August 23, 2011

Your micro-review roundup: 23 August 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.)

Crimson Orgy, by Austin Williams

Crimson Orgy
By Austin Williams
Borderlands Press

The first novel of a film scholar who has also written a nonfiction book on the same subject, Crimson Orgy is Austin Williams' loving ode to Miami, Florida's exploitation film industry of the 1960s, which he claims is the actual birthplace of the ultra-violent slasher flicks that have become such a mainstream staple by now. As such, then, despite its salacious cover and jacket copy, this is really more of a look at the boring ins and outs of the actual filmmaking process, and especially the struggle among such Kennedy-era filmmakers to push the boundaries of an industry still being defined by the censorious Hays Code; and interested readers would be wise to prepare themselves not for bloody kills by cackling serial killers but instead lots of exposition-heavy scenes about distribution deals, on-the-fly special effects, and the surprisingly heavy influence that New York Jewish intellectuals had on this notoriously raunchy subgenre. Not exactly a bad novel but definitely full of beginner's mistakes (clunky dialogue, two-dimensional characters, a muted sense of conflict, etc), this is of more interest as a clever history book than as a simple beach read, and it should be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.

Out of 10: 7.9

The Falling Machine, by Andrew P. Mayer

The Society of Steam: The Falling Machine
By Andrew P. Mayer

There are some who say that the science-fiction subgenre known as "steampunk" is all played out by now, and that there's nothing new to be added to the endless tales of high-tech-meets-Victoriana we've already seen in the last twenty years; and to all of these people, all I can say is, "Screw you, good sir!" Because when it comes to steampunk, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fanboy, one of those annoying genre enthusiasts who happily eats up just about every project of the type that even exists, merely because it exists, making no apologies for the quality or lack thereof of any particular one. Take for example Andrew P. Mayer's The Falling Machine, part one of a new series called "The Society of Steam," which takes as its premise something that actually is a bit unique within this genre -- namely, steampunk meets superheroes, the "Society" in question being a sort of Victorian Justice League with costumes, catchphrases, secret identities and even their own tricked-out Manhattan headquarters (the old family mansion of one of its founders, located in a Midtown that was still at the time mostly wilderness, the building itself so inventive and crafty that most of this book's plot actually takes place there). And that's smart and interesting, which is why I reacted so favorably to it; but I have to confess, unless you're a steampunk aficionado like myself, it's otherwise hard to love this novel, packed to the gills as it is with easy stereotypes from the genre and a writing style that never rises above serviceable. Absolutely worth your time if you've actually ever worn a steampunk costume out in public, but not so much if you haven't, it comes recommended in that specific spirit.

Out of 10: 7.5, or 8.5 for steampunk fans

Aralen Dreams, by Charles Thompson

Aralen Dreams
Charles Thompson
Third Goal Books

To his credit, Charles Thompson obviously came from a place of sincerity when sitting down to write the Peace Corps novel Aralen Dreams, the storyline of which I suspect is at least partly autobiographical; and that's what makes it hard to even admit what the main problem is of this earnest yet misguided book, which is that it's essentially a portrait of the kind of clueless, boorish, slumming American frat boy who often dot volunteer and NGO programs like these, written from the sympathetic standpoint of the clueless frat boy himself, and painting the boorish actions of him and his cohorts as harmless at worst and noble at best, unfortunately making this novel's biggest enjoyment the ironic and accidental one of witnessing a morality tale as told from the viewpoint of the traditional villain, without him actually realizing that he is indeed the villain of the tale. I mean, take as a good early example the scene where our oblivious protagonist presents as a welcome gift to his Panamanian host family a basket of pineapples, only to find out that the family members are pineapple sharecroppers for whom the fruit is an overt symbol of their oppression and misery; and while in a smarter novel about this subject, such a scene would serve as a powerful metaphorical moment to show just how subsumed and subconscious the sense of entitlement and exceptionalism has even become in the average 21st-century American, Thompson wastes the opportunity and simply blows it off as a humorous "getting to know the locals" moment, not having his main character even once contemplate the fact that he managed to make it all the way to this Central American village without knowing even a basic region-defining fact like that.

That's the problem with the entire book in a nutshell, that all our main characters are virtual walking examples of post-9/11 U!S!A!ism gone horribly wrong, with Thompson wasting opportunity after opportunity to make larger comments about their behavior or its effect on the developing world around them -- a literal collection of ennui-filled 25-year-old stockbrokers and exotic dancers (yes, these professions specifically referenced by name in the book), who mistake the mere act of signing a volunteer sheet for actual personal growth, and who seemingly spend every moment of their time partying on overdoses of anti-malaria medication (where this novel's title comes from), spending their weekends at overpriced Western hipster resorts with names like "XS," trying and largely succeeding at sticking their dicks into anything that moves, and eventually coming to resent the backwards peasant locals for their lack of Protestant Work Ethic and nosy interference into good dope-smoking time. All this makes the "heroes" of Aralen Dreams the antagonists of more complex novels on this subject like Michael FitzGerald's Radiant Days or Chris Taylor's Harvest Season, which would've been brilliant if Thompson had done this on purpose, but is jarring and disappointing as it currently exists. A letdown from what had been a promising premise, it comes today with only a tepid recommendation.

Out of 10: 6.9

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:14 AM, August 23, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |