Review(s) by S.F. Winser
Last month I had the revelation that it had been far too long since I had read some indie stuff.
What should I read, though? Look, I know some indie-writers and they know indie writers: let’s start there. Look down the right hand side of that site you scribble for – read some stuff by those guys.
So this month, that’s what I did. Picked a couple of books by fellow Squawkers and a couple that had been recommended by Squawkers. But... it turns out we’ve already reviewed some of these books. Will they mind? I doubt it. Will you, the reader, mind? I hope you’ll appreciate that basically we just review whatever the hell we like here. This month, what I liked often overlapped with what others have already read and written about. Maybe you’ll appreciate another point of view. If not, we have many other fine reviews for you to read.
Now, let’s be honest. The reader will suspect praise from this source. Perhaps they should.
So, a few notes on Booksquawk: We basically only write reviews if we feel like it. We often don’t tell fellow writers that we’re reading their books until afterward – if at all. Squawkers have been known to turn down free review copies from friends if they felt they could not review it honestly (Not always – Squawkers are as big a fan of the free review copy as anyone - but it has happened). I have one book by a fellow indie sitting here beside me. The author will never know because, after two tries, I couldn’t get into it and am obviously unable to review or comment upon it either positively or negatively: so I won’t even tell the author that they were my fifth indie-writer choice this month. If you read a review here by someone we know, that’s a good sign. It usually means we have obtained the book honestly, read it in secret, and only reviewed it if we felt we could be honest.
Or, since this is the internet, it could be that I’m lying through my keyboard’s teeth. I’m not even SF Winser. I’m actually Chun-Li, a 13-year-old Chinese exchange-student in New York, who writes positive reviews for money to supplement her lifestyle jetting to exotic locations in order to fight super-powered miscreants in illegal martial-arts tournaments to avenge the death of a beloved younger brother.
Believe what you like.
These I did read and love. Or at least, like a lot. I swear on the untimely grave of my unjustly slain Chinese brother.
Mischief at the Desert Rose Retirement Resort – G.W. Boone
Let’s get the down points out of the way. ‘Mischief’ is a VERY short book – less a book than a long short story. It seems to be a murder mystery, but isn’t. The author sometimes shows that she’s still getting the hang of writing by including extraneous detail.
Onwards and upwards to the very up points: This a very well told short story that seems to be a murder-mystery and is actually that much more interesting because it isn’t. The ends aren’t nicely wrapped up, the narrator is, unexpectedly, no supersleuth and there’s more depth in the stuff she does around the murder than in the murder itself. I finished... had a moment of ‘What the..!? There’s no resolution to the murder!?’ thought for a moment over what I’d just read, and then realised that this was much more ambitious. This is a book that sets up the tackiness, repetitiveness, retreat and the controlled wildness of a retirement resort, and interweaves a tale of suburban darkness and inaction. The writing, despite the odd fumble, is engaging. It’s often funny and open – there’s a real harshness and honesty here that anyone younger than the 78 year old author might be shocked by – but the humour and humanity are real. It ends up a fun, funny and strange little tale.
Dorkismo: the Macho of the Dork – Maria Bustillos
I first read – and loved – some of the parts that would become ‘Dorkismo’ a few years ago. But it’s only a few weeks ago that I finally broke down and read it in full (librarians have very busy reading schedules. Well, this librarian does.) I loved it more.
Dorkismo is a paean of love to Individualism. It’s a social commentary/philosophy book about the idea that you have to be yourself, as hard as you can, or you have neither self nor being. Bustillos recognises that there are pitfalls to this: people will think you are a dork. But if you can be brave and love what you love, be who you are just as hard as you can even if this means ostracism, there are benefits. You are able to recognise groupthink. You are less susceptible to peer-pressure and propaganda. But, most of all, the best thing about being brave enough to be who you are despite social pressures is: you get to be yourself and love what you love despite social pressures. Dorks feel purer joy in culture, in themselves, in their friendships, because they know their joys are honest and personal. Dorks don’t have friends for any other reason than because they like their company. Dorks like bands because they like their music – not a subculture. They like books because of the joy they bring, not to impress their social-circle – ‘low culture’, ‘high culture’? Who cares? Dorkismo is a vaccination against mob mentality.
Dorkismo the book sometimes gets a little carried away with itself, but this is because a book about unrestrained enthusiasm should show a little of it. It’s smart, well-researched, and very readable. It’s often hilarious or wry. The few autobiographical sections showcasing the author’s own journeys through dorkishness are often very honest. And it succeeds in promoting the idea that to be a dork is not only brave, but worthwhile and enviable.
There are also some nice sections showcasing famous dorks and the power their personal integrity has brought them. One of those includes Stephen Colbert, and whenever I’ve watched ‘The Colbert Report’ since finishing this book, I find myself wondering why he hasn’t interviewed Bustillos yet, because this is just the kind of book he loves to promote – unexpected takes on interesting subjects.
Every teenager should be given a copy of ‘Dorkismo’ at thirteen and, whenever they start to take themselves too seriously, worry too much about popularity, or get too judgemental, they should be locked in a cupboard with this book and a flashlight. Perhaps some food, depending on how slow they read and how attached their parents are to them.
Red Poppies – S.P. Miskowski
This book is subtitled ‘Tales of Envy and Revenge’. From a title like that, one expects anger and blood.
Oh, what we get is SO much better than that.
Miskowski is guilty of what, in the music industry, is known as ‘front-loading’. That is, putting all the best tracks at the front of the album. This collection of short stories does lead off with a bang and slows down from there, but this isn’t a bad decision. The title story ‘Red Poppies’ is a knockout and grabs the reader early – exactly as a book is meant to. Envy and revenge do lead to blood, but in the most mundane and stupid ways, in this story most of all, but this sets the tone for the reader and enhances the cumulative effect of the rest of the stories. All of these stories come down to the idea that we all feel little envies and plot minor revenges, but that the consequences of these vices we tell ourselves are honestly come by - not our fault, all for the best - will have effects beyond what we want and often for those we least expect.
But the danger of putting what you know is a great story first is that everything else is judged in comparison and you know it can’t stack up, no matter how great.
The next few stories are also excellent, but the balance of story and voice aren’t as deft as in the admittedly brilliant title story. ‘A Personal Recommendation’ has a truly interesting plot, but the voice, by narrative necessity, is less than accessible. ‘You Never Know’ has voice in spades. And humour. But the story, while dramatic, is still a bit slight in comparison. And the last few pieces are less stories than they are situation studies. They’re like little character studies, but for moments rather than people. For me, ‘Next to Nothing’ is the best of these, a study of a single night and a single incident at a catered dinner party where class-envy and pettiness spiral into the destruction of several lives, including endangering the life of at least one innocent bystander.
Miskowski absolutely NAILS voice. Especially in ‘Red Poppies’, the simple maid and the mad upper-middle-class housewife around whom the story revolve are both distinct from each other. They are archetypes, but with unique voices. It’s funny and real.
Many of the stories have wonderful moments of humour, much of it dark. ‘Red Poppies’ is neatly bundled set of stories that explores the idea of petty emotion and consequence in a very down-to earth and insightful way.
Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools – Victoria Twead
Reading this book is a bit like taking a holiday. Twead is a deft writer, telling a largely domestic tale with confidence humour and energy. It’s the true story of a pair of semi-retired English people, moving to Spain for five years on an extended break. A memoir full of fun, sunlight and incident...
You know, sometimes you read an indie book and you can see the reasons why it didn’t go mainstream. Sometimes these make sense, some of these don’t. In the case of this book, it’s very much an indictment on mainstream publishers. Sure, there are more than a few ‘British people move to Spain/France’ books around. The only reason this wouldn’t have been picked up is the purely commercial decision not to flood the market. A bad, bad decision. This book would have stood out among the pack. Well told and hilarious with just the right amount of atmosphere, it’s at least as good as anything in that commercial market, if not better. I already have it lined up for several readers at the library where I work, knowing that they’ll love it.
While I’m on the subject of previous reviews – a couple of lines about non-indie books that Booksquawk have previously reviewed, and made my To Be Read pile topple. (The Booksquawk collective are an influential and persuasive bunch and have made me pick up too many new books!)
Crooked Little Vein – Warren Ellis
Ellis annoys me with his talent. This is picaresque of depravity, a road-book, a private-eye book and an idea that if a certain fetish is available on the internet, then it’s technically part of mainstream society. Not for the faint of heart, faint of testicle, faint of stomach. A bit light on actual plot, like all road-books, but charmingly dirty and clever.
Hater – David Moody
They say zombie novels are actually just social commentary. If so, then ‘Haters’ is a tale of irrational partisanship. The Zombies here are, as far as anyone can tell, uncaused by anything external, are intelligent – even rational – but are unsympathetically violent towards everyone else who isn’t one of them, one of the ‘Haters’. It’s a perfect tale about the political ‘grass roots’ movements in various countries, who seem normal, but spout hatred for the other side. It’s a smart zombie book. It’s rather well written. It’s genuinely creepy.