Friday, October 20, 2017

Fiction Friday (60)

So this past week, I read a book that had been on my "To-Read" shelves forever. I always avoided this book because I don't usually like to read realistic YA fiction in fear that it will influence things I'm working on. But given that I had to read one for class, I figured it was high time I read this and I could kick myself for not reading it sooner because I absolutely loved it. What a wonderful book! Enjoy.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
(Penguin, 1999)

Silence suffocates Melinda as she begins her Freshman year at Merryweather High. Isolated by her friends and despised by upperclassmen for breaking up an end-of-summer party, Melinda begins what are supposed to be the best years of her of life as a complete outcast. Part of her believes that things could be different if people only knew the horrible secret of that night at the party when she called the police, but a louder part of her fears that nobody will believe she remains silent. As the school year progresses, Melinda's problems grow. Her grades suffer, her family life becomes more a struggle, and she worries that her secret will eventually drive her to madness. But just like the seeds she studies in Biology and the trees she attempts to create in Art class, growth is inevitable and Melinda finds her voice when she needs it most.

On the surface, Speak is the story of a victim. Melinda is the victim of a horrific crime and a victim of social banishment, but she is more than just a victim. She is an intelligent, compassionate, and courageous young woman that the reader gets to meet thanks to the confessional tone of the writing. Her outsider perspective allows her to identify the absurdity of high school, which she relates in many hysterical observations. The character refuses to be defined by what has happened to her, and likewise the book refuses to be defined as a novel about rape.

Ultimately satisfying and poignant! One of those rare novels that brought to me to tears. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Weekend Music Roundup

The weekend is here, and as I promised last weekend, there are a ton of new releases from some of my favorite artists that have recently come out. This past week, I started to work my way through the albums that will become the soundtrack for this autumn. All of them lived up to expectations, which is a rare treat. This is all rock this week, but as it's a varied genre, there's lots of different sounds to check out. Enjoy.

Liam Gallagher - As You Were: I recently read an interview with the former Oasis and Beady Eye singer that said "Liam Gallagher is very good at being Liam Gallagher" and that is a great statement. As a fan, I believe that statement to be true. It's hard to put your finger exactly on what it is about Liam that is so entertaining. Yes, he's an amazing singer. Yes, he's become a great songwriter. But there is an aurora about him that comes through in everything he does, that indefinable "it" factor. On his first solo album, that factor is all over it. It doesn't stray far from his work in his previous bands, and that's exactly what I wanted. It's full of new classic Liam tracks that I will happily play over and over and over again just as I have with the old classic Liam tracks.

Neil Young - Hitchhiker: 40 years after it was originally slated for release, they long-shelved album has finally seen the light of day thanks to Neil's continual archival project. Though this album was set for release in '76-'77 and never saw the light of day, all but two of the tracks were eventually released on other albums. This falls in the center of a transitional period in Neil's career, a more pessimistic and reflective attitude toward the world than his early '70s catalog. This is just him and an acoustic guitar and that's what makes it so brilliant. Many great songs on here, and though they may be known, it's still nice to hear them arranged in an album form as they were intended. 

Marilyn Manson - Heaven Upside Down: The rocker returns with his 10th album, and first in two years following the wonderful The Pale Emperor. This album sees a return to the industrial glam sound of his Antichrist Superstar, Holy Wood and Golden Age of the Grotesque era. It's heavier than anything he's done in a decade, and for that it's a welcome return to form for most fans, even though I loved that last record, probably more than any of his other records. Definitely worth a listen for fans as it falls into the top half of his work in my opinion.

L.A. Guns - The Missing Peace: It's been 5 years since the L.A. glam rock band's last record, and 30 years since their fantastic debut. With the resurgence of interest in this style of music, this is a welcomed return of one of the best. While it lacks the raw energy of their debut, this is as enjoyable as any of their other album and doesn't feel at all like a band simply trying to stick around and cash in.

The Districts - Popular Manipulations: The indie band from Pennsylvania's fourth album is a pleasant listen that reminds me slightly of bands like The Microphones and Sunset Rubdown, but without the level of experimentation that those two bands deliver. It's more straight forward indie rock, but vocally, it takes chances which makes it more enjoyable and less generic than a lot of others. The fantastic "Rattling My Heart" is a real standout on this record. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Where There is War, There are Voices

“It’s as if Sarajevo is slowly dying, disappearing. Life is disappearing. So how can I feel spring, when spring is something that awakens life, and here there is no life, here everything seems to have died.”
Zlata Filipović, Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo

It's not exactly a Fiction Friday since this isn't Fiction, but it is a book review of another book I just read. The saddest part about a book like this is that it still happens. It seems no matter how many times humankind tries to learn the lesson that war is horror, it never seems to sink in.

Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic
(Viking, 1994)
When Zlata begins writing in her diary, her life in Sarajevo is a happy one. She writes about weekend trips to her family's vacation home in the mountains and the excitement of beginning a new school year with her friends. Her life consists of the familiar anxieties and joys shared by most Middle School students. She worries about how she will perform on upcoming tests and recounts the excitement of holiday celebrations and watching popular videos of MTV. But in the spring of her eleventh year, Zlata's childhood ends seemingly overnight when war comes to the city she loves, the city she calls home.

The Bosnian War, one of several conflicts which ravaged the Balkins in the 1990's, killed tens of thousands and displaced even more across Europe. The politics of these wars were extremely complicated, and often ethnically motivated. But the politics mattered very little to Zlata as she lived through the three year siege of Sarajevo. What mattered to Zlata were the very real results of the war that stole part of youth away from her. Unable to leave her apartment, she watches as a city once teeming with life begins to die under the strains of war. Buildings are destroyed. Stores closed. Electricity and water are unreliable. Trees that have stood for hundreds of years are cut down to be burned for heat in the hard winter months.

Nearly all of Zlata's friends have fled with their families, or have gone to stay with relatives in other countries. Eventually, Zlata and her mother have plans to leave, but discover that it is very hard to get out of Sarajevo once the war has engulfed the city. Through it all, Zlata is a witness to the struggles of the city inhabitants. But she is also a witness to the human spirit that somehow finds a way to survive even in the worst of times. Though she sometimes wants to give up, to succumb to the tranquility of death, she refuses to be defeated and finds ways to carry on because she knows that one day the war will end and Peace will triumph.

A heroic account of one young person's bravery in the face of devastating circumstances. Zlata may have lost her childhood to the war, but she never lost her love for life.  

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Weekend Music Roundup

As it tends to do, the weekend has arrived once again. As I mentioned last week, there are a ton of new releases in the last few weeks from some of my favorite artists and I have begun to listen to them this past week. But as I always do, I like to mix in some surprises because music discovery is one of my favoritest things. This week are a few great albums that I'm excited about and make for a good start to the Fall music season. Hopefully you'll be as excited as I am about these. Enjoy.

Death From Above - Outrage! Is Now: The Toronto duo returns for their third album, the first since their return in 2014. They are back to their original name (dropping the 1979 which I assume was required because of some lawsuit which has since been settled). Thirteen years ago, they were one of the pioneers of Dance-Punk genre and though they have since morphed more into straight rock, they are no less intriguing. "Freeze Up," "Caught Up," "NVR 4EVR" and the title track are my personal favorites on one of the best albums of the year so far.

Tricky - Ununiform: Twenty two years after his solo debut, the Trip-Hop pioneer is still making interesting music that continues to explore the strange inner spaces that the genre has always seemed to infiltrate in my mind. This is one of his strongest albums, with varied influences and a pitch perfect mood that runs throughout. "New Stole," "Same As It Ever Was," "Running Wild," "Dark Days," and fantastic cover of Hole's "Doll Parts" were my personal favorites.

Daughter - Music From Before the Storm: The new album from the London is their third album is a soundtrack to the video game, Life Is Strange. It seems like an odd arrangement for a band that began to break through last year, but then again, there's nothing about the title that links it the video game, so I wonder if this wasn't simply their next album and was used as a soundtrack. Either way, this is another shoegazer art folk record, like their previous efforts, and like those, it's beautiful and subdued. "Burn It Down," "All I Wanted," and "A Hole in the Earth" were standouts for me.

Fleetwood Mac - London Live '68: The original incarnation of the British band was a British Blues band led by the phenomenal Peter Green. This version of the band ranks right up there with the best in the genre, and this archival release from 1986 captures the magic of that band. They run through a wonderful set of blues tunes that capture the sadness and despair in a way that was unique to the British bands of the time. Unfortunately the recording quality leaves a lot to be desired, keeping from being essential. But fans of the genre would do right by giving this a listen.

German Oak - Down in the Bunker: This instrumental heavy psych outfit released one album, way back in '72. It's recently been reissued in a three disc set that most likely includes everything the German band recorded. It's a psych jam that sounds like outtakes of UmmaGumma. Long extended ramblings that explore an interpretative idea of war as filtered through early '70s spack rock. An interesting listen, something that is good for a curious listen, but nothing that will really blow your mind.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Fiction Friday (59)

So here we go again, the continuation of my increased reading habits brought on by graduate school. This is the next installment of several YA titles that will get their chance on Fiction Friday. This week I read a classic of the genre that I hadn't picked up before. I have seen the movie, but it was so long ago, and under the influence, so needless to say, I didn't remember anything about it. That was good, because the book felt fresh and I had no images in my head of how it was supposed to look...well, except for the Karate Kid as Johnny. Enjoy.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
(Penguin, 1967)

Greasers vs. Socs...Punks vs. Preps...Nerds vs. Jocks. No matter what labels are attached, teen literature is littered with stories of two opposing groups whose hatred for one another is based on appearances and social status. Perhaps it's because these differences are so important to us when we are trying to discover who we are and who we want to be. S.E. Hinton, being a teenager herself when she wrote this novel, understood that and that is why this novel remains so popular more than sixty years after it was first published despite the fact that the terms "greaser" and "soc" have long been forgotten.

Ponyboy Curtis is a greaser. He is a greaser because he wears his hair long and slicked back. He is a greaser because he lives on the East Side of his town instead of the richer West Side. He is a greaser because his friends are greasers. He is a greaser because others say he is a greaser. For all of these reasons, he identifies with being a greaser and takes pride in it. At least he did until one night causes him to question everything.

Do the kids who have nice clothes, cars, and money, really have it easier than those who have nothing? Or does every kid suffer from social pressures, issues with their parents, and the confusion that comes with getting older? Ponyboy doesn't have the answer to these questions, but two crucial encounters on that fateful night make him begin to think that perhaps there isn't much of a difference between those on the East Side of town and those on the West. Sure, they have certain material advantages and catch a lot of breaks when it comes to the cops, but that doesn't prove that their lives are as perfect as they seem to the outsider. 
--> Tragedy makes Ponyboy realize that before we are greasers or socs, or any other artificial label, we are all people.
A compelling novel about friendship, loss, and family framed in the age-old struggle between social groups with different interests.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Weekend Music Roundup

The weekend has arrived and brought both the rain and the end of the heat wave with it. But the heat lingered all this past week, and as a result, I geared my listening to the summer weather. There's quite a mix of things in here, and a lot of artists who I hadn't heard before. All in all, it was a nice week of discovery before I settle in next week with a lot of new releases from old favorites. The Fall always brings high profile albums, and I'm excited to begin listening to them. Enjoy.

Laucan - Frames Per Second: The debut album from the London based singer songwriter was released over the summer and is a beautiful piece of indie folk. There's a sadness that permeates throughout this record, which I'm definitely partial to. It reminds me a lot of The Microphones, without the experimental elements, so I suppose, more like Mount Eerie. "I Want Out," "Symptom," and "The Tree (Came Down)," were my personal favorites on this quality record.

Matt Pond PA - Still Summer: The Philly indie band's new album follows last years wonderful Winter Lives. Departing from the melancholy folk vibe of that album, which fits the season of the title, this is a more upbeat indie rock album which fits the season of its title. Whereas the folk album held a unique sense of honesty that I really appreciated, this album, while it has less of that quality, is still quite special. It begins fairly formulaic, but by the end, builds into a thoughtful look at the concept of summer past and present. I still like last year's album better, but that could simply because I far prefer winter to summer. "Rabbit," "Last Breath," "Canada," and "Union Square" were my favorites.

Black Grape - Pop Voodoo: It's been 20 years since Shaun Ryder's spin-off band last released an album, and 10 since his main band, Happy Mondays, last released a record. Not much has changed in the passing of time. More than 30 years into his career, Ryder is still creating catchy Baggy Madchester tunes that attack the mainstream sentiments. As always, this is a fun listen, but as with the last HM album, it's really one of those one or two listens before it gets shelved and forgotten. "Money Burns" and "Losing Sleep" were standouts. 

Oddfellow's Casino - Oh, Sealand: The fifth album from the Brighton based indie band is pleasant piece of neo-psych that, unlike American bands of the genre which draw from '60s influences, draws more from BritPop influences. It sounds like a mellow Suede or Coral in their quieter moments. "Down in the Water," "Children of the Rocks," and "Penda's Fen" were my personal favorites on this thoroughly enjoyable album.

Felly - Wild Strawberries: The L.A. rapper's second full length album is a blissful bit of hazy summer beats and laid back flow mixed with an R&B vibe that all somehow just clicks in a way that is welcoming to my ears. Certainly not revolutionary, but certainly a sound that is rare these days. Reminds me a bit of Digable Planets first album because it combines R&B soul with hip hop the way that album did for jazz and hip-hop, but this album has a decidedly California feel to it. "Baby Boy," "Above Water," and the fantastic "Oceans V2" are standouts on this ray of sunshine.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Fiction Friday (58)

As I mentioned last week, I'm going to posting more reviews in the coming weeks thanks to a YA class I'm taking for my Master's in Library Science. This week I read a book that has been sitting on my shelf for years. One I wish I'd read when I was first given a copy of it shortly after it was published. I met Ned a few occasions. Both of us being young authors in NYC, we crossed paths here and there. Right after this book came out, we spent a few days together at a conference and shared the same panel. I make it a point to rarely read books by people I know, or books that resemble books I've written. This fell into both, being subject matter that overlapped my novel at the time, Pure Sunshine. I decided to read it now, a few years after Ned passed away, and wish I'd had the chance to tell him how much I appreciate it.

be more chill by Ned Vizzini
(Miramax, 2004)

Except for the lucky few, every teen struggles with trying to be 'cool'. The lucky few are those who are naturally blessed with the right attributes that assure a level of cool, or those who simply have no interest in being cool, which is a blessing in itself. Jeremy Heere does not fall into either of these two groups. He is desperately 'uncool' by the standards of others in his High School. He spends his time in class obsessing over his social interactions and the social interactions of groups he's been left out of, recording his failures and faults daily on Humiliation Sheets. He spends his time at home in a way that way a lot of teens (especially boys) spend their time; masturbating to porn on the internet.

Like many people in his situation, Jeremy seems unable to break out of the social niche he's been placed into. Despite the elaborate plans he comes up with to change his circumstances, he always ends up right back where he started...that is, until he learns about squips. Squips are supercomputers, ingested in pill form, that attach to the user's brain, access their memories, analyze the world around them, and advise the host on how to achieve their goals.

Jeremy's goals are relatively easy ones. He wants to be cool. He wants to be cool, because being cool will get him girls. More specifically, being cool will get him Christine. Communicating with Jeremy telepathically, the squip instructs him on what to wear, what to say, and how to say it. Initially, this arrangement produces promising results. Jeremy becomes substantially 'cooler' in the eyes of his classmates, and far more attractive to girls. But there are always consequences to pretending to be someone you are not, and Jeremy learns the hard lessons there are no shortcuts to achieving your goals and that being yourself is frequently the best approach to life. The saddest thing about this novel is that Jeremy is just fine as he is and the biggest obstacle to being 'cool' is our own self-doubts and our desires to be something we aren't.

An outstanding novel, one I wish I had read when I was a teen.