Saturday 20 December 2008

2008: Review of my Year

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.'

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

A book I read right at the beginning of the year and which I cannot quite shake from my head. It failed to win the Booker judges over last year but I was bowled over by its ambition. It's a big novel filled with ideas, the very text itself fractured and interrupted by the presence of the past in the form of John Scogin, court jester to Edward IV. Many characters find themselves losing control over their own actions as this malevolent spirit reaches out, a genuinely unsettling experience for the reader with some clever typography. The plot is wide ranging but as one character observes about history,'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.

Glister by John Burnside

A writer who deserves to be read by many, many more, Burnside's work as a poet and his recent memoir A Lie About My Father have helped to develop his fiction into something very distinctive. Glister combines the sinister menace of a fairytale with the very modern horrors of violence and murder. His vision of Innertown, a place poisoned by industry, strikes at the very heart of our fears for our environment. Haunted by a history of child murders, it is a society broken, divided and scared, through which he also latches onto our fears 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.


It's been a fanatastic year for music I think. Paul Weller and Nick Cave showed some of the young pretenders how it's really done. Portishead and Tricky came back as strong as ever and Elbow finally earned some recognition after 18 years of making great music together. But the best music was being made on the other side of the pond I'm afraid, whether it was the invention of young acts like MGMT and Vampire Weekend or the profusion of beautiful male harmonies and alt. folk Americana. But amongst all the fantastic music this year one album stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Dear Science, by TV On The Radio

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?

Theatre and Art

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...

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Anonymous,  22 December 2008 at 08:18  

Great stuff, William! I really am definitely going to get Glister now, after toying with it several times in the shops this year.

Also a relief to see that despite fatherhood, you've read enough books this year even to have a top three! Just as well you don't have a proper job, eh? ;)

My own books of the year list will go up on 28 December, and I can exclusively reveal that it shares one title with your list. Pretty exciting, I'm sure you'll agree.

Also agree on Dear Science, which is the gift that keeps giving - in three months, it hasn't become even slightly stale, despite endless rotation on my car CD player and iPod.

And speaking of your own critical faculties, let me put in special praise for your two-part review of Cheever's Collected Stories, which was brilliant and inspired me to pick up the old volume again and actually read some of the damn things this time.

Happy Christmas!

William Rycroft 22 December 2008 at 11:23  

After my hyperbole I worry that Glister can only disappoint now John but I hope you like it.

A proper job? How very dare you!

I'm glad that I've inspired you to have another look at Cheever and can only thank you again for your own recommendations over the year.

I'm already really excited about next year. Bad Science, Bolano and Beware Of Pity. And that's just the B's!

'See' you in 2009!

Anonymous,  30 December 2008 at 19:36  

William: I navigated to your blog from your comments on John Self's -- delighted to find it and will be a regular visitor in 2009.

Two of your three book picks for 2008 I found most worthwhile reading -- Darkmans and The Impostor. Glister has been sitting on the shelf since August so, without putting too much pressure on you, I'm moving it to the top of the pile as my next read. I'll share my thoughts on it once I'm done.

Cheers, Kevin

William Rycroft 30 December 2008 at 22:17  

Great to have you here Kevin. I have read some of your own comments on John's site so I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the year ahead. It's good to be held to account!

In the meantime I hope you enjoy Glister (although 'enjoy' probably isn't the right word). Burnside is a really interesting writer whose fiction can vary in quality but I think that with his last three novels he has been quietly getting better and better, distilling his style into something I for one love reading. I have my fingers crossed that you don't regret moving him to the top of the pile.

All the best for 2009 and see you around...

Anonymous,  6 January 2009 at 00:00  

I've finished Glister for the first time, William, and will offer the highest praise that I can -- I will be opening it for a second read in a few days. I was particularly impressed with the way that Burnside opens his story from different points of view -- Morrison, Smith, Lionel, the Moth Men -- almost like placing chess pieces of a board and then lets the story develop. He does a very good job of communicating the bleakness of the surroundings and the sense of hopelessness that pervades all who live there. I do need a reread to truly appreciate the book -- but I certainly look forward to it. Thanks for providing the impetus to me to get this book off the shelf -- it was certainly worth my while.

William Rycroft 6 January 2009 at 12:13  

(he heaves a huge sigh of relief)

Glad you enjoyed it Kevin. It's so difficult sometimes recommending books. I bought copies of Burnside's previous novel Living Nowhere for a few friends once and when they didn't come rushing back with fulsome praise I couldn't help but take it personally, which is obviously silly.

I'd love to know what you make of it on your second reading.

Anonymous,  8 January 2009 at 15:04  

Yes, it makes you think, "Did I choose my book badly, or my friends badly??"

I haven't got Glister yet but have ordered a copy of his previous novel The Devil's Footprints, as I see Glister is out in paperback soon and will be given a matching cover. That's my concession to tightening my belt in the face of the recession.

Anonymous,  8 January 2009 at 19:54  

William, John: As someone who takes a lot of recommendations off blogs, I would say "get over your anxiety". A positive review is no more than a positive review -- those of us who choose to go on and buy and read the book are making our own choice. Having said that, pressing copies of books on friends definitely takes it a step farther and is not something that I recommend. By all means, supply a copy when asked -- but gifting implies an element of time investment that might not be welcome. Kevin

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