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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Jarret Keene

I’ll be honest: I’ve pooh-poohed e-books for years, primarily for sensual reasons. A cold plastic Kindle or iPad doesn’t offer the same experience as paper and glue—the tactile sensation and distinct smell of bound literature.

Well, all that changed this month when I found myself buried under a teaching load of six college composition classes—enough to make Socrates beg for hemlock. I mean, have you ever graded 150 research papers? For two weeks, I self-administered a transfusion, replacing my blood with black coffee and whatever’s in those 5-Hour Energy vials.

Despite December’s stress, I managed to read a number of great tomes this year—many available as e-books. Now, some of you Luddites are saying, So? You can’t send an e-book as a gift. Actually, you can if you have a Kindle account, and the process is simpler than Stephenie Meyer’s prose. Just go online to the Kindle Store, and choose the book you want to send as a gift. Click the button that says Give as a Gift on the product detail page, then type in the e-mail address of the person to whom you’re gifting the book. If you’re unsure of the address, select Email the Gift to Me before placing your order so you can forward the gift email personally. You can even control the delivery date and include a gift message. The recipient can also—gasp!—exchange your e-book for another if he or she doesn’t appreciate, say, Finnegan’s Wake.

Anyhow, here are some cool e-books for those special literate someones in your life. The best part? Digital books are instantly transmitted. You’ll look technologically adept when, in fact, you barely had time to wipe your butt Christmas morning.

For the weird, magic-loving reader on your list who can’t get enough Criss Angel, The Witches of East End TV series or urban-fantasy mass paperbacks: Christopher Buehlman’s The Necromancer’s House (Ace, $10.99) is the scariest, sexiest, most-visceral novel of combat magic I’ve encountered. Andrew Blankenship is a warlock and recovering alcoholic living in upstate New York in a house of spell books and conjured sidekicks, one of whom places him in conflict with Baba Yaga, a hideous baby-eating character straight out of Russian folklore. Internet and cell-phone hexes follow, as does steamy romance. Buehlman is a vastly entertaining and imaginative author.

For the poetry-lover: David Kirby, 69, is the ideal bard of the digital age, since his verse comes across like a torrent of words and images. Less of a Twitter-twiddler and more of a Wikipedia warrior, he has a new autobiographical collection, The Biscuit Joint (Louisiana State University, $7.99), that is a blast of ingenious language. Whether meeting his favorite poet Seamus Heaney in the National Gallery to discuss sideshow freaks amidst Renaissance portraiture (“Backwards Man”) or constructing a reverie of an afterlife (“To Everyone Who Has Died Since I Was Born”), Kirby’s stanzas are like the carpentry effect inspiring his book’s title—seamlessly effective.

For the sci-fi/horror buff and The Walking Dead junkie: Hydra is Random House’s upstart digital imprint, overseen by Sarah Peed. The micro-house debuted this year with three titles, my favorite being William Todd Rose’s Apocalyptic Organ Grinder ($1.99), a zombie novella with plenty of cool twists. The main protagonist is Tanner, on a purifying mission to eradicate the infected “spewers.” One such spewer is Lila, whose family has been wiped out by cleansers like Tanner. What you have here are two opposing views in a conflict rife with symbolism, and a needling question: What does it really mean to “know your enemy”? A fun yet thoughtful read for anyone who digs living-dead yarns.

For the flash-fiction fan, ADD-suffering reader or David Sedaris admirer: Marina Rubin’s collection of micro-stories, Stealing Cherries (Manic D Press, $9.99), hits all the right notes with its humor, mild perversity and warmth. My favorite mini-tale here is “Mediterranean Tattoo,” in which Rubin and her small-town friend and fellow Euro-packer find themselves in the city of Nice, France, on the Mediterranean Coast, itching for ink on their skin. I won’t give away the ending except to say this: Sometimes what frightens us isn’t so much the pain of death as the death of pain. Poetic, punchy and packed with vignettes, Stealing Cherries will pop your brain.

For the gay-erotica enthusiast and vodoun completest: Widely recognized as the leading editor of adult-themed anthologies (seriously, Google him), Shane Allison’s much-anticipated debut novel, Through the Heart (JMS, $2.99), is a delightful mash-up of Zora Neale Hurston, Wes Craven and Anaïs Nin. The story is set in Tallahassee, Fla., and centers on Tashawn, who proposes to his boyfriend, Kendrick. On that night, though, tragedy strikes. Tawshawn consults with a mambo asogwe, a high priestess of voodoo, to reunite with his lost lover. The young spell-dabbler must make a hard choice: Should he keep the man of his dreams, or keep his soul intact?

For the horror cinephile or Stephen King aficionado: DarkFuse is my go-to digital publisher for cutting-edge dark fiction, and its digital library (and my own) grew immensely in 2013. My favorite late-night read this year? Nicole Cushing’s Children of No One ($2.99), about a behavioral-art experiment in Nowhere, Indiana, gone terribly awry. This creepy yarn reminded of other great novels—The Shining, Hunger Games, The Silence of the Lambs—but Cushing’s synthesis is entirely original. As a result, my nightmares are plagued by a nihilistic villain named No One—who might very well end up haunting your dreams, too. Read with the lights on, please.

OK, there you have it—a last-second literary gift guide. You can thank me pulling your stockings out of the fire, well, next year.

It seems everyone, including my mother-in-law, is reading badly written smut in plain view these days, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Let's do something to change that right now. Here are gift ideas that include well-written smut, a beautifully rendered history of summer camps and a deftly constructed horror novel about a drone pilot gone homicidal.

Got a camper on your list? As winter takes hold, it helps to remember that summer inevitably returns. What better way to rekindle the heat of first love, lake water and chewy s'mores than with David Himmel's poignant A Camp Story: The History of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps (The History Press, $19.99)? Himmel eloquently relates the story of a summer camp in southwestern Michigan, which sprang up from the efforts of a Jewish orphan named Louis Greenberg. Eighty years later, the impact and legacy of this annual gathering remains strong. If you've ever attended camp or worked as a counselor, you'll relish the heartwarming and hilarious nostalgia that Himmel—who worked at this camp for years—squeezes into every paragraph.

The name Wrath James White used to be synonymous with extreme horror. That changed this year with the signed, limited-edition publication of his novella Reaper (Cargo Cult Press, $50). Reaper tells the story of Las Vegas drone-pilot Marc, who wakes up every morning in a nice suburban home with his beautiful family, then kisses them goodbye before driving to work. No, he doesn't deal cards in a casino. Rather, he sits 12 hours a day in front of computer screens at Creech Air Force Base, killing people thousands of miles away in Afghanistan via remote control. Without spoiling the plot, let's just say Marc develops a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder that causes him to hallucinate (or maybe actually see) the ghosts of the people he bombs for a living. Dark, disturbing and downright chilling.

For the literate homo (we use the term affectionately) in your life, why not throw a curveball with the Shane Allison-edited short-fiction anthology Straight Guys: Gay Erotic Fantasies (Cleis Press, $15.95). Let's face it: Most gay dudes have fantasized once (OK, a million times) about getting it on with that hunky husband and father. Allison gathers the best of these stories, which include Zeke Mangold's loud and lively exploration of the headbanging-hetero subculture in "Metal Head." There's also Bob Vickery's tale of seducing your girlfriend's brother, "Family Affair," plus Gregory L. Norris' backseat joyride "Taxicab Confession," which will keep your meter running for days. Allison is shaping up to be the top gay-erotica tastemaker.

For the degenerate sports gambler in your life, here's a right hook. When he's not busy running his Double Down Saloon watering holes in Sin City and New York, or touring Japan with his naughty punk band Bloodcocks U.K., P Moss writes funny, ferocious crime stories. His latest tome, Vegas Knockout ($14.95, CityLife Books), is a novel told in stories, and it's among the finest investigations into gambling-addicted, alcohol-addled, lust-crazed souls you'll ever read. The big fight is in town, drawing a cast of incredible yet familiar characters like flies on you know what—a hotshot journalist trying to make a bigger name for himself, a millionaire's wayward daughter and a, um, waffle-jonesing clown. Until you dig into Moss' demimonde, you'll never fully appreciate, in literary terms, the darkness in human hearts.

For the punk-rocker in your figurative mosh pit, here's a swift Mohawk cut to the brain's pleasure center. Rocker (he played in False Prophets) and former High Times magazine editor Steven Wishnia delves into underground music with his debut novel When the Drumming Stops (Manic D Press, $15). The book starts with fabulously named, graying bass-player Underend Vicodini, who, despite the ruined economy and his dead-in-the-water band, can't seem to part with New York City. But when the prospect of reuniting the Gutter Astronomers comes with a nice payoff, the chance to secure an affordable closet-size Brooklyn apartment finally seems within reach. Will Vicodini be victorious, or fall victim to ongoing urban gentrification?

For the Nazi buff and/or self-loathing hipster, here's an absurdly compelling treat: James Carr and Archana Kumar's Hipster Hitler (Feral House, $16.95). This handsomely produced book collects the best and some never-before-published comic strips from Carr and Kumar's popular hipsterhitler.com website, which embraces the visually rich intersection between frustrated artists with ridiculous facial hair and The Frustrated Artist With Ridiculous Facial Hair. Isn't it time we saw someone wearing a Death Camp for Cutie shirt? This doubles as a fuck-you gift to your vegetarian ex-boyfriend in Williamsburg. Snarky yet serious comedy gold.

Finally, for the Civil War buff and/or mystery fan, here's a just-released and already-acclaimed book: William Heffernan's historical thriller When Johnny Came Marching Home (Akashic Books, $15.95). Heffernan masterfully renders the War Between the States via an unforgettable character—a one-armed investigator who, while unable to piece together his own broken life and personal agonies, nonetheless attempts to decipher what happened to a troubled young comrade-in-arms. Johnny is really the story of three boys who come of age during horrific combat and pay a price—mentally, spiritually and physically. The recollections of armed conflict are incredible, and the plot turns on a Confederate nickel.

There you have it—a list of books with a little something for everyone. If this doesn't work, then do what I did: Ask the mother-in-law to pretty-please read her mommy-porn on a Kindle like everyone else.

It began when Joshua Ellis could no longer spit.

The blockage in his saliva gland resulted in swelling, and the pain forced him—a freelance web designer and writer—to visit a place that 50 million Americans who lack insurance coverage know too well: the emergency room. Finally, after hours of waiting, waves of guilt washing over him as a rising tide of heart-attacked, bullet-riddled and generally worse-off souls gurneyed inside to meet their fates, he received an X-ray.

What it revealed would lead Ellis 700 miles away into the Mexican city of Juarez and into the inscrutable mystery of the preserved heart of a baby vampire. To put it to a point, his teeth were killing him—specifically, his severely impacted wisdoms, which his skull had grown around. The teeth threatened to pierce his sinus cavity. Left unaddressed, they would likely break his jaw and possibly stab his brain.

In other words, Ellis’ new ebook, An American Vampire in Juarez: Getting My Teeth Pulled in Mexico’s Most Notorious Border Town (nsfwcorp.com, $2.99), is hardly your average trip-to-see-the-dentist tale. It’s a sordid, noir-esque memoir of how the richest country in the world fails to take care of its own and offers a vivid, no-holds-barred snapshot of the border relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. (Disclosure: Ellis and I worked together at Las Vegas CityLife almost 10 years ago, along with Independent head honcho Jimmy Boegle.)

In a civilized country like, say, oh, Canada, a death panel would convene to decide the best moment for Ellis’ grey matter to be lacerated by his own tusks and for his organs to be harvested to benefit Islamist militants needing donations. Kidding. In any other First World nation, Ellis would simply have made an appointment. In the U.S., he lacked coverage, and couldn’t afford treatment, so he did nothing. Luckily he landed a gig with a military contractor and months later met with an HMO dentist in a Vegas clinic sandwiched between a Food 4 Less and a smoke shop.

That’s when this Hellraiser-grade tell-all really gets under way: The Vegas dentist can only remove Ellis’ lower wisdoms and suggest an oral surgeon for the uppers. What the American clinic inflicts on the writer is absurd. The doctor calls him fat and leaves his lower mandible riddled with fragments and a serious abscess. Months later the healed socket still issues chunks of bone.

This is all before Ellis, 34 and married, decides to become a medical tourist in a city recognized as the world’s murder capital. Where rival drug cartels rack up massive body counts over turf and the only good journalist, foreign or not, is a dead one. Using El Paso as base and clandestinely armed with several unusual “pigstickers,” he moves across the border and back—carefully. Like a hyper-vigilant Hunter S. Thompson with chops rot, Ellis delivers darkly hilarious descriptions, as when a Juarez hooker solicits him.

A tiny woman steps away from a baby stroller and approaches me. She looks exactly like what would happen if Rosie Perez played the part of Gozer the Gozerian in a downmarket version of Ghostbusters. She’s got a bulldog jaw, a bizarre pompadour/mullet, and a white outfit that looks like something Juice Newton left in a Dumpster after a show in 1982. The general effect is disturbing.

 

It’s not entirely a freak show. Ultimately, his treatment at the hands of an Anglo doctor and his staff provides an interesting contrast to what Ellis endured in Vegas. I don’t want to give away what happens—hint: it’s terrifying and not for the faint-hearted. Suffice to say the author ends up spooking coyotes with a mouthful of blood while crossing the border and then contemplating a mummified pawnshop curiosity in El Paso. (The symbolism is rife with political meanings.) Along the way Ellis instructs the reader, breaking everything down, from maquiladoras to right-wing hysteria over Obamacare to pricing on (and clientele) for oral surgery in Mexico.

Vampire is the closest thing to a how-to guide for those of us who are uninsured and considering a trip for affordable care. At 20,000 words, the book is a brisk read and Ellis a riveting guide into a realm few have documented so compellingly. Perhaps more significantly, if you’re someone who makes resolutions to floss regularly and fails, this first-person account of medical travails will scare you straight and clean.

An American Vampire in Juarez by Joshua Ellis is available in Kindle, Nook and ePub formats.