Saturday, March 31, 2012

Smurf Hunt

In the wilds beyond Smurf Village lives a creature terrifying to those forest dwellers that stand three apples high. Its predawn cry rattles the trees and frightens smurflings far and wide. One of Gargamel's most grotesque creations....the dreaded Pumpkin Headed Smurf.

When the winter snow is fresh and the sky is grey, he stomps and growls. He roars and howls. He creeps closer and closer with a hunger that cannot be met.

But there is one brave warrior smurfy enough to confront this menace of the forest. Setting off from his camp, he matches the beast's calls with fearsome cries of his own. Their paths rearrange on a collision course from which only one smurf could ever survive.

Round the winding trails in the forest, the two come face-to-face. One raises his arms. The other levels his weapon....

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Into the World You Go...

The day has finally come where my newest novel, Life is But a Dream, is in stores...well, at least the stores smart enough to carry it. I feel like I've been talking about this book forever. In fact, I think it's only the third longest span between the time I finished the manuscript to publication, but still it's over a year since the book has been done. 

In the past, this used to be a more anxious moment as I waited to see how a book would be received. But in the age of book blogs, this is less so. It's already nearly as popular on Goodreads as books of mine that have been in print for years. (Exciting, but not sure how that makes me feel about those books). These days the release date is more about sales numbers than learning of acceptance. Sales numbers are not something I've ever been hugely into, except in how they impact publishing interest in future stories I may want to tell. That said, just knowing it's out there is still a big moment...knowing people can pick it up, read the jacket, flip it open and hear your voice is quite a privilege. I hope you all get the chance to read it some day...I truly believe its a remarkable book.

In honor of the release, I've gathered a few blog entries I wrote while working on the book. It might be more interesting to read these after you've read the book...or perhaps it may convince you that the book is worth reading.

From May 19, 2010: Once You're Gone...: About the separation anxiety of leaving a character behind after finishing a book.

From May 20, 2010: Impossible Questions, Unsatisfying Answers: The dilemma of trying to explain what this book is about.

From June 25, 2010: Oh, How We Dread: On getting very first reactions from editors.

From August 16, 2010: Maybe You See the Same as Me: About the concept of perception that I play with in this book.

From August 19, 2010: Mind if I Intrude?: On trying to renter a character's head for revisions. 


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

In the few years of doing the Roundup, this week might be a first. All the albums on this week's list were given to me by friends. Typically there are a lot of albums given to me by friends. I have several musical soul siblings who I routinely swap with, but I don't think I've ever made an entire week of albums consisting only of given music. There's quite a spectrum of tastes on here, but all are pretty amazing. Enjoy.

Tim Buckley - Lorca: I've been on a huge Tim Buckley kick lately. With each album I hear, I'm even more in awe of his talent and the range of emotion and mood in his records. This 1970 album is his fifth, released only four years after his debut. So far it's the darkest of all of his records I've heard, which really makes it stand out for me. I've been listening to it pretty much every day this week and it continues to blow me away. Truly brilliant.

Electrelane - The Power Out:  This 2004 album is the experimental indie band's second album, but the only one I've heard of their four. Their sound is certainly unique and very different from other British bands of the era, or even of today. There is a spooky element to the songs, but also an excitement as each song seems to pick up, evolving into stellar expanses with a good rhythm behind them. With each listen, the album grows more intense. I can't wait to hear their other work.

Black Lace - Get It While It's Hot: Visiting the dANIMAL last week, he'd put aside some metal records he'd gotten for me, knowing how I like the metal. Despite the horrible cover, I decided to give this one a shot, mainly because the one band member is wearing a Clockwork Orange shirt in the photo on the back. It was surprisingly not a bad record. It came out in 1985 and the UK band plays straight forward New Wave of British Heavy Metal, obviously inspired by Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. The songs rock hard enough, even if they aren't at all original. 

Bob Dylan & George Harrison - Session at Columbia Studio: This bootleg consists of a session from 1970 where the two legends got together and jammed on a series of covers and some Dylan songs. Dylan signing "Yesterday" is a revelation. The cover of "Cupid" is also amazing. A really great relaxed set where they are just having fun. Wonderful pick-up if you find it.

Aimee Mann - Smilers: After seeing Aimee Mann play several weeks back, I've been listening to her albums relentlessly. This 2008 album is her latest to date, but I'd never picked it up, mostly because her previous album, The Forgotten Arm, never really stuck with me. But I'd been wanting to hear this one for weeks now and finally did. I'm happy to say it ranks right up there with her best work from the early part of the decade. She has such a knack for storytelling in her songs and for writing sunny California melodies to lift her tales of desperation. Another great record, can't wait for her new one later this year.

Hidur Gudnadottir - Without Sinking: Released in 2009, this is the Icelandic musician's debut. It's an instrumental, neo-folk ambient album that makes great use of dramatic arrangements to recreate the swirling howl of the arctic north. I always find albums like this to be nice soundscapes to listen to as I write. Both moody and beautiful.

Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost: The San Fran band's second album, which came out last fall, is one of those records that really grew on me. On first listen, I thought it was okay. After the third listen, I was addicted. It's a low-key indie rock record with so many different angles that it remains compelling throughout. "Just a Song" is completely brilliant. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Haunting of Stories Past

Recently I made a choice to do something I rarely do unless pushed to because of deadlines...I started a new manuscript before editing the one I'd just finished. Typically I would want to get that second draft out of the way so that the problems lingering from the first wouldn't haunt me. But this time, I just felt such a pull to the new story kicking around in my head, and such dread for the mess I was leaving behind, that I made the fateful decision.

A week or so later, I still stand by my choice. I think going right into the second draft wouldn't have been productive. Also, the initial push on the other manuscript is coming out to my liking. So like I said, no regrets. But the over the past few days, I hear the other story calling to me. The characters are beginning to feel forgotten. And as every writer knows, you can't let your characters grow disgruntled or they'll revolt. 

So I make this public promise to the characters I left on the page two weeks ago that I will begin to rework your story this weekend. I make it publicly because as we all know, fictional characters monitor the internet relentlessly.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

 Spring has been in the air all week and the music has been streaming out of the fuzzy warble player. After a few weeks of new releases, I find myself retreating into comforting sounds. A lot of the albums on this week's list have been floating around in my head for years, but have recently been rediscovered on vinyl, which I truly find to be a different listening experience. Mostly mellower records on here after the metal onslaught of recent weeks. But not to worry, a lot of heavier stuff to come in the future. Enjoy.

Pink Floyd - Meddle: Along with Atom Heart Mother, this is my favorite Pink Floyd album and I recently picked it up on vinyl, nearly completing my Floyd vinyl re-buy collection. This album, the band's last before developing their 70's sound with Dark Side of the Moon, probably has the best opening and closing of any album. "One of These Days" has an incredible groove that leads into the mellow tracks that close out the first side. Side 2 consists only of "Echoes," a masterpiece in sonic storytelling that stands alone as one of the finest tracks ever recorded.

Rush - Fly By Night: Though legendary, Rush is a band I never had much interest in until VH1's Metal Evolution profiled them as pioneers of the prog-metal movement. Hearing them on that show, I couldn't understand what had turned me off from them for so long. I decided to begin my journey with this 1975 album and continue to 2112, which I will get to in a few weeks. This album is brilliant at times, heavy and electrifying. When it kicks, it's hard to imagine anything better than Rush's sound. However, there are down periods where they drift into mild radio rock territory, like on the title track. "Anthem," and "In the End" are easily the two best tracks.

The Smiths - The Old Guard BBC Tapes Volume One: The other week I came across this vinyl bootleg set (there is a volume two as well, but I didn't pick it up this time around). It's consists of the songs dating to the period around the first album when The Smiths were grittier and less polished, which has always been my favorite period for their work. Listening to it, I kept thinking back to the first time I heard their self-titled debut in my bedroom when I was 14 and how amazing it sounded. It still sounds amazing, especially on these versions of "Miserable Lie" and "This Night Has Opened My Eyes." Both songs start normal enough and develop into manic outbursts with basically the drums, guitar, and vocals all moving at different tempos and still it sounds unbelievably good. I found myself inspired all over again by these tracks.

William Fitzsimmons - Goodnight: This was the singer-songwriter's second album to come out in 2006, so in a way, it's kind of a debut part two. It's a little less country influenced than Until When We Are Ghosts, and it serves him well. Though still not terribly unique, it's quite good. Reminds me a lot of early Iron and Wine with its soft-spoken lyrics and minimal guitar. "Everything Has Changed," "Leave Me By Myself," and "Please Don't Go" make up a brilliant middle of the album.

Caribou - Swim: A few weeks back, I reviewed Dan Snaith's earlier Caribou album, 2007's Andorra. Three years passed between that album and this one and in that time, more electronic elements were added to the chamber pop orchestration. He still mixes ambient with Beatles-esque melody to a nice effect. This reminds me a little more of Hot Chip than the previous album, but the best of Hot Chip. With it's dreamy warm sound, it's been a great listen to welcome the arrival of spring.

The Cure - Pillbox Tales 1977-1979: Another vinyl bootleg that I picked up last week, this covers the earliest Cure songs that predate their first album. I'd only heard these songs before on really poorly recorded bootlegs, so hearing them on this wonderfully clear record was like hearing them for the first time. Except for a demo version of "Meathook," which would appear on Three Imaginary Boys, these songs were completely shelved, probably because the subject matter is a bit unhinged. But that's what makes it's so brilliant. "See the Children," "I Want to Be Old," and "Play with Me" are truly amazing tracks.

Bonnie & Mariee - This recently released EP is a collaboration between Bonnie Prince Billy and Mariee Sioux featuring four songs that sound as if they could have been on any of the Prince's last several albums. It's not a bad thing given his genius for constructing dreary, dreamy folk's just that it all tends to blend together after awhile. So while these songs are all very good, and certainly worth getting for fans, not sure any of them are truly unforgettable. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fiction Friday (9)

One of the best things about reading a long novel is the speed at which others seem to fall in its wake. Anyone else notice how much faster the next book goes down after trudging through some epic? Of course, none of that matters if you don't pick the right book to read. I've always felt that choosing the next book is a lot like creating a music playlist. Making awkward jumps can be unnerving. But sometimes I find myself ignoring those rules simply because there is something I've been dying to read. That's what happened last time I picked out a book. Needless to say, it didn't turn out too good. This latest book reminded me of another which I felt the same way about last year. I thought I'd share them both. Though neither really grabbed me, I think the 11 year old inside of me would have enjoyed both and therefore they are worthy of mention.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
(Del Ray, 2007)

When I first read about this book, I admit that a little drool formed in the corners of my mouth. To say a story heavily inspired by Neverwhere and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is right up my alley would be an understatement. So when I got this book, I tore right into, only to find that while it may have been inspired by those other stories, it lacked their inspiration.

The story takes the main character, a young girl named Deeba, into an alternate version of London named UnLondon. This city is alive with a cast of intriguing characters including trashcan ninjas, half-ghosts, utterlings (words that come to life) and other ideas that play on Lewis Carroll's brand of nonsense. The problem is, nearly all of the imagination put into creating UnLondon feels overly forced. Much like the environmental message of the book, it is so heavy-handed that it seems to take the joy right out of the story.

Another obstacle preventing me from loving this book was my lack of concern for really any of the characters, especially the main character. The structure is partly to blame for this. The beginning fifth of the book or so, the author tries to get the reader emotionally invested in Zanna. And then, just when you do start to care for her, she's out of the story. Deeba, a character who is frankly terrible in the first part of the book, now becomes the one we're supposed to follow and cheer for. I think I never quite got over that switch or my initial dislike of her.

It felt clear to me while reading Un Lun Dun that I was encountering a gifted writer who was working outside his comfort zone. Rather than criticize, I'd like to applaud the risk even if the end result felt a little flat. But all of that said, there was still plenty of enjoyable moments, especially the well-paced action scenes. I also thought the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey were one of the most fascinating elements I've encountered in a long time. Overall, disappointing but entertaining.

Starcross by Philip Reeve
(Bloomsbury, 2008)

What this book does have going for it; lots of action, twists galore, and plot to spare. For a lot of people, that makes for a great book. And if plot is your thing, I would say this book wouldn't fail to entertain. I can see tons of readers falling in love with this book for that very reason...unfortunately, I wasn't one of them.

Overall, the book felt extremely forced to me. I found a lot of the imaginative elements to be contrived. There are any number of writers who try to capture inventive ideas, but few can make them feel effortless, such as Roald Dahl for example. I also thought the characters were very stiff and kind of unappealing. There's an obvious attempt to create a tongue-in-cheek meta-narration such as you find in the Series of Unfortunate Events books, but never quite achieves it to the affect those books do. And in general, I just found the writing style to be sort of clunky. However, that's a matter of personal taste in writing style.

I also had a huge problem with Myrtle. She has to be one of the most obnoxious characters I've encountered in years. Granted, she's supposed to be the annoying older sister. However, her anti-feminist, 19th century young lady spiel is so irksome and I certainly don't want her as the narrator of two lengthy sections of the book. I also couldn't help finding myself wondering how her attitude plays out in the minds of young readers, especially since the target audience of this series is, without a doubt, boys. There is nothing cool about any of the female characters in this book, those traits are all reserved for the male characters. Seriously? How uncool is that.

I hate being harsh on books, especially books that I did genuinely enjoy at parts, such as this. I loved the Doctor Who spacey sci-fi adventure nature of this book. I also think this would be a great book for a reluctant boy reader. But when I see a mediocre book that gets such high acclaim as this (multiple star reviews, year-end best lists, etc), it really bothers me.

In all fairness, my 10 year old self would more than likely give this book 4 or 5 stars. But editors and book review publications are not 10 years old and should've come out this with a more educated view in my opinion.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I started writing a new story this past week. Really it's an old story, pieced together from bits of two stories I began about a year ago. The character in both of those was sort of the same and a little while back, he kept creeping into my thoughts again. Then I figured out a thread to unite all these loose ends and decided it was time to write this ghost out of my head.

Starting a new book can sometimes be difficult. Other times, it's the easiest part of the whole deal. In fact that's all some people seem to manage...a lot of beginnings that simply run out of steam. But there are parts that I'm struggling with this time around that have mostly to do with the subtleties of the main character's voice. He's slightly sarcastic, which is a tough chord to strike to open a novel. Just as in real life, sarcasm can be off-putting during a first impression. However, the same off-putting remarks can be endearing once one knows the character better. I find myself writing a lot of things that need to wait until you know the character.

I've always felt that establishing character and place are the key elements to opening a novel that isn't necessarily plot driven. Plot driven novels have their pitfalls of course. One always has to wonder if they've opened the story with quite a big enough BANG to get everyone's attention.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

This week's list comes mostly courtesy of a record shopping trip I took on Wednesday. I still haven't gotten to listen to the entire plunder, but several of the albums I bought were rebuys of CD's I own. I try not to rebuy too much, but there is a rather extensive list of records that I will if I see them. Some of those are reviewed below. I've also been able to include those new releases that were not yet ready for review last weekend. And my viewing of Metal Evolution also continued this week, which means there is touch of that thrown in, with much more to come in the next several weeks. Enjoy.
Mars Volta - Noctourniquet: Thankfully I didn't have to wait long between the first single and the full-length. The band's first album in three years is just as expansive and complex as one would come to expect from the true heroes of the new progressive rock movement. It's slightly more focused however than their previous album, with shorter, more aggressive songs. All in all, another excellent album and worth the wait.
The Wooden Sky - Every Child a Daughter, Every Moon a Sun: A few weeks back, I reviewed the EP that preceded this full length album from the Toronto alt-folk band. This has been a favorite band of mine over the past five years, and with this, their third album, they've done nothing to lessen their standing. The songs are well-crafted and affecting. Sung with a mid-western twang, the songs have a country feel that serves them well. "Angelina," "Take Me Down," and "City of Light" are real standouts on a terrific album.
The Rolling Stones - Goats Head Soup: This is the first Stone's album I ever bought way back in 1996 and it has remained one of my favorites of theirs ever since. Released in 1973, it really marks the end of the Stones' peak period and sees them at their grimiest. This week I found an original US pressing vinyl for $10 (complete with the goats head soup insert) and had to have it. From the killer opening of "Dancing with Mr. D" to the sleaze groove of "Heartbreaker" and heartache of "Angie," Side 1 is one of the best sides of any record.
Spiritualized - Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space: I first purchased this on CD when it came in 1997 and it was easily a watershed moment in my listening development. Along with OK Computer, which came out the same year, this was a revolutionary album in the combining an electronica elements into rock. This week I picked up the re-release on vinyl and it sounds fantastic.
Abner Jay - True Story of Abner Jay: Little known blues pioneer Abner Jay played an electric six-string banjo to give his songs their unique sound. I got one of his albums a few years ago and was blown away by the rawness of it. This compilation was put together in 2009 and released on vinyl and when I came across it the other day, needless to say I was pretty excited. The album opens with the amazing "I'm So Depressed," truly one of the most affecting blues songs one will ever hear. The brutal honesty with which Abner addressed drug dependency is rare in the blues format and really makes his work stand out as a tale of one been down before.
Grateful Dead - American Beauty: This 1970 album was one of the last of the band's high period that I still needed on vinyl and I finally found a reasonably priced copy the other day. The band is truly perfecting their more country rock sound during this period and consequently put out their best work. Along with "Workingman's Dead" and "Wake of the Flood," this makes up the holy trilogy of their studio work in my opinion. You can really hear their influence starting to creep into the indie folk revival these days and that's a good thing in my opinion...freeing this band's legacy from the corny movement created by silly fans.
Thor - Only the Strong: Though this 1985 album is technically the band's second, it's really the first to feature the power metal sound that the band became known for. Born from the style of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the power metal genre arose in the mid 80s and this album is full throttle power metal. Big riffs, high vocals and a pounding drum beat. Quite a good example of the genre despite the cartoonish look of the band. It hits all the right notes and rocks straight through.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dream Away Life

The finished copies of Life is But a Dream arrived this morning and I have to say, the book looks beautiful. Seeing a book with the dust jacket for the first time is something I'll never grow tired of. It's as if even though you know the book will be published, it never truly seems real until you're holding the printed copy and open the crisp spine. Here it sits on my desk, next to my Yoshitomo Nara clock and the Denny's mug I stole in 1994. Syd Barrett is looking on from the background. You can't tell from the picture, but Syd is all scratched nearly to shreds. My one cat really has it in for Syd for some reason. Luckily Albie the three-legged goat is there to watch over him.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When We Start To Care...Things Can Change

One of the themes that runs throughout my novel Life is But a Dream revolves around bullying and another touches on the subject of school shootings. I've dealt with the concept of being bullied in several of my novels, mostly because I think it is one of the aspects of teen life that takes place almost completely outside of the world of adults. It's done in the halls, in whispers, and increasingly online. And as we continue to see, school shootings seem to be inevitably linked to the practice of bullying.

Every time a new incident occurs, my heart goes out to the victims, and more often than not, to the shooter as well. It's the same story every time. A kid from a broken home who gets picked on to the breaking point. How many times to we have watch the same nightmare take place before we, as a society, do something to protect these kids? And I'm not talking about metal detectors or some kind of fascist 'singling-out' process. What we need to do is find a way to bring civility to our High Schools and create an environment of respect. For kids from a broken home, school life is really the only life they have. And when school becomes a place where one gets dumped on all day, then home to nothing, what is left? Everyone knows this is going on and for the most part, nobody cares until several lives are ruined.

Part of the reason why I write the kind of books I do is to expose readers to these kind of characters and create a sense of empathy and understanding. Hopefully, they also serve to show kids who identify with the characters that there are people who know what they are going through. Sometimes all they need is a friendly voice, even if that voice stems from a work of fiction.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

Another week gone by which means another round of albums to share with you all. Having finished the manuscript I've been torturing myself over for the last few months, this week gave me ample time to enjoy the sweet sounds of new albums. And by new, I mean mostly old. Though I did mix in a few new releases, which were all pretty great. There are more new releases planned for next week, after I've had time to digest them a bit. As usual, the list includes many genres and styles. Enjoy.

Ruby Throat - O'Doubt O'Stars: As regular readers know, my love of all things Katie Jane Garside knows no bounds. Ruby Throat is a side-project by the Queenadrenna/ Daisy Chainsaw front woman. For this, their third album, the release is limited to 500 hand made copies and I was lucky enough to get mine last week. This could be one of her best albums to date. Recorded while navigating the waterways north of London, the album has an isolated feel, combined with the richness of fairy tales and despair. It is absolutely beautiful and easily the best album I've heard in over a year.

Majic Ship - The Complete Authorized Recordings: In 1969, this New York band released it's only album, a psychedelic garage rock gem. In 1997, this compilation was released, including demos and unreleased tracks. As with most 'complete' releases like this, there are a lot of toss-off tracks that probably should have stayed buried, but they are more than made up for by the assaulting tracks from their debut release, including a melody cover of "Down By the River/ For What It's Worth."

The Kills - The Last Goodbye EP: The latest single off last year's Blood Pressures album is the record's most somber and beautiful track. The EP also includes three amazing covers of "Pale Blue Eyes," "One Silver Dollar," and "Crazy." I'm a total sucker covers and especially ones that take the band in a direction they are not known for. These slower more ethereal tracks serve the duo well and make this EP a must.

Captain Beefheart - Bat Chain Puller: Recorded in 1976, this was meant to be the follow-up 1974's more tame Bluejeans & Moonbeams, but was shelved due to disputes between management. Thirty-five years later, it was finally released this month. It definitely reverts back to the insanity of Lick My Decals Off and Trout Mask Replica, while still leaning more on grooves as the Captain's 70's work tends to do. "Floppy Boot Stomp" is a real gem here, but the entire album certainly belongs firmly in the catalog. His experimental approach to the blues and freestyle poetry is unparalleled.

Pinback - Information Retrieved Pt.B: This 7" was released in November as a companion to Part A, which came out as part of Record Store Day last April. These songs are the first new material from the band since 2007's phenomenal Autumn of the Seraphs. These songs don't deviate too much from that sound. They play an intelligent style of indie rock. There are harder elements mixed with great harmonies. These songs are very good, but just make me anxious for a new album.

Matching Mole - Matching Mole: Formed in 1972 after Robert Wyatt left Soft Machine (the band's name in French is a play on the words 'soft machine'), Matching Mole released this progressive fusion debut album which ranks right up there with the best of Soft Machine. It includes similar exploratory compositions and plenty of Wyatt's wonderful fragile vocals. Simply wonderful.

Tom Waits - Blue Valentine: This 1978 album really marks the end of the first part of the yowler's career and a transition into the next segment. As a result, it has some of the jazzy elements that characterize his earliest albums but also includes the dark wildness that would define his output in the 80's. It's quite fantastic. "Red Shoes by the Drugstore" is really the kind of Waits song I love, the sordid suggestive hint of society's underbelly. Even his piano ballads have that feel. This album definitely falls into the top third of his output in my opinion.