The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew: One Man’s Journey into the Land of the Dead by U.R. Bowie

I like a book that’s unafraid of big themes, and this one has a beauty: mortality itself, the reality waiting behind our illusions of security. It’s a mythic idea, Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, and Bowie clearly intends us to understand it in terms of the universal as well as the particular.

The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew
(Ogee Zakamora, 342 pages) begins rather slowly and at too much length, but pacing is less of an issue once the Palm Sunday riot at the Southwest Ohio Correctional Facility is fully underway and the initial explosion of violence settles into unmitigated tension. Length works then, mimicking the ongoing, endless strain. Personalities emerge, and we begin to hold our breath. Continue reading

New of the World by Paulette Jiles

newoftheworldI will avoid the absurdity of defending a National Book Award finalist; we can agree that the western can be literature. We have Larry McMurtry and Charles Portis to underline the point. The clean prose of News of the World (William Morrow, 224 pages) similarly explores universal themes of honor, purpose, age, and culture within a detailed period piece, allowing the conventions of bar fights and gunfights, natives and lawless towns, blacksmiths, willing ladies, and Mexican aristocracy to tell a fresh and compelling tale. Continue reading

The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind by Billy O’Callaghan

thingswelose What to say about Things we Lose (New Island Press, 228 pages) a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.)

I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds. Continue reading

Going Dark: Selected Stories by Dennis Must

goingdarkAs I read Going Dark, Selected Stories by Dennis Must, (Coffeetown Press, 170 pages) I saw a realistic foundation in each story. Here is a recognizable world with real people suffering real-life anguish. What interested me, however, was the way the author then handled time, space, and imagination. To come to grips with it, I had to invent a literary term—lyrical surrealism—to distinguish Must’s work from fantasy which, to my mind, means dragons and dragonspeak, time warps, elves and men with long beards carrying oaken staves and speaking some dialect of incomprehensible origin. Continue reading

Minimum Maintenance by Carolyn Colburn

minimummaintenanceThe protagonist and narrator in Minimum Maintenance (Bonnie’s Mews Publications, 240 pages) by Carolyn Colburn is a thirteen-year old girl named Sugar, named so because her mother didn’t want to say “shit” on camera. Sugar bumps along in the wake of her untethered mother from Minneapolis to Up North to Montana, Oklahoma, Nevada and parts in between, smoking cigarettes and joints, working on a tattoo and making fleeting friendships along the way. The title indicates the nature of Sugar’s childhood along the back roads, where dead cars pile high and outliers hang onto reality for dear life, doing what they do with drugs, booze, guns, sex, and hair dye. Continue reading

Sea of Hooks by Lindsay Hill

seaofhooksLindsay Hill casts a magician’s spell across his Sea of Hooks (McPherson, 348 pages). On the surface his world is rendered in bright pixels of quivering light, while underneath a seamless narrative undercurrent pulls us into the mysterious depths of experience. For the reader willing to dive under, this journey is unforgettable.

Sea of Hooks is, on the one hand, a fiercely original Bildungsroman set in San Francisco in the 50’s and 60’s. Christopher is an overly imaginative boy, part Holden Caulfield and part Little Lame Prince, who lives in precarious affluence in a darkish Victorian on the edge of Pacific Heights. His delicate, high-strung mother is obsessed with Japanese culture and dead by suicide in the first paragraph. Dad works in finance on the Pacific Stock exchange, until he doesn’t anymore. There are prep schools, bridge games, Dickensian neighbors like the wise and wonderful Dr. Thorn; along with house fires, a very nasty tutor/pederast from Stanford, a trip to Bhutan and encounters with Buddhist monks. Hill’s rich prose makes us feel Christopher is someone we have always known, a boy who lives in a house we have been to, whose eccentric mother we’ve had tea with, whose city we are walking in. Continue reading

This Earth You’ll Come Back To by Barbara Roether

cover ideas.inddThis vivid, lyrical, character and place-based story (McPherson, 250 pages) begins with Rose Healy Koehner’s youngest daughter, Stephanie, searching a rural Ohio cemetery for Rose’s grave in 2008 while the deceased Rose watches from above and embarks on her life’s story told in the first person. The prickly, fondly contentious, mother-daughter relationship is apparent from the start in the underlying current of criticism that Rose levels at her daughter:

Course you couldn’t find it right away…You should have used the sense God gave you and asked your brother…Why you always insist on making things hard for yourself I’ll never know; but it’s just like you to take a simple errand and turn it into a full-blown crusader pilgrimage.

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