Friday 26 December 2008

Six Shooter

Winner of the Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 2006, Martin McDonough's directorial debut is about as black as black comedy gets. After the death of his wife a man (Brendan Gleeson) shares a train journey with a young sociopath determined to provoke others on the train, including a couple who have lost their baby. It's difficult to say too much without giving away the 'plot' of this quirky film but it is amazing that McDonough is able to find humour in cot-death, suicide and exploding livestock.

And it is funny.

To then wrap things up with an oddly touching ending is quite an achievement.


Monday 22 December 2008

where's the driver?

Play Box
from Redstone Press

Before the Xbox, before X Factor, there was a thing called human interaction. Now don't worry, I'm not going to go off on a rant about popular culture, the death of the family or the golden age before the arrival of television; I love TV and computer games and the internet. Maybe it's having a baby and watching him play contentedly for hours with a plastic cup whilst studiously ignoring the expensive stroller/entertainment system right next to him but we do sometimes seem to miss out on the spirit of play. This year, whilst everyone is worrying about the credit crunch and perhaps not rushing out to buy the latest console or gadget, Redstone Press may well have come up with the perfect antidote to a blue Christmas.

The Play Box contains a cornucopia of visual and mental delights. Flick books, word games, nonsense verse and stories, puzzles, trick images and a collection of images from 1928 for a Russian children's book never published before. We went through the box the other day and it was charming and delightful. There are simple things, like sticking your fingers through a postcard to become a bathing belles' legs (or in a saucier version using the pads of your fingers to be the buttocks of another lady), cards that reveal something hidden when held to the light and optical illusions that'll mess with your mind. One of the Russian children's illustrations completely bamboozled my mother-in-law, leading to calls of 'where's the driver?' throughout the afternoon (you'll have to look for him yourself). And the book of Wordplay isn't just fun but educational too. For example:

We don't tend to use our brains like this anymore so it makes for a stimulating experience. I realise it's a bit late now, but if the pinch is preventing you from purchasing the latest gizmo and you can't bear another game of Monopoly then the Play Box might be just what you're after.

Redstone Press can be found here.


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!


Wednesday 17 December 2008

High Places - High Places

High Places - Golden

A chance find from looking at high scoring albums on Metacritic, High Places are Rob Barber and vocalist Mary Pearson, an electronica duo from Brooklyn with plenty of buzz around them. Their name apparently comes from their love of...well, high places, like tall buildings and mountains, places from which you gain a wider perspective but given the dreamy, reverbed vocals and eclectic instrumentation on both this and their previously released singles collection, 03/07-09/07 , it could just as easily be a drug reference. When the pair met Barber was working in visual art and Pearson was completing a degree in bassoon performance. Yes, you did read that correctly. The range of sounds in their work is staggering, sometimes using folk instruments, layered vocals, sampled guitars and even household objects. The melding of traditional and modern and the general far-out nature of the lyrics, means that pop-folk-tronica is probably a better description of what they do, but just typing the phrase makes me shudder slightly. Their Myspace profile lists their influences as: Potassium, Vitamin C, B1, B6, B12, Fiber, Iron and Calcium, which doesn't really help either, does it?

03/07-09/07 is a collection of songs bursting with creative energy. The beats are syncopated and skittering all over the place, the eclectic instrumentation, sometimes cacophonous, has an almost tropical flavour to it and the vocals are reverbed and filtered through the gauze of cosmic spirituality. Sometimes it works, as on the charming 'Banana Slugs/Cosmonaut' which begins looking down at the titular invertebrates before raising itself to the heavens in philosophical enquiry - 'And we're all full of questions/And we would like to know just exactly where we came from/And exactly where we'll go/Well I know my limitations/And I know that I don't know/But still I know the constellations and I know the falling snow' or the joyous 'Jump In', commissioned for a school music programme, with its optimistic call to 'Get a move on/Jump in'. At other times it all becomes a bit twee ('I'm a pinprick on a pinprick on a pinprick of Time and Space/It takes a lot of guts to be a little baby in this place') but there's something about the warmth of Pearson's vocals which mean she just about gets away with it.

A collection of songs by its disparate nature is never going to hold together properly so it is interesting to hear the development of their sound on the self-titled debut album. Much of it remains the same: the varied instruments and found sounds, the always interesting fragmented beats and the lyrics filled with references to nature and the cosmos. But things have been tightened up a little, producing a slightly more conventional dance sound, which isn't to say that things are predictable, it's as loopy as before, but there's a polish to the proceedings which makes everything far more cohesive.

'The Storm' which opens the album leads to the growth of a tree, one of the recurring images from Pearson's lyrics. Her optimism is shown clearly when she climbs it, staining her clothes but declares proudly 'it was worth it'. The tropical flavours continue on 'Tree With The Lights In It' and 'Vision's The First' where a fairground organ closes things with a sinister twist. 'Gold Coin' is inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, its lyrics coming close to the kind of hippy mumbo-jumbo ('Part of you is man/Part of you is god-self/The rest is just stumbling in the mist') which could put some people off, if the beats behind it weren't so fragmented. The truly sun filled 'Golden' is a highlight even if its sampled steel drums develop into something which sounds like a malfunctioning fruit machine. The last few tracks are very strong leading up to an excellent finish with 'From Stardust To Sentience' which reminded me of Lamb (remember them?). There aren't many singers who can tell you that you're 'billion year old carbon' and make it sound romantic. It would be too strong to talk about filler on an album which clocks in at just 30 minutes but the two instrumental tracks don't add an awful lot and miss the sweet vocals of Pearson.

Those who make music in their bedrooms should note the obvious glee with which High Places scour the rest of their apartment looking for new objects with which to make music. Something of that childish enthusiasm comes through even the polish of this album but it must be fascinating to watch them live. I'm not expecting to see them standing there with plastic bags and mixing bowls but there's precious little charm in most electronic music and High Places have it in glorious abundance.


Monday 15 December 2008

There Will Be Blood

Placed in many critic's 'Top Ten' lists this year, Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' is unsurprisingly mammoth viewing (for those who have watched any of his other films). Tackling not only America's drink of choice, oil, but its sustenance too in religion, it is a big bold film with a big performance at its centre. Anderson's work certainly has the ability to divide people. I know equal numbers of people who would describe 'Magnolia' as either bona fide genius or self-indulgent tosh, and even those who loved 'Boogie Nights' couldn't fail to notice that it was very, very long (pun intended) with an ending that spiralled away. What you can't deny is that he has vision and confidence, two qualities which are essential when attempting to make the kind of epic masterpiece Anderson clearly wants this to be

The opening section of the film contains no speech, we simply watch as Daniel Plainview toils at the bottom of a shaft prospecting for silver. We know that this is a determined man when he breaks his leg in a fall and literally drags himself and a rock sample into town to be tested. This determination will develop into ruthlessness as he builds himself into an oil man. When an accident kills one of his workmen he takes on the responsibility of his orphaned child, using him to develop the persona of family man when delivering his spiel to those whose land he wants to buy. Daniel Day-Lewis is never less than watchable, often compelling, and his performance completely dominates the film. He chews up the script, the voice (his starting point when developing the character) a rough drawl from another era, his eyes permanently squinting into the harsh sunlight and his skin always looks filthy; the dirt and oil so deep in his pores that in one section of the film, when he bathes in the sea, he looks almost absurdly naked.

He is approached by Paul Sunday with information about a possible place to drill for oil. Under the guise of a quail hunt he and his boy, HW, find oil seeping to the surface and he offers to buy the Sunday ranch. It is Paul's brother, Eli, who steps into the negotiation to ensure that his father isn't ripped off and it is he, as a preacher and faith healer, who allows Anderson to develop his other major theme. These two men become locked in a battle of wills, each proclaiming to have the interests of the community at heart, each feeling that he is able to see to the centre of the other and the resounding hollow within. Paul Dano as Eli has a tough task opposite Day-Lewis. I understand that he was originally hired to play only the small role of Paul. Replacing the original actor in the role of Eli gave him only a few days to prepare and faced with the presence of Day-Lewis it frequently dissolves into a shouting match. Advice to all young actors: You cannot beat Daniel Day-Lewis in a shouting match.

The really interesting relationship is between Plainview and HW. The burden of responsibility is something which Plainview finds he isn't up to, especially when that responsibility becomes a burden. Unfortunately it is a thread which isn't given the time it deserves and the cursory summation of that storyline in the coda at the end of the film isn't enough to do it justice. In fact the final section of the film is the major problem with it. Not only does it add little to the story, apart from a neater ending, but it actually risks destroying everything that has come before it. Anderson's films and Day-Lewis' performances are a bit like an expanding soap bubble. The bigger it gets the more amazing it is, you almost can't believe it's so big, and then there comes a point where you can't sustain it any more, the surface tension collapses and it all falls apart. By returning to the story twenty odd years further on we see Plainview installed in the house he had always wished for, having earned enough money to be apart from others whom he hates, vast empty halls, two unused bowling lanes, and at its centre the dejected and alcoholic oil man. This is the point at which the performance becomes too much (and I'm a man who can suspend his disbelief with the best of them), the final exchanges pitched so high they risk just being funny, especially with Dano's attempts to keep up.

Anderson decided not to call the film 'Oil!', after the Upton Sinclair novel it's based on, because there was 'not enough of the book' in it. Unfortunately there isn't enough anything in it to support some of the loftier claims made for this film. A ruthless oilman doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, and the chink in his armour that could have made for a more interesting story isn't given enough time on screen. There is lots to admire in this film, Jonny Greenwood's score for example is original, slightly at odds with the period, but absolutely in tune with the atmosphere, and the bleached out cinematography makes a fine feature of the arid landscape. I did actually like it, but don't expect it to tell you anything. Like its central character there is a hollowness at its centre, and if he doesn't learn anything from his journey then what do we?


Monday 8 December 2008

Department Of Eagles - In Ear Park

Department Of Eagles - In Ear Park

Thanks again to James Dalrymple who brought Department Of Eagles to my attention. Not so much a side project as a sister act to Daniel Rossen's other band, Grizzly Bear, DOE tread a similar path of electronica influenced folk and with the inclusion on this album of Chris Taylor and Christopher Bear from Grizzly Bear the lines dividing the two projects become even more blurred. In Ear Park is much closer to a record made up of songs rather than the more experimental sounds on Yellow House, although don't let that fool you into thinking that this is easy listening. My poor attempt at a track by track guide will give you an idea of the varied sounds and textures. It begins with the title track, a song inspired by the death of Rossen's father, plucked guitars quickly develop in texture and there is a pastoral quality to the track as the vocals come in, 'All of us walk a long steady line/And now that you're gone/I have nothing but time/To walk with your bags/Down to the docks/And sit in the grass/Right in your spot/In Ear Park'. The introduction of a piano and harmonised backing vocals soon build it into something larger, almost filmic. It is a beautiful opening. 'No One Does It Like You' begins with Phil Spector like handclaps and percussion before what I can only describe as do-wop backing vocals, although I know that isn't really accurate. Electronically layered vocals are employed on 'Phantom Other' which builds to quite a crescendo, I didn't know you could do heavy banjo! A grand sounding piano is thumped throughout 'Teenagers' which with it's distorted vocals and slightly off kilter melody is one of the album's stand out tracks.

'Around The Bay' manages to sound like something from the soundtrack of a Hitchcock movie, but with Spanish infused handclaps and guitar. 'Herring Bone' has a quality remeniscent of Lennon and McCartney, dealing again with themes of loss. 'Classical Records' has the feeling of a nightmare about it and some extraordinary percussion and things don't get any easier with the bombastic 'Waves Of Rye'' and instrumental 'Therapy Car Noise'. Melody returns with the sweetly sung 'Floating On The Lehigh' which in tune with its content, meanders slightly like the course of a river. Rossens's father retuns on the banjo chorused 'Balmy Night', 'My father told me/Never to run/There's things coming after me/I'm all ready gone/Out through the door/Through my backyard', and so it finishes.

As I said earlier there is lots of variety in the instrumentation, familiar to anyone who has already heard Grizzly Bear, and whilst it holds together on the whole the second half of the record isn't quite as cohesive as the first four or five tracks. Lyrically it's a bit of a mixed bag too, a little opaque on the whole. Given the depth of its musicality however, each successive listen reveals something you didn't hear last time and for those already entranced by the harmonies of Fleet Foxes and the layered folk of Bon Iver this album would make a cosy bedfellow this winter.


Sunday 7 December 2008

In Bruges

Martin McDonough is another writer I am aware of from the theatre. He writes the kind of dialogue that other writers dream of and most actors would kill to get their hands on. I saw a certain David Tennant in the National Theatre's production of The Pillowman a few years ago and was just amazed that this sparky, inventive play all about storytelling had been rejected previously by both the RSC and Royal Court. After winning an Oscar with his short film debut 'Six Shooter' it was always going to be interesting to see what he created with his first feature. Happily it is an off-beat comedy thriller set in one of Europe's best preserved medieval cities. Obviously.

When McDonough took a trip to Bruges he walked its cobbled streets and marvelled at the gothic architecture, the calm waterways populated by swans and found himself simultaneously bored stiff by it all. From that point he split his experience into two characters: Ken (the always brilliant Brendan Gleeson) who falls for Bruges, and Ray (the surprisingly good Colin Farrell) who thinks it's a 'shithole', both of them hitmen hiding out after a bungled shooting. As the two of them play at being tourists McDonough gives full rein to his skills, the profanity as free-flowing as the 'gay beer' and the two very different men sparking off each other. There's a chance at romance for Ray but a phone call from their boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes trying his best to do a Ben Kingsley) changes everything and when the man himself turns up in Bruges the cobbled streets play host to a very modern thriller.

There are drugs, prostitutes and a rascist American dwarf actor to help the quirky quotient but it's the dialogue which really makes the film. We are allowed to observe the humanity and fragility of men for whom killing is a job, and also of course the ideas of honour and proper conduct which govern their work and relationships. McDonough also makes a fine feature of the city itself, the DVD extras even allow you to take a boat trip on its canals. You can also see a montage of the film's swearing as well as the usual gag-reel and deleted scenes.But the main feature certainly made me giggle like I haven't for a while.


Saturday 6 December 2008

pulling up the weeds

The Impostor
by Damon Galgut

I went to Cape Town a few years ago to film a commercial and came face to face with the 'new South Africa' almost immediately. I walked from my hotel towards the marina area where restaurants and shops jostled for space amongst the bobbing masts of yachts. On my way there I saw figures hunched beneath shipping containers and gathered around small drum fires. The next morning I saw these same figures by the roadside, waiting patiently for vans and trucks to stop and pick them up. They were men who had come in from rural areas looking for labouring work and each day from dawn they would wait there and hope to be picked up. All around Cape Town you could see the cranes which were building the new apartment blocks and offices which were the only prospect of employment for these men. In Damon Galgut's powerful new novel the juxtaposition of old and new is made all too clear, but also the meeting of Past with Present (and Future), Nature with Man and, within it's uniquely South African context, black with white. As the capital letters indicate it is a novel filled with metaphor and the kind of symbolic writing more commonly found in the short story. Although only 250 (small) pages long it crams so much in I found it one of the most satisfying reads of the year.

Picking up on my own experience of the construction of South Africa's future we meet two brothers Adam and Gavin Napier. Adam, usually the stable, dependable one has seen a change in his fortunes, replaced at work by a younger black colleague and drifting aimlessly whilst his brother has become a successful property developer for whom only the cheapest fittings will do. Adam is offered the opportunity to stay in his brother's place in the country, an almost derelict house with a tin roof, in order to pursue a dream from his youth; to write poetry. Choked by tough old weeds (which he is ordered to remove by the local Mayor) this is far from a country retreat, until recently it was literally the end of the road, and it isn't long before the isolation begins to take its toll.

'On that first day, when he'd arrived, he'd felt time flowing in through the front door behind him. He'd brought time back into the house. But now he could feel a different time - old time, dead time - trapped inside, unable to pass back out, into the current. It had become shaped to the rooms, looping back on itself, piling up in compacted layers so dense and heavy that they were almost substantial. It didn't seem implausible that people or actions from long ago might be here, very close to him.'

This makes tangible the major theme of ever-present history. His one neighbour is a man with a huge secret in his past and Adam himself is soon confronted by his own when he hears his cruel nickname, 'Nappy', being called out ('It is astounding how much history can be stored up in two syllables'). The man calling to him, Channing, purports to be an old school friend although Adam has no recollection of him whatsoever. First through embarrassment and then through the high regard he is clearly held in, he keeps up his pretence of recognition and finds himself being welcomed into Channing's life, his new-found good fortune. Away from the arrid wilderness of the karoo Channing presides over a verdant paradise, an improbable micro-climate in the valley of a mountain developed by his father to be a game park. He lives there with his coloured wife, Baby, '...an emblematic female figure, seen against the backdrop of a primal, primitive garden. All of it is very biblical', a point only reinforced by the arrival into this garden of Adam (Galgut's symbols aren't always subtle). He hopes that this will be the right enviroment for nurturing his poetic impulses; he literally follows the course of all the surrounding life to its wellspring and feels his writer's block lifting but it is the increasing number of encounters with Baby, the 'amoral Beauty', that feed his creativity. Channing seems to be quite happy to push them together whilst he gets on with his business, the uneasy relationships between all three of them being tested all the time by this proximity.

When back in the karoo he is faced by those ever present weeds in the garden. Galgut loads them with significance, making it a Sisyphean task, even the water he uses to soften the ground around them to aid his labour works against him. New green shoots start to appear and as he pulls one up he realises it is 'months away from becoming the tough, thorny adversary he’s been dealing with. But it will: the future is encoded in its cells. Generations of seeds are lying dormant under the surface, waiting for his labours to release them. The very means of clearing the yard is what will fill it again.'

This kind of metaphysical enquiry and his own indignation at the behaviour of others around him distracts Adam from his own moral failings as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into Channing's own schemes, where the future is to be built on the foundations of revenge for his past. There is almost the air of a thriller about the plotting, albeit one with moral ambiguity and philosophical musings. This helps keep the energy up in a book whose themes could have become leaden. Galgut gives one the sense that whilst the situation in South Africa isn't hopeless it is one in which the various participants are starting some way apart. Truth and Reconciliation, two more capitalised words, were the foundation of South Africa's new beginning, and still it seems an important part of its future. Galgut has placed himself at the forefront of articulating that process and this book should cement his status as the most exciting writer of his generation.


Friday 5 December 2008

for Queen and country

Black Butterfly
by Mark Gatiss

With the arrival of Daniel Craig and even a new novel penned by Sebastian Faulks, Bond has made a hell of a comeback into the public imagination. Lucifer Box, the secret agent created by The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss first inhabited Edwardian England in The Vesuvius Club, a period he was perfectly suited to as a wit, dandy, and general man about town. His second adventure, The Devil In Amber found Box a good twenty years older but his passions undimmed as he foiled the ambitions of a fascist conspiracy in 1920's New York. It was almost inevitable that his third and final outing would be set in Bond's 1950's and find him unwillingly on the verge of retirement. After the suspicious suicide of an old flame he finds himself drawn into a final test of his skills, 'If not exactly raging against the dying of the light, I was at least a little cross with it.'

The plot follows a Bond like structure, exotic locations from Egypt to Jamaica and in spite of his age there's even a bit of action between the sheets for our hero (his advantage in this regard being that he bats 'for both the the First and Second Eleven, if you recall'). It doesn't quite hit the heights of his previous two outings but Gatiss has plenty of fun along the way, the Bond genre a perfect arena for his joyous punning. Every name and organisation is there to poke fun at something. Take for example 'Whitley Bey', half Turkish, half Geordie, 'the secret leader of a cadre of psychoanalysts-cum-mercenaries called the Jung Turks. Their speciality lay in imagining themselves into the mind of the enemy and then working out, through analysis, what their next move would be. If this failed they fell back on good old-fashioned Balkan brutality.'

To describe these books as a guilty pleasure would be a disservice to the writing. It's easy reading but in a joyous way, with plenty of wit to keep you chuckling. As stocking fillers go you could do far worse. There's also something still a little thrillingly controversial about having a bisexual leading man. Bond may be appealing to both men and women in his Speedos but I'm not sure he'd be prepared to go as far as Lucifer Box for Queen or country.


Wednesday 3 December 2008

O, for a muse of fire

Charlie Brooker (or Charlton Brooker, as I amusingly discovered his full name to be recently) is always good for a laugh. His irreverent swipes on TV and popular culture often dissolve into the mental ramblings of a teenager who's spent too much time in his room on his own...well, watching TV.

But last night it all went a bit Alan Yentob, in a writers special in which he interviewed Russell T Davies (Queer As Folk, Doctor Who), Tony Jordan (Eastenders, Hustle, Life On Mars), Paul Abbot (State Of Play, Shameless), Graham Linehan (Father Ted, The IT Crowd), Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) about the writing process. It was fascinating and all the better for not being po-faced in any way. Thanks to the wonderous BBC iPlayer you can watch it here for the next 7 days.


Tuesday 2 December 2008

I may not be a lady...

The Woman Who Talked Too Much was recently surprised to find that the GenderAnalyzer, which uses 'Artificial Intelligence' to determine whether the author of a blog is male or female, had decided that there was a 76% chance she was male (she has since convinced it that she's 95% female by blogging about Dirty Dancing and X Factor - although the biggest clue would surely be her blog title).

So what did it make of Just William's Luck? Again, don't let the title fool you, or the fact my last post was on a book called Dad Rules, GenderAnalyzer reckons: 79% female. Which I believe is one of the reasons my wife decided to marry me (when I tried to refute this she pointed out that when she returned from working away recently I had looked after our son single-handed, the house was spotless and I had made a cheesecake).

When checking its results against the truth GenderAnalyzer scores 54% correct, 46% incorrect, which with a 50/50 question makes it marginally better than tossing a coin. Artificial Intelligence indeed. Regardless, I shall try to redress the balance over the festive period with posts about football, Top Gear and birds. Oi, oi!


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