Monday, January 11, 2016

"Superman melds with Doctor Death = Steelhearts Powers in this epic battle for Earth"

Steelheart (Reckoners, #1)Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Steelheart, Steelheart, does whatever a Steelheart can... look out here comes the Steelheart! - That's just not working as a jingle"

What a breath of fresh air this novel is. I can't tell you how tiring it is to read/watch superheroes with their special powers, idealised by millions for their abilities and cocky attitudes. Move over Marvel and DC, it's time for the people to take control. In Steelheart it's a role reversal for those 'gifted' individuals, they are hated! This isn't Marvel or DC where the heroes win the day. The heroes are tyrants and prey on humanity. Very dark, very grimdark for a superhero jaunt. Lovely stuff!

Where have these gifted individuals come from? Well no one truly knows. Some say a meteorite caused normal human beings to become empowered with special abilities. Others suggest that governments have been dabbling with creating 'super soldiers' (mutation, nano technology, creating a extra chromosome etc) for many generations and finally lost control of their subjects. Whatever happened, sections of society have become the property of these so called 'Epics' - countries and states have been annexed and are now under the control of one or several Epics.

Newcago (formerly Chicago - cunning that) is now under the control of Steelheart (what a bastard he is!), a super Epic who has the same abilities as Superman, but with one difference, he can change any inanimate object to steel. That's exactly what has happened to Newcago, it's now a city of steel. His powers won't work on living objects, lucky really. Under his command are hundreds of other Epics, including; Conflux, Nightwielder and Bigpantsman - ok made that last one up. Some have rather interesting abilities, as well as weaknesses - I won't spoil them for you.

The Reckoners are humanities answer to the Epics, they fight and kill them to rid themselves of their blight. Technology and science combine to conflict those maniacal beings. Prof[essor] is the leader of the resistance group - "alright son" - Cody is a confused American from deep south, who seems to think he is Scottish - "hey there lass" - Megan is a miserable, but apparently gorgeous woman who is handy with a gun. Abraham is a French-Canadian and a sort of philosophical gun-wielding member - " yes mademoiselle" - oh look confused English and French. The main hero, David, is someone who studies the Epics, especially Steelheart, who killed his father when the Epic decided to take Chicago by force - "I'm NOT a nerd!" - he always cries out.

Is it a good read? Yes and no. The dialogue is terrible, but the story is excellent. In fact I'd go so far to say this is one of the freshest ideas I've come across in many years. As for the dialogue, well if you can put the continual cliché pet names past you (son, lass, lad) then you're on to a winner. When I say continual, I mean in nearly every sentence. The conversations between characters seemed really false and even forced - like the author isn't use to small talk or struggles to write believable dialogue. Something I feel that has held this book back from being a five star read. It's fine to be a fan of any author, but blindness towards critical opinions is always a concern when it comes to fanboys/girls. It's so glaringly obvious it's like having a fork shoved in your eye. Take Marvel for example, if I said the majority of the films stories are terrible and only held up by the special effects and nostalgia towards those characters, then I'd most likely be trolled. That is a example of BAD story telling but very reliant on the canon and characters selling those films. I digress as per usual. Steelheart does pick up pace and ambition in the final third of the book, so really the criticisms above relate to the first two thirds of the novel.

Anyway back to Steelheart, Brandon Sanderson, this is the first of your novels I've read and it certainly won't be my last. Thoroughly enjoyed the premise of this story, but feel much more work is needed on the dialogue to make it more believable. Characters were terribly cliché and, at times, just dull - perhaps this is a problem with YA fiction in general; reality has to be hamstrung by allowing younger readers to read this material. Who knows. I don't.

This review, among others, is listed on my Goodreads page - View all my reviews

The Songs of Billy Bragg

A Lover Sings: Selected LyricsA Lover Sings: Selected Lyrics by Billy Bragg
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than a book of lyrics, A Lover Sings gives fans of Billy Bragg a "behind the music" look at the creation of his songs.

Bragg made a name for himself in the UK in the early 80s as a folk/punk-styled political voice for the left through strident message songs on the one hand and on-the-sleeve personal story songs that touched upon young folks in and out of love.

In the intro to the book, Bragg explains his roots and influences. Considering the punk sensibilities of his early work, it's surprising to hear that songwriters like Paul Simon had an impact on him and that the Motown sound was a favorite of his youth. I guess I shouldn't be surprised after listening for years to lines in his songs like "Remember the sadness In Florence Ballard's eyes" and references to Holland, Dozier, Holland in a song like "Levi Stubbs' Tears".

The Clash seemed a more likely source of inspiration and certainly they helped to form Bragg's ideas and sound, and yet, so too did the enthusiastic energy of the British music hall tradition contribute to his one-man-and-a-guitar performances: Billy Bragg on the South Bank Show

Bragg's brand of socialism is well summed up in his song "Between the Wars":

I was a miner, I was a docker
I was a railway man between the wars
I raised a family in times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry between the wars

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
But they brought prosperity down at the armoury
We're arming for peace, me boys between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man

Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew between the wars

Call up the craftsmen, bring me the draftsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent to any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars

Reading of his struggle and the evolution his ideals underwent has always been interesting to me. He's like a version of Phil Ochs, but one who kept the faith and fought on despite overwhelming defeats and an ever-growing conservative movement in his home country.

I doubt I could've become so enamored with the man's music if it had been only politically-minded. I need the human element in my music, the personal struggle and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. Luckily, Bragg provided that in spades. Relationship woes were a constant source of material for his lyrics, especially in the early days.

It's quite exciting to be sleeping here in this new room
You're my reason to get out of bed before noon
You know when we sat out on the fire escape talking
What did you say about running before we were walking

Sometimes when we're as close as this
It's like we're in a dream
How can you lie there and think of England
When you don't even know who's in the team

Your sexual politics have left me all of a muddle
We are joined in the ideological cuddle

I'm celebrating my love for you
With a pint of beer and a new tattoo
And if you haven't noticed yet
I'm more impressionable when my cement is wet

Politics and pregnancy
Are debated as we empty our glasses
And how I love those evening classes

You really know how to make a young man angry
Can we get through the night without mentioning family

The people from your church agree
It's not much of a career
Trying the handles of parked cars
Whoops, there goes another year
Whoops, there goes another pint of beer

Here we are in our summer years
Living on ice cream and chocolate kisses
Would the leaves fall from the trees
If I was your old man and you were my missus

Give my greetings to the new brunette

The times they were a' changin' and Bragg changed with them. He kept faith with his ideals, but his life-view had to change when fatherhood came knocking. This is most in evidence upon his mid '90s William Bloke album which explores his new role as caregiver while still coming to grips with his political leanings. It's a very reflective album on the whole and second in pop accessibility only to Accident Waiting to Happen.

One detraction from the A Lover Sings reading experience was that I was given a reader's copy poorly formatted for Kindle. The type was extremely small and hard to read. I believe they just scanned the proofs and made digital files directly from them. But that's a mark against the publisher, not the book or its author. If you know you're giving a reader's copy to a reviewer, why would you give them something that's going to negatively impact their reading experience? That's the sound of somebody dropping the ball right there.

But aside from that, this was a nice behind the scenes look into the writing process of one of my favorite songwriters. Any fan rabid looking for a more intimate knowledge of Bragg should grab themselves a copy. Non-fans and new initiates should listen to some of his music first.

Crazy Little Thing Called Scientology

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive ReligionInside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I lived in Hollywood for a few years I would see Scientology buildings around town and I would wonder what went on inside. It was all very secretive. It still is, but due to books like this and, even more so, the internet the veil has been lifted. Which has left me wondering, if the incredible allegations are made against the Church of Scientology are true, why would humans allow others to do such things to them?

I read this in part to learn more about L. Ron Hubbard. I guess I could've just Wiki-ed him, but this book provided much more info. He reminds me of a Teddy Roosevelt character type. A brash go-getter, who could boast some impressive deeds. But where Teddy turned his wild energies and imagination toward public service, Hubbard turned his towards science fiction writing. That in and of itself isn't a bad thing, unless you let your imagination carry you away. Hubbard's mad desire for macho-man adventure so infused his ego as to warp his stories into tall tales of personal achievement that he himself started to believe. Again, that's no big deal, until you start getting others to believe you, others who then follow you and give you all their money.

When Hubbard passed on, the Church passed into even more controlling, determined, single-minded hands, the hands of David Miscavige, a diminutive, sickly youth who grew into a pint-sized dictator. Miscavige credits Hubbard's teachings for curing him of his youthful ailments and frailty. Such miracles will tend to instill an unbreakable devotion in a youthful, impressionable mind. If you isolate that mind early enough, it will forever believe the legend. It will progress no further, learn nothing new, for it has seen the light. If that mind belongs to a raging A-type personality, it will attempt to shove that light down others' throats.

Anywho, that's enough of that nonsense. I won't detail the entire history. That's what books like this are for.

Many reviews have called Inside Scientology boring. Granted, it is quite textbooky, but I feel like those people were looking for something more People-magazine-salacious with cover-to-cover celebrity stories. That's not what you get here. Famous names are dropped. Whole parts of the books are devoted to the topic of celebrities within Scientology, but this is more history than anything. Having said that, there's plenty on Tom Cruise, as you'd expect.

All the while I was reading, I kept in mind that this is one book and one person's take on the topic, so I'm willing to reserve complete judgement. However, Reitman sources a lot of people, mostly Church "defectors", who spent years, even decades within the organization. There are so many of them that it makes you doubt that they're all lying ax-grinders.

Though mostly negative, Inside Scientology does include a few positives in the Church's favor, such as the charity work they've done during natural disasters. Reitman interviews a Scientologist teenager who grew up in the organization and remains there, and the girl comes off as one of the most well-adjusted people in the whole book. And taking into account that it is such a large, many faceted organization spanning the globe with different divisions, departments, whatever you want to call them, so surely one individual's experience will differ from another. No doubt some have derived positives from their association with the Church of Scientology. There, that's my charitable act for the day.