April 20, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 20 April 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.)

The List of 7, by Mark Frost

The 6 Messiahs, by Mark Frost

The List of 7
By Mark Frost
William Morrow and Company

The 6 Messiahs
By Mark Frost
William Morrow and Company

I recently had occasion to think again about the exquisitely strange 1990s television show Twin Peaks, co-created by David Lynch and Mark Frost; and that got me thinking again about Frost's two genre novels from that time period as well, 1993's The List of 7 and '95's The 6 Messiahs, the first of which I read way back when it originally came out, which inspired me this month to check them out from the library here in Chicago. Essentially steampunk tales from the dawn of that term's creation, they tell related stories based on the idea of the real Arthur Conan Doyle going on a series of occultish adventures in the late 1800s, accompanied by a secret agent of the Queen named Jack Sparks who ends up providing many of the traits for Doyle's later Sherlock Holmes stories.

Almost twenty years later, I had mostly fond if not dim memories of the first book, one of the first steampunk tales I ever read; and indeed, re-reading it again this month, it was in fact as entertaining as my memory had it. But twenty years of genre development has made steampunk a much more sophisticated thing now than it was at its inception, and unfortunately these books now display the weaknesses that come with their age; read now in the wake of much better books that have come after, they seem a little clunkier than they did before, a bit more obvious in their machinations, and with a bad Hollywood tone much of the time, as if Frost were only writing them so that he could then sell the film rights, not surprising when it comes to an industry veteran like himself. Now combine this with the fact that the very concept gets kind of muddled by the second book -- the whole charm of the first one laying mostly in the idea of Doyle being a young, clueless, untested doctor, thrown into the middle of shadowy conspiracies he doesn't understand, an aspect missing in the sequel where he is now a field-tested veteran of the strange -- and it's easy to see why Frost eventually abandoned what could've been the start of a lucrative franchise, and has only penned sports-themed novels in the years since. Interesting for a lark, and for those curious about steampunk's origins, but not something you should go out of your way to read.

Out of 10: 7.9

The Failure, by James Greer

The Failure
By James Greer
Akashic Books

It's funny that I should read James Greer's The Failure, the latest by the always great Akashic Books, the same week I saw Steven Soderbergh's "lost" 1999 classic The Limey, because they turn out to be eerily similar in both concept and tone; namely, they are both at their hearts fairly standard noir tales, but elevated into the realm of fine art by taking a daring approach towards telling their stories. In the case of The Failure, for example, our noirish plot revolves around a smartypants loser in Los Angeles poetically named Guy Forget, who you can imagine as what would happen if some philosophy grad student started watching too many Tarantino-style indie films, and convinced himself that nerdy intellectuals can also somehow be at the center of gritty tough-guy crime tales; the storyline itself, then, hinges on the plan concocted by him and his harebrained friend Billy to hold up a Korean check-cashing place with the help of an inside employee, so that Guy can build the prototype for his insane Web 2.0 project that he thinks is going to make him a billionaire, all of which as you can easily guess goes straight to hell as the book continues, just as any good noir should.

But like I said, it's how Greer tells this story that makes the manuscript stand out, hopping from one non-linear moment to the next in almost random fashion, jumping for example from a conversation between Guy and his self-destructive girlfriend a week before the robbery, to a deadpan comedic conversation between Guy and Billy ten minutes after the botched robbery about what went wrong, straight to a bar talk three months previously when the plan was first being formulated. This effectively lets The Failure succeed at the same thing that the old hyperfiction online projects of the 1990s were attempting to do as well, to tell their stories to their audiences in a way much more similar to how humans actually learn stories in the real world, in bits and pieces and without a nice narrative structure to it all; and in fact, this book would make for a great interactive online project if the author ever wanted to try such a thing, to put each chapter on its own webpage and with references within the text made into hyperlinks to other chapters, so that audience members themselves determine the order of the book, an order that changes with each person and with each reading*. Greer already wrote this book in a way so that the story can be presented in this fashion; and although it's nothing spectacular when it comes to its actual plot or dialogue, it's worth checking out just for the inventive structure alone.

Out of 10: 8.4

*By the way, this hyperlink style of storytelling is now possible on e-ink devices like the iPad and Sony Reader, in that EPUB files for these devices are essentially nothing more than HTML documents, only rendered in a different way than how web browsers do it. I would love to put out a project like this through CCLaP's publishing wing; those who have a good idea for such a hyperfiction project are encouraged to drop a line and let me know. Why yes, this is essentially the same thing as the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" children's books from the '80s and '90s; those are in fact the most famous examples of hyperfiction we have.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, by Peter Ackroyd

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday

In some ways, last year's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by respected historian and historical-fiction author Peter Ackroyd (who I was already a fan of, because of his 2000 London: The Biography) is kind of a disappointment; and that's because it's essentially a complete retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (which I've also reviewed in the past), and even set in the same time period as Shelley's original, which will cause many to ponder why the new volume exists in the first place, or why one should bother reading it if they've already read the 1818 original. But on the other hand, one could argue that Ackroyd's book does exactly what historical fiction does best, which is to use a well-known tale to examine in detail all the real events, people and cultural trends that were taking place at that time; because not only does Ackroyd's Frankenstein retell the original Frankenstein myth nearly beat for beat, but does it while also positing the idea that Victor Frankenstein was actually a friend of the Shelleys and Lord Byron in real life (thus inspiring the "fictional" story Shelley would eventually write), using the schism between the medical student's Enlightenment background and his new friendship with these brooding harbingers of Romanticism to show in a clearer way the struggle between reason and faith that the original book deals with only obliquely.

And in the meanwhile, Ackroyd uses this story to examine in hindsight the state of modern science in the early 1800s, in a much more thorough way than Shelley herself could've ever pulled off by actually living in those times; and along the way he looks in detail at such contemporary phenomena going on at the time as pervasive graverobbing (to provide the endless amount of practice cadavers needed for the suddenly burgeoning medical community), as well as many more fascinating subjects from the dawn of the Victorian Age. Granted, it still leads by the end to a fairly dry book, one that will undoubtedly be a disappointment to those who thought they were getting a witty revisionist steampunk actioner; but it's also informative and well-done for what it is, which is essentially a history book written in an unusual and engaging way, which is why today it's getting a bit of a higher score than perhaps it deserves in the eyes of others. Recommended for those looking to learn more about the early 19th century, not so much for genre fans expecting another Boneshaker.

Out of 10: 8.0

The Real Wizard of Oz, by Rebecca Loncraine

The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum
By Rebecca Loncraine
Gotham Books / Penguin

I'm sure there's a fascinating biography to eventually be written about L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz series of children's books, because Baum was a fascinating guy -- a failed theatre veteran from the dawn of Broadway-style musicals, he cycled through a whole series of typical late-1800s entrepreneurial jobs (chicken breeder, frontier dry-goods dealer, newspaper editor) without much luck, before finally finding random fame and fortune as an author of juvenilia, immediately establishing a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between upper-class trappings and Oz hatred that he then spent the rest of his life trying to rid himself of. But unfortunately The Real Wizard of Oz by British journalist Rebecca Loncraine is not that fascinating biography, namely because she falls too heavily into the "NPR trap" that plagues so many contemporary tomes; that in her desire to create a full-length book out of a novella's worth of material, so that she can go hit the intellectual talk-show circuit, she ends up writing a manuscript that can only be described as half-fluff, filled with the kind of barely causal "what if" digressions that make most lovers of smart biographies roll their eyes in annoyance. (Baum lived for a time in North Dakota, where there are a lot of tornados! He also lived for a time in Chicago, which used to possess a few streets made out of bricks that were slightly yellow-colored! Haahhh? Get it? HAAAAHHHH?!)

It's telling, I think, that Baum doesn't even reach adulthood in this overly padded book until a third of the way in, with that first third seemingly existing only to make the point that spiritualism and childhood deaths were a regular part of rural life in the 1800s, and that such things obviously had an effect on why Baum wrote the Oz books the way he did; the whole book feels like this, to tell you the truth, filled with obvious observations to mask the fact that there's simply not enough legitimately interesting things about Baum's life to fill a 300-page manuscript, and sometimes featuring nearly entire chapters of digressions about such barely connected topics as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Although competently written, you should do yourself a favor anyway and simply read Baum's Wikipedia entry instead, and save yourself several days of easily skippable fluff.

Out of 10: 6.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:40 PM, April 20, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |