From one year to another…

I’ve been writing about books for five whole years now, and blogging for two; but 2009 was the year in which I truly became a book blogger — for the first time, more of my reviews appeared in my own corner of the web than elsewhere. And, whilst I certainly won’t be stopping writing for other venues, I do want to move further down the road of book blogging in 2010; so I’ll be trying to cover more books, and seeing what else I can include on here besides reviews.

Follow the Thread has always been a multi -subject blog, however, and I intend for that to continue — though the balance will probably be slightly different. Now I’ve started reviewing for Culture Revival, I expect that most of my music writing will appear there rather than here. As for film writing, there’ll still be periodic DVD reviews for VideoVista; and I want to get back into the habit of going to the cinema, so I should be reviewing more films here, albeit probably not as often as I once did.

Those, then, are my blogging plans for 2010 (subject, of course, to real life, etc.). Happy New Year!

2009 favourites

It’s been a good year for reading, watching and listening, I think; so here’s a look at my favourite books, movies and music of 2009.

BOOKS

Here are my favourite books whose first publication was in 2009, with links to my reviews. (NB. The order isn’t meant to be too strict; all these books are warmly recommended.)

1. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

My favourite book of 2009 is an extraordinary work of literature which examines the masks people wear and the shows people put on in life, against the background of a school scandal. Catton doesn’t put a foot wrong, and the result is a novel that’s both highly experimental and compulsively readable.

2. Keith Brooke, The Accord

Brooke is, in my opinion, a vastly under-appreciated writer; this story of a virtual afterlife is the best of his works that I’ve read. The Accord works on so many levels: as a novel of ideas, as a novel of character, as a thriller, as an experiment in style… It’s a heady concoction that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

3. Rana Dasgupta, Solo

An elderly Bulgarian man looks back on his life in the first half of this novel, then dreams of a new life for an old friend in the second. A beautifully written, richly rewarding book.

4. Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

At the behest of Stalin, a group of science fiction writers dream up an outlandish enemy for communism, and discover that the truth is uncomfortably close. Enormous fun, and a feast for the imagination.

5. Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

A powerful fairytale about the difficulty of looking life in the eye, and the possible consequences of not doing so. A deserved co-winner of the World Fantasy Award.

6. Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

A deeply atmospheric detective story whose heart beats with a unique strangeness.

7. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide

A mosaic portrait of a father’s suicide, with a strong sense of place and a sharp eye for character. A unique work of literature.

8. Conrad Williams, One

Williams evokes the profound horror of apocalypse whilst maintaining an intensely personal focus. Harrowing, but powerful.

9. A.C. Tillyer, An A-Z of Possible Worlds

Twenty-six individually bound portraits of what-if. The most beautifully made book of the year, with stories to match.

10. Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

A quiet, insightful tale of silence between fathers and sons, and the consequences of leaving things unspoken.

11. China Miéville, The City & the City

A murder mystery set in overlapping cities, and a fascinating fusion of fantasy and crime fiction.

12. Trevor Byrne, Ghosts and Lightning

A young man returns to Dublin after the death of his mother, and struggles to anchor his life. Well written and nicely observed.

And the best from previous years…

Ken Grimwood, Replay (1986)

A perfectly constructed and beautifully observed tale of a life lived over and over again in different ways. This is an absolute jewel of a book which I am enormously glad to have read this year.

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)

A marvellous coming-of-age (or beginnings thereof) story told in a brilliantly realised voice. A page-turner of depth and richness.

FILMS

Though I didn’t intend it to happen, I got somewhat out of the habit of watching films in the latter half of 2009, so my view of the cinematic year is a bit skewed. But my favourite film from 2009 was a brilliant British fantasy called Franklyn; and, from previous years, I was most impressed by Once and Hard Candy — both excellent films, though very different in mood.

MUSIC

Instead of picking out albums, I’ll present a list of some of the best songs that sountracked my year (though not all originate from 2009); but, if it’s on here, you can (in most cases) consider it a recommendation for the relevant album:

Bat for Lashes, ‘Daniel’ [review]
Doves, ‘Kingdom of Rust’
The Duckworth Lewis Method, ‘Jiggery Pokery’ [review]
Florence and the Machine, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ [review]
Franz Ferdinand, ‘Ulysses’ [review]
Friendly Fires, ‘Paris’ [review]
Glasvegas, ‘Flowers and Football Tops’ [review]
Lisa Hannigan, ‘I Don’t Know’ [review]
Charlotte Hatherley, ‘White’
The Invisible, ‘London Girl’ [review]
La Roux, ‘Bulletproof’ [review]
The Leisure Society, ‘The Last of the Melting Snow’ [review]
Little Boots, ‘New in Town’ [review]
The Phantom Band, ‘The Howling’
Snow Patrol, ‘Just Say Yes’ [review]
Stornoway, ‘Zorbing’
Super Furry Animals, ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ [review]
Sweet Billy Pilgrim, ‘Kalypso’ [review]
The Temper Trap, ‘Sweet Disposition’
White Lies, ‘Death’ [review]
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Zero’

So, that was 2009. I hope that 2010 holds as much to look forward to.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (2009) by Jesse Bullington: The Zone review

My latest review at The Zone is of Jesse Bullington‘s interesting-but-flawed medieval fantasy The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. This tells the story of twin graverobbers who have run-ins with various entities, both natural and otherwise, on their travels. When magic intersects with the narrative, the results are fascinating; at other times, the novel doesn’t work quite so well.

Read the review in full.

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009) by Evie Wyld

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I came across Evie Wyld’s excellent short story ‘Menzies Meat’ in the summer. In the intervening months, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice has won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and received near-unanimous praise – now here’s some more.

What’s particularly striking about the novel, looking back on it as a whole, is how quiet it is; it’s probably the quietest book I’ve read all year. Its tone is quiet, its theme is quietness – the things that aren’t said, and the possible consequences of not saying them. Wyld’s debut is a character study revolving around two men: one is Frank, who leaves his life in present-day Canberra to live in a remote shack his grandparents owned, and hopes that the past will stay where he left it. The second man is Leon, whom we follow from childhood: his father leaves home to fight in the Korean War, but struggles with life when he returns, so much so that he ends up fleeing. Leon’s mother goes in search of her husband, leaving the young man to cope on his own – and then Leon receives a letter of conscription for Vietnam. Leon, by the way, is Frank’s father.

Typing that last sentence almost feels like a spoiler, though there’s no real reason why it should. It’s not that Wyld is keeping the relationship secret to provide a surprise twist; rather, it’s that the story she tells never demands the connection be stated. The two narratives are kept separate, and there’s a gap between the young Leon and the father we glimpse in Frank’s tale (we can speculate on what drives Leon to become the man he is in the present, but we don’t have the full story). In effect, the central father-son relationship of the novel is hardly in the novel at all – the theme of silence between men (and between generations of men) is reflected at the broadest structural level.

That same theme is also there at the level of plot, as both protagonists have to deal with the consequences of things left unspoken. Frank doesn’t reveal much about himself to the people of his new town, which comes back to bite him before novel’s end; and Leon finds it hard to talk to his father when the latter returns from service – even after so long apart, silence around the dinner table seems more appropriate than facile questions that could never reveal the truth of what Leon’s father witnessed.

There’s silence, too, in the very language of the book. This is a novel in which sensations seem more prominent than actions. Wyld is a great writer of description; here, for example, is Leon after hearing that his father has been caught:

At school things caught at his hair and plucked at the back of his trousers. His pen moved slowly across the page, ink swelled into the paper. He felt himself trapped between the bone and flesh of his face, and he couldn’t move. Everyone else’s hands moved at impossible speed over their work, the noises of the classroom were high-pitched and speeded up, made no sense. He felt his own body, a sluggish weight, pale and thick, a rock with a wooden shell. With effort he stood up…he walked out of the classroom, away from the school, heavy enough that he might sink into the ground and suffocate, or else fall on the pavement and shatter into splinters.

After the Fire is full of such vivid imagery (of place as well as of feeling) that jumps out; but there are also highly significant points which come across as relatively subdued. For example, when we first learn that Frank beat his wife, it’s dropped in casually; one might even have to go back and re-read, just to check that’s what has been revealed. Character hints are dropped in subtly, suggesting that these are things the protagonist don’t know about themselves. Frank doesn’t know why he gets so aggressive, for example; nor does Leon understand what makes him want to photograph a boy he kills in Vietnam – and we don’t comprehend the minds of these characters, either. Though we see the novel through their eyes, there is still much they don’t (or can’t) tell us.

I don’t know whether I’d go so far as to call Frank and Leon antiheroes; but they’re not entirely sympathetic protagonists, either. What we have here, I think, is a portrait of two flawed men trying to cope with life’s challenges the best they can – which isn’t necessarily the best way there could be. After the Fire, a Still Small Voice tells a very real story; and, quiet though it may be, it’s a novel that resounds loudly.

Finch (2009) by Jeff VanderMeer

In his latest novel, Jeff VanderMeer brings us a mystery in which Detective John Finch — whose name is not John Finch, and who isn’t a detective (or so he keeps telling himself) — investigates a double murder. One of the victims is a man who can’t possibly be a murder victim, whilst the other is a gray cap—

If the term ‘gray cap’ is unfamiliar (and even if it’s not!), welcome to Ambergris, the setting of VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen (2003) and Shriek: an Afterword (2006), which, together with Finch, form a cycle of novels – though it’s not necessary to have read the previous two (and I’d say Finch makes a pretty good entry point). I am in the awkward position of remembering enough about City and Shriek that I didn’t come to the new book cold, whilst having forgotten enough that I know I missed some things in Finch, and can’t really give a proper assessment of the Ambergris Cycle as a whole. That’s where I started from, anyway.

Finch is set a hundred years after Shriek, at a time when Ambergris has been taken over by the gray caps, the inscrutable fungoid people who previously lived beneath the city. Spores that could do who-knows-what (or who-dares-imagine) to you proliferate, such that it’s a bad idea to go around barefoot, because you never know what you’ll step on. Some of the human population are held in camps, others kept docile with fungal drugs; but there are those who’ve their lot in with the gray caps to become half-human, half-mushroom ‘Partials’ – and there are rebels, led by the mysterious Lady in Blue, though she hasn’t been heard of for six years. And there are those like John Finch, a human in the employ of the gray caps, just trying to make their way through this world as best they can.

And these are difficult waters to navigate because, as in any good mystery, there are secrets, deceptions, and masks aplenty in Finch, not least those of the protagonist himself. ‘John Finch’ is an identity he created to hide that of the person he was before the Rising of the gray caps; and, despite his profession, Finch still doesn’t feel comfortable thinking of himself as a detective. To be fair, he doesn’t get very far with actual detecting in the novel, as most of the other characters seem to know more than he does, and are keen to reveal their knowledge to Finch only on their terms, not his. The motives and intentions of the gray caps are as mysterious as ever… all of this keeps the pages turning, no question.

Something else that keeps the pages turning is VanderMeer’s compelling prose. The style of an Ambergris story has always been significant, and Finch continues that trend. This novel is written in spiky, clipped prose that often gives an impression of restlessness, of wanting to get on to the next bit. For instance:

Inside, a tall, pale man stood halfway down the hall, staring into a doorway. Beyond him, a dark room. A worn bed. White sheets dull in the shadow. Didn’t look like anyone had slept there in months. Dusty floor…

This noir-inflected idiom is in sharp contrast to the lush, flowing styles I’ve associated with previous Ambergris books; but of course it’s entirely appropriate to the setting: Ambergris is a meaner, grimmer place than it was, so the voice that tells its stories naturally has a harder edge. VanderMeer’s writing is still vivid and striking (such as his idea of the ‘memory hole’, a revolting, organic way of delivering messages), but the colours of his palette are subtly different in Finch; for example, there’s more action this time around (or it’s more prominent than it was) – and it’s very effective action at that.

VanderMeer’s style in Finch also makes the telling feel more direct, which is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, this novel is revealing things about the nature of Ambergris that the first two kept hidden, and the style plays into that aim. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling that some of the otherworldliness is lost, that some of these extraordinary revelations become a little too matter-of-fact in the telling. I also can’t help wondering if the pace is just that bit too brisk, resulting in a similar effect.

The characterisation of John Finch is another aspect about which I have reservations. In a very real sense, we don’t know Finch; and he’s often acted upon rather than being the actor himself. These can make it hard to see him as an individual, and I don’t think that VanderMeer always manages to overcome that. When he does, though, it makes for some powerful moments. For example, there’s the time when Finch is pleading with his lover, Sintra, to tell him something about herself – not out of idle curiosity, but because he’s desperate for something in his life to be real, and he wishes it were her. At times like this, one feels the burden of living in a world of secrecy.

In the end, then, I don’t think that Finch is entirely successful; but it is an interesting – and gripping – fusion of noir and fantasy. It takes unexpected turns, and ends at a point that may seem too early in some ways, but is actually quite appropriate – because it’s the point at which the story of Finch can no longer be told, and the style of Finch can no longer tell its story. But Jeff VanderMeer can go on telling his stories; and I hope he does, because they’re like no one else’s.

Snow Patrol @ Palace Theatre, Manchester, 29 Nov 2009: Culture Revival review

I went to see Snow Patrol at the weekend, and what a great night it was. A brilliant performance, and even a surprise guest appearance by Elbow (it was as much a surpise to Snow Patrol as anyone else). My review of the gig is now up at Culture Revival, and you can read it here.

Video: ‘Just Say Yes’ (live)

Spoiler warning?

This post is about the inclusion (or otherwise) of spoilers in reviews, and was partly inspired by two posts on the subject (here and here) by Paul Kincaid (‘partly’ because I’ve had these thoughts in my mind for a while anyway, without writing them down; and also because this is not intended to be a direct response to Kincaid’s thoughts).

I don’t like spoilers in reviews, and I try to leave them out of mine; but there’s an issue, I think, over what exactly constitutes a spoiler. In my view, revealing plot points or character developments does not equate to spoiling per se; it depends on why a reviewer makes the revelation. I think that a review should try to illuminate the work under discussion, to enrich the reading experience for someone else; and I’ve been known to go as far as quoting the final sentence of a text, with that aim in mind.

What a review shouldn’t do is detract from the reading experience; if it does, that’s what I’d call a spoiler. But here we tread in uncertain waters because, as Kincaid says, people read books in different ways, and what may be a major revelation to one reader may be something another reader has seen many times before. I’ll try to set out my view by using a specific example – The Lord of the Rings.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that, by novel’s end, the forces of Sauron are defeated and the One Ring destroyed? I would say not (except perhaps for the most inexperienced of readers), because it’s a convention of this kind of story that “the heroes” will triumph – we expect it to happen, so it’s not really a spoiler to say that it does.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that Gollum, not Frodo, is the one ultimately responsible for destroying the Ring, or that the hobbits return to the Shire to find it ruined? I would say yes, because these are events which, to an extent, subvert our expectations of what will happen. Equally, though, there may be readers who would be happy for these to be revealed as illustrations of some of the book’s themes.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that Frodo’s resolve is tested whilst he bears the Ring, or that the ultimate defeat of evil is more problematic than the characters could suspect?. These comments hint at the points made above without stating what happens outright; and this is the kind of thing I prefer to do in my reviews. I don’t think these are spoilers, though of course others may disagree.

In the end, we all have to decide where to draw our own line when it comes to spoilers. Personally, I’d be wary of revealing major developments, even if they did help explore a point; but I’m also interested in testing the limits of what I think it’s acceptable to reveal. I would always hope, though, that what I write about a book will not spoil it for anyone.