September 18, 2009

Your micro-review roundup: 18 September 2009

(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.)

Shamrock Alley, by Ron Malfi

Shamrock Alley
By Ron Malfi
Medallion Press / ISBN: 978-1-93383-694-2

Regular readers will of course already be familiar with alt-horror author Ron Malfi; after all, I've reviewed two of his novels here in the past, 2007's atmospheric Via Dolorosa and 2008's even more atmospheric Passenger, two books that share with each other a quiet, unhurried sense of dread, and which owe as much to Southern Gothic as they do David Lynch. But it turns out that Malfi has gone in a whole different direction for his latest, Shamrock Alley, deciding to write a fictionalized account of what turns out to be a true story, concerning his real-life father's undercover bust of a notorious Irish gang in New York, back when he worked for the Secret Service; and that ends up making the book a straight-ahead crime tale, which then makes it problematic for me to review, in that I don't particularly care for crime fiction and thus only read one or two books a year in the genre, making it difficult for me to judge the difference between an only so-so crime book and a better-than-average one.

So instead today I'm giving the book a thoroughly middle-of-the-road score; because on the one hand, it at least seems to contain all the tropes I assume a typical crime fan is looking for in this genre -- the scrappy detective, the almost nonexistent loving wife, the world-weary partner, the crabby by-the-book boss, the utterly psychotic gangster villains, the single-mother hooker informant with a heart of gold -- but on the other hand, I at least didn't see anything in this manuscript to elevate it above the typical genre thriller, the kind of utterly stereotypical book that makes up the vast majority of titles published in any given genre, no matter what that genre is. And as I've said many times before, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but does mean that it's destined to be enjoyed only by existing fans of crime fiction, and enjoyed only in a comfort-food kind of way. That doesn't make the book terrible, but neither does it make it great, which is why Shamrock Alley is getting the score it is today.

Out of 10: 7.5

Kelland, by Paul G Bens

By Paul G Bens, Jr
Casperian Books / ISBN: 978-1-93408-119-8

Every so often here at CCLaP, I will come across a book that is literally neither very good nor very bad, making it difficult to decide what exactly to think about it; and compounding the problem, it will often be difficult to put my finger on why exactly this is, with it usually being more of a case of "I just know it when I see it." Take for example Paul G Bens' literary debut Kelland, which certainly gets an A for both effort and earnestness, but is also saddled with a series of problems simply too big to ignore, starting with the fact that the entire storyline is predicated on a secret that most will be able to guess long before the secret is officially revealed. I won't tell you what this secret is, but will give you a big clue, which even readers themselves learn very early on, that nearly all the major characters are gay men with emotional issues who grew up Catholic; and if you can guess what big trauma might come from such a situation, you're well on your way to understanding the grand reveal at the end of this book hundreds of pages before it's actually revealed. And that's a real problem here, because nearly the entire rest of the novel serves only as an overlong lead-up to this easily guessed secret, essentially 200 pages of exposition where our ensemble cast go through the motions of a whole series of mundane activities uninteresting unto themselves -- going to dinners, having band rehearsals, attending cutesy dates, fighting with their spouses, and all the other trivialities that make up a real life but are utterly uneventful when it comes to a traditional three-act novel.

But on the other hand, it's undeniable that Bens has at least the fundamentals of writing down pat, and to be fair he does occasionally include scenes which are legitimately fascinating; one of my favorites, for example, was his description of an unmarked gray-market sex club right in the middle of a conservative Korean neighborhood, quietly subsidized by the local chamber of commerce so to keep such activities from occurring in the bathrooms and alleys of legitimate neighborhood businesses. Plus, I have to admit that I quite liked the magical-realist trope Bens creates to hold the whole story together, the title character Kelland who is not exactly an angel or demon but a sort of amoral cross between the two, doing whatever is necessary in each character's case to get them to finally confront the childhood trauma haunting them all. (And I should mention as well, that even merely the amount of passionate online raves of this book was enough for me to give it at least a little benefit of a doubt, a factor that I do take into account with my reviews no matter how it sometimes seems.) Like I said, it's not going to be for everyone (especially those who judge books mostly on literary qualities), but will for sure appeal to others (especially those with a personal connection to the issues being discussed), which is why today Kelland is getting the so-so score that it is.

Out of 10: 7.5

The Sam Gunn Omnibus, by Ben Bova

The Sam Gunn Omnibus
By Ben Bova
Tor / ISBN: 978-0-76531-620-2

Fans know that within any literary genre, there consists a handful of top-tier "breakout" stars -- people like Stephen King in horror or Tom Clancy in military thrillers -- but that the vast majority of books published in any given genre are instead churned out by a series of lesser-known mid-tier authors, the kind who make modest livings by basically becoming one-person book factories, pumping out a whole series of titles that deliver exactly what hardcore fans of that genre expect from such books but not an ounce more. Science-fiction for example is particularly notorious at this, with a good example of such "journeymen" being Ben Bova, a veteran author who has been cranking out titles for decades now and has won several hundred industry awards over the course of his career, but who nonetheless is barely known by anyone outside of diehard SF conventioneers (a big way that such mid-tier authors even have careers to begin with, by attending convention after convention themselves and literally building their readership one Buffy fan at a time). But whatever you think of such authors, it does leave them with just a wealth of original intellectual property, stuff that can not only be reissued every ten years until the end of time but constantly repackaged in inventive ways too; and that leads us to the brand-new Sam Gunn Omnibus, a whopping 700-page tome collecting up for the very first time all the 50-odd stories Bova has written over the last half-century concerning the eponymous antihero, along with almost 40 linking passages (two- and three-page micro-stories) to help create a consistent narrative and timeline to it all (but with some problems inherent in this process as well, as Bova himself admits in the introduction).

And it's collections like these that are a perfect example of why Bova has never become a breakout star himself, and why his stories are destined to be loved only by the most diehard SF fans out there: because to tell the truth, as one of these diehard fans, I found the stories on display here not bad at all, tight and funny little space operas that as an extra bonus adhere closely to the bigger "Galaxy" storyline Bova has been creating in a series of bigger novels over the last thirty years, a very rational step-by-step look at just how our solar system might someday be colonized by humans one planet at a time, with our swaggering con-man and galactic explorer always seemingly in the middle of every new development along the way. But Lord, if you're not a diehard SF fan, it's hard to like these thoroughly middlebrow genre exercises; they're not only eye-rollingly goofy most of the time, with plot points that fairly telegraph themselves from the first page, but are really really sexist too in about the most immature sense of the term, the kind of "boobies in space" tripe that used to be rampant back when this genre's fanbase mostly consisted of pimply antisocial Comic Book Guys, the exact type of borderline-misogynist silliness that many contemporary female SF authors claim that they got involved in the industry themselves precisely to combat. It makes it a hard book to love, but one that some of you will anyway, harmless fun or outdated trash depending on who you are; I myself neither particularly loved nor hated it, which is why it's getting the middle-of-the-road score today that it is.

Out of 10: 7.5

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:57 PM, September 18, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |