May 27, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 27 May 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.)

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, by Mark Hodder

Burton & Swinburne in: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
By Mark Hodder

I always have to tread lightly when it comes to reviewing novels written in the steampunk style; because this is a genre I'm a real sucker for, which means that I will give even subpar books in this genre a higher score than a lot of people feel they deserve, simply because I enjoy wallowing in the tech-meets-Victoriana tropes that define steampunk in the first place. So, that said, let me confess that I enjoyed this latest "Burton & Swinburne" novel quite a lot, in which author Mark Hodder envisions idealized versions of real-life explorer Richard Francis Burton and real-life subversive artist and libertine Algernon Swinburne, then teams them up to solve action-packed mysteries within a mid-1800s London where (among many other inventions) scientists have discovered how to genetically engineer giant centipedes with rock-hard exoskeletons, that are then gutted and fit with steam engines to produce some of the funkiest public transportation you'll ever come across. Especially enjoyable for the dozens of minor what-if references to the real world that the author makes along the way -- for example, a preteen Oscar Wilde is a wisecracking newspaper boy and street-level assistant to our heroes in Hodder's universe -- this is the very definition of "guilty pleasure," a book that will have your non-steampunk-fan friends furiously rolling their eyes just from the copper-robot-battling front cover alone. It comes recommended to that specific audience, with all of these caveats firmly in mind.

Out of 10: 8.2, or 9.2 for steampunk fans

Unforgettable, by Paul McComas

Unforgettable: Harrowing Futures, Horrors, and (Dark) Humor
By Paul McComas
Walkabout Publishing

I procured a copy of this mammoth 500-page career overview during a recent Chicago performance by Paul McComas; and indeed, this is what he's generally better known for, for being one of the daring young performance artists of this city's 1980s "Club Lower Links" crowd (sharing the stage in those years with people like Karen Finley, Eric Bogosian and Henry Rollins), who in the meanwhile has almost accidentally collected up an almost overwhelming amount of short genre stories and produced screenplays in the three decades since. As such, then, this is perhaps not the kind of book you actually read from start to finish in an uninterrupted stretch, but rather one short piece at a time before bed and at other spare moments, with of course it being more rewarding simply to see him perform live if you have the chance, where McComas has honed his skills over the decades into a tight, entertaining experience. To be honest, the book itself is often deliberately quite silly, with themes and attitudes that draw equal inspiration from convention fan-fiction and late-night television horror-show hosts; but if you enjoy that type of work, this is worth your time merely for its sheer weight alone, with so many different kinds of pieces included that you're bound to find some you like. It's recommended in that spirit.

Out of 10: 8.0

After the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn

After the Golden Age
By Carrie Vaughn

To call Carrie Vaughn's profoundly disappointing After the Golden Age a tired retread of ideas that have been almost entirely played out by now is to make an understatement; because really, is there anyone even left besides lazy entertainment reporters who isn't aware by now of the darkly comedic subgenre regarding superheroes with mundane psychological problems? It was groundbreaking when Frank Miller and Alan Moore did it unironically in the '80s, hilarious when The Specials and Mystery Men played it for laughs in the '90s, and still at least interesting when Pixar mainstreamed the concept in The Incredibles; but in these days when there are even now weekly television shows based around the idea, it takes a lot more to make this concept interesting anymore besides simply parking a caped crusader in a Muzak-blaring psychiatrist's office and hoping that hijinx will ensue. Unfortunately, though, this actually isn't the worst problem with the book; that would be the fact that the nuances of the three-act structure seem to be completely beyond Vaughn's comprehension, with some of the most awkward exposition I've ever seen in a mainstream contemporary novel, and a bad habit of taking minor moments of conflict and trying to inflate them into drama that's bigger than they can handle, much like you might see in a Young Adult novel when a misinterpreted statement between one teen and another will literally be the main conflict driving an entire second act. (And indeed, I think it no coincidence that what Vaughn is mostly known for is the unending "Kitty Norville" series of teen-girl werewolf love-story actioners, a commercial juggernaut that I'm sure is the reason she got a contract for this novel as well.) Beyond disappointing to make me actively angry that a book this badly written would get so much attention, needless to say that it does not come recommended today.

Out of 10: 4.6

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:45 AM, May 27, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |