Book Reviews

Ketcel, By Chad Deal, 364 pgs.

There is little as imposing as an international border, especially one between two countries at different levels of “development.” The value of life and basic human freedoms are nullified in the interest of the proclaimed greater good. In his novel Ketcel, author Chad Deal takes the reader on an elaborate sci-fi thrill ride through the danger and desperation of life at and beyond the U.S./Mexico border and offers up a terrifying taste of what the imminent future of these two nations might look (and smell) like. Zombie-like “deportees,” university professors moonlighting as sex cult leaders, conniving cartel police, Border Patrol robots, Virtual Reality phantoms, and human animals of all sorts all rear their scaly heads and keep Ketcel as intriguing and entertaining as it is unsettling.

Luna is an aspiring journalist, recently relocated to Mexico City, whose new editor assigns her the perilous task of livecasting via Afterthought (a sort of virtual reality platform) from inside the cartel-controlled Maquilanda Limbo “manufacturing prisons.” In Limbo, deportees work under factory slave labor conditions to earn back their stripped U.S. citizenship. Luna’s cohorts include Don, a cantankerous medical tourist who ends up on the wrong end of a twisted cartel murder game; a Haitian refugee turned hard-drinking Tijuana police captain hounded by gender dysphoria for which he finds a release in Sawlips (another Virtual Reality platform) and drug abuse; and Eli, the crew’s seemingly dim-witted Mennonite tour guide through Limbo.

Inside the thirty-foot walls of actual trash surrounding Maquilanda Limbo on three sides (the fourth being the U.S. border), lines are blurred: friends and enemies, life and death, reality and virtual reality, and history and future. All become much more fluid than normally perceived. The effect is surreal, kind of a Blade-Runner-in-the-Mexican-desert feel, but not ambiguous. Ultimately, Deal pulls the intricacies of the plot together neatly and masterfully, with each component landing exactly where it should and holding its weight throughout. Furthermore, the author demonstrates a formidable grasp of the political and social climates of modern Mexico, the Toltecs and other aspects of ancient Mexican history, theories on emerging technology and its place in society, the pitfalls of late capitalism, and desert sex cults.

I was once stopped and searched by a member of the Tijuana police force (I did nothing wrong; I swear to god). After they produced an unfamiliar lighter from my pocket, being framed for planted contraband immediately became a serious concern. Fortunately, nothing happened, and my fear was probably the result of too many 1980s B movies. However, we all see the result of rampant corruption regularly in our neighborhoods and in our newspapers. Ketcel tells the haunting story of a future world where corruption has become the overwhelmingly dominant social force. Deal’s novel can also serve as a warning to the corruptors themselves: your time will come. –Buddha (Stay Strange Publishing, staystrange.com)

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My Band Is the Forrest, By John Christian Driver, 21 pgs.

This is a “keychain book.” Like, it has a little key loop attached to it, and it’s tiny—about 2”x2”. The entire handmade book is one poem written by Shell (aka John C. Driver), who you may know from the band Shellshag—one of the most important bands of the last couple of decades, in my opinion. In My Band Is the Forrest, Shell seems to consider the meaning of his band (or maybe his art, or his life) by equating it with nature.

Shellshag’s lyrics are hard hitting and forthrightly emotional, pulling no punches. This poem is similar. It’s truly inspirational, but sometimes sad and hard to read. But that’s life, huh? The book is dedicated to his longtime partner Jennifer who is the other half of Shellshag.

Despite its tiny size, My Band Is the Forrest packs a hell of a wallop, just like almost everything Shell does. My favorite line: “My band in your mirror/ Shows you are the trunk/ My band is just another/ Irritating drunk.”

Note: I think these came free with early orders of the latest Shellshag LP, so contact Starcleaner for availability. –Buddha (Starcleaner, starcleaner.com)

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Record Aficionado Volume 3: US Hardcore/Punk 1985-1990, By Tumbled Leather Publishing, 180 pgs.

A fantastic scrapbook and labor of love. Throughout, the unnamed editors provide (mostly) two-page spreads for dozens of albums, with one page featuring matrix numbers and pressing info, the other assembling ads, insert photos, and fanzine reviews from No Answers, Maximum Rocknroll, and more. As mentioned in the title, the releases tend towards American hardcore—Killing Time, Leeway, Sick Of It All, Up Front, Warzone, and Wide Awake all get four-page spreads rather than the usual two—but Dischord stuff gets a lot of coverage, as do poppy releases like Sweet Baby and Jawbreaker. I slept on volume one, now sold out, but volume two, focusing on Revelation Records, is still available, too. Engrossing and fascinating. –Michael T. Fournier (Tumbled Leather, tumbledleather.bigcartel.com)

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Rude Talk in Athens—Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer’s Journey through Greece, By Mark Haskell Smith, 195 pgs.

In addition to making a case for the Oxford comma, the subtitle does a good job of telling you what Rude Talk in Athens is about (as opposed to the …And Changed the World school of non-fiction subtitles)—the rivals are Ancient Greek playwrights, whose comedies, Smith writes, “contained elements of what we call Battle Rap,” i.e., barbs directed at each other.

I’ll start with the highlight: the book makes me, for the first time, eager to see a staging of a play by Aristophanes—whose plays survived, atypically—one that captures his raunchy energy; ideally a modern, demotic translation. Smith has labored to recreate what the experience of seeing a play by Aristophanes or one of his peers was like, including a full-feeling portrait of ancient Athens.

Smith spends more time on the much lesser-known playwright Ariphrades—mainly for Ariphrades being contemporaneously synonymous with cunnilingus—which Smith uses as jumping-off point to explore themes like mores and religion.

I’m review-obligated to tell you that, structurally, the book is pretty ragged, but that’s something we can just go with. If he’s done writing about history for awhile and wants to write about a favorite Athenian neighborhood, or something autobiographical, or about butterflies, he does so. We’re not going to stop reading (though we may occasionally suspect a not-urgent, particularly tangential passage is there to assuage page-count worries).

As it’s a book about comedy, and as Smith makes a lot of jokes, I’m also obligated (despite being a humor snob in recovery) to tell you that enough of the jokes fall under the category of Petty Liberal On Twitter that they start to tax you (or maybe just me—it’s obviously a popular category).

The final chapter, though, features a genuinely funny scene, centered on a famous rock riff that I will never hear again without smiling at the scene’s memory. –Jim Woster (Unnamed Press, unnamedpress.com)

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Self Taught, By Tim Kerr, 66 pgs.

Self Taught is a very apt title for Tim Kerr’s latest art book. No matter if we’re talking about skateboarding and surfing, to music, to painting and photography, Tim has proven time and time again that simply not knowing how to do something is no reason not to learn and excel at it. While most Razorcake readers would be most familiar with Tim’s work in bands such as Big Boys, Lord High Fixers, and The Monkeywrench, in the last decade or so his paintings have been gaining notoriety worldwide. In a pre-pandemic world, Tim and his wife Beth were constantly travelling around the globe for art exhibits and mural requests. During these travels Tim took to tackling a new discipline, toy camera photography. Wherever he and Beth went, Tim took photos of interesting artwork and celebrations of self expressionism. This book is a collection of those photographs, accompanied with portraits of their creators painted by Tim.

The visuals are stunning. Moving from a portrait of the artist in Tim’s distinctive style to the photos of the art installations themselves really builds a connection. Be it sculpture, architecture, or repurposing items such as old vehicles, as you move through the book it really begins to sink in that there are people of all walks of life just out there expressing themselves and it’s beautiful. Somehow the photos are bursting with color even though they are washed out in that way that only an old toy Polaroid camera can achieve. There is a deep sense of Americana in this art, at least how I (a Canadian) perceive it. Tim has always signed his art “yournamehere”—an idea that builds upon ideas that he was shouting from the stage at the end of Big Boys shows some forty years ago: “Now go start your own band!”, an idea that is not only the cornerstone of DIY punk rock, but life itself. You are the artist, and you should go out there and do whatever it is you need to do to express your vision. It’s a powerful concept that’s the heart of this collection.

Included with the book is also a digital download of the latest recordings of Tim’s musical project with his friend Jerry Haggins called Up Around The Sun. Musically speaking, this may seem a vast departure from the bands Tim has played in over the years. Traditional instrumental folk music (think guitar, banjo, harmonica) that provides a near perfect audio component to the book and the Americana I mentioned earlier. Not only does it make me happy to be able to experience a world of art I had no idea existed through the lens of an artist who I care for and respect, but the fact that this type of self expression exists at all and continues to thrive, warms the heart. –Ty Stranglehold (Don Giovanni, PO Box 628, Kingston, NJ 08528)

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Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo and Hardcore 1994-2007, By Dan Ozzi, 377 pgs.

Chances are you’re not a fan of all eleven bands Dan Ozzi chronicles in Sellout. I know I’m not. I dig Jawbreaker and Green Day, and have marginal interest in At The Drive-In and Against Me! (Dan, it should be mentioned, helped Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace write her memoir a few years back). I didn’t think I’d give a shit about the other seven acts discussed here, many of whom I think of as kinda slick Hot Topic/mall emo bands (like Thursday and My Chemical Romance, to name two). I assumed that the stories shared by the groups in Sellout would be samey, following similar trajectories. As it turns out, none of my skepticism was warranted. Sellout is a compelling, nuanced read despite the fact that I’m not a fan of most of the bands here (even after using the book as a hypertext and checking out the catalogues of the groups as I went).

Often, authors who write rock books don’t take audience into account—they either mansplain or don’t provide any context. One of Ozzi’s strengths is his deft touch. To be sure, a lot of names are tossed around in Sellout, but I never lost track of who was who, nor did I wish that he’d shut up with needless details. This may seem like a small thing, but over the course of eleven chapters, small bits add up—the lean delivery helps Ozzi tell the bands’ stories in a compelling fashion.

As I read, I noticed Ozzi develop through lines which made for a cohesive read when I assumed the book would be a collection of one-off chapters. Certain record label execs feature prominently in the tales of multiple groups, like Craig Aaronson, a guy who starts off as a low-level guy with Capitol Records and moves his way up to head of Sire Records by the book’s end. Stories of label shake-ups, mergers, and reorganizations leaving bands out in the metaphorical cold after signing their deals are another common thread in many of the stories.

This isn’t to say that the tales here are all the same, as I feared—far from it. Some groups wrestle with the jump from indie to major, like Rise Against, who decide to leave Fat Wreck Chords for Dreamworks. Others, like Blink-182, make the transition easily enough, without any of the strum und drang of a band like Jawbreaker, who publicly denounced bands that signed before they made their well-publicized jump to Geffen for Dear You and suffered backlash with their fans.

Of the bands discussed here, I found myself drawn most to the story of Jimmy Eat World, who got a deal because they were referred to record execs by their friends in Christie Front Drive, one of my most beloved bands. I had never checked out the Distillers before reading this book—and I was shocked by the toxicity and shittiness of Rancid’s Tim Armstrong following Brody from the Distillers’ breakup with him. (Why isn’t this talked about more by Rancid fans? Does Tim get a pass, and if so, why?)

In the right hands, a book about music and bands can be compelling even if the reader isn’t a fan of the groups in question. Dan Ozzi has hands, kid. In Sellout, Ozzi has written a detailed, inviting map of the complicated world of punk ethics wrestling with corporate interests. A great read I didn’t know I needed. –Michael T. Fournier (HMH, hmhbooks.com)

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Sounding for Harry Smith, By Bret Lunsford, 231 pgs.

Allan Ginsberg once described Harry Smith as “famous everywhere underground.” It’s an apt characterization of a man who, until receiving a Grammy nod in 1991 for his curation of the 1952 compilation Anthology of Folk Music, would have only been known to the most ardent followers of outsider art. But despite being relatively unknown throughout his life, his contribution to modern music can hardly be overstated. The aforementioned collection (pulled entirely from his own personal stockpile of 78s) can almost single handedly be credited with jumpstarting the modern folk music movement and was known as “The Bible” in the Greenwich scene. On top of this, he was a surrealist filmmaker and dabbled in abstract expressionist drawing and painting, although never realizing commercial or critical success with either.

There have been a few books written about Harry Smith, including a collection of interviews that Sounding for Harry Smith draws from liberally. But according to author Bret Lunsford, none so far really dives into the coastal towns of Anacortes and Bellingham in which Smith grew up and how they influenced his later life. Well, I’ll give him this: the book definitely takes a deep dive into the histories of these northwest Washington communities. So deep, in fact, that Harry doesn’t really show up as a regular character until page 176 as a high school sophomore. What we actually have here is one of those beautifully printed small town history books sold in gift shops, with Harry Smith as a bit of a Trojan horse used to entice you to read centuries of history that happened before he was even alive. Even Smith’s contemporaries interviewed in the book sometimes admit they don’t remember him or dismiss him as “a nerd.” In exchange for these trenchant insights the reader is rewarded with their entire life stories, for some reason.

There are other, better books about Harry Smith out there if you are interested in his life, but if you happen to be slightly interested in him and also very interested in the sociological and historical aspects of coastal Washington state over the last couple hundred years, then this is definitely one to check out. –Justin Bookworm (Knw Yr Own / P.W. Elverum & Sun)

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Subset Asylum: A Collection of Short Stories, By Marc Ganancias, 338 pgs.

Varied tales here that run the gamut of life’s problems and how seemingly everyday interactions may have even deeper meanings after careful review. I always feel it’s best not to get too specific with telling you the exact plotlines and how it matches up to each specific story title. That’s almost like telling you the ending of a movie before you see it! But there are some funny stories here about some offbeat topics (acid trips, barroom shoot outs) to ones that may have happened to you (awkward romantic situations, fights about online statements). I used to run in some of the same circles the author mentions in the DC area, so those seem to instantly strike a chord. Each story is effortlessly intertwined with the one before it due to the strength of the storytelling and the ability to make you smile at the last page of most of the stories contained in this volume. There is one about dog walking that seemed to have the strongest gravitational pull for me, but read them all and pick your poison. This will leave a great impression on you once you dive in headfirst. –Sean Koepenick (Brannen Publishing, facebook.com/MarcGananciasAuthor)

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Take Me with You, By Vanessa Carlisle, 316 pgs.

This novel follows queer sex worker Kindred Powell, before and after her life is turned upside down. When her activist father goes missing, she can’t go to the cops; they might have been the ones to disappear him. Do you dare follow her twisting path below the surface of the straight world into the unexposed spaces where outlaws and outcasts survive hidden from society? C’mon. We’re going in. Be cool, just follow her lead.

Go to prison, but just to visit. Catch a first-class flight to Hawai’i. Glamour, luxury, all expenses paid, but remember to control the sexual dynamic at all times. This will be difficult, but lucrative. Don’t let them see you sniffle. Survive the gritty streets of New York City, find safety, find work, find community, find love, but don’t forget to finish reading your revolutionary homework. Learn how to use a strap-on. Learn how to fight The Man. Stalk the streets of Skid Row all night, looking for answers. Remember whose child you are.

In this post-truth era of misinformation, in the wake of a disastrous federal “sex trafficking” law, FOSTA-SESTA, so misguided and patronizing that it’s killing the vulnerable population it claims to protect, this is a rare novel about sex workers written by a sex worker, a much-needed report from the frontlines of the world’s oldest profession. Carlisle doesn’t care what you expect, what one-note morality story your simple heart wants; you’re going to get the full complexity of what sex workers know about power and consent and sex that perhaps the rest of society has confused themselves into not knowing.

This book is a well-paced page-turner, an act of generosity, admittance to underground spaces full of kink, municipal corruption, mystery, and delicious insight. The author told me, “It’s a trauma book.” And certainly, many of the characters have been marked and changed by trauma. But they are survivors and hustlers, resilient and human. Most don’t see themselves as victims. Displaced, defrauded, lustily desired, obscured from the public eye; they see society’s distorted falsehoods and unacknowledged hungers more clearly from the shadows. –Jessie MNG Lopez (Running Wild Press, runningwildpress.com, $20)

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: My Life in the Music Business, By Miles A. Copeland III, 320 pgs.

Miles Copeland was the unstoppable force behind IRS Records—one of the first big labels to take on some of the more off-the-wall bands surfacing in the early 1980s; The Go-Go’s, The Buzzcocks, The Cramps, Wall Of Voodoo, REM—bands that ultimately helped define the decade. On top of that, he was the manager for The Police (his younger brother, Stewart Copeland, was the drummer), The Bangles, Squeeze, and other now-household names. He cut his teeth in the London underground working with undesirables like Sham 69 and Chelsea. Copeland’s unorthodox rearing, vocation, and wit converge with his pretty-damn-solid writing skills to make Two Steps Forward, One Step Back a fun and stimulating read.

Copeland’s father was an authentic founding member of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Miles was raised in the Middle East—places like Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus—where his father planned and took part in international-level covert operations. Conversely, Miles went to college in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1960s, which he describes as a culture shock with some grim parallels of discrimination. He explains how his experiences helped him forge a work ethic and philosophy based on flexibility, working with the tools at hand, and an absolute willingness to entertain seemingly absurd ideas. Copeland reiterates throughout the book his insistence on working with “glass-half-full” people. He even thanks COVID-19 for giving him time to write this book.

Knowing Copeland’s clandestine family history, the band X (Billy Zoom, specifically) turns down his label’s offer, accusing him of being an undercover agent attempting to infiltrate youth culture. A potential first-LP deal with the Dead Kennedys is binned when IRS’s parent company refuses to risk upsetting their beloved friends, the Kennedys. Miles was always a businessman. His goal was to make money, and in alternative music he found an untrampled niche to exploit for himself, for his label, and for the artists as well. Miles required two things from his bands: music he liked and, of course, something he could market.

This is a book about business, and a large chunk of it is dedicated to Copeland’s time managing and traveling the world with The Police—the ultimate glass-half-full band. Over time, Copeland’s interests drift from punk to alternative to pop, and ultimately to Arab music and belly dancing. Considering his history, it seems that he’s come full circle in a way. However, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out a major factual error in Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Chris Holmes (the drunk in the pool in The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years) is not the “singer of Wasp,” as stated here, but the lead guitarist. I mean, when else is a full-on goon like me going to get the chance to feel smarter than a guy like Miles Copeland? –Buddha (Jawbone Press, jawbonepress.com)

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Uncivil Songbook 2001-2021, By Anon_73, PDF 177pgs.

A PDF version of Anon_73’s Uncivil Songbook 2001-2021 collects twenty years of lyrics and compositions by the artist. It would have been nice knowing in advance that the CD-R that showed up in the envelope was a book and not music, as I spent twenty minutes trying to diagnose what was wrong with my CD player before putting this in my computer and it booting up the folder with the book and other pieces of interest inside. Google-fu found me the artist’s website, and then their Bandcamp to have a frame of reference for any of the 177 pages of lyrics contained herein, but less than half is on Bandcamp to hear. Longtime fans of Anon_73 will likely appreciate having all the artist’s lyrics and compositions in one place. With little frame of reference musically, and not having the actual physical item in hand to refer to, The Uncivil Songbook for this reviewer hits all the wrong notes. –Paul J. Comeau (Suburban Utopia Projects, theuncivilsociety.com)

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Clark and Division, By Naomi Hirahara, 305 pgs.

Did you know that the American government began releasing Japanese-American prisoners from the Manzanar concentration camp in California’s Owens Valley before the end of World War II? Or that many of them resettled in Chicago? It’s on that resettlement that Naomi Hirahara has based her novel Clark and Division—the title comes from the Chicago intersection around which the released prisoners established their new community.

Aki Ito is the twenty-year-old woman who narrates the novel. Her sister Rose had been in Chicago for a few months before Aki and their parents traveled there. But just before their arrival, Rose was hit by a subway train and killed. The authorities say suicide. Aki says murder and intends to prove it.

Clark and Division is a mystery novel, and mystery-novel foundations don’t get more familiar than She never would have killed herself! But Hirahara constructs the novel so you’re never sure whether twenty-year-old Aki is right or wrong until the satisfying end. Is it a solve-able mystery, as opposed to one where you watch the detective solve it? I don’t think so, but I got hung up on a deftly dangled red herring, so don’t go by me.

The novel is also a feminist novel, a historical feminist mystery novel with a solid sense of place. And with no seams showing: the storytelling comes first, no teaching or preaching. Readers who are always on the lookout for fiction that both young adults and less-young adults can enjoy would enjoy Clark and Division, too. –Jim Woster (Soho Crime, sohocrime.com)

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