Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: Black Is the Colour of My True Love's Heart

Black Is the Colour of My True Love's Heart Black Is the Colour of My True Love's Heart by Ellis Peters
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Crime writing has come a long way since this sub-Agatha Christie fare was considered worthy of anyone's attention. It fits the stereotype of something homely, set in a Middle England familiar to the little old lady who sits in a cottage knocking out whodunnits peopled by her friends and neighbours.

It's not just the characters and settings that are familiar to the point of cliché. The writing is as cardboard as the characters: the plot plods along, nudged by pedestrian prose that artlessly explains what's going on with drab matter-of-factness. How do we know what the characters are thinking? Peters writes, "He was thinking that… etc." How do we know what the characters are feeling? Peters writes, "She felt that… etc."

Peters has no ear for dialogue either. Even in Middle England, conversations do not consist of half-page explanations in perfectly composed, if lifeless prose in which all relevant facts are explained with forensic clarity.

And the plot? It's interesting that we're half-way through before we find out for sure that anyone has actually died. If we had been dealing with interesting characters and psychological manoeuvrings, then it would have been a fascinating novelistic device. But Peters doesn't deal in deep characterisation or psychology.

I was waiting for the plot twist – maybe (view spoiler) – but it turns out that (view spoiler) after all, which is what most readers would have suspected all along.

Meanwhile reality is crudely twisted out of recognition to suit the needs of the plot. The whole story is set in a country house where a folk music conference is going on. The most popular singer vanishes early on. Later, a body is found in the grounds, which presumably are soon swarming with police, forensic scientists and an ambulance to remove the body, all of whom must have driven up the drive in front of the house. Yet absolutely nobody notices. Add to that some deeply implausible police procedures, and we're left with a thoroughly unsatisfying, if mercifully short, crime novel.

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Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Considering Marlowe's reputation, Doctor Faustus is shockingly poor. It makes you appreciate Shakespeare when one reads an exact contemporary writing plays in a similar style on similar subjects but who produces work so flat, so lacking in poetry, so shallow and melodramatic and, - apart from the summoning of the devils - with so little sense of theatre.

The character of Faustus is only skin-deep: his motivations aren't clear and there is little sense of the enormity of his decision nor any plausible motivation. That is only revealed when he sells his soul and embarks on a career as a cheap con-man and juvenile practical joker. You'd think something so momentous would be undertaken to enjoy the glories of the world, but Faustus seems content to tease the Pope and steal his dinner, do conjuring tricks for the Emperor and scam someone who wants to buy a horse.

In Shakespeare's hands, Faustus would have been a doomed hero, diverted from greatness by ambition (like Macbeth), with a tortured soul and sullied magnificence. Marlowe's Faustus is nothing more than a colossal twat.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, 1972-1993

The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, 1972-1993 The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, 1972-1993 by Nick Kent
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of course I remember Nick Kent. In the sense that I remember all those self-declared savants of the my youth: Paul Morley, Lester Bangs, Charles Shaar Murray, Paul du Noyer, Julie Burchill and of course Nick Kent. But I seldom remember which was which except Gary Bushell (because he was occasionally funny but more usually a complete tool) and Geoff Barton (because he alone championed my then-beloved heavy metal and wrote the highly misleading sleeve notes to my first Deep Purple album, which destroyed his credibility for me the moment I found out).

And what I realise now about Nick Kent is that he's not that good a writer. Not terrible, but largely unremarkable. As a young journalist he sat at the knee of the genius Lester Bangs, but all he seems to have learned was how to write at great length. These stories are almost novella-length, padded out with lengthy quotes but largely devoid of sparkling writing, apart from the occasional flourish. The word that springs to mind is 'workmanlike'. We have long narratives but little insight or poetic imagery to bring the music to life; nor much sympathy for the subjects under discussion.

So these tales are moderately interesting if you care about the subjects (though his cursory treatment of a then-disturbed Roky Erickson is frustratingly shallow and unsympathetic). He wants to tell stories, but he never shows much enthusiasm for his subject, which makes the exercise generally disappointing.

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Breathing Corpses (Oberon Modern Plays)

Breathing Corpses (Oberon Modern Plays) Breathing Corpses (Oberon Modern Plays) by Laura Wade
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saw this at Beckenham Theatre Centre. It wasn't bad (and it was impeccably acted) and it was imaginatively structured, but the character arcs didn't work for me.

Part of the problem was the way it was sold to me: three sets of characters that are mysteriously intertwined. To me, the link was obvious within seconds, so there is no great 'reveal'.

Jim and Elaine's scenes didn't work dramatically: Jim is cheerfully hen-pecked in his first scene and suicidally depressed in his second, after finding a body. Kate also finds a body in equally (if not more) gruesome circumstances, yet her reaction is mere annoyance. Jim is psychologically destroyed; Kate is unaffected. Yet there is no development in Jim's psyche: we don't see how or why he went from normal to suicidal. Similarly, his partner Elaine goes from being self-absorbed and shrewish to attentive and loving (although there's still some selfishness in her concern for Jim, so it's not a total personality transplant).

Amy is amiable but her first scene is a bit dull. If she hadn't been so beautifully played then I would have found the scene interminable.

On the positive side, the dialogue is witty, well-paced and tightly written, and the circular structure of the timeline is imaginative and perfectly constructed. Some playgoers might find the inevitable anachronism confusing, but as Wisehammer says in Our Country's Good, "People with no imagination shouldn't go to the theatre."

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Review: The Weight of Silence

The Weight of Silence The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

At first I thought this was a crime novel, but there's no serious crime (a bit of scene-setting historical domestic violence doesn't count).

Then I thought it was a mystery novel, but there's no mystery: the missing girls give first-hand accounts of their ordeal throughout.

Then I thought it was a psychological thriller, but the characters are such flat stereotypes that anything as subtle as psychology is beyond them – except the obvious bad guy, Griff, but he's the only major character who doesn't get the first-person treatment, presumably because he's the bad guy and the author doesn't want the readers sympathising with him (maybe she should read Nabokov).

The multiple narrator idea is good (maybe she has been reading Audrey Niffenegger, but it's not much use when the characters – implausibly, given the terrifying events that are unfolding – spend most of their time musing about the past. Gudenkauf isn't a skilled enough writer to balance so many characters: they all talk and think in the same way, and eventually they merge into one. This isn't helped by the simplistic characterisation: people are good or bad.

Add to that the pedestrian narration, artless description and flat dialogue, and we have a thoroughly unexceptional book. By that logic, one star seems harsh, as it's not terrible – undemanding sun-lounge readers can flip through it and find it mildly diverting – but at no point does it transcend mediocrity. It shows a depressing lack of ambition on the author's part.

(This was the other book I rescued from the bin at the Village Hall, along with Genesis by Karin Slaughter. Their failings are oddly similar. Maybe the phantom book dumper had more taste than I gave them credit for.)

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Monday, August 3, 2015

The last Krautrock album

There's no doubt that Thomas was the less talented of the Dinger brothers, but Fur Mich – the title "For Me" being a reference to how his brother Klaus dominated their band La Düsseldorf – has some beautiful moments.

His drumming on the almost-title track Fur Dich (For You) is a clear reminder of La Düsseldorf, with a vaguely Christmassy melody, but the groove is infectious in the best Krautrock style and there's something quite lovely about the overlay of swirling synthesisers. Nothing else on the album quite matches it, but this is still a delightful listen. It's also the last time that Neu! motorik beat got an outing till the likes of Stereolab rediscovered it in the 1990s.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Review: Genesis

Genesis Genesis by Karin Slaughter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this in a bin at the village hall. Seeing books in the bin offends me, so I rescued it. Anyway, I like a bit of Rankin, so why not try another crime writer?

The best I can say is it's alright, but it's not really a crime novel. It's soap opera with a bit of crime in the background as a device to connect a group of characters who seem to be the author's main preoccupation. Slaughter seems obsessed with the minutiae of her characters' lives, and the story very much takes a back seat. A third of the way through the novel we've found out almost nothing about the crime or the investigation, but we know the characters inside out without ever finding out why we're supposed to care.

Slaughter is very mush of the 'show-don't-tell' school of novel writing, where everything is explained instead of coming out through the storytelling. She lacks James Patterson's clunky dialogue, but her plotting is much more rambling.

Perhaps that's why I found it a very feminine novel. Male crime writers tend to like taut thrillers rather than the rambling, over-written, easy-reading on offer here. Men like five-minute showers; women like to luxuriate in the bath for an hour. If that generalisation holds good, then this is very much a feminine novel.

It's is anything but taut. The first nine pages consist of the thoughts of a woman whose only purpose in the novel is to be the one who finds the first victim. She sits in a car, looking out of the window and thinks through her entire life story, including the life stories of her family, in a way that absolutely nobody does in real life (any more than they look in the mirror and mentally describe their appearance: that much-loved staple of poor writers who don't know how else to describe their characters. It's a perfect example of the chapter in How Not to Write a Novel called "What color am I?"). Again and again, characters sit back and think about their lives while the story takes a back seat. This gets quite tiresome.

By the time I had read the first third of the book, I still had little idea about the criminal (except that (s)he is implausibly sadistic) because the author was so obsessed with the characters' back stories that the novel still hadn't got going. And that was the point where I gave up.

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Friday, May 8, 2015

Did only selfish shits vote Tory?

My friend Tim, one of the most eloquent and entertaining voices among my Facebook friends, wrote this in response to the Tory victory in yesterday's General Election: 

“While I've read what feels like several thousand Conservative voters justifying their choice, I'm still looking to find one who says it was best for the country. Virtually unanimously, they felt it was the best choice for them personally.”

As a former Labour party member who seriously considered voting Tory, I started writing a reply. When it got beyond 500 words, I put it here instead. It doesn't mean I voted Tory; merely that I can see why people would so without being self-centred, evil sociopaths.
I wrote a long post yesterday on why I found all six options on my ballot paper repellent, so I could easily have justified voting Tory as the least-worst option without being in it just for myself.

As an aside, if you’re well-off and vote Tory out of naked self-interest (lower taxes), then that’s seen as a bad thing. If you’re not so well off and vote Labour for more benefits or more public services (funded by other people’s higher taxes), isn’t that also naked self-interest? At what income level does naked self-interest go from being despicable to being noble?

As it happens, that argument doesn’t apply to me. I have a well-paid job, I own my house and car, and I have enough in savings and investments to see my children through university. Voting out of naked economic self-interest wouldn't just be immoral; it would be irrational because I’m well enough off not to need a Tory tax cut. I’d much rather be taxed fairly and see those taxes spent wisely for the benefit of the country as a whole. And I’m not so well off that I’d be affected by any ‘soak the rich’ policies Labour might devise, so self-interest doesn’t come into it either way.

As part of my job, I read a lot of international reports on the state of the global economy. They have persistently said that Europe is stagnating, except for Britain. The overwhelming conclusion is that our government has done a better job of fixing the post-crash economy than anyone else in Europe. You'd need to be pretty callous for that to be enough, but for some people it is, even if the Tories can’t take all the credit (you could also give some credit to Labour for not joining the euro).

While the arguments for voting Tory are hardly compelling, the arguments for voting against Labour are strong. Here's why.

If Labour had won, they would certainly have tried to take more of the burden off the vulnerable, but would they have managed the economy well enough so they could afford to make a significant difference? It's hard to say, but promising to fund their programme with a smash-and-grab on the undeserving rich had a whiff of desperation. They tried that in the 70s and failed. It also makes them look just as divisive as the Tories. You can certainly do a lot of good by dividing the cake more fairly, but in the long term you need a bigger cake (or vote Green for a smaller cake with no icing). 

For many, it wasn't that people didn't like what Labour was offering; they simply didn't believe Labour could deliver it, and Miliband et al would foul up a lot of other things while they spent five years failing to deliver.

Ed forgets his lines and forgets to look at his cribsheet
Then there’s Miliband himself. He’s not a bad man, and in the human being stakes he’s preferable to Cameron, but he wasn’t fit to be prime minister. His failings as a leader are too numerous to list, but his failure to mention either the deficit or immigration at the party conference last year stands out. 

The fact that he forgot them shows that he was more interested in presentation than content. He made a spectacular cock-up because, as it turned out, he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was when he decided, out of pure vanity, to show off.

Remember his “vision”? When asked, he said, “How do we reverse the sense of national decline? How do we give people a sense that you can be optimistic about Britain, that the next generation can do better than the last? … What kind of country do we want to create for our kids?” 

That’s right, his “vision” was three questions. No answers, just questions. Ultimately, people didn't see him as prime-ministerial material. For some, that was enough. Not for me though. 

I can hear it now: "It's policies that matter not personalities, right?" Two things: first, Labour's first policy after Gordon Brown was to choose Ed Miliband over several more plausible candidates, including his far more impressive brother. Ed's inadequacy is an indictment of the party as a whole. Second, look at George W Bush on the morning of 9/11. At that moment, when America was under its bloodiest attack since 1812, did Americans really care what was in his election manifesto? They needed a leader. We're still suffering from the mistakes W made in those vital hours. Leaders are important.

As anyone who has seen me jump railings to cross the road will know, I don't like remote bureaucrats making decisions for me. I don't like being told what I can and can’t do. I don't like being told what I can say, think, eat, smoke or drink. I like to think I'm as much of an adult as I'm ever going to be, and I've yet to see a politician or civil servant who is better qualified to run my life than I am. This micro-management of individual behaviour started under Labour, and even if the Tories haven't exactly rolled it back, they don't seem as keen as Labour to extend it.

This isn’t an argument for “I should be able to do whatever I want and screw everybody else.” It’s an argument for “I and everybody else should be able to do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t screw everybody else”. Sorry Ed and Harriet, that doesn’t mean banning everything that other people find vaguely annoying, because the concept of society means being in and around other people and we’re all different. It’s called diversity – something that Labour claims to support, but only when it’s the right kind of approved diversity. It means trusting your fellow members of society. 

Labour doesn't trust the people and nor, it seems, do many of its supporters. If you want proof, look at all the posts on Facebook today trotting out the old mantra: "Ignorant voters did what their masters in Fleet Street told them." In other words, the electorate (i.e. what used to be known as the working class) is too stupid to decide for itself and needs to be guided by its betters. Never mind foreign wars and PPI; where Labour has truly lost its way is in going from a party of the working class to party that fears and mistrusts the working class, and it’s ready, even enthusiastic, to pass more laws to keep them in their place.

I believe in power to the people. I don't believe in power only to the people with a first in PPE from Cambridge followed by a career in Labour HQ. That makes you the new aristocracy, and it no more qualifies you to boss people about than being the 15th Earl of Westmoreland ever did. People have fought and died for centuries to make this one of the freest countries in the world, but those civil liberties have been persistently eroded in the early years of this century, mainly by Labour. Miliband, far from being ashamed of this, looked set to continue the process. Throwing away your freedom and everyone else’s in exchange for improvements in public services that might be negligible or even non-existent is the worst kind of self-interest imaginable. 

It's easy to say when you're comfortably off, but civil liberties are more important than a few pence more on Family Tax Credit or deciding that hospital cleaners be from the public rather than the private sector. 

Maybe Labour will finally get that message. Sometimes you have to break a bone to make it heal properly. This is what the electorate has done to Labour.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Harper Regan

Harper Regan
Harper Regan by Simon Stephens

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I saw this in the bar at BLT: there were some terrific performances but the play itself was flawed and even inept in places.

Through a series of about ten encounters, the almost sociopathic heroine goes back to Stockport to see her dying father because she has never told him she loves him. Yes, the play is built on that most banal of clichés. She decides not to tell her husband where she is going: an illogical act that is never properly explained (she doesn't want him to follow her, but since nobody knows where she's staying she could easily have put his mind at rest without risking being found). She apparently loves him but is quite happy to disappear for two days, leaving the poor man frantic with worry. When she gets back, he happily accepts her perfunctory apologies and wedded bliss returns.

There are numerous mistakes and inconsistencies. Several characters comment on Harper's unusual name, but the story behind the name is never told. The first scene is a meeting with her boss – a man who is surreally creepy in a manner quite out of keeping with the rest of the play. One character is described as separated and is then revealed to have married again. Some workmen comment on the good weather, but ten minutes later the mother says the weather is clearing. Two characters suddenly go off on irrelevant racist rants for no apparent reason whatsoever; perhaps it's just the author's cack-handed way of telling us not to like them.

Some of the dialogue is vibrant and funny, but a lot of it is drab, low-energy murmuring that tails off into silence in unconscious parody of Ingmar Bergman. The vain, self-indulgent heroine is a terrific part (terrifically played in the version I saw), but the play's flaws in plotting and long periods of slow, boring musing about nothing at all make the whole experience a bit dull.

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Review: At Swim-Two-Birds

At Swim-Two-Birds
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As James Joyce lay dying and reading At Swim-Two-Birds, he must have felt his heritage was in good hands. Things didn't quite work out for Flann O'Brien, whose literary output dwindled after his second novel, [b:The Third Policeman|27208|The Third Policeman|Flann O'Brien|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1343027425s/27208.jpg|3359269], was rejected (and only hailed as a classic after its posthumous publication).

At Swim-Two-Birds is surreal, nonsensical and at times infuriating. It's also hilarious, imaginative and beautiful. It weaves Joycean journeys around Dublin with invented Gaelic myths, some nonsense philosophy and a bizarre plot wherein the characters of a novel rebel against the author. During the struggle, their ally, the semi-mythological Pooka, magically dispatches the author, Trellis, through his bedroom window and floats down to join him on the pavement, observing:

To forsake your warm bed … without the protection of your heavy great-coat of Galway frieze, that was an oversight and one which might well be visited with penalties pulmonary in character. To inquire as to the gravity of your sore fall, would that be inopportune?

You black bastard, said Trellis.

The character of your colloquy is not harmonious, rejoined the Pooka, and makes for barriers between the classes.

It makes for a baffling yet appealing read, which is all the more enjoyable if read purely for the joy of the words. If you put the book down feeling you have understood it, then you haven't understood it at all.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Scoop

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scoop is perhaps the classic satire on the newspaper industry. Through a case of mistaken identity, naïve countryside sketch-writer William Boot finds himself dispatched to the East African republic of Ishmaelia (a thinly disguised Ethiopia) to cover the impending civil war for the Daily Beast. As he blunders around the capital city of Jacksonburg, he falls in with a mysterious English adventurer, a beautiful but flighty German-Polish-Romanian-stateless part-married near-widow, the corrupt but friendly local officials, an occasionally alcoholic Swede, not to mention the English press pack in all its disreputable glory.

Through ineptitude, innocence and ignorance he gets himself sacked and then lionised, before accidentally inciting a counter-revolution through the medium of absinthe.

Waugh's sardonic wit is at its sharpest, alleviating the mildly racist overtones (which are not out of the ordinary for a book written in the 1930s). He describes the fate of earlier European visitors to reclusive Ishmaelia thus:
They were eaten, every one. Some raw, others stewed and seasoned – according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop.
Waugh has the humorous touch of Wodehouse, but with a delightfully spiteful hauteur that reflects his personality. What is dislikeable about Waugh is partly what makes him so funny, while his impeccable sentence construction makes him delightfully readable.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: The Fence in its Thousandth Year

The Fence in its Thousandth Year
The Fence in its Thousandth Year by Howard Barker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

You don't need the pseudo-musicals based on The Beatles and The Kinks that keep popping up round London to remind you that 60s nostalgia is big business. Howard Barker, whose first play was performed in 1970, isn't a nostalgist for the era; he's still living there. Those bold 60s experiments in theatre made by young playwrights as they sought to wrench themselves free from the shackles of the 'well-made play' and its bourgeois values are mostly viewed now as quaint and even idiotic. Like [b:Ptolemy's Almagest|436352|Ptolemy's Almagest|Ptolemy|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347756437s/436352.jpg|425259] in the field of astronomy, they were important staging posts in the development of theatre but no longer to be taken seriously on their own merits.

Yet in 2006, Barker was still writing that kind of play. Characters with names like Algeria, Photo, Doorway and Youterus (who is male, naturally) scream, swear, copulate, fall over, display their privates and talk in riddles. There is, of course no obvious plot, presumably because that would mean submitting the play to the power structures of the patriarchy, or whatever it is these playwrights feel they are subverting by writing plays nobody can understand.

Seldom do one character's words bear much or any relation to another's: all that matters is their own feelings, leaving us with a play without empathy. If the characters can't communicate with each other, how can they communicate to the audience? The actors' job is made harder by Barker refusing to punctuate their speeches (are capital letters and full stops the bayonets of the oppressor?); not only do the characters fail to communicate to each other or the audience, the author refuses to communicate effectively with the actors.

You could make an intellectual argument in favour of this approach. As Barker himself said,
“It's time we started taking our audiences more seriously, and stop telling them stories they can understand.”
"A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I'm not interested in entertainment."
Barker is a vigorous and eloquent proponent of theatre as a challenging medium. If only his words on the stage were as engaging as his words about the stage. Yet, if forced to choose between the Beatles stage musical and a performance of The Fence in its Thousandth Year, I'd still choose Barker – if only for the challenge and to find out whether his plays achieve in performance what they fail to achieve on the printed page. Even so, both shows suffer from the same artistic sterility, failing to recognise that the world has moved on. Barker keeps plugging away, stuck in an outdated style that was superseded by [a:Caryl Churchill|85149|Caryl Churchill|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1372704000p2/85149.jpg], having closed his mind decades ago. He has quoted one of his own characters as reflecting his own view on communication:
"I write from ignorance. I don't know what I want to say, and I don't care if you listen or not."
As a book, I despised The Fence in its Thousandth Year. As an actor, I can't imagine how it could be performed as anything but the pretentious mess you see on the page. But as an actor, I also know that a good director can find things I can't find in a script and create something amazing. Maybe the problem isn't that Barker is too challenging; it's that I'm not up to the challenge. Maybe the smug fool is me.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review: Knowledge is Beautiful

Knowledge is Beautiful
Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

McCandless's book is both an inspiration and a warning. He and his team have created a huge array of infographics covering pretty much everything: society, media, the economy, trade, the environment, entertainment and science. Nearly all of them are beautiful, some are fascinatingly revealing, others are horribly complicated and impenetrable. Often the text is so small as to be unreadable. The designers have deliberately tried to test the absolute limit of infographic design. 'Knowledge is Beautiful' is to design what Yes were to rock music; alternately thrilling and baffling.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: First Catch Your Husband: Adventures on the Dating Front Line

First Catch Your Husband: Adventures on the Dating Front Line
First Catch Your Husband: Adventures on the Dating Front Line by Sarah Bridge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a date with Sarah Bridge during her search-for-a-husband-cum-research-for-her-book. She didn't even reply when I thanked her for a lovely evening. Even more humiliatingly, I wasn't fascinating or vile enough to warrant a mention in this book, which charts her late-thirties quest for a man to supply gametes and to fart on her sofa during major sporting events for the next forty years.

I mean, I earn over twice the average salary in London and drive a BMW – both of which I'm sure I mentioned on our date – so what's not to like? So I bought this book in a natural spirit of spite and schadenfreude, hoping her journey ended in misery, degradation and defeat. Oh, and to find out a bit more about Sarah herself, since I was too busy delighting her with stories about myself when we met. She might have said something about herself, but I wasn't really listening. That's how it works.

You've got to admire her stamina as she charts her demented journey through internet dating, speed-dating, holiday romances and single-themed evenings, weekends and holidays. On the way she meets men who vary from the gorgeous to the repulsive, while her quest becomes obsessive to the point of desperation.

Sarah's (yes, we're on first-name terms; do keep up) book is gently humorous, exasperating and perhaps a bit long, but it's still a fascinating insight into the infuriating world of modern partner-hunting (not 'dating' – that's an American thing; we agree on that). Some parts, such as her trip to Greece, are poignant, engaging and funny. Others, such as her womyn's empowerment weekend, where women are supposed to have their confidence strengthened by talking about their yonis and being institutionalised as eternal victims of the patriarchy, are frankly terrifying.

Sarah was one of only two women I met through artificial modern dating methods, and her experiences make me glad I never went further. The self-pity is (hopefully) exaggerated for humorous effect, even if I couldn't help smiling when she complained about men who didn't have the courtesy to say why they refused to return her messages.

And her book is better than mine, in that it's a) finished and b) been published.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: Closing Time

Closing Time
Closing Time by Joseph Heller

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When told that he he'd never written another book as good as Catch-22, Heller reportedly replied, "Who has?" Yet with Closing Time, he seems weighed down by the legacy of his masterpiece. Considering what a surreal and inventive ride Catch 22 was, this long-delayed sequel was a bit of a joyless slog.

We meet Yossarian in old age, working on a consultancy basis for Milo Minderbinder and ex-PFC Wintergreen, who are now selling useless items to the US government. We also meet Sammy Singer, the tail-gunner who kept fainting as Yossarian tried to keep Snowden alive. Chaplain Tappmann also makes an appearance, in the protective custody of the government while they try to find out how his body is naturally producing raw materials for atomic weapons. The most notable new character is Lew Rabinowitz, another veteran whose story is probably the most engaging of all.

What robs Closing Time of the fascination that made Catch-22 a classic is the absence of danger and of a functioning insane organisation. Yossarian's (and Heller's) cynicism and sanity have nothing to fight against, and so flail impotently. Meanwhile the book meanders between satire, fantasy, surrealism and science-fiction without ever succeeding at any of them. Lew's story includes his experiences of the bombing of Dresden, and the absurdist sci-fi that surrounds it suggests that Heller somehow wanted to re-write, 25 years too late, [b:Slaughterhouse-Five|4981|Slaughterhouse-Five|Kurt Vonnegut|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1337996187s/4981.jpg|1683562]; the masterpiece of his friend [a:Kurt Vonnegut|2778055|Kurt Vonnegut|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1357661500p2/2778055.jpg]. Vonnegut is briefly mentioned as a character, as is 'Joey Heller' and even Schweik. The latter appearance is so cursory that he only seems to be there to show that Heller had read [b:The Good Soldier Schweik|23668974|The Good Soldier Schweik|Jaroslav Hašek|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1422981164s/23668974.jpg|42981159].

Towards the end, we're treated to several pages listing the ludicrously opulent offerings at a high-society wedding. No point is being made, other than to show up the pointless ostentation of the wealthy. This isn't even aiming at easy targets. Heller simply shows us the barn door two feet away and invites us to hit it ourselves. This sums up the book's aimlessness: just as the author should be using the closing pages to set the reader up for the denouement, or the great philosophical revelation at the heart of the book, he simply seems to shrug his shoulders and say, "The rich, eh? What are they like?"

Yes, there are some poignant moments and some wonderful humour, as you'd expect from Heller, but the whole of Closing Time is so much less than the sum of its parts.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Gun Street Girl

Gun Street Girl
Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's a good thing [a:Ian Rankin|33031|Ian Rankin|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1270338491p2/33031.jpg] approves of Adrian McKinty: I wouldn't want the Scot to think the Irishman is ripping him off. McKinty's Sean Duffy does bear striking resemblances to Rebus – the hard but controlled drinking, the outsider status, the love of obscure music, the old-fashioned moral code – and there is a similarity in the plotting that makes comparisons inevitable. But the main similarity is that they're both excellent, and with this, the fourth in the series, McKinty is starting to show the same consistency as Rankin. If you're running out of Rebuses, as I am, then get your hands on some Duffys. You won't be disappointed.

McKinty's novels are set in a strict time and place: Belfast during the Troubles. By Gun Street Girl, the fourth in the series, we are in 1985, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement about to spark the touchpaper of a seemingly inexhaustible powder keg of political and sectarian violence. Duffy, a Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, is tutoring a colleague in a seemingly open-and-shut murder-suicide that has resonances across the water in arms dealing and political machinations. Along the way he has romantic run-ins with a journalist and a British spook.

As ever, the plotting is meticulous and the period detail compelling (despite one glaring error: on a visit to Oxford Duffy is driven down the M40 from Birmingham – a stretch of motorway that didn't exist in 1985).

Another thing in McKinty's favour is that he sends polite 'thank-yous' whenever I write complimentary reviews of his books. I get the feeling he'd be just as gentlemanly if I slagged him off. But he'll have to write a bad book first, and he hasn't done that yet.

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Review: Petite Mort

Petite Mort
Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightful if not perfect debut, drawing on the magic of early cinema and a mysteriously lost film. It flips from the early 1900s to the 1960s as a journalist tracks down the star of the newly discovered film and looks for the missing scene.

We're taken back to Adèle Roux, a star-struck country girl who travels to Paris to get into the movies. She fails, of course, and ends up as the personal secretary to the studio's former star, Luce, and her manipulative husband, the cinematic entrepreneur André.

As Luce strives to get back into the movies and Adèle keeps her own ambitions secret, the relationship between the women intensifies to obsessive dependency. But there are other secrets in the house. Murder is in the air.

Hitchman handles the several plot threads with assurance, and the plot twist is surprising yet satisfying. Too much is made of the missing scene from the film, since it plays a minor part in the story and is never properly resolved. Similarly, André's back story is well told but doesn't really justify its place in the story as it neither advances the plot nor explains his personality. These are minor quibbles; Petite Mort is a satisfying and original mystery novel, with a good supporting cast of believable characters (although you do need to concentrate to keep up with them all) and prose that skips along nicely.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The glorious tragedy of Wolfgang Riechmann

As rock'n'roll tragedies go, Wolfgang Riechmann is right up there. He was the singer in Spirits Of Sound with Michael Rother (Kraftwerk, Neu!, Harmonia) and Wolfgang Flür (Kraftwerk) in the 60s and had some success with Streetmark in the 70s. He was well enough known that, when he made a solo album, they only needed to put his surname on the album cover.

Yet Wunderbar was unlike everything Riechman had done before: a gorgeous electronic symphony that took the work of Tangerine Dream and Cluster one step forward. Then, two weeks before the album was due to be released, he was murdered by a lone, knife-wielding nutter in a bar. It was as pointless a death as can be imagined. Would Wunderbar be a diversion from his rock career, or the first step on a new electronic career? We'll never know.

Even so, taken on its own merits, Wunderbar is a delicious swarm of symphonic synth-pop: delicate yet optimistic, without the portentousness of Tangerine Dream and looking forward to the British synth-pop of a few years later when the Human League and others synthesised electronic music into a music for the masses. This is some of the warmest electronic music out there.

There are no bonus tracks. This album was perfect the way it was made.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The problem isn't extremism: it's religion

One of my good friends, an atheist from a Muslim background and an all-round lovely person, was grumbling about anti-Muslim bigotry on Facebook. I started replying, but it got a bit long and went off on a tangent. So it's here instead. 
I'm increasingly thinking that the problem isn't Muslim 'extremists'. It's Muslims. And Christians. And Jews. It's religious people in general. Because the "ordinary, decent" Muslims (and Christians, and Jews) who condemn the barbaric practices committed in the name of their religion always say that these extremists don't represent their religion. 
(I’m writing this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, but you could come to this page any day in the future of the internet and they'll be some recent atrocity to make it timely and relevant.)
But they do. Not only that, but they're the true followers of their religion. The ordinary, decent religious people are the ones who are going against their religion, because all religions – certainly the Abrahamic religions – are founded on bigotry, intolerance and blood-lust.

The Jews are the chosen people. Their religion is based on a quasi-racist notion of supremacy. I say "quasi-racist" because people still argue about whether the Jews are a race or a culture, but I don't care. "God chose us and that makes us better than you." Is that a basis for decency and tolerance? It's ironic that the concept of racial and cultural supremacy, taken to its horrific extreme by the Nazis, was practically invented by Judaism.

Christianity has been quiet recently, although the present nastiness of Russia and the idiotic behaviour of some American and Ugandan fundamentalists suggests that the spirit of the Inquisition is still alive in some quarters. But despite Jesus being one of the most loving, liberal philosophers of the pre-Enlightenment era, two-thirds of the Bible is taken up with the Old-Testament God, who is also the Allah of Islam: a psychotic, murderous, jealous nut-case whose profound insecurity and violent tendencies would prompt psychiatric intervention if observed in an adolescent.

I'm with Granny Weatherwax on this: “If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother, well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like ‘there are two sides to every question’ and ‘we must respect other people’s beliefs’ … not if the flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword.  And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don't burn folk or sacrifice people any more, but that's what true faith would mean, y’see? … That’s religion. Anything else is just bein’ nice. And a way of keeping in touch with the neighbours.”

And that's one reason why I'm an Atheist. The main reason, I admit, is that I just don't believe in any Big Man in the sky. But if I did believe in him, I'd have to be more racist, homophobic and generally bigoted than I want to be. If I did believe in him, I'd hate the nasty, vain little shit, with his love of death and torture; with his vanity and his utter lack of compassion. And those are the qualities his most fervent followers adopt with pride. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." The only reason I don't hate God is because I think he's a figment of other people's imagination.

So, the reason you're a moderate, civilised, decent Muslim, Christian or Jew isn't that you understand your religion better than your bloodthirsty co-religionists, because the truth is that they understand your religion better than you do and are following its precepts to the letter. What makes you moderate, civilised and decent is your fundamental humanity, which needs no god and in fact requires you to ditch the crazier parts of your religion. The next rational step is to ditch the religion altogether, because you don't need a god to be human. Men invented gods to justify their need to be murderous and cruel. People are better than that.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review – Greenslade: The fag-end of prog and jazz-rock

Time & Tide by Greenslade, 1975

Whenever I want to defend prog rock against the silly consensus that punk was the true revelation of the 70s, this album gives me pause. Amid the sub-Genesis pomposity, including the faux-Edwardian nostalgia, any good musical sections are quickly interrupted by Dave Lawson's horrible yelping vocals, in which every word of his terrible lyrics is cringingly audible. Even at the age of 10, when my brother brought this newly released album home, I thought the lyrics to Animal Farm and Newsworth especially were a bit naff, even though everything my cool elder brother brought home was itself ipso facto cool.

Of course Lawson's vocals are the worst thing about this album, but the whole thing has an air of out-takes and half-baked concepts. Disparate musical ideas are shuffled about with no coherence at all, creating an impression of a band recycling discarded tunes while waiting in vain for some real inspiration to come along. For sure the tracks are shorter and less self-indulgent than on earlier work, but there's nothing to suggest any vision of where the band was to go. And the short answer to that implied question is 'nowhere', since they broke up a few months after the album's release.

I bought the first Stranglers album in 1977 and didn't listen to this again for over 30 years. Revisiting it in 2014, every note is familiar and the tweeness is just as bad as it was then. The jazz-rock fusion of Colosseum is gone and we are left with a band - and indeed a whole musical genre - that had no idea where it was going. Maybe that most over-rated of all bands, The Ramones, were on to something after all.