Thursday, January 30, 2014

About Time 7

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of About Time 7 (Mad Norwegian, 2013).

I'm very surprised to say this, but I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I thought that I would. I really enjoyed all of the previous volumes in this series - it is a dense, academic episode guide to Doctor Who that strongly considers the reality of television production and the take-em-for-granted influences of society and culture on the creation of the show - but while those volumes felt like labors of love, this one feels like the Twelve Labors of Hercules.

It covers the first two series of the revived show - the Rose Tyler years - and it does so with occasional, winking bits of humor*, but the overall feeling is one of resignation. It doesn't appear that the show really appeals to author Tat Wood anymore, and he's covering it begrudgingly. He judges each episode fairly in a well-reasoned commentary critique, and occasionally appears to appreciate what's been done, but he never seems to embrace the episodes. There's no passion in his arguments, no sense that he is writing these hundreds of thousands of words because he is actually inspired by the series anymore, but because the earlier books were so darn good and it would be a shame to not continue the series to cover the revival.

(Please note that this is not a complaint that Wood is too negative. Far from it. When he is critical, as he has always been, he has been fair and reasonable. It's just that this time out, even his praise is tempered by what feels like boredom.)

Worst of all, the majority of the supporting essays commit the cardinal sin of being incredibly boring. Now, there have been jokers in every one of these books, but previously, the essays were almost always among the high points, with just one or two which were a little head-scratching either in original intent or execution. The one in volume six about who narrates the program was the worst, taking an obscure question that only a bored and pretentious media studies undergraduate would even pose in the first place and then answering it in cod-academic gobbledygook that goes on for fourteen pages. This time out, I was only entertained by about six of the twenty-six essays. Most of them take that nonsense about narration as inspiration. The worst might be the essay for "The Idiot's Lantern," which rambles on about "theme park history" for eighteen turgid pages (I gave up, lost, after six), but similarly endless essays about what constitutes a story or who counts as a companion are also criminally boring. The book is thick enough to make spine wear a genuine worry already; I resent the probability that it will soon show visible damage because the page count was beefed up with unreadable wannabe academic tosh.

Even the best of the essays suffers from Wood's deathless prose. The accompaniment to "Love & Monsters" is actually one of the best that he's ever written. By far the book's high point (although another five or six of the 26 essays are also very entertaining and enlightening), it's a fantastic look at the development of fandom. Yet, despite its brilliance, this essay still contains an unlovable sentence like "Since 2005, phylogeny has recapitulated ontogeny and the development of these online groups has been a small-scale replay of this original developmental process."

The whole book suffers from unnecessary bloat at the expense of its usefulness. I can understand a price point of $35 for a deeply-researched book from a specialist viewpoint from a very small publisher. But the majority of the essays could have been expunged and the page count lessened by 30%, resulting in a book that would have not only been less expensive, but more likely to stand up to repeated reading.

Put another way, despite some really excellent moments - the fandom essay, a long look at actor Christopher Eccleston's departure, the unmissable one about how everything was timed just right for the show's return, some incredibly interesting considerations about writer Mark Gatiss's many influences, and many others - the overall tone is so dreary and dull that I'm actually not looking forward to the eighth volume. Something which should have been unmissable - series four, the Donna Noble run, is my favorite of the revival and will be covered in book eight - now seems like a chore that I don't want to read. Recommended for completists only. Sadly, I'm one.

*Best of all is an argument that starts in one section and makes its way to the endnotes about how certain the author is about a particular point of ephemera from a series of movies featuring the ageless pop star Cliff Richard in the late '50s, sort of the Adam Faith-Cliff Richard "he never said that" version of "Elementary, my dear Watson." I laughed aloud at this for several minutes, despite knowing Richard only from TV's Young Ones and the first Thunderbirds film, and Faith not at all.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Life After Life

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Life After Life (Reagan Arthur, 2013).

I hate to say this, but I was really quite disappointed with this book. It's been praised to the rafters, but the promise that I saw in the early chapters was lost, quite weirdly.

The premise has been explained as the book has been celebrated in so many places - it was Entertainment Weekly's best of 2013 - a girl, born in 1910, keeps getting resurrected and given additional chances to get her life right. For a short time, it's incredibly fascinating, as she briefly realizes that her entire life is one huge case of deja vu, and, at about seven years old, has to find some way to keep the Black Death from entering her family's country home, because it has killed her twice already.

So, briefly, the mechanics of her weird existence become incredibly interesting, along with the huge frustration that a kid that young must feel in somehow stopping a member of the staff from going up to London and catching the disease. But this seems to fall apart afterward. We get elements and fragments of her lives in the 1920s and through World War Two that are interesting and vivid, but she never addresses her resurrections and do-overs.

Even more disappointing, while I can absolutely understand anybody who lived through it being immediately willing to do anything to stop the war by killing Hitler as early as possible, we've had seventy years of science fiction playing with that premise already. Life After Life adds nothing to the subject, and its nebulous, unsatisfying ending left me feeling that the book could have either ended a hundred pages earlier or added an additional hundred and nothing would have changed. Not recommended.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Elegy for April

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Elegy for April (Henry Holt & Co, 2010).

I read that "Benjamin Black" - a pseudonym that John Banville uses for his detective fiction - was writing an officially-licensed Philip Marlowe novel. Much as I'd like to be a snob about this sort of fanfickery, I'm immediately interested in such a thing. Robert B. Parker's pair of Marlowe books were, at best, if you squint, okay, but there's still so much life in that character that I'm curious what other writers might do with him. So I checked out one of Benjamin Black's earlier novels to get a glimpse of his style.

Elegy for April is the third in a series of hard-boiled novels set in the mean streets of Dublin during the 1950s. The lead character is an alcoholic forensic examiner named Quirke. After reading the book, I looked up some background and learned that there was a BBC adaptation of the first three of these books (one of those three 90-minute movie mini-seasons like they do for Sherlock) starring Gabriel Byrne as Quirke. I can almost see that. I think that Byrne's a little more handsome, and not quite as gray, than how I envisioned this kind and determined man, but almost.

But while my jury's still out on the teevee casting, I can certainly see why the author was commissioned to write a Marlowe novel, because Raymond Chandler's DNA is all over this book. I wish the character's name wasn't such a joke - see, the "quirk" this time out is that he's decided to buy an expensive car, an Aldis, without knowing how to drive yet - but he fulfills the Chandleresque drive to get to the truth at any cost, insisting on pushing and forcing awkward questions of people who don't wish to be involved. In this case, one of his daughter's friends, a young doctor named April Latimer, is missing. Latimer's family is very wealthy, very powerful, and very much unconcerned with what their free-spirited, irresponsible kin has done or what has happened to her, even after her apartment is searched and dried blood is found. The medical tests prove that somebody had performed an illegal abortion in the bedroom.

Quirke soon decides that the Latimers are covering up something. Either they know that April is dead, or they know that she was going to scandalize the family with her affair with a young Nigerian doctor and have spirited her away. In time, as is the case in these books, Quirke learns that the truth is a little more alarming and disquieting than he'd predicted. He gets the same ugly result that Marlowe often experienced: the detective in hard-boiled noir fiction must ask questions, must keep probing, even when it's not his affair any longer. Sometimes, the truth is very ugly. Recommended, with high hopes for the Philip Marlowe book later this year.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Interestings

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Interestings (Riverhead, 2013).

I loved this book. I loved, loved, loved it. Okay?

I clearly need to read more from Meg Wolitzer. In last year's The Interestings, she traces the lives of six people who met as teens at a summer camp for aspiring artists in 1974 through the course of the next forty years. Some of them form close friendships, some drift away from each other, some do great things and some do terrible things. I chuckled and giggled all through the book - the ironic twist of a coda to one of the six and his run-ins with the Moonies left me in stitches - knowing full well as it progressed that something was going to happen in the end that was going to break my heart. (What made it even worse was that I was in the very early stages - the "hey, maybe I should see a doctor tomorrow" stages - of pink eye as I read the climax, got all teary, and brother, did that ever hurt.)

Drawing loose and silly connections to other novels that I've read in the last eight months, there's a hint - no more, just a hint - of the deliberate, privileged youth of The Secret History and Special Projects in Calamity Physics in our sextet of kids who figure that they are destined for greatness. There's just enough of Donna Tartt in this book's DNA to make a specific mention of Vermont's Bennington College seem like a polite thank-you from this author to Tartt. But I was also reminded of Projects author Marisha Pessl's other novel, Night Film, in the creation of an entire world of entertainment that exists only for the characters of this novel. One of the six grows up to be his world's Matt Groening, and his hugely successful cartoon creation Figland that world's Simpsons. But Wolitzer has it all over Pessl here; while Night Film singularly fails to convince that the fifteen weirdo horror films that drive that book's narrative are in any way actually memorable, Figland is so full of life and energy that I found myself visualizing the characters when the show or its merchandising gets a passing mention.

That's a critical distinction to make, because it demonstrates how well Wolitzer creates an incredibly vivid and real world. There are no illustrations in The Interestings, so how am I able to conclude what these little cartoon people look like? Her very brief descriptions of them are just that convincing, just as her simple evocation of the Moonies, or big, boxy 1980s cordless phones, or the early and confusing days of the AIDS crisis, or camp counselors on their late evening rounds with flashlights, effortlessly bring back vivid memories of our actual shared past. She's a remarkable wordsmith; her prose is just excellent, breezy, precise, and assured.

And she needs good prose, because the book does not follow a direct linear path. It begins in 1974 and ends in the present, but it flashes forward and backward as it goes. It is never confusing, and never frustrating. Quite the opposite, really: Wolitzer calmly and masterfully teases information yet to be revealed as she goes. You never really learn any of your friends' stories in chronological order. You build an understanding from anecdotes and tales. You can catch that a strong and happy marriage might have gone through a terrible patch, and when the time comes to be told about those darker times, you'll know that it turned out okay.

It's about unrequited love and the fulfillment of dreams, and friendship and honesty and secrets that probably should never have been kept. I hate that it is over. I will miss Jules and Dennis so much, and wish that we could break bread together sometime. I grieve for the death of one of their friends like he was somebody from my own past. This book is absolutely magical and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

With Only Five Plums

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of With Only Five Plums (self-published / CreateSpace, 2013).

It's always a pleasure when a book turns your expectations and your preconceived notions on their heads. Terry Eisele, the author of a three-volume comic called With Only Five Plums, sent me the three books for review. I was initially charmed by Jonathon Riddle's artwork, but found the pacing in the first half of book one far too slow and deliberate for my preference, but then it proved me quite remarkably wrong.

This is the story of the destruction of the Czechoslovakian town of Lidice during World War Two, as told to Eisele by one of the few survivors, Anna Nesperova. Lidice was wrongly targeted for retaliation in the wake of a political assassination. In 1942, three years after Germany occupied the land, a Nazi officer named Heydrich had been killed by two Czech soldiers acting with support from Great Britain. The reprisals were horrifying: across the region, more than 1300 civilians were killed in response. In Lidice, where it had been wrongly assumed that the soldiers had aid and shelter, all of the men in the town were executed, the children were sent away to be adopted by German families, and the women were sent to a concentration camp to suffer medical experimentation. The town was completely leveled, every structure turned to ash and buried under new soil. When Anna Nesperova finally made her way back to her home after three years in a camp having her bones broken for no good reason, every member of her family was dead and there was nothing left of her village but grass.

Despite the division of the story into three books, it really is one narrative, as revealed to Eisele over the course of four interviews with Mrs. Nesperova in the mid 1990s and considerable attendant research. The first half of the first book is paced quite slowly and deliberately, with very large panels depicting life in Lidice prior to the German occupation in 1939. My own biases came to play here before things fell apart. It's more than merely being used to 2000 AD and its "shot glass of rocket fuel" approach, it's that I genuinely prefer comics to use their space sensibly and not spend time on what feels like endless splash pages and establishing shots. But Riddle caught me off-guard. The leisurely pace used to depict pre-occupation Lidice does not change when the operation to kill Heydrich commences. It doesn't change when the Nazis start rounding up the unfortunate civilians in reprisal. It doesn't change when Mrs. Nesperova, pregnant when she is sent under guard to another city, has her infant baby taken away, never to be seen again. It's a canny choice, forcing readers to give all the intensity the same measure of time and attention as life in the village before things went to hell.

A faster pace isn't what this story needs, anyway. War fiction - particularly juvenile war fiction - is full of exciting events like the assassination of Heydrich, but these things always play out in a vacuum. Eisele, sensibly, doesn't disrupt his biography and history to consider whether it was that critical to kill Heydrich, particularly in view of the extreme reprisals (something that never happens in war fiction anyway). Would the Czech government-in-exile have carried out the attack had they known how Germany would respond? Was Heydrich really that important a target, or just another in a line of brutal, uniformed bureaucrats? These things are outside the scope of the story, as it continues in its hammering depiction of Anna's experience in the camp and eventual liberation. Anna Nesperova passed away in 2006. She was one of only 153 women from the town to survive the massacre.

I was quite taken with Riddle's artwork. Tasked with illustrating some terrible imagery, he does an admirable, unblinking job. I can see the influence of Joe Kubert and George Perez in his figure work. He doesn't really get the opportunities for dynamism or experimentation in this; the story is factual and free from melodrama . The type is the only unfortunate element of the books - bargain-basement fonts that would have been greatly improved by the use of a skilled comics letterer. Despite this quibble, these books tell a gut-punch of a story and tell it very well. Recommended.

An advance copy of these books was provided by the writer for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Little Green

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Little Green (Doubleday, 2013).

It's not technically true that I had missed Easy Rawlins, because I had never really embraced the Los Angeles-based detective. I have read a few of Walter Mosley's novels that star the character, but never fell for them the way that I did some of the other writers in Mosley's school. I did myself a disservice; struggling through those last four or five turgid Lew Archer books on the strength of the earlier ones was a waste of time. I'd have done better to read more from a writer whose work was improving with each new book, instead of the other way around.

Like the police and various parties in Los Angeles in 1967, I had read, incorrectly, that Easy Rawlins was dead. Mosley ended the detective's previous adventure, published in 2007, with the character, despondent, plunging to his death in a car. Little Green, published in the spring of last year, is set two months later, during which time Easy has been slowly recuperating from a coma. His best friend, the violent and always-present Mouse, comes to him with a problem. An old family friend, eighteen year-old Evander - known as Little Green - has vanished. Entranced by the hippie scene on the Strip, he's met some free spirits and taken some bad acid and got into serious trouble.

When I last read a Rawlins story, the time was the late 1950s. This book is set in the aftermath of the Watts riots and the release of Surrealistic Pillow. There are flowers and acid and free love, and strange voodoo and crooked cops. It's a brilliant evocation of the time and place. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and think that I shall go read some passages again with Forever Changes playing on the hi-fi as I do, and then go back to pick up some of the many novels that I had, wrongly, skipped. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Chiggers (Atheneum, 2008).

Five and a half years ago, when Chiggers was published, I remembered thinking that Hope Larson is a talented and wonderful comic artist - I enjoyed her more recent adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time - but also thinking that I probably would not be interested in stories about middle school girls at summer camp, and passed on it. I ran across a copy recently and gave it a try. What happened in between was that I had a daughter pass through middle school, during which time I experienced what can be said without much controversy: children lose their freaking minds in middle school. Having survived that, I was more interested in what Larson might have to say about the social interaction of these little space aliens.

The setting is a camp in North Carolina which Abby has attended for years. Her best camp buddy is now a junior counselor and doesn't have time to hang out anymore, and circumstances lead her to hang out with a late arrival, Shasta - like the mountain, not the cola - who has rubbed everybody else the wrong way with her boasts. They end up being stuck together, and hopefully Abby can make something good come of things.

I really like the way that Larson is able to capture that oddball time when all your elementary school-age summer camp buddies suddenly start striking into different factions, and people start inflating their reputations with fibs and tall tales. Battle lines get drawn over irrelevant things. I'd forgotten how this was until my daughter lived through it. Somehow, Larson makes it both readable and fascinating.

It's not without its flaws, although I'll concede more of them may have come from my fumbling reading than anything the author did. An early sequence sees one high-maintenance girl in the cabin unwittingly aggravating Abby before going home early, and I had to reread this sequence twice to follow everybody's body language. Subsequent encounters with a will o'the wisp, or ball lightning, or something, also seemed a little unclear. But overall, this was a very charming and very honest book with some wonderful characters. I shouldn't have put off reading it as long as I did! Recommended.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Alien Bodies

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Alien Bodies (BBC, 1997).

Tracking down a copy of Alien Bodies, an original Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, might prove to be a little expensive, but man alive, is it ever worth it. Miles has, over time, become a complete curmudgeon, emerging from seclusion to complain a little bit about the modern series, and to complain a whole lot about the most recent editions, produced by Stephen Moffat - why did we ever complain about 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner being a publicity hound, with this fellow on TV about as often as his actors? - and, invariably, upon hearing of his latest cranky opinions, some fan will ask, not unreasonably, who is Miles and why anybody should care what he thinks? Well, he wrote two or three of the very best Doctor Who stories ever written, and that's why.

Foremost among them - I have another in the read-pile - is Alien Bodies, which, depending on when you ask me, could be tied for equal best-ever with "City of Death" and "Blink." This story's a work of genius: wild, brilliantly original ideas, a never-done-before plot, and constructed with sparkling, silly, knowing wit throughout. I love it to pieces. When I sold off nearly all of my late-90s BBC Books, I certainly held onto this one.

From 1991-96, while the TV series was off the air, Virgin Books had the license to publish Who novels. Many of these were really good, and many of the writers who would work for the show when it returned in '05 got their start in the line. Unfortunately, with the attempt at a new series starring Paul McGann - a TV-movie that didn't get the then-needed commitment of a US deal with co-production money - the BBC chose not to renew Virgin's license, and brought the novels in-house. The results were less than mixed - the books were mostly downright awful. Even established authors with a strong track record struggled under what seemed a mix of editorial interference, the most unlikeable, market-tested of all companions, and an inability to capture McGann's mercurial Eighth Doctor. (To be fair, they had little to go on, but Steve Parkhouse, more than ten years previously, had even less to go on when scripting his Sixth Doctor comics for Marvel, and he created a much, much more likable character than the TV people ever did.)

So it's really remarkable that Miles was able to take McGann's character, who only had about fifty-some minutes of screen time in a very disappointing ninety-some minute movie, and write a Doctor who is firmly and unmistakably McGann on every page. I've often said that, despite that blasted movie, McGann's Doctor is one of my favorites. That's in part for the promise of stories we never got to see, and in part for the ebullient and wonderful way he played the character so briefly, and in part for the terrific run of comics that featured the character and which were mostly about a trillion times better than the novels. The main reason, though, is how Miles writes him in this book. He's slightly befuddled, confused about the long game strategies that his previous self would often put into play, given to disarming smiles and honest charm, and not a conventional hero at all, but the most happily unpredictable and optimistic of them.

In Alien Bodies, not to give too much away, the Doctor runs into a very curious auction, where powers from very, very far in the future have assembled on a remote island on 22nd Century Earth to bid for a mysterious weapon. Among these are the Time Lords of the Doctor's far future, who are engaged in a losing war against a strange, unnamed Enemy. (This is not the "Time War" that has overshadowed the modern series; Miles had something far more interesting in mind for this.) The other participants include a time-traveling voodoo cult who worships the Grandfather of all Paradoxes, and an entity who has left corporeal space behind for the realm of concepts. And the Daleks are due to arrive to place a bid, but their envoy has been intercepted by another of the Doctor's old enemies, who, quite surprisingly, effortlessly destroys the Daleks and uses the opportunity to push its own agenda. Things start out bad, get worse when the very sentient TARDIS belonging to the Time Lords' future agent self-destructs, and that's before the Doctor learns just what in the universe these extremely dangerous lunatics are actually bidding on.

It's more than the flow of this book's plot that's completely unpredictable, it's the constant, creative ways that the Doctor gets out of wildly bizarre and impossible problems. Every time I read this book, I find new and wild ideas that I'd missed before, and I'm hugely impressed by the really strong sense that Miles wants to forge new trails and keep his version of Who from ever becoming stale or set in its ways. There's nothing typical or traditional about his vision for the series, and it is a blessed shame that he has had such a long disagreement with the modern series' architects to keep him from participating or contributing to it. Doctor Who works best with dangerous and left-field ideas like Miles generates here. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Smoke (The Mysterious Press, 1996).

Trust Donald E. Westlake to take a sci-fi chestnut and give it a goofball, criminal spin. I ran across this book while looking for all of his Dortmunder novels and am so glad that I gave it a chance, because it is hilarious and very, very clever.

A professional thief in Dortmunder's vein, named Freddie Urban Noon, breaks into a promising address in Manhattan and is captured by two oddball researchers who are working in a very, very loose way for Big Tobacco. They've been changing the melatonin in the skins of animals, but need some human trials, so they offer him the opportunity to work for them rather than being given to the police. Freddie thinks that a second drug is an antidote, and the researchers don't discourage that idea, but when he escapes the quacks and takes the second drug, the mixture renders him completely invisible.

Freddie uses his newfound powers to steal diamonds and furs and, later, trucks filled with electronics, occasionally wearing Bart Simpson or Ayatollah Khomeni masks, but invisibility is putting a hell of a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend, who has to meet Freddie's very shady fence for them. Meanwhile, the researchers are after him, the police are after him, and the tobacco industry is after him as well.

It's a very funny book, and it's also a very intelligent book. The premise is outlandish, of course, but Westlake did a terrific job considering what invisibility might be like, and how emotionally awful it must be for anybody to live with an invisible man, never knowing whether or not you are in private, never being able to read the body language of the person you love. As always, Westlake provides fun and amusing details of the ins and outs of the crimes, with invisibility making some things much easier, but throwing up unexpected barriers and problems as well. That this hasn't been made into a film is oddly curious; it could make a good one for an unknown lead actor. Recommended.