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Review: Marky Ramone’s Punk Rock Blitzkrieg December 14, 2014

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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Another Netgalley review.

It’s not the first Ramones book, or the first Ramones band member memoir, but it’s the first one I’ve read. Some of the revelations make me want to read a few other books to see how those situations are presented there, but for now I’ll go with Marky’s version.

Marc Bell was not one of the original Ramones lineup, but he was on the scene, playing with Wayne County and Richard Hell and the Voidoids — and if that NYC punk cred isn’t enough, he’d already been in a hard rock band that released a couple of albums and did pretty well for a while. He was a Ramone for a long stretch and saw a lot.

Bell starts his story with his family and his childhood. To be honest, I found the early chapters a bit dull; they could be the recollections of any number of aging New Yorkers. But things pick up when he starts to get some success as a musician, and once the early punk scene starts, the book started getting a lot more fun. Well, that’s what I’m interested in, so it makes sense, but it also seems to spark a lot more interesting, amusing, and sometimes disturbing anecdotes from the author.

Marky was a Ramone for a few years (including the making of the Rock and Roll High School film, the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century album, and other key moments), then was booted for a few years, at which point he finally got sober and cleaned up his act. And then he was invited to rejoin the band, and was a member to the end.

The Ramones, as presented here, are two things — a great and massively influential band who never had the success they deserved (which is, of course, quite true) and a collection of deeply messed up individuals who had serious individual problems and, in some cases, serious problems with each other. Joey was badly affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder and a lack of basic hygiene; Johnny was a chickenhawk conservative who beat his girlfriend; Dee Dee would take any drug in sight and seriously lacked any kind of impulse control. Marky’s problem was his drinking. That, at least, is the picture presented by the book. It’s a bittersweet ending — too late in the game they start getting real success in parts of the world, not just the respect of musicians, critics, and fans. And then, over too few years, Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee died. Marky tried to brighten the mood by pointing out the respect the band has now, and by mentioning the success of some of his post-Ramones endeavours — but the band members never properly reconciled. If they were all alive and healthy, there’s no reason to think a reunion could ever happen.

(I never got to see them live. I had a ticket to see them about 25 years or so ago and came down with the worst flu of my life.)

This is the second punk memoir I’ve read recently, after Viv Albertine’s, and while it may not be fair to make comparisons, I found Albertine’s book better written and more insightful. But Marky’s book is still a good read, once it gets into gear.

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Review: The X-Files: Year Zero December 6, 2014

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Another Netgalley review, this time an IDW collection of X-Files comics written by Karl Kesel with art by Vic Mahlhotra and Greg Scott.

Kind of an odd reading experience, this one. The modern day material has the feel of a classic X-Files standalone episode, with Mulder and Scully working a strange case, but its more modern touches — references to Google, etc — are a bit jarring.

The flashback story is reasonably entertaining, but the explanation for the name of the X-Files is a bit cutesy, there are unanswered questions about the entity linking the two eras, and having the first X-Files team be another man/woman team who are initially opposites… well, it seems a bit too familiar. Wikipedia tells me that it does tie in with an unmemorable first season TV episode, but it looks like the agents are newly created here.

I think it would work better if the story were a little longer. The lack of captions, telling the story entirely through dialogue, makes it go by a bit too quickly, and some of the dialogue is a little forced. (Especially the Twin Peaks reference.) It’s a reasonably diverting tale that stands well enough on its own but I don’t feel the need to read more. I’ll go back to my DVDs instead.. and what wiki tells me about the episode this draws on doesn’t convince me that it needed to be expanded on here. Still, it’ll be a little more interesting to watch this episode when I get to that DVD.

Review: Judge Dredd: Anderson, Psi-Division December 6, 2014

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This is yet another review of a book received in exchange for a review through Netgalley. In this case it’s a graphic novel collection of IDW’s take on the British comic character Psi-Judge Anderson, by writer Matt Smith and artist Carl Critchlow.

Well, this was interesting. Good art, well written, and making use of captions, not just the minimal dialogue a lot of comics do these days. It feels like a part of a larger story but stands well on its own — a good thing for me, because it’s the first Judge Anderson/Judge Dredd story I’ve read in decades.

It’s a solid story that works well as an introduction to new readers. Just enough backstory, supporting appearance from Dredd, exploration of the world the series is set in. And it works as a piece of the continuing saga for readers who’ve been following it, with story threads that look set to continue in other comics. i don’t know whether it’s rewriting continuity or presenting a faithful take on the characters and their world, because I’ve read too little of it too long ago, but on its own, it’s good.

The Dreddverse is big, stretching back for decades, more than I really want to get into in a big way. But this makes me want to read some more.

Review: Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. December 4, 2014

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Another Netgalley review written from a free advance copy. And this may be the best thing I’ve read out of the Netgalley freebies I’ve had so far. Recommended for old punks, for feminists, for women, for men.

Wow. I know of Viv Albertine as the guitarist for the Slits, and that led me to request the book, but as entertaining (and enlightening) as the chapters on those days — trying to be taken seriously as a band of women in the 1970s, dating Mick Jones, hanging out with the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and other legendary bands, and a lot of other musical adventures — are, it’s part 2 of the book, set after the Slits break up, that I found surprisingly riveting. Getting out of music, fighting cancer, becoming a mother, realizing her marriage isn’t working, and reinventing her life yet again, Albertine always comes across as frank about her occasional failings. The section about her return to music in recent years is something of a triumphant finale to the book. She may not be a household name for the Slits or for her new music, but her place in music history is guaranteed. I just bought her recent album The Vermilion Border via eMusic and it sounds pretty good. I hope both the album and the book get the attention they deserve.

For the benefit of those who are interested in the punk days, this is an exceptionally valuable addition to all those books about the Sex Pistols, the Clash, et al. There’s been at least one book about the Slits already, but not from the inside. And you haven’t seen these perspectives on Mick Jones, John Lydon, Sid Vicious, Keith Levene, and others before.

You can find some Slits and Viv Albertine videos on Youtube. Here’s one to start with: Confessions of a Milf. It’s a good smart feminist rock song, not a dumb pop song.

Review: Michael Pearce’s The Mouth of the Crocodile December 4, 2014

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Another Netgalley review, written and posted over there from a free advance reading copy. This is the latest book in a series of historical mystery novels that I got hooked on back in the 1990s but lost track of somewhere over the years. Someone should really look into doing TV versions of these, though there’d probably be debates about Orientalism, colonialism, etc. But they’re done with Poirot, so why not?

As always, an entertaining mystery story about mostly good people on multiple sides in a place complicated by colonial and domestic politics. I read a number of earlier books in this series several years ago but lost track of them, possibly due to a change of publishers or distributors, so it’s great to encounter Gareth Owen, the Mamur Zapt, again. Like many of the people he works with (and sometimes against), Owen has to balance his loyalty to the British colonial government and to the Khedive, the Egyptian leader for whom he also works. This one felt a little different from some of the others I remember, much of it being set in the Sudan, including a suspenseful few chapters set on a train caught in a desert sandstorm; it also includes some younger characters, an English boy raised in the Sudan, a young upper class Egyptian woman who sees French culture, not Egyptian or English colonial, as her birthright, and the uneducated young mistress of an Egyptian official, who become an unlikely group of friends. Not quite Gareth and Zeinab: The Next Generation, but certainly interesting lenses through which to take a fresher look at north Africa shortly before the first world war.

The mystery begins with a death but is largely driven by political and commercial machinations. It’s not hardboiled stuff, and if you’re looking for a slightly more exotic take on something like Philip Kerr’s post-WWII crime novels, this may not be what you’re after. It’s also not the most character-driven stuff out there, at least where Owen himself is concerned. But evidently the series retains its unlikely blend of optimism and cynicism, and I’ll have to track down the ones I’ve missed.

Review: Daniel Handler’s We Are Pirates December 4, 2014

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Another Netgalley review. It’ll be interesting to see whether the January launch of Handler’s novel will be affected by his big dumb racist joke about black people and watermelons at a book awards event.

Well, this was a strange, disturbing, and somewhat disjointed book. Much darker than I expected. There are two main characters: Phil Needle, whose viewpoint sections are strongly reminiscent of the hapless protagonists of Philip K. Dick’s mainstream novels, and his daughter Gwen, whose story of becoming a San Francisco pirate is a lot less fun and carefree than the description of the book suggests.

This book is going to take some time to process. Phil and Gwen don’t always seem to be in the same novel. The supporting characters aren’t developed in depth. There’s a narrator who makes odd comments about how the world used to be back when these events were occurring. I can see some people loving this book; whether it’ll be a cult classic or a mainstream success, I don’t know, but it’s a more real world kind of series of unfortunate events than any Lemony Snicket fans may be expecting. There’s a lot more to be said about the book, about middle-aged desperation and teenage desperation, family, violence, and, yes, pirates. The reactions should be all over the map.

Oh. Did I like it? I think so, but give me more time to be sure.

And now that I’ve had time… reading this once was enough, even though I suspect I missed a few things the first time through. I won’t be buying a copy later. The book doesn’t really cohere. The Philip K. Dick stuff and the gonzo kid pirates stuff would probably be better as separate novels.

Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe December 4, 2014

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Review posted at Netgalley a while back in exchange for a free advance reading copy, but first, a comment about the new trailer. If you don’t know who John Boyega is, go watch Attack the Block. It’s better than any of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And if you’re bitching about a black man in stormtrooper armor, you’re racist. It really is that simple. The troopers were clones during the Clone Wars, which is why they called them the Clone Wars. They weren’t clones during the good movies, set decades after the prequels, and there’s no reason why they should be several more decades later. Not to mention that we’ve seen Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in stormtrooper uniforms, and we don’t necessarily know that Boyega’s character is a stormtrooper any more than they were. And now for the book review.

It sometimes seems like pretty much everyone is a Star Wars fan, and virtually everyone is at least aware of it, as the book’s introduction demonstrates. But it’s also relatively easy to be a fan. You just soak it up through pop culture. Sure, there are hardcore fans and collectors, but I suspect this book will appeal most to people who’ve watched the movies a few times, maybe played the games or read the books or collected action figures, but never really looked into the story behind the story.

What you get here is a couple of books combined. There’s the history/biography that looks at how Lucas became a filmmaker and how he made the Star Wars films. Then there’s the chapters that look at some of the ways Star Wars has taken over pop culture and modern life, not unlike Jeff Greenwald’s 1998 book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth. (Different franchise, similar idea.) The way the chapters are integrated isn’t always obvious; we get a few chapters from one of stream then suddenly we’re reading a chapter from the other, like jumping to a magazine sidebar.

Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable read and I expect a fair number of people I know will be interested in it. I’m not the best qualified to judge its factual accuracy because I’ve generally been a casual fan. Since the first movie was released, but still.

The writing is solid and readable, in a fairly casual, breezy style, with one odd choice. People are generally referred to by their last names (Lucas, Kasdan, Dykstra, etc). But Alan Ladd, Jr, whose nickname was apparently Laddie, is Laddie all through the book. Likewise Irwin Kershner, known to friends as Kersh, is usually referred to as Kersh throughout the book. It feels a bit *too* casual.

I have a few factual nitpicks, too. It’s Douglas Trumbull, not Trumball. Forbidden Planet is set on Altair IV, not Altaria. At one point, someone seems to me to be describing Stanley Weinbaum’s classic short story “A Martian Odyssey,” though Taylor doesn’t seem to recognize it. There are a few other errors of dating and whatnot here and there, but the stuff I’ve noticed is generally pretty trivial.

So, yeah, I expect this’ll get a lot of buzz and do pretty well. It’s Star Wars time again.