Thursday, March 01, 2012

Two more excellent independent books: Short Stack and The Austin Job

Scott Morgan: a smooth move for the reader's jugular
Scott Morgan is a writer’s writer, but more importantly, he’s a reader’s writer. Someone who obviously has talent and has honed his skills.

Short Stack is a collection of poems, vignettes and short stories by turns funny, touching and always thought-provoking. “One True Cat” kept both me and my wife laughing for far too short a time—because we got to the end of the poem. Morgan obviously has had at least one cat in his life, and he sure knows what they’re about.

“Food and Hats,” the longest piece in the collection, had my laughing, nodding, saying “yeah!” and generally reacting far too strongly for my fellow bus-riders. Not many books evoke those kinds of reactions.

Throughout, Morgan displays a power with language and a writing style that I can only sum up as smooth.

Flawless. There are no errors. Never once did I halt over a grammatical or punctuation or usage error, not once did I cringe at a cliché or even an awkward phrase, never did I think “that was a useless and embarrassing metaphor.” And when I read independent writers, I do that a lot.

But Morgan’s talent goes far beyond following the rules of English grammar. Reading a Scott Morgan story is effortless, sometimes as enjoyable as floating on a raft down a lazy river, sometimes as exhilarating as a roller coaster

Most important, in fact essential with short fiction, is that all the stories are true — not factual, but each one reveals one undeniable truth. When you read it, you have to acknowledge, yeah, you knew that, about people, your town, yourself, even though you probably never wanted to admit it.

The only criticism I have, or can imagine about Scott Morgan’s writing is that there’s not enough of it available. Besides this slim collection of short pieces, Morgan has one other book, a guide to writing called Character Development from the Inside Out, plus of course his outstanding blog, WriteHook: Write for the Jugular.

Come on, Scott. I am getting impatient for a novel with your name on it.

Entering a new kind of world

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Austin Job by David Mark Brown.

As soon as I started it, I realized that I should have read its predecessor, Fistful of Reefer, which creates and introduces the new sub-sub-genre of science fiction, reefer punk. According to the author's introduction to The Austin Job, "reefer punk" fiction is alternate history, set in the western US, based on the premise that oil never got cheap, and instead energy comes from "cellulosic ethanol from the wonderful cannabis plant."

I haven't read any "steampunk," "dieselpunk" or any other "-punk" work before, although I have seen some movies that fit into the genre. The idea is appealing on an intellectual as well as aesthetic level. I love the look of the cyberpunk and dieselpunk ethos--the curving metal, the 1920s Art Deco typography. But pulling off a story that works is a challenge. You have to create a world and a history that is believable while different from our own; an alternative history that patently makes sense and stems from a recognizable point of divergence from our own history; and at the same time not get bogged down in back-story--the bane of many new writers.

This is not Brown's first novel, but with just two novels and a collection of short stories out, he still counts as a new author.


The setting is Austin, Texas in 1918. The story brings together an embittered Ukrainian Bolshevik refugee from the Russian Revolution, a newly elected Texas state senator who is beginning his journey to political disillusionment, an aging sheriff, his beautiful and headstrong daughter, and, of course, a fantastically rich banking tycoon.

The conflict starts right away, with lots of literal pyrotechnics. Just after the state election, a new State Senator, the young and handsome former rodeo cowboy Jim Starr (what a cowboy name!) is courted by two sides in a seething social tension in the state.

Economically, times are hard. Students and union members are striking and have rioted. The match is lit, literally and figuratively, by the mysterious Professor Medved ("bear" in Ukrainian), and once that happens, the action never stops.

Brown describes the technology and gadgets very well. As far as I can tell, the streetcars, derricks and other machinery fit well into the dieselpunk genre, as far as I can tell.

Most of the characters are believable, even sympathetic. I can identify with Jim Starr, someone who is tentatively finding his way in a new line of work after he can no longer pursue his first career (rodeo cowboy, remember?), and I really felt for Sheriff Lickter. I could even feel a connection to the villain, and I felt I could understand, if not condone, his thinking and actions.

The villain is very believable, except for his name: Oleg Rodchenko. It's Russian. To be Ukrainian, it should be Oleh. On the other hand, Brown may be showing how Russified Ukraine is in our world as well as in his alternative version.


This bring me to the only plot weakness: the somewhat unclear state of the world. For example in the Reeferpunk history, what is the state of Russia? Had the Bolshevik Revolution failed?

This is a forgivable weakness, however. An author cannot fit a description of the whole world into one novel, and should not try. Brown says he's planning a series, which will give him room to explore his alterative world.

While almost all the characters are believable, the femme fatale is contrived. Daisy Lickter is a headstrong, capable as well as beautiful. She rallies the women in the Women's Bank (another piece of the alternative history?) She's just too good.

Style: smooth

Brown is a professional writer. Unlike so many independent authors, he obviously knows how to write. The book had very few typos and a couple of words were missing. It's far ahead of many independently published books that I've read lately.

Brown has created a fascinating world and populated it with entertaining and sympathetic characters. The Austin Job is a fun ride, well worth a read. Check it out.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read 'The Austin Job' yet, but I did have the pleasure of reading Scott's 'Short Stack'. I found myself alternately giggling and deeply touched. It's a wonderful collection that truly showcases Scott's quick wit and expertly honed skills. Like you, I wish there was more of him to read. He's a wonderful talent and a super guy!!