May 27, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 27 May 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 Jewel of the Gold Coast, by Sally Sexton Kalmbach

The Jewel of the Gold Coast: Mrs. Potter Palmer's Chicago
By Sally Sexton Kalmbach
Ampersand, Inc.

I'm often mentioning here how it's actually most appropriate to judge books relative to their budgets and goals; and a good example of this is Sally Sexton Kalmbach's 2009 The Jewel of the Gold Coast: Mrs. Potter Palmer's Chicago, which aims to be nothing more than a slim walking-tour-style guide to the city's Gold Coast neighborhood (based in fact on the tours that Kalmbach gives there), thematically centered around Victorian society wife Bertha Palmer (yes, the Palmer House hotel is named for her), using her Whartonesque life to spin off interesting tour-sized stories about the history of one of Chicago's first rich neighborhoods (and still one of the richest in the city to this day). As such, then, it can't hold a candle to either full scholarly tomes or glossy coffeetable books on the subject, but neither does it try to; it instead is intended as a lively but brief overview of the subject, an image-heavy book that's easy to actually carry around the neighborhood with you, and read in nearly real time as you traverse its streets yourself. It's a great example of what basement presses do best -- fill a specific niche, that is, many times comprised of books simply not financially worth a major national publisher to take on -- and while it's maybe not recommended to everyone out there today, certainly it's worth picking up if you're ever going to be in the neighborhood yourself soon.

Out of 10: 8.5

The Surrogates, by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele

The Surrogates
By Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele
Top Shelf

This is a special five-issue comics miniseries from 2006 by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, apparently made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Bruce Willis that I have no recollection of ever even being in the theatres (strange for me and science-fiction), which takes as its premise a very Hollywood-friendly concept -- that in the future, the idea of Second Life "avatars" have been expanded into the physical world, with most Americans now using permanently young and good-looking full-sized "surrogates" to actually move around and interact in the real world, safely keeping their flesh-and-blood bodies at home in a special virtual-reality setup, which has brought crime in America down dramatically and has nearly wiped out racism, but which of course opens up a whole new can of ethical worms of its own. Like a lot of speculative projects, then, Venditti and Weldele use a traditional genre tale (a murder mystery) as the centerpiece of the actual story, using its well-known conventions as a sly way of examining this entire future universe our characters are inhabiting; and while its visual look definitely relies way too nakedly on the '80s work of Frank Miller (including a blocky, sketchy drawing style, lots of muted watercolors, grainy xeroxes as backdrops, and sound-effect words done in a dramatic handwritten style), and its metafictional narrative structure too much on Alan Moore's Watchmen, I found it actually not that bad a project at all, nothing groundbreaking but a book that will keep existing genre fans happy, which is why it's getting the so-so score that it is. Recommended as easy fodder for a boring rainy day, when expectations are low.

Out of 10: 8.0

Castle, by J. Robert Lennon

Castle
By J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press

It's always such a crushing disappointment to see a novel start great and then peter out by the end, like is precisely the case with J. Robert Lennon's latest, Castle; because I gotta admit, the first two-thirds of this deeply unsettling book is one of the best spooky stories I've ever read, which like the best of Victorian "Weird" fiction achieves its creeps in a deceptively subtle way, the slow-moving story of an unusually judgmental older man and disgraced career soldier who has recently decided to move back to his despised small hometown in upstate New York for unexplained reasons. As the first half of this book continues, then, and the man slowly gets settled isolationist-style in the large tract of supposedly haunted woods he has recently purchased, a series of ever-increasingly bizarre mysteries start quietly unfolding in front of our eyes, including why he's so self-righteous, why he got kicked out of the military, why the town's residents are always giving him random cold shoulders, why he moved back in the first place, and most importantly, what exact supernatural mystery lies in the square parcel of land in the middle of his property that the previous owner refuses to sell, an owner who has had his name excised from all corresponding legal documents, and who for some reason has built a McMansion-sized medieval castle on said parcel, locked airtight and with properties that seem to defy several laws of physics.

Ah, but then we get to the last third, where everything suddenly starts falling apart -- because although I won't be revealing any spoilers today, I will go so far as to say that the book turns out to have no actual supernatural elements at all, and that the grounded-in-reality, "ripped from the headlines" explanation Lennon comes up with for everything is both ho-hum and overly incredulous, an ending that made me both yawn and angrily yell, "Really, Lennon? Really?" (And as long as we're on the subject of unreasonable leaps in logic -- although I happily accept repressed memories as a legitimate storytelling device, to have a character completely block out every single detail of an entire half-decade of his life, a period that he claims later is the most important formative period of his entire youth, simply smacks of lazy structuring on the part of the author, a flat excuse for adding a hackneyed ending which could've been done a whole lot better.) Also, despite the following being almost a spoiler, you deserve to know that the last third of the book features dozens of explicit scenes of a child being psychologically and physically tortured; and as someone who now has kids as a regular part of his own life, I've discovered that such scenes are so upsetting to me as to be nearly unreadable, a situation I suppose is the case for many parents out there, which is why I consider it fair that you know about it long before you decide to even pick the book up in the first place. Castle is getting as high a score today as it is because of the first half being so great, but make no mistake over its second half dropping precipitously in quality; and while it does get a tepid recommendation today overall, it also comes with a strong warning for the buyer to beware.

Out of 10: 7.1

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:43 PM, May 27, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |