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Author: maryMR

Funny Smart Teen Reads – Maureen Johnson

Funny Smart Teen Reads – Maureen Johnson

I used to be a high school English teacher and was always trying to recruit my students to the joys of reading. That was before the *massive* explosion of Young Adult (YA) blockbusters that now have made it one of biggest book markets globally. Nevertheless, in my quest for great reads, I do not ignore this genre–quite the opposite. From time to time, I will highlight GREAT authors and books that are YA, as I do here…

One of the funniest and best YA authors being published today is Maureen Johnson. She’s rather caught fire in the last few years; noticed both for her wonderful writing (one of her recent books was nominated for an Edgar), but also for her very funny Twitter feed. Her heroines are no one’s fool and have a sense of themselves. Here are two of her older books; one is a romp, the other has an unusual twist on a classic mythos. Both one-offs (not series) that I found particularly delightful and drove me to, yes, LOL.
Girl at Sea – This is a contemporary YA, sans fantasy, which give us Clio. Clio, an aspiring artist with her eye on the cute guy at the local art store, has a complex relationship with her father who is divorced from her mom. They were once super close—they even co-created a super popular game together that made the family briefly famous. But time and distance, and other things I won’t spoil, have distanced father from daughter. Until now: Dad wants Clio to come with him on a yacht that’s touring the Greek islands during during the summer. Sounds great, but when she gets there, she finds that she has a job—she’s the cook for trip. And she’s pissed. And also wondering what the hell is up. Her dad has a new girlfriend (maybe?) and what’s the purpose of this voyage anyhow? There’s another girl her age (fr-enemy? possible ally?) and one *very* cute but *very* crabby guy on the boat too. So intrigue, romance, and literal laughs out loud.
Devilish – This is a mostly contemporary, with a whiff of fantasy via sulfur. It is a spin-off of the Faust-myth. What would happen if your best friend, who is currently one of your school’s least popular girls, decided that it was worth selling her soul to the devil in order to become beautiful, rich and of course, insanely popular? What if you noticed that one of the school’s most popular girls wasn’t just unpleasantly bitchy, but perhaps had a Mephistopheles complex. And then what if this devil-teen-wearing-prada started to target you with her seductions of ultimate success in school, in life, with boys… all you have to do is come over to the dark side? Our heroine is strong and smart—smart as hell in fact! A match for what comes her way.

Riveting Listening

Riveting Listening

With all the deserved praise about the breakout hit podcast Serial, produced by NPR’s This American Life, it got me thinking about other superb audio experiences I’ve had. To be fair, there’s not a lot for the simple fact that I don’t listen to many audio books, preferring instead to read, both paper and e-books. Nevertheless I have had a few truly outstanding experiences in listening to a book, that took my pleasure in the writing and story far beyond the pale, to the point where they are lodged in my memory firmly. Here’s one, and it should appeal to anyone whose held captive by the Serial podcast.

pic_MidnightIGoGEIn the mid-1990s, a non-fiction crime story was published, a massive tome, and stayed a record 216 weeks on the NYT bestseller list (no other non-fiction book has beaten it, according to Wikipedia): Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Like Serial, it is a richly woven tale of a multi-layered mystery around a murder, involving a huge array of characters. The book itself is a hell of a read, but I will never get over listening to the audio book, read by Anthony Heald. In researching this post, I see that this was the abridgment audio book–which I’d forgotten. (So I don’t know about the narration of the unabridged version.) All I know is that the subtlety of Mr. Heald’s inflections as he voiced the narrator and all the characters, effortlessly distinguishing each, brought a very clear picture of them into my mind, and kept me riveted.

In the 90s, I worked long-hours for a corporation as an anonymous tech; I had a long and ugly commute each day, inching along in my little economy car. But I walked among the enigmatic people of Savannah for that one hour-plus commute to and from work for a few weeks. And I remember sitting, absolutely stock still in my driveway, not even thinking about getting out of the car until that amazing voice came to a pause.

It is still available from Audible and other standard outlets. Worth the listen.


Drama Queens and Kings

Drama Queens and Kings

Wise Children by Angela Carter

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” William Shakespeare

Wise Children (cover)
Wise Children (cover)

This is a novel told by a singular voice writing her memoir. Or shall I say their memoirs. Our narrator is Dora Chance who once lightly traipsed the British Vaudeville boards back in the day with her twin sister Nora. They have not only lived ‘life upon the wicked stage,’ but have been forever witness to a sprawling family drama that began before their birth and continues on to the next generation. The girls are the unacknowledged daughters of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day–think of a combination of Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave (both of whom sired acting dynasties)–with the looks of Laurence Olivier. Later Sir Hazard goes on to have ‘legitimate’ children, which give rise to several generations of half-sisters and brothers, current- and ex-wives, children and grandchildren, all making their living via stage, screen or TV studio—the drama never stops. And Shakespeare is like their happy puppeteer making them dance amid a profusion of twins, cross-dressing heroines, hints of Hamlet and Lear, with the bluster of Taming of the Shrew and dark luster of The Tempest. And of course through the incisive voices of each character, Ms. Carter illuminates the lives of all her people, but most especially the women.

To keep up with the family connections takes a bit of work. If you don’t want to work that hard, the delightful editor of the Wise Children Wikipedia article has provided a family tree for the novel. This book is for when you want to be just a tiny bit challenged, but end up so happy you read it.

When is a story more than a story?

When is a story more than a story?

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The opening sentence of The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier (cover)
The Good Soldier (cover)

This book: it is so quiet, so unassuming that it sneaks up on you. You are maybe even sort of wondering why it’s a classic when it tells (you think) such a banal story. But in fact, while telling you one story, eventually another bleeds through. The presenting story: a man of a certain age, disenchanted with his life, his wife, and all the usual middle-age discontents, falls in love with a young woman. But in actual fact as the narrative progresses, a very different story emerges. This is a novel about the actual intentions and desires and impulses people feel inside themselves, and how they get expressed—or in some cases do not. There is the mask people wear and the presenting story we show to the world; some people think that is the sum total of who they are. Maybe for some it is. But Maddox Ford knows the two are not the same—that it isn’t simply what we do that matters, but why. In fact, the whys may be far more critical.

The narrator, John Dowell, tells the story of another man’s life, the ‘good soldier’ of the title*—Edward Ashburnham. At first it seems only to be a superficial description of intrigues between and among 2 couples and a young girl summering at a spa in fin de siecle  Germany, but slowly we learn much more than polite society conversation will allow. Following this Dowell begins to tell his own story. But is his story true? And if his own story isn’t true, can you trust what he’s told you about Ashburnham?

(*FYI, This is not a novel about the military or war.)

This book has no less significance because it was written at the beginning of the 1900s—this is not a romanticized Downton Abbey period piece. The veneer may be old-fashioned, but the story and its insights are eternal. Maddox Ford is more ignored than he should be. Only recently has there been a surge of interest because he wrote a novel that was the basis for a popular 2012 BBC/HBO production, Parade’s End, starring the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch. The outline of both stories may seem similar, but I’d still urge you to read The Good Soldier. It is considered by most to be Maddox Ford’s masterpiece, and for good reason.

Artist: Feist

Artist: Feist

Feist album coverFeist Album coverFeist Album Coverfeist-album2

A lot of the music I like these days does not have a good genre handle. Pop is more closely identified now with women than ever before due to the big divas that current rule it: Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and the like (though they have their place—good voices there if not used subtly). But the term ‘pop’ alone doesn’t cut it for me to describe what I like–but neither does rock or folk or …

All the genre categories have been scrambled in current music-speak, but this one more than most: “smart pop,” “alt-pop,” “alt-folk-pop,” and “indie pop” are some of the franken-names I’ve seen. I’ll go with alt-pop, or alternative pop, as the closest to describing what I like. The vocals tend toward folk, the instrumentation can variously sound like rock or jazz or pop. The overall vibe is light, frothy, and fun.

Feist, a Canadian musician, was top of the charts circa 2008-2010. Her songs are a good example of this alt-pop. They sound feminine and smart, and her lyrics are full of playfulness and whimsy. Included here are her top hits: 1234, I Feel It All, and Mushaboom. The last I include is a favorite track, 7/4 Shoreline, from a group I loved in mid-2000s, Broken Social Scene. It was only in researching this post that I found out she was a vocalist for this group back then and is one of the lead vocals on this song.

If you like what you hear, then consider supporting the artist by buying tracks and/or subscribing to a streaming service.

Feist – 1234

Not only was the song big, but this video became a viral hit on YouTube when it first came out.

Feist – I Feel It All

(recording only—neutral visuals)

Feist – Mushaboom (lyrics)

(recording only—neutral visuals)

Broken Social Scene – 7/4 Shoreline

She sang with the group back in 2006

(recording only—neutral visuals)


Musicians & Youtube Creators: Pomplamoose

Musicians & Youtube Creators: Pomplamoose

“The name of the band derives from the French word pamplemousse, meaning grapefruit. Pomplamoose is an English-spelling approximation of the French pronunciation.” – Wikipedia

Pomplamoose album

Pomplamoose is an American musical duo which feature multi-instrumentalists Jack Conte and vocalist Nataly Dawn. The two met at Stanford when students and, with their amazing musical talents, started workin together. But what put them on the map (circa 2008-2009) was their delightfully creative, quirky, funny and intriguing homemade music videos. These ‘youtubes’ show them playing several instruments and singing multiple tracks—in essence, putting the song together. The videos are an amazing labor of love and viewers went nuts for them in a big way. At first they produced what are known as “cover” songs (already made famous by another artist–a precedent that many other YT musicians have followed), but they also wrote and produced their own music. Eventually all the tracks got made available for buying at all the usual places.

Mr. Conte plays most of the instruments, some of which are very technical—his prowess is jaw-dropping. Ms. Dawn is the primary vocalist. Her voice belongs in the school of French chanteuse (I was not surprised to hear in an interview* that she’d lived in France for many years). It’s sly, silky and sexy and she knows how to use it to charming–and sometime heartbreaking–effect (don’t miss Somewhere Over the Rainbow, link below). That said, they are both multi-talented: she plays bass guitar and other instruments and he sings backup. They each have also pursued solo work.

The couple (who are a ‘real-life’ couple as well) took a break from the channel for personal reasons*, but in 2014 they came back with the titled “Pomplamoose: Season 2” with a bunch of amazing videos that upped their game. This culminated in an album of the same title released just last month (July 2014).

I love so many of their videos and songs that it was really hard to cull a short-list. I start the list below from their earlier vids to their more recent. At the bottom, I’ve linked the big playlist of all their music videos and I think they are worth watching. As always if you like what you hear, please consider supporting the artist by buying their albums or some tracks. You can also offer support for the production of the videos/songs, which are expensive in their own right, by checking out the site Patreon, which allows one to offer old-fashioned ‘patronage’ support. is actually Jack Conte’s creation; here’s their page. I provide lots more links at the bottom of this post.


Another Day

An original song of theirs that became a big hit


Little Things

An original song. They are so cute in this one.


If You Think You Need Some Lovin’

Sexy & funny (another original)



Somewhere Over The Rainbow

Did I mention ‘heartbreaking’?


Come Together

The Beatles classic with a little Hey Jude thrown in, all in one take.


I Feel Good

How do they dare cover James Brown’s incomparable 70s hit? They take it in a different cool jazz direction and it works.


*Info about their history came from an interview with them via a podcast called Ear Biscuits by the YouTube favorites, Rhett & Link where they talk about their journey.

Pomplamoose Links: 

PomplamooseMusic YouTube Channel and full playlist

Jack Conte channel / Nataly Dawn channel

Official website: They are on tour Fall 2014.

Older music is available by searching via Amazon, iTunes, and other sources. New album “Season 2” is available via Loudr and iTunes.


Composer: Adam Roberts

Composer: Adam Roberts

Robert Adams Leaf Metal Album I love many different types of music—there’s very little I won’t listen to, or at least try. But I am a life-long lover of classical music. I started my own investigation when I was 15, just picking up what I could find at the library, and later what I could afford to buy. I worked my way through various compilation albums. Bach, Beethoven, and Aaron Copland were my first set.

While I love many of the well-known classic works and composers—and have a special place in my heart for all vocal music (more about that in another post)—I am a believer in the fact that if we don’t want classical repertoire to end up in the museums, we need to support the composers of our own time. These include such luminous names as John Adams, Phillip Glass, Andre Previn, Kirke Mechem, John Corigliano, and many others.

But they also importantly include new and upcoming composers and one of these is Adam Roberts. Let me say up-front that I know someone who knows him, but he and I have never met and I had never heard his compositions until I heard his name and decided to see if his works were on SoundCloud. I’m not a musicologist, so I’m not going to attempt to classify or categorize him. I would instead reference you to this excellent review and in-depth article on Roberts’s album Leaf Metal.

What I hear when I listen is a complex play of textures, especially in the strings, that creates a thick weave of sound around the listener. It is bold and invigorating to listen to, surprising this listener into paying closer attention. We are so often surrounded by music that lulls or matches our heartbeat (after all, rock, hip-hop, EMD, pop–it’s mostly 4/4). We need music that wakes us up and holds our attention until we arrive at the silence.

As always, please support the artist when you can. Here’s a link to buy the CD on

Adam Roberts: Leaf Metal CD


Pasiphae Verses, for ten wind instruments


Shift Differential, for violin and viola


Strange Loops, for chamber orchestra and electronics


Sci-fi that’s worth it: The Company series by Kage Baker

Sci-fi that’s worth it: The Company series by Kage Baker

Kage Baker Books
Kage Baker BooksKageBaker02


This series is a wonderful mash-up of robots, wry historical ruminations, capers and hilarity. The Company series proposes that there is an omni-corporation in the future which figured out how to game history: create human-cyborg immortals, send your technicians back in time to create them and then, those cyborgs being immortal, they just LIVE through history from that point on. Then say, you plant them in various important places, at key dates. And if they happen to conserve the great treasures of the ages to be secured by the Company, so much the better (steal is such an ugly word). Or maybe it was the best cash-cow ever created! The steam-punk series follows a handful of these immortal cyborgs romping about and through time and onward into the future. Some of their insides maybe wiring, but their hearts are all human.

K. Baker, Mendoza One wonderful character we start following in the first book of the series is Mendoza. She is an impoverished waif, but with a mind and a mouth. This proves to be very dangerous given that she has the bad luck to be living under the oppressive regime of the Inquisition in Spain during the 1500s. She is accused of–of course–witchcraft and is thrown into a jail, at which point she comes to the attention of Joseph. At first he seems to be Fr. Jose, a priest, but is in fact one of our cyborgs. He sees potential for this kid and he whisks her to the relative safety of the Company, where she is re-made as a cyborg. Cut to later where Mendoza is now a teenage (image here is exactly how I picture her). She travels with Joseph to hostile England as part of a Spanish delegation under the tenuous and violent reign of Mary I, aka ‘bloody Mary’. Of course they are on a Company mission to secure select plants from the garden of their English host. However there is one very good looking Englishman who comes to the attention of Mendoza and visa-versa. He wants to convert her away from the evil Roman Catholic church, but to what exactly? She just wants him alone in that Garden of Iden. But humans and cyborgs mixing, as you might imagine, is a BIG Company no-no.
Even if you don’t think you like science-fiction, if you are a fan of history and of funny, do yourself a favor and relent and read this amazing series. It’s humor is wry, the dialog is usually hilarious and always informed with deep historical understanding (which is not always the case in genre fiction). Ruminations about human nature from the perspective of being immortal, but still having a heart and a moral compass, provides a surprising resonance to these books.
Sadly the author Kage Baker is no longer with us, but she left a fantastic trove of work. Most of her books are available via e-book, but harder to find in paper. See here for a complete list of her books with links to Amazon. Important! As noted above, because it is harder to find her books in paper, the prices on them can be very high. Instead I’d recommend finding/purchasing them in e-reader format. If you have a tablet (e.g., iPad, Kindle, etc.) or a laptop, you can access e-books via an app, such as Amazon’s Kindle App or the Kobo app (among many others that are available).

Note bene: I’m a bit more than half-way through the series so I can’t promise it’s perfect all the way to the end, but Baker’s writing is delightful—I always look forward to reading her work. No need to read the books in order, it isn’t really a problem, you can skip around. And if you aren’t into reading series, just the first book is an absolute delight!

Book 1 (described above):

K. Baker, In the Garden of Iden

The Garden of Iden by Kage Baker


Book 2 The 2nd book features Joseph (who hales from the tribe who painted in the paleolithic Lascaux caves) on a dubious project of the Company’s.

K. Baker, Sky Coyote

Sky Coyote by Kage Baker


Book 3 And if you can’t get enough of Mendoza, the 3rd book again features her prominently. The Hollywood of the title is the famous hills of Los Angeles, but during the dangerous mid-1800s when EVERYONE in L.A. and its hills owned 1 or more guns.

K. Baker, Mendoza in Hollywood

Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker


Artist: David Cloyd

Artist: David Cloyd

Song: Never Run + others

Somehow I stumbled on to his cover* of the well known Radiohead track Weird fishes/arpeggi and liked it so much that I started to listen to the rest of the album, Unhand Me, you fiend! on Spotify. It’s an older album, released 2009, but as good an example of indie-rock that I’ve run across. My favorite track: Never Run.

If you like what you hear, please support the artist by buying or using a streaming service.

*Glossary: “COVER” – n. When a musician or band performs a song previously made famous by another performer(s). Can also be used as a verb. Example: “She covers Beyonce’s ‘All the Single Ladies’ on her latest album.”

David Cloyd :: NEVER RUN :: From The Album UNHAND ME, YOU FIEND!




David Cloyd :: UNHAND ME, YOU FIEND! :: Album Sampler (plays a handful of songs from the album)


Artist: Birdmask

Artist: Birdmask

Song: Hunters by Birdmask + others

Found this song on SoundCloud and immediately fell in love and went to listen to the artist’s other work. Really liked a lot of it and sharing it here. Hunters (first below) has rich harmonies, almost choral-sounding, and then in the solos it’s folk-like. Finally he comes in with this syncopated Latin beat that ties it altogether.

About YT versus Soundcloud: The video for Surrender shows him making the song himself. The last one, Used, has a trippy music video which creates an effective visual of pixelated, psychedelic colorization. But I also provide links to the songs on Soundcloud if you prefer no visuals. If you just want to go directly to the Birdmask page on Soundcloud

If you like what you hear, please support the artist by buying or using a streaming service.

Hunters – audio via SoundCloud

YouTube:  Hunters (neutral visuals)



Surrender (These 2 versions are slightly different from each other; both great.)

Surrender –  audio via SoundCloud

YouTube: The artist making the song; not music video


Used –  audio via SoundCloud

YouTube: Official music video (trippy psychedelic one)