One of the most sheerly fun things I’ve read in recent years has been Hal Duncan’s series of Scruffian stories, which are a unique variation on stray child fantasies like the Lost Boys or the Borribles. They incorporate clever twists to history and mythology, a cheeky-but-probably-reliable-enough narrative voice, and a rambunctious spirit that’s as punk and D.I.Y. as any fold-over ‘zine you’ve ever rattled off on your day job’s Xerox machine.
The Scruffian stories come in the form of a Lethe Press collection (above) and a handful of chapbooks available in print, epub, and e-audio formats through the author’s Bandcamp page. There’s a new one coming out in a couple weeks, so if you’re a fan you might need some recommendations to tide you over. Or, if you like the books I’m reccing but haven’t read any Scruffians yet, that means now is a great time to get in to it!
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One of my favorite books from last year was Leech Girl Lives, by Rick Claypool. It’s a wonderfully satirical and decidedly leftist novel about a safety inspector in the far-future who gets exiled from her bubble-city after being framed in a plot to create an unsafe environment. While in the wilderness, two symbiotic leeches devour her arms and latch on to her shoulders, and things only get stranger from that point. There’s a LOT going on with this book, the ideas it tangles up, and the surreal world it presents. Which means there’s a lot of possible angles from which it looks a little like other books.
So you enjoyed this bizarre romp of a book and are still hungry for more. If…
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Subgenre: Uptempo Eldritch Sleuthpunk
That cover made me check the prices of old Monster In My Pocket sets on Ebay. Then I balked at the starting bids, read the book, and got far more fun out of it than if I’d spent the same amount of money on stale plastic figurines. The only accurate description I can come up with is that it’s like if P.G. Wodehouse did a line of coke off of a Hot Fuzz DVD.
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Okay okay yes I read a rom-com and I’m not going to mince words with some “it’s a romantic comedy BUUUUT-” qualifying statements. Molotov Hearts by Chris Eng is an entertaining book whose plot centers on two people who catch feelings for each other. It isn’t solely about the love between the guy and the girl though, it’s also about the love for and within the punk scene. In the same sense that this review is about my love of minor spoilers.
Socially-maligned high schooler Jenn watches the punk kids loitering after school, particularly the cute guy always reading physics textbooks. After a fight with her abusive mother she sneaks off to join their punk house, dumpster dives, suffocates at basement shows, and gets to smash. But such a plot summary overlooks the hand-sewn details.
Molotov Hearts’ plot is propelled almost entirely by women’s agency. Jenn takes the initiative to goes over and talk to the punks and her dude, Becky bails her out at school after they break up, other punk girls front bands and lead the dumpster-diving excursion. There’s no synchronized shouting of “girl power” to oversell things, women getting shxt done is just the default state of the Molotov Hearts world. Jenn’s authoritarian mother is full of agency and fairly evil, but eh, representation isn’t always enough without class consciousness. And is this book ever conscious of its class! The life of the punk house isn’t a glamorized Lost Boys carefree adventure — the dumpster diving scene is as filthy and dangerous as it is calorie-dense, most of the punks dress themselves from piles on the floor (if they do dress themselves) and there’s an appropriate lack of headboards. It reads like it’s drawn from actual bummy quasi-commune experience rather than someone trying to piece together what dejected punk kids do based on Rancid and MxPx lyrics.
But that’s all window dressing, albeit window dressing that knows it should be old bedsheets instead of actual curtains. I wouldn’t have stuck with the book were it not for the characters. Jenn is smart and resourceful, but not tritely hypercompetent. She doesn’t get everything right; her friends straight-out tell her that her priorities are pretty screwed up at one point and there really aren’t enough books out there willing to let their protagonists be wrong about things. Or have friends that call them out on it and then actually talk about what’s going on. But even if fidelity to actual human behavior isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of fun and snark as the punks play off each other and pwn some posers.
If I had a consistent rating system Molotov Hearts would get 4.5 out of 5 somethings. Let’s say 4.5 perfectly good wheels of cheese pulled out of the Safeway dumpster.
(I’m only marking it down because it doesn’t acknowledge that Blink-182’s first album was pretty legit and if we can’t have petty squabbles like that then what’s the point of a subculture anyways.)