Cans: A Personal Journey Through Soundscapes

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Sennheiser Momentum Angels

Sennheiser Momentum

Headphones, whether large or small, in-ear monitors or over-the-ear headphones (and anything in between), are a relatively large part of my life. I connected with headphones more seriously when I started having children. Gone were the days when the boom from an explosion of the blown up starship as it reaches Coruscant could reverberate through the house, the tight percussive sounds of Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drum the ears or “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th viscerally wash over me through loudspeakers. Then we became mobile. First through the Walkman, then MP3 players and now our phones – we took our music with us. Finally, I came to notice that you could get headphones that faithfully represent music for orders of magnitude less money than loudspeakers that can do the same. So while I still watch movies with “real” speakers and occasionally listen to music with loudspeakers, the vast majority of my music listening is through headphones. Through all the iterations, I come to consistently using three headphones. Three? Wouldn’t it be better to spend more money on one set than three? While I didn’t plan on having three, let’s look at the journey that led me there and it may not seem so whacked. It might even help you on your musical journey. Mostly, if you care about music, I encourage you to explore something beyond the Apple “Earpods” (I can’t quite write that word without quotes) or Beats by Dre through which to enjoy your music. Your ears will thank you.

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Sennheiser PC 160 – great for dictation while listening to music

While I toyed early on with some OK Koss headsets and, the little more serious Telefunken headphones (back in the day), I first stepped back and began to pay attention to headphone sound when I got a pair of Sennheiser PC 160 headphones (for a “steal” at $45 – I still use my old pair with Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictation). The audiophile among you will laugh, but they were my first foray into open-back headsets and, while not going deep or having quite the detail a true audiophile set would have, they were considerably better than anything I used before (which was especially surprising given that I bought them mainly to record software demos).

For those of you who’ve never known the delights of open-back headphones and their tendency to have a wider soundstage and be designed to produce more detail, you are (likely) missing the sweet, pure joy of wide, clear sound. Later, I got a pair of Panasonic semi-open back earbuds for you with my iPod for mobile use.

 

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Now was the time for an epiphany.  While everything I used up to this point was fine, I had read that the best headphones for the money were Grado SR60s. I believe they were $70 when I first got a pair in 2009 (which was a lot for me but obviously at the very low end for quality sound; their slightly updated brother, the SR80’s were $90). Up to this point, I had been listening through murky waters and didn’t even know it. These cans were crisp and clean, producing remarkable detail and not coloring the sound at all. I mostly listen to classical music and jazz, so I particularly like their faithfulness to the original sound recorded despite the fact that they also were a little light on the bass side. If you want the clarity of the Grados with more warmth and punchier bass, the price starts climbing quickly and these were already more than I usually spent on headphones. Not only do they have the added bonus of giving a retro/ham-radio-operator look, Grado is a seriously cool family-based company where they make all of their headphones right in Brooklyn. I believe that there was (as still is) nothing that can touch them for clarity and faithful sound for $70 (or even the current price of $80).

Alas, there were a couple of issues; as lovely as the SR 60s were, they’re not exactly mobile. You don’t want to be sweating with them, cutting grass with them, or walking greenways with your dog. Moreover, they have a long cord (7 feet) which is lovely when you’re at your desk or in the den but not so much when you’re doing the dishes. Also, while open-backed headphones have a great soundstage, they let sound in so you hear ambient noise, conversations and just about everything around you. They also leak noise; if you happen to eschew sleep for the sake of your addictive reading habit and like to listen to music at the same time, these are not the headphones your wife (or husband) will appreciate. She will hear everything, albeit at a lower volume, that you hear. So I needed to come up with a portable solution that kept music in and unwanted sound out that was reasonably priced yet still faithful to the music. Clearly, I’m not looking at something like Urbeats (or Beats anything). At the time, the Klipsch S4 Image in-ear headphones came to the rescue.

 

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Klipsch S4 Image

 

I could get S4s on Amazon for between $30 & $45 back then, they had a tight seal for passive noise cancellation and had clear mids and solid bass with controlled treble. While I preferred the sound of the Grados, these worked well and solved my two problems. Issues I had with these headphones is that they are quite small and easily misplaced (not their problem, mine), they’re relatively easy to break and they have loud “cord-thump” (when you move and the cord hit you, your clothing or something around you, the sound is transferred up the cord to you). The other issue is that they keep going up in price. They’re now $100. For that price, I was ready to try something else.

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I had always been interested in the Shure’s in-ear monitors (think about the headphones you see on performers as the sing on stage that seem embedded in the ears). I’ve posted earlier about how good their lower-end SE215s are and their high-level of customer service. What I’ll say here is simply that the Klipsch S4s can’t hold a candle to them and they are equivalently priced. Man, I’m so glad I switched. The sound is better, they’re more stable since they’re true in-ear monitors, you can replace the cords (not so on the Klipsch which lost me a couple), they have much less “cord thump” than the Klipsch and they deaden outside noise even more. Now the Shure’s are also a bit more of a pain to put in your ear, but acoustical bliss comes at a price. Due to their fit and how they lie flat to your ear, you can lie down with them without causing pain to your ears. These were my mobile solution.

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One upgrade I hadn’t planned was initiated from a colleague at work who was upgrading to a new headset and gave me a great deal on his Grado SR 80s. The SR 80s have all the benefits of the SR 60s with a little bit more warmth and better handling of bass, so this was a lovely surprise indeed.

So this had been my breakdown – Grados for long-listening in a relatively quiet and stable spot and Shure’s for mobile or environments where open-backed headphones weren’t a good solution either due to a lack of passive noise cancelling or noise leakage. I was a happy camper with astonishingly good sound in the full knowledge that as an active father of four, the audiophile life was not for me. I look for the best sound I can afford for focused and active listening. I’m often moving with headphones and I mostly listen through my phone, my computer or my beautifully clear but relatively low-end DAC. These cans meet my realistic, active lifestyle that doesn’t afford sitting in an acoustically accurate man cave with high-end gear.

 

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Sennheiser Momentum – Over the ear

 

These principles have remained as has the love for open-back but the need for closed as well. A bit over a year ago, I changed the mix a bit to include a pair of lovely Sennheiser Momentums (original over-the-ear Ivory).  While I love open-back headphones, these have a startlingly wide sound stage, they handle all the bass thrown at them (although it could be a bit tighter), seem to mellow out the more strident notes while remaining faithful to the music and you can wear them forever without pain, heat or any discomfort. Most of all, their balanced design makes them good at handling any type of music you throw at them. Finally, ain’t they so pretty. Seriously, these are a good looking set of cans (sorry Grado). While I focus on classical and jazz, my tastes are varied and eclectic.  These are my go-to headphones for almost any kind of use. They deliver great detail in the midsection, serious bass (albeit not quite as tight as I would like), perfectly pitched treble and they look fabulous. (The Momentum 2.0s fold, have more flexibility working with Android and have larger earcups; I love my 1.0s because my ears are relatively small and so have a perfect fit). So now, I have the SR 80s at home, the Momentums at work and the Shures for on-the-go. Musical bliss indeed.

And that’s a theme that you’ll see throughout; these three are not absolutely the best headphones ever but they provide great value for the money. You’ll notice none of them are their respective company’s highest end headphones. You also note that none are Bluetooth. I still think that it’s very hard (read expensive) to get as good a sound at a Bluetooth as why a wired headset although they’ve come a long way. If you want to spend a lot of money, you might get there. These also aren’t the cheapest headphones around; the Momentum’s originally went for $350 (I didn’t pay anything near that), the Grado’s are about $100 as are the Shure’s. They both are an incredible value. It speaks to the great design and construction of the Grados and the Shures that the Momentums are only marginally better. There is slightly more detail in the Momentums and they can deliver that deep reverberating bass that the other two can’t quite reach. That’s true in general as you move up the scale of audio (and most things), after a certain point you have to pay increasingly more for smaller increments of improvement. If you’re ever tempted to get Beats Pros, please try the Momentums first. While not as iconic, they look better, provide much more clarity and detail and can still handle some kickin’ bass.

Your priorities and usage, as well as tastes, may differ. Think about how you’ll use them in real life – not some ideal setting. Try some out and play around. You may discover a whole new world of sound that you’ve missed until now.

Evelyn Waugh on the Weight of Sin

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Evelyn Waugh is, of course, a master of language. His descriptions, dialog and transitions are a work of art. They are as perfect as we get on this earth and yet are always convey his thought without drawing attention to the writing itself. There is no flourish for flourish sake.

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Evelyn Waugh

So, I venture the type of post I’ve not written before: a book quote. Mr. Waugh has written one of the most moving scenes in the English language of a person’s sense of sinfulness crashing down on their awareness with an overwhelming weight. It also shows what a foreign notion this sense of sin is to any non-believer and what a burden when there is no received grace. So we have Julia Flyte evoking this weight of sin to her lover Charles in Brideshead Revisited.

 

All in one word, too, one little, flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime.

“ ‘Living in sin’; not just doing wrong, as I did when I went to America; doing wrong, knowing it is wrong, stopping doing it, forgetting. That’s not what they mean. That’s not Bridey’s pennyworth. He means just what it says in black and white.

“Living in sin, with sin, always the same, like an idiot child carefully nursed, guarded from the world. ‘Poor Julia,’ they say, ‘she can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her sin. A pity it ever lived,’ they say, ‘but it’s so strong. Children like that always are. Julia’s so good to her little, mad sin.’ ”

“An hour ago,” I thought, “under the sunset, she sat turning her ring in the water and counting the days of happiness; now under the first stars and the last gray whisper of day, all this mysterious tumult of sorrow! What had happened to us in the Painted Parlor? What shadow had fallen in the candlelight? Two rough sentences and a trite phrase.” She was beside herself; her voice, now muffled in my breast, now clear and anguished, came to me in single words and broken sentences.

“Past and future; the years when I was trying to be a good wife, in the cigar smoke, while the counters clicked on the backgammon board, and the man who was ‘dummy’ at the men’s table filled the glasses; when I was trying to bear his child, torn in pieces by something already dead; putting him away, forgetting him, finding you, the past two years with you, all the future with you, all the future with or without you, war coming, world ending—sin.

“A word from so long ago, from Nanny Hawkins stitching by the hearth and the nightlight burning before the Sacred Heart. Cordelia and me with the catechism, in mummy’s room, before luncheon on Sundays. Mummy carrying my sin with her to church, bowed under it and the black lace veil, in the chapel; slipping out with it in London before the fires were lit; taking it with her through the empty streets, where the milkman’s ponies stood with their forefeet on the pavement; mummy dying with my sin eating at her, more cruelly than her own deadly illness.

“Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot; hanging over the bed in the night-nursery; hanging year after year in the dark little study at Farm Street with the shining oilcloth; hanging in the dark church where only the old charwoman raises the dust and one candle burns; hanging at noon, high among the crowds and the soldiers; no comfort except a sponge of vinegar and the kind words of a thief; hanging for ever; never the cool sepulcher and the grave clothes spread on the stone slab, never the oil and spices in the dark cave; always the midday sun and the dice clicking for the seamless coat.

“No way back; the gates barred; all the saints and angels posted along the walls. Thrown away, scrapped, rotting down; the old man with lupus and the forked stick who limps out at nightfall to turn the rubbish, hoping for something to put in his sack, something marketable, turns away with disgust.

“Nameless and dead, like the baby they wrapped up and took away before I had seen her.”

Between her tears she talked herself into silence. I could do nothing; I was adrift in a strange sea; my hands on the metal-spun threads of her tunic were cold and stiff, my eyes dry; I was as far from her in spirit, as she clung to me in the darkness, as when years ago I had lit her cigarette on the way from the station; as far as when she was out of mind, in the dry, empty years at the Old Rectory, and in the jungle.

So brother and sister sat and talked about the arrangement of the house until bed-time. “An hour ago,” I [Charles] thought, “in the black refuge in the box hedge, she wept her heart out for the death of her God; now she is discussing whether Beryl’s children shall take the old smoking-room or the school-room for their own.” I was at see.

Brideshead Revisited, pp 329-332 of Book IV

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Chris Mann’s Captivating “Constellation”

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Chris Mann, the erstwhile The Voice finalist and current Phantom on Phantom of the Opera’s 25th annual tour, has dropped his second full album, Constellation (his first being the fabulous Roads album).  This is a well-thought-out album where the songs simultaneously mesh nicely but vary stylistically enough to never bore. We have the initial “North Star” which brings out the constellation theme, but also provides the focus point from which to gauge the album. This song lets us know that the album will be characterized by noble themes of steadfast love, holding fast through storms, hope, and remaining true. It’s not sappy or sentimental but it is graceful and positive (while fully recognizing pain). It also speaks to a well-produced album which provides a nearly perfect balance of rich sound without being overly produced, we have intimate sound yet a full sound stage.  A deft and precise hand guided this album from the cover (seriously cool), to sound engineering and the content included. If there’s any fault, it’s that the liner information doesn’t contain lyrics. Here we have mostly newly penned songs by Mr. Mann and brilliant co-writers such as Justin Tranter, Amy Foster, Felix Snow, Liz Rose and Mark Hammond among others, let’s emphasize that fact. Just sayin’. All of that is so much detritus, however, were it not for the main event – Chris Mann’s voice. Mr. Mann is in firm control of this instrument, hitting each song with perfect pitch, a considerable range, and crystal clarity. There are no misses on this album; it is a thorough delight.

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[Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of the album for use in an honest review.]

As noted above, “North Star” sets the tone for the album. While Mr. Mann has a more authentic stylistic range than other “pop opera” singers, this song is certainly within his stylistic wheelhouse. It is the North Star of the album, setting the course of clear, pitch-perfect and impassioned songs. We have all felt “hope sinking like a stone…” There is no doubt that waves and storms will come; sometimes we doubt and stop believing in others. While ultimately God is the only fully firm guide, He enables us to be “North Stars” for one another. Here Mr. Mann sings an ode to that willingness to standing firm in the midst of the storm.

 

In “Rain Like This,” Chris Mann flexes his stylistic muscles with what at first appears to be a pop ballad that slowly melds into full-on pop. As I listen to the song I could easily imagine Lady Antebellum being featured on it. It’s fun to see similar themes of love in the midst of a “rain like this” changed up stylistically. The next three songs, “Echo”, “Away” and “Slow” are, like “North Star,” in Mr. Mann’s sweet spot. They have that more robust, richer timber signature of a pop ballad. Each is well developed. For example, the underlying beat in “Echo” echoes while off-setting the melody. I particularly like the intimate relationship the image of voice and echo portrays. In “Away,” the underlying beat plays a different role of a heartbeat trying to find strength in separation. I also love the way the song builds from subtle nuanced singing lightly touching the notes to the big sound of crying out ”how am I supposed to find a way without you” and finally tapering off. I’m assuming Mrs. Mann (as well as others) swoons as she listens to “Slow” which is nearly the perfect love song: “ I don’t ever want to rush what matters most.” Now listen carefully to “Slow” for its perfect phrasing: the timing, lift, and release all perfectly mesh to portray its message that whatever it takes, we will go slow because this love is important enough.

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These songs provide a great picture of the album. I hope I convey a sense of its message it sounds and it’s spot on execution while leaving it to you to explore. So now I’m going to wander a little more quickly through some highlights of the rest. I must confess I have a special place in my heart for “To the Moon and Back.” Not only does it have this delightful folk song sound with its guitar background and phrasing, but it harkens back to the days of reading Guess How Much of I Love Yo to my children. You take a children’s theme of love and a turn that into romantical love is just a brilliant move. “Come Back” starts out as if it’s a 70s anthem from Queen and morphs into a country crossover song. Once again Lady Antebellum comes to mind (no idea why they’re on my mind). It’s a great song that definitely stands out on the album. While “Love and War” continue the theme of the back & forth, ups & downs of love, it stood out as a showcase of just how high Mr. Mann’s voice can go. There was a point in the song I thought he had a woman join him; it’s him along. He doesn’t have a falsetto sound; there remains power beneath the high notes. Really impressive.

You may, like me, have been pulled up short by the long, drawn out pacing of “Fly Me To The Moon.” Many of us have Frank Sinatra’s (or, more contemporarily, Diana Krall’s) version of the song embedded in our head. Mr. Mann interprets this song as a slow, lyrical ballad. This change from a relatively quick paced jazz song is not without precedent; singers like Tony Bennet and Rod Stewart have taken a similar approach. (We’ve even a bluesy R&B version from Bobby Womack and a bassa novaesque one from Astrud Gilberto).  Having listened to this a number of times now, this version growes on me. Rather than snapping my fingers as it moves along, this version has me picturing myself in a smoky jazz club sitting back next to my beloved with a single malt scotch being gently swirled in my hand as I allow the music smoothly waft over the top of me. Not a bad interpretation.

We have a couple treats in the bonus songs on this album. One is from the show for which he’s currently on tour, Phantom of the Opera. It’s certainly his own version of “The Music of the Night,” emphasizing his impassioned control. The other bonus song is an intriguing remix of ”Echo.”

 

So it’s got to happen. There is no holding back. How can you review someone like this without some comparisons and in particular comparing Chris Mann to Josh Groban. Both are great. I personally believe Mr. Groban has a bit more power and a slightly larger range on the bottom, but I believe Chris Mann has more flexibility among different styles of music. He’s believable sounding with straight pop and crossover country as well as “pop opera.” While he is clearly his own artist, one way to think about this would be like merging 70% Josh Groban and 30% Michael Bublé. However you want to characterize him, his voice is pure, powerful and, dare I say, lovely. I have seen few albums better put together. I highly commend, without any reservation, Constellation to your listening pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Scott Meyer’s Sneakily Clever Master of Formalities

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If someone asked me to read a novel that was about politics in space built upon an etiquettical framework using formal diplomats my response might have been: ”maybe toothpicks holding up my eyelids first.” To make the premise utterly antithetical to all I love, throw in a seemingly dysfunctional family who essentially captures the child of their enemy, decides to adopt him, and discovers that he is a spoiled brat who is obnoxious as all get out. I would now be thinking along the lines of either a toothpick in the eyes or shoot me now. All of this is true of Scott Meyer’s Master of Formalities, yet he pulls a rabbit out of this unlikely hat with a book that is clever, completely works, is consistently amusing, and, often, laugh out loud funny. With apparent ease, he has you cheering for those for whom you want to cheer, disdaining those who deserve it and caring for those characters we love. He builds an intriguing world to boot (despite his odd naming conventions, about which more later).

 

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Scott Meyer

 

Mr. Meyer builds relationships through the narrative, especially in challenges amidst the mundane activities in the non-mundane world of a ruling family. Not only do we learn that things are not always as we seem, those whom we may esteem might not be fully worthy of it, but we also discover that we ourselves are not all that we might’ve thought we’re cracked up to be. We see our own foibles through the eyes and lives of these characters, but Mr. Meyer is gentle with us. It’s done with humor and empathy.

One of the things that really struck me, as this post is being written in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaigns, is that we could do with a bit of etiquettical lubrication in our interchanges. More specifically, we tend to talk (or flame) past one another using sound bites. We rarely listen to one another. We have little civility. It’s all about winning, not learning, guiding, or trying to find a common way. In our disregard for one another, in which we’re always right in our own eyes, it has to be our way. Now I’m not suggesting we be less passionate about the views that we hold dear. I am suggesting that even while we hold those views dear, we hold one another in esteem and treat each other civilly. Dare I say, show common love and learn to truly listen to one another even when we know we disagree. The golden rule of doing to others as we would have done to us is still golden.

So I think we could do with a Master of Formalities here to help us use proper form and ensure that not only do we not spend our days killing one another, but we might spend some of our days listening to one another. While the rules of society and etiquettical obligations may lead to harm as many authors are wont to demonstrate, they may also lead towards conversation. Etiquette is not meant to browbeat or to make someone else feel below you (just read some Miss Manners). While anything can be used to try to feel superior, the intention of etiquette, like the masters of formalities, is to provide a buffer and a framework for communicating and dealing with others, especially others with a different agenda.

Politics aside, The Master of Formalities has engaging characters with brilliant situational comedy while being framed in a beautifully described world which is both familiar and foreign. Mr. Meyer likes to emphasize this foreign aspect through his interesting names. We have Joanadie Jakabitus and Hennik Hahn. Must rulers must have the house name letter start their first name? Of course not, lest we forget Lord Ment Pavlon. We also have Umily and Glaz, Kreet & Shimlish Hahn, all a bit different. My favorite is Chowklud, the name of a spicy sauce which causes pain to your nerves and is pronounced like chocolate. This seems to be his way of making sure that those who might confuse this for a comedy of manners recognize it’s a SciFi comedy of manners. One could naturally translate Bertie Wooster to this world with Jeeves, his Master of Formalities, constantly getting him out of trouble.

 

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Luke Daniels

 

I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book. Luke Daniels admirably narrates the work. Not only is his pacing and annunciation impeccable, the voice he lends to each of these characters seems to fit like a glove. Yes, that is Wollard; how could he sound like anything else? Mr. Daniels will sacrifice for his art- Hennik’s voice is a grating as his personality. This is my fourth audiobook with Mr. Daniels’ voice leading the way; he never disappoints.

 

So, don’t be put off by the title or the premise. This witty, winning SciFi novel will worm its way into your heart. I highly recommend it.

Camille Griep’s New Charity Blues Rules

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First of all, kudos to Camille Griep in writing such a starkly different novel from debut Letters to Zell. I say this not because I disliked Letters to Zell; quite the opposite as you see from my reflections, more reflections , and review. (I pre-ordered New Charity Blues without knowing anything about it simply based on my love for Letters to Zell.)  Rather, she avoided the temptation to play it safe and to be pegged as a certain kind of writer or the tried-and-true route of writing a sequel. Granted, this is still speculative fiction; there are, after all, magical elements, but her previous world was fantasy grounded in overlapping reality whereas this novel provides a gritty, post-apocalyptic reality with magical elements. Moreover, the overall tone is grittier (while remaining less dark than the prevalent writing fashion of the day) even as she deals with similar issues of community and individuality such as: Where do our roles and obligations start and stop and when does feeling obligated result from self-abuse? How do we communicate and remain connected in the midst of having made different/difficult choices over which others differ or disapprove? When does cooperation roll-over into selling out? As much as this book is about fighting the status quo, it also speaks to how we fight. How do we avoid adopting our enemy’s worst characteristics when there seems to be no other way to “win?” Finally, how the heck can a writer so deftly handle these humorous riffs on fairy tales and gritty post-apocalyptic tinged with hope stories? Seriously, if Ms. Griep was considered an up-and-coming writer before, New Charity Blues announces her as a force with which to be reckoned. Simply consider that she has pulled this 50+-year-old man into stories tied around twenty-something fairy tale princess and a twenty-something former ballerina (not a huge call for dance after the plague) and her friends.

Camille Griep

Camille Griep

The book opens up in a world in which many have died through the plague. The city is bereft of power and running water; at this point, people have moved into a survival groove; it is the new normal. It’s no longer all out panic, but life as they’ve known it has come to an end. There is an enclosed, cultish community called New Charity. Said community has also closed off the only water supplies to the city and other regions downstream and has, seemingly miraculously, avoided the plague. The grass is literally greener on the other side of that fence (or wall in this case). Maybe they can give Mr. Trump some wall building lessons and its relative effectiveness, but I digress. So you could imagine those downstream are more than a little miffed at New Charity. The story wraps around the journey of a former New Charitan and the confusing fact that she has a foot in both worlds of the city and New Charity.

Like the princesses before her, Cress finds herself in these two worlds with conflicting obligations and wrenching demands. Unlike the princesses, she makes little effort to live within “the lines,” however, even she feels the pull of expectations. We see the heavy yoke of expectations placed upon one family and it tears it apart. We see lines drawn between people based on their expectations of each other and their lack of trust. We see all this through the lives of the relatively young who receive a fast education through intense experience. We also see the relatively old not dealing with it. Both hold risk.

All of this sounds intense, maybe too heavy and not all that fun. Ms. Griep weaves in her lively sense of humor throughout the book within the circumstances and in the characters. Yes, there’s pain and heartache. There are misunderstandings and comedies of errors that become less comedic. But there’s also a girl and her friends and relationships that grow in the midst of this intense round.

What do I like about this book?

  • Oh, the characters, so many great characters. Even the baddies are great characters.
  • If two books make a pattern, you will never be bored in a Camille Griep book. She continues to encourage deeper reflection for any that read at all beyond the surface. So like Letters to Zell could have been read for a mostly fun light story, New Charity Blues could be read as a page-turning post-apocalyptic thriller more focused on relationships than most. Both of those reading experiences are good, but both represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Even old guys like me are encouraged to reflect on how I manage that tight wire of true obligation and inappropriate expectations and the consequences of inaction.
  • Intriguing world building. While this doesn’t present a new world with totally new rules ala Hogwarts in the Harry Potter world or The Name of the Wind, it does build out its speculative elements in an interesting and disciplined manner. She does allow us to fully breathe in the worlds of both the city but especially New Charity and the challenging social structure with it.
  • This doesn’t have plot twists in the traditional sense, but every time I thought I had things figured out, much like real life, I was sadly mistaken. Ms. Griep keeps one on one’s toes
  • Who knew Camille Griep could be brutal, cruel and a torturer of puppies? You see that seemingly angelic and sweet look in the author’s picture above; sheer deception. OK, that last bit might be over the top but she does have a ruthless side. She’ll do things to her characters I can only hope to have the courage to do to mine someday. Talk about your tough love!
  • Finally, Ms. Griep presents an empathetic and deep understanding of the disenfranchised. And let’s face it, we all feel disenfranchised at times.

What don’t I like? Yanking my emotional chain around! OK, that’s what good authors are supposed to do but maybe Camille Griep could do it just a little less well. Tone down the connection with the characters! Make me care a bit less. Stopping sucking me fully into her worlds and her books. I’m a grown man after all; we need to preserve a little dignity. Oh wait, that’s also why I bought the book. Ok, I got one – a little bit of a spoiler coming up – I thought James was going to be a good guy. Are you trying to teach us something about first impressions?

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Whitney Dykhouse & Lauren Ezzo

As is my wont, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book using that lovely Whispersync for Voice feature. The audiobook version is performed by Lauren Ezzo and Whitney Dykhouse alternating between the primary points of view of Cress and Cass. This works well. If you like audiobooks, you’ll like this performance

 

Seriously, read the book. Recognize your own tendency to live up to expectations or at least their influence on you, even if it’s to rebel against them. Think of your own clever way of managing said expectations. Our dear Cress was a bit of a bull-in-a-china-shop, there may be alternatives. Of course, her bullish nature is part of her charm, definitely set things in motion and saved lives, so not such a bad method.  New Charity Blues has sealed it – I have an unmitigated love for Ms. Griep’s work and am an unabashed fan. And yes, I will preorder pretty much anything Camille Griep pens.

 

Lana Axe’s The Wrathful Mountains Whisks You on a High Fantasy Ride

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Reading Lana Axe’s The Wrathful Mountains is somewhat akin to jumping on a high fantasy themed water ride – it takes you along at its own pace, depositing you where it will. I was pulled along the current of the narrative even as I was craning my (figurative) neck to visually parse the world that is part of the Nōl’Deron series. We meet the Ulihi, and their intriguing high priestess, Tashi, who comprise a native tribe whose identity and practices have continued unbroken for time out of mind. We follow the exploits of Kaiya, a Dwarf sorceress where magic is almost exclusively in the hands of the elves. She is closely followed by her friend, and sometimes more, Galen the elf, who, of course, studies Dwarf runes. This unlikely cast of characters, along with help from the stalwart mining dwarves, are tasked to rid the world of recently awakened evil set to destroy the world. Relying on her power with wind and her own wits, Kiaya is obliged to step into the line of fire with potentially more capable help unable to be reached in time.

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[Note: I was provided a copy of the book for an honest review]

The Wrathful Mountains is the most recent entrant into the Nōl’Deron series; while one’s experience may be enriched by reading the previous books unlike most fantasy series,  this may be read on its own. One of the things I found intriguing about the book is that it builds our understanding of the characters and their relationships within the context of the narrative. In other words, rather than focus on exposition or memories to have us come to know the characters or their connections, it does so through the action. So, before I even knew it, Ms. Axe had me caring about what happened to her characters and the people to whom they are tied. It seems a literary embodiment of that line from Batman Begins: “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.” These folks show their care for each other through risking their lives for one another; they overcome the tension between peoples through action. They show their love through gifts. Now, you might think it odd that a person who lives words, like Lana Axe, would emphasize words over action, but not so, at least in this novel. Now, don’t get me wrong, words are important; they have power in the story. I’m simply remarking that a book that seems, at first blush, to be all about narrative drive and little about character building or relationships does give us characters and relationships who come through the back door of action throughout the story.

This is a story of a heroine with honorable people who help her. There are no deeply conflicted characters, reluctant leaders or anti-heros. It doesn’t rely on lots of twists and turns or a novel so focused on the world it inhabits that the story meanders to a slow-moving stream. It is, in the immortal words of Garrison Keillor, a place where “the women are strong, the men are (mostly) good looking and the children above average.” These are straight-shooters.

I enjoyed the book, was surprised how quickly and naturally it swept me up in the action and the characters and will definitely come back for more.

Robyn Cage’s Born in the Desert burns in our hearts and emboldens our souls

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Robyn Cage – courtesy of robyncage.com

Even a brief survey of Robyn Cage’s songs shine out her unbridled love of music; she is no subject of the pop music machine. Her choices are unique, and, while her videos are stages and embed all sorts of artifice, they are never fake or artificial. With all the semi-goth, steampunk undertones of her look, her voice and words are those of a balladeer. There is a narrative drive in all of her songs, her videos, and her choices. I’ve been following Ms. Cage since I first saw her “Burning Now” video when it first came out in 2014; my response at the time was “Ridiculously good” (who knew we would have our history through Twitter)? That remains my response with the added realization of the breadth of her work. Simply listen to her the post-apocalyptic “Burning Now” with underlying baseline flipping to minor key misery then to the crystalline clarity of her cover of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” sounding as if she’s a member of Celtic Woman. Then there’s her tribute to David Bowie – here she is, appearing to float on the Great Salt Lake with only her voice and a keyboard. She nails it with a combination of earthiness interspersed with ethereal trills. What a range within a still relatively small body of work. So this is Ms. Cage – melting our minds with the story of “Theatre Noir” and capturing our hearts with her collaboration with Isobel Von Finklestein in “Annabelle’s Dance. ” There is variety and breadth as the threads of storytelling conjoined with beautiful singing are woven throughout the disparate songs.

With this picture of Ms. Cage before our eyes, let’s take a look at how this plays out in her album Born in the Desert.  This beautifully eclectic album starts out with “The Arsonist and The Thief”: “They met in the desert-their encounter was brief/He was an Arsonist, she was a Thief/He struck a match and she burned with desire/She stole his heart, he set hers on fire.” I love the images even this brief line evokes. She sings of the tentative nature of love that needs to be nurtured by using juxtaposed images.

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I also love how “Larger than Life”  embodies Ms. Cage’s ability to meld her storytelling, songstress side with a driving pop sound. She speaks of the downward slide of love which builds towards a more driving sound with the pre-chorus: “We walked on holy ground/We took a sacred vow/You stripped me of my power/You broke me down” crescendos with this fabulous chorus: “I used to be a Goddess, a Priestess/In your eyes/I used to be stronger, stand taller/ Larger than life/ Now you’ve cut me down so small/ I don’t exist at all.” This mix of ballad and pop reflecting loss and recognition of strength work perfectly.

“Born in the Dessert” clearly sets itself up differently as she begins with her voice slide down the notes, an earthier tone and a melody whose beat roles just a little different than our expectations. She moves from near sotto voce to fortissimo voce as she builds her story.  Her rich imagery of a flood of blood, pushing boulders up a mountainside and rising from the dust are what make her “love songs” unlike any other. Her imagination also shines in “Burning Now” while exercising her penchant for using opposing images, in this case, ice and fire: “But I’m learning now/My love is burning now/I’d do anything/To make you turn around/These icy walls are burning/My heart is burning now”

Here’s a cool remix of “Burning Now”

It’s interesting how much “Annabelle’s Dance” and “Theatre Noir” share a similar sound for two very different songs. Annabelle’s Dance is almost a postcard of a time in a girl’s life, providing both a picture of the girl and a slice of her emotional/thought caught in time. Theatre Noir, on the other hand, is a vignette of a performing circus group with a man who wishes to follow his love and to do so must become one of them. One of the things I love about Robyn Cage, and this song, in particular, is that she invites and involves those who don’t fit, those, to quote Maxim Gorky, who “are foreigners in their own country.” We misfits, fit in with her; her songs welcome us in and tell our story.

I haven’t even touched on the recognition of our storms and struggles in “If you Don’t Try”, our breaking from our cocoons in “The Cave”, letting go our anger at disillusionment in “Cinderella Story”, the loss of a loved one in “Letting Go” or the power of love to change us, even to enable us to love in “Capacity.” These are all great songs. What makes this album so special is that Robyn Cage applies her considerable voice, exquisite timing and emphasis to build a musical tapestry of varied weaves and texture into a lovely, coherent album.

I highly commend this album (and all of her work) to your listening pleasure.

Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan Encapsulates Horrific Authoritarian Rule in Brilliant Writing

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United States of Japan takes a similar premise as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in an even more dystopian direction, that premise being that America lost the war, Nazi Germany has the Eastern portion, Japan has the Western portion and the Nazi’s and the Japanese Empire are distrustful frenemies. All of the action takes place on the west coast with the Nazi’s being a mere mention. If you like your visions of the future dark and dystopian, there’s plenty of that here. There is also plenty of hope and a recognition of fortitude in the face of totalitarianism. This is a personal journey and a political movement. There are no one dimensional characters (although some of the bad guys are thoroughly bad).

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received an advanced review copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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The seriously rock-a-lockin’ book cover for USJ

What makes this book such a rare gem is that it manages to do all things well. Its writing is clever, careful and often beautifully phrased, which is especially challenging with contemporary dialog (about which more later). America, mainly focused on California, is reeling in the aftermath of its devastating post-World War II loss. In depicting said America,  Mr. Tieryas’ follows Chekhov’s dictum: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” He does so in spades, painting the scene in all of its livid, detailed glory which sometimes presents surprises and is always all too believable. The characters are multidimensional, interesting and, often, not nice. They, too, are full of surprises. The cohesive narrative flows quickly while pulling you completely in and spitting you, wrung out, by the end. Often, good books do two or three of these aspects of writing well; Mr. Tieryas accomplishes the rare feat of nailing every one, making this a great book.

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Peter Tieryas

So I’ve bestowed high praise on the book. Why? Well let’s take a deeper dive into each of these elements of writing:

Phrasing: In some ways, this is the most impressive aspect of the book. This is a fast moving, action packed book with intrigue and twists. Most of the beautiful phrasing I find has a bit more stately pace such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. Not that they’re slow, but they are less focused on action. Moreover, this is a contemporary novel (where as the two examples I gave are either timeless or historic). Why does this make it harder? We tend to be a little lazy, often using shorthand, and have less precision in our speech than in times past. I’m not saying formal (or stuffy) writing has better phrasing, rather we tend to use lazy phrases like “I’m good,” “you feel” and “what’s up?” Not bad in and of themselves, but less than eloquent (unless judiciously used). Mr. Tieryas uses phrases like: “The skyline was a fissured gradient of conflicted red, forlorn gray and dissipated azure” “The Americans they saw were in a daze, faces devoid of emotion, a hollowness that made them appear to be ghosts in costume. They saw Ruth and Ezekiel walking past, but gave no reaction, their spirits crushed by the specter of a carmine Helios above.” Even the quick dialog has some punch: “It’s a viral gun that rewrites the history of your blood. If I shot you with this, in five minutes, you wouldn’t be recognizable.” Yes, I had some visions that turned out to be tame compared to someone we later see injected with this. Is all of the dialog brilliant? Of course not; some is quite matter of fact. However, the whole tenor of the book is careful, frequently lovely, phrasing matching the milieu of the world around the characters.

World Building: Mr. Tieryas builds an amazingly complex world that vastly changes the culture of western America to a confluence of Japanese and American culture and different from both. It is populated with Mechas, giant human-piloted robots with supporting intelligence made to look like Samurai, portical (similar to tablets), electric cars and bio and mechanical body enhancements. Often words from Japanese culture are embedded in the story and dialog. So it’s this complex shift in culture and technology and yet, with some cool hat trick, he makes it all make sense without being overwhelming. By the time you finish the book, it seems to take on a believable life of its own that, while not comfortable (who would voluntarily live in such a world), seems natural. I also love the gaming culture.

Characters: The main characters, Beniko Ishimura and Akiko Tzukino, are complex and starkly different. There are aspects about both that grow to appreciate. There are surprise moments for some of the characters, but no jarring changes from the type of people they’ve presented themselves to be. They are not alone as characters of interest. Suffice it to say that the characters are varied, mostly complex and interesting. Their relationships with one another are not the focus of the book but build, especially between the primary figures, throughout the book.

Narrative: While there are stories within stories, twists and turns and cultural and references that are unfamiliar (at least to me), the storyline is clear, compelling and coherent. I love this take on an alternate history, albeit not the actual alternative itself. This has the right feel for a possible weird, wacky and messy alternative to the fairly weird, wacky and messy world in which we live. I appreciate how much of the narrative is grounded. No one comes out smelling like roses. Not only do Americans put Japanese (and just plain Asian looking) people into concentration camps, but in this version, do horrific things when they become desperate. The Japanese are willing to do anything to remain in power, even 40 years after their victory. Well told and well done.

Honestly, this is one of my favorite book I’ve read this year and on my all time favorite books. This is my introduction to Mr. Tieryas’ writing, so I will be adding Bald New World and Watering Haven to my list of books to read.

Phrasing: 4/5

World Building:  5/5

Character:  4.5/5

Narrative: 4.5/5

After my lengthy hiatus from reviews, I’ll add a new feature (for any who might have glanced at my previous reviews), music by which to read the book.

A Little Book Music: I spent a good deal of time listening to Anne Akiko Meyers Plays Satoh / Debussy / Messiaen / Takemitsu / Ravel. Especially apropos was Satoh’s ‘Birds In Warped Time II’. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, Inception also works well. I’m sure there’s some head-banging screemo that would work for parts, but I just can’t read to that.

Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether is a Fun, Deep Dive into Romulus, Atlantis and Surrounding Characters.

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Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether, the third book in Richard E Preston, Jr.’s Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin series, takes a slight deviation from the styles of the previous two and focuses a little less on action and a little bit more on world making, relationships, character, and backstory. That may sound dull but it’s not. There’s still plenty of action, but with the added bonus of delving more into each character we’ve come to know and love. It’s also in this book where we truly dive (literally and figuratively) into Atlantis, and get more story behind the Sabrina and the children of Balthazar, leader of the Crankshaft clan.

You will want to read these in order – more on Romulus Buckle and the City of Founders and Romulus Buckle and The Engines of War.

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Richard E Preston

We are once again bestowed with a starkly different setting for this book than the other two. While we remain in the steampunesque Snow World, most of the action takes place under water, in Atlantis, the never-lost city under the sea. The Atlanteans base their culture on the Roman Empire, replete with burnished armor and red-combed helmets, Senators in togas, and feelings of superiority. Mr. Preston describes a world of wonder, one that seems both possible if not real with an otherworldly quality to it. Under a thin veneer of civility and power lies of people that are both savage and scared. Those two are never a good combination. Whether it’s the mysterious luminiferous aether with its odd electricity or the items on the menu, this undersea world feels quite alien.

We have an opportunity to learn more about the Captain, Max, and Sabrina as well as some of their related family. It’s interesting to see both the parallels and the differences between the airborne culture of the Crankshafts and undersea one of the Atlanteans. Of course, some of the similarities are relatively obvious like being on a vessel whether it’s riding under the ocean or on top of the air; there are a number of similarities both in discipline and in design. However, it is the cultural differences, beyond of modes of transport and living space, that make the real story.

Romulus Buckle by Daniela Giubellini., courtesy of http://richardellisprestonjr.com/

We also get the backstory to the Atlantean’s themselves as well as Penny Dreadful’s story (who was introduced to us in Book 2). In the course of providing the respective back stories of these characters and places, we are brought along with just that, stories. So, it’s not some long boring monologue used for exposition but intriguing side stories that are well integrated into the whole. Yes, this is a book with more disparate storylines, not all of which fully converge before Mr. Preston’s very unkindly delivered cliffhanger. We’ll have to wait for the next installment to see them converge.

The things I love about the series – its swashbuckling nature with a steampunk twist, in the immortal words of Mal – real damn heroes, and familial relationships that go beyond blood all continue to be played out albeit with some tweaking and nuance added.  Romulus Buckle is taken out of his comfort zone, if threading the air in a gas balloon tethered by ropes could be called a comfort zone, and placed leagues under the sea. Despite the pressure (undersea and otherwise), he holds firm to his character as does his company.

Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether is another fabulous book in the Pneumatic Zeppelin series and I look forward to its next entry (which I would do even if not left dangling from a story-rope even as I’m hoisted into the next story – just sayin’).

 

Mozo and Lumia 950 – Flagship Uniqueness That Wears Thin Too Quickly

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One of the complaints about Microsoft’s Lumia 950 is that some think it just doesn’t feel or look like a flagship phone. While I love the phone and the Windows 10 Mobile OS,  the phone did seem to lack a certain panache. Mozo Accessories, a Finnish company who worked closely with Nokia and now is an official partner of Microsoft, comes to the rescue with their leather covers; they replace the original plastic back cover.

UPDATE: Alas, while they look fabulous out the box, the sides wear easily near the ports, so I cannot recommend them anymore. See below for details.

 

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Mozo’s back cover for the Lumia 950 XL

These back covers are not just another pretty face either – they support Qi wireless charging. They seem durable with metallic accents and unique looks. While I really like the brown leather and its stitching, I went for the subtler white version; a bit of a nostalgic nod to my (now old) white Nokia Lumia 920. The phone stays slim with its perfect fit, has precise openings where needed, grips well in the hand and, while it has very defined edges, it doesn’t dig into your hand. A nice cover indeed. (BTW, I bought mine at MobileFun – they seem the least expensive place and it arrived in perfect condition and timely.)

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Now the rest of this phone is rock-a-lockin’. I find the Windows 10 Mobile interface smooth, intuitive and a delight to use. The phone sports  a 5.2 in,  2560 x 1440 screen with 3 GB of RAM with 32 GB of storage with a microSD slot for another 128 GB (which can go up to 200 GB), a Qualcomm six-core Snapdragon 808 processor running Windows 10 (mobile) with a 20 megapixle camera (using fifth generation optical image stabilization) weighing in at 150 g being 8.2 mm thick. This means it’s an amazing phone with a stunning camera and utterly gorgeous screen. Use a Display Dock (and Continuum), keyboard and monitor, it can become an office away from home.

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So this lovely bit of tech now looks like the flagship phone it was destined to be.

 

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Update

Much to my chagrin, this destined look is short-lived. After only 2 & 1/2 months of pretty easy wear, both the USB-C and Headphone jack ports have degraded and the silver metal-like coating is gone around them (see below). For over $40, I would expect better wear. So I went out of the way to get a cover to really give a flagship look to the phone and, it ends up looking a bit cheap.

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Highlighted USB – C port where the silver has flaked off.

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Highlighted headphone jack where the silver has flaked off

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