Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Favorite Band Does Not Exist by Robert T. Jeschonek

My first word of warning to anybody who is interested in buying the eBook version of My Favorite Band Does Not Exist: there are numerous instances where the book shifts to a "book within a book" that is presented in semi-graphic form with dog-eared pages and fancy fonts. Clicking through these sections of the eBook seems to slow the loading something fierce, to the point you might think there's something wrong with your reader or the eBook file. I opened the file in two separate eReaders and encountered the same issue, and I have to admit that waiting for pages to load proved irritating. I promise, though, the following review doesn't take that into account - I just note it here for the reader to be warned should anyone decide to buy e.

My Favorite Band Does Not Exist seeks to convey an adventurous spirit that takes readers on, literally, a whirlwind tour - imagine the Beatles' bubblegum tour bus and its passengers compressed into a paranoid teenager and his flight companion, then hold a mirror to the result for a parallel story. Idea Deity is on a mission to save his parents from going through with a public suicide pact to preserve and promote the cult movement they have founded. While Vengeful and Loving Deity (and these are perhaps the tamest of the names bestowed upon this book's characters) are measuring potions or knife lengths on the other side of the country, Idea has hooked up with the bubbly Eunice who assists in keeping him hidden from the Deitys' toughs. Slipping under their radar might be easier to do if Idea weren't already preoccupied with the plan he's set in place to upstage media attention the suicide might receive: he's fabricated a rock group with a viral following for which Lady Gaga would give up her meat bra, and Youforia has left Bic lighters aglow from sea to sea. This is despite having never cut an album, played live, or existing.

Cut to Reacher Mirage, who would argue the point of Youforia's existence. His band rehearses in secret, travels incognito, and deflects pressure placed upon him by management and band mates to do something besides nothing. It's when Reacher gets wind of website updates made without his knowledge and songs leaked through "YoFace" and other aptly named social media sites that he suspects something he's apt to fear more than playing in public.

Meanwhile, Idea can't understand why people are scalping tickets and making money off a band that exists only in his mind, crammed in his conscious along with the belief that he is a literal Truman Show - a character in a book set to die in Chapter 64. Certainly it's not the same book he's carried around on his quest: Fireskull's Reverent, a hefty tome that also has Reacher turning pages. Suddenly any determination to save his parents is forgotten as Idea and Eunice detour to track down those profiting from Youforia's, er, presence.

When realities and fiction collide, one would think things start to make sense, yet in reading My Favorite Band Does Not Exist I find the narrative off-putting and at times frustrating. Whether the saturation of odd character names (Wicked Livenbladder comes to mind) are there as some satirical commentary on goofy names dreamed up in typical YA fantasy I can not say, but having to take it all in - while juggling three parallel universes within the book - left me weary. There is a good germ of a story here, but one may end up re-reading chapters and passages to make it come together. I would dare suggest having too much of the novel within the novel made it difficult for me to follow the complete story - it's like David Lynch remade A Hard Day's Night.

As an adult reading this book, I may also concede a younger reader - the target audience of this book - will have little problem getting through the story and enjoy the irreverent humor and moments of slapstick. My Favorite Band reads like an acid trip Saturday morning cartoon, and though I don't consider a book like this my cup of tea I wouldn't mind mixing some that drug in with it.

Rating: C-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter by Randy L. Schmidt

Once upon a time, deep in my classic rock phase, my then boyfriend remarked that everybody has that one musical guilty pleasure they tend to hide from view, lest friends and family find a reason to mock that appreciation. He smiled slyly at me and guessed I probably had a Madonna album sandwiched between my Beatles and Doors collection (I did), but it never occurred to me that Madonna probably had a few Carpenters vinyl platters hidden away somewhere. Little Girl Blue, Randy L. Schmidt's look into the life of this tragic legend, intimates that Karen can count some of music's trend-setters as fans, and that's okay.

Repeat after me: it is okay to admit you like, even love, The Carpenters' music. Karen seemed to have held no shame in her role as a performer, and while reading Little Girl Blue (AMZ) I became more endeared to the woman behind the songs, even though I would still consider myself a casual listener. When The Carpenters enjoyed their peak recording and charting period, I was not likely representative of their audience demographic. By the time I developed an appreciation for popular music, it was all Duran Duran and MTV when The Carpenters would have been relegated to the easy-listening VH1 for moms and dads (you have to remember, this was way before VH1 essentially became MTV and MTV moved to Jersey). Nonetheless, when Karen died in 1983 I knew she was significant, and I watched the subsequent TV movie about her life. Blue reads somewhat like an extended version of that film, and it would appear both had been conceived under similar circumstances.

In fact, Schmidt begins Blue with a short history of the movie, and how the creators met with roadblocks in the form of Karen's family, who stood protective of Karen's image and history - reading the rest of the book and the treatment Karen endured, a bystander might view these actions as attempts by the family to protect themselves. In the early passages of the book it's revealed that mother Agnes is adamant that she did not kill Karen, and already you get the sense that you're about to read 300 pages of familial discord.

Oddly enough, it's almost happy discord. Despite having no support from the Carpenter family on this project (the parents have since passed, Richard Carpenter refused to help and Karen's husband is legally prohibited from participating), Schmidt manages to fill a book through interviews with close friends and associates and archived interviews given by The Carpenters. What we learn is really nothing one could not glean from the TV-movie: every move the family made served to help Richard's musical career. Mother Agnes acted as the driving force to ensure Richard's fame, leaving Karen literally to beg for a chance to participate. Her taking up the drums allowed her to share this family dream and stay in the background, but this posed a few problems in the plan. For one, Karen was quite good at it:

 For two, when Richard's band moved from jazz instrumentals to vocal compositions, the world discovered Karen's other talent, which is more synonymous with the group's sound than her drumming. Little Girl Blue records the group's career with care, detailing recording sessions and tours and interspersed romances Karen found difficult to maintain - the theme of Karen yearning to be loved intimately pervades the book as we read of her mother's distant affection and husband Tom's love for her money. The more you read, the more you definitely sympathize for Karen.

Of course, her eating disorder is covered, but unlike the movie which implies Karen's battle with anorexia began following a critical review of her looks after a performance (the article in question was later revealed to have been fabricated for the film) the book doesn't really pinpoint whether or not her anorexia and career pressures were related. It is possible, for even today actresses and performers are held to observe unreal standards for the sake of beauty, and unfortunately Karen could not be helped - as friends and family did seek to get her to eat and take better care of herself, what she did when backs were turned proved too deadly to reverse. As with many biographies I read here, general reviews are mixed.

Does Little Girl Blue do Karen justice? I think Schmidt did the best he could with what he had - some may argue that the absence of family involvement gives this book credibility, that at least nobody has tried to sugarcoat Karen's story or disavow her personal pain. I found the story interesting but not wholly engaging - there were times I put the book down and left it for days while I did other things, I didn't feel compelled to finish it in one sitting. As an addition to Carpenters lore it provides a more accurate picture than the film, yet reads dry in parts and falls short of the same level of enthrallment that drew fans to Karen. Of course, it's difficult to compete with something like that.

4/25 update: Since posting this review, I have since gone back and sought out the Karen Carpenter TV movie, which is available for viewing via YouTube. If I have intimated that this book parallels the film, I should stand corrected in parts. One glaring item I notice in the movie is the implication that Karen bore the brunt of the disintegration of her marriage, almost to the point that it was her fault entirely. The book relays the exact opposite. Also, very little is mentioned of Karen's efforts to produce a solo album - in the movie, it's portrayed as an idea that Richard quickly dismisses.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively misses the 70s.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nowhere Man - Jordan Riley

Update, 2/12/12: I received a comment that the author of this work is Jordan Riley, not Scott Cardinal as previously posted. Since the copy on my Kindle app denotes Scott Cardinal as the author (happy to provide screen shots as proof), I'm leaving the review as is but noting here that this book is currently available by Jordan Riley. I do not know why the author's name changed on the book.

When you hear the words "Beatles" and "conspiracy" in the same breath, more than likely the next words that come to mind are "Paul is Dead." As a mystery lover, conspiracy theories tend to fall under that umbrella for me, and I'll admit I've enjoyed searching for faux Paul clues on the Beatles LPs I still have in the basement. Recently I watched a "documentary" called Paul McCartney Really is Dead, which displays the more obvious clues (and plenty of obscure, reaching ones) with nifty animated effects while an actor badly impersonating George Harrison explains each one. Whether the film was purposely filmed to present this oft-told legend in a cheesy, laughable manner is up for debate, but since I began this blog I have renewed my interest in Beatles lore. A search on to burn my remaining gift card credit landed on the sale page of a story with an interesting premise: the conspiracy to kill John Lennon.

I am sure there are people out there who insist Chapman did not act alone, and that Lennon's death was engineered by the US Government to quiet his activist ways. After reading the description of this short, I decided to take a chance on this view of this tragic moment in history. The low price point (the eBook sells for 99 cents) was a factor as well, though now I must admit this story might be overpriced.

Nowhere Man opens in a dark cell where two men - Robert and Drew - are held captive by unknown forces for unknown reasons. While the narrative provides a vivid sense of place, the author's decision to use an omniscient, present tense point of view frustrated me. This is a matter of personal preference - I'm not fond of this particular POV - yet I continued to read through one character's puzzling soliloquy on life and death until a third character appeared to set the story into action.

Brooke is young and naturally frightened, and suffering memory loss. She has no idea why she is imprisoned, and her cellmates (apparently jaded after their own lengthy tenures) provide little comfort. She is suspected of being a spy sent in to coerce secrets from the men. One man calls her a "cold-hearted wench" (huh?), while the other drops hints of his association with the Beatles.

This pretty much set the tone for two-thirds of the book. The hysterical Brooke screams and claws for a way out, while her companions tease and drop Fab references that don't gel with the story. After reading several pages of this, I start to wonder if the Beatles factor into the story at all, and it isn't until the last several pages where Drew finally reveals his connection to Brooke in a conversation that appears sorely out of place. The story's conclusion proves more confusing - the abrupt ending left me wondering if this poor girl had been punked.

One reason I believe Nowhere Man doesn't work is because it literally goes nowhere. The only interesting part of the story happens by way of hearsay. Had the author endeavored to write a story with Lennon as an actual character, taking part in the events that shaped this conspiracy, he might have had a more interesting story. As written, we leave with more questions, none of them answered.

The Beatles are no strangers to fiction. There are many novels based on their lives, some of which will be reviewed here, but if you are a fan thinking Nowhere Man brings something of relevance to the genre I think you will be disappointed.

Rating - F

Monday, April 4, 2011

Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock - Sammy Hagar

Buy Red at Amazon.

I didn't discover Van Halen until their 1984 album, and I have television to thank for that. I don't have an older brother who might have introduced me to many of these hard-rocking late 70s groups (as a number of my junior-high classmates did), so I had to rely upon the pre-Jersey Shore MTV to broaden my musical horizons. It helped, too, that during this time our cable system also came with WGN in Chicago, and "Jump" had been the unofficial theme of the Cubs. That summer I asked my conservative Catholic parents for a copy of 1984 for my birthday, and to my surprise I got it... and I actually played the whole thing for my dad because he wanted to hear that song. This may not seem odd to you, but in my house this defined surreal - the Cubs on mute while I sat in the living room with my 48-year-old, Eucharistic minister father blasting "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher" on the stereo.

During this time I had a vague idea of who Sammy Hagar was. "I Can't Drive 55" had come out then, and before that he had another song that enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV, called "Three Lock Box," which I - deep in my British 80s group phase - didn't care for:

This wasn't even the hit off that album, and I swear it's all I saw when I turned on the TV.

So when I hear that David Lee Roth left Van Halen and Sammy had been tapped to replace him, like many people I found that odd. It isn't common for a singer with an established solo career to join an established band, but after reading Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock you'll come to find that Hagar doesn't particularly embrace common. I recall wondering about Van Halen's future given the lineup change, but one day during my sophomore year I arrived at school to find half the student body wearing the 5150 tour shirt purchased from the concert at Jacksonville Coliseum the previous weekend. On the back in bold: VAN HALEN KICKS ASS.

Well, that answered that.

What inspired me to pick up Red, however, was not a fervent admiration of Van Halen. To this day 1984 is the only album I have of theirs, though when I married I inherited more - all Roth-era. Hubby will listen to solo Hagar and his stuff with the Cabos, but still resists "Van Hagar" for some reason. I don't ask why.

Being the avid Rush fan, I was more interested in Hagar's perspective with regards to dealing with Ray Danniels, brought in to manage the group following the death of their previous handler. Danniels has also managed Rush since the beginning of their career, along with a few other groups of fleeting significance. I had known for a while that there is no love lost between the two, but I figured reading Red might enlighten me further. Now, if you are a Rush fan thinking the same thing, I'll warn you that this part of Hagar's history doesn't appear until very late in the book. The singer's life from birth to that point, luckily, does keep you entertained.

Be ready to read closely, too, for Red comes off like a long, rambling conversation in a bar, with Hagar holding court. Everything from his poorer than dirt childhood in Fontana, California to his rocky relationships with his first wife, his Montrose bandmates, and later on the Van Halen brothers, is relayed in choppy sentences that read as though they've been arranged one way then another to make sure the story comes out right. There are moments in Red where Hagar seems to skip like a record, and you'll suspect contradictions. He does drugs, he quits. He's offered drugs and swears he's not interested, yet chapters later he's describing doing blow with This Rock Star and That Chick. That sort of thing.

As a "juicy" rock tell-all, Red has its moments, and you may come away with the idea that Hagar has a high opinion of himself as compared to others (definitely where David Lee Roth is concerned). He is confident, yes, and business savvy and quasi-spiritual - but you don't get the sense that he feels entitled to his success. From the stories he shares, it's clear he's worked his ass off to earn everything he has, and stands today as perhaps one of the best examples of the old school musicians who didn't sit around and wait for things to happen. In an age where somebody achieves instant fame through a fluke viral video (is it "Friday" yet?), one can appreciate a guy like Hagar.

The Van Halen brothers may be the only exception.

Rating - B- / C+ (Waffled on this - there is a good story here, but some may find the rough narrative jarring.)

Kathryn Lively has not seen any incarnation of Van Halen live. Sucks.