Tag Archives: genre

Book Review: ‘Ashley Bell’ is 1 of Dean Koontz’s best

Dean Koontz outdoes himself with his latest journey, which solidifies his reputation as one of the best storytellers in the book business.

Koontz’s stories get labeled as horror, but the lyrical writing and compelling characters in “Ashley Bell” aren’t commonly seen in that particular genre. Koontz stands alone, and this novel is a prime example of literary suspense if one is forced to classify.

Bibi Blair lives by herself, is engaged to a Navy SEAL and has published a novel and several short stories. One day while sitting at her computer, one side of her body starts to tingle and she realizes something is wrong. Doctors run tests and determine that she has a rare form of brain cancer. Even with chemotherapy, she has at most a year to live. She tells her doctor, “We’ll see.” That’s when the novel takes off.

Blair has a miraculous recovery, and she doesn’t understand why until a mysterious woman gives her a psychic reading, revealing that she’s lived so that she can save a woman named Ashley Bell. Who is this woman, and what does Blair need to do to save her?

Evil people want to harm Bell, and they’re determined to eliminate Blair as well. She’s cheated death once and feels that it’s her destiny to save Bell. What Blair doesn’t realize is that Bell has ties to her past, and various people she’s known might be involved in what has become a vast conspiracy.

Elements of other Koontz novels are on display, such as a prominent plot point involving a golden retriever and a diabolical villain who’s both charismatic and cruel.

How our lives are shaped by our memories and how much our childhood influences our adulthood are prominent themes of “Ashley Bell.” The major plot twist comes a bit early, and the book flirts with being too bulky. But Koontz knows what he’s doing, and the baffling story with the stellar character of Bibi Blair makes this thriller one of his best.

On the Web…


Music critic Greil Marcus’ ‘10 Songs’ will rock Alverno

When it comes rock ’n’ roll journalism, few writers boast a greater pedigree than Greil Marcus — many argue the veteran Rolling Stone contributor invented the genre.

But where the San Francisco native outpaces the pack of music writers and fans is in his view of what rock music means from a cultural perspective. Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll explores the impact of rock on American culture and mythology through the stories of Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. Time recognized Mystery Train in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential nonfiction works published since 1923.

Marcus’ latest book is The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, published in 2014 by Yale University Press. In this history, Marcus selects 10 songs — some familiar, others perhaps not — and dramatizes how each embodies rock ’n’ roll. The songs, the writer says, contain the whole DNA of rock.

Forget Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Marcus says. Listen instead to “Transmission” by Joy Division, “All I Could Do Was Cry” performed by Etta James (and later, Beyoncé) and Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him,” first recorded by the Teddy Bears and covered much later by Amy Winehouse, among others. 

Like a good rocker, Marcus is touring. His road show arrives in Milwaukee on Nov. 20, part of Alverno College’s Alverno Presents series. Joining the author will be Jon Langford and Sally Timms (The Mekons), who will provide additional commentary and musically illustrate aspects of the songs that led Marcus to place them on his list.

WiG recently talked with Marcus about rock criticism, his book, the history of rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs and who and what didn’t make the list.

What prompted you to define rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs? I was asked by Yale University Press to write a history of rock ’n’ roll. I said it was a terrible idea, had been done to death, that there was a master narrative of all the people from Elvis to Nirvana and beyond that you had to talk about, of all the events from Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show to Woodstock and beyond that you had to talk about, and who would want to do all that again?

But I kept thinking about it and the idea of telling the whole story in just a small number of songs — I originally thought of 16, a nice rock ’n’ roll number — interested me. Especially, if you left out everything you otherwise couldn’t leave out. So, no Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tupac or Nirvana. Name someone who had to be there and rest assured he or she wouldn’t be.

That was the premise, along with a kind of secret list. A lot of people have realized that if you could find the whole history of the form in 10 songs, you could also find it in one song, almost any song. I succeeded, except for the Beatles. There was just no way to keep them out. They are the history of rock ’n’ roll in one band.

Your choices are unorthodox, or at least none that I would have expected to be included on the list. How did these particular songs fit the bill? When I started there were only two songs I knew I would write about: The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” and Joy Division’s “Transmission.” The others made their way into the book while I was writing it.

I never would have even thought about “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” an embarrassing No. 1 1958 hit by the Teddy Bears, if I hadn’t heard Amy Winehouse’s version on the radio after she died. I knew I had to write about it. The song sailed into the book from out of nowhere.

The book organized itself around songs I wanted to write about — or songs I’d always loved and had never written about, like the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.” I wanted to see if I could find a story in them that I could tell.

Did you consider lyrics, melody/harmony, social implications or a combination of those and other factors when you made you choices? None of those things. If the history of rock ’n’ roll could be found in any one interesting song, then I could write about any song I wanted to write about, if I could tell its story.

I wasn’t in any way interested in what influence a song might have had outside of itself. “Shake Some Action” has probably influenced a lot of hearts, but perhaps no other songs. The Beatles’ version of “Money” is so big it couldn’t have influenced anyone, unless it was to convince them to quit before they started.

Jon Langford and Sally Timms from The Mekons will be on hand to perform during your Alverno presentation. Why did you choose them to participate? Jon and Sally are old friends. I actually appeared — I don’t know if I can say performed — with the Mekons some years ago at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. We did a show based on my book at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago last year. And we had so much fun we wanted to do it again.

I will talk and read from the book, they may talk and read from the book, but also play songs from it. There will likely be analyses from them directly, but their interpretations of the songs are analyses of the songs. 

Are there any rock songs and artists that people might consider a serious omission from your list? Of course there are. I dedicated the book, “To everyone I left out.” But the 10 songs are not meant to be the 10 best songs, the 10 most important songs, the 10 anything songs. They are a constellation of songs, all rushing off in different directions, bumping into each other, just missing each other, smashing together and coming out differently.

Given your extensive body of work, does this presentation/book represent next-generation thinking for someone who clearly looks beyond the current music scene? For me the book is a kind of conversation, with the different songs and performers talking to each other, listening to each other, as we might hear any of these songs in a single day on the radio. (And there are stations at the back of the end of the dial that might even play Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag” soundtrack).

So for that conversation, I wanted men and women, black people and white people, people from the 1950s and people from the 2000s. I really do believe they all speak the same language and would have no trouble understanding each other. When Jon and Sally play, I think that is what their performance will say.

Greil’s Ten Songs

“Shake Some Action,” by the Flamin’ Groovies

“Transmission,” by Joy Division

“In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins

“All I Can Do Was Cry,” by Etta James and

“Crying Waiting Hoping,” by Buddy Holly

“Money (That’s What I Want),” by the Beatles 

“Money Changes Everything,” by The Brains and Cyndi Lauper

“This Magic Moment,” by The Drifters

“Guitar Drag,” by Christian Marclay

“To Know Him Is To Love Him,” by the Teddy Bears and Amy Winehouse


The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, featuring Greil Marcus, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, will be performed Nov. 20 at Wehr Hall, 3400 S. 43rd St., Milwaukee. Visit alvernopresents.alverno.edu for more information.

Mile of Music brings Americana artists back to Appleton

Appleton becomes Americana Central during the weekend of Aug. 7–10, when the Wisconsin city hosts the second Mile of Music Festival.

More than 200 performing artists will take the stage in more than 60 venues in and around downtown for a grand celebration of the Americana genre of music in all of its forms.

Included on the schedule are big names, such as Peter Buck and Mike Mills, both formerly of R.E.M., now playing in the Baseball Project; and Butch Vig, the legendary producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’Siamese Dream albums, playing with Emperors of Wyoming.

In addition to the name acts, top local musicians from throughout Wisconsin will perform.

The Mile of Music Festival launched last year, co-founded by Appleton natives Cory Chisel and Dave Willems. The first year was a great success, with more than 100 artists appearing at more than 40 venues, ranging from local bars to the Lawrence University Memorial Chapel. The festival was advertised as a cover-free zone designed to celebrate original music and outstanding songwriting.

A highlight of Mile Of Music 2013 was the surprise appearance of Norah Jones with Chisel and his band The Wandering Sons.

Most of the events at Mile of Music 2014 are free, but $150 priority access passes are available. They will get you priority access to the top 11 music venues and the Lawrence University Chapel showcases.

But most performances are open to all, and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The genre of music known as Americana is a loose combination of sounds from folk, country, blues and rock. The Americana Music Association was founded in 1999 to create a networking infrastructure to support recognition of the genre.

The association has sponsored the Americana Music Honors and Awards each year since 2002 to recognize outstanding achievements. Past recipients of album of the year awards have included Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Alison Krauss and Loretta Lynn.

In 2009, the Grammy Awards added the category “best Americana album.”

Americana also has emerged as a unique radio format dedicated to sounds connected with American roots music.

Chisel grew up in Babbitt, Minnesota, and Appleton. Key musical influences came from his uncle, who introduced him to blues musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson. His father, a Baptist pastor, exposed Chisel to the spiritual power of church music.

After touring extensively, Chisel and The Wandering Sons grew a core fan base that resulted in a major label deal with RCA subsidiary Black Seal Music in 2007. In 2012, they toured with Norah Jones.

Chisel was recognized by his Wisconsin peers in 2010, when he was named artist of the year by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry. 

At this year’s Mile of Music, be sure to catch Milwaukee pop-rock duo Vic + Gab. The sisters Victoriah and Hannah Gabriela Banuelos have received strong support from 88NINE Radio Milwaukee. They were named one of the must-hear Wisconsin bands by Paste magazine late last year.

Vic + Gab have placed a song on the MTV show Skins and are looking prime for an upward trajectory.

Also, look for the Oshkosh-based indie rockers The Traveling Suitcase, who delivered one of the most talked-about performances at last year’s festival. The trio’s Nicole Rae and Brandon Domer began making music together in high school but then drifted apart for a number of years before reuniting in 2010 to form a band that at one point counted seven members. It’s since been pared down into a trio with guitarist Bill Grasley. Rae is both lead vocalist and drummer, which gives the band a unique focal point onstage.

The definitively Americana Milwaukee-based band Hugh Bob and the Hustle also are worth catching in their return engagement at Mile of Music. Hugh Robert Masterson, aka Hugh Bob, refers to the band’s music as “north country.” It has roots in traditional country and folk music but its subject matter focuses on the lives of people who live up north. The band has received strong support from both Country Music Television and Paste magazine.

In just two years, Appleton’s Mile of Music has grown into one of Wisconsin’s top music events of the year. Artists from both coasts, Canada and places in between will present songs that celebrate roots music in all of its vast variety.

Whether you travel to Appleton for one night or the entire weekend, you can expect to be moved by the experience. For the schedule and other information, visit www.mileofmusic.com.

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Author Mark Zubro brings mystery to Milwaukee

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of popular gay mystery writer Mark Zubro’s award-winning first book — A Simple Suburban Murder. Since that time, the prolific author has written more than two dozen books, mostly in the mystery genre. This year, however, he’s expanded his repertoire to include science fiction. He  describes his new novel Alien Quest as “23 years in the making” and the first in a new series.

I spoke earlier this month with the Racine native and Chicago resident.

Gregg Shapiro: As a writer specializing in genre fiction, do you also read genre fiction?

Mark Zubro: The most influential mystery writer is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. His work taught me several important things: the absolutely vital notion that the sleuth involved must follow the logic of the evidence; that humanizing the sleuth was key; that the story is paramount; and that a clever twist at the end is always a plus. 

How about science fiction writers?

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is still my favorite science fiction epic. It’s brilliant in its sweep and imaginative constructs.

Do you have an all-time favorite author? 

J.R.R. Tolkien. I used to read the Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy at least once a year. Now it’s every two or three years. It’s just a masterful work of world creation and a triumph of imagination.

You have two ongoing mystery series — those featuring Tom Mason and Scott Carpenter and those involving Paul Turner. How do you decide which mysteries are a better fit for your characters?

The Tom Mason ones are the trickiest. They’re in the “amateur sleuth” sub-genre of mysteries. The problem for them is always what I call the “Jessica Fletcher” syndrome. In all reality, if the police didn’t show Jessica the door, the “too interested” person is always high on the suspect list. So, the key is figuring a way to get Tom and Scott involved without the story turning into a cliché or becoming unrealistic. They have to have some personal connection to the case or some plausible reason for getting involved. The Paul Turner books are easier in the sense that, since he’s a police detective, he has a logical reason to be involved built in.

February marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of your award-winning mystery A Simple Suburban Murder. Do you have plans to do anything special to mark the occasion?

Mostly for special occasions, I indulge in as much chocolate I can get my hands on (laughs). For that anniversary I can see ordering Maine Whoopie Pies, picking up Haagen Dazs dark chocolate chip gelato and perhaps — for variety — a few confections from Taste of Heaven bakery up on Clark Street in Chicago — certainly their bread pudding — maybe a cupcake or two, and then maybe a chocolate chip cookie from the Ghirardelli shop across from the Water Tower — warmed up for 30 seconds in the microwave (the cookie not the Water Tower).

You regularly do readings at Outwords Books in Milwaukee. What’s your connection to that bookstore and to Milwaukee?

Carl at Outwords has been fantastic all these years supporting me and my books. The patrons of his store have been some of my most loyal and kind readers. The readings are always great fun for me and, I hope, the audience — not counting the goodies and munchies Carl always provides. Besides a business acquaintance, Carl is a good friend who has been most generous with his time and wonderfully consistent in inviting me to read at his store. In addition to that I was born in Racine and lived there until we moved to California the summer I was 13. The first baseball game I went to was at the old Milwaukee County Stadium. I remember seeing Hank Aaron hit a homerun. 

As an Illinois resident, what does the passage of marriage equality mean to you?

The feeling for me is that now I live in a “free state.” What I mean by that is my dignity, our dignity, is no longer diminished in law in Illinois. It is a tremendous triumph for all gay people. I’ve been working for LGBT rights for many years. My books are tremendously political in that they never shy away from showing proud and open gay men and women dealing with prejudice and discrimination. Among other things, I was treasurer of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force back in the early ’80s. I used my position as president of the teachers’ union, where I taught to advance the cause of LGBT rights at every opportunity. I’ve written to Illinois senators and reps. Stood in the rain with the thousands of others of us this October. All that marching and frustration, meetings and writing, being rebuffed or ignored and never giving up hope — all that work by each of us has paid off for us with this legislation.

On the shelf

Mark Zubro reads from his books Pawn of Satan and Alien Quest at Milwaukee’s Outwords Books, 2710 N. Murray Ave., at 7 p.m. on Nov. 23. Call 414-963-9089 or visit outwordsbooks.com.