Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Album of the week: Richard Thompson "Electric" (2013)

By my count, Richard Thompson has been recording for the last 45 years.  After a decade or so passes, how do you really evaluate his output?  He’s never had a prolonged spell as a recluse, with a big “comeback” album after 8 or 10 years.  He’s never been one to follow the fads of popular music – no electronica albums, or dance remixes.  He’s just quietly released consistently good guitar based recordings for years and years.

Electric sees Thompson working with another notable guitarist, Buddy Miller, in the producer’s role.  Miller’s production techniques have changed considerably since the quasi Daniel Lanois murk that he generated on those Emmylou Harris albums.  Now he’s going for a simpler almost minimalist approach.  The production gives an almost analog vibe to the recording.  It takes a back seat to the songs themselves.  Of course this is the approach that seems to work best for Thompson’s music.  Some of his 90s recordings ended up too muddied for his aesthetic.  When your guitar work and songwriting are the core of your music, production that distracts from these elements is a diversion at best.

Strangely enough, for a recording titled Electric, this is not Thompson’s version of Shut Up & Play Yer Guitar.  There’s plenty of guitar here, of course, but it’s always in service to the song.  There are no extended solos or instrumentals.  Just quality songs.

Often I find that Thompson’s songs take multiple listens to really sink in.  That being said, early on my favorites are the acoustic numbers.  “Saving the Good Stuff For You” in particular stands out as a future classic in his repertoire.  

Electric may not be another Bright Lights or Pours Down Like Silver, but it is a very worthy addition to his catalog. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Album of the Week: Alasdair Roberts "A Wonder Working Stone" (2013)

Usually when you see “& friends” added behind an artist’s name, that’s just something that you can ignore.  It’s there to acknowledge a few sidemen, but nothing to significantly change the sound of the recording.  After all, if their contributions had been that significant, they would have been given better billing.  A Wonder Working Stone is a clear exception to that rule.

Alasdair Roberts’ solo efforts have always felt more than a bit dour.  Of course they are more traditional, & certainly the stereotype of traditional Scottish music is not one of sunshine and laughter.  A Wonder Working Stone is a change from that stereotype.  It’s not that Roberts isn’t acknowledging the darker parts of life, that’s still a theme.  This time out, and I place this on the presence of the numerous “Friends” who participate on this project, Roberts refuses to let the darkness win.  All your days will end in joy!  The contrast is in itself life affirming, and the group atmosphere gives the implicit message that its only through community that we can overcome our difficulties and find happiness.

Special mention must be made of the contributions of Ben Reynolds to this recording.  On A Wonder Working Stone he channels his inner Richard Thompson, providing  tasty and creative guitar licks and fills.

Peter Clines "Ex-Heroes" (Broadway, reprint 2013)

While superheroes vs zombies seems like some sort of satirical sendup of Hollywood, the concept does capture something in the zeitgeist of the 21st century.  In fact I’m somewhat surprised that we haven’t seen a series of movies on SyFy featuring this theme.

In Peter Clines’ debut novel, he goes all in on the genre tropes.  The story takes place after the zombie apocalypse.  A small group of superheroes and a larger group of normal humans have taken shelter on a converted movie studio lot in Los Angeles.  They’re trying to survive, but in addition to the millions of swarming “exes” (Clines word of choice instead of zombie), they are also menaced by the remnants of a street gang who want the weaponry the superheroes have access to.  

The strength of Ex-Heroes lies in the pacing and action sequences.  With so many constant threats to survival, there are plenty of opportunities for heroics.  Zombies to kill, humans to rescue, evil gangbangers to overcome.  Clines does a good job of taking a story that seems to fit more naturally into a comic format & convert it into a novel.  

The weakness of the novel lies in the characterizations.  Clines chooses to basically simply file the serial numbers off several famous superheroes.  This approach is fine, but even the flashbacks used to establish the heroes identity before the outbreak are not enough to make me really care about any of the characters.  This diminishes the stakes significantly.

In short, while a quick & fun read, Ex-Heroes was on the whole disappointing.  I wish I’d read the graphic novel instead.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Pierre Grimbert "Six Heirs" (AmazonCrossing, 2013)

My curiosity was raised when I read that Grimbert’s Ji series was a bestseller in France.  My experience with French SFF has been limited to some comics and archaic Arthurian texts, so I wanted to see what Grimbert had to offer.  Unfortunately, Six Heirs doesn’t offer anything that can’t be easily found here in America.

The setup is good, and out of the ordinary.  Several generations earlier, a stranger traveled to all the various kingdoms & requested that they each send a representative to the small island of Ji on a particular day.  When the day arrives, the assembled representatives go off with the stranger, & seemingly disappear.  Eventually a small group of surviving representatives return, but refuse to discuss where they went or what happened.  Their descendants create a tradition of gathering every few years to honor the memory of their ancestors, and to celebrate the extended family that they have become.   In the present day, on the eve of one such gathering, a murderous cult begins assassinating the titular Heirs of Ji.  As they try to avoid the assassins, the small group of survivors gathers together to attempt to determine exactly what is going on.

Despite the premise, the execution of Six Heirs comes off as something that you feel like you’ve read before.  This is in part due to the reliance of well-worn tropes in the story and characterizations.  The setting is solidly faux European, with many small feudal states that don’t really feel differentiated.  The characters themselves fall into near cliché.  We have the mage (Corenn), the barbarian (Bowbaq), the rogue (Rey), the warrior (Grigan), and the young people (Leti & Yan, who do double duty as the romance subplot).  None of this is particularly well differentiated from piles of cookie cutter fantasy that you have probably read.

Concerning the prose itself, I was underwhelmed.  It is workmanlike and functional, but nothing more.  That may or may not be a function of the translation.  If anything it reminded me of the numerous Tolkien clones published in the 1970s.  

It’s also worth noting that Six Heirs does not really function as a standalone novel.  By the end of the story, Grimbert gives us no resolution to any of the primary plot points or character arcs.  In this regard, Six Heirs seems to be more of a multipage introduction to the series than an episode.
At its best, Six Heirs is a functional enough epic fantasy for a YA reader.  Fans of Eddings, Brooks, etc may very likely be intrigued by the story of Ji.  A reader looking for more sophisticated storytelling will be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Evie Manieri “Blood’s Pride” (Tor, 2013)

Evie Manieri describes herself as a fan of intricacies.  I would describe the plotting of The Wire as intricate, where certain actions don’t pay off for 1 or maybe 2 seasons.  Blood’s Pride must be a whole other sort of intricate, most likely meaning cramming as much as possible into a single story.
The story of Blood’s Pride takes place a generation after the city state of Shadar is conquered by the seafaring Norlanders.  The Norlanders have come in order to control magical ore which can only be found in Shadar.  Needless to say, the people of Shadar are not happy about the brutal rule of the Norlanders, and Blood’s Pride is about their attempt to overthrow the rule of the Norlanders and regain control of their own city.  

Before getting into some of the problems of Blood’s Pride, let me mention a couple of things that worked well for me.  First of all, Manieri’s overall vision is admirable.  She has envisioned a fantasy that is different from the norm.  Sure, some of the characters do fit some familiar tropes – the mixed blooded outsider, the slave who is really a secret king, etc.  But the overall storyline of a city fighting back against foreign oppression is not one commonly told.  Secondly, she does a good job with the pacing of her story.  I found myself being pushed forward to the end of the book quite rapidly.  In a new fantasy world, she doesn’t waste time on info dumps or other long expository passages, but focuses on plot development instead.  This means that in spite of the flaws of the book, it is an entertaining read.

But there are some problems with Blood’s Pride as well.  Some of them are logical, and there may be explanations that work that we simply haven’t received yet.  For example, how is a culture that can’t be exposed to sunlight an effective expansionistic empire?  Wouldn’t that whole “sunlight kills them” thing be a very effective natural deterrent to their activities?  Another culture is split between living in the desert and at sea, yet has members who are gingers.  As a ginger myself, I can tell you that neither boating nor desert excursions are things that gingers are well suited for.  While she packs plenty of cool ideas and details into the book, most of them create more problems than they solve, once you begin to examine them.  For example, how do they transport those huge flying animals on ships?  Why use the ships if they can fly?  How does that magical ore make those swords?  And if they bring the blood south to pre-bond the swords, how are they transporting that much blood in a world without refrigeration?  See what I mean?  Now this is only the first book of a trilogy, and many of these problems may be resolved in the later volumes.  But it is a bad sign when this seems to be a trend in only the first book.

A more significant problem is the development of the characters.  There have been some complaints about her naming conventions, with readers saying that they found it difficult to follow.  I don’t think that the problem is with the names, per se.  Rather it is with the character development.  Blood’s Pride has a rather large cast of characters, and unfortunately they are thinly developed at best.  What’s happening is that readers are confused by shifting perspectives on the story due to the lack of character depth.  The tangible thing that they can latch onto is the names, but the real issue is the lack of in depth character development.  The names themselves are no stranger than bog standard fantasy names.

I thought that Blood’s Pride was an entertaining read with a fast paced plot and an unusual fantasy world.  Unfortunately that was overshadowed by the author’s tendency to cram too much into a single volume.  Not only are there too many loose ends in the world building, but character development has also suffered as a result.  It doesn’t matter how many “oh cool” ideas or moments are in the story if the reader isn’t invested in the characters.