BOOK REVIEW: The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (2009)

A detective novel with a narcoleptic PI. Sounds gimmicky, I know, but Tremblay mostly (though not entirely) avoids the pitfalls that might be associated with that device. The prose and narrative voice are great, the plot less so; which is why I gave the book 3 stars over at The Zone.

Read the review in full here.

Mars in their Eyes by Colin Pillinger (2006)

One of those serendipitous finds I had in a charity book sale, this is the catalogue for an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum a few years ago. ‘Scientists are human too and enjoy a laugh as much as anybody, even if it is at their own expense,’ says Colin Pillinger in his introductory note, and I suppose he needed a sense of humour more than most.

I was surprised and impressed by the range of different kinds of Mars-themed cartoons on display here: there are political cartoons, cartoons about the search for alien life, cartoons about scientists, about missions to Mars (including, naturally, plenty concerning the ill-fated Beagle 2).Some of my favourites include Martians hurriedly scrawling ‘H.G. Wells Was Here’ on a rock before a satellite looks their way; a scientist taking great pains to stress the tentative nature of the evidence they’ve foudn that suggests there might have been life on Mars in the astronmically distant past — which has journalists screaming, ‘We’re not alone!'; and the Martian cup final being interrupted by the crash-landing space-probe that those hooligans from Earth sent up.

The cartoons are organised into chapters (some themed more loosely than others), each of which begins with a selection of facts about Mars and our exploration of the planet. Each cartoon also has its own piece of commentary by Pillinger; some of these are linked more tenuously than others, and the ‘flow’ between commentaries can feel disjointed at times.

But the cartoons make me wish I’d seen the exhibition; and Pillinger is a passionate and persuasive advocate of space exploration. His closing words ring true: ‘we should not discourage our children from asking difficult questions.’ And the cartoon accompanying this? Father-and-son aliens stand alone on a barren rocky world, looking up at the stars. The son asks, ‘Dad, do you think there’s life on other planets?’ ‘I dunno,’ comes the reply.

Personal reflections on books and gender

This post has been inspired by an entry in Juliet McKenna‘s LiveJournal asking whether publishing is sexist. It may turn out to be more a series of fragments than a properly coherent argument, and I doubt that I’ll offer any original insights; but I’ve never written about this topic before, so we’ll see how it goes.

To start with my own experiences as a reader: yes, most of the books I have read in my lifetime have been by men, and most of the books I have reveiwed have been by men. Yes, I was surprised by the ending of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler when we read it at school; and no, I didn’t read ‘books for girls’. But then, I didn’t read many ‘books for boys’ either — the closest I got were all the adventure gamebooks I read (the vast majority of which were written by men; and which had, I would surmise, a largely male readership). Mostly, though, I just read books — the gender of the author was genuinely never a concern to me. As an adult, I notice an author’s gender more; and, if I see that I’ve read a few books in a row by male authors, I do often think, perhaps it’s time I read a female author or two. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good way of looking at it; I think there’s something to be said for the free-spirited way I read as a child, picking up anything and everything with no regard for any criteria other than that it sounded good.

There has been quite a pause between my writing the last paragraph and this one, as I’ve confronted the fact that I probably do have a real gender bias in my choice of reading matter. It’s quite hypothetical, but it’s there. I would never reject a book on the basis of its author’s gender (gender might affect the order in which I read a group of books, but that’s different); I would reject it on the basis of whether I thought I’d like it. Now, I don’t tend to read books that have been explicitly written for a particular gender, of any sort — chick-lit, lad-lit, whatever, they generally don’t appeal to me (though I’m sure I could find exceptions if I looked); but if I had to choose one (and I’m talking about the really hackneyed, stereotyped stuff here), I’d go for a book written for my own gender. Hopefully there’s enough out there to read that I’ll never have to resort to making such a choice, but there it is.

So, I can understand (as I previously thought I couldn’t) how readers might prefer authors of one gender over another.  But I think the issue is also tied up with other factors. One of the commenters on Juliet’s post, Maura McHugh, says that, in the fantastic genres, we still have some people viewing some kinds of fiction  as more ‘suitable’ for women to write than others (i.e. fantasy rather than hard SF or horror), and cites as an example ‘paranormal romance’ being excluded from definitions of horror. Now, I think she conflates two different issues here. Yes, some people do think that women can’t or shouldn’t write particular kinds of fiction (in my view, all such opinions are wrong). The thing is, though, I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal romance’ as ‘horror’. But I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal detections’ (which are often written by men as well as women) as horror, either. And I would exclude these kinds of fiction not because of their authors’ gender, or because I think they’re intrinsically inferior (which, by the way, I don’t); but for the same reason I wouldn’t call Count Duckula horror — because I think (broadly speaking — of course there’s some overlap) they try to do different things and work in different ways.

Finally, to answer Juliet’s question: is publishing sexist? I have nothing to do with the industry, so I can do no more than speculate. I don’t think it is, not conciously anyway; but I do think there is a bias towards male writers — yet the majority of readers are female. Perhaps it is not so much one gender being favoured deliberately over another as the industry seeking to maintain a preconceived pattern of gender. A few years ago, Mark Morris wrote Fiddleback (known as The Lonely Places in the US), a psychological thriller with a female lead. It was published under a gender-neutral name to make it more appealing to women. That doesn’t excuse any biases against female writers, but it does demonstrate that ‘gender expectations’ can work both ways. Perhaps it’s that the publishing industry likes it when one set of books appeals to one gender, and another set of books appeals to another gender, and doesn’t like to rock that particular boat.

Over to you — yes, for once I’m going to explicitly invite comments (which are always welcome in any case). Do you prefer to read authors of one gender over another? What’s your take on the whole issue?

Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years

darkdays

If anything I wrote about on this blog were ever likely to make me lose all sense of detachment, a new Super Furry Animals album would be it. After all, they are my favourite band — I don’t think any act recording today can match them in terms of breadth and consistency; and I’d recommend that anyone reading this who is not familiar with their music gets acquainted as soon as possible.

And there is a lot of music to get acquainted with. Dark Days/Light Years is SFA’s ninth studio album and, as usual, it’s very different from the last one. Their previous album, 2007’s Hey Venus!, was short, sharp, and concise; this, in contrast, is the longest yet — but it’s a wonderfuly expanisve hour of music. Each song is different, so the only way to do the album justice is to take it one track at a time…

1. ‘Crazy Naked Girls’

Every SFA album starts differently, and Dark Days/Light Years continues that tradition. Whereas the opening track of Hey Venus! was over in 45 seconds, ‘Crazy Naked Girls’ doesn’t even get underway until after almost a minute of studio chatter, and then continues for another five meandering minutes that I just cannot get into. Gruff Rhys sings the verses in an oddly breathless, high-pitched fashion that I don’t think really works, before guitarist Huw Bunford comes in for the chorus, and the whole thing goes on too long.

2. ‘Mt.’ [link to audio]

Grumbling over: the rest of the album is fine. With ‘Mt.’, keyboardist Cian Ciaran takes lead vocals on a fast song for the first time; he should do so more often, because this is fantastic. A song that might seem at first to be too restricitive and repetitive in structure for its own good turns out to have a real swinging groove and momentum.

3. ‘Moped Eyes’

Another song with a groove, though one of a rather different sort, ‘Moped Eyes’ gives the album its title (‘Dark days seem light years away’) and simmers along nicely for four minutes; and you may well find yourself, as I did, nodding along to the beat.

4. ‘Inaugural Trams’ [link to audio]

This is the kind of SFA song that, if you try to describe it, sounds ridiculous. Here goes… A song about town planning (chorus: ‘It’s the first day of the integrated transport hub’), that sounds like the theme to a cartoon, and has guest rapping by Nick McCarthy from Franz Ferdinand — in German. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

5. ‘Inconvenience’

A straight-ahead (for SFA) rock song that almost defies you not to sing along with the chorus. Which is exactly what I ended up doing.

6. ‘Cardiff in the Sun’ [link to audio]

Now this is an example of why I think Super Furry Animals are such an extraordinary band, because their music ranges so widely. SFA go almost ambient with chiming guitars, treated vocals, and trademark ‘sha-la-las’. It’s compelling for all its eight minutes, and sounds completely otherworldly.

7. ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’

Rather more serious than its title might suggest, this is another electronic song, though more aggressive tham the previous track. Gruff’s vocals are perhaps even more distorted, making them so distant the effect is almost hypnotic.

8. ‘Helium Hearts’

The closest thing on Dark Days/Light Years to a ballad, this song poses the question: with all these body parts that do such useful things, what is the chin for? The answer, we learn after three minutes, is that it helps you smile. Lovely stuff.

9. ‘White Socks/Flip Flops’

Apparently, the title refers to ‘the type of footwear one needs to write a good novel’ (never having tried to write one, I must reserve judgement on whether that is so). Vocals by  Huw Bunford, and I think this is his best song to date; again, it has a nice ‘groove’ to it (can’t you tell I’m not very well-versed in describing music?).

10. ‘Where Do You Wanna Go?’

The shortest song on the album, at two-and-a-half minutes, and also the most straightforward. A great showcase for the Beach Boys-style harmonies that SFA do so well.

11. ‘Lliwiau Llachar’

Here’s a neat trick: this song uses the same melody as the previous one, only this time the lyrics are in Welsh. But it’s not the same song (the title translates as ‘Intensely Bright Colours’), and the structure is different enough that it doesn’t feel like a carbon copy of the last song, which is an even neater trick. Incidentally, this is the first Welsh-language song to appear on an SFA album in nine years.

12. ‘Pric’

And here’s another one (I leave the translation of the title to your imagination). Actually, this is almost an instrumental, apart from brief vocal sections. A suitably chaotic way to end the album, ‘Pric’ is a stew of guitars, whistling and who-knows-what-else that goes on for six minutes, then spends another four slowing to a halt. Rather over-indulgent, yes; but, after all that’s gone before, I’ll let them off.

So, that’s another reliably dazzling SFA album. Ah, why can’t all music be as good as this?

An Inspector Calls (April 2009)

My first experience of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play An Inspector Calls was — as I imagine it will be for most people these days — studyinging it for GCSE English. We read the play in class, we watched the BBC’s television version from 1982 — but I never actually saw it performed. Until now, that is, because a production is currently on tour.

For those unfamiliar with the play, it is set in 1912, in the house of Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist. As the play begins, the family is celebrating the engagement of Birling’s daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, whose artistocratic family own a competitor firm of Birling’s. Into the happy gathering comes one Inspector Goole, there to question the family about the death of a young woman who was taken to hospital having drunk some disinfectant. Over the course of the play,  it transpires that each person present contributed to the chain of events that led the girl to take her life — though they disagree about how guilty it makes each of them. And then come the final twists, that turn what has gone before on its head — and back again.

Having only seen the TV version, which sticks pretty closely to the printed script, seeing Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls (which, I learn from the programme, weas first staged in 1992) came as quite a shock. It begins with air-raid sirens, and children dressed in 1940s garb running up on stage and tugging at the curtain — which then rises to reveal (in a mightily impressive piece of theatrical effects) that it is ‘raining’ outside the Birlings’ house. The thing is, the play is set entirely in the Birlings’ front room; yet in this production, the family are enclosed in what is effectively an oversized dolls’ house. I was concerned that we’d never get to see them properly; but, when Birling asks the maid to ‘giive us some light’, that’s the cue for the house to open out,  in  another very striking display.

What’s the reasoning behind this elaborate stagecraft? It has to do with one of the key messages of the play: that the Birlings’ complacent attitude that we shouldn’t be responsible for each other was disproved by subsequent history. The programme notes explain that, although it’s 1912 inside the house, the outside represents 1945; and, when the Inspector (who mostly stays outside) draws out the occupants for questioning, they’re stepping into the future, as it were — being made to face the consequences of their actions and views.

I like the idea and, as noted, am impressed with the effects (I haven’t mentioned the most spectacular of all, to preserve the surprise); but I can’t help thinking that the production lays the message on too thickly. It seems to me that the play as written works by demonstration: it shows the shortcomings of the opinions it criticises; and the characters who insist on keeping those opinions make fools of themselves, whilst those who change their minds emerge from the interrogation with more dignity. But Daldry’s production seems too keen to tell its audience the message, as loudly as possible — in some senses, literally so.

The lines in this production are ovten delivered overly ‘theatrically’ — quite why, I’m not sure. Sometimes this works: Sheila (played by Marianne Oldham) initially resembles the Queen Elizabeth character from Blackadder (or, come to think of it, the vile niece Millicent from Blackadder’s Christmas Carol); but she is the character who learns the Inspector’s lesson best of all, and her manner becomes more sober and serious as time goes on. It’s entirely appropriate there.

But sometimes the effect of the delivery is jarring. Louis Hilyer’s Inspector Goole often shouts his lines in a way that robs them of subtlety; and, when he faces the audience (as the characters in this production sometimes do when addressing each other) to deliver his final monologue prophesying ‘fire and blood and anguish’ if we don’t heed the error of our ways, it feels like what (in effect) it is — a lecture. These unusual methods of delivery aren’t accidental (they’re referred to in the progarmme notes); but whatever their aim is, they didn’t work for me.

So, this was certainly an unexpected interpretation of An Inspector Calls, and I do wonder what my impression of the play would have been had I known absolutely nothing about it beforehand. As it is, my impression is that this production isn’t entirely successful, can be infuriating and entertaining in equal measure… but I’d still recommend you go and see it.

DVD REVIEW: How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008)

My second review at VideoVista this month is of Simon Pegg’s comedy about a British journalist trying (and, as the title suggests, largely failing) to make his way at a New York glossy. Not quite as sharp as perhaps it would like to be, this is still good fun and very amusing — so it gets 7 out of 10.

Read the review in full.

DVD REVIEW: They Wait (2007)

Time for this month’s update to VideoVista, and I have two reviews there. They Wait is a tale of vengeful spirits and buried secrets, set in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the festival of Hungry Ghost Month. Alas, it’s not particularly scary, creepy, or atmospheric; and I think the ending contradicts the beginning. It’s a mediocre movie, and so gets a rating of 5 out of 10.

Read the review in full.