(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.)
Demons in the Spring: Stories
By Joe Meno
Earlier this year I was asked by our pals at Akashic Books to contribute a review of a single short story as a promotional project for Joe Meno's 2008 collection Demons in the Spring, recently reissued in paperback form as a fundraiser for the very worthy 826CHICAGO. And that garnered me a review copy of the entire book, which is why I thought I'd get a review of the entire book posted before the end of the year as well, although regular readers can of course already see the problem; that since I'm an unusually analytical reviewer, I have a hard time coming up with much to say about story collections, which to me always seem to consist of some pieces that are great, some that are terrible, and none long enough for me to really sit and sink my teeth into. So instead this is mostly a reminder simply that the book exists, gorgeously illustrated by a series of hipster artists like Charles Burns, Ivan Brunetti, Jay Ryan and Archer Prewitt, and that the profits go to a great organization that deserves your time and money. I'm giving it the standard score I give all story collections here, although will give you ample warning that the quality of individual pieces are all over the board.
Out of 10: 7.5
By Justin Kramon
It's easy to see as you're reading Finny, the debut novel of the academically-trained Justin Kramon (an alum of the Iowa Writers' Workshop whose short work has appeared in Glimmer Train among others), that he means for this to be a quirky-cute multigenerational character-based dramedy, and that he most likely has a real fondness for an author like John Irving who created the blueprint for such a story with his World According to Garp. And that's what makes this book so frustrating, in that he gets this cocktail of elements almost exactly right in the first half, essentially the tale of an obstinate, charming teenage girl surrounded by bizarre intellectuals and freakish-looking boys with kind hearts, who has a series of adventures that take her from the rural countryside to a New England boarding school, delivering enough folksy yet smart quirk along the way to make even Fannie Flagg proud; but then Kramon almost entirely drops the strange twists and details in the second half, as our cast of characters all reach young adulthood and start living much more blase lives, full of the same kinds of ho-hum ups and downs that beset any urban creative-classer in their twenties. The attempt to paint the story on such a wide canvas is commendable for sure, and this is a much more competently written debut than a lot of other first novels out there, which is why it's getting as high a score as it is; but Finny still ultimately falls flat by the end, as if the short-format veteran Kramon had literally run out of things to say, an A for effort but C for execution which I suppose we'll average into a B today. I'm absolutely looking forward to the more complex and mature novels I'm sure Kramon has in store for us, but today's book gets only a limited recommendation, and is suggested mostly for existing fans of Amalie and other cute character-based tales.
Out of 10: 8.2
By Justin Cronin
Despite its reputation (it was a bestseller before even released, due mostly to overhype by the media), its size and scope (almost a thousand pages, covering the entire United States over the course of an entire century), and its controversial politics (it posits a world where McCain and then Palin run things after Bush, creating a crumbling police-state America where gas is thirteen dollars a gallon), the storyline fueling Justin Cronin's profoundly disappointing genre thriller The Passage literally couldn't be simpler to understand: Vampires! On meth! Created by the army! Get loose! And cause havoc! And indeed, as this early indicator shows, it turns out that Cronin has literally never met a cliche he didn't like, and he puts every freaking one of them into this ridiculously overlong, only-comic-book-worthy potboiler -- from the angelic Dickensian child fated to save the world, to the earnest African-immigrant nun with psychic powers, the former heartless soldier gone good, the martyr who is shot alone in the woods as he stares wistfully at the sunset while a flock of birds dart off at the sound of the gun's report, and so many more that we could be here all day if we wanted. And that's why I myself didn't even manage to make it all the way through this novel's 300-page prologue -- yes, that's right, 300-page prologue -- essentially an entire novel-sized manuscript that turns the story's explanatory exposition into an entire three-act tale of its own; which means I never even made it to the beginning of the book's main thrust -- the story of a post-apocalyptic America a century after the rise of the vampires, in which a ragtag group of humans fight valiantly against the monster hoard -- before angrily giving up on the entire thing in bored disgust. I'd rant even more, but this exercise in pedestrian mediocracy simply wore me out. I think I'm going to go take a nap now.
Out of 10: 3.3