Friday, August 19, 2016

My Favorite New Fantasy Series

I am a big fan of high fantasy. I got my first taste from the Narnia books, and was gifted the Shannara series as a middle schooler. Give me a series with elves and dwarves and trolls and chances are pretty good I will love it.

Not so sure I would have said the same about a fantasy series that revolves around necromancy, but that was before I discovered Sabriel, the first book in the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix. There are no elves or dwarves to be found, but there is a strong, female main character. Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, the good necromancer whose job it is to send the dead back into death, thereby undoing the work of the bad necromancers, who bring the dead back into life. When her father disappears, Sabriel is forced to leave the relative safety of her boarding school and venture into the Old Kingdom, where magic rules and technology is useless. She begins a quest to free her father and defeat an evil greater than she imagined.

One of the things I've loved about this series so far is the strong female leads. Sabriel portrays the titular young woman as someone who loves firecely, who thinks on her feet, who is more than willing to venture into the land of the dead to save people she loves. The setting is interesting-the Old Kingdom is full of magic, but it is bordered by a world that has what seemed to be mid-20th century-type technology. It gives the whole thing a bit of a steampunk vibe. I'm about a third of the way through the second book, and the strong female thing continues through that book as well. The mythology that underlies the action is different than other series I have read, which makes the story feel fresh. An added benefit is that I've been listening to it on audiobook, and Tim Robbins is the narrator. I discovered this series on a list of young adult books, but I really think that adult readers of fantasy novels will also enjoy it.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Old Records Never Die, by Eric Spitznagel

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to start this review with the admission that the author is a friend of mine. And, I'm sort of in the book. Which means I probably shouldn't even be reviewing it at all. And if I worked at an actual magazine writing official journalisty book reviews they would never in a million years let me be the one to review this book. But I don't. This is MY blog, and I DO WHAT I WANT.

Of course, I read the book in April when it was published, and I have gone back and forth with myself ever since about whether I can actually give it a fair review, or at least, if anyone else will believe I can give it a fair review. Plus, it feels a bit like an exercise in self-aggrandizement. "Look at me world, I know someone who wrote a book that was named one of Amazon's "must read" books. I am literary fame adjacent!" But here's the thing-I didn't just love this book because my friend wrote it. I love it because it is funny and tender and nostalgic and insightful (and funny, did I mention it's funny?).

Old Records Never Die is the true tale of a hero's quest. Spitznagel, our middle-aged protagonist, is driving down Lakeshore Drive one day, thinking about an interview he recently did with Questlove. Questlove is famous for being a prodigious vinyl record collector. He still has the very first 45 he ever bought. Suddenly, the growly rasp of a young Jon Bon Jovi comes on the satellite radio station, and Eric is struck by a bolt of lightning in the form of a sudden compulsion. He wants his records back. The records he collected in the 80s and 90s that he sold to pay rent. Not just records with the same titles as back in the 80s and 90s, but the ACTUAL records he owned. Records he had listened to over and over in his childhood home, his teenage bedroom, his college dorm, his first apartment. Records that he listened to with his dad, fought over with his brother, bought as bait for a certain girl in high school, or smoked weed to. Thus begins the epic journey, fraught with danger(ous, moldy piles of old records), which would lead Eric through the land of record conventions and other middle-aged dudes' basements, where he would meet fellow vinyl obsessives, and a few strange and perhaps slightly unhinged characters.

Of course, along the way he also rediscovers some of the younger self he left behind when he sold those records in the first place. I suppose it's natural when one gets to a certain point in one's life to reflect on the person you were in your teens and early 20s. Sometimes I think about my younger self and have trouble imagining that person eventually became me. There are things that happened that I wish I had paid more attention to at the time, and things that I spent way more emotional time and energy on than I should have. At the same time, I realize that impossible as it may seem from my lofty middle-aged perch, the me of today is the sum total of all of the things that younger self said and thought and did. This is something that Spitznagel explores throughout the book.

But this is not just a sappy trip down Memory Lane. There is little in the way of rank sentimentality in Old Records Never Die. Because Eric doesn't just stop at reliving his glory days (which he admits, with self-deprecating humor, weren't necessarily all that glorious). He isn't the musical equivalent of that old jock who never left home regaling everyone with stories of the time he threw the winning touchdown in the big game against Nowheresville. Spitznagel also examines how objects we owned at certain times in our lives become totems, tangible reminders of who were were when we got them. I am not a vinyl collector myself (though I do own a copy of Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, given to me by my brother a few Christmases ago), but what Eric feels for records, I feel for books. I still have my original copies of the Little House books, and the Narnia books, and the copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that I read at least once a year for a decade or more. When I look at them, I see my 10 year old self reading in my bedroom surrounded by unicorn posters, or my 15 year old self trying desperately to get lost in the world of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn in a effort to forget that I was home alone on a Friday night. The Handmaid's Tale makes me remember myself as the college student who's world was turned upside down when she discovered feminism. Those books each hold a piece of who I would become, and I love them as unreasonably as Eric might love a warped old Replacements album.

There's also great stuff in Old Records Never Die about parenting and marriage and family and grief. Things that folks who aren't music collectors (or book collectors, or collectors of Doctor Who memorabilia, or whatever) can totally relate to, even if they don't really get why a 40-something man would spend a year of his life and a not inconsiderable amount of money tracking down pieces of black plastic. I especially recommend the last chapter, if you are looking for the feels. Because when you get right down to it, this book about music isn't just a book about music.