April 12, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 12 April 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.)

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, by Mark Hodder

Burton & Swinburne in: Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
By Mark Hodder

This is the third volume now of Mark Hodder's steampunk series, in which the real-life Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton and libertine artist Algernon Swinburne fictionally team up for a series of adventures in an alt-history 19th century, and nicely illustrates the problem with missing the first title in such a series when it comes to following along with the rest; for while I didn't seem to have much problem following along with the second volume, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, mostly I suspect because it didn't contain much background material about the first volume, this third chapter contains just a huge infodump about the book that started it all (The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, that is), a complicated backstory that involves time travel, multiple possible histories, and a sacred prehistoric meteorite that holds the key to the far-future quantum mechanics that are causing all the space-time-hopping messes in the first place (or, um, something like that), and I have to confess that I had a hard time simply trying to keep up with all the complex exposition. (Also, series fans, be aware that Hodder seems to have grown tired of the entire premise of Swinburne playing Dr. Watson to Burton's Sherlock Holmes, and that this third volume is mostly a Burton adventure with a few drunken wisecracks by Swinburne randomly thrown in here and there.) Granted, this universe is a much more original and creepy vision than most steampunk novels, the main reason to read the books in the first place -- in particular I really love the idea of genetic engineering being mastered long before electronics, so that the streets and skies are filled with giant dead bugs whose hollow exoskeletons are used as industrialized human vehicles -- but I also have to confess that by not getting hooked on this series from its start, I'm finding it increasingly difficult with each new volume to stay emotionally connected to the proceedings, the problem in a nutshell with all these endless so-so series that sci-fi publishers love putting out. It should be kept in mind when deciding for yourself whether or not to pick up a copy.

Out of 10: 8.2

The Dying Horse

The Dying Horse
By Jason Jordan
Main Street Rag

So before anything else, a quick disclosure, that author Jason Jordan has participated in past CCLaP virtual book tours via his popular litmag decomP; although I don't imagine that many will accuse me today of favoritism, because I have to admit that I found Jordan's new post-apocalyptic novella The Dying Horse to be decently written but only a so-so story overall. And I also admit, a big part of that is because I happen to have coincidentally also been reading Colson Whitehead's Zone One at the same time, which turned out to be one of the most inventive and original post-apocalyptic novels I've ever read, which of course is what happens when the recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" decides to write a zombie story; and so compared to that, Jordan's own straightforward and cliche-laced story is simply going to suffer, as almost anyone's would under such circumstances. That's why I want to reiterate that The Dying Horse is at least well-written, and will appeal to heavy genre fans who don't mind a bit of cultural repeat; or to put it another way, if you don't mind that a show like The Walking Dead essentially consists of a series of well-known tropes you've already seen a hundred times, since it's trumped by how well The Walking Dead in particular presents these tropes, then you are sure to really like A Dying Horse as well. It comes recommended in that specific spirit.

Out of 10: 8.0

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery
By Umberto Eco
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A few years ago I got the chance to read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose for the first time, as part of the CCLaP 100 essay series on literary classics; andpr now, I'm a bit ashamed to admit, I've finally had a chance to read a second book of his, the recent The Prague Cemetery which has been getting an unusual amount of mainstream attention, mostly because of its scandalous subject matter. (It's billed as a history of the writing of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous conspiracy novel of the 1800s which singlehandedly established the idea of a secret cabal of Jews that actually control the world's banking systems, and that was reprinted and distributed for free by the tens of millions in the 20th century by both the Nazi Party in Germany and Henry Ford in the US.) And I say that I'm a bit ashamed because both of these Eco books I've now read have turned out to be just fantastically amazing, and I feel guilty that I haven't delved more into the dozens of titles he's now written over the decades; because in a nutshell, Eco was simply born to be the heavy reader's best friend, a full-time academe and semiotics expert whose deceptively crowd-pleasing historical novels are actually dense and layered jigsaw puzzles of both plot and language itself.

I mean, take this newest book, for example, which turns out to not really be about the writing of Protocols at all; instead it's a grand, sweeping look at the entire last half of 19th-century European history, a period when revolutionary wars met emerging science met an unending series of actual semi-mystical secret societies. Because let's not forget, groups like the Freemasons and the Hellfire Club used to be very real before they turned into cartoonish bogeymen for lazy horror writers, and in the 1800s were complexly intertwined with such prevailing beliefs as spiritualism, phrenology and eugenics; and by making our villainous and fictitious main character a sort of evil Forrest Gump, responsible for everything from writing Protocols to kickstarting the Italian independence movement to acting as a double agent for both the French and Prussian secret police, while at the same time making every single other of the dozens of main characters actual real people from history, Eco brilliantly shows us just how muddled and interconnected all these issues actually were at the time, and how the Jews eventually became the clearinghouse scapegoat of Europe simply because they were the one group that overlapped in all these nations' competing conspiracy theories. (In fact, this is one of the most darkly entertaining parts of this book, is Eco's impeccably researched look at all the various conspiracy theories that existed from one group to another in those years, and how anti-Semitism mostly came about in the first place simply because Jews were the one group that everyone could agree to dislike, ingeniously summarized in the very first chapter with a monologue by our narrator that has to stand now as the most all-encompassing, globe-spanning hate rant in the history of mainstream literature.) A headspinning cornucopia of historical facts, perfect dialogue, and impossibly tight plot, you shouldn't let the prurient subject matter of The Prague Cemetery stop you from reading what is absolutely one of the best books published in the last year, and a title that will almost undoubtedly be making CCLaP's best-of lists come this December.

Out of 10: 9.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:53 PM, April 12, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |