How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records

August 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

ruinHow to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records by Larry Livermore

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I read Kevin Prested’s Punk USA, and was surprised to see that Larry Livermore was absent from the interviews included in the book. How could someone write a book about Lookout! Records without including Larry? Was it because he had removed himself from the label, or didn’t want to look back on what it had become? No, it turned out that he was writing his own book about his time at the label, and didn’t want to duplicate his thoughts. So of course once I finished that book, I had to move on to Larry’s.

If you want to know about the bands and the shows and the tours and the releases, Punk USA is the better book to read, because Livermore’s story is more personal. It makes sense — Prested was looking at the story from the perspective of a journalist, while Livermore is writing a memoir — but the two books pair well together. It’s still hard to tell if the two books comprise the complete story of Lookout! (there are a few contradictions between the two books, and the heroes and villains are portrayed differently), but together they tell a lot more than what a casual fan would already know.

Livermore tells his story in a self-effacing manner, mostly in the way he tells about the conflicts he had with other people on the label. Tim Yohannon and Ben Weasel get as much attention in Livermore’s book as they did in Punk USA, but Livermore relays his feelings with an amount of respect. He admires the people as much as he criticizes them, which isn’t always evident in Punk USA. Prested himself avoids comment, but those he interviews have some choice things to say. I preferred Livermore’s telling of those stories, just because it praised as well as criticized.

Strangely, the key moment of the book — when Livermore decides to leave the label — is told differently in each book. The way Livermore tells it, Chris Applegren came to Livermore when he was ready to have a legal intervention over a disparagement with Ben Weasel (Livermore stresses that it wasn’t suing, even though it was perceived as such) and basically gave him an ultimatum: Drop the proceedings or I quit. Instead, Livermore himself quit and let Applegren take over the label.

It’s clear that Livermore has fond memories of the label and its scene, even as he has no regrets over the decisions he made. As he sees it, the label’s focus changed after he left, similar to how Sub Pop changed when Bruce Pavitt left, and that’s ultimately what led to its downfall. It’s hard to say if Livermore staying on would have prevented the label’s demise (though the way Livermore tells it, it would have), but he does tell the story with reserved judgment. For that part of the story, he’s on the outside looking in, and his hindsight is 20/20.

The most remarkable piece of the story is in his postscript, where he writes about art and the scene and nostalgia, and sums it up in a beautiful way. Livermore is a talented writer, and his poignant look to the past and future is an effective way to wrap up his story. Prested’s book gives a better picture of the label overall, but Livermore’s memoir tells the story the way a biography can’t. They’re inseparable works, and anyone interested in the label and its history should read both books.

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Spy Rock Memories

August 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spySpy Rock Memories by Larry Livermore

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After reading Punk USA, the story of Lookout! Records, I figured I needed to get the complete picture of the label by reading Larry Livermore’s take on it, too. The thing is, when I went to find his book, I saw that he had another book, one he wrote about his time living on a mountain in a house that had running water thanks to the creek near his cabin, and electricity thanks to its solar panels. That time predated (and overlapped) Livermore’s time with Lookout!, so I figured I should start with this book before moving on to How to Ru(i)n a Record Label, even if I wasn’t all that interested in reading about living off the grid.

In my review of Punk USA, though, I noted that a well-written book about a topic in which the reader may not have a lot of interest will still be engaging, and Spy Rock Memories is one of those books. Livermore tells his tale with a kind of self-awareness that shows us both sides of a story, even though it’s written by just one person. He’s quick to show us his successes (he even admits that he is his own favorite topic), but he also easily admits his failings.

Though Livermore touches on his dealings with Lookout!, the story is really a memoir of his life on the mountain. He talks about how he came to buy his home there, how he survived the brutal winters, the repairs and additions he had to make to his home (which, based on the way Livermore tells it, he had to do constantly), and his run-ins with the local wildlife. He writes about being a hippie, about being into punk, about making friends and enemies on the mountain due to his beliefs, and tying all of his ideals together into a self-published newspaper/newsletter called The Lookout. He writes about starting a band with some of the kids of his neighbors, of his forays into San Francisco and Berkeley both before and after the label began, and his presence in the local town and what it meant to his life on the mountain.

He also writes about the heartache of broken relationships, of finding, raising, and losing pets, of achievements and losses, and disilluisonment, not just with his label, but also with how to live life and the idea of living on the mountain. It’s a very human story, with a sharp focus. Sometimes, Livermore comes off as being self-important, enough so that it’s difficult to know if what he’s telling us is the truth as it actually happened, or is the truth as he wants it to be, but his self-effacing manner through the memoir suggest more of the former over the latter. It still comes through on occasion, though.

Spy Rock Memories is a fascinating read, and one that preps me for How to Ru(i)n a Record Label. It’s good to know that Livermore can write about more than just the facts, and can pull real emotion into his story, because it means the next book will be a perfect complement to Punk USA, where it felt more factual than emotional. That’s probably the difference between a memoir and a biography, to be honest — one is told by the person, while another is told about a person. Regardless, I look forward to seeing Livermore’s take on his involvement with Lookout!

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Punk USA: The Rise and Downfall of Lookout! Records

August 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

punkPunk USA: The Rise and Downfall of Lookout! Records by Kevin Prested

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Ah, Lookout! Records. I have a lot of good memories regarding that label. I think Operation Ivy was what brought them to my attention, and it was what kept it for a long time. I wasn’t there “from the beginning”, but I remember when 39/Smooth was the only Green Day record, and I remember the excitement surrounding Screeching Weasel finally signing with them. There weren’t a lot of labels I followed religiously, but Lookout! was definitely one of them.

Punk USA takes us from the very beginnings of Lookout!, all the way through to its sad end. Prested tells us a little bit about all of the major bands that signed to the label, as well as telling us a bit about the scene that drove the start of Lookout!, as well as carried it along. He recognizes that the label was a result of the scene, and pays attention to the ones who were a part of that scene, and how they played a role in the label. It was a small enough scene that almost everyone was a part of Lookout! at one point or another.

Punk USA is a collection of recollections, some told from his perspective, but most of them from those who were a part of the scene and the label. Chris Applegren, an early employee of the label who eventually became a co-owner, tells the bulk of the story, but we also hear from members of the bands who were on the label, including such luminaries as Dr. Frank from The Mr. T Experience and Jesse from Operation Ivy. For someone like me, who followed the label so closely and knew a lot of the bands and names, it was a great insight into a big part of my youth (if you consider college “youth”, at least).

Noticeably absent from the book are any pieces from Larry Livermore, one of the two founders of the label. There’s no intention to it (Larry was apparently already working on his own book about the label, and chose not to participate in this one so as not to duplicate his own effort), but it makes the book feel incomplete. David Hayes, the other co-founder, participated, and from the other participants it’s easy to get a picture of Livermore, but it doesn’t seem right to have a book about Lookout! without having Larry give his own view of events. Considering that one of the key points in Lookout!’s history is when Larry leaves the label, but we never really get a complete view of why this happens.

To his credit, Prested makes sure to give as accurate a view as possible in the book. He takes a “warts and all” approach to the story, showing us how band-centered the label was, but also not avoiding the drama that eventually led to the label’s demise. The feuds between the label and Ben Weasel and Tim Yohannon are discussed, and Prested does his best to present them in the most balanced way possible, considering that neither Livermore, Weasel, or Yohannon participated in the book (though I should point out that Yohannon died in 1998, long before the book was written).

The thing is, the book covers a lot of ground. Lookout! started in 1987, and didn’t go out of business until 2012, so there’s a lot of time to detail in the book. Prested does a good job of giving us a look at each of the bands on the label, even if it’s not comprehensive, but sometimes it feels like we’re only getting a brief look at one small part of the label. It doesn’t help that Prested doesn’t provide breaks between sections, so it sometimes feels like the story is shifting abruptly from one band to another. Add in several typos and a handful of run-on sentences, and you get a book that’s more about the scene than it is in being a good book.

Still, that sounds a bit harsh; for anyone who was into Lookout! back in the day, this book feels essential. It’s not necessarily well written, but it’s a work of passion, and it’s a book that required a lot of hours to write. Prested should be commended for tackling the story and bringing it to the fans to read, but at the same time, it’s only going to resonate with those fans. A well-written book, even about a subject with which the reader is unfamiliar, will engage any reader; Punk USA‘s focus is for a smaller audience. Even readers looking to know more about Green Day will find themselves having to wade through all the other bands to get there.

As such, it’s a perfect punk book. It’s for the fans, by a fan, and it doesn’t care if it’s polished and perfect, so long as it gets its message across. Anyone who remembers the heyday of Lookout! should read it, as should any old punk who wants to relive the days of the scene, even if they weren’t into Lookout!

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Stitches: A Memoir

August 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stitchesStitches: A Memoir by David Small

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I stumbled across this book while browsing Goodreads one day. That’s nothing of note (a lot of the books that wind up on my to-read list come from there), but that particular day, I happened to be browsing the site after installing a browser extension that linked to my library. The summary and artwork both looked promising, and my local branch had a copy, so I gave it a test run, and what do you know? It works!

Stitches is a memoir of David Small’s early life. It’s a heavy story. Small’s parents were cold and distant, more interested in their own well-being than his own, and they often saw him as a burden more than anything else. His father, a radiographer, tries to cure Small’s pulmonary problems by dosing him with X-rays, so when he’s in his early teens and develops cancer, it’s not much of a surprise. Well, it’s not much of a surprise to his parents. It is to Small, because he goes into surgery expecting the doctors to remove what he’s been told is a sebaceous cyst, but when he wakes, he’s missing his thyroid and one of his vocal cords, and is effectively mute. It’s only then that he discovers he had cancer.

Dysfunctional families are the subject of many a memoir, so the memoir itself isn’t anything new, nor does it provide any particular insights into why families can be dysfunctional. What drew me to the story was the anecdote about his surgery and his ignorance of his own health, and once that point is passed in the story, it ceases to be as interesting. Small carries the story through to its conclusion, offering some small explanations for why his parents were like they were, and offering some small bit of closure to the relationship with his mother, but it doesn’t feel engaging. The story is compelling enough, and Small’s illustrations are evocative (there’s a break in the middle of the story where the style changes, and that change is used to great effect), but in the end, I couldn’t feel much more than pity for the author and his family, and I don’t feel that’s the appropriate emotional response for what happened to him.

Memoirs aren’t really my thing, but every so often a graphic memoir catches my attention enough to make me want to read it. Fun Home was another one I read and only just barely enjoyed, and Stitches is about the same for me. Part of it is they’re so one-sided; family dynamics, even in the healthiest families, are complicated, and it’s impossible to get the entire story of a family just by listening to one member. In his afterword, Small suggests that he did a lot of research into his family when writing the book, but it’s still a story told entirely from his viewpoint. I can’t help but feel we’re not getting the entire story, but maybe that’s the point of any memoir. Again, they’re not a genre I typically read.

I wasn’t impressed with Stitches, but I admit I’m not the target audience. I liked Maus, but most other memoirs I’ve read have felt pointless and self-indulgent. Fans of memoirs, or fans of stories about terrible families, might enjoy it (is “enjoy” even the right word here?), but for the most part I didn’t get it.

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Master of Reality

May 11, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

masterMaster of Reality by John Darnielle

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Well, this is an odd book. If you’re not familiar with 33⅓, it’s a series of books written by music critics about albums in the same way that literary critics write about literature. I’ve known of it for a while, and I’ve even known that John Darnielle wrote this one, but I didn’t think anything of it because I figured I wasn’t interested in reading what some dude thought about Black Sabbath, even if he wrote Wolf in White Van. What I didn’t realize is this isn’t a nonfictional piece.

Darnielle writes his appreciation of this album through the voice of Roger Painter, a sixteen-year-old who has been sent to a psychiatric hospital for being a teenager. It’s not clear what happened to send him there, but what’s important to him at that time of his life is Black Sabbath, specifically their album Master of Reality. In a journal that he’s expected to keep as part of his therapy, he talks about its importance, and how he really needs to hear it, even though his tapes and Walkman have been confiscated.

The story is told in two parts, first from Roger’s perspective at sixteen, though his journal, and the second also from Roger’s perspective, ten years later. Darnielle does a convincing job of showing how the record has had an effect on him, namely because he’s considered a misfit, and Black Sabbath is made up of misfits. He writes about them being successful despite their backgrounds, not due to it, and Roger, sent to a psychiatric hospital and later doing what he can to get by, can relate to that. He talks about the emotion of the album, despite the ridiculous subject matter, and how the music itself is what speaks to him. It’s a familiar refrain for anyone who is really into music, and it’s easy to relate to Roger through that passion.

In some ways, the discussion of the album interferes with the story (and folks reading this for Darnielle’s appreciation could legitimately argue that the story gets in the way of the appreciation), but the story can’t exist without that appreciation. It’s Roger’s therapy to write what he feels, and what he feels is tied in with Master of Reality. The author writes a convincing character in Roger, and it’s easy to sympathize with him, as, for at least part of the story, he’s helpless to prevent what’s happening to him.

Folks who found a good story in Wolf in White Van owe it to themselves to read this book. I believe that readers who already are familiar with the album will get the most out of it, but anyone who has ever grown up with an album that helped define them will recognize the importance that Darnielle puts on music in this book. I think it could be easily overlooked due to it being fiction in a series of nonfiction books, which is a shame. The style he used to great success in Wolf in White Van is evident here.

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Miracles Ain’t What They Used to Be

April 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

miraclesMiracles Ain’t What They Used to Be by Joe R. Lansdale

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Recently, a friend reviewed a Lansdale book and mentioned how Lansdale hates Christianity. It took me by surprise, because while I’ve never seen anything in Lansdale’s work that suggests he feels otherwise, I’ve never seen him say something that overt before. That was before I read the essay that gives this short collection its title, though, and now I have to say, yep, totally true. Lansdale hates Christianity.

To be fair, he hates all religions. Doesn’t have any use for it. He writes about this for about 25 pages, showing how much he despises the idea of it, how he doesn’t believe in God, and has little patience for people who claim to be Christian yet don’t act like proper Christians (though he also gives a nod to those who are Christian but don’t use it as a crutch to disregard everything else in their lives). Fair enough. I don’t even disagree with what he has to say. I do, however, feel like he goes out of his way to be confrontational about it, which I think accomplishes little.

I felt the same way about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, because it’s one thing to go into a story (or essay) with an agenda; it’s another to come out the other side of it frothing at the mouth over your position. It doesn’t win anyone over, it doesn’t change any minds, and, honestly, it’s hard to determine the point of such a thing. In Lansdale’s case, at the very beginning of the piece he notes that he’s about to go an an unbalanced rant, so at least there’s the self-awareness of how unhinged his argument sounds. I’d say it’s an effort to populate his own echo chamber, but even to me, an atheist, I couldn’t help but think, “Jeeze, Joe, take a breath. Calm down.”

This collection has a few other pieces, most of them non-fiction, all of them philosophical. Hap and Leonard make an appearance in the first story, but don’t expect the usual hee-haw experience with these guys; it’s just an eight-page story waxing poetic on aggressors and victims. There are two other stories that appear to be written straight out of Joe’s own childhood, and if they’re true, then they shine a light on how Lansdale developed his style.

Also in this collection is one interview with Lansdale, along with five nonfiction pieces he wrote for The Texas Observer. One is an appreciation for Poe, and the others are reflections on his own life. Again, you see how much Lansdale uses his own life for inspiration, since you learn that much of The Boar came straight from his own experiences.

This collection is intended for Lansdale’s already-fans, since it’s more fact than fiction. I think readers will enjoy the glimpse into his life, but I can’t help but wonder how much the title essay will polarize his readers. To be honest, I wouldn’t think of Christians having much appreciation for Lansdale, but my friend proves me wrong, and I can’t help but wonder how he would react to it (especially when I even thought he was going too far). So it’s hard to recommend it without that caveat. Just be aware, and forewarned.

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Hearts in Suspension

March 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

suspensionHearts in Suspension, edited by Jim Bishop

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I’m not much of a reader of non-fiction, but I’m a huge fan of Stephen King, and the lure of reading new material by him — recently written, and some of his earliest writings — drew me to this book. It’s a collection of essays by King and some of his contemporaries from the years he attended the University of Maine at Orono, since 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of his starting college there. The book also includes the novella Hearts in Atlantis, included in the collection of the same name, which is King’s take on what the 1960s meant to him.

“Five to One, One in Five” is King’s essay, which introduces the collection. It gives some background into Hearts in Atlantis, so much so that it shows how autobiographical the novella is. He based characters in the story on real people he met at college, and it’s interesting to see these two pieces together and see how one influenced the other. That’s true of most fiction, but anyone who doesn’t see how King’s life influences his fiction hasn’t read enough of either. The man wrote himself into The Dark Tower, for crying out loud.

The rest of the essays are a bit of a mixed bag. You can tell the writers from the non-writers there, but each of them do their part to convey what the 1960s meant to them. Not all of them talk about King; some mention him only once or twice; others put the focus of their essays on him. You find a lot of repetition there, too, since so many events of the 1960s — the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, Kent State, and the Great Chicken Crisis are common refrains — tie them all together. It’s to be expected; big, momentous events like that present a shared experience that links people together, and the 1960s were a big, momentous time.

I don’t see this book having much appeal to a casual reader, but for folks who have read all of King’s books, read up on his life, read books about King, and maybe even traveled to Maine in the hopes of meeting the man, this book will be of great interest. If nothing else, it will allow you to re-read one of King’s most affecting stories and see it in context with real life.

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Born Standing Up

December 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

bornBorn Standing Up by Steve Martin

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I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I like behind-the-scenes trivia quite a bit. Of particular interest to me are analyses into the creative process, and several years back, read a piece from this book where Martin described how he developed his stand up act. It was fascinating, enough for me to think, I should read that whole book, but then nothing ever came of it. Earlier this year, I found the book on sale on Audible, and figured the time was right to catch up on the whole thing. That Martin himself reads the book was a bonus.

The book is less biography and more memoir, since Martin only writes about his life up to the time he stopped doing stand up. That means the book skips over his career as an actor and writer, but seeing him develop from a young kid selling maps to Disneyland to being such a popular comic that he has to start wearing a white suit in order for the people in the back rows to see him is an amazing journey. He writes about how he started doing magic, how he took up the banjo, and how he developed all of his interests into an act that was less about comedy and more about entertainment. All of his diverse interests intersected into an absurd, surrealist act that stood above what other comics were doing at the time, making Martin stand out above it all.

It’s interesting to me to see how seriously Martin took his comedy. I imagine this is true of most successful comedians — it takes analysis and refinement to perfect an act — but Martin talks about it in a clinical way that makes you realize he didn’t just come up with his act on the fly. All of his bits were calculated, and he had tons of material waiting in his head so he could respond to the audience’s mood as he performed his act. I’ve seen and listened to enough of it to recognize some of the bits he discusses, and it’s impressive to read how much he worked to make it look spontaneous.

Speaking of the bits he discusses, I expect that Martin was the only choice for reading this book. There is enough of his own act included in the memoir that only Martin could convey them correctly. Not even professional readers could get the right timing down on how he ends his “Ramblin’ Man” song, or if they could, it wouldn’t be as impressive as how Martin himself does it.

On top of the memoir being an intimate look into Martin’s process, the book is also well-written. Martin is a writer as much as he is a comedian or actor (or magician, or banjo-player, for that matter), and it shows in little turns of phrase he uses here and there. It’s a good book, more so if, like me, you’re interested in the creative process, and the audio version of the book is a great edition to read. Er, listen to. Fans of Martin shouldn’t pass it up.

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As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

December 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

wishAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes, et al.

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The Princess Bride is among a lot of people’s favorite movies. I think it’s safe to say that one can judge the worthiness of a friend by asking them what they think of the movie; if they don’t say that it’s one of the best stories ever, they’re probably not worth the time.

As You Wish is Cary Elwes’ autobiography about making the film. He gives the reader a lot of information about the production itself, including some of the pre-production details that he learned while making the movie. He speaks of how wonderful Rob Reiner is as a director, how wonderful Robin Wright is as an actor, how wonderful Andre the Giant was as a person, how wonderful William Goldman is as an author and screenwriter … he pretty much talks about how wonderful it was to make the movie. Based on this book, one can only wish they had been a part of the movie, just to get to know all of the people involved.

Aside from Cary’s insights, the book includes a lot of thoughts from other actors and principles in the movie, so we get more than just Cary’s take on things. Everyone involved seems to agree, though, that it was a wonderful experience to make this movie. The people involved all seem to be good-hearted, warm individuals, which is no surprise, since the movie gives off a similar vibe. I listened to this as an audiobook, and the production brings in the individuals to tell their own parts of the story (save for a few people, who have a stand-in to read those parts).

The book does have a lot of repetition, which is its only downside. On top of that, Elwes covers a lot of the story of The Princess Bride, and one point explains the entire plot from start to finish. I’m not sure why he felt the need to go into that much detail; surely the only people reading this book are the ones who already know and love the story, right? I can overlook his repeating some of the most famous lines from the story, since that part of the book is where he’s highlighting Goldman’s writing talents, but the rest of it seemed to be there just to pad out the page length of the book. Myself, I would have preferred to know more about what went on behind the camera.

To his credit, Elwes covers the behind-the-scenes details I wanted to know (the background behind the sword fight is lengthy, and is the running teaser throughout the book), and how much one will enjoy the book is probably contingent on how much one likes to know behind-the-scenes trivia. Myself, I love it; as soon as I see a movie, I bring up IMDB and check the trivia for it to see what kinds of neat details I can learn. Others, though … well, what are they doing reading this book if they don’t like that sort of thing? It tells us right there in the title — Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

The book is a joy to read, and even more of a joy to listen to, and it makes me want to re-read the book and re-watch the movie. I already know that both are wonderful stories, but Elwes’ excitement about both, and his pride in having been involved with making the movie, is contagious enough to make me want to revisit them both. His recollections make me wish I could be involved with something as memorable and important as The Princess Bride.

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Bone: Coda

September 7, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

codaBone: Coda by Jeff Smith & Stephen Weiner

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I could tell you a whole lot about the origins of Bone and how it went from a struggling self-published title to a phenomenon, but if I did, I’d spoil a lot of this book for you. It’s not that I would spoil the story itself — the story at the beginning of this book is just a lagniappe to the larger story — but about two-thirds of this title is comprised of Smith’s own recollections and The Bone Companion, a literary look at the entire saga. So the book is more nonfiction than fiction, really.

That being said, how much you like this book will depend on how much you like to know the background of endeavors like this. I’m very much a behind-the-scenes kind of guy (the first thing I do after seeing a movie is look up its trivia), so I thought it was fantastic. It didn’t hurt that I started reading Bone with issue number nine or so, when I first got into comics, so a lot of what Smith talks about in his piece is stuff that happened while I was in that scene. It was pretty neat, and it brought back a lot of memories.

Weiner’s piece has been published before, and how necessary you feel it is depends on how you feel about literature. Weiner draws comparisons between Bone and the other works that inspired it, and some of those comparisons feel like a stretch. Additionally, Weiner sometimes makes a comparison but doesn’t support it with any additional detail, just expecting the reader to accept it. What I remember most clearly from my English classes is that you can draw any conclusion from a piece that you want, so long as you can support it with details from the work itself; Weiner bypasses this step a few times, but still expects the reader to agree with his conclusion.

It goes without saying that this book is intended for the Bone completist; even the short story at the beginning of the book adds nothing to the saga. At first I thought that it brought the entire story full circle, but that’s not entirely true; the end of Bone ended pretty much as it began, and this story goes a bit further, showing us some of what could have happened on the Bones’ way to Barrelhaven. Since we already know what the Bones’ characters are like, and can expect some of what happens, there’s nothing much new here. Still, it’s entertaining, hitting the usual notes readers would expect, and I imagine this book will sell just as well as all the others.

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