Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ashes - by Ilsa J. Bick

This one had me hooked right up until the last page, at which point I was left teetering over the edge of a mega cliffhanger. There’s plenty of meat in the story to keep you wanting to know what happens next, though, so in my case I was left feeling out of breath and a little bereft, rather than cheated. I’m not usually drawn towards fiction aimed at a YA market because so often it seems to be shorthand for “no way this one would pass muster with the grownups” or for some watered-down, sanitized version of a “real” story, but that is not what this book is AT ALL. This book could be called “young adult” because, well, the main characters are young adults and it is written from a point of view that young adults will be able to empathize with, but this book can stand on its own against the best “any-age-adult” novels out there. The author has done a great job at creating believable teenage characters that actually sound and act like real people.

The story starts off with the central character, Alex, hiking alone en route to Lake Superior where she intends to scatter her parents’ ashes. Not only is Alex skipping out on school to take this trip, she’s also pointedly avoiding continued medical treatment for an apparently incurable brain tumor, and giving serious and rational thought to eventual suicide while she’s at it. Her plans for a solo trip through the backwoods are changed rather abruptly when she happens across an old man and his bratty granddaughter and they’re hit almost immediately by a massive electromagnetic pulse. From this point on, scary apocalyptic stuff ensues, and the book takes on that un-put-downable quality that’ll have you reading greedily until you finish the very last page. Then you might find yourself looking behind the very last page hoping there might be something else squirreled away there, because, as I mentioned to begin with, this book ends on a dizzying cliffhanger that will leave you twitching and suffering from some serious withdrawal symptoms and a bad case of "what-happens-next?!?" syndrome. That’s OK, though, because (and this is something I only figured out after turning that last page and thinking “WHAT?!??!”) Ashes is the first installment of a trilogy, so there is plenty more of this gorily compelling page-turner yet to come.

I’ll avoid delving too deeply into the contents of this book as I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading for them, but will finish by saying that Alex is a great heroine. She’s strong-willed, rather feisty and quick-tempered, extremely capable and self-sufficient, and a pretty likeable, self-aware human being with it. This makes for a character that the reader can actually identify with, care about and respect as she deals with finding herself more truly “alone” than she ever could have hoped when setting off to get away from everyone and everything at the novel’s opening. Ashes is a book I would highly recomme... and please bear in mind that this recommendation comes from someone who, if she shies away at the words “young” and “adult” in a book’s jacket blurb, positively comes out in hives at the sight of the word “zombies”. “Young”, “adult” and “zombies” are, let’s say, not the ingredients of a book I’d ever think I’d enjoy, let alone rave about, but Ashes really is one to read.

Ashes is available right now in hardback, ebook and audiobook format. I'm sure you know where you can find such things.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

You Wait Forever For a Decent Book Trailer...

... then two of 'em come along at once.

So no sooner do I post that I think book trailers for fiction novels are A Very Bad Idea, than Quirk Books has to make me eat my words by coming up with this little gem that leaves me itching all over and wanting, yet again, to burn all my bedsheets on a backyard pyre. Extra-special kudos for the horrible little scritchy-scratchy noises at the end. UGH!!

Enjoy... and then get your hands on a copy of Ben H. Winters' new novel Bedbugs, because in case I forgot to say this already, it is really rather splendidly good.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Record Collecting for Girls is out today... here's the trailer!

This is something of a first for me. It's the first book trailer I've seen that doesn't (in my opinion, of course) um, suck. I know book trailers are getting ever-more popular but I'm really not a big fan of the whole concept. For fiction books in particular, I just don't want to see people acting out the parts of the book's central characters. But non-fiction, on the other hand? Hmm, that could work... a post for another day, I think.

Anyway, without further rambling ado, allow me to present (or at least copy and paste the embed code for) the rather awesomly amusing trailer for Courtney E. Smith's Record Collecting For Girls which is to be found in a bookstore somewhere near you for purchase from today. Hurrah! Get a copy, get working on your Top Five list, and prepare to 'fess up to your most shameful guilty pleasures. Musically-speaking, that is...


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey - by Colby Buzzell


1) The closest I’ve ever come to reading On The Road was the first time I ever heard of it, back in 1992. I was lounging on my bed perusing a copy of Deadline in which Tank Girl was reading this book I'd never heard of by a mysterious person called Kerouac. I figured this must be one of those Cool Books that I really ought to read, just so I could say that I had, so I added it onto my mental TBR list. Yeah, that was 19 years ago. Still not read the thing. This was around the same time I found out there was a Jesus & Mary Chain song entirely composed of lines from The Naked Lunch, and decided I must get hold of this book at once. Still not read that, either. Maybe it’s time I picked up a copy of both…

2) I’d never heard of Colby Buzzell until a couple of weeks ago, but Lost in America appealed to me HUGELY when I read the book’s description. I requested a copy via NetGalley and was very happy to have that request approved. That’s how I came to have a copy of this book in my hands in all its electronic glory.

Disclosures out of the way - let the review commence!

Colby Buzzell, an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who’s had a memoir published and written a lot for assorted magazines and the like, was commissioned to take a road trip across the US and write, quote-unquote, a “love letter to Kerouac”. These plans were rather hampered by real life in the form of his mother’s terminal illness and the impending birth of his son. The book opens with a series of false starts as Buzzell, conflicted, uncertain and most likely in denial as to the true state of his mother’s health, postpones the planned start of his trip, with the result that he then ends up setting off right after his son is born. All this gives us some context as to why (in addition to the PTSD) our author may be a little all over the place. How’s the guy supposed to concentrate on writing a North American travelogue while he’s weeks into new fatherhood and trying to mourn his mother at the same time? A few reviewers have laid into Buzzell for this, but I’ll refrain from doing so. It’s irrelevant, it’s none of my damned business, and besides, I have no idea how much he may have been depending on his book advance to support his new family. The guy is also extremely upfront about it, so, really, move along, there’s no “Runaway Road Trip Douche-Dad” scandal here. Were he still in the military there’s every chance he’d have been deployed thousands of miles away before/during/after the birth of his son and received all kinds of support, so a little less judgment would be nice here.

OK, where was I? Ah yes. Once he finally gets going, Buzzell pretty much stumbles across the North American continent, drifting from town to town in search of... something. It’s as if there is some kind of plot here, some kind of narrative, but Buzzell has no idea what or where it might be and just doesn’t have it in him at this point to find the thread. So what we get is him driving until he’s sick of driving and low on gas, then pulling up in some random and often unnamed town. At this point he’ll check into the nearest hotel that meets the criteria of being a) cheap and b) not part of a cookie-cutter chain, then, for want of anything better to do, heading straight to the first dive bar he can find and getting drunk. Very drunk. He’ll spend a while in some of the places he stops off at, doing a bit of day labor here and there and drinking during his off-duty (and even on-duty) hours, finally realizing there’s nothing for him there, at which point he’ll hit the road in search of more of the same.

All this paints a very bleak picture of the places Buzzell travels through, but you know what? I wouldn’t mind betting it’s a truthful one. People are broke. There’s not much work. What work there is is badly-paid. There’s precious little optimism to go around, and life pretty much sucks. Sure, there are other, more heartwarming and poignant stories to be told, but at this point, Buzzell is not the guy to be telling them. You can tell the author is pretty damned depressed and feeling utterly directionless, it comes across with painful clarity in his writing. He’s genuinely lost in America, and the America he's travelling through feels pretty lost too. He doesn’t know where to go and it seems like there really is nowhere to go. He doesn’t seek out the ‘good’ places to present to the reader, instead he gravitates naturally towards the hopeless and the lost and the misfits. I get the impression that the first half of the book is about Buzzell despairing as to how he’s ever going to write a book, and what it’s going to be about.

At which point our decrepit hero rolls up in Detroit, and everything somehow falls into place. From what I can make out, he falls in love with the city almost at first sight. He checks into a non-chain hotel, just like he does everywhere else, but this place is special. Buzzell describes the hotel and its owners in such a way that I almost want to go and find it, and move in. It’s run by an old couple who seem to regard each and every one of their guests as part of their extended family, treating them with the kind of solicitousness you’d expect them to reserve for wayward grandchildren rather than paying boarders. Once set up in the hotel, Buzzell sets out to explore as much of Detroit as he possibly can, gravitating as though compelled by some perverse deathwish straight towards all the neighborhoods that his worried hosts beg him to steer clear of. He also whips out his camera and for the first time during his trip, feels inclined to really document what’s around him.

I would like to read more from this author. I like the glimpses we get into his head, the observations he throws out there, his sense of humor and his sardonic way of looking at things. The second half of Lost in America makes the whole thing worthwhile. I’ve never been to Detroit and must confess to knowing next to nothing about the place, but came away from reading this book wanting to take a trip up there and find out what it’s really like. I found myself staying up late into the night reading about the locations Buzzell had visited and looking at endless photos of the city, both in its heyday and now in its state of extreme decline. Finally, I found Buzzell’s flickr photostream, and given that it’s a public one, I hope it won’t be too much of an intrusion to share it here. It will explain far more about this book than I ever could. Colby Buzzell, you ought to consider addressing your next love letter to Detroit. I think it would be beautiful.

Lost in America: A Dead End Journey is available now in hardback and e-book formats, from the kind of places you'd expect to find hardback and electronic books.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bedbugs - by Ben H. Winters

A young couple, Susan and Alex Wendt, and their toddler daughter Emma move into a new and seemingly perfect apartment in Brooklyn, and life is good. Or at least, life should be good, but things very quickly start to take a turn for the creepy and the icky. Something is definitely not right, but... what is it?

The story is set against a backdrop of a New York City in the grip of a serious bedbug problem. That would be the real New York City, by the way. Here in Cincinnati, Ohio, we have the dubious honor of being the “bedbug capital of the US”, and so I know only too well what it’s like seemingly never to go a day without hearing or reading some story about how the situation is getting worse, how the hotels, the libraries, the schools, have become breeding grounds and hideouts for the disgusting, blood-sucking little parasites. It’s enough to make even the most well-balanced person a little bit paranoid.

Thing is, this book’s central character, Susan, shows signs right from the beginning of maybe not being the most perfectly sound of mind. OK, so that may be a little harsh, but it’s not harsh to say she’s a difficult character to like. She’s introduced as being a former lawyer who gave up working eighteen months prior to the start of the story in order to “concentrate on her art”. Fair enough. Only, she’s somehow spent that year and a half not quite finding the time to get around to doing any painting, because, she’s so very busy doing... what, exactly? Oh yeah, the couple has a three year old daughter, and little kids are a full-time job all by themselves. That must be it. Only Susan employs the services of a nanny to take care of her offspring six hours a day so that she has time to do... again, I repeat: what, exactly? A little shopping, a little lunching and a whole lot of internet surfing would seem to be about the size of it. Oh, and of course some packing and unpacking, pre- and post-move.

Susan seems to pretty much loathe the nanny, a pleasant, easygoing graduate student whose character she makes plenty of unpleasant and unsubstantiated judgements about. At one point Susan arrives home from one of her forays into the neighborhood to find Emma bawling inconsolably because of the traumatic experience of having an old black man speak to her. Susan, rational human being that she is, is furious with the nanny for allowing her charge to be put in such mortal peril, and sends her home for the day in disgrace, chalking this incident up among the poor girl’s many other “offenses”. She is also constantly anxious that her husband, Alex, is secretly angry with and resentful of her for giving up work only to become a slacker instead of taking advantage of the luxury of being able to paint full-time as planned. Alex himself is a photographer and Susan recognizes that he would love the opportunity to go back to taking “real” photos, were it not for the wife and daughter he has to support singlehandedly in their expensive new digs. It seems Alex is worried about the couple’s finances, so what does Susan do? Oh yeah, she sneeringly throws in his face that if the worst comes to the worst she can be working and earning three times what he is by the following week. Nice, huh?

OK, so I think we’ve established that Susan isn’t a character I felt any great warmth towards, and also that she may be a little on the hysterical and flaky side. But that’s half the point, I think. Within days of moving into their new Brooklyn brownstone, the Wendts start to suspect they may have a bedbug problem. But do they? Or is it something more? The story starts to get progressively darker and weirder as it shifts from an ordinary enough tale of family tribulations to something more sinister by far, but the reader is left wondering what’s real, what’s not real, and what’s an exaggeration on the part of the neurotic Susan.

There’s not really much more that I can say without venturing into spoiler territory, so I will wrap it up here, but I’ll finish by saying that this is a very well-written and well-paced book, with a creeping sense of unease that gradually builds into outright horror. I pretty much read the entire thing in bed last night between the hours of midnight and 6am, night owl that I am. In retrospect, I would definitely advise against this approach, as if there is one place you do NOT want to read this book, it is in your bed. Now excuse me while I just go burn all my sheets. I may just have to sleep on the couch tonight.

Bedbugs is published by Quirk Books (who were very kind to send me a review copy), and will be available from September 6th. It's available for pre-order right now from all the usual suspects.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Record Collecting for Girls - by Courtney E. Smith

One long-ago day in 1995 I was sitting in the Cafe Iguana with my friend Dulcie, washing down lunch with a pint, when she asked me if I’d read High Fidelity yet. This was the first time I’d heard of Nick Hornby or his debut novel. Until that point, “High Fidelity” was something I associated with the mysterious concept of “Dolby NR” and the backs of record sleeves.

“You have to read it,” she told me, “it's about us!”

She was right. That book was about us. It was about our life. We both worked in a small record shop that specialized in all things collectible with a heavy bias towards the obscure, the rare, the white-label promo, the test pressing, the limited edition 10” clear vinyl in hand-stamped dayglo gatefold sleeve and the acetate recovered from the skip (that’s a dumpster to those of you in the US) by the apprentice studio engineer. If you are a record geek, all of the above will make sense to you. If not, I may as well have been writing in Swahili. Anyway, where was I?

On Dulcie’s recommendation I hied me to the closest branch of W.H. Smith to pick up a copy of High Fidelity, and promptly found myself wondering if this Hornby guy was in fact one of my curmudgeonly male colleagues writing under a nom de plume. Or did everyone who worked in secondhand record shops while away the quiet weekday hours refining their Top Five lists and scaring away potential customers by offering unsolicited judgments on their musical selections? Apparently so. Our shop only differed from Hornby’s fictional one in that, well, ours had girls working in it. Us.

Our acceptance within those hallowed, vinyl-lined walls of male-dominated music-geekdom didn’t come easy, though. I’d wormed my way into the place not long after it opened a few years previously, pretty much by virtue of spending all my free time in there, poring over every piece of vinyl the owner had in stock. At one point I came in to sell most of my record collection so that I could afford a ticket for the Reading Festival, and I think the guy took pity on me. Hell, by this point I probably knew the exact shelf location of any given record better than he did and had been instinctively re-alphabetizing the things for months now, as if they were my very own. He offered me a Saturday job, and I gladly accepted. Dulcie came along a couple of years later; the daughter of a bona-fide rock journo, she’d been schooled in the proper way to obsess about music since the day she exited the womb.

Are you still with me here? Thought not. If by some chance you are still reading, though, you might just be the kind of person who will tolerate the music-loving ramblings and anecdotes of some random girl you don’t know, in which case you may well enjoy reading Record Collecting for Girls. Author Courtney E. Smith is a random girl with a respectable music-industry pedigree and all the additional insight that may afford her, but she’s still a random girl for all that. And that’s OK. My point, such as it is, is that this book is one for the seriously not-faint-of-heart music devotee. One who isn’t afraid to stick with a chapter on why Smiths fans don’t make great boyfriends, or why one should never, ever date a boy who is in a band.

What we have here is basically a girl I would probably want to be friends with if I knew her in real life, a girl who obsesses and fixates to just the right degree (that is to say, the nth degree) about the bands she likes, the bands she doesn’t like, and the bands she might like but hasn’t heard yet. What’s not to love about a girl who can’t get enough of Swedish indie music, keeps a special place in her heart for Car Wash Hair by Mercury Rev, and who lets slip that she has listened to Pulp’s Razzmatazz forty-one times since 2008? Nothing, that’s what. (Wait... only forty-one times?!)

The title “Record Collecting for Girls” is a little misleading, or maybe just not meant to be taken literally; this book is not some kind of “guide” to being a female music lover. It’s actually part memoir, part collection of essays on the music industry and its treatment of women, and on music fandom from the female perspective. Smith seems like someone who would be fun to sit in the pub with, putting the musical world to rights over a few pints.

For the most part, this book made for an enjoyable, engaging and interesting read. It didn’t bring me much in the way of new insights into sexism in the music industry or what it means to be a music-fixated female. Then again, I’ve spent the better part of the past twenty years being a music-fixated female more comfortable holding my ground in arguments with boys about favourite Bowie albums and the like than discussing proper “girl” subjects with my female counterparts, so I already know what that means, inside-out. While I can’t say I learned much from the book, I mostly found myself nodding along in agreement with what Smith had to say. Well, except for the Beatles vs. Stones debate, on which I will always come down firmly on the side of the Stones. More to the point, the better part of five decades on, it's as irrelevant and hackneyed a debate as it’s possible to have.

There were a few occasions while reading where I zoned out and found myself flicking through the pages until we could get back to something I could relate to. These chapters would include those when Smith was detailing the ins and outs of her longtime affection for bands that do absolutely nothing for me, and the one where she exhaustively debates whether there will ever be another Madonna, and if so, whether it might be Lady Gaga. The latter subject is one I could not have less interest in if I tried, and which I tuned out in this book just as I do whenever it (not-infrequently) comes up elsewhere in the media and in other people’s conversations.

For me the great thing about this book is that it’s the first music-related memoir I’ve read that’s written by someone of roughly the same age as me, and the fact that that someone is female comes as a bonus. I enjoyed reading the thoughts of someone who’s grown up (albeit on a different continent) with the same musical landscape as me. All in all, hats off to the girl for getting her point across, exposing the fact that even now us “chicks” are often put at an extreme disadvantage in the world of all things musical, no matter how much we may pride ourselves on thinking we’re on an equal footing.

Record Collecting for Girls will be available in bookshops from September 7th. I'd recommend it to anyone, female or not, who’s grown up and learned to make sense of the world via a borderline obsessive interest in music.

Outrageously Long Playlist inspired (in a roundabout way) by reading this book*:

Razzmatazz - Pulp
Catatonic - Babes in Toyland
Going Down To Liverpool - The Waves
Hazy Shade of Winter - The Bangles
I Am The Mob - Catatonia
Sweet Talkin’ Guy - The Chiffons
Dress - PJ Harvey
Tell That Girl To Shut Up - Holly and the Italians
Fait Accompli - Curve
All This Time - Heartless Bastards
Line Up - Elastica
Highschool Stalker - Hello Saferide
Ladykillers - Lush
Wasp Nest - The National
You’re In A Bad Way - Saint Etienne
On A Leash - Salad
Bigmouth Strikes Again - The Smiths
Kool Thing - Sonic Youth
Violet - Hole
Up The Junction - Squeeze
The Concept - Teenage Fanclub
Baby Turns Blue - Virgin Prunes
And A Bang on The Ear - The Waterboys
(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea - Elvis Costello
Disintegration - The Cure

[*if you have Spotify, some of these tracks may even play if you click them...]

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Gift Giver - by Jennifer Hawkins

I’m trying to find the right words to describe how I felt about this book. It wouldn’t seem quite right to say that I enjoyed it. Who can enjoy a book in which the author details her experience in having to somehow find a way to bear the unbearable? It’s thought-provoking and sob-inducing in equal measure, a book about finding a way to move on in the face of the devastating, the heartbreaking and the unexplainable.

I started to read The Gift Giver while lying in bed beside my sleeping husband, who had turned in for the night ahead of me. Reading about how the author woke up one morning to find that her husband, Mark, had died in his sleep was… uncomfortable, to say the least. I was crying snottily through those first few chapters about the unimaginably awful, compelled to turn over and cuddle up to the snoring man beside me roughly every minute as I did so.

The book focuses on how Hawkins starts to come to terms with the loss of her husband, trying to deal with her own grief while helping her two young children through their own and somehow keep their world together as far as possible. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that a central concept to this book is explained when Hawkins recalls a discussion with Mark about the idea that, in the instant before we die, we get to choose whether it will happen or whether we will stay alive. She describes how she comes to believe in this, and this belief helps her to accept and make sense of what has happened and carry on living herself.

The Gift Giver is not easy to categorize; there’s no obvious pigeon-hole to choose for this book that sits somewhere between memoir and self-help/inspirational, while reading almost like a novel. However, for someone like me who doesn’t subscribe to any particular religion or notion as to what happens to us after we die, it is a book that will leave you feeling comforted even as you reach for another stack of tissues to sob into. I’m not quite sure I’d go so far as to say “this is what I believe”, as Hawkins does in the opening pages of the book, but I know I believe in “something”, and (despite the chorus of “buts…” and “how comes…” my more rational mind will throw out there), Jennifer’s version of “something” might be as close to making sense of the senseless as I’m likely to find.

In short, this book is well-written and moving, and if you can brace yourself for the utter ruination of your mascara and have plenty of tissues on hand, I really would recommend it. My respect and best wishes go out to the author for being such an incredibly strong woman.

The Gift Giver is published by The Emerald Book Company and is available right now in paperback as well as in e-book format.