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Books

Murder Most Pleasant

Thanks to my fiancée working in a bookshop, I have been fortunate to discover a bizarre sub-genre of book that I would never have heard of otherwise: the cosy murder mystery.

The proliferation of hard-nosed TV cop shows of the CSI ilk has given me the impression that murder is a pretty grisly business. Yet apparently there is a section of the populace that like their murders with a side of handicrafts and a dressing of soothing familiarity.

My first experience with this style of book was with the inimitable Laura Childs and her scrapbooking murder mystery Photo Finished. Not only has Childs produced six murder mysteries set in a New Orleans scrapbooking shop (all loaded with helpful exposition on decorative edging), she is also responsible for a series of teashop mysteries. Photo Finished is appallingly written and the plot is nothing short of absurd, but that all seems irrelevant when you discover that Childs is far from the only writer working in the genre.

The concept behind these books is not so strange. After all, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books featured a cosy English village that was unusually prone to homicide. Last century, butlers were notorious for bumping off houseguests in novels -- possibly lashing out at their declining employment prospects. Why should scrapbooking shops be any less popular locales for murders?

Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing combination. Could there be anything less comforting than the prospect of being sent packing from this life while enjoying the simple pleasures of flower shopping (Shoots To Kill), drinking coffee (On What Grounds) or…gasp…teddy-bear collecting (The Clockwork Teddy)? In fact, the thriller genre has been most effective when it has shown crime intruding into the safest places.

The trick with the cosy murder mystery seems to be to keep the murder part to a minimum. Killings are brief, absent grisly detail and usually of incidental characters we have not had time to get used to. I suppose this is one way to maintain the “cosy” vibe, but it does seem to defeat the purpose of a murder mystery.

I’m trying to work out what the existence of this genre says about humanity. If we sidestep the question of why some people are so keen on scrapbooking that they want their murder mysteries to involve it, we’re still left with this: why people simultaneously crave the excitement of bloodshed and the comforting knowledge that it won’t happen to them and they can go back to their quilting afterwards.

Maybe decades of crime fiction has reduced murder to a simple plot trick. We’re no longer interested in the procedure of detection or the psychology of crime. We’re really just looking for an excuse for our characters to momentarily escape their lives and have an “adventure”.

That would at least explain why so many of these books are about really boring hobbies. If you’re writing about skydiving or spear-fishing in the Marianas Trench, then you hardly need to bump off one of your characters with a pair of craft scissors -- the thing is exciting enough as it is. On the other hand, writing 200-odd pages about a group of cat-sitters would drive anyone to murder.

Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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TV

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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