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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

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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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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.)

Review: David Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier March 12, 2016

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goodisBack around 1986, having gotten into old movies, private eye novels, and Cornell Woolrich’s noir novels in the previous few years, I discovered the Prime Crime mystery bookstore in Ottawa and, through it, one of the most important developments in crime fiction that decade: the original Black Lizard books imprint. And one of the first Black Lizard books I read I was by David Goodis. I was hooked.

The Goodis books Black Lizard reprinted were as noir as Woolrich, but bleaker. Woolrich sometimes allowed happy endings. He had a romantic streak. Fate might crush your life, but love could save it. In Goodis’s books, the characters were more likely to be the cause of their own destruction, and love was generally with exactly the wrong person if it happened at all. In one novel, as I remember it, a wino goes for a walk, has a series of adventures that reveal the series of events that brought him into the gutter, and ends up right back there at the end of the book, seemingly content — or at least indifferent.

At the time, it didn’t seem that people knew much about Goodis. He started out with a literary novel that didn’t do too well, then wrote some more popular stuff that led to a few years in Hollywood working on movies, and then a return to his home town of Philadelphia, where he wrote lurid pulp paperback novels and faded into obscurity and died, possibly as a derelict alcoholic. And then Black Lizard brought him back to the attention of readers.

Meanwhile, the story went, he was one of the many American writers translated and reprinted in France in the Serie Noire line of books, and Truffaut made a classic film of one of Goodis’s books. Because the French understood and appreciated American noir better than Americans did.

Philippe Garnier had already published the first version of his book on Goodis in France in the 1980s, but it wasn’t translated and published in America until recently. He came to the USA and investigated Goodis, talking to people who knew him, following trails, and debunking myths along the way.

One of the first myths Garnier debunks is the French appreciation of noir. They definitely did like it and help keep it alive, and they helped maintain the popularity of Goodis and Cornell Woolrich and many others, but according to Garnier, the translations of these American writers left something to be desired. Books were shortened, plots simplified, writing styles homogenized, cultural signifiers (especially the glorious American cover art) missing. The French wanted to mythologize the writers of this stuff, not know it or its real context.

Garnier structures the book almost novelistically, following his leads, adding to what he learns about Goodis, but also manages it in such a way as to follow Goodis’s life chronologically. He mythologizes neither Goodis nor his work, pointing out that some of his books simply aren’t very good, and that he didn’t really make much of a mark on Hollywood. Some good movies were based on his novels, but he wasn’t involved in the screenplays. The best known is probably Dark Passage, which starred Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Agnes Moorehead, though Truffaut’s Tirez Sur le Pianiste (aka Don’t Shoot the Piano Player) is probably better known and respected than any of the Hollywood takes.

Goodis emerges as eccentric, but not necessarily as the kind of eccentric readers of his books might assume. He also emerges as someone whose life was somewhat compartmentalized — people who thought they knew him well didn’t always know about parts of his life. There were autobiographical elements in his fiction but he doesn’t seem to have been as drawn to a drunken wino existence as many of his characters were. Friends considered his books to be exaggerated and unrealistic. Garnier does suggest there are still things few people know, as when he quotes a psychiatrist who refused to be interviewed and hinted that Garnier would guess certain things about Goodis if he talked. The recurring theme of characters falling for sweet and innocent thin beauties but instead realizing they need to be dominated by big, rough women seems to have had some reality to it as well. But why give away everything? You should read the book if you’ve read this far. It’s a well written and enjoyable exploration of a unique individual, his times, and his work.

This is a trade paperback published by Blackpool Productions, which is run by Eddie Muller, who’s written several books on film noir, produces the Noir City Film Festival, publishes the Noir City e-magazine, etc etc. It’s an excellent production for a small press with only a couple of books out, well illustrated with photographs, book cover art, film scenes, and more. There’s just one or two things I could criticize. First, you have to buy this book from the publisher, here. Second, you may never find this website without knowing to look for it, because it’s an old-fashioned kind of website where each page is just one big image, no searchable text. I only found out about this book because I discovered the Noir City pdf magazine a few months back and bought a few issues. More people should be aware of this stuff.

Review: The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold March 8, 2016

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cover84054-mediumYes, it’s a Netgalley review, written in exchange for a free advance pdf. Please note that comments are based on the advance version of the book, and some changes may have been made when the published version appears in June from Oxford University Press as part of their Inner Lives series.

I read an awful lot by and about Philip K Dick a few years back, but it’s been some time and my memory could be better. That makes it a bit harder to comment knowledgeably on this book. But first…

Science fiction writer Philip K Dick wrote many novels and short stories in which people were not what they seemed or in which reality itself could not be trusted. He was also known to have been at least verging on paranoid due to excessive amphetamine use, which helped him write so many books and short stories… and that was before the VALIS event that happened in 1974 and occupied much of the remaining years of his life. He was never certain whether he had been contacted by alien life, or by God, but he was sure something happened, and he wrote obsessively in his Exegesis, trying to work it all out; he also worked through some of his ideas in novels like VALIS and The Divine Invasion.

In the book at hand, Kyle Arnold takes a psychological and spiritual look at PKD’s experience. It’s a much more concise and easy read than the Exegesis, which has been published in part a couple of times and which I haven’t even tried to get through. (I’ve read some of the Selected Letters volumes dealing with the 1974 stuff, though.)

The book is mainly about Dick the person and his mental/spiritual state. There’s some material on his writing, but it’s not the point of the book. Arnold goes into some detail about Dick’s drug use, relationships, 1974, and other aspects of his internal life. The book could work as an introduction for people who find themselves more interested in the man than his books. I don’t doubt those people exist; like HP Lovecraft, he’s become well known as a strange kind of visionary as well as a writer.

For myself, though, I had a couple of issues. First, the writing is a bit shaky, lurching from very casual to more formal, as if shifting between blog post and thesis. It’s also a bit repetitive. There also appear to be some factual errors. Arnold mentions The Transmigration of Timothy Archer as one of the VALIS novels; it’s not. Which reminds me, I could have used more discussion of VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, and the unfinished The Owl in Daylight; Dick was working through his experiences in those novels as much as he was in the Exegesis.

Arnold’s Notes on Sources show most of the books I’d expect to see on the PKD side of things; the only omission is the Selected Letters books, but they aren’t easy to get.

Anyone who’s really interested in Philip K Dick has a few more in-depth sources they should investigate, but if you’re only casually interested, or if you’re interested in where psychology meets spirituality, this may be the book for you.

Review: Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler March 5, 2016

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scarfolkI wanted to like this more than I actually did. Not that I disliked it; my expectations were just off a bit.

Richard Littler’s fictional town of Scarfolk is a place where the 1970s never ended. It draws from British culture of the decade — book covers, educational programs, posters, anything else that has inspires nostalgia in British people of a certain age, I guess.

The thing is, that’s hardly unexplored territory. The Ghost Box record label has been mining that for several years now. Their album cover esthetic borrows from the look of 1970s UK books; their music is inspired by early electronic music, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, ’70s educational TV, and a bit of supernatural horror from Lovecraft and Machen through to the late 1960s TV version of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Their albums appear to come from the same universe as each other, but not necessarily this one. There are TV ident logotones on some of them. There’s a Belbury Parish blog. They present an image of a UK where the 1970s are still in effect.

And there’s Moon Wiring Club. Not so much 1970s, but there’s a unique and recognizable world that comes out of their albums, videos, and website, which features the fictional town of Clinkskell.

Scarfolk started as a blog about a fictional 1970s-bound town, presenting artifacts like posters and book covers, and clearly drawing from the same kinds of sources as its more hauntological predecessors. Some have accused Littler of swiping ideas, though apparently he claims not to have been aware of them when he started.

The thing is, he’s doing something rather different. There’s certainly some humour in Ghost Box and Moon Wiring Club, but it’s relatively subtle. Scarfolk is more overtly out for laughs:

Welcome to Scarfolk…

Imagine you and your family are held captive in a town that is forever locked in the 1970s.

If you cannot imagine it, just think what it would be like.*

*For more information please re-read.

That’s from the book’s back cover. I think the difference is that Scarfolk’s predecessors are presenting an alternate reality; Littler is doing the same but sending it up while he does it. He’s not going for believability or subtlety. So, with that kept in mind, the images and texts he creates for the blog, Facebook, etc, are definitely fun. And often funny.

So how about the book?

Discovering Scarfolk repackages a lot of the material from the website, but presents it as documentary evidence supporting an investigation of a missing family built on some notes by the father. Littler creates a plot structure for what otherwise would just be amusing ephemera. It didn’t work all that well for me, though; it’s a the perspective of an outsider on another outsider’s perspective of an odd place. It’s more distanced than a JG Ballard protagonist. But then, it’s common to present stories of old places through the eyes of outsiders — The Wicker Man, which is a touchstone for fans of ’70s UK strangeness, does that. So too do many of Ballard’s novels.

But the book keeps adding on more and more strangeness and absurdity. The art creates an odd and funny world; the book turns everything up to 11, belabouring everything a bit too much. The humour ranges from over the top silliness reminiscent of 1970s Monty Python books to quirky bits that reminded me of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers. Douglas Adams is probably in Scarfolk’s DNA as well.

The main problem with the book is that, although superficially it looks wonderful, the material from the website is reproduced from low resolution graphics. The small print in some posters is hard to read. This stuff is the heart of the book and it doesn’t look as good as it should.

If this seems too negative, well, I was hoping for something more subtle, I guess. I recommend anyone who’s intrigued at all check out the scarfolk.blogspot.ca website and consider giving the book a try. But you have to have at least some knowledge of or interest in 1970s Britain. Otherwise it won’t make much sense at all.

Review: Star Trek: Miasma February 22, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Star Trek.
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Another Netgalley review.

Imagine there’d been a TV series set after Star Trek V, with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Saavik on the Enterprise (Sulu’s gone off to the Excelsior by now). Imagine the episodes of that TV series sometimes revisited themes and concepts from the original series but with a group of older, wiser characters who’d learned from their past experiences. That’s what this novella by Greg Cox feels like.

While ferrying ambassadors to a diplomatic summit, the Enterprise receives a strange signal from an unexplored world — SOS call? warning buoy? something else? The universal translator can’t decode it, but the Enterprise goes to investigate. Spock, McCoy, and a few others take a shuttle to the surface (atmospheric conditions interfere with sensors, communications, and transporters). Things go wrong and they find themselves in a struggle to survive. Plotwise, it’s a new take on the classic episode “The Galileo Seven,” but with an older and wiser Spock and McCoy handling the situation much differently, and being aware of the parallels.

Being one of the ebook novella series, this is short enough to feel like a TV episode. Adding to the TV episode feel is the minor subplot of the cranky ambassadors, the kind we’ve seen a few times before, who don’t actually get much time on the page. The story could have worked just as well without them, so I can’t help but think they’re there to give this that extra bit of TV episode feel.

Greg Cox is an experienced novelist who’s been writing these characters (except Saavik) for many years, and he has a solid understanding of their personalities and the way they speak and interact. He also does well with Saavik, who (as played by Kirstie Alley in Star Trek II) was a fascinating character and hasn’t appeared in Treklit nearly enough.

This is scheduled for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary and it’s a good pick for that. In a concise, fast-paced novella you get a tale that lets the old classic gang have one of their late adventures, commenting on one of their earlier adventures. That allows it to be nostalgic without being only nostalgic. Good stuff.

Review: The Prisoner Volume 1 February 18, 2016

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PRIS01_cover_1715x2575Every so often someone decides to revisit The Prisoner. It doesn’t always end well, the AMC remake miniseries being the most painful example. Fallout, the last episode of the original series, throws everything that has come before into doubt, while being so strange and surreal that it’s difficult to say what exactly has happened, where the protagonist has been left, and what could possibly happen next. It seems almost futile to try to add new stories into the existing framework as a result.

But people evidently want more, so now we have the Big Finish audio reimagining of the series. It’s not new adventures squeezed into the run of the original or an attempt to carry on from Fallout, it’s a remake. How close a remake remains to be seen. (Please note that I haven’t listened to the behind-the-scenes disc yet; maybe some questions are answered there.)

On the one hand, the music is slightly different, there’s a new actor playing No 6… but the music is still stylistically consistent with the show’s music and Mark Elstob delivers his lines in a way so reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan at times that I gave up trying to picture Elstob and just visualized McGoohan as the stories played out. His character is more emotional, though — more emphasis on love interests. But in general everything seems to be consistent with the original. It’s 1967 as the story begins (with some material leading up to the resignation). But the key difference comes into play pretty quickly. This Village is much more science fictional, with clones, interactive computer terminals, mobile phones, and other advanced technology showing up to confuse No 6 in loose remakes of three original series episodes and one new story. The one original, with No 6 awaking in total darkness and having a very strange time, feels like the experience of an uploaded consciousness in a malfunctioning virtual reality. Not that 6 would understand what that means.

But is that necessarily what’s happening? Hard to say for sure. There’s no explicit answer here, and the next volume doesn’t come out until next January. I don’t know how many are planned. If there are four new stories a year over a period of a few years, waiting for this series’ equivalent of Fallout could prove frustrating. There are some mysteries to investigate — what makes this version different? Why remake so many of the original episodes? Sure, this was entertaining enough, largely for nostalgic reasons, and pretty well put together. It’s more a labour of love — or at least a writer/producer’s self indulgence — than a cynical cash-in. But the next volume will have to do more to prove it needed to be made.

Review: Blake’s 7 Classic Audio Adventures series 1 February 7, 2016

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Mirror coverAfter a few sets of the Liberator Chronicles hybrid audio drama/audiobook approach, Big Finish started its series of full cast audio dramas. Like many old time radio series, it’s TV without the pictures, and without narration. Everything’s driven by dialogue and sound effects.

Unlike the Liberator Chronicles, sold as a series of trilogies, with each story often being a standalone tale, the Classic Audio Adventures were released as single-CD monthly stories, six parts with different titles and authors, but telling one long, serialized story. It surprised me when the first one ended with a cliffhanger, but since I listened to them all over the course of a week or two instead of as they came out it wasn’t hard to remember where I left off from day to day.

This series is set late in series two of the TV series, serving as part of the search for Star One. The storytelling approach is interesting — it ties in with the TV series continuity but also incorporates elements of the Liberator Chronicles stories. I’m not sure whether the Classic or Chronicles stories involving the President of the Federation came first, and I believe Gustav Nyrron first appeared in the Chronicles, but it makes clear that you get more of the whole picture if you’re open to both the more audiobook-like Chronicles style and the Classic radio drama style.

As for the stories themselves, though there’s a very strong arc through the stories, they’re each self-contained enough to work on their own, more or less. Some plot elements are involved in each one. And it’s a pretty good story, especially if you like Brian Croucher’s Travis. All of the cast members have aged, with Gareth Thomas’s voice the least like his TV voice, but Croucher is instantly recognizable. In fact, my one concern — that in a full cast audio I’d have a hard time recognizing who’s who, with the aged voices — turned out to be misplaced. It generally works quite well, even with a new actor doing the Zen and Orac computer voices, and the sound effects work is always good.

The audios do add to the TV series — they tighten up a loose continuity, give it more of a serial feel than it sometimes had, develop characters who didn’t get much screen time, and introduce or reintroduce supporting characters. And without the TV version’s costumes, sets, and special effects, it’s easier to visualize this as the serious space adventure series it tried to be.

Review: Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie January 30, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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David Bowie's "A Reality Tour" - April 22, 2004

Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage.com, according to the metadata that came with the cover image from the ECW website and got automatically dumped in here, so there you go.

ECW Press recently put this book on sale, so I picked it up because it looks at a relatively underchronicled era of David Bowie’s career, after 1980.

Dave Thompson is a very prolific writer. I read a lot of his stuff in Alternative Press, back when that was an alternative rock magazine instead of a mall punk/nu-metal magazine, and I’ve read one or two of his other 80 books. I don’t know how much original research he does; most of his books seem to rely on published sources, like other quickie music books, but he is very much a fan of a lot of the music he writes about, so that compensates a bit. I don’t think he’s a cynical opportunist churning out pages for money. Certainly not in this case, anyway; it’s very clear that he’s a big Bowie fan.

Hallo Spaceboy seems to exist to argue that there’s a lot of good Bowie music after Scary Monsters, something I’m reasonably inclined to agree with. He looks at the creation of each of the albums, including the Tin Machine period, and while he can be dismissive of some of the material, he argues strongly for a lot of the music.

I think his fanboyism gets the better of him at times. Talking about Bowie’s live albums, he casually dismisses 1978’s Stage as abysmal; while he likes some solo Morrissey, he writes off the Smiths as hopeless. He also, in my opinion, greatly overstates the importance of Tin Machine. I remember that at the time Bowie talked a good talk about being influenced by the likes of Sonic Youth, which seemed promising. But instead of working with anyone like that for Tin Machine, he got a couple of ’70s rockers and Reeves Gabrels, who seems to have come from more of a proggish background. The result was something that played it a lot safer than Bowie’s “Brancasonic” talk. Clean, disciplined hard rock, without the experimental strangeness I expected. To spin this as the obvious precursor of grunge, as Thompson does, is… well, fanboyish, to use that word again. Nirvana didn’t cover “You Belong in Rock’n’Roll,” they covered “The Man Who Sold the World.”

Still, it’s good to have a book that tells the story of Never Let Me Down, the Glass Spider tour, and so on through the more critically acclaimed Outside, Heathen, and other late comebacks. The book also discusses a lot of soundtrack, movie, and collaborative work I hadn’t been aware of. There’s also a lengthy discography. That doesn’t make The Complete David Bowie or Bowie on Bowie any less necessary, but it complements them.

It’s unfortunate that Hallo Spaceboy ends before The Next Day, never mind Blackstar, but there’s probably another book in the last few years.

A tale of two crossovers January 30, 2016

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There be spoilers in this reviews written in exchange for Netgalley advance e-copies of recent Star Trek/Green Lantern and Conan/Red Sonja crossovers. Be warned.

Crossovers are an eternal temptation in the comics biz, and Star Trek comics have been no exception. Various Star Trek characters have encountered the X-Men, Planet of the Apes, Doctor Who, Legion of Superheroes, and now Green Lantern. One lesson that seems to have been learned along the way: if you don’t have many issues to work with, don’t spend a lot of time on meet and greet/getting to know you stuff. Go straight to the action and let the characters fill each other in with a little dialogue along the way, and assume the reader knows enough already.

This one packs as much story and action into its limited amount of space as it can. You’ve got Green Lantern’s universe destroyed in an epic battle with Nekron, the surviving Lanterns dumped into an alternate universe (the current movie version of Star Trek), members of the Enterprise crew and assorted aliens getting power rings, battles involving Federation, Gorn, Romulan, and Klingon opponents alongside the Lanterns, and then the Enterprise crew and the Lanterns teaming up against Nekron on a zombie version of Vulcan. Not a lot of sitting around talking. The Trek side of the dialogue seems appropriate enough, and the art is quite good.

Definitely an alternate universe tale for both sides, because it ends with the Lanterns staying in the Trekverse and a lot of political turmoil in various unfriendly empires. Light and fast-paced enough to be reasonably entertaining even if you don’t like chocolate in your peanut butter.

Meanwhile, in the Hyborian Age…

Robert E. Howard created Conan as a brawling adventurer, mercenary, and, eventually, King in a long forgotten age. He created Red Sonya of Rogatine as a one-off character in a work of real world historical fiction. Roy Thomas, writer of the original 1970s Conan the Barbarian comics from Marvel, adapted Howard’s Sonya into Red Sonja, a warrior woman of Conan’s time who would have occasional encounters with him. She proved popular enough to get a solo run in Marvel Feature and then her own comic, though that didn’t last too long. She was brought back by Marvel for limited runs, had a series of novels, and a movie, then disappeared.

When Dark Horse brought the Conan comics back, they passed on the idea of reviving Red Sonja, so Dynamite brought her back, and with evident success. I haven’t been reading their series but I’m pretty sure they long ago surpassed the number of Marvel Red Sonja comics.

Red Sonja began as a Conan character, so a crossover is an easy proposition. Just have to have the rights owner and the comics publishers on board. No need to introduce the characters to each other or to each other’s world, as they already know all that, and the reader doesn’t need any introductions either. So, straight to the story.

The main problem here is that it’s a very familiar story. A bit of battling armies, a little debauchery, more battling, then up against a wizard and an old enemy. I feel like I’ve read this story quite a few times already. It’s done well enough but I’ve seen it all before.

One other quibble: these are the comic book versions of these characters. Howard’s Conan wore clothes pretty often, and his Sonya did as well. But the stereotypical image of these characters is still the same as they appeared in the early 1970s comics, Conan in a furry loincloth, Sonja in a chainmail bikini, both looking unprepared for a real fight. Marvel tried to present a more believable Sonja in a 1980s miniseries, but Dynamite took her back to the classic sexist look, and the artists have a field day drawing her body for the delight of… well, whoever reads comics and doesn’t have access to real women or Playboy magazines, I guess. It looks silly more than anything. But so does Conan, so what the heck. This would be a fun enough diversion for someone who used to read the comics years ago and wants a quick hit of nostalgia.

Catching up with John Foxx January 23, 2016

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When I started this blog to write about music, mainly for my own pleasure and to stave off the boredom of being between jobs, I posted several times about John Foxx for two reasons: first, I like his music, and second, he’s prolific. Looks like the most recent of his albums I posted about were the live album In the Glow and some reissues back in 2009. So what’s he done lately? I’ll skip reissues and compilations and remixes.


jf1D.N.A. (2010, one CD and companion DVD with videos). It’s a collection of tracks created for collaborators to make videos from. Many of the videos are good, but the CD doesn’t really flow as an album, mixing beat-oriented and ambient tracks.


jf2Interplay (2011). The first album by new project John Foxx and the Maths. More song-oriented than some of the preceding albums but built entirely with vintage analogue synthesizers. Retro synthpop, basically.


jf3Torn Sunset (2011). An ambient collaboration with Theo Travis, who’s also worked with Robert Fripp and various jazz and progressive rock musicians. I like Foxx’s work with Harold Budd, but Travis’s flute pushed the line between ambient and new age a bit too much.


jf4Nighthawks (2011). A new release packaged with a reissue of the Foxx/Budd Translucence/Drift Music albums, this teams Foxx and Budd with Ruben Garcia on more piano/electronics ambient music.


jf5The Shape of Things (2011 and 2012). The second release by John Foxx and the Maths came in two versions a few months apart. The first was a 14-track album with an 8-track bonus disc of remixes and collaborations, the second was a single disc with all of the album tracks plus one from the bonus disc and one new track. It basically continues the Maths’ melodic retro electronic song style, if slightly darker.


jf6Evidence (2012). John Foxx and the Maths continue to develop their style, but this album is a mix of new material, collaborations, and remixes rather than a single piece of work conceived as a new album.


jf7Analogue Circuit: Live At The Roundhouse (2012). This is a big package from a big concert, with John Foxx and the expanded version of the Maths and special guest, former Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon, playing songs from Ultravox’s 1978 album Systems of Romance, Foxx’s 1980 Metamatic era, and the recent Maths material on one DVD and two CDs.


jf8Rhapsody (2013). Currently the final recording by John Foxx and the Maths, this is a “live in the studio” album, presenting solo Foxx, Maths, and Ultravox songs as they might be played live but with the sound quality of a studio recording.


jf9Gazelle Twin/I Speak Machine: Exponentialism (2013). Not exactly a Foxx album, this is an EP featuring four Foxx/Ultravox songs as covered by two women who worked with Foxx in recent years on Maths projects, released by Foxx’s label.


jf10Empty Avenues (2013). Musicians from The Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle, of the Ghost Box label, known for retro/hauntological electronic music, collaborate with Foxx under the name John Foxx and the Belbury Circle. It’s a beautifully melodic EP, the least synth-purist thing he’s done in years, with some of his best singing and songwriting in a long time.


jf11European Splendour (2013) Another EP, this time in collaboration with Jori Hulkkonen. More electronic than Empty Avenues but just as strong and melodic. These two EPs rank among his best recordings since the 1980s. Or ever, really.


jf12B-Movie (Ballardian Video Neuronica) (2014). Back to the conceptual, this instrumental electronic album sounds like outtakes from Metamatic and soundtracked a video inspired by the work of JG Ballard.


jf13Evidence Of Time Travel (2014). More conceptual instrumental electronica, this collaboration with Steve D’Agostino is the soundtrack for a multimedia work by the artist Karborn (apparently Foxx’s son). Somewhat more austere and abstract than B-Movie, but not overwhelmingly dissimilar.


jf14London Overgrown (2015). Inspired by the experience of moving to London in the 1970s as well as by Ballard’s disaster novels and surrealist art, Foxx has long incorporated references to visions of an abandoned, overgrown London in his music over the years. This is something of a summation of the concept, recycling a couple of tracks from other sources, including bits of Cathedral Oceans with the vocals removed. But it works well and nobody else makes ambient quite like this.


jf15Ghost Harmonic: Codex (2015). Another strong ambient album, this collaboration between Foxx, Benge (from the Maths), and violinist Diana Yukawa.


That’s a lot of music to absorb. The critics loved the Maths albums; I liked them quite a bit, but my favourites here would be the two EPs from 2013 and last year’s ambient albums.

2016, the year of almost no Doctor Who January 23, 2016

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12So Steven Moffat is leaving after the next series of Doctor Who, to be replaced by Chris Chibnall, who’s doing a third series of Broadchurch first. But Moffat’s last bow is scheduled for next year and all we get is a Christmas special for 2016. Oh the humanity. How will we cope with only one new episode?

(I’m not actually happy about it, because Capaldi’s really good and this last may have been my favourite season of the Moffat era. But when I started getting into Doctor Who there hadn’t been any new Who on TV for five years, and it would be four more before it was back. I’ll be okay.)

No Doctor Who until Christmas. What will I do? Well, for a start…

Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures DVDs. We’ve still got a few stories we haven’t seen from the 1963-89 Doctor Who and the final SJA episodes to watch. We’ve been saving them for a rainy day. It’s bound to rain some time this year.

K9. I have a whole season of the semi-official K9 series on DVD. I’ve only watched the first episode. I’ll be honest, I don’t think it looks all that great, but I bought it. Might as well watch it.

Class. Scheduled for later this year, eight 45-minute TV episodes of an all-new Doctor Who spinoff  from a critically acclaimed novelist. I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

Big Finish. Every month there are several new audio adventures featuring past Doctors and their companions. Related series like Jago & LItefoot, UNIT, Torchwood, and more. The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble will have some new stories this year. Never mind that I already have a backlog of Doctor Who audios that is well into three digits now. I might catch up before the end of the year if I listened to at least one every day.

Comics. Ongoing series for the 10th, 11th, and 12th Doctors, miniseries for the 8th and 9th and, apparently, one coming for the 4th. These are from Titan. I still haven’t read all of IDW’s Doctor Who comics yet, and they lost their licence a couple years ago.

Novels. There are a few new ones scheduled for this year. And I’ve got a backlog of a few dozen.

Bernice Summerfield, one of the Doctor’s greatest companions, despite never being on TV. Last seen in the recent 12th Doctor novel Big Bang Generation. I loved her in the New Adventures books, with the Seventh Doctor and on her own, but I haven’t read most of the books published by Big Finish or heard most of her audio adventures.

Faction Paradox. Iris Wildthyme. Erimem. Lethbridge-Stewart. Spinoffs, all of them with several books I haven’t read yet, some with audios I haven’t heard. And more to come.

2016. The year of too damn much Doctor Who. Nah, no such thing. But there’s plenty.

Review: Harlan Ellison: Can and Can’tankerous January 20, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.

Another review in exchange for a free advance read from Netgalley.

I’ve read a lot of Ellison. I tracked down a lot of his books in the 1980s. I loved his columns as much as, if not more than, his fiction. I bought his Outer Limits episodes on VHS. And I bought a limited slipcased hardcover edition of his book on his Star Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever. Haven’t read much from him lately, though. So when a new collection of his popped up on Netgalley, many years since the last Ellison book I picked up, well, that was an easy decision.


This feels like a relatively minor collection in the context of Ellison’s work… but if you’re a devoted Ellison fan, that’s not much of a problem. (And if you’re a really devoted fan, you want the limited edition.) But it’s not a great starting point for newcomers. One story in particular is a rather drawn-out revisitation of old pulp SF adventure tropes that never really takes off. Some of the stories are apparently rewritten oldies, and they definitely feel dated. Unlike a lot of his classic work, much of this book feels like anything but a writer taking on the world today. I set the book aside once or twice to read other things, not something I often do.

What made this book especially interesting to me, though, is the short bits interspersed between stories in which Ellison writes about his stroke. I won’t say it’s enough to make the book worthwhile on its own, given its brevity, but it adds up to a pretty memorable story.