Review: Mykle Hansen’s “Cannibal’s Guide for Ethical Living” is delicious satire in the truest sense of the word.

July 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing)

Mykle Hansen is a true master of satire, alongside the greats such as Swift and Twain. I have to say that. I’m afraid if I don’t, he’ll eat me. I might actually welcome that unfortunate occurrence however, because I’ve read his brilliant book “The Cannibal’s Guide to Ethical Living” and I have never been more convinced that there’s definitely a moral argument to be made for eating human flesh.

The book follows Louis, a disgraced world-class chef as he delivers a long and powerful monologue to his captured friend and colleague, the food critic Andre De Gustibus. Hansen’s prose flows off the page like an expertly delivered and well-acted one-man show. The authorial voice is so strong, so perfectly executed, and so hilariously unique that it’s difficult not to start reading the book aloud to yourself. This is a book that’s equally comfortable being read or performed.

The book is divided into chapters via the delivery of various dishes and courses to the poor captured Andre, as Louis tries to explain his position. As this is going on, Hansen cleverly reveals the history between these two men, and how they are inextricably linked through their love of cuisine. The clues are planted throughout the book, but the wonderful way in which the book finally reveals the full scope of the relationship between Andre and Louis is pure genius. As readers, we are also treated to a slightly more omniscient point of view than poor Andre, so we get to watch as the subtleties of his slowly crumbling life add up, and we get to experience the terror of Louis’s “business partner” Marco stalking the deck just above the pair, psychotic, deranged, dangerous and hungry for fillet of food critic.

The fictional aspects of the story aside, the book also reads as a classic argument style philosophical treatise, which is where it truly succeeds as satire. It’s easy to understand that a social debate is raging here, chopped up in the same pot as the carrots and potatoes of a rollicking great story. No heavy-handed thematic bashing here – instead Hansen willfully pulls us into a very likeable (but insane) character’s world and we’re forced to listen. As we do, we’re forced to also examine our eating habits, our place in the food chain, and most of all our socioeconomic status and how that affects who are the predators and who are the prey. Hansen also uses a number of very specific details that show a true understanding of the world and culture. The reader is given an interesting back-story for the inhabitants of the nearby island, a great number of excellent food and wine references, and of course a deep character mystery to study.

The writing is extremely strong, the plot manic and bizarre, and the characters likeable. Mykle Hansen at his best: This is grade A meat, right here. Highly recommended!

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Review: The Egg Said Nothing by Caris O’Malley

January 30, 2011 at 8:04 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing)

What would you do if you woke up one morning with an egg planted neatly between your legs? That’s the central question of Caris O’Malley’s debut novel: The Egg Said Nothing. The book’s egg-laying everyman is Manny, and we as an audience get to enjoy watching him deal with the aftermath of a night he cannot remember, but the book goes beyond simple storytelling and into a psychological meta-fictional space. Because Manny is such an identifiable character, a real everyman for our generation, I found myself drawn into his mind and wondering what I would do in a similar situation. As the book progresses into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, complete with time-shifting strangers and violent (and hilarious) action sequences, the reader is forced to confront the dwindling options and strange reality along with the protagonist. This is the triumph of O’Malley’s novel: The prose style and the character’s narration are perfectly crafted to fit into a space not quite in, but next to, our own reality. We know Manny. We are Manny. And we too, might someday have a terrible shovel-related incident.

It is difficult to write about The Egg Said Nothing without giving away the clever twists that O’Malley has devised for poor Manny to suffer through. The author understands how to use the hubris of a main character against himself, and we watch as Manny makes all the wrong choices out of paranoia and selfishness, but we also understand that he has few other options. Every choice he makes opens a new door and closes off several others. Let me say simply that Caris O’Malley’s use of time-travel and/or alternate time-streams is extremely well done. Too often in time and space skewing fiction, the physics loom over the narrative and make for a less engaging story, but not here. In the middle of the book, the clever reader will start to see how time and space are twisting in the world of this book, long before poor Manny does, which makes watching him screw up his life even further a painful and cathartic experience. Manny is juggling a new love interest (the delightful Ashley), shadowy murderers in his hallway and a million reasons to lock every one of his nine or so locks at night. The wonderful thing is, all this is not confusing for the reader, just for Manny, and we have masterful writing to thank for that.

The Egg Said Nothing is highly recommended, both for O’Malley’s sense of humor and for his ability to take a well-worn trope (the mechanics of time) and make them fresh and new again by introducing a simple set of rules and running with them. The ending of this book was predictable only in that there are clues woven throughout the book for mystery-lovers and the like to pick up on, but when it comes barreling in, it’s still a shocking and powerful trip. This is the kind of book that elicits a wonderful emotional response, somewhere between a laugh, a twitch and a shudder, and that is the highest compliment I can give. Not to be missed!

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Review: Steve Lowe’s Muscle Memory

December 10, 2010 at 8:13 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing)

It’s always a risky proposition: to take a well known trope (especially one that peaked in the films of the 80’s) and try to find a new way to spin it. In Muscle Memory, Steve Lowe takes his cue from movies like Freaky Friday and Like Father, Like Son, presenting a tale of bodies switched and swapped all over a small community. Using some clever writing however, Lowe transcends the typical structure of those stories and takes it to a whole new level of absurd and hilarious wonder.

Billy wakes one morning to the dog meowing at him, next to his own body (which happens to be dead) and inside the body of his wife. Soon, his best friend Tucker (who now inhabits the body of his own wife, Julia) and other friends and neighbors (including one poor fellow who’s now stuck inside a sheep, leading to some hilarious accusations about his personal life) set out to solve the problem.

A number of theories are put forward in the story, including everything from government conspiracies to alien interventions. In lesser hands, this might become nothing more than a farce, but Lowe creates depth for his characters. They are developed indeed, from the way they talk to the way they think and act. Steve Lowe has obviously spent some time around small town America, because he nails the little mannerisms, casual sexism and low speed drawl of the community, leading to a realistic and funny bunch of people. The protagonist, Billy, is especially interesting, with his everyman charm and his laid-back street smarts, it’s easy to find yourself hoping that he’ll make it through the chaos okay.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ending. Without spoiling anything, I have to commend Mr. Lowe on writing a bizarro book with a truly poignant and literary final moment. It feels like an earned ending, and is surprisingly powerful in the midst of a really silly sequence of events that lead the reader to it.  It’s fun to watch the madness unfold, and it never feels like Muscle Memory is piling on weirdness just “to be weird.” Everything moves the plot forward nicely up that final, “nailed it” moment.

This book is part of the New Bizarro Author Series, which exists to promote new authors of the weird. I would highly recommend Muscle Memory to anyone looking for a fun, quick and comfortable read. It’s a short book, which is unfortunate, as it seems like Lowe could have mined this setting and these characters for even more fun, but the bottom line is: This is good, solid writing from an author I know we’ll be seeing more of in the coming years. Buy it now so you can say “I bought his first book before everyone knew he was cool.” You won’t regret it!

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Review: Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island

September 8, 2010 at 9:45 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing)

A review of Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island by Cameron Pierce

It takes a special sort of writer to craft a fairy tale that works for adults. In Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island, Pierce has woven a finely crafted fairy tale that works on several different levels at once, making it a delight to read no matter what level of depth you’re looking for.

The story revolves around a pickle, Gaston Glew, who comes from a planet where happiness is entirely unknown. There are no birthdays, only “sad days,” and suicides are not only common, but expected. Gaston decides to act, breaking the existential cycle of malaise that binds him by building a rocket and taking off for parts unknown, driven by the motto of his favorite TV character Captain Pickle who advises everyone to “unchain yourself from this briny fate, oh pickled prisoner.” In doing so, he ends up on pancake island, a joyous place of constant celebration. It is here when the philosophical underpinnings of Pierce’s story begin to shape the narrative: can something that knows nothing but misery and horror survive in a place where happiness is omnipresent? Can it survive him?

The book is incredibly fun to read, and Pierce’s simple prose belies his ability to talk about deep matters. On the surface, this is simply a fun fairy tale, with a romantic subplot straight out of Romeo and Juliet and a lot of fun imagery. If you feel like diving into the meat, however, there’s a lot happening here that’s worth thinking about. Is the Cuddlywumpus symbolic, or is he just awesome? Does Fanny Fod (the most beautiful pancake in the world) lactate maple beer because it’s weird and unsettling, or because she’s an integral part of the world Pierce has created? Sure, Cameron Pierce can shock (he proved that with his previous book Ass Goblins of Auschwitz) but he can also rip open the underbelly of the human condition using very simply and elegant storytelling techniques.

The characters are fun, the plot and setting are a joy, and much to my surprise, the ending is quite beautiful in a way, and certainly earned. Occasionally, things enter the plot and almost immediately disappear without much exploration (like the history of the races appearing in the book, for example), but this is a minor quibble. Instead of raising dramatic plot questions, those things become added set pieces, and help the reader see the world that Pierce is trying to create. You don’t have to be interested in food to love this book, and it’s a quick and delightful read. Perfect for those new to the bizarro genre, lovers of adult fairy tales, or anyone just looking for a great commuter book. You won’t regret the sweet, sweet taste of Cameron’s maple syrup.

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A review of Fistful of Feet by Jordan Krall

December 7, 2009 at 5:25 pm (Bizarro, Review, Writing) (, , , , )

A review of Fistful of Feet by Jordan Krall
by Michael A Rose

I feel like I’ve been riding through the desert on a half-dead horse, dry and aching for water, skin raw from the sand and sun blasting by me, a bullet wound festering in my side, and the scent of a woman’s sweat-soaked high heel lingering in my nostrils. Surprisingly, this isn’t a bad feeling – it’s a good one – because thanks to the transformative power of literature, I’m able to vicariously experience the wild west of the old spaghetti westerns through Jordan Krall’s “Fistful of Feet.”

I’m not a Western genre aficionado, I’ll admit that up front. What struck me immediately about this book though, was the style. It’s deceptively simple and straightforward, which I was not expecting. Stay with me though – this was carefully and exactly intended by the author, and therein lies his genius: Krall crafts a tale using melodramatically simple black and white characters who (mostly) wear their motivations on their sleeves. He front-loads the book with a huge number of characters, all with their own weird fetishes and motivations.

At first, this is difficult to swallow; the juxtaposition of complex cast of characters and simple narrative structure and language, and then the magic of Krall’s stylistic choices began to reveal itself. Through the clever storytelling contained in Fistful of Feet, Krall starts to weave the stories of these people together, and he not only brings in the bizarre, he actually utilizes all the standard tropes of the genre, making this as much a literary grape-stomp as it is an homage to a long-neglected literary genre. This is the straight-forward narrative of the classic Westerns, but with twisted sex. This is Louis L’amour gone haywire and driven half man by ancient unspeakable gods. This, in a word, is bizarro.

The story follows the archetypal lone wanderer, Calamaro, a rough and tumble stranger with many mysteries following behind him (my favorite mystery by far is the wooden donkey he drags along, which holds many secrets of its own). Calamaro drags himself to the local brothel in the small town of Screwhorse to set himself up with a room, but of course, as the genre demands, nobody’s comfortable with the new stranger in town (save a madam with a heart of gold and a few others). From there, things get perverse and hilariously wild, and that’s good: Krall is at his best when he taps into the reader’s prurient interests. This book is delightfully filled with sexual depravity and otherworldly references to unspeakable acts. The descriptions of the various delights at the town’s whorehouse are alternately stimulating and grimace-inducing, and that’s exactly how Krall holds the reader’s attention. A careful balancing act of alien starfish and four-footed prostitutes on one side with all the classic tropes of the old Clint Eastwood films on the other.

All in all, a fun read, and a must for any fans of genre-mashups, westerns with a twist, non-traditional lit fans and of course, strangers with nothing to lose. You might find yourself punching a horse just because you know they’ve been talking about you behind your back.

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Zerostrata Review

December 3, 2009 at 9:25 am (Bizarro, Review, Writing) (, , )

A review of Zerostrata by Anderson Prunty
by Michael A Rose

If Zerostrata was a tea, I would call it “bracing, with a hint of undeniable sweetness.” I would drink it on Wednesday mornings at work to make me feel on edge with anticipation of the day to come, and awaken me to the possibilities while simultaneously clearing my sinuses. But Anderson Prunty’s Zerostrata is not a tea – it’s a book – and a damn good one.

Zerostrata follows the story of Hansel Nothing as he returns to his childhood home in an effort to find himself and give his life some sense of meaning. He has no memory of where he’s been for the last decade or so. In a normal story, the plot would quickly become a tiresome cliche in which the focus is getting back lost memories, but in Prunty’s capable hands, the story stays firmly planted in the present – a present where a beautiful girl runs naked in the rain and a mysterious therapist named Doctor Blast prescribes a strange series of events that shake Hansel Normal’s world up completely.

One of the best things about reading Zerostrata is the juxtaposition of bizarro humor and strange events with a real sweetness. Sure, there are gang members who make the world’s most delicious salad from their own flesh, and liquid-like airspace complete with magically mobile trampolines to keep falling victims safe for their therapy, but at its core, Zerostrata seems to be a love story. Not in the traditional sense, but in the sense that once we find the right person, nothing else matters outside of that, no matter how difficult or mundane. There is a beautiful scene which I will not ruin for you involving raindrops toward the end of the book that contains a monologue I may ask Prunty for permission to use in my wedding vows some day. That’s the kind of experience this book gives a reader – being carried through the strangest of places, only to come out on the other side and find some sort of magic.

This is a quest story where the protagonist doesn’t know what the ultimate goal is, and as it is revealed to him, the reader sees it as well. That conceit alone makes this truly worth the read; highly recommended.

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