The Fallen has been on my to-read shelf for a while, but it was The Fall’s new release, Re-Mit that made me actually pick it up. Variously storming and shambling, Re-Mit forcibly recalls legendary BBC DJ John Peel’s oft-quoted praise of the band, “always different, always the same.” Lead single “Sir William Wray” sounds like it would have been at home on The Frenz Experiment, whereas “Irish” and “Noise” could almost have been found on Slates. The whole left me wanting to immerse myself in things Fallish.
Simpson certainly immerses himself in things Fallish: The Fallen is a sometimes inspired pairing of the whacky-formal-quest school of autobiographical journalism (like The Year of Living Biblically, for instance, or almost anything with Morgan Spurlock’s name on it) with more traditional music journalism. His whacky quest: to track down all of The Fall’s former members (who, amazingly, actually outnumber the group’s studio releases). In 1998 there was a notorious incident in which The Fall came unglued on tour in New York. Smith was arrested for assault, and bassist Steve Hanley, after nearly two decades, had finally had enough. The contretemps serves as a sort of focal point around which the book revolves. An interview with the Karl Burns, the drummer/multi-instrumentalist who quit and rejoined the band several times, gradually emerges as the holy grail for which Simpson is questing.
If you love The Fall enough that you bought more than one of those dodgy Receiver label releases (mishmashes of live tracks, remixes, and studio odds-and-ends) then you probably want to read this book. The picture of Smith that emerges is fragmentary and self-contradictory, but weirdly compelling. The book is a bit laddish in places, and it’s increasingly obvious that the zany stories of on- and off-stage antics all have generally the same shape. I doubt it would have much appeal for anyone not already a bit Fall-mad, but It left me keen to listen again to all those albums I played once or twice and wrote off as mediocre.
Tags: f-title · rock · s-author
For better or worse, I found myself thinking of The View from the Cherry Tree as sort of what-if-Ralphie-of-A-Christmas-Story-witnessed-a-murder? story. (The novel substantially predates the film, of course, but post-dates the Jean Shepherd novel from which the film drew, so maybe the association isn’t entirely spurious. (Then again, it could as easily be what-if-Dennis-the-Menace-witnessed-a-murder?) The about-the–author notes indicate that this is Roberts’ first novel for younger readers, and I was reminded of Lawrence Block commenting that The Burglar in the Closet became a comic mystery only because Block couldn’t make it work as straight noir, and I wonder if The View from the Cherry Tree had a similar genesis: it leans awfully hard on the “nobody believes me” trope, but there’s some implied, if off-screen, seediness that seemed jarring in a middle-grade novel.
I thought this might be a book for which I’ve been searching for a long time. It’s not the book I remember, and I’m sure I didn’t read it as a kid. So either there were two kids books published in the mid-late 70’s that featured a cat named “S.O.B.” and mentioned spiders, or I was so shocked by the cat’s name that I returned the book to the library unread. Ironically, the cat was far and away my favorite thing about the book, he’s swaggery, cantankerous and generally credible.
The book is clearly the product of a more innocent time, but Rob’s inability to convince an adult to listen to him wasn’t the only thing that strained my credibility much more than the grumpy ol’ cat. A couple of my quibbles bear directly on the mystery, such as it is, and I’ll avoid spoilers. But one of the ways we know Rob is a l’il hellion is because he’s inordinately fond of his jar of live spiders. There are holes in the lid, sure … but given that over the course of a few days, Rob does not spend time shoving bugs or other spider food in the jar, I’d expect him to wind up with a just one (somewhat larger) spider in pretty short order.
Tags: children's · mystery · r-author · v-title
Egan pushes the boundaries of what can reasonably be called a “novel” with this intricately structured and densely-linked set of stories. I don’t think there’s a single element — of plot, character, or even theme — present in all the tales. Characters reappear in various contexts, with a cameo role in one story becoming the lead in another. The level of naturalism fluctuates wildly, from hard-edge realism to overblown satire. Resonances abound, with three successive generations of women and men in and around the music business one of the most prominent; the spectre of suicide shadows several stories.
It was the footnotes in one chapter that first made me think of David Foster Wallace, and then the narrator’s voice — willfully self-deluding, exactingly detailed, and deeply self-reflective — made me wonder if Egan was consciously and specifically mimicking Wallace’s style (or perhaps some amalgam of writers with unreliable narrators and a penchant for minutia: Antrim and Baker and Gates, oh my? But Wallace, foremost).
And then I started to wonder if several of the chapters couldn’t be read as an attempt to “do” this writer or that, perhaps not a terribly productive line of inquiry, but one that the novel’s myriad stylistic shifts makes easy to pursue. And it struck me that I may never have read a more deliberate attempt to write “The” Great American Novel, or at least The Great American Novel of The Cusp of the 21st Century (which the book straddles on either side by several decades).
It tries to cram in the defining attributes of a lifespan, from the greed-is-good excess of the 80s through to the consequences of climate change. In a fashion similar to how The Sopranos explored the Mob as a metaphor for capitalism at its purest and most unbridled, Egan uses music to exemplify sociological and technical changes in how humans relate to one another.
My expectations were high — hell, it won a Pulitzer — and weren’t quite met. It’s impressive, for sure — it’s a little nuts to try so many things in a single book, let alone succeed at so many of them. But for me, at least, it’s too fragmented for all the bits to gel into the “wow” experience I was expecting.
Tags: e-author · fiction · v-title
The world of heavy metal music is broader than almost anyone who hasn’t spent time in it is likely to guess, so if you’re contemplating this book as a gift for a metalhead in your life and/or yourself it’s helpful to know the focus and bias. For Abrams and Jenkins the core of metal is first and foremost Black Sabbath, and secondarily the “big four” American thrash* bands: Anthrax/Megadeth/Metallica/Slayer (although they think Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine is a prick). They’re explicitly not into any of the genre-boundary-pushing stuff going on right now (Agalloch, Kylera, and Nachtmystium make it onto the short list of “Best Bands to Form Since the Turn of the (New) Millennium”; that’s about as kvlt as it gets). Hair metal, grunge metal and nu metal are not “metal,” but some industrial metal is. The editors consistently rate Voivod and Nuclear Assault higher than I would expect, but that’s jake with me, coz I do too. They’re kind of dismissive of black metal, death metal, and NWOBHM overall (despite love for a handful of standout artists like Venom and Iron Maiden). And they’re way, way, US- and GB-centric (despite love for handful of standout artists like Sepultura). Although the authors highly rate music by bands with racist, sexist, and homophobic on-record content and/or off-record comments, they also pay some lip service to women, people of color, and non-straight people — well, Rob Halford, at least — in metal.
The book has guest content from a handful of interesting folks, with Slayer’s Kerry King and Metal Blade’s Brian Slagel probably the most prominent, and I found it amusing, but it also seemed both a little lazy and a little safe. I was hoping to learn about more obscure artists to check out, and only one list really delivered: Slagel’s “10 NWOBHM bands you don’t know” (Eddie Trunk’s “Top 5 bands you probably never heard of that I think should have been huge” tried, but covered familiar ground). A lot of the lists are wishy-washy: “25 of the greatest” vs. “The 25 greatest,” so the book doesn’t spoil for fights as often as I think it should. The “10 illegible black metal logos” list was fun, but it was disappointing that only 22 of the “200 embarrassingly bad album covers” were pictured (although it’s funny and apt that the list includes 12 volumes of Slagel’s groundbreaking “Metal Massacre” comps).
In the era of rdio, Spotify et al, I also thought it was a bit disappointing that there were no links to listen to some of the featured music. I took it upon myself to make three of the lists (as best I could with the available tracks): Our Favorite Songs by the Best Metal Bands (on rdio/on spotify), The Best Metal Albums Ever (on rdio/on spotify, and Great Crossover Albums (on rdio/on spotify).
* at least at the start of their careers. Let’s not start fighting this early in the review, ok?
Tags: a-author · j-author · m-title · rock
There was a lot I appreciated about Robert’s elegantly crafted Jack Glass, but I definitely didn’t think it succeeded at everything it set out to do.
The middle section of the novel, for instance, offers a classically structured whodunnit and — skirting spoilers — I think Roberts is trying to get the reader so far in the head of his few-centuries-hence characters that the reader misses a relevant detail that would be obvious in a contemporaneous setting. Clever. But unfortunately, the particular gimmick hinges on something that even his future characters would never have done; it’s fundamentally inconsistent.
One of the novel’s protagonists has supposedly been bred for superhuman political acumen, but misses a staggeringly obvious plot development. (And to ensure the reader sees how obvious it is, Roberts inexplicably reveals it to the reader with a flashing red neon “here’s a big honking clue!” sign.) The protagonist is very young, but Roberts goes to some lengths to suggest the issue is not one of emotional versus intellectual intelligence; she just seemed not nearly as smart as everyone in the book gave her credit for being.
I also think the notion that a mere rumor of a truly radical technology could disrupt societal equilibrium is intriguing, but perhaps not very realistic. Reportage of cold fusion did not cause panic among energy providers.
Finally, there were elements of the milieu that I think a “hard” science fiction novel should address more thoroughly. The book perhaps has a bit of a cake-and-eat-it-too problem: an economy very much driven by scarcity and unequal resource distribution, but one featuring at least some “magic” technologies for manipulating mass. (No one seems to worry about the costs of matching velocities, as they do in, say, John Barnes’ Losers in Space.) This isn’t necessarily inconsistent, but it’s not easy for the reader to figure out what’s cheap and what’s not, and what constraints the “magic” tech operates under. It always niggles at me when a future incorporating significant advances on some fronts shows little evidence of artificial intelligences even as sophisticated as current technology without any explanation. And although the novel eventually addresses the issue of hacking systems, the characters in the whodunnit subplot completely ignore the possibility that the electronic records of e.g., who left or didn’t leave the premises could have been compromised.
However, my criticisms should perhaps be taken with salt, because I also fundamentally didn’t like the book. It’s (intermittently) more violent than I care for, but more than that, it has an embedded pessimism about life so fundamental and severe that I found the novel’s worldview repulsive. So my objectivity may have been compromised.
And if nothing else, the novel certainly provoked a lot of thought. It’s taken me more than a week to wrangle my reactions into anything remotely coherent.
Tags: j-title · r-author · science fiction
There was a lot I enjoyed about Austentatious, but also a fair bit I found problematic. The novel scored big points with me early on by dropping a reference to The Princess Bride without belaboring it with an explanation. And I enjoyed its breezy, nerd-culture-reference-spiked tone throughout. I’m generally favorably inclined toward modern spins on classic Austen plots, and I was distinctly intrigued by the notion of Austen’s voice being brought literally into the 21st century by a supernatural conceit.
But I was distracted by copy-editing/continuity gaffes –the suddenly appearing motorcycle! the table setting with people simultaneously next to and across from one another! More substantively, the romantic lead seemed smarmy and player-like; it was hard for me to fathom the protagonist’s attraction to him. And although the plot device that brings Austen’s personality to our time is clever, for better or worse it provides no opportunity for Goodnight to mimic Austen’s singular wit and acidic verve, and it also provides no explanation or context for the drastic changes in Austen’s personality.
Tags: a-title · fantasy · g-author · romance
Greg Ketter, owner of Minneapolis’ DreamHaven books describes this volume as a labor of love, and that’s evident. But its thematic focus is so narrow that it’s probably better dipped into than read straight-through: it’s a bit too easy to play spot-the-trope (haunted bookstore, haunted books, store-of-books-never-written, store-of-books-that-warp-reality), and I found the quality uneven.
I give top honors to Gene Wolfe’s “From the Cradle,” which plays with one of his favorite themes in a surprising and pleasantly multi-layered context, P.D. Cacek’s grim but not hopeless story set shortly after Kristallnacht, Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s unsettling “Escapes,” and Patrick Weekes’ wry “‘I Am Looking for a Book…’”
Tags: fantasy · horror · k-author · s-title · science fiction
My friend Terri wrote a scathing review of this book, and it acted on me like the classic spoiled milk skit: “Ugh, it’s terrible! Here, taste it!”* I was perversely curious, and after noticing that other reviews of the book seemed wildly polarized — love it/hate it, not much inbetween — I was downright intrigued.
I’m in the “love it” camp. I thought it was sharply observed, with snappy, vivid dialog. It’s frequently very funny (if in a sometimes uncomfortably dark or “OMG that’s SO inappropriate!” sort of way). I was reminded in various ways of other modern writers I like whose characters often make selfish and/or dangerous choices: Erich Puchner, Mary Gaitskill, Wells Tower, Sara Levine, Charlie Houston, and (perhaps especially) Lena Dunham. I can’t completely dispute Terri’s criticism that Kyle’s characters
have just given in to the worst of life in a defeatist way. They can’t get over anything, they can’t make anything of themselves, they are defined by their victimhood, they choose debasement, they are spiteful.
but it does seem a bit reductive. And if it describes the characters as they are seen in these stories, there are some indications that the characters don’t necessarily stay that way. They’re mostly college-aged, and maybe they’ll grow up a bit. But if they’re awful until they do, I found them awfully entertaining.
* To be fair, it’s not impossible that my own lambasting of Jonathan Tropper had a similar effect.
Tags: b-title · fiction · k-author
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone interleaves two stories. Emily Black (in the first person), abandoned at a young age by her mother, grows into her own identity and musical career. Meanwhile Louisa (in the third person) , the abandoning mother, searches for some sort of punk rock apotheosis that will absolve the guilty secret that shadows here. I found a lot to like in this novel, a lot that felt gritty and authentic. At its core it’s a story about creativity as a vehicle to escape male-perpetrated violence, a theme that certainly resonates for me. It’s also written for an audience that’s literate in the history of American punk: Kuehnert doesn’t spell out that it’s the Minutemen that draw Lousia to San Pedro; she assumes the reader is going to know where and when the Minutemen’s music blossomed.
It does evince some of the flaws I think of as typical in first novels: it leans hard on coincidence, the ending is rushed, and there are some passages where the author is speaking a little too nakedly through the characters. There’s also perhaps a bit too much solid and realistic detail on the nuts & bolts of the regional-level band experience, which makes the less credible bits more jarring than they might otherwise be.
But I’m delighted to encounter a book that doesn’t take the tired punk-was-dead-by-1980-stance, and that embodies at least one of the self-contradictions that defines punk for me: how the anger and/or nihilism sometimes transform themselves into something uplifting and life-affirming in a way that goes far beyond catharsis. And if Emily Black’s band She Laughs were real, I would have had the first pressing of their LP, and probably seen them on the Black Cat sidestage, along with the strange dude who brought stuffed animals to wave at t he bands.
Tags: fiction · i-title · k-author
I had somewhat ambivalent reactions to The Bullpen Gospels, but on the whole I was entertained. Hayhurst looks at baseball from the unusual perspective of a perennial minor leaguer. He’s someone (this is my judgment, not his) without enough potential to get promoted rapidly to MLB status, but too potentially useful as a sort of understudy to bounce out of the system completely. Hayhurst also brings plenty of less unique Kid-With-Family-Issues to the table.
One thing that struck me throughout the book is that life in the minors seemed more than a little bit like life in a small-time touring indie rock band: very little financial reward, a weird mix of accolades, derision, and indifference from audiences, the rigors of road-life, and tantalizing glimpses of the the next tier. Based on my own extremely limited experience, the near-constant ribbing and sophomoric pranks also seem like points of commonality.
Speaking of sophomoric: Hayhurst penned this book while still in his 20’s, so it’s a bit unfair to accuse his narrative voice of immaturity. But there’s also a dichotomy between his I’m-smarter-than-all-these-guys-I-play-with attitude — he’s the kind of guy who uses the word “inculcate” almost correctly — and his immersing himself in all the crass hijinks that I found a little grating.
But it’s an unusual and interesting baseball book in that it’s not really that much about the sport of baseball. Just a handful of innings get pitch-by-pitch descriptions; Hayhurst dismisses games (and even chunks of seasons) with an off-handed fatalism: “We lost, showered, and packed up.” What he’s really interested in, other than his own gradual maturation, is the shifting and complex dynamics between team members and managers. And amid all the fart jokes there are some intriguing musings about how teams coalesce and why they fall apart.
Tags: autobiography · b-title · baseball · h-author