Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Wait, Atomic Junk Shoppers are allowed to publish stuff? (Or, reviews of new books by Corrina Lawson and Fraser Sherman)

Corrina Lawson‘s new book, Above the Fold, is out from City Owl Press, and if you’re interested, you can go get it! But … should you?

Lawson writes in the back of the book that Trisha and Grayson were the first characters she created as an adult, and it’s taken a while to get them into a book. Trisha Connell is a 1980s New York reporter who lives a very punk rock lifestyle, while Edmund Grayson is the owner a security firm. Early on, Trisha is supposed to cover some boring story at City Hall, but she hears about an alarm going off at a museum that is exhibiting art lost during World War II that had been taken by the Nazis and not returned to the owners. She decides that’s probably a better story and ignores the orders from her boss to go to the museum, where she finds that thieves have snagged five Cézanne paintings and a guard is dead. Definitely a better story!

She gets there first, of course, and manages to sneak in, where she discovers that she knew the guard – she was a foster kid that Trisha had met a few years earlier and whom she helped get her life together. So that bums her out, of course. She meets Grayson and there’s some attraction, but they both have jobs to do, so they have that flirty-but-contentious thing going on that is the staple of so much fiction. Lawson does a nice job with it, though, so it works well. They find a bomb under the museum, but Grayson is able to defuse it, which mitigates his guilt from allowing the murder and theft to happen in the first place (as it was his job to stop it). They actually catch the thieves, but … they can’t find the paintings. Oh dear. One of the thieves is a neo-Nazi, and Trisha tries to figure out what exactly is going on with the paintings, which are owned by a shadowy rich dude and are controversial, naturally, because they were plundered by the Nazis. What does the murderer in custody want? How did the dead guard get into the gallery, which was ostensibly locked, and was she an accomplice? Where are the paintings?

Lawson does a nice job with the twists and turns of the mystery. Both Trisha and Grayson are invested in it, so they pursue it even after Trisha gets fired (her boss is angry at her for defying his orders, and she’s not the kind of person to back down, so she insults him and gets fired as a result). The answers are pretty interesting, even though Lawson … I don’t want to say “cheats” a little with the solution, but the way they figure out what’s going on seems like it should have been noticed earlier (to be fair, she does lampshade it a bit in the text, so there’s that). The mystery does tie in a bit with both Trisha and Grayson’s pasts, and as this is the first book with the two characters, Lawson does a lot of work showing us who they are. Trisha has had a great deal of trauma in her past, and she’s very reluctant to trust Grayson even though she’s attracted to him. She’s a woman in the 1980s, too, so Lawson does a pretty decent job showing us how badly women were treated, even if they were good at their jobs. Grayson’s past isn’t quite as traumatic, but he’s also had some heartbreak, and he realizes that Trisha is an uncommon woman and he needs to figure out how to treat her if he wants to be with her. Lawson does a nice job showing how these two navigate their impulses and desires as they become more attracted to each other. I didn’t love all of it – Grayson, in particular, seems to be a bit over-the-top with his thoughts when we get into his inner monologue, and their eventual sex scene is both far too goofy in spots but also quite nicely awkward in others – it’s hard to write sex scenes, and while Lawson veers a bit too much into romance-novel territory, she does, I think, better than a lot of writers do. Despite some of the silliness, their relationship feels real, because they both bring a lot of baggage to it and they’re trying to figure that out while also working together, which puts them in some danger. Meanwhile, Lawson does a nice job with the ancillary characters – the cop investigating the crime, Grayson’s ex-wife, the friend of Trisha who alerts her to the crime in the first place – all of these people are interesting, well-rounded characters, and they add to the “real-ness” of the world. Lawson does a good job making them feel like characters rather than plot drivers, which is nice. It’s a fast-paced adventure, but Lawson makes sure to create good characters that we’re invested in, and it makes the whole book work better.

There are some issues, of course. I mean, the solution, as I noted, is interesting but seems like it should have been figured out earlier. I’m not going to worry too much about that, though, because Trisha and Grayson figure it out fairly organically, and that’s always a good thing to see (I mean they simply do the work and uncover things rather than having a flash of insight that solves everything, which can be fun but seems a bit unrealistic). What bugged me more about the book is the weird errors. Some are generic errors – I dislike when “lay” is used for “lie,” but sadly, that’s the way the language is evolving, and I have to live with it, even though I will always point it out. But one time Lawson calls it “Non-Hodgins” lymphoma, and she uses “phased” instead of “fazed,” and there are a few other minor mistakes like that. In one bizarre sequence, for a couple of paragraphs it seems like the characters have time-traveled to a point where cell phones exist – they discuss looking at photos on their phone – and I wonder if Lawson forgot the book takes place in the 1980s or if I’m just reading the scene wrong. It doesn’t ruin the book – it’s a few sentences and the magical phone with photos on it never gets mentioned again – but it kind of jumped out at me. Every book has some weird things that slip through the editing process, and I don’t know why these stuck with me when some others don’t. But they did.

Overall, though, this is an interesting mystery with two good leads, and I’d like to read more books with them as they explore their relationship. Lawson writes in a good style – it’s compelling, quick, and insightful, and I know she’s done several books before this, so I might have to pick a few up. Give Above the Fold a look!

Moving on, Fraser Sherman’s latest book, 19-Infinity, is out, and I read it, so let’s check it out!

I don’t love the title of the book, even though I get it – these are tales set in the 1900s of alternate Earths, places where magic works and myths are real (whether they’re all one Earth or many different ones is not pertinent; one story is a prequel to another, but the rest stand alone). Titles are difficult, though, and I’m certainly not able to suggest a better one. But what about the stories?

They’re pretty good! There is some wonkiness here and there – typographical errors, occasional annoying formatting – but nothing too egregious. The content is interesting, though. Sherman has some very cool ideas that he fleshes out nicely, as he updates some myths and legends for modern times. The best thing about the book, probably, is the way he uses the available technology of the times without believing that Tesla was using a magical internet, for instance. In the first story, which is set in 1936, there are Nazis (because Nazis are such good bad guys), but the “magic” part of the story comes from Edison’s light bulbs and what might have happened if such steady light is not particularly beneficial to humanity. There are two stories starring the Wandering Jew, one set in 1937, the other in 1996 (which Fraser wrote first). The 1930s one concerns Jewish refugees and feels pertinent even today, while the 1996 one is about an angel who believes someone is trying to kill him (at this point, Al – the Wandering Jew – is working as a PI, which is a good job for someone like him, I think). The story set in 1957 deals with fairy tales coming to life, but Sherman ties it into the civil rights movement, which is nifty. The story set in 1959 is a bit too convoluted for me, but Sherman does a nice job imagining a world where gay people can live out and free, and the main characters are interesting, it’s just that the plot is a bit too knotty. In 1968, we get a descendent of Jim West and Doc Savage’s daughter teaming up in a fun, generation-gap kind of story that’s perfect for the times. The creepiest story is the one set in 1969, in which a strange figure appears in a mirror and menaces two teens. It has the least “social relevance,” I guess – it feels like it could be set at any time and its placement in 1969 is a bit random – but it’s still a nice, weird tale. One of the fun stories is the one set in 1974, in which the daughter of a right-wing politician learns that her mom is a lot cooler than she thinks (even her support for Nixon is calculated, in a way) thanks to some adventures she had as a kid. It’s another “generation-gap” kind of story that works well for the period in which it’s set. The 1983-set story feels like it’s there solely because the protagonist is a woman working at a “man’s” job, and that idea was still novel in the early Eighties, so Sherman can have some fun with it. It’s a clever story, too, which is nice. The second story set in 1996 is well done – Sherman wonders why the Deadly Sins are portrayed as grotesque when they’re supposed to be seducing humanity, and he gives us a story where they’re alluring. It’s a very good story because a lot of what’s going on is in the background, and it’s also the most cynical of the stories. Finally, in 1999, we’re full circle with Nazis, this time woven into an old movie that’s getting screened for the first time and causing all kinds of problems.

Overall, it’s a solid collection. As I noted, Sherman does some interesting things with old myths – the Seven Deadly Sins, Greek deities, the Wandering Jew – and wonders what they would be like if modern people had to deal with them. His social commentary isn’t the deepest, but it’s still the kind I appreciate – incorporated into the plot instead of being substituted for the plot. He’s not obvious about it, either – the Nazis are bad guys, sure, but the story about refugees from Nazi Germany specifically doesn’t have Nazis in it, showing instead how insidious xenophobia and racism can be. He has a good, terse writing style, which works well for pulpy, plot-driven stories like these, but he’s able to conjure up some nice characters that skirt the edges of cliché territory without falling in. That’s pretty neat.

I don’t have much else to say. Clever ideas, executed well, with some nice depth. There’s nothing wrong with that! Check out 19-Infinity at the link below!

But wait! we have an added bonus! When Travis wrote about his girlfriend, Heather Dorn, fighting cancer, I decided to buy her book of poetry, How to Play House, to help them out financially. I don’t know how much it helped, but I thought it would be keen.

I’ve always been lousy at analyzing poetry, even when I took poetry classes in college in which we specifically analyzed poetry. I can never “get” the meter, so I’m never quite sure why we get line breaks where we do, and I’m only a little better at rhyme schemes. That being said, I have emotions (it’s true!), so I can feel poetry on a visceral level, and these poems hit hard. The book is split into two parts – the first features poems about Dorn’s childhood, the second about her adulthood (poetry is best when it’s written in first person, I find, and I have to assume Dorn is not making this stuff up). Her honesty about her life is startling and raw, and her line breaks make the poems a bit jittery, which is part of the point. I don’t want to get into too much of “what the poems are about,” but she paints a harrowing portrait of being poor in America and being a girl/woman in a male-dominated world, and it’s terrifying and all too true. I’m not going to go all snooty like the pull quotes on the back (they’re amazing pull quotes, but they are a bit pretentious), but I will say that Dorn does some amazing things with language and imagery. She has an uncanny ability to switch the tone of a poem on a dime and shift from concrete to abstract and back again extremely effectively, keeping us on our toes as we read the poems. As bleak as they are (and they’re very often bleak), Dorn often finds the warped beauty in her world or just the tiny moments of grace, and they make the works sing.

I hope Heather and Travis are doing well, obviously, and I hope that she can sell some books to help out with their financial woes. Use the link below and pick up a copy of How to Play House. You might not want to read it all in one sitting, because it’s a bit overwhelming, but it’s still an excellent collection!

Now that I know AJS bloggers are allowed to publish stuff, will I get off my ass and do the same? Probably not, but you never can tell!


  1. Thanks! Yes, I discovered Draft2Digital, which is the service I use to format my books has some odd quirks. It’s a better deal than most of the alternatives though.
    The 1983 setting was partly to get away from the complications of airport security in the present. And I’ve come to realize I have a much better grasp of pop culture from when I was young than what Kids These Days are into.
    Speaking of which, for a horrific example of Liberace speaking to kids of the 1960s in their own hip musical language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_rHSTjyWNk

    1. Greg Burgas

      The formatting stuff is something only a crazy person would notice, but I’m a crazy person. It’s really not a big deal.

      Good point about the time period. I hadn’t thought of that!

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