Free to Be You & Me, but Mostly Free to You: The Devil’s Right Hand

As I further contemplate the turning of the screw that is achieving a half century of life, I find myself wanting to give away my earthly possessions–well, some of them anyway; definitely not the ones I use daily, like my car or any of my flatscreens or personal electronics–so I figure it’s a fine time to keep it rolling with a digital giveaway of the HandCannon origin story, The Devil’s Right HandSo let your keyboarding fingers do the walking over to Amazon where, from February 15th to the 19th, you can get yourself familiar with the life and times of Duke “HandCannon” LaRue.

And if you happen by today, the book that started it all, The Villain’s Sidekickis available for that same non-price for a few more hours. Makes a great Valentine’s Day gift (for lonely types who like their book-readin’ anyhow).

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The Good Fight 3 Anthology

Coming in March, from my esteemed colleagues at the Pen & Cape Society and Local Hero Press, is the third volume of their ongoing Good Fight anthology series. Why do I care? And why should you? Because this time, in addition to all the great superfiction from the likes of Marion G. Harmon, Jim Zoetewey, Ian Thomas Healy, Samantha Bryant and more, you get a brand new prequel story featuring the first full-body-count adventure of Duke “HandCannon” LaRue as he serves his henchman apprenticeship taking down a ruthless Central American drug lord in the service of an equally ruthless Mexican drug lord.

I’ll hit you with more updates as the release day approaches, but in the meantime, check out the previous Good Fight collections, The Good Fight and The Good Fight 2: Villainsboth currently available at Amazon for the low low price of free!

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Free The Villain’s Sidekick

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Full disclosure: I’m about to have one of those milestone birthdays this month, where I find myself a lot older than the younger version of me ever thought I’d live to be. So in honor of that, I guess, I’m offering a couple of my books free this month over on Amazon, beginning with the one that started it all, The Villain’s SidekickFor the next five days, grab it and run and get the skinny on Duke “HandCannon” LaRue, the semi-lovable henchmen with a machine gun arm, an iron jaw, a steel-plated skull, a lethal boss, an irritable ex-wife, a precocious six-year-old daughter, and a heart of pyrite. It’s short enough to finish in three to five bathroom sittings and there’s plenty more where that came from (including an upcoming prequel story in the third Good Fight anthology and the origin tale, The Devil’s Right Handwhich will be available free next week).

Review: The Regional Office is Under Attack!

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In a publishing world where we authors of a certain stripe are frequently told that there’s just no market for superheroic prose, it’s both heartening and frustrating when a work like this one manages to wend its way through the traditional distribution channels. Heartening because, like Soon I Will Be Invincible or The Violent Centuryit’s another testament to the fact that using a superpowered comic book backdrop is not only resonant to audiences well-versed in these tropes, it’s actually marketable! Frustrating because, well, most of us who write this kind of stuff would love to be in Manuel Gonzalez’ shoes, receiving legit literary attention for our exercises in subgenre. Hell, Gonzalez already has a movie deal, with Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland renown signed on to helm a bigscreen version.

Personal bitterness aside, though, I have to admit this one hit me in my sweet spot. Whatever its merits as capital L Literature, it’s a rollicking ride that’s equal parts thrilling, grim and hilarious. It contains homages to and elements of everything from Die Hard to Minority Report to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as sharp, glancing references to the many science fictional, magickal and fantastical devices familiar to comics readers from the Silver Age through the Dark Age and right up to whatever Age we’re in currently.

If the title isn’t a dead giveaway, Gonzalez’ novel concerns itself with the events surrounding an all-out assault on the headquarters of a mysterious organization dedicated to combatting the Dark Forces that are Amassing to Threaten our World. But the shadowy Regional Office is not a top secret governmental branch or an ancient order that’s been operating since the dawn of time; rather it’s a privately funded operation fronting as a high-end travel agency, and founded by a couple of lifelong friends–Mr. Niles and his superpowered crush object Oyemi–involving future-predicting Oracles and a vast network of mainly gorgeous badass female assassins, recruited–and sometimes abducted–from trailer parks, shopping malls, and high schools all over the country.

Bouncing between past and present, and far-flung locations from Texas to New York to a neighboring dimension, we learn the story of a couple of such recruits: Rose, a smalltown girl with a go-nowhere life and an inherent knack for mayhem; and Sarah, a fairly ordinary if high-strung woman with a tragic backstory and a mechanical arm. Their destinies are set on a collision course when a couple of disgruntled Regional Office employees decide to repay disappointment and betrayal with the titular attack.

Whether you’re into the superpowered subgenre or not, The Regional Office is just a really fun, page-turning read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, brimming with a drily sarcastic millennial wit that offsets the sometimes shocking moments of intrigue, danger and violence. But neither is it a constantly campy jokefest or all satire and no substance. Gonzalez gives us just enough, at least with a few of his characters, to raise the stakes and shape them into human beings to be fascinated with (if never to quite root for). Many things are sketched in or unexplained–i.e., we never learn why the Office recruits only women to their cause–and in a few cases that’s frustrating (we never discover one character’s actual fate, despite a few suggestive hints), and  I can’t help wonder if Gonzalez wanted to leave things open-ended enough for a sequel or three. But the narrative filigree he uses to sketch out his world is right in my wheelhouse–warlocks in Kansas, interdimensional field ops, nanotech with a mind of its own. In my own superhero prose, I take great pleasure in dropping those kinds of high concept notions into casual conversation or interior monologue, the suggestion of a wider, wilder world often more tantalizing than a fully committed plunge into all of its depths.

Gonzalez is a terrifically entertaining writer, his one notable weakness for me an over-reliance on a singular snark-drenched voice; whether he’s in Rose’s head or Sarah’s, crafting long passages of a fictitious academic research paper on the attack and its aftermath, or putting us in the heads of hapless hostages during the siege, the point of view and offhandedly chatty tone remain almost too consistent. But despite these quibbles and a couple of narrative dead ends and unrealized ideas, The Regional Office is Under Attack passes this reader’s ultimate litmus test: I kinda wish I’d written it myself.

Blood, Guts and Brains

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“Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” first came to my attention thanks to “States of Terror” editor/publisher Matt Lewis. Considering I wrote a story about the Florida skunk ape for volume two of that collection, I was instantly intrigued to hear about Adam Howe’s “Damn Dirty Apes,” the first of three novellas in this book. It’s a twisted, pulpy Southern gothic adventure tale peopled with backwoods pornographers, ape-centric biker gangs, cryptid-hunting eccentrics, and a damaged-but-unbroken ex-prizefighter at the center of it all. It caroms from grim brutality to cartoonish otherworldly violence while rarely pausing for breath, and there’s a strong sense that Howe’s introducing one of those gruffly likable protagonist who could keep on having these kinds of reluctant adventures for years to come (and since there’s a sequel novel on the way, I may not be too far off in that guess).

The shortest of the three, “Gator Bait,” is a horror noir that’s equal parts James M. Cain and Stephen King in its Prohibition-era tale of a piano-playing ladies’ man forced to go on the lam after getting the drop on a cuckold bent on ending his adulterous days. Of course, stumbling into a new gig at a swampy roadside honkytonk run by a dangerous bootlegger with a gorgeous battered wife can only lead one way for the hapless ivory-tickler, no matter how often he claims to have sworn off the dames. Especially if the alligator in the pond out back has a say in the matter.

Throughout both of these Southern-fried tales, so steeped in the language and specifics of 20th-century hardboiled Americana, it’s easy to forget that Howe’s a Brit by birth. The stories read quick, funny and fun, with that enviable combination of smart satisfying wordplay and evocative imagery, yet with nary a wasted or extraneous word.

But the one that really grabbed me by the nards and wouldn’t let go is the one that gives the book its title. Unlike the other two tales, which are occasionally crude or violent but essentially accessible, “Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” is one I would not recommend to the even vaguely squeamish. Easily the best horror movie I’ve read in ages, the less I say about its hardcore horror conceit the better, as I don’t want to spoil the immensely satisfying twists and turns it takes with its simple but brilliant “dammit why didn’t I think a that?!” premise.

Suffice to say, fans of old school pulp with a postmodern twist, over-the-top action-adventure lovers, and sick fucks who enjoy stories with as much brains as blood and guts will all find something to love inside Howe’s twisted little worlds.

Secret History: A Review of Lavie Tidhar’s “The Violent Century”

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I know I’m a good writer. I’m also long-resigned to the truth that I’ll never be a great writer. Whatever literary merit my pulpy seriocomic adventure stories contain is largely the byproduct of having ingested enough canonically “great” literature that nanoscopic slivers of same will occasionally, mostly accidentally, sneak in between the many overwrought adjectives and adverbs of my purplish prose. Let me put it this way: if Stephen King is the self-described “Big Mac and fries of American literature,” I’m more like that slightly seedy neighborhood taco truck that a lot of people would avoid just on general appearance, but that an adventurous few would stumble across and consider a secret treasure.

For literary classicists and cultural gatekeepers, even in this enlightened postmodern age, it’s probably still hard to convince the bulk of them that any story containing superpowered people with offbeat costumes and absurd codenames could even aspire to literary merit. Sure, a few have tried, most notably Jonathan Lethem with his well-regarded Fortress of Solitudebut even Michael Chabon didn’t dare let Kavalier & Clay’s fictitious comic book creation, the Escapist, out into the real-world pages of his sprawling tale.

So kudos to Lavie Tidhar, who threw down the gauntlet when he published The Violent Century in early 2015. This is a swing-for-the-fences attempt at Big Idea literature double-wrapped in pulp genre, equal parts John Le Carre Cold War spy novel, Don Delillo-ish examination of cultural and political mores across the whole of the 20th century, and a healthy dose of Ed Brubaker’s The Marvels Project for good measure. Tidhar’s novel, as he describes it, is not alternate but “parallel” history, a world where powered Ubermenschen fought and spied alongside us through the major conflicts of the 20th century starting with World War II. But where a book like Watchmen shows us how the presence of supers drastically rewrites the landscape, technology and political climate of our world, Tidhars ubers have surprisingly little effect on the outcome, and reality more or less remains on track.

One of the dead giveaways that this book is taking itself, its themes, and even its supers seriously is evident the moment you start reading. Tidhar makes an unusual, at times confounding stylistic choice, to not set dialogue in quotation marks, or even break his paragraphs in a normal way. It’s easy enough to pick up on what he’s doing and mostly the story flows regardless, but at times it left me rereading a line once or twice to correctly assess who, if anyone, is speaking, and what sentence or clause is internal monologue or authorial voice. The motive for this mostly seems, to me, to be to set the book apart from a more straightforward novel, as if using a more conventional approach would render his story no more than airport newsstand fodder, Tom Clancy with caped crusaders. Whether or not this is the case, this kind of experimental gameplay with the “rules” of writing is a frequent tic of those with higher literary aspirations.

More than anything, Century is an espionage tale, not quite a thriller, but full of intrigue and betrayal and bait-and-switch, questionable moral decisions made in the service of a “greater good” or just pure self-interest. There are cloak-and-dagger field operatives, a handler known only as The Old Man whose motives are as questionable as his ethics, a damsel-in-need-saving, friends that turn enemy and vice versa, and some potentially colorful supporting and side characters, not to mention Russian, British and American superheroes and, most thrillingly, a Nazi werewolf and a Jewish vampire facing off in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. At times it’s exactly as entertaining as it sounds. At other times, it feels like a bit less self-seriousness could be taken with these big wild pulpy ideas.

While the novel is definitely an easily digestible page turner, with short chapters allowing for small bites until you can’t believe you ate the whole thing, and Tidhar’s prose is often quite lovely, the storytelling comes up short in the characters. The main protagonist is a former British intelligence officer/Ubermensch who goes by the name of Fogg (because he can control mists and clouds and such, y’see), and while we spend ample time with him and in his head, he never fully comes alive as a fleshed-out human being. His onetime partner, Oblivion (who can makes things vanish with a touch of his hands), gets even shorter shrift, and disappears for long stretches, as do most of the supporting characters. There’s a love story between Fogg and a young woman who might be the most powerful of all, but she is so thinly conceived and characterized it’s difficult to connect with the supposed depth of his feelings for her.

Likewise, Tidhar sprinkles in fascinating real-life historical figures like a young Alan Turing or Wernher von Braun, but doesn’t give them anything to do. I mean, if you’re going to drag as fascinating a 20th century figure as Turing into your story, at least give him one juicy moment that either propels the plot or sticks in the mind. The characterizations are so surface level, the book often reads more as pure allegory than gripping, globe-and-time-spanning epic. Which is fine, if you like allegory. Maybe I’m just too meat-and-potatoes when it comes to the narratives I’m drawn to, but the bulk of what I read, watch (and write) draws me in with a focus on well-written characters. A terrific premise and clever plot mechanics are all well and good, but I need a character I can hang my hat on while I take the ride. And while I don’t shy away from “challenging” reading, this isn’t that. It’s a pretty simple, possibly even flimsy tale that uses its genre trappings like curious adornments.

I’m still not entirely sure what Tidhar’s superpeople were meant to represent within this semi-conventional spy story framework. I think a deeper dive into their inner lives, and richer details in their relationships could have really helped. There’s an opaqueness to both motivation and action that left me wondering if I was missing something deeper, or applying profundity where it didn’t entirely exist. Case in point: despite their awesome elemental powers, characters frequently use guns, which makes sense against the backdrop of war and its aftermath, but also seemed to undercut both their abilities and the potential of the sparse action sequences. At one point, when using his eradication powers would seem to be the perfect solution, Oblivion instead chooses to strangle a man to death and dump his body. I was hoping there was significance to the choice, but in context it just seemed as if the author forgot his character could do that.

This probably all sounds more critical than it should. I enjoyed reading this (and might have enjoyed it as a graphic novel even more so), and honestly I don’t think I could even attempt what Tidhar has aimed for here. If I tried to render HandCannon a metaphor for male violence or the lingering damage of PTSD or anything much more profound than an aging enhanced thug with a redemption arc, I’d either get lost up my own ass or suffer failure-related panic attacks. So again, my hat is off to Tidhar for letting his Big Ideas share space with cleverly conceived super-powered do-gooders and do-badders. I just wish it was a little clearer in the end what the Big Ideas really were. While there’s a compelling, well-crafted story here, it’s a little bit like dining on $25 gourmet ceviche tacos and realizing you wish you’d just gone to the truck.