On the Shelf: Thirst by Kerry Hudson

In Thirst, Kerry Hudson’s sophomore novel, Alena, is promised, upon leaving her native Siberia, “Lots of work. For good girls with good English like you. Lots of work and a good salary too.” She discovers she has been brought to London to be trafficked. Dave, who dreamed of travel and accomplishment, only made it as far away from his Roehampton Estate as Hackney. He works as a security guard in a department store on Bond Street, making only just enough money to get by. They meet when Dave must catch Alena, who tries to steal a pair of shoes. Rather than berating her for shoplifting, he tries to learn about her, to understand why she tried to lift what didn’t belong to her. She reveals little about herself and her circumstances. Still, he finds her compelling.
Before Alena gets away without getting into any trouble, she tells him, “Once you are something, you are always it.”
The story that follows continually tests Alena’s assertion by showing readers two people, impoverished in circumstance but not necessarily in spirit, who fall very carefully in love. But their love story is surrounded by the realities of their circumstances. Can Dave and Alena escape the labels they themselves and society have assigned them? Can they learn to trust each other with the darker parts of themselves? Can they escape the assumptions they’ve made about themselves and each other? Will they be able to get past their insecurities and the tentativeness they wear like armor? Their struggles are replicated in the communities in which they find themselves: other girls, perhaps not as clever a survivor as Alena, are also trafficked, brutally abused, and seemingly stuck; the folks on Dave’s housing estate are similarly cash-poor with little prospect of social mobility; people feel they have the right to “own” other people, using them for personal profit. Hudson’s prose does not shy away from the brutality, mess, and difficulties found in anyone’s situation.
Thirst ends on a hopeful, but ambiguous, note—some readers may not like the absence of a neatly-tied bow at the end, but in a novel where few things are tidily wrapped, such an ending is hardly unexpected.
Thematically, Thirst is not a comfortable novel; nor was Hudson’s debut, the charmingly titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (the story of Janie Ryan, one of the fiercest young women I’ve ever come across). Hudson’s characters are not neat and shiny—they are scrappy, they tend to swear, and they tend to struggle. As a result, I think they are convincingly real and utterly compelling. While literature can be a kind of escapism, escaping too much too often neglects the stories and people that are not told or told only in the margins. Part of Hudson’s allure, I think, is her unabashed willingness and skill at making marginal stories and lives an integral part of contemporary fiction. Hudson makes an immeasurable contribution to the current literary landscape by making it more socially just and inclusive through the kinds of voices and stories she tells, and is a writer not to be missed.
Thirst, published by Chatto & Windus, is available now in the UK; US readers may not have to wait long for its States-side release or can order abroad. Kerry’s debut, Tony Hogan, is available everywhere.

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On the Shelf: The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms by Ian Thornton

What if your life had so much forward momentum that you never once gave any thought about having to go backwards? And what if, just once, when it mattered most, going backwards was the one thing you had to do?
Such is the life, and eventual calamity, of Johan Thoms (pronounced Tomes), a promising student at the University of Sarajevo; a talented chess player, with a brilliant mind, an answer for everything, and quick wit for conversing with dukes and drunkards alike. When his father, a “mad professor (which was convenient given that he was one, albeit a fine one),” finally succumbs to the fullness of his madness, Johan must find work to help support his family. Through a family friend, and a key player in the novel, Johan becomes a chauffeur. His first, and most famous, client is the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The day Johan must drive him, and his pregnant wife, is June 28, 1914, through the streets of Sarajevo.
Like his historical counterpart Leopold Lojka, Johan Thoms takes a wrong turn down a dead-end street. Like Lojka, Johan Thoms cannot drive a car in reverse. And then, inevitably, gunshots turn the world on its head.
And so begins a tale that weaves historical fact with fiction to create a deeply heartfelt tale of how the young man who knew everything except how to reverse alters the course of the world throughout the twentieth century. Thematically, the big questions Thornton’s novel asks are, how responsible are we for the events around us? And if we feel responsible for them, how do we make amends? Or, in the words of Johan himself:

How could anyone have turned such a dream of a situation into such abject horror?

How could anyone have grabbed so much notoriety from the jaws of nobility?

How could anyone have fucked up so badly?

We follow Johan as he tries to atone for his mistake, purposefully exiling himself from friends, his one great love, and his family, trusting almost no one, and feeling forever responsible for the destruction, chaos, ruin, and death that occurred from one wrong turn and not being able to go backwards.
Structurally, Thornton tells Johan’s story as mise en abyme, a story-within-a-story. The narrative layering and frame make Johan’s story more intimate and gives his despair at the events he believes he set in motion more depth. As reader, I feel this kind of frame is necessary to believe such an epic tale and the depth of Johan’s personal despair. You leave the book feeling the depth and greatness of Johan’s heart.
A word of caution: Thornton does litter the novel with epigraphs and literary references that stretch across literary forms from Cowper, to Chaucer (a personal favorite of mine, admittedly, on page 44), to Tom Waits, to Walter Pater, among others. I don’t find these distracting, nor do I find them obstacles, though that may be a professional hazard of my day job. If I were to teach this novel, I’d say that you don’t need to have a working knowledge of the textual citations for their impact to be felt; think about how they work in their new context. Language is play, so seeing these words in different contexts should, I think, be taken as part of that play. But some readers could be put off by that kind of citation. I'd urge everyone, though, to give it a try and not miss this endearingly epic story.

Ian Thornton’s The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is available in Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. Readers in the United States will have to, for now, order from abroad.


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Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks Debut

I would go to see Susan Werner sing the alphabet. Last night, in a quaint Pennsylvania town, Susan Werner served up top notch alphabet soup. Through cryptic Tweets, Werner alluded she was going to participate in a show at Puck, a small music venue in Doylestown, Pennsylvania on Monday night. Details? Notice? Devoted Werner fans are not worried about details, instead they follow their beloved songwriter on a whim.

Susan Werner has an eclectic, albeit genius back catalogue. She has garnered critical acclaim for records like I Can't Be New and The Gospel Truth, penning classic popular songs ready for a new great American songbook and an agnostic's gospel/bluegrass spin on the gospel, respectively.

An accomplished pianist, incredible lyricist whose live performances weave wit and musicality effortlessly, so what brings us to Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks? I'm not even sure Susan Werner knows.

Most recently touring in support of her latest album, Hayseed, Werner's theme was agriculture. Jazz, gospel, farming. Mix in a few classical pieces, and you begin to understand why Werner fans didn't raise an eyebrow when she toyed via Twitter she was going to be in PA to "catch" a new band.  

Fans found Werner on a Monday night in a basement venue perfectly suited for the debut of Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks. One walked down a few stairs to find a dimly lit room full of tables with a drum kit and keyboard facing one another in the center of the room. The actual stage was in the background, and remained unused for the night. Susan Werner put her on twist on covers from the 1970's and a few 80's classics. Songs made famous by The Eagles, "Heartache Tonight," Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," "Welcome Back" (Welcome Back, Kotter's theme song), and even Dolly Parton were included in the set.

Susan Werner encouraged the audience to sing a long, and by the end of the evening, it was comfortable. Good comfortable. Werner sat in the middle of the room filled with tables of people who were comfortable with singing along with their table-mates, or settling in to listen with another glass of wine.

Werner joked throughout the night, "Ah, it's a little cheesy, no?" She asked people to find her on Facebook or Twitter and let her know what they thought of the night, the name, "Should Velveeta be mentioned?"

If The Adventures of Velveeta continue, count me in for another Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks performance.

Find Susan Werner on Facebook (facebook.com/susanwernerpage), and Twitter (@swernermusic) for new, perhaps cryptic messages about possible future Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks' performances.

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PonoMusic: We Hear You Loud & Not So Loud, But Clear

A "revolution in the way people can listen" to music says PonoMusic founder, Neil Young. The PonoPlayer was unveiled during the 2014 South by Southwest Festival. It was an event like many, media ready with laptops eager to break any news, first.

Neil Young, and a new music player? It wasn't just any old festival keynote. Many involved with PonoMusic are calling it a "revolution" in the way a consumer will hear music. An audiophile and techie, I listened carefully. As it turns out, listening carefully is exactly what the PonoPlayer allows one to do.

Throughout the process of recording, mixing, and mastering in a studio, one hears the reverb of a crisp clash of a hi-hat or final strum of a guitar. That is, all of the subtleties instruments produce as they are being played and recorded, one hears during playback in a studio. The PonoMusic team created the PonoPlayer, a pocket-sized device, which allows listeners to hear their favorite music in stunning, as close to studio as one can get, quality.

(Photo: PonoMusic Team)

A high resolution master copy of your favorite artist's original recording is a huge file. While demand for portable music has increased, the size of the original file has had to shrink. In order to fit a recording onto a CD, the original file is compressed. In order to carry around thousands of mp3 files on our various pocket sized devices, the files are compressed more, squeezing most of the aforementioned subtleties and all of the incredible ear candy from the original master recording.

The PonoMusic team aims to give the music consumer the choice to hear their music with all of the original ear tingling goodness the artist intended, and heard during studio playback.

From the team, "PonoMusic starts with the best ingredients – artist-approved digital masters sourced directly from all the major music labels. Every artist you know and love, plus new releases as they come out. PonoMusic honors the music at the level it was created – it holds up a mirror to the artists’ original vision, reflecting it with perfect clarity."

Is it worth it? I was geeking out upon first listen. I went to Kickstarter, and preordered ASAP. The PonoMusic project was fully funded within 24 hours. Less than twenty days remain to take advantage of the perks of the Kickstarter campaign. Discounts on the retail price, limited edition "artist series" players are up for grabs (your PonoPlayer will be chrome with the artist's signature etched on the side), etc.

PonoMusic is a complete ecosystem. Purchase your PonoPlayer, which easily fits into most pockets or purses, and next the ear-tingling music. High-resolution digital albums at Ponomusic.com are expected to cost between $14.99 -$24.99. The PonoMusic team states, "For this price you get the best quality digital music available anywhere, you own these albums forever - they don’t live only in the cloud, but also on your computer and backup disc, and you can play them anytime you wish on your PonoPlayer or other compatible devices. We will also be offering many of your favorite individual songs. We'll let you know the pricing soon."

A music fan? It is worth a visit to PonoMusic's website to read more: http://www.ponomusic.com

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SXSW 2014: Musicians to Watch

As those of us in the Northeast region of the US shoveled out from snow this winter, we dreamed of Austin in March! The Buzz About is thrilled to be a part of another SXSW Festival. 2014 brings lots of exciting film, technology, musicians, and loads of people to the incredible city of Austin, Texas. We confess our excitement at catching Kendrick Lamar and sneaking a peak at Lady Gaga as they headline major events, but we wanted to share who we are most looking forward to seeing perform, and who we think you should know or may know soon after the festival ends.

Betty Who

Australian native, we adore everything about Betty Who. Her vocals, live performances, and genuine love and energy for her work is refreshing.
Check our tour dates and more info at bettywhomusic.com


First caught Sohn live in the UK, and on April 7th, he releases Tremors, his debut solo album.
Look for tour dates, and more info at sohnmusic.com


Samsaya's energy and overall musicality are infectious.
More info: http://www.samsaya.com/

Incan Abraham

"World infused psychedelic pop" write Incan Abraham to describe their sound. It is intricate sound, but so easy on the ear.
More info: http://incanabraham.com/

Jessica Lea Mayfield

Minimalist? Occasionally, but she should make Kent, Ohio proud. We love Jessica's vibe.
More info: http://jessicaleamayfield.com/

Lydia Loveless

Lydia returns to SXSW with her signature cool country stylings.
More info: http://lydialoveless.com/

Tomas Barfod

Polyrhythm and pop? Meet the genius of Tomas Barfod. Nina K adds her pure vocals to the single from Barfod's latest project, and we are hooked.
More info: http://tomasbarfod.com/

The Last Internationale

New York based rockers, The Last Internationale, will bring their fierce guitars and haunting vocals to SXSW. Rock done right.
More info: http://thelastinternationale.com/

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