Thursday, April 11, 2013

Can't Get Enough of That Doomsday Song

The Next Day

David Bowie

Released by Columbia

Reviewed by Amanda
4 Out of 5 Stars

For decades, David Bowie has been a musical phoenix—consuming himself in the flames of one brilliant persona before eventually rising from the ashes anew.  While time would often lapse between these musical reinventions, his 2004 heart attack worried longtime fans as year after year passed with no new music from Bowie.  The fanfare surrounding the London Olympics rekindled hope that perhaps we would see Bowie return to the world stage during the closing ceremonies.  Such hopes were dashed when his profound influence on music and style was honored with a tribute in the form of a musical montage and fashion retrospective.  The man himself did not appear.  We became reconciled to the possibility that 2003’s Reality might be the final album and, while superb, it just seemed as though the end had come too soon.  Twas a bleak time for hardcore Bowie-philes. 

So the release of the single Where Are We Now on January 8 of this year (Bowie’s birthday) and the subsequent announcement of an album with 14 all new tracks (and 3 bonus tracks on the deluxe edition) to be released in March was met with much rejoicing and, on my part, some trepidation.  A fan of every Bowie incarnation (with the exception of the 80’s Bowie-lite), it was difficult for me to imagine a world in which my idol could create an album I wouldn’t like.  However, with no original music for a decade, it was difficult to predict which direction Bowie’s new sound would take.  My greatest fear was that he would succumb to the same temptations as many other aging rock stars seeking to recapture past glories.  Would he try to imitate or perfect upon popular contemporary music in an attempt to gain a newer, younger audience?  Or would he unsuccessfully try to return to the musical stylings of his past?  Would he, dear God in heaven no, mellow out and release an album of traditional crooner standards, proving he just didn’t have what it takes to rock and was instead content to totter on into old age, lounge lizard style?  (That’s right--I’m looking at you, Rod Stewart.) 

Despite my worries, I’m still a devout Bowie fan so I pre-ordered The Next Day as soon as its release was announced and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, blessed March arrived and a ridiculously oversized package for such a tiny thing as a CD appeared at my door.  With trembling hands, I sliced through the tape, pulled out those annoying-as-hell little air bags that seem to go on forever, feeling like the dad in a Christmas Story as he desperately searches through the packing crate to claim his prize.  I removed the final bit of packing and there it was in all its black and white simplicity.  The first sign that all was well was the cover of the new album:  a white square simply declaring it is The Next Day, defacing the stylized pose from the iconic Heroes cover.  This seems to be Bowie suggesting that, while there are subtle nods to the past on the album, this is Bowie now with no apologies and no need to chase after what has been. 

To say The Next Day is Bowie’s best album would be inaccurate, but it is an excellent album whose sound owes more to 2002’s Heathen and the previously mentioned Reality.  Each song has a unique sound as Bowie puts his own spin on pop, rock, and soul.  The opening track, The Next Day, with a driving tempo and guitar, proves Bowie hasn’t lost his edge nor his ability to infuse a rock song with theatrical attitude.  There are several standout tracks here—my favorite is Dirty Boys, a song featuring a sneering, leering groove, suggestive saxophones, and Bowie’s almost sinister vocals slithering around every syllable.  The Stars Are Out Tonight, If You Can See Me, and Set the World on Fire also deserve honorable mentions, as does the instrumental Plan.  The songs alternate between upbeat, positive pop tempos with sometimes surprisingly dark themes, and rough edged rockers with clever lyrics and word play.   The album makes strong use of Bowie’s ability to create pleasing sounds out of sometimes jarring melodies and discordant vocal harmonies (especially on If You Can See Me).  Most of the songs explore the lower registers of Bowie’s voice (to me, this has always been the most appealing use of his vocal range), which have become more resonant with time.  However, he certainly hasn’t lost his ability to make one song stand apart from another by simply creating a new narrative “voice,” evoking a differing tone, character, or attitude on each. 

As the album concluded with I’ll Take You There, my fears had been allayed and I knew that Bowie was safe from musical oblivion.  Forgive me, Bowie, for I have sinned and doubted you.  Never again.  Just please don’t make me wait another 10 years for an album as my penance.

Last Call for an Awful lot of People...

Last Call for the Living
by Peter Farris
4 stars out of 5

This is a must-read book for those who like their crime fiction dark, violent and unrelenting, populated by characters almost all of whom are lost in one way or another, and very few of whom will be redeemed in the end.

Charlie Colquitt comes from an extremely broken home. He's shy, withdrawn, physically unappealing and interested in little more than the model rockets he builds and flys. He supports himself by working as a teller at a small branch bank, and it's his serious misfortune to be on duty early one quiet Saturday morning when a ball-busting, Aryan Brotherhood gang member named Hicklin kicks in the door and robs the bank. Hicklin shoots and kills the manager on duty without a second thought and drags Charlie out of the bank as his hostage.

Hicklin drives Charlie to a remote cabin in the Georgia woods and ties him to a chair. Also in residence is Hicklin's girlfriend, a meth addict whose brain has been fried down to the size of a pea. The woman takes pity on Charlie for all the good that will do him.

It turns out that the heist had been carefully planned by imprisoned AB gang members. It was to be executed by Hicklin and two equally depraved compatriots. But Hicklin jumps the gun by a week, taking all of the score for himself, apparently in the fantasy that he will use the money to run away to Montana and start a new life.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the gang is not happy.

The thugs that Hicklin betrayed are now hot on his tail, and will deal brutally with anyone who gets in their way. The law, of course, is also after Hicklin, and that includes a county sheriff who's well onto the downward slide into alcohol abuse and irrelevance. What follows from all of this is a gripping tale that will hardly warm your heart but which will certainly command your attention. Peter Farris writes beautifully about some very ugly activity and this debut novel heralds the beginning of a very promising career.

Good Thriller Not to Be Missed...CHEAP!

M.C. Miller

$9.99 trade paper, FREE on Kindle

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A new explosive packs the punch of a 500lb. bomb at microdot size. Who has the dots and where are they going to use them? Problem is - they could be anywhere. Chinese-American competition to extend the periodic table to the next island of stability yields an unexpected result - a microdot explosive. Whoever achieves stability first will have the upper hand - or will they? Not everyone in China favors its new capitalism. New revolutionaries aim at the core of consumption culture. Export MDOT-E in commercial goods and the resulting chaos and panic will precipitate a revolution. The Defense Intelligence Agency must put the pieces together. Their plan tricks former lovers and ex-DIA agents Mitchell Reid and Cole Taylor into working together again. They are a volatile pair, a gutsy choice for a covert mission rushing from Macau to Tokyo to Shanghai. Only Reid and Cole stand in the way of sinister forces. Even a successful operation might not prevent a world of hurt.

My Review: I'm on record as a thriller reader by choice. I choose these entertainments carefully, because a bad thriller is a worse read than a bad example of almost every other genre. This thriller was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway, as it was self-published by the author.

I liked it very much. I'd even go out and buy one. It's nicely written, plausibly plotted, tautly paced, and--for a wonder--actually edited! Most amateur writer/self-publishers don't pay enough attention to the role of an editor in the creation of a good novel. Mr. Miller did. He got good advice, I can see, because the plot holes are few and far between, but also because the thread of a book, the argument it makes about the world, is so consistent.

The settings...Asia's Muslim parts, different bits of China for the most part...are hot spots in the world, so it makes a lot of sense to set a thriller there. It's nice, and fairly unexpected, to see that the politics of the region are thought through and the conclusions the author posits are well supported by the information presented in the book itself.

The main character, Cole Taylor, is well enough drawn to make me suspect that a series is planned. If so, that's a darn good thing. Off-the-shelf woman heroes as written by men are no more interesting than their off-the-shelf male counterparts. Cole is a woman I could enjoy following around.

I expect that Miller will grow as a writer, blowing past the inevitable infelicities of style and occasional lapses of imagination that *every* writer needs to work out and shake off. That there were as few as exist in Islands of Instability is another reason I hope more self-published writers will hire Miller's editor, whoever s/he may be!

Recommended for thriller readers who are getting jaded, for those interested in China's increasing economic and political and military ascendency, and for adventurous lady readers who want a flawed, real heroine to enjoy.

April is National Poetry Month. This Isn't Poetry, Though.

Ryan Adams

Akashic Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now (though why you would want it I don't know)

Reviewed by Richard, 0.0000000125* of five

Why? In the name of all that's holy, why?

Memo to all prospective poets: Line breaks
not make
your vapid, tem-
pestuous maunder

In honor of it being National Poetry month and all.

The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow

Krystyna Chiger
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars

Plot Summary

In 1943, with Lvov's 150,000 Jews having been exiled, killed, or forced into ghettos and facing extermination, a group of Polish Jews daringly sought refuge in the city's sewer system. The last surviving member this group, Krystyna Chiger, shares one of the most intimate, harrowing and ultimately triumphant tales of survival to emerge from the Holocaust. The Girl in the Green Sweater is Chiger's harrowing first-person account of the fourteen months she spent with her family in the fetid, underground sewers of Lvov.

The Girl in the Green Sweater is also the story of Leopold Socha, the group's unlikely savior. A Polish Catholic and former thief, Socha risked his life to help Chiger's underground family survive, bringing them food, medicine, and supplies. A moving memoir of a desperate escape and life under unimaginable circumstances, The Girl in the Green Sweater is ultimately a tale of intimate survival, friendship, and redemption.

My Review

After watching Agnieszka Holland’s powerful film, In Darkness, I was delighted to find this story in the library.  After finishing it, I learned that the film was not actually based on Krystyna Chiger’s story, but on an earlier story by Robert Marshall, In the Sewers of Lvov, which covers the same events. 

The Girl in the Green Sweater is told from the perspective of Krystyna, who was only 8 years old when the Lvov ghetto in Poland was liquidated and the remaining Jews sent to their deaths.  The Chiger family had to resort to desperate measures in order to save their lives and spent the next 14 months underground, living in a sewer amid rats, worms, filth, and bacteria.  Many panicked people who descended into the sewers died from drowning or from the grenades thrown through the manhole openings by the occupying forces.  

The family’s savior was Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer worker and a former thief.  He brought them food, clothing, and other supplies they would need to survive their time in the sewer.  Though he was paid very well for his efforts, the work was not without any risk.  In Nazi-occupied Poland, anyone who gets caught helping Jews was punished by death, along with their family.  After the family’s money ran out, it then became obvious that Socha’s intentions were not solely mercenary.

While this story was very grim and showed the darkest side of humanity, there were also moments of humor, bravery, devotion, and sacrifice.  

This story works well as a memoir and survival adventure, but as a Holocaust story, I felt it was lacking historical background.  Though the story was told from a child’s viewpoint, Krystyna was much too young to recall all the events that took place and had to rely on her parents’ memories.  Her father kept a journal and I really would have liked to see some excerpts from it to show a different perspective.  

I can’t help but think that the Chiger family was fortunate to be so wealthy, or they surely would have not survived the war. 

Also posted at Goodreads

City Primeval

City PrimevalCity Primeval by Elmore Leonard
Dan's rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: William Morrow
Price:  14.99
Availablity: Now

Career criminal Clement Mansell killed a crooked judge and the only witness to the crime, the judge's girlfriend. Now, detective Raymond Cruz is trying to pin the crime on Clement but Clement is the slipperiest of worms. Cruz and Clement are heading for a showdown that only one of them will walk away from...

As of this writing, I've read 15 Elmore Leonard novels. Many of them have the same sort of rhythm. The bad guys are slick, the good guys are slicker, and you wind up liking most of them to some degree. This one doesn't quite fit in that mold.

The characters drive the story in City Primeval. Roger Cruz, the divorced detective trying to make his squad take him seriously, and Clement Mansell, the career criminal who might just be too slick for his own good, contrast one another nicely. The interaction between the pair make this cop story feel more like a modern western than anything else. Unlike a lot of Leonard antagonists, I couldn't wait for Mansell's has to get settled. He was a reprehensible worm and I had the literary equivalent of a screaming orgasm when he finally met his fate.

The supporting cast was a little light on personality but the two lead female supporting cast members contrasted one another almost as well as Cruz and Clement. Sandy was a pothead who lived in fear of Clement while Carolyn was a tough lady lawyer who was reluctant to let herself need anyone.

The writing was still Leonard's standard style but with a coldness where much of the humor would normally be. Of all the Elmore Leonard's I've read, this one would be the only one that I could see being at home in the Hard Case Crime series.

No complaints on this one. It was quick and breezy and a slight departure from Leonard's normal fare. Four easy stars.

On Goodreads