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Stephen E. Andrews "Writer" (United Kingdom)

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Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley (New York Review Books Classics)
Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley (New York Review Books Classics)
by Robert Sheckley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Master American Satirist: New York Review of Books Classics tackles SF again, 7 Jun. 2014
Robert Sheckley was one of the finest American SF writers of the 1950s and 1960s. Witty, perceptive, fiercely intelligent if often episodic when it novel-writing mode, his latter-day peers were Pohl & Kornbluth and Kurt Vonnegut, while his closest contemporary analogue would be George Saunders. He was also shamelessly ripped off by Douglas Adams, who taking much from Vonnegut's novel 'The Sirens of Titan', also borrowed liberally (even lifting plot elements from Sheckley novels) and inserting the stuff and spirit of both writers' work into his 'Hitcher Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. But while old hands at reading the genre spotted the 'homages' (some of us would say plaigarism in the case of Adams' borrowings from Sheckley) to various SF classics in Adams' work, the majority never knew the originals and Adams laughed all the way to the bank with the cash and kudos that should have belonged to Sheckley.

This overview of Sheckley's best short work issued in the prestigious NYRB Classics imprint - which reissued John Williams' 'Stoner' some decade or so ago (ensuring I read it a good 7-8 years before its rediscovery and very late bestsellerdom) - goes some way to redressing the balance. Sheckley is virtually unknown is 'serious' literary circles, so this edition should see readers committed to discovering the sometimes neglected masterpieces that NYRB routinely place before our eager hands coming upon one of THE finest satirists of American letters they'll ever encounter. It's worth mentioning here that in the McCarthyite 50s, one of the few outlets for genuine satire of American cold war mores were the SF magazines 'Galaxy' and 'the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction' - largely because no-one other than Sf readers took them seriously. They were ignored by the critics and politicians, so writers of a socially critical bent could get away with more than you ever could in the slick magazines.

Sheckley's mastery of absurdity lies in melding a sophisticated Madison-avenue style voicing against silly SF tropes, highlighting their ridiculousness, showing their reflection clearly in the bureacratic paranoia of consumerist nuclear America. Rather like 'Pohl & Kornbluth's 'The Space Merchants' and the work of Philip K Dick, Shekcley, like Vonnegut, is arguably comparable to pre-'Mad Men' novels such as Sloan Wilson's 'The Men in the Grey Flannell Suit', except, of course, there is nothing subtle about his scenarios. For example, his definitive game-playing dystopian story "The Seventh Victim" (filmed as 'The Tenth Victim' in the late sixties and expanded to novel length with the same title, then subjected to two 1980s sequels) sees a couple of very Don Draper/Roger Sterling-esque office types contemplating their next legalised assassinations with a wry, ironic edge and twist ending that supplied the likes of 'The Hunger Games' with their basic premise.

Best read in small doses - a friend I talked into reading the book noticed how the stories are often grouped thematically - as the original Sheckley collections are a third the size of this major retrospective, the general reader will see immediately Sheckley's similarity to early Vonnegut. Had Sheckley taken his characters into more self-indulgent, demonstrative directions based on his own experiences and opinions (as Vonnegut did) and cast them into the mainstream, there is every chance that Sheckley would be much more famous than he is now.

I recommend this book not only to SF readers seeking to discover one of the key voices of his era, but to mainstream readers who feel that some of the contemporary American quasi-fabulists (Lethem, Saunders, Coupland, Chuck Palanhuik) are (or were ) ahead of their time. Sheckley is their spiritual Godfather as much as Hubert Selby Jnr is. At his best comparable to Dick and Bester at their finest (though neither Sheckley or Dick could match Bester in short stories like those collected in the sublime 'Dark Side of the Earth'), Sheckley deserves your attention. If you enjoy the stories, I strongly recommend the novels, which, although bedevilled by an episodic quality - most pronounced in works like 'The Status Civilisation' and at their most experimentally modern and continental (in a Stanislaw Lem type fashion) in 'Options' - are entertaining, sharp and knockabout. Of the well-known ones, I favour 'The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton' and the brilliant 'Journey Beyond Tomorrow' (aka 'Journey of Joenes', a must read for anyone who loves Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle) over the more easily-found 'Dimension of Miracles' or 'Mindswap'.

Hopefully NYRB will issue more SF as time goes on - so far, they've dipped the toe in the pool with works by Wyndham, Alan Garner and the magnificent 'Inverted World' by Christopher Priest. As the finest reissue imprint in the world after Penguin Modern Classics - and in my view a more open-minded one than PMC themselves - they could do much to break down the artifical barriers between genre SF and the mainstream.

Stephen E. Andrews, author, '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels'

How to Shop with Mary, Queen of Shops
How to Shop with Mary, Queen of Shops
by Mary Portas
Edition: Hardcover

1.0 out of 5 stars Knows everything and knows nothing, 5 Jun. 2014
Portas has made quite a lucrative post-retailing career for by 'selling' herself as an all-round retail expert to the media and politicians.

Of course, as anyone who has worked in retailing will tell you, retailing varies according to what you sell. Portas may know something about fashion retailing, but that's about all. On other kinds of retailing, she's weak to say the least.

For example, in this book, Mary states that most 'shop assistants' aren't that sharp. Of course, she forgets that her book will be closely examined by booksellers, who are, of course, renowned for reading and usually pretty intelligent and likely to balk at her views. Cue lots of booksellers taking her book off display and sticking it in stock rooms until it can be returned to its publisher. Well, Mary, you didn't think that one through...

This book is of little practical value to anyone in retailing or to shoppers -there is little here that applies universally to consumers. As time goes on and Portas' status as a 'retail champion' crumbles as the media turns its spotlight on her failed 'high street rejuvenation' projects, one thing is certain: her status as an expert is now being seriously questioned.

Price: £7.43

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Love Argus? You may not like this..., 30 May 2014
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This review is from: Pilgrimage (Audio CD)
I can't say I'm a rabid Ash follower - I've owned 'Argus' for decades, also own 'Live Dates' and 'There's the Rub' (both of which I like) and once saw the two legendary guitarists live playing tracks from their most celebrated album on the 'Night of the Guitars' tour in the 80s, alongside such six-string luminaries as Robbie Krieger (The Doors) and Steve Hunter (Alice Cooper/Lou Reed).

This, of course, was the second Ash album and for me, it's the work of a band still finding their feet. The infamous yodelling will not appeal to everyone - it certainly didn't to me - and the production isn't as sleek as on 'Argus' and the later, more West-Coast oriented material. I have to say I was very disappointed with the album - and I am a great lover of 1970s rock music of all stripes.

If you're unfamiliar with Wishbone Ash, I'd say tread carefully and try and listen to a friends' copy before buying - and if you are totally unfamiliar with the band, buy 'Argus' now, as it is one of the great 70s albums that belongs in every collection alongside 'Dark Side of the Moon', the untitled Led Zeppelin album, 'Ziggy Stardust', 'For Your Pleasure' and so on.

History, Hits & Highlights 1968-76 [DVD] [2009] [NTSC]
History, Hits & Highlights 1968-76 [DVD] [2009] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Deep Purple
Price: £13.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Messy, frustrating, yet virtually essential, 30 May 2014
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Being a bit of a born again Mark 2 fan - I used to enjoy 'Made in Japan' when I was around 14-15 but stopped listening to the band a few years later - I've been looking around for a good Mark 2/Mark 3 DVD for a while.

The video and audio quality of this DVD varies according to the different sources, as you'd expect. A lot of it is totally deathless, though very much of its time (or 'dated' as the culturally clueless and know-nothing kids would say), some of it is not so good, but the main problem with the whole thing is its chaotic and amorphous programme layout. A more rational, linear approach, with judicious editing, could have resulted in a more streamlined, sleek beast. Instead, it's a bit of an over-extended drum solo if you know what I mean...).

However, anyone with a serious interest in 70s rock and/or Deep Purple in particular should own this despite the deeply flawed presentation. Once more, I'm finding myself wishing that more source materials could be found of 70s rock performances for Blu Ray release. Until then, this will have to do.

Never Mind The Bollocks
Never Mind The Bollocks
Price: £9.22

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a loss of Protein: Pure Audio Blu Ray Audio Review, 30 May 2014
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The album is of course a landmark for anyone who likes rock music. This review is about the audio presentation.

Being the owner of around 50 albums in surround formats, I'm not entirely convinced that classic Punk Rock is a genre that would be well served by 5.1 mixes. However, we've not really had much of a chance to find out, have we? The only true Punk Rock album I have in surround is "Germ Free Adolescents" by X-Ray-Spex, one of the very best albums in the genre and that's on a DVDA - it rips out of the speakers, but the bass is whacked up so high in the mix that it no longer sounds like a punk rock album.

Most original Punk Rock is pretty trebly. I've been in the market for a hi-def version of "Never Mind" for a while and have followed with interest comments here and elsewhere online regarding the quality (or not) of the recent CD remaster, earlier pressings and so on. I'm not a vinyl purist, but do own multiple copies of different pressings of this album, the original CD issue, the first Pistols box set and "Kiss This", which is for my money the definitive Pistols anthology.

The absence of a 5.1 mix - typical of Pure Audio, who are always bleating about how they include surround mixes where possible (this album was recorded in 1976/77, guys, come on!) - was initially a disappointment, but a run through at high volume reveals that this is well worth buying for Pistols fans. Despite being produced by Chris Thomas, it's worth remembering that the band didn't want to sound like Pink Floyd or even Roxy Music (a band they liked). Although you won't discover many new layers of detail in the sound (how CT layered that guitar), this is a roaring monster, albeit very dry -there are no really warm tone colours or lush timbres here after all - so the music seems very arid and flat compared to contemporary recordings and a lot of classic rock. But it's not supposed to sound anything but the antithesis of lush - yet its still full, satisfying and colourful in its own way. 'God Save the Queen' sounds particularly good and 'New York' is a total joy as ever- if only more people raved about the album tracks instead of going on and on about the 'big four' singles.

As for the bonus cuts, I'd have much preferred 'I Wanna be Me' be included to complete the actual b sides run associated with the album, but no, we get a load of live recordings instead, which are fairly pointless on a hi-def issue given the lo-fi recording quality.

Listening to the DTS version on a fake 5.1 setting on my home theatre setup, I found the drums particularly satisfying, especially the cymbals and in the spaces between the elements of the kit - a lot of the time, the mix is very full, but in more spacious tracks like 'Submission', the detail does bleed through more. The vocals sound good too, but the bass and kick drum aren't too overemphasised, as I was worried they would be.

Overall, this isn't a groundbreaking leap forward in sonic quality, but it has certainly put me off buying Japanese SHMCD versions or any other future variant until a 5.1 version comes along, though as I say, I don't think a huge amount of sonic information would be gained in a surround mix. We do need more hi-def versions of Punk classics though - I think albums by The Stranglers and Buzzcocks (especially those produced by Martin Rushent) would really benefit from 5.1, being louder, lusher records.

Gripes: as ever, this Pure Audio disc starts playing as soon as the menu screen comes up, before you have any chance to select which audio option you want to go for. This is infuriating and I wish they'd stop issuing discs with this stupid lack of attention to detail. Additionally, the folding design of the inner booklet, although ingenious, is virtually impossible to refold correctly.

in short, a good version of a classic, but compromised by poor decision-making and presentation by Pure Audio.

La Via Della Droga
La Via Della Droga

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Below average, 30 May 2014
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This review is from: La Via Della Droga (Audio CD)
Being a bit of a Goblin completest, I have to say this is very average, comparable to the soundtrack of 'Squadra Antigangsters' at best. If you only know the Argento/Romero soundtracks, yoiur next purchase should be 'Roller' before you consider delving into the less familiar material.

Live at the Karl Marx Theatre Havana
Live at the Karl Marx Theatre Havana
Offered by rapid17
Price: £1.74

2.0 out of 5 stars Not much Manzanera, 30 May 2014
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If you are buying this CD expecting more Manzanera than Moncada, you'll be disappointed. Despite a showcase of 'Southern Cross' for Phil, this is pretty much all typical Cuban dance-pop, best avoided if you are a rock fan and best enjoyed if you like latin music. It also compares poorly to '801 Latino'.

Personally, I'll stick to 'Frontera', Phil's shockingly neglected version of 'Guantanamera' (only on a Japanese CD single) and my Stan Getz bossa nova collaborations in future!

Made In Japan
Made In Japan
Price: £15.41

24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars WARNING: Blu Ray Audio is NOT in 5.1, 20 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Made In Japan (Blu-ray Audio)
This review is purely for warning purposes. The album is, of course, one of the greatest live rock records ever.

This edition has been advertised in a number of places -inlcuding amazon - as being a 5.1 surround mix. Like the majority of the the Pure Audio Blu RayAudio series, it is NOT in 5.1, just stereo.

This is highly disappointing. Pure Audio have stated that they will issue albums in 5.1 mix where possible, yet they seem to consistently fail to do so. As two other Purple albums have been released on DVD in 4.0 (original quad) mixes, one of them with 3 bonus 5.1 tracks ('Machine Head'), there is no reason why this couldn't have been mixed for 5.1.

Interestingly, the Pure Audio edition of 'Never Mind the Bollocks, here's the Sex Pistols' recorded in 1976/77 is also not in 5.1.

This is simply not good enough. From the inception of hi def audio formats (some 12 years ago at least) - DVDA, DVD, Dualdisc and SACD, 5.1 mixes have been pretty much standard. Given that BRA is supposedly the highest definition audio format yet, it seems incumbent upon this label that they issue albums in 5.1. A stereo layer could be included, since disc space is not an issue here.

But what I really object to is these discs being advertised before release as 5.1. When I've played the stereo mixes in full, I'll review them here - I'm sure they'll sound great and will satisfy stero purists - but when you're buying an album for the third, fourth, fifth time, it would be nice to get a totally new hi-def take on the music.

It's little wonder hi-def formats 'fail' according to the music press - when you're buying an album for the third, fourth, fifth time, a fresh take on the music (best provided by a surround mix) is a big draw for fans. Remember Warner DVD-Audio discs from 12-14 years ago? Even if your player could only access the dolby digital layer, you often got alternative takes with different lyrics -such as on the Alice Cooper discs - or even different takes on the music, as on The Doors album issued in that format.

Going forward, I'm not going to buy any BRA of albums recorded after the late sixties that don't render the music in surround.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 30, 2014 1:53 PM BST

Gentlemen Take Polaroids
Gentlemen Take Polaroids
Price: £35.81

4.0 out of 5 stars Japanese SHMCD review -Gentlemen take polaroids, 16 May 2014
First of al, I should say that I'm very fond of this album - I bought it on the day it came out on vinyl and have owned at least 2 other CD versions.

Regarding the music, it felt like a quantum leap forward for Japan at the time, though not as big a step as between "Obscure Alternatives" and "Quiet Life". After many years of listening to the band (around 35!) I'd say now that the best album is easily "Quiet Life2, largely as "Polaroids" is marred by a cover version of 'Ain't That Peculiar' by Smokey Robinson (I'd have much preferred a Sylvian original personally) and 'Burning Bridges', which is a pleasant if inferior attempt to homage Bowie's 'Warszawa' - and although it's beautifully clean, it lacks the texture and gravitas of the Bowie track.

The rest of the album is fabulous, particularly 'Taking Islands in Africa' and 'My New Career' which features Bowie sideman and ex-Hawkwind violinist Simon House, a peerless musician, alongside the unique talents of Sylvian, Karn, Jansen, Barbieri and -on some tracks - Rob Dean. Dean is, sadly, absent for over half of this record, but his guitar on the title track in particular is as lovely as ever.

But you probably know all this. What you're wondering is if you need a SHMCD version of this great record. Well, the answer is that while the SHMCD is great, it's not a huge step forward from the previous Japanese CD issues (I tend to go for Japanese pressings of my favourite artists when I can, even on CD, as they are usually the best in the world - this isn't mythology, it's fact- I have Japanese vinyl editions of records by -for example - Japan and The Stranglers and Bowie from the late seventies and they are much better than UK or US pressings sonically.

The fact is that music as digitally recorded as this is, as played on mostly digital instruments as this is, doesn't benefit as much from the SHMCD treatment as older pre-80s recordings do. Plus, you can probably get this a lot cheaper from Japan - I paid no more than £20 for this including postage direct from the land of the rising sun.

Dreamtime (Rmst)
Dreamtime (Rmst)
Price: £22.59

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Culture Factory 24 bit remaster; Dreamtime, 16 May 2014
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This review is from: Dreamtime (Rmst) (Audio CD)
I have vivid memories of seeing the band on the 'Dreamtour' at Gloucester in 1986. Although they played beautifully, with excellent sound - as they always did in concert up until that time, there was something wrong -and it wasn't the brass section. A few days later I bumped into Sil Wilcox in Bath during the course of my day job and virtually unprompted, he agreed with me that the gig wasn't one of the bands' best. Soon, it became clear what the problem was : the Stranglers only played what were -or what would become - singles from the new album at the gig ; 'Always the Sun', 'Nice in Nice', 'Was it You', 'Big in America' and 'Shakin' Like a Leaf'. I'd heard the latter live before - it was played on the 'Aural Sculpture' tour, the first time I'd heard the band play an unreleased song, with the exception of the MIB tour, when the album wasn't out until a week into the jaunt.

"'Dreamtime", though generally a huge improvement on 'Aural Sculpture' as coherent album and in terms of production still suffers from too many singles - its high points are the more interesting and internationally-themed album tracks, particularly 'Too precious' (a total masterpiece), 'Mayan Skies' ( a latin tour de force) and 'Dreamtime' itself, while 'Ghost Train' and 'You'll Always Reap' are fascinating experiments.

I've heard 'Always the Sun' way too many times in concert to be objective about it, though I still think it's a great song, it's not a stone cold classic in my opinion. The album version is longer than the single but shorter than the 12" cut, which for me is the definitive version of the song. You can't argue with the sentiments of the number and it sounds great here in 24 bit. Overall, this remaster is less noticeably improved over previous CD versions, but my feeling is because the production and mix is much better than that of "Aural Sculpture" in particular, meaning that it's always been a great-sounding record thanks to Mike Kemp, who did a far better job than Laurie Latham.

"Dreamtime" is less dominated by the bass end of the spectrum than the previous two albums, but Kemp triumphs in making the drum machine far more dynamic and 'natural' than on "Aural", though less distinctive and simmons-kitty than on "Feline", where the drum machine sounds fascinatingly toppy and electronic - here we get electronica masquerading as acoustic drums instead. The resonance is sometimes sucked out of the backing vocals sometimes by the rising thump of drum fills, which for me says - yet again -time for a 5.1 surround version to give the recording room to breathe (I'm a firm believer that 80s production ambience would really benefit from more open soundscapes and space that 5.1 would allow, giving the mixes some ambient sound to breathe in).

The title track is a joy as ever, but as I've said, Kemp did a great job, so the new master doesn't reveal much extra detail, unlike on "Aural". 'Was It You?' remains throwaway JJ by numbers, while 'Reap' and 'Ghost Train' really rip out of the speakers hugely. I'm not a massive apologist for 'Reap', finding it a bit clichéd lyrically, though I can appreciate the sentiments (we've all been there in relationships), but hearing B J Cole play pedal steel is always a joy - he did some cracking work on David Sylvian's 'Silver Moon' around this time too and he remains THE pedal steel session-man of choice for the UK even now, our very own Sneeky Pete Kleinow. The steam-train panning of 'Ghost Train' is fabulous and Hugh's bell-chiming guitar chords mimicking the old railway whistle is another small proof of his underrated genius as a guitarist who can say masses with very little. Although it may seem a little throwaway, 'Ghost Train' is one of the bands' best bits of music from this time.

Much as I love 'Nice in Nice' it does suffer here - the sudden decrease in volume near the end is really noticeable here, as if all the faders were pulled down at once and again, at times, the mix seems to bury harmonies at the expense of crashing drums. 'Big in America' is infectious and funny, but it is a bit lightweight compared to 'Vietnamerica' or 'Dead Los Angeles'. For me the best version of 'Shakin Like a leaf' is again the 12" - the album version always seems a bit tossed-off and workmanlike, not as swinging as the 12".

I was really looking forward to hearing the sublime climax of the album in 24 bit - playing the CD on my bluray through a 5.1 system with a fake surround setting instead of mere stereo, I expected the perpetual bliss of 'Mayan Skies' and 'Too Precious' to be exceeded beyond my expectations. These are, of course, the highlights of the album, where the bands' melodic and tonal genius unleashes that 'always sun' upon us - it's like basking in the afternoon on the med (or in Mexico I guess), Hugh's Hispanic, latin fascination exploding like a terra cotta sunset over the ecstatic listener. I'm not disappointed.

Cornwell's voice is at its most gorgeous and tragic on 'Too Precious', while Greenfield's percussive keys, together with the wonderfully minimalist guitar and expansive percussion remind me of the Latin warmth and liquid psychedelic citrus-fruits of the guitar of Phil Manzanera (of Roxy Music fame). The vibra-slap behind the chorus, the subtle warmth of the keyboard harmony chords, the delicate interplay between Hugh and Dave, the elegance of JJ's grounding of Jet's drum programming accents, THIS is the band at their late Epic era best.

Overall, this 24bit reveals less new detail than the others in this series, but as I say, it's because this was always the best-produced of the Epic records anyway. I'll state again that a 5.1 mix would be nice to even out the odd moment of busy-ness in the soundscape, but I'd settle for a Japanese blu spec if one appears.. This will do for now though. A superb album.

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