Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Favorite Books That I Read This Year

In the continuing spirit of making endless lists to sum up the year that is now almost over, I want to share with you my favorite books that I read over the past twelve months. I actually read quite a bit this year, finishing around 40 novels. Though I still don't quite seem to be able to read the newest books, I was better at reading more contemporary fiction than in years past. As you will see when going through the list, Middle Grade fiction was a big hit with me. I find there is a lot of room in that format for creating imaginative worlds, something that has always attracted me. I've decided to give the summary of each book that appears on rather than my personal reviews, simply because I've reviewed all of these books on my blog already. However, I've also included a link to my review in case you're interested. Hopefully some of these will be new to you. Enjoy.

The Search for WondLa by Tony Diterlizzi (2010): Eva Nine is a curious and sensitive twelve-year-old who has existed only in a subterranean home called Sanctuary, cared for by a robot named Muthr. Eva's great desire is to go aboveground, and her wish comes true, though not as she had imagined. On the surface, Eva goes in search of other humans--she has never met one--and soon meets both friend and foe. MY REVIEW

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (2009): Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones.With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century. MY REVIEW

The House of Dolls by Ka-tzetnik 135633 (1955): The novel describes "Joy Divisions", which were allegedly groups of Jewish women in the concentration camps during World War II, who were kept for the sexual pleasure of Nazi soldiers. MY REVIEW

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (1969): It is Charlotte's first night at boarding school. But when she wakes up, the girl in the next bed is not the person who was sleeping there the evening before. And the new building outside her window seems to have metamorphosed into a huge, dark cedar tree! Somehow, Charlotte has slipped back forty years. MY REVIEW

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff (2002): Hollis Woods has been in so many foster homes she can hardly remember them all. She even runs away from the Regans, the one family who offers her a home. When Hollis is sent to Josie, an elderly artist who is quirky and affectionate, she wants to stay. But Josie is growing more forgetful every day. If Social Services finds out, they’ll take Hollis away and move Josie into a home. Well, Hollis Woods won’t let anyone separate them. She’s escaped the system before; this time, she plans to take Josie with her. Yet behind all her plans, Hollis longs for her life with the Regans, fixing each moment of her time with them in pictures she’ll never forget. MY REVIEW

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996): When Richard Mayhew stops one day to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London pavement, his life is forever altered, for he finds himself propelled into an alternative reality that exists in a subterranean labyrinth of sewer canals and abandoned subway stations. He has fallen through the cracks of reality and has landed somewhere different, somewhere that is Neverwhere. MY REVIEW

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane by Laird Koenig (1973): Award-winning and international best-selling novel by Laird Koenig. Some little girls can be murder! Thirteen-year-old Rynn is a gifted prodigy who lives in a big old house with her reclusive father...all alone. Or does she? When Rynn's nosy landlady and a lecherous neighbor begin to suspect that this little girl is hiding a dark and dangerous secret, Rynn is determined to preserve her isolated existence at any cost - and stop those vicious rumors dead in their tracks! MY REVIEW

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1970): On an Earth where the Tripods -- huge, three -- legged machines -- have ruled for as long as anyone can remember, thirteen-year-old Will harbors fears about the Capping ceremony he will soon undergo. Capping marks the transition from childhood into adulthood, but it also has a more sinister meaning: It is the Tripods who attach the metal headpieces to people's skulls, and once Capped, a person is forever a slave to them. As Will learns the truth, he realizes that he must escape while his mind is still his own. With two companions, he begins a journey across Europe to find the stronghold of the last free people in the world -- in the White Mountains of Switzerland. MY REVIEW

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I'm currently enjoying the holidays in Switzerland with the Missus and her family, having a lovely time. Hope all of you are having a great day as well (or days depending on the holiday you celebrate). Enjoy, and best wishes to all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

My Favorite New TV Shows of the Year

I know some writers believe television to be an abomination, but I'm not one of them. When done right, TV is very much a writer's medium, allowing for character and plot development on par with novel writing. Given the length of time dedicated to a series, it is much more akin to novels than film in a lot of cases. I've always been a big television watcher and this year there have been a lot interesting new shows. I think television has been taking risks with scripted shows again, something it hasn't done in a few years since. I wanted to share my thoughts on my favorite new shows of the year. Keep in mind, I refuse to pay for premium channels, so save the comments about Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, and Game of Thrones. I haven't seen them.

American Horror Story (FX): This show grabbed my attention in the first two stellar episodes. Though not particularly innovative in the sense that it uses classic, well-worn tropes of the horror genre, the show was instantly intriguing visually and extremely daring for television. I love how they were never afraid to embrace the truly weird elements. I thought the middle episodes of the season fell flat and was worried it would turn out to be a real disappointment. However, the last four episodes were once again exceptional. I loved how the things you thought had happened turned out to have happened completely differently. The idea of carrying a twist several episodes after the fact was very clever. There are still some characters that I'm not crazy about (I'm talking to you Zachary Quinto), but others are great and Jessica Lange is truly amazing in this show. I'm looking forward to seeing how far the writers can take the haunted house motif.

Thundercats (Cartoon Network): Easily the best American cartoon since Avatar: The Last Airbender, the new re-invention of the late 80's cartoon is bright, fun, adventurous, and contains a huge story arc that is just getting started and promises to be a fantasy adventure for the ages. Like Avatar, it is really a hybrid of American and Japanese styles of animation that is delightful. The story follows the traditional elements of a hero quest, delving nicely in the sibling rivalry, oppression, and good vs. evil. Wileykit and Wileykat, along with Snarf (all pictured above) add a great comic relief to the heady action. I can only hope this show runs for years like it's lead-in, the equally great Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

New Girl (Fox): I had very low expectations for this comedy seeing that Zooey Deschanel typically annoys me more than she delights. However, she is absolutely perfect in this show, completely changing my opinion about her. It's a basic sit-com set-up with a girl moving in with three guy roommates, but manages to bring something entirely new to it. It helps that all of the characters feel like people you know, if not slightly exaggerated. I never really cared for Friends because I always felt the characters were so obviously television characters. This show captures what I believe that show always lacked. It's quirky, funny, but genuinely has a lot of heart too.

The Walking Dead (AMC): This was a slow starter for me, early in the year was the 6 episode first 'season' which was a bit shaky and very uneven. But then with this fall's new episodes, I felt the characters began feeling comfortable in their own skins. There are things that still bother me about the show, like the old school American values feel and the sexist roles of the characters (thanks Julie for pointing that out to me, you're so right on about that.) However, the last episode of this year, especially the last ten minutes, was one of the best scenes I've ever seen in television or film. It was truly jaw-dropping and intense. I had to rewind it and watch it over again at least two times. I really hope the show moves forward on the momentum built there.

Outnumbered (BBC America): This show has been on in the UK since 2007, but it premiered in the US this year and it's such a refreshing comedy. The episodes barely feel like episodes in the traditional sense. They mostly take place in real time, following these parents of three young children, dealing with the absurd situations that are all too real. It sometimes take two episodes for a joke to build, but the payoff is the kind of spit-out-your-drink type of laughter. The two youngest kids are hilarious, especially Karen, everything she says cracks me up. There are rumors this is being americanized, I truly hope it isn't seeing as the track record for that is pretty terrible.

Suburgatory (ABC): A modern, light-hearted My So Called Life, this clever show rightly pokes fun at the ridiculiousness of the upper middle class suburbs around New York City. Having grown up in the 'burbs and migrated to NYC, I can identify with the main character's cynical disbelief at how people in her new town live compared the city. It strikes the right level of satire, without ever going over the top.

Honorable Mentions: The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret (IFC), Up All Night (NBC), Friday Night Dinner (BBC America) and G.I. Joe Renegades (The Hub)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Traveling Mind

I'm currently traveling overseas for the holidays, but I feel my mind has been traveling for weeks. Being tormented by goblins everyday, as my newest main character is, will do that to you.

Traveling is always good and bad for the writing process. While placing yourself in new environs opens the imagination to new paths, being away from the comfort of your workspace makes it difficult to get much accomplished. Writing is very much about routine and habit. Disrupt it and the results are something like trying to cook in someone else's kitchen. Here's to hoping whatever I bake still tastes pretty good.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Weekend Music Roundup

At this time of year, leading up to the holidays, I'm usually re-listening to the albums from throughout the year that really captured my imagination. Also, since I'm usually occupied with thinking of gift ideas, I don't tend to look for things for myself. However, there were a few things that I did make time to listen to this week. A few of these I've been saving for some time, knowing that this drought was going to come and that I'll still want some new tunes to treat my ears. A shortened list this week, but a good one. Enjoy.

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats - Vol 1: After hearing this UK heavy psych band's second album about a month ago, I'd been really looking forward to hearing this debut released last year. Though not quite as heavy as this year's Blood Lust, it's still pretty damned heavy. There's definitely a Sabbath meets Hawkwind vibe with these guys. Easily the best new band that I've encountered this year. Now I just have to find a way to get copies of the handmade vinyl editions.

Soft Machine - Third: The Canterbury band's third album was released in 1970 and sees them move completely away from the progressive psychedelic folk of their debut just two years before. By this album, they've moved completely into prog with each side of the album consisting of two tracks of 15-20 minutes in length. However, even in that they don't loose touch with the sound of the Canterbury Scene. This actually might be my favorite album from the era. Still not the masterpiece the debut is, but a really good album with lots of space to wander through.

Joy Division - An Ideal for Living: This four song EP was the band's first release and includes four classics: "Warsaw," "No Love Lost," "Leaders of Men," and "Failures." Though all of these songs are available elsewhere on various compilations, there is still something to be said hearing them paired and in this intended order. A fabulous EP and a sign of many brilliant things to come from one of my favorite bands of all time.

Silversun Pickups - Seasick: As the L.A. indie band continues to work on their long-awaited follow-up to 2009's Swoon, they released this 3 song EP last month. Hopefully this is a preview of what the new album will sound like, because the songs are pretty fantastic. The songs, especially the title track, have a soft sound which really suits the band. They have a tendency to be over-produced on their albums. I prefer this gentle style. Really clever and eerie songs.

Brooklyn Zu - Chamber #9, Verse 32: This is a Wu-Tang related release that came out in 2008, featuring the crew put together by ODB back in the '90s. There are some ODB verses on here, along with some amazing Wu guest appearances, most notably GZA on "Knock, Knock." Overall, it's hard to really pin this down. It's definitely aggressive, which sounds amazing on songs where the beats really click with the rhymes. But on some songs, it does feel a little unnerving. A lot of people have hated on this album, but I have to admit I enjoyed it.

Yuna - Yuna EP: A few months ago, I reviewed Yuna's new EP and raved about her voice. This debut, released in 2008 showcases her voice even better in someways. "Backpacking Around Europe" remains my favorite song of hers. You can really hear the emotion in her voice and that's why even the songs sung in Malaysian are moving. There is a longer version of this, with extra tracks and one with only four. Definitely worth the extra songs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Fiction Friday (6)

As we get near the holidays, it's always good to provide plenty of reviews to allow us all to fill those wishlists. I wanted to share two classic children's novels from the 1800's and early 1900's that have all but been forgotten. The idea of forgotten books is one that upsets me, being that I will someday be the author of a few forgotten books. It's inevitable. Trends change and people always will have a need to hear stories from their generation. But I never understand the reader who only reads contemporary books. It's important to know the foundations of the current novel structure, especially as a writer. So I always try to read a few classics every year. Here are two that I read in the last few months. Both were Christmas presents last year, so it seems apt to share them now. Enjoy.

Veronica by Johanna Spyri

This is a traditional cautionary tale about two children beset by tragedy early on, only to be given good fortune as they grow older and closer. However the two set out on different paths as they become adults. One is impatient to have all that he wants and falls victim to the negative influences of a friend who steers him toward ruin. Veronica, the other, is virtuous and hard-working, yet sorrow is never far from her thoughts. So they both have their lessons to learn, and as is the case with most books written in this time, they eventually find their way and come together again.

After reading the author's far superior and better known work, Heidi, I was disappointed in this short novel. Whereas Heidi felt very contemporary and timeless, this story is heavily dated in its Christian moralism. The characters were very flat, which surprised me given the depth of many of the characters in Heidi. All in all, it was okay, mainly because it was so slim. If it had lingered any longer, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it. That said, it was an interesting read. Knowing that an author can write a classic that stands the test of time, yet still fail with others is inspirational for a writer in a way.

Like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, this is another Victorian children's book written solely for the entertainment for one child, 12 year old Effie Gray. The connection between the two books is furthered by a later friendship between Lewis Carroll and eventually the Liddles (Alice's family). Being a fan of Lewis Carroll's, and Victorian children's literature in general, this book was naturally a must read. It's a slim novella, easily read in one sitting, that adheres to a classical morality fairy tale about selfishness and compassion. The fantasy elements are truly intriguing and there are moments of beautifully lyrical writing. The illustrations add a nice quality as well. All in all, it's a well-done fairy tale.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Life is But a Dream...Teaser (2)

-Don't worry about that. I'm not going anywhere without you.- He says it like a promise that will last long after the sun dips down just below the taller trees on the tallest hills. The nurses will come then and take us away, but it doesn't matter. They can take us to different wings of the hospital but they can't really separate us. Not anymore. We are connected in a dream--that can't be broken. Life is But a Dream page 85

In three months, my new novel will be out and available in stores. Over 700 people already marking it 'to-read' on Goodreads, and several nice reviews have already been written there. I chose the quote above for this teaser because it really captures that sense of teenage love that I wanted the characters to feel in the story. The love story is a major part of this book, not just the excitement of falling in love but also how love, though it can feel so wonderful, can also lead us to misguided decisions and unintentional hurt.

After the New Year, I will be holding a contest to give away a signed ARC, so stay tuned.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Weekend Music Roundup - SONGS OF THE YEAR

It's been a crazy week. I can't believe I don't write a single post, I think that's the first time that has happened since I started this little space a few years ago. Nothing terribly dramatic occurred. I wasn't in a car accident or anything so spectacular as that. It was just a combination of varying annoyances that added up to having little time and even less to say. But that will change this week. I already have some things planned. But as a way of hopefully making up for it, I've decided to reveal my favorite songs of the year. These are songs that stood out and kept getting played throughout the year. They are not in any particular order, except for maybe the first on the list, which is easily my favorite song of the year. If you click on the song title, it should take you to a place where you can hear it. Enjoy.

Manchester Orchestra - Simple Math

The Rural Alberta Advantage - North Star

Tom Waits - Hell Broke Luce

Beady Eye - The Roller

Okkervil River - The Valley

Red Hot Chili Peppers - The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie

Arctic Monkeys - Piledriver Waltz

Low - Witches

The Rapture - Miss You

Jean Grae - Uh Oh

The Bevis Frond - You'll Come

Sivert Hoyem - Warm Inside

The Decemberists - Row Jimmy & Burying Davy

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Weekend Music Roundup

For the first time in several weeks, most of the albums on this list were released this year. But I suppose that's not unusual. Around this time I'm always trying to catch up on anything I might have missed as I try to sort out my BEST OF 2011 list. There's a definite contender on here for top album of the year, so that's always exciting. This is also the time of year for bands to throw a holiday bone to fans, so there's some of that on this list too. All in all, a good week of music. Enjoy.

Uncle Acid & the deadbeats - Blood Lust: This is an album I picked up after gazing through the top rated albums on the other week. It's currently ranked #19 for the year and once I saw the band name and cover, I knew I needed to check it out. Almost impossible to believe, it's actually even better than I thought it might be. Heavy 70's prog metal music reigns throughout. Pounding swing drums, blistering guitar, and a singer that's absolutely phenomenal. From the first song when they sing, "I get my kicks from tortury and screams," I dare anyone not to take notice of the madness going on in this record. Easily near the top of my list for favorite albums of the year. These guys are from the UK and have a previous album released last year called Vol 1. A review of that album to follow soon.

Wilco - Speak Into the Rose EP: Released last week, this a companion EP to the band's The Whole Love, released back in September. There seems to be a trend of releasing companion EPs these days and I have to confess to being a huge fan of it. Especially when the EP, like the Decemberists - Long Live the King, coincides with one of my top albums of the year. This four song release includes two alternate versions of albums tracks, "Art of Almost" and "I Might," which are two of my favorites from the album. These aren't terribly different, but well-worth it. It also includes two new tracks that could easily have made the album.

The Black Belles - The Black Belles: This is the long-awaited full length album from the band Jack White signed to Third Man Records. There's no wonder why he was attracted to them, they sound like a cross between late era White Stripes and the recent album by The Dead Weather. There are a few songs on here that sound like warped versions of Icky Thump, but perhaps that's because Jack White also produced the record. Either way, it's not groundbreaking or particuliarly new sounding, but there's this strange quality to it that is appealing, like the sound of songs that have been left out in the rain before going through the record player.

Grand Ole Party - Under Our Skin: I really enjoyed this San Diego based indie band's 2007 debut Humanimals. It was a wild record that felt that everything was strained to the breaking point, always to be pulled together again at the last moment. Released in August, this is the follow-up album, four years later. The music on here is definitely a bit more indie dance than rock, pulling in the 80's New Wave element that is popular these days. I have to admit that I miss some of the manic nature of the first album. I can listen to this, in fact it's quite easy to listen to. It sounds like The Gossip meets the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which isn't bad, but the first album felt more original to me. That said, there are some great songs on here as well.

Russian Circles - Empros: This is the Chicago instrumental metal band's fourth album, but the first I've heard since the 2006 debut. They still deliver great songs, full of space and story without showy electronic influence. It's straight stoner rock done well. If anything has changed since the first album, it would be that the music feels cleaner now. Decent stuff this.

Moonface - Organ Music: This is an album I reviewed back in July. I recently picked it up on vinyl and wanted to repost my review as this is another album on my list for the year's end.: Moonface is basically just a Spencer Krug solo project (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes). The EP put out under the Moonfacename was one of my favorite EPs of last year. It was just one 20-minute song, but it was fantastic. This is a full album of five songs, all over 7-minutes long, which keeps the feel of the EP. These are definitely story songs, told in Spencer's wonderful Neil Young-esquehowl and experimental instrumentation. Of all Spencer's other projects, the Moonfacetracks remind me most of early Sunset Rubdown in structure, but with later day Wolf Parade soundscapes. The combination is excellent, like most everything he does.
Iron & Wine - Morning Becomes Eclectic: Released as part of Record Store Day back in April, this is a recent radio session that includes songs from various albums, including tracks from this year's Kiss Each Other Clean. It's a great show. I've heard other radio shows by him and they are always good. He's a great performer and has the kind of voice that brings new emotion every time he sings a song. I was surprised none of my favorite tracks from the last album were on there. Definitely worthwhile even if you have all the albums.

Showbiz & A.G. - Runaway Slave: A friend of mine has a masters degree in hip-hopology and introduced me to this MC duo recently. The Bronx crew released this album in 1992 and it totally captures that NYC sound from the time like Gang Starr, EPMD, Tribe Called Quest, Das EFX, among others. The style was straight dissin' over phat beats back then and this does it well. Tag team always seems to work in hip-hop, especially when both MCs can play off the other's flow. There are definitely some songs that didn't age well, but there are also some stone cold classics on here like "Soul Clap," "Bounce to This," and "Represent." ....just clap yer hands and bebop....