Austin Punk Invasion, By David Ensminger, 86 pgs.

Punk historian and ex-Texas Biscuit Bombs drummer David Ensminger brings you a cool little window in the late ’70s and early ’80s Austin punk scene co-written by the folks involved. The slim book features interviews with members of Terminal Mind, The Offenders, The Huns, The Next, and the Hickoids. Within the interviews, we learn about Raul’s, a hub for weirder Austin bands in the early ’80s that would often hit its 150-something capacity. There are a couple of excerpts about strange dealings with Roky Erikson and a lot of kind words about Randy “Biscuit” Turner of the Big Boys.

It also features essays by notable punk talking heads. Gary Floyd of the Dicks contributes a very sweet and poignant stream of consciousness essay about getting older and losing friends. Dave Dictor shares his 2017 M.D.C. tour diary. Ron Posner of M.D.C. tells the truth on why they canceled their tour with Bad Brains in 1982. (Spoiler—H.R. is a homophobic butthole.)

The book’s pages are covered in fliers and photos from forty years ago. So many names are dropped that will find yourself jotting down ancient bands to check out later.

Toward the back of the book are some short personal history bits by Tracey Torres of Black Salve and Sophie Rousmaniere of Elected Officials. Both of these are fine reads but seem like an attempt to get more women in the book due to the early Austin punk scene having close to zero women in bands. The cover states that there is something from a member of MeanGirls, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, there is another personal history essay by Marc Ruvolo of the Fur Coats and Das Kapital.

Anywho, it’s a quick read that seems like it should be Austin Punk Invasion #1 opposed to a one-shot. We need more punk history written by the ones who made history. –Rick V. (Left of the Dial Book, leftofthedialmag@hotmail.com)

Bubble Chamber, By Dave Kress, 364 pgs.

I’m sure Dave Kress would laugh at me if I called him uncompromising or applied other such adjectives to his body of work. After all, Kress is something of a maverick, delighting at poking convention—and its wisdom and rules—in the eye. This comes across in his fiction. Since his debut novel Counting Zero, released in 1999, Kress has consistently written inventive and thorny work which demands a reader’s full attention (and wit). His previous one, Hush, was a beast of a book, in which the protagonist allegedly met the creator of the universe and wrote her own version of a sacred text, casting her life as parable. In Bubble Chamber, Kress spins two novellas, but the relatively short lengths belie their depth.

In Buda and Pest, Kress uses a first person plural narration to detail the lives of a ragtag group of Hungarians struggling to live their lives in a warzone occupied by Nazis in 1945. The narrative style, a sort of chorus of lost souls, spends time doting on each of the group’s characters, unfolding aspects of each personality as they navigate the dilemmas that war—and love—bring. Each sentence here is laboriously crafted, loaded with gags as the plurality uses, and draws attention to colloquialisms (and get ready to never hear the word “Wichita” the same again!). The structure and impact here both remind me of Locos, the metafictional novel by Felipe Alfau.

In Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Kress goes full postmodern, casting a wide, willfully fractured web in the form of a murder mystery involving a lab technician using an assumed name. Here, Kress mixes up the storytelling: handwritten notes, annotated bibliographies, news stories, fortunes from cookies, and fridge magnet poetry all swirl and—if you do it right—coalesce. Remember that book House of Leaves that everyone was so high on a few years back? Kress’s stuff is in the bus to that ballpark. Like Kinbote maybe (or maybe not) being an alter ego for someone else in Nabakov’s Pale Fire, there might be something else lurking under the surface in Fads and Fallacies. Or maybe not. Kress is a master of form, and part of mastery is mockery, making readers re-evaluate priorities and assumptions. Just because the work is serious and effective doesn’t mean that the reader (or the author) has to take things seriously all the time, like Black Flag said on the radio tapes on the CD version of the unreleased five-piece demos. Kress’s fiction demands that you ask questions about why and when you’re both being serious.

If you like your fiction challenging and intelligent, Bubble Chamber is a great introduction to a body of work by an underrated American novelist. Check out Dave Kress’s stuff to find one of the freshest, funniest voices in fiction. –Michael T. Fournier (Mammoth Books, 7 Juanita St., DuBois, PA 15801, mammothbooks.org)

Everything Is Going Wrong: Comics on Punk and Mental Illness, Edited by Mark Bouchard, 148 pgs.

This collection of comics edited by Mark Bouchard was started as a Kickstarter project back in 2018, finally reached its goal, and was published in 2019. (Full disclosure: I donated to help fund it.) There are forty-three different entries here: the vast majority are comics but there are a few statements by contributors on mental health. The comics are all done in different styles. Some are just one page and others cover more than five pages. I’m not familiar with any of the artists, but the writers included the HIRS Collective, Scott Sturgeon of Leftöver Crack, and Matthew Landis of The World Inferno Friendship Society.

As the person who put together Razorcake’s punks and mental health issue, it shouldn’t be surprising that I found this comic to be near and dear to my heart. Writers were given the freedom to tell their story in whatever way they saw fit. Some literally told of their experiences with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and suicide. Others did it more in a metaphorical manner, comparing their mental illness to a monster or physical condition. These views on mental health issues also allowed each artist to flourish in their unique style; there aren’t any two comics that appear alike.

It’s not surprising that some of the pieces (especially the short ones) don’t strike me as powerfully as the ones that tell a story or really explore a condition over multiple pages. The pieces “Rhythm” and “Unmanned” had a combination of art reminiscent of comic books I read as a kid (mainly Batman and Spiderman) and storylines that dealt with the weight of nagging depression and self-doubt which I could relate to. Those two stuck out to me the most.

There were a few things I would’ve liked to see changed. The biggest one is that there were page numbers in the table of contents but no page numbers once you got into the book. The comics weren’t consistent in stating their titles, writers, artists, and letterers. It would’ve been helpful to have a clean understanding of when one comic was finished and where the next began.

That said, the comics address a worthwhile subject and something that will be helpful to punks, comic fans, and anyone dealing with mental illness. It’s not that there are solutions given out in Everything Is Going Wrong, but it’s more a reminder that there are fellow punks out there who are also facing similar struggles. –Kurt Morris (eigwpreorders.storenvy.com)

Gospel According to St. Rage, The, By Karen Eisenbrey, 388 pgs.

St. Rage is a fictional high school punk/pop/garage/country band led by a girl, Barbara, who thought she was invisible until a guy she barely knew gave her a hat. She then starts a very long journey of self-discovery in this coming-of-age novel about music, teenage relationships, gun violence, and super powers. There’s a touch of the magical realism here, though I don’t quite see why as it only tends to show up when the author needs to show how it works. Basically, if Barbara gets angry enough, she can do things like low level flying, cause car tires to blow out, shoot sparks out of her finger, and flip someone “the bird” and they will get covered in bird shit.

Her biggest challenge, besides getting a grip on her super powers, is something way harder than that: making friends. She sings in the church choir and is a mousy, quiet, easily overlooked teenager living in Seattle. But when Jackson places a hat on her that inspires her to stand out and be seen. She starts slowly making friends and inviting them to shows to see real life local bands like Dead Bars, who make several appearances in the book. So she finally puts together a band and it’s made up of an indie/folk girl who plays acoustic guitar, a half-Japanese, half-black (I’m assuming all the other characters are Caucasian, since race never comes up unless someone is not white) punk rock drummer, the popular girl who bullied her in middle school on tambourine, and a troubled, depressed teen boy who brought a gun to school on bass.

The story seems interesting enough, and I do enjoy the occasional young adult novel (especially with punk band references), though I found myself slogging through it. None of the characters ever feel well developed, and a lot of the dialogue feels forced or sometimes comes off as an adult trying to sound like a teen (“She tends bar on the weekends.” “I’m a little miffed…”). There are also two queer characters who both start same-sex relationships relatively easily, which I appreciate the visibility of.

A lot of pieces feel like they’re only there in order to justify them being included. Like, “I exist, therefore I belong.” So none of the threads feel very connected for me. And there are infrequent POV shifts that I don’t think are necessary. Sometimes we get four different POVs of the same exact scene, which is meant to showcase each character’s personality, but just feels redundant and confusing.

I realize that I am not the target audience for this book, and I do feel it’s far too long and the characters felt flat. If you’re interested in test driving it, Eisenbrey wrote and recorded all the fictional St. Rage songs, which are available on Bandcamp. It’s certainly an impressive project and a big undertaking, but definitely fell short of the mark for me. –Kayla Greet (Not A Pipe Publishing, PO Box 184, Independence, OR 97351)

Please Buy This Book So I Can Feel Validated & (Finally) Love Myself, By Homeless, 232 pgs.

Homeless is a NYC-based author and artist whose unique style and perspective, as well as an obsession with fast food, are consistent across the three different formats of writing that comprise the three sections of this book. The author’s gleefully dark and offbeat sense of humor effortlessly offsets heavy themes like relationships, depression, death, and pizza, making Please Buy This Book So I Can Feel Validated & (Finally) Love Myself a gratifying and highly entertaining read.

The first section is a novella entitled “EX-KIDS,” which follows a new couple from strange doorstep to even stranger doorstep as they deliver pizzas in an attempt to scrape together enough tip money to afford unlimited soup and breadsticks at Olive Garden (yes, you read that right). Along the way, standard themes like love, abandonment, and aging are tackled and subjected to the author’s hilariously dry humor and unique perspective. In “EX-KIDS,” Homeless gives nods to writers like Charles Bukowski and Richard Brautigan, but the nod to Kurt Vonnegut is especially notable, as the novella shares the playful almost self-indulgent surrealism that was the foundation of Vonnegut’s iconic Breakfast of Champions.

The second section, “CRAPbook,” is a collection of poetry. At first, the poems seem to be a little too full of embraced depression and self-pity for my tastes. However, once you get a few poems in, the author’s subtle sense of humor reveals itself. I find myself cracking up as he describes the inside of a dirty microwave as a comparative reference to his mental state. The subject matter hits everywhere from funny, sometimes raunchy observation to dark, existential self-confrontation. I’m not really a poetry guy, but this section comes together very neatly as one piece in which Homeless does a fantastic job at capturing the “alone in a crowd” (for better or worse) feeling of life on the city streets.

The third and final section, “LITTERature,” made up of six short stories, was my favorite part of the book. Merging the best elements of the novella and the poetry sections, Homeless uses his dark humor and uncommon sense of humanity to tell stories that are simultaneously genuinely somber and absurdly funny. This section deals with many of the same themes as the last two: Mortality, loneliness, urban alienation, McDonald’s, et cetera. The tale of the elderly Sid Vicious is a stand out. Although the stories are naturally short, none of the pieces feel incomplete. Instead, they read more as a slice of life, or maybe a slice of death, depending on how funny you want to get.

According to notes included in the book, an alternate (and probably better, in my opinion) title was The Crumpled Egg McMuffin Wrapper Where My Heart Should Be… and that sums it up pretty well. It’s a fun, quick read that could probably be done in one not-too-busy day off work. –Buddha (House Of Vlad, houseofvlad.bigcartel.com)

Side Chick Nation, By Aya de León, 375 pgs.

Hurricane Maria made Caribbean landfall in September 2017, and not two years later Aya de León published Side Chick Nation, a novel with Maria at the center of it. The nation of the title is Puerto Rico—de León quotes San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as comparing her country to a married person’s under-respected lover, with the United States as the married person.

This excerpt from the back cover captures the spirit of Side Chick Nation: “her formidable Lower East Side Women’s Health Clinic’s heist squad.”

From the novel:

“I have some bad news for you,” Marisol said. “We need you to do the real dirty work.”

“What? Fucking him?” Kim asked.

Marisol nodded.

“If he was Dulce’s sugar daddy, then he likes Latinas with big asses,” Kim protested. “Sounds like a job for you, Marisol.”

“Nope,” she said. “Not only have I met him, but he knows someone who can trace me. Besides, he likes young women. Even his wife is in her twenties.”

“Tyesha’s younger than me,” Kim said. “And has much more ass.”

“Tyesha has a grant proposal due.”

Marisol runs the clinic and the heist squad. Dulce is a former sex worker who flees an abusive and connected boyfriend and ends up trapped during the hurricane.

Side Chick Nation is a novel in the romantic suspense genre, a political novel with an emphasis on feminism, and a character study with a certain amount of modernism; de León peppers the novel with many scenes from a telenovela some of the characters watch.

De León has created a world not quite like any other writer’s. She’ll be writing bestsellers within ten years and reviewers of other books will be using phrases like “in the tradition of Aya de León.”

I have to tell you that I can’t imagine the reader who would not find Side Chick Nation too long—when de León decides to slow her story down, it’s time for the reader to settle in for the duration—though if you suspect you’ll like it, you will like it. –Jim Woster (Dafina Books, kensingtonbooks.com)

Soulside: Washington DC 1986-1989, By Alexis Fleisig, 96 pgs.

This one landed in my mailbox a few days before I started discussing photo essays to my English Comp class. Intentional or not, Alexis Fleisig has put together a textbook example of the photo narrative. Starting with the band’s inception (as Lunchmeat), Fleisig documents the band’s shows and tours. The text here is minimal: just enough to orient readers unfamiliar with the punk scene (and, of course, the Dischord scene which spawned the band). I’m not a Soulside person, but this book was completely engrossing. Fleisig’s photos of tours include DC luminaries as roadies, and band flyers form a snapshot of the band’s connection to the late-’80s scene as the group traverses the country in a rickety van (complete with requisite breakdowns). Thoroughly engrossing, like a fantastic Instagram account before the medium existed. Get in the van! –Michael T. Fournier (Akashic, akashicpress.com)

Way Cities Feel To Us Now, The, By Nathaniel Kennon Perkins, 155 pgs.

This is Nathaniel Kennon Perkins’s first collection of short stories. The book has twenty-two tales, and the majority of them find characters living in the present-day West and Southwest United States. The Way Cities Feel to Us Now is an exploration of what it’s like to be a slacker punk in the desert and mountain states, when there are long periods of time between where you are and where you want to be.

That said, driving plays a big role in these pages. It wasn’t surprising that the influences of Jack Kerouac and Al Burian appear, but often (and especially so in the longer short stories) with a narrative scripted more akin to works by Andre Dubus II. Characters in these stories are looking for answers while trying to find themselves, trying to find drugs, and trying to find their next lay. There’s not a sense of nihilism or hopelessness, just an aspiration for some sense to be made of life. (For some characters this is done in the shadow of Mormonism, which isn’t surprising given the effect it has on those living in Utah and neighboring mountain states.) But until life can make sense, there is drinking, smoking cigarettes, and fighting to be had.

I enjoyed a number of tales, primarily the longer ones. My favorites were: “Pyramid Blues,” a tale of road tripping around the American Southwest; “The Preacher Waylon Jennings,” a case of mistaken identity; “Los huevos del Señor,” a tale of Mormon missionaries in Latin America, and “House Party,” about a brother who disappears from the narrator’s life, only to return years later.

The very short stories—those under five pages—either need to be fleshed out or shouldn’t have been placed in with the rest of the tales to begin with. When the work is strong, Perkins writes very well and it’s captivating. But with the shorter tales, I wanted more. I wanted to see a point or a deeper emotional connection between characters. Often times I felt I was getting an emotional outburst instead of the insightful content that provide meaningful, reflective tales.

Short story collections have always been hit or miss for me. But I felt the amount of interesting, thought-provoking material in The Way Cities Feel to Us Now far outweighs any concerns I may have with the shorter pieces. If anything, I hope they serve as foundations upon which another collection of short stories can be written. –Kurt Morris (Muadlin House, thewaycitiesfeeltousnow.maudlinhouse.net)

1919 by Eve L. Ewing, 88 pgs.

The Great Migration, the exodus of millions of black Americans from the South to the North, began in 1916 and lasted for a few decades. The migrants were unwelcome, and the drowning of a young black man in Chicago’s Lake Michigan on July 27, 1919—white people on the shore may have knocked him unconscious by throwing rocks, or he may have drowned trying to avoid those people—was the catalyst for a race riot.

Poet and sociologist Eve L. Ewing chanced upon a 1922 report titled The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot, inspiring a series of poems on the migration and riot, plus a few about Chicago in more recent decades.

The poems don’t offer historical instruction (so keep reading). Instead it’s an authoritative and entertaining panoply of voices and styles, including biblical verse, jump-rope chant, and government document. (And I will resist qualifying “entertaining.”)

Ewing quotes the report as saying that Chicagoans saw The Great Migration as “the worst calamity that had struck the city since the Great Fire.” One of Ewing’s poems is titled “True Stories About the Great Fire”:

Everything they tell you is wrong.
The Great Fire came here in a pair of worn loafers.
eating its last sandwich wrapped in paper
and the Great Fire had a smell of grease and flowers.

William Faulkner, I think, said something to the effect that people write novels because they lack the skill to tell their story within the concision of a poem. I’ve never seen this maxim demonstrated more masterfully than in Ewing’s poem “keeping house,” in which a black maid tells us about her life with her white employer. I’d quote a verse/section, but that would be like quoting twelve percent of the year’s best novel about twentieth century American race relations. –Jim Woster (Haymarket Press, HaymarketBooks.org)

Forty-Five Thought Crimes: New Writing by Lynn Breedlove, 95 pgs.

I feel I’ve read these poems before. This isn’t a commentary on originality; this is what it should feel like to have your life represented on the page. There have been anthologies published on trans poetics—and debates, too— around what makes a “queer” art, a “trans” art; how can it ever be universal? The answer, of course, is that it never can be and never will be. But as diverse experiences—the experiences, say, of transmasculine queers or spiritual queers or punk queers—become better represented (and thank whatever powers that may be that trans representation has come far enough queer punks can be published, too), a politics starts to develop. Sets of, not universalities, but commonalities; things often shared.

In the same light as Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot, or Alex Wrekk’s current work—or the resurgence as a whole, of holistic, even secular spiritualities within the queer and punk communities—Breedlove’s is a spiritual text, invoking the ancestor, Prince, the meditation of loving someone so truly. Breedlove does not shy from history, from his history in Tribe 8, as a “dyke,” something transmasculine folks often shy away from. I often joke “dykes taught me how to dress,” but aside from that, I rarely acknowledge that was once a community I considered myself a part of, however briefly, now that I’ve “transitioned,” whatever that means when you’re non-binary.

The work these poems do, the creation and recognition of these histories (and for Breedlove, this is not just his gender and sexuality, it is, too, about his mixed indigenous and German heritage), though confusing and uncomfortable, are necessary to build an understanding of queerness, of fluidity, of our own histories and the knowledge that they are never as simple as we are taught to believe. So though I’ve read these poems before, I was happy to read them again, and to feel bolstered by them in a way we all deserve to. –jimmy cooper (Manic D Press, manicdpress.com)