September 21, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 21 September 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 Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book
By A.S. Byatt
Alfred A. Knopf

I want it noted that I tried to give as fair a shake as possible to 2009's Booker-nominated The Children's Book by revered literary figure A.S. Byatt, and actually read the first 150 pages before angrily giving up; but that said, Cheese And Freaking Rice, this book is the very textbook definition of overwrought prose, an overly fussy and awkwardly flowing writing style that never describes things in a few words when a few pages will do instead, a problem compounded by Byatt's habit of doing things like, say, introducing 50 different characters in the first 50 pages, just to make it clear afterwards that 40 of these characters will never be referred to again. In fact, 150 pages in, this novel still hadn't even gotten past its Act One setup yet -- basically, the story of a Victorian-Era children's story writer, whose family takes in an artistically gifted Dickensian orphan they discover living in the basement of a London museum -- and I have to confess, if an author still hasn't gotten done with their introductory exposition by page 150 (and overly written, nauseatingly Genteel exposition at that), I rapidly lose the capacity to care anymore what happens to their precocious, yawn-inducing characters, or the oh-so-delightful country estate they all call home. I don't know if all of Byatt's books are like this, or whether this was a stylistic experiment meant to complement the novel's rural Victorian setting that went horribly wrong; but given her massive esteem and popularity, it was a shock to discover just how disastrously unreadable The Children's Book actually is. It does not come recommended today in any form whatsoever.

Out of 10: 4.1

The Ghosts of Manhattan, by George Mann

Ghosts of Manhattan
By George Mann
Pyr

This latest title by our buddies at Pyr has a killer concept, one that's almost impossible to pass up -- basically, imagine "The Shadow" of 1920s pulp fiction, but if his secret identity happened to be Jay Gatsby, the whole story taking place in a steampunk (noirpunk?) alt-history New York, a tech-forward place full of holographic telephones and jet-powered biplanes, and where the US has been waging a cold war against a still-ascendent British Empire that has been artificially keeping Queen Victoria alive well past the age of 100. But unfortunately, author George Mann doesn't do anything nearly as original with the plot itself, turning in instead a cliche-filled typical Shadow or Batman tale only with cooler details, a disappointment given how inventive he's made the universe where this story takes place. Not badly written but certainly pedestrian in nature, this will still appeal to hardcore genre fans but unfortunately not too many others, and can be safely skipped by those who aren't already existing devotees of this particular time period and story style.

Out of 10: 7.3

Life in Year One, by Scott Korb

Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine
By Scott Korb
Riverhead Books / Penguin

I first became a fan of Scott Korb because of his remarkable 2008 book The Faith Between Us, co-authored with Peter Bebergal, in which through a series of essays disguised as letters the two not only compare and contrast their differing religious beliefs (Catholicism and Judaism), but also what it's like to be intensely religious in the first place within their circles of mostly atheistic, arts-friendly intellectuals; and now Korb has another nonfiction book out, the much more straightforward Life in Year One, which presents in a series of systematic chapters exactly what the latest theories are regarding what actual day-to-day life was like for the people of the Middle East during the years that Jesus was literally alive (and by extension the entire first century of the Christian Era). As such, then, Korb inventively combines anthropology, sociology, history, literature and theology to present as all-encompassing a look at the first century AD as possible, offering up mostly things you would guess about these times anyway (essentially, that life was generally much shorter and more brutish than now), but also uncovering all kinds of interesting facts that will come as a surprise to most (such as just how many different sects of Judaism actually existed between 1 and 100 AD, Christians being merely one of them, and how little these groups generally got along with each other), and with Korb wisely avoiding the "bloated NPR-bait" trap of so many of these books by turning in a tight, always interesting 200-page manuscript for his own. A brisk and fascinating read, you certainly do not need to be religious yourself to get a lot of enjoyment out of Life in Year One, and it comes recommended to all who like their airport and beach titles to be more studious than trashy in nature.

Out of 10: 9.0

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:54 AM, September 21, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |