Sunday, December 18, 2011

ST Review: Burying Brian by Steven Pirie

This review originally appeared in Shock Totem Issue 4

Rating: 5 out of 5

When I read Digging Up Donald four years ago, I stated that it was the best book I’d read in the last twenty years, and I meant it. I’d known Steven Pirie for a long time through writers’ groups and other online venues, and knew he possessed a wit and charm that few others could match, but never in my widest dreams could I have guessed that a book written by someone I considered an acquaintance would possibly stand alongside the likes of Douglas Adams, Clive Barker, and the rest of my all-time favorites.

And yet it did, so when Mr. Pirie announced that he had written a second offering that takes place in the same universe, I eagerly requested a copy for review. As an odd happenstance (at least for me), I never once questioned if Burying Brian, this aforementioned second book, would reach the same heights that Donald did.

My assumptions weren’t wrong.

Burying Brian brings us back to Mudcaster, that odd little town sitting snug in the English countryside, where the forces of good and evil perform their seemingly never-ending dance of power. This time God has thrown his all-powerful self into the ring as well, because for some reason known only to God (He does work in mysterious ways), He’s stricken with the urge to head back down to Earth and live amongst the mortals yet again.

The Mother and The Father, the old (very old) lords of balance in Mudcaster, are aging, with The Mother verging on entering Grandmotherhood, which itself carries a litany of “changes”. Because of this, it’s up to their daughter Maureen and her husband, a ne’er-do-well simpleton named Brian, to set things right and stop the demons of hell from bringing about humanity’s Final Judgment.

Brian, in particular, has a large part to play, the biggest of all. In Donald he was a rarely seen character, more used to be the butt of brilliantly sublime sexual innuendo. He has come full circle once Brian begins, however, and he’s chosen to go on a quest, to learn all he can about the failings of the human race so he can properly defend the sins of man. His journey takes him from the dart competition at his local pub to the bowels of hell. His trip is long, often times hilarious, and always affecting. Being a bit of a damp lettuce, Brian many times suffers through his trials only to emerge on the other side with his innocence intact. Because of this, I couldn’t help but think of the themes presented in Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut, in which humans are said to have been cursed by their big brains and even bigger ideas. As Brian vividly displays on every step of his journey, when you live in a world of such unnecessary complexity, sometimes the simple answers, those we overlook, are the ones we should be seeking out.

On the whole, Burying Brian doesn’t just approach brilliance but completely surpasses it. The prose Pirie uses is clever, never dull, and brings about a sense of poignancy that does what the best literature is supposed to do – make you think. The world he’s created is vast, with layers of religious mythology piled on top of everyday existence, creating a setting that is equal parts mundane and fantastic. Common folks and jobs (such as undertakers) are expanded upon, given far-reaching implications and meaning in the history of the universe. He also uses “funny physics” to help drive forward the plot – something as routine as the sequence of the bingo balls at the local old-folks’ home have dire consequences to the order of the cosmos – further illustrating the absurdity of the unnecessary complexity we humans must deal with on a daily basis.

In all, I can once more say that Steven Pirie has done it. Burying Brian is more than an equal to his last book; it’s an indispensable companion to it. To this reviewer’s eyes, Pirie is the greatest writer of his generation. Burying Brian will excite you, make you laugh, and cause you to question all those mores we all hold as law, be it in regards to religion, science, sexuality, or marriage. Burying Brian is the best book I’ve read in a long time, and this author needs to be placed in the pantheon of other greats, alongside the likes of Bradbury, Vonnegut, Adams, Pratchett, and Robbins. This novel is well worth anyone’s time, and I give it fifteen thousand enthusiastic thumbs up.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: Jenny Pox by J.L. Bryan

Rating: 4.9 out of 5

The teen years. A time of awkwardness and confusion, of inner turmoil and the search for one’s self. Throw into this the pressures of school, the chaos of personal and family relations, and the conflicting messages when discovering of one’s own sexuality, and the stress multiplies. This is hard enough on a normal child, but imagine being someone who has a problem – a real problem such as a deformity, mental handicap, or social deficiency. Then the stress involved with simply growing up becomes that much more difficult.

In a lot of ways, this is the root of the conflict J.L. Bryan explores in his amazing horror yarn, Jenny Pox. He takes the pressures and cruelties of youth, adds in a dash of the supernatural, and what comes out on the other side is beautiful in its viciousness and odd innocence.

Jenny is a lonely child, growing up without a mother, with her alcoholic, depressed father the only loving adult in her life. Jenny is a troubled child, born with a striking physical deficiency – she can’t touch any living thing, lest they die a horrible death as a bane of sickness infuses their bodies…the Jenny pox. So she grows up in solitude, left to imagine what life would be like if she could only be like normal kids, playing, holding hands, kissing, knowing at least the first budding flutter of love.

Her life is spent avoiding people at all costs, and she at all times wears clothes that cover up the majority of her body – including gloves for her hands – that make her an object of ridicule. And when, as a younger child, she has a run-in with the ironically named Ashleigh Goodling, the daughter of the local preacher and a girl who will grow up to be her main foil, the resulting confrontation leads to her being an object of ridicule and fear.

For her part, Ashleigh is the mirror image of Jenny. Strong where Jenny is weak, outgoing where Jenny is introverted, Ashleigh embodies everything Jenny sometimes wishes she could be. Once they reach high school, Ashleigh becomes (of course) the head cheerleader, leader of the student body, and mouthpiece for abstinence and virtue. And this is where the not-so-subtle brilliance of the story lies, for though Ashleigh seems to embody all of the cherished Christian values, her purity is purely surface-level; a disguise to hide her quest for power and domination.

It seems Ashleigh has a “special talent” just as Jenny does – the ability to make people love her. As does Ashleigh’s boyfriend Seth, who can heal most any wound, superficial or mortal. It is in Seth that Jenny eventually finds a like-minded soul, and when she is able to get him out of Ashleigh’s scope of influence, she is allowed to grow as a character, to experience the exhilaration of physical contact and the joy of finally belonging.

The novel is set up much like Stephen King’s Carrie, with the cruel school children – and the rest of the townsfolk – pushing Jenny’s buttons until the final confrontation, when Jenny pretty much loses her mind. The carnage that follows is disturbing yet understandable, not the least of which reason being that Bryan successfully entrenches us in Jenny’s brain, allows us to feel her longing, pain, happiness, and confusion. So when she flips the switch and the story takes a turn down the path of ultimate darkness, though we scream out, no, don’t do that, we completely get why the poor girl goes down the path she does.

Jenny is the perfect metaphor for the everyday lost soul. Even those of us who were in places of popularity in our youths can relate to her much more than the malevolent Ashleigh. Yet this is not the only metaphorical device the author uses. His portrayal of Christian morality as a means of control and subterfuge is inspired; in a way, he’s saying that experimenting while growing up is natural, and that placing false restrictions on ourselves is done not by the ones experiencing the growth, but those wishing to capitalize on the confusion of youth, a way of building an army of likeminded individuals sympathetic with a certain cause, complete with all the prejudices, hatred, and influence that have been passed down through generations. Given the state of our culture today, this is downright frightening.

I think this aspect of the plot may be misconstrued by readers. In presenting us with the iniquity of fanatic belief, Bryan isn’t saying Christianity in itself is bad, but that the way the doctrine is warped and beaten into the heads of our children is dangerous. As a reader I appreciated the message, as a human I wished more people would take a deeper look and understand that diversity and individuality are what drives culture to accomplish great things.

Jenny Pox takes all the tropes of young adult fiction, tosses them in a pot, shakes them up, and then reorganizes them into something meaningful, a novel written for adults using children to explore the deeper reasoning behind our own intolerance. The kids are kids, acting in a way we all did in our youths, not presented as ideals but real people. You will find no damsels in distress here, no characters that derive their meaning from the opinions of the ones they’re infatuated with. Abusive relationships aren’t puffed up as being more than what they are, each character is in charge of their own self-discovery, and misogyny isn’t glorified. Even Jenny, in her weakest state, is a strong individual, one we all can sympathize and grow along with. Even the mystical aspects at the end of the book that set up the rest of the series, and the somewhat clunky execution of the final confrontation (the only reason this book didn’t get a perfect score) don’t take away from this.

Pick up this book. Read it. Enjoy it. Think on it. It’s a great example of horror with heart, of a story that goes against the norm and uses the fantastic to heighten real events, real emotions, real experiences. Yes, I will say that I adore J.L. Bryan’s writing. This is the second book of his that I’ve read, and it seems with each experience, my enjoyment and appreciation for his style and message only grows along with the dazzling characters he’s created. He’s a writer to watch out for, to dive into, to explore.

This certainly won’t be the last book of his I’ll read, and it shouldn’t be for you, either.

Purchase Jenny Pox in ebook format at the following outlets:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: The Haunted E-Book by J.L. Bryan

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

It’s a great feeling when you come across an idea you haven’t seen before, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve all read stories of haunted houses, haunted cars, even haunted people…but a haunted ebook? I mean, think about it for a second—even the term didn’t exist ten years or so ago.

Which makes the appropriately-titled The Haunted E-Book, written by J.L. Bryan of Jenny Pox fame, the first of its kind. This is a primacy that all writers yearn for but very few achieve.

On to the story.

Dee is a librarian in rural Georgia, a broken woman stuck in a place she doesn’t want to be simply because she wants to be close to the grave of her deceased friend Lilah. She spends her time reading her Kindle while trying to forget the fact her life’s gone nowhere in a hurry. Her loser townie boyfriend treats her like she isn’t there, which in fact reflects Dee’s view of herself. She’s a shell of a woman, a ghost wafting through the real world, hardly ever seen.

Strange things begin happening right away, when she downloads a book titled—yup—The Haunted E-Book. The book takes over her entire library of digital books, even inserting itself into other stories when she tries to read something different.

And this is where things get very, very interesting, because what we have here is a story within a story…within a story. Dee reads about Madison, who’s reading about Parker, who’s reading about Elaine. And in each incarnation, the person they’re reading about is reading a book called the same thing, only with the individual story being different. It sounds confusing, like looking into two mirrors at the same time and seeing the same image projected over and over again into infinity, but in fact, with the way Bryan constructed the story, it’s quite easy to follow.

The book follows the same pattern with every reader—so-and-so begins to be haunted by a mysterious, shadowy figure with letters stamped on his flesh, and who carries an iron composite stick with which he kills his victims. And how do you fall victim to this sadistic ghost?

Why, you stop reading.

Dee is thrust into the lives of the people she reads about, and her life at home falls apart. Then, following a familiar pattern with tales of hauntings, she is sent on a mission to discover the history behind the book, actually meets a few of the characters she’s read about (who turn out to be people just as real as her), and begins a daring chase in hopes of putting an end to the bad guy once and for all. In a way, it’s the story of one woman coming to grips with who she is, realizing her worth to both herself and the ones who loved her. And since this is horror, this epiphany comes when her life hangs precariously by a thread.

While the last third of The Haunted E-Book does follow a familiar pattern, the hows and whys of the plot make it refreshing. The evil presence behind the haunting is sinister in a subversive way, a “man” whose every action is made out of love—or at least his own twisted definition of it. He’s creepy and evocative of horror tales past, and his backstory, yet another book-within-a-book, is fascinating, as is the description of how he comes to haunt the books in the first place.

In all, I can heartily recommend The Haunted E-Book to anyone who enjoys reading an original, inventive horror yarn, complete with dismemberment, terror, and visceral thrills. It’s a hellride, the journey of one woman who wishes to be reborn while experiencing the most dreadful events of her lifetime. It will chew you up and spit you out, and by the time you read the final page, you’ll be left wondering if the words The End are truthful…or if it’s yet another vehicle of malevolence to lull us into a false sense of security.

Purchase The Haunted E-Book in, ahem, ebook format at the following retailers: