Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Iain (M.) Banks

Iain Banks' recent announcement about his cancer diagnosis and the possibility of an all-too-soon death was a shattering yet inspiring thing to read. The bravery and honesty and dignity on display! I've already liked and respected Banks for years, his novels and his politics and his fury at the injustices of the world. But that announcement moved my feelings right up into genuine love. I love Iain Banks. A beautiful human being!

He is on my mind today because I had the misfortune of reading a revoltingly clueless blog post by Brendan O'Neill. The primary message of his overlong diatribe appears to be that folks who are dying need to do it privately; to do otherwise is to feed the prurient appetities of all the so-called "death watchers" in the world. O'Neill's nonsense is offensively doltish simply because it misses a central point about cancer and about dying: in many parts of American, English, and European culture, such things still carry a distinct burden of shame. It is this shame and it is the often unspoken social stigma attached to dying that forces people to die alone, quietly, don't want to burden anyone, oh no, I will shoulder this burden all on my lonesome behind closed doors, tastefully. Etc, etc, etc. O'Neill just doesn't seem to grasp that the more people are open about their diagnoses, the more they are willing to let others support them, the less there will be of this awful shame and stigma that haunts people unto death. In many ways, this association of death & dying with shame & stigma is - for lack of a better word, my apologies in advance - such a WASP-y perspective. And by "W.A.S.P." I mean of course "white anglo-saxon protestant". I hate to pigeonhole and I know that there are probably tons of folks of that persuasion who do not have such a perspective on death & dying. But the fact remains: white anglo-saxon protestant culture is often a culture where such things as death & dying, as cancer, are considered to be somehow unseemly. Best not to make such a display of oneself - right, O'Neill? Best to simply keep your embarrassing little death to yourself.

NO, NO, NO. Do not go gently into that good night!

Okay, that's it for the rant. Now for the books. Much of what is written on Banks is concerned with his fabulous Culture series. I'd like to highlight three of his non-Culture novels. All are interesting and provocative; one is a genuine classic - albeit a disturbing one.


The Algebraist
a non-Culture sci-fi adventure from Banks, one whose intriguing major topic is the relativity of morality. the aliens are pretty much humans in alien form - not much attempt to convey a truly alien viewpoint. but it is all fascinating nonetheless, and many of the characters - alien and otherwise - are sympathetic or fearful creations. expansive world/universe-building, per usual. some real narrative surprises from beginning to end. the novel's Villain with a capital V is almost a parody, as if this character and his eventual purpose in the novel  were specifically designed to mess with reader expectation.

in the twists and turns of the protagonist's backstory and motivations, i was able to see the genuine sympathy that the author has for those who fight against authoritarianism. it is also interesting to compare the perspective on AIs between this novel and the Culture novels. in this universe's demonization of artificial intelligence, Banks is able to fully illustrate the horror (and stupidity) of demonizing and oppressing any community.

what i didn't enjoy were the many descriptions of an alien species' habit of enslaving, tormenting, and killing their young - but hey maybe that's just me. i understand the rationale for its frequent inclusion, but gosh it was appalling and left a sour taste. they were some pretty loveable aliens and then it all had to be ruined by those noxious activities! ugh. well, i suppose that's just Iain Banks the stridently moral moral relativist... he will never let me have my cake and eat it too. so annoying! but in such a good way.



ComplicityBanks' sci-fi is often fabulously complex and his thrillers can feel almost ostentatiously stripped-down. this is one of the latter. the writing is solid and the narrative is often riveting. particularly intriguing is the interest in doubles and obsessions and two characters who reflect each other's passions and weaknesses. there are also some unsurprisingly sharp critiques of materialism and various other classic and modern evils... the victims are a veritable Who's Who of Assholes Deserving Slaughter... the killer, demented as he may be, is something of a robin hood, taken to the next level (down).

i particularly appreciated - SPOILER AHEAD - the flashback to the brief sexual interlude between the narrator and the killer as children. it was refreshing. sexual experimentation between kids of the same gender is common enough, of course, and does not automatically mean anything about their sexual orientation in the long run. although the flashback eventually has a larger meaning (insofar as a deep connection is established between the two characters due to what happens immediately afterwards)... i was mainly impressed by the nonchalance displayed in that short scene. a weaker novelist would have had much more to say, would have supplied much more drama and psychobabble and disturbing undercurrents when dealing with such activities. not Banks.

indeed, despite its lurid subject matter, that nonchalance and that basic acceptance of certain parts of human nature is a hallmark of the entire novel.



a gentle coming-of-age tale set in rustic scotland, depicting the charming misadventures of a precocious lad and his idiosyncratic older brother as they struggle to understand themselves and each other.

The Wasp Factorythis is some hard stuff, and by "hard" i mean Hard Like the Marquis de Sade Is Hard. do not read this if you cannot stomach graphic depictions of animal torture. do not read this if you cannot stomach the murder of children. this one was hard for me to read at times, and i read some pretty terrible things.

but this is actually not a bleak book. perhaps because of the narrator: young Frank is a sadistic creature but his perspective is often self-deprecatingly wry or amusingly pedantic. he may be an affectless sociopath who channels his monstrous emotions into bizarre rituals and vicious traps, but hey - he is also a sensitively-wrought kid with many problems. what makes the book such a unique affair is the tension between the horrors illustrated and the traditional vehicle in which they are expressed: it is in many ways a kind of Young Adult novel, albeit one chock-full of grotesquerie. one in which the protagonist struggles to move beyond his outsider status, to connect with others, to understand his distant father and his, er, 'problematic' older brother. Frank's cruelties exist side-by-side with a cold-blooded version of typical teenage angst, angst that is built around familial relations, gender, and simply finding a place in the world. the ending resolves some truly dreadful plotlines in a truly dreadful manner, but also parallels the typically transformative Young Adult ending in which the hero comes to understand himself and so is able to move forward with his life.

clever, Banks, so very clever!

the narrative is designed as a chinese box of layered (and revolting) mysteries, but it is also designed as a more subtle trap for the unsuspecting reader: look at you, you just found some sympathy for a remorseless little psycho! the personal problems that he has to struggle with ARE pretty heavy for a kid to deal with, right? and you felt a bit of happiness at his eventual self-discovery, didn't you? well, you should be ashamed, sicko!

the writing is clean, clear, precise and the tone is surprisingly upbeat. the protagonist's thoughts have a quiet yearning and naiveté to them that makes even his most horrific plans and rationalizations seem almost understated, almost innocent. the deadpan humor also relieves some of the viciousness of the very dark activities portrayed. the dissection of gender was fascinating! and the use of the wasp factory itself moves beyond that of a torture maze, becoming a metaphor and a parallel for the fates of each of the characters. overall, a disturbing but very enriching experience.

If You Have a Cow Creamer, Guard it with Your Life!

The Code of the WoostersThe Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Dan's rating: 5 of 5 stars
Publisher: Overlook Press
Price: 19.95
Available: Now

Aunt Dahlia dispatches Bertie to Totleigh Towers to purlorn a silver cow creamer coveted by his uncle Tom from Sir Watkyn Basset. Unfortunately, Bertie has his work cut out for him in the form of Stiffy Byng and Madeline Basset. Can Bertie escape with the cow creamer without winding up married to either woman?

This is my second reading of Code of the Woosters and I can definitely say there is a reason I've been recommending it to people for the better part of a decade. P.G. Wodehouse was in mid-season form when he chiseled this masterpiece out of a block of stone. The Code of the Woosters should be handed out in writing classes as a prime example of how to orchestrate a plot. The twists are perfectly timed so the jaw-droppingest moments happen at the end of chapters.

The writing is superb and Wodehouse moves his characters through the scenery like a master puppeteer. Gussie Fink-Nottle, that "ghastly gob of gorgonzola," makes his return, still bethrothed(ish) to Madeline Basset and is just as quirky. Who else would think to put newts in the bathtub after breaking an aquariam? La Basset is the same as she was in the previous volume. I'm not sure if Stiffy Byng or Stinker Pinker make appearances in other volumes but they are quite memorable here. Roderick Spode is by far the best supporting character of the book, though, a facist who cowers whenever someone mentions "Eulalie," the meaning of which is not clear until the end. As always, the narrative is a minefield of hilarious similes.

The plot meanders all over Totleigh Towers. Like most Jeeves stories, Bertie gets himself deeper and deeper into the soup, the plot encircling such props as the aforementioned cow creamer, a notebook, and a policeman's helmet. As I mentioned before, the reversals of fortune are impecably timed.

I could go on and on about this book. Suffice to say, it's an easy five and my go-to recommendation for people who want to give P.G. Wodehouse a shot. They didn't make an episode of the phenomenal BBC Jeeves and Woosters series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie out of it for nothing!

Also on Goodreads

Zombie Noir!

City of the LostCity of the Lost by Stephen Blackmoore

Dan's rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: DAW
Price: 15.00
Available: Now

A job to steal a precious stone goes wrong and a thug named Joe Sunday is murdered. Now Joe's a zombie with a craving for human flesh and everyone in town is after the stone. Is there anyone Joe can trust and can he find the stone before a centuries-old madman uses it to become immortal?

Right out of the box, I have to say that this book is pure fun. While I'm giving it the same rating as Winter's Bone, it in no way is as well written or powerful. That being said, here we go!

City of the Lost is an entertaining noir tale that just happens to star a zombie. The dialogue is hard boiled and in the present tense. It has moments of hilarity and not the lame attempts at humor other urban fantasy noir tales that shall remain nameless use. It also has a lot less misogyny than the tales about a certain unfunny wizard from Chicago normally display.

Joe Sunday wasn't a nice guy before being made a zombie and dying didn't help his manners. He kills and bludgeons his way through this tale, all in pursuit of a stone that may or may not be able to turn him back into a human and Giavetti, the man who covets it. The supporting cast are an interesting bunch: a Nazi sorcerer named Neumann, and his henchmen Archie and Jughead. Jughead's a little person with the teeth and demeanor of a pitbull. There's Samantha, the woman with a connection to the villain, the Bruja, an urban witch, and Frank Tanaka, a detective who's also investigating Giavetti.

There's a lot of dark humor in this book and I caught myself snickering a few times, from Joe using a dog to bludgeon someone, speculating on the ethics of eating hookers to keep from rotting, to Joe sneering and saying "I didn't want any part of that guy in my mouth." Funny stuff.

Any complaints? Not really. There were a lot of twists and only about half of them were predictable. I have a feeling it's meant to be the first book in the series but it was quite a satisfying read on it's own. For a fun zombie book, it's an easy four.

Also on Goodreads

Monday, April 29, 2013

Drinking & Detecting

George Pelecanos created the character of Nick Stefanos at the beginning of a writing career that includes multiple crime novels as well as work on TV’s The Wire and Treme. In a A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where the Dead Men Go we learned that  Nick was born in Greece but shipped to the US as a baby and raised by his grandfather in Washington DC.  He spent his teens and twenties working for a retail electronics store and eventually became their advertising director but a busted marriage and job dissatisfaction led to him quitting to become a private investigator with a knack for finding himself in violent situations.  However, Nick ends up spending most of his time working at a dive bar which enables his increasing alcoholism.

Shelf Inflicted staffers Anthony, Kemper and Dan recently read the trilogy and cracked open a bottle of Old Grand-Dad as they discussed Nick Stefanos.  General spoiler about Nick's adventures in drinking and detecting follow:

Alan Banks Is After a Very Bad Boy...

Posted by James L. Thane
Rating: Three out of five possible stars

[Please note: This review contains some minor spoilers, but nothing beyond what is described in the tease on the back of the book.]

Bad Boy is a book that, had it been set in the U.S. instead of in the U.K. would have ended on page three.

A woman comes into the Eastvale police station, looking for DCI Alan Banks who was once her neighbor. The woman's daughter has come home for a visit and while cleaning the daughter's room, the woman discovers a hand gun hidden away. Being a good citizen, she races to the police station to report it, apparently hoping that Banks can safely get the gun out of the house and minimize the legal trouble her daughter will be in for having it in the first place.

In the U.S., of course, the desk sergeant would doubtless just tell the woman to go home and to stop trampling all over her daughter's Second Amendment rights. In the U.K., they take this sort of thing more seriously and, although the woman doesn't know it, her daughter could be facing five years in the slammer for possessing the gun.

Unfortunately for the woman, her old friend Banks is on holiday in America and so the woman is referred to Banks' colleague, Annie Cabbot. Following protocol, the police send a SWAT team to the house to remove the weapon, but things go badly wrong and a tragedy ensues.

Erin, the young woman who brought the gun to her mother's house, is the roomate of Banks' daughter, Tracy. Erin and Tracy are both attracted to a sexy Bad Boy named Jaff who owned the gun in the first place. As events unfold, Tracy realizes that Jaff could be in serious trouble and so goes to warn him. Knowing that her father is going to be out of town for the better part of a week yet, she then volunteers that the two of them could lay low in her father's vacant cottage for a while.

This is a seriously bad idea, but Tracy, who is obviously not the brightest woman on the planet, won't realize that until it's too late. By the time Banks returns, Jaff will be on the run, taking Tracy as his hostage. Lots of bad things are going to happen along the way and Banks will face one of the most difficult and most personal challenges of his long career.

This was a good read, and the story moves right along, but I did have a couple of problems with it. First of all, this is an Alan Banks story in which Alan Banks is basically AWOL for the first half of the book. By the time he arrives back in the UK, his daughter is on the run with a known criminal and yet his superiors still allow him to work the case. That stretches credulity a bit when he has such a personal stake in the situation.

Also, as a person of the male persuasion, I might find it harder than some other readers to really appreciate the attraction that some women have for dangerous "Bad Boys." I understand the concept, but Tracy's actions in the beginning of the story simply left me shaking my head. I had some difficulty feeling much sympathy for her later in the book when she had so stupidly gotten herself into this situation to begin with.

One minor note that jarred me and took me out of the story for a moment: While vacationing in San Francisco, Banks begins reading Dashiell Hammett's classic book, The Maltese Falcon, which takes place there. Later, he flies from San Francisco to the UK and on arriving notes that he continued to read the book on the flight," until his eyes got too tired" to continue.

Say, what? The Maltese Falcon is 229 pages long and a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Heathrow is ten and a half hours. Plus, he'd already started the book! Banks must be the slowest reader on the planet.

A final note: The moral of this story is, obviously, that once your kids are grown and have left home, change the locks and, NEVER, under any circumstances, give them a key to your house.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Zombi Ennui

Colson Whitehead

Reviewed by Carol
Pick a star, any star

Oh dear. Is it possible to make flesh-hungering zombies seem dull?

While I never thought so, AMC and Whitehead have both been giving it their all by enveloping them in navel-gazing Philosophy 101 monologues and odd series of pastoral flashbacks in the midst of life-or-death situations. Whitehead, at least, delivers his philosophy with amazing prose, while the writers at The Walking Dead (season two) rely on repetition of words like 'humanity' more times than Hobbes could shake a stick at. We get it: apocalypse stories are essentially about hope; how we create meaning in survival and and how we cope with a massive breakdown in society. While I'm optimistic for The Walking Dead, I'll take a pass on Whitehead's version of humanity--this is the Kafka version, where people are roaches--or mannequins--before transforming into zombies. Nihilism at it's most uninspiring.

As I began Zone One, I started falling in love with the language, the clear and exacting prose Whitehead uses to describe everything from technology to buildings. As I read on, it became apparent that while Whitehead can turn an apt phrase, he has no love or passion for his story; this is a chronicle of decay, both before and after the plague apocalypse.

There is little in Zone One for the fans of action and plotting, and only the barest of character development. Instead, we are given ink sketches in broad frames, all the better to hang the dirty laundry of Whitehead's social commentary. The setting is conventional plague apocalypse; 'something' starts transforming people, it spreads before awareness of infection, and society melts like a wet tissue, except for small encampments of people. The plot centers on teams sent out to cleanse New York City of the remaining dead once the Marines have swept through. The narrator is an Everyman, nameless until christened by his teammates, who relives his memories as he scours the city for zombies.

Darkness begins on the very first page when we read: "the camera was so backward that every lurching specimen his father enlisted from the passersby was able to operate it sans hassle, no matter the depth of cow-eyed vacancy in their tourist faces or local wretchedness inverting their spines." Descriptions of people before the plague strangely resemble those of people after, and it's not because of compassion for the zombies. Right there, I knew the level of disdain for the father, the mediocre, the simple, even for humanity.

Every word is selected with care, conveying decay and blight. Photos are "culled" for an album. The buildings of pre-plague New York aggressively "collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another's shadows." When they are redeveloped, "their insides were butchered, reconfigured, rewired according to the next era's new theories of utility... sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubicle mill." The disdain carries over into people, especially lawyers. "If you'd asked him about his plans... the answer would have come easily: lawyering. He was berefit of attractive propositions, constitutionally unaccustomed for enthusiasm, and generally malleable... Hence, law." Likewise, design firms, receptionists, number-crunching bureaucrats, fast-food friers, soldiers--none are spared from the contemptuous voyeuristic lens.

Living characters are suspiciously similar to zombies. Gary, on Mark's team has "fingernails which were seemingly constructed of grime as if he had clawed out of a coffin," and Kaitlyn, the leader, is a clear "grade grubber before the disaster... maintain(ing) a grade-grubbing continuum." Even people at the camps. "Everyone he saw walked around with a psychological limp... the all-over crumpling, as if the soul were imploding or the mind sucking the extremities into itself."

This is one of those books that destroys a rating system. Technically brilliant, structurally competent and ultimately both cynically distancing and ironic, it lacks the heart and characters that truly engage me on a deeper level. Two stars for personal enjoyment, problems with world building (which, in fairness, I believe weren't meant to be resolved as it is meant more as a metaphorical tale), four stars for deft use of language and general conception, and one star for it's dim view of human nature.

Cross posted at http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2012/1...

Debutante Detective Survives Psycho Armed with - how many Cliches? Think of a Number!


John Verdon

So John Verdon arrives on the scene with a cliche-ridden brick of a book about a genius detective whose obsessive behaviour is damaging his marriage and so he has retired from the NYPD to upstate NY where everything will be much better...if he doesn't get dragged into solving a mystery for an old college mate who is being sent freaky hand-written messages by a scary person who seems to know more about the recipient than is reasonable for anyone.

It's obvious where this is going to go and it does, but nevermind - Verdon has crafted a page-turner with vivid even if off-the-shelf characters. There's a technique he uses to show off his protagonist's skills. In group interactions he likes to set up a moron (always a bloke) and a sharply perceptive and well educated woman to compare and contrast with his hero. In fact he'll try to squash in several types of moron if he can. No wonder he was the most celebrated detective in NYPD history with all those other idiots about - in fact it's amazing any crimes get solved now he's retired - oh! They don't - he has to come back and do it for them...

There are zillions of other books out there about psychos and genius detectives but most of them are far less worthy of your time than this one.

The difference between justice and murder

Death Note
Written by Tsugumi Ohba, illustrated by Takeshi Obata
English publication by Viz Media

Reviewed by Sesana
4 out of 5 stars

I read a lot of comics, and a lot of manga. The genre conventions can get a little old after you've read, say, a few dozen magical girl series. So I find myself re-reading older books that I have an emotional attachment to (Don't ask me to be objective about Sailor Moon. It's too late for that.) or ones with unique, even thought-provoking premises. And believe it or not, Death Note is one of the latter.

The Death Note of the title is a notebook, normally the property of a shinigami (think "death god"). If your name is written in a Death Note, you die, in whatever way and at whatever time is written. A totally made up example: John Smith will be hit by a bus at 2:37 on March 24 and die two minutes later from massive internal injuries. One particularly bored shinigami, Ryuk, has dropped a death note into the human world, just to see what would happen. One could say that this makes Ryuk the single most effective troll in history. It's found by Light Yagami, a brilliant high schooler with a strong sense of justice. As soon as Light realizes the power he now has, he sets out to eliminate criminals, one by one, using the Death Note, while Ryuk sits back and enjoys the show. But criminals or not, a hundred or so inmates suddenly dropping dead is going to attract attention, and not just from the police. The rumor mill invents Kira (a Japanese attempt at pronouncing the English word "killer") to explain all the deaths, and naturally the police take notice. Murder is murder, after all, and I imagine they're concerned at the potential loss of information if all the suspects die before interrogation. And a case like this, with a seemingly total lack of leads, is also going to attract the attention of the world's greatest detective, the mysterious and never seen L. This is the central onstage conflict of the series, Light vs. L. 

This is the simplest summary of the series I can give, because it gets very complicated, very quickly. This is a very wordy, internalized series. Most of the panels show the thoughts of the characters, mostly Light and L as they continually plot and counterplot against each other. Both Light and L are smart enough to think several steps ahead of everyone else around them. At one point, Light's plot becomes so complicated that I would need a flowchart to explain it, with L just one tiny slip away from exposing him at any moment. It's an effort to keep up, and this is not a series for people who require constant action. That's all aside from the many convoluted rules on how the Death Notes actually work, some of which never become relevant to the plot.

This is the kind of series that sparks debates. What's the difference between justice and murder? Is Light's vigilante justice morally right? Or is he just another crazy killer? Does the criminals he targets deserve death? Given that, by the end of the first volume, he's responsible for the deaths of hundreds, what does Light himself deserve? Does it make a difference that L is less concerned with justice than in solving a particularly tricky brain teaser? What would drive someone to worship Kira? Would Light's utopia really be a better place? For whom? Luckily, the manga is as neutral as possible, making both sides (and their representatives) sympathetic and flawed in roughly equal measures.

And are they ever flawed. L is the sort of character who can be fun to read about in fiction, but who would be very hard to take in real life. He's wildly eccentric, frequently rude, seems to lack empathy for people around him, and, significantly, is more interested in the case as a battle of wits than as a chance to stop a murderer. Light is much more polished on the surface, and a lot less likely to offend people around him, but there's something deeply off about him, more and more so as the series continues. Other characters are little more than background to their conflict. The character of Misa, Light's pseudo-girlfriend, has struck a nerve with a lot of readers. She is indeed pathetically subservient to Light, easily taken in by even his cheapest lies, and pretty dim and ineffective compared to him and L. But then, this is a series where almost every character is dim and ineffective when coming up against Light and L, and most characters are completely taken in by Light's surface charm. In the end, it's a game of chess, with massive stakes. Light and L are in control, and everyone else are just pawns. And both Light and L are well aware of that.

There are twelve volumes of the manga in all, and the ending is spectacular. Sure, the basic result is all but inevitable, but the details, the exact way it unfolds is often unexpected, with more than one character surprising me. For me, it was a deeply satisfying ending, true to the characters and the plot to that point. And well worth reading through a dozen volumes to get there. It's an extended battle of wits between brilliant, flawed, and strong-willed characters, and one of the most memorable manga series I've ever read. There are certainly flaws (particularly the reliance on giant walls of text), but the series as a whole is more than worth it.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fun & Games (Charlie Hardie #1)

Swierczynski's Fun & Games

Fun & Games (Charlie Hardie #1)
Duane Swierczynski
Mulholland Books, 2011

Charlie Hardie is a former under-the-table employee of the Philly police force before an incident altered his life and forced a drastic career change. Charlie is now a house sitter who agrees to sit on your couch, down beers and watch old movies why you’re off having a life somewhere else. Hardie takes a job watching a home when upon arrival, he’s attacked by well known actress/socialite, Lane Madden.

Madden is spouting off conspiracy theories about “them”, an unknown group dubbed, “The Accident People” who eliminate higher-ups while constructing detailed alibis that make death appear accidental and plausible. The planned killing of Madden threw a wrench in their mission and now she’s on the run and inadvertently dragged Charlie into the situation. Can Charlie escape with his life or is he doomed to suffer Madden’s fate as well?

I really, really like Duane Swierczynski and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. His work is so gripping that he never fails to keep me interested throughout any of his novels.

I’m not sure what he has in store for the next two Hardie stories but I really feel like this was strong enough to stand on it’s own. Hopefully he always had a trilogy in mind and based on the release/publication dates of the remaining installments, I assume that was always the case.

While Hardie himself can seem sort of bland at times, the “Unkillable Chuck” angle that Swierczynski attaches to him creates a nice level of intrigue as well as making me want to know more about his past. Hopefully we’ll know more about him as the books move forward.

Also posted @ Every Read Thing

This is the Life. Keith Richards writes it all down.

life keith richardsLife
Keith Richards
Little Brown and Company, 2010

Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Trudi

This is the Life. Believe it or not, I haven't forgotten any of it. ~Life, Keith Richards

Well now, there you have it. Who'd have thunk "Keef" would have lived so long -- he certainly won't be leaving a beautiful corpse when he finally does kick off, that's for sure. And that will probably be from natural causes at this point in his life on the eve of turning seventy, but who the hell knows with this guy? Sure he's laid off the dope, but he's still managing to fall out of trees hard enough to put a crack in his skull, or find himself reaching for a giant tome on the top shelf of his home library and subsequently getting buried under an avalanche of falling books (that one caused him a few broken ribs).

This cat has got more lives than can be counted. Yes, he should be dead, a looooong time ago. That he's not, is astounding. That he can remember most of his life, even the heavy drug years, is more astounding still. That his telling of it should be so engaging and insightful, raucous and unflinching and funny ... well, that astounds me most of all.

Rolling Stones at Glastonbury, 1964 (mirror.co.uk)
I’m not a raving Stones fan, that isn’t what brought me to this autobiography. Sure, there are about 35 of their songs I can sing along to and like many people, there are another 10 I consider to be some of the best rock songs ever written. But I wasn’t born early enough to come of age during the Stones golden era when they were young, ferocious and unstoppable. I wasn’t a “Mick girl” or “Keef girl”. For better or worse, I missed the 60s and 70s, but that doesn’t mean that time in music history doesn’t interest me. It interests me quite a lot actually.

Rock histories and music retrospectives on particular times and places endlessly fascinate me. It’s not enough just to listen to the tunes, I want to know the where, when, who, how and why something was written, recorded, and imbibed. The birth of rock n roll? I want to know the characters, the causes, the culture that spawned it. I want to know when it learned to walk, and then I want to know who made it run. Who was in the engine room? I love hearing about all the little asides and anecdotes about who was where, who saw who perform and then started their own band – the roots of the roots (stretch it back as far as you think you can).

I came to this book hoping I would get a glimpse into that engine room, at all the characters huffing and puffing, fighting and fucking their way along in there, keeping this beast coined Rock n Roll running. Rock n Roll will never die if everyone in the engine room keeps doing their job. In that vein, this book did not disappoint. The first half is a fairly detailed portrait of what was going on in the world of music at the time the Stones stepped onto the world’s stage, how the times were a-changing and people were ready for something different. It’s ironic that what the Stones started out doing was Chicago blues -- what was “different” is that it was now reaching a white audience.

Keith, Anita Pallenberg, son Marlon, 1969
source: virginmedia.com
Richards has a very definite opinion on how everything unfolded in his life and in the life of the band (i.e. he didn’t steal Anita from Brian Jones, he rescued her). It may not be the complete truth, but he’s not bullshitting the reader either – it is the truth as he believes it to be. In a lot of ways this is a long conversation with the man that you start in the middle of the afternoon over coffee and don’t finish until dawn the following day when the empty wine bottles lay strewn about you and you have the beginnings of a nasty headache coming on. It’s intimate, forthright, and in your face. There were times I flinched and felt like screaming: “TMI Keith! For godsake, TMI”

 I was appalled to hear him so blithely recount his and Anita’s epic drug years, strung out on smack, with two small children in their care. Even after many arrests (and car crashes), it didn’t seem like there was ever any threat of having their kids taken away. When a third baby is born and dies in Anita’s care of supposed “crib death” my stomach rolled over with nausea. Maybe that’s all it was, but maybe it was from junkie neglect. Thank heavens Keith at least had the sense to send his little girl Angela to his mum to love and raise in England. Despite the extremely unconventional upbringing, Keith’s eldest son Marlon (named after Marlon Brando) seems to be pretty well-adjusted these days with a family of his own. His few reminiscences that are included in the story are not filled with bitterness or anger, but rather with a sardonic humor and a deeply expressed loyalty to his father.

Mick and Keith recording Exile on Main Street
The music bits are really really good and if you’re a guitar player, you’ll even get some awesome tips. Keith’s descriptions of the songwriting process are fascinating too, as well as the realities of recording albums in the pre-digital age. My favourite portion of the book might just be the time the Stones spent in France recording the double album Exile on Main Street. I’ve since found out that a documentary has been made on this very subject called Stones in Exile that I now HAVE to see.

The book does become a bit of a slog in the third act. There are places where Keith begins to ramble a bit and the narrative loses focus. I mean c’mon, you’re not that fascinating bro, how about a little nip and tuck here and there; isn’t that what an editor is for?
Keith Richards, 2011
But overall, I remained completely immersed for the two weeks it took to listen to this unabridged version read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley and the man himself.

And what begins as a charming and enchanting coming-of-age tale and a young man’s love letter to the power of music eventually does descend into the pit of hedonism and rock star excesses. How could it not? It’s Keith bloody Richards after all. But through all the shit, there is pure, unadulterated love for the music. That I can admire, that I can respect.

This review is also posted to Busty Book Bimbo.

Among Others

Among Others
By Jo Walton

Reviewed by Stephanie
4 out of 5 stars

"I care more for people in books than the people I see every day.”

uh....kind of the truth sometimes.

Morwenna Phelps is a fifteen year old who is a veracious reader, especially for anything Science Fiction, or 'SF' as she calls it. I was tempted to write down every book mentioned as this book moved along, but seriously that would have been more work than I really had the energy to do.

Among Others is written in the first person in the form Morwenna's diary, which begins after a horrible car crash that both Morwenna and her twin are in. Mor's leg is severely injured and her twin doesn't survive. Mor takes refuge in her books to get though it and heal.
“It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”
Morwenna and her sister grew up seeing fairies and doing magic (very vague magic). Mor's mother is a very powerful and evil witch, for whom she blames for her twins death. Mor runs away from her mother to stay with a father who she has never met and is sent off to boarding school.

Everything that happens in this book, or diary, is all filtered through Morwenna and her SF books. Morwenna IS her SF books, so what might actually be happening and what Mor is telling us are likely two different things altogether.

“I don’t think I am like other people. I mean on some deep fundamental level. It’s not just being half a twin and reading a lot and seeing fairies. It’s not just being outside when they’re all inside. I used to be inside. I think there’s a way I stand aside and look backwards at things when they’re happening which isn’t normal.”

I really enjoyed Among Others, a unique read, written in a style that I I truly liked. I haven't come across anything quite like this book. It doesn't give you many answers, it doesn't tie things up nice and neat, and I liked that.

“This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.”

Also posted at Goodreads.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Are you an innie or an outie?

By Susan Cain
Non fiction

Reviewed by Stephanie
Rated 4 out of 5 stars

March 6th [2012] was Super Tuesday and I live in that Oh-so-much-talked-about-battle-ground-state of Ohio. I work the elections as a Ballot Judge, which means I hand out the ballots to the voters and give them instructions. I get to talk and talk, for 13 hours straight *sigh*. I try to make it entertaining for the voters, myself and the others I work with because of its repetition, but by 7:30 pm when the polls close I don’t think the language I was using was English.
My spiel went something like this…….

Me: “Hi. What ballot can I get for you today?”

Voter: “Uh…….what do you mean?”

Me: “Today we have, Democratic, Republican, Libertarian or Green (I have never given out the last two)”.

Voter: “What’s a Green party?”

Me: “I’m not sure, but there is next to nothing on their ballot.”

Voter: “I’m an independent (code for embarrassed Republican) can’t I have both a Democratic AND
 Republican ballot?”

Me: “No, you must declare one and you will be that party until the next primary. Ohio is a closed primary state.”

Voter: “Uh….then give me a *whispers* a Democrat one.”

Me: *loudly* “Democratic it is! Take all this to a table and vote, when you are done bring everything back to Rosemary in the red sweater by that machine. Make sure to tear off the stub on the bottom of the ballot…….the one that is marked “do not detach” when you come up to the machine. If you don’t, you will make Rosemary angry (a very sweet and very old woman) and you won’t like her when she’s angry. She will cover you in I Voted stickers.”

This resulted in lots of chuckles, but I did it 301 times. I was drained. I slept for 12 hours that night. Twelve. Grant it, I got up at stupid O ‘clock to get to the polls by 6 am and maybe had 4 hours of sleep, but I was just a shell my former self. I am an introvert.

Introverts and extroverts are most easily determined by how their energy is drained and how it is refreshed. Extroverts are drained when they have spent too much time alone, and the opposite is true for introverts. So for me, my life force was gone.

In the United States our culture is biased towards the extrovert. We are about the loudness, the out there, the utter insanity if you will. In school “poor Johnny is so quiet, he needs to come out of his shell.” I want to scream “Leave him alone…..he’s FINE, he likes his shell!” School rooms now do this Pod thing where they pull four desks together and make these poor kids work as a team. WTF? No way would have that “concept” worked for me and it’s not working for introverted kids.

“There’s no I in team” and that is a damn dirty shame.

I haven’t worked in an office setting in years, so when I read in this book that office places are arranging offices areas with an open concept, everybody face to face with no walls. Workers going about their day, shooting the shit, getting ideas……brainstorming (which doesn't work). Who in the hell thought that one up? What a nightmare. What if I only tolerate a certain co-worker……now I have to stare at his annoying face all day, every day? How is anything ever accomplished?

Companies are beginning to realize this mistake and are changing things up. Google (I think it was them) designed their offices with food, bathrooms and the like all in the center, like a town center, with offices around the edges. It is designed for casual meetings where ideas everyone figured out in their quiet offices are shared and expanded.

Introverts are a third to half of the population. Many of these don’t even know they are introverted, because of the push to be extroverted has made them fool themselves into thinking they were extroverts.

Another interesting thing I learned from this book is that extroverts are motivated by rewards. They work toward things, and take risks if need be to get to the goal of getting that reward. Extroverts are soooo happy when they get the reward.

Introverts are motivated by fear. So they do things more cautiously, careful not to mess things up in the process of getting to a goal. That sounds like me. It’s doesn't sound cool that I am afraid to F things up, but I am.

This book is interesting, whether you are an I or an E. Because if you’re not an introvert, odds are you know and love one.

Also posted on Goodreads.

Madness, I Say!

The Female Malady:  Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980

Elaine Showalter
Penguin Books
Reviewed by: Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


In this informative, timely and often harrowing study, Elaine Showalter demonstrates how cultural ideas about 'proper' feminine behaviour have shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity for 150 years, and given mental disorder in women specifically sexual connotations. Along with vivid portraits of the men who dominated psychiatry, and descriptions of the therapeutic practices that were used to bring women 'to their senses', she draws on diaries and narratives by inmates, and fiction from Mary Wollstonecraft to Doris Lessing, to supply a cultural perspective usually missing from studies of mental illness.

My Review

Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980 is a very informative, very accessible, and very disturbing look at how “insanity” was treated from 1830 to 1980.  It examines cultural expectations about how women should behave and how these male perceptions affected the diagnosis and treatment of women’s mental health problems.  

I read this book from cover to cover and would have been very happy if it were a school text.  One of the things I liked most about the book was its personal approach, using the perspectives of female "inmates" themselves, and fiction excerpts from a variety of authors, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Bronte, Doris Lessing, and others to highlight women's mental health issues and experiences with doctors and provide an insight into the culture and period. 

There was also a section on men who suffered "shell shock" during WWI, the treatment they received, the similarities between "hysterical" men and women, and the modernization of psychiatry.

I highly recommend this book for those interested in mental health, history, and the effects of power and gender imbalance in the mental health care profession and in society.
Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Historical Western. Wait! Come back, it's good!

Henry Chappell

TTU Press
$22.36 hardcover, available now

Reviewwd by Richard, 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Blood Kin, Isaac Webb, a young Texas ranger, struggles for decency amid the violence of the Texas Revolution and the early days of the Republic. Still in his teens when he joins the legendary ranger captain Noah Smithwick, Isaac discovers in himself extraordinary mettle in battle and a fierce yearning for young war widow Catherine Druin.

But victory over Mexico does not bring the new Republic nor Isaac the peace and stability he fought for. Escalating Indian depredations forestall Isaac’s hopes to work the farmland he’s cleared near Bastrop, and to marry Catherine. Pressed into accompanying Smithwick as Sam Houston’s peace emissary to the Comanches, Isaac befriends Looks Far, a young warrior at whose side he fends off Waco Indian attacks and with whom he learns to grieve. As the Texans’ hunger for land and the Comanches’ penchant for raiding imperil Isaac’s friendship and thwart peace negotiations, Isaac returns to Bastrop prepared for the worst.

When his future with Catherine is confounded by her father’s blind hatred of the Comanches and his own commitment to the indomitable Inez, a Lipan captive, Isaac must confront a brutal dilemma and a painful secret. So achingly honest and culturally sensitive is Chappell in his telling of this epic story that every image, every characterization rings true. It is hard to believe that he did not live it himself.

My Review: I loved this book. It's about a fascinating time in Texas history, and a group of men who can often be reviled with justice...told from the perspective of a young, innocent man who joins the Texas Rangers almost by accident, it traces his development into an upstanding husband (of a Waco Indian woman) and father, a fighter for justice for all, not just all whites, and a friend of several of the founders of the Republic.

I loved the descriptive power of the author's prose, and felt his characters were limned in fast, sure strokes. He comes at the subject from a deeply personal perspective, a love of his native Texas in all its warty glory. He makes the landscape, one I'm familiar with since Bastrop is close to my hometown of Austin, more real than I would ever have thought possible. He's describing the frontier, the time when there was nothing urban about anyplace much in Texas. And I can see it in my mind's eye, fitting over the modern small-town exurban reality of Bastrop.

Chappell does an excellent job of making the dilemmas of his characters come to life. It's amazing to me how much drama and passion there truly is in history and how the way it's taught to kids makes that seem impossible. Novelists like Chappell see the story in history, choose a thread in the tapestry, and showcase it for us. It cuts through the propagandizing and malarkey of most works of historiography, when done properly and well. It's done both properly and well in this book.

I can't recommend it strongly enough, especially to non-Texans.

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Lacking in Bite, But Plenty of Suck

Blood Oath

by Christopher Farnsworth

Published  by Jove

Reviewed by Amanda
2 Out of 5 Stars

After avoiding the vampire genre for so long (thanks to Stephenie Meyer turning it into one giant suckfest of romantic longing), I've lately been wallowing in it.  Between watching seasons 1 and 2 of SyFy's Being Human, reading DC's excellent The New 52 I, Vampire, as well as Scott Snyder's American Vampire, my faith in the genre has been restored.  Bring on the bloodsucking fiends!  So I was more than ready to tackle Blood Oath, which, based upon several excellent reviews, I thought would also put the bite back into the genre.  And my final verdict is . . . eh, not so much.

The premise is promising:  when a sailor is found aboard a whaling ship, surrounded by the ex-sanguinated corpses of his mates, President Andrew Johnson brings Marie Laveau in to bind the vampire to the office of the President for as long as he walks the earth.  As a result, Nathaniel Cade has been our country's best kept secret weapon for 140 years, protecting our country against threats foreign, domestic, and supernatural.  He lives in an off-limits wing of the Smithsonian Institute and uses his prowess as a hunter to serve our country.  The latest threat?  Dr. Johann Konrad may be helping Islamic jihadists create zombie soldiers from the parts of fallen U. S. servicemen.  His credentials for doing so?  He was in charge of Hitler's attempts to create Unmenschsoldaten, soldiers raised from the dead to fight without feeling pain, empathy, or hunger.  Oh, and did I mention that waaaaayyyyy back in the day Johann lived in Castle . . . Frankenstein?

I could hardly wait to wrap my peepers around the words that held so much promise for giddy, ridiculous, blood-drenched fun!  Alas, the more promise offered, the greater the potential for disappointment.  The book reads more like a movie script than a novel and all of the characters are flat and one-dimensional.  The dialogue is groan-worthy; the attempts at humor are weak and obvious; the descriptions are virtually non-existent.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like a good, light read, but I also expect it to be done with a certain flair and panache that keeps me entertained.  If the banter had been witty instead of predictable, if the absolute absurdity of it all could have been embraced without always bringing it back to the seriousness of politics and patriotism, and, most importantly, if there had been a vampire that was interesting, this book would have lived up to my expectations.

The greatest weakness of all was the one thing that, if approached differently, could have saved it.  Nathaniel Cade is perhaps the most boring, tedious vampire you will ever meet in literature.  He shows no emotion, he refuses to drink human blood, he's a tortured soul because of the sins he's committed, he admonishes people for taking the Lord's name in vain, he wears a cross that causes him pain to constantly remind him of his sins.  Put a sweater vest on him and he could be a Republican candidate for president.  Hell, Bunnicula has more of a personality than Cade.  To be of interest, Cade needs a few more quirks and more menace; he needs a dash of the devil in him (like Anne Rice's Lestat).  The one bit that held promise--Cade attends AA meetings to help him deal with his "thirst"--is only briefly touched upon and a brilliant opportunity for hilarity to ensue is wasted.  I wanted Cade to want to raise hell and put a brick under it.  Instead, he's just being compelled by the spell of a voodoo queen and a need to right his wrongs. One gets the sense that, if let off his chain he would promptly waste himself by walking into the sunlight or driving a stake through his own heart.  By the end of the novel, I kind of wish he had.

The Family That Shocks Together . . .

The Family Fang

by Kevin Wilson

Published by Ecco

Reviewed by Amanda
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

Annie and Buster Fang, like so many twenty-somethings, blame their parents for the lack of fulfillment and success they find in their careers and in their personal lives.  However, unlike many twenty-somethings, Annie and Buster may have a valid claim for blaming their parents for their seeming lack of autonomy and self-actualization.  That's because the Fang children's parents were artists--as in Artists (that's right with a capital A and italics).  And not just any kind of artists, but performance artists hell bent on causing chaos in established patterns and the unexpected in the routines of daily life.     

Their parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, are nothing if not utterly dedicated to their art, which involves creating elaborate "happenings" in the most predictable of American venues: the mega-mall.  People lulled into hypnotic trances by muzak, colorful window displays, and giant pretzels are prime targets for the art favored by the Fangs.  Always admonished by their mentor that "children kill art," the Fangs create an unconventional solution to preserve their art and raise their family: Annie and Buster become Child A and Child B, props used by their parents to pull off the increasingly elaborate happenings. 

Flash forward to Annie and Buster as adults.  Both have managed to completely FUBAR their adult lives and return to the Fang family nest for a real world time-out.  Immediately drawn back into the weirdness created by their parents, Annie and Buster revert to their childhood roles.  Buster becomes the sensitive younger child, always anxious to please his parents, while Annie becomes the protective older sister, encouraging Buster to challenge their parents' authority.  Shortly after their return, the Fangs disappear and foul play is suspected by the authorities.  Annie and Buster, however, believe this is another elaborate art piece created by their parents and must examine their seriously dysfunctional relationship with them as they search for the truth.

The Family Fang explores a dilemma faced by every family.  Most parents consciously or unconsciously push their children toward their own personal passions and expect this shared love (whether it be art, football, reading, politics, etc.) to create a bond that no one can break.  Problems inevitably ensue when the child begins exploring the world on his own terms and begins to assert himself as his own being.  In the case of the Fangs, Annie and Buster try to create their own brand of art (in her case, acting, and, in his case, writing), but find that, after years of their parents controlling and shaping the events around them, they are ill-equipped to just let life happen. 

If all of this sounds weird, it is.  But it's also very entertaining and not nearly as dark as one might expect.  Populated with quirky characters and clever dialogue, Wilson's narrative avoids taking itself too seriously by inserting absurdity and humor in all the right places (especially in the scenes where Annie and Buster bicker and banter like close siblings do).  This is a solid 3 1/2 stars and the only reason I didn't give it a 4 is because I enjoyed the first half immensely; however, after the Fangs disappear, I felt as though the shift to the mystery plot was too abrupt and unexpected (granted, that was probably the point, but it just didn't work for me).