Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Shoplifting from American Apparel

Author: Tao Lin

Type of Book: Fiction, novella, autobiography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:


Does it really matter?

Availability: Published by Melville Press in 2009, I highly advise that you not buy a copy, but rather shoplift a copy. If you get caught and arrested, take your mugshot, superimpose it over a picture of your ass, and mail it to Lin. He will then fashion all of the be-assed mug shots into some sort of self-aggrandizing but ultimately morally and socially empty project and thus the circle will be unbroken.

Comments: I genuinely do not understand how anyone could like this book, let alone the nice, earnest, decent people who recommended it to me. The only thing that prevented me from shitting on this book or setting it on fire is the fact that I needed it in a relatively clean state so I could discuss it thoroughly, complete with quotes, even though quoting it will only cause this godless endeavor to be exposed to more people.  But as I have always said, when I hate a book, I need to support my case and discuss thoroughly why the book is bad.  I briefly considered ignoring this book and just letting the wretched memory of it die but I can’t. My compulsive nature forces me to discuss every odd book I read, and, more to the point, I just want my voice to be out there in the electronic wilderness, urging people not to read this book.  This book is the naked Emperor and I don’t want anyone who reads this site to be a part of the crowd that refuses to say, “Hey, the Emperor has no clothes!” Or rather, “Hey, this book is a pile of shit and your soul will be imperiled if you read it lest you lose your will to live and find worth in the emotionally void headcases Lin droned about, stick figures that misguided people think pass for hipsters. Run, run away and avoid this book like it has the plague and wants to ass fuck you without your permission!” Or words to that effect.

Also, for reasons that will become clear, this may be the first bad review I ever enjoyed writing. 

Jack’s Magic Beans by Brian Keene

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Jack’s Magic Beans

Author: Brian Keene

Type of Book: Novella, short story collection, extreme horror, zombies (kind of)

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There are some scenes in this book that classify as extreme horror, which I always consider odd when compared to mainstream tastes.

Availability: Published by Deadite Press in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Let me begin Day Four of Zombie Week by reminding everyone that I am giving away a free copy of every book I discuss this week to one lucky reader. That’s right – five books, one box, you could totally strike it book-rich. How do you enter to win? Easy as pie. Just leave me a comment on any of my Zombie Week book discussions. If you want to increase your chances to win, leave me a comment on each of the five book discussions. I count each comment each day as a separate entry, with a maximum of five chances to win. All you have to do is make all those five comments (or two of four or however many) by 9:00 pm CST, 4/1/11.

Now, let me begin this discussion by saying outright that this book very likely cannot be considered a zombie book by purists, and even I, a zombie novice, am reluctant to call the characters in Jack’s Magic Beans anything but berzerkers. If you have read One Rainy Night by Richard Laymon, you might consider its rain-demented characters to be very similar to the violence-bound, utterly mad characters in Keene’s novella. People acted upon by an unseen force become unspeakably violent, and while the character motivations and victim/hero situations are different, that was one of the best references I could think of in trying to explain the lunatic berzerkers in Keene’s novella.

Why did I read this and include it, then? Well, couple of reasons, really. I had Zombie Week planned out for about a month in advance, only to realize that one of the books I had selected was so short and shallow that, even in my most verbose state, I would have to pad a 200 word discussion. Okay, replaced it at the last second with another book. Then I went online to buy the copies I am giving away and realized the Keene book I wanted to discuss, The Rising, is out of print and I needed to read something else fast or I would be screwed. I had a copy of Jack’s Magic Beans on hand already, so I just decided to go with it. I do these “weeks” for my own benefit, so don’t imbue much nobility in what I am about to say, but I infinitely prefer it if my efforts here produce sales for the authors whose work I discuss. That won’t happen with The Rising because of Keene’s travails with Dorchester Press/Leisure Books, which have made for horrific reading in and of themselves.

If I discussed that very excellent zombie book of Keene’s, a book that is most decidedly a zombie book, he wouldn’t have received a cent if anyone bought it, and he wouldn’t have received a penny if I managed to find a new copy for my giveaway. Worse, there is every likelihood a e-book sale could in some manner enrich Dorchester Press because despite restoring his copyright, even for electronic books, Leisure Books still continue to sell his e-books illegally across various venues. Keene is not the only author who has been exploited by Dorchester. In fact, Brian Keene got his rights returned to him in exchange for unpaid royalties and yet Dorchester continues to sell works they no longer own the rights to. Because of this, I will not purchase another new book or e-book released by Dorchester Press or any of its imprints and I urge others to do the same. I generally do not participate in boycotts because it all too often only hurts those who can least afford it. But this time, it’s pretty clear that those at the bottom, the authors themselves, will not be receiving any money anyway. Dorchester’s been stiffing their writers since 2008 and any money given to the press cannot be relied upon to make it into the writers’ pockets. This is one of those boycotts where the people who get hurt are going to be hurt either way, and in such a case, why give the company a dime?

Much of the recent news of Dorchester’s wrong-doings came out after I decided just to discuss berzerkers under the wide banner of zombies, because as I perversely maintain, my site, my judgment call, but it also felt good to do this one little thing to help out an author whose work is excellent and who, by my own personal experience, is a good man. Yes, I met Brian Keene and if he remembers it, it is because he either feared for his well-being or just has an excellent memory.

The Egg Said Nothing by Caris O’Malley

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Egg Said Nothing

Author: Caris O’Malley

Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s bizarro, of course.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: So Bizarro Week comes to an end with Caris O’Malley’s The Egg Said Nothing, but of course I need to get some business taken care of before we can move on to the book discussion. Because I really want to showcase the awesomeness of the New Bizarro Author Series, I am giving away a free copy of every book I discussed this week. All you have to do to enter to win a copy of O’Malley’s book is to leave a comment to this entry and I will put your name in the drawing for the book. Leave the comment today, 2/18/11, before 9:00 pm CST.

To the book. I’m gonna come out right now and say I am unsure if I really know how this book ends. I have an idea that I might know but I am sort of unclear if I genuinely understand how O’Malley concludes this book aside from the fact that that the protagonist seems to get caught in a never ending spiral of trying to do the right thing but being prevented from succeeding. He is literally being prevented from making difficult moral decisions by the man he once was. I tried to talk about the book with a friend and she immediately referenced the movie Inception, which I have not seen and likely never will, and I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it but you never know – that information may mean something to one of you.

Let me offer as much of a synopsis as I can without completely spoiling the book: Manny lays an egg. He wakes up one morning and he finds himself bare in the nether regions with an egg between his legs. Manny is sort of hostile and paranoid. He’s probably got that avoidant personality disorder that’s become all the rage now. He finances his life by stealing money from wishing fountains. He spends most of his time watching television. But when he sees the egg, it triggers in him something that is a mixture of the maternal and the paternal and he tries to take care of the egg. He goes to a diner and meets a waitress whose teeth, skin and scent enchant him. They hang out at a laundromat and eat vending machine food. They fall in love fast because they have to because this is a novella and they have sex and the egg… Well it doesn’t hatch so much as it breaks and what is inside is unexpected. What is inside I will not state explicitly because I think that would be the first link in spoiling the chain of the plot but the contents of the egg begin a series of circular events that test Manny’s mettle, his love for this new woman who offers him a new life, his morality and his sense of reality. Manny is given the chance to prevent a series of events that will trigger a world-wide catastrophe but he will have to make decisions no man should be asked to make. All in all, this is a really loopy, sad, absorbing look at a miserable hipster who lays an egg and changes his life only to have to destroy all that makes him happy in order to achieve a higher moral end.

Gah, I hate synopses that vague but the fact is, this is one of those books you need to buy and read and absorb. It crams an astonishing amount into a novella and despite the brevity, will cause you to think in depth about the plot. You will wonder about Manny’s morality. You will find yourself Googling quantum physics and wondering if there is a way the plot could have happened. It will make you question at what point we are asking too much of a person, in that post-college way when you wondered, if time travel were possible, if you would have strangled an infant Hitler or killed your grandfather in order to save the world if it meant that you were essentially ensuring you and your family would never exist.

And in the midst of creating these sorts of thoughts, O’Malley also creates a hero I could identify with all too well. I loved Manny. Loved him. If I had a penis and was single, I could have been Manny (before reading this, I dreamt I gave birth to an enormous goldfish and knew it was a baby even as it swam in a big tank though the doctors and family told me it was a fish so maybe I was in a the right frame of mind when I began this book). Manny’s love of John Hughes films also covered a bit of common ground with me. But mostly I loved Manny because he was such crank before he fell in love.

Take this passage that occurs early in the book, just after he discovers the egg:

When I woke up, I had this odd sensation. My lower half felt more sensitive. Felt exposed. If you’re the sort of person who sleeps nude, you might not understand. Or maybe you will. Maybe that’s why you do it. But, for my own reasons, I never do. It’s uncomfortable for me. I have a healthy sense of of shame about my person. Only rarely does someone come into my apartment. And if that person comes in while I’m sleeping, that person will not find me without my clothes on.

I hear Manny on this one. I don’t even like being barefoot. If a fire breaks out in the house and I am naked, I will have to remain naked because I will have to round up the cats and get them out of the house and there will be no time to get dressed so unless I am in the shower when the fire breaks out, I have seriously mitigated the chances of being found naked by firefighters or helpful neighbors trying to stop the conflagration. I’ve given this a lot of thought, as has Manny. We know you can never work too hard to ensure a state of complete body coverage.

But Manny shows even more so how we are on a common wavelength, following immediately from the above paragraph:

And that person will never find me in any state of undress because people do not come into my apartment without me knowing about it. And I would ever let anyone in while I was sleeping. I’m not the kind of guy who leaves a key under the mat so visitors can come as they please. I have a single key to my apartment on my chain. The only other copy is buried in a park six miles away. It is in an unmarked hole. And everything I just said about the whereabouts of my spare key is a lie because I don’t want you to know where my goddamned key is.

While I have not become as lock conscious as Manny, I will say that if I still lived in an apartment, I would mimic putting a deadbolt on the side where the hinges are. I can’t believe I never thought of that on my own and I totally do not think his eight locks are a sign of complete paranoia. I say this not only because of the naked matrix but also the dreaded “finding a couple of drunk drag worms in my living room in the middle of the night, scaring the cats” scenario that played out in my funky, downtown, shithole apartment in 2000. There is a fine line between paranoia and plain common sense and I may not be the person to declare Manny a genius among men, I know that, but I liked Manny more than any character I have read in a while, which probably says a lot about me, I think.

Just the way Manny thinks is wonderful to me:

There the egg sat. If it had eyes, I’d say it looked at me hopefully, but, since it didn’t, I’ll say instead it looked at me speckled. It was a light blue with reddish speckles. Like I think a robin’s egg might look, only bigger. But I’m not aware of ever seeing a robin or its egg, so I have no real way of knowing.

I like this manner of meandering, this sort of non-linear wandering through a logical yet disorganized mind.

Because Manny is eminently logical, though utterly random:

On a big enough scale, everything is less weird than something else. It’s more probable for me to have laid an egg than for me to have laid a perfect twelve-inch replica of the Statue of Liberty. Which, in itself, is a thousand times more likely than laying a perfect functioning replica of Ivan Raimi.

This is sort of weird in a way because this is the second time in less than a year that I have found myself on a near-perfect wavelength with a male character named Manny. I absolutely loved and seriously understood Manny DeLeon, the hero of Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, an utterly norm book. If it happens a third time, I suspect I will have to get some sort of literary intervention.

My love for this Manny makes perfect sense because despite being the sort of man who is paranoid, grumpy, sort of grubby and of decidedly poor eating habits, after inspecting his nethers to see if passing the egg had damaged him in any manner, Manny begins to nurture the egg. He pulls out blankets and tucks it in. He calls 9-1-1 for advice but comes up empty handed and just wings it, so to speak. He regards the egg:

It looked kind of like me, I think. As much as such a thing can look like a person. It looked like an introspective egg.

“What do I do with you?” I asked the egg.

The egg said nothing.

So he covers the egg with towels and sets up a space heater to ensure this egg that sort of looks like him survives. Someone calls him and tells him to destroy the egg but he doesn’t, even though the voice calling him sounds like his own. And in the name of all that is wordy with me, it kills me but I sort of have to stop because it is here that the metaphysical ramifications of the book show themselves and to discuss them in depth will destroy the reason to read this book. Just know that in a world where time is linear and dimensions are finite, none of this book is possible. The end of the book happened before the egg was ever laid but the egg had to be laid before the end could happen and it goes on in this manner, making you realize that you should have known by page 11 that none of this was going to end in a manner that seemed possible:

The egg was akin to a child, an unwilling, unknowing collection of matter, thrust into a nasty world. Imagine, for a moment, what it’s going to be like for whatever’s inside that egg. Even if it’s human, life is going to be hard

You see, by the strange quantum physics in this novella, he knew what was inside that egg even if in that portion of limitless dimensions available to him he didn’t know he knew. And once you read the book and ponder that fact, this whole book, ostensibly about a cranky dude who watches movies on TV and lays an egg and falls in love and has to make all kinds of draconian decisions when all he really wants to do is watch The Breakfast Club, eat potato chips, nurture his egg and hang out with his new girlfriend, is really a manifesto about the nature of reality and morality. Manny is Everyman, No Man, and lives in an existential clusterfuck that ensures his life is not going to turn out how he deserves even though he proves despite his curmudgeonly paranoia that he is a man who is capable of love, dedication and selflessness.

I think that despite the fact that I love the characterization in this book and just like Manny in general, that the real reason that you should read this book is that in all the potential choices of how to handle Manny, O’Malley never took the easy way out or resorted to cheap sentimentality. There is no deus ex machina. There’s just Manny, the egg, the girl, modern technology and terrible choices. The phone psychic who knows her shit cannot save him. The girl, whose name is Ashley, cannot save him. And the hell of it is, even he cannot save himself because as this book proves, Manny is literally his own enemy.

And sorry all I can provide you with is a lot of talk about the metaphysics of the book, vague discussions of how well O’Malley handles the plot, and portions of Manny’s thoughts that were especially akin to my own paranoiac synapses. But I want you to buy this book and read it cover to cover and come back here and tell me what you thought. This book shows O’Malley has a fine sense of the odd, a clever but snarky mindset and a masterful hand at plot and he needs to be able to write more books. As awesome as the New Bizarro Author Series is, authors have to prove they can be money makers in order to get a book contract. Let’s all buy this book and ensure we get to hear more from O’Malley.

And today is the last giveaway, and I want to thank everyone who commented faithfully. I wish I had a million dollars and could give a book to everyone who comments, but since I can’t, please be sure to come back because I plan to have more themed weeks in the future. March will be zombies and, yes, there will be free books. But please leave a comment if you would like to enter the drawing for a free copy of The Egg Said Nothing. You have through 9:00 pm CST today, 2/18/11, to leave a comment and that comment will enter you in the drawing.

I want to thank everyone who helped make Bizarro Week so fun for me. I appreciate the authors for spreading the word and I’ve enjoyed reading all the new people in my comments, notably Hira H, Omino, Evil Gringo, Monsieur, my excellent friend Ted from Romania, and all my friends from my personal blog. I love talking about books, I love giving away books and this week has been a blast because of all the excellent people who commented here. Thanks to every single one of you.

Felix and the Sacred Thor by James Steele

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Felix and the Sacred Thor

Author: James Steele

Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction, novella, bestiality, indescribable

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is one of those times wherein just saying “Bizarro, duh,” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Oh my god, this book is why bizarro exists as a genre because there is no other category that could come close to classifying Steele’s weird book.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Before I dive head first into this book, let’s get Bizarro Week business out of the way. Because I think the New Bizarro Author Series is an amazing idea that needs a lot of attention, I will always give away a free copy when I review any book from this series (and I may give away more books in the future – we’ll see how the old bank account looks after I finally crack and file my taxes). So if you want to enter the drawing to win a free copy of this book, all you have to do is leave me a comment to this entry. So simple. You have until 9:00 pm CST today, 2/17/11, to leave that comment, so get cracking.

I have to be brutally honest here and just get the negative out of the way. This book contains two things I loathe deeply: references to gaming and forced sodomy. Seriously, the former is an irritant and the latter is an OMG because I just get freaked out by the image of so much non-consensual buttsex. I’m a girl. What can I say. It’s all just a part of who I am. So almost needless to say, this book irritated me and made me uncomfortable. Though the forced sodomy is handled in a manner that makes sense in the narrative and because I have reached the limit of what I can tolerate in terms of feminist advocacy with the whole “raped to sleep by dickwolves” situation, I don’t find anything offensive in this book. Don’t mistake being squicked out from time to time with being offended. I mean, it’s a book in which everyone is into bestiality (I had to create a tag for it, and frankly I was surprised I didn’t already have one) and the characters exact justice using very large animal dildos. Honestly, there is no way anyone who is the least bit prudish, easily upset or easily offended should read this book. But then again, most people who are prudish, easily upset or easily offended are likely not reading this site.

I am a woman for whom nothing is shocking once I get used to it so I was not really that put off by the content in this book but man, Steele made me uncomfortable as hell in just the first few pages. Not a “let’s go online and start a flame war” sort of uncomfortableness, but rather an “I need to encase this book in concrete and drop it in the ocean” sort of way. But I got over it and while I cannot wholly say if I like this book in its entirety, I don’t know if it needs that sort of advocacy. It is so demented and bizarre and gross it calls out to be read by every fan of the outre in the same way David Baker’s book does. In fact, I think the world needs to get these two in a room and sweat them out, bottle their salty leavings and pour it on normal people to see what happens. Bloody revolution followed by a really perverted orgy, I suspect. That or issue restraining orders against them so they can never meet. Either way.

But let me be clear – it is a personal reaction, looking at the cartoonish sodomy in this book, a satiric device to show how casually people have come to accept their continual degradation in a society and remembering that horrible scene from American Me. And even within this personal reaction, I can see clearly that Steele is going for the extreme, pushing the envelope in a manner that will either appear hilarious or disturbing to the reader. That is partly why the bizarro genre exists – to write of the extreme, even when it is mixed with technicolor dildos and social justice.

Also, summing up this book is going to be harder than any other bizarro book I have ever discussed but I started a regimen of Prednisone yesterday and feel up to the task: Felix, like everyone else on the planet in this dystopic tale, is overeducated and underemployed. And like most of the people in the world, he has trained to be a Stress Management Specialist. You see, everyone in Steele’s strange world is into animals – those who are into people are the perverts. Felix is an Equine Stress Management Specialist and in an attempt to prove himself as a superior ESMS he tries to jack off a horse except he gets more than he bargained for. He gets the Sacred Thor, an enormous horse johnson that turns different colors and changes size when it “levels” up. It levels up by fighting these sort of nuclear toaster things that have embedded themselves into people, mostly the unemployed who stand in lines for months to get a job. Oh, and getting a job is a fabulous thing in this world because even though the workers are subjected to multiple acts of forced sodomy each shift, customers committing suicide, and surveillance that requires dozens of supervisors per one employee, everyone wants to contribute to the greater good. Oh, and everyone gets sustenance via these places that emit nutritional grease people breathe throughout the day. Felix discovers the source of the toasters, as does a coterie of people also being led by rubber dongs and a strange battle ensued. I cannot reveal the ending but it is suitably dystopic and god, it sets up a sequel and I am secretly thrilled because I wonder how Steele would top himself and want to see that happen.

Despite my only somewhat tongue-in-cheek reaction to the content of this book, the fact remains that this book is steeped in very clever satire about the state of education and worker satisfaction as well the whole idea behind superheroes. Add to it text that is at times funny as hell, and that’s some good incentive to read through what I, as a person with two X-chromosomes, call the icky bits.

This? This was an icky bit. It freaked me out but I can also see how people of a certain mindset would find this deeply interesting. Me? It sent me to Google to search the term “horse sheath” because despite my advanced age and somewhat dissolute past, I am, in many ways, still innocent about the genital workings of horses. Anyway, here’s Felix showing his skills as an ESMS as a chorus of angels sing:

The horse spread its legs a little as the angels added guitars and electric bagpipes to their orchestra. Felix rubbed faster. The bagpipes and violins kept up with his pace. Light from the heaven strobed in time.

Something was different about this horse. For one, nothing has come out of its sheath. Usually, after just a few rubs, a penis would slip out and flop around, ready for Felix to perform various stress management maneuvers that could only be learned in college.

He rubbed harder. Still nothing. Felix had never had trouble finding a horse’s penis before. He felt something inside the sheath, but where was it? Perhaps it was stuck, or clogged from years of non-use? This horse needed help bad.

Okay, so this was uncomfortable. A little. Just wait. Felix observes a galaxy in the horse’s sheath and it goes on from there:

He slipped his arm elbow-deep into the sheath and felt around. There was the universe. He held it in the palm of his hand. He felt the meaning of life, but it was too depressing so he shook it from his mind and forgot about it.


His forearm emerged from the sheath. The angels rang bells and shouted in triumph and jubilation. Felix pulled out to his wrist. The angels performed Rock Concert Movement #75: Group Sex in the Mosh Pit. Felix pulled and pulled, and finally he fell backwards and landed on his rear, horse penis resting in his lap. It was a full two feet long and five inches across the flare.

It was green.

Felix blinked.

It was translucent, too.

Reached to the elbow… Pulled and pulled… :twitch:

But anyway, this is how Felix gets the Sacred Thor, a powerful weapon that a stallion in the clouds tells him he will know how to use as he spends time with it. The horse eventually explains, later in the book:

“Epic quests don’t involve the internet or TV! They involve sex toys and manly, hard-bodied, larger-than-life heroes defying physics, logic and insurmountable odds, spitting out quotable, highly marketable catchphrases all the while.”

Sad but true and acidly satirical. Pretty funny too.

So Felix takes the Sacred Thor, a life-sized horse dildo, and not knowing exactly what his purpose is, he tries to have sex with the Sacred Thor, which isn’t having it. After lubing it up, hilarity ensues and here is where I knew Steele was a clever writer because he followed up the tense manipulation of a horse sheath with this:

He tried applying lube directly to the Thor, but the Thor shook off all the lube and whacked Felix upside the head.

When he regained consciousness six hours later, he searched the net for advice. Nobody had ever heard of a life-sized horse toy, let alone one that needed to be tamed. Frustrated, Felix tried sucking on the dildo, but every time his lips went near it, the Thor smacked him across the face.

Yeah, I laughed and compared my fate to Felix’s as both of us had been forced to resort to the Internet within the first 11 pages of this book.

Then Felix, who cannot find full employment in the world of horse release, has to work at a store that kind of sounds like Target or Walmart. It is here that there is so much forced sodomy that I just wanted to cry. It’s a terrible place to work. He has many supervisors who give him conflicting tasks and rape him to show dominance. Customers commit suicide at such a rapid pace they begin to smell and no one cleans them out. Felix has the Thor with him at work and good thing too because he first encounters the flying toasters and he and the Thor defeat them.

But that scene, despite the fact that I refuse to quote from it is important because it both shows the dehumanization of workers in this society and how they have come to take rape as their due in order to have a job that doesn’t even pay, but it also explains Steele’s dedication, which I will quote:

This is for everyone who shopped the Christmas season of 2009.

I hate all of you.

Yeah, Steele worked retail, god help him. Maybe even still works it. I know nothing about the man but that dedication and the horrors Felix faces on the job mean I just know, man I know. And believe me, everyone who knew me Christmas season of 1995 when I managed a Nine West store in Lewisville, Texas, knows how close I came to terrible violence. Instead, I had a nervous breakdown. Good times.

Really, at this point I am just quoting passages that I found interesting or funny because unless I just basically reprint the book here I cannot do it justice. Just know there is an epic battle with animal dildos that all change color and get bigger as they “level up.” Ugh. Gaming references. But many of you lack my neurotic aversion to gaming so, you know, it may be okay for you. But this next passage shows even better the work dystopia in Steele’s world. Albert, a pedophile security guard, just wants to make a difference but he can’t. He can’t be a cop and as a security guard, he can really only sit and look at magazines as working makes his bosses suspicious.

Years ago, management sensed its guard might be taking extra breaks when no one was watching, so, to ensure its employees weren’t wasting company time, fourteen cameras were installed and aimed at the guard’s booth. But to do this without spending money on equipment, management moved all fourteen cameras from the factory and placed them around the booth.

In a way, Steele is sort of a combination between J.G. Ballard, Barbara Ehrenreich and that movie Zoo. A perverted dystopia where no one is happy but thinks they are, and forces spend all their time making sure no one spends an extra minute buying a soda at work.

And in places this book is seriously funny:

“What is this place?! Who are you?! Who do you work for?!”

The man gasped. “My name is Pat. This is my novelty toaster company, keeping the American kitchen quaint for nearly a quarter century.”

“Don’t mock me with mission statements! What’s going on here.”

And then there is forcible sodomy again. Again. AGAIN. Sigh…

But there is humor with the butt horror!

A woman, a little older than Felix, carrying something large. He squinted. It was a dildo shaped like a dolphin’s member, except bright pink and about five times longer than it should have been.

Felix studied hard in college. This will not be the first or last time he is able to discern from across a room the animal penis a dildo is based on.

There is a humorous scene with a girl named Martha, or “Tha” for short, and her room walls are screens that show her perpetual IMs and blog posts, as she swirls in a chair and answers messages and e-mails and responds to comments as they show up on her four walls. And don’t worry about how this fits into the book. It does and you should buy the book to find out. But anyway:

Tha heard a noise that did not come from the speakers. It was a loud thud, and it sounded uncompressed. She mentally wrote an emo online journal entry about the disturbing sound. Instantly she received 267 responses expressing sympathy and wishing her good luck making it through the troubling time.


Tha had the urge to write another emo journal entry, but nothing was happening. There was no music. No color. The world was gone. Should she sleep? Did she have to go to the bathroom? There was no way of knowing.

Yep. That was me in 2003. And Facebook wasn’t even a thing yet back then. The world is indeed a strange and horrible place at times and Steele cleverly comments on it whilst thrusting dildos around from scene to scene.

It was about page 61 when the insanity that I have been told is part of my charm was pinged. Let me give you a snippet of the conversation that begins on 60 and continues on to 62:

“You lie.”
“Why would I do that?”
“You tell me.”
“Well, I might lie to conceal my true intentions.”
“And I might lie to make myself more important than I really am.”
“I’d believe that.”
“I might also lie to hide the fact that I’m telling the truth.”
“Come again?”
“Since I’m not lying, I might tell a lie to satisfy you so we can move on.”
“Or to conceal your plan.”
“Who said I have a plan?”
“Everyone has a plan.”
“Not everyone.”
“Sure they do.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Of course they do.”
“Do I look like I have a plan.”

This is the conversation of a man holding a horse dildo and a man holding a lion dildo. This is either fucking hilarious or deeply insane and, really, no reason it can’t be both.

So we have a society of people who are highly trained to sexually service animals and the market is glutted, where there are no decent jobs and those that are decent require sodomy and seldom pay wages, there are a bunch of people running amok with animal dildos in a place where people eat by breathing grease and there are exploding toasters put into people by a madman whom the spirits behind the dildos want defeated. Got it? This is a seriously deranged, insane, clever, nasty, twitchy, funny book. Like all its bizarro brethren it has too many typos for my tastes but Steele is a man who, like Baker, needs to write a second book. Steele, his use of two of my bugbears aside, is clever, funny and demented. So I say buy this book. I warned you but I also think you should buy it. I read it and I’m just fine. Sort of. Mr. Oddbooks says he wants the statement “Felix had never had trouble finding a horse’s penis before” printed on a t-shirt and I may arrange that for him, so really, this was a win-win situation.

And don’t forget, you should try to win the free copy of this book I am giving away. Leave me a comment here today, 2/17/11 before 9:00 pm, CST and I’ll enter your name into a drawing. It has been asked how I determine the winner. It is literally a drawing. I read the names from all the comments to Mr. Oddbooks, who writes them on slips of paper and folds the pieces of paper up into little squares. He puts the squares into a Tupperware dish, puts the cover on and shakes it all up for a minute. He brings the little dish to me and I close my eyes and pull out a square. I’m sure there is some sort of computer program that could randomize it better but I like this hands-on approach.

Muscle Memory by Steve Lowe

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Muscle Memory

Author: Steve Lowe

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s bizarro and bizarro is always odd.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments:We begin day two of Bizarro Week with a reminder that each day I am giving away a copy of the book I discuss. All you have to do to enter the drawing for the free book is to leave me a comment. It’s that easy. You have until 9:00 pm CST today, 2/15/11, to leave me a comment, and that comment will put your name in the drawing. Giving away free books is how I show my gratitude to my readers (and it also drums up attention for my site – let us not think I am not without ulterior motives) so comment!

Muscle Memory is a clever, sad little book that employs one of the most cliched plot lines ever: a person wakes up in a body not their own. We’ve seen this at play in so many craptacular movies, mostly aimed at teens, like Freaky Friday and Vice Versa. But Steve Lowe’s use of this trope is decidedly different and if there is any cliche in it, it is the sort of triteness that contrasts well with the strange plot, small town humor and melancholy sadness that made reading this book a pleasure.

The plot is, like a lot of bizarro, deceptively simple: A man wakens in his wife’s body and realizes his entire town has switched bodies with the person or animal they were closest to when the switch happened. Husbands and wives wake up in each other’s bodies, a suspected sheep-shagger is in the body of a ewe, the dog is meowing and the cat is barking. Hijinks should ensue and they sort of do, in the sort of small town quirkiness one sees in Chuck Klosterman’s novels. But the ramifications of body-switching in Lowe’s novel transcends the zany and heartwarming things that happened to LiLo and Jamie Lee Curtis as they discover how hard the other has it in this world and their love and respect for each other deepen, etc. No, though Lowe uses humor liberally through the book, like the appearance of Terry Bradshaw in a dream and the recurring jokes about bestiality, this book takes a far more penetrating look at the human condition.

You see, Billy is married to Tina and they have an infant son, Rico. Billy wakes up in Tina’s body but she does not wake up in his. Billy’s body never wakes up at all because the night before the switch happened, Tina, in the throes of post-partum depression, poisoned Billy with antifreeze. So while Billy has to learn to navigate in his wife’s body, as he and his neighbors try to figure out what happened, as the government comes to investigate, Billy has to come to terms with not only the fact that his wife murdered him, but also the very real possibility that if things return to normal, he will return to a dead body. No matter what happens, his life will never go back to normal. No matter what, Billy’s physical body is buried in Tucker’s barn, as he and his friends try cover up Tina’s crime from the authorities. There will be no happy moment wherein he and his wife embrace, each aware of what it really means to walk in the other’s shoes. His marriage is over any way you cut it and he may soon be dead himself if normalcy is restored.

Lowe mimics a small-town style of speech that is not wholly familiar to me but reads well, and that sort of vernacular does two things. First, it gives wide latitude for broad humor and second, it applies itself well showing that deep existential experiences are not the sole purview of more high-minded literary characters. It is a language that permits humor and realization that in amongst the folksy language and the “aren’t small towns cute?” sort of mindset reading such dialogue creates, there is great human depth as well. Because even as these people burst into singing Olivia Newton John songs in bars, they are dealing with some deep problems. Like Billy’s startling realization that he had no idea what his wife felt, that she had been in state of psychological despair and he had not noticed.

Lowe shows Billy’s casual cluelessness very cleverly. Billy surely had witnessed his wife Tina nurse their son before but when he awakens in her night gown, inside her body, tasked with nursing Rico, he has no idea how to arrange the nightgown so that he can feed the baby. Luckily, his neighbors, Julia and Tucker, are there, and Julia, though she is in Tucker’s body, explains that there is a flap in the nightgown that makes nursing much easier. This is handled with a small amount of slapstick, as Julia has to show Billy how to use the gown, using Tucker’s oversized hands. But the scene, along with Billy’s admission that he would feign sleep so Tina would always be the one to get up with their son, shows a man who is completely apart from his evidently emotionally fragile wife.

But Lowe’s use of broad humor and silly details keeps this from being a completely dark experience. The whole novella is peppered with the ridiculous. For example, the cat has just barked at Tucker (in Julia’s body):


“Yeah, no shit, whoa.”

“So this is like one of them Twilight Zone things, right? Or maybe it’s more like Dark Matters or something.”

Tales From the Dark Side.”

“Yeah, that was the black and white one with the dude in the suit who kinda talked like Captain Kirk before Captain Kirk was on.”

“No, that was Twilight Zone. That was Rod Serling. Tales From the Dark Side came after.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

Yeah, this is a perfect encapsulation of how terrible situations breed the most banal conversations.

When their neighbor appears in the form of a sheep, it’s another moment of hilarity but also indicative of how rumors spread quickly in small towns. Tucker is speaking to Billy:

“… Wait, did you see Edgar?”

“Jesus, yeah, I saw him.”

“Dude, I told you about that like six months ago. Didn’t I? Didn’t I tell you he was doing that with his livestock?”

“Yeah, so you were right. I owe you a case. But to get back to the important point here…”

And oh yeah, Edgar’s full name is Edgar Winter. Ha!

Billy and Tucker go to the local watering hole to see if they can get any information about what has happened. Theories float around about aliens and the government testing secret gas. Townspeople having secret affairs reveal their trysts when they show up in the bodies of their lovers with ensuing slapstick. The men sit around drinking and razzing Edgar about being a sheep-shagger. Then, when the men in the bodies of their wives and womenfolk and barn animals are well soused, the jukebox comes on with “Unchained Melody” (or at least I think that is what the song was):

The lyrics hit my brain like a sledgehammer. Something catches my throat and pricks at the edges of my eyes. I hear Tucker next to me sniffle, and I can see his lips moving. Despite myself, I start mumbling along, too. Didn’t even realize I knew this song until the words start falling outta my head.

Tucker looks at me and sings, “Are youuuuu…still miiiiiiiiiiiine?”

Floyd spins on his barstool to face us. “IIIIIIIIIIII need your loooooove.”

Joe Vickers flips his wife’s cheap blond hair back and yells the same up at the ceiling.

But even as this novel fairly drips with the ridiculous, and the most ridiculous scene being the dream sequence with Terry Bradshaw, this is silliness with a heart, a sad core of loss. Billy, Tucker and Julia move Tina to the barn to bury her and Billy, in his wife’s body, tries to find an appropriate outfit to wear to his wife’s funeral. In Tina’s body, he looks in her closet and picks out a dress he bought for her, a dress that had offended her, that proved how out of it Billy really was, and he had no idea why. It becomes clear to him when he puts on the dress.

So I put the dress on. Takes me five minutes to realize the stupid thing only has one shoulder strap. The other shoulder is bare. And it’s long in the back, but has a really short front that comes up to a slit.

And I can see my underwear.

It’s not until Billy is literally in Tina’s body that he understands how much he really failed her. Buying her inappropriate clothing, taking her for granted, not knowing the most basic things about her day, being so spaced out that she was able to put antifreeze in his beer and he didn’t even notice.

Billy realizes all of this in a sudden rush, after Terry Bradshaw comes to him in a dream and tells him that the government will switch everyone back soon, and the implications of this are not discussed explicitly, but the implied idea is that Billy will return to his dead body buried in the barn. But since Tina’s essence, her soul or consciousness or whatever it is that defines identity was in Billy when he died, there is no guarantee her essence will be able to return to her body. This is not Freaky Friday. This is the destruction of a family.

I ain’t in the dream no more. I’m back. I’m in that other dream again, the one where I’m Tina and Tina’s me. And I’m dead and buried and covered by a rusting hunk of junk in my neighbor’s barn and I’m a depressed mother who’s now a widow and a widower at the same time. I feel like I’ve lost a wife and a husband, ’cause when you get right down to it, that’s what happened.

I have two quarrels with this book. One, like many bizarro endeavors, it could have been edited a little better, but the problems are small, so really, maybe that isn’t a quarrel. My other issue with this book is the relative brevity. This discussion should make it clear that Lowe managed to create a complex novella but the actual text of the book covers less than 60 pages. The New Bizarro Author Series gives unproven writers a foot in the door – if they sell enough books from their first effort, they will have a chance to produce more books with Eraserhead. If they don’t make their sales goal, their first effort will be their last. It may put Lowe at a disadvantage that his novella is so short because one of the complaints I hear most often about the bizarro genre is that the books are costly given the amount of content. For a bibliomaniac like me that seldom is an issue (and now that I have a Kindle it matters even less) but I hope Lowe does not have too many problems selling this short book.

But here’s an incentive for people who may be on the fence about spending close to ten bucks on a book this slim: In the month of February, Steve Lowe is donating all of the profit he makes selling this book to a foster care charity. Click here to read all the details. So if you are on the fence about buying a copy, let this charitable endeavor tilt the scale in favor of purchasing it.

And again, I am giving away a copy of this book. All you have to do to enter to win a copy is leave me a comment on this entry. Contest runs today, 2/15/11 until 9:00 pm CST. Comment early, comment often!

Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals by Kirk Jones

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals

Author: Kirk Jones

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Bizarro is always odd. Always.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: And a new Bizarro Week begins!

This Bizarro Week is going to focus on books from the New Bizarro Author Series. Eraserhead Press takes a chance on new writers, allowing them to put out a book and if they sell enough copies, they get to publish more books. If they don’t sell enough, the first book with Eraserhead will be their last. Sort of draconian in a way but in a world where the number of publishing venues seem to grow smaller every day, a foot in the door is no small thing. So I plan to focus on the NBAS this week.

And best of all, I plan to give out a free copy of every book I review this week. In order to enter to win a copy of Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, all you have to do is leave a comment to this entry before 9:00 pm CST. I’ll announce a winner shortly after. Anyone anywhere can enter because I take perverse pleasure in mailing strange books to the hinterlands. So hop to it.

Now to the book discussion.

I am beginning this Bizarro Week with Kirk Jones’ book because I am finally able to do one of those “It’s X mixed with Y if Z was really a school bus on Mars” sort of statement. I can really never come up with those because to me they are always such a horrible stretch and I am pedantic in so many pointless ways, but this time, as I was trying to explain this book to Mr. Oddbooks, I came up with the perfect summation:

If you put Charles Dickens’ tendency to heap ignominy and ill-use on his young heroes, Horatio Alger’s optimism for the merits of work and a job well done, a progressive eye for worker rebellion, a chat room of forniphiliacs, and the entirety of Tod Browning’s Freaks in a fast moving caravan and crashed it into an IKEA store, this book would be the result. Truly, this will be high concept. (In the interest of full disclosure, this book doesn’t technically portray forniphilia but that’s as close a phrase as my rudimentary research into sex with furniture revealed. I don’t think there is an exact word for this but if you read the book, I suspect my label will be clear.)

This book really did take some pretty disparate elements and blend then into a relatively smooth book. The plot, as is typical with most bizarro, is quite insane. Gary has led a life of woe. He lost an arm working as a wee boy, only to lose his parents later in a terrible car crash. He also loses a leg and finds himself a beggar. A chance question to a fellow two-limbed man, asking about a potential job, led him to yet another accident in which he is turned into an enormous blob of self-contained vitreous humor. Things happen, as they do, and he becomes a trainer for furniture – animated furniture. Traveling in a carny-style show, a HAARP device keeps the carnival just ahead of the terrible weather that seems to stalk the carnival, and Gary finds he has something of a skill for dealing with the animated furniture. Oh, and the furniture has sex with each other on command and those who watch the performances vomit to show their appreciation, as you do. Gary meets the blind niece of Uncle Sam, a girl called Liberty, and they fall in love but their love is threatened by Uncle Sam’s nefarious activities. The ending is suitably cathartic, restoring order and ending this book of strange combination in a dreamy manner that should not have worked but did.

How does the furniture become animated? Well, that’s a mystery I can’t share or it would spoil the whole book for you but it’s suitably creepy and unsettling. Uncle Sam’s methods of maintaining his carnival are harsh and cruel and endanger everyone around him, even his loved ones.

As I said in my description of the words, ideas and style Jones uses, this book takes some very disparate elements and combines them into a narrative that feels similar to other things but is wholly new. The beginning had a very Dickensian feeling to me. This is the first line of the book:

Those who cared to peruse the historical records of Gary Olstrom, now known as the man made of tears, might observe that an extended streak of bad luck began for him, ironically, with a stroke of good luck at age eight…

Gary is near a mirror when it shatters and severs his arm and his boss quickly informs him that not only does he not have any insurance or means to go to the hospital, but he also will not receive his first paycheck as he will have his pay docked to cover the cost of the mirror. Very bleak to the point of wondering if there was gaslight. It goes on from there as Gary loses his parents:

While the news of their fiery crash distressed him initially, he recovered a few days later when he discovered that their departure from this world was preceded by their visit to the orphanage for disabled children, where Gary was shipped the next day.

It just gets worse in an Oliver Twist, workhouse for the poor sort of way. The orphanage sends Gary to work in a textile factory at age 12:

But upon re-spooling one of the nylon machines, Gary lost his footing, and, as a result, his right leg. Like many before him, his claim for compensation was denied, his employment terminated, and he was held fully responsible for cleaning his remnants.

But in among this modern slant on Dickens, there is a small amount of Horatio Alger and maybe a hint of Samuel Smiles, as well, for Gary never hates the shop owner who exploited him as a child and in fact considers his tight money management skills something to aspire to in his quest to prove himself. As a supervisor of other children at the textile factory, he is careful to deny all insurance claims made by his maimed peers. Even after he loses an eye, Gary is still quite certain that he will fight his way out of the gutter and continually looks for productive work. He danced for change, stole a cane from a blind man, and even when discouraged, managed to embrace the system that had deformed him, feeling, like the heroes in Alger’s tales, that hard work and determination will get him off the streets.

One day, he observes a man missing an arm and a leg and, his ambition still intact, asks for advice:

“Sir, by what means do you sustain yourself?”

“I’m employed by Uncle Sam, at the furniture factory,” the man replied.

“Would it be possible for me to acquire a job with him as well,” Gary asked.

The man looked doubtful. “Come with me tomorrow and we shall see,” he said, explaining, “I was in full health when I began working for him, and have been allowed to stay in due to seniority. Otherwise, I’d likely be accompanying you in the gutter. But I might be able to get you in. Meet me in front of the factory tomorrow.”

And Gary spurs himself into action, stealing a razor and tarting himself up as best he can, still too willing to become a cog in a machine that had already cost another man his arm and leg, only too happy to be similarly employed. But in another terrible turn of luck, his contact is crushed by a bus outside the factory and in another Dickensian detail, Gary steals his coat and gets mistaken for him as he enters the factory. Uncle Sam puts him to work, a disaster renders him made of tears and he hits the road with the carnival.

On the road, he learns to manage the furniture, encouraging couches to have sex with each other under the big tent, to the vomiting approval of the perverts who come to see the display. But as he interacts with the others in the furniture freak show, he begins to understand something is wrong, traveling to different cities in a wagon carnival caravan, leaving trails of murders in its wake. By the time he narrows in on the problem, his lovely Liberty is in peril and he faces with no small horror the terrible abuse the sentient furniture is experiencing.

But Gary, despite the brevity of this book, has a definite character arc. He reaches a point where he is no longer willing to be a company man and begins to question things, made angry by the ill-treatment of the furniture and concerned about the strange conspiracy around him. When he finally understands what is happening, he and the furniture storm Uncle Sam’s convoy, and Jones uses language that made me think of an epistolary version of the scene in the Frankenstein movie where the villagers storm Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, and I began humming La Marseillaise:

From the tent, a billowing cloud of shadows erupted, spreading across the landscape towards Gary and his inanimals. With them they carried weapons of graphite and shields of parchment, so they might rewrite history, revitalize movements and substantiate self-oppression.

This sentence is also a good example of some of the damn fine writing Jones executes in this book. Despite, or maybe because of the bizarre premise, he manages language in a manner that is quite lovely, creating beautiful scenes without venturing into baroque over-description.

All in all, this was a fabulous novella. Of course, I have no idea what Jones’ influences were – though increasingly I have some contact with bizarro writers in other venues, I still try my best to remain in my own little headspace wherein I know little about the authors whose work I critique. But the fact remains that this novella for me evoked Dickens, Alger, and Browning while utilizing elements of an interesting sexual fetish and ideas of labor revolutions. A nice little love story in a dreadful alternate universe not wholly different from our own but still different enough wherein the media is literally made of shadows and HAARP devices are portable. There were some small editing problems but compared to a lot of bizarro books, they hardly bear mentioning.

I hope Jones manages to sell plenty of copies because I think he’s got a unique voice, and that may sound spurious since I think his voice reminds me of so many other voices and ideas, but the only conclusion that leads me to is that Jones is likely an indiscriminate reader and consumer of various media. You read and watch enough, your voice becomes full of the best of what affects you. This was an excellent, strange, well-written, inventive book and I definitely recommend it.

If you’d like a copy for yourself, be sure to enter the drawing for a free copy. Just leave me a comment to this discussion and you’re entered. The contest ends today, 2/14/11, at 9:00 pm CST.

Carnageland by David W. Barbee

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Carnageland

Author: David W. Barbee

Type of Book: Bizarro, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a part of the New Bizarro Author Series, which is generally a good indicator of oddness.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Bizarro Week is still chugging along and today features another book giveaway. You can win a copy of David W. Barbee’s Carnageland one of two ways: leave me a comment in this entry today, November 11, before 7:00 pm PST, or retweet any of my Twitter posts with the hashtag bizarroweek. Doing either will throw your name in the hat to win a copy of the book. I’m giving away two free copies and you can both leave a comment here AND retweet in order to improve your chances of winning. I will choose one random commenter and one random retweeter after 7:00 pm PST.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss Carnageland. This novella is part of the New Bizarro Author Series that Eraserhead publishes. This series is a testing ground for new writers to prove that they have what it takes to sell books so the writers in the NBAS pretty much have to hit one out of the park in order to get a book contract with Eraserhead. While I am not sure if Barbee scored a home run with this book because that is definitely a mileage may vary statement, he definitely got on base with an amusing, foul, interesting novella that is worth a read. I have read far worse third and fourth efforts across genres and while I see room for improvement, the fact is, I also see a lot of talent that makes me want to read what Barbee comes up with for his second and third and fourth books.

Carnageland tells the story of Invader 898, a priapic little alien sent to a strange backwoods planet in order to prepare it for invasion. When I say he is priapic, I mean that he wants more or less to have sex with all vaguely feminine creatures but he has undergone strict training that has taught him to curb those sorts of urges. But he comes unglued at one point. You sort of knew he would. You’re just waiting to see how bad it’s gonna be when it happens. Believe me, it’s gross.

The planet he is combing over for alien occupation is a Disney and Grimm Brothers nightmare, an inversion of all that is sweet, moral and touching in those stories. In Barbee’s hands, the stories of Peter Pan, Rapunzel, dragons and trolls all become something quite horrible and nasty. I mean, dragons and trolls and witches in fairy tales are fearsome but in Carnageland, they are just horrible and foul. Tinkerbell, who becomes Tinkerslut in this novella, experiences some really harsh treatment. I recall being actually disturbed reading it and, not to spoil too much, was secretly relieved when she died. That whole scene was just full of the yuck and those who love bizarro for the foulness and disturbing content it often brings to the table will enjoy this novella.

Invader 898 works his way through the planet on a slayer quest that is cartoonish and quite like a video game, conquering one Disney or folklore character after another. I could easily see this book as a console game, licensing issues aside. A small alien dealing with an ocean of cartoons and characters found in children’s books, a complete bloodbath. Barbee has no problem completely destroying the icons of my youth, and it was actually pretty fun, the Tinkerslut scenes notwithstanding, seeing what amounted to Disneyland get taken down by a little green man with an erection.

Barbee’s story isn’t profoundly unique. Killing off the symbols of purity and childishness, inverting them to show the seediness that was always probably there, is common enough. What made this book entertaining for me is the excellent synthesis of these things from childhood: in a book that seems like a video game, the symbols of childish stories get annihilated. This is a book with a clear protagonist but it is also a book without a hero, and in a way, that is one of the most subversive things Barbee could have written. I could not root for anyone in this book and I kind of liked it that way.

All in all, this is a sound first effort. There are some sections that could have been more polished but overall, a few clunky paragraphs in the face of an good story are small criticisms. If you’ve spent your childhood (and possibly adulthood) playing video games, if you ever fantasized about putting Disney characters in their place, and if you just like good old fashioned quests filled with blood and guts, you will like this novella.

And just to drive this home one last time, I am giving away two copies and you can win one if you comment to this review or if you retweet any of my tweets with the tag #bizarroweek. Contest ends Thursday, November 11 at 7:00 pm PST.

House of Houses by Kevin L. Donihe

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: House of Houses

Author: Kevin L. Donihe

Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It is bizarro. And pretty gross. But mostly the former.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2008, it is still in print and you can get a copy here:

Comments: One of the main problems with being a reviewer when you were once a sort-of-writer yourself is that there will come a time when you will read a book in which a writer had an idea similar to something you wrote about and goes in a completely different direction with it. You will read the book and think, “No, that is not right at all. This would have been so much better if I had garnered the huevos to get my own riff on this idea published.” Then you give your head a shake, realize that maybe the ideas were not so similar after all (and in this case, the similarities are superficial at best) and do your best to judge the book on its own merits. Even after coming to my senses, I still had some issues with this book but ultimately, it was a book worth reading, even if I know deep in the core of my blackened, wannabe heart that I could have done it so much better.

The plot of House of Houses, like so many other bizarro books, is not easy to encapsulate, but here’s my attempt: A man who loves his house so much he wants to marry it wakes one day to find that every house on earth has collapsed. He goes in search of an explanation and meets some interesting people, including a Superhero named Tony, and eventually finds himself in House Heaven, where houses go when they die and people have a fairly disgusting role to play in the construction of new homes. I was made genuinely uncomfortable at times, reading the descriptions of the human work camp, and that’s no small feat with a reader as jaded as I am. Carlos eventually finds his beloved house, Helen, but it doesn’t end well. Like a lot of bizarro books, there is some content in this book that is relatively nauseating. This book, more than some other bizarro I have read recently, is a very good combination of the horrific, the foul, the surreal, and the fantastic. And for sensitive readers with aversions to scenes of extreme human degradation, this book walks a fine line between bizarro and extreme horror. There is often something surreal about the violence in bizarro books, but as outrageous as the plot line in this book, the violence and gore had a very real, human feel to it. So squeamish readers, be aware.

Sometimes bizarro harbors weaker writers whose extravagant imaginations make up for a lack of skill, and that isn’t necessarily a criticism. I feel some of the most admired writers, Tolkien for instance, could tell a unique story but were not so amazing technically. This is not the case with Donihe. His words are well-chosen, his plot familiar yet bizarre, and his treatment of characters absorbing and interesting. The transformation of Carlos, from hopeful lover to quest-taker to mentally defeated cog in a brutal machine, is what makes this book so superior to many of the books I have read recently, including mainstream novels. It is no small feat to make a character so sympathetic and understandable in the midst of the chaos Donihe creates. So the bulk of this discussion/review will be me recounting passages in which Donihe makes us understand the mind of a man who loves his home like a wife and who descends into incredible, frightening and violent situations.

Carlos’ reaction to the devastation of all the homes is not only a look into a mind where the non-human becomes anthropomorphized in the saddest way possible, but it is foreshadowing of what is to come for the humans in this novel.

I feel sad for these homes, but only because they are (were?) Helen’s brothers and sisters. I never knew them like I knew her, never got to experience their unique essences. Seeing them in this state is akin to seeing the corpses of human strangers at a mass funeral.

Carlos is mentally and emotionally tied to houses, beyond and above his romantic love for Helen, and Donihe makes that clear in an expected way.

We pass another person trying to build a replacement house out of what appears to be Twinkies, another from tiny twigs or maybe matchsticks. I’m glad the bus does not stop for them. What they’re doing is a mockery, and I hate it (and them).

A mockery is an interesting way to look at the situation of desperate, deranged people trying to make shelter. Of course to a man like Carlos such actions are a mockery of the real wood and brick houses he loves. (Also, I wonder if there is a bizarro trend in using Twinkies inappropriately. Not long ago it was the President wearing a suit made of Twinkies, now someone is using them to build a house.)

After a while in House Heaven, Carlos’ perspective begins to change. After a confrontation with Manhaus, the head honcho in Heaven, Carlos begins to understand that his love of houses is not necessarily returned, that many houses hate humans for their behavior inside their walls. Carlos uses the word “shack” in front of Manhaus only to learn that is is akin to a racial slur, a word that should never be used in front of any sort of dwelling. He eventually escapes from his dreadful job in House Heaven and as he surveys all that is around him, it is startling how quickly his perspective changes after his time in what is for him a living hell.

The cityscape is stunning, but I still hate it. I want to tear the whole place down with my hands, brick by brick, and then defecate on it. It doesn’t matter how many house souls I harm in the process. Even those who haven’t directly harassed me are guilty, even those who hold no grudge against humanity or even sympathize in private with our plight. Fuck them. Let everything in their lives burn.

Except for Helen, of course, whom he is desperate to find in House Heaven, and a plot line I won’t discuss too much because it’s too important a part of the book to spoil. Just know this insane element: Houses in House Heaven resemble creatures from the old show H.R. Puffinstuff. Yeah. Somehow, that was the most distasteful part of the book. Gah, that show affected my id when I was a child.

Carlos ends up back in the house building industry of House Heaven, and it is an emotionally wrenching, tiring job, converting human beings into bricks in a gruesome, mechanized process. He watches the worst sort of depravity until he goes numb.

Shit happens.
And shit continues to happen, but it concerns me less and less until I notice nothing outside myself. The lever is a part of me, totally indistinguishable from flesh. When others sleep, I pull. The foreman likes my performance. I’m his best employee, but, in truth, I don’t give a royal rat’s ass what he thinks. A lever thinks and cares about nothing, you see. It just opens a door, closes it, opens again.
I want to be more like a lever. That’s all I think about.
And so–with a little time and practice–a lever is what I become.

The ending closely mirrors my own story, which sits on my hard-drive, gathering ether-dust, so almost needless to say, I approve. There were some tricks in this book, like the way Donihe handles the fact that everyone can understand and read things in House Heaven – the language and print are actually in another language but the listener/reader is perceiving it in their native language. There were other small problems with the book, personal to me and not worth mentioning. Ultimately, the reason this book is good, better than than sum of some of its parts, is because of how Donihe handles Carlos, his love for Helen, his mental decline. Carlos could be the hero in any number of war stories: the GI who falls in love with a foreign girl, is taken captive, realizes his captors could not care less if he likes them because of entrenched feelings that have nothing to do with him. It’s a story that is not wholly new but in Donihe’s bizarro universe, it feels fresh.

Overall I liked this book and found Donihe’s writing style vivid, engaging, weird and meticulous. I definitely plan to check out more of his work in the future.

The Ballad of a Slow Poisoner by Andrew Goldfarb

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Ballad of a Slow Poisoner

Author: Andrew Goldfarb (Gah, I cannot find a site for him – if anyone knows his blog or site [no Facebook, please] let me know and I’ll link it asap!)

Type of Book: Bizarro, novella, fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, a monkey, something called a Slub Glub and a guy named Millford travel the world, to the sun and back and solve a mystery in a hot air balloon. And they break into song periodically.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press (my god, I think I type the name of this publishing house more than I type my own name), you can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve been reading a lot of bizarro and I realize that this is my third bizarro review in a row. I’m gonna mix it up, I promise. But until next time, I have to say that this was the sweetest, most charming, happiest book I have read in a long time. It was a fairy tale combined with a really positive acid hallucination combined with a hokey 1950s musical. I could not have loved this book more had it baked me brownies when I was finished reading it.

Each chapter was quite short, the storyline was amazing and loony and to give even the smallest plot encapsulation risks ruining the book, but I will try anyway: Millford Mutterworst suspects he is being poisoned and his ever increasingly flat elbows prove him right. A series of unlikely events lead him to take flight in an air balloon with a squid-like creature called the Slub Glub and a monkey. He travels to the sun, to South America, the Slub Glub almost gets eaten by an alligator, and the monkey via quick thought and action save their collective asses a couple of times. His alarmed fiancee, Edweena Toadsweater, takes off after him in a boat, where she saves a ventriloquist’s dummy from drowning, but not the ventriloquist, sad to say. There is a climax aboard a boat captained by Millford’s mother and it all works out in the end.

Oh yeah, they break into song periodically. It’s awesome, having a book serve as a musical, and as someone who hates musicals, this is no small statement from me. The songs are captivatingly silly.

Oh yeah part two, Millford is also married to the sea. Literally. His parents betrothed him to the large body of water when he was young. That’s why Edweena is merely his fiancee.

Oh, what a wonderful, absurd little book this was. This is a short review, possibly the shortest I will ever write, but as I said, there is no way to discuss it in depth without ruining it. I think if you are having a bad day and need some light, lovely, absurdism to cheer you up, this is the book to read. Eighty chapters, most a page long, ridiculous songs, amusing illustrations – you can read it in a sitting and then keep it on hand to lift your mood on that inevitable cloudy day when your boss yells at you, you get a flat tire, and you realize your tea tastes funny for a reason.

Extinction Journals by Jeremy Robert Johnson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Extinction Journals

Author: Jeremy Robert Johnson

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella

Why Did I Consider This Book Odd: Because I walked into it knowing it was about a man with a suit of cockroaches. Also bizarro.

Availability: Published by Swallowdown Press in 2006, you can get a copy here:

This novella is also available in the Bizarro Starter Kit (Orange), which has the works of other bizarros in it as well. I always recommend giving money as directly to the author as you can, but this could be a nice intro to bizarro for new readers. Gina Ranalli’s novella, Suicide Girls in the Afterlife, also reviewed here, is also in this edition.

Comments: I was discussing this book with Mr. Oddbooks and trying to explain it. Mr. Oddbooks is a prosaic sort of guy, whose reading tastes run towards tales of the open sea and computer manuals. “So why was the President wearing a suit made of Twinkies? Did he really think that they would protect him from the effects of nuclear war?”

I had to think about it. “I’m not sure. Maybe because they are so filled with preservatives? But that’s not what’s important…” And therein lies the awesomeness of bizarro when it is done correctly. Outrageous, surreal story-lines with insane details that once you are accustomed to reading such details, they don’t really even register. You get into a headspace where you have to say, “Well, why wouldn’t the President be wearing a suit made of Twinkies.”

I said in another bizarro review that you cannot go looking for plot holes in bizarro because you will find them. This is not a medium in which reason means much, surrealism and wonderment taking a far more important role. This was a fine example of bizarro, and a fascinating book regardless of genre.

To give a bare-bones plot description: A man who anticipates a nuclear holocaust designs a suit made of cockroaches in order to survive. His suit eats the President, who was, as I mentioned already, unwisely encased in a Twinkie suit. He meets God, or a God-like spirit who has come back for mankind only to find a few men left on Earth. He travels the remains of the world looking for safe food and water and meets a woman who has survived with the help of ants. Together they have to stop a formicary adversary who means to conquer what is left of the world.

The novella is filled with subtle humor. Take this passage when the protagonist, Dean, meets the God-like spirit, known as Yahmuhwesu. Yahmuhwesu is having trouble getting the Rapture to start and needs the help of… well, someone else:

“How much do you know about super-strings? Whorls? Vortex derivatives?”

“Oh god, nothing at all.”

“Okay, that doesn’t help. Is there someone else around here that I can talk to?”

I am almost certain that would happen to me at the end of the world. I suspect most of us sense we may not be wholly spiritually worthy to stand in the presence of the Divine but really, perhaps we need to work on our math skills instead of morality.

Dean is an odd man, a man who evidently saw a lot of the world before the bombs fell, with many experiences that make coping with a destroyed Earth a bit difficult.

…he realized he should have hooked up a gas mask instead of a portable breather unit.

But he couldn’t submit himself to that level of suffering. Dean had a severe aversion to having his face enclosed in rubber; an extraordinarily rough time with a dominatrix in Iceland had forced him to swear off such devices.

While I could not really connect to Dean or any of the other characters in the book, that is okay. It’s hard to see how one could connect with an expert on cockroaches who travels a post-apocalyptic world on his back, carried by the hearty cockroaches he has sewn to his suit, roaches he eventually develops a wavelength with. But Dean’s thoughts are interesting and ultimately, his mind and his actions have enough universally human about them that we recognize our own feelings in some of what Dean does. After a battle with a deranged ant-expert, Dean thinks:

One day you fall asleep happy. Next to a river under a dark sky. Then you wake up and everything has changed. Including you. You changed so much that for the first time you actually risk your life.

For what?

Love. It’s as good a word as any. It will do.

And you’ve gone so crazy with this feeling, call it love, that you find yourself in an absurd situation, humming moaning at telepathic bugs and killing brainwashed entymologists.

I know.

It sounds silly.

But it feels important at the time.

And this passage pretty well sums this book up: Absurd, silly, yet ultimately important. There are overtones of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. There is a sense that Vonnegut could have written this. It mixes the sublime and the ridiculous superbly. I very much like this novella and recommend it. I look forward to reading more of Jeremy Robert Johnson in the future.