Hanging Gardens by Classixx (Music CD)

hnaging gardensLet the hunt for the summer jams begin! From the first bubbly synth line, it’s obvious that Classixx is all about fun. Which is a good thing as some dance music can take itself way to seriously and lose the whole point. Hanging Gardens is chock full of head-nodding, car-dancing, sun-bathing cuts that plays as the perfect summer soundtrack. Breezy, atmospheric and just the right bit of glitch are the perfect cocktail for a lazy day by the pool or just-loud enough for a dance party (usually right before or after things get out of control).

While there is a definite ambient feel to the album, it hardly gets lost in vague volume swells or messy keyboard washes. The crisp production of the percussion (which ranges from shakers, to tambourines, to the ubiquitous “trance” bass drum pounding every beat) goes a long way toward creating an atmosphere that is both present yet not unobtrusive, engaging but not nagging.

While there are a few tracks that feature full vocal performances (as opposed to simple vocal samples a la “Holding On”), I don’t consider those tracks to stand out from the rest of the album. Sarah Chernoff’s vocals on  “A Stranger Love” are fine enough, even if the wispy, nebulous nature of them sounds less like a human than a really breathy robot-lady. Unfortunately, Nancy Whang’s vocal performance sound more like a bored robot, if such a thing could exist. I’ve found that bumping the track all together provides a more cohesive experience (even if the chorus to the tune is quite catchy). The album closes with the pensive “Borderline”. And while the title does evoke Madonna’s hit from the era Classixx tend to pillage at will, the low-key final track shares little with the Material Girl’s hit. And that ain’t such a bad thing.

Key tracks: Hanging Gardens, Holding On, Borderline

Listen alikes: Royksopp, Daft Punk, Purity Ring

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The Name of the World by Denis Johnson

The Name of the WorldA few years after losing his wife and daughter in an automobile accident, Michael Reed finds himself working at a university for a nameless humanities department with a specialty so vague it’s impossible to imagine what he does for income, if anything.  Not that Mr. Reed isn’t busy.  His insights into humanity’s rougher edges are realized by a relentless labor of the mind. He’s strenuously alert to the injustices of middle age, the sublime beauty of reckless youth and the absence of the two people who once defined his life.

Acute physiological awareness is something author Denis Johnson does incredibly well. In The Name of the World he offers observations so clear and precise they approach the revelatory. He’s an author I would encourage anyone to read who likes complicated characters and a fair amount of realism – he’s extraordinary.

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One Summer America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

One Summer AmericaBill Bryson’s snarky style comes through in his book, One Summer America, 1927. He makes history a lot more fun than I remembered it in school.

So many things happened that year.  There was the famous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by Charles Lindbergh, baseball’s most exciting home run hitter Babe Ruth, who was on a hitting rampage and the Mississippi River was coming out of its banks in biblical proportions. The newspapers couldn’t get enough of the murder of Albert Snyder planned by his wife Ruth and lover Judd Gray. The case was so sensational that it was later “ripped” from the headlines and was the basis for the book and movie Double Indemnity.

The above events are just a smattering of happenings mentioned in the book. Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself. We learn that in Bath, Michigan, Andrew Kehoe who was incensed about paying higher taxes blew up a grade school that killed 44 people of which 37 were grade school children. Anarchists in an organized fashion were busy planting bombs in major cities including Boston, Massachusetts. Sound familiar?

This is an entertaining and enjoyable collage of 1927 packed with many fascinating details. Aviation buffs will particularly enjoy his detailed research on the early days of avionics.

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Desert Flower: the Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie

Desert FlowerThis memoir explores the life of Waris Dirie, recognized by many for her work as a model, and by others for her advocacy for human rights and a battle against female genital mutilation. The reader follows her from her early life as a nomad in the deserts of Somalia, to her difficult and sometimes dangerous journey to Mogadishu and eventually London. Working there as an underappreciated maid for her own family, she is “discovered”, and sets off on an equally nomadic life as a model. Throughout her journey, Waris has to face the world with her own wits and tenacity. The best part of this story is how, despite the many difficulties and indignities she faces, Waris carries on with such dignity and spirit, finding beauty and gratitude all along the way. While many might value her outer beauty, it is her inner beauty and strength which shine through in this amazing story.

I enjoyed Desert Flower from start to finish. Incredible story aside, what I most enjoyed was the narration. Waris, and presumably Cathleen Miller, her cowriter, deliver her story so straightforwardly and honestly. She doesn’t hold back her opinions about even her own family members, and what she has to say is often unflattering. But you never get the sense that she is giving her opinions in order to embarrass anyone, but simply to give true expression to what she has lived through, to make the reader understand. It takes courage to write honestly, and that is what stands out most about Waris in this book – her courage.

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Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Pirate CinemaIn the very near future, Trent McCauley is a 16-year-old in northern England who makes videos by cutting, pasting, and editing movies starring a dead actor he’s obsessed with. This isn’t just a hobby of Trent’s, it’s his passion (much like writing Simon Snow fanfic is a passion for Cath in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl). But it violates copyright and pirating laws, which is why the state cuts off his family’s internet access for a year. Trent’s mother is now unable to apply for her disability benefits, his father loses his telephone support job, and his high-achieving younger sister can’t do her homework. Trent runs away from home to London, becomes a beggar and squatter, and begins a journey to becoming an outlaw artist and political activist.

Cory Doctorow has given us an exciting, engaging, postpunk coming of age story and a diatribe against government bought out by special interests (in this case, the entertainment industry) that care far more for their profits than the well-being of our culture. Doctorow wears his politics on his sleeve, and if you don’t share his politics and his concerns, this might put you off. But I loved it. Trent (a.k.a. “Cecil B. DeVil”) is absolutely lovable, especially when he realizes when he’s being an idiot. And he’s surrounded by lovable characters: Jem, Chester, Rabid Dog, Dodger, Rob, and especially 26 and Trent’s sister, Cora. Pirate Cinema is very much rooted in real, contemporary laws in the UK. It made me depressed about the future of our popular culture and the tools we use to contribute to our culture. But Doctorow’s passionate writing also made me hopeful that we can win out in the end.

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord BirdNothing funnier than a cross-dressing slave boy riding the circuit with crazy ole John Brown.  Offensive, hilarious, violent and sad, James McBride fills the Kansas Territory with characters straight out of a Mel Brooks movie and then throws in a dash of Quentin Tarantino for good measure.  How McBride managed to weave Harriet Tubman in to the buffoonery without offending the reader is beyond me.  I highly recommend!

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Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Song of AchillesThis is a coming-of-age story, a love story, and a retelling of the Iliad all rolled into one masterfully told epic. Miller at once succeeds in adding depth and substance to Achilles and Patroclus and also preserving the dramatic feel of the war that is the backdrop to their relationship.

Patroclus is the young, awkward prince awed and then befriended by Achilles, a young prince who is everything Patroclus is not: easy in his young body, beautiful, privileged. As their friendship develops into a deeper connection, they are carried along by the fate that we know propels them toward a tragedy. Miller develops her characters with a sure, subtle prose, the romance and battle are handled with an equally confident hand. The Song of Achilles book is a joy on many levels and should appeal to lovers of the Iliad, as well as fantasy, historical fiction, and myth.

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Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston

remember me like thisDespite the blurbs on the back cover, Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, is not a thriller in the traditional sense. The elements are all here: a kidnapping, a possible murder, a family in turmoil. But to Johnston’s credit,  his novel is partly about  thwarting expectations—mostly the reader’s, and not always in ways that we’re accustomed to.

The story begins in noir mode with the happenstance discovery of a floating body in Corpus Christi, Texas, and its possible connection to a long-forgotten kidnapping. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Johnston is not interested in basking in the lurid details. We don’t learn much about the abduction of Justin Campbell but we do get very close to the effects that his disappearance has had on his only brother, Griffin, and his parents, Eric and Laura, in the four years he has been gone. This is the story of how the Campbells learned to cope with the  Justin’s absence and how their lives are put into stark relief by his subsequent reemergence.

Let there be no doubt: there’s a lot of anger, confusion, and potential violence boiling just beneath the surface of these characters. The story seems to head toward an inevitably violent conclusion. Suffice it to say these characters are only as predictable as real people are in situations as heartrending as this.  We see how fragile Eric and Laura’s marriage has become, how so very close both characters are to their own breaking points. We see how Griffin struggles with relating to an older brother he took for dead while simultaneously navigating his relationship with his first girlfriend.  How Justin himself deals with everyone around him is perhaps the most surprising part of this story.

If there’s anything to criticize here, it’s that Johnston’s reluctance to delve into the more disturbing parts of what happened to Justin during his abduction leaves a gaping hole in our understanding of him as a character. Ultimately though, those looking for an edge-of-your-seat thriller with all the expected ingredients best look elsewhere. Readers more willing to let this story play out with patience will be rewarded with an uncommonly tender and realistic depiction of a family hanging by an emotional thread. Fans of Emma Donohue’s Room will find much to like in Remember Me Like ThisI can also see this becoming a book club favorite as well.

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Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

mrs lincolns dressmakerElizabeth Hobbs Keckley may have been born a slave, but she was not destined to remain one.  Her exceptional skill as a seamstress won for her both freedom and the acquaintance of many of society’s elite, the most notable of these, Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln.  The focus of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is on Elizabeth’s life and that of her family, then turns to the relationship between herself and Mrs. Lincoln as they navigate the stormy waters of Lincoln’s presidency.  An up close and personal look at the White House and behind-the-scenes dealings while the Lincolns were in residence, this book is perfect for book groups. Book discussion questions are available.

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Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins

Things are going pretty well for Colleen O’Rourke:  she co-owns a tavern with her twin brother, Conner; has made more than a few love matches between the good people of Manningsport, NY; and is great at giving advice. Well, things were going well until Lucas Campbell comes back to Manningsport to see his dying uncle. Ten years ago they were in love—​Lucas living in Chicago gearing up to go to law school, Colleen in Manningsport to be close to her family while becoming a nurse. They had their life together planned out until secrets damaged their four-year relationship beyond repair. In their time apart, Lucas finds himself married and divorced, while Colleen fails to find a match for herself that makes her feel an ounce of what she did for Lucas.

Now here they are, unable to avoid each other. Colleen has just agreed to help socially awkward tomboy Paulie ”Chicken Princess” Petrosinsky snag Lucas’ cousin Bryce. This match is going to take a lot of hands-on work if it’s going to happen. Bryce, while very loveable, is slightly dim-witted. He has not realized that Paulie is interested. Perhaps this is because, in Paulie’s nervousness, she accidentally slams Bryce’s head into Colleen’s bar in her attempt to flirt. Regardless, Colleen has her work cut out for her, especially since Lucas knows what she’s up to and thinks she should ditch this match.

waiting on youWaiting on You is an enjoyable, quick read with a little bit of depth. Higgins has a way of writing humorous, romantic works full of witty dialog, strong relationships, and usually a canine or two. In the first two books of Higgins’ Blue Heron series, The Best Man (1) and The Perfect Match (2), we meet the Hollands, a family running a vineyard in the Finger Lakes Wine Country and then branch out into the community. With each book I’m falling more in love with the fictionalized version of Manningsport, New York, and its inhabitants. Waiting On You is the third book in the series. You don’t have to read the books in order; they focus on one couple, with previous couples popping up here and there along the way.

Check out Waiting on You to see if Colleen and Lucas can move beyond the past and if Colleen has another successful match.​

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