March 16, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 16 March 2010

(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.)

Stan's Leap, by Tom Duerig

Stan's Leap
By Tom Duerig
iUniverse

As I've demonstrated here over the years, the quality of self-published material these days can vary from nearly professional to barely readable, but one thing that most of them have in common is that they rarely take chances when it comes to theme and genre, with most self-published books I've now been sent confining themselves to such traditional areas as personal memoir, legal thrillers and the like. And that's what made Stan's Leap by Tom Duerig such a delightful surprise, is that it precisely does push its storyline in stranger directions than you usually see in self-published literature; partly a character study, partly a reality-based speculative tale, partly an ode to sailing and partly a riff on such classics as Mutiny on the Bounty and Lord of the Flies, it tells the story of a group of spoiled upper-class Westerners who have all recently decided to take a "back to nature" vacation on a secluded South Pacific island a hundred miles east of Pitcairn (where the HMS Bounty crew settled after their mutiny), home of a "resort" of sorts designed to deliver an authentic pre-industrial villager experience, free not only of modern amenities but even such basics as electricity and indoor plumbing. But after spying a distant anomaly that may have been a natural disaster or perhaps a nuclear explosion (which is part of what fuels this storyline's events, them never quite knowing which of these it was), our characters find themselves essentially abandoned and clueless about the fate of the outside world, first for weeks and then eventually for years; and this is where the Lord of the Flies homage starts kicking in, as the "villagers" eventually revert back into an actual tribal village structure, cruelly controlled by the PTSD-suffering Luddite former soldier who had originally been hired to run the survivalist resort in the first place.

Now, for sure the book has its problems -- much of it is too derivative of the books already mentioned, for example, plus several of the characters are too broadly drawn, plus I never quite understood the point of creating a Richard-Branson-type eccentric billionaire who is the island's supposed owner but then is barely ever mentioned again, especially in that this detail makes the prospect much less realistic that the resort would lack even such basic necessities as a single boat or radio, given how liable to lawsuits that would make a Branson-type figure. (Better maybe to make the crazy Luddite ex-soldier the resort's founder, who didn't quite think out the full legal ramifications before starting to accept paying customers.) But that said, if nothing else, the book at least gets a decent score just for the audacity of its ambition, with the story eventually spanning a twenty-year period and becoming a family drama by the end; and on top of that, I found the technical and historical details regarding sailing and the South Pacific to be more interesting than tedious, and especially enjoyed the ending which managed to be not only surprising and ironic but highly plausible as well. As with most self-published books, it's not for those who demand perfection in their literature, but it's certainly better than average for its type and a highly readable page-turner, a novel that can easily compete with most other beach-and-airport titles out there. It comes strongly recommended for those specifically looking for such a thing.

Out of 10: 8.1

Big Lonesome, by Jim Ruland

Big Lonesome
By Jim Ruland
Gorsky Press

Regular readers know that I rarely voluntarily choose to review story collections here, but instead do it only when someone specifically sends me one; 2005's Big Lonesome is one of these, for example, sent by an acquaintance of mine at literary social network Goodreads.com named Jim Ruland, a popular reviewer there who is also a respected member of California's live-event literary community. But unfortunately, reading through it reminded me all over again of why I don't care in general for story collections; and that's because the vast majority of them are just so hit-and-miss when it comes to quality and chapter length, not a unified whole like a novel but rather a random hodgepodge of good and bad, short and long, with each story beginning and ending so quickly that I rarely have a chance to get emotionally invested in any of them. I mean, just take the story "The Previous Adventures of Popeye the Sailor" (inspiration for the book's cover, which is why I'm using it as an example), a six-page narrative which basically has only one joke-like message to convey, that Popeye was actually a mean-spirited bastard because, you know, he was a drunken sailor with anger-management issues. Get it? Well, yeah, I get it, but that's an awfully long way to go simply for a one-trick punchline; and that's the problem I have with story collections in general, that even when one is filled with good material (and Big Lonesome has plenty of good stories, don't get me wrong), you're still forced to wade through all the "Popeye" six-page punchlines to find them, which as a heavy reader I simply find tiring most of the time. Like most story collections, I found this neither particularly great nor particularly terrible, which is why it's getting the middle-of-the-road score today that it is, and why I encourage Ruland to get a full-length novel finished and out there as soon as humanly possible.

Out of 10: 7.5

She-Rain, by Michael Cogdill

She-Rain
By Michael Cogdill
Morgan James Publishing

As great as basement presses are (and I'm a big advocate of them, believe me), there is also a legitimate problem concerning most of them, an issue that critics of that industry are constantly raising and that I generally agree with, which is that most authors simply need more outside help on their novels than most small presses can afford to give; and I can think of no better recent example of this than She-Rain, the newest book by former journalist Michael Cogdill, noble in its intentions but in desperate need of a tough editor. See, Cogdill starts out simply enough, wishing to write a Southern Gothic tale about an abusive father and the damage he inflicts on the rest of his family; but unfortunately he then loads down his manuscript with so much heavy, syrupy regional dialect and rural cliches, it becomes by the end less a Southern Gothic tale and more like a parody of a Southern Gothic tale, with entire pages sometimes that sound more like that Simpsons episode about "A Streetcar Named Desire" than a legitimate piece of literature. A good editor could've fixed this before the book itself came out, could've gotten in there and really pared this manuscript back to its most necessary core; for this not to happen in this case is a real disservice to Cogdill himself, who I suspect would be a pretty decent prose writer if he'd simply rein in the endless phonetic dialogue and Faulkner ripoffs. As much as I always hate to do this to independent authors promoting small books, today I'm forced to give She-Rain an official pass, and not recommend it to a general audience.

Out of 10: 5.8

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:03 PM, March 16, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |