Monday, May 6, 2019

A Review of Different Drummers, by Kevin Cummings, with poetry by John Gartland

 (Frog in the Mirror Press, 2019). ISBN: 978-0-692-19767-7 (paperback)

You never know where the connections you make in life will lead. Simply saying yes to opportunity, out of curiosity or even as a courtesy, can open doors to whole new worlds, whole new places, that you never knew existed.
In the twenty-first century, where everything is divided into Us and Them and the Other might as well live in another solar system where their rituals and culture are uber-alienated by some shadowy cabal that has engineered itself to make such decisions, feeding them down through indoctrinal water-drips to the TV-zombied hamster-people, it is imperative to learn about other places, other sub-sets of society. And to learn about and from what occupies the time of the thinkers and artists that reside there.
For this reason alone, Different Drummers is a primer on Thailand and an invaluable read.
So… that saying yes I mentioned. It happened a decade ago, when I received John Gartland’s Gravity’s Fool in the mail for review. His poetry moved me. Still does. I can’t swear to it, but I believe John and I connected on Facebook, which is an admittedly unusual benefit to an otherwise stinking/sinking cesspool of Big Data content and insidious mood manipulation. I had been doing reviews for about five years, which is an invaluable exercise for a writer and content creator (and, should you need more proof, Different Drummers is full to the brim with Cummings’s and others’ reviews of the books of some of the expats he interviews).
John and I got to talking after the review was published and our conversations led to publishing some of his work on the literary website I founded in 2002, www.newmystics.com, and even a collaboration on an extended piece he asked me to do the voice work for, called “Letter to John Wilson” (http://www.newmystics.com/lit/JohnGartland-JohnWilson.html). In 2015 I reviewed the re-issue of his novel Orgasmus, which is a Robert Anton Wilson/William S. Burroughs–esque mind-trip that I highly recommend. Between then and now I have reviewed a few more of John’s poetry books, which involve collaborations with other writers and photographers.
John was how I came to read and now review this collection of book reviews, essays, interviews, and, of course, a good bit of poetry by John, who has been given the well-earned moniker of “Bangkok’s Poet Noir.”
There are a number of things that impress me about this collection (which is a follow-up to Cummings’s Bangkok Beat). First of all, it is an obvious labor of love, which is why I concentrate on reviewing (this is my 170th) small and independent press titles. It’s not about money or prestige or ramming a thinly packaged ideology down a beach-goer’s throat during summer vacation reading time. It’s all about The Work. Second, Cummings is a great interviewer. Great questions, terrific insights, and, as a result, the interviewees give us something other than the standard BS magazine drivel. They truly do give of themselves. I reveled in honest opinions and colorful experiences. I learned what makes other writers write, other musicians play, other artists’ photograph or paint. Third, I learned about a place that seems as interesting and foreign and scintillating and mysterious and yet modern and problematic as any I’ve been to in my travels.
As indicated by the illustration on the cover—a tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the book features a considerable selection of interesting individuals and a mosaic of undulating, interacting, overlapping stories.
Place is important. What draws a person to a foreign land? What keeps them there so long they are an expat? chapter 1, “The Entertainment Zones,” and the handful of chapters that follow all center upon the places. And more are explored throughout. Through some excellent writing we get to know a bit about the cities, the neighborhoods, the streets, the bars and music clubs. This is important, because, to truly understand this extensive cast of characters, you have to understand the places in which they move, because that’s the mix from which the circumstances come.
And all of the stories told in Different Drummers have interesting circumstances. A standout story is in chapter 6, told by T Hunt Locke, about Noi. The anecdote about Bi and Bo really made me smile. I’ve already shared it half a dozen times.
Of no surprise, I highly recommend the book for the presence of John Gartland alone. There is a hard-hitting, non-PC interview he gives and the poetry in the middle of the book and in the closing section is some of John’s best work.
In John’s interview and others you’ll get an insider’s view of the expat community in Thailand—what brought them there, what keeps them there. Some of the answers may surprise you, some of their comments may move you back and forth on the reactionary scale, but applaud their honesty and acknowledge how much they’ve earned the knowledge they share.
Another highlight of the book is chapter 13, which is an interview with Irishman Hugh Gallagher, aka Von Von Von, a former music scene writer turned musician/performer whose many accomplishments include performing at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theatre. He is also a novelist.
As I mentioned, John Gartland is not the only one who brings his Truth to the pages of this book in a non-apologetic way. There are opinions and insights—not all of which align—on topics such as Brexit, globalization/neoliberalism, and the state of the arts in Thailand and the world. The writers, artists, and thinkers in Different Drummers all display an impressive balance of experience and intelligence. And most of them have a terrific sense of irony and humor.
Of special interest to the crime thriller and mystery devotee are several interviews and book reviews (I love the decision to pair them for each author) with some of the best in the business. Situating their stories in Thailand and environs is value added. Check it out and see.
So do yourself a favor, and get a copy of Different Drummers. It is not one book, but many all in one. If you are planning a trip to Thailand it’s the perfect primer to keep from being just your average tourist… and if you’re not currently planning to go, by the end of the read, you will be.



Thursday, April 18, 2019

A Review of The Watchman’s Rainbow and Other Works, by Bill Wyant

ISBN: 978-0-9600201-0-2 (paperback)

DISCLOSURE: For four years the author of this collection of short stories, plays, essays, and poems was a student in my creative writing classes held through an extension program offered by a community college in West Virginia. Most of the pieces that create the seemingly disparate yet unified tapestry of this collection were developed in those classes; I edited many to varying degrees and published early versions of The Watchman’s Rainbow at the literary site for which I am Founding Editor, www.newmystics.com.
That said, my objectivity could rightly be put into question. With sensitivity to such a probable circumstance, what follows is more of a book report than a book review. I have chosen this modification of my approach over the prospect of abandoning the work altogether for one simple reason:
These works are well written, exquisitely researched, and, as the author tells us in several of his Author Notes to the various sections, he has lived at least to some degree the realities that he has crafted into his fiction.
Constituting the bulk of the page-count for this collection, The Watchman’s Rainbow is a geopolitical action-thriller in the tradition of  le Carré and Clancy. It takes as its focus the drug wars between the United States and Mexico, although, as writers and able readers know, we do not read or care about subjects when it comes to fiction—we read and care about people. And the person at the core of this collection of stories and theatre-like interludes is Amos Sanson (a pseudonym) who is coming to the end of a long, successful career as a watcher for a cabal led by a man named Simon Stoddard (think Charlie directing the Angels or the voice on the Mission: Impossible recordings). As we first meet Sanson he is struggling, akin to Sherlock Holmes (a character with whom Wyant, like myself, has great affinity) with whether or not to retire in the face of the fact that he is no longer the man he was, mentally or physically, although the villains—and his employers—are making it hard to walk away.
It was clear from the first day Bill brought the bones of The Watchman to class that his knowledge of the watcher’s world was impressive (he has nearly 30 years of experience in the “active and reserve component Army … [with] qualifications in military intelligence and special operations” according to his bio) and put him squarely on a research level with le Carré and Clancy.
His commitment to improving as a writer (and, truth be told, he was more than proficient to start) put him on their level in other ways as well.
The Watchman’s Rainbow boasts an intriguing cast of international secondary and tertiary characters, plenty of action, and many insights into the geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century.
Showing his range, Wyant follows up the novella with five poems, the first of which, “The Master Mysterian,” is an homage in quatrains to none other than Sherlock Holmes. He follows this up with a poem about the first literary detective, C. Auguste Dupin (a creation of Edgar Allan Poe). The final three poems cover Reality, War, and Death.
After the poems, Wyant offers two one-act plays. The first takes as its subject the Monongahela River, in north-central West Virginia, and its importance and function through history. A life-long resident and champion of the area, Wyant explores over the course of centuries of development one of the defining features of the river: the struggle between economic profit and protection of the environment. As a playwright and social justice activist who spent seven years researching and producing historical fiction in north-central West Virginia, I can vouch for Wyant’s historical research and authenticity of his characters.
The next play, titled Parlor Games, is one for which my theatre company gave a staged reading, with myself as director, as part of an evening of new one-acts several years ago. It is a tragic tale of gossip and jealously in a small town. It reads as well as it plays on stage.
The collection then offers a non-fiction section of essays on the state of the twenty-first century. Fans of only fiction might be tempted to skip them, but that would be a mistake—Wyant synthesizes his professional work as an analyst and deep thinker with his creative writing, situating the essays in the nexus of fact and fiction, drawing on the works of George Orwell, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, and Jack London to observe and prognosticate—ala Amos Sanson—on the current geopolitical landscape and its obstacles and hopes.
And so we come full circle, or, more aptly, go from one end of the rainbow to the other.
The collection closes with a brief essay on the “Greatest Generation” and an Afterword.
The Watchman’s Rainbow ends with a cliffhanger, so I hope we will be reading more from this experienced and talented author in the not too distant future.




Monday, April 1, 2019

A Review of The Before Heaven I Ching: Reading the Text of Creation, by William Douglas Horden

(Ithaca, NY: Delok Publishing). ISBN: 978-1794535985 (paperback)

Modern life is admittedly complicated and complex. I am just old enough, having turned 50 last November, to say that it wasn’t always like this. Not to this degree. Ubiquitous technology, overpopulation, climate change, and shrinking resources have resulted in a fast pace, profound changes lurking like subtext between the sure-faced politicians assuring Business as Usual, and multiplying reasons to not be hopeful for the future.
Tools of divination and insight—such as runes, astrology, Tarot, the Kabala, and the I Ching—can be helpful as organizing principles. If you listen closely and take what is useful, they have a way of burning away the blinding, disorienting, low-lying fog the artifacts of the twenty-first century have produced. Given, as stated in this book, that we take in much more information than we can process, tools such as these are essential to creating Stillness and taking stock of where you are. Glimpses at what is really at work in your life, the forces that are helping and hindering your journey, can bring the Attention and Awareness that just might save your Soul.
For the past several decades, William Douglas Horden has focused on the I Ching. Of his more than twenty published books, eight of them are part of a series that concludes with the book being reviewed. And all of the others—either directly or by way of energetic and experiential connections—further inform the ancient tool of divination and spiritual practice called the I Ching.
Interested readers should read my previous reviews of the author’s works for the details on Horden’s background and training, which are extensive and impressive. This review will focus solely on the current volume at hand. 
For the past decade I have been using Horden’s books to interact with the I Ching, starting with The Toltec I Ching, which I first received for review almost to the day ten years ago. With each book subsequently published, I have gleaned new insights and have been honored to have readings of the I Ching from Horden and to have him stay in my home on several memorable occasions. He was even a guest on one of the paranormal investigations I do with my wife, offering invaluable insights on the mysteries of death and what’s beyond.
The Before Heaven I Ching, as the author writes, “is not a book about how to use the I Ching or engage the Oracle on the level of divination. It is, rather, an interpretive text of the symbols of the I Ching, which are, in turn, interpretations of the living symbols of Creation” (7–8).
Because of this attention to symbols, the book has a vibrant energy, progressing, like some of the other tools I mentioned, as a journey of the Soul. It is a journey of Transformation, of Transmogrification. One that does not start at Point A and end at Point B, but that is circular, cyclical, and never-ending.
Colin Wilson, in his book The Occult (1971), has nothing but positive things to say about the I Ching as a tool for accessing what he calls “Faculty X”—connection with a higher state of consciousness that is essential for humankind to self-actualize and escape an empty life of malaise and harm. What Horden has given us in this book is a trail through the jungle to Faculty X, although we must do the work—of studying the symbols, of meditation and contemplation, of connecting with the symbols on a level beyond speech, where their energy is most resonant and connected to the Universe.
One of Wilson’s closest friends was the poet Robert Graves, who had an abundance of Faculty X experiences. Wilson talks at length about the powerful intuitions and higher-consciousness experiences of poets. It should be noted that within Horden’s bibliography are four collections of poetry. This is no coincidence. The interpretations of each of the 64 hexagrams, within their major interpretive sections (an introduction, Hexagram Sequence, and Mantic Formula), are poetry of a high and resonant order.
The final section for each hexagram is Intent, which presents what I treat as koans corresponding to each of its six lines. These are beautiful statements, rich in imagery, which can be used for contemplation or even as reminders for daily living. One of my favorite examples of the former is, “The god of rain does not come begging for a drink of water” (50) and of the latter, “Patience in the face of complexity is not a weakness” (41).
Some of the Intents are also stated in what can be embraced as Goals—as a rebuttal, a alternative to the Agreed-Upon State of Things that the military-industrial-intelligence complex (aka the Corporate Oligarchy) sells as THE ONE AND ONLY WAY. Start by placing John Lennon’s “Imagine…” before these two Intents, both taken from the 41st hexagram, Contentment:
“Governments cured of competition, fear and domination” (140).
“Religions cured of hatred, arrogance and zealotry” (140).
And, if we focus hard enough, purely enough, “Imagine…”
“Watchtowers and ramparts lie in ruins for lack of need” (147)
It’s easy if you try. This book can be your tool.
To those who have studied either a specific spiritual system or a plethora of them, the core concepts will be familiar: balance and harmony (reflected in the Outer Nature/Inner Nature symbols for each hexagram), the visible and invisible, attunement, entrainment, communion, concentration, birth–death–rebirth, ritual, awareness, and intent.
For those with a more philosophical/psychological bent, the work of Jung, centering primarily on Alchemy (prima materia, hieros gamos) and Archetype, is threaded all throughout. The tone and topics of the text remind me strongly of Jung’s style and foci in works like The Red Book. 
Horden’s beautiful text explicates numinous spaces—Dreamtime, the Spirit World, the In-Between World, the Imaginal, the Nagual—as furnaces of creation, of places where we go when the illusions of the prevailing Reality and the Conscious mind fall away. Horden’s text resonates with sacred writings such as the Upanishads.
If you want to clear the fog, let this book be your candle.




Tuesday, February 26, 2019

“The Promise of the Void”: A Review of Sharon Heath’s Return of the Butterfly, The Fleur Trilogy, Book 3

(Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2018), ISBN-13:  978-0-997951783
Before you read another word of this review, be sure you’ve done one of the following two things (or, if you are feeling generous, both):
1.     Read the previous two books in this series
2.     Read my reviews of the first two books in the series
Now we can proceed.
There is an ancient Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.”
Are we cursed? It certainly seems so. The world is, if not IN chaos, on the brink of it. The United States finds itself at a level of Us and Them and Othering that is probably the greatest since the sixties—and there is every reason to believe that this state of things has been carefully engineered. The past two times I’ve left my writing room to go have dinner with friends, the conversation devolved into line demarcating and political posturing. Even when I politely asked that we talk about something else, they persisted. It was Important to them that I understood their Position. The news, such as it is, is a daily feed of Greed, Hatred, and dark prognoses for our planet and its populations—human, animal, and plant.
I would not normally begin a review in such a way, except that it is unavoidable after reading Return of the Butterfly. It is chock full of these struggles, all illuminated, talked about, and worried about by a cast of characters that the readers of this trilogy have come to love, dislike, root for, root against, and, if they are truly honest, measure their own worldviews by.
The central character, Fleur Robins, is near and dear to my heart. She is as complex and conflicted as any character, any person, I have ever gotten to know. And, because of this, she is a perfect character for our times.
Its small wonder that, coming from the troubled home of an ultra-Conservative US Senator and an alcoholic mother, Fleur, despite physical tics and an emotional naïveté that some might classify as “on the Spectrum,” this beautiful enigma of a person would also be a quantum physics genius who makes great strides over the course of the trilogy in the fields of Complexity and Chaos Theory.
Her considerable micro struggles (rape, abortion, a broken engagement, endless deaths) focus her on the macro ones of the country and the planet (primarily overpopulation and climate change), leading to a Nobel Prize for theories about black holes, voids, and transporting people across time and space.
In a delightful case of cause and effect meets effect and cause, Fleur’s contradictions and complexities beam out from her heart, mind, and soul, manifesting as her Tribe: from her earliest days through the end of this most recent book, Fleur is surrounded by scientists, activists, cross-dressers, people of many ethnic and religious backgrounds, and the circumstances and situations that arise from such an interesting mix of often at-odds people provide the narrative fuel for the engine that is Fleur.
And what an engine she is. Moving at near the speed of light, making headway and mistakes in equal measure and judging no one more than herself.
In past reviews I’ve likened Fleur to Holden in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Sheila  in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. But in the latest book, she is grown up well beyond these two comparisons.
In many ways, Fleur manifests across the three books as the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, and Crone, although, in line with the cyclical nature of time and the almost total breakdown of such in the realm of Quantum Mechanics, it is not a linear progression, but a dance back and forth, from the literal to the metaphorical and back in many cycles.
Return of the Butterfly is about the Chaos of these most troubling and difficult of days. As I stated in the opening, these are in many ways Terrible Times. The human race has come to be more than ever ignorant of our ecosystem, obsessed with Status, gorging on Greed to a level of mental illness that Native American cultures call wetigo, and, because of the former, practicing a heartbreaking game of Othering that impedes real progress in the things that matter: Community, Communion, and Communication.
Again, I only go so far because it is the core matter with which Fleur and Co. are struggling. There are several pregnancies in this book and nothing turns our attention to the future of Humankind, of Earth, more than parenthood.
As I’ve said in previous reviews, Fleur often reminds me of my 19-year-old daughter. I also have two sons. The gaps between us are large and not from lack of love. The world in which I grew up and the world that they have experienced are vastly different.
It truly takes a village. And a village is hard to find.
I am always careful to not reveal plot points in my reviews of these books. They unfold like flowers opening in Spring and the discovery is the point. But prepare to be challenged. Prepare to be provoked. Because, with so many different temperaments, backgrounds, and philosophies swirling around Fleur, you are bound to be bothered by someone. And then come to love them. Or vice versa. Heath’s greatest gift as an author (and she has many) is that she challenges us to partake in what is happening with her characters. This is not passive beach reading—Fleur and friends and the myriad topics they discuss and challenges they live will stay with you. I guarantee it.
So, I hope this is not the end of Fleur’s stories. There is a major development at the end of Return of the Butterfly that signals a tonal and perhaps even a genre shift should the tales continue.
But even more so than that, Fleur is a narrator we really do need right now. She is such a collection of Compromise, Complexity, Community, Communication, and Communion that she is the perfect spokesperson for the 21st century.
In the perhaps darkest days yet to come, I would love to know her thoughts and those of her truly Universal tribe.



Friday, January 4, 2019

Review of Haunted Hills and Hollows: What Lurks in Greene County, Pennsylvania, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley and Kevin Paul

(New Milford, CT: Visionary Living, Inc., 2018). ISBN: 9781942157311
As a reviewer, this book is a perfect storm for me. I have been fortunate to have been mentored by the lead author, and she has recently become my publisher for the paranormal research I do with my wife and other investigators.
The methods and experiences in this book are things that I know firsthand.
I am also familiar with Greene County, PA, having friends who live there. I can attest to its remoteness, feeling of being out-of-time (including a certain road we used to travel where—especially at night—it felt like time stretched and we were on it way longer than we should be), and I have heard stories for many years about their encounters with ghosts, UFOs, and possible parallel dimensions.
Kevin Paul is a life-long resident of Greene County and his family goes back to the earliest European settlers in the area. This gives him intimate knowledge and a level of trust with the locals.
Greene County’s story, similar to the larger western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, eastern Ohio story, is one of pioneer settlers in struggle with Native Americans for land and resources. Lord Dunmore’s war was not far away, in an area that is another paranormal hotspot—Point Pleasant, WV on the Ohio River, famous for the winged cryptid known as the Mothman. It is also an area known for phantom black panthers, UFOs, Men in Black, and other high strangeness. It is an area that some believe was cursed by Chief Cornstalk before his death.
Greene County has many of these same anomalies, with dogmen and Bigfoot substituting for Mothman.
What might be going on? In my work, I am now focusing on portals and parallel dimensions. These phenomena used to be treated as outlandish ideas, but with NASA mapping portals and ultra-hi-tech companies like D-Wave making quantum computers for NASA, Google, and Stanford with the goal of reaching parallel dimensions, we have to make them a core part of the conversation.
So perhaps Greene County is a portal, or has several. It is near the Monongahela River, which, like the Ohio, could increase activity. It is striking the array of phenomena on which Guiley and Paul report.
Greene County also has its share of hollows—bowl-like depressions that usually have houses spaced out by several acres and ringed around the lip of the bowl. Hollows (or “hollers”) are cauldrons for paranormal activity. I lived in one in West Virginia for seven years and we experienced similar phenomena to that related in this book, as well as gathering evidence of at least one portal.
Guiley and Paul have been thorough in their data-gathering approach, from interviews with locals, to historical society and other research, to on-site investigation. Photos of key areas and pencil illustrations by John Weaver of various creatures seen in the area bring us close to the action.
The first part of the book is devoted to the Indian massacres and disturbances of burial mounds. Greene County, like many counties in America, has a history soaked in blood and desecration.
Although I have encountered a wide variety of phenomena, I was surprised by some of the entities described. There are a lobster-thing, lizard men, frog men, mole-things… All seen by seemingly credible witnesses who have nothing to gain by lying. If the area is a portal, then we have much to learn about the beings coming through. Throughout history there have been civilizations reporting anthropomorphic beings like these—too many to dismiss as myths or hallucinations.
One of the more frightening chapters is the ninth, titled “Mystery People and Black-Eyed People.” These entities, which many researchers and experiencers have reported on, are sinister in nature. They include black-eyed kids, Men and Women in Black, shadow figures, and other entities that seem to exist solely to intrude upon and mess with people.
As I have experienced in my decade of investigation, these entities will also do their best to make sure that hard evidence of the paranormal does not get out. They cause mechanical malfunctions, illness, make emails and photos go missing… These sabotage phenomena are reported by a considerable number of researchers, and Guiley and Paul were not immune. The more you investigate, the worse it gets.
For UFO enthusiasts, be sure to read chapter 14. Chapter 15 is “Night Howlers and Forest Prowlers” and chapter 16 takes as its subject “Winged Humans and Dogmen,” which are perfect for the cryptid enthusiast. Mothman aficionados will be interested to learn that Greene County has its own winged humanoid.
The final chapter, “Angry Spirits of the Land,” is a detailed case study highlighting the investigative methods of the authors and the power that hauntings and other phenomena can have over us. Relating the events at a farm where the contractors revitalizing it experienced all manner of phenomena, the story ends with the farm being abandoned, as it had been in the past. Is the ancient, offended being that claims ownership of that land a djinn? Sounds like one. But it might be something else. Something that may be, like the djinn, a part of the worldwide fairy lore.
The authors give us lots to think about.
Haunted Hills and Hollows provides more of what the field of paranormal research needs: credible investigative methods, thorough contextual research, and a respect for both the experiencers and what they are experiencing.

The stakes in the field are high, and one should expect no less.