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

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Movies.
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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

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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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

Posted by sjroby in Beer, Book reviews.
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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.