(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 Cave Man
By Xiaoda Xiao
Two Dollar Radio
Xiaoda Xiao's The Cave Man is the third book this year I've now reviewed by the increasingly impressive Ohio small press Two Dollar Radio, and I have to say that it establishes a pretty consistent track record for the publisher -- like the others (Joshua Mohr's Some Things That Meant the World to Me and Scott Bradfield's The People Who Watched Her Pass By), it is ultimately an action-based tale but more psychological than you would expect from such a story, featuring a highly unique writing style that is simply going to naturally appeal to some and naturally repel others. Based on the author's real life, its autobiographical shocks are in fact its main hook; it's the story of a Chinese nerd sent to a labor camp for accidentally ripping a poster of Mao during that country's "Cultural Revolution" of the 1970s, who is then imprisoned for nine months in a three-by-four-foot cell carved literally into the side of a hill in retribution for attempting to report a corrupt superior. It's this confinement that actually opens our story; but soon he is out and back among the civilian population, where Xiao then uses his experience in being pent-up as a nice metaphor for his slow, problem-filled attempts at ingratiating himself back into society, including his suddenly strange love life and his persistent problems with trying to sleep in a normal-sized room. Spanning all the way to the Tianammen Square protests of 1989 and beyond, the book ends up being as well a nice survey of the major events to happen to China over the last thirty years, told through a unique filter and an engaging voice; and in fact just about the only complaint I have at all is that the novel rushes through an entire second book's worth of material in just its last few pages, as our hero finally emigrates to America and eventually finds artistic success. Other than that, though, it comes highly recommended.
Out of 10: 9.2
The Bradshaw Variations
By Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Although a little of such stuff goes a long way for me, I do in fact quite enjoy the occasional literary-oriented novel, one that eschews plot developments almost entirely to instead exist as merely a complex character study; take for example veteran character author Rachel Cusk's latest, The Bradshaw Variations, which is not much more than a probing look at an upper-middle-class British family whose spouses spend a year switching roles (the full-time mom enters the world of academic senior management, while the corporate dad spends a year re-engaging in his youthful passion for classical piano), and what kind of effect this has on the family in general, which by extension becomes a look at what the lives are like of their related siblings and their own upper-middle-class British families. As such, then, it's not really Cusk's point to have a lot of stuff "happen," and those who need such a thing in their novels will be profoundly disappointed with this one; it's instead a dense look at the multiple layers of personality that make up each of these fully-realized people, which by the end becomes a deep slice-of-life look at what being a Western middle-classer in the early 2000s is really all about in the first place. A great pick for those who like their literature academic and slow-moving in nature, but that should absolutely be avoided by everyone else.
Out of 10: 8.6
Carrion Comfort: 20th Anniversary Edition
By Dan Simmons
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Griffin
Genre novelist Dan Simmons is one of but many veteran writers out there with stellar reputations but whose work I'm not familiar with at all; so when my neighborhood library recently acquired a 20th-anniversary edition of his groundbreaking 1989 horror novel Carrion Comfort, I snatched it right up, especially after learning that Stephen King had once called it one of the three best horror novels of the entire 20th century. But alas, this instead turned out to be a perfect example of why I'm not much of a horror fan, with the ridiculously long manuscript featuring a veritable litany of problems endemic to this particular genre; for example, like I just mentioned (and much like King himself), Simmons has apparently never met an overly long expository scene he didn't like, and what could've been a fascinating 300-page actioner is instead an exasperating 800-page historical epic, which also in good King fashion is not helped by it featuring dozens of completely superfluous sub-minor characters, who apparently exist only to fill another fifteen pointless pages of the text before being randomly killed off again.
And then there's the book's actual subject matter, which manages to be both too grand and too petty at the same time -- it's basically a saga about a race of telekinetic "uber-humans" who have secretly been living among us for centuries, who for some unexplained reason die if they don't regularly manipulate the mouth-breathers around them into committing random acts of terror and violence, which according to Simmons has been the actual cause of everything from World War Two to Lee Harvey Oswald to the death of John Lennon; but it's really the immaturity of Simmons' prose style while relating this story that drives me the most crazy, as it does with horror in general, with me finding it almost impossible to listen to the baddies' lustful glee over their "Feedings" without immediately thinking of some pimply little goth kid over in the corner of a danceclub, doing their dreadful "death shimmy" to the blaring of Peter Murphy while describing the "delicious taste" of "eating my mortal soul" as they "prance to the howl of the wolf at midnight," or some such sh-t like that. It's passionately loved by a whole group of hardcore horror fans, that's for sure, but should be avoided like the plague if like me you are unable to hear the phrase "mind-raping psychic vampire Nazi" without bursting into unintended laughter.
Out of 10: 5.8