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Review: The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker August 28, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content, Lovecraft.
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y648So, another Canadian literary novel. Jacqueline Baker has apparently written literary fiction set in western Canada, but this book is something very different, set very vividly in Providence, Rhode Island, home of a certain American writer.

H.P. Lovecraft may be his own most enduring character. He’s become widely known, even to those who’ve never read his work, as a strange, reclusive writer of horror stories. He’s been used as a character in many horror stories by other writers. The problem is, all too often writers present seriously skewed versions of him. Some horror writers who know his work fairly well present him as someone who believed in the kinds of things he wrote about, something Lovecraft himself would have perhaps been amused by, given his devotion to rationalism, materialism, and science.

Lovecraft had no use for ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and other old horror tropes. He was intrigued by cosmic horror, with its two main sources of horror: the realization of humanity’s utter insignificance in the cosmos, and the idea that that which breaks down our understanding of reality is horrifying. From that perspective, there should be nothing frightening about a story of, say, demonic possession ended by an exorcism, at least not for a Catholic, because demons and the efficacy of exorcism are already part of their understanding of the world. On the other hand, discovering that there are entities of great cosmic power who are utterly indifferent to humanity and could wipe us out as uncaringly as if we sprayed insecticide to kill some pests — that should disturb both the religious and the rational.

And yet, as a character, Lovecraft has all too often been presented as a mystic or a magician or someone vouchsafed true knowledge of cosmic evil. In at least one novel, he was presented as a cackling evil magician straight out of someone’s pulp fiction — but not his.

It’s a relief, then, that The Broken Hours is not one of those books. In fact, it takes some time to realize exactly what kind of book it is, and judging by many reviews online, some readers never actually do realize it. The ending is subtle but there are clues. At least, I think I interpreted the clues correctly, and the last one is far from subtle. Some other reviewers have come to the same conclusion. If you’re thinking of reading this book and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now. Really. It’s worth experiencing with some mystery, even if you figure it out early.

Jacqueline Baker’s book is beautifully written and subtle. She tells the story of Arthor Crandle, who, desperate for work, takes a position as an assistant and secretary to a writer he’s never heard of. And then all the strange things begin to happen. The writer, Lovecraft, won’t see him in person, even though they’re in the same building. Crandle has visions of a young girl in the backyard, feelings of some oppressive horror at certain points in the house. He finds things moved around even in his locked room, and is sure he sees his mysterious employer at times, only to realize no one is there.

A young woman moves into the downstairs apartment, and they slowly develop a friendship. But the strange things keep happening. The story ends with some revelations, but doesn’t spell everything out in detail. So here come the spoilers. Lovecraft’s aunt Annie, who’s been away (part of the reason Crandle was hired as an assistant) returns, the downstairs neighbour Flossie disappears along with all the changes she made to the apartment, Annie recognizes Crandle and calls him Howard… well, evidently there never was any Crandle. He was Lovecraft all along, and Flossie was never there. The stories of insanity in the family, people’s strange reactions to Crandle, the fact that other people at times fail to notice Flossie’s presence, the revelation (not surprising to people who’ve read about Lovecraft’s life) that as a child Lovecraft’s mother grew his hair long and dressed him as a girl, the fact that Crandle never sees himself in a mirror, not to mention that he finds himself playing Lovecraft when he’s with Flossie… what seems to be an effectively creepy ghost story turns out to be a psychological tale instead. There is ultimately nothing supernatural happening. Lovecraft, ill, malnourished, poor, and separated from his wife, is having a breakdown.

It’s ironic — what seems to be the kind of horror story Lovecraft himself would never have written, a subtle, old-fashioned ghost story, turns out not to be supernatural or horror at all. It’s a spooky and ultimately emotionally affecting story.

Review: Boring Girls by Sara Taylor August 27, 2016

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9781770410169_1024x1024Boring Girls starts out as the story of a smart teenage girl who doesn’t quite fit in at school and has a hard time connecting with other kids. Her life changes when, having just been hassled by a bully, she hears some strange but powerful noisy music coming from a passing car and makes a mental note of a bumper sticker that may be a band name. She goes to a record store, finds a CD by the band, and death metal takes over her life, especially the band DED.

Rachel has always been a creative girl, writing in a journal and fascinated by a painting based on an apocryphal biblical tale of two women killing an evil king. Meeting Fern, another girl who’s interested in the same style of music and is starting to play guitar, leads them to start their own metal band.

It’s not giving away spoilers to say that things go terribly wrong eventually, leading to murder, because the book’s told from Rachel’s first person perspective and she’s recounting why she and her friend Fern became murderers.

Rachel is, at first, a quiet girl who does well at school but has difficulty making friends or connecting with people, something that continues through the novel. She has a couple of crushes but pulls away from an opportunity to have a real boyfriend; she grows very close to Fern but that never becomes a romantic relationship, either.

It’s a tale of two parts — first, the misfit girl making a world for herself, then a drastic shift into a girl gets raped, girl gets revenge story. (At the beginning of the story, Rachel’s 15, and it’s not clear how much time passes over the course of the book.) Rachel’s perspective is what keeps the novel so readable. She may be something of an unreliable narrator; at times she seems not very self-aware, seeing herself as a victim even in situations where her own actions are cruel. But that’s not to take away from the fact that she and Fern go through a lot of crap as young women trying to find a place in what is not just a very masculine scene but a downright misogynistic one. Rachel and Fern keep having to prove their place as metal fans, then as metal musicians, to everyone around them.

One of the key elements throughout the book is Artemisia Gentileschi’s paiting of Judith beheading Holofernes. Early on the fact that it’s a painting by a woman of two women killing a man gives Rachel inspiration in her artwork. After she and Fern are beaten and raped, it’s the model for their planned revenge, Rachel deciding she will be Judith, Fern her assistant, and the man who raped Rachel her Holofernes. (The fact that there’s another painting of Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes is not insignificant.)

And this is where I really begin to question Rachel’s reliability as narrator. She’s been cruel, she’s been violent, though she’s presented those moments in ways that mitigate her responsibility or demonstrate some regret. But her unlikely plan is for her band to get popular enough that she can take revenge on the more famous band who assaulted her and Fern, preferably before an audience, and sure enough, their smalltown band rapidly grows more famous. But as they get closer to their planned revenge, Fern and Rachel seem to trade places, Fern becoming the violent one, taking the lead, becoming Judith. Suddenly Rachel isn’t sure she wants to go through with it, once they reach the point where they could actually achieve their unlikely plan, and it’s Fern who starts it, Rachel who follows. We only ever have Rachel’s perspective on events, so maybe she’s telling the truth, but she may also be spinning (consciously or not) the story to put more of the blame on Fern. One of her regrets about murdering her rapist is that she didn’t say something witty first. The closing chapter shows just how far gone Rachel is.

The only people I really talk to are my psychologist, and the girl I share my cell with — but she’s crazy. We don’t have much in common, but we get along okay, I guess. […]

The point was never to ruin anyone’s life or waste anyone’s time. The point was just revenge.

Side points: it’s not clear exactly when or where this novel is set. Sometimes it feels like the pre-web era, but gradually there’s more mention of the Internet and cellphones. Maybe the story covers a longer span of time than seems to be the case. Rachel’s hometown is Keeleford, two hours away from the much larger city of St. Charles. There is a St. Charles in Ontario… with a population of about a thousand people. I assume St. Charles and Keeleford are stand-ins for Toronto and London, Ontario.

As for music… though Rachel is obsessed with death metal, all the bands mentioned in the book, as far as I can tell, are fictional, and at least one reviewer has complained about the somewhat cliched portrayal of the metal scene. On the other hand, others have agreed with Taylor’s portrayal of the misogynistic crap women in rock, not just metal, often have to put up with, and Taylor herself has been in the goth/synthpop/metal band the Birthday Massacre (originally known as Imagica) since 1999. Their early days starting out in London would have overlapped the rise of all-female London nu-metal band Kittie, whose 2000 debut album was a big hit and may have provided some inspiration here.

To sum up, despite some weaknesses, this is a strong and suspenseful story with a compellingly strange narrator.

Review: Salvage by Stephen Maher August 25, 2016

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cover89220-mediumThis was supposed to be a Netgalley review, and I did post it over there, but I was a bit late in getting to this one. I’m not a fan of pdfs for novels. Great for magazines, comics, and illustrated nonfiction, but for novels, give me epubs. And the publisher gave me a pdf.

However… the description of the book intrigued me more than a little. I ended up buying a very reasonably priced epub through Kobo and raced through the book.

Stephen Maher is better known for his political journalism than his novels — this is his second — but after this one, that may change. His first novel, Deadline, was an Ottawa-based, politically-tinged mystery novel, and it was pretty good. But Maher’s roots are down east; he’s lived and worked in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and Salvage is set in small town Nova Scotia.

Maybe it’s partly because I left Nova Scotia 30 years ago (after university in Halifax) and have been in Ottawa since, but Salvage feels fresher and more vibrant than Deadline. The characters feel bigger and broader in some respects, but then a south shore sailor like Philip Scarnum, who’s smart and educated but often plays the hick, is bound to be a different kind of person from the usual Ottawa media, bureaucracy, and politics types. He’s capable of being cold and amoral in the pursuit of survival, though, so maybe not all that different…

The characters sometimes feel a little larger than life. There’s a definite pulpishness around the edges, but it’s the good kind, not the disposable trash kind. Maher gives the impression of knowing his locale and its kind of people, and he knows more about boats and sailing than I do, so I can’t criticize that. He also manages to build up the suspense as he goes. His prose is clean clear, the dialogue generally realistic. It’s the kind of book you want to keep reading.

This is suspense, not mystery; it becomes clear who the bad guys are fairly quickly, and there aren’t too many twists along the way, but Scarnum is weaving his way through a tangled plot involving different factions. That most of the characters have known each other for many years, living in a small town, makes things more difficult. Loyalties are divided, relationships messy. It all culminates in confrontation and violence and a satisfying payoff.

Somewhere, I hope, someone’s thinking of putting together a financing deal to make a film based on this novel, maybe with Allan Hawco as Scarnum. Most of the Canadian movie makers I can think of lean towards the artsier end of cinema, but there must be someone who’d like to bust loose with an east coast smugglers’n’gangsters movie. I’d certainly go see it. I’m also curious what Maher might be thinking of doing in his next novel, assuming he has plans for one.

Review: Congratulations on Everything by Nathan Whitlock August 25, 2016

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congratulations-on-everything.jpg.size.custom.crop.421x650On Canada Day, Kobo had a lot of Canadian novels on sale cheap. I bought half a dozen, and this was one of them.

Nathan Whitlock, apparently, is part of the modern Canadian literary establishment, having published a couple of novels, written for a variety of magazines, and worked at Quill & Quire, the news magazine of the Canadian publishing industry. So this is emphatically not genre fiction. Fortunately, it’s not old school CanLit, either. It’s set in Rob Ford’s Toronto, not some small town. Avoiding one of the usual cliches of literary fiction as genre, the book doesn’t feature a writer or academic as its protagonist, either.

Basically, this is the occasionally funny minor tragedy of a schmo. Jeremy is an unpretentious and not terribly bright guy whose great goal in a life guided by the aphorisms of his favourite self-help writer is to own and run a bar. He’s always worked in the service industry, including a spell in a chain pub, and finally manages to get his own. It should come as no surprise that, eventually, he screws everything up — not least because Whitlock tells you at the end of the first chapter that everything will go to hell for Jeremy.

Whitlock is a good writer, and he creates believably flawed characters. But there’s not really much plot here. It’s the slow motion unraveling of Jeremy’s plans, almost always through his own oblivious cluelessness or drunkenness (or, to be fair, the occasional well-meaning gesture), that gives a little suspense to the book. And even then things really only go to heck, not hell. Jeremy’s still around. Though when everything hits the fan, we don’t really see how it hits him directly. Instead, the story switches perspective to another character for the last few pages. Time’s passed and we get only an outside view of where Jeremy is now.

Still, for the small stakes and scale of the book, I enjoyed it. Some of the supporting characters manage to be surprising once in a while. And while you may wish you could reach into the book and give Jeremy a good shake or a whack upside the head every so often, he’s generally an amiable enough dolt.

If you want to think of this as lit for lads, well, it’s a lot more palatable than a lot of what Nick Hornby’s turned out after High Fidelity. It also reminds me (being more a genre fan than a literary fiction fan, for the most part) of Philip K. Dick’s mainstream novels. He had a series of books no publisher would touch until he died, tales of losers trying to keep their struggling businesses and struggling relationships from going down the tubes. His protagonists were the authors of their own misfortunes as much as Jeremy is here, but they’re frequently less pleasant people. Whitlock’s female characters are a lot more real and likeable, too. The women in the book are capable of making their own share of bad decisions but at least some of them have their heads screwed on tighter than many of the male characters.

Worth the time and money I spent on it, certainly.

Back up to 80% on Netgalley! August 10, 2016

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I’ve had a lot of enjoyable free reads through Netgalley that I’ve blogged and posted about hither and yon, and discovered some good books for my actual work library, too, so I feel guilty if I slip below the 80% reviewed level for the books I request and receive. The last review bumped me back up over the line. So, here are my badges thus far.

80%2016 NetGalley ChallengeFrequently Auto-Approved

Reviews Published2015 Challenge ParticipantProfessional Reader

Netgalley does a good service for writers and publishers, not just reviewers. I know I’ve brought books to the attention of people who might not have come across them otherwise. Probably doesn’t hurt that I’ve occasionally gone and bought other books from the same author or publisher after reviewing something.

Just in case you were wondering why I namecheck Netgalley so often around here…

Edited to add: 100 Book Reviews

Review: The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy by Paula Mejia August 10, 2016

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Yes! Netgalley again! This is a review written in exchange for an advance electronic galley from the publisher via Netgalley.jamcp

So here’s a book from the 33 1/3 series, bringers of wonders and delights and occasional wtf moments, about an album I love.

Which is why I want to love this book: I love Psychocandy. I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain on TV in 1985. A month or two later, I bought the 7″ of “Never Understand” and a friend bought the 7″ of “Upside Down.” They were great, but then came Psychocandy and the sharp left turn of “Just Like Honey” and I was even more impressed. I bought all their albums, saw them on the Automatic tour, etc.

So I want to love this book because I love the album. But it feels like I’m the wrong audience for it. Instead of a deep dive into the album, it feels more like a book by and for people half my age discovering a classic album long after it was released. I assume that’s the reason for the Britney Spears stuff. Situating the JAMC’s catchy noise merits a discussion of pop, maybe even bubblegum pop (though the usual touchstones are the Beach Boys and girl groups for that side of their sound), but the pop discussion generally seems a bit historically off and very American. I’m not British but it’s always seemed to me that the UK and the US don’t necessarily mean quite the same thing when they use the word “pop.”

Mejia reads like she had fun writing the book, going off on digressions about candy, falling into hipster or rockcrit-speak occasionally (“punk-surged”?), and clearly expressing her own enthusiasm for what we agree is a great album. But while she did research and interviews, I don’t feel I encountered much that was new to me. There’s no rule that a book in the 33 1/3 series has to talk about recording studios, equipment, production techniques, unreleased tracks, or the like, but I could have used a bit more focus on the record.

Still, considering some of the albums the 33 1/3 people have chosen to cover in recent books, this is a positive sign and a readable, occasionally fun book. If it keeps people under 50 interested in the Jesus and Mary Chain, job well done.

Review: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson August 7, 2016

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cover87989-mediumAnother Netgalley review, though I’ve had a Tor.com page about this book open in an iPad browser tab for some time to make sure I didn’t miss it. So an honest review for a free preview of something I would gladly have paid for, and in this case, I’d’ve still been glad after reading it. Anyway:

Kij Johnson does something here that Lovecraft readers have needed for some time. Well, a couple of somethings, really.

First, and most importantly, Lovecraft was a product of his time in ways that are, frankly, difficult to accept now. His stories were at times appallingly racist, and he rarely portrayed female characters at all, never mind sympathetically.

Second, and important to Lovecraft readers, Lovecraft has become known as a weird recluse who wrote horror stories. Which, at times, he was, but not all of his work was horror. Some was science fiction, and some was fantasy. For example, one of his longer works, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which was about a human traveler in the Dreamlands, a real place where dreamers go but few remember. It’s connected to a few of his other stories and, though it features monsters and some of the entities from his other stories known as the Cthulhu mythos, the overall tone is very different. They’re tales of wonder and nostalgia, not horror, and owe a debt to Dunsany”s fantasy tales.

In The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson revisits the Dreamlands in a story that’s notable both because it specifically addresses the place of women in Lovecraft’s fiction and because, unlike the majority of the hundreds — or thousands — of Lovecraft-influenced stories, it deals with the Dreamlands, not the Cthulhu Mythos.

Johnson does the former by telling her story from the perspective of a native of the Dreamlands, a woman professor all too conscious of the lack of respect her college and students get from the male majority, Hers is a world where women are a minority, and where gods powerful and less so interfere with human lives. When one of her students goes missing with a man from the waking world, she has to travel the Dreamlands to try to find her before she travels to our world — because the student doesn’t yet realize her true place in her world, and Boe’s adopted home is at risk.

In Lovecraft’s original tale, Randolph Carter travels through the Dreamlands seeking a city he remembers, encountering many strange things and places. Vellitt Boe has a similar journey; her story echoes in his in some ways, while commenting on it and subverting some elements of it.

Brian Lumley set several novels in the Dreamlands, but his were uninvolving sword and sorcery tales that happened to be set there. (The first one was, at least; I didn’t enjoy it, so I didn’t carry on with the rest of the books.) Johnson’s story is much more thoughtful. She’s also much more of a prose stylist,

It should be mentioned that it isn’t at all necessary to be familiar with Lovecraft to enjoy this story. It may simply seem to be an enjoyable weird tale rather than a dialogue with a problematic writer, but don’t let that stop you.

Review: My Beer Year by Lucy Burningham July 3, 2016

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cover90704-mediumIf you wondered to yourself if this might be another Netgalley review, written in exchange for a free advance electronic reading copy, well, damn, you’re smart. It is.

My Beer Year is a smart, well-written exploration of the current world of beer. It starts off a little Portlandia, as a couple moves to Portland so she can be a writer and beer expert and he can start a custom bicycle business; there’s definitely a strong hipster vibe.

But there’s also a lot of good information told in a generally engaging way. Burningham’s quest to become a cicerone leads her across the US and Europe to learn ever more about beer styles, beer history, how beer is brewed, and the much greater complexity in the process than many might expect.

It seems like a pretty well-timed book, with craft beer just getting bigger and bigger, and it focuses on Burningham’s personal experience, which goes a long way to make it readable for people not obsessive about learning the kinds of things a beer expert is expected to know. It’s by no means a dry history of brewing or anything like that. Halfway between beer guide and memoir. It could easily lend itself to being a TV documentary miniseries, following Burningham to different beer-related locales. I’d give it a shot.

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane June 26, 2016

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cover90653-mediumAnother Netgalley review, written in exchange for a free advance e-copy.

This is an odd one. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson encounter the world of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser? Strange but true.

Short version: it’s cheesy pulp stuff, not on par with either Conan Doyle or Barker, but I raced through it anyway.

Unlike the usual Holmes pastiche, this one is only occasionally told from Watson’s perspective, because Kane wants to follow Holmes through places Watson doesn’t go. This is a Holmes who’s returned from Reichenbach Falls a changed man, one who’s causing Watson concern. It turns out something strange happened the the Falls and Holmes suspects something bad is coming, so he tries to distance himself from Watson and others. The situation gets off to a slow start with a series of unlikely disappearances, but as the Hellraiser material works its way into the story, things get stranger and stranger, until (spoiler) you end up with Watson and an even more changed Holmes leading a war in Hell — with the Cenobites on their side.

Kane tries at times to emulate Conan Doyle’s style but keeps letting anachronistic turns of phrase slip in. No one’s going to read this and marvel at its beautiful prose. But, aside from moments (that may have been cleaned up since the galley) of awkward phrasing and repetition, the book flows well enough.

Kane, an expert on Hellraiser, apparently, throws in any number of references to the original Barker story and the many movies, short stories, and comics that expand on its mythology, He also throws in references to the works of other writers– friends, presumably. After all the references, I started taking for granted that any character mentioned had apppeared somewhere else already. More dedicated Hellraiser fans than I will be spotting names and plot points from any number of sources. (I was a big Barker fan from the mid-80s through the mid-90s or so.)

I’m not going to try to make a case for this being a particularly good book. I will say that, approached with the right attitude and expectations, it can be enjoyable enough. I just think it would have been stronger if it had hewn closer to the Holmes canon and not felt the need to overdo the Hellraiser references.

Review: Asphalt for Eden by dälek May 6, 2016

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asphaltdälek returns after a hiatus of several years with some lineup changes. That could be cause for alarm, not least because they developed and refined a unique noise/hiphop sound over the course of their past albums. Would they lose what made them work? Or, conversely, would they try too hard to recapture that sound and end up just imitating past glories?

Turns out there was no need for concern. The elevator pitch description of their sound — Public Enemy meets My Bloody Valentine — still fits. You’ve got swirling layers of noise and texture, plenty of bass pressure, and MC dälek rapping over it all.

So far, so familiar. But it still manages to feel like a progression because there are more melodic touches in the music. At times it’s reminiscent of some of the ambient dub and shoegazer dub experiments bands like Scorn, Bowery Electric, and Seefeel ventured into in the ’90s.

At the same time, the vocals have been moved up in the mix. The rapping sometimes got almost lost in the noise squalls on past albums. During the hiatus, Will Brooks dropped the dälek name and released some old school hiphop albums as IconAclass (well worth checking out in their own right). Brooks has a lot to say, and maybe the IconAclass albums reminded him of the importance of letting people actually hear his words.

Asphalt for Eden sounds fresh and reinvigorated, not that they ever lacked for vigor, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, with seven tracks in under 40 minutes. Often a band who’ve produced some classic music come back after a break with something that’s perfectly respectable and solid and after a few listens you forget about it and go back to the old stuff. That won’t happen with this one. It’s as vital as anything else they’ve done. I just hope it’s not long before the next album.

Review: Alien: The Weyland-Yutani Report, text by SD Perry April 22, 2016

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cover88137-mediumThis is another Netgalley review, a review in exchange for a free advance e-galley of the book. This is based on a pdf that includes a note that it may not be the final version.

S.D. Perry has written a few Alien tie-in novels, but this book is something different, a report on what the Weyland-Yutani Corporation has learned about the alien xenomorphs in a series of encounters (the four Alien movies and Prometheus).

It’s a large illustrated book, laid out magazine-style with text boxes over large images. Most of the images are taken directly from the movies, but there are also illustrations of aliens, weapons, and vehicles. The text sections include notes on the alien life cycle and other things you’d expect in an in-universe corporate report: corporate history, summaries of encounters, quotes of dialogue, character biographies, and a brief overview of the possible benefits for the corporation if they can acquire and manage a number of xenomorphs.

Personally, I’d like the book better if it had more new illustrations and fewer screen captures, and if it had more text. It doesn’t take long to get through. But I’m judging it from a galley pdf. There’s a note in the pdf that the final version may have more content, and the screen captures will no doubt look a lot clearer than the murky pdf versions, so the final version may well be more impressive.

Review: Blondie’s Parallel Lines by Kembrew McLeod April 22, 2016

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cover82319-mediumAnother Netgalley review!

There’s no shortage of books about the late 1970s New York scene, from Please Kill Me to loads of Ramones books to several others in the 33 1/3 series. McLeod covers some of the same territory in the early pages — the Velvet Underground, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, the New York Dolls, Wayne County, Suicide, Television, Patti Smith, etc — but soon enough turns his attention to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein and the development of Blondie and its predecessor bands. The book offers a quick history of Blondie up to the breakup and mentions the reunion, but it largely focuses on the making of and reception to Parallel Lines.

Blondie was one of the few bands from the punk scene to break out into mass commercial success. They were never a noisy punk band, more on the performance art side, but they also loved classic girl group pop, and were willing to work with a big producer who could push them to the next level. And it all came together on this album.

McLeod differentiates his book from other NY scene books by looking at the punk and disco scenes, what it meant for Blondie to record a song like “Heart of Glass,” etc, and how Blondie navigated issues of gender and sexuality. He discusses camp and the way Debbie Harry, whose image was originally intended ironically, was turned into a conventional sex symbol as part of the move to the mainstream, not entirely the way Blondie intended, despite Harry’s openness and positivity about sex. He also occasionally points out how another New York bottle blonde would build on this in the 1980s.

There are a couple of moments where McLeod starts sounding like he’s writing a cultural studies paper, and others where he gets slangy and bloggy, but in general he maintains a straightforward and readable prose style. He also interviewed a lot of the key players, including most of Blondie.

All in all, not the flashiest entry in the 33 1/3 series, but a solid and thoughtful exploration of a great moment in pop, disco, and punk/new wave history.

Review: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar April 21, 2016

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CentralStationYep, it’s another Netgalley review, this one for a book due out from Tachyon in a few weeks.

Wow. This is about as science fiction as science fiction gets. First, it’s loaded with science fictional elements, set centuries in the future in a space port city populated by humans, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and others. Tidhar has done a lot of work to create a vividly imagined future that feels real and lived in.

At the same time, it’s meta science fictional. The book is full of references to the work of other science fiction writers. One character is described as a Shambleau, a concept from an old C.L. Moore story; some Mars colonists rebuild their bodies to resemble the denizens of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom; there are also many recognizable references to the works of Cordwainer Smith, Philip K. Dick, and others.

All that said, Central Station is not a plot-driven book. Constructed from a series of related short stories, the book is much more about character and setting than plot or action. The story has several main characters with a variety of past and present relationships. There are some flashbacks to past events but in general the book follows the tangling lives of several residents of the city around Central Station. They’re an ethnically diverse group, Arab, Jewish Israeli, African, Chinese, and combinations thereof, living between Arab Jaffa and Israeli Tel Aviv, in a culture that combines historic and futuristic cultures, from Judaism to robot religions. Not just ethnically diverse, either — robotnik ex-soldiers, robots, augmented humans. But they’re all real and distinct characters.

Maybe it’s the book’s structure, but there were some things that I thought Tidhar was leading up to that never happened, and some mysteries that aren’t fully resolved. Even so, I greatly enjoyed the book, the world, and its characters, and I hope Tidhar does more with the world of Central Station.

I wonder what the morose canines will make of this. On the one hand, it’s overflowing with diversity. There’s not a single white, heterosexual, American male character in the book, as far as I can recall. There’s not a lot in the way of action and adventure. But it’s a book fully engaged with the history of the genre, drawing on decades’ worth of the good old stuff. I don’t read as much science fiction as I used to, but I’d love to read more like this. Pure science fiction with solid literary virtues. I expect people will be talking a lot about this one.

Review: The Ontario Craft Beer Guide by Robin LeBlanc and Jordan St. John April 17, 2016

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9781459735668Another Netgalley review, based on a free advance e-galley in exchange for a review. I’ll be buying a print copy, though, for the record.

First off: I am part of the target market for this book. I live in Ottawa, where there are at least a couple dozen craft breweries within an hour’s drive. I enjoy beer. I’ve got t-shirts from a few of the breweries discussed in the book and will undoubtedly buy more. (Craft brewery t-shirts are the new band t-shirts. Now, if only more breweries would sell t-shirts sized for people who look like they actually drink beer….)

Given that the authors are Toronto-based, I was concerned the book would be Toronto-centric, but LeBlanc and St John clearly did their research. One Ottawa brewery that opened just a few months ago (the wonderful Tooth and Nail) is included, as well as the more established ones.

As to the book itself: there’s a brief introduction on the history of Ontario brewing, lists of breweries and brew pubs, top 5 lists for various styles of beer, and a glossary, but the bulk of the book is the guide. There must be hundreds of breweries in here, from all over Ontario. There’s generally a page or two for each one, with address and contact info, a short description/history, then a rundown on their key beers, usually with a rating on a 1 to 5 scale.

Even though the book will inevitably become dated and incomplete over the next few years, I expect it’ll sell well and be used as a checklist/shopping list for Ontario craft beer fans, and as the starting point for a lot of good discussions and arguments on the merits of the beers and breweries described. I can see myself lugging a print copy around with me. It may also serve as an inspiration for regions with fewer craft brewers.

Incidentally, I just remembered that I have a much older book that covers some similar ground: Jamie MacKinnon’s Ontario Beer Guide from 1992. It’s a much thinner book despite including major breweries as well as independents. There are more breweries in some Ontario cities now than there were in the whole province back then. Still, looking through it again was fun. There’s Brick Amber Dry, which was my standby for a year or two, and Upper Canada Dark, which was pretty good for a while, and a few that are still going strong with support from the majors, like Sleeman and Creemore.

Rickard’s Red shows up in the Molson section as one of its higher rated beers (and the only variety of Rickard’s); younger beer drinkers probably have no idea that 20 or 25 years ago it was almost revolutionary for a major to make a beer that was a different colour and had a bit more flavour than their usual varieties. There was even an advertising campaign for another beer that was all about reminding beer drinkers that beer was supposed to be yellow-gold in colour, and anything else was a crazy gimmick. Yep, times have changed.

 

Review: The Bricks That Built The Houses April 7, 2016

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bricksAnother Netgalley review.

Not perfect, but more than worth a look before the inevitable film or miniseries adaptation.

I first heard of Kate Tempest through a review of her album Everybody Down that compared it to the likes of A Grand Don’t Come for Free by the Streets, another London rap album that tells a story over the course of its songs, and one of my favourite albums of the last decade or more. Everybody Down introduces a cast of characters who intersect in a variety of ways, bad relationships, drug deals gone wrong, and more.

The Bricks That Built the Houses is an alternative and greatly expanded take on the same story. We meet all of the characters, get background flashbacks on their parents, see how their social webs intertwine in unexpected and sometimes dangerous ways. Characters make bad decisions. People fall in and out of love. There’s some violence, some sex, some philosophical musing, a lot of drugs and drinking.

There’s also Tempest’s style. She may have a rap album out but she started as a poet and a playwright, and it shows; her prose isn’t particularly naturalistic but has a bit of her spoken flow. The dialogue goes from street realistic to dramatically unrealistic.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the publisher would like to see this get labeled a Trainspotting for a new generation — not much in the way of conventional plot, a distinctive writing style, a young writer looking at the lives of the young people of her city. It’s also part of the long tradition of big London novels, though it’s more about its people than the place.

One major difference from Trainspotting is that the most important characters here, and the strongest, are women. One is lesbian, one bisexual. The strongest male character might as well be asexual; another is a loser who ends a relationship with a pathetic betrayal.

The book feels very much the work of a young person. The overtly political scenes (relatively few) come across as a bit idealistic. The middle-aged characters don’t feel as real as the younger characters. Many of the characters are trying to work out what they’re going to be when they grow up, and their goals and the ways in which they’d like to realize them aren’t always the most realistic.

The book drags a bit at times, and it’s occasionally hard to remember all the webs of connection between the cast of characters, but there are plenty of scenes that speed things up and engage the reader fully, It’s not hard to visualize this as a film or miniseries and if the book is a success I can’t imagine it not being optioned by someone. That way we’ll have three versions of the story.

No idea how I’d rate this on the 1 to 5 scale. I think it’s flawed, but it’s ambitious and it’s written in a distinctive style, and most of the time it kept me reading and immersed in the story. I like the multimedia connections, too — having the album made me want to give this book a try.

The real question is, will this be read mainly by middle aged literary readers looking for an insight into the youth of today as presented by a hip, award-winning young poet, or will it catch on with mainstream readers? I expect this will get some wildly different responses from different quarters, but I’d be surprised if it’s ignored (in the UK, anyway). And if Trainspotting could catch on in North America, no reason this shouldn’t; it’s a much easier read.

Review: The Norths Meet Murder by Frances and Richard Lockridge April 1, 2016

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cover85679-mediumOpen Road Media is a publisher specializing in ebooks, bringing a lot of old classics and newer works into the digital age. They also make some of their books available through Netgalley, which is where I got this as a free ebook in exchange for a review.

The Norths Meet Murder is the first in a series of 26 mystery novels featuring a married couple who get caught up in murder along with a New York police detective lieutenant. Though not terribly well known now, in their time they were popular enough to be adapted for Broadway, film, radio, and TV.

Though I’ve been a mystery/crime fiction fan for decades, this is my first trip into the world of Mr and Mrs North. And it wasn’t entirely what I expected. I thought it would be a bit closer in style to the Thin Man movies based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and it only had a hint of that — and it’s certainly a fair distance removed from Craig Rice’s screwball mysteries featuring Mr and Mrs Justus and their friend John J Malone.

Mr and Mrs North are interesting characters with a line in banter and a taste for cocktails, but they’re guest stars in this book, which is much more about Detective Lieutenant Weigand, an equally interesting but more serious cop character, and Detective Mullins, Weigand’s hard-done-by assistant. Weigand is the primary viewpoint character.

As for the story — it’s a classic police detective mystery. It is neither noir nor hardboiled. It is, however, very much about New York City in 1940, with plenty of telling details. There’s no sex but there are certainly references that would be toned down for a 1940 movie. People tend to be pretty blase about extramarital affairs, and one key character reads as gay. The writers seem to be fairly openminded about different racial and ethnic groups, if still inclined to some stereotyping.

Overall, it’s a solid, old-fashioned mystery. I’ll probably try at least a couple more to see if the Norths become more prominent in the series named after them, and, assuming they do, to see how that changes the dynamic and the degree of humour in the books.

Review and reminiscence: Head of David, Dustbowl March 20, 2016

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headIn the late 1980s I bought a punk/metal/weirdness zine, Chemical Imbalance, with a cover mount EP featuring songs by Band of Susans, UT, Head of David, and, for something completely different, Sun Ra. I’d read about Band of Susans and Head of David in the context of Sonic Youth-like noise rock, and it was the latter’s track that most connected with me out of the noise scrawls on the EP.

It’s a kind of music that probably makes sense again now, in this Internet-powered age of all music of all time everywhere at once, and in some small circles it made sense in the late 1980s. But I didn’t hear anything much like it for a long time in between. It’s about as slick as an army issue wool blanket, Steve Albini’s raw production doing absolutely nothing to smooth the rough edges. It probably doesn’t sound much different from their demo tapes. As for where it fits musically… Justin Broadrick from grindcore metal band Napalm Death played drums and did some vocals on this album before starting industrial metal noise legends Godflesh. It’s repetitive, grinding, riff-heavy hard rock, the sound of a mining robot lost in the desert, sandblown and rusting , with sometimes rough shouted vocals, sometimes murmured almost spoken vocals, a million miles removed from anything in mainstream metal at the time. It seems likely that Head of David shared a lot of influences with early Spacemen 3 and Loop, especially the psychedelic sludge of the early Stooges, with New York noise rock and British heavy metal and, hell, maybe some early Killing Joke added to the mix.

It’s a funny thing, but I bought this album 25-odd years ago on vinyl and didn’t get into it as much as I expected because it sounded kind of thin on my stereo. The mp3s coming out of my laptop speakers almost sound better. The drums pound, the bass holds down a queasy bottom end, and riffs and squeals of guitar all but drown out the distorted vocals.

All in all, this is a damn good album I should listen to more often, not just a footnote in Steve Albini’s production resume or Justin Broadrick’s musical history. (My favourite project of his is Jesu. You can draw a line from one to the other but you wouldn’t confuse them.)

So, the reminiscence. Yes, it’s easy to find a ridiculous amount of music on the Internet. And there’s a lot of information about music on the Internet. You can flood yourself. But back in 1988 or ’89 that wasn’t the case. You had to go to independent music stores or stors that carried really big selections of magazines and look for obscure magazines like Forced Exposure, Chemical Imbalance, The Big Takeover, and others to find out about the music that wasn’t on the radio. They didn’t exactly publish regularly, either. So when you found one it was a good day. And then, when you read about some band and thought, damn, this sounds cool, there was no guarantee you’d be able to find anything by them. It could be frustrating as hell.

So, you know what? Forget the wallowing in nostalgia. You can get almost any recorded music legally now in a matter of minutes.

Um. Except for this album. Not on iTunes, not on eMusic, not on Bandcamp, and only available on used physical formats on Amazon. Well, so much for that. Looks like you’ll have to check it out on youtube then figure out where to pirate a copy. Or buy used. Sorry. But hey, now you kinda know what it used to be like, back when you might read about a record and not find a copy until a year or two later. I don’t miss that.

Review: The Gulf by Cody Quijano-Schell March 19, 2016

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105coverHere’s a niche item. It’s the first of a series of ebook original novellas combining Mexican luchadors (masked wrestlers) and science fiction — and it’s a spinoff of a spinoff from the Doctor Who tie-in novels.

Cody Quijano-Schell introduced the protagonist of the series in a short story in an Obverse Books anthology devoted to the character Iris Wildthyme. (Iris sort of first appeared in non-Doctor Who fiction by her creator, Paul Magrs, but Iris as she is known these days then appeared in a few Doctor Who novels by Magrs. It’s a long story.) Anyway, Señor 105 (a.k.a. Señor Cientocinco) made a definite impression. He had a short story collection of his own and then a series of ebooks starting back in 2012.

The Gulf picks up where the previously published stories left off. Señor 105 was mentored by wrestlers who named themselves after the classical elements — Agua, Fuego, etc — but believes that a wrestler in the Atomic Age should look to the elements of the periodic table (hence the series title, The Periodic Adventures of Señor 105). He has masks for each element and changes his name as new elements are discovered. He is a scientist, an adventurer, an explorer. His companion is a sentient sphere of gas contained in a balloon.

The Gulf is named after Chicxulub, where the asteroid impact believed to have killed off the dinosaurs occurred. An evil group known as the Terrible Lizards are rescuing ancient alien technology from the Gulf — the asteroid impact wasn’t quite what it seemed — and using it for evil acts when not auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Señor 105 and Sheila, the intelligent helium, are dragged in to the story when they’re rescued from a trainwreck by a mysterious woman. The trainwreck was, of course, the work of the  Terrible Lizards. On their way to investigate, they encounter a woman in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform and her horse. She’s an investigator and crime fighter trying to prove that the RCMP should allow women to join. The four team up to work together, with occasional assistance from the mysterious woman.

The story builds on an altered version of Doctor Who history involving the lost twin planet of Earth, but instead of providing thinly disguised Whoniverse worlds and cultures, it puts a spin on them. It distances Señor 105’s world a bit farther from the Doctor’s reality.

The story is entertaining enough, but Quijano-Schell comes off as a bit of a new writer. He isn’t in full control of tenses or point of view, and he seems to forget about a character or two for a couple of chapters. Overall, though, it’s a quick and fun read. Definitely recommended for Doctor Who fans without enough to read, and for people looking for something very different in their pulpy SF adventure.

Review: The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker et al March 13, 2016

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TheFadeOut_vol03-1



Last year I got the first third of the Fade Out miniseries (12 issues reprinted in three volumes) as a free review e-copy from Netgalley. Recently I picked up all three print volumes. I’ll start by recycling the old review…

I’ve been meaning to give Ed Brubaker a try for a long time. I like noir. I just haven’t read a lot of it in comic format.

And The Fade Out is classic Hollywood noir in the vein of 1940s novels and movies like Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming and more recent takes like James Ellroy’s LA Quartet (kicking off with a reference to Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party). This is the start of a series that I’m definitely going to follow.

What we get here are the first four issues of Brubaker’s comic about murder, the Red Scare, and the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s. Nothing much is resolved by the end of this volume. To the contrary — new questions are being raised, and the scope of the story opens up. If the goal is to make you want to see what comes next, it certainly worked for me.

The story is definitely a modern, not contemporary, take on noir. The language and sexual content wouldn’t have come close to getting through the Hays Office. Readers who miss 1940s and ’50s noir movies but don’t like more explicit modern takes on noir might not care for this, but then they probably don’t read comics anyway. Speaking of comics, the art here is quite good, clear and capturing the look and feel of the era quite well.

It’s hard to say much more, given that this is only the beginning of what may be a long and complex story. But it’s a very strong beginning.

So, having read the whole thing… I loved it. It tells a complete story, albeit one that leaves some questions unanswered — explicitly, at least. As Brubaker’s pointed out in interviews, there’s a lot in there that isn’t handed to the reader on a platter.It’ll definitely stand up to a rereading or two.

The structure of the story is a murder mystery, but it’s made complex by the web of relationships between the characters, and more so by the fact that a couple of the key characters have a tendency to let booze do their thinking for them.

Many of the characters have more depth than might be expected. The art is clear and expressive, the dialogue sharp. I’d love to read more of this. But this is it, at least for the time being, so I’ll have to check out some of Brubaker’s other work.

Review: Gun Crazy: The Birth of American Outlaw Cinema by Eddie Muller March 13, 2016

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guncrazyEddie Muller, as mentioned in the Goodis post below, has spent the last 20 years or so becoming one of the go-to guys on the subject of film noir. He’s written several books, but this is the first time he’s focused on a single film. And what a film.

Gun Crazy is a 1950 b movie with a devoted cult following. Neither of its stars, John Dall and Peggy Cummins, had wildly successful careers, but their performances, the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo from a MacKinlay Kantor story, and the direction by Joe Lewis make this the best doomed lovers on a crime spree movie ever.

Muller’s books on noir aren’t dry film studies texts. He’s an opinionated fan, not an academic, so his books are entertaining reads. In this book, well illustrated with photos, copies of documents, and shots from the film, he sets out to dispel some of the myths that have apparently grown about the movie — some spread by Lewis, the director, some by writers who favour the auteur theory. Muller spends a lot of time looking at the development of the story, from the Kantor short story through the script development and on through filming and editing. Along the way he provides background on Kantor, the King Brothers (the producers), Joe Lewis, writer Dalton Trumbo, and Dall and Cummins.

The film is a compelling mix of bravura filmmaking with, at times, surprising amounts of stock footage. Muller goes into detail on the two big heist scenes in the movie, the extended single shot bank robbery and the Armour heist. These scenes and others are technical feats that don’t draw attention to themselves because the viewer is caught up in the suspense.

Muller ends the book with a brief look at the undeniable influence Gun Crazy had on films like Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde. The book’s a pretty fast read, very well laid out and designed. Definitely recommended to film buffs. Order direct from Black Pool Productions.

(I’ve read another book on Gun Crazy, a BFI Film Classics book by Jim Kitses. It’s a long time since I read that one, but I’m pretty sure that the world has room for both books.)