Thursday, June 13, 2013

There's Nothing Wrong With a Little Trouble

Trouble Will Find Me

The National

Released by 4AD Records

5 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

Melancholy is a word that has become synonymous with the indie rock sound of The National, but there are some surprises on their sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me.  Don’t worry—for those who love the band’s trademark brooding nature, there’s still plenty of the outsider’s angst and alienation (Humiliation), the introvert’s painful interactions with a world he doesn’t understand how to be in  (Demons), addictive relationships that seem based more on the identification with another fragmented, damaged individual than on romantic longing (This is the Last Time).  However, the pervading darkness of previous albums seems to have given away (ever so slightly, mind) to, dare I say, the tiniest, faintest, is-it-really-there sliver of optimism?

The cover image of Trouble Will Find Me features a female face bisected with a mirror, so that one half appears to be asleep while the other half is disconcertingly awake.  This duality of awareness and unconsciousness frames the album’s lyrical content, which often juxtaposes a cautious hope and weary resignation.  Lead singer Matt Berninger writes song lyrics that reject predictable patterns—opting for a word that doesn’t quite rhyme when a more clich├ęd one will do, or squeezing in more syllables than the music’s rhythm seems willing to allow because he has so much more to say.  The result creates complex surprises for listeners who have become jaded to the predictability of shallow pop lyrics.  His eccentric turns of phrase often focus on the mundane, refusing to idealize life in overwrought, poetic language because life itself in its barest, most raw form is poetry.  In The National’s distinct sound, it is Berninger’s resonant and haunting baritone and the band’s orchestral layers that bring eloquence and emotional weight to these everyday fears and neuroses.

Unlike previous albums, there is an unexpected buoyancy to the music, if not always to the lyrics.  In Sea of Love, Berninger fears the prospect of succumbing to love, despite watching others willingly surrender  (“I see people on the floor.  They slide into the sea . . . I see you rushing down [don’t drag me in]”).  His words worry that “If I stay here, trouble will find me,” but the upbeat tempo suggests that trouble may be just what he needs; perhaps it will take “trouble” to upset the routine and force him to live outside of himself.  Don’t Swallow the Cap reveals a speaker who recognizes “I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion.  I can’t get the balance right.”  This divergence is further emphasized by Berninger singing in the upper registers of his vocal range, layered over his own mumbling, more familiar bass.  The result is a pleasing rasp that suggests he’s closer to finding the balance than he might think. 

For the purists, there are still several more traditionally National tracks.  In Demons, an awkward Berninger resigns himself to an inability to maintain an optimistic outlook (“Every day I start so great and then the sunlight dims . . . When I walk into a room I do not light it up.  Fuck.”).  In This is the Last Time, the “sea of love” has become a swamp, sucking him under and yet “You’re the only thing I want.”  Repeatedly chanting “this is the last time” as a mantra, he seems to be trying to convince himself (and us) that he will eventually leave, though he knows the cyclical nature of the relationship will drag him down again.  In the achingly reflective Slipped, he is routinely drawn back to the place (emotional and physical) where a relationship fell apart, acknowledging his culpability as “I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be."

In terms of sound, Trouble Will Find Me has more in common with Alligator and Boxer than 2010’s High Violet, which featured a darker rock sound.  While I enjoyed the 2010 effort, this return to a more stripped down, poignant album is a reminder of why I fell in love with The National in the first place, and yet there’s enough difference here to hint at the promise of all that is to come.

Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie mysteries, doggone good fun!

A CAT WAS INVOLVED (Chet and Bernie #0.5)
Atria Books
$0.99 eBook, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Spencer Quinn’s first original e-short story reveals how everyone’s favorite detective duo—Chet the Dog and P.I. Bernie Little—came to meet before their first big case in Dog On It.As fans know, Chet first met Bernie on that fateful day when he flunked out of K-9 police school. The details of that day though have always remained a little vague (like so much in Chet’s doggy brain). All we know is that Chet had been the best leaper in his K-9 class, but for some reason he failed his final leaping test...and that a cat was involved...and that there was some blood. But whose? The test, the cat, the blood—all pieces of a puzzle that, when solved, will bring down a dangerous gang of thieves—and signal the start of a beautiful friendship.

This fateful day has been alluded to in every book in the series, and now fans of Chet and Bernie will finally get to find out what actually happened. For these two beloved characters, it was something like love at first sight—and, for Chet, at first smell, too.

My Review: Here's what you need to's exactly as much fun as you'd expect it to be; it's got the trademark Chet narration that leaves nothing to a human imagination except why we don't get to think this way; and it breaks from the canon of history set up in the first two books about Bernie's marriage and Chet's place in it.

Like all !&$^!%(^%!$*$$(^$)&%)^(%*!$ ebooks, I can't quote anything to you because how? But the story's only 39pp or so, and it blows by faster than one actually wants it to, and it costs a whopping ninety-nine cents. It's actually not necessary to read from a series standpoint, but heck, for chump change, buy it, read it, and smile for a half-hour. Sounds like a win to me!

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DOG ON IT (Chet and Bernie #1)
Atria Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.8* of five

The Publisher Says: As sidekicks, Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 have nothing on Chet and Bernie. This charming detective duo make their debut in Dog On It, the first volume in Spencer Quinn's new mystery series. The fast-paced and funny tale is narrated by the inimitable Chet, Bernie's best friend and canine partner, whose personality and preferences are never in doubt: "I liked to sleep at the foot of Bernie's bed, but my favorite napping spot was in the breakfast nook, under the table with my back against the wall, all cool and shady, plus there was often good snacking around Bernie's chair."

Bernie's enterprise, the Little Detective Agency, limps along, waiting for the next job to arrive. While Chet freely admits that he doesn't always understand the humans around him, the mutt who failed to graduate from the police academy quickly establishes that he's got a nose made for sniffing out trouble -- as well as the tasty morsel.

When the story begins, Chet and Bernie are settled into the companionable routine they established when Bernie got divorced and lost custody of his son. Riding shotgun for stakeouts in Bernie's beat-up convertible (and snarfing up doughnuts and beef jerky) is the perfect life for Chet, though he knows Bernie's worried about cash flow.

But their luck is about to change. During a nighttime stroll through the neighborhood -- an older enclave in the southwestern desert that Bernie fears will soon be eclipsed by new development -- the pair encounter a panicked neighbor, Cynthia Chambliss. Waving a wad of bills, she beseeches Bernie to find her daughter, Madison, a 15-year-old who has been missing for several hours.

Bernie heeds the call of cash and the urgency of parental concern, but Madison soon returns home on her own, only to disappear again in short order -- this time for several days. Cynthia frantically rehires Bernie, but her ex, Damon Keefer, refuses to cooperate, insisting that Bernie be taken off the investigation. Nevertheless, intrigued by the young girl's apparent connections to a group of Russian thugs, Bernie and Chet follow a trail of clues that leads them into more danger than they'd bargained for.

As Chet and Bernie race across the desert toward Las Vegas in their sandblasted Porsche, Quinn's narrative unfolds with mounting suspense. At every stage of their journey, readers will warm to Chet's loyalty and courage -- to say nothing of his delightfully doggy digressions -- and be captivated by Spencer Quinn's deft blend of humor and thrills in this enormously entertaining tale, bound to be the first of many adventures.

My Review: Chet and Bernie. Say it with me, now. Chet and Bernie. Get used to saying it, because once you read this book, you'll be saying it a lot to others who haven't read it yet.

Chet's a dog. Bernie's a schlub. They're a team, crime solving magic of a team. In a mystery world dominated by cat cozies, they're very unusual and very much a pair of guys. This makes them a breath of fresh air at the least, and a cold Alberta Clipper to blow the cobwebs full of cat-dander out of the bookstores. Come back to the fold, gentlemen, there's a voice a lot like the one in your head all ready to talk to you, and it's a dog's!

It's wonderful to read something that's got a new slant on an established trope (read: hoary old cliche), and slants it well enough to keep a cynical old sourpuss like me leaning forward in his seat, eager to see what Chet's going to do next, what Bernie's brain's going to wrest from its depths to help the innocent and land on the wicked with all six feet (four Chet's). LT member cameling gets all the credit for shoving this book into my awareness. Bless you, dear madam.

Oh yeah...the schlub gets the girl, too. The right girl. Never mind that she's a vegetarian...who among us is without major character flaws?...she loves Chet.

Fetch! Sit! Read!

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THEREBY HANGS A TAIL (Chet and Bernie #2)
Atria Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The second book of an irresistible series narrated by a loveable and wise dog. In the newest Chet and Bernie mystery, Chet gets a glimpse of the show dog world turned deadly. "We run a detective agency, me and Bernie, called the Little Detective Agency on account of Little being Bernie's last name. My name's Chet, pure and simple. Headquarters is our house on Mesquite Road, a nice place with a big tree out front, perfect for napping under, and the whole canyon easily accessible out back, if it just so happens someone left the gate open. And then, up in the canyon -- well, say no more."

Praised by Stephen King as "a canine Sam Spade full of joie de vivre," Chet and his human companion Bernie have both had some setbacks in life -- Bernie in combat, Chet in K-9 school, but together they make up a team like no other. In Thereby Hangs a Tail, Bernie and Chet are called on to investigate threats made against an unlikely target -- a pretty, pampered show dog named Princess. What seems like a joke turns into a serious case when Princess and her owner are abducted. To make matters worse, Bernie's on-again, off-again girlfriend, reporter Susie Sanchez, disappears too. When Chet is separated from Bernie, he's on his own to put the pieces together, find his way home, and save the day.

With genuine suspense and intrigue, combined with humor and insight into the special bond between man and dog, Thereby Hangs a Tail will have everyone talking.

My Review: Cute! Very cute! Chet is such a clever boy I want to give him Milk Bones until he faints!

And that's kinda the problem under the fun: Cute. It's fun, yes, and it's pleasantly written with a well-imagined dog's point of view. But I think this is a series that needs to be taken in annual doses, and in the proper mood. I am, admittedly, as curmudgeonly as the day is long. But I'm not immune to charm. The series has charm.

It's just, well, it's wearing a bit thin at the elbows. Also, I hate Suzie. But I would, wouldn't I, being a dour old gay guy?

But then there are moments like this, and I can't help grinning:

All at once, I was kind of tired, too. I lay down under the hall table. A roof over your head is always nice. I realized that the house had a roof, of course, so in fact I had two roofs over my head, even better. And what about the ceiling? Under the roof, right, but still a kind of roof, too? I got a bit confused.
That's Chet, a bright dog, narrating. The snap-snap-snap of a dog processing into dog-think the idea of roof-house-safe and making it better by getting under a table rings completely true to me. And the magic for me is in Quinn's rendering that into non-cloying humanspeak.

And then there's the ending. Whee dawggie. White knuckles and bright flashlights exciting, and even though I was pretty darned sure I knew whodunit, but please forgive me if I don't tell you the bit I was most tensed up about and the bit that Chet, for all his smarts, didn't see as scary and troubling as I did.

Read 'em one at a time, in order, and these books will give you thrills and grins and not a few gnawed knuckles. Like the one skinless, bloody nubbin I've got workin' over the unresolved plot line that I can't tell you about. GAH!

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The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #13 Paul Bryant

Today's guest is Paul Bryant.

How did you discover Goodreads?
An online friend told me about it.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
Meeting fellow reviewer Ian Graye and his charming family from Australia in real life

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
Ian Graye

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
Forboding and resentment.

How many books do you own?
About 2000

Who is your favorite author?
Rohinton Mistry

What is your favorite book of all time?

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
I haven’t read one yet & have no intention of starting to any time soon. I like stuff – records, movies, books. But they are taking the stuff away. Will houses in 50 years time be empty?

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I’ve read about five self-published books recently and what a mixed bag – they can be excellent, they can be lamentable. So a bit like actual books then.

Any literary aspirations?
To read The Golden Bowl and to enjoy it. But I can’t see that ever happening.