Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.
*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….
Yes, that’s right, this one’s getting four stars!
It’s award worthy. But for what? Being a horror novel? A piece of transgressive fiction? (And yes, despite being a writer, I had to look up this new-to-me genre descriptor.)
The answer eludes me, but I suspect it might not be a genre award, but one for the work’s biggest achievment: its literary merit, and structural bravery.
Let’s back up and go over the work’s plot, which is simple enough:
Poor, drug-dealing to survive, John Thomas (later given the stage name of Jake Wolfram), while engaging in one of his favorite pastimes, peeping, observes
boy band frontman Damien Tungsten accidentally(?) murder a teen groupie during a passionate bout of sex. The result, a predictable and not-so-predictable (and not always so believable) downward spiral of events that ultimately serves every character their just desserts.
Is the work “transgressive”?
According to the definition I found, yes. That said, I’m happy with calling “Idols & Cons” a horror novel, and even a literary horror novel. Because, as mentioned earlier, that’s the story’s biggest strength. The prose staples a reader’s eyes to the page, rips ‘em out, then staples them again, page after page, all the way through to the end. And does so, all the while, with the reader knowing, if not in detail, then in principle, what’s going to ultimately happen to these characters. After all, it’s inevitable. Characters, as various trains, are all set up on their speeding tracks heading towards a collision, and…
Instead, like a voyeuristic sadist/masochist, I set up my folding seat up on a hill, glass of lemonade at the ready, shades on and with giant umbrella lanced into the ground, and watched the converging trains with glee (and with, perhaps, a bit of sympathy for John/Jake, the story’s lead).
Michaels writes with such confidence, such focus, that I can only stand in admiration, and this in a novel where the characters, nary a one, garner or are deserving of much sympathy. Not only is the prose a taut strand of barbed wire, but then there’s the story’s structure, too. Michaels, unlike the rank-and-file breakout artist, doesn’t take the safe route(or at least a “safer” route), but, instead, opts for not just a first-person tale, but a story featuring multiple first-person character viewpoints (with each appropriately flagged with their own section).
Amazing, and amazingly brave. (Brave, too, for the publisher, in allowing it.)
What about problems?
Yes, there’s those. There’s editorial gremlins. First, there’s the needed caveat that I read an advanced readers copy. Odds are that some of the glitches I found were ultimately cleaned up before final release. But, after looking at the work’s opening sample pages on Amazon, not all of them were. Example: With the first usage of the word “facade,” there’s the eye-catching cedilla (hook or tail) trailing down from the character “c.” In the next usage, the tail’s missing. In my review copy, there’s a mix of Times New Roman apostrophes, and those ugly vertical ones. With contracted words, there’s a number where the apostrophe is facing the wrong direction. Are there hundreds of these and other problems? No, not at all. Still, with a novel that in so many ways shines and shines and shines, when these gremlins did show up, they made me wince.
Next, and this isn’t necessarily a “problem,” but, instead, is part of the risk that the author took, I feel that “Idols & Cons” might, at least in the short term, appeal more to writers than to typical readers. Having more than one first-person narrator, having no sympathetic characters, having a story that from the outset, promises a Cronenberg-esque downward spiral into oblivion (and, man, how that promise is delivered!), collectively risks many readers putting the work down, and probably too soon. For those with a bit of patience, for people who enjoy downward spiral stories, these elements will not be a problem.
Last, as a personal note to the author S.S. Michaels, again, I’m thankful for the bravery shown in your writing. Such a compliment might be misconstrued as seeming to mean that your writing in “Idols & Cons” is pretentious (and I’m sure some critics believe this). I, on the other hand, took your style and structure as just what I’ve said. Brave. Brave and fun. Perhaps brave isn’t the word (at least not until after the fact). Instead, perhaps the proper term is “fearless.” I’ve the sense that you wrote “Idols & Cons” without any thought of the market, or of reviewers, peers, fans or potential ones. I’m also appreciative of the attention-to-detail taken with this no-chaff story, a tale where there isn’t a wasted scene or even a paragraph to be cut. I also apologize for not getting to this review sooner. It, unfortunately, got lost in my queue, and fell victim to my own busy drama. But what a joy when I finally got to it, and realized what a two-day thrill ride I was in for.
Laurels to you. I’m so looking forward to “reading” you grow as an artist.
Stay fearless when you write, and when you go to market, stay brave. Work like “Idols & Cons,” will not necessarily have mass-market appeal, but for those in-the-know (try defining that), will be appreciated as a gorgeous work of–gulp–transgressive dark art.
All my best,
Rob M. Miller
To pick up a print copy of “Idols & Cons” on Amazon, click here.
To get an e-book version, click here.
Want to get to know her better (you should!)? Visit her Website at Slush Pile Hero.
About the author S.S. Michaels:
S. S. Michaels is a writer of transgressive fiction. She holds degrees in Business Administration and Film & Video Production.
She has lived abroad, traveled widely, jumped out of an airplane and driven a race car.
In film and television, she read slush and wrote coverage, then moved on to become a production coordinator. She finally served as a TV network financial analyst before leaving Hollywood. She lives with her husband, two kids, and two dogs.