(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.)
Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games
By Lizzie Stark
Chicago Review Press
Of all the "NPR-worthy" books I read these days (or that is, nonfiction titles with an academic's dedication to precision but with a popular hook to its theme, and thus perfect for a six-minute feature on "Fresh Aire"), Lizzie Stark's Leaving Mundania is perhaps one of the most personally satisfying; because its subject is the decidedly nerdy activity of live-action roleplaying games, or LARP (or "larp," or "larping," depending on which indignant practitioner you're talking to). And indeed, Stark doesn't even begin to hide from the geeky stereotypes that are associated with this popular "Lord Of The Rings Come To Life" weekend hobby, instead showing how it can be a place of brotherhood and spiritual refuge precisely for the biggest misfits of society out there, those with behavioral problems or a lack of normal social skills or physical handicaps or ongoing family issues; and by her as a non-gamer writing a huge chunk of this book by literally becoming active for a year in one of the nation's largest LARP groups, she does a masterful job at showing how one can be hesitant and self-conscious at first but eventually come to be profoundly moved by the proceedings, exactly as has been the case with so many full-time LARPers. And in the meanwhile, Stark goes into a fanboy's level of detail about all the various small differences between one particular group and another (some create their surroundings mostly by describing them out loud, while others physically create every detail; some settle battles with D&D-style dice-rolling, while others literally fight it out SCA-style), the history of live-action roleplaying (which can actually be traced back to Elizabethan times, believe it or not), and the ways that LARPing can be of benefit in the real world, including looks at entire fake towns that are maintained by military and police groups for "total immersion" disaster training. Funny, insightful and well-written, this is perfect for people like me who love learning all about some random new subject every now and again, simply for the sake of learning about it. It comes recommended in that spirit.
Out of 10: 9.4
A Feast for Crows
By George R.R. Martin
Spectra / Bantam / Random House
Regular readers know that I am posting short reviews these days of all the George R.R. Martin "Game of Thrones" novels, after doing a long write-up about volume one that has turned into one of the most popular things ever posted at this blog. And just like books two and three, I find myself with not a lot to say about this fourth volume that I haven't said already; although I'll reiterate yet again how amazed I am that Martin's been able to hold my interest so profoundly over four thousand pages now and still counting, given that I find the work of even J.R.R. Tolkien himself to mostly be badly written hippie nonsense. I will say this about this particular volume, though, that Martin does a better job here than in any of the previous books at showing the delicate, impossible-to-define relationship between a ruling elite and the unwashed masses who let them be the ruling elite, and how like we saw in Egypt last year, these anonymous masses might put up with a lot of crap for a long time just to suddenly snap en-masse at a moment no one was expecting, especially when mixing in with this volume the rise of the self-righteously pious and religiously militant "Sparrows" that can almost be seen as Martin's take on how Puritans and Rationalists transformed the old English feudal system at the end of the Middle Ages. (Well, almost -- as with everything concerning Westeros, it's impossible to just directly translate events from our real history into their alt-history, although there's a huge amount of similarities, just one of the dozens of details that Martin's fans adore about these books.) It's a big commitment to get to this point in the series, but if you still haven't started this grand saga I encourage you to do so, even if like me you are not much of a fan of the fantasy genre.
Out of 10: 9.0
Broken Piano for President
By Patrick Wensink
Lazy Fascist / Eraserhead Press
Regular readers will remember Midwestern bizarro author Patrick Wensink, whose previous titles Sex Dungeon For Sale! and Black Hole Blues have both been reviewed here in the past; and now his latest and most ambitious is here, the booze-fueled rock-and-fast-food trippy comedic saga Broken Piano for President. Although let's be clear right away, that this is simply going to be way too silly for a lot of people's tastes, a sort of grown-up fairytale about a grizzled music veteran, JFK conspiracies, world-dominating burger franchises locked in mortal combat with each other, and a lot more; but for those who do consider themselves fans of the decidedly underground literary subgenre known as "gonzo fiction" (think Douglas Adams combined with psychobilly music, filtered through a six-year-old who's been given a sip of beer at a family reunion and now won't stop screaming poop jokes), Broken Piano is absolutely on the high end of the gonzo scale, a well-done piece of dark wackiness that will be adored by the same people who enjoy getting wasted and going to Monty Python midnight screenings. Sure, it got panned terribly at Publishers Weekly, but it was still a bizarro novel from a basement press that managed to get reviewed at Publishers Weekly; and that should tell you everything you need to know about the relative strengths of this book within a genre that is usually fairly weak, a foul-mouthed charmer that comes with a strong but limited recommendation, only to those who think in advance that they might enjoy such work. (You know who you are!)
Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.5 for bizarro fans