Saturday, May 27, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper

Jonathan Tropper is a mind reader. At least, that is why I think he fixed everything I did not like about his last book, Book of Joe. In Everything Changes, Tropper follows 32-year old Zack King, a New Yorker, who is engaged to someone he is not sure he wants to marry. As the wedding approaches, Zack finds that he may have cancer, though instead of confiding in his fiancĂ© he becomes even closer to his deceased friend’s widowed wife, Tamara. Add in the fact that Zack’s missing and somewhat psychotic father shows up, the plot sounds a bit crazy. This is a good read, though. Zack is a witty character who is dealing with some serious struggles and is someone worth rooting for. In Book of Joe, Tropper threw some ludicrous plot twists and unrealistic motivations in an otherwise entertaining story of an author who writes an unflattering book about his hometown and then finally returns to face his former friends. In Everything Changes, Tropper puts together an incredibly entertaining and well-written book, avoiding the pitfalls of his earlier works.

What I'm Reading -- Doing It by Melvin Burgess

My real reason for reading Doing It by Melvin Burgess was that I needed to quickly grab an audio book and there was not a lot in at my library at the time. I was, however, intrigued by both the controversy and that I had seen some of the television series, Life as We Know It, that was based on the novel.

The book follows the sexual lives of Dio, a jock who wants to sleep with the best looking girl in school, Jonathan, who nervously has a crush on his overweight friend and Ben, who is in over his head in a messed up relationship with one of his teachers.

While there is nothing wrong with books about sex, even teenage sex, this is the one and only subject of the book. The personalities of these characters are never really rounded out and they remain just caricatures of real guys. There is also little context given in the other parts of their lives, to give the reader much to care about.

Doing It does excel in a couple of areas. First, the relationships between the three male characters are quite realistic and therefore, interesting to follow some of their interactions. Second, there are some hilarious parts in the book especially the times the characters are unflinchingly honest and engage in some humorous and explicit monologues. Unfortunately, both of these characteristics are not consistently shown, making much of the book tedious to get through.

The narration is done by Jason Flemyng, who does a fine job. Flemyng has the appropriate accent for the three British friends and he somehow reads even the most ridiculous passages without missing a beat.

The Librarian Part: This is definitely for older teens. I imagine the demand for this book, if there was any in the first place, has subsided. I think there could be a place for this type of book for boys. Burgess, however, does little else with Doing It than creating an occasionally funny book, but one that cannot be anything more than “that controversial book”.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Music Review -- Underage Thinking by Teddy Geiger

I was interested to listen to Teddy Geiger’s debut CD, Underage Thinking, after seeing him perform a few times on the short-lived television series Love Monkey (based on the decent novel by Kyle Smith). Teddy basically played himself, a 17-year old singer-songwriter earning his first record contract. He sounded great on the show, but I tried to brace my self for the album, knowing that the label would push an over-produced adult contemporary type sound on Geiger. Sony and their three producers succeeded, but only to a point. Geiger’s strong point is his lyrics and catchy hooks, which drive the album. Some of the tunes get a bit mushy for me, but he is an extremely solid writer and excels on the songs he adds a generous amount of longing. On A Million Years he sings, “On this night we breathe air/What makes it so different/What makes you not care.” Underage Thinking is a good debut with no weak songs, even if it really is just a pop album. This is for those who like John Mayer’s pop side, Gavin DeGraw or even Sting.

2.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Listening to this feels like when its starts to rain so slowly you can almost point out each drop.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Ordinary Victories

Ordinary Victories is one of the few graphic novels by Manu Larcenet that has been translated from French to English. This is a great GN in the Realistic Fiction genre. Larcenet effortlessly juggles politics, aging, artistic merit and other themes through the lead character, Marc. The 20-something artist is at a crossroads with his parents, his new girl, his art/employment and an ever increasing number of panic attacks. This is basically a coming of age story, except the author throws so much more at Marc than the usual story. Marc is also not that nice of a character, which helps support how real this story feels. The art felt overly bright and cartoony at first, but the further I got the more it seemed to add to the charm. This is a wonderful Graphic Novel from an author I hope will get more of his stuff published in English.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Music Reviews -- Stars and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Stars’ latest disc is Set Yourself on Fire. This disc, in the vein of Beulah, The Arcade Fire or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, is one of the best CDs I have heard in a while. They do a little bit of everything including some songs of simple lyrics combined with layered vocals and instruments or songs that meanders a little, but feature introspective and angst-filled lyrics. Having both male and female vocals is something I always enjoy and their harmonies are as tight as can be. Strings and brass instruments pepper this album as well. It’s a great effort by the band and it has stood up to a lot of plays lately in my vehicle. Oh, also at the beginning of the first track a creepy voice intones, “When there is nothing else to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” Very, very cool.

3.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

The self-titled debut by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is a solid start for the band. CYHSY creates a slew of indie rock songs that are extremely hooky. There is a bit of a pop vibe here, though it’s wrapped up in their lead singer’s high-pitch warbling voice and layered guitars. Some of the songs blend together and their writing could be deeper and more varied. Overall, though it’s a solid debut and there are plenty of great high-energy songs to enjoy.

2.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Friday, May 12, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief is an amazing book. Just as he turned reality around in I am the Messenger, Zusak writes his new book from the viewpoint of Death, who is a better storyteller than you might think. Interestingly, the author takes foreshadowing to a new level when he basically gives a bunch of details away, but doesn’t ruin the story. Liesel Meminger is a young girl who loses her younger brother then has to live with foster parents in Germany near the beginning of World War II. Her foster parents turn out to be great and caring and encourage her love for words and books, which also leads to Liesel becoming The Book Thief. Great characters abound including her German friend who worships Jesse Owens, a Jewish refugee and the mayor’s wife who has a huge library of books in her mansion. This book covers all of the bases. The parts about the war and living in Nazi Germany are absolutely frightening. How the residents of this small town deal with change and brutality is both scary and heartening. Most of all, Liesel is a great character and her relationships with her new parents and friends are sweet and moving. This is probably the book of the year so far.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports

I have had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with baseball. I was a loyal fan as a kid, but the 1994 strike turned me off for a while. Then in 1998, the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa homerun chase was bringing me back until an Associated Press writer saw a bottle of Andro (a testosterone booster) in McGwire’s locker. Over the next few years, homerun numbers exploded and Major League Baseball ignored rumors of rampant steroid use until an investigation into the Bay Area Co-Operative began a couple of years ago, which allegedly connected a producer of steroids with baseball, football and track athletes.

Game of Shadows by San Francisco Chronicle writers Mark Fainaru-Wara and Lance Williams describes the rise and fall of BALCO, as well as the alleged steroid use of Barry Bonds and others. This book is not quite the definitive look at baseball and steroids it was advertised to be. The authors do a great job spelling out how BALCO was run and provides interesting details of how the investigation into the company was handled.

They also use tons of interviews, recordings and leaked grand jury testimony to piece together what allegedly led Bonds to steroids, what he specifically used and what effects they had. Considering that the authors claim they have all of this information concerning Bonds, their documentation in this book is somewhat vague.

Also, for anyone who has followed the story, there is not much new here. Some of the inside information about Bonds is interesting, though these are mostly just allegations. Overall, this is a decent book, though I was a bit disappointed. If anyone is specifically interested in Bonds or BALCO, this is a good account of them. For a better overall look at baseball and stereoids, read Juicing the Game by Boston Herald columnist Howard Bryant