Category: review

Review: Stephen Baxter, The Wheel Of Ice

Usually, fans have to be wildly optimistic, if not delusional, to expect quality literature from a line of authorized tie-in novels to a science-fiction TV series. But in recent years, the editors behind the Doctor Who books have been making an effort to overcome skeptics by snaring acclaimed science-fiction authors like Michael Moorcock, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter to put their own stamp on the adventures of the time-traveling vagabond. Baxter tells a new story about an old Doctor with The Wheel Of Ice, which features Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor in an adventure set during the TV show’s sixth season, in 1969.

Baxter earned his reputation for the rigorously constructed hard-SF Xeelee Sequence books, but he’s no stranger to happily jumping on someone else’s train—besides his recent collaboration with Terry Pratchett on The Long Earth, he’s written an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and co-authored a trilogy set after 2001: A Space Odyssey with Arthur C. Clarke. Baxter takes the TARDIS controls with similar respect for the original source material, which is one of The Wheel Of Ice’s chief strengths. Troughton was Baxter’s childhood Doctor, and Baxter’s enthusiasm for the era is palpable. The book fits his serious approach to emphasizing the science in “science fiction” particularly well—although the Second Doctor era was hardly rigorous about that sort of thing, its enthusiasm for futuristic ideas like space travel was based in part on the idea that someday, humanity’s real future might look like the one it was showing us. Baxter’s Xeelee stories are filled with well-thought-out, sometimes arcane explorations of astrophysics and xenobiology, and although he tones that down to a less mind-bending degree with Wheel, it’s good to see some thought put into Doctor Who’s alien worlds beyond the superficial, timey-wimey, hand-waving level the series often settles for.

Wheel hits the ground running with an engaging, breezy first half, as the Doctor investigates an enigmatic, dangerous hole in time near the Wheel, a mining base orbiting Saturn. In spite of the exotic setting, his Companions Zoe Heriot and Jamie McCrimmon quickly feel at home—the former because she grew up on a similar space station and the Wheel is actually part of her own history, and the latter because the Wheel is populated by Scots like himself, with whom he feels a strong camaraderie, even though they were born hundreds of years after he was. But all is not well. The harsh conditions on Saturn are made worse by the profit-motivated tyranny of the Wheel’s corporate masters. That, in turn, is causing grumblings of revolt from the station’s young people and working poor, along with mysterious, deadly acts of sabotage. In classic Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor and friends are falsely accused of the crimes upon their arrival, and must find the real culprits: android-like “Blue Dolls” who serve the same alien entity responsible for the hole in time. That being, called Arkive, is older than the solar system, and aches for the days of its youth in a way that’s more than a little insane, not to mention hostile toward the unsuspecting humans it thinks of as usurpers.

Baxter nails one of the basic elements of any book like this one, capturing the voices of his three main characters with such precision that Troughton is almost audible in the Doctor’s lines. Baxter is especially good at seeing through Zoe and Jamie’s perspectives, going beyond using them as placeholder heroes, and getting at what makes them tick. Jamie’s rugged heroism and desire to protect people comes to the fore when he shepherds a group of young rebels who flee to a nearby ice moon. And Zoe has to confront the unsavory side of her own history as she learns that her own advanced civilization was founded on the near-slavery conditions on the Wheel. Baxter has mixed success with his secondary characters, creating a compellingly well-rounded portrait of a family divided by the growing political revolt, but an annoyingly one-dimensional shrew in the book’s main human antagonist, Florian Hart, a corporate greedmonger oozing with angry contempt.

Still, the first half of Wheel Of Ice is tremendously promising, setting up a smart, engaging mystery that feels like a genuine artifact of 1969 Doctor Who. That only makes it more frustrating that the second half is botched so badly by an underwhelming finale. Baxter seems to lose interest entirely in Arkive’s aeons-long scheme in favor of a hackneyed confrontation with Hart involving some truly hoary clichéconcerning a ticking time bomb and the color of the wire that should be cut to defuse it. Worse, genius-astrophysicist Zoe has no part in the resolution; Baxter sidelines her so she can babysit a 3-year-old. It’s a disappointing fumble to an otherwise satisfying read.

Originally published Jan. 14, 2013 on Read the complete article.

Review: Gareth Roberts/Douglas Adams, Shada

Charles Dickens has The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Bruce Lee has Game Of Death. And for Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, the great unfinished story is Shada. A six-part serial scripted by the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy author while he was screenplay editor for the venerable science-fiction TV series in 1980, Shada was meant to be the grand finale of Doctor Who’s 17th season, but strikes at the BBC halted filming halfway through, and scuttled the story. Since then, it’s grown to mythological proportions in its own absence, with a reputation as a tantalizingly incomplete fragment of unfulfilled potential.

Like a ghost, Shada has refused to stay quietly dead, popping up in fragmentary or much-reworked versions over the years. Most famously, clips of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in character as the time-traveling Fourth Doctor and his companion Romana were used in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” and in 1992, Baker provided linking narration when the surviving footage was released on video. In 2003, Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor in a rewritten, partly animated audio version.

Adams himself cannibalized Shada for his 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, after which he washed his hands of it, saying the episode was “not that great” and refusing to put his name on the video release, which he claimed had been authorized by mistake. (“Whoever it was had forgotten that I wanted Shada sat on.”) His sudden death in 2001 sunk any lingering hope that he might eventually write a proper novel version, and it became, instead, unique among Doctor Who’s sizable array of missing adventures, as the only one from a writer of Douglas’ caliber not at least available as a novelization.

Now Shada is back in another regeneration, as a novel authorized by Adams’ estate and penned by Gareth Roberts, a frequent writer for the current TV series. It’s a respectful, even loving adaptation of the original scripts, and Roberts takes pains to try to recreate the spirit of the Adams era of Doctor Who, when it was often something like a cosmic screwball comedy. And other than fleshing out the underwritten side characters, he sticks very closely to Adams’ plot, which—ironically enough—revolves around a lost book.

Originally published June 25, 2012 on Read the complete article.

A guide to the 2012 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival

Sure, taking a trip around the world sounds awesome, but there are also many potential hassles: losing your passport, drinking strange water, and maybe even being kidnapped by pirates. Better to let the world come to you, as it does every spring with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, an always-reliable showcase of not-often-seen indie films and foreign cinematic gems. Opening with the hit French buddy comedy The Intouchables on April 12, the festival will show more than 250 films from 60 countries through May 3. The festival will also offer plenty of chances to hobnob with visiting filmmakers at screenings, parties, and other events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the fest’s parent organization, the Film Society Of Minneapolis-St. Paul. All films screen at the St. Anthony Main Theatre; for a complete, up-to-date schedule, visit the festival’s website at Here’s a taste of what this year’s festival has to offer.

Originally published April 11, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself

Andrew Bird’s songwriting approach is seemingly paradoxical, at once highly improvisational and long-simmering, with material sometimes taking years to finally gel together. The results are familiar to anyone who’s followed his string of breezily baroque albums over the last decade, full of virtuosic and engaging inter-weavings of melodies and loops spun from violin, whistling, guitar, and Bird’s warbling tenor. While his songs are elegantly crafted and artfully arranged, he’s careful not to lose the sense that music is about creating a space to explore, to wander through and maybe even get lost in. That’s certainly the case with his sixth solo album, Break It Yourself.

Working with his longtime, improv-friendly backing band of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Mike Lewis, Bird recorded Break It Yourself in a loose-knit weeklong session at his barn outside of Chicago, capturing the performances largely live. The approach pays dividends in creating an off-the-cuff atmosphere for songs that have probably been honed and re-imagined frequently, often making Break It Yourself feel as if it’s being created on the spot.

It’s extraordinarily intimate at times, especially given the overarching theme of heartbreak and broken connections that suffuses the album. Which is not to say that Break It Yourself is ever nakedly and painfully personal. That is simply not Bird’s style, and even when his lyrics veer toward the confessional, they’re couched inside oblique and ambivalently calm language. “Lazy Projector” spins out a metaphor on the untrustworthiness of memory as the deliberately crafted fiction of a movie, edited and recast to smooth out the sharp edges of truth, before finally throwing in a direct statement: “I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all.” From such a normally reserved songwriter, the line explodes like a depth charge.

On “Lusitania,” Bird turns to maritime war history—the ship sinkings that helped launch the U.S. into two wars—for another metaphor on a destroyed relationship, but shifts both mood and metaphor with a gently lilting guest vocal from St. Vincent’s Annie Clark nicely underplaying a verse about the electricity of a new connection. It’s indicative of a beautifully free-flowing set of tunes that soar and waft like a flock of starlings, building to a quietly epic mood that is too ruminative and introspective to suffer from grandiosity.

Originally published March 7, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: The Small Cities, “With Fire”

The Small Cities’ guitarist Leif Bjornson and drummer David Osborn (who also split vocals and lyric-writing duties) grew up together in small-town Wisconsin, playing in high school bands before eventually splitting up for college and reuniting again in the Twin Cities. They haven’t lost touch with their rural roots, though—it’s right there in their band name, after all—and the wistful, melodic musings on With Fire are inspired in no small part by those earlier days. It’s an album that is consumed by the idea of memory, and perhaps its greatest strength is the band’s assured sense of storytelling, confessional and novelistic by turns, about the way the past informs the present for both good and bad. “Wonder Years” looks back at the awkward but thrilling days of teen romance, making mix-tapes and enduring the distrusting scrutiny of fathers before taking a girl out on a date, and discovering that love, whatever else it might be good for, is also a gateway to a larger world than you knew existed: “We were young and we would find to lose our hearts was to lose our minds—and our parents fell so far behind.”

The other main thread weaving its way through With Fire is religion—specifically, coming to terms with an upbringing you grow to disagree with, and trying to find a path for yourself that makes sense to you. “Abraham” describes a childhood grounded in tradition that’s both comforting (“in my father’s house / I knew my north from my south”) and toxic in its terrifying fear of the Rapture, the “fire” of the album title, winding up with a regretful head-shaking at “all the wasted days praying the Lord would change my ways.” Heavy stuff, but it’s also catchy enough to sing along to, buoyed by a jaunty guitar line and a driving, handclap-assisted rhythm that drives home what’s ultimately a joyful statement—hey, we’re not all going to die! “Wise Blood” picks up the theme again, with understated and deftly drawn imagery of wine as both religious sacrament and symbol of the loss of innocence in the line “spilled blood of Christ on your Easter dress.”

That energy simmers throughout the album, particularly in its first half, typified by “Laughter Song,” which shares a sense of wonder at the still-unblemished happiness of a newborn. But With Fire often hits hardest on the slow burners like the melancholy “Hospitals,” which goes for the emotional jugular with a story about a father still devastated more than a decade after the death of his son: “I think of him every time I see a child / and I lose track of myself sometimes / my mind goes running wild.”

Like their musical forebears Low, Radiohead, and Pedro The Lion, there’s a churning emotionality woven through The Small Cities’ earnest indie rock, a marbled texture of sadness and, more strongly, optimism—and it’s the latter that seems to truly define what The Small Cities are at their core.

Originally published March 2, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: Howler, America Give Up

Although the title of Minneapolis quintet Howler’s debut full-length suggests weary resignation, America Give Up practically glows with youthful energy. Frontman and songwriter Jordan Gatesmith hasn’t even turned 20 yet, and America steamrolls through its 32 minutes with a brash and undeniably exhilarating vitality. Howler’s buzz-creating EP from 2011, This One’s Different, created a huge wave of next-big-thingitude in England, where raves from NME led to a tour slot opening for The Vaccines and a deal with legendary U.K. label Rough Trade. Which almost certainly means a backlash is coming in six months or so, but until then (and even afterwards) America has plenty worth enjoying.

Comparisons to The Strokes have been flung at Howler repeatedly, enthusiastically, and accurately, though it’s fair to note that Howler reaches deeper into the past for its influences, snaring the good bits of high-energy punk guitar combos like The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Buzzcocks, and ultimately drawing from the old-school rock rebels of the ’50s. Which is ultimately both the most endearing thing about Howler and the precisely defined shape of the space it’s boxed itself into. The surf-punky “Beach Sluts” could be a lost Ramones B-side, both for its rough-edged, infectious garage-rock enthusiasm and its inescapable shallowness.

If the members of Howler seem less interested in breaking out of that mold than enthusiastically reveling in it, who can blame them? They’re young, and they have plenty of time to develop a voice that transcends as well as recapitulates their influences. Whether they can do that is a question for the band’s second album—America Give Up is about woo-oo-oo choruses and fuzz-laden, spiky guitar chords, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Originally published Jan. 17 on Read the complete article.

Review: Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 3

As new local traditions go, few could be better or more welcome than the Minnesota Beatle Project, now in its third year of collecting Fab Four covers to raise money for music and art education. As on previous editions, Vol. 3 is heavy on rootsy folk-rockers and indie bands, with a notable absence of hip-hop. But if the roster could’ve been more comprehensive, the album doesn’t lack for passion, joy, and listenability.

Beatles covers are tricky, since the original songs are both extremely well known and well played—it’s very hard to top John, Paul, George, and Ringo at their own game. Which is not to say that bands shouldn’t try, but it’s risky, and the most faithful covers on Vol. 3 don’t avoid the pitfalls. Pop-punkers Motion City Soundtrack deserve credit for recreating the gentle beauty of George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun,” but they don’t put a lot of their own stamp on it—which makes the cover pointless, because Harrison’s version isn’t exactly hard to find. The key to a great cover song is not to hit the target dead-center—that’s for tribute bands—but to make it different. One way to do that is to deliberately wrench an over-familiar song out of its original context, as Solid Gold does on a marvelously reworked version of Harrison’s “Love You To,” translating earthy, sitar-drenched psychedelia into its own icily sophisticated, synth-heavy milieu.

The rest of Vol. 3’s best songs take a simpler approach, choosing songs from the Beatles’ incredibly broad catalog that fit each band’s individual personality but allow for a little wiggle room. Cloud Cult’s version of “Help!” forefronts the pleading in John Lennon’s lyrics, highlighting Craig Minowa’s great gift of capturing emotional vulnerability in his music. Shoegaze/noise duo Red Pens find a perfect match in “Helter Skelter,” giving guitarist/vocalist Howard Hamilton a great opportunity to scream and shred. Duluth bluesman Charlie Parr’s old-school authenticity is a breath of fresh air on Paul McCartney’s “Rocky Raccoon,” and blues-punkers The 4onthefloor deliver a stomping version of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” that roars with caveman-like lustiness—which is really the only sane way to approach that particular song.

Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 3 shares its official CD-release show with Minnesota’s other great Beatle-related tradition, Curtiss A’s annual Dec. 8 John Lennon tribute at First Avenue. Bands performing include White Light Riot, Dark Dark Dark And Her Choir, and Me And My Arrow.

Originally published Dec. 5 on Read the complete article.

Review: Terry Pratchett, Snuff

British fantasy author Terry Pratchett has spent nearly his entire career writing about the Discworld, a pancake-shaped land carried on the back of a giant cosmic turtle. Over the decades, his Discworld series has blossomed from a clever Douglas Adams-style parody of the sword-and-sorcery genre into a broad-ranging social satire that uses jokes about wizards and trolls to deliver sage observations about the human experience. Snuff is the 39th installment; this incredibly long run is made more incredible by Pratchett’s consistently high level of craftsmanship and creativity, especially his clear, warmly wise, sly prose style.

Originally published Oct. 26, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Review: Lawrence Block, Getting Off

New York writer Lawrence Block is best-known these days as a master of hardboiled crime fiction, with a diverse collection of noir series characters, including alcoholic gumshoe Matt Scudder, charming thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and lonely but terminally professional hit man Keller. In his early career, though, he also wrote under a plethora of pseudonyms, including Jill Emerson, credited with seven novels of steamy lesbian erotica. He was young, he needed the work, but he wasn’t ashamed—in fact, he later republished at least one of the Emersons under his real name. Block picks up the Emerson identity again—sort of, anyway, since his own name is far larger on the cover—for Getting Off, the first hardcover published by stylish indie imprint Hard Case Crime, which specializes in classic reprints and new (but hardly virginal) works of gleefully sleazy old-school paperback pulp fiction.

Getting Off covers the same unabashedly tawdry territory as Emerson’s older oeuvre, with a twist worthy of Jim Thompson: The nymphomaniacal, blonde protagonist is also a sociopathic serial killer who drifts from town to town murdering her many men, motivated by lingering rage and abandonment issues left over from father/daughter incest that spilled over into patricide. Deceptively innocent, Kit Tolliver isn’t just a sex maniac (and remorseless knife-wielding maniac), she’s a pathological liar who changes her name and life story with unnerving ease to lull her victims. Reflecting her rootless existence, Getting Off unfolds chapter by chapter like a series of linked short stories, in each of which she meets and disposes of a new man. She’s icy and clinical about murder, but constantly overheated about sex. Aimless, she picks up some semblance of a life goal (and the novel picks up the threads of its loosely woven plot) when she realizes that of all the men she’s had, five have survived—which is unforgivably sloppy of her, and ought to be corrected.

With the same skill he’s shown in his more mainstream work, Block slowly ratchets up the intensity and violence, using each successive murder either to give a deeper glimpse into Kit’s twisted psyche, or push her one step further toward her psychotic but somehow distortedly logical goal. He also accomplishes the same trick Thompson often pulled of planting readers inside his killer’s mind just enough to understand her without sympathy, as well as Richard Stark’s trick of treating criminal behavior as just a job to be worked. And as with Thompson’s books, there’s a thick layer of dark humor bubbling throughout the swamp of Kit’s messed-up psychology—the street-smart but undereducated Kit mistakes a reference to Shakespeare’s Goneril for “gonorrhea,” and also encounters a kinky but violently untrustworthy threesome-seeking couple apparently named after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Emerson/Block writes about killing and the sex with such shameless relish that it would be foolish to even suggest this is anything but exploitative trash. Especially when the phenomenally lurid cover art so accurately reflects what happens under the dust jacket. John Waters would love this book, and would be perfect to direct any future film version. Some trash can also be high art, but Block probably isn’t even trying for anything loftier here than entertaining sleaze. But for exploitative trash, it’s excellently crafted and lean.

Originally posted on Sept. 21, 2011. Read the complete article.

Review: Ladytron, Gravity the Seducer

Like a modern-day, gender-flipped answer to Roxy Music, Liverpudlian electropop quartet Ladytron has a taste for gorgeous synthesizer melodies and a romanticism that manages to be heart-on-sleeve and icily detached at the same time. (Ladytron even winked at the influence on the cover of 2003’s Softcore Jukebox, in which co-lead singers Mira Aroyo and Helen Marnie posed in swimwear in a PG-rated nod to Roxy Music’s Country Life.) Gravity The Seducer, the band’s fifth full-length and first new album in more than three years, is more atmospheric and wistful than 2008’s Velocifero, but stays well within Ladytron’s firmly established framework of chilly but hooky baroque-pop.

Given that the catchiest song here, “Ace Of Hz,” was first released on last year’s career-retrospective Best Of 00-10, the lack of a propulsive single to match earlier gems like “Destroy Everything You Touch” and “Sugar,” as well as an overabundance of instrumentals, suggests a band that’s spinning its wheels. Still, while Gravity is a bit cold to the touch, that wintry feel is also a big part of Ladytron’s charm. The group’s love songs have always embraced metaphors suggesting a lingering fear of the inability to connect emotionally, an android-like anxiety that pops up again repeatedly on Gravity, especially on the elegantly beautiful “Mirage” and “Melting Ice.” So what if they aren’t moving forward, when holding their ground sounds this good?

Originally published Sept. 13, 2011 on Read the complete article.

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