Friday, October 11, 2019

Fiction Friday (92)

With five out of six required YA reads out of the way, get set for a long pause to come before I read another YA novel. There's still one more to go, so it's not coming yet, but I do believe I will invest in another genre next, even though I have enjoyed all of the five books so far. But I am starting to remember some of the things I grew to not like about a lot of YA fiction, mainly their lack of literary writing and tendency to veer toward popular fiction. That I'm seeing this in books that are widely acclaimed tells me something about the vast glut of publishing for the age group. But, I'm ranting and what I really want to do is rave (a little bit) about the latest book I read. Enjoy.

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
(S&S, 2015)

Simon Spier is a junior in High School, and if that alone weren't horrible enough, he is also being blackmailed by a classmate. The deal is simple, Simon is to help this kid with the girl he likes, in exchange, this kid won't reveal to the world that he learned through snooping that Simon is gay. Seems totally fair, right?
Needless to say, Simon half-hardheartedly goes along, mostly to protect the boy he's been emailing with. Things cruise along pretty okay for Simon, until that other kid breaks the deal and Simon suddenly finds his place in the world up-ended.

Despite the premise, this is a delightful read. The friendships between the characters are truly heartwarming. Simon is a joy to listen to in all his quirks and flaws and strengths. And on the surface, it's just a very fun book. The whole "falling in love over email" was beautifully done.

Digging deeper is where I found myself a little unsure of the book as a whole. As I mentioned, the characters are a delight to be around, and perhaps they are little too delightful. There is nearly no tension between characters in the book, and when it does arise, it's a little too easily overcome (with the exception of the blackmailer, which I thought was handled expertly). And while there is some amount of push back from others towards Simon's outing, everything was a bit too "in a perfect world" kind of thing going on. And while I know the world is far more accepting that it used to be, I still think this was a bit on the unrealistic side. There was also something about Bram's character that felt a lot less real once we knew him than he did when he was just as voice.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Weekend Music Roundup

It's the weekend and it finally feels like Fall here in the Hudson Valley. The leaves are changing, the weather is crisp, and the tunes are turning toward melancholy. These are a few of my favorite things and so it's no surprise that many of the albums on this week's list tend to fit that theme. There's some new highly anticipated albums, some older albums that I'd been searching for, and a couple of curiosities that are well worth sharing. Enjoy.

Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell!: So last weekend, I mistakenly attributed my review of a Lana bootleg for a review of this, her fifth solo album since reinventing herself as Lana, but it still remains my favorite album from  the NYC native, L.A. transplant, artist since 2014's Ultraviolence.  It seems many of the tracks on the bootleg were rougher versions of songs on here (though some were apparently older songs). While I typically enjoy rough versions, there is something about the finished versions here that propel them to the next level. This is by far her most realized record and most sophisticated. Whereas on previous albums, she could sometimes sound like someone playing a part, this time around, it feels incredibly real. A true gem of an album!

Spiritualized - And Nothing Hurt: I'd been looking to find a copy of this for over a year, a copy that didn't cost a fortune, and I finally found one. I've been a Spiritualized fan for well over twenty years and it had been six years between releases before this came out last year. This is a masterpiece of an album that sees Jason Pierce at his vulnerable best. It doesn't have the bravado of Ladies and Gentleman, but a more mature sense of the same themes. "A Perfect Miracle," "Here It Comes (The Road) Let's Go," "On the Sunshine," "Damaged," and "The Prize" are all brilliant songs, as are pretty much all of the songs on here. A true triumph.

Lions and Ghosts - Velvet Kiss, Lick of the Lime: This 1987 debut from the L.A. jangle rock band was a recent find in the 5 for $20 bin at a recent record show. Of course, jangle rock is more associated with the U.K, but there were a few college radio bands here in the U.S. making that sound. Being from L.A., they are able to mix this sound with the drenched burnout sound of that town, which makes for a great mix. This was a nice find, and opens with the wonderful "Passion." Other favorite tunes include "Mary Goes Round," "Girl on a Swing,"  "Love and Kisses from the Gutter," and "Contradiction."

Cranes - Self-Non-Self: The 1989 debut EP from the UK goth band. I've been a following this band since their first album. They were scheduled to open for The Cure during the "Wish" tour when I was a soph in High School and I bought their album before the show. Sadly, they didn't make it to the Philly show, but I loved the album. I have a huge collection of their albums and singles on CD, but not this one. I was shocked to find a mint copy of this on vinyl, especially considering they were never popular in the U.S. and this was very limited even the U.K. This is more goth industrial than they were end up being, but it's amazing. Someone described it as Skinny Puppy with your child signing, and though that's not exactly true, but a good starting point.

Steve Walsh - Schemer-Dreamer: The first solo album released by the singer of Kansas came out in 1980. It would twenty years before he released another solo record, so for all intents and purposes, this is the only solo album from the peak of his career. It opens with the great title track that is near perfect hard blues rock, and from there continues it's straight forward sound, something that probably felt refreshing after a decade of prog rock albums. Though it certainly does have some prog elements, they are more window dressing than any type of focus. Along with the title track, "You Think You Got it Made," "Every Step of the Way," and "Wait Until Tomorrow" are solid songs. But the real star of this is the way over-the-top 80s cover art, which is narcissistically BRILLIANT!

The Divine Comedy - Office Politics: This is the 13th album from Irish art-pop band that first came to prominence during the Britpop era. Even in their heyday, Neil Hannon blended humor into songs that were constructed with the importance of Baroque sophistication. This is no different, he takes the subject of office life and pokes fun at it in a series of songs that mask the triviality of the words, though as with all humor, there is real statements hidden in the humor. The one drawback to this album is that it is simply too long. A single disc made up of the best tracks would have been fantastic, but with so much filler, it's hard to get through.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Fiction Friday (91)

The YA blitz continues on with the fourth book in my required reading. This one falls under the theme of social media in teen romance, though social media plays a very limited role in this book. The focus is less on any form of social media interaction, but old school letters and notes, which essentially serve the same purpose. Social media is just modern form of communicating through the written word, but with photographs. Either way, it was a fun read.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han
(S&S, 2014)

There are moments when every teenager feels his or her life has been completely undone by an embarrassment that is totally unrecoverable in scope. For Lara Jean, this happens when several old love letters she wrote to boys she's had crushes on are mysteriously mailed to them. 
The very concept is brilliant, one that anyone could relate to. We all keep our crushes secret, and even if we are long over them, having them revealed can be mortifying...especially if one of them happens to be a close friend, who is also your sister's boyfriend, and who you happen to still be in love with. 

A twist of fate provides Lara Jean with a way to save face when dreamy Peter offers to pretend to be her boyfriend, in a relationship of mutual benefit. What was supposed to be a charade, leads to unexpected consequences and self-discovery in this page-turning read.

The strength of this book is the dialogue. Jenny Han has a great ear for writing dialogue that feels very real and be both touching and hilarious.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Seeing Double

A few weeks ago, the Missus and I were talking about Richard Ayoade and his wonderful movie Submarine and during that discussion, discovered that seven years ago he had made another more called The Double and staring Jesse Eisenberg. Of course, we immediately put it on our watchlist.

This is one of those delightfully and brilliantly odd movies. It's part Michel Gondry, part Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It has that feel like it's set in an alternate reality, a bleak one where dark things happen. But these dark, bleak things are told in such a way that you find the humor buried within them. 

Simon James is a person who barely exists. He works at soul sucking data company where nobody seems to remember him though he's been there seven years. Then James Simon, an exact look-alike starts working there. This double is the mirror image of Simon. Think an angel and a devil sitting on the shoulder of someone. 

This devil character ends up destroying Simon's life, however miserable it may have been. However, it also awakens real passion and real life within him. 

Certainly not a film for everyone, but for people who like these types of movies, it's basically a masterpiece.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Weekend Music Roundup

It's that time again, weekend time. I've been spending most of this week listening to Liam's new album, but have found time for a few other things. However, most of this week is stuff that I've been grooving to over the past few months, with the exception of the first album on the list, which is was new this week, and captivating. There's a broad range on here, with a lot less "rock" than usual. Hopefully there's something here you want to take a closer listen to. Enjoy.
Lana Del Rey - Best American Record: CORRECTION: I had originally posted a review of Lana's new album, but realized I was actually reviewing this newly released bootleg. So my review as false. These are a lot demos, and I really enjoyed it. I'm yet to listen to her new record, so I will have hold my thoughts.

(ORIGINALLY POSTED THIS REVIEW: The fifth solo album since reinventing herself as Lana, this is my favorite of the NYC native, L.A. transplant, artist since 2014's Ultraviolence.  To be clear, I enjoyed both her albums that followed, but couldn't connect to them in the same way as I did to her first two. No such problem with this one. I can see maybe why her "heartbreak" aurora might wear on people a bit, and by all means, this is another story of a heartbroken girl, but she does it so well and more importantly, still makes you believe it and feel it)

The Bluebells - Cath: This is an early EP from the UK jangle pop band, released in 1983, a year before their debut, which would feature this single. This is a preview of bands that would emerge from the UK in second half of the 80's. It's the beginnings of indie rock over there, moving away from new wave, punk, goth, hard blues, and other dominant rock styles of the time. This is four really good songs by a band that never really found stardom. 

Eddie Money - Life For the Taking: Released in '78, one year after his break-out debut, this the second album from the NYC rocker. His sound was always very solidly FM rock radio, but he was a master of the genre. I was a fan of his during childhood and rediscovered his music about ten years ago. With his passing fresh on my mind, I picked up this album recently. It was missing from my collection and is another solid rock record. He's one of those artists who know what he was and didn't try to be anything other than that, and that's where his true cool comes from.

blur - live at the bbc: Recorded in '94, this four song archival EP was just released and of course I had to by it for the Missus whose favorite band is blur. As with all Live at the BBC albums, the quality is amazing. Bands really seem to bring their best when recording live there, especially British bands who know the importance. Includes the mega-hit "Boys and Girls" and three other lesser known, but no lesser brilliant songs.

Pat Metheny Group - Pat Metheny Group: Released in 1978, this is the first Pat album to be released under the Group moniker. Metheny is one of the pioneers of the ECM jazz movement, which emerged in the late 70's from jazz fusion, and is seen as a split from the free jazz of the era. Contemporary jazz has never really been my thing, as it often veers into easy listening, but as with any genre, when a great musician takes it on, it's worth hearing. This is the kind of super mellow album that is great for an early morning listen. It has a warm, peaceful 70's sound and just feels...right. 

Talking Heads - Little Creatures: This is the sixth album from the iconic post-punk new wave icons. Released at the height of their mainstream popularity, this album still holds true to their early sound, and features some of their biggest hits, such as "She Was" and "Stay Up Late." I've recently been into this band, so it was good fortune that this album came to me through the generosity of a friend recently. David Byrne's gift has always been being able to make the bizarre incredibly appealing to the masses. In addition to the hits, other great tunes on here are "Give Me Back My Name," "The Lady Don't Mind," and "Television Man." 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Fiction Friday (90)

Well, now I'm half way through my required YA reading and each book keeps getting better. I can only hope the next three books I need to read are as enjoyable as the first three. This review is of the second book in the "Who Can You Trust" theme and it was a great one. I love discovering books that I probably would never have picked up on my own.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
(MacMillan, 2015)

Faith's world has always been a rather limited one. The adolescent daughter of a Reverend in Victorian England, the world does not contain many open doors for her. But all of that changes when her family moves to a small island in the English Channel under the pretense of her father, a respected natural scientist, joining a fossil expedition.

On the journey to the island, Faith discovers the first of many secrets that will soon be revealed to her. Desperate to know the truth, to not be shut out from the world simply because she's a girl, Faith resorts to stealth and prying. It isn't long before she finds herself in the middle of events far more complicated than she could've imagined.

This is a very well written piece of literature. On the surface, it's a murder mystery involving religious and scientific intrigue. Under the surface, it's a compelling story about a young girl who refuses to accept the place of women in her society, and a revelation that there were many women working very hard within those rigid rules to circumvent them. In many ways, it's a feminist text, turning ancient religious stories condemning female curiosity (Pandora's box, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge) while turning them on their head.
Absolutely engrossing and clever.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Emptiness of Space

It probably shouldn't come to a surprise for anyone who has followed this blog for a period of time that I'm a sucker for space flicks. Ever since I was four years old and saw Star Wars for the first time, I've been a sucker for space flicks. My childhood was consumed with space fiction, and I still find it captivating to the imagination. Also being a Brad Pitt fan, it seemed to make sense to go see Ad Astra in the theater.

The overwhelming feeling that this movie left me with was coldness. It's not an uplifting film about the achievements of humankind. It's an exploration into the heart of darkness and the emptiness of space. 

It reminded me of Apocalypse Now set in outer space. The film is told mostly in voice over narrative as Brad Pitt's character ends up retracing his father's footsteps. He is on a mission to end the destruction that his father's madness has created. It basically follows the same trajectory as Apocalypse Now and does it well.

The movie is about isolation, both physically and psychologically. It deals with this theme on the personal level and on the species level. A refusal to connect with others leads one to dangerous places in their minds. Likewise, the inability for the human species to connect with other life is preventing us from moving away from the destructive behavior that has always plagued us. 

This movie was visually stunning and definitely explored these themes in depth and compellingly. The one place it was lacking was in giving the viewer any sense of emotion. The viewer is just as disconnected and closed off watching the movie as the characters are. To some extent, I think was intentional. However, at places where Brad Pitt's character shows emotion, it didn't seem to earn that emotion. But is sure was pretty to look at....