Thursday, November 27, 2014

Charles Lambert, With a Zero at its Heart (2014)

Lambert, Charles, With a Zero at its Heart, Hammersmith: The Friday Project, 2014

With a Zero at its Heart at Goodreads
With a Zero at its Heart at IBList

Charles Lambert's Website

Rating: 7/10

Among the many talented contemporary writers I've discovered through the excellent periodical The Fiction Desk is Charles Lambert. Having read and reviewed (positively) his two contributions to the publication, the short story "All I Want" from TFD1: Various Authors, and the novelette "Pretty Vacant" from TFD2: All These Little Worlds, I offered him, via Goodreads, a review of his latest book at Casual Debris. Within a few short days I received a copy of this very attractive little book, and took it with me to London and Istanbul, starting it in the former and completing the last few chapters in the latter.

Because life is riddled with all sorts of minor experiences, along Charing Cross Road I visited the numerous second-hand bookshops there, and on the shelves of Any Amount of Books was a copy of With a Zero at its Heart, selling for 6£, just under half the cover price. (In excellent condition, if you're interested. It might still be there, though this was about four months ago.) Lambert's book is, like life, riddled with an assortment of experiences, major or minor, each equally significant to the bearer.

     24 themed chapters.
     Each with 10 numbered paragraphs.
     Each paragraph with precisely 120 words.
     The sum of a life.

Toss in a final paragraph of a hundred and twenty words and you have a work made up of 28,120 words total. In this oulipian challenge, Lambert's writing is precise, as each paragraph, whether detailing an event or describing an object, must resonate on an emotional level in order that each fragment carry its own significance. There are some sections I found to be stronger than others, with "Danger" and "Colours" being among the weaker, but overall the work is consistent and engaging.

These fragments make up a whole that features a sensitive man in search of self via objects, sex and a plethora of emotions and experiences. There is no traditional plot, but the style offers the opportunity to form character more vividly than most plotted stories would. Removing traditional plot removes the character-building limitations that a structured story-line normally requires. Removing structure also lends the work a sense of chaos, making fiction more like life (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf). This is particularly appropriate here since the work is most likely semi-biographical.

The title references paragraph two of the section on animals: "He's presented with three white mice in a plywood box, divided by a wall with a zero at its heart." (p.38) These sections ate like chambers of the heart, divided and yet connected by an opening, making the heart whole. The novel is like a set of chambers made whole by its protagonist, his life and self being the zero that connects the various experiences and emotions depicted in the book.

The book is attractively designed by Vaughan Oliver, and the internal formatting and design are great (too bad about that typo on page 60). Another error is more technical. On page 129 watching the excellent Psycho in the cinema, "[t]hey both spot Hitchcock pass in front of a car." In the actual Psycho the director is standing outside the door, silhouetted in the glass, when Janet Leigh as Marion Crane walks in. Minor but distracting, at least for a Psycho(tic) fan. Though perhaps he is only pausing as he is passing by a car.


Note that this review is late so as not to conflict with my review of the same book at Black Heart Magazine, which you can read here.



Friday, November 21, 2014

Bookshops: Famous Book Store (New Delhi)



This past August my search for books in New Delhi led me through Connaught Place where many a bookshop can be found, and more variety than I imagine any quarter in any part of the world wouldn't dream of maintaining. The difficulty with second hand books in India is similar to that which I encountered in Turkey: due to heat and humidity, older books are warped, browned and spotted with mold. (Surprisingly, in the oddest backstreet shops in Istanbul I found many an old pulp anthology, including several Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and while all were dirt-cheap, most were unsalvageable due to decay.) Expecting to find variety in New Delhi, I was disappointed in my search for British editions of paperback anthologies, but impressed by the number and variety of bookshops available.

My time was limited, however, and while I'm sure plenty more books lie outside Connaught Place; I was only a few blocks away. Furthermore, additional bookshops exist in and around Connaught Place, including many booksellers who set up on the streets (and who, it is claimed by locals, sell pirated books that are often incomplete), and in about four hours I was unable to visit even the ones I knew about; my search having begun with this 2010 Hindustani Times article, and I managed to visit:

  • BMP Books
  • The Oxford Book Store
  • New Book Land (Janpath Market, below Connaught Circus)
  • ED Galgotia & Sons (B Block)
  • Jain Book Store (B Block)
  • Rajiv Bookshop (Palika Bazaar)
  • Amrit Book Company (N Block)
  • Famous Book Store (Janpath Market)
  • Anil Book Corner (H Block)

My favourite of these was Famous Book Store, a hard-to-find little shop just outside the Janpath Market (where I tried to purchase a Superman shirt for my twenty month-old son, but they did not have baby sizes). The shop was packed full, mostly with novels and children's books. I was tempted to purchase some books by the likes of Shaun Huston and Ramsey Campbell that were quite cheap, but since I've decided to no longer purchase mass market paperbacks (with perhaps some exceptions of the anthology ilk), I passed. One reason I nearly left empty-handed was that a store employee was shadowing me throughout what should have been my browsing pleasure. It was irritating. He did, however, dig through some piles to pull out a few odd titles I wanted a closer look at.

One of these titles was 50 Crime Murder Mysteries and Detective Stories, published in 2007 by Indiana Publishing House, a publisher located in New Dehli whose official email addresses are with gmail and yahoo, and whose website expired on October 28th of this year. The anthology has no credited editor and a table of contents that includes mostly people I have never heard of, alongside the likes of Ross Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, HRF Keating, and the Edwards Hoch and Gorman. It was wrapped in plastic and I wasn't able to peruse the contents or pages prior to purchasing, but at 195 (about $3) it wasn't much of a gamble. The production is inexpensive, with font I haven't encountered since I was in grade school; as though the pages are photocopies of newsprint articles. The shop did have other titles from Indiana House, mostly collections of authors whose works are in the public domain. Perhaps I should've purchased others, since they might now be extremely rare and valuable. If only I hadn't removed it from its original packaging! (I am not being serious here.)

In addition to my single purchase, the shop gave me a nice little cloth bag that fit the book perfectly (pictured at the top), and I took one of their business cards (above).



Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bete Noire #16 (2014)

Bete Noire #16, edited by A.W. Gifford and Jennifer Gifford, Dark Opus Press, 2014

Bete Noire #16 at Goodreads
Bete Noire website.

Overall Rating:     6/10

Issue sixteen includes, along with four short stories, visual art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett ("Shot Down 225"), Denny E. Marshall ("The Last Promise"), Wojciech Wolinski ("2") and two by Luke Spooner ("Backseat Driver" and "Group"), who is currently a finalist for the Spark Anthology cover contest.

There is poetry from James Frederick William Rowe ("Bristlecone"), Marge Simon ("Rock On"), J. J. Steinfeld ("The Art of Becoming Invisible") and Carol Hornak ("House").

For the short stories...

The Devils of Somerset, Mississippi by Jeremy Lloyd Beck     6/10
An atheist moves to small town Somerset to teach high school English, and his ideology quickly conflicts with the churchgoing townsfolk, particularly with their culturally ingrained racism. Well written for the most part, and a promising two-thirds is unfortunately capped off with an ending that does not address the author's most interesting ideas. I would elaborate, and am dying too, but as the publication was just released I shouldn't. Good concrete images and ideas that are well woven into the story body.


Transient Number Five by Christian Riley     5/10
A disgruntled man stalks a transient. A little flat.


Eyes of the Dog by Tobacco Jones     7/10
In a future totalitarian society, where children are raised in vast orphanages, one mother struggles to keep her two children at home. Divided into five sections, each with a separate character point of view, the story develops nicely, and the title eventually reveals itself, The strongest, darkest piece in the collection. What I like best about the story is not the cold society it depicts, but that citizens are each looking out for their own selves. This points to the true bleakness of this world, for since there is no one to challenge the system, the system will not only remain unchanged, but will strengthen in its resolve.


Blood Debt by J.D. Cano     5/10
Our narrator awaits his turn in a line-up of Aztec blood sacrifices. This piece is a scene that does not quite make a story.



Monday, October 13, 2014

Aside: Funding Publications



Without the various publications now available, the struggling writer concept would quickly metamorphose into the incidental writer, a writer who writes for self but has utterly given up on the dream of print. Publications need support, often financial, and the best way to support any publication is to purchase or subscribe.

At the age of thirteen I asked my parents, near Christmas, to gift me a subscription to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which they happily did. That excitement each month of receiving a collection of stories has remained with me ever since, though I've long since stopped that subscription. Since then I've held subscriptions to Prairie Fire, Riddle Fence, Prism International, Exile Quarterly, Grain MagazineDark Moon Digest, Glimmer Train, current favourite The Fiction Desk, and many others. Receiving a package from any publication, whether a journal, an advanced copy for review or a book via Book Depository or Bookmooch is a treat equalled by little else. In return for a subscription I receive not only fiction and articles, but  excitement and pleasure. Also, I am happy to know I am helping to keep the publication in print and the writers employed.

There are also funding projects available at times for both journals and one-off publications, and there are terrific ways in which readers can feel as though they are in some small way part of the publication. The first actual donation I gave was to Riddle Fence through a Rockethub campaign granting special subscription offers to those generous enough to support financially, and just the other day I was enticed to support Dark Regions Press for a shared world anthology project titled Madhouse. This particular campaign was attractively set up via indiegogo, and promised additional artwork and authors by offering "perks" to those helping fund the project. These perks range from copied of the final product to having a character named after the funder, or having a particular author kill off the funder in some creative way. I happily purchased a Madhouse Grab Bag, and having done so am suddenly quite excited about the project, which is to be delivered April 2015. (Though I'll likely forget about the entire thing until I receive a package from DRP.)

The recent publication Pulp Literature recently launched a kickstarter campaign in order to fund their second year as a paying print publication. I will soon familiarize myself with the publication (beginning tonight) and will likely make a donation/purchase to help them out as well.

There is still plenty of time to help fund Madhouse or Pulp Literature, if you're so inclined. Otherwise I would urge any reader and writer to support a publication with a subscription. A year subscription to most journals is equivalent to a meal or two (or three, depending on how you like your meals). They make excellent and unique gift ideas and generally look nice on a bookshelf. Moreover, in this age of electronic communication, it gives us something to look forward to in our mailboxes.

If you do decide to support a publication via a new subscription, let me know which one you've selected. Or let me know of others campaigns currently underway.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Casual Shorts: Frank Scott York, The Magic Boondockers (1957)

York, Frank Scott, "The Magic Boondockers," Leathernecks: Magazine of the Marines, Volume 40, issue 4, April 1957

Rating: 5/10

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


Among the most obscure short stories I have encountered is this little tale of military and the supernatural by someone named Frank Scott York. Until recently I haven't been able to even identify its original publication space and date.

For four years in high school I had the same English teacher. I liked her quite a bit and she helped introduce me to many authors and stories. One of her practices was to bring seemingly random short stories to the class in the form of photocopied pages, even though we normally had some kind of anthology we were working through. One of these stories was the obscure piece titled "The Magic Boondockers" by Frank Scott York, and it came in the form of a mimeograph, twelve pages with illustrations. (Apologies for the poor reproduction; I will upload a better shot soon.)

Private Andrew Bonner, a man who has never liked wearing shoes, receives a pair of military boondockers that make him feel good and light, and soon he discovers that while wearing them he can fly. This ability soon alters his personality from shy mountain boy to hot-shot, and both the military officers and his best friend, our first person narrator, grow concerned. Together they solve the issue of the magic boondockers and of Andy's arrogance by setting up a flight performance for their mates, while our narrator has replaced the shoes with ordinary ones, causing Andy to fall flat on his face.

The story is simple and simply written, with glaring faults. In reality, the military would no doubt confiscate the shoes and attempt to discover their secret; they certainly wouldn't allow a private to wear them, especially one so keen on using them. Military brass are concerned that Andy might be flying around, worried he and the shoes would fall into enemy hands who might uncover their secret, yet the colonel says taking the shoes away won't solve any problems. Moreover, part of the problem solving is to confiscate the shoes, contradicting the colonel's earlier statement. The story employs a light tone and the military officers are presented as kindly, simple and even naive, so we can't expect a more realistic approach where both shoes and trooper would be confined for intense scrutiny. Besides, the unlisted speak to the officers is too casual tones so that one might wonder if this is not instead a story of Boy Scouts.

For the story to work, however, it is important that the military be unusually lenient toward Andy; any X-Files cover-up wouldn't allow the narrative to survive the opening scene. Moreover, army intelligence must be relegated to idiocy in dealing with the boondockers mystery since our narrator must be readily involved in order for that final twist to exist. Finally, the story is not about the flying as much as it is about Andy's persona alteration. York is writing a tale of warning to anyone who might grow too big for their own boondockers when they find themselves with some kind of benefit or advantage, and clearly his intention was to bring Andy's arrogance down from the clouds. The relief his army buddies express at the end is not that the magic has disappeared, but that nice guy Andy can be just another normal trooper among a platoon of normal troopers.

Which is why I was so surprised to learn where the story was first published.

Originally I suspected my English teacher found it in some anthology for young people; never would I have guessed that it was aimed at a military readership. A search on Google elicits only two results, both of which are for Leathernecks: Magazine of the Marines. The issue is dated April 1957, Volume 40, Issue 4. On the site the story is titled with a slight alteration, "The Magical Boondockers." If this is the original publication source, it is likely not where my teacher found her copy; it's unlikely she was a member of the Marine Corps. The different titles also indicates she discovered the story as a reprint somewhere.

Any information on this story and its publication history is welcome.



Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Aside: 100,000+ visitors


A little over four years and a hundred thousand visitors, humans and bots alike. Perhaps other creatures as well.

At a young age I started taking notes on my readings, writing synopses and collecting publication data. I started reading serious short stories at the age of ten, and quickly developed a compulsive need to record. This has stayed with me in varying degrees, and a blog was just a part of the evolution of my compulsion. Having an avid reader as a mother, who introduced my to Alfred Hitchcock at an early age and other story-telling influences, not to mention a house full of books, has helped feed this inclination.

Thank you for encouraging this irrational need, with your comments, emails and simply by reading or even just glancing at the semi-random thoughts I've jotted down on this site.



Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lawrence Block, The Sins of the Fathers (1976)

Block, Lawrence, The Sins of the Fathers, 1976

The Sins of the Fathers at Goodreads
The Sins of the Fathers at IBList

Rating:     8/10

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit In Reference to Murder.

An integral element in the private investigator novel is the urban world in which he exists. With Matthew Scudder the reader is immediately immersed in the gritty urban landscape, one shaped not only by the violent and chaotic society that upholds it, but by Scudder's own broken perception of the world around him. Whether New York or the outlying farmlands, wherever Scudder chooses to live that world, through his eyes, would become broken and damned.
Like many readers I was quickly immersed in the dark and gritty world of Matthew Scudder, excited that there are many more to follow. Before even half-way through Lawrence Block's first Scudder novel I was convinced I'd finally come across a character I wanted very much to pursue. Having now completed The Sins of the Fathers, I know I will read In the Midst of Death soon.

The novel contains two story-lines; the murder investigation of prostitute Wendy Hanniford and her roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and the daily existence of former cop Matthew Scudder. Most interesting was Scudder's world, his attitude toward the complex urban society he lives in, from its horrid crimes, corrupt police and the regular people who attempt to eke out an existence amid the chaos. I certainly enjoyed the mystery and the straightforward interrogative and investigative approach, yet the circumstances around the crime were enhanced by the world in which it occurred. Figuring out what really happened is not difficult, yet the reasons behind the crimes and the punitive act of revelation overshadows the reveal. It is not a who-dun-it, but focuses more on the tragic aspects of the crime, to the point that for once in such a novel I was extremely sympathetic toward the victims and understood the tragedies of the death not simply because death in the form of murder is tragic.

Though published in 1976, the novel is set in 1973: Wendy Hanniford signed a lease in 1970, which according to Scudder was three years ago. (p. 40) I'm not sure of the relevance of 1973, of setting it in the near past upon publication, as it seems to be a minor detail in the book. What is important is that the story is set in the 1970s, and not for any social reference. For one thing, the murder of Hanniford would today be solved quickly due to DNA testing. For another, there are small incidents that are dated, though these have no impact on today's reader.

First there is a visit to the bank. "It was my first visit since the first of the year, so they entered some interest in my passbook. A computer figured it all out in the wink of an eye." This is no longer impressive. The only thing that hasn't improved about baking since 1973 or 1976 is the amount of interest rewarded for allowing them to invest your money.

DNA testing and outdated bank computing is irrelevant since the poignancy of the novel is Scudder's world, the gritty, corrupt and utterly unsympathetic New York. Yet in this damaged world, our broken hero manages to exude sympathy, both while delivering sensitive information and while delivering painful punishment. Among the straongest scenes in the novel is when a young, inexperienced thief tries to mug Scudder, and though it has nothing to do with the novel's mystery plot, it has everything to do with Scudder and with Lawrence Block's New York.

A terrific read.



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