Joe Hoffert

A themed collection of weird stories, locally self-published and brimming with descriptions of familiar scenery.

This type of tale requires a tricky balancing act, as the likely (regional) audience shares a lot of knowledge about the setting. That may put them in a mood for realism, and instead the plots have a local college instructor tripping over fantastic phenomena at regular intervals. Hoffert has not helped himself with one important decision - the book betrays no evidence of editing for content. Consider this small example from among dozens: the protagonist is trying to pry open the false bottom of an antique box, below which may be evidence to the fate of a train that completely vanished. Why would readers ever need the verbatim dialogue of the call to the hotel desk clerk to retrieve a pocketknife ("Give me a few minutes. I'll look.")? All ten stories are shot through with this tendency toward tedious exhaustive surface-only descriptions, and some of the voices are stiff despite self-conscious attempts to lighten up.

Several stories entertain despite the consistent flaws. The absurdly-titled "Vomit Massive Rainbow Thunder" develops well-paced suspense. "The Amazing Professor Onyx" turns out to have performed some genuinely frightening and wondrous magic in Louisville's West End. And "Huge" and "The Hole by The Side of The House" show a range of storytelling ambition.

There's a successful model for what Hoffert is trying to do: Manly Wade Wellman, whose "Silver John" stories and novels posited a wandering balladeer encountering the supernatural in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. The success of that series contributed to Wellman's induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, alongside Thomas Wolfe. If Hoffert wishes to reach such heights in Kentucky, he'll have to trust editorial help. -T.E. Lyons

Harry Stein
Delacourte Press

Harry Stein used to write the "Ethics" column for Esquire; now he does the same for the Wall Street Journal. Behind that change of venue lies the tale told in this book, in which Stein transforms (after becoming a dad, natch) from good soldier of liberal orthodoxy to upholder of old-fashioned "common sense values" ostracized by his former comrades. It's essentially the litany of complaints made by the Borks, Blooms, and Bennetts, given a personal spin and told in wry bite-size bits, like Dave Barry with a subscription to National Review.

A sense of humor isn't the only thing that distinguishes conspiracy from most conservative jeremiads. Stein was a full-fledged pinko: raised by former Communists, steeped in the mythology of the Left, would-be 60s rabble-rouser, "right on, woman" sensitive guy, and member of the liberal media. So he acknowledges that the "good old days" weren't so great for a lot of people, that liberal ideas and policies changed things for the better.

But, Stein argues, having achieved so many of its laudable goals, modern liberalism has become cultish, susceptible to extremists and shakedown artists, and as blinkered and intolerant as any gang of bible-bangers. Given the examples Stein cites, he has a point.

Unfortunately, like most mainstream conservatives, Stein won't admit how right-wing values contribute to the problems of America. The stresses of capitalism are as much to blame for the disruption of the traditional family as feminism, and the Klan came closer to taking over the country than the Commies ever could hope. But if you're sick of orthodoxy trumping reason on both sides of the national argument, Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy will provide food for thought. -Bill Widener

Jennifer Lauck
Pocket Books

The memoir Blackbird is a moving and candid self-portrait of a broken childhood. Jennifer Lauck shares with readers the story of her youth, riddled with terminal illness, sexual abuse, homelessness, the sudden death of a parent and the discovery that she is adopted. These things do not happen over a lifetime, either. They happen before she is even 11 years old. Opening the story with her mother's illness, readers learn that, at only five years old, Lauck is almost solely responsible for her mother's care. By also sharing her adoration of her father, Bud, and her typical brother / sister relationship with B.J., Lauck still paints a picture of a strong family - a house of love, devotion, and acceptance even in the midst of hard times.

All this changes however, with the death of her mother. Uprooted from sleepy Mary Street in Carson City and moved to L.A., Jen quickly loses any control over her life. Bud meets and marries a domineering woman named Deb who, with three children of her own, takes immediate and steadfast control over the household. As the years drag forward, Jen continues to suffocate in silence under Deb's reign. She is molested at summer camp and forced to accept a nearly non-existent relationship with her father. When Deb kicks her out of the house, Jen is forced to live in a homeless shelter, and must support herself. All this is suffered in silence, accepted as just the way life is going to be.

Lauck writes openly and leaves nothing to the imagination. Evoking emotional reactions with each chapter, readers close the book touched and stunned - at both what has happened to this girl and how bravely she handled it all. Lauck is 11 when she leaves us in Blackbird. She is now working on a followup, but what's left? -Christina Dwiggins