Finding Hazelton by Charles Angel

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut 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, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Have you ever wondered “does anyone ever not win the grudging respect of an asshole? How come it seems to happen to everybody else but me?” Well, sometimes you have to have an ace up your sleeve. And a car. And maybe a gazebo. Finding Hazelton is a reverse Green Book drama by Charles Angel about a kid who drives some old fart around a small town in Pennsylvania.

Our protagonist Shawn grew up in a trailer park with his great-aunt, and now struggles to pay for college, especially since his scholarship has been canceled (take notes, kids: in fiction, shitty news is called the “inciting incident”). Luckily, having a rough go of it in life has not turned our Shawn into a red pilled Bernie bro who’s obnoxiously into mixology and gate keeps anyone who says they like video games. But he has become a bit of a grumpy nihilist, much to the disappointment of his classmate Lea. Lea believes in kittens and rainbows, while Shawn counters that kittens and rainbows aren’t real. Due to lack of funds, Shawn gets a job at a company that apparently… OK, so as best I can tell, this entire company exists to drive assholes around town? Like, you’re a cross between a taxi driver and a chauffeur, but you can only take passengers that treat you like shit. It’s like role-reversal Uber. His assigned jerk-wad is Paul Mazzi, who needs to get driven back and forth to the clinic to have the stick removed from his backside. Luckily, we get a few other perspective characters to break up the narrative, the main ones being Shawn’s great-aunt Tee Tee and some rich sad guy named Scott Preston. Tee Tee agonizes over whether or not she should tell Shawn the secret of who his father is, a secret Shawn’s mother took to her grave. Scott Preston dedicated his life to work, especially since the woman he loved left years ago, and now looks upon his empty life with regret.

I think you can follow where this is going. From the first few chapters it’s obvious that Paul Mazzi is Shawn’s father. What? You thought it was Scott Preston? Oh, sweet summer child. Spending my free time indiscriminately swallowing whatever falls off the Amazon conveyor belt into my gaping maw has given me the ability to spot a red herring from a mile away. Also I know what knotting is now, so maybe my maw should gape a little bit less. It doesn’t help that Finding Hazelton is more bloated than the Hindenburg on fiber supplements. Every character has their own front loading, from Tee Tee’s Hamlet-style dithering over the Big Dark Secret, to Scott Preston’s whiskey-soaked allusions to The Bad Times. The plot gradually spirals toward some kind of point, and in the process circles closer and closer to the gazebo. I swear more than half the times I have seen the word gazebo in my life occurred while reading this book. Paul and Scott are both weirdly nostalgic for this damn lawn fixture, and I honestly don’t remember if it’s about their high school football glory days or if that’s where they took turns on Shawn’s mom. All I remember is the word gazebo, turning in my brain with little Marimekko Austin Powers flowers popping all around it. I’m not a fan of nostalgia as a plot device (Hey, remember bees?), but I will give the book credit for understanding that nostalgia is basically a synonym of depression, and not something fun and wholesome. Eventually the gazebo gets repaired, Shawn stops being sullen and achieves Lea, and everybody’s happy, except for the sizable chunk of the cast who are dead. But that’s not what we need to talk about.

We need to talk about Lea. No, this isn’t the part where I reveal that Lea is in prison from killing John C. Riley with a crossbow. That would be agency. No, our dear Lea is what I call a glove girlfriend. Actually, I can’t believe that I invented that term. I must have heard it from someone smarter than me, because I’m an impostor and any day now my university is going to call me up and say so sorry, there’s been a clerical error. You were supposed to get the certificate that says “moron.” I’ve tried to google it, but the closest I’ve ever gotten was an article called Sexiest Opera Gloves on Female Anime Villains, so… rabbit holes in rabbit holes. Anyway, the glove girlfriend is distinguished from the adjunct girlfriend (aka Daisy Duck Syndrome) by not necessarily having a personality similar to the protagonist. Instead, her main personality trait is that she has been waiting her whole life for the male lead to come along and complete his personal growth quest so she can date him. Good authors remember to include some reason why she won’t date him before he slays the dragon or wins Ru Paul’s Drag Race or whatever the main story line involves, given that she’s in love with him from page one. It’s usually something like she detects that he hasn’t yet reached his final emotional evolution or something. I get it. Who’s chasing Diglett when you could have Dugtrio? Amirite, ladies? By the end of Finding Hazelton, when Lea’s hard work of sitting around waiting for Shawn to get off his ass and do the plot is rewarded, she says “You have always had my love, Reade- I mean, Shawn. From the very first day you helped my parents unload my car. You are authentic. Sometimes that isn’t easy, or even pretty, but it’s what I crave more than anything in this world.” I mean barf, right? Is it just me? Does anybody actually enjoy it when I whinge about subterranean sexism in self-published books? Am I the weird one here? OK, I guess I answered my own question.

When I read that line, it reminded me of the movie Super Dark Times. In that movie, the narrative follows two boys who go through a very traumatic experience, and there’s a girl they both like. After the main climax of the film you get a brief scene with just her; the two boys are long gone. And then you stop and think “wait a minute. Didn’t the first scene also only have her in it?” It forces you to rethink whose story this was the whole time, even though outside of two scenes totaling maybe four minutes the camera never follows her perspective. It’s a great exploration of how characters who are largely mute as far as the language of cinematography is concerned could be significant in the story (Also, the actress’s real name is Cappucccino; basically everything about her screams we should be asking women more follow-up questions). I spent a few chapters in Finding Hazelton fantasizing about an alternate universe in which Lea has some kind of growth, which given that the only set up we have is that she is in love with Shawn would necessarily take the form of realizing she’s too good to wait around for him. Or if not growth, maybe a twist? Like, it turns out she’s a serial killer responsible for Shawn’s mother’s death, or a landlord or something. Anything that would give her some narrative reason to exist. But no. She am glove.

It’s hard to make up my mind if I like this thing or not. It loses points for taking its agonizing time paying out plot points the reader has already predicted, for a cliché love interest, and a painfully flat main character. But the sentence-by-sentence writing is good. I never cocked my head at a turn of phrase like I was reading the diary of a space alien, or read a line several times to decode what the author was trying to convey. Charles Angel is like one of those little league teams that can’t score for shit, but their fundamentals are great. Maybe he just needs a really wacky writing prompt. In any case, I’ve definitely spent four dollars on worse things than Finding Hazelton. Check it out if you’re nostalgic for gazebos.

Seriously, does anyone remember bees?

The Devil and the Tiger by Jackson Hinds

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut 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, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Have you ever wondered why men’s razors have names like “Mach Power Turbo” and “Fusion Champion Stealth?” The real reason is so women won’t jump ship and save themselves a dollar worth of pink tax. Seriously, whose dignity is worth so little that you’ll shave your legs with a razor that would laugh at its own Goodfellas references on a first date? But there is a deeper reason. As hard as it is to believe, let alone stomach, some people look at a small wand designed to make their face youthfully smooth and epicene, that calls itself the Titanium Rat Fucker 9000, and reach for their wallet. These enigmatic creatures of the sports-couch, these are the people for whom The Devil and the Tiger was written. The Devil and the Tiger is a blood spatter analysis textbook perpetrated by Jackson Hinds.

Normally I run through the plot to give you an idea of what I went through and what species of cymbal monkey promenades up and down the author’s brain pan. But I couldn’t do that this time. I truly couldn’t, for three reasons. First, this brick weighs in at almost three hundred thousand words. I swear to God I felt it when my Kindle finished downloading. More importantly, The Devil and the Tiger is like one of those scenes in Game of Thrones where I just sit there, like a dog in front of an oil painting, trying to figure out what a non-psychopath is supposed to be getting out of it. You know the ones, where the camera zooms in on some murder-rape, and you can barely hear the dialogue over the sound of the director licking his lips. The third reason is that the book is almost three hundred thousand words, because these two facts compound on each other, back and forth, forever. There are only so many times I can read about what a dying person’s tears taste like or what crunching bones sound like before I have to cleanse my mind of all that negativity with a soothing podcast about a white lady yoga murder cult. So instead of the whole enchilada, we get tapas. In other words, I’m just reading the blurb. I can already tell you this is a great blurb, and I’ll use the bits and pieces of the book I read through my fingers to determine how accurate it is.

The magic begins with the tagline: “When madness wars against madness, madness wins.” I know what you’re thinking: this is amazing, how could this book be anything other than comedy gold? I already had questions going into the first page, like “doesn’t madness also lose?,” which is always the mark of a good blurb. But later my question was “what madness?” Madness, to me, implies psychological horror, not watching a series of furries get turned into chunky marinara. Oh yeah, it’s also furries. There’s a lot about this book that just seems to… be there. Like, details of how the magic system works or how politics differ from our own, or special hyper-awesome bullets, explained in a footnote and never mentioned again. Generally I would forget that the characters were furries while they were doing detective stuff or assassin stuff, then read something like “her ears flattened” or “his baculum extended,” and spend a few seconds making a rebooting noise in my brain.

On cue, the blurb gives us an intro to our protagonist(s): “An agent of the law, sick with grief. A rookie cop who trusts no one. A new convert within a radical, dangerous syndicate. A mobster on his way up in the world, with all the danger that entails. A ruthless vigilante, always in total control. Their paths cross and weave into a fuse that’s already lit.” I know, I know, you don’t believe me that this isn’t the greatest book ever. I was more excited when I read this than I was when I found out the hotel in Trixie Motel is a real place. How do you weave a lit fuse? But once I started reading I was more disappointed than I was when I found out a night at the Trixie Motel costs $550. The main characters, so far as I can tell, are the dour cop… ferret… thing? lady? and an assassin who spends his time reminding the reader how awesome he is while turning the municipal population into pink mist. There’s just something about this kind of character played straight that bothers me. Killing people, sure, that’s a storytelling trope that’s been abused since Homer. But reveling in suffering, dropping little hints about how big your muscles are or how many women can’t stay away from you, it’s coded Bad Guy in my brain, and the longer the character continues to be presented as a sympathetic protagonist, the closer I get to being Norman from Star Trek, smoking at the ears. It’s like if the Thin Blue Line flag was a person, and never gets their comeuppance.

Then we get the best part: “This story just might shock you. If you’re looking for a tightly-packed, relentless thriller that vehemently refuses to waste your time, give this book a try. If you’ve ever been curious what it’s like for a book to hit full-throttle from the start and keep you front-and-center, right where the story matters most, in every scene, this story was custom-built to scratch that itch.” What can I even say to that? Who on this mortal coil has an advocate who will speak for them as passionately as this blurb brags that the book is about the story that’s in the book and not something else? It’s this kind of Labrador Retriever sincerity that almost makes me wish I could stomach a book about people getting shot full of so many holes their duodenum falls out by a lead who turns to camera and call you a beta cuck.

I am struggling to figure out to wh’mither I would recommend this book. If you’re a teenage boy who’s going to end up on the news some day, and you’re looking for a power fantasy that will take you the rest of the year to read, this is your Twilight. It’s eight dollars on Kindle (about 364 words per penny), and God knows I’ve recommended worse. Maybe give it a try if you’ve got a strong constitution and you’re into furries… I guess I only need to mention one of those. Just buy it. Maybe Jackson Hinds’ next book will put all of that psycho energy into unforgivable sex atrocities and I can finally relax.

What if Infinite Jest and the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan had a baby? And ritually ate it?