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Archive for the ‘Neil’s Picks’ Category

Life ItselfIf you discovered movies as I did, coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, then you probably also had a love/hate relationship with Siskel and Ebert. Delivered from a darkened theater balcony, first on PBS and then in syndication, their television reviews brought us news of the latest films, but both critics could infuriate us with a snarky comment or an inappropriate thumbs up or thumbs down. While other great film journalists had come before them, Siskel and Ebert brought criticism into the mainstream of American culture.

As a young film buff, I was never a huge fan of the reviews, but over the years, I couldn’t help but come to respect the two, both because they were passionate advocates for film and because both battled premature health problems nobly before succumbing to too early deaths in 1999 (Siskel) and 2013 (Ebert). Before his death, Ebert wrote a memoir, Life Itself, which is destined to become a classic of the form.

Life Itself follows Ebert from his youth in the 40s and 50s, through his rise in the world of Chicago journalism, into his battles against alcoholism, his surprising journey into television and fame in the film world, the blossoming of a late-life marriage, and his struggles with the cancer that took first his jaw and ability to speak, and ultimately his life.

This is a book that even those who don’t care much about film will find worthwhile. Ebert approached life with self-effacing humor and a healthy sense of his own good fortune. Running in circles of big egos and beautiful people, Ebert was full of a sense of his own abilities, but also with a sense of humor about his own shortcomings. He was a regular guy with a great journalistic talent who made the most of the opportunities life gave him, and over the course of his autobiography, you’ll come to appreciate his quirky outlook, his work ethic, and the way in which he learns from his experience. Life Itself is full of charming diversions: Ebert isn’t afraid to spend a few pages describing the merits of his favorite fast food restaurants or London streets. He weaves other familiar names into his narrative but always in a bemused way that can’t help but make you grin. His descriptions of the most important relationships in his life —his difficult mother, his rivalry with and deep respect for Siskel, and his connection and love with wife Chaz Hammelsmith — are each moving in a different way.

Try Ebert’s book and you too will end up with a greater respect for an unusual man and for Life Itself.

Check the WRL catalog for Life Itself

Or try Life Itself as an audiobook on CD

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Love Minus EightyWilliamsburg resident Will McIntosh is on his way to the a-list of science fiction writers, and Love Minus Eighty is a great entry point to his work.

The title refers to the temperature at which “bridesicles” are kept. In the horrifying, but believable, dystopian future McIntosh imagines, the most desirable women are put on ice at the time of their deaths. It’s possible to revive them, but only the wealthiest individuals can afford the expensive procedures required to bring themselves or someone else back to life. So the women are kept in stasis, revived only briefly by a wealthy client who pulls them into brief consciousness for a speed date in which the woman must make a big impression if she hopes to rejoin the living.

We begin the story with Mira, a woman with a lesbian partner who may still be living, forced to pretend to like the creepy but wealthy men who occasionally come to visit. But her poignant tale is an aperitif to the larger story, which follows several characters whose lives have converged. Rob is a musician whose climb into the wealthy world of the haves ends suddenly. In this future, instead of reality television, people follow the “celebrities” of their choice directly through electronic means, and Rob’s girlfriend dumps him viciously and dramatically in a move calculated to gain more followers. Distraught, Rob runs over a jogger. So begins a downward cycle that he decides he can only stop by working a grueling manual job sorting old electronic components until he can save up enough money to thaw Winter out for long enough to apologize to her. When he does, there’s an odd, awkward connection, and Rob begins saving for another encounter. There’s also Veronika, a virtual dating coach who follows her clients electronically, telling them what to say in real time to make themselves more attractive to others. The irony is that Veronika’s love-life is non-existent, consisting almost entirely of fantasies about Nathan, another virtual coach who views her more as a friend and colleague.

The plot is hard to explain briefly, but easy to follow in the book, as McIntosh finds many plausible ways to keep a great set of characters bouncing off of each other in an ever-deepening sequence of plot twists. McIntosh takes our current world, with the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, our obsession with superficial digital culture, and our technological leaps that are often not grounded in adequate forethought or morals, and follows this thread to its “logical” conclusion. The result is terrifying, but only because it is so plausible. When he stirs in some unlikely heroes and a romance blossoming amid the rubble, you’ve got a captivating novel.

If you like this, consider going on to his other novels, Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers, and Defenders. In a world of speculative fiction series, McIntosh has written stand-alone novels to date, but with movie options on a couple of his books and his creative mind, he’s an author you’re sure to hear more about in the future.

Check the WRL catalog for Love Minus Eighty

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Foul TroubleAs I channel surfed one night, I passed by this year’s NBA draft on ESPN. I stopped and watched a while, feeling a new curiosity and empathy about the lives of the young men in the spotlight. That was because a few weeks earlier, I had read Foul Trouble, a young adult novel by John Feinstein that should be required reading for any basketball fan.

Foul Trouble is the story of Terrell Jamerson, a late-blooming high school phenom headed into his final season. The narrator is Danny Wilcox, Terrell’s best friend, and a pretty fine player himself. As the point guard who feeds Terrell passes and the son of the coach who is trying to protect the somewhat naive Terrell from the scavengers that would like to attach themselves to his rising star, Danny feels a lot of responsibility for his friend’s success. It’s a big burden to add to his own hopes of a scholarship at a smaller school, and Danny has a quick wit and a quicker temper, which means his attempts at protection often end in confrontation.

The book follows the pair through a gauntlet of crooked summer camps, self-serving media outlets, arrogant competitors, corrupt athletic gear salesmen, out-of-control boosters, and most of all, a series of recruiters and coaches who each have a different way of circumventing the rules that are supposed to govern the passage of a high school star into the college ranks. Feinstein clearly knows this turf, and by the time he’s done with his tale, the reader has a new appreciation for just how much pressure can be put on a top recruit. Along the way there are gifts, girls, faux friends galore, families ruined by greed, and all matter of temptations that Danny and Terrell must navigate.

Sports fans will love this story, but even if you’re only a casual fan like me, the drama of the novel will keep you turning pages quickly. When you’re done, head for almost any of Feinstein’s nonfiction sports titles. They’re plentiful, covering many different sports, but with special focus on golf, baseball, and basketball. He’s a dependable writer, and you’re unlikely to go wrong, no matter which of his titles you select.

Check the WRL catalog for Foul Trouble

Or try Foul Trouble as an ebook

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RedshirtsSometimes it’s entirely a matter of perspective.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is excited to be assigned to the starship Intrepid, but on his first away mission on an alien world, he discovers that his posting won’t be just glamor and adventure. In fact, given the strange behavior of the ship’s captain, science officer, and few others, he and his fellow new recruits will be lucky if they survive at all.

Yes, this is the story of classic Star Trek told from the perspective of one of the ill-fated red-shirted crew. The names of Kirk, Spock, and their colleagues have been changed, but any reader who knows anything about science fiction television will recognize that Scalzi has made a novel of the old joke that series fans make about anyone in a red shirt being unlikely to survive the episode.

But there’s a deeper wrinkle here. Scalzi takes readers down a metafictional rabbit hole as his characters discover that their lives are based on a television program, and sadly, that it’s not even a particularly well-executed show. They find a way to Earth, where they meet their exact likenesses, the actors in the series . (One hilarious aside describes the disturbing activities of the narcissistic Chekhov equivalent and his actor doppelganger.) Can they end the show without ending themselves? Or is there a way to make life safe for the redshirts? You’ll have to read Scalzi’s book to find out. But that’s not a difficult task: even when it gets philosphical, this is light, funny, frothy reading. You’ll have gulped down the book before you know it.

Check the WRL catalog for Redshirts

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Shadow DiversNearing its first decade in print, Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers is a nonfiction classic that will be read for many years to come. That’s because Kurson finds an elegant way to combine so many subjects of interest: the exciting adventure of deep-sea diving, the poignant war history of the German U-boat submarines, the detective story of how the divers figured out which wreck they were exploring, and the interesting character portraits of the divers involved, some who sacrificed relationships and even their lives in the pursuit of their obsession.

The story began in 1991, when a boatful of recreational divers explored a new wreck and discovered something that wasn’t supposed to be off the coast of New Jersey, a U-boat. Even that first dive seemed to be shrouded by bad luck and mystery, with the death of one diver, but two men in particular, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, began a six-year adventure as they tried to identify what they found.

The diving scenes are spectacularly exciting in Kurson’s tale, but he finds a way to make the library work that the two men did just as riveting. Both the U.S. and German governments still classified some of the information they needed, and many documents that Kurson found turned out to be inaccurate historical cover-ups that had to be disproved before the hunt could progress.

Adding one more fascinating level to the tale, Kurson recreates the last days of the men aboard the submarine, following them from their selection into the U-boat corps (at a time in the war when such duty was nearly the equivalent of a death sentence), researching journals and interviewing family members to discover their decidedly non-fanatical political beliefs, then telling the tale of their last farewell from families and what can be recreated of their final journey. This is a marvelous blend of diving ethics, deep sea adventure (and sometimes terror), strong personalities in clash, and historical mystery that should please almost any reader.

Check the WRL catalog for Shadow Divers

Or listen to Shadow Divers as an audiobook on compact disc

WRL also has Shadow Divers in ebook and audio ebook formats

 

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Deed of PaksenarrionElizabeth Moon’s first trilogy of novels about Paksenarrion, a farmer’s daughter turned mercenary, then paladin, is one of the great works of epic fantasy fiction. These books, now issued as a single volume, The Deed of Paksenarrion, describe a satisfying character arc as Paks, as she’s known to friends, grows from good-natured naif to seasoned campaigner to a powerful heroine who has earned her scars.

The story begins as Paks escapes an arranged marriage by joining Duke Phelan’s mercenary company. She learns that war isn’t all adventure, and encounters the frightening powers of magic for the first time. She experiences friendship and sacrifice, and learns self discipline, and has a run-in with some scoundrels in her own company.

The second book is more exotic. Paks has left the company, as there are parts of its philosophy that she can’t make fit with her moral code. She trains to become a paladin, mixes with dwarfs and elves, and takes part in a great quest to an ancient stronghold. Ultimately Paks becomes the victim of some evil magic wielded by dark elves, and as the book ends she has lost her skill at combat and her courage, endangering her future as a paladin and even her life.

Moon brings everything together gracefully in the third book, which I won’t say much about to avoid spoilers. At its core, it involves Paks’s attempt to restore her courage and a quest to restore a missing king to power.

What makes this special? Paks is one of my favorite lead characters in fantasy, right up there with Frodo Baggins and Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe, and in many ways Moon’s development of her character more thoroughly builds a complete person than even those other favorites. The pacing is excellent throughout, with a great balance of action, suspense, and moral philosophy. Moon incorporates descriptions of the physical world and the details of horsemanship and fighting smoothly into her writing. Finally, I like that there’s a clear hero to get behind here, but still some gritty details. Paks earns her status.

Since publication of these books, Moon has written both prequels and sequels to this original trilogy. So while the original books are completely satisfying in and of themselves, unlike Tolkien there are more novels to continue your experience in a world you’ll probably grow to love.

Check the WRL catalog for The Deed of Paksenarrion

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East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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