My Favorite Non-Crime Fiction of 2019

Like last year, while trying to come up with a Top 10 this year, I ran into a small problem (at least for me). Crime/Thriller/Mystery novels made up approximately half of the novels I read this year and therefore dominated the candidates. So, I decided to split them into 2 lists—one for Crime Fiction and one for Everything Else. Not the catchiest title, I grant you, but you get what you pay for.

These are my favorites, the things that have stuck with me in a way others haven’t—not necessarily the best things I read (but there’s a good deal of overlap, too). But these ten entertained me or grabbed me emotionally unlike the rest.

Anyway…I say this every year, but . . . Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to books that I’ve loved for 2 decades that I happened to have read this year.

Enough blather…on to the list.

(in alphabetical order by author)

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator)

My original post
I’ve been telling myself every year since 2016 that I was going to read all of Backman’s novels after falling in love with his My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. The closest I got was last year when I read his first novel, A Man Called Ove (and nothing else). It’s enough to make me resolve to read more of them, and soon. The story of an old, grumpy widower befriending (against his will, I should stress) a pretty diverse group of his neighbors. It’s more than that thumbnail, but I’m trying to be brief. The story was fairly predictable, but there’s something about the way that Backman put it together that makes it perfect. And even the things you see coming will get you misty (if not elicit actual tears).

5 Stars

Dark AgeDark Age

by Pierce Brown

My original post
When I started reading this, I was figuring that Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga was on the downward trend. Boy, was I wrong. Dark Age showed me that time after time after time after time . . . Entertaining, occasionally amusing, stress-inducing, heart-wrenching, flat-out captivating. It was brutal and beautiful and I can’t believe I doubted Brown for a minute.

5 Stars

Here and Now and ThenHere and Now and Then

by Mike Chen

My original post
One of the best Time Travel stories I’ve ever read, but it’s so much more—it’s about fatherhood, it’s about love, it’s about friendship. Heart, soul, laughs, and heartbreak—I don’t know what else you want out of a time travel story. Or any story, really. Characters you can like (even when they do things you don’t like), characters you want to know better, characters you want to hang out with after the story (or during it, just not during the major plot point times), and a great plotline.

4 1/2 Stars

Seraphina's LamentSeraphina’s Lament

by Sarah Chorn

My original post
Chorn’s prose is as beautiful as her world is dark and disturbing. This Fantasy depicts a culture’s collapse and promises the rebirth of a world, but getting there is rough. Time and time again while reading this book, I was struck by how unique, how unusual this experience was. As different as fantasy novels tend to be from each other, by and large, most of them feel the same as you read it (I guess that’s true of all genres). But I kept coming back to how unusual this feels compared to other fantasies I’ve read. The experience of reading Seraphina’s Lament isn’t something I’ll forget any time soon.

4 1/2 Stars

No Country for Old GnomesNo Country for Old Gnomes

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

My original post
Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, “how did they improve things this much?” These books are noted (as I’ve focused on) for their comedy—but they’re about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It’s easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss—and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.

(but mostly you laugh)

4 1/2 Stars

Twenty-one Truths About LoveTwenty-one Truths About Love

by Matthew Dicks

My original post
It’s an unconventionally told story about a man figuring out how to be a businessman, husband, and father in some extreme circumstances. The lists are the star of the show, but it’s the heart behind them that made this novel a winner.

5 Stars

State of the UnionState of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts

by Nick Hornby

My original post
This series of brief conversations held between a married couple just before their marriage counseling sessions. At the end of the day, this is exactly what you want from a Nick Hornby book (except the length—I wanted more, always): funny, heartfelt, charming, (seemingly) effortless, and makes you feel a wide range of emotions without feeling manipulated. I loved it, I think you will, too.

4 1/2 Stars

The SwallowsThe Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

My original post
This is not my favorite Lutz novel, but I think it’s her best. It has a very different kind of humor than we got in The Spellman Files, but it’s probably as funny as Lutz has been since the third book in that series—but deadly serious, nonetheless. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling. From the funny and dark beginning to the perfect and bitingly ominous last three paragraphs The Swallows is a winner. Timely and appropriate, but using tropes and themes that are familiar to readers everywhere, Lutz has given us a thrilling novel for our day—provocative, entertaining, and haunting. This is one of those books that probably hews really close to things that could or have happened and you’re better off hoping are fictional.

5 Stars

PostgraduatePostgraduate

by Ian Shane

My original post
This has the general feel of Hornby, Tropper, Norman, Weiner, Russo (in his lighter moments), Perrotta, etc. The writing is engaging, catchy, welcoming. Shane writes in a way that you like reading his prose—no matter what’s happening. It’s pleasant and charming with moments of not-quite-brilliance, but close enough. Shane’s style doesn’t draw attention to itself, if anything, it deflects it. It’s not flashy, but it’s good. The protagonist feels like an old friend, the world is comfortable and relaxing to be in (I should stress about 87.3 percent of what I know about radio comes from this book, so it’s not that). This belongs in the same discussion with the best of Hornby and Tropper—it’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to read when I’m not reading a “genre” novel (I hate that phrase, but I don’t know what else to put there).

4 1/2 Stars

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman

My original post
This is a novel filled with readers, book nerds and the people who like (and love) them. There’s a nice story of a woman learning to overcome her anxieties to embrace new people in her life and heart with a sweet love story tagged on to it. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but I can’t imagine a world where anyone who reads my blog not enjoying this novel and protagonist. It’s charming, witty, funny, touching, heart-string-tugging, and generally entertaining. This is the only book on this particular list that I know would’ve found a place on a top ten that included Crime Novels as well, few things made me as happy in 2019 as this book did for a few hours (and in fleeting moments since then as I reflect on it).

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Not Famous by Matthew Hanover, Circle of the Moon by Faith Hunter, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski, In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion, and Lingering by Melissa Simonson

The ABCs of Metallica by Metallica, Howie Abrams, Michael Kaves: A Book for Everyone Who’s Wanted to Use “Cute” and “Metallica” in the same thought

The ABCs of Metallica

The ABCs of Metallica

by Metallica, Howie Abrams, Michael Kaves (Illustrator)

Hardcover, 48 pg.
Permuted Press, 2019

Read: November 26, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


I’m struggling to come up with something to say about this. I want to go on for a few hundred words, but the book is too short for that. And honestly, if the concept doesn’t make you curious enough to check it out, it really doesn’t matter what I say.

But, oh, well—let’s give it a shot.

This is your basic A-B-C’s book, with a short burst of rhyming text starting with consecutive letters, acrostic poem style. The focus of this book is the history, personnel (Cliff Burton, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo, anyway), and music of Metallica. Just your typical picture book, really. Kid-friendly, but Metallica fans who aren’t afraid to be silly should be able to enjoy it, too.

It’s a little wordy for a picture book, but nothing terrible. I don’t know how much of the text Metallica is really responsible for and how much Abrams should get the credit for (my hunch is more the latter), but that’s not important. There’s some nice info, cute rhymes (sure, some of the rhymes are stretches, but who cares?), and fun ways to come up with something for every letter.

The illustrations are great. Again, kid-friendly but adult-friendly, too. McLeer is a Graffiti and Tattoo artist and it really comes through—I can see my son, a real Metallica fanatic, getting a couple of these tattooed on him, actually.

It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s a great idea—and proceeds are going to charity. Grab a copy, really.


3.5 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

A Few Quick Questions With…Ian Shane

So, I just blathered on about Postgraduate, the great novel by Ian Shane. And now, here’s a little from the Man Himself in response to some questions I had for him. I hope you enjoy. For those keeping score at home, after a few Q&As of one of my theories being validated, I totally whiffed one here. I still liked the answer, just wish I’d asked a better question 🙂

Most authors have dozens of ideas bouncing around their craniums at once — what was it about this idea that made you say, “Yup — this is the one for me.”?
First, in the interest of full disclosure, Postgraduate is semi-autobiographical. For a while, I was running an Internet classic alternative radio station (which has been offline for a couple of years). During this time, I was having a hard time finding a story I wanted to write. There would be ideas here and there, but nothing ever developed into a compelling story. On a whim, I picked up a copy of Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel. It’s a memoir based on Spitznagel’s quest to rebuild his lost record collection. Not copies of the albums he lost, mind you…the actual albums. His musical mid-life crisis inspired me to write about mine.
In the writing of Postgraduate, what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV”.
I was really amazed at how quickly I wrote the first draft. I have a day job, so the amount of time I have to write is limited. I decided to track my progress on Facebook to keep myself accountable to my friends. The first night, I wrote 1330 words. The next night, I wrote 1557 words. Then it started to become a thing…how many nights can I write more than a thousand words? In the first week, I wrote 10,269 words. I started Postgraduate on October 25, 2017, and I finished the first draft on February 1, 2018. The total was 92,947 words in 97 days. I’ve never had a writing streak like that before, and I am not likely to ever have one like that again.
Danny’s reaction to the news that his favorite record store had closed (and some time ago), was one of my favorite parts of Postgraduate. Is it one of the semi-autobiographical parts of the book? Tell us a little about the store/its closing.
This is very autobiographical. There really was a Cats Record Store in my hometown (Evansville, Indiana). Cats was the place to find stuff from The Smiths or Elvis Costello. It was as I described it in the book…hardwood floors, cedar walls, and a general warm feeling when you walked in. There were two locations, on the east side and north side of town (the north side was the one I went to often). Not too long after I left town, my brother had told me that Cats had closed. I just assumed he meant the one on the east side. A few years later, on a visit to town, I decided to go to the north side and see what they had to offer. When I got there, I was grief-stricken to see the “For Lease” sign on the door. It really felt like a death.

However, showing that Cats had closed also served two subtler purposes. One, I wanted to have something unexpected to happen for Danny. It shatters the frozen-in-time, idealized image of the area around campus he had in his head. Something had to be not quite right, and that’s what I chose to be the missing ingredient.

And, as an aging Gen-Xer, I wanted to have an image of how people get music today, as opposed to how we did it when I was a college student. Hard copies, at least on a digital format, have fallen out of favor with “the kids.” I realize by saying this, I run the risk of sounding like the old guy who complains that a ticket for the moving picture show used to be only a nickel.

Why is it, do you think, that male readers respond so strongly to books about music? (your novels, Hornby’s, etc.)
I think it’s because guys (especially when we’re in our teens and 20s) have a terrible time expressing how we feel. I don’t want to get all “blame it on society,” but we were taught at an early age to not show our emotions—boys don’t cry (you know, kinda like that Cure song), and we have a hard time hashing out what was going on in our heads. It’s a thing of beauty when a songwriter reads our minds and says something more eloquently than we ever could and does it in 4/4 time. It grabs us and shakes us to our cores. In a way, music becomes a part of who we are. That’s the reason we made mixtapes to impress women. We couldn’t find the words to say we liked them and wanted to get to know them better, but Neil Finn could. So, we’d let him and the rest of Crowded House stand proxy for us for four and a half minutes.

When we read a book like High Fidelity or Postgraduate, we relate to using music as a primary coping mechanism (like Rob and Danny respectively) more than we get Heathcliff walking along the moors. While dealing with my last breakup, I listened to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis on a continuous loop while drinking a heroic amount of whiskey. I didn’t spit out a two-page soliloquy while standing on my patio and looking at the moon. It’s just how we do it now.

I’d imagine that in a novel like this, it’d be difficult to keep from making Sam (the one that got away) an idealized woman, or Angela (the adulterous ex) into . . . an idealized harlot, I guess. Especially with this being written from Danny’s perspective. How do you walk the line?
I don’t really know if I thought about it too much while I was writing Angela and Sam. I just had a full picture in my mind who these women were…their wonderful qualities and their flaws. I had an idea of what made Danny and Angela work and what didn’t. The same was true with Danny and Sam.
Thanks for your time and willingness to let me badger you with these questions – again, I really enjoyed Postgraduate and truly hope that it finds the audience it deserves.

Pub Day Post: Postgraduate by Ian Shane: A Funny, Nostalgic, Touching Novel about Maybe Finding Lost Loves/Dreams/Friendships

PostgraduatePostgraduate

by Ian Shane


Kindle Edition, 409 pg.
45rpm Media, 2019

Read: March 25 – 26, 2019

“. . . you did a bad, bad thing.”

“Then why are you helping me?”

“Because that’s what friends do. Someone needs to stand next to you when the world falls down around your ankles, and the other starting players seem to be leaving you one by one. You’re still my boy, but I question your decision-making skills.”

We meet Danny Jackson on one of the worst days of his life — the day his marriage legally ended (it was over long before). Danny’s quick to assure us that he’s had worse days, and not just because he doth protest too much (no matter what it looks like at the moment). He’s 44, about to be kicked out of his house, in a job he hates (many reasons are bigger than being forced to use Comic Sans, as bad as that is) and really has no idea what the rest of the year will bring — much less anything after that.

One of the many accommodations Danny made to get along with his wife was to trim his 4,000+ CD collection down to 150, and now that he finds himself without a real home or family and a strong need to fill up his time so he can’t dwell on that he starts rebuilding that collection — not with current music, either. But with the songs and albums that defined him at that age where music is so important to define, mold and express one’s identity — college. Before long, Danny’s investing some real money in stereo equipment as well as CDs. At one point a neighbor/friend from the apartment building says something about Danny having enough of both to start his own radio station.

This idea sparks something within Danny and he sets to do just that — not a real radio station (or even a pirate station), but an Internet radio station modeled on the one he learned all about Radio on in college, “The L.” While putting in the work necessary to launch an Internet station, Danny starts dreaming and scheming. I was honestly a little surprised to see how much work was involved, but after reading this I realize that’s just because I know so little about radio (even online) and hadn’t given it any real thought before.

He doesn’t just want to launch this passion project, he’d like to bury the hatchet with a bunch of people from his college days — and what better way to do both together than by launching the station in their old studio while they’re all returning to say goodbye to a mentor as he prepares to retire. Danny’s already speaking for the event, so that part will be easy. He trusts the others will be there, too — getting them to go along with his plans will be the trick.

Danny doesn’t know what kind of audience his online version of “The L” is going to have, but he figures there’s some audience — he’d listen to the kind of station he’ll be launching, why wouldn’t others his age? So kicks off (and then some) this story of friendship, lost loves, abandoned dreams, the love of music, and the attempt to recapture what we’ve lost (through fault of our own, or not). While we follow Danny’s rebuilding in 2017, we also get (in alternating chapters) the story of how the magic was assembled back in the day, and how it primarily fell to pieces (Danny had a significant roll in that, it turns out).

Danny’s glory days really were that (until they weren’t) and it was a lot of fun reading about them — especially when Sam’s on the scene. His 44th year wasn’t that great for him (it did improve from that inauspicious start), but it was almost as much fun to read, especially when Sam’s on the scene. Sam’s the one who got away from Danny, the love of his life, etc. She’s close to idealized, but Shane’s careful not to let Danny do that to her (more than anyone would in memory).

The focus of the novel is (rightly) those two, but Danny’s friendships with Marty — the Program Director of the L — and Tom are easily as important. The novel could’ve worked almost as well with the Danny/Tom relationship as the center instead of Danny/Sam. Tom was Danny’s high school friend who came to college with him and developed a radio show with him, both planning to keep doing radio together after college. One of my few problems I have is that I think we needed a bit more of Tom early on. I know he’s Danny’s partner, and the emotions both have toward each other (in the 90’s and 2017) indicate that, but he always seems to be playing second fiddle to Sam or Marty. Marty’s sort of the older brother figure to Sam, Danny and Tom — down for a good time as well as advice, and is just cool to read.

Mindy, Marty’s co-host, is a character I could’ve used a little more of, too — just because I really liked her. The narrative nowhere needs more of her, but I just liked her and wanted more. The professor, Dr. Black, they assemble to honor is a perfect mentor figure. Even Angela, the adulterous ex- that derailed Danny’s career, is a pretty well-designed and used character — but she’s about the only one in the book I don’t want to see more of.

I don’t mean this next sentence as a negative, no matter what it sounds like. There are few narrative surprises for the reader — by a certain point, you know pretty much how each storyline is going to go. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises (pleasant and otherwise) for the reader, but it’s not that kind of story. You may not know exactly where Plot X will land, but you’ll know the ZIP Code for it early on. And that’s fine — the pleasure’s in the journey, and Danny ending up where you know he will is just a satisfying confirmation.

If you like Danny, you’ll like this book. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t like Danny, but I have to admit it’s possible. I think we clicked almost instantly, I was definitely on board in the first couple of pages. It’s possible you may not like Danny as a person, but would like his voice (well, Shane’s voice), I suppose. That should carry you through, too.

On his website, Shane talks about the impact Aaron Sorkin has on his writing — when you get to passages like this, it’s pretty obvious:

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I didn’t think you’d find out.”

“Really?”

“Did you have any idea before today?”

“None.”

“Then it’s a mystery to me as to why I’d think that.”

I can’t help but hear that last line in a Richard Schiff voice. But the book doesn’t only read like the work of a Sorkin-devotee. It has the general feel of Hornby, Tropper, Norman, Weiner, Russo (in his lighter moments), Perrotta, etc. The writing is engaging, catchy, welcoming. Shane writes in a way that you like reading his prose — no matter what’s happening. It’s pleasant and charming with moments of not-quite-brilliance, but close enough. Unlike Sorkin, Shane’s style doesn’t draw attention to itself, if anything, it deflects it. It’s not flashy, but it’s good. I could’ve easily read another 400 pages of these people without breaking a sweat.

You know how maybe the best thing about Zach Braff’s Garden State was that killer soundtrack? That’s almost the case here. Shane has assembled a great playlist on Spotify to go with the novel — stuff that Danny refers to in the book, and stuff he’d listen to. I’ve been introduced to a lot of music that I probably should know through it. Most of what I’ve written in the last week (and some of what I’ve read) has had it as a soundtrack, and that’ll likely hold true for a while longer. I’m embarrassed to admit how little of it I knew going in — Danny, Tom and especially Marty would be ashamed that someone who went to college in about the same time as they did wouldn’t know this stuff. Maybe I should’ve listened to more college radio. Unlike, Garden State, Postgraduate can be read without it (and without knowing the music), but this is a great touch. If for no other reason than there’s going to be a couple of songs you’re going to be curious about after reading about them, this is a great resource.

How much did I like the book? Despite being given a copy (which I’m very grateful for), I bought one. I might give a few away. Danny feels like an old friend, the world is comfortable and relaxing to be in (I should stress about 87.3 percent of what I know about radio comes from this book, so it’s not that). This belongs in the same discussion with the best of Hornby and Tropper — it’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to read when I’m not reading a “genre” novel (the problems with that clause deserve their own post, but you all know what I mean). There’s an eleven year gap between Shane’s first two novels, after reading this you can only hope that his third will arrive much sooner. While I wait for whatever’s next, you should go read Postgraduate. You’ll feel better than James Brown if you do.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

My Favorite 2018 Non-Fiction Reads

Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount, more than I did in 2016-17 combined (he reports with only a hint of defensiveness). These are the best of the bunch.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Lessons From LucyLessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

by Dave Barry

My original post
So, I figured given the tile and subject that this would be a heavier Dave Barry read, with probably more tears than you anticipate from his books — something along the lines of Marley & Me. I was (thankfully) wrong. It’s sort of self-helpy. It’s a little overly sentimental. I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. Lessons From Lucy is, without a doubt, his most mature, thoughtful and touching work (that’s a pretty low bar, I realize — a bar he’s worked hard to keep low, too).

5 Stars

 The War Outside My Window The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

by Janet E. Croon, ed.

My original post
LeRoy Wiley Gresham was 12 when he started keeping a diary. LIttle did he know at that point that he was about to witness the American Civil War (and all the desolation it would bring to Georgia) and that he was dying (he really didn’t figure that out until the very end). Instead you get an almost day-by-day look at his life — what he does, reads, hears about (re: the War) and feels. It’s history in the raw. You have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.

5 Stars

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

My original post
I, for one, have never thought that much about my relation to time, my relation to clocks/watches, etc. I know they govern our lives, to an extent that’s troublesome. But where did that come from, how did we get hooked on these things, this concept? These are brief studies/historical looks/contemporary observations — and I’m not selling it too well here (trying to keep it brief). It’s entertainingly written, informative, and thought-provoking. Garfield says this about it:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He fulfills his intended goals, making this well worth the read.

4 Stars

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

My original post
If you grew up in the 80s or earlier, you were fascinated by Soviet Russia. Period. They were our great potential enemy, and we knew almost nothing about them. And even what we did “know” wasn’t based on all that much. Well, Sergey Grechishkin’s book fixes that (and will help you remember just how much you used to be intrigued by “Evil Empire”). He tells how he grew up in Soviet Russia — just a typical kid in a typical family trying to get by. He tells this story with humor — subtle and overt. It’s a deceptively easy and fun read about some really dark circumstances.

4 Stars

Planet FunnyPlanet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

My original post
Half of this book is fantastic. The other half is … okay. It’ll make you laugh if nothing else. That might not be a good thing, if you take his point to heart. We’ve gotten to the point now in society that laughter beats honesty, jokes beat insight, and irony is more valued than thoughtful analysis. How did we get here, what does it mean, what do we do about it? The true value of the book may be what it makes you think about after you’re done.

3.5 Stars

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Audiobook)The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson, Roger Wayne (Narrator)

My original post
This is an enjoyable, amusing, call to re-examine your priorities and goals. It’s not about ceasing to care about everything (not giving a f^ck), but about being careful what you care about (giving the right f*cks). Manson’s more impressed with himself than he should be, but he’s a clear and clever writer displaying a lot of common sense. Get the audiobook (I almost never say that) — the narration is worth a star by itself (maybe more).

4 Stars

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott

My original post
If you read only one book off this list, it should probably be the next one. But if you pick this one, you’ll be happier. This is a collection of correspondence to pop musicians/lyricists picking apart the lyrics, quibbling over the concepts, and generally missing the point. Then we get to read the responses from the musician/act — some play with the joke, some beat it. Sometimes the Philpott portion of the exchange is better, frequently they’re the straight man to someone else. Even if you don’t know the song being discussed, there’s enough to enjoy. Probably one of my Top 3 of the year.

5 Stars

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

My original post
My favorite US Senator tackles the questions of division in our country — and political divisions aren’t the most important, or even the root of the problem. Which is good, because while he might be my favorite, I’m not sure I’d agree with his political solutions. But his examination of the problems we all can see, we all can sense and we all end up exacerbating — and many of his solutions — will ring true. And even when you disagree with him, you’ll appreciate the effort and insight.

5 Stars

Honorable Mention:

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

by Steven Pinker

I started this at a bad time, just didn’t have the time to devote to it (and the library had a serious list waiting for it, so I couldn’t renew it. But what little I did read, I thoroughly enjoyed and profited from — am very sure it’d have made this post if I could’ve gotten through it. I need to make a point of returning to it.

Just the Clothes on My Back – a collaboration with Lee Child by Naked Blue: Jack Reacher Rocks

Jut the Clothes on My BackJust the Clothes on My Back – a collaboration with Lee Child

by Naked Blue
Series: Jack Reacher


CD, 10 tracks
Bluetick Records, 2018

Mutual fans/friends Naked Blue and Lee Child collaborated on this album — 10 songs from Jack Reacher’s point of view. Well, 9 from his POV and 1 (“Reacher Said Nothing”) that could be the soundtrack for about 90% of the books.

I’ve listened to this album a lot since it came out and I’ thoroughly enjoy it. I think it does a great job capturing the “inner essence” of Reacher (a concept he’d probably boggle at) and delivering it with some great bluesy-rock/Americana tunes. Even if you’re not Reacher-obsessed, or you don’t think about the character the songs hold up just fine — you don’t even have to know anything about the album to appreciate it. But if you are a Reacher fan, you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

“Just the Clothes on My Back” and “Big Man” do great jobs of encapsulating Reacher’s approach to life. “Killing Floor” and “Blessed or Cursed,” are almost as good. All of them have great tunes that get into your head and threaten to take up earworm-like residence.

It’s not all about the action-hero side of Reacher. “The Midnight Line” does a great job of capturing a chapter (or part of one) with the allusions and euphemisms for sex and “Sanctuary,” also does a fine job of recreating the kind of scene in a Reacher book that I skim. This doesn’t mean they’re bad songs, in fact, they’ll be selling points for many. They just don’t work for me.

As for “Reacher Said Nothing”? An almost entirely instrumental piece (with some vocals by Lee Child himself) — how that hasn’t become my ringtone is beyond me. Just love that song.

Now, Jennifer Ferguson Smith might not seem the ideal person to give musical voice to the 6’5″, 210–250 lbs., ex-MP with a 50″ chest, but she somehow pulls it off. The vocals are great — I don’t really know how to describe someone’s singing voice, so I’m not going to try. They match the rootsy-bluesy-rock well. I don’t know if it’s helpful to anyone, but she reminds me of Amy Rigby.

A great album for fans of Reacher. An album that should earn Naked Blue some new fans/listeners. A good album just in and of itself. Give it a whirl.I’m going to give it 4 stars, but based on the way that music like this tends to grow on me, if you ask me in 6-9 months, I’ll probably rate it higher.

—–

4 Stars

So Let It Be Written by Mark Eglinton: A Disappointingly Delivered Account of a Rock Star’s Career

So Let It Be WrittenSo Let It Be Written: The Biography of Metallica’s James Hetfield

by Mark Eglinton

Paperback, 219 pg.
Lesser Gods, 2017
Read: October 29 – 30, 2018
Here’s the Publisher’s synopsis:

           The first and only biography of one of the best front men of the modern era.

With James Hetfield at the helm, Metallica went from being thrash pioneers to heavy metal gods. He overcame adolescent upheaval and personal demons—including his parents’ divorce, his mother’s untimely death and severe alcoholism—to become metal’s biggest star.

So Let It Be Written does justice to the many hats Hetfield has worn, with his strong leadership, signature vocal style, powerful guitar-playing and masterful songwriting. Author Mark Eglinton uses exclusive, firsthand interviews—with prominent rock stars and key figures in Hetfield’s life—to construct the definitive account of Hetfield.

There are many problems with this book. If it is a definitive account of Hetfield, it’s because there’s not a lot of competition. The firsthand interviews seem to be with people who knew Hetfield in school or shortly thereafter — or friends of former bandmates. For insights from people closer to him, Eglinton seems to rely on interviews published in magazines or done on TV or in a documentary. I could be wrong about that — there might be more original research performed by him, but given the utter lack of citation, it’s hard to say for sure.

This book is primarily about Hetfield’s professional life, following the account of Hetfield’s mother’s death, we maybe get two full paragraphs (scattered over chapters) about Hetfield’s family (but repeated statements that family is the most important thing to Hetfield), and his friendships outside the band aren’t given much more space.

Rather than a biography of James Hetfield, this comes across as the story of Metallica with a focus on the input, influence, and antics of Hetfield. With a special emphasis on glorying in the music and lyrics of the albums leading up to Metallica/The Black Album, and in denigrating everything from Load through the build-up for the release of Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, which wasn’t released in time for him to come up with a strong opinion about (with some okay words directed to the documentaries and films produced in that time).

It’s clear that Eglinton was a fan of early Metallica, and has a wide appreciation for and knowledge of the metal scene. He has the knowledge base and the passion to produce a strong book about the band — but he seems to lack the ability to focus on the life of one man. Somehow, the author wrote a similar looking book, James Hetfield: The Wolf at Metallica’s Door, seven years earlier than this — and it was longer. I’m not sure how he pulled that off — my guess is more analysis of the contents of albums and/or his estimation of their worth. I’m curious about the differences between the two, but not enough to put up with reading it to compare.

James Hetfield is a deeply flawed, incredibly talented, and interesting figure. A biography of him should be intrinsically and automatically fascinating, and it takes a certain kind of author to take that potential and turn it into a disappointment. Sadly, Eglinton is just that kind of author.

Don’t bother.

—–

2 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

✔ Read a memoir or biography of a musician you like.