I'd like to start off by mentioning that this year the standard of books I have read and music I have listened to has been incredibly high. I have always been a reader of reviews in order to find new authors, or books worth reading, as well as speaking to booksellers and even the odd friend, but the risk has always been falling prey to the puff piece (a particular hazard when finding music). If reviewing is your job, a daily task, there's always the chance that through the repetition of themes and ideas, through all the mediocrity, something which is merely different or puts its head above the parapet can be elevated to the status of next big thing, album of the year, or even that dreaded word: MASTERPIECE!
What has changed all of that for me has been blogging. Through reading a wide variety of views, written in a way that tends to reveal far more of the personality, tastes and prejudices of the author and then cross referencing those recommendations, I have found my strike rate getting better and better. Add to that the increase (I hope) in my own critical faculties since I began writing my own reviews and we have the reasons why 2008 has been such an enjoyable year for me. Forget the Booker, and other prize lists, and even be wary of the paid experts. For a really good idea about what's worth reading, listening to or watching listen to the enthusiasts who bother to write their thoughts up in their spare time. Not all of them of course, some of them are rubbish.
Choosing a book of the year is well nigh impossible for me this year. There are so many books I have enjoyed, been challenged by and simply in awe of. What I've decided to do is mention three books written by authors who are making themselves essential writers. The books have stayed with me through the year and share a theme; that best summarised by the famous line by William Faulkner: 'The past is never dead. It isn't even past.'
It's a fascinating business. Kind of like solving a crime. Like unravelling a mystery story. All the clues are in the text and your job is simply to sniff them out'. International rail links may not have put Ashford on the map but this grand novel by one of the this country's most exciting writers certainly deserves to.
for and of children in a genuinely original way. His skills as a poet populate almost every page with a phrase or image that sticks in your mind and it all adds up to being a authentically frightening experience.
The Impostor by Damon Galgut
Sneaking in just before the end of the year Galgut's latest novel is a powerful work filled with symbolism and heavy with meaning. Looking to get his life going again Adam Napier retreats to his brothers rural house in the karoo to write poetry. A chance encounter with an old schoolfriend brings his past rushing back, temptation within his grasp and as his moral compass wavers he finds himself embroiled in the machinations of the new South Africa. Filled with striking imagery and evocative prose it is a short novel which punches well above its weight and marks Galgut out as a writer of extreme promise for the future.
Honourable mentions: The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, Blackmoor by Edward Hogan, The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page by G B Edwards,The Cottagers by M N Klimasewiski.
Not-book-of-the-year: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I know I'm in the minority here but really, you deserve better, people.
Inventive, angry, free and funky; Brooklyn's art-rockers delivered on their earlier promise with an album of sparkling gems and no filler. I'm not a big fan of star ratings but this is what 5-stars was meant for. In fact this album deserves a Michelin star it's so rich and tasty. Music which is exciting in its combinations of musical influences, its variety on the album itself and its approaches vocally is enough to raise it above its peers, but when it actually has something to say too, then you really have something worth listening to. Sometimes an album comes along which gives all the other bands out there a real kick up the arse, and should embarrass some groups into retirement. The last one like that was OK Computer and it seems fitting that the band who paid tribute to that release with their first demo OK Calculator should have risen to take that crown.
Close, but no cigar: For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver, Sun Giant EP by Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend, I could name many, many more...
Not album of the year: Anywhere I Lay My Head by Scarlett Johansson. Don't give up the day job. Even Dave Sitek couldn't save this one.
I have seen far too few films this year for one reason or another so I don't feel I can really talk about my film of the year (we've joined LOVEFiLM now so perhaps next year will be better) but I enjoyed laughing away at Son Of Rambow, Knocked Up and In Bruges and was certainly electrified by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. I thought There Will Be Blood might sneak in and steal the crown but if I had to pick one film it would be David Fincher's superb Zodiac. The recreation of the period is spot on, the performances from Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo are superb and the personal investment from Fincher, who was growing up in San Francisco at the time the killings occurred, makes all the difference. His confidence to take time to tell the story may not be to all tastes but what's two and half hours between friends?
2008 has been the year of the box-set for many folks. Amazon's DVD sales chart has become the subject of newspaper articles. For me, HBO continued to dominate my viewing with all five series of The Wire. Most TV programmes struggle to tell even one side of the story competently. The Wire puts them to shame by providing the most rounded portrait of a city I have ever seen. Crediting its audience with some intelligence, it never patronised; dealing with big issues and big storylines with the confidence of those who know all sides of the story. No, it's not The Sopranos, but what is?
If I haven't watched many films this year I certainly haven't seen nearly enough Theatre or Art. Having a baby does nothing for your social life. On the plus side I know all the words to all the songs on Balamory, In The Night Garden and Tikkabilla. I'm hoping next year will be different. And I hope you'll enjoy some of it with me...