(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.)
Regular readers will know that I maintain about as liberal a review policy here at CCLaP as I possibly can; specifically, that I promise to review any book that any author bothers to take the time to send to me, even self-published ones, and in fact to give it the same thousand-word sometimes humorously devastating treatment that I give any other novel here at the site (an attitude which has occasionally gotten me flack from said self-publishing authors...but I digress). And in fact, after 15 months now of writing regular book reviews, around 165 of them now at last count, I've come to realize that it is precisely these tiny books that most keep me on my toes as a critic; because there are actually all kinds of delicate issues that come with reviewing such books, at least if you want to be known as a fair and insightful reviewer, issues a critic simply doesn't have to deal with regarding much better-known books published in much larger numbers. For example, it's unfair to just glibly toss off a poorly-written review of a self-published book on a day, for example, when you might be in a bad personal mood; because your review might very well end up being the only single one on the planet ever written about that book by a person not related to that author, and thus carry an enormous amount of weight with whoever in the future is interested in that book. But on the other hand, it's unfair as well to not acknowledge legitimate problems with such books, or to "pad it up" in order to cut that author a break; as I've said here before, that's basically the literary equivalent of asking your grandmother for a review, and getting in return, "Oh, my little babooshka has written a book! Oh, how adorable! I'm so proud of my little artist!"
And thus do we come to today's book under review, the darkly comic (comically dark?) coming-of-age tale The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli by Ginnetta Correli, a wife and mom in Las Vegas who has only been writing seriously now for three years, and who essentially self-published the tale by being the owner of the basement press that put it out. Because the fact is that when you acknowledge the circumstances behind the book and its release, when you cut the manuscript just a bit of a break, it's actually a pretty great novel indeed, a pitch-black and obsessively compelling combination of Judy Blume and Kathy Acker; but you could also be quite critical of this book as well if you wanted, and rightly so, precisely for the problems concerning editing and cohesiveness that dog so many self-published novels. Ultimately I think it boils down a lot to simply what kind of reader you are, what kind of book fan you are; if you're the type, for example, who enjoys well-done yet flawed stories that required a lot of extra work to even exist, the type who enjoys purchasing such books as a way of subtly telling that beginning artist, "Keep doing what you're doing, because you're on the right track," then this is definitely a book you'll want to check out. And if you're not, then I guess you're not, and I guess you can go back to your vindictive little troll-like comments over at Amazon about how all self-publishers should be lined up in front of a wall and shot.
In fact, as unusual a way as this might be to begin a book review, it might actually be most helpful to start with the promotional video Correli put out for Scareli, which those of you with Flash Player on your computer or device should be seeing at the beginning of today's entry, or can always stop by YouTube to see at a later time. This has become a staple of the self-publishing author recently, in fact, the "Promotional Video At YouTube" to go with the "Virtual Litblog Book Tour" and the "Obligatory MySpace Profile;" but in Correli's case, she actually uses the opportunity in a much better way than most authors do, putting together not so much a cutesy commercial for the book but rather a cinematic explanation of what it's about, done in the style of a movie trailer and featuring one creepy-ass soundtrack. It ends up exactly reflecting what I thought of the book in general, which is hard to get across in just words alone but that the video does a great job of capturing quickly; it is slightly childish, unsettling in a way that's hard to pinpoint, both realistic and surrealistic at the same time, kind of a fairytale or maybe a nightmare but also a much deeper thing than simply that.
The book's named after our long-suffering hero, who starts the story as a twelve-year-old constantly cringing under the rule of a truly insane set of parents, a sexually abusive father who constantly speaks in a cartoonish Italian dialect and a mother who's both schizophrenic and who refuses to take her meds. The novel itself, then, takes on the Vonnegutian form of tiny but related short stories (one page, two pages) written in a deliberately simple voice; Correli also starts by using the metaphor of television scripts, taking the stance that these are "lost episodes" of a bizarre '80s family show that never aired (hence the novel's title), although sort of slowly gives up on the idea over the course of the manuscript. And in fact, it's very deliberate that I mention Kurt Vonnegut in this case, because I kept thinking of that controversial, hard-to-classify author when reading Scareli; because the truth is that parts of this book become so simple at points, reflect this cartoonishly surreal viewpoint of a child in the middle of it all so much, it actually threatens to turn legitimately juvenile, not just affected juvenilia by a smart adult in the service of a literary goal. But see, there are lots of other moments when Correli turns that around, when like Vonnegut she offers up a scene of just such unexpected power and complexity, one that could only happen precisely by using deceptively simple language and words.
It's at once the most interesting thing about the novel and its most frustrating, which is why I say that like most self-publishers, Correli could've really benefited from having a professional editor working with her on it; because when she gets things right in Scareli she gets them really right, showing us a glimpse of the truly powerful and mature writer that Correli one day might become. But like many first-time novelists, although technically proficient, there is something within the grand scheme of things that Correli simply misses here; the novel doesn't exactly hold together as a unified project of decent quality, but rather like I said as a series of surprisingly great scenes that are padded liberally with the typical problems of beginning writers. As mentioned, a lot of it could've simply be solved with the help of a smart and judicious editor, one for example who could've gotten in there and cut the 75 most superfluous pages before publication itself; and this is simply a problem about self-publishing you either accept or don't, that you either naturally forgive in a tiny self-done project or naturally don't.
That's why I say that it's so important in my opinion to understand the context by which any particular book comes out, and that to get as much enjoyment out of books as possible you need to take the details of that context in mind while reading it. Because the fact is that if you wanted to, like I said, you could be quite harsh on Scareli for the exact things you can imagine a person could be harsh about concerning a first-time self-published novelist; or you can simply accept that authors under those circumstances face challenges that more well-funded, veteran authors don't -- including not only a lack of editor, proofreader and fact-checker, but even long interrupted stretches of time to write. If you accept this, if you forgive an author like Correli in advance for such things, like me you'll find a surprisingly sophisticated tale, with images that haunt the mind long after the book is over, the sign of a promising new author who now simply needs some time, some experience, and a good support staff. And isn't that a much more fun way to go about reading a book? Why even read books if all you're looking for are excuses to be cranky and pissy about them?
As you can tell, The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli is one of those occasional books I love getting the chance to review here; a virtually unknown one, definitely with its flaws but well worth your time, from a struggling writer at the beginning of their career who could really use your support. It comes much recommended today, but only for the patient reader who enjoys approaching books with an open mind.
Out of 10: