody knows is “Ace of Spades” and this is the line-up power trio that created it. The early days of what has been a forty year wall of sound are as expected: drinking, fighting, speed, but anyone even casually familiar with the band will find no surprises.  Instead, this is a comfortable collection of harmless reminiscences.

Focusing on the classic lineup of Lemmy Kilmister, Phil Taylor and Eddie Clarke and reading the transcripts of beer-laden late night conversations with your best mates, it’s like having a seat at the bar and hearing Lemmy and the others tell and retell all the old stories. We get the scoop on Lemmy’s last days with Hawkwind and the early days of the London scene where Motörhead’s speed and arrogance are respected by punks and aspiring headbangers equally. There is a generous level of detail on the making of each of the albums in those early years too. There are no insights or shocking reveals here, but good fun because as Lemmy makes it clear:   “We are Motörhead and we play rock’n’roll.”

Martin Popoff’s Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers: The Rise of Motörhead is being published on May 9th, 2017.

 

General-DC Comics

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