DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

The Blues Ain't Nothin': Tales of the Lonesome Blues Pub
By Tina L. Jens
Design Image Group/ $15.99/ 208 pages
ISBN: 189194617X (May 2002)

Cover The blues make a great soundtrack for horror -- after all, it's the Devil's music --and Tina Jens knows her riffs. The spark for this episodic novel if her deep love and knowledge of the music and musicians who play it -- whether they are alive or dead.

In the first section we are introduced to the Lonesome Blues Pub on Chicago's North Side and its owner, Miss Sarah. She runs the club with the help of her 10-year-old daughter Little Mustang Sally, some ageless bluesmen, and a friendly ghost. Jayhawk, the specter, serves as loyal babysitter, bartender, busboy, and occasional protection from less-amiable spirits drawn to the haunted club. For Little Mustang supernatural entities are part of life, just like the music and its players. She's literally been born to play the blues.

Section two jumps ahead eight years, as Little Mustang is evolving into the eighteen-year-old Mustang. As much as she relies on Jayhawk, Sarah lives with a fear of the malevolent spirits. When her daughter isn't around, nasty ghosts prey on her. Only the intervention of a spunky guest ghost can clear up the mess, but nothing can make Sarah fearless. When a chance for love in the form of a traveling salesman arrives, she faces a choice between her daughter's and her own happiness.

These first episodes make up more than half the book and -- with the exception of some bits of repeated information that should have been snipped out -- they function well enough together in novel form. The final three tales (along with a short first-person epistle and an epilogue) belong entirely to Mustang, her bluesman friends/father-figures, and a variety of ghosts.

This is a book that grows as it goes. There are some problems in the first episode --- a lack of fluid writing and overly intrusive dialect. (Jens has a good ear for accurate idiom, but at places -- especially with the use of a lot of apostrophes -- it's a bit too much of a good thing.) Like a performance, the first set sometimes doesn't measure up to later ones. But by the time the reader is into the second section, the mojo's working. By the end you've met memorable characters (dead and alive), experienced some mild chills, seen tricky predicaments untangled, and discovered some drop dead funny spots (pun intended) without Jen's dropping a note.

If it all sounds a bit too cute for your tastes, think again. Yes, there are some endearing ectoplasmic entities here. Like Thorne Smith in his Topper books, Jens has a delightful sense of fun with her spirits (both liquid and fantastic). Jayhawk and other revenants like Memphis Minnie, and Robert Johnson are, like Thorne's George and Marion Kerby, more than just apparitions who act as auxiliaries. They are as fully developed as the human characters.

Jens also deftly provides enough information along the way to bring readers with little blues-knowledge up to snuff while not bogging her text down for those more in tune with her subject.

Most importantly, Jens faces the problems inherent in her plot -- race and a reasonable explanation for ghosts -- without copping out. She offers viable answers without a candy-coating.

Mustang Sally, her ghostly and human companions, and the Lonesome Blues Pub have possibilities in the tradition of numerous science fictional saloon stories, but with high appeal for female readers. So far, she's not met the bluesman (or -men) of her dreams, but she can cool off a bar full of raunchy males -- both human and not -- made amorous with the Lovestick Blues then defeat the ghost of Bloody Fingers McKrackin. ("I was playin' the Blues when they was red-hot, dirty, and ain't no white folks allowed. I've EATEN better wimmins than you. Usually in curry sauce. Helps tenderize the tough parts.")

VERDICT: If a mass market publisher that could tap the right market would take a chance and author Jens could take her creation into true novel form without losing the charm of her short stories, there might be a chance for a fantasy franchise series. At the very least, Jens should share more of Mustang Sally's adventures in short form. THE BLUES AIN'T NOTHIN' isn't high art, but it does reveal something about human nature and music while remaining refreshing, appealing, and a whole lot of fun. -- Paula Guran (Orginally appeared in DarkEcho #12)

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Copyright © 2002 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.