Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz


AuthorBenjamin Alire Sáenz 
TitleAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
NarratorLin-Manuel Miranda
Publication Info: New York, NY : Simon & Schuster Audio, p2013.
Summary/Review:

Sáenz has written a beautiful novel about friendship, family, love, coming of age, and coming to terms with your identity as a teenager. Set in El Paso in the mid-1980s, the book is narrated by 15-year-old Mexican American boy Aristotle – or Ari – who has learned to repress his feelings from his parents. His father won’t speak of the horrors of fighting in the Vietnam War and neither of his parents will talk about Ari’s much older brother who is in prison.  The story begins when Ari meets and befriends Dante, another Mexican American boy his age, at the swimming pool. Dante and his family are more open in their feelings and he draws out Ari over a series of meaningful conversations.  The two boys deal with the typical trials of teenagers as well the specific problems related to understanding their identity as Mexican Americans and masculinity.  They suffer injuries when hit by a car, are separated when Dante’s family goes to Chicago for a year, and explore their sexuality.  Without giving too much of the plot away, this is an absolutely beautiful book and one that I think a lot of young people (and formerly young people) can identify with. As an added bonus, Lin-Manuel’s expressive voice is absolutely perfect for the audiobook narration.

Favorite Passages:

He didn’t say anything. And then I heard him crying. So I just let him cry. There was nothing I could do. Except listen to his pain. I could do that. I could hardly stand it. But I could do that. Just listen to his pain.

Recommended booksGeorge by Alex Gino, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Rating: ****1/2

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Comics Review: Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor


AuthorAndrew Cartmel
Illustrators: Christopher Jones, Marco Lesko
Contributor: Ben Aaronovitch
TitleDoctor Who: The Seventh Doctor
Publication Info: Titan (2018)
Summary/Review:

The three parts of this Titan comics miniseries include two different stories.  “Operation Volcano” takes up most of the pages with “Hill of Beans” filling out each volume.

“Operation Volcano” is set in 1967 when a hydrogen bomb exposes an alien craft in the Australian desert.  RAF Group Captain Gilmore – a character introduced in Aaronovitch’s Remembrance of the Daleks – calls in the Doctor and Ace to investigate. Subsequent issues reveal a horrifying snake-like species that can attach itself to humans and tap into their consciousness.  But all is not what appears and the Doctor knows more about these aliens than he lets on. Can his plan prevent the destruction of Earth by nuclear weapons, and how does Gilmore end up in the future with a snake on his back? There’s a strong UNIT/spy thriller feel and the artistry captures the 60s style (write up to the illustrator lovingly detailing the women’s breasts and short-shorts in the classic style).  This is faithful the Seventh Doctor stories as portrayed by Sylvester McCoy and the Virgin New Adventures and I could see it succeeding as a tv adaptation.

“Hill of Beans” catches up with Mags, the werewolf from The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and the physic circus.  She’s under threat as her planet Vulpana is under fascist rule and rounding up werewolves and other noncomformists. Eerily, the villain looks like Donald Trump and says “fire and fury.” The art style is softer and works to capture an 80s aesthetic.  Being the shorter of the two stories, it is very bareboned, and everything gets resolved rather easily.   Again, though, it could be fleshed out into a tv show or book.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: It’s All Relative by A.J. Jacobs


Author: A.J. Jacobs
Title: It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree
Narrator:A.J. Jacobs
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2017)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Jacobs has written excellent books about his lifestyle experiments of trying to follow all the explicit rules of the Bible and reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  Both books offer funny observations and lots of tidbits of arcane knowledge.  In this book, Jacobs applies a similar approach to genealogy, with much of the book structured around attempting a Guinness World Record for a Global Family Reunion, inviting everyone Jacobs is genetically related to (which could be everyone in the world).

Along the way, Jacobs examines traditional genealogical pursuits of family historians, and the newer methods of genetic testing and collaborative websites, and the tensions among them.  Jacobs visits with Mormon genealogists, attends the Hatfields and McCoys reunion, explores the practice of polyamory, goes to a twins convention, and interviews celebrities who are his distant relations.

This book feels weak compared with Jacobs other books, as if he was seeking out other genealogical things to do to fill in blank spaces around his story of the family reunion.  Maybe it would’ve been more focused as shorter work rather than a book?

Recommended books:
Rating: **

Book Review: Transit by Ben Aaronovitch


Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Title: Transit
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who, 1992.
Summary/Review:

Having read Set Piece, I decided to jump back to this earlier book in the New Adventures series that introduces the character of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart. The author, Ben Aaronovitch, previously wrote the teleplays for the classic Seventh Doctor serials Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield.  This novel was controversial at the time of its release because in response to the adult audience of the New Adventures novels, Aaronovitch depicted scenes with profanity, drug use, and sex for the first time in a Doctor Who story.

The main plot involves a transit system that connects the Solar System through “tunnels” which are actually transmat systems that carry “trains” over long distances at faster-than-light speeds. An entity from another dimension enters the transit system like a virus causing power surges and killing people.  The TARDIS gets caught in one of the surges separating the Doctor and Benny.  This is the first novel in which Benny is traveling with the Doctor and she ends up possessed by the virus, which is an interesting choice when her character hasn’t even been fully established yet.

Like other New Adventures I’ve read, this is a complex novel with dozens of characters and an entire fictional universe in the cyberpunk style without anything really for the reader to latch on to be introduced to the characters and their world.  I shouldn’t complain so much about the novels’ complexity, but I did major in English and read complex novels (heck, I even read Ulysses for fun!), so it’s frustrating to struggle with sci-fi tv spinoff novels from the 1990s.  Still, there are some great details, such as allusions to the Ice Warriors (here called “Greenies”) and a great war.  The final showdown between the Doctor and the entity is also well-written.

Rating: ***

Previously Reviewed:

Comics Review: Prisoners of Time by Scott Tipton and David Tipton


Author: Scott Tipton and David Tipton
TitlePrisoners of Time
Publication Info: London : Titan Comics, January 2016.
Artist: Simon Fraser
Colourist: Gary Caldwell
Letterer:  Tom B. Long
Summary/Review:

The 50th anniversary comic tells one story for each Doctor, One through Eleventh, with the inevitable team-up in the last issue.  The stories are generally good, albeit short and easily resolved leading up to the conclusion of each story where a mysterious figure kidnaps the Doctor’s companions.  It’s eventually revealed to be Adam of The Long Game from the Ninth Doctor’s season, which is a bit underwhelming. Still, I like how the artistic style is a bit different for each Doctor, and how they pay tribute to the history of Doctor Who comics through the appearance of Frobisher, who appeared first in comics, and the essays at the end of each issue.  It’s nothing spectacular but it checks off each box of what an anniversary, crossover comic should do.

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Last Jedi by Jason Fry


Author: Jason Fry
Title: The Last Jedi
Publication Info: New York : Del Rey, [2018]
Adapted from: The Last Jedi
Summary/Review:

I’ve always enjoyed reading the novelizations of Star Wars movies.  Even the prequel trilogy is vastly better in book form.  I was especially excited to read this one because Jason Fry is someone I sort of know online because he’s also a Mets’ blogger.

Fry adapts Rian Johnson’s script (including scenes cut from the final film) and adds his own creativity to interpret the most complex and complicated of Star Wars stories. The great thing about a novelization is that the reader can get inside the character’s minds to explore the thoughts, feelings, and memories not expressed on the screen.  Fry is particularly good at detailing the thoughts of non-organic minds, whether it be Poe’s high maintenance X-Wing demanding repairs from BB-8 or C-3P0 reluctantly refraining from informing the Resitance that a group of crystal foxes should really be called “a skulk of vulpices.”

The humor in the book is great and balances well with the action scenes and moments of deep emotion. It would take a stronger person than I to not shed a tear when Leia and Chewbacca embrace as they remember the one’s they’ve lost: Han, Luke, and even Ben Solo .  This book will be a delight to diehard Star Wars fans and those who more casually just enjoy the movies.  And for the vocal group of people who actively disliked The Last Jedi, I think it’s even more important that they read this book as Fry makes the central themes of the movie all the more clear and ties them in to the unifying message of Star Wars dating back to 1977.

Favorite Passages:

“Let him think she’d given up — he’d soon discover otherwise.  Jakku had trained her to do two things better than anyone else could.

The first was to salvage broken things.

The second was to wait.” -.p. 70

“Poe was struck, and not for the first time, by how small Leia was – a petite, delicate-looking woman, seemingly at risk of being swallowed up by the bedding and the gurney around her.  It was an impression that many people had on meeting her — and that vanished the moment she engaged with them.  Her determination, her ferocity, her sheer force of will belied her size and made visitors remember her as far bigger than she was.” – p. 155

Rating: ****

Other Star Wars Books I’ve Read:

  • Star Wars by “George Lucas” – actually Alan Dean Foster (1976)
  • The Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut (1980)
  • Return of the Jedi by James Kahn (1983)
  • Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (1991)
  • Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn (1992)
  • The Last Command by Timothy Zahn (1993)
  • Specter of the Past by Timothy Zahn (1997)
  • Vision of the Future by Timothy Zahn (1998)
  • The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks (1999)
  • Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Woodring Stover (2005)
  • Star Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka (2015)
  • The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken (2015)

Comics Review: Doctor Who: The Lost Dimension 


Author: George Mann, Carl Scott, and Nick Abadzis
TitleDoctor Who: The Lost Dimension Vol.1
Publication Info: London : Titan Comics, 2018.
Illustrator: Rachael Stott
Colourist: Rod Fernandes
Letterer: Richard Starkings, Jimmy Betancourt
Summary/Review:

Another multi-Doctor story.  Unlike The Four Doctors, this one does a good job of having each Doctor’s story have a stand-alone aspect while adding to the overall story arc.  It also gives a good amount of time and agency to the supporting characters, the many companions and the Doctor’s Daughter, Jenny.  It also cleverly spins some history of  Galliferey and TARDISes without being overly fan-wankery.

Rating: ****


Author: Gordon Rennie
TitleDoctor Who: The Lost Dimension Vol.2
Illustrator: Ivan Rodriguez
Colourist: Thiago Ribeiro
Publication Info: London : Titan Comics, 2018.
Summary/Review:

The second part is not as strong as the predecessor.  Once the Doctors get together the writing lazily relies on Doctors bickering with themselves and being brilliant together.  The conclusion is also highly derivative of The Day of the Doctor.  Still a fun romp though

Rating: ***

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand


Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Title: My Lady Jane
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This work of historical fiction flat-out revels in the fact that it is completely made up.  This version of the story of Lady Jane Grey, a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen, has the boy King Edward being manipulated and slowly poisoned by his adviser Lord Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward designates his favorite cousin Jane to be his heir and has her married to Dudley’s son Guildford.

So far, similar to reality, but sillier.  In this alternate history, some people are Effians, that is having the ability to change into an animal.  Swiftly, Jane inherits the throne when Edward is declared dead, and then she and Guildford are forced to flee when Mary in turn claims the throne.  Jane, Guildford, and Edward (spoiler: he’s not dead) all have adventures, discover new powers, and meet interesting people along the way to a happier ending than reality.  The book is riotously funny both in the dialogue and the authors asides.  The audio book is excellently performed by Katherine Kellgren.

Recommended booksThe Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
Rating: ****

Comics Review: Doctor Who: Four Doctors by Paul Cornell


Author:  Paul Cornell
TitleDoctor Who: Four Doctors
Artists: Neil Edwards
Colorist: Ivan Nunes
Letterer: Richard Starkings, Jimmy Betancourt
Publication Info: London : Titan Comics, 2016.
Summary/Review:

Paul Cornell is a legendary writer of Doctor Who books and television scripts for the new series, so I had high hopes for this comics’ outing.  It brings together the Tenth Doctor with his companion Gabby Gonzalez, the Eleventh Doctor and Alice Obiefune, and the Twelfth Doctor with Clara Oswald (whom the Eleventh Doctor does not yet know).  I’ve never seen Gabby or Alice before, and although they seem interesting, they don’t get to do much beyond generic companion stuff.  Clara is running the show as she initiates the story by trying to tell Gabby and Alice that a photo of the three Doctors on Marinus must not be allowed to become a reality.  Which of course it does.  And with all of space and time on the line, the three Doctors have to figure out how to stop the Voord and an alternate version of themselves.  It’s a complicated timey-wimey story with some good fantastical bits, but it seems a bit rushed and undercooked to me.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Stone by Stone by Robert Thorson


Author: Robert Thorson
TitleStone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls
Publication Info: New York : Walker & Company, 2002.
Summary/Review:

I grew up in New England, and as a child who liked to wander in the woods, I often came upon stone walls.  Even alongside the parkways of Connecticut, I could see from the car window the long stone walls that once divided up farms now claimed by forests and suburban subdivisions.  When I moved to Virginia in my teenage years, I noticed the absence of stone walls.

Stone by Stone is the most thorough examination of New England’s stone walls I can imagine. Thorson begins with the geological processes that created New England’s rock landscape before detailing the history of the stone wall’s creation, use, readaptation, and eventual disintegration.  Along the way he dispels some myths.  For example, most stone walls were not built during colonial times.  This is because early settlements were built along the coast and in river valleys where the soil wasn’t rocky, but in the early 1800s the forests of inland New England were cleared and stones were unearthed.  The processing of clearing forests also made possible the cycle of frosts that caused many stones to rise through the surface through frost upheaval.  And while new stones needed to be cleared each year, the rocks were not limitless and the upheaval of new stones would end after about 50 years of clearing.  By this time though the land may have already lost it’s productivity for growing crops and reused for another purpose.

There’s an intense amount of detail in this book and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except those with nerdiest interest in the topic.  But Thorson does have a way with words that makes the book quite engaging, as you’ll see in the excerpts below.

Favorite Passages:

“Conventional histories correctly describe how New England’s stone walls were built by farmers who patiently cleared glacier-dropped stones from their fields.  But this story alone cannot account for the magnitude of the phenomenon, or for their structure — thick, low, and crudely stacked.  To understand the archetypal stone walls in New England – primitive, mortar-free, and “tossed” rather than carefully laid — one must turn to the techniques of the natural sciences, in which observation, induction, and analysis carry more weight than quasimythic tales of early America.

The story of stone walls is a very old one, and is appropriately told by a geologist, whose job is to reconstruct the history of the Earth.  The emergence and decay of New England’s stone walls falls under the domain of geoarchaeology, a subdiscipline whose goal is to interpret human artifacts within a broader geological perspective.  Consider this book a geoarchaeological study of stone walls, the first of its kind.” – p. 9

“However tidy well-built walls might appear, most functioned originally as linear landfills, built to hold nonbiodegradable agricultural refuse….

Stone walls not only transformed waste into something useful, they arguably “improved” the local wildlife habitat with respect to diversity.  Prior to wall construction, the dry-land habitats of cliffs and ledges were much more restricted in New England; animals and plants that had adapted to such terrain had a greater chance to survive because stone walls and stone ledges offered similar opportunities.” – p. 10

“Worms don’t actually create new mineral soil or organic matter.  But by constantly stirring the soil, they inevitably concentrate finer-grained material nearer the surface.  Everything too big for a worm to move will sink as a part of the stirring process, partly because it is dense than the surrounding loosened soil.  The primary reason, however, is that stones either remain where they are or move downward, whereas the finer-grain materials can move either up or down.  The net effect is to sink coarse fragments.

Sandier soils, which are common throughout New England, especially when beneath conifers, are too acidic for significant earthworm activity.  In these soils, ants are the most important agent in stirring soils. Several species of ants not only survive New England’s harsh winter, but reproducing at astonishing rates.  They are constantly busy within the soil, bringing fine-grained material to the surface and in the process, sinking the stones.  Building on Darwin’s work, and focusing on ants, the nineteenth-century Harvard geology professor Nathaniel Shaler examined a four-acre field in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He estimated that common ants brought enough particles to the surface that, if spread out evenly, would cover the entire field at a rate of ‘a fifth of an inch’ each year.” – p. 45

“New England statutes still specify the appointment, jurisdiction, and duties of the fence viewer, although their  power is much diminished and hardly noticed.  But in the late colonial period, they would cruise rural land like the state troopers of today, looking for trouble and writing citations.” – p. 56

“When the farmer walked away from his stone wall for the last time, the human forces that caused the walls to be built up in the first place were replaced by the forces of nature, which will take them down.  The forward part of this reversible ecological reaction – the construction of walls – was powered by solar energy, which was captured via photosynthesis in crops that were eaten and converted to mechanical energy  in the stomachs of the farmers and their stock.  The deconstruction of walls is also being powered by the sun.  In this latter case, however, the solar energy is captured and converted to mechanical energy via wind storms, tree roots, animal burrowing, chemical disintegration, running water, and seasonal frost.  Given enough time, and if left alone, the stones that were once concentrated in the form of the wall must eventually be dispersed back to the field. There, they will be further dispersed into the volume of the soil, buried once again by soil processes, making it appear as if the land had never been cleared.” – p. 93

 

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: High Tide by Tom Bruno


Author: Tom Bruno
Title: High Tide
Previously Read by the Same Author: Bambino
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2012
Summary/Review:

In this novella, adventurer and writer for an outdoors magazine is sent on assignment to his childhood hometown in Cape May, NJ. His story: young surfers are deliberately chumming the water in order to surf alongside sharks. At this point, things get weirder, with the feel of a good Twilight Zone episode. This is a fun, quick read that’s a mix of mystery, horror, and “you never can go home again.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman


Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Narrator: Neil Gaiman
Publication Info: HarperCollins (2013)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

We listened to this with the kids on a road trip this weekend, once in each direction.  The narrator is a boy whose Dad goes out to buy milk at the corner store and after a long absence returns with an outlandish tale of where he’d been.  His adventures include encounters with aliens in flying saucers, pirates, vampires, colorful ponies, and traveling as a companion to Professor Steg, a very wise stegosaurus. They travel through time, escape an erupting volcano, and never fail to hold on to the milk, all while on board a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier (a.k.a. a hot air balloon).  It’s all delightfully silly and a good follow-up to our previous favorite audio book for road trips, Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which very likely features the same family.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston


Author:  Zora Neale Hurston
TitleBarracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo
Publication Info: Amistad (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 208 pages
Previously read by the same author:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography
  • Mules and Men
  • Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Summary/Review:

This recently published biography/ethnography is by the great author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, based on interviews she conducted in 1927.  Her subject is Kossola, also known as Cudjoe Lewis and by other names, who was the last known survivor of the African slave trade.  The Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, but slave traders were able to smuggle in enslaved people from Africa without consequences right up to the Civil War.

Kossola was born in West Africa in what is Benin in the present day around 1840. In 1860, he was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and sold to American slavers on the ship Clotilda.  Hurston expresses Kossola’s story in his dialect, allowing him to tell his story.  He talks of his childhood in Africa, capture, passage across the Atlantic, and enslavement in Mobile, Alabama.  After Emancipation, Kossola and other former captives of Clotilda pooled together money to buy land near Mobile from their former captors and created a self-contained community called Africatown.  There he tells stories of his marriage, children, his unsuccessful lawsuit after a train crashed into his buggy, and the death of his son, also in a train crash.  Kossola became known as a storyteller, and the appendix includes a sample of his stories.

The book is an interesting piece of overlooked American history.  It’s also a glimpse into the ethnographic practices of the time, good and bad, as Hurston relates her visits to Kossola and the negotiations that went into planning their interviews. More than once Hurston uses terms like “primitive” to describe Kossola, a shocking judgement for an anthropologist and African American. Critics of the work suggest that parts of Kossola’s narrative are fictionalized – either by himself or by Hurston – and note that she plagiarized and earlier interviewer’s work in an article she wrote about Kossola.  Nevertheless, this is a valuable historic document to read both for Kossola’s story and as an addition to Hurston’s work.

Favorite Passages:

Here is the medicine: That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it. Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go. Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears. – Alice Walker March 2018

From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,600 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise. During the period from 1851 to 1860, approximately 22,500 Africans were exported. And of that number, 110 were taken aboard the Clotilda at Ouidah. Kossola was among them—a transaction.

Hurston’s manuscript is an invaluable historical document, as Diouf points out, and an extraordinary literary achievement as well, despite the fact that it found no takers during her lifetime. In it, Zora Neale Hurston found a way to produce a written text that maintains the orality of the spoken word. And she did so without imposing herself in the narrative, creating what some scholars classify as orature. Contrary to the literary biographer Robert Hemenway’s dismissal of Barracoon as Hurston’s re-creation of Kossola’s experience, the scholar Lynda Hill writes that “through a deliberate act of suppression, she resists presenting her own point of view in a natural, or naturalistic, way and allows Kossula ‘to tell his story in his own way.’”

Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke.

“Poe-lee very mad ’cause de railroad kill his brother. He want me to sue de company. I astee him, ‘Whut for? We doan know de white folks law. Dey say dey doan pay you when dey hurtee you. De court say dey got to pay you de money. But dey ain’ done it.’ I very sad. Poe-lee very mad. He say de deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at. Me and his mama try to talk to him and make him satisfy, but he doan want hear nothin. He say when he a boy, dey (the American Negro children) fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: RISK! by Kevin Allison (Editor)


Author:Kevin Allison (Editor)
TitleRISK!: True Stories People Never Thought They’d Dare to Share
Publication Info: Hachette Books (2018)
Summary/Review:

I started listening to the Risk! podcast years and years ago.  I was already listening to The Moth and other storytelling podcasts, and at first I thought this was just a tawdry attempt to have people tell the most prurient details of their sexual escapades.  But for some reason I kept listening and soon grew to realize that this was storytelling at its most raw.  People told stories of their abuse and trauma, the transitional moments of their life, as well as hilarious tales of everyday escapades gone wrong. Risk! was a podcast that brought out the humanity in every person brave enough to speak into the mic and the many people who could relate to their stories.

The Risk!  book gathers together some of the stories from the podcast as well as stories written specifically for the book.  In some cases, the stories lose something when you don’t hear the author’s voice, whether it’s someone who is a master of the live storytelling art who brings things out with their voice and mannerisms, or if it’s someone’s who uncertainty and nervous laughter of someone daring to speak words they never thought they’d utter before an audience.  On the other hand, some stories gain an extra something on the printed page.  I liked being able to skip back and review some details that I overlooked earlier in the story that become significant later on (granted one can rewind a podcast but it’s not as easy as flipping back the page) or catch the words lost in the audience laughter or mumbled by the storyteller.

My favorite stories include:

  • “The Gift” by Michelle Carlo -remembering a perfect moment with a boy while growing up in the Bronx shortly before he was murdered.
  • “Dressing the Wound” by Jim Padar – a Chicago cop remembers staunching the bleeding of a murder victim, keeping him alive along enough for his family to say goodbye.
  • “Always a Woman” by Morgan – a construction worker falls two stories in a building and realizes that she needs to recognize her identity.
  • “High Fidelity” by Jonah Ray – a story set in in a Venice Beach, California record store with shoplifters, on September 11, 2001.
  • “The Downward Spiral” by JC Cassis – the storyteller recounts the feelings of loss and regret during the final days of life of his depressed and isolated Uncle Fred.
  • “Doing Good” by Chad Duncan – a special education teacher with a gift for reading people deals with suddenly going blind.

It’s a terrific book and highly recommend that anyone who cares about their fellow humans read it (and listen to the podcast regularly, even if some of the stories feature the prurient details of sexual escapades)

Rating: ****

Book Review: Dog Man by Dav Pilkey


Author: Dav Pilkey
Title: Dog Man
Publication Info: New York, NY : Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, 2016.
Summary/Review:

From the creator of Captain Underpants, comes Dog Man, the adventures of a police officer with a dogs head (surgically joined together in the origin story).  Dog Man is present as a comic written by George and Harold of the Captain Underpants‘ books, and is equally crude (as in the drawings and the potty humor) and subversive as the previous series.  Dog Man fights against the evil cat Petey, and some of my favorite parts are when Petey erases all the books in the world and makes everyone dumb, as well as when he brings a crew of evil hot dogs to life.  I read this to my six-year-old; she was delighted.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North and Erica Henderson


Author: Ryan North (Author), Erica Henderson (Illustrator)
TitleThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe
Publication Info: Marvel (2018)
Summary/Review:

The first Squirrel Girl graphic novel offers the same offbeat humor and upbeat positivity as the comics. Iron Man has a mysterious technology that accidentally traps Squirrel Girl and creates an identical twin.  Obviously in any story with cloning technology there has to be an “evil” twin, and Allene (as Doreen’s duplicate is named) inevitably plots to take over the world. The twist here is that Allene has good intentions, noting that humans are destroying the environment and killing squirrels with their cars, so her plan is to have squirrels rule the world in place of humans.  Thus begins a series of gags where Allene uses her wiles and acquired technology to beat up every Marvel superhero while Doreen tries to stop her.  It’s fun, but it’s also a one-note joke, and the story seems just a notch below the quality of the comic book story arcs.

Rating: ***1/2

Related posts:

Book Review: Set Piece by Kate Orman


Author: Kate Orman
TitleSet Piece
Publication Info: London Bridge (1995)
Summary/Review:

This is Kate Orman’s second contribution to the New Adventures line and much like The Left-Handed Hummingbird she puts the Doctor and his companions in torturous scenarios that push them to their limits, physically and psychologically.  An organic vessel known only as The Ship is exploiting a Time Rift to abduct starliner passengers with the help of robotic Ants and harvest their minds for The Ship’s systems.  The Doctor and Ace make a plan to get themselves captured by The Ship to find out what’s happening and stop the abductions.  But when Bernice comes to rescue them the Time Rift throws them into three different eras.

The heart of the story focuses on Ace, as this is her farewell story, putting her in a situation where she has a long time to think about her travels with the Doctor, accept that they may be forever separated, and begin to use how she’s learned and grown to continue on her own.  Ace finds herself in Ancient Egypt, and unwilling to accept the cultural norms for women at the time, tries to prove herself as a soldier and a bodyguard.  She even tries to overthrow the tyrannical reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten, as you do.

Meanwhile, Berenice ends up in France in 1798 and ends up befriending the Egyptologist Vivant Denon and traveling with Napoleon’s army to Egypt. The Doctor also ends up in Paris but in 1871 during the Paris Commune, suffering PSTD from his experience on The Ship and slowly recovering under the care of a mysterious frenemy Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart.  It’s no spoiler that the three of them do find a way to get back together, but this book is more of a study of characterization and relationships in extreme situations than plotting.

This is the type of story that would be unimaginable in the original run of the television program, and although the New Adventures strongly influenced the revised series, I can’t see it done there as well.  It’s certainly difficult to imagine Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred in these parts as I read the book.  Not that they were not fine actors who could certainly give it a go, just that the characterizations of tv have evolved so much over the course of the New Adventures, so this is a satisfying farewell for book Ace that seems inexplicable for TV Ace.

While I’ve been enjoying going back and reading these books from the 90s to revisit an overlooked but transformative period in Doctor Who, it’s also frustrating how much continuity there is within the New Adventures.  Set Piece is the 35th of 61 novels and there is no way I’m going to find time to read them all (especially the one’s I’ve been told are not worth reading).  This is full of references to previous adventures and Kadiatu enters the story with no explanation of who she is or her significance, having previously appeared in the 10th book Transit.  I’m griping a bit too much, but I am grateful that I’m reading these in the time of Wikipedia, otherwise I’d be lost.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: Once Upon a Team by Jon Springer


Author: Jon Springer
TitleOnce Upon a Team: The Epic Rise and Historic Fall of Baseball’s Wilmington Quicksteps 
Publication Info: Sports Publishing (2018)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Mets By the Numbers
Summary/Review:

Generally, I would not be prone to pick up a book about 19th-century baseball in Wilmington, Delaware, but I know the author, and I appreciate his writing on baseball.  Jon Springer uses a wealth of primary documents to provide a lot of detail and quotes about the rough and tumble early era of professional baseball.  It’s common to think that “baseball as a business” is a recent phenomenon, but in these pages are stories of players jumping from team to team for better contracts, teams moving to new cities hoping for more profits, and snarky sportswriters covering it all.

With a preamble on the history of amateur and professional baseball clubs in Wilmington, the heart of the book focuses on the 1884 season of the newly formed Wilmington Quicksteps.  1884 is a year where professional baseball supersaturated America’s cities. The National League and their rival American Association were joined by the upstart Union Association.  The new league set out to challenge the reserve clause, the means by which teams retained rights to players after their contracts expired, keeping players in a state of indentured servitude.  Nevertheless, the Union Association found it difficult to lure away talented players from the two existing leagues.

The Wilmington Quicksteps began 1884 as part of the Eastern League, a minor league that was a forerunner of today’s International League.  Lead by colorful characters like Oyster Burns and The Only Nolan, the Quicksteps dominated the rest of the teams in the league.  The downside to this is that the team was so far ahead they had trouble drawing spectators and found themselves in a financial pickle.  The Quicksteps played exhibition games against major league teams passing through Wilmington in order to bring in spectators and money, and often played competitive games.

By August, with clubs in the Union Association folding, and the Quicksteps seemingly too good for the Eastern League and in need of a financial boost, it seemed like a natural decision for Wilmington to join the Union Association as a replacement team.  But fortune was not on Wilmington’s side.  They played only 18 games in the Union Association and won only 2 of them.  The experience brought the Quicksteps to their demise, and the Union Association was unable to return for the 1885 season.

This well-researched book is an engaging read and will be of interest to anyone curious about baseball history.

Recommended booksA Game of Brawl by Bill Felber, Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball by Jerrold Casway, and Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State by Don Harrison
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Human Nature by Paul Cornell


AuthorHuman Nature
TitlePaul Cornell
Publication Info: London : BBC Books, 2015 (originally published May 1995)
Summary/Review:

In this novel, the Doctor has himself genetically modified so he can experience life as a human. Forgetting his real identity, the Doctor believes he is a Scottish teacher named John Smith at a boy’s school in rural England in 1914.  If this sounds familiar to Doctor Who tv viewers, it’s because Cornell adapted this book as the two-part episode “Human Nature/Family of Blood” in Series 3 with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor/John Smith.  It’s best not to think of the television adaptation while reading the book as the stories differ in many ways.

Cornell’s basic idea was to have a story featuring the Doctor in a romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, Joan Redfern.  Again, in the present day we’ve seen the Doctor fall in love with Rose, snog Madame Pompadour, and marry River Song, so the elaborate plot of making the Doctor a human for him to experience romance would be excessive. Apart from the love story, this book is a good exploration of being human and the Doctor’s character.

On the one hand this is a brutal and gory story. The villainous alien Aubertides are merciless in slaughtering (and eating) anyone who gets in their way.  In response, the leaders of the school are willing to mobilize the boys into a military unit to fight back. There’s even a disturbing scene early in the book where the school boys murder one of their own.

On the other hand, John Smith, while still in a human guise is able to determine a better way.  To throw away the guns, lead the children to safety, attempt diplomacy, and then win through guile.  The willingness of the human characters in this book to support and sacrifice for one another shows our species at it’s best.

Like many Virgin New Adventures, there’s a surplus of side characters and interwoven sideplots that could be excised to make a tighter, more focused adventure.  But it’s still a gripping read and Doctor Who at it’s best.

Favorite Passages:

“I can see why Rocastle thinks that way.  It’s attractive.  Imagine, never having to make any decisions.  Because of honor. And etiquette. And patriotism. You could live like a river flowing downhill, hopping from one standard response to the other. Honour this. Defend that.”

“‘Isn’t it odd,’ opined Alexander, ‘how close masculinity is to melodrama?'”

Rating: ****

Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru


AuthorHari Kunzru
TitleWhite Tears
Narrators: Lincoln Hoppe, Danny Campbell, Dominic Hoffman
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Seth, a young white man working as a studio engineer as a partner to Carter, a friend from art school who shares his love for music.  Carter comes from a wealthy family and is a douchey bro who claims to only listen to Black music from the analog era because of its “realness.”  Seth is the narrator but Kunzru leaks through that he’s also not the most admirable person.

As part of his work, Seth records ambient sounds around the city that are digitally edited into musical recordings. On one occasion, he records a man singing a blues song and on Carter’s prompting, Seth edits it to sound like a scratchy 78 from the Twenties and they release it as a lost blues song by a musician named Charlie Shaw.  They are then contacted by a record collector who informs them that he last heard this recording in 1959 and that Charlie Shaw is real.

This sets off the narrative in which Seth loses everything, possibly even his mind.  It’s never clear if he’s beset by a phantasmagorical punishment for cultural appropriation or if it’s a story told by an unreliable narrator suffering mental illness. Seth’s narrative is interrupted by the record collector’s story (one in which he has a subservient relationship with a partner paralleling Seth and Carter) and Charlie Shaw himself.  It’s a clever and creepy and gory and unsettling book, that’s nevertheless hard to stop reading.

Recommended booksWelcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***