March 3, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 3 March 2011

(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.)

Kraken, by China Mieville

By China Mieville
Del Ray / Random House

Well, you can at least definitely say this about the insanely popular political activist and New Weird author China Mieville, that he never does anything half-assed; now combine this with his long-stated goal of eventually writing at least one book in every literary genre that exists, and you can see why his immensely entertaining latest, Kraken, is not just a comedic conspiracy thriller about bizarre religious sects secretly running London, but is literally the greatest and most convoluted comedic conspiracy thriller about bizarre religious sects secretly running London that has ever been written. And that's what makes this novel such a light-hearted delight throughout its entire 500-plus pages, a hard mood to maintain for that long, because it's pretty much Mieville's ode to every urban fantasy tale that's ever been written, using a central beginning incident (a giant dead squid, pickled in formaldehyde, suddenly disappears in the wink of an eye one day at the city's Natural History Museum) to then bring just a ludicrous amount of magic-wielding secret societies and millennium-old villains out of the woodwork -- from murderous tattoos to union-striking animal familiars, people who can fold physical objects like furniture into origami shapes, Trekkie necromancers who build working phasers, and literally dozens more -- as they all debate and fight over which of them would actually steal the squid and why, as they chase each other between a whole variety of brain-explodingly inventive locations around the city, including a basement church for squid worshippers that's like a steampunk nightmare, a run-down house which actually is filled to the brim with sea water (being the ocean's official embassy on land), and just so many other details that you'll find yourself shaking your head and rubbing your eyes every ten pages or so, just to help all the unchecked creativity sink in. A worthy companion to the revered Illuminatus! Trilogy (and I don't say that lightly), it might be Mieville's other books that win all the awards and industry respect, but it's rollicking rollercoaster rides like these that will make him a fan favorite for decades still to come.

Out of 10: 9.0, or 10 for fans of urban fantasy comedies

Cowboy Angels, by Paul McAuley

Cowboy Angels
By Paul McAuley

This is my third book now by science-fiction veteran Paul McAuley (all of them courtesy of our friends at Pyr); and like the other two, this latest is based on a really great if not overly familiar premise -- basically, that humans invent a "quantum gate" that lets them travel between infinite sets of alternative Earths (called "sheafs" in their particular parlance), which for years was used by the "Real US" military in order to liberate various occupied and fascist and communist Americas out there in the multiverse, but with the entire black-ops program now under threat by that tree-hugging hippie Jimmy Carter. (And in an interesting twist, the world that you and I live in isn't the "Earth Prime" of McAuley's universe, but rather one of the hundreds of alt-Earths they've been dealing with, ours known as the "Nixon Sheaf" because of his 1968 Presidential win being the first major historical schism between their reality and ours.) But alas, also just like the other two books of his I've read, despite being well-written the novel tends to deflate towards the end, with me sorta quickly skimming through the last 75 pages for the third time now in a row, just to confirm that the story ends in the way I suspected it would. Maybe this is a case of McAuley overexplaining his plot-heavy thrillers? Of not having a full command over the three-act structure? I'm not sure, to tell you the truth -- and I feel a bit bad even bringing it up, because of the first three-quarters of his books always being good solid genre pieces, even if nothing too groundbreaking -- but the fact is that I always find myself a little disappointed by the time I reach the end of one of his novels, with this one being no exception. A good choice for existing heavy readers of SF, but easily skippable if you're not.

Out of 10: 8.3

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This is my first novel by the much-loved Michael Cunningham, although I'm already familiar with the plot of his Pulitzer-winning The Hours (which will be getting reviewed itself later this year, as part of the "CCLaP 100" essay series), and I also once had a chance when younger to read the first 50 pages of a friend's copy of A Home at the End of the World; and so that's why my first reaction when starting his latest was to turn this review into a snotty one-line joke, to express my dissatisfaction with him repeating so many of the same tropes found in his other work. ("Dear Michael Cunningham: Seriously, enough with the 'Gay Freudian Incest Fantasy As Sexual Awakening,' 'Obsessed With The Angelically Golden Downy Body Hair Of My Male Relatives' crap. You're really starting to creep me out. Sincerely, Jason Pettus.") But still, I found myself fascinated with the milieu Cunningham chose to tell this story, the main reason I kept reading; that is, the world of upper-class bohemian-bourgeoise Manhattanites in an age when their professional worlds are crumbling around them, in this case a gallery-owning husband and magazine-editor wife who both are unsure if their industries are even going to exist five years from now, and the evermore desperate acts and moral compromises they lower themselves to in order to hold onto their million-dollar SoHo loft and all the other accoutrements they've gotten so glibly used to, a riveting subplot of its own even as the main storyline is a character-based one that could technically take place anywhere.

And of course all the stories about Cunningham's breathtakingly beautiful prose are true, which also helped carry me along, a kind of attention to detail and a wild sense of extrapolation usually only seen in certain breeds of ridiculously overanalytical art-school girlfriends (oh, you know who I mean -- the ones who are great in bed but who so completely overthink every single detail of your relationship, you're exhausted after just six weeks of dating them); and while I was disappointed at first with that main character-based storyline I mentioned (basically, yet another look at a chiseled twentysomething frequently shirtless bisexual trainwreck who upends the formerly staid life of some middle-classers), let me confess that the surprise-filled plot gets better and better as it continues, precisely for being more and more unexpected, with a gangbusters ending that's much more satisfying than its lackluster beginning. (Also, I was intrigued with the way it examines the same fundamental question at the heart of the infamous 1970s play Equus as well, of whether spiritually deflated middle-agers should in fact be jealous of the mentally ill for at least being passionate about something, and should therefore be allowed to live with that illness instead of trying to be "cured.") So when all is said and done, I guess I was actually pretty pleased with this novel after all, even while coming across lots of details that made me roll my eyes; and for sure it comes highly recommended to those who enjoy dark-tinged character-based stories about aging, sexuality and mental health. If nothing else, it definitely has me excited now about reading The Hours later this year.

Out of 10: 9.2

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:56 AM, March 3, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |