Category Archives: Novels

Book Review: ‘The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt’

The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt

Jerome Charyn is one of those rare breed of writers able to write some of the most earthy stories involving some of the most larger-than-life figures, everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Teddy Roosevelt. For TR, Mr. Charyn pulls out the stops offering up the man in his own voice, a magnificent mashup of macho and aristocrat. Bully! TR, as he looks out from Mount Rushmore, remains one of our greatest personifications of America. And with his new novel, Jerome Charyn completes his run at Rushmore. He managed to tackle Washington and Jefferson in 2008’s Johnny One-Eye. He dug deep into the psyche of Lincoln with 2014’s I Am Abraham. And now we have The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt, published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Indeed, TR was a manly man right down to having a mountain lion on a leash as his pet. It’s during the Rough Rider period of  his life that we first meet this big cat, Josephine. She was the mascot for TR’s own cowboy regiment off to fight in the Spanish–American War in 1898. An invasion of Cuba did not officially call for men on horseback. However, TR had other ideas. As an act of sheer will, TR got his Rough Riders. This excerpt offers a taste of this most quintessential TR adventure. Here we are just as U.S. armed forces begin departure to Cuba joined by the now celebrated Rough Riders:

We were mobbed at every station along the route. Folks welcomed us to their own little war parades. Half-mad women scribbled letters to Rough Riders they had never met and would never meet again. Some proposed outright marriage. A few of our bravos fancied a particular lady and disappeared from our caravan of seven trains. Leonard cursed their hides. But these bravos managed to find us at the next station, or the next after that. A horse died of heatstroke, but we didn’t lose a bravo, not one. People would shout from the tracks, “Teddy, Teddy, Teddy,” and I realized why the Army regulars hated us so. We had captured the imagination of blood and battle somehow–the Rough Riders represented the romance of war. We could have risen out of some biblical rapture. The Army couldn’t compete with cowboy cavaliers.

Let’s shift gears to another aspect of the storyteller’s bag of tricks. Here’s a taste of the pulp fiction action adventure vibe found here:

I had clocked twenty minutes, like pulse beats in my temples. Winters-White kept me from plummeting into that gnarled jungle floor. He tapped me on the shoulder and removed the blindfold. We were in a slight clearing, a bald patch without a single root or tree. And in this clearing was a canvas chair that might have come from a general’s tent. A man in a pince-nez and cowboy neckerchief sat in that chair. I’d have guessed he was my age–a few months shy of forty. He had a jeweler’s nimble hands. His mustache was almost as red as mine, and his eyes were probably just as weak. I couldn’t imagine him as a sniper, shooting at children and nurses from the Army Nurse Corps. Yet here he was, in the green uniform of a Vaquero.

“We’ve met before,” he said in a slight accent.

Wouldn’t it be something to see a Cowboy King movie? There is room for a sequel as this novel covers Roosevelt’s life right up to September 6, 1901, the assassination of President William McKinley, a day that would catapult TR as far into the arena as he had ever dared possible. That said, you really don’t need to look any further than this novel. Cowboy King is a novel at its best: engaging, immersive and compelling.

Teddy Roosevelt, an American original.

The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt is a 286-page hardcover, available as of January 8th, published by Liveright. And be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website where you can purchase a signed copy.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Jerome Charyn, Novels, Theodore Roosevelt, writers, writing

Book Review: ADAM by Ariel Schrag

ADAM by Ariel Schrag

I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:

“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”

So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.

The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.

Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.

You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.

Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.

Adam is a 320-page novel, originally published in 2014 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Filed under Ariel Schrag, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, LGBTQ, Novels, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘Winter Warning’ by Jerome Charyn

Isaac Sidel, the president with a Glock. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Writers reach a point in their careers when they can spin gold from within just about any scenario. Jerome Charyn gives himself the perfect backdrop from which to play in his latest novel, “Winter Warning,” published by Pegasus Books. This is the White House. And, if you think Donald Trump is “disruptive,” then get a load of the Isaac Sidel administration: people get punched in the face and guns are fired into the ceiling on a slow day. Charyn makes the most of his opportunity to craft a climactic conclusion to his iconic Isaac Sidel mystery series. And, in the bargain, Charyn revels in speaking to the byzantine interconnections between American and Russian players.

Isaac Sidel, has gone from street cop to police commissioner, to mayor of New York City, to president of the United States. The timeline to the Charyn mystery series places the story in 1989 but, without a doubt, the narrative is every bit as relevant as if it were set in the present. Sidel is indeed a disruptive force. He is, by and large, an accidental president, a vice-presidnet thrust into the highest office after a political scandal. And Sidel is quite outspoken, beholden to neither major party. Where Trump leans to the right, Sidel leans to the left. Side’s liberal inclinations have more to do with a passion to help the oppressed than anything else. Given the chance as mayor, he released countless prisoners from Riker’s Island, victims of an unjust legal system. Our story heats up when Sidel’s more aggressive style attracts various rogue elements, including nefarious Swiss bankers and an erratic former Israeli prime minister.

“Winter Warning” by Jerome Charyn

Jerome Charyn is always a pleasure to read as you cannot help but get wrapped up in the story and find yourself rewarded at every turn. Here is a taste of a story with hints of the supernatural. In this excerpt, Sidel is questioning Pesh Olinov, a Russian operative, about a Russian criminal syndicate determined to make contact with him:

“And that greeting card is some kind of a threat?”

Olinov appraised the portrait of Isaac with an ice pick piercing his left eye.

“I don’t think so. They consider you a werewolf, like themselves. And that’s a mark of respect. Perhaps they would like to meet with you—the presidency means nothing to them. It’s not your power that interests the besprizornye. In their eyes you have none. Perhaps it is a real winter warning, and they are telling you to be more careful with your steps. The Secret Service cannot protect you with their magnetometers, my friend.”

Isaac Sidel is the president who packs a Glock. As much gritty crime story as political fable, “Winter Warning” takes the reader on a mesmerizing journey. This is the story of an American president who prefers to hide in an office he’s set up in the White House attic. That attic becomes home to a makeshift kitchen cabinet and a haven for various rogue elements. But Sidel, as always, is also a man of action. Charyn keeps this president on the run.

Charyn has a delicious way of hinting at what lies ahead and then, like a panther, hits his mark and pounces on his prey. The pace to this narrative is quick and steady allowing Charyn to conjure up elaborate scenes, deliver on his promise, and quickly sneak out the backway. Charyn is a master at creating a rhythmic pattern. We return throughout to an image of a man with a Glock, a man confronting werewolves, and the realization that he is a werewolf himself. This is not a horror story with werewolf tropes. These werewolves symbolize a certain dark and independent spirit. Sidel is indeed a werewolf. He knew it all along. He just needed an opportunity to prove it to others and confirm it to himself. With a target on his back, and nearly no one to trust, Sidel will need strength from any source he can find. This is a riveting mystery with a hard-boiled edge and worldly charm.

“Winter Warning” is a 288-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd. For more details, visit Pegasus Books.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Crime Fiction, Jerome Charyn, mystery, Novels, Pegasus Books

Logan’s Run: Vintage Movie Classics (A Vintage Movie Classic) Release Date – July 7, 2015

Logans-Run-Vintage-Books-2015

The new print and ebook edition of the original novel, “Logan’s Run,” by George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan, is now out, published by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House. Check out the new line of Vintage Movie Classics right here. This is the bestselling dystopian novel that inspired the 1970s science-fiction classic starring Michael York, Jenny Agutter, and Richard Jordan. For many of you out there, enough said. It will instantly bring to mind crystal palm flowers flickering red. If that means nothing to you, then you’re in for a treat. Perhaps knowing that such works as “The Hunger Games” and the Divergent trilogy owe much to this novel with pique your interest.

It is a beautiful new edition for longtime fans and newcomers alike. For the longest time, this title was essentially out of print, as far as a mass market printing was concerned. The original novel was a huge hit in its day, only to be magnified by its tie-in with the major motion picture. The novel was never forgotten and, in fact, its legend grew. Special edition print runs came out over the years and you could always find an old copy of the many editions that exist. For collectors, there are many iconic paperback editions to choose from. But the fact remained that the time had come for a new readily available edition and now we have it. I’ve been a big supporter of bringing out a new edition. You can read my review of the original novel and my call for a new edition right here.

The forward is by Daniel H. Wilson, author of several books on possible dystopian futures, including Where’s My Jetpack?, Robogenesis, and the forthcoming, Quarantine Zone. Wilson provides just the right balance of looking back to his own childhood experience with Logan’s Run and observations on the novel’s enduring relevance. Wilson’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious and adds a contemporary boost to a timeless classic.

The novel, first published in 1967, paints a very compelling, and alarming, picture of a society overly dependent upon technology for all aspects of life. Youth has been conditioned to seek out distraction and pleasure over all else, including quality of life. That said, for anyone familiar with the movie, this is also one very entertaining story. The movie echoes the novel as it veers off into its own high level of kitsch. But no harm done. The movie remains a cult classic and an excellent gateway to the original novel.

I have always held a fascination with how movies adapt novels so I am thrilled to discover Logan’s Run is part of a new line of books from Vintage Books. Vintage Movie Classics includes a wide variety titles like “Night of the Hunter,” the bestselling National Book Award-finalist that inspired Charles Laughton’s expressionist horror classic starring Robert Mitchum and Shelly Winters. Other available titles: The Bad Seed, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Back Street, Alice Adams, Show Boat, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This is truly astounding for the broad range and the opportunity to rediscover lost gems.

You can find Logan’s Run over at Vintage Books right here and over at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Books, George Clayton Johnson, Logan's Run, Novels, pop culture, science fiction, William F. Nolan

Review: THE GRAPHIC CANON, VOLUME 3, Edited by Russ Kick

Graphic-Canon-Russ-Kick-2013

Not all the work here is by cartoonists, per se, but most of it is and everyone here is part of the larger world of the graphic arts. We still live, may always live, in a world that, for the most part, thinks of cartoonists as only one thing. However, “The Graphic Canon,” edited by Russ Kick, and published by Seven Stories Press, gives you a taste of what is possible. You are certainly in capable hands with Russ Kick, bestselling author of “You a Are Being Lied To” and “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”

This is a remarkable project that takes on the world of literature on a grand scale with Volume 3 dedicated to the 20th Century. Ah, the 20th Century, it was a time dominated by the most heroic and romantic of rebels. You are sure to find your favorite rabble rouser in this colossal book, heroic in its own right. It weighs in at 564 pages, literally a phone book worth of literary artistic expression, so the odds are in your favor.

Like a classroom full of gifted children, each artist here has taken their chosen work of literature, immersed themselves in it, and turned in their best effort. Not all the contributions here are exclusive to this book but most are. And, like thoughtful and caring students, these artists don’t let ego get in the way or stray too far from the goal. They fall into two lines of attack: illustration and adaptation. Within these two camps, we get just about everything under the sun, an exciting array of talent, over 80 artists, that will please hardcore lit fans and newbies alike. Among previously published work, there is Robert Crumb’s rarely-seen adaptation of Sartre’s “Nausea.” Another gem is David Lasky‘s unique take on “Ulysses.” Reproduced here, you get the original 1993 mini-comic version.

"Ulysses," adapted by David Lasky

“Ulysses,” adapted by David Lasky

Check out the first pages of this book to find a homage to “Heart of Darkness.” Matt Kish is known for creating illustrations for each page of “Moby Dick.” Here you see him bring that same level of obsession to Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece. Reproduced are some selected illustrations with the promise from Kish will go on to fully illustrate “Darkness” page per page.

"Heart of Darkness" illustration by Matt Kish

“Heart of Darkness” illustration by Matt Kish

Ellen Lindner‘s illustration for “The Bell Jar” sums up in great measure the internal struggle that Sylvia Path attempted to endure.

"The Bell Jar" illustration by Ellen Linder

“The Bell Jar” illustration by Ellen Lindner

Tara Seibel provides some fanciful illustrations for “The Great Gatsby” that evoke the jazz age.

"The Great Gatsby" illustration by Tara Seibel

“The Great Gatsby” illustration by Tara Seibel

Among the adaptations, Julia Gfrörer gives us some very intriguing images inspired by Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum.” In the introduction, Russ Kick helps the casual reader to relate by jokingly suggesting that Umberto Eco’s masterwork is a much more complex version of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Full of metaphysical and philosophical observation, it centers on three characters who work at a vanity press who concoct elaborate conspiracy theories and then discover that maybe they’re true. Julia Gfrörer is clearly up to the task.

"Foucault's Pendulum" adaptation by Julia Gfrörer

“Foucault’s Pendulum” adaptation by Julia Gfrörer

I think this unusual adaptation by Julia Gfrörer is a good place to linger since it goes a long way in representing the best you will find in this book. Gfrörer has taken on a wildly complex novel, found an opening, what she entitles, “The Chymical Wedding,” that explores the alchemical wedding in “Foucault’s Pendulum” and runs with it. This certainly doesn’t come across as Lit 101 filtered through comics. No, it does what you’d hope for: Gfrörer wears Umberto Eco like a well-worn pair of pajamas. Is that appropriate? If you don’t feel comfortable with what you’re doing, how will your reader? Gfrörer lets herself go and, without trying too hard, turns in her assignment. It’s just what editor Russ Kick would have expected.

This is the thing, there are any number of ways to go about your adaptation. “The Mowers,” by D.H. Lawrence, for example, is pretty straightforward and has a deft and gentle touch by Bishakh Som.

"The Mowers," adapted by Bishakh Som

“The Mowers,” adapted by Bishakh Som

Another ethereal and arresting approach comes from Caroline Picard with her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “The Voyage Out.”

"The Voyage Out," adapted by Caroline Picard

“The Voyage Out,” adapted by Caroline Picard

Emelie Östergren provides her heart-felt interpretation of “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs.

"Naked Lunch," adapted by Emelie Östergren

“Naked Lunch,” adapted by Emelie Östergren

“The Graphic Canon, Volume 3” is such a mighty undertaking that you just can’t go wrong. I come back to the idea of a powerful vehicle that demonstrates what’s possible. We’d be fools to think we’ve got literature and fiction all figured out. And we’d be fools to think we have the comics medium all figured out. It’s a post-postmodern world, but that’s no excuse. There is something very traditional about writing stories and creating comics and that’s quite alright.

Issues of storytelling will not be resolved in the 21st Century and never will be. If Russ Kick is around (gee, anything is possible), or maybe a descendent or disciple, we will find that Volume 4’s tribute to the 21st Century (available only digitally?) will continue the good fight for a good story. And we will find that all three volumes of “The Graphic Canon” have held up considerably well.

Visit Seven Stories Press here. You can also find “The Graphic Canon” by visiting Amazon here.

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Filed under 20th Century, Comics, Fiction, Graphic Novel Reviews, Illustration, Literature, Novels, Russ Kick, The Graphic Canon