Monday, November 27, 2006

What I’m Reading – Scott Westerfeld

So I am incredibly behind in my reading of teen novels and have a huge reading list to prove it. Step one was to read Peeps and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. These books have gotten a ton of buzz already, so I’ll make the review part brief and then ramble about some observations between the two.

Synopsis: Peeps: In a world where vampirism is sexually transmitted, 19-year old Cal is infected. His current job is to find others, called “peeps”, who are being destroyed by the parasite. This is a fast paced adventure that is quite good.

Synopsis: Uglies: This is the first in a trilogy of the same name. Tally lives in a future world where turning 16 means a surgery takes place that changes your entire appearance ant thus your standing as an “uglie” changes to a “pretty”. This is a fairly deep story and Tally, who wanted more than anything to become a “pretty”, meets a new friend and starts to realize there is more to the world than just her isolated city. This is very good because it combines a lot of action with a complex plot and likeable characters.

Since I read the books back to back, it was fun to compare the worlds and themes of Peeps and Uglies. The two worlds Westerfeld created are quite similar. In Peeps, the country is split between those who understand the world and those who don’t. Westerfeld seems to be quite influenced by Cyber-punk and The Matrix. Most of the country is going about their regular business, while vampires are slugging it out below New York City. This is not a new development. Cal’s organization was created early in America’s history to keep the virus in check.
Possible spoilers in this paragraph: Interestingly enough, at the end of Peeps, we learn that it is not so clear who the good guys and bad guys are. Westerfeld goes are far as to employ the philosophy that the greater evolved beings were allowed to thrive, so they can take on the world’s next threat. Thus Peeps’ heroes are those whose intentions are more important than the moral foundation of the world they operate in. The author juggles the importance of relationships and trust with the fact that only those that become infected and therefore stronger will have the best chance of surviving the world’s dire situation.
In Uglies, Westerfeld takes the fairly simple world of Peeps and kicks it up a notch. In this world, their goal is to make everyone equal by transforming their appearance. Those that don’t want this life are not just exiled from their city, but tracked down and forced to cooperate. Set far in the future, the only thing left of our society is some scattered ruins of long abandoned cities. I found it interesting that the Smokies, those living in the wild under their own rules, are trying to balance the world of the past and the present. The past was seen as completely misusing the planet, while the present leaders are isolating their people from the world. Like in Peeps, Uglies is mostly about those that realize there is something wrong in their world and are trying to figure out what to do about it.
Most people have read these by now, but for those who haven’t they are well worth it. Neither book is perfect, but Westerfeld created two great stories.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Music Review -- In Colour by The Concretes

The Concretes are a Stockholm based band that got buzz for a commercial featuring their great song, Say Something New. In Colour is the band’s second full length studio album. This disc continues the indie-pop sound of their self-titled debut, but their ideas are more fully realized here. The band combines some catchy hooks with textured music. Most of the songs include keyboards and brass instruments that meld well with Victoria Bergsman’s wispy voice. The album bogs down a little with some tunes that sound the same and they never really step out from their indie-pop foundation. I hope they grow creatively in the future, but for now songs like the lush, but hooky Chosen One are fun and worth a listen.

2.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I'm Reading -- The World to Come by Dara Horn

The World to Come has one of the most complex plots I have read. The main character, though there are technically many, is Ben Ziskind, who steals a painting that he believes belongs to his family. The rest of the characters also are connected, in one way or another, to this Marc Chagall painting. In the present time, Horn follows Ben, his art-loving pregnant twin, her Russian refugee husband and Erica, the museum employee who needs to get the painting back because it was stolen on her watch. The relationship between the twins and the fact that Ben and Erica have the beginnings of a romantic relationship makes things complicated. The author also lets her readers into the world of Russian Jewish artists in the 20's like Chagall and author Der Nister. The painting originally gets into the Ziskind family, through Ben’s relative, who grew up in an orphanage in Russia. There is too much for me to cover here and Horn also weaves some Yiddish stories into the narrative. This is an inventive novel with several fully developed characters. Horn seamlessly bounces between countries, times, realities and characters to create a wonderful novel in The World to Come.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

What I'm Reading -- De:Tales Stories from Urban Brazil by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

I realized that I seem to say that every graphic novel I read is great. While this is fairly accurate, when I do find an amazing graphic novel people probably say, “He thinks everything is great. I’m going to ignore him now.” Nobody, however, should ignore this graphic novel. Maybe it just clicked with my sensibilities, but De:Tales is a special book. Moon and Ba are twins who grew up in Brazil. All of their stories in this collection take place in Brazil, though the country is mostly just context for the stories. Most of the stories are actually quite similar. The brothers begin with a dream that helps them know what to write and then they go from story to story that are similar in tone, but subtly cover different aspects of life and love. In Too Late for Coffee, a man sees a younger girl he has never met. She greets him by saying, “You're late. It’s too late to fall in love with me.” Other stories include throwing a Birthday party for a long lost friend, a bunch of friends talking about work and Brazil and a guy who hesitates to talk a girl and then starts seeing other versions of himself who never took any chances. The stories are sparsly written but fairly powerful. The art is simple balck and white, though the brothers draw their characters in exquisite detail. This is an amazing collection. There are a couple of adult moments, so this is not really for younger teens.

New Discoveries

Here are a few neat things I have found lately.

T.W. Walsh is the drummer for David Bazan’s Pedro the Lion. Pedro and side project Headphones, are lead by Bazan though the bands occasionally do some of Walsh’s material. If I understand it correctly, another side project, The Soft Drugs, is solely based on Walsh’s songs. Walsh actually wrote one of my favorite Pedro songs, Start Without Me, which is on their MySpace page. Anyway, this is a really confusing band, but my point is thatThe Soft Drugs material is really good. A friend kept bugging me to listen and I thought I had and didn’t like it. Eventually I went back and realized they were all new songs to me and are really good. So, check out the streaming stuff on the MySpace page or download the mp3s at Walsh creates a simple indie rock sound similar to Pedro and the writing is quite good. The song I love is the very 77’s-like Defending the Paint.

While reading the Nov/Dec ’06 issue of Poets and Writers, I saw that poet Paul Muldoon is in a band called Rackett. The music is not that good, but with Muldoon as their lyricist, the convergence of poetry and music is really interesting. Check out their website and make sure you read through Muldoon’s lyrics because most of songs are very well written.

The November 2006 issue of Wired had possibly the coolest article I have ever read. In "Very Short Stories," Wired found 33 writers to pen Sci-Fi short stories that had to be six words long. Then they went to five graphic designers and had them design the pages for the article. The people they found to write are a great group and include Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Kevin Smith and Neil Gaiman. The results are amazingly cool. The stories can be seen in Wired’s archive, though you really need the hard copy to fully appreciate it. My favorite is by Harry Harrison, “Time machine reaches future!!!...nobody there…”

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Music Review -- Under the Iron Sea by Keane

At one point I was buying any CD that anyone compared to Coldplay. The results ranged from good additions to my collection(The Doves, Clinic) to bad additions(Keane, Embrace). So, I bought their debut album Hopes and Fears without hearing any of their music. While the band is definitely talented, only a few songs combined solid songwriting with interesting music. Overall, Hopes and Fears was a sub-par and dry debut.

With their sophomore effort, Under the Iron Sea, the band stretches out and becomes more of a rock outfit. They still avoid guitars and their tunes are mostly piano based. There are two main changes between their two albums. The first is that there is much more depth in the construction of their new songs. Too often, Hopes and Fears felt like a basic pop album, despite the oblivious talent of the band’s members. The other change is a definitive move to create the U2 vibe of soaring hook laden choruses. This works on some songs, but not others.

To me the standout is Is It Any Wonder?, a great song that sounds like it should have been on U2’s Pop album. Tom Chaplin sings, “But now I think how I was wrong/ And you were laughing along/ And now I look a fool for thinking you were on, my side/ Is it any wonder I'm tired/ Is it any wonder that I feel uptight / Is it any wonder I don't know what's right.” These arena rock/Coldplay-like songs succeed when the lyrics are tight, but some like A Bad Dream border on goofiness.

Keane has created an album with some great moments. Unfortunately, I don’t think the band will hit its stride and craft truly creative music until they stop trying to be U2 or Coldplay. The good news is that Under the Iron Sea makes it sound like they are on their way. For now. at their best Keane is a more melodic and accessible Snow Patrol and at their worst they are an over hyped Something Corporate or The Fray.

2.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I'm Reading -- Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home is a memoir in graphic novel form. Bechdel wrote and illustrated this powerful book about her childhood. Fun Home really centers on Bechdel’s father who was an English teacher, ran a small town funeral parlor and obsessed over the old mansion they lived in. Growing up, the author feels secondary to the house her father is so passionate about. As she learns more about her father, she realizes their lives are parallel to each other. His hidden relationships with other men are comparable to Bechdel’s sexuality that she slowly reveals to her parents. This is a fairly long graphic novel, though the author packs it with information the reader needs. Bechdel illustrates the comic with simple drawings and just a touch of color. This is a very raw telling of a girl growing up under some tough emotional circumstances. Fun Home is a bit heavy, but quite good.