Feb 16, 2009

Quickie reviews - Hazelgrove, Doctorow, Disch

I've been thinking of mayhap giving this irregularly-occurring section of this blog its own title. "Quickie Reviews" seems a trifle...unconsidered and hasty, too on the nose. How about "Monkey Droppings"? Or "Monkey Musings"? "Baboon Blatherings"? "Ape Poopie"? "Rhesus' Pieces"?

Enough of this nonsense. Monkey Droppings it is!

Rocket Man
by William Elliot Hazelgrove

By all accounts, Rocket Man is a novel I should immediately fall in love with. Its author is critically-acclaimed, but hardly a brand name. Its main protagonist is an author, a subgenre I always find interesting. Its style is tidy, and its humour ranges from the wildly broad to the calmly subtle. But Rocket Man finds an author misfiring on some of his cylinders. The overall result doesn't go haywire and explode; rather, it coasts to a gentle stop, and stays there.

Dale Hammer is a man with many problems. His writing has dried up, leaving him forced to work as a real estate agent to make ends meet. His son dislikes him. His father just moved in with him. His wife is just about fed up, and he has been accused of destroying the welcome signs in his subdivision. His life is unravelling at a furious pace, and the end of the thread is in sight.

This should be a successful book. Hammer is an engaging protagonist, rather unlikeable yet fully relatable, and the prose is uncluttered and often memorable. But the satire never engages, and as Hammer's world becomes worse and worse, the tale becomes repetitive and shrill. The ultimate finale, whereby all loose ends are tied up and Hammer's world is briefly stable, reaches for a feel-good ending it cannot sustain. Rocket Man flirts with greatness, but like its protagonist, cannot finally pull itself together.

Grade: B-

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow has become one of my favourite sci-fi authors of late. He's not a gifted prose stylist, but his tales are full of terrific characters, superb plotlines, and interesting themes. His novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is my favourite sci-fi/fantasy/magical realism book of the past five years. Little Brother is his first novel written for the young-adult audience, and it is a winner in every sense of the word.

Marcus Yallow is a teenager in San Francisco with the usual assortment of interests; his friends, his freedom, and all things technobabble. All three interests get a severe workout after a devestating terrorist attack which leaves thousands dead, freedoms reigned in, and Marcus a terrorism suspect under the considerable (and dangerously uncontrolled) scrutiny of Homeland Security.

Given that this is aimed at a young adult novel, there's not a terrific degree of subtlety in Doctorow's approach, but how could you tell such a tale set in today's political climate otherwise. The age of irony may not have died, but the age of metaphor and analogy has certainly taken some body blows. But it hardly matters, as Little Brother is a great, intriguing read, full of interesting characters, insightful social commentary, and more technical mumbo-jumbo (to me, anyway) than you could shake an Xbox at. It may not be subtle, but for teenagers who are just beginning to understand the concept of freedom - and how easily such freedom can be taken away under the guise of the greater good - this is required reading.

Grade: A

The Wall of America
by Thomas M. Disch

In July of 2008, we lost one of the true greats of the science-fiction genre. Thomas M. Disch, award-winning author of more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction, committed suicide. It was a great blow to the community, and the literary world, as right up to the end, Disch was delivering some of his best works (although this should not dissuade you from seeking out his earlier efforts; his debut novel The Genocides is one of the most original 'end-of-the-human-race' sagas I've ever read). And there is likely no better introduction to the vastness of his talent than his posthumously-released short story collection The Wall of America.

The collection truly captures his range as a writer. The lovely, strange satire "The Man Who Read a Book" is a trip every book-lover should enjoy, set in a parallel world where reading books can actually become a paying job. "A Family of the Post-Apocalypse" follows the daily travails of people left behind after the rapture. The finest work, "The Owl and the Pussycat" begins as a sweet ode to stuffed animals, and becomes a devastatingly insightful look at family abuse.

Disch's passing is a tragedy, but here's hoping more readers seek him out in death.

Grade: A


Mister Meta said...

Doctorow's prose is unreadable - you mention that he is not "a gifted stylist" - this is an understatment and a showstopper. The stuff he puts out does not even rate an F. the world is full of good ideas and plot lines, but it gives me a headache to even try to read the guy.

Corey said...

Well, to each his own. I think Doctorow's clarity is admirable, and his stories often brilliant.

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