Friday, August 31, 2012

Fiction Friday (11)

I couldn't let the month go by without setting aside at least one post dedicated to book reviews. As I've stated before, reading is such an important part of the writing process. What a writer reads, and how he or she interprets it, can shape concepts of style, narrative, and imagination. Often I think writers are drawn to very different books than readers, with the exception of ones just too brilliant to be ignored by either. I find it's the same way with musicians. Accomplished musicians always have these albums on their lists that, to me, are unlistenable. The musician hears something else, some level of technical playing that is masterful, but goes unnoticed to the average listener. Likewise, a writer can see something in a book that readers never look for. 

This week, I'd like to share two books that I've read in the last few months that I really enjoyed. Both are geared to an older middle grade audience, for readers not quite ready for the sometimes heart wrenching tone of YA books, but are ready to encounter the difficulties that arise when first coming of age. Hopefully everything I said at the start of this post doesn't apply here and anyone can find something to enjoy about these wonderful novels.

Bridge of Time by Lewis Buzbee

There are some adventure stories that you race through to discover what will happen next and next and next after that and all the way through to the end. The joy of those books is satisfaction that comes with being done and knowing what happened. Then there are the kind of adventure tales Lewis Buzbee writes...where even though you're desperate to know what the turn of the page will bring, you can't help yourself from wanting to linger in the world he creates.

Bridge of Time is definitely one of those stories. One day, best friends Lee and Joan find themselves 'unstuck' in time after wandering away from their boring class trip. They end up in 1864, during the early formative days of San Francisco's past to encounter a city that is vastly different and yet still not totally unfamiliar. As they begin their journey back, they encounter a reporter who will one day became Mark Twain, and who, just like his beloved characters, has a knack for adventure.

Any time a story involves time travel, there is bound to be a lot of intriguing action, both past and future. I must confess that I love time travel stories and always have. I love pondering the puzzles they create. Because of the unique approach this story takes to the concept, there is no lack of things to ponder. In fact, there are so many deeper concepts in this book, hiding just under the surface, that I was still unraveling it for days after finishing it.

Besides the core adventure, the book is a poignant and honest look at divorce. It is also a fascinating and sometimes brutal examination into the history of San Francisco and the role racism played in its development. And by looking at Sam Clemens' transition into Mark Twain, the book subtly defends the ability of fiction to have as much of a social impact as journalism.

At the heart of the book however is the journey of two friends, struggling with the uncertainty of their future. Their fears and concerns are the kind that most middle school kids are all too familiar with. The true adventure is watching them grow stronger through it all.

The Extra-Ordinary Princess by Carolyn Q. Ebbitt

To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I admit that I only picked it up at the bookstore because the jacket sounded like it would be good research for a project I was considering at the time...the beautiful cover didn't hurt either. But what I found inside the pages was a wonderful mix of fantasy and fairy tale.

Amelia is the fourth princess, born behind three sisters who all excel at one thing or another. Compared to them, Amelia feels ordinary. But as one might expect, as the story unfolds Amelia turns out to be anything but ordinary.

The plot follows a traditional fairy tale unraveling of a perfect life in a beautiful kingdom that is soon ravished by an evil and powerful figure. And in a cruel twist of fate, Amelia is left to save her home from this darkness. That isn't to say the narrative is without surprises. In fact, much of the story is unpredictable and takes clever turns throughout.

In addition to the wonderfully constructed fairy tale elements, the friendships of the young characters is very well written. I also very much enjoyed how impossible it was to pin down 'when' this story was supposed to take place. It didn't try to set the action in Medieval times, or make it some contemporary story struck a nice balance somewhere in the middle that had a way of making the story belong to it's own world. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Weekend Music Round Up

As promised, I'm back to the usual format with a fresh crop of album reviews. The albums on this week's list are the records I mentioned last time as needing a few more listens. Recently I've been so impressed with a bunch of albums, some from bands I'm just discovering and others from bands I've known. Not that there is ever a lack of great music to explore, but sometimes the hunting is more rewarding than others. Right now I'm on a bit of winning streak, so enjoy.

Alberta Cross - Broken Side of Time: A few weeks back, I reviewed this Brooklyn band's new album and raved about it. I went back and found this, their 2009 debut the other week and I'm equally in love with it. They are similar to bands like The Rosewood Theives and The Stands, bands that are able to use Dylan folk elements with Beatles song structure to create perfect indie rock that feels new and modern. Definitely a band I'll be watching closely from now on.
Big Blood - Big Blood & The Wicked Hex: Over the last few years, Big Blood has become one of my favorite bands. The Portland, Maine band plays an original blend of freak folk that soars into spacy beauty and fantastical arrangements accompanied by spooky lyrics. Released in 2011, after over a dozen previous albums, the band remains fresh here. The opening track, "Run" is one of their best. They have an album out this year as well which I hope to review very soon.
Grimus - Egretta: This indie rock band hails from Romania, but they sing in English. This 2011 album is their second album and I've been enjoying it a lot. They are heavily influenced by British and Scandinavian bands, creating a big moody songs. They remind me a bit of early Muse, but far less pretentious. They also remind me of a band called Medal, which was sadly under-heard. Though not revolutionary by any means, this is a really solid album.

Mount Eerie - Ocean Roar: This is Phil Elverum's second album to be released this year under the band name Mount Eerie, following spring's Clear Moon. Dating back to his time with The Microphones, Elverum has consistently produced epic folk albums that create beautiful dreamlike worlds within the albums. Ocean Roar is no different. As the title suggest, this album feels like a dark night in the open sea when the water is unsettled and secrets are slipping to the surface, shown best in the two violent tracks, both titled "instrumental." Then there are the softer moments like "I Walked Home Beholding," which really complete the album's overall feel.

Aimee Mann - Charmer: It's been four years since the iconic indie singer songwriter released her last album, but thankfully not too much has changed. Charmer is another solidly good album. It's very much in line with the sunshiny indie pop of Smilers, and also reminds me of 2002's Lost in Space. Aimee has a gift for telling stories in her songs, often stories of desperation that are hidden in these upbeat and beautiful songs. "Disappeared," "Soon Enough," and the title track are among my favorites on an album full of good tunes.

Yeasayer - Frangrant World: The Brooklyn psychedelic indie pop band returns with their third full length album. Their 2007 debut, All Hour Cymbals was a refreshing wonder when it came it out, and 2010's Odd Blood saw them move more into the electronic pop field covered by other NYC bands like The Rapture. Two years later, they are making the same kind of sound, and are just as hard to pin down, sounding like Portugal. The Man. on one track and Erasure the next. I like this album, and the songs I really like, such as "Fingers Never Bleed" and "Longevity," are amazing. But the songs that I don't enjoy, the Erasure-esque songs, are definite skip songs for me--except the wonderful "Reagan's Skeleton." Others will enjoy those more though, of that I'm sure of.

Right Away, Great Captain! - The Bitter End: This is the 2006 debut from Andy Hull's (of Manchester Orchestra) solo side project. Released the same year as the band's debut, there is a lot of overlap in styles and themes. The main difference, besides the bigger sound a band can produce, is the quietness of this acoustic album. Andy Hull typically uses the soft/loud approach to songs, but on here, the 'loud' parts are significantly subdued. The result is a very moving record. He's released two other albums, including one recently this year under the Right Away, Great Captain! name. I look forward to hearing them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One Thing Leads to Another

There comes a time during the process of writing a novel where separate threads begin to come together. Themes start to connect to themes and one incident influences another. This miracle will often happen on its own, which is why you always hear writers giving such advice about not forcing things. The human mind is wired to look for connections and set structure to the world. This same principle also holds true for the fictional worlds one creates.

I'm about halfway through the manuscript I'm working on and over the past few days, those connections have started revealing themselves to me. The funny thing about it is that I was just prepared to do an outline because I wasn't seeing them. Sometimes thinking it out on paper will reveal what the actual manuscript isn't showing...but alas, they came anyway. For the sake of swiftness, I've decided to go ahead with outlining the rest of the story, but an outline is far more effective when one knows how the pieces all fit together.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup (West Coast Vinyl Edition)

Ironically in the week that I've listened to more new music than I have in the prior month, I'm dedicating this roundup to another batch of records that I lugged home from the West Coast this past spring. A big reason why is because I may have listened to too much new music this week. Most things only got one listen, and I don't typically like to review an album after only one listen. I always hear something different the second time. Also, it was time for another flip through the stacks to share more of the good finds I gathered on my hunting trip. Enjoy.

Syd Barrett - The Madcap Laughs: Released in January 1970, shortly after Syd's departure from The Pink Floyd, this is easily one of the best albums ever recorded. I bought this on CD when I was 17 years old and it became a huge influence in regards to my writing style. At Amoeba Records in San Francisco, I picked up the 180g gatefold reissue. Listening to it the other day, it was just as amazing as it was more than half my life ago. The songs are beautifully strange children's tales told by a man who has come a bit unhinged...and they're brilliant. Thanks Syd.

Odawas - The Aether Eater: I found the Berkley freak folk band's 2005 debut in San Fran, but even more amazing is that this is a homemade version made by the band before the album was later released on Jagjaguwar Records. The sleeve has come unglued, and the genius thing is that this was some other album sleeve that they turned inside out and painted over (this album). They play a unique blend of psychedelic folk music that reminds me of the late '60s era Pink Floyd but with the country calmness of early '70s Neil Young. The songs are expansive, swollen with story and depth, much like the post-Syd version of Floyd.

Blind Faith - Blind Faith: The world's first 'supergroup', they released this only album in 1969. Featuring Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker from Cream and Steve Winwood from Traffic, along with Rick Grech (later founder member of Family) this was supposed to be a monster record. But as with seemingly all supergroups, it was received as a disappointment. Having come to the album in the mid '90s, I was free of having lived through any expectations. The result was instant love from the opening of "Had to Cry Today." This is one of the key albums in the British Blues progression into harder blues rock. A truly great album and I was happy to find it with the original controversial cover.

The Residents - Intermission: One of the most prolific bands in history, The Residents were on the forefront of experimental rock in the late '70s and early '80s. I'm a big fan of some of their earlier albums like Not Available so when I came across this 1982 EP in Olympia in perfect shape, it seemed worth buying since it's rare to see any of their early work floating around. This is pretty fantastic, a real precursor to electronic music, but done with rock instruments. The groove is dark and steady presenting a dreamlike atmosphere. The music was recorded to be an 'intermission' between acts of their live show. One of their best.

Tiny Masters of Today - Bang Bang Boom Cake: The 2007 debut from Ivan and Ada, two Brooklyn siblings, is one of the shining records of the mid 2000's Kidcore scene (kids making rock music). The music is heavy garage rock, though with some interesting turntable action here and there. The brother and sister take turns singing songs, which are surprisingly political and not-surprisingly insightful. This an album of kids rebelling against the materialism and imperialism of the Bush years. I've been a fan since it's release, and in Seattle, I came across a very limited vinyl pressing. "K.I.D.S." and "Hey Mr. DJ" are great. A solid rock record no matter what age the performers.

Sing Children Sing - Songs of France: Released in 1979 by arrangement with UNICEF, this record features the Children's choir of Saint Laurent singing classic folk songs of France. The arrangements were done by a respected French musician and he certainly gives the record a complete feel. Ever since the Langley Schools Music Project, I've always found children's choir music to be brilliant if performed right, so when I saw this for 99¢ in Seattle, I picked it up. It's really well done and a great kind of record to put on when straightening up the house or other such chores. Though now I will have "Alouette" stuck in my head for weeks.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Story Time Tuesday - Rise of the Machines

The other day I dreamt I was watching the world go dark from the safety of an atmosphere in orbit. Looking through the windows, I could see the sprawling complex of grey domes and stretches of concrete promenades. My line of sight was a clear and instinctively I knew this station was sparsely populated.

As the scene pulled back, I stood alongside my two colleagues. A man and a women, both scientists, dressed like Cloud City action figures. Panic set in around us once the android flashed by. A swift, faceless robot made of lean and murderous metal. It had already stabbed most of the staff with arms cut to a sword's end.

Ducking through wide rounded corridors, we're able to hide more than run. But the machines control the locks and our path is quickly cut off, but not until we've made it outside. "I stored something away that can stop it," the man says. His red hair and red beard looking more brown in the strange sunlight as he leads us to a garage. 

Opening the door to the only car in sight, the man pulls forward the back seat. Embedded in the underside is a compacted version of the same deadly robot. He removes a rectangular box and hands it to me. The liquid inside shifts its weight from side to side. "Find a way to pour that on should stop him," he tells me just before a metal spike strikes through him from behind. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

Back to a normal format this week, which means another random selection of albums. Most of these are albums I've been listening to for the past few weeks, because for most of this week, I've been listening to old albums that I hadn't listened to for a long time due to a much needed overall of CDs in my office. Because of that, this is the first time in a long time that I didn't listen to a single new album all week long. It was kind of refreshing. Luckily I had these albums just waiting for their reviews. Enjoy.

The Stands - Horse Fabulous: About a year ago, I first heard this Liverpool band's 2004 album and loved it. The other week, I finally got my hands on this 2005 follow-up, and still the band's last release to date. Like the Brooklyn band The Rosewood Thieves, this band has that sound that falls right inbetween the Beatles and their subsequent reinterpretation care of Oasis. They take the mellower acoustic Beatles feel and update it into a beautiful record. I'm still surprised this band isn't better known. Both albums are truly great.

Hot Chip - In Our Heads: I'd nearly written off London's premier indie electronic band after 2010's terrible One Life Stand, but went back for this follow-up released in June simply hoping for the magic of their first three albums. Though it still falls short of 2006's The Warning, it does come close to equaling 2008's Made in the Dark. They return to synth dance melodies that are actually catchy in a Thriller kind of way. "How Do You Do?" is a stand out track.

Bad Veins - The Mess We've Made: The Cincinnati indie rock band's 2009 self-titled debut was a pleasant surprise that felt like The Strokes in the early days. This new album, released this year is a little more by the numbers and takes less chances, though to be fair, the other album wasn't exactly dangerous. This sort of reminds me of an American Kasier Chiefs. Nothing groundbreaking, but a decent indie rock album with some decent songs.

Neil Young - "Shut Up...Or I'll Split": This is a bootleg that I've had for several years and recently have been listening to it a lot. The title comes from the opening track, which Neil stops shortly into it and addresses the crowd, telling them he's not together enough to deal with any noise, so they'd better shut up or he'll split. They do, and are rewarded with an amazing acoustic set that includes many of his best songs, some of them played for the first time. 

Holograms - Holograms: Released last month, this is the debut album from the Stockholm based post-punk band. Borrowing heavily from Bauhaus, early Cure, and more recently The Horrors, they combine dark vocals with up tempo gothic rock. At moments, they really capture the best of that era, but I can't help but wish there was something new brought to it. All in all, a promising debut with hope that better things are to come.

Curren$y - Cigarette Boats: This new EP from the southern rapper is kind of awesome. The beats are laid back and trippy. The rhyme flow is a careful slow delivery, but it's never boring. Lots of clever turns of phrase, and a short 5 track set keep it fresh throughout. Definitely worth checking it out. It's available for free at 

Mobb Deep - White Cocaine: The Queensbridge duo released this mixtape in 2011, shortly before the official Black Cocaine release. It's a return to form after several disappointing releases. It's very raw, and pays tribute to the '90s hey day of NYC hardcore hip hop. Certainly not as dynamic as their 1995 masterpiece The Infamous, but quality hip hop for sure.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Vanishing Wonder

One the most frequent criticisms I receive with my work involves my ending of Zombie Blondes and the ambiguous nature of the final scene. It surprises me how many people can't seem to enjoy an open ending in any form. I was reminded of this yesterday after seeing the new Total Recall movie yesterday and feeling that the ending of this version was much less thought provoking. 

It had been decades since I'd seen the original version of the film, but I clearly remembered that when the movie ended, I was left with a wonderful sense of not knowing which reality was true. The new film didn't capture that feeling at the end nearly as well. It certainly leaned toward one reality more than the other. I can't help but feel that this speaks volumes about the current state of our imaginations. Audiences don't want to think too hard. They want things presented to them neatly, with tightly wrapped endings. It's sad in a way. Part of the enjoyment of storytelling is that a good story stays with you long after it's over.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Redemption for the Cat

Two weeks ago, I posted about how my cat Mitzie got outsmarted by a mouse (here). But she's one determined kitty and when the mouse returned this past week, she never left her post. For two days and nights, she camped out in the same spot as before, just waiting for her chance to redeem herself. I'll admit, after the last fiasco, I had little faith. 

On Friday night, she refused to come to bed. She stayed up the entire night on duty. In the morning, I came downstairs and found nothing out of the ordinary. I figured the mouse had eluded her again, as it had been doing for weeks judging by the amount of chocolate the mouse had eaten. But an hour later, Mitzie came and found me, dropping the dead mouse at my feet. Job well done, squirt!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup (Bill Doss Memorial Edition)

Earlier this week, Bill Doss of Olivia Tremor Control and The Sunshine Fix passed away. For those who don't know his music, of which there are far too many, I hope his untimely passing at 43 years of age will somehow make his genius more widely known. One of the best songwriters of the past 20 year, Bill Doss had a magical gift of combining beautiful pop harmony with experimental music. His albums all rank up there among my favorites and his death really saddened me. All week long, I've been listening to the few remarkable albums he left us and for those, I am thankful.

The Sunshine Fix - The Future History of the Sunshine Fix: The debut psychedelic pop EP was released in 2000, shortly after Olivia Tremor Control ceased to exist as an active band. It opens with "The Sounds Around You" which is simply brilliant, and possibly my favorite Track 1 song of all time. Though firmly entrenched in the same aesthetic as OTC, there is a marked departure that shows up right away on the first Sunshine Fix release. It's more controlled and direct, but equally as amazing.

The Sunshine Fix - Age of the Sun: The band's first full-length album released in 2002 was a true breakthrough. It keeps some of the OTC experimental aspects, but uses them mainly as interludes to the brilliant indie pop songs. I really feel like this is an album that is impossible for anyone not to enjoy. Every track radiates joy and beauty in melodic bliss.

The Sunshine Fix - Green Imagination: The band's second and final album was released in 2004 and is really a crowning achievement. "What Do You Know" is one of the band's best songs, combining all the elements Doss had innovated over the years. Nearly all the experimental interludes have been abandoned as separate entities and instead blend easily into the songs. Despite the soaring pop melodies, there is a subtle sadness the bleeds into the lyrics which really makes this album so amazing in my opinion. 

Olivia Tremor Control - Dusk at Cubist Castle: This is an album I first heard in 1997. It was in heavy rotation in the St. Mark's apartment I shared with the dANIMAL that summer. It's the perfect summer album of sunshine indie pop, but also so much more than that. Twenty-seven songs that all run into each other and never lose a beat, it's an epic groove that I invite everyone to tune into if you've never taken the trip to the Cubist Castle. And if you have...maybe it's time to check back in for a visit.

Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage: Released in 1999, this is my personal favorite of the OTC albums. It's hard to say it's better than Dusk at Cubist Castle, it's just a little different. A bit darker, a bit more expansive. There's a lot of looping back on this album, repeated refrains and echoing sounds that give it a circular feel that has always appealed to me. This is the last release under the name Olivia Tremor Control. Will Cullen Hart would continue as Circulatory System (great albums, all of them) and Bill Doss would continue as The Sunshine Fix (equally great albums, all of them).

Olivia Tremor Control - Presents: Singles and Beyond: This compilation, released in 2000, gathered the earliest OTC limited release singles and EPs for their expanding fan base. The music is all from a short period of time, so there isn't any of the disjointed feeling that sometimes comes with collected volumes like this. It all feels like a very cohesive blend of the OTC combination of sunshine psychedelia and noise effects. 

 R.I.P. Bill Doss 1971-2012

Saturday, August 4, 2012

High Flying Birds

And so concludes my favorite week of the Olympics...though I do enjoy the sprints of Track & Field events, the real joy for me is the gymnastics and swimming. I'm one of those people who truly looks forward to the Olympics, both summer and winter. But I must confess that during the winter, I'm often wishing it were summer Olympics instead, because let's face it, while figure skating is amazing, it doesn't quite produce the absolute awe inspiring feats of gymnastics.

My obsession with the Olympics hasn't always existed. In fact, during the '96 games in Atlanta, I was so tuned out that I didn't find out about the bombing until two days after when a friend told me, and subsequently couldn't believe that I didn't know about the one thing the entire world was talking about. (In my defense, I didn't have a TV at the time and the internet didn't really exist.) It wasn't until 2004 until I become a fan and a big part was due to the Romanian woman's gymnastic team, specifically the way they handled the balance beam as if it were three feet wide instead of four inches. They won gold in the 2004 games and have been my team ever since.

I was working on my book Dirty Liar at the time, and it influenced the decision to make the one main character a gymnast. I was so fascinated with the way these athletes, both men and women, sacrifice everything in their lives for this dream. This time around, I had been working on a chapter book manuscript and gymnastics once again crept in...particularly the beam. Writers truly pull from whatever is closets to them at any moment.

Congratulations to the Romanian team for taking bronze at this year's game. Hope for more medals in the individual events tomorrow.