Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Doctor's Lives and Times

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 Doctor's Lives and Times (Harper, 2014).

I loved this book completely and enormously! The Doctor's Lives and Times is a ridiculously fun book of found objects from another world - objects from the fictional universe of Doctor Who. Its breezy, photo-filled format makes it a great gift for readers of all ages; younger readers will be captivated by all the illustrations, and even the nerdiest of us will thrill to all the connections between stories.

James Goss and Steve Tribe have created a collection that includes an example of the "Karkus" comic strip that Zoe Herriot mentioned in 1968's "The Mind Robber," conspiracy buffs debunking some "cheap" 8mm color film footage of the Loch Ness Monster the same way that people in our world debunk the Patterson–Gimlin Bigfoot film from '67, blog posts from Mickey complaining about Rose going off into space with that Doctor, K-9 obliviously breaking Sarah Jane's heart by telling her about the companions that the Doctor took on board after her, and dozens and dozens of other things.

Each Doctor gets a chapter of fiction, followed by a few pages and photos of production information about their era, informed entirely by quotes from actors, writers, and producers. The authors intrude so little that their own opinions are not seen at all, which is a really novel approach to a Doctor Who book these days. The approach is one of tribute to the whole program and its narrative, not picking favorites or torching anything. It's a sweet and loving 50th anniversary book. Happily recommended for anybody with an interest in the show, of any age.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cassette From My Ex

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 Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009).

I had a really good feeling that I'd like this book. Jason Bitner used to run - or perhaps "curate" is a better word - a blog at cassettefrommyex.com, but it's been down for quite some time now. There, he got submissions from all over the map from people who'd held onto old mix tapes from old flames, and sent in photos and stories about them.

I wish that I had seen the blog before it vanished, but happily, the project did net Bitner a book deal. While the hardcover collection is out of print, it's easily obtained and definitely worth a look. It's just so fun, touching on all of these wonderful shared experiences with other people from the 1980s and 1990s who somehow knew all the same "rules" for making mixtapes as I did.

The last time I made a mix tape was the last day of 1999. It was kind of bitter. I made a second copy for myself and rediscovered it this past summer, cleaning out the basement of my childhood home. I have no way to play it any longer, which is probably for the best, because that is one mean, hurtful, heartbroken, dagger of a tape. They were always more than the sum of their parts, weren't they?

The book is full of essays and track lists, with lots of photos of the surviving tapes, track lists that double as love notes, and all sorts of heartbreak and blissful memories. Most of the writers were not known to me, but Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields contributed a great story, as did - kind of unsurprisingly - Rob Sheffield, who's probably more responsible than anybody else for keeping memories of mix tapes alive all these years after we quit making them.

It's very fun, although probably not a book that you can expect to read in one sitting. It's fun to linger over, a couple of stories a night, while reading something a little heavier on the side. Recommended for readers who made these.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Country of Ice Cream Star

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, my wife Marie contributes a brief review of The Country of Ice Cream Star (Ecco, 2015).

The Country of Ice Cream Star is only superficially described as "post-apocalyptic." Most post-apocalypse books talk about either the survivors in the immediate aftermath or shortly thereafter, and there are people with living memories of the event. This book is set in the new normal that has emerged multiple generations after the event...but it's only eight decades after, because 21 is an advanced age in those who survived.

This book reminds me strongly of the description of The Princess Bride as presented in the narrative; it is terribly tempting to say "...Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion..." But that only works once. Besides, there are differences - this book has child soldiers
instead of pirates, and a living saint instead of a princess. Nevertheless, this book shares the essential lesson that life is beautiful and painful, full of adventure and fighting and love, and also deeply and painfully unfair, and scattered in among the tragedy and beauty, there are some really good funny bits.

There are two main stumbling blocks that I see for the reader in maintaining suspension of disbelief, rooted in difficulties of our culture rather than any flaw in the writing, and they are well worth getting over. First, the author, Sandra Newman, has given each group in the book a distinctive voice and dialect, especially the main character's, and that requires some getting used to. Second, our culture does not permit children of the ages in this story the power, agency, and capability that they show; but without what we would consider adults this world works and makes sense. Even so, the practice of using "every child" instead of "everybody" and "my children" instead of "my people" draws an emphasis to the essential youth of all the actors that the characters are all blind to. This is especially marked when an actual adult is dropped into the action as the event that breaks the initial equanimity, and the main character calls him, too, a child.

In fact, that particular factor is one of the most admirable part of the storytelling, how the author does such a good job of showing things that the main character does not see, at least at first. She does not talk down to the audience, either. Even minor characters have depth and humanity. There are few clear-cut bad guys, even when individuals are in conflict and even when they do evil things to one another. People have motives for what they do that make sense and conflicts arise from those motives. The main character is permitted to make poor decisions, learn from them, and feel guilt which changes her priorities. And there are some horrific things done in this book; it is not a light read for a lazy day at the beach. The characters learn and grow, quickly (perforce) but with natural arcs that allow initial imperfection either to become a hard-won positive or to grow into a deeper flaw - it is refreshing to see both options available.

Also, as is typical in real life, alliances change, sometime rapidly, as circumstances change, Today's enemy is yesterday's friend, with all the grief and rage that comes from that. And when yesterday's enemy is today's friend, earlier conflicts are not allowed to disappear either just because the alliance is needed.

Love is not a simple thing either. In this way the story differs from The Princess Bride. Although characters love each other deeply, there is no uncomplicated feeling. While people do heroic and horrible things because of it, love is still only one emotion and motivation among many.

The cast is large, but so well introduced and so well marked by the language, names and behaviors that it is easy to keep track of them. Sandra Newman has written a truly remarkable, compelling and vivid story. It is highly recommended.

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