November 12, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 12 November 2008

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

Sheep and Wolves, by Jeremy Shipp
Sheep and Wolves (book; 2008)
By Jeremy Shipp
Raw Dog Screaming Press / ISBN: 978-1-93329-352-3

(As mentioned on Monday, my obsession with the presidential election this last month has played havoc with my book-review schedule here, with over twenty titles here at home now read and awaiting essays, and with me still finishing more new books every day. Today then is my continuation of what I started earlier this week, getting a whole series of small reviews out of the way and off my to-do list.)

New readers, don't mistakenly think that the only books I do micro-reviews for are ones I didn't particularly care for, or that weren't particularly good; just take this title for a good example, alt-horror hero (and 2007 Stoker Award nominee) Jeremy Shipp's newest, the magnificent and extremely unsettling story collection Sheep and Wolves. Regular readers will of course remember Shipp; about a year ago I favorably reviewed his last novel, the witty political black comedy Vacation; but make no mistake, this latest manuscript is quite different in tone, a much bleaker and more terrifying book, one that is much more clear on where the "horror" is in alt-horror. Not quite related stories but not quite standalone either, they all seem to take place in a bizarre alternate reality that is somewhat like our own, except where supernatural elements clearly actually exist; and it's also a more savage place among the humans than our own world as well, a post-democracy society (or maybe one where democracy never existed), full of predatory "wolf" humans full of barely concealed violent rage at the world, who are taught to successfully live together by channelling that energy into acts of unspeakable violence against the much larger number of human "sheep" that exist (hence the title of this story collection). Or in simpler terms, imagine the society-approved brutality of fascism combined with the outright insanity of serial killers, in a world where malicious ethereal spirits really do exist, the kind of stuff that keeps nerdy intellectuals up at night.

It's the scariest freaking book I've read in a decade, make no mistake; but since it's a story collection instead of a novel, I as usual would have a hard time writing out a long-form analytical review of it, which is why I'm instead writing up a smaller essay and simply recommending it highly. When people say "New Horror," this is the kind of book they're talking about, stuff for you existing horror fans who have grown tired of the usual overwritten delicacies of late-period Stephen King and the like. It comes with a big thumbs-up, and will undoubtedly become known eventually as a dark classic from this prolific underground author.

Out of 10: 9.6

Envy, by Kathryn Harrison
Envy (book; 2005)
By Kathryn Harrison
Random House / ISBN: 0-8129-7376-3

This is an author I first discovered believe it or not through a random airport buy a number of years ago, when I picked up her racily-covered 2006 Exposure during a boring layover and ended up really enjoying it, albeit in a "high-class Judith Krantz" kind of way. And so when I came across her 2005 melodrama Envy at my local library a few weeks ago, itself a New York Times Notable Book that year, I decided to pick it up too; and once again, I'm ultimately glad I did, although still argue that it's better thought of as the high end of semi-trashy mainstream fiction than the low end of literary fiction. It's essentially two stories at once, a highbrow and lowbrow one that connect in various fascinating ways -- it's simultaneously a Prince of Tides style psychological examination of the various themes behind various Greek over-the-top dramas, as seen through an actual psychiatrist experiencing family problems and seeing an "meta-psychiatrist" for therapy, while also being a legitimate playing-out of an actual over-the-top Greek melodrama in this man's life, ridiculously outrageous concepts that would usually be dismissed as soap-operaish silliness if not so expertly woven together with the "brainy" part of the story. It's best to leave as much of this plot as possible a secret before reading, which is partly why I wanted to write only a short review of it today; but needless to say, keep your eye out on how the things the main character discusses among family members and his therapist so weirdly relate to some of the bizarre turns his actual life takes throughout the novel. An excellent airport or beach read; in fact, I encourage you to look at Harrison's entire ouevre in general on those terms.

Out of 10: 8.4

Courage in Patience, by Beth Fehlbaum
Courage in Patience (book; 2008)
By Beth Fehlbaum
Kunati / ISBN: 978-1-60164-156-4

So before anything else, I want to make it clear that I liked this book, and consider it just as good as any other mainstream release when it comes to the building blocks of literature, things like complex characters and believable dialogue. No, it's the premise of the book itself that makes it difficult to tackle as a reviewer; written by a public teacher who has aided several child victims of abuse over the years, Courage in Patience is deliberately written as a cautionary tale to other at-risk kids, an utterly "typical story" that adults can give to any youths in their lives they think might also be abuse victims, in the hopes that the kids will deeply connect with the story on display and seek help themselves. And this is an incredibly noble aim that should be congratulated, with the book itself wildly succeeding at this specific thing it's trying to do, and with it indeed being a title I would highly recommend for the specific purpose just mentioned, of helping kids self-identify whether or not they're a victim of abuse; but by its very definition, the actual storyline out "afterschool special"s any actual afternoon special ever written, with most mainstream book lovers well able to guess nearly every step in this book's plot well before each is revealed. As a tool to aid at-risk youth, this book is great, almost indispensable, which is why I refuse to give it a low score; but as just a general-interest novel for a general-interest audience, not so much, which unfortunately why it doesn't get a high score from me either. It's the eternal problem with niche publishing, one always difficult for a mainstream book critic to express adequately with a simple thing like a 10-point scale or a thumb pointed in a certain direction.

Out of 10: 7.5

Chance in Hell, by Gilbert Hernandez
Chance in Hell (book; 2007)
By Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics / ISBN: 978-1-560-97833-6

I've mentioned here before, how the Chicago public library system here where I live has started making grown-up graphic novels more and more of an acquisitional priority; although I find most graphic novels not intellectually hefty enough to warrant full write-ups here at CCLaP, I do find them excellent bedtime reading, which is why I tear through a ton of them in my personal life but rarely mention it here at the site. I did want to make a mention, though, of Gilbert Hernandez's 2007 collection Chance in Hell, yet another of the ten thousand astonishing publications by graphic-novel gods Fantagraphics; penned by half the creative team behind seminal '80s comics groundbreaker Love and Rockets, this is ultimately a standalone story away from that grand mythos created for that title, although still containing the same dark magical realism of the former. Essentially a post-apocalyptic tale but with an urbane twist, the serial stories tell the long-term tale of a girl left to herself in the anarchic wilds of a post-disaster American suburb; shut off at first from the still-civilized society now only found inside large barricaded cities, the girl learns early of the naked violence and sexual transactions that can save one from destruction in a lawless society with few resources. After being rescued and adopted, then, by one of the urban liberal do-gooders who often make forages to the edges of these lawless suburbs, the last two-thirds of the story is about the girl's struggle throughout puberty inside the enclosed so-called "civilization," a place in her eyes as horrific as the wastelands she just left behind, subject to the same laws of brutality and gender manipulation. Dark, shocking, yet not without its black-humor charms, this is Hernandez's response to September 11th and the Bush administration, exactly what you would expect from a respected middle-aged artist currently at the top of his form. It comes highly recommended to all you existing comics fans.

Out of 10: 9.1

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:44 PM, November 12, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |