Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson

13418228Geoffrey Webb pulls into a convenience store and comes out to a gun pressed against him. He’s forced into his car and taken for a ride while the stickup artist decides what to do with his victim. Geoffrey is a mess of a man, clearly given up on taking care of himself, allowing him to take control of the situation by not being able to be manipulated. Firstly, Webb himself, is a smooth talker. Secondly, he’s a man that just doesn’t care what happens. So, Webb soon turns the tables on the man with the gun and then begins his story.

Geoffrey’s life serves as the second act of the novel, but that second act takes up the majority of the book. Webb is able to work his way into an Arkansas church, serving as their youth leader. He quickly becomes obsessed with the teenaged daughter of the church pastor. There’s a plot embezzle money belonging to the church and a crazy hillbilly family. Please, allow me to be clear. “Crazy hillbilly family” is what sold me on getting and reading this book, so I was super excited when they showed up.

Otherwise, the plot sounds incredibly convoluted. The power of Hinkson’s writing proves that, despite the convoluted plot points sounding even stranger when lumped together, Jake is able to weave together a fairly strong plot that advances at a solid pace. He takes all of those keywords and plot twists and tells a story that is dark and violent. He’s able to make such an absurd sequence of events and explain them through emotion and action such that the advancement of the story isn’t as crazy as one once may have thought.

The problem that Hell on Church Street suffers from is this A-B-A story structure. We start with Webb being the victim of a robbery, launch into Webb’s back story, and then jump back to the present time, with the gun at Webb’s back again. Although such a setup isn’t that uncommon, the first and last parts of the novel are larger than usual. Also, the relationship between the characters in the first and last sections are stronger than those in the middle. It’s a minor detraction, but I spent a good bit of the past tense section of the story wondering when I’d get back to the intense car ride of the opening.

Hell on Church Street is still a strong book. It’s a fast-paced crime story that takes place in rural Arkansas. There’s violence and drugs and crazy people. It’s a quick read that I was able to finish in, pretty much, a single sitting. If you’re looking for a book to clean your palate from a ridiculously huge and daunting literary monster, or have suffered from a reading drought and want to jump back in quickly, Hell on Church Street is probably the fun and gruesome book that you need to pick up.

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The Contortionist’s Handbook: Ten Years Later

20131202-005151.jpgSo much time has passed. I was climbing over stacks of magazines and flyers, books and brochures, with six books of my own tucked under my arms. I’d just finished listening to the author read from his debut novel, a book that had been published two years prior, but was seeing some action from another recommending it on his own book tour. It’s a well documented exchange of love between writers, so I won’t bore you. Ask around, my finding Craig Clevenger and his work is not a lonely tale. My story, or at least, my learning of Clevenger is quite similar to many, having a lot to do with a book tour promoting Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. So, let’s skip ahead a bit.

My feet are hanging out the driver’s window of a medical transport van in the parking lot of a Burger King in Pennsville, New Jersey. The van is baking in the late September sun and I’m supposed to be an hour away in forty five minutes. Naturally, I decide that reading the final chapter was far more important. So, I did that, and then I stared blankly while I blew through two counties, trying to process a book I’d read in less than ten hours.

At the time, I was running and writing for a blog/magazine thing that did reviews and editorials and whatever else we could think of to entertain ourselves and share with the world. Someone even pooped on a movie. I knew I had to write about The Contortionist’s Handbook and not just because it would be new content.

You see, my newfound interest in the written word was already starting to wane. Although I liked the minimalist noir style, there was an undeniable formula that was starting to disinterest me. I gave this book a shot anyway and it saved me. The Handbook tossed the verse-chorus-verse of what I was reading and fleshed out the minimalism a bit. The focus was still the story, sure, but there was a human element here that was missing elsewhere. Rather than just being characters in a story on a page, John Dolan Vincent, Jr and those around him lived.

When I got home, what came out was less a proper review and more of a passionate and hyperbolic ranting. It was chock full of profanity and juvenile similes involving bodily functions; basically my tried and true schtick that I still use to this day. I then went on to track the author down and follow him mercilessly. I did creepy. Every time he’s come to the East side of the country, I’ve been there. I’ve read and reviewed his sophomore effort. We have been published inside the covers of two short story collections.

Somewhere along the way I’d lost my signed copy and bought more, only to have that first book returned to me the other day. It was, for sure, that long lost love come home. Reading the inscription, I immediately went back to that night, scrambling over all kinds of literature inside the long since closed Soft Skull bookstore.

“It’s not polite to stare. Never not, Craig Clevenger.”

And then I was turning pages, reliving the hospitalization and story of a man with eleven fingers and a penchant for forgery. A few short hours later and the book was closed again, and there I was still fixated on that random spot between me and eternity. Ten long years later, The Contortionist’s Handbook was still amazing, maybe even more so. As time has gone by I’ve learned of Clevenger’s meticulous attention to detail and the words he chose to use or, more and to the point, not use for his desired effects. It’s still that book that makes me want to keep going, to make books a priority above all else, even my job. I hope to make him proud with a book of my own, to make him stare off into the distance, to create something he’d still love ten years later.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 13: “Real, Live Ghosts” by Matthew C Funk

Scooby is the perpetrator of a carjacking gone wrong. We find him on the run, searching for solace like a rat scurrying from a flipped light switch. He finds himself in an apartment, playing up innocence and his young age just so he can safely get himself home to mom. From there, life for Scooby gets worse. Way, way worse.

Matthew C Funk came into the Booked. Podcast fold through a series of interviews to promote Noir at the Bar 2, a collection of short stories put together to help an independent bookstore. His piece included in The Booked. Anthology flexes Funk’s ability to create a suspenseful tension that is no less than maddening. His Scooby becomes a victim, and you whip-quick forget that he has recently killed in a failed attempt to steal a car. “Real, Live Ghosts” is a simple hunter becomes the hunted story, that reaches in and chills all of the important gizzards of its reader, without question, without mercy.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 12: “Children of the Wetlands” by Nikki Guerlain

Sometimes, when it comes to short stories, what is important isn’t so much a convoluted or impressive plot. It can merely be a scene, and this is going on, being character driven. The author can have an idea about a cool character with a sweet leather jacket, slicked back hair, and devilish squinty James Franco eyes. On occasion, short stories are meant to flex that language muscle, showing off a flowery language to paint a picture with a brief situation that means a whole lot of jack and/or squat. Or sometimes, just sometimes, Nikki Guerlain does something as simple as a little bit of everything and you get a fever dream of a nightmare, such as “Children of the Wetlands.”

I’ll be honest. I don’t “get” the point of this story, plot-wise. I don’t, and if there’s a massive arc, either character or story or both, it slipped on its best bandana over its eyes, swallowed an entire pepperoni pizza and Teenage Mutant Ninja’d itself right on by. There’s a surgeon, and an ungodly surgery or two. There’s something about siblings holding each other, and knives, and fire. There’s plenty of fire, yes. Fire. And three scenes happen, the first two being quasi-related through a few images, and then the third scene is kind of an amalgamation of the first two. But yes, there’s these scenes, and short of seeing and walking, I’m not sure what actually “happens.”

What I do know is the imagery is a terror. For such a small and pretty lady, what Miss Guerlain does with words and punctuation is impressive. She flexes those guns, flashes an adorable smile, and then beats the shit out of you until you’re euphoric. In this instance, the images are vibrant and undeniable. I feel like I know what it’s like to be inside Nikki’s head for a moment, and I’m not sure for whom I’m more concerned. However, I’m certain, that this piece, like many of the others, will stay with me. The writhing siblings in each vignette, they will not be forgotten. The burning fields and the blood and gore; all of it will stay with me. Because that’s what she do, she rocks your world.

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The Booked. Anthology Review 11: “Your Savior” by Axel Taiari

The human race is at war with its own creation in an epic battle of man versus machine, and boy howdy, are we getting romped! But you know, that’s kind of the point, right? I mean, why create something if there isn’t going to be some element of perfection. It’s the ultimate goal for which we strive, yea? Ultimately, we are our own undoing.

“Your Savior” is told from the point of view of the nucleus of the great machine. It explains the entire plot, lays out all of the battle plan, all of the while, keeps us up to date on the final invasion of our last and only hope. She’s a young girl with a gun and a specific set of skills. Taiari weaves a tale of complexity, creates a world of death and destruction, explains a view – we are the creator, we are the destroyer.

And as the girl continues to progress, we learn how important the machines are to the humans, how we need the machines. Without each other we have no purpose, and eventually we whither and die. Think of it this way, fire destroys forests at an alarming rate. Acres upon acres of trees go up in smoke every year because of an errant cigarette butt or a clumsy camper. But without that fire, in the event that that reset button is never hit, eventually the those woods can no longer produce. There needs to be an evolution, a revolution, or there will never be progress. Without the machines, we will never reach our evolutionary potential.

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