Wednesday, May 25, 2011

FM for Murder by Patricia Rockwell

Recently I went on a book-buying tear at Amazon to burn down some gift card credit. Part of my goal was to stock up on some less expensive titles - given the recent boom of 99 cent eBooks, I thought surely I'd find some titles relevant to this blog. FM for Murder, part of a series starring an acoustics expert, held an interesting premise, and a good price.

Bear in mind, this is the second book in a series, so if you are the anal retentive sort who must start with A before going to B you may wish to see what else Rockwell has to offer. This book, FWIW, is written in a manner that doesn't give away anything important from its predecessor. That's a good thing in terms of spoilers, and to give Rockwell credit I didn't feel lost due to any inside references.

Getting to the story: the Black Vulture is, rather was, a popular local DJ who held court during a late-night shift of alternative rock and songs for the goth/emo set. His on-air murder sets off a ripple of shock and concern among fans, but for college professor Pamela Barnes the event rekindles her sleuthing desires. Not that she takes charge immediately - local authorities call on her expertise in sound recordings and voice to assist with digging up clues, and we find out quickly that her family is none too pleased with this moonlighting.

Meanwhile, a subplot involving Daniel Bridgewater, heir to a carpet manufacturing company a few hours away, takes the reader slowly through a familial conflict veiled in secrets. Desperate to mend ties between his ailing father and prodigal brother, Daniel tracks down the elusive David to discover a reunion is inevitable, but not in the way he expects. To go further into detail would give away too much of the story, so I will just say that Rockwell brings together both story lines the way one would slowly pull on a zipper. The lives affected do not cross so much as meet together at the right time for a resolution.

I personally would not consider FM for Murder a mystery in the traditional sense. The book is presented more like a crime drama, where the pieces gradually come together. You may get a sense of where the story is going as you read - I got to a certain point and figured out much of the revelations before they happened. Still, it didn't diminish what I enjoyed of the book - mainly Pamela's sleuthing. A sub-plot involving a co-worker's pending marriage - while likely used to shape Pamela's workplace and expand on characterization - didn't catch my interest as much. I felt that space could have better served in Pamela's corner.

As a quick read for a good price, however, FM for Murder just may satisfy readers of suspense.

Rating: B-

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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Good Rockin' Tonight by Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins

When I received the galley for the revised edition of Good Rockin' Tonight, my knowledge of Sun Records was minimal - I knew basically that it existed. I had known some of the legends of early rock and roll cut records with the label - Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy - but I hadn't realized the richness of the label's history before now. While reading this book, what grabbed me the most was the sheer amount of minor record labels active in the 50's and 60's, and the preference of cutting singles as opposed to whole albums since one was likely to find more profit - a practice one sees now with iTunes, where one can buy individual songs.

I can remember, as a child, sifting through stacks of 45 RPM discs my parents had collected over the years. There may have been a Sun or two in the mix, but I recall quite a variety - Dot, Decca, Buddha, Stax...the music business doesn't appear that different from publishing, particularly in this time of transition. It is interesting to note how some labels operated to serve a specific market (in Sun's case, the South - perfecting what became known as the "Memphis Sound") and gain a following before broadening their reach. This makes sense when you think about it - popular music variety shows like American Bandstand and the Grand Ole Opry had roots in localized followings before expanding. Rockin' touches on the Sun Records connection to these national outlets, in particular with their more prominent artists.
When the original Sun studio opened, it had originally served as a place for musicians and organizations to make use of the equipment until it was realized that money could be made representing and distributing artists. Rockin' goes on to break down, chapter by chapter, the many relationships Sun and Phillips enjoyed with various artists and architects of R&B, rockabilly, and early rock and roll. The Sun histories of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison - some of them so brief - are recorded with academic detail and very little gossip. Though it's not revealed directly, as you run down the list of songs recorded and released by Sun you realize the butterfly effect Phillips had on rock and roll - one can argue that if not for the Sun discs making the rounds in the UK, where American artists of this period were quite popular, The Beatles may not have come into existence (indeed, check the Fabs' earlier albums for their covers of some of Perkins' Sun songs.).

Probably the juiciest tabloid-esque bits one can expect to find are Lewis's exploits, mainly because they resulted in nearly damaging his career while with Sun. Given the same amount of play here, though on the radio it was a different story, are the careers of second and third-tier artists like Charlie Rich, Malcolm Yelvington, Warren Smith, Billy Riley. You might not know the names, but perhaps if you had parents like mine who held a wealth of records you may recognize the music - a thorough appendix of Sun recordings at the end of the book provides the information you need to educate yourself.

A friend who has also read and enjoyed this book noted his amazement that Phillips not only had so much talent in his stable, but seemed to willingly let it go. The passages on Johnny Cash support this - one reads this entire book and wonders how a man of such innovation, who once had the organization so many others imitated, didn't seem perceptive enough to know he should hang on to the likes of Presley and Cash. Would Sun have survived the changing landscape of music in the 1960s if Phillips had been more aggressive in keeping certain artists? We can only guess at what might have been, but we do know the legacy left by one of the more influential independent labels in music history, and thanks to this book we know so much more.

Rating: A

(Book provided by publisher via NetGalley)

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

Sunday, May 1, 2011

John by Cynthia Lennon - Review

Not long before John Lennon's death, his first wife Cynthia published a memoir of their marriage called A Twist of Lennon, now out of print. The title provides more than one play on words - Cynthia had been married to her third husband John Twist at the time - and late in her most recent work John she admits that the first memoir wasn't wholly her idea. Strapped for cash, and pressured by Twist, she penned the tell-all much to John and Yoko's consternation. This might explain why Cynthia decided to re-tell her story rather than heavily revise Twist and resurrect that work in a time when many authors' back lists are enjoying new life in the Kindle age.

I also gathered toward the end of John that money is not a motive for this work, but rather a desire to contribute to the Lennon legend - that its publication nearly coincided with a Lennon milestone (the 25th anniversary of his death) shouldn't be lost on anybody, either. Yet, though she and John divorced, her perspective is certainly no less important than that of any other woman involved with the band.

As I look over comments on Lennon where his personal life was concerned, I definitely see split camps of opinion on Yoko Ono. You love her or you despise her - middle ground simply doesn't exist there. Regarding Cynthia, I had expected to find more sympathy than indifference towards her among Beatles fans, yet it surprised me to find Cynthia is not without her detractors. Some reviews on the book's page accuse the first Mrs. Lennon of repeating motives with her previous book - a money grab and an opportunity to complain. Having finished Patti Boyd's memoir (reviewed here) I thought it worthwhile to see Beatle history from another woman's angle.

Reading John, you essentially get as much of that as you did from Wonderful Tonight, which isn't what most fans would call definitive. John opens at the moment news breaks of Lennon's death. Cynthia, already stressed from yet another failing marriage and the pressures of running a business, is naturally devastated. Despite their distance and rare instances of communication, her love for this difficult man remains, as well as the link shared in their son. It's from this tragic moment that Cynthia segues into her earlier life with Lennon, which encouraged me as a reader because I had hoped not to turn a page to find the same Beatles story I've read in so many books. Yet when the story veered off tangent to Cynthia's pre-John years I felt disappointed. Bear in mind, it isn't because I'm not interested in Mrs. Lennon's early life, but as the book is named John I wanted the author not to lose focus.

We are introduced to early supporting players in the Beatles story, yet few receive as much page time as John's Aunt Mimi, with whom Cynthia had a tense, if not borderline civil, relationship. The picture painted here of John's foster parent reveals a bitter woman unmoved by any of Lennon's triumphs and perhaps jealous of Cynthia's presence - Kristin Scott-Thomas's portrayal of Mimi in Nowhere Boy seems much softer by comparison.

The early years are marked by Cynthia's memories of unjustified scorn and resentment - fans hated her because she had what they wanted, John was likely unfaithful in Hamburg, and Brian Epstein didn't want the world to know she existed. Mrs. Lennon does point out, however, that she never perceived Lennon felt trapped into marriage by her pregnancy. They never used protection, she writes, it wasn't something you did. As implied by her writings, a woman standing up for herself when she feels wronged is also on that list.

We are led through the early sixties with Cynthia in a state of stoic acceptance, not really showing strong emotion in the book until Yoko appears. By this time, however, it seems too late to take a stand, and the remainder of the memoir plays out in a tortured denouement, with Cynthia now reporting from the sidelines as she recalls her post-John life in a series of strained communications with her ex, bad relationship choices, and frustration over John's neglect of his oldest son. In writing about Julian's visits to the Dakota in John's lifetime, there are attempts to dispel the myth of Lennon's bread-baking househusband image. To be fair, harsher biographers of Lennon have noted discrepancies as well.

What I find most interesting about this book is that while John's friend "Magic" Alex Madras is mentioned, Cynthia downplays her involvement with him. Other books on the Beatles have claimed Cynthia and Alex had a fling after the Lennons' breakup, yet John denies the notion - Cynthia charges Alex sought to seduce her to give John ammunition during divorce proceedings, and she didn't play along. She doesn't outright say there was no sexual relationship, but it is curious to read in light of how this period is captured in other books.

I wanted to like John, and I had expected to see an ugly side of the former Beatle people want to remember for his music and peace activism. No man is without sin, and even the most revered of heroes carry the burden of being human. What I take away most from Cynthia's book is her insistence that John did love her, and a shocking final line that turns the entire book into a tale of regret. Mrs. Lennon's claim that John's method of dealing with difficult situations by simply cutting off contact with people and moving forward is a common theme throughout the book, and her concluding remarks imply she can't quite do the same.

I suppose, as fans, neither can we.

Rating: C+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who loves to read.