Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Intermission

Intermission by Owen Martell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'Intermission' is a flight of fancy, based on legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans' lost months following the death, in a car crash, of his young bassist Scott LaFaro in June 1961. Martell imagines Evans staying with his brother Harry in New York, and then with his parents Harry Sr and Mary.

Eash of Bill's family in turn watches him and thinks about him and reflects on their own lives. Little is said. Eventually Bill returns to New York to resume his career. And that's about it.

The book is well-written, but there's no real substance. There are no deep revelations about the human condition and no resolution of anything. The character arcs are almost completely flat. The real-life Evans sounds like a fascinating character, but nothing of that comes out in this book. His silence implies a deep grief, but Martell barely scratches the surface, concentrating instead on more mundane introspection of his family members.

This short book seems less like a novel and more like an exercise in novel-writing. One wonders why Martell bothered to write it at all.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: She Rises

She Rises
She Rises by Kate Worsley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The internet is the curse of modern fiction. Why imagine anything when you can Google it? Too many novels are researched to within an inch of their lives, and they aren't better for it. You have to be patient with the early pages of 'She Rises' as Worsley gets her research out of the way, and you can almost see her ticking off the boxes on her 'List of Period Dialect Phrases I've Looked Up' and 'Research Notes on Visiting Harwich'. Once she does, the novel thankfully kicks into gear.

Louise is plucked away from churning butter in the manor house kitchen and into domestic service in Harwich, where she develops a strong bond with her young mistress - one that she doesn't understand but modern readers will, even without the heavy emphasis that's placed on the fact that Worsley was mentored by Sarah Waters.

She is also under orders to find out what happened to her brother Luke. We discover in a parallel narrative that Luke has been press-ganged and is serving on the HMS Essex, on its way to the Caribbean to fight in the War of Jenkins' Ear (which places the novel squarely in the year 1740).

It takes a long time for these narratives to come together (one prospective publisher apparently advised Worsley to slash the first quarter of the book, and I think they were right), but when they do the twist is staggering. (One reviewer said they saw it a mile off, but I'm usually quite good at spotting approaching plot twists and it caught me out.) The way the stories come together sends the novel off in another direction, again suggesting that the opening quarter should have been cut to avoid unbalancing the book, but by this time the reader is so caught up in the story of Luke and Louise that this flaw is easily forgiven. Also, the gradual build-up of tension makes the brief and not very graphic sex scences all the more erotic.

Some authors are one-trick ponies, but I think Kate Worsley might have an even better second book in her.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

The bands you're forbidden to hate

Everyone loves the Beatles. Everyone acknowledges the genius of Jimi Hendrix. Everyone knows the importance of Elvis Presley. 

Except they don't. 

There's always someone who'll tell you that some grubby New Wave band from Macclesfield, or an Algerian funk group, or perhaps a couple of Germans from Düsseldorf are more important than any of them.

But there are a handful of bands that no one is allowed to criticise. You will never see anything bad written about them in print. Since there's no such thing as perfection in art, this is enough to prove they are over-rated - just don't say so, because these bands are more infallible than the Catholic church, with just as many people who have their entire world view invested in their unquestionable greatness. 

I'm being deliberately contrarian here, concentrating on the negative (I even like some of them). But why not? You've had adulation for these bands shoved down your throat for decades. It's time someone put the case for the prosecution.

The Ramones
Ramones, by Morrissey, 1976
I saw the Ramones at the Reading Festival in 1988. They were fine, but I found myself asking why on earth they were there, or anywhere for that matter. The Ramones are the epitome of punk attitude, but by 1988 they'd been doing their "1-2-3" shtick to trouser-wetting adulation from the NME for a dozen years. That means they were more of a dinosaur band than Yes were when Never Mind The Bollocks was released. They'd become their own tribute band.

It says a lot about the state of music in the mid-70s that the Ramones made such an impact. Just listen to Sheena Is A Punk Rocker or Rock'n'Roll High School: this is American bubblegum pop from the pre-Beatles era, by a band that had modelled their look on James Dean, a teen icon who died in 1955, three months before Heartbreak Hotel was released. Their other big hits were Do You Wanna Dance? (a hit for Cliff Richard in 1962) and Baby I Love You (The Ronettes, 1963).

That this was considered The Way Forward in 1976 says a lot about the loss of self-confidence in music at the time: the only way forward was back. Other singles included Substitute (a cover of a 1966 song by The Who) and Needles And Pins, which couldn't match the success of the version released a year earlier by Smokie - a band that epitomised everything that was vile about mid-70s pop. The cognoscenti of 1977 to 2013 (and counting) could think think of nothing better than to idolise a band that had ignored every development of the most productive decade (1963-72) that popular music had ever known and would ever know.

For the Ramones to mean anything, they had to appear in a howl of aggression and disappear before anyone noticed. They didn't do that. They had nothing new to say after 1977, but they went on, and on, and on, until they became predictable, establishment rock. Was that really what it was all about?

Say what you like about Yes and King Crimson; at least they were testing new boundaries. Even if you think they failed, at least they were trying. The Ramones were a rejection of every boundary that that had been crossed since the Beatles. They are lionised today, forty years after they were the 'new look' that even then was twenty years old. The future was twenty years old in 1976. Today it's nearly sixty years out of date.

At Reading '88, The Ramones were sharing the bill with Starship: the rancid remains of Jefferson Starship, which itself was the rotting remnants of Jefferson Airplane. Seven years earlier, Jefferson Starship had sung, "People say ... 'why don't you sound like you used to / in '65, '69, '75?' / Fuck you, we do what we want." The Ramones were content to sound like they used to in '75, and nobody was going to criticise them for it. They still don't.

You could join the Conservative Party or the GOP. But if you want to be super-conservative - a real reactionary - put on a Ramones t-shirt.

Bob Marley
UB40 didn't need to sanitise reggae to make it radio-friendly. Bob Marley had already done it for them. By the time Marley broke into the mainstream, he was already going soft. Compare anything on Burnin' with No Woman, No Cry. By the time anyone had heard of him, all that was left was some plinky-plinky pop pap. Later he became to Rastafarianism what Cliff Richard was to the Church of England. Rock promoting religion? Bring on Taliban Radio!

The Clash
That's progress: Paul Simonon repeats Pete Townshend's
1966 guitar trick on an album cover that harks back to
Elvis. Sounds gave the album 2 stars

The ultimate over-rated band. Nobody dares say anything bad about the Clash. But they were only a decent punk band who struggled to live up to the expectations of the music press, who saw in them a band who thoroughly espoused the political ideals of journalists who wanted punk to be a left-wing movement but found it sailing a little too close to the wind of football hooliganism and far-right politics. 

The two clung to each other with increasing desperation, with journalists even forgiving the cod-Caribbean accents when Strummer and the boys tried to become a reggae band because it was the only politically pure genre around. It was as borderline racist as the Kinks' Apeman.

I've got the two-disc 'Best Of' compilation and there are half a dozen killer tracks on it. Six good songs is better than most punk bands could manage (go on, name your top three Buzzcocks songs), but the rest is all fairly ordinary. A 40-minute vinyl Best Of The Clash would be a terrific album. Two CDs is seriously scraping the barrel. The Clash were a good punk band who quickly forgot what they were good at.

Never mind the soubriquet of 'the only band that matters' (a slogan concocted in the marketing department of their record company by Captain Beefheart's bassist), they weren't even the best band of their own time, let alone of all time. The Clash were a triumph of marketing over content.

Led Zeppelin
Britain produced three great, world-conquering heavy rock bands in the late 60s: Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Purple were without doubt the most musically diverse, while Sabbath created a gothic vibe and inspired so many bands that they must be one of the most influential bands ever. Lester Bangs called them the first Roman Catholic rock band.

So why do Zeppelin get all the adulation now? Even Deep Purple acknowledged that Zep pioneered the heavy rock sound: white boys playing the blues with heavy drums and the bass turned way up, but forty years later who cares who was first? No one listens to Bill Haley these days, and anyway Cream had already done it. 

True, they had a terrific singer and a fine guitarist, but Jimmy Page wasn't any better than Tony Iommi (Sabbath) or Ritchie Blackmore (Purple), and he was far more prone to pretentious noodling than either of them, which was one reason why the post-punk consensus derided Zeppelin more then the other two. Led Zeppelin provided something for those who missed Cream. If Cream hadn't split up, who would have needed Led Zeppelin? And forty years on, why should anyone care?

Sabbath's gothic influence on later metal makes it understandable why they have heroic status today, even if it took Ozzy appearing on a reality TV show to push them back into the mainstream. Purple were far too interesting and inventive - the crunching riff of Smoke On The Water apart - to be accepted for 21st Century adulation. Led Zeppelin were the epitome of cock-rock: pompous and shallow, with a singer whose main attribute was that he looked and sounded like Roger Daltrey, but without any complex lyrics that would threaten audiences with the peril of thinking.

Despite some great songs, they didn't progress much beyond playing turbo-charged blues and folk, with many of the tunes stolen from earlier artists. Howlin' Wolf had to sue to get royalties for Killing Floor, which Zep renamed the Lemon Song because they'd added a line nicked from Robert Johnson, who by then was too dead to sue. The lovely opening passage of Stairway To Heaven isn't original either, as any fan of Spirit (who Zep supported on their first American tour) will tell you. 

Even by the time of their last good album, Physical Graffiti, they still felt the need to add their own writing credits to In My Time Of Dying, a song that was on Bob Dylan's debut album and was at least thirty years old even then. Maybe living as tax exiles wasn't as lucrative as they'd hoped.

The Kinks
I'm sorry, beyond the horribly racist Apeman mentioned above, I can't think of a bad word to say about the Kinks. Give me time though.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: The Victoria System

The Victoria System
The Victoria System by Eric Reinhardt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quarter of the way through this book, I was ready to throw it across the room. I'm glad I didn't.

The charmless and self-obsessed David pursues Victoria through the streets of Paris for four hours, forgetting about his daughter's birthday party and losing her present along the way. Rather than call the police, Victoria agrees to meet him in London, where they indulge in one of the most tedious conversations ever recorded between two human beings. They discuss architecture and politics, rather than comment on the only remarkable aspect of dinner: the fact that either their table keeps changing size or that Victoria has extendible arms, such that at one moment they can barely touch their fingers across the table and the next Victoria is able to spoon-feed David without leaving her seat.

David talks like a written submission to the general assembly of the Socialist Workers' Party, while Victoria's conversation resembles a press release from the Institute of Directors. David also tells her about his plans for houses on rails, whereby residents will wake up to find their next-door neighbours' barbecue outside their patio door while their lawnmower is now in their other neighbour's garden along with the kids' bicycles and the koi carp. For all her business acumen, Victoria fails to laugh out loud at this idiotic scheme, sealing their relationship.

By the end of dinner, each of them is so smitten at having found someone who can listen to them without chewing their leg off that they repair to David's hotel, where they rut like accountants for four hours.

…and then the story picks up, becoming an existentialist political thriller in the old French style. David's thoroughly dislikeable, self-obsessed, whining neuroticism carries us through a tale of sexual obsession that destroys both characters. It still falls down on the dialogue, which reads like carefully prepared statements, and on the implausibility of Victoria falling so heavily for someone as pompous as David. The running theme of David's corruption by Victoria's capitalist morals underpins the story, but this is balanced by his strange sexual dysfunction: he can't reach orgasm. Victoria represents the alluring corruption of capitalism: David finally achieves release at the moment he completely succumbs morally, and in that moment he becomes unable to save Victoria.

'The Victoria System' represents the dance between opposites in French political life: David is a builder and Victoria a destroyer, and the antagonism between left and right is actually what keeps both alive. In that sense 'The Victoria System' is a political allegory in the best tradition of Sartre and Camus.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: Valentina

Valentina by Evie Blake

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As publishers rush to get on the Fifty Shades bandwagon, we can expect a lot more like this. Evie Blake seems to be a jobbing author who can turn out stuff to order, but this is a bit better than a standard cash-in. Nonetheless, it's not great.

There's a story of sorts, as Blake weaves together the lives of two women separated by nearly a century. Or she doesn't, as there is nothing to link the two for most of the novel, such that by the time a link is established the reader has mostly lost interest. The book is populated by clichéd, stock characters who offer few surprises, and there are plenty of descriptions that simply don't ring true. For instance, Valentina describes in great detail how she uses an old film camera to photograph the reflection of her face and then her most intimate parts in the water of a canal: a feat that would require gravity-defying contortions beyond what the laws of physics will allow; while forgetting that all she would see in the resulting photographs would be the reflection of the camera itself.

The descriptions of sexual activity - and there are a lot of them - are not inspired but are decent enough and Blake maintains an air of mystery throughout. I found that it stretched plausibility too far, but other readers might be more tolerant. I also found the concept of liberation through sex depended too much on female submission to male desire, which isn't very liberating at all.

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Review: The Mongoliad: Book Three

The Mongoliad: Book Three
The Mongoliad: Book Three by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Anyone interested in the historical Mongolian empire should avoid this bilge. Anyone interested in good writing should also beat a hasty retreat. The Mongoliad is as true to the era of Ogodei Khan as Conan the Barbarian is to the age of Attila The Hun.

It's hideously bloated and poorly written, like a parody that someone forgot to make funny. The first two sentences give a taste of the laughable dialogue - "The Shield-Brethren buried Finn on the hill where they had set up camp. 'It is not as grand as one of those burial mounds--the kurgans--we have seen,' Raphael pointed out to Feronantus, 'but it has a view of where we came from, and the sun will always warm the ground.'" - and the thought of wading through another 800 pages of this nonsense made me want to give up there and then. Everyone talks in this mock-heroic, pompous patois except Frederick Hohenstaufen, who throws "goddamn" into every sentence. This is meant to make him sound down-to-earth but just makes him sound American, which is ridiculous for a 13th Century German emperor.

Reading the dialogue is like listening in on a teenage game of dungeons and dragons, and very long game at that. This is the third book in the series, which might explain why the characters spend so much time going over events of the previous books. The non-dialogue writing is better, but there doesn't seem to be any plot; just a parade of groups of characters who spend all their time thinking and talking and doing nothing.

And boy, does it go on. There are seven authors here, all writing with the same breathless adolescent portentousness. The urge to introduce unfamiliar words is never resisted, even when there is no need. For instance, we're told that Haakon has only just learned how to pronounce the Mongol capital Karakorum, though I'm stumped at how else it could be pronounced. Meanwhile, groups of characters wander around and chatter to each other or themselves, but however great the distances not one of them ever seems to stumble on a plot.

I'm sure the writers enjoyed themselves, but it's all very self-indulgent, like fan fiction for a book that nobody has bothered to write.

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Review: Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This play is adapted from a novel, and it shows. Such a process involves losing the narrative of a novel, which then needs to be replaced by something theatrical. Brian Friel hasn't done that. He simply fills in the gaps by having the young boy Michael narrate large chunks of narrative, presumably pasted from the novel itself, without adding anything dramatic.

So, for the first hour we are presented with the five sisters picking at the scabs of their own boredom and frustration. This is exceptionally dull. There is some fine humour in the middle third, especially when the slightly deranged Jack regales the sisters with stories of his time in Uganda, showing himself to have gone native and become virtually pagan, before Michael is awkwardly brought back to tell us the ending of the story long before the end of the play.

From the lyricism of the prose, I suspect that Dancing At Lughnasa is a very good novel. But it's a poor play, constantly struggling against the dramatic genre instead of embracing it.

The pagan spirits of ancient Ireland are evoked, and I can hear the play itself pleading to them, saying, "Please, turn me back into a novel."

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Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists

A Conspiracy of Alchemists
A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was all very confusing. Eleanor's head swam as Lord Greychester, the man she had known as Marsh but she now preferred to call Hugh, explained how the Warlocks and the Nightwalkers were engaged in a battle with the Alchemists for the control of Pythia the Cybele who could defeat the Alchemists and their own Nightwalker allies, who are like our Nightwalker allies but so much eviller, and that it was now her destiny to become the Cybele, or Pythia, which was the Oracle. All she wanted to do was fly dirigibles. It was all very confusing.

Elle, as she was sometimes known, felt a strange lurch in the pit of her stomach, which was either physical attraction, hunger, indigestion or the start of the metamorphosis from Ella into Pythia or Cybele. If only she could concentrate on what Marsh was saying, but what with her head swimming, her stomach churning, the voices in her head whispering, a stowaway fairy chattering away and Marsh's muscles rippling in a physique that was remarkably well preserved in a man of 210 years old, she found herself reduced to repeating that this was the early 20th century and a woman could do anything a man could do - with the possible exception, she told herself, of taking a woman in his powerful arms and crushing his sandalwood-scented lips against hers in a breath-taking kiss because this isn't going to one of those novels thank you very much, although why she kept thinking of Marsh doing that to her was quite beyond her. It was all very confusing.

Elle was having such strange thoughts since meeting Lord Greychester, and she was confused as to why everyone talked in such a mock-mystical manner and yet threw in curious phrases that she was certain would not come into fashion for at least another eighty years. It all seemed very dodgy. She would have been even more confused if she had heard the Grand Master of the Order of Warlocks, whose conversation normally sounded like someone intoning the inscription on Knight Templar's sarcophagus, describe her father's possible death as "collateral damage" as though he had suddenly morphed into a junior public relations executive (whatever one of those might be). Fortunately Marsh was even ruder to the Grand Master than he was to Eleanor, though the Grand Master didn't respond to insults by lecturing him on early feminist theory or staring at his rippling physique. Hugh found it all very confusing.

And as for her poor, kidnapped father, she had almost forgotten about him. A terrible realisation hit her: the mystifying adventure that had suddenly taken over her life was subtitled The Chronicles Of Light and Shadow. Chronicles. Plural. She faced the horrifying realisation that nothing would be properly resolved by the end of the book and that she would simply be plunged into yet another adventure. She might not see her dear, dear father again till perhaps Book Four, while she was unlikely to settle down with Hugh's rippling physique until Steampunk went out of fashion again (though at least she could use her new-found powers to defeat this ungentlemanly reviewer from revealing that much of the plot). If only she could prevent eminence grise Liesel Schwarz from investing the story with the requisite humour and careful plotting, she might prevent such a sequel. It seemed unlikely.

Something lurched inside her. It might have been fear because it didn't seem to be hunger or indigestion, although she was a bit hazy about internal organs and they all seemed to lurching at one time or another, even when she wasn't peeking at Marsh's rippling physique. It was all very confusing.

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Review: In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists

In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists
In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists by Simon Grant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book contains brief, concise essays by today's artists on the art of yesteryear. It keeps its focus by getting the artists to concentrate on (usually) one work: the one that knocked them backwards.

In the space of two or three well-illustrated pages, the artist explains their reaction to the art and how it influenced them. This focus prevents the book being shallow or just a coffee-table book of lovely pictures, although it's that too. One could argue that we can't see how the writer was influenced, but it would be difficult to show that without doubling the size of the book, since influences can be quite subtle. I'm happy to concentrate on their inner response.

We can't help wondering how we are "supposed" to respond to art, even though we know it's a foolish question. Here we get the best answer we'll ever get: we see how other artists responded and were inspired. And it's not just painting: Man Ray and William Blake also get a look-in.

Reading a whole book about art can be daunting. This is a perfect book for those who want to dip in, learn something useful and then go away and think.

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