Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Broad Street

The first thing I noticed about Christine Weiser’s debut novel, Broad Street, is the cover. Hot pink with an iconic Roy Lichtenstein-esque illustration of a woman in a blue evening gown rocking out on a bass guitar, the artwork struck me as fresh and bold—more Mexican wrestling poster (and I mean that in a good way!) than staid book cover—which, it turns out, makes it the perfect match for Weiser’s fresh, bold literary voice.

The novel opens with the recently-single protagonist Kit Green making a drunken pact with her friend and partner in crime, Margo Bevilacqua, to start an all-girl band with the express purpose of pissing off the musical men in their lives. From here, the novel is a roller-coaster ride through the ups and downs of life in the independent music scene. As the author’s bio notes, Weiser herself played bass in a Philly girl band called Mae Pang back in the nineties. The experience obviously left a lasting impression, for all of Kit’s struggles come across as genuine and heartfelt. In short, the woman has walked the walk, so she knows exactly what she’s saying when she talks the talk—and this fact comes across on every page.

While the Philadelphia music scene circa 1994 provides a brilliant backdrop for this novel (and Weiser imagines that setting vivdly), Broad Street is about so much more than Kit and Margo’s adventures in the music industry. It’s about their individual struggles to find their respective places in the world at large. Indeed, it’s a quest for identity. Both women desperately want to declare independence—from the men in their lives, from their families, from the dead-end jobs they work just to make ends meet—and in so doing, to emerge fully into adulthood. And if they have fun while they’re doing it, then so much the better!

Bottom line: Broad Street is a great, fun book about coming of age in the often seedy and always exciting world of rock ‘n’ roll. Imagine the women of Sex and the City strapping on guitars, and you’ll get a sense of what it’s all about. The perfect survival guide for anyone considering a career in the music business.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Head Wounds

Perhaps it’s the passing of legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine last Monday, but I can’t help wondering what the trailer for Chris Knopf’s latest mystery, Head Wounds (Permanent Press 2008), might sound like if the book were made into a film. In fact, I can almost hear the so-called “Voice of God” tantalizing us with the following: It was just another day for Sam Acquilano when his whole life suddenly turned upside-down.

As with many great Hollywood thrillers, Head Wounds follows a familiar pattern. The grizzled hero with a shady past is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Yet while the pattern is certainly familiar, at no times does Knopf appear to be re-treading old ground. Indeed, his prowess as a storyteller allows Knopf to apply Ezra Pound’s mandate to “make it new” to the detective genre. Thus while the novel certainly hits many recognizable marks as Knopf weaves his version of a classic trope, it also takes a number of unexpected turns, most significantly with regard to setting and character.

Knopf’s facility with setting is apparent. The novel is set in the fabled Hamptons, summer playground of the exceedingly well to do. At the same time, however, Knopf’s vision is of the seedy underbelly of the Hamptons. To put it bluntly, I seriously doubt anyone will ask Knopf to write a travel brochure for the region anytime soon.

With regard to character, Knopf does a wonderful job of populating his fictive world with memorable and exciting characters who do everything they can to resist the bonds of cliché. Yes, protagonist and narrator Sam Acquilano is a dark, brooding chain-smoker who enjoys a good drink, but he’s also a pragmatist at heart. When asked why he never drinks in the vicinity of power tools, he replies matter-of-factly that it’s “hard to maintain a respectable drinking habit without fingers or thumbs.” Similarly, while Acquilano abhors the “plague of sophistication spreading through the Hamptons, infecting even indigenous dive bars,” he’s still not above (or perhaps below) brewing a pot of gourmet Viennese cinnamon coffee to fortify himself against the peril and deception that besiege him from all sides. In many ways, the man is a walking contradiction, yet it’s this inherent and ongoing state of contradiction that makes him so interesting to watch as he goes about trying to clear his name while simultaneously doing everything within his power to destroy his own life, such as it is.

Throughout Head Wounds, Knopf proves himself as a superb writer who is highly adept at taking the old tropes and making them new. His characters come to life vividly, his sense of setting is spot-on, and, last but not least, the man can craft a real page-turner. A great read for the fan of hard-boiled mystery.

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The Sacred Sin

My apologies to Estevan Vega. He was eighteen years old when he sent me a copy of his second (second!) novel, The Sacred Sin, but I took so long to review it that I’m fairly certain he has to be at least forty-seven by now. The novel opens with its protagonist, Los Angeles detective Jude Foster, lying on the therapy couch and resisting every effort his state-appointed counselor makes at guiding him through the therapeutic process. Foster, after all, is a complex, brooding anti-hero who looks (or so we’re told) like Hugh Jackman, so no amount of talking through his problems is going to help him deal with his demons. Instead, he needs action, and when a spate of mysterious murders lead him to a face-to-face showdown with the devil himself (or, more accurately, Azrael, the angel of death), Foster learns just how far his spirit needs to sink before he can begin the long, hard work of crawling back to life. Though the prose relies somewhat heavily on adverbs to convey emotional impact, the story itself is taught and fairly complex, and I can easily see this book being made into a Hollywood film along the lines of the 1999 supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate. Vega has a natural talent for creating believable characters and imaginative situations, and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning - Review by Tom Powers

Yet another fine review from my friend and colleague, Tom Powers:

Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning (Mythos Media 2007) is the type of revolutionary fiction that may inspire you to take a visionary road-trip across the South-West searching for the America you’ve only heard about in rock ‘n roll songs or saw while under the hallucinatory influence of some illicit substance and/or the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, and comics instigator Grant Morrison. An impressive hybrid of words, illustrations, photography, pseudo-interviews, and one well-drawn comic strip, Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning’s storytelling both entertains and educates. The latter may immediately turn off the “I’ll learn when I’m in school, thank you very much” crowd, but author James Curcio is by no means preachy when he shares with you his knowledge of philosophical concepts. The author, after all, who holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Bard College, is creatively applying his education to his fiction. Not to digress, but it is not very often that we see a writer effectively reap the fruits of a liberal arts education through the lens of prose as Curcio successfully has done with a confident understanding that intelligent ideas, both classical and contemporary, still have a voice and meaning applicable to perhaps the last undiluted and uncensored of print mediums – the novel.

In terms of clearly drawn narrative lines between hero and villain, Curcio does not, thank goodness, offer easy, predictable answers. Instead, he intricately crafts an atmosphere of intrigue and paranoia via secret governmental agents who are unclear as to the identity of their true masters and ex-asylum inmates, rock stars Babalon, who are on the road as they head toward a literally explosive gig. Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning is also not afraid to transgress boundaries as it challenges our assumptions of morality, sexuality, and nationalism. If all of those facets have not yet intrigued you, however, the character of Lilith herself, the enigmatic, consummate seductress and lead singer of Babalon, will justify the time you devote to consuming this rewarding read.

Then there’s Curcio’s dialogue – sharp and cracking – the perfect complement to his lyrical prose, philosophical ruminations, and innate understanding of what drives the essence of the American dream – our shared love of its sometimes-alien landscape, which exists geographically across its states and internally within all of us who chase that dream and continuously struggle to grasp its ever-shifting definition.

For lovers of wild sci-fi, intriguing concepts, not to mention sex, drugs, guns, and rock ‘n roll, Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning, accordingly, is the apropos new-millennium text that will awaken the sleeping counter-culture beast within.

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