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Review: Life on Mars novels, part two July 16, 2017

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getMake sure you’ve read part one, below, and that you’ve seen all of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. Spoilers!

Actually, I don’t want to say too much about these two. If you care enough to read this, just go read the books now.

Borstal Slags and Get Cartwright increase the continuity and the suspense. The former does things in a somewhat annoying way, though — Same gets some very important things very, very wrong. He has some pieces of the puzzle but not as many as he thinks he does, and makes things more complicated than they need to be. In typical early episode fashion, he jumps to conclusions about who’s a villain and who’s a poor misunderstood soul, putting everyone in danger.

But that’s mostly been sorted out by Get Cartwright. By then it’s clear who the real enemy is, who’s on Sam and Annie’s side, and what exactly happened in Annie’s real life. Annie is remembering and she is having a hard time with it; she disappears. Sam has to find her before it’s too late. It’s a suspenseful trip out of Manchester that puts the characters on less familiar ground.

Ashes to Ashes never really gives us all that much information about Sam and Annie, so there’s room for suspense. Overall, though, the book ends in a satisfying way, neatly tying up the story threads built up in previous volumes, giving a few characters chances to shine, and I’m glad to have read it. It also works well with Ashes to Ashes. I recommend this to fans of the two series.


Review: Life on Mars novels, part one June 30, 2017

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Life on Mars: Blood, Bullets & Blue Stratos

Why you may want to read this: there are four books that tell what happened to Sam Tyler after the end of the TV series.

Might as well start with the basics: Life on Mars was a British TV series about Sam Tyler, a modern day police officer who’s hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. There were two series of eight episodes each, followed by a sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, in which a police officer who studied the Tyler case is shot and wakes up in 1981, meeting some of the same people Tyler reported meeting. Then there’s the US TV remake, which lasted one episode longer than the UK version, in a single US season, which had the courage to resolve things in a very different fashion. But by then it barely mattered, due to miscasting and frequent changes of tone and direction.

A few years ago, a set of four Life on Mars tie-in novels were released almost surreptitiously. Even people who reviewed things like that in magazines managed to miss the news. Apparently they were originally ebook-only, no doubt part of the problem, and only later released in paperback in the UK. All four were written by Tom Graham, apparently the brother of the show’s co-creator. Whether the creators of the show had any input into or control over the books, I have no idea. (In other words: don’t ask me if these are canon.)

So far I’ve read the first two books. Reread, actually. I read those two books as soon as I knew they existed but for some reason didn’t finish the set at the time. Now, coming off a rewatch of Life on Mars, I decided to get back to them, rereading the first two books because I didn’t remember much about them at all.

Tom Graham sets out to follow up on the TV series. Sam’s made his irrevocable decision to stay in 1973. But Graham’s writing with the knowledge of how Ashes to Ashes ended, which made some big revelations that affect both series.

So… while the plots of the first two novels (Blood, Bullets & Blue Stratos and A Fistful of Knuckles) are pretty similar to regular episodes of the TV series, with Tyler involved in CID investigations in Manchester — with plenty of action, violence, and Gene Hunt dialogue — there are other developments that move the story forward. The test card girl who occasionally appeared to Sam has changed her appearance, becoming more overtly sinister, dressed in black and carrying black balloons. Sam’s seeing her when he’s wide awake, not just dreaming or half awake in his miserable flat. He’s also sleeping badly, having nightmares — and it turns out Annie Cartwright is having nightmares, too, similar to Sam’s. Speaking of Annie, the relationship between Sam and Annie continues its slow progress with significant conversations and occasional kisses but not much more so far.

Anyway, the test card girl tells Sam there’s a devil in the dark coming for him and Annie. He’s having nightmares and visions of something ominous, something that becomes more overtly active in the second book. It looks like it’s going to keep building in the next two books, leading to — well. that remains to be seen, but in Ashes to Ashes, Gene Hunt tells Alex Price that by 1981 Tyler’s dead, and there’s no mention of Annie. Another touch of Ashes to Ashes: there’s the occasional hint that there may be more to Nelson than meets the eye.

The books aren’t perfect. The cop story plots feel a bit familiar. The named CID regulars, Gene, Annie, Ray, and Chris, appear, but all those other guys — the older bearded guy, the Ray Davies lookalike, and the rest — may as well not exist. Sometimes the tension between Sam and the A Division lads feels more like the early first season than later in the show. Some of the objectionable 1973 stuff — the sexism and all that — doesn’t work quite as well without the charisma of the actors making up for it. But the second reading worked better for me than the first.

So… do I recommend them? I think I’m going to have to wait until I’ve read all four. The first two are standalone novels, for the most part, but they’re clearly building to something. I’m curious what that’ll turn out to be.

Review: Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth by Michael Blair and Joe Bucciero June 3, 2017

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Cover of Colossal YouthAn overdue Netgalley review for a long overdue book.

I first read about Young Marble Giants back around 1980. I think Lou Stathis reviewed it and made it sound pretty good. But it was 1980. I never saw a copy of Colossal Youth anywhere, so it pretty much faded out of my mind. Then, in the mid-1990s, I found a copy of Salad Days, a demo collection, in a record store, and bought it. It was pretty good, and by then it was a lot easier to order albums, so I got Colossal Youth on CD, and it was one of those albums that just fits in perfectly with everything else I listen to.

But enough about me. Colossal Youth is one of those postpunk albums that could be called antipunk, given its quiet songs, coolly amateurish and deadpan female vocals, primitive drum machine, etc, but it probably would never have existed without punk, and Hole’s cover of their song “Credit in the Straight World” shows that it isn’t really that hard to bring some YMG into noisier territory.

Everyone from Kurt Cobain to the xx, it seems, has spoken of the influence Colossal Youth had on them; you can hear it in a lot of places, odd though it must have sounded in 1979. This book sets the album and band in context as a trio from Cardiff, removed in many ways from punk, but arguably even further removed from whatever the mainstream was there at the time. It’s not one of those 33 1/3 books that talk much about the studio experience or the gear or any of the technical side of making the album, because all they had was a homemade drum machine, a ring modulator, a bass guitar, an organ, and an electric guitar — and with only three band members, few if any songs used all of those instruments, and the album only took a week or so to record.

Instead, the book talks about the music, about the contrast between the emotional lyrics written by a male band member and the unemotional way they were sung by the female band member; about being from Cardiff instead of London; about the feminism and politics that observers picked up on even when they weren’t intentional. There’s a bit about what the band members did before and after, which is especially helpful for a band with only one proper album in their discography.

The book’s a bit academic at times. You’ll see references to Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Dick Hebdige, and others. But it’s still always readable and accessible.

Overall, a much-needed tribute to an album you should know.

Review: Angelo Badalamenti’s Soundtrack from Twin Peaks by Clare Nina Norelli February 9, 2017

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cover103893-mediumYes, it’s another Netgalley review, written from a free advance e-copy.

A necessary addition to the growing Twin Peaks bookshelf, this short but informative book does a lot in its limited space.

It’s not just a look at the soundtrack album. Like many 33 1/3 books, this one puts the album in context, in this case as part of Angelo Badalamenti’s work, as part of David Lynch’s world, as part of a cult television series, and as music. Moving beyond the soundtrack, she writes about how the show used different versions of recurring themes and motifs linked with moods and characters. She includes the music from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the many pieces of music made available in recent years through the Twin Peaks Archive soundtrack project, which released a couple of hundred tracks that did not appear on the commercially released soundtrack albums.

More than the coming revival of the TV series, it’s the release of so much music from the original series that makes this such a timely book. Not that you have to be a fan of the TV series to love this music; as Norelli comments, the Twin Peaks soundtrack stands on its own. It’s not a grubby cash-in, nor is it a collection of music that doesn’t stand up to listening without the visuals. Overall, a good addition to both the 33 1/3 line and the small body of books about Twin Peaks.

(And, speaking of the Twin Peaks Archive, I don’t know how long this deal will be available or how much economic sense it makes, but you can get a lot of this music dirt cheap, legally, and legitimately. If you’ve read this far and don’t have this already, what are you waiting for?)

Review: Shine On, Marquee Moon by Zoe Howe January 2, 2017

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Shine on, Marquee Moon by Zoe Howe

Another Netgalley review.

This is… an odd book. I’m not sure it knows what it wants to be, and I’m not sure what the author was trying to do, and I’m not sure how much of the author’s initial vision made it to the finished product. Was it an expose of the rock band lifestyle? A romance/chicklit novel set in the music world? A parodic take on people in the music biz? A suspenseful tale of the kinds of madness fame and the loss of it can generate? A postmodern exercise in violating the norms of novelistic storytelling? All of the above, probably. Depends which page you’re on.

The plot: the narrator works for an 80s band having a successful comeback, and she’s in a relationship with one of the band members. SPOILERS: just as they’re planning their wedding, he goes back on heroin, putting their relationship at risk, at the same time that a new guy comes into her life, and other events threaten the band as a whole. Will she stay with her emotionally crippled junkie, or go for the wholesome, open, nice new guy? Will the manager keep the band together? Will there be any explanation of how the first person narrator can describe not only events she’s not present for, but even view events from other characters’ perspectives, sometimes switching from her own perspective to another character’s viewpoint in the space of a paragraph? (For the last one, at least: no.)

Zoe Howe has mainly written nonfiction before, which may be the source of the shifting POV problems. I have her book on the Jesus and Mary Chain but haven’t read it yet. My only concern about reading other books by her is her openness to flakiness, which at times looked like it was going to lead the book in a supernatural direction, as if there wasn’t enough going on already.

The other issue: Howe starts the book talking about the importance of shared musical taste in a very Nick Hornby High Fidelityesque manner, with her narrator being almost insistent that a potential partner who doesn’t love Television’s Marquee Moon as much as she does is probably not worth continuing with. But her fiance, who supposedly loves the album as much as she does, plays in a cartoonish Duran Duran-style band. Not quite the same kind of music as Television. And the potential new love interest — I think there may be one mention that he likes the album, but that’s about it. In the afterword Howe mentions wanting to do more in the book relating to Marquee Moon, but it didn’t happen, partly due to the cost of getting clearance to quote lyrics. It might have been a good idea to drop it entirely, because it probably doesn’t mean anything to a lot of the book’s possible audience, while those who recognize the reference and know the album are going to wonder why they’re reading about an over-the-top British New Romantic band.

A little personal context: I loved High Fidelity, I quite like Marquee Moon, and I liked some of the New Romantic bands a lot, too, though this lot come across much more Duran Duran than Ultravox or Visage. I had some high hopes for this book because I remember how the Bridget Jones Diaries books were promoted in some places as being like a woman’s version of High Fidelity or Fever Pitch, but what Helen Fielding failed to do was give her flawed and unlucky in love protagonist any great passion — any kind of interests or hobbies beyond drinking and whingeing. So Shine On, Marquee Moon looked like what I was looking for back then. And now, for that matter. I haven’t found much of Hornby’s output after High Fidelity particularly enjoyable.

I didn’t hate the book. It kept me reading, and aside from POV issues, the prose was readable. But too many characters were one-dimensional, and neither the humour and suspense really paid off. I’d call it a somewhat fun but seriously flawed first try.


Goodbye, Johnny Thunders by Tania Kindersley

Edited a bit later: So I’m on the living room floor hanging out with Katie cat in front of one of the bookcases (hardcovers and trade paperbacks, literary/mainstream/historical, authors A-L), and I notice something I’d forgotten: the book Goodbye, Johnny Thunders, by Tania Kindersley. Woman in London, romance, music, hipster New York music reference, there are definite connections to be made. Kindersley’s book, based on my dim memories of reading it twenty years ago, was a bit more coherently written than Howe’s book, if (as should be obvious from its not being mentioned above) not necessarily very memorable. But at the very least the two books are linked by Richard Hell, who spent time in a band with members of Television and another with Johnny Thunders. He’s also written novels of his own — Go Now, for example. Come to think of it, I think I’ve read that, too. But I digress. Howe isn’t the first to explore this kind of territory, and I hope she won’t be the last, because the book I’m waiting for hasn’t really been written yet.

Review: The Lovecraft Squad: All Hallows Horror by John Llewellyn Probert January 2, 2017

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cover102520-mediumAnother Netgalley free read in exchange for a review. With opinions and spoilers.

Lovecraft Squad? Misleading advertising, it seems to me. This is supposed to be the first of a series of books inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft. You could probably delete no more than a hundred words and no one reading it then would make a connection to Lovecraft.

After some strange experiences, including experiencing visions of swarms of the undead and encountering magically powerful pages of a lost Chaucer manuscript, a group of people find themselves investigating an allegedly haunted church. Strange and evil things happen, and before you know it, three of the surviving characters find themselves undertaking a long and arduous journey through Dante’s Inferno, at the end of which lies the Anarch, a giant insectoid servant of Hell. There are a few passing references to Lovecraftian story elements that don’t really work here. They feel more like they were grafted on at the last minute. There’s none of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror; this is coming out of a much more generically Judeo-Christian worldview than Lovecraft ever had.

So, looking at it as a horror novel rather than a Lovecraftian one, how does it work? Well, there are spooky and suspenseful moments, especially earlier on, but once the long journey through Hell begins, it’s just one thing after another with no real suspense. Enter an area of hell that’s based on one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell, struggle to find the way through to the next circle, repeat. All that to find out what’s actually going on. A protagonist actually asks one of the antagonists, isn’t this an overly complicated way to get what you want? Well, no one said this kind of thing was easy, is the response.

There’s an afterword that puts the book into a slightly different context: it’s sort of a prequel to some zombie apocalypse stories I’ve never heard of. Still not terribly Lovecraftian.

Overall, a bit of a slog, with some good moments but not much actual plot. At a time when so many writers are taking Lovecraft seriously and doing interesting things with his life and work, using his name for this series seems like marketing more than anything else.

More Bowie books January 2, 2017

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Thanks to Netgalley, I read a couple of books about David Bowie as free advance e-reading copies in exchange for reviews. I think both were reprints with a bit of new material added. Some comments:

Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie by Woody Woodmansey. This one’s due out right about now. As the title suggests, it’s a memoir by one of the Spiders From Mars.

There have been many books written about David Bowie, and this is one of them. It’s an inside story of the band who played with Bowie from The Man Who Sold The World through Aladdin Sane. Woody Woodmansey begins with his days as a youth discovering the joys of rock and roll, playing in small local bands and gradually moving up, playing with Mick Ronson and then being called to work with Ronson and Bowie.

It’s a time of many changes, in society and music, and Woodmansey presents it from the perspective of a northern small town lad who manages to stay away from most of the craziness. Either he kept an unmentioned diary or he has a phenomenal memory — there are details about clothes and instruments and things that I’d never remember, but I never lived through that kind of experience.

So you get a lot of the day to day life of being a rising rock drummer, playing in a popular band, being dropped just as things get huge, and keeping a life going as a professional musician, with occasional encounters with interesting people along the way. What you don’t get is much insight into David Bowie. Why did things change between Bowie and the Spiders? Must have been the drugs. There’s not much insight into anything, really; it’s not a deep book, or a gem of well-crafted prose, it’s a conversation with a geezer telling you stories of what happened. Enjoyable enough but unless you’re a Bowie obsessive who reads every book about him (not me — I don’t think I’ve read more than seven or eight) or someone really interested in the glam period of Bowie’s career, you may not need this. Though I suppose it could serve as a counterpoint of sorts to the recent Simon Reynolds book on glam, showing how all that looked to those who lived it.

And then there’s Bowie Album By Album by rock critic Paolo Hewitt, out for a couple of months now. Also what it says on the tin.

This is an excellent choice for the casual fan who wants something that puts Bowie’s albums into context, that has some good discography and chronology info, and that has a lot of photos, making it something you can browse or read through. Hewitt goes through Bowie’s life album by album, providing some context on the making and reception of each one, along with the occasional critique.

Bowie fans who already have several books in their collections may not learn a lot that’s new here, but even so it’s worth browsing for the photos.

Not much to add, really… highly recommended for anyone who wants a solid introduction to David Bowie’s career, from the early albums through Blackstar.

Review: Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds October 2, 2016

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cover98087-mediumThis is the quick Netgalley take. It’ll be expanded before too long, but, essentially, you need to buy this.

From David Bowie to Lady Gaga, from the Rocky Horror Picture Show to Janelle Monae, there’s a hell of a lot covered here. Glam or glitter rock wasn’t just a short-lived style of rock and roll. As Simon Reynolds demonstrates in Shock and Awe, glam changed how a lot of people think about popular music, and its influence never disappeared from music.

Makeup and over the top costumes. Music that borrows from the 1950s and other eras. Genderbeding. Performance over worthiness and authenticity. As Reynolds points out, with its artificiality and its habit of absorbing disparate elements to make something new, glam was music as postmodernism before people actually started talking about postmodernism. It was also entertaining.

Shock and awe is entertaining as a book, too. Reynolds is knowledgeable about music and culture, but his focus is the music and the musicians. Unlike other serious books on pop culture, this one is not overloaded with cultural theory. He’s not using glam to make points about something else, or to show his knowledge of cultural theorists, he’s writing about glam because he wants to write about glam. He quotes Baudelaire, not Baudrillard, because the former’s poetry of decadence is an obvious influence to discuss.

Reynolds brings in everyone you’d expect, Bowie, Bolan, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, the Sweet, and expands his definition to bring in musicians I wouldn’t have expected to find in this book, but whose inclusion makes perfect sense in context — Kate Bush, for example. The bulk of the book covers the 1970s, but there’s a follow-up section — almost long enough to be its own book — racing through the decades since, covering glam eruptions in forms as diverse as LA hair metal and Lady Gaga.

Anyone who loves any of this music will learn from this book. In this Internet age where everyone has access to decades of music without all the cultural baggage that comes with it, younger music fans especially can learn a lot of context for so much of what’s happening in popular music.  Recommended without reservation.

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

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content.
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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

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Life in general.
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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

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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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

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Lovecraft.
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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

Posted by sjroby in Beer, Book reviews.
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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: 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.