Wednesday, September 11, 2019

“A High-Paced, Historical Romp through Time”: A Review of Fountain of Hope: Dimensions, by Baylus C. Brooks

 (Gainesville, FL: Poseidon Historical Publications, 2018). ISBN 978-1-4116-3266-0

Although this is his first work of fiction, Baylus C. Brooks is no stranger to maritime-themed research and writing. He is an acknowledged expert on the life and death of Edward “Blackbeard” Thache (pronounced Teach), having come closer to tracing Thache’s origins in his three books on the subject than any other scholar before him. His research has been crucial to my work in historical education and entertainment related to the Golden Age of Piracy.

Never one to be afraid of controversy or putting himself out there as a scholar, it is no surprise that Brooks does not ease his way into fiction writing, but throws himself instead into the deep end of the ocean by giving us a novel that not only deals with Time Travel, but does so in a compelling, cutting-edge way.

If you are a fan of other time-jumping historical fiction like the Outlander series, or even such nonhistorical entertainment as Avengers: Endgame or the Terminator series and the multiple timelines of Westworld, then this is a novel for you.

The first thing you’ll want to do (although it is not necessary to understanding the multi-time-period plot) is to track the time periods. The book begins with a prologue set in 1781 at the deciding battle of the American Revolution, Yorktown, before jumping to 2072, when the world is locked in a semi-worst-case scenario involving new alignments in geopolitical divisions based on our current world events and a food supply that has dwindled to a specially engineered kelp. Yes… science. There is plenty of mysterious science in Fountains of Hope, as with any sci-fi adventure novel and whether or not it is true science is, as always, besides the point. I like Brooks’s take on the evil aspects of advanced science and the nefarious shadow organizations whose morality is as questionable as their authority is unearned.

Next we move to 1808, where we meet our hero, Lt. Stephen Hathorne, who, during a hurricane off the coast of Florida (as I type this, Dorian’s bearing down on them), is thrown from that most famously named of all American naval vessels, the USS Enterprise. Those with a love of pirate history will recall that another devastating hurricane, in 1715, sunk the Spanish plate fleet and not only financed the Republic of Pirates led by Benjamin Hornigold and “Black” Sam Bellamy, but gave rise to a key plot point in the hit series Black Sails.

At this stage, only about 10 percent through the story, we already see Brooks’s abilities as a researcher, as he describes the Yorktown battlefield and larger context as well as the chaos on a sailing vessel during a hurricane with authority and authenticity. His writing here reminds me of John Jakes.

As the ship struggles to stay afloat, Stephen finds his father’s timepiece in his sea trunk. This object, a silver watch with supernatural properties, including electric blue light that emanates as it operates, is the mechanism by which time travel is accomplished.

It is here that we get some family backstory, which includes Stephen’s father’s best friend George. It was he who was by Stephen’s father’s side when he died of his wounds at Yorktown.

Washing up on the shore of St. Augustine, the oldest town in America, Stephen engages with the Indigenous tribes, and again Brooks shows the depth of his research (he lives in that area), exploring the ever-important subjects of slavery and colonization as well as the shamanic aspects of native cultures.

Shifting to 2073, we meet the heroine, Robyn, whose love of old books and films gives her a context for the time travel she encounters when—you guessed it—she meets and falls in love with our hero in a romantic comedy “meet-cute” that serves the story well.

During their adventures the romance continues, and as they travel through time, Robyn adjusts at a believable pace (rare in time-travel tales) and the couple work together puzzling out what is taking place. Their interactions lend credence to the time travel parameters and paradoxes that send the majority of these kinds of stories off the rails.

Once the ground rules for time travel have been shared, the narrative goes by at a blazing pace, jumping back and forth with glee as we meet a murderous, maniacal villain; encounter doppelgangers aplenty; take a breathtaking journey up the East Coast of colonial America in 1781 (where Brooks’s scholarship shines; the sequence on the Dutch merchant vessel, including a run-in with pirates, is a highlight); and wind up in Salem, Massachusetts 70 years earlier, during the Witch Trials, where Brooks incorporates the historical personage of Justice of the Peace John Hathorne into the narrative as the great grandfather of Stephen.

A quick aside. As a writer of historical fiction, blending your fiction with the facts is half the fun. I believe for the reader as well.

The ending is satisfying and sensible—although not a guarantee with stories of this kind. And—remember how I suggested you track the time periods?—it all ends earlier than it started, in 1539.

At its core, Fountain of Hope is a morality tale about where the world is and where it is going, both geopolitically and in terms of increasingly insidious, invasive technology. Couple that with a good-old swashbuckling revenge story with some surprising reveals and this is a book well worth a read.


Highly researched, Fountain of Hope is richly illustrated with maps, woodcuts, and images that lend historical credence and situate the reader more fully in the worlds Brooks crafts with his words.

Monday, September 9, 2019

“Messages from Mary”: A Review of The Magdelene Gates, by Richard G. Geldard

 (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications). ISBN 978-1-936012-90-9

Over the years I have reviewed many books from Larson Publications, including those they publish on behalf of the Paul Brunton Foundation. I have never been disappointed. This publisher has an eye for quality narratives grounded in scholarship and a crucial spiritual insight, and their books are a balm for a sorely troubled world.

Having long been a student of the Gnostic Gospels (e.g., Thomas, Phillip, and Mary), the gospels of the Essenes, and other esoteric documents from the early centuries of Christianity, as well as the true nature of Jesus and those who knew him best, The Magdalene Gates was a book I was keen to read. It takes as its central plot device the uncovering of scrolls from a dig site in Turkey—scrolls that put Mary Magdalene center stage in Jesus’s life and offer spiritual guidance to both the book’s characters and well as the reader.

Mary Magdalene is one of the most contested, misrepresented, and misunderstood characters in the Bible. Many know her only through what they’ve learned from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and the song “Alabaster Box” sung by CeCe Winans. In the Church’s schema of Jesus’s life, Mary Magdalene is the whore side of the Madonna/whore dichotomy completed by Mary Mater.

The problem is, there is no evidence at all of her being a whore. Perhaps she is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus. This would be of crucial importance, as I subscribe to the belief that Lazarus’s “death” was metaphorical and the culmination of his training/induction ritual into the Essenes.

So his sister would be an important figure indeed. Perhaps even Jesus’s wife, another theory to which I subscribe.

Certainly she is, in the Gospel of John, the “Beloved.” Scripture gives us clues that Mary was one of the most important (if not the most) of Jesus’s inner circle of confidants and disciples.

So, her words are important to hear and understand.

The book opens with, in romantic comedy parlance, a “meet cute,” as an uninspired graduate student specializing in ancient Greek tombs named Tonio meets Maia, an educator, at the ruins of a Greek theatre.

The reader will immediately notice the author’s facility with all things Greek, from the landscape, to the architecture, to mythology, history, and theatre.

It brings to mind John Fowles’s The Magus, as well as William Azuski’s Travels in Elysium, for all their Mediterranean mystery and splendor.
Once Tonio and Maia come together, answering the call of adventure in the classic hero’s journey, they blossom into a couple through an Indiana Jones–style adventure and work together—along with an interesting array of secondary characters comprising a blend of Maia’s family and specialist scholars—to solve the clues in the newly found scrolls.
There are rites of passages, secrets, setbacks, and through it all an underlying commentary on spiritual growth and authenticity.
The Magdelene Gates is structured and reads like other spiritual fables, such as The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, and The Twelfth Insight by James Redfield.

The chapters, labeled Gates One through Nine, parallel the Nine Gates found in the scrolls. Nine is a sacred and mystical number and Geldard goes the extra step of correlating his meta-story with the spiritual journey through the gates. This careful construction begs close and multiple reads.

As it often throws me off and takes me out of the narrative, I want to let the potential reader know that the book is written in present tense, like some fables, but this style of writing can potentially jar the reader out the otherwise beautifully immersive world of the story after long periods of dialogue.

This admittedly subjective caveat aside, The Magdelene Gates is essential reading for difficult times. Geldard’s characters, in their simplicity and commitment to a spiritual and meaningful life of communitas, signal a path away from the greed, loneliness, and meaninglessness that limits the life of so many in the world and offers a series of gates to a fuller way of living and knowing Source.




Thursday, August 15, 2019

“Hope, Health, and Happiness”: A Review of 100 Secrets From the World’s Happiest Centenarians, by Dr. Elizabeth Lopez

 (Leader’s Press, 2019). ISBN (ebook) 978-1-943386-54-3
Longevity is a topic under much discussion in the twenty-first century, although humans have always been fascinated by those who live to the triple digits. But it is not just a matter of quantity—at least not to me—but of quality, and that is the draw and value of this important book by Dr. Elizabeth Lopez.
A trained psychologist, Lopez focuses on the Nicoya region of Costa Rica, known for a high percentage of centenarians, despite the economic struggles and lack of adequate food and water that have also led to a high infant mortality rate. Through face to face interviews with numerous centenarians, Lopez teases out the overlapping elements that create the physical and psychological conditions conducive to a long life.
Some are not surprising, while others truly do make you stop and assess the way you live your life.
Lopez’s research extends from a “Blue Zone” (places where the percentage of centenarians is unusually high) expedition to the region in 2007, funded by National Geographic and CNN. Second only to Sardinia in its proportion of centenarians, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is a statistical anomaly worth studying, and Lopez does a tremendous job of bringing the humanity and energy of her interview subjects to life through extensive quotations and photographs that could easily have come from the pages of National Geographic. The vitality and spirit of the people in those photographs is proof enough that what is revealed in the text works.
It should come as no surprise, after reading this book, that Costa Rica is also often voted one of the happiest places on Earth. Happiness cannot be underestimated when it comes to longevity. The Harvard Grant and Glueck Study took place over 75 years and showed that strong relationships make people happy and keep them healthy. I had watched a TED talk a few years ago by the director of the study, Robert Waldinger, who is quoted in this book. The talk is available on YouTube.
Lopez’s mother is from Guanacaste, the region where the study area is situated and it was a place she visited as a child. That history gives an underlying connective energy to the narrative that would not have been possible were she an outsider.
Some of the most striking common features of centenarians in the region are that their culture and society are collective. With resources scarce and material comforts not a priority, the people of Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula rely on each other. Out of this comes a respect for the elders of the community—a practice sadly lacking in the United States, where we now talk about Ageism and the Sandwich Generation and the gaps between youth and their elders are not so much learning opportunities as a source of mutual disrespect.
Another feature is a deep faith in God in an area where the Catholic Church’s influence is strong. As America becomes increasingly secular, it will be important to see if a common spirituality emerges or if Atheism and its danger of leading to Nihilism and despondency will prevail.
Community cannot be emphasized enough. The centenarians interviewed are “optimistic and easy-going” and exhibit “low neuroticism.” They love music (especially marimba) and dancing and gathering together with members of all generations. They also take great pride in their ability to care for themselves. The centenarians in Costa Rica began work at a young age and continued working until they were in their eighties or, in some cases, their nineties. And the work was hard—in the fields from dawn to dusk—but fulfilling. They were all walkers as well, sometimes covering miles in a day.
A similar case study can be found in the Introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he discusses the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, which has an Italian immigrant community with many of the same dynamics as in the Nicoya Peninsula. Not surprisingly, the people are atypically happy, healthy, and living long lives free of disease and addiction.
100 Secrets is gorgeous, with a colorful and inviting graphical layout that allows Lopez to present the core data in numerous, easily digestible and memorable formats. A table in the back charts the centarians’ names, key characteristics, and related quotes.  
The Recipes section highlights the diet of the centenarians, which is a crucial component of their longevity and, more important—their vitality. I intend to try them all.
In one of the review blurbs that open the book, author Doug Smith reports that “someone born today has a 50/50 chance of living to 100.” It is important to keep in mind that quantity is nothing without quality. I have seen evidence of this over and over with members of my family. So if it is your goal to be a centenarian, apply the characteristics, mindsets, habits, and try the recipes shared by Lopez—they will make the difference.  

It should be noted in closing that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go toward supporting Costa Rica’s centenarians. Just one more reason to buy this book and start applying its lessons without delay.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

“Old Hickory”: A Review of Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander, by Paul Vickery

(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-947654-89-1

If all you know about the seventh president of the United States is that his is the long, chiseled face and mass of white hair on the twenty dollar bill, you’ve been missing out.
This excellent biography begins with a prologue covering the rabble-rousing ruckus that was Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829. Jackson was a new kind of candidate—unlike his six predecessors in this still-new nation, he was a “man of the people.” In no way an insider, this rugged frontiersman who broke the mold of presidents coming from Massachusetts or Virginia had strong beliefs and was never afraid to defend or act on them. The outgoing president, John Quincy Adams, refused to attend.
Not unlike Alexander Hamilton, Jackson was a “willful boy with a chip on his shoulder” (6) and a mess of contradictions—a daily lifelong reader of scripture, he was also known for his ability to swear with the best of them. He and his brothers fought in the American Revolution, starting Jackson’s complex relationship with death and loss and his ability to carry on despite being wounded. Also like Hamilton, he had a penchant for duels. He had at least three, the second of which resulted in his being wounded in the torso and his killing his opponent, and the third resulting in his carrying a bullet in his body for years after. While taking his law degree, Jackson solidified his reputation as a “roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing, mischievous fellow” (15).
A great deal of Jackson’s controversy stems from an innocent clerical error. The love of his life, Rachel, had been in a terrible marriage. Leaving her abusive husband she fell in love with and married Jackson, although she was technically not divorced. Jackson’s enemies—and they were considerable—would use this against him, raising his ire as they portrayed the innocent Rachel as a bigamist and unwholesome woman.
True to his style, he defended her to the end.
In addition to the perceptions of his marriage, another aspect of Jackson’s life that cannot be ignored is his fierce actions as an Indian fighter. The controversial stage musical Bloody Andrew Jackson a decade ago brought all of this back to life and at least two productions of the award-winning musical have been canceled in the last few years because of protests by Native Americans. Jackson was given the title of “Long Knife” by his Indian allies for bravery, although it took on dark connotations as he fought against the Indians allied with the Spanish and British.
His growing popularity in the newly formed state of Tennessee led to his election to Congress in 1796, where he was once again seen as a brash outsider. He returned the next term as a senator, but politics did not suit him as well as the military, and by 1802 he was a major general in the Tennessee militia.
Jackson’s role in and around New Orleans is the core focus of his life and legacy. He was one player on an international stage that involved the Spanish, Napoleon, Jefferson, and the Louisiana Purchase. There were also a slew of nefarious personalities like Aaron Burr, who had ironically killed Hamilton in a duel, and General James Wilkinson, an agent provocateur if ever there was one. In the treason trial that was to come, implicating Burr and others, Jackson took Burr’s side, going so far as to go to Richmond, VA to testify on his behalf.
This is a fascinating time in American history, worthy of the cinema and the stage and Vickery does an excellent job of offering a primer and context to the larger story while focusing on Jackson.
On the heels of these events came the Creek War. On the strength of his continuing bravery, Jackson had a new nickname—Old Hickory. With America currently at a crossroads in how it talks about and moves forward from its history of repression and genocide again the Indians, books like this provide crucial context for the campaigns against and removal of Indians. In the case of Jackson, he believed he had a duty to defend the United States and, at times, this led to censure by commanders, threats of mutiny by his men, and dangers to his often fragile health. But Old Hickory would not be daunted, and his actions earned him a commission in the US Regular Army. He was not afraid to carry out executions to maintain discipline and he amassed essential victories in the southern campaigns of the War of 1812.
I have read a lot of military history in the past quarter century and can say without reservation that the chapters on the lead-up and waging of the Battle of New Orleans are some of the best I have read. Vickery deftly handles the role of pirates and privateers like Jean Lafitte, the shifting alliances with the Native Americans, the intricacies of the maneuvers of the armies, and even the post-battle burial and housekeeping practices without letting the dramatic pace of the sights and sounds die in the details. 
Following the battle, in which Jackson was the acknowledged hero, his persistent drive to secure the spoils of victory and answer the so-called Indian Question caused friction with the locals and his superiors, but Jackson never slowed. His efforts culminated in the First Seminole War, which resulted in America wresting control of Florida (with the exception of the fort at St. Augustine) from the Spanish in 1818. Jackson encouraged President Monroe to allow him to go on to take the fort and Cuba, although he was literally spitting blood from the fatigues of battle.
Riding his military popularity and displacement of the Indians, Jackson became president, but not without more controversy. In his first campaign, he lost to John Quincy Adams, although Jackson had won both the popular and electoral votes. In the Electoral College, the firebrand Henry Clay supported Adams and then became his Secretary of State. Amazing how nothing changes on Capitol Hill. The result of the outcome was the start of the Democratic Party. In a “vitriolic and personal campaign” (193) Jackson got his revenge on Adams, his camp even accusing the sitting president of “pimp[ing] for the czar [of Russia] and provid[ing] sex slaves.”
You see… things really haven’t changed.
A casualty of the vicious election was Jackson’s beloved Rebecca, who died before he could take office. An office she wished he hadn’t sought.
In another parallel with modern presidential history, Jackson was quick to use the Veto and believed in cycling his Cabinet to keep them “sharp and compliant.” He didn’t want their opinions. He demanded their unwavering support. And his controversies continued. He made sure the Bank of the United States wasn’t re-chartered and oversaw the General Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears under Van Buren and other atrocities against Native American tribes.
The heart of history is the complexity of those who were involved in the events that shaped the world. Vickery, a professor of History at Oral Roberts University and accomplished living history presenter, does an excellent job of balancing his assessments of both Jackson’s strengths and his weaknesses. This is one of three things we can demand of our historians. The other two are getting the facts straight and being a talented enough writer that reading their books isn’t like chewing hay and sawdust. Vickery excels at all three.
Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander is part of “The Generals” series, edited by the noted author Stephen Mansfield. I will be reviewing Vickery’s book on George Washington in the months to come. I am very much looking forward to it.





Thursday, July 18, 2019

A Review of Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast, by Zakary McGaha

 (Bizarro Pulp Press, an imprint of JournalStone, 2019). ISBN: 978-1-947654-89-1
If you are looking for a weird but fun ride this summer, this novella might just be for you. But a quick word of warning. Know what you’re getting into. As you’ll notice, this is published by Bizarro Pulp Press. So let’s get some definitions from Wikipedia:
Bizarro fiction: a contemporary literary genre, which often uses elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with pop-surrealism and genre fiction staples, in order to create subversive, weird, and entertaining works.
Pulp fiction: lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter
So, Bizarro Pulp… you can only imagine. And you should.
But this label has nothing to do with quality. Although it is in many ways the ink-on-paper analog of Slasher Films, complete with lots of violence, sex, and, well… bizarreness, it can also be just as fine and releasing as a Rob Zombie film.
If that’s your sort of thing. If it is, read on. I don’t read a lot of Bizarro, but I have read and reviewed some anthologies and stand-alones. Knowing what I am getting when I am going in, I adjust my mindset and just enjoy, if the author’s talent allows.
Because all the same standards apply. You need interesting characters with an arc, and an at least semi-cohesive narrative and an interesting problem to solve.
Although, in Bizarro, the characters are often deeper in the shit at the end than when they started. And this is truly its appeal.
Life isn’t always jolly. And this subgenre revels in it.
Earlier this year I read and reviewed McGaha’s debut novel, Locker Arms. It was a fun homage to small town high school politics with an overlay of edgy horror. It seems the trend in modern horror is to make it a social commentary on towns and families—the way Stephen King has always done it—and it works.
So I was a little surprised as I began to read Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast. As far as Locker Arms went on the sex and violence scale—and it went pretty far (I am not a prude)—the follow-up novel from this college-aged writer of promise goes plenty farther. And the circumstances do go considerably off the rails.
In other words—McGaha did his job in writing Bizarro Pulp.
Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast (the cover of the book recalls the film O Brother Where Art Thou? but dressed in a provocative surrealism) primarily concerns the little lives of a couple named Vogel and Aldert who live in a backwater town, eking by with little expectation and even less imagination. Like Locker Arms, much of the story takes place in a school where Vogel teaches. Hopelessness and ennui prevail. Hormones rage, violence simmers, and, although some of the teachers and students—usually while stoned—dream or blab about getting out, they know the odds are infinitely against them.
In the downward spiral of the socioeconomic Cycle of Shit that is the end result of rampant neoliberalism, they are swimming with the turds that have inevitably trickled down.
To pass the time, Vogel reads a book. An odd little number like the one by Fingerling in The Number 23, although this one is written by Intentionally Anonymous (IA). It’s chock full of serpent-symbols and ill omens, which makes it compelling but complex reading. The book’s contents recur throughout the narrative, undergirding and commentating upon it, and, in the final few pages, the reader is given the template to write one of their own. If they dare.
The characters around which Vogel and Aldert constellate are mostly engaged in a stunning dance of dueling simplicities. Carnal. Visceral. And born of the understandable hopelessness that comes with knowing you are Nowhere and will be there Forever. Even the community college kids are screwed, despite current propaganda to the contrary.
McGaha, as well read and gifted as any mainstream writer, is never afraid to let the reader know that he takes none of this too seriously. He swims with turds of his own devise and the ink on the page is smiling. An interlude about a third of the way through, titled “Cheesy Existentialism,” is a case in point. We shouldn’t take any of this too much to heart. It’s a romp, a fantasy—but chock full of hard and prickly truths.
Again reminiscent of O Brother, another central character is Junior Hicks (gotta love the name), a native of the eastern Tennessee town of Johnson City (do you hear the lyrics to “Wagon Wheel”?). He lives back to nature but woos the crowds with his old timey, down homey fiddle-playin’ and croonin’, which serve as a potent form of preachin’. He could be at least one banjo-pickin’ character’s way out of Nowhereville, or just as easily his ticket to destinations even worse.
Junior’s got layers.
It’s a little before half way that things get real weird, real fast—like most contemporary horror—including Vogel being attacked and telling the operator just after, Juliette Lewis style, “There’s a crazy dude in my house. I stabbed him.”
When Aldert is exposed to a mysterious, supernatural goop that ups his physique and sexual appetite, things truly start to unravel. Vogel looks to IA’s book for answers as thing collapse around her.
The answers are not forthcoming.
Classic Bizarro-Pulp.
As I was writing this review, news broke that McGaha’s third novel will be available in September. We can only guess what horrific wonders await.


“An Innovator, Always”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’ Witness in the Convex Mirror

(Kāne’ohe, HI: Tinfish Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-0-9987438-9-9)
It is always a special day when a new work by this innovative and energetic writer arrives in my mailbox. Over the past 10 years, I’ve reviewed about 20 percent of Tabios’ over fifty published works, at times being inspired to be as innovative as the poet and the particular work in how I did so.
Part of her ability to be so prolific is the way she reworks, recycles, and reimagines her own writings and the writings of others—in this case, as the Author’s Note indicates: “Each poem begins with 1 or 1–2 lines from ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery.” In many of my previous Tabios reviews I talk at length about her various means of working with existing pieces to create something new, so I won’t belabor it here. Instead, I’ll say that ALL work a writer or other artist produces is linked to and derivative of something—many things—that have come before.
Tabios simply has the self-awareness to be up front about it, even when it is more ephemeral than repurposing lines from another poet’s already existing poem.
Although Tabios has always been to some extent political, be it the Filipino diaspora, 9/11 and the world ever since, or the complexities of gender or adoption for adopter and adoptee, I found Witness in the Convex Mirror to take it to a new level. And the clue is in the substitution of Witness for Self-Portrait. As many a wise and wizened soul has told us, to Witness is to be responsible to Speak. And speak Tabios does, on a variety of pressing subjects in a hurting and hurtful world. So this review will be less about the technical achievement and more about the content of the poems and the responses they evoke.
Within the first few poems, Tabios makes her declarations on the state of things. Take these lines from “History”:
“We imbue objects with worth as determined by the artifice of scarcity”; “We break proven ancestral wisdom by taking more from the land than what we give back to it” (11)
Pressing and thorny themes, including History itself (who “owns,” who teaches, who manipulates it) that are very much in the current consciousness run all through the poems in this volume. She continues in this vein with “The Temporal,” writing: “I am exhausted from living in the dim shadows of a movie forged from the margins of capitalism” (32). The use of “movie” conjures images of Plato’s Cave, where the illusions are mistaken for reality. Neoliberalism anyone? During a recent historical education tour of a wealthy oil area I was shocked to learn that most of the attendees of my workshops and performances as Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara were not familiar with, nor aware of the etymology of, “neoliberalism.” Talk about a snake successfully inserted into a garden…
So as not to get too, too serious, Tabios interjects (one might say ejaculates) two poems in the mix—“Processing the Sheriff’s Advice” and “The Sheriff’s Advice”—the first the setup and the second the punchline on the subject of terms for male masturbation. The second is also a good example of Tabios’s use of list poems in her cumulative body of work.
The section that follows, Cubism of Color, tackles gender, race, and other political complexities through the modern lens. We have Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman; Scarlet(t) Johansson’s turn as an Asian character in Ghost in the Shell (as I was writing this she defended her right to play any kind of human—or an animal or tree); struggles in the Sudan and the bombing of Syria; riffs on an article from The Atlantic and a report about the CDC from the Washington Post; the poverty politics of government cheese (which was a staple of my childhood family meals one particularly desperate year); irresponsibility and the environment; and rape politics and sex dolls (which are already overlapping).
And, because I spent 18 months immersed in the world of Che before the historical education tour last month, I have to quote from  “A Revolt at the Ready”: “I bet you’ll choose Che Guevara’s face, stubbled and with eyes haunting under a black beret—a logo for determination.” The co-optation of his image beautifully represents the distorted reflection and the witness in the convex mirror.
The collection concludes with the Selected Notes and Acknowledgments, which will clue you in to the extent of both the origin material for the collection beyond the Ashbery poem and the true reach and influence of this talented and always innovative poet.

Have a look inside the mirror, and let the poems ask a response.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Review of Chuck Regan’s FOR BLOOD OR JUSTICE, Stormkind: Episode 1


(Rayguns and Mayhem/Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019).

As I opened with in my review of Chuck Regan’s short story collection six months ago, I have known him and his work for a long time. Thirty-three years. And, in that time, I have witnessed his growth from a talented sketch artist and budding graphic novel writer and graphic artist to a novelist, graphic novelist, and short story writer whose immense world-building and attention to detail conspire to create expansive, immersive story-scapes that combine science fiction, fantasy, pop culture, and a deft mix of comedy and darkness. 
For Blood or Justice represents the next level in Regan’s world-building and his in-progress and planned meta-verse. The book opens with a Prologue taking us back to 1890, when a meteor brought vast changes to Earth. So many changes, in fact, that historical timelines were shifted from what we know them to be. Rather than bogging down the narrative, Regan uses footnotes to define, contextualize, and, in some cases, point the reader to other works and facts about his alternative history timeline (such as a longer life for Tesla and a much worse ending for Nixon than resigning). Although I like very little about the twenty-first century and where it’s taken technology, as a writer of meta-verse stories, I appreciate what our capabilities are to package and distribute parts and pieces of our large stories in this way. I especially liked the alt-origin of the Philly Phanatic.
The Prologue then jumps to 1910, as the effects of the meteor begin to reveal themselves. The Prologue also cues the reader that this is a story that pulses at the nexus of Science and Spirit, with detailed doses of each. Never does the story get bound in ideas from either side of the same virtual coin, but the detail grounds the fantastic.
The Prologue jumps its time-scale several more times, bringing us to 1982.
As the story proper starts, we are situated in 1981, 15 months earlier. Regan and I were born only months apart and share an—I think quite proper and deserved—nostalgia for the Eighties. We were still innocent enough to unabashedly use our imaginations, while film, TV, fashion, music, and even the United States itself were all operating at a very high-energy, high-quality level.
So, if it’s happening in the 1980s, all the better for me, especially when it pays homage to the dominant tropes. And For Blood or Justice pays them aplenty. One of the characters, Scott, dresses in a “hoodie with the sleeves ripped off, bleach-distressed jeans, fingerless gloves, [and] scuffed high top sneakers”—as we did. And Regan is never coy about his homages, which I like. He says that Scott “did his best to try to look the part.” Later in the novel, a character cobbles together his superhero suit from a black sweat suit, goggles, balaclava mask, and skateboarding elbow and knee protectors, finishing off the ensemble with black parkour high tops. And one situation provokes a character to say, “Kinda tropey.” If you like things like “space robot spider things,” this story-world’s for you.
From early on and throughout the novel, I was thinking of Mystery Men and X-Men. For Blood or Justice falls somewhere tonally between the two, although it navigates a much wider swath of tropes and landscapes than either. This is a world where “microdrone camera[s]” and “styrofoam coffee cups” seamlessly co-exist.
And the laughs generated by names like Silver Scythe/Silver Dildo are too good to miss.
The different cultural worlds that Regan brings together all but leap off the page in a hologram of sight, taste, sound, and smell, such as his passages about a group called the Chaos Punks. This has the kind of Dystopian feel that brings to mind the films of Joel Schumacher and Ridley Scott. And, again, the detail of the world is value-added. The description of Post-Non-Enhancement Syndrome and the side-effects of the treatment made me smile, because that would definitely be a thing.
Like recent films, especially in the MU, the book is packed with Easter Eggs. Here’s just one: “So, what’ve we got? Aliens? Is it aliens? It’s always aliens if it glows like that.” Giorgio T to the max.
Cross-pollinating with the popular genres of “forensics investigation drama” and Reality TV (which is anything but), For Blood or Justice explores the TV-land deals some of the special-power people have landed, including the story’s protagonist, Dan. Like Mystery Men, it is all about the “brand.” Help abounds, from algorithms, questionnaires, sponsors, and image consultants—human and android. Complexities abound as well, in the form of ratings, possibility of cancellation, and potential for lawsuits. Again, if a meteor were to hit Earth and create special powers in some of the population, this would definitely be a thing.
Dan tries his best to keep up with the Criminal and the Corporate (which, as we know, are each of a piece), and his failure—trying a gravelly voice and having a coughing fit—brings us closer to his arc. He also has to deal with upticks in his Wrack—his set of special powers—that he does not understand and cannot thoroughly manage.
Joining the Criminal and the Corporate are the Coppers, and as the tension and the plot ramp up, we get a lot of noir-speak and other tropey deliciousness, including D & D–like point systems for traits like Strength. I particularly liked the pair of detectives in the last third of the story.
There’s also plenty of darkness in For Blood and Justice. Tasting a living person’s blood gives the protagonist the ability to check in on them telepathically and access their memories and there are entities out on the psychic planes that “even ghosts are scared of.” As a professional paranormal researcher, lecturer and author, I can attest to the truth of that. The descriptions of some specific ones are as eerie as they are accurate. There is also something called the Red Web that’s every bit as terrible as our own Dark one.
Something tells me—and I speak from decades of experience as a teacher, reviewer, and writer—that Regan is just getting started.
Book Two is going to be published in October, so get reading. You’ll be very glad you did.