Tag Archives: 1960’s

8-Track Flashbacks

8-Track Flashbacks by Tom Alt (Mag Mile Books, $11.99, 128 pages)

Tom Alt’s memoir, 8-Track Flashbacks, is the equivalent of a new band on the scene, which produces an album that has one or two decent songs, but as a whole does not stand on its own.   At 113 pages, it is sized more like a novella than a novel.   It is a story of growing up in the 60s (and early 70s).   Ironically, most of the story takes place before 8-tracks were popular.

Alt grows up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, a few miles west of Milwaukee.   His father leaves, and his early childhood involves sports, girls, drinking, and more girls – not all that dissimilar for boys of almost any era.

A key events almanac for each year of the decade introduces the chapters, though the events listed and the songs referred to are largely isolated from the stories contained in the chapters.

There are some very well-written passages, some vignettes that might cause the reader to recall that time of their life or that era in general.   Perhaps some from the Midwest will relate to the sports teams, towns, or liberalism of the University of Wisconsin.   However, there is a depth to the account that is missing.   The characters exist but the reader does not really get to know them sufficiently to bond with them.

Because of the vagueness, it is difficult to get to the main point of why this memoir might stand out as one to read.   It is hard to distinguish if this is supposed to be about the era, growing up, heartache or survival – too many important issues are introduced and then left dangling.   More time is spent on Alt’s high school years, which basically comes across as a boy clowning around and skating by.   His relationship with his mother and siblings probably should have been more prominent in the story; his college relationships; draft status and subsequent failed physical; and other portions of the story are glanced over a bit too hastily.

The book can be read in one sitting or as time permits.   It’s not a bad book.   It’s just not a great book.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author.   8-Track Flashbacks is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.  

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.   He has recently completed a second novel.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz, read by Alfred Molina (Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.95, 9 CDs – running time: 10 hours and 13 minutes)

Be careful what you wish for…  Or, in this case, the fellows who would eventually become the iconic rock group, The Beatles, were in for a shock when they got what they worked so hard to achieve – being the Toppermost of the Poppermost.   According to Bob Spitz, the author of this band biography, attempting to perform before an audience of hysterically screaming teenage girls is very tiring and puts one’s best musical efforts aside for the mere fact of being there in person on stage.

The usual biographical story line follows the lads from their early efforts at becoming popular and famous.   It’s well known that diligent practice, some songwriting and struggles to get gigs led them from Liverpool, England to Hamburg, Germany and back to Liverpool.   Eventually, they played to the USA audience via television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Well, as an ancient radio show host would say, “Now, you’re gonna hear the rest of the story.”   Spitz invested countless hours of research and sleuthing to come up with a more in-depth and, in some situations, gut-wrenching back story of The Beatles life cycle, from unknowns to way-too-famous performers.   This reviewer listened to the audio version of the book narrated by Alfred Molina, who is himself a well-known actor in films and on stage.   Molina’s confident depiction of the various voices and accents is a real listening pleasure.   It also helps to have a well-written narrative which Spitz delivers chapter after chapter.

The saga comes to life with frequent quotes from the people who populated The Beatles’ world (e.g., Brian Epstein, Sir George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe and his wife, etc.).   To his credit, Spitz did not include any of the band’s music in the audio book.   Whether this was due to the cost of the needle-drop or a conscious choice, it kept this listener focused on the interactions and emotions felt by all involved.

Honestly, it’s easy to jump on one’s laptop, go to You Tube and enjoy their  music.   It’s more of a challenge to stay with the biography and learn that these adorable fellows had plenty of emotional baggage and personal interactions that did not always bode well for the group.   Also, the rock scene in England and the USA was fueled by a wide array of illegal drug use.   The Beatles enjoyed their share of drugs, girls and fame.   Donovan was a pal as were other famous British rockers.   In the end it all fell apart and they were a group – a band – for less than a decade.

As the final track of  the CD closed out, this reviewer felt the enormous loss of something magical, something heard for the first time over a Ford Falcon station wagon radio as Martha drove the carpool group to our northern California high school.   It was love at first listen and it still is…

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   It is available via Audible.com .

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Take It As It Comes

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $21.99, 210 pages)

“There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album…  they didn’t make the music better…”   Greil Marcus on The Soft Parade by The Doors

This collection of short essays by Greil Marcus might have been subtitled, The Random Things I Think About While Listening to The Doors.   It is not a band biography, nor a definitive account of their music, so it won’t be of much use to those just discovering the songs and albums of this group; nor will it interest Doors fanatics, as there’s virtually nothing new included here.

With Marcus, it seems to always be hit and miss…  He earlier produced a great collection of essays about Van Morrison which seemed to capture the essential nature of the musician, but when he attempted to do the same with Bob Dylan, it was pretty much a complete failure.   The Van Morrison book was a grand slam – the one on Dylan was a quick strike-out.

Before going further, I need to put my cards on the table about The Doors.   I felt they were one of the most over-rated bands of their time, and the critics have remained strangely kind to them through the years.   (A late-November 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud why the group’s music is still popular.)   Except for some clever placements on movie soundtracks, I don’t see – or rather, don’t hear – their music as having aged well.   That is, it does not adapt well to current times perhaps because when it was originally recorded it seemed to provide a sense – or rather, a preview – of music’s future.   But the promise of The Doors’ first two albums (neither of which hit number 1 on the U.S. music charts) never materialized in what was to follow.   They produced two essentially tedious albums – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade – that included singles so bad (Hello, I Love You; Touch Me) that Jim Morrison usually refused to sing them on stage.   It’s true that they had a sense of redemption before the end, with the decent Morrison Hotel and close-to-excellent L. A. Woman albums, but they nevertheless ended up as a slight version of the music revolutionaries they once threatened to be.

One of the issues with Greil’s approach is that he – being a Berkeley resident – lumps them in with the San Francisco bands of the time in terms of their somewhat psychedelic approach to their music and their lives.   Yes, Marcus is fully aware that they were a Los Angeles band (Morrison being a UCLA graduate) but he never seems able to capture the relationship between their place and their music.   He does try, in an essay about the L. A. Woman album, one which is interesting reading but empty on the actual mental nutritional calories it offers.

In discussing the band and southern California, Marcus also falls into the trap of seeing some kind of connection between their songs (Break On Through, The End, Riders On The Storm) and the violence of the Manson Family.   Which is nonsense, as Charles Manson made clear that he was irrationally influenced by the music of The Beatles on the White Album (specifically Helter Skelter) but never by The Doors.   It’s an interesting straw man argument that Marcus sets up, but it is essentially such a weak one that there’s no need to do more than set it aside.

Well, then, should one read Greil Marcus because he does such a valiant job of retaining the spirit of Gonzo rock journalism?   In other words, should you read him because he writes now as if he were writing for Rolling Stone, Creem, New West, Ramparts and other publications of the dear-departed 60s and 70s?   You might elect to, but I would suggest a couple of alternatives if this is your thing (or your bag, as it would have been called back in the day).

One fine choice is Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz.   Willis began writing rock criticism for The New Yorker in 1968 and almost created the genre of rock criticism tied to cultural and political events.   And then there was the master, the late Lester Bangs of San Diego, California.   There are two compilations of Bang’s work – Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’Roll.   There’s also an essential biography from 2000, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

Trust me, reading or re-reading Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis will take you to some places that you won’t find in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.   And I wonder if that subtitle was actually meant to refer to Five Lean Years.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  If you’re still wondering about whether you should read Marcus’ account of The Doors, keep in mind that he loves their live recordings (sigh) and the dreadful (“excoriated”) 1991 film The Doors by Oliver Stone – something which is truly hard to believe.

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A Perfect Read

Perfect Reader

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Anchor; $14.95; 288 pages)

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne (“Farther On”)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing.

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made a career out of avoiding contact with her father.   Now the time for avoidance has passed.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate herself; she wants people to leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hardbacked and wooden…

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will likely have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when the novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie (like The Hours) that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it anyway and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nevertheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mother’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mom suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Perfect Reader Pouncey

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “Maggie Pouncey’s Perfect Reader is wry, vivid, loving and exuberantly BOOKISH.   I enjoyed it tremendously.”   Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling: A Novel.  

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Living in the Past

The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll: A Memoir by Mark Edmundson (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 240 pages)

“Being a Stones lover was about being willing to piss anywhere.   And on everything.”

Based on the original AC/DC-based book cover and the 60s-style journalism used by Edmundson early on, it seems that this is going to be a rock memoir in the style of Chuck Klosterman and Rob Sheffield.   Fortunately, it is not, as a bit of Klosterman and/or Sheffield goes a long, long way.   This is, instead, a true tale of personal growth and what it takes to arrive at a personal philosophy of life.   To be specific, Edmundson writes about “the best moments” in his young life, when he worked as a rock roadie, a cab driver, assistant manager of a movie theater, and small college instructor.  

As a young man and college graduate in New York City, Edmundson was floundering:  “Young people like me want everything, yet…  have no idea just what EVERYTHING is….”   The streets of the Big Apple wound up being the perfect academy for Edmundson, who was to discover that ambition must rest on the attempt to balance personal glory with compassion for others.

The rock and roll lessons can be discarded, as Edmundson came into contact with mega-bands that were a decade or more past their prime.   This is an engaging, yet non-essential, read that may offer younger readers a bit of guidance for the journey that’s still ahead.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll was released in trade paper form on May 10, 2011.

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Get Together

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 544 pages)

Wasn’t that the point of the book?   For women to realize, We are just two people.   Not that much separates us.   Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, is a wonderful story truly worthy of its attention and praise.   Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s at the crux of integration, Stockett portrays the help’s perspective of life and hardships in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a young, educated woman whose only dream is to become a writer.   Encouraged to write about something that “disturbs her” Skeeter risks everything she has to listen to the stories of the black women who care for the homes and children of her wealthy friends and family.   She elicits Abilleen and her best friend Minny, both of whom have dedicated their lives to caring for the white families in their town, to put their lives in jeopardy in order to share their stories. 

They say it’s like true love, good help.   You only get one in a lifetime.

Skeeter, a budding activist fighting for equity in a town vehemently supporting segregation while Martin Luther King, Jr. leads the nation in the Civil Rights Movement, finds grace and purpose in her own life as she shares the stories of the help in her small town.

All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl.   But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.

The Help invites you to listen to their stories and determine how far you would be willing to go in order to gain the truth and to ultimately do the right thing.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   The Help will be released in trade paperback form on April 5, 2011.

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Coming Up Next…

A look at a contemporary classic, The Help: A Novel by Kathryn Stockett, soon to be released in trade paperback form.

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It Won’t Be Long

The Girl Who Became a Beatle by Greg Taylor

“I wish I were as famous as a Beatle.”

Sixties-inspired musician-songwriter Regina Bloomsbury is casting about for ways to keep her garage band from dissolving when, in frustration, she makes the wish that her band was as famous as the Beatles.   Fame, she reasons, would fix the problems in her life:  no boyfriend, a shaky self-image, and loneliness.   Enter the fairy godmother who Regina didn’t know she had, and suddenly she’s not just as famous as the Beatles, she’s inherited their place in history and their entire catalog of music.

Life in the Grammy lane is fab, but being the smart 16-year-old she is, Regina comes to understand the tradeoffs that go along with fame and world popularity.   Then the question becomes, Should she stay or should she go?

The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Feiwal and Friends, an imprint of MacMillan) is a rock ‘n’ roll-themed fairy tale for a young adult audience.   Though there is the drama of a girl-on-girl fight scene, for the most part the story maintains the innocence of the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” days.   The plot is fast-paced; the ending is satisfying, even though it’s predictable; and the characters are interesting “types.”   There’s the supportive, cool-in-a-Cosbysort-of-way dad; the divorced mom who’d rather be a big sister; and the soulful band-mate love interest.   The problem is that the characters never step off the stage and run with the story.   Even Regina remains flat, especially when she wonders things like, “Are all teenagers like that?   Ricocheting from despair to euphoria within one turn of the minute hand?  If so, no wonder we’re always so exhausted?”

If the novel has the “tell, don’t show” feel of a screenplay, it’s probably because author Greg Taylor was a screenwriter before he started writing novels.   This is his second.   His first, Killer Pizza, is being made into a movie for 2013 release by Italian producer Raffaella De Laurentis (The Forbidden Kingdom, The Last Legion, Dragonheart: A New Beginning).   And according to the publisher, De Laurentis has optioned the film rights to The Girl Who Became a Beatle, too.

If you’re a YA reader who favors light, fast-paced, feel-good fantasies, don’t wait for the move version.   You’ll like The Girl Who Became a Beatle.   Especially if you’ve ever dreamed of any kind of stardom.

Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Girl Who Became a Beatle was released on February 15, 2011.

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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