When a Lobster Whistles on Top of a Mountain the Ballerinas Will Dance by A. A. Smith and Erin Camille Jackson

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

It’s a new week, and I’ve got something a little different for the dozen or so of you who misclicked on your way to an Aeropress forum. Today we’re going to be reading a collection of short stories. I don’t do those often on this blog, even though Amazon is constantly spitting them out, because generally the people who contribute to those things are not novices. If you think the author of Shirtless Lumberjack: Unshirted, Book 37 of the Where Is His Shirt Series is prolific, click on one of those collections of creepy pasta or sci-fi writing prompts and see how far down the rabbit hole goes. But this time we’ve got a fresh one. Or two, but really one. More on that later.

When a Lobster Whistles on Top of a Mountain the Ballerinas Will Dance is a short story collection by A. A. Smith and Erin Camille Jackson. Yeah, it’s a silly name. But ridiculous names are often the most memorable, which is a big plus for someone like me who could not recall the name of someone I just met at a party if a Bond villain strapped me to a laser table to get it out of me. I can forget someone’s name while they are saying it to me, creating an experience roughly along the lines of “Hi, I’m Blah.” I stole that joke from Dave Barry, but everyone who likes Dave Barry is too old to remember who said it first, so it’s my joke now. The point is I’ve never forgotten anyone named “Dragon” or “Hortence.”

The titular story is about a tank of lobsters at a restaurant, told by their military commander, Churchill the lobster. But we also have more serious fare. Especially dark is a quartet of stories named after the four horsemen of the apocalypse, though their plots are more contemporary than the dramatic titles might suggest. To take one example, the story titled War involves the lone survivor of his platoon writing letters to the families of all the men who did not come home, both to unburden himself and to fulfill his duty to his comrades in arms. It’s tragic, but also touching.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why do the lobsters need a commander? Well, this is no ordinary hodgepodge of lobsters. This is a squad of well-disciplined soldiers. Or they would be, if Churchill hadn’t wound up stuck in a tank with a bunch of amateurs. A “very practical lobster” who beams with pride at his restaurant’s usual efficiency, Churchill notices that one day the waitstaff are running around like hopeless crabs. He rallies the troops: Harlstons, Rocky, Hollywood, and Gator. A lookout swims to the edge of the tank to read the menu, because lobsters can read. Thus begins a daring tale of brave crustaceans in desperate times.

The story titled Death deals with a traveling healer who is more than he seems. Famine follows an ad executive whose needs can never be satisfied. Throughout the book we get serious themes treated in a thoughtful way. There is noir, poetry, baseball, and even a little speculative fiction thrown in. One of my favorites, and by favorite I mean it fills me with disgust and anxiety because apparently I need to talk to someone about how I enjoy things, is about a man losing a battle against an apartment full of bugs. The writing is vivid and for the most part professional quality. I can forgive the occasional “rod iron fence” if it comes with a man shooting a gun at cockroaches while sipping herbal tea.

So anyway, about those lobsters. It turns out the menu is, you guessed it, lobster, and Churchill must lead an audacious escape. I guess this restaurant installed that tank but never previously bothered to serve lobster to guests? There are twists, vegetable projectiles, brave sacrifices, cowards who redeem themselves, hoards of knife-wielding enemies, and exactly one pot of boiling hot water. Each lobster does his part, from the sturdy second in command to the preening metrosexual. And obviously, obviously, every time Churchill gives a pep talk it is completely bananas.

“We are not clams, with our foolish shells dug into the sand. We are not shrimp… the name itself says it all. We are not crabs, a frivolous group of creatures too disorganized and weak to achieve victory. We are lobsters.”

I always do some basic due diligence to confirm that the authors I shame, I mean feature, are debut authors, and not simply people who have been boycotting Amazon until they finally realized that Jeff Bezos is like the sun, and will be done with whatever he’s doing to us sooner the more fuel we give him. This research was especially important this time around, since A. A. Smith could be anyone. And it is. There are several authors with that name. I wasn’t sure if that was because A. A. Smith is a common name, or if it’s the literary equivalent of Alan Smithee. For those not in the know, Alan Smithee is the name you give when you’re so ashamed of the movie you’ve been working on for the last year that you don’t want your real name on the credits. Just finished editing together a Serbian porno about a roadside buffet and your mother follows your career very closely? Tell the studio your name is Alan Smithee. Just directed the fourth Hellraiser movie, and you made Ben Wyatt kill a lady and use her skin to make a demon? Yeah, ask them to make the check out to Alan Smithee. Names strike again.

So instead I focused on finding Erin Camille Jackson. I certainly didn’t find any other books by her, so that’s good. Then I found out there won’t be any more ever. You see, Erin Camille Jackson sadly passed away last year. Normally I read books at the beginning of a person’s writing career, and I feel confident giving them a playful elbow to the rib here and there, because their next book will be better, though not as good as the one after that. This time, there is no next book, and I’m elbowing the empty air with a stupid grin on my face like one of those Japanese cat statues.

When a Lobster Whistles on Top of a Mountain the Ballerinas Will Dance is a good creative legacy to leave. It’s nearly seven dollars on Kindle, but it’s worth a read, especially if you grab it during a promotion. The stories are polished, fun, and varied. This is your first chance to support one debut author, and your last chance to support another. And even if you don’t buy it, I’ll bet you won’t forget the name.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s stupid reviews, and now you do too.

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