Tag Archives: review

Book update – Skulduggery Pleasant: Kingdom of the Wicked/Artemis Fowl/Black Arrow

I’m reading YA/MG again after a long detour into myth and tarot related materials (all grist for the mill, mind).

I haven’t actually finished the new Skulduggery Pleasant: Kingdom of the Wicked  by Derek Landy yet (well, it was only published this morning) but I’m far enough in to be enjoying it very much indeed. It’s not Tolstoy (thankfully, perhaps) but it’s still funny, fast-moving and with enough new ideas to keep the franchise vibrant. With boyfriend troubles behind her for the moment, the far more interesting relationship between the skeleton detective and Valkyrie takes centre stage again. There’s also more Ghastly (but, sadly, very little China Sorrows so far). It feels a little unedited in places and the dialog isn’t always as funny as Landy might think it is but it’s new Skulduggery and I’m devouring it at top speed.

I’m way behind the rest of the planet on Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl but bought the third one in a charity shop for dudelet  (aged 8) when he ran out of books to read on holiday. He tore through it at light speed and loved it to bits. He’s been through the first and is agitating for the second. I tried to blackmail him into reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe before he was allowed any more but he wasn’t having any.

“I don’t like Narnia! It’s rubbish I like Artemis Fowl! It’s much better! It’s exciting and better written.”

I died a little, of course, but dutifully gave into his exhortations and read Artemis Fowl for myself. And I like it. Yes, there are fairies and deadly collisions between races but this no ordinary middle-grade urban fantasy. Colfer’s fairies are high-tech special forces types or sys-op king-pin centaurs with smart mouths. To all intents and purposes, it’s a well-crafted science fiction thriller. With the Little People. The key ingredient, though, is the very concept of Artemis himself, the twelve-year-old criminal mastermind. I say ‘concept’ because Artemis himself is curiously unengaging in this first outing. I preferred his devoted No. 1, Butler, who has an utterly scene-stealing moment of mayhem with…Well, that would spoil it. But, trust me, Butler is the man you’d want beside you in a dark alley full of deadly assailants. Though definitely not behind you.

Lastly, I finished Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Black Arrow, which might be most kindly described as a ‘medieval romp’. Set in the Wars of the Roses, it follows eighteen-year Dick as he progresses from hard-done-by ward to minor noble, finding romance and a small amount of self-knowledge on the way.

In keeping with the tradition of mayhem in Treasure Island, guts are spilled, heads roll and gizzards (whatever that means) are spitted. The dialog was risible even at the time (‘”Ye are something smallish, indeed,’ began Dick.”) and the Winters Tale style shenanigans at the beginning of the book, where everyone except Dick can see that his travelling companion (and future romantic interest) is a girl, get old fast. Really fast. What was RLS thinking? Take this, for instance

“I tell you,” he went on with a chuckle. ” I swear by the mass  I believe Hugh Ferryman took you for a maid.”

“Nay, never,” cried the other, colouring high.

“A’ did, though, for a wager,” Dick exclaimed. “Small blame to him. Ye look liker maid than man; and – I tell you more – y’are a strange looking rogue for a boy; but for a hussy, Jack, ye would be right fair – ye would. Ye would be well favoured for a wench.”

And so on and on…If you like Stephenson, it’s diverting and entertaining but no Kidnapped.

Next week, I’ll have to try reading some Serious Literature between bashing away at the next draft for my own masterpiece. I doubt Serious Literature will be as much fun, mind.


Treasure Island

It’s been a while. Blame it on moving house, school holidays, work, lethargy…

Anyway, it’s Friday and there’s time for a few quick notes about a book I just read.

Anyone who hasn’t read Treasure Island yet, seriously needs to do so. Robert Louis Stevenson is a lean, fierce writer (by 19th century standards, anyway) and Treasure Island is probably the most violent children’s book of its time. Even by today’s standards, it’s pretty brutal and morally ambiguous. It’s also pacy, vivid and utterly trimmed of narrative fat.

The major barrier, of course, is that the reader has by this time read or seen all of this pirate malarkey a million times over. But until you’ve experienced Stevenson’s Long John Silver, you haven’t tapped into the piratical mother-lode. The one-legged Silver is clever, brave, physically dangerous and charming – an anti-hero of the highest order. And yet, he has his own peculiar integrity. He’s wonderfully loyal to his black inn-keeping wife and consistently and whole-heartedly supports whoever the strongest party is at any given time, whether it be himself or the treasure hunters.

I mentioned violence. Silver brings down a man with a throw of his crutch and knifes him to death. Jim Hawkins, the hero (probably about twelve or thirteen), blows away a pirate with single shot pistols and and tips another dead body into the sea after him. Brains are blown out. Chests opened. Twenty-five men (unfortunately, the equal opportunities agenda Stevenson follows so faithfully with Long John Silver doesn’t extend to women) are gradually whittled down to eight (three of whom are marooned to starve to death and/or go mad) via blade, musket ball or marlin spike.

Eventually (spoiler alert!), the establishment, in the form of the squire, the doctor, the innkeeper’s boy and honest ship’s captain, get the upper hand and sail away with seven hundred thousand in doubloons and other currencies. Silver slips off one night, never to face justice in this world – an image of the winners’ unacknowledged bad consciences, perhaps.

Ultimately, Treasure Island is a Reservoir Dogs for its time with no moral to the story beyond the edge that clean living and an education gives you when stealing treasure from pirates. Finders, keepers; losers, weepers, you might say.

So what have you been listening to lately, Dad Who Writes?

I thought you’d never ask.

Laurel Halo’s Quarantine
Horseback’s Half Blood
Bong’s Mana-Yood-Sushai
DIIV’s Oshin
Cold Summer’s Wake
Richard Skelton’s Verse of Birds
Circle of Ouroboros’ The Lost Entrance of the Just

Laurel Halo’s Quarantine is a deeply melodic, resonant, queasy trawl through the kind of fractured hypnagoguery that Grimes or Julia Holter trade in. Kind of a tricksy Tujiko Noriko. Wobbly dub basslines shuffle under cut-up chorales of hooks and anchors. The production is incredibly detailed but, for all the hyperactivity, immersive and weirdly comforting. The cover painting shows a group of pretty manga schoolgirls cutting each to bloody shreds with katanas and laughing with happiness at the fun and sweetness of it all. Pretty much in line with the music, then.

More at http://soundcloud.com/laurelhalo

Horseback’s Half Blood is an immense, blackened throb of a record. By this point, calling them a black metal band or a post-black-doom-whatever act makes about as much sense as tagging them Mogwai’s elder, grimmer, Kraut-rocking brethren. Half Blood is built on huge, cycling riffs. They remind me of the immense timelocked train in China Miéville’s Iron Council. Closing song ‘Hallucigenia III: The Emerald Tablet’ is a Farfisa drenched pulse of psychedelic drones that sets us up nicely for the mighty BONG!

Samples at their Bandcamp location – http://horseback.bandcamp.com/releases

Bong play it like it says on Mana-Yood-Sushai’s tin. Two long tracks that unravel like a stoned (imagine that!) version of Acid Mothers Temple in one of their gentler, more tripped out moments. Music to sink into lucid dreams to.

And the inevitable Bandcamp link: http://bong.bandcamp.com/album/mana-yood-sushai

DIIV’s Oshin is the kind of name and album title bands from Brooklyn resort to when they realise that Dive and ‘Ocean’ are, conceptually, a teeny bit played out by this point. It’s a pleasant listen – 13 taut, reverb-heavy tunes harking back to classic Bunnymen and (more recently) Interpol. At worst, it makes me want to dig out the first Interpol album (though my affection for Turn On The Bright Lights never quite got over the appearance of Untitled* soundtracking a key emotional moment for Joey – Joey, of all people – on a late episode of Friends). The best bits are the instrumentals. The singing seems a bit unnecessary, to be honest. Also, to someone from Liverpool, calling your band DIIV is asking for a teeny bit of trouble, la.

Cold Summer describe themselves as a “post hardcore / rock band from wakefield”. They sent me a link to their current release on Bandcamp, a five song e.p. called Wake (http://coldsummer.bandcamp.com/album/wake). I can’t honestly say I loved it but the best tracks (‘Waiting’, ‘A for Arson’) have the kind of thunderously timeless riffing that positively shrieks classic NWOBHM. And, seriously, there’s nothing wrong with that. The singer’s at his best trying to get in touch with his inner Geddy Lee but the backing vocals are, however, some of the most horrible I’ve ever heard. And the ‘hardcore’ singing really needs to left to the likes of Pink Eyes. Anyways, Waiting’ is a pretty storming rock song by anyone’s standards, the e.p.’s a free download and it makes a nice change from the generic blues/AOR tat I normally get sent (hint: more than happy to listen to anything a little left field).

Lastly, Richard Skelton’s Verse of Birds arrived last month. Two CDs worth of new compositions referencing (but not in a slavishly programmatic way) the West coast of Ireland and the Northumberland landscapes resonating deeply within Skelton’s imagination. The music here is more layered and intricate than the more recent releases of his I’ve heard. Bowed steel strings hover at the edge of feedback (though never quite tumbling over), guitars clang like dulcimers. Wind and sea blow through wires that seem ever on the point of transmuting into tangled marran and shoreline scrub. All the same, it’s airy, uplifting music that demands (and repays) repeated close listening.

Listen to samples and buy it directly from the artist here.

Metal oddity of the month? Circle of Ouroboros’ outsider take on black metal, The Lost Entrance of the Just. Metal in the sense of the Cure of Carnage Visors covering Leonard Cohen in the style of Black Sabbath could be considered metal.

*Best song for arriving in Tokyo on a Shinkansen ever.

**The one where Joey kisses Rachel. Yes, I watched Friends when I was young. Don’t judge me. I was callow and uncool and desperately wanted to sit in a groovy coffee shop with my beautiful friends. But I was ever Gunther. Without Gunther’s hyper-kinetic sense of cool***

***Sorry. I haven’t the faintest idea what ‘hyper-kinetic sense of cool’ even means. Open to suggestions.

The despair of the Inter-Galactic Hitchhiker

I’ve been re-reading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels over the last week. It’s been an odd sort of ride, pulling me deeply into my past in some ways and highlighting the present in other, surprisingly depressing forms.

Encountering the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy proper for the first in thirty years time-warped me straight back to being fifteen and glued to Radio 4 via my family’s one pair of big, padded headphones, waiting at the dinner table for the expansive FM stereo of (unbelievably) The Eagles ‘Journey of the Sorcerer‘ (the rest of the music was provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). It was 1978. In the outside world, things were about to get seriously unpleasant. Then there’d the announcement of the title in those fruity Radio 4 tones that now seem so cemented to a certain time and set of assumptions.”The story so far…”

And then I’d be gone.

On another planet or spaceship or space-time continuum entirely, wrapped up in this strange little world that only I and a few privileged friends at school had heard of. To my family, it was utterly meaningly and once they’d established that there was no swearing, no readily discernible blasphemy and zero sex references (I was very lucky with the ten minutes they actually listened too), they left me and the luxurious headphones to it.

The show was wonderful. And hilarious. And utterly, magnificently true – the Universe (as I was discovering) really did make no sense. Forty two was as good an answer as any. A gang of white mice who were really extensions of pan-dimensional beings conducting frightfully sophisticated experiments on humans was as credible (and certainly more attractive) an explanation as a God who’d let his only son be flogged, nailed to a tree and stabbed with a spear after days of horrible torture.

I think there were many ways I’ve since forgotten in which it must have helped me survive a pretty grim adolescence*.

The book itself came after the radio series in 1979 and I promptly saved up and bought it, along with the first two sequels – The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1979) and Life, The Universe and Everything (1980). After that, I went to university and lost touch with the series. Or did it lose touch with me? Loftier things (the worst relationship in the world, being in dreadful bands, drink etc) got in the way.

Returning to the books, my 49 year old self notices two things. Firstly, I’m now at the age Douglas Adams was when he died (see the extended kvetch on this subject in my last post) and secondly, how astonishing it is in some ways that Adams lasted as long as he did. I can only assume he existed at the same level as some sort of Zen Master, serenely and ironically composed in the face of the singular horror of a universe with no rhyme or reason other than the entirely futile and random rationales that its hapless inhabitants project upon it. These are seriously depressing books if you approach them in the wrong frame of mind. A handful of pages into the first volume, the entire human race is wiped out to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Later, the ‘hero’ (the books don’t really have heroes, actually, except possibly for Trillian), Arthur Dent, finds himself returning to his doomed home planet again and again and each time the horrors and the pathos redouble.

Does anything lighten the existential murk? Well, a few things.

For one thing, the books are funny. Very funny, in the nihilistic, absurdist vein mined by Monty Python or the Goons (especially Spike Milligan). Adams was actually a minor Footlights alumni and had a couple of writing credits for Monty Python. He revels in demented neologisms (“the mattress flurried and glurried. It flolloped, gupped and willioied…” I should mention that we’re dealing with a sentient mattress here), silly names (Slartibartfast? Zaphod Beeblebrox?) and complex puns.

And they’re also bursting with ideas. Like Philip K. Dick, Adams is an ideas man first and a plotter second. One meets SEPs (Someone Else’s Problem) field generators, Infinite Improbability Engines and an altogether convincing general theory of time travel. Doors talk. The mighty marketing machine of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation embeds annoying personalities in every moving part of a space ship. A huge computer and a sentient drinks machine nearly kill everyone trying to solve the problem of how to make tea. And so on. The characters in his books are pretty much identical at the end to the way they are at the beginning. Their lack of progression is almost the whole point.

But as the series goes on (and I’m about to start the fourth volume, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish), it gets darker and darker and the satire shifts its targets from petty bureaucracy and marketing to bigger, less easily laughed away evils – war, genocide, environmental havoc, the entitlement felt by the very rich and the powerlessness of the rest of us to change, well anything. Very little light gets through.

Except for one thing. At the climax of Life, The Universe and Everything, Trillian the closest we get to a sympathetic character in the entire series, notices that the most hideously feared warmongers in the entire history of the universe quite possibly don’t want to kill anyone. They’d rather play ‘krikket’ with them. And for a few pages, a character changes the small, dark space around her through an outpouring of what is, effectively, love. Earlier, one saw her struggle to reach the titanically solipsistic Zaphod Beeblebrox, fail, and quietly walk away. Here, Trillian succeeds, on a planet where a cloud of dust has blocked out any of the light from the surrounding universe from ever reaching it.

Love. Love the people immediately around you. That’s the only meaning the books dare offer, they only way in which they attempt to make any kind of sense whatsoever. As things get bleaker and bleaker (and the books are full of appalling prophecies ranging from Kindles to the deforestation of an entire planet to avoid hyper-inflation of a currency consisting of leaves to a civilisation descended entirely from the survivors of a spaceship full of marketing managers and accountants) it’s as good a message as any.

*Believe me, the Ravenous Blugbatter Beast of Tral** would have been light relief, with or without a towel.

**Read the damn book, ok?

I am listening to Year of the Tiger by Fucked Up

It’s a 15 minute ‘single’ by the Canadian post-hardcore band, Fucked Up. I’m listening through headphones for the first time. I wish I had the lyric sheet handy.

Two minutes in and several layers of guitars backed by a steady backbeat have gradually edged out all the background noise of television, adenoidal sleeping four year olds and supermum rustling a posh bag of crisps. It’s not unlike Rhys Chatham but more cleanly arranged.

Three minutes. Pink Eyes makes an appearance, trading off his hoarse howl with another vocalist who seems to be providing a sort of distant voice-over. The guitars are beginning to deconstruct the original chord sequence is steadily more anthemic ways. Somehow, the whole assemblage is continuing to build.

Five minutes. There’s a piano. The backbeat is relentless. “No-one left remembers his name/So he kills again.” The guitars are chugging, circling, building tension. It’s a very New York technique. The sparse piano chords anchoring the corners of each melodic building block are surprisingly forward in the mix.

Seven minutes. Rolling fills across the floor toms, the back beat starts to swing, accelerate a tiny bit even. The piano is hinting at arpeggios. The guitars colonise every other available space. “Who makes the tree grow up from the soil?” They really are singing about a tiger. “Afraid of desire…” – that’s what I think he’s singing. Desire the tiger? The tiger, desire?

Nine minutes. A heavily distorted flanged guitar line introduces a new rising motiff – how long can this song continue to rise without losing momentum? A new voice, female? North American accented, clear. The backbeat and rolls return, the new chord sequence merges with the original steady thrash. The drums are leading things now.

Nearly twelve minutes. Singer Pink Eyes is trading lines with the singer. “They’ll try the tiger tonight”?

12 and a half minutes. A moment of triumph, Pink Eyes seems to be singing words implying defeat but it’s all too upbeat.

Thirteen minutes. This quickly resolves into a river of intertwining leads and rumbling bass. The piano twines single notes, upper-mid range chords and gentle flurries.

Fourteen minutes. The drums are slowing everyone down and signalling a fade. One by one, the guitars are dropping out. The drums are reduced to a pulsing loosely closed hi-hat. The guitars stop.

Fifteen minutes. Studio chatter. Back ground noise. The TV leaks back in.

I think I like it. I put it on again.

You can listen to it here if you’re curious.