Category Archives: 2017 Reads

To Funk and Die in LA (Book Review)

To Funk and Die in LA: A D Hunter Mystery by Nelson George

I am not a big fan of the mysteries. In fact, this is the first novel in the genre that I have read in a really long time. I decided to give the book a chance when I was given the opportunity to receive a review copy. After all, Nelson George has written books on hip-hop and wrote the introduction for another book reviewed not too long ago, What is Hip-Hop?

The story revolves around the death of the main character’s grandfather, Big Danny. There are a lot of questions to be had around his death. Why would someone shoot an old man? He was the owner of a grocery store and did a lot for the community.

D Hunter goes to Los Angeles to pay his respects to the man he was named after and starts to uncover all sorts of things about his grandfather. In a side-story, a reclusive musician attends the funeral and a YouTube video sparks interest in a possible career revival of Dr. Funk.

Like I said, I am not a fan of this genre, but I do like a story that has hip-hop sensibilities. Dr. Funk’s journey is pretty cool and might have been an even better story without the main narrative being a part of it at all. He seems like a George Clinton / James Brown kind of figure who is larger than life and really respected but who completely disappeared years and years ago.

This is the fourth novel in the series but you don’t have to read the other ones to follow along with the story. It is a stand-alone that works well, for the most part.

My List of 2017 Reads (list now complete)

Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide

Hip-Hop Regional Guide - Volume One

Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide: Volume One – East Coast and West Coast by Mickey Hess

Place is an important aspect when it comes to music. Nashville is known as the home to country music and is celebrated by many singers. New Orleans is held in high esteem when it comes to jazz. Many artists strive to put their city on the map. And it gets even more specific in hip-hop music and culture. Neighbourhoods are celebrated. This series of books does its best to highlight those scenes and the artists that helped popularize them.

Hess talks about something that I have rarely though much about – the immigration of artists to specific areas. For example, Gangstarr is one of New York’s most celebrated groups, however, Guru hails from Boston and DJ Premier is from Houston.

Here are some further examples; Kanye West was born in Atlanta but clearly reps Chicago, Eminem was born in Missouri bu he carries Detroit, Shock G spent his early years in New York but claims the Bay Area, 2Pac was born in New York, raised in Baltimore, and repped West Coast till he died, Too Short moved to Altanta, then back to the Bay area, MF Doom was born in Great Britain not Long Island, Monie Love moved from the UK to Philly, Ice-T grew up in New Jersey before moving to LA, and Krs-One reps hard for the Bronx but was actually born in Brooklyn.

The history covered in this book is impressive. I highly recommend it for any hip-hop fan.

Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide: Volume Two – Midwest, Dirty South, and Beyond by Mickey Hess

The second volume in this series deals with the other areas of the United States of America. It covers some of the first radio DJs and how the scene started in Chicago.

Hess writes about one of the earliest hip hop DJs in Chicago . . .

“DJ Casper (born Terry Marshall), a radio DJ from NY, offered the first rap song in Chicago on AVI records in 1980, “Casper’s Groovy Ghost Show.” Next, DJ Groove became the first homegrown Chicagoan to bring DJing and MCing together with his “Super Shock Body Rock.”

I had also never heard of Dr. Jokenstein . . .

“Dr. Jokenstein, a rhyming radio DJ. Roderick G. “Rod” King was given the name Dr. Jokenstein by George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic. Thousands of listeners would tune in to hear “Dr. Jockenstein, operating on your mind” on his Roll Call show. He emphasized how everyone would want to call in an partake in this form of call-and-response. Jockenstein recalled, “I had letters from Southwestern Bell to change the time I was doing the Roll Call show because I was tying up their switchboard.

Every day there was a formal routine that hypnotized the youth of St. Louis: Dr Jokenstein would say, “Here we go on the ra-di-o, I’m the DJ Jock in ster-e-o. We’re gonna have a good time. On the Roll Call line.” Then Jockenstein would ask his callers: “Hey, what’s your name? What’s your sign? Give me that No. 1 school. Your favourite teacher with the golden rule. Your favourite station in the nation. From there the show turned in to much more. Soon enough, people were calling in Monday through Friday who had made up their own rhymes and transformed the show into a place for freestyle.

Many of the early rap groups from St. Louis were first heard on the program: Kid Robb, Kid Smooth, King Odie and the Golden Boys, for example. Jockenstein is remembered as the man who introduced the city of St. Louis to rap music and is often compared to New York’s Mr. Magic.”

I also like the section about the importance of football and the role marching bands played in developing the musical stylings of Pharrel Williams and even Missy Elliot.

These two books were a great read for anyone interested in hip-hop music and culture.

My List of 2017 Reads – my personal reading log

5 Storytelling Secrets from the Masters of Radio

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel

I love the art of radio. The power of this medium is absolutely incredible. I listen to all sorts of broadcasts from hip-hop mixshows to interviews to spoken word shows. That’s why this book jumped out at me when I was scanning the bookshelves at the public library. Storytelling secrets from the masters of radio. I want to know what those are.

I pride myself in creating great radio programming. I do in-depth interviews with musicians and in so doing, let the artists tell their stories through their music and the conversations we have around their discography.

Jessica Abel loves radio too and it’s obvious from this book she has created. It’s a graphic novel exploration of what goes into making narrative radio shows that use personal stories to explore greater ideas and issues. She speaks to writers and creators of some of the most popular radio shows in the genre including; This American Life, The Moth, Planet Money, Snap Judgement, Serial, and more.

I like this mix of art and information in this book. It’s an easy read that illustrates things that might have been a little difficult to describe in text alone. Here are some of pieces of the text that resonated with me. I think they will help me make better radio in the future.

1) Compose Logs of the Interview Tapes

Ira Glass says, “A log is like a transcript, but less exact. You don’t need every word. You can type ot handwrite. They key is: you want to take notes on what’s in the tape without every stopping it.”

I have tons of interviews in the can. I have transcribed some of them but have many more that I just can’t find the time to do. I can take the time to listen to them all once though and create some logs. Then I will be able to use those logs to create anthology shows of themes that keep coming up in my interviews, This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Now, I have a strategy to help make that happem.

2) Place Your Microphone Correctly

Mic Placement – “Make a recording with the mic 4”, 8”, and 12” from your mouth, Listen. When the mic’s closer, your recordings sound richer, with more frequencies present, with less hum of the room. When you ask a question, point the mic back at yourself. Otherwise, the question won’t be loud enough on tape. At the end of the interview, record a half minute of room sound, without anyone talking; you’ll need this editing.”

3) Use Music Cues Effectively 

“Sometimes there’s obvious music cues, like, somebody will introduce a new character, or they talk about some event, or some feeling, and you bring in music which speaks to that in some way . . . and sometimes you bring in music where there isn’t an obvious cue and create a beginning. We start music where a sequence of action begins or starts to build. It adds to the drama.

… and you always take out the music when there’s a big idea that you really want people to pay attention to. You lose the music so it stands out.

This! I had to learn this by trail and error, but it is so profoundly true: if there is music under a person speaking, an then it stops, whatever is said next is really powerful, it sounds more important. It’s like shining a light on it.”

4) The Importance of Signposting

“Signposting – You’re being told, ‘This is the important part. Notice this. Remember this.’

Why signpost? – The hard, hard thing about radio is that if you take a step that the listener doesn’t follow, it means they can’t concentrate on the next thing and if you can’t concentrate on the next thing the person is saying, then you get even more confused and never catch up.

So one moment like that can derail the story. You have to be entirely positive that people are following you.

Signposts are crucial. But they’re one of the hardest parts of the story to write with the help of an editor. . . . The moment when the listeners are sitting in the middle of the big landscape of information and they’ve lost their way, is the moment where you as a storyteller failed.

And sometimes it’s as simple as saying, OK, look, this is going to get a little bit tricky, but just stay with me. It’s going to take three steps, But it will be worth it.

Right before something happens, drop in a little phrase like, “and that’s the moment when everything changed…” or “”and that’s when things got interesting.”

Those phrases are like little arrows that tell the listeners: Pay attention to what’s about to happen, because it’s important.

5) Places to Find Out More About Radio Online

Transom.org – huge site full of information on how to make radio.

Freesound.org – a collaborative database of Creative Commons Licensed sounds that lets you download and share sounds.

Soundsnap – a library of sound effects and loops. Pay per use or subscribe

A Great Read!

I really enjoyed this book. I might have to look for her previous book: Radio: An Illustrated Guide by Jessican Abel and Ira Glass. And maybe even try this form of storytelling. I’t quite captivating.

My List of 2017 Reads – my annual reading log with links to every title I read

Do Audio Books Count as Books?

The Untold Story of the Talking Book by Matthew Rubery

I love audio books. I think they are a great way to experience literature during a long drive. This is time that might otherwise be wasted by listening to songs on the radio. Instead, I can immerse myself in a story, learn something new through a work of non-fiction, and help keep my mind active in what otherwise might be boring and tedious trip. So when I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. Truth be told, I listened to it, but I think that was rather fitting for this title.

The author takes us on a bit of a trip from the very first recording technologies to tapes to CDs to digital media. The very first books recorded were solely available to the blind. It was a tricky process to record and release books. The technology meant that several records had to be used to hold one single book. Also, very few books could be released this way.

One of the solutions was to shorten the story. These abridged books did little to help the reputation of the audio book. Many people thought that it was lazy to listen to a book as opposed to reading it. Listening meant that you were somehow cheating or not putting in the work necessary to read a book.

Audio books have come along way since their humble beginnings. There wasn’t even a term for the medium at the start. Audio books in the preferred term now and it covers a wide range of material from books that have been recorded to the new format to full cast narrated works to original audio-born material. Now that recording technology is not limited by its size, an entire book can fit on one MP3 CD and unabridged recordings are pretty much standard.

Even though, this medium is well-established, there isn’t any vocabulary that goes along with it. If you listen to the recording of a book can you say that you have read it. People will often apologize for listening as opposed to reading. But does it make a difference?

Listening to stories is something that has traditionally been done. It was the way stories were transmitted prior to the written word. And who of us did not love story time at the library or the bedtime stories our parents used to read aloud to us?

Audio books should count as books and we should proudly say we have read a book that we have only listened to. We can use our time to take in great literature, have an escape with some pop fiction, or learn something new with a non-fiction title. We can listen while we commute or are otherwise engaged. We can listen in low-light and other environments that would prevent us from reading.

Listening still requires our attention. We need to focus on the story, make predictions, visualize the setting and characters for ourselves, and all of the other things we do when we read.

In fact, seven of the books on my reading log for the year were audio books. The stories and words stuck with me just as much as if I had read them. I could talk to you about minute details. I can make connections between them and any other work.

This was an interesting read. It gets a bit dry and can be repetitive at times. And it never really answers the questions of whether or not this is reading. It doesn’t provide us with new vocabulary to use. Maybe we don’t need any. Reading is reading whether it is done with your eyes or with your ears.

My List of 2017 Reads – a detailed reading log

Doctor Who Comes to Life on the Page

Doctor Who - Weapons of Past Destruction

Doctor Who – Weapons of Past Destruction

I miss the 9th Doctor. This book reminded me of why I used to love seeing Chris Eccleston in the role of the title character. The artwork is amazing and Cavan Scott has penned a tale that feels like a Series One episode. I could hear Chris’s voice coming off of the page. I laughed out loud at few times and reveled in the total experience.

I like that the book tells a story that we wouldn’t have seen in the television show. The special effects are larger than life and would have been quite expensive to produce on film. This is where graphic novels have immense power. The universe is wide-open, as it were. It’s a huge canvas that the creative team of Scott, Blair Shedd, Rachael Stott, and Anang Setyawan utilize brilliantly. I highly recommend reading this. I want to find more of this series and keep experiencing more adventures with the Ninth Doctor.

Doctor Who - Four Doctors

Doctor Who – Four Doctors

Four Doctors, and one of them isn’t the 9th Doctor. We don’t actually find out who this surprise Doctor actually is until late in the book, so I won’t spoil it for you here.

It was nice that the 50th Anniversary television special featured the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi in the final scenes (even if only for a moment). Here, we get to see him interact with the 10th Doctor, David Tennant, and the 11th Doctor, Matt Smith.

This book doesn’t evoke the same feelings I had when watching that television event, however. The story seems a little bit forced and it doesn’t come to life in the same way the book above does.

IMG_7010 (2)

Free Comic Book Day – Four Doctors 

Many of the free comics you are able to get on Free Comic Book Day are simply teasers for books yet to be released. Either that, or they give you a snippet of a story so you will have to buy an additional book to continue reading it. This book has a complete story and it features four incarnations of the Doctor. It’s an even better story than the one above. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The only problem with it is that the Doctors don’t interact with each other. It’s one story that takes place over four lifetimes, as it were.

Doctor Who - The Eye of Ashaya

Doctor Who – The Eye of Ashaya

This was a fun book that brings back a few characters from the 10th Doctor’s era. It was really nice to see Christina De Souza again.

IMG_7011

And this book reminded me how much I miss Amy and Rory too.

It was also cool to see a character who was introduced during David Tennant’s run as the Doctor getting the chance to meet Matt Smith’s incarnation.

All in all, it was a nice trip through Space and Time this week as I read brand new Doctor Who adventures.

My List of 2017 Reads – my detailed reading log for the year

Graphic Audio Adventures

Batman – Dead White

This was a dark story, certainly not meant for children. There are several racial slurs heard throughout the book but that is because the evil forces in this story are a band of white supremacists who are determined to reshape the world. Batman has to track down the leader, known as White Eyes but he doesn’t do it alone this time. He gets help from a police officer / bounty hunter.

This story takes place in the first year of Batman’s crime fighting career. He struggles a bit with his role as protector of Gotham. He is haunted by images of the very first costume he wore when he became the Batman. An old lover tries to help him but he keeps his secret from her.

There are times when these audio adventures are a bit over the top. But the full cast narration, sound effects, and general comic book aesthetic are a fun ride.

Earlier this year, I listened to the Flash adventure Stop Motion and the Wonder Woman story Mythos which prepared me for the whole team to come other in the Justice League.

Justice League of America – Exterminators

Several new meta-humans start to appear in one region of the world. Then these super-powered people start to disappear. Could it be related to a threat that the Justice League fought and defeated ten years earlier?  Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter have a nagging suspicion that it is. Batman confirms it and the Justice League goes into action, this time with a new meta-human who might just hold the key to exactly what is going on.

Like the book above, this one has it’s problems. Mostly it is due to exposition. Certain things don’t need to be explained to a comic book audience. However, these stories are meant to stand alone and be accessible to anyone. They are a lot of fun and the audio format make them perfect listening for long drives in the car.

Alternatively, there are print editions of these novels available if you would rather read them with your eyes as opposed to your ears.

My List of 2017 Reads – a detailed reading log with links to dozens of titles

The Punisher – Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Marvel Unlimited offered a free month subscription to its app to celebrate the release of The Punisher TV series on Netflix. I am still working my way through the series but thought that I would use this opportunity to read as much of the comics as I possibly could in a month.

Punisher vs Bullseye

A bad guy who managed to flee from the Punisher has been hiding out for years and has had enough. He wants to feel safe again and shed his ridiculous disguise. So, he hires Bullseye to take him out. Little does he know that these two killers will form a temporary, yet uneasy, partnership that will spell doom for all who cross their path.

The Punisher: Volume 1 – Welcome Back Frank

This is the fifth solo series for the Punisher. It collects the entire 12 issue run that started in 2000 and ended in 2001. I really enjoyed the story. The Netflix television series that introduced the Punisher even took inspiration from it. He captures Daredevil, ties him up, and duct tapes a gun to his hand. The outcome is different here than in the TV series though. The story wraps up perfectly too. It is a great read.

The Punisher: Volume 2 – Army of One

This book kicks off the sixth series of the title. It continues the story started in the last volume and features a special appearance from Spider-man. At one point, the Punisher uses the unconscious webbed hero as shield to absorb some pretty rough blows from a tough opponent.

This volume also features a story where the vigilante goes to a remote island to rescue a prisoner.  While not as good as the previous issue, it does kick off an impressive 37 single issue comics (that are collected in five additional trade paperbacks).

The Punisher: Volume 3 – Business As Usual

Wolverine guest stars in this one and boy do things get brutal. The Punisher is well aware of his self-healing power and dishes up some pretty harsh punishment in order to stop him and complete his mission.

The Punisher: Volume 4 – Full Auto

Punisher stories can be a bit disturbing. This one definitely falls in that category. It deals with a villain who is murdering homeless people. He figures that he will never be caught because no one cares about them. But a social worker finds herself in the middle of the situation and Frank Castle is there to bail her out and set things right.

The Punisher: Volume 5 – Streets of Laredo

This one has a western theme to it. Operating just outside of a small town, a gang trades in military grade weapons but they won’t for long when Frank Castle comes to town. This story also deals with homophobia in some interesting ways. The sheriff is a queer man and is in a relationship with the son of the gang boss. A preacher thinks it is immoral as well. But how will everyone cope when the Punisher gets added to the mix.

The Punisher: Volume 6 – Confederacy of Dunces

Daredevil enlists the help of Spider-man and Wolverine to help take the Punisher out of the picture. He wants to see him brought to justice. Wolverine knows that they only way to do that is to kill him, but Spider-man and Daredevil won’t let him take such extreme measures. And the Hulk to the mix and things are bound to get messy.

The Punisher – Circle of Blood

This was the first solo title for the Punisher and was released in 1986. Frank Castle is in prison for his vigilante crimes, but a secret organization wants to break him out. He is leery to work with them but figures that it is better than being incarcerated. In his first job, he discovers that Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin is dead. In fact, Fisk had merely faked his own death. Castle makes the world believe that he murdered him to help bring other criminals out of the woodwork. This was a limited series that started the nation’s love affair with the violent vigilante.

My List of 2017 Reads – my annual reading log

Cyber Attack + Severe Winter Storm = Cyber Storm

Cyber Storm by Matthew Mather

Imagine that you were cut off from the everyday conveniences of life. Water no longer freely ran from your faucets. There was no electricity. Stores were closed and most of them have been completely looted. And to make matters worse, there was an intense winter storm that made it difficult or even impossible to travel.

If that weren’t bad enough, a string of Internet attacks completely shuts down access to the world wide net for all of New York and possibly the entire United States of America.

It was amazing to see how quickly society started fall apart amongst these tragedies. It was actually kind of scary. The story keeps you enthralled with suspense, action, and mystery. It is a lot like a disaster flick in that the main character is fighting to keep his family alive and safe.

His best friend is a bit of a conspiracy nut and has all sorts of rations and materials stock piled for just such a tragedy. He thinks all of this might be a plot from another government to take control of the USA. It could be just the first step in a full scale invasion.

I really enjoyed this book. It had its problems, but it was a good read. The ending could have been better. It felt like the author had to rush and explain exactly what happened to cause the disaster and destruction. At least we get answers and they make sense. But the real story is that of survival and how people act and behave when tragedy strikes.

My List of 2017 Reads – detailed annual reading log with links to every book I read this year

5 People Write Every Pop Song Heard on the Radio

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook

Everything changed though back in 1992 when Ace of Base was unleashed on the world with their debut album, The Sign.

There wasn’t anything spectacular about this band. They might not have gone anywhere if it wasn’t for a broken car stereo.

A music producer played their demo tape in his car and wasn’t impressed with it. He probably would have ejected it and not given it a second thought but his car stereo had other ideas. It wouldn’t eject the tape. And there was no way to switch back to the radio when the cassette was engaged. As such, he was more or less forced to listen to the tape over and over again.

One day, after multiple listens, Denniz Pop heard something in it and decided that he would produce them. He majorly overhauled their songs and created something that would have lasting effects in the world of pop music.

He created Cheiron Studios with Tom Talomaa and with the success of songs like The Sign and singles like All That She Wants and Don’t Turn Around they went on to produce and create some of the biggest pop artists the world has ever seen.

Max Martin is the one of most prolific writers in pop music history. He has written a produced dozens and dozens of number one hit songs. You can probably sign along to every one of these hits even though you may have never heard his name before now. There  is only one song writing team ahead of him when it comes to hits and he will probably surpass them soon. I am talking about Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

There are several other Swedish hit factory teams that have written co-written, and even manufactured some of the biggest groups over the past thirty years. It’s no secret that Backstreet Boys were able to ride the success wave for boy bands created by New Kids on the Block. I always hated the song writing of their songs, however. The lyrics barely made sense but apparently they didn’t have to. The world ate it up and the Backstreet Boys became the biggest act in the world.

The producers knew that someone would copy their formula and offer some competition to them.  They thought, if someone is going to do it, it might as well be us. So, they created NSYNC, used the same producers, song writers, and management to create the rival group.

I found this tidbit fascinating. I assumed that NSYNC was an answer to the Backstreet Boys. Lyrically, their songs seemed to make more sense and they even appeared to be more authentic. They were on different labels and the songwriting teams and production machine were pretty invisible, so this was easy enough to assume. However, they were manufactured in the exact same way, produced, and even managed the same.

It’s unfortunate that song writing has been reduced to a formula and that only a handful of producers are responsible for almost everything that we hear these days. I guess that explains a lot. Pop music songs are rarely distinguishable from one another. And people in the background continue to get paid exorbitant amounts of money to churn out these hits.

The reach of these Swedish writers is absolutely incredible. It seems as though they have written every major pop song twenty five years. Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Maroon 5, and even Taylor Swift have had some of their biggest hits written by the song factory machine.

I have to admit, I am a little disappointed that Taylor Swift used them for her latest album. She used to be an original voice and now sounds like every other act on the dial. Of course, I still enjoyed her album. I knew she wrote her own songs and assumed nothing had changed.

Overall, this was a fascinating read. John Seabrook turns forty years of music history into a narrative that entertains and sheds light on this hidden song writing factory. I recommend checking it out, and maybe looking closer at songwriting credits. You might be surprised at what you find.

My List of 2017 Reads – 36 books and counting

Find the Spark and Write

Story Sparks: Finding Your Best Story Ideas & Turning Them into Compelling Fiction by Denise Jaden

Denise Jaden explores the concept of inspiration in her latest book, Story Sparks. She gives practical advice on finding story ideas in everyday life, how to nurture the creative power you already have, and suggests small exercises that can help spark a great story idea.

This book is for every writer who has ever struggled with the question of what to write next. Here are some of the tips she offers in the book.

Combining Two Ideas

“A fresh idea is simply thinking of something in a new way or combining two concepts in a unique way.”

I completely agree. I have found that I can’t start writing a story unless I have had a second idea mash up with the first one. It’s the combination of two ideas where the story starts to come to life. As Jaden writes, “It often not a single idea, but the connection between two or more ideas that gives us our ‘aha’ moment.”

It Can Take Time

“All you need is the question, focused energy, and time to let the question percolate.”

A lot of writing can stem from a single question. But we need to allow ourselves the time to really contemplate the question. In this book, Jaden breaks down her philosophy into the S.P.A.R.K. acronym. This part of the equation really reminds me on my personal writing philosophy of T.L.C.W.

Get Inspired By Social Media

“Skim your Twitter or Facebook feeds. Could any posts make for interesting character traits, motivations, or plot obstacles?”

What a great idea. There is already a lot of drama going on in social media. It could be a rich treasure trove of ideas, if used properly. Just make sure you don’t write about the people specifically. Take ideas and transform them into original stories with different characters and you could have a winner.

Finally Say It

“Think of all the things you wouldn’t say in real like but would like to say. These are all plot ideas you can experiment with.”

Writing can give you the power to say something you wouldn’t normally say. Take advantage of that.

There is no such thing as Writer’s Block

“Writer’s block is taking the easy way out. It treats a lack of productivity as an ailment . . . Writer’s block is not usually the inability to write, but rather just a fear of not writing well.”

I like this analogy. We should always be able to write. Fear might be an obstacle, but it is one that we can overcome. It’s like pain to a runner. You can push through it. You can write through it.

Helpful Lists

At the end of the book, Jaden provides several lists that can help you come up with character names, places to set your scenes in, motives for character behaviour, obstacles for characters to overcome, and story themes you can weave.

It’s a great book with practical exercises, advice, and tips for writers who need to find some inspiration. Also, if you liked this book, you can also look for her other book on writing, Fast Fiction, that is perfect for anyone attempting National Novel Writing Month challenge right now.

My List of 2017 Reads – with links to detailed posts on every title I read this year