March 24, 2017
Book Review: "The Alzheimer's Antidote," by Amy Berger
The Alzheimer's Antidote: Using a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet to Fight Alzheimer's Disease, Memory Loss and Cognitive Decline
By Amy Berger
Chelsea Green Publishing Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
The more that the science of nutrition becomes a big business, the more we're learning surprising things about nutrition that are causing profound shifts in how we think about the entire subject of healthcare in general; for one example, how the form of severe dementia we call Alzheimer's is more and more looking not like the mysterious, fatal "elderly disease" we've generally considered it for the last century, but actually a fairly simple-to-explain condition whose effects can be countered and sometimes prevented altogether by a change in diet. That's certainly the main thrust of Amy Berger's new The Alzheimer's Antidote, whose tl;dr summation is basically that we should think of Alzheimer's as actually a different but related form of diabetes (a "type 3" if you will), caused by generally the same problems and that can be acted against by generally the same solutions. That solution is basically very similar to what is otherwise known as the "paleo diet" or the "Atkins diet," which with each passing year is looking more and more like just a good general plan for being more healthy altogether -- cut out most of the carbs currently in your eating plan, certainly eliminate 100 percent of the starchy, processed carbs that make up such a huge majority of the daily middle-class diet (potatoes, corn, chips, pizza, bleached rice, bleached flour, etc etc), re-introduce the full-fat versions of yogurt, butter and milk back into your life, and don't be afraid to have more red meat and eggs than have been previously recommended in the last thirty years of our dangerously flawed "no fat" era.
Unfortunately, though, there's a pretty big flaw in Berger's book as well; for while I'm all for books on cutting-edge research that present their findings in terms of, "Here's what some researchers say about the subject, and here's what other researchers say, and even though that second group is currently larger and more respected doesn't necessarily mean we should dismiss everything the first group is saying," it becomes much more problematic when such results are presented in language like, "I'm 100 percent right about this so-far largely unproven theory, and if anyone tells you differently, even if they're more qualified than me and their opinion is largely considered the current mainstream accepted one, they are 100 percent wrong and you should ignore every single thing they have to say." And Berger does this a lot, especially when it comes to the most controversial part of her book, the theory that so-called "ketone nourishment" of the brain (which is what happens when your body doesn't produce enough glucose, the brain's main "food," and thus feeds the brain essentially with the by-products of fat) can actually reverse the effects of Alzheimer's among patients who already have it, and that the best thing you can do for someone with Alzheimer's is immediately stop feeding them any carbs whatsoever, and instead cram in a deliberate overdose of coconut oil and other foods supremely high in "good fat" content, essentially starving them of sugars so that their body will be forced to produce ketone and make the brain survive off that alone.
The people who disagree with this advice not only call it unwise but actively dangerous; but the non-doctor Berger claims that if anyone tells you it's dangerous, even your family doctor, then that person is full of crap and you should ignore what they're telling you, even going to the trouble of changing doctors if that one continues to be insistent about the dangers of a ketone-overdose diet. And while I could certainly get behind Berger's general advice here about how to lower your risk for Alzheimer's if you're middle-aged and don't have it yet (in those chapters, she's essentially not recommending anything I haven't already seen confirmed in half a dozen other books), I can't endorse the kind of reckless attitude she espouses in the ketone-overdose chapters, not in a book about something as important and life-changing as healthcare, an attitude that basically declares, "Anyone who disagrees with me is completely and totally wrong, even if the advice is coming from someone much more educated than I am, even if that advice is considered sensible by 95 percent of the population, and even if my own advice is still only in the early laboratory stage and has yet to be conclusively proven by a large group of disinterested, non-related scientists." Although I'm giving it a decent score today, just for the very good advice on generally eating better, my review comes with the warning to take the more radical advice here with a grain of salt.
Out of 10: 7.2, or 8.2 just for the parts on general dietary advice
Read even more about The Alzheimer's Antidote: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 13, 2017
Tales from the Completist: "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," by Muriel Spark
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
By Muriel Spark
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I recently had the opportunity to watch the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the first time (see here for my review of that over at film-nerd social network Letterboxd.com); and I was so blown away by how unexpected, original and surprisingly dark it was, I decided to check out the original novel it was based on from my local library right afterwards. And indeed, the novel is great as well, although this is one of those rare cases when I think I actually like the movie version even better; and that's because the book is written in an experimental style where the narrator is constantly hopping back and forth between time periods, randomly doling out hugely important act-three shocking moments in just weird little afterthought comments during the "present-day" storyline. Although this narrative experimentation is admirable, I found myself better responding to the same story being told in a more traditional way, where we don't find out about the spoiler-heavy fates of Miss Brodie's young students until after having a chance to get to know them and get invested in their fates.
In any case, it's a real stunner of a story if you're not familiar with it already. Ostensibly the tale of a prim middle-aged teacher at an all-girl's academy in 1930s Scotland, the setting plus its Mid-Century Modernist release date led me to believe that it was going to be some sugary family story along the lines of Mary Poppins; but instead it's a surprisingly dense and subversive character study about authoritarianism, how the actions of childhood affect us as adults, and where exactly the line lays between proper and improper relationships between teachers and students. Realize, though, that this summary doesn't do this complicated and always surprising story justice; the charming, infuriating, fascism-loving Miss Brodie is in fact one of the most complicated characters I've ever come across in a modern novel, and her actions and attitudes will have the same mind-messing effect that it has on the small pool of impressionable junior-high girls she takes under her wing every year in order to "mold them in her image." An unforgettable story that's way more wicked and sometimes just plain evil than its genteel setting would indicate, do yourself a favor and make sure to check out both the book and movie versions, each of which follow the same plot but tell their stories in very different ways.
Read even more about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
March 10, 2017
American Odd: "Pack of Lies," by Gilbert Sorrentino
A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Pack of Lies: a Trilogy
By Gilbert Sorrentino
Dalkey Archive (1997)*
Review by Karl Wolff
*Odd Number (1985)
Rose Theater (1987)
Gilbert Sorrentino (1929 -- 2006) is the undisputed grandmaster of the American postmodern comic novel. I discovered Sorrentino when I read Mulligan Stew, a rollicking epic free-for-all pitting a pretentious failed writer against his rebellious characters. Along with Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, Sorrentino also writes large-scale encyclopedic Rabelaisian comedies. Reading Mulligan Stew (1979) was a formative event in my life, along with reading Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977). I cite the dates, because Coover, Pynchon, and Sorrentino flourished in the paranoid Seventies, creating their comic visions atop the charred remains of Flower Power and the New Left. Sorrentino, Coover, and Pynchon also seemed like a natural progression after a childhood raised on Mad Magazine. Parody, when done well, can be the highest form of art. Working hand in hand with satire, it can be a weapon to use against the assembled idiots, tinpot wannabe dictators, and bigoted scum who share the planet with other more enlightened and tolerant members of humanity. (If it weren't 2017, I'd have said that previous sentence was rather harsh. What me, worry?)
To cite Brian Berger writing Sorrentino's profile as Hilo Hero:
"If Sorrentino rarely had the number of readers he deserved, it's fortunate his most difficult work -- three novels (1985-1989) now collected as Pack of Lies -- found their brilliant expositor in University of Texas philosophy professor, Louis Mackey. Still, its there for all to discover: "Coarse sexuality. Data and cynical commentary. Nervous and demotic language. Jokes!""
I chose to end my American Oddessay series by looking at Pack of Lies. Little did I know how challenging it would be, even for someone who has read several other works by Sorrentino. Simply put, Pack of Lies is a postmodern metafictional labyrinth. Self-referential, bawdy, cynical, satirical, and parodic, it is a merciless take-down of artistic and literary pretensions swirling about in the Sixties and Seventies. The cocktail party set gets a serious drubbing from Sorrentino's poison pen. Besides using characters from previous novels, he also has a parody of Barney Rosset, the philandering honcho of Grove Press. (Sorrentino used to work at Grove Press as an editor.) Write what you know, kids!
For Sorrentino newbies, I would suggest beginning with Mulligan Stew or Aberration of Starlight. Both are more accessible and Mulligan Stew is a laugh riot. To be perfectly blunt, Pack of Lies was a slog to read. Unlike his other work, Sorrentino's trilogy of novels works hard to alienate and confuse the reader.
For most novels, even formally experimental works as challenging and complex as Gravity's Rainbow, one can explain what a novel is about. Pack of Lies is actually a trilogy of three novels. Each novel has its own set of rules. In philosophy an important question is, "What is truth?" With Sorrentino's postmodern fictions, the truth is harder to nail down. With its wonky structure and its acid satire, Pack of Lies could be seen as the redheaded stepchild of Samuel Beckett's famous Three Novels.
Here are my best attempt to summarize the three novels making up Pack of Lies:
Odd Number is a series of interrogations. We never find out the identity of the interrogator. We encounter characters from previous Sorrentino novels. The was a wild party and the interrogations eventually lead up to the revelation of a woman killed in a car accident. Along the way we meet a thinly veiled portrayal of Barney Rosset, owner of Grove Press, where Sorrentino used to work as an editor. There is also talk about a novel about a film about a party where people talk about a novel, etc. It gets really meta really fast. But it is also laugh-out-loud funny in parts, especially those pointing out the foibles and pretensions of the highbrow literary set. Other things like real estate fraud, softcore pornographic films, and suicide get thrown into the mix. The novel eventually ends on a verbal feedback loop.
Rose Theater reads like fragments from a failed "literary novel." It continues the misadventures of the characters from Odd Number, adding biographies and other detritus.
Misterioso concludes the trilogy in a roughly alphabetic manner. We encounter characters, places, books, and other items as we proceed through the alphabet. One of the main challenges in experimental literature is how to read it. Once I abandoned any pretense of following characters or plot, the novel clicked together like a well-oiled machine. It operated less like a traditional three-act plot-driven novel and more like flipping through TV channels. Characters and situations repeated themselves, a rudimentary plot accumulating over time. But it wasn't about linear progression written in free indirect style. What we encounter are parodies, lists, corrections, incantations, dating, murder, sex, demons, John Crowe Ransom, a copy of Absalom! Absalom! in an A & P, and a suburban vegetarian couple. It is less a novel than an acidic commentary on modern society and the frauds and phonies populating the literary world.
Here's an entry on Antony Lamont, the tortured writer from Mulligan Stew, reappearing in Misterioso:
"Surrounded by the three or four thousand intractable typescript pages of the novel on which he has been sporadically working for some sixteen years, Antony Lamont surrenders, finally, to the suspicion, long held in abeyance, that he has no idea what he is doing. For instance, he doesn't remember what his novel is "about" - is it "about" anything at all? He picks up a handful of sheets and riffles through them, stopping now and again to stare at a totally unfamiliar name. God! He doesn't even remember the names of his characters!"
This passage is really funny, but it also hits really close to home. Being a writer paints a big target on your back. In addition, the line between Next Big Thing in the literary world and Hack Fraud can get blurry at times. Add publicity, the pressure to "make it," and the demands of a ravenous fan base, and it can be quite easy to fly up one's own ass. The aspiring author can wander around with a complete lack of self-awareness and a fanatical conviction of their own genius. (See: Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, etc.). Sorrentino takes a sharpened needle to the hubris of authorial pretentiousness. Did I mention that I wrote two previous books of essays? You should totally buy them!
With its constant shifting perspective and verbal pyrotechnics, it becomes increasingly difficult to nail down the truth of the matter. Characters change names or have names very similar to other characters (for example: Sol Blanc and Saul Blanche). It becomes obvious that we are reading a series of fabrications by an author. Fiction is artifice and Pack of Lies shines a bright light upon the craft of writing fiction. Novels in a technical sense - as in where to place them in the bookstore - Pack of Lies is an extended riff on the art of fiction at the point of total disintegration. Plot, characters, and setting have been totally abandoned, reconfigured into anonymous interrogations, strange narrative fragments, and alphabetical lists.
"I thought I made that clear, I'm sorry. It's all in the dim past, as Doctor Plot might write, as a matter of fact, he probably has, a few hundred times." - from Odd Number
Read even more about Pack of Lies: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
Book Review: "Korsakoff Blight," by Eddie Wright
By Eddie Wright
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I have a varying amount of tolerance for so-called "bizarro" literature, because of so much of it being so zany and non-narrative, essentially a written version of a cartoon with no stakes or consequences and thus difficult to get engaged in or care about what happens. And Eddie Wright's newest novel, Korsakoff Blight, is a bit guilty of this too; but thankfully he turns in a more grounded story than most other bizarro novels, one that at least has a coherent plot and real-feeling characters doing real-feeling things. It's the tale of our eponymous hero, a frustrated writer whose life suddenly gets more complicated with the death of his father, also named Korsakoff Blight and who turns out to have been living just a few doors down from Korsakoff Jr. for years, despite his parents being divorced and his father having no communication with him since he was a child. It's while exploring this house that Korsakoff Jr. has just inherited that he starts stumbling across stranger and stranger details -- a hidden room in the basement, a half-finished detective/philosophy novel -- and as more and more of Korsakoff Sr.'s acquaintances start coming out of the woodwork, enveloping Korsokoff Jr. into a surreal conspiracy theory involving alt-realities and mind-erasing designer drugs, Korsakoff Jr. loses more and more of his grip on what's reality and what's dream, experiencing what's either blackout periods that last literally for years or perhaps jumping back and forth in the space/time continuum itself.
It's a small and interesting story that's easy to read yet packs in a lot of deep thoughts, basically David Lynch crossed with Paul Auster and wrapped in a Road Runner cartoon; and while that's certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea, this is well worth the time of those who enjoy the fringe edges of genre literature, and especially those who like stories that messily mesh together weird tales with science-fiction. It comes with a hearty recommendation today to those specific people, although others can safely skip it with the knowledge that they're not missing out on much.
Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.0 for fans of bizarro lit
Read even more about Korsakoff Blight: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 9, 2017
Book Review: "The Inevitable," by Kevin Kelly
The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
By Kevin Kelly
Viking / Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
It was a fascinating experience to read Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable right after tackling Nicholas Carr's Utopia is Creepy, an experience that teaches a lot about why so many other tech writers come and go with the same blazingly fast trendiness of teenage pop singers, while Kelly has been around since literally the 1970s and continues to be one of the most thought-provoking writers of that entire industry. For while Carr's book is a disappointing series of blog-sized old-man rants about basically any name-brand technology that's crossed his eyes over the last few years ("What's the deal with Wikipedia!? What's the deal with Twitter!? What's the deal with Second Life!?"), The Inevitable takes a holistic and big-picture look at all the larger trends that have been happening in all of human culture over the last twenty years, to deliver a series of predictions not about what specific technologies or webapps will be the next big trendy ones, but the ways that general human behavior and human society is changing based on whatever the newest trendy apps are.
And indeed, Kelly is in a particularly suitable position to do such a thing -- a former editor of the proto-cyberpunk hippie publication The Whole Earth Catalog, a founding member of proto-web online community The WELL, and one of the founders of Wired magazine, he's made a nearly half-century career now out of taking sweeping looks at the way technology has been changing the very nature of human existence and consciousness since the end of World War Two, delivering in this case a book of 12 chapters that each focus not on a specific technology but a general verb like "cognifying," "accessing" and "filtering." Within each of these intriguingly titled chapters, then, Kelly delves into the recent history of these kinds of activities (for example, the history of chess-playing computers in the "cognifying" chapter), which then inevitably leads to a look at the most cutting-edge current research on the subject (an extended examination of IBM's Watson), a discussion of what surprising things we can learn from this latest research (in this case, that artificial intelligence is likely never going to come in a monolithic, human-aping form like HAL from 2001, but rather an endless series of "dumbly focused" intelligent apps that each do only one thing, but do them better than literally any human could even imagine that subject being done), then ending by speculating a bit on what this trend might foretell in a science-fictional near future (here, for example, that perhaps computers will one day soon figure out how quantum mechanics work, a subject that is quite literally too difficult for human brain comprehension but that might not be for a "silicon brain").
As usual with Kelly's writing, it all adds up to some pretty heady stuff, an admirable hallmark from the optimistic, psychedelia-influenced era of cutting-edge technology in the 1970s he comes from, that we are sadly losing more and more in our current age of technology as capitalist commodity. One of the last grand thinkers from that era of the industry, Kelly's writing is still worth gobbling up with both hands whenever you can get ahold of it, with The Inevitable coming wildly more recommended than any of the other "What's the deal with...?" old-man rants of the moment that litter the tech bookshelves these days.
Out of 10: 9.8
Read even more about The Inevitable: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
March 8, 2017
Book Review: "Barney," by Michael Rosenthal
Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset, America's Maverick Publisher and His Battle Against Censorship
By Michael Rosenthal
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
If there's one person from the annals of 20th-century publishing who deserves to be better remembered than he currently is, that would be Barney Rosset; "founder" of Grove Press (that is, after buying the name from a couple of incompetent academes who only managed to re-release three public domain titles in the two years they were in business), who then turned the press into the premiere destination for avant-garde and cutting-edge work in the Mid-Century Modernist years, which he financed through hundreds of reprints of old Victorian erotic novels, eventually spending millions of dollars to convince the Supreme Court to create a brand-new definition of what constitutes "obscene" artistic material, it was Rosset who quite single-handedly ushered in the era of uncensored books and movies we currently live in, just to be personally undone by the '80s by his flamboyantly sexist lifestyle and inherently bad business sense.
And Michael Rosenthal's new Barney does a great job at covering it all; although a short book, it briskly covers all the highlights of this complex and fascinating man's life, not only conveying the whats and hows but delving into the issues that motivated him, the culture around him that was perfectly ready at that perfect moment for such behavior, and what both the good and bad fallout was from his sometimes volatile decisions. And make no mistake, this is far from a sugar-coating or hagiography; Rosset not only comes off here like the petulant, libidinous man-child he no doubt was in real life, but Rosenthal even places this subject at the heart of the biography itself, rightly asking whether this First Amendment crusader would've even had the temerity to simultaneously fight 21 different state district attorneys at once if he wasn't such a egomaniacal lothario. A man who was at the very center of the underground arts during the crucial decades of the '50s, '60s and '70s, who not only introduced American audiences to such European writers as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet but also liberated Henry Miller and the Beat poets into the realm of mainstream national success, this slim but essential volume is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the countercultural era and Postmodernism better, a solidly done portrait of a brilliant, often infuriating champion of subversion in all forms.
Out of 10: 9.5
Read even more about Barney: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 7, 2017
Book Review: "Havana: A Subtropical Delirium," by Mark Kurlansky
Havana: A Subtropical Delirium
By Mark Kurlansky
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Although I enjoyed Mark Kurlansky's newest nonfiction book Havana, I don't actually have a lot to say about it, simply because there's not much to it in the first place; not exactly a travel guide to this capital of Cuba, not exactly a history, and not exactly a memoir, it's instead a curious mix of them all, what you might call a "biographical sketch of a city" in the spirit of Peter Ackroyd's London. As such, then, it makes for pleasant surface-level reading, a book that has a general theme per chapter but then spits out random factoids within each of these chapters, full of interesting trivia (did you know that the Sloppy Joe sandwich was invented in Cuba?), but that never really digs down into a deeper or more meaningful look at this fascinating, complicated city. With the Obamian normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, now has never been a better time to read a light but engaging book like this, one that will give most Americans their first look at this most curious of Caribbean destinations; hopefully it will serve to whet your appetite for more.
Out of 10: 8.5
Read even more about Havana: A Subtropical Delirium: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
March 6, 2017
Book Review: "Next Year, For Sure," by Zoey Leigh Peterson
Next Year, For Sure
By Zoey Leigh Peterson
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I admit, I thought I was in for trouble when reading the first chapter of short-story veteran Zoey Leigh Peterson's debut novel, Next Year, For Sure, as we get introduced to a cutesy-wootsy-patoosie perfect little twentysomething hipster couple, and witness the cutesy-wootsy-patoosie perfect little twentysomething hipster things that constitute their relationship; but then in the very next chapter we get a complicated blow-by-blow look at the boyfriend's checkered dating history, why all his relationships have ended with the women in his life despising him, and why this genial, shy young man with intimacy issues can't understand why all his ex-girlfriends end up despising him, and I suddenly realized, "Oh, okay, there's actually something really special going on here in this book, I get it now."
That special something turns out to be an extra probing, extra complex character study of two noble yet deeply flawed human beings, as they accidentally stumble ass-backwards into the perpetual minefield known as polyamory and open relationships, an Olympic-pool-deep dive into what motivates these two engaging yet terrible yet engaging yet terrible people into getting in the kind of emotionally tangled mess they end up finding themselves in by the halfway point of this book. Set in an unnamed hippie-friendly town but one that clearly feels like a Pacific Northwest destination like Portland, the clear standout in this relationship is actually the woman Kathryn, a former childhood member of a religious cult who is now a fairly normal grown-up but prone to occasional bizarre, self-destructive behavior; she's been in a seemingly perfect if not boring-as-hell relationship for nine years now with the meek, genteel, sexually confused Chris, one based on such a bedrock of honesty that one of their favorite activities is admitting to each other when they get a crush on someone else. But when one of these crushes on the part of Chris turns into a more ongoing fascination he's finding hard to let go of, Kathryn for some reason encourages him to actually ask her out on a date and then go out on that date; and essentially the rest of the book is a powerful and poetic look at why she would do such a thing and what the fallout of that date is, a story that sometimes goes in expected directions but often in unexpected ones, and certainly with the main point being to get a deep inside-out look at the people involved and what makes them tick, and not necessarily for the slow-moving plot or to make a moral pronouncement either pro or con about the subject of polyamory itself (sorry, poly fans who were hoping this book would be a manifesto for your lifestyle).
As a guy who loves dense character studies but who rarely comes across books of that type that are truly impressive, this book was addictive like crack for me, which is why I'm giving it a nearly perfect score for readers like me who are into this kind of delicately stylish writing; but I'm also the first to admit that this isn't nearly going to be everyone's cup of tea (in fact, I suspect this book will garner as much intense hatred as it does intense love), which is why I'm giving it an only okay score for general audience members. (Also, by making the main villain of this book Kathryn's former best friend, a bland suburban middle-class housewife who loves Matthew McConaughey movies and who reacts to the entire situation with, "That's gross and you're gross and this whole thing is gross," Peterson is by definition alienating the biggest single demographic of people who will be picking up this book in the first place [publisher Scribner is unwisely marketing this as a book for fans of rom-coms]; and I'm willing to bet money that six months from now, this book's Goodreads page is going to be filled with horrified rants from suburban middle-class housewives about how terrible and immoral all these people are, and how best friend Sharon was completely right and Kathryn was a fool not to listen to her.) Don't let this, though, stop you from taking a chance on this beautifully written, sometimes transgressively thought-provoking book, a nearly perfect debut that makes me excited to see what Peterson has in store for us next.
Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for fans of deep character studies
Read even more about Next Year, For Sure: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
March 1, 2017
Book Review: "The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan," by Steve Wiley
The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan
By Steve Wiley
Lavender Line Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I'll admit, although the premise of Steve Wiley's The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan is a really clever one that will immediately appeal to locals -- basically, that there's an entire urban-fantasy secret history of the city, including an underwater "lavender line" el train that runs through a submerged east side of Chicago -- I had been half-expecting the actual book itself to be only subpar, because it's written with the deliberately flowery simplicity of a fairytale, and in general I have had bad luck in the past with self-published urban-fantasy novels written in the style of fairytales. So it was a welcome surprise, then, that Wiley's take on the genre turns out to be quite delightful while still maintaining a dark, mature tone, a book that successfully straddles that fine line between whimsical and treacly.
Chock-full of wonderfully twisted references that only locals will get -- a personal favorite, for example, are the drunk elves enjoying an absinthe-style ritualized round of Malort, which according to the narrator tastes like it does because it's been infused with the evil dead spirit of Al Capone -- this is exactly the kind of book for people who hear a term like "The Green Mill" and picture a literal mill painted green out in the wilds of the city edges, a novel that quite ingeniously incorporates all manner of actual local landmarks and legends then blows them up to the level of high fantasy. I love having a chance to recommend tiny press runs like these that would normally escape your attention, so do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this short, fast-reading novel soon.
Out of 10: 8.7
Read even more about The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
February 28, 2017
Book Review: "Faller," by Will McIntosh
By Will McIntosh
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Although it's certainly a valid trick that can occasionally be put to very good use (Memento comes to mind, for example), genre authors need to be very careful when when deploying the "selective amnesia" trope within their fantastical stories; because when done wrong, you get something like Will McIntosh's disappointing science-fiction novel Faller, whose logic often feels like the author just flat-out confessing, "For the purposes of my badly constructed plot I just happened to need this character to forget this random thing at this particular random moment, which is why they did; then for the purposes of my badly constructed plot I just happened to need this other character to remember this other random thing at this particular random moment, which is why they did." That always feels like a cop-out because it always is, an internal logic that makes no sense merely because the author is trying to hide a weak storyline; in this case, a story that begins with a big chunk of Manhattan floating in space and the people on it having no recollection of who they are or why they're there, but who for some inexplicable reason do remember that violent gangs string up their enemies on telephone poles as a way of intimidating everyone who's left, which is exactly what the violent gangs start doing the moment this chunk of New York starts running out of food.
The whole novel is like this, full of lazy moments of random remembrances and forgetfulness based on what McIntosh needs to have happen on that particular page of the story: humanity has apparently completely forgotten the very concept of English proper names, yet remembers enough about English to assign themselves poetically symbolic names like "Clue" and "Orchid" and "Steel;" humanity has forgotten what cars and planes are, but seemingly remember every single stereotype about small-town rural people being conservatively superstitious and their children plaintively playing hopscotch on the sidewalk with chalk like something out of a bad alt-country song. That makes it even more of a disappointment, then, when the cause of the planet-busting and mass amnesia is finally revealed and it turns out to be a trendy explanation that anyone even vaguely familiar with particle colliders can already guess; and this doesn't even take into account the pre-explosion situation McIntosh invents to get our players all into a place where they're taking such desperate measures in the first place, one whose details defy any and all believability whatsoever (including a ground war in which enemy combatants have invaded California yet not a single nuclear weapon has been used in retaliation; a global conflict that has left tens of millions dead over a final grab for the planet's last fossil fuels, yet with not even a single word said about the current state of solar, water and wind power; and a world in which a coalition of barely functioning third-world nations like Russia and North Korea can somehow completely overpower the endlessly vast and all-powerful US military complex).
The whole thing feels like a case of McIntosh getting one great image in his head one day (and to be fair, the image of a hollowed-out Midtown Manhattan free-floating in the sky is a great image), but then never seeming able to dream up 60,000 words of credible three-act story to wrap around that central image, which unfortunately is the case with way more science-fiction novels than any of us genre fans care to admit. It's getting a minimally decent score for at least being well-written and a fast read, although with a plot that only the most undiscerning hardcore SF fan could love.
Out of 10: 6.9
Read even more about Faller: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
February 17, 2017
Book Review: "Milwaukee Mayhem," by Matthew J. Prigge
(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City's First Century
By Matthew J. Prigge
Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Beer, Lake Michigan, and the Brewers have made Milwaukee a great Midwestern town. Located on the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, the Cream City is home to innovation, industry, and sensible zoning controls. At least that's what the boosters will tell visiting conventioneers and investors. But every city has its dark side. Milwaukee has had its share of crimes, accidents, and disasters. Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City's First Century by Matthew J. Prigge chronicles the lurid underbelly of this American city.
Matthew J. Prigge hosts "What Made Milwaukee Famous," a radio show produced by WMSE, the radio station of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). He also hosted MONDO Milwaukee boat tours in 2014. His previous books include a history of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and a history of Milwaukee film censorship.
Milwaukee Mayhem divides its brief stories into four categories: Murder, Accidents, Vice, and Secrets. He begins with the famous "Bridge War" of 1845. The last stories come at the tail end of the Second World War. Prigge crafts each tale from newspaper reports from the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel, back when the city had two competing newspapers. Most stories are brief and thin on the details, but this is because of the original source material - newspaper clippings - didn't reveal much in the first place. But the point of Milwaukee Mayhem isn't depth, so much as variety. These are random snapshots of the past, stretching from the early nineteenth century to V-E Day. While a more progressive perspective might say this book shows how Milwaukee developed from hardscrabble frontier town to bustling civilized metropolis, more jaded minds might offer a different opinion. Crime, like war, corruption, and hysteria, are eternal. Are we better than our ancestors? Our technology has at least improved. These days America has become barbaric, short-sighted, and vulgar.
Reading Milwaukee Mayhem reminded me of watching City Confidential on A&E. Airing from 1998 to 2005 and narrated by Paul Winfield, it offered lurid stories of murder and corruption in otherwise ordinary cities and towns. Prigge's book offers a good substitute for those seeking a pulpy tabloid read.
Out of 10/9.0
Read even more about Milwaukee Mayhem: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
February 14, 2017
Book Review: "In the Mountains of Madness," by W. Scott Poole
In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft
By W. Scott Poole
Soft Skull Press / Counterpoint
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
As W. Scott Poole rightfully says in his new book, In the Mountains of Madness, despite how we long-time fans might still think of him, there is just no way anymore to describe Early Modernist horror writer HP Lovecraft as "obscure" or "unknown;" with his concepts popping up in things like Guillermo del Toro movies, top-40 music albums, and Stephen King novels, and his stories themselves now part of the Library of America and Penguin Classics collections, "Lovecraftian" horror has in fact become the most dominant form of this entire genre in the Millennial Age, much more than, say, the "Things That Go Bump In The Night" horror of his own time, or the "Ghosts in the Suburbs" trope that used to dominate horror during the Postmodernist era. And that's what makes Poole's book so intriguing, in that it's not just a traditional biography of Lovecraft himself (although it's that too), but perhaps the first-ever probing look at the fandom that has built up around Lovecraft over the years, one that started literally on the day of his death (the day August Derleth first mentioned the idea of opening Arkham House, the small press in the 1940s devoted to keeping Lovecraft's work in print), and a scholarly community that can get oddly protective and argumentative about the "proper" way to view this complicated man and the complicated work he left behind. (Indeed, Poole admits that several Lovecraftian scholars stopped corresponding with him when he admitted that he was planning in his book on taking a nakedly honest look at Lovecraft's notorious racism, an especially touchy subject now that writers of color are starting to win horror awards named after him.)
This is easily the biggest takeaway from this just-long-enough book, that how we currently perceive Lovecraft as a person has been largely influenced by the biases and personal opinions of previous biographers, and that a close, objective look at the historical documents left behind paints a slightly different picture than the one most of us carry around in our heads: Lovecraft was in fact not as anti-social as we've been led to believe over the years; he was not as hen-pecked by his mother and brief wife as the 100-percent male previous biographers of the sexism-friendly Modernist era have made him out to be; and although not exactly mainstream-popular during his lifetime, certainly he had the normal kinds of sales and influence as pretty much every other semi-amateur B-list genre writer of the 1920s and '30s who published mostly through the murky world of fanzines, and whose passionate audiences mostly kept in touch with each other through the "Letters to the Editor" pages of such zines. But on the other hand, Lovecraft was way more racist than previous biographers have given him credit, and it wasn't the kind of "everyone did it back then" racism because you can clearly see his more enlightened friends passionately arguing in their letters to him why he shouldn't be so racist (an attitude he seems to have picked up during his disastrous short stint in multicultural Brooklyn, the one and only time in his life that he didn't live in lily-white Providence, Rhode Island); and it also becomes clear through an unbiased look at his papers that he wasn't as dedicated to creating a unifying "Lovecraft Mythos" as later fans have attributed to him (the main culprit instead seems to be Derleth himself, who invented the idea of the "Mythos" simply to sell more books), and in fact Lovecraft actually had a kind of self-deprecating humor about the Great Old Ones he created for his stories, often calling himself "Grandpa Cthulhu" in his letters to his teenage fans.
All in all it's an eye-opening book, a great read not just for brand-new acolytes who are looking to learn basic information about Lovecraft for the first time (including a great reading plan in the back for tackling his stories in order of how influential they've been over the years), but also for long-time fans who think they know everything there is to know about this notoriously downbeat, misanthropic writer, and will be surprised to learn that he was actually a funnier and friendlier guy than they ever realized. It comes strongly recommended to such people; although as usual with biographies about specific individuals, it can be easily skipped if you have no interest in Lovecraft to begin with.
Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.5 for fans of HP Lovecraft
Read even more about In the Mountains of Madness: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
February 10, 2017
Book Review: "If This Is Home," by Stuart Evers
If This Is Home
By Stuart Evers
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Definitely the most interesting thing about Stuart Evers' new novel If This Is Home is the ultra-rich Las Vegas condo complex Valhalla where our narrator is working as the book opens, a great symbol for everything wrong with America right now: a glittering house of cards designed expressly to fleece the empty consumerist one-percenters out of their money, prospective buyers are shuttled around to what they are told are the "most exclusive" clubs and restaurants of the complex during their weekend hard-sell tour, not realizing that the other locked rooms they are passing are in fact completely empty; and are given a complex set of rules they're admonished to follow but that are never actually enforced, in order to let these people feel like they're getting away with something they shouldn't because of their wealth and status.
In fact, it often feels like it was Valhalla that Evers first envisioned when starting to work on this novel, and only afterwards filled in a hasty, cliche-filled three-act narrative to justify the book's existence, a shame given how strong the Las Vegas parts are. The story of British expat Mark Wilkinson, who has transformed himself into the cooler, more sociopathic alter-ego Joe Novak in America, the book's structure is basically broken up into three parts -- we mostly stay at Valhalla for the first half, until a "shocking act of violence" (according to the dust-jacket synopsis), which in fact is not actually that shocking at all*, inspires him to go back to his small British hometown for the first time in a decade, where we spend the second half of the novel; then weaving in and out of both these halves is a flashback look at the young-love relationship he used to be in, and whose tragic ending is what convinced him to flee to the US in the first place.
[*And seriously, when you set up a place like Valhalla like the owners have, heavily touted to its billionaire customers as a place where "every desire imaginable is accommodated," I don't know why it would come as a shock when one of them ends up beating up a prostitute; in fact, I would just assume that the first question out of the mouth of every asshole who shows up is, "Say, when do I get to kill a hooker?"]
Like I said, the first half is interesting enough, presenting us with a fully fleshed-out bacchanalian nightmare and letting us glimpse the boring behind-the-scenes grunt work that makes it happen, and teasing us with a backstory about a past girlfriend who had something bad happen to her, even though we don't know what, why, or by whom. But the entire second half of the book unfortunately just kind of falls apart, with Evers seemingly not knowing what to do with the story and so falling back on the most hacky tropes possible; Mark spends literally 150 pages wandering around his old hometown doing nothing in particular, with all his old acquaintances and family members disproportionally furious at him merely for leaving 13 years ago and not dropping anyone a postcard (instead they all react to his re-appearance with the kind of anger you would expect if he had actually killed the woman), and eventually with Mark hallucinating the ghost of his ex-girlfriend following him around, being smartass and challenging to him as a way of pushing him into the family confrontations he came there to have, about the most tired cliche you can even evoke in a murder-mystery thriller.
Most disturbingly of all, though, what is teased throughout the book as a "big reveal" about Mark's girlfriend's tragic end turns out to not be a big reveal at all, a plot development I'll let remain a surprise but that I can assure you has not even the tiniest bit to do with the entire rest of the novel; and in fact this horrific act of violence against her seems to only exist in the first place so that Mark himself can go through an emotional journey of self-discovery afterward, a plain and clear example of the "Women in Refrigerators" phenomenon that's been (rightly) receiving so much critical protest in the last few years. That's a disappointing way to end a novel that started with so much promise; and it's a shame that Evers could never come up with other things as clever and well-thought-out as Valhalla to fill the rest of this noble but often deeply flawed story. It comes with only a limited recommendation today because of that, a book that some will like more than me, but that most people will be generally disappointed by.
Out of 10: 6.9
Read even more about If This Is Home: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
February 8, 2017
Tales from the Completist: "The New York Trilogy," by Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy (1987)
By Paul Auster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
In a few weeks I'm going to have the opportunity to read Paul Auster's surprise new novel, 4 3 2 1, which has already been gathering up tons of accolades from early reviewers; but I've never actually read any work by Auster before, so I thought I'd start with the very first thing he published, The New York Trilogy which originally consisted of three separate small novels in the 1980s, but is now only sold as a one-volume set (but more later on why this is). And that's when I discovered the big surprise -- that far from the dowdy, boring academic writer I had thought Auster was all these years, based exclusively on the types of people who like his work and what they have to say about it, he instead turns out to be this incredible penner of so-called "New Weird" stories, the kinds of books that first became popular during the second half of Postmodernism precisely for being hard to define -- part literary, part horror, part mystery, part science-fiction -- and that have since become a staple of our current popular culture here in the 21st century.
And indeed, I don't know why it took so long for all this to click in my head, given how long I've been a fan of some of these writers, but reading Auster for the first time made me realize that there's actually a whole wing of popular writers sort of buried within the second half of the Postmodernist era who can be described this way, including Thomas Pynchon, Jon Crowley, Haruki Murakami, Tim Powers and more; and that since what these authors were trying to accomplish was so new and so hard to define, the literary world has ended up sort of looking at these writers in completely different ways based on the person (Pynchon is considered an academe who's lucked into some popular success; Crowley is considered a genre writer who has lucked into some academic respectability), instead of seeing them as parts of a much larger "New Weird" movement that unifies everything they've been doing over the last forty years.
For those who don't know, the term was invented by Jeff VanderMeer in the '90s, as a riff off the old term "Weird" from the Victorian Age; back then there were no such things as separate categorizations for "science-fiction" and "noir" and "horror," so basically anything metaphysical was thrown into this general catch-all label, which then encouraged writers to freely flow from one trope to the other within a single book. It was only in the Modernist period of the early 20th century, VanderMeer argues, that these genres became calcified and started developing their rigid rules that authors weren't allowed to deviate from; but what Postmodernism gave us was an explosion of these rules (as well as every other rule about "proper writing" that had been invented up to then), allowing a new generation of authors to once again go in and blend these genres together in interesting and unique ways. And although VanderMeer was specifically talking in his case about the newest generation of genre writers who were just starting to become popular in those years -- people like Charles Stross, China Mieville, Cory Doctorow and more -- I'm coming to realize that you can actually go back an entire generation to see the formation of this New Weird school of thought, one that got its start in the experimental hippie years of the countercultural era, but that didn't really come into its own as a cultural force until the Reagan years of the 1980s.
That's exactly what makes these first three novels by Auster so intriguing, certainly, that they're so hard to traditionally describe; ostensibly detective tales, in which private investigators are hired by shady clients to track down nebulous targets, all three of these books start getting weirder and weirder the further in you get, eventually becoming treaties on identity, the power of naming things, and how the concepts of Transcendentalist thought from the 1800s do or do not particularly fit in the Electronic Age of the late 20th century. The more you read, the less you understand what's going on, and soon the books pick up a creepy vibe much more akin to horror than pulp fiction; but the explanation behind this creepy vibe is much more like sci-fi than horror, even as the books never just come out and explicitly state that something metaphysical is actually happening, leaving it a question as to whether our narrators are perhaps simply going insane from existential dread, a clear reference to the work of HP Lovecraft. Then in the third book, The Locked Room, Auster adds an even more complicated twist to it all, by having a certain character reveal that there's actually these strange nebulous ties between the characters in all three novels; and by the time we're done with the whole thing, we realize that all three books are simply large chapters within the same shared universe and uber-plotline, which is why since the '90s they've only been published anymore as one large volume.
Make no mistake -- Auster is essentially the American Murakami, one who even started writing at almost the exact same time as the other, and anyone who's a fan of that Japanese genre master will automatically be a fan of his American equivalent, no question about it whatsoever. And that raises an intriguing question, of why Murakami has become a millionaire superstar by the 21st century, as well as other New Weird writers like Thomas Pynchon finally now being classified as the complicated, genre-bending authors they are, while Auster forty years later is still mostly considered an obscure academic writer who can only be loved by erudite professors? I don't have an answer to this, because it's clearly not the case -- anyone who loved the old TV shows Lost or Twin Peaks, for example, will also love Auster's books, and it certainly doesn't take an MFA to understand what he's trying to do -- and it's my hope that his newest novel, his first in seven years and one being published when he's 70 years old, will finally start turning the tide a bit when it comes to his public reputation. He's an author who deserves to have a much wider audience than he currently does, a writer who would be loved by millions of sci-fi fans if they simply knew about his existence in the first place; and I encourage all of you genre fans to go and check out some of his work when you have a chance, a surprisingly gripping and easy-to-read author who will leave you wanting more. We'll see in a few weeks how he's held up as a writer in the forty years since these debut novels; but for now, I for one plan on checking out a wide range of his subsequent oeuvre when I have a chance, and I encourage you to do the same.
Read even more about The New York Trilogy: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
February 7, 2017
Book Review: "The Impossible Fortress," by Jason Rekulak
The Impossible Fortress
By Jason Rekulak
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Ever since James Woods accused Donna Tartt's Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch of being "the world's most overhyped Young Adult novel," back in the pages of The New Yorker in 2014, there's been an ongoing debate in the literary world about just how much the Great Dumbing-Down of America has or has not reached its tentacles into the normally safe world of intellectualism; I mean, sure, we all just rightly accept the fact that something like American Idol has turned all the usual mouth-breathers into screaming obsessive fans of children's talent shows despite being fully grown adults, just like the mouth-breathers we already knew they were, but what does it say about the decidedly adult world of the arts and letters when even children's books like the Harry Potter series are critiqued and promoted as proper fare for grown-ups? How much of that attitude then bleeds over into the books that are legitimately supposed to be just for grown-ups, and how do we even define what a term like "literature for grown-ups" means within a world of endless childhood nostalgia turned into a permanent murky blurring between adolescence and adulthood?
I think about this subject a lot, it seems, anytime yet another "coming-of-age" novel lands in my hands as a book critic, with Jason Rekulak's The Impossible Fortress being just the latest in a long line of these over the last few years; for to give you the tl;dr version right away, this is basically a children's book being passed off by Simon & Schuster as an adult one, and as a middle-aged intellectual who enjoys intellectual work designed for middle-agers, it makes me not only disappointed every time I come across a book like this, but despairing over the entire subject of the future of adult literature in this country. Set in the late 1980s, Rekulak's novel has a cute premise at its core, which is why I decided to read it in the first place: a trio of horny fourteen-year-old boys conspire to steal the infamous Vanna White issue of Playboy from the one and only store in their small New Jersey town that stocks the magazine, namely by one of the boys "seducing" the store's homely, unpopular teenage daughter and convincing her to pass along the code to the store's burglar alarm, just for the boy to discover that the girl is a fellow Commodore 64 aficionado and computer programmer, sparking a geek romantic relationship that threatens to make their potentially lucrative erotic heist (they've been pre-selling promises of color xeroxes of the White pictorial to other fourteen-year-olds) fall apart before it's even begun.
But alas, instead of the novel being a story for adults that just happens to nostalgically look back at one grown-up's childhood, what the definition of "coming-of-age novel" used to be, The Impossible Fortress is instead written in the simplistic language and style of an actual book for children, one that skips decent character development or any kind of adult insight for instead these endless, endless cheap expository references to '80s pop-culture. (Actual quote from near the beginning of the book: "We all knew that buying Playboy was out of the question. It was hard enough buying rock music, what with Jerry Falwell warning of Satanic influences, and Tipper Gore alerting parents to explicit lyrics." And stay tuned for a preview of next week's Basic Cable Nostalgia Pandering Exposition Hour!) It could be argued that the difference is a slight one that's hard to define, and I suppose there's some validity to that, of where exactly the line lays between a story for grown-ups that happens to be about a teenager coming of age, and a story specifically for teenagers who are going through that transition at the exact same time they're reading a book about the phenomenon; but certainly Rekulak is doing himself no favors regarding this question with his plodding, obvious plotline, his half-baked characters who come off as cheap ripoffs of a Netflix cheap ripoff of an overly sugary Spielberg film, and his belief that simply listing things that existed in the '80s is somehow a decent substitute for story development.
Perhaps that's the best way, then, that we can mark the distinction between literature for adult intellectuals and literature specifically designed for children themselves; this book lacks any of the fundamentals of story development that we typically use as the benchmarks for critically assessing a piece of adult literature, things like a mature voice and style, surprising turns in the plot, an escalating sense of stakes, sophisticated use of metaphor, simile and symbolism, well-rounded characters who both infuriate and delight, a sense that these characters are learning and growing from their mistakes, etc. Rekulak trades this all in for a hole-filled Encyclopedia Brown story and a thousand instances of, "Hey, do you remember this thing that happened in the 1980s? How about this thing that happened in the 1980s?;" and while I suppose this will sit fine with those adults who are fans of Harry Potter and American Idol, it will leave those seeking out stories for actual grown-ups empty and disappointed, a book with its heart in the right place but that I can't in good conscience recommend.
Out of 10: 5.8
Read even more about The Impossible Fortress: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
February 6, 2017
Book Review: "Utopia is Creepy," by Nicholas Carr
Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations
By Nicholas Carr
W.W. Norton and Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
To be clear, I would've loved to have read a book of insightful, thought-provoking essays about how everything we assume about the internet is in fact wrong, as Nicholas Carr promises with his new book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations; so what a profound shame, then, that what this book actually consists of is a bunch of reprints of three-page blog posts from Carr's website, a whopping 95 of them in less than 350 pages, giving us the same kind of puerile, surface-level-only look at issues that he claims is what's ruining the internet in general these days. That's an entirely avoidable situation in this case, which is what makes this such a particular tragedy; for the Pulitzer-nominated Carr is obviously a smart guy, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review and a regular contributor to places like The New York Times and Wired, and I suspect he could've delivered a really intelligent book if he had just spent a year actually writing one from scratch, one that slowly and methodically builds up his arguments over the course of tens of thousands of words and a coherent single book-long outline. Instead, though, he's delivered what's essentially a series of 21st-century two-minute Andy Rooney elderly rants with no real point and certainly no solutions being offered -- "Wikipedia sure is full of mistakes, amirightfolks? 'Blog' sure is a funny name, amirightfolks? Second Life sure was overhyped, amirightfolks? AMIRIGHT FOLKS, AMIRIGHT AMIRIGHT??!!" -- thus ironically being exactly guilty himself of what he's complaining about in this book, how the internet has turned all of us into short-attention-span ADD morons who no longer possess the mental skills to follow a rational and extensively plotted argument. A book that would've already been a profoundly disappointing read on its own, it becomes even doubly so by this self-defeating, cloud-yelling aspect of its writing style; and instead of it being merely a book I don't recommend reading, today I am actively suggesting to stay far away from it, if for no other reason so to discourage publishers to continuing to offer up this kind of treacly pablum as proper intellectual fare.
Out of 10: 2.3
Read even more about Utopia is Creepy: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia
January 30, 2017
Book Review: "Ames," by Jeremy Andrew Whitehead
By Jeremy Andrew Whitehead
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
To review Jeremy Andrew Whitehead's Ames is an inherently frustrating experience, and a great example of why it can be so difficult to give a fair shake to self-published literature. Because to be sure, there's a great science-fiction novel buried within this manuscript, based on a really thought-provoking premise that brings to mind Charles Stross' cult favorite Saturn's Children -- namely, what would happen if a ship full of human colonists in suspended animation were sent to a planet to sleep underground for a thousand years, while a team of artificially intelligent robots spent a millennium terraforming that planet into a habitable state, just for those robots to realize a couple hundred years in that they don't actually need the humans at all, and that they could start their own civilization just fine?
That's a great concept, and gives Whitehead room to explore all kinds of interesting world-building questions related to a society that was built specifically for robots that are intentionally modeling themselves after humans; a world with no bathrooms but with recharging stations built into every vehicle and piece of furniture, a world where a small cabal of "first gen" AIs deliberately create millions of less intelligent minions that they control like Orwellian fascist nation-states. And what would happen in such a world if one of those long-dormant underground humans was finally woken up to reassert control? That's another fascinating question, one that fuels the action-adventure plot seen here; so what a shame that this book still needs so much basic work when it comes to proofreading and editing in order to be taken seriously as a piece of literature. And that's the problem with self-published novels in a nutshell; that in an age where it's so incredibly easy to convert a Microsoft Word document into a finished and published paper book for sale to the public at Amazon, it's becoming harder than ever for such authors to secure professional editing services to make those books worth reading in the first place.
Ames is essentially a 500-page book with only about 250 pages of actual interesting content, written by an aerospace engineer who mistakes the detailed procedural lists that come with product analysis for a compelling narrative; and so while that generates some really heady ideas for us to ponder, those ideas are couched within pages upon pages of mind-numbing filler, adding up to a wash whose bad parts equally cancel out the good ones. (Just as an example, the act 1 setup of the story takes Whitehead an entire 125 pages to get across, when it should've been over and done with by page 30 or so.) And this is not to mention the literal hundreds of basic grammatical errors found within the manuscript, things that spell-checks will never catch like Whitehead's habit of putting his dialogue's punctuation outside of his quotation marks instead of inside, which as a heavy reader drove me crazier and crazier with each successive page.
This could've been easily solved if he had had an extra thousand bucks to hire an actual professional editor to give this a once-over; and therein lies the problem, in that actually publishing the book through a place like CreateSpace only costs a tiny fraction of that, leading most self-published authors to skip this expensive and time-consuming but such critical step. I'm still giving Ames a decent score, because just the concepts alone being bandied about is worth giving it a look, especially for extra hardcore SF fans who aren't as bothered by basic grammatical mistakes; but for general-interest readers who are, this is going to be a frustrating read, something one hopes that Whitehead will fix before releasing part 2 of this planned trilogy.
Out of 10: 7.4, or 8.4 for hardcore science-fiction fans
Read even more about Ames: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
January 26, 2017
Book Review: "Birth," by S.T. Gulik
Birth: or The Exquisite Sound of One Hand Falling Off a Turnip Truck
By S.T. Gulik
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Although I'm generally a fan of bizarro literature (as in "I don't actively hate it"), there's one big problem with this genre that prevents me from being a big fan or a fervent fan; namely, every bizarro novel in existence tends to sound exactly like every other bizarro novel in existence, a genre that can quite literally be defined as "a cartoon written out in narrative form," and therefore has a sort of randomly nonsensical "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" nature that makes every book in the genre sort of bleed into one giant absurdist fairytale without a beginning or an end. Take S.T. Gulik's Birth: or The Exquisite Sound of One Hand Falling Off a Turnip Truck for a good example; not badly written at all, its post-apocalyptic tale of an everyman stumbling through a series of comically disgusting situations nonetheless feels like a book I've already read a hundred times before, precisely because I really have read books exactly like this a hundred times before. The genre in general is sort of the ultimate example of a book type that can only be loved by hardcore fans of that book type, but who will then read a book every single day of this type exactly so they can get their daily dose of exactly what they were expecting; and although crime and romance are genres of this type that get a lot more attention, bizarro is one of the more pure examples of this phenomenon, with Birth being a perfect example of one of those throwaway books that a bizarro fan might start at 10 in the morning on a Wednesday, be done with by 8:00 that night, then be ready to start another one exactly like it at 10:00 Thursday morning. It should all be kept in mind when deciding whether to pick it up yourself, or even whether to be a fan of bizarro lit in the first place.
Out of 10: 7.5, or 9.0 for fans of bizarro literature
Read even more about Birth: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
January 25, 2017
Book Review: "The Edge of the Empire," by Bronwen Riley
The Edge of the Empire
By Bronwen Riley
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
There seems to be a trend in history books these days that I'm all for, which is to de-emphasize the date-focused tradition of battles and emperors to instead "paint a portrait" of what daily life in those days must've been like for the average citizen; take Bronwen Riley's The Edge of the Empire, for example, which examines the Roman Empire's far-flung colony of Brittannia (or modern-day Great Britain) by picturing what the trip there must've been like for its newly appointed governor in 120 AD, Sextus Julius Severus, as he made his way with his retinue from the center of Rome itself all the way to the northern wasteland of Hadrian's Wall. This then gives Riley an excuse to look at all kinds of interesting topics that would relate to such a trip, from the roadways and shipping lanes that had been established by then, to how such traveling groups kept themselves fed and housed over such a long distance, the way the countryside's culture changed as you traveled farther and farther away from Italy, what exactly was built by the Romans in these far-off spots and what was co-opted from the pagans who were already there, what kinds of things were valuable enough in those locations to be imported back to people in Rome, and what kinds of things needed to be exported from Rome out to them. It's a surprisingly short book, only 200 pages once you remove the bibliography and notes; and this lets it move at the lively pace of a contemporary novel, certainly not a book for serious academes but a perfect volume for armchair historians like you and me. For those who are interested in learning more about this endlessly fascinating period of human history, but don't feel like trudging their way through a thousand pages of "Caesar This" defeating "Minor That," this comes strongly recommended, a brisk and fact-filled look at what European travel was like in an age before jetliners, ocean cruisers or even paved roads.
Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.3 for amateur history buffs
Read even more about The Edge of the Empire: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
January 24, 2017
Book Review: "Three Years with the Rat," by Jay Hosking
Three Years with the Rat
By Jay Hosking
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
The promotional material for Jay Hosking's Three Years with the Rat claims that the novel is "reminiscent of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves," but as typical with this kind of stuff, that's simply a lie; in fact the one and only thing the two books have in common is that they both feature a space that's bigger on the inside than on the outside. Other than that, this book consists of not much more than a fairly pedestrian coming-of-age tale, plotted with the immaturity of a Young Adult novel and featuring dialogue that badly suffers from Joss Whedon Syndrome*, a book that hits all the notes you would expect from such a story (boy moves to Big City, boy makes new group of friends, boy gets into first serious romantic relationship, boy breaks up from first serious romantic relationship), only with a metafictional element holding the story spine together, in that it's the boy's older sister who convinces him to move there, and she and her boyfriend are both scientists who are working on some kind of shadowy project that supposedly supersedes the normal laws of space and time.
That's led St. Martin's Press to unwisely market this as a science-fiction novel, or at least a literary novel with strongly science-fictional overtones (thus the House of Leaves comparison on the dust jacket); but actual SF fans like myself will be disappointed by Three Years with the Rat, not only because the science part is dished out in such a poorly paced, haphazard way (smart readers can essentially glean everything they're trying to do in chapter 1, then the rest of the novel is a series of flashbacks where Hosking tries to slowly reveal the very information he fully showed in the first chapter), but because the eventual "science" that's revealed sounds literally like something a stoned undergraduate would come up with after a bullshit session in the dorm with their buddy**, then afterwards decide would make for a good subject off which to base an entire novel.
That's a huge problem here, because there's nothing compelling left once you discount the disappointing concept at the center of the book; and when combined with the immature writing style that's clearly being presented as something for grown-ups, that makes for a book that's hard to recommend and kind of a slog to actually read. I'm tacking on a few extra points to its score today anyway, as an acknowledgement that teens and Whedon fans will undoubtedly like this more than I did; but make no mistake, despite what St. Martin's is trying to peddle here, Primer this ain't.
Out of 10: 7.3
Read even more about Three Years with the Rat: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing
*Joss Whedon Syndrome: When dialogue supposedly meant for grown-ups is written in an overly twee and flippant style, which some people apparently like for some unfathomable reason, but for me is like fingernails down a chalkboard.
**"Dude, you know how, like, time seems to stand still when you're waiting in line at the grocery store? What if it actually does?" "Awww, duuuude." "And what if, like, you could control that time speed by putting six mirrors together directly across from each other in a cube, so that they're, like, all infinitely mirroring each other?" "Awww, duuuuuddde!" "And what if, like, what if you sat in the middle of that mirror cube, and like your entire past ceased to exist because of it, so then you could go back to your ex-girlfriend and undo all the dick moves that made her break up with you the first time?" "Stop, dude, stop! YOU'RE FREAKING ME OUT, DUDE!!!"