February 22, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 22 February 2012

(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.)

War of the Crazies, by John Oliver Hodges

War of the Crazies
By John Oliver Hodges
Main Street Rag

As I've said here before, usually when a book falls under the category of "bizarro," you can reasonably expect the literary version of a wacky 1940s Warner Brothers cartoon; but sometimes the results can actually be quite different than this, as evidenced most recently in John Oliver Hodges' disturbing yet memorable novella War of the Crazies, a book just as strange as any other gonzo tale you might come across, but rooted much more in the realities of actual day-to-day life. Taking its cue off such '70s groundbreakers as Midnight Cowboy, Hodges begins by assembling a group of characters who feel like they could exist in the real world, yet if they do undoubtedly live in one of those freakish shadow societies in America that the rest of us "normals" are always getting mere glimpses of, during episodes of Cops or YouTube videos of Juggalos -- there's the mentally challenged Ruth, for example, the lesbian sexual predator Silva, and the bizarre Jewish hoarder and spiritual sugar-daddy Noyo, making up the core of their dysfunctional little "family" -- and then plunks these characters down into a situation that certainly seems realistic, yet is so weird and disturbing that it can't help but feel like a derelict funhouse at times, in this case the three of them (plus various other hangers-on) living their curious lives within the confines of a dilapidated, crumbling house in the middle of the rural wilds, a sort of anti-commune that much like the abandoned house in Fight Club seems to encourage the evermore disturbing behavior of our characters hothouse-style, the point not really being to follow the loose plot but rather to wallow in the semi-sympathetic, semi-damning portraits that Hodges paints of these desperate lumpen-proletarians. A dense yet quick read that kept me legitimately absorbed until the very end, despite the lack of a strong storyline, this is the very definition of engaging alternative literature, and those who are curious to see what contemporary writers are doing away from the usual three-act structure of long-form storytelling would be wise to pick up this dark yet blackly humorous thought-provoking tome.

Out of 10: 8.6

Cocoa Almond Darling, by Jeffra Hays

Cocoa Almond Darling
By Jeffra Hays

One of the things I like the most about CCLaP's liberal submission policy is that it occasionally produces books that I end up enjoying quite a lot, yet I would've never in a million years picked on my own for a little pleasure-reading; take for example Jeffra Hays' Cocoa Almond Darling, which might be best described as "Oprah Presents" meets Virginia Woolf, a book I suspect would highly satisfy the typical Tyler Perry fan while still being a smart, subversive piece of contemporary literature in its own right. Not exactly stream-of-consciousness, it nonetheless tells the Mrs. Dallowayesque tale of an elderly white woman looking back on her event-filled life in non-sequential order one random day, as she first runs away in her youth from a bad husband, finds work with a middle-aged and pot-bellied black tailor, and eventually falls in love with him and has a mixed-race baby out of wedlock, the narrative jumping from one milieu to the next with no advance warning, and adding up by the end to a dense, complex character study of willful independence against sometimes very challenging odds. Plus, while being a story that will appeal to older, more conservative readers, I have to admit that I'm impressed with the amount of smoldering eroticism Hays surprisingly works into this book, even more impressive for it being among the kinds of characters that usually don't inspire sexual stories; just take the cocoa-dusted almonds of the book's title for a good example, a local delicacy that eventually comes to represent the burning lust our two main protagonists learn to have for each other, subverted even more when it eventually becomes a favorite of their forbidden love child as well, a detail just dripping with the kind of symbolism that makes this book in general such a winner. A great novel for all you NPR nerds to take a random chance on, if you're feeling burned out on your usual "miserable slackers" reading diet and feel like taking on something completely from left field, Cocoa Almond Darling quickly blew past my initial low expectations to become one of my more surprisingly great reads so far of this young year, and it comes recommended in that specific spirit.

Out of 10: 9.0

Hearts of Smoke and Steam, by Andrew P. Mayer

Hearts of Smoke and Steam
By Andrew P. Mayer

This is volume two of a new "steampunk meets superheroes" series from Andrew P. Mayer, a rather potboilerish adventure tale about masked vigilantes with fantastical weapons fighting crime in late-1800s New York; I reviewed the first volume last year and found it only so-so, while after finishing this latest found it...er, only so-so. And that's because Mayer never really does anything with this admittedly fascinating premise once he comes up with it; the action scenes are ho-hum, the dialogue purposely written with a kind of comic-book simplicity, and in general with plot developments that never rise above the clunky pulp serials that Mayer is obviously trying to emulate. And that's not bad if that's specifically what you're looking for, which is why it's getting at least an okay score today; but I'll warn you now that you'll be bored and disappointed if you're expecting even an ounce more than a competent genre quickie, and that this should be kept in mind if you're picking it up yourself. It comes recommended to steampunk fans who have a high degree of patience, but pretty much no one else.

Out of 10: 7.6

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:52 PM, February 22, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |