The title "Top Pick" is a honor bestowed to few books. Its one step beyond 5-star, stratifying novels that seriously deserve your attention. Our reviewers can recommend their five-star reviews as a Top Pick, but only the UBR editor can ultimately bestow the honor. These books represent the top 15% of this year's book reviews, and less than 1 percent of all the novels submitted to us.
But only one novel can be the best.
We placed our 2014 Top Picks before you, and let you decide on which are the Best of the Best. Hundreds of you voted, in what was often a close race.
On behalf of the Underground Book Reviews team and our readers, we'd like to congratulate John Biscello for his exceptional novel, BROKEN LAND, A Brooklyn Tale, as our 2014 Underground Book Reviews TOP PICK Novel of the Year!
Originally from Brooklyn, NY, writer, poet, spoken word performer, and playwright, John Biscello, has called Taos, New Mexico home for the past twelve years. He is the author of the novel, Broken Land: A Brooklyn Tale; and a collection of stories, Freeze Tag.
His fiction and poetry has appeared in: Art Times, nthposition, The Wanderlust Review, Ophelia Street, Caper, Polyphony, Dilate, Militant Roger, Chokecherries, Farmhouse, BENT, The 555 Collective, Instigator, Brass Sopaipilla, The Iconoclast, Adobe Walls, and Kansas City Voices. His blog--Notes of an Urban Stray--can be read at johnbiscello.blogspot.com, and his website is: johnbiscello.com.
Existential noir with a pop-cultural slant, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale chronicles the urban exploits of wanna-be sleuth and slapstick film buff, Salvatore Massimo Lunezzi. Prompted by an enigmatic phone call from a writer-friend claiming to be dead, Lunezzi launches an investigation that leads him to Ghostwriters, Inc., a company selling inspiration to struggling writers through the medium of "ghosting." From Buster Keaton to Arthur Rimbaud; a boozy dwarf to a mysterious femme fatale; hip hop to the madness of art; Lunezzi is drawn deeper and deeper into a Coney Island of the soul where fiction and reality converge.
Broken Land - An Excerpt.
If I were forced to impose a designation upon what I do, I’d say I’m a … curious. That’s all. Just curious.
Anyway, if I had an office and it had been a rainy Tuesday, then a tragic blonde with legs like scissors strong enough to cut a flesh-and-blood man in half might have walked in . . . but that’s not the way this story begins.
This story begins with a phone call from Jimmy Barrone, a writer and old friend of mine, who I hadn’t heard from in years. His voice was tight and choked with tears, as he gurgled—Still curious, Salvo?
I knew it was Jimmy, because he was the only one from the old neighborhood who still called me Salvo.
Jimmy, I said, long time no hear.
Jimmy’s dead, Salvo. Do you understand? I’m dead.
I countered Jimmy’s hysterics with good old-fashioned logic.
You’re not dead, Jimmy, I said. You’re talking to me on the phone, therefore you’re alive. Got it?
Jimmy snuffled some kind of primitive response, and went on—I don’t know who’s who anymore, or what’s what. I’m breaking apart, Salvo. Fractals. Twelve Jimmy’s, then thirty-six, then forty-eight.
I followed the beat of Jimmy’s math, and tried to get through to a singular Jimmy, the one I had known since childhood.
Jimmy, I said, before you go to pieces with all this radical subdivision, tell me exactly what you think is happening.
I’m not me, were the last words Jimmy spoke before the line went dead.
I called back: a busy signal.
I calmly hung up the phone and sat at my desk. I picked up my plastic pencil sharpener and began sharpening pencils (#2’s, orange-yellow). It was what I did when I wanted to think things over, calmly.
While my curiosity had been piqued, and I fully intended to head over to Jimmy’s place and see what I could find out, I was not going to rush into the matter. I was not one to rush into anything, even when a distress signal has been fired like a flare in my direction. I didn’t trust distress-signals, especially when they came from writers. Especially writers who had been raised Catholic and had grown up in Brooklyn.
I also understood that anxiety and panic were highly contagious maladies. It was my responsibility to keep myself clean and healthy and sound. Which required exacting detachment. Too little and you were caught in a trap. Too much and you drifted away.
My cat, Keaton, an ash-gray beauty with lantern-yellow eyes, leaped onto my lap. He stared up at me, as if he wanted something.
What, I said.
He responded by switching his lean tail, side to side, like a pendulum.
My nails dug into Keaton’s scalp and gave it a good scratch. Keaton purred, like a pigeon making love to a toy motorboat, and closed his eyes.
I sharpened pencil after pencil, while playing Jimmy’s words over and over again in my head. I tried out various configurations. I rearranged the original sequence of the words; broke them down into independent syllables; played the sentences backwards, as if trying to uncover a satanic message.
After my fourteenth pencil, and with none of the configurations having amounted to a breakthrough, I rose to my feet. Keaton fell to the floor, gracefully. He gave me a cutting look, then padded away. I went into the bathroom, flossed, brushed my teeth, and gargled mouthwash. Then I flossed again.
I put on my shoes and hat and overcoat. I grabbed my pencil sharpener, and six unsharpened pencils, and stored them in my coat-pocket. Then I left for Jimmy’s.
Outside, the night had teeth and it was raining. It suddenly dawned on me: it was Tuesday.
Maybe if I had an office, I reasoned to myself, a scissor-legged blonde would walk into it. You never know about these things.
LENGTH: 20-40k words (150 pages)
COVER DESIGN: Cris Qualiana Basham
On page one of John Biscello’s Broken Land he writes: “Anyway, if I had an office and it had been a rainy Tuesday, then a tragic blonde with legs like scissors strong enough to cut a flesh-and-blood man in half might have walked in… but that’s not the way this story begins.” This remarkably well-written novel is brimming with offbeat poetry.
Salvatore, the narrator, begins the story by taking on the case of his missing writer-friend, Jimmy. Jimmy calls Sal to tell him that he’s dead, and the bizarre phone call inspires Sal to investigate. He claims he’s not quite an investigative journalist, or a private eye, but simply calls himself “curious.” And so the story follows this curious narrator though New York on an unusual journey to find his friend.
Among the novel’s colorful characters are the mysterious and gorgeous Anna, a drunken dwarf named Hen, the street-smart hustler Rico, and Claire from Ghostwriters, Inc. who literally calls on ghosts to inspire writers. These characters are wonderfully original and each has an impact on Sal as he searches for answers.
This is such a unique novel. On the surface, it’s a smart, entertaining and witty story. Underneath, it’s like a peek inside a writer’s mind, revealing the mystical art of storytelling. There are a few scenes that seem random along the way, but once everything comes together, the reader realizes that every page has its purpose. Biscello’s muse has not failed him.
Broken Land is easy to recommend. Any reader looking for something out of the ordinary would likely enjoy it. At 158 pages, this quick read never lets up on intrigue. It would also be an excellent novel for aspiring writers to read. First, they can learn about solid writing from Biscello’s example, but they can also find inspiration from his clever message.
Five Stars - Top Pick!