Book Review: EMBER DAYS by Nick Ripatrazone

00023 Ember Days
by Nick Ripatrazone
Alleyway Books, 2015

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti


Ember Days opens almost immediately with this all-caps note—a message from a brother to a brother, a last-ditch effort to reunite, to collect a debt, and to repent for a wrongdoing. This is the core of the collection, slightly rotten and a little sweet. The past in muddied recollections. Characters trying to overcome the tragedies and disappointments of their past, whether it be a deceased daughter, a taped-over VHS, or even a bomb that burned much too brightly.

With sentences that oftentimes blend prose and poetry, Nick Ripatrazone’s Ember Days is a gorgeous read. Eight stories that flow off the page, slithering in your ear and rattling around your skull. The language is beautiful, but can occasionally lose the reader with its generous use of metaphoric imagery. Though when the images land, Ember Days captures ether.

Indeed, the setting is never static—Ripatrazone flies between decades, from the sand-blasted New Mexico desert, to the suburban homes of blue-collar families riddled with dysfunction. No two stories in the collection feel the same; there’s constant momentum. And it helps that the various characters of Ember Days think of themselves in relation to the setting, the inexorable forces of nature that shape their lives—the desert, first and foremost. Ember Days spends a good chunk of its page count in the arid wasteland, and Ripatrazone writes life into an otherwise dead landscape.

The desert appeared so stale and white, as if God had created the vast expanse for one reason: to be blown up.


Wind spun through the cracked windows and he moved his mattress to the kitchen. He kept a blanket over his face and wondered if he would ever wake up. He had dreams within dreams and saw the desert in black and white, and imagined peeling off his own skin and touching bone and feeling so real.

Ember Days is swift in its pacing, in that it offers glimpses—quick flashes of human depravity. Cruelty from one brother to another, blistering dialogue between spouses, the occasional hard-handed violence. There’s an especially terrible moment in one short story when the reader suddenly realizes a next-door neighbor isn’t merely a friendly role model to a young boy. The collection allows us to see the worst in its cast of characters, often through the machinations of the surreal landscape—the desert, rearing up with its grit and heat, catching people in its swell and dragging them down and under.

These terrible, human moments consistently surprised me—they come almost out of nowhere. Almost. Once you realize what’s happening and the shock wears off, the stories kind of just…click into place.


Book Review: TURNING JAPANESE by MariNaomi

 photo TurningJapanese_zps3mqogw2v.jpg Turning Japanese
Graphic Memoir by MariNaomi
2D Cloud, 2016

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

“The year was 1995 and I was twenty-two years old.”

MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese begins with a breakup and ends with a homecoming. It’s a memoir that chronicles the protagonist’s personal evolution from job to job, from hemisphere to hemisphere. It’s a story that details MariNaomi’s reunion with a culture she thought she left behind. A fascinating visual insight into the mind of a torn-up twenty-something, desperate for some sort of solace in the country she barely remembers from childhood: Japan.

The graphic novel format was a bit jarring at first, but I very easily adjusted to the irreverent, very nearly goofy artwork that filled page after page. After finishing it, I can’t picture Turning Japanese in any other format—it is simply necessary that it be a graphic memoir. The illustrated form allows the reader to focus on the strong dialogue, while the scene spills out around the speech balloons. MariNaomi talks family, sex, cultural divide, all while lighting a cigarette, preparing snacks, or gauging a client’s behavior. Emotions are represented by emoticons and Cathy-esque sweat droplets and “Ack!”s. Characters’ faces are exaggerated and cartoonish, and oftentimes directly compliment the humor of the situations in which MariNaomi finds herself.


And there are many, many humorous situations. As often occurs in cases of extreme culture shock, there are misunderstandings that come about, whether through botched language, missed cues, or alien gestures. MariNaomi hits them all with the curiosity and wit of a wide-eyed young traveler. She’s on a quest for understanding. She’s put herself on an adventure hoping for an ending.

After a breakup, MariNaomi finds work in the illegal hostess bars of San Jose, which eventually whisks her and a new lover away to the hostess bars of Tokyo. It is here she forces herself to change according to the culture around her: she learns the language; she visits with long-lost family. In their strange ways, her fellow hostesses and regular clients help her to adapt and survive.

Clocking in at 216 pages of emotive illustrations and unflinching, smartly crafted dialogue, Turning Japanese chronicles MariNaomi’s bizarre journey of retouching old lineage. At its core, it is a compelling tale of a traveling youth, seeking to find something meaningful on the other side of the Earth.





Turning Japanese will be out from 2D Cloud on May 16, 2016.





Book Review: CRYSTAL EATERS by Shane Jones

 photo 8a89ebb9-3c9a-418a-8cf4-71a913a6056d_zps7hvner9c.png Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio, 2014

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

I’ve been told time and time again not to judge a book by its cover. And I’ll come clean—I always do. I’m a sucker for beautiful cover art. It will force me to pick a book off the shelf every time. I grew up with that old adage, as I suspect most of you did: don’t dismiss or praise something solely due to its outward appearance. Dig deeper; find out if that beautiful cover matches the pages inside.

Isn’t it a nice feeling when you realize they do match?

The cover for Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is a vivid sight—a psychedelic wasteland full of fleshy pinks and the greens you see reflected only in the deepest of waters. Something I’d pick off the shelf, in other words.

A tiny cursive script winds along the top of the cover: “Crystal Eaters.” An intriguing title, and one meant quite literally. The characters in Jones’ novel are living on borrowed time—mortal, just like the rest of us. But the difference is that they are constantly reminded of it. These people are born with crystals inside them. One hundred, to be exact. When they’re injured, or when they age, they lose crystals. They are able to see their life physically leak out of them. They can make a tally with how many precious life crystals they have left. Getting older? 76…75…74…etc. Car crash? Let’s deduct 20 crystals from your count.

And when they lose all 100 of their crystals? They die. It’s a simple, elegant rule—almost like a videogame.

It’s a big, fascinating concept. But at its heart, this is a story about Remy, a young girl in the Crystal Village who tries to save her family from destroying itself. Her mother, who’s down to her last few life crystals—coughing up one every other day. Her stubborn father, who refuses to acknowledge the pain and sadness reverberating through their home. And her drug-addled brother, locked away in the nearby prison. Remy is on the hunt for the one thing she believes may save her mother, thereby saving her family. The mythical black crystal—never seen, but rumored to restore someone’s crystal count, to provide a sort of viscous immortality.

I can safely say that I’ve never encountered concepts quite like these in fiction. Remy’s quest is heartfelt and earnest, in a world filled with characters desperately and literally fighting against their own mortality. And the sentences used match the standout plot, for the most part. They each seem so handcrafted and purposeful. For instance:

With lips coated in glittering filth, dressed in red shorts with white trim, Remy mourns…Idle work trucks with their gun metal paneling appear two-dimensional in the evening light glimmer while Remy’s left hand shines wet with blood from the rocks that pinprick her palm.

She imagines her count as a loose pile of yellow in her belly, not a stack of a hundred red. No combination of touching her body helps, it just feels good.

While the language is certainly beautiful, Crystal Eaters occasionally falls victim to its larger concepts. It’s a short novel with a rich world, and Jones’ sentences—while imaginative and elaborate—sometimes confuse the reader instead of providing much-needed clarification. I read slowly and carefully, but still occasionally lost myself in Jones’ metaphor and form, asking basic questions like, “Who’s speaking now? To whom? Is this…even someone speaking?” There’s much loveliness in Crystal Eaters, but its beauty is occasionally muddled by its dense imagery.

Crystal Eaters touches upon addiction, estrangement, innocence, apocalypse, and a monolithic city that dominates the horizon and threatens to overtake Remy’s crystalline world. Though at its center is a tale about a family. Remy’s family, full of love and sorrow over their mother’s inevitable passing, crystals dripping from her one by one.


Book Review: EASIEST IF I HAD A GUN by Michael Gerhard Martin

 photo download_zpswa3mxpcb.png Easiest If I Had A Gun
by Michael Gerhard Martin
Alleyway Books, 2014

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

If I’ve ever encountered a title that instantly sets the tone for a story collection, it’s “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” The first tale in Easiest If I Had a Gun is an angry, bitter story of self-loathing from the mouth of a bullied high school nerd. Cheery stuff.

But he’s not the only one who’s mad. Michael Gerhard Martin’s stories are an anthology of brokenness—of characters who lash out and fight back against their surroundings and the people that abuse them. Oftentimes, their abusers are their loved ones, and that only made each tale resonate deeper with me. I felt their sadness. Their “otherness.” Indeed, each story details a life—the unspoken lives of the ones who oftentimes can’t speak for themselves. The outsiders, the misfits, and the discontent.

Seemingly standard fare when it comes to literary fiction, right? But Martin’s characters consistently haunt with all their detail and personality. They’re frighteningly real. From the bullied nerd Josh in “Shit Weasel,” to the discontented craftswoman Elsa, who deals with her Alzheimer’s rattled father in “The Strange Ways People Are,” and petty theft in “Made Just for Ewe!” The final story, “Dreamland,” introduces Emilie, a high school girl who tries to find solace in her artwork, after a lifetime of caring for an alcoholic mother.

Let’s get back to that first story though. You know, “Shit Weasel is Late for Class,” which, as I’ve alluded to, is one of my favorite titles I’ve read in years. The first painfully descriptive sentences: “After fifth period theology, Brian McVey backs me up against a painting of the Virgin Mary and smacks me around while his toady, Billy Moyer, calls color. I think it’s because I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”

In stark detail, Michael Gerhard Martin creates a high school scenario that’s all too real—the thoroughly unpopular kid, driven to suicidal despair by his harassers, brings a gun to school. Thankfully, he never uses it. Instead, the reader watches as something much more subtle occurs—a slow, creeping transformation that hardens the protagonist into the contemptuous bully he’d always hated. It’s a brutal high school reality—the oppressed become the oppressors, if given the opportunity. But really, it’s just a human reality. The fact that it takes place in a high school setting is almost incidental.

These are characters that know longing inside and out. For instance, the protagonist in “Seventy-Two-Pound Fish Story” is a hyperactive, kind of annoying kid that wants more than anything to go fishing with his dad. When his distant father pawns him off on another father-and-son fishing trip, the boy finds himself simultaneously obsessed and repulsed by his new surrogate fishing family. “I wanted to crawl up on Lute’s lap and bury my face in his shirt, and I was disgusted by him.”

In terms of setting, Easiest If I Had a Gun takes place around Pittsburgh. The city, the suburbs, the dusty pits and valleys of the Alleghenies. There’s one instance in “Bridgeville” where Jack, the protagonist, attempts a surprise visit up to Indiana University of Pennsylvania—a last-ditch attempt to salvage his relationship with his emotionally distant girlfriend. Because it’s Halloween in Western Pennsylvania, however, a snowstorm predictably strikes out of nowhere, nearly running him off the road several times. How many times has that happened to me on the turnpike? Too many. It’s one of the myriad details that allow these stories to hit close to home.

Aside from all this, the writing itself is beautiful. I’m a sucker for great imagery: “The boat stank of fish and men and diesel fuel. Paint peeled from its sides in long strips. Rainbows hung in water so full of trash there wasn’t room for fish to swim.” Gross, but a fantastic sentence.

The book’s not just gorgeous writing and darkness and gloom, though. There are nuggets of humor speckled throughout that had me cackling. And the final story ends on an unexpectedly sweet note—one that had me smiling, rather than furrowing my eyebrows in concern, like I had for much of the rest of the collection. A strange meeting of two of the most heart-wrenching stories that brought the collection’s world into full focus, and made it seem that much more real.

For a shorter collection of fiction, Easiest If I Had a Gun consumes the reader—every page draws you deeper into the broken world of our backyards and our steel mills. With all their faults and their anger and their hurt, these characters mattered to me.