Women Up To No Good – Pat Murphy (Untreed Reads, 2013)

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Pat Murphy’s first short story collection Points of Departure was one of just two collections to win the Philip K Dick Award. This second collection appears not to have even been reviewed anywhere. 
Women Up To No Good contains 16 stories including several reprinted from Points of Departure in six subsections.  They range from urban fantasy through psychological sf, fantastic western, and retold legend to Austen-pastiche.  Most, perhaps all, are distinctively Murphy above all.

Opener ‘A Flock of Lawn Flamingos’ sets a tone of mischief and moral.  In a quiet California suburb a new arrivals, the mysterious Joan Egypt sets cultural ripples in play that challenge and break the dominance of one white male.  It isn’t SFF as such but has the sensibility of genre as its effects spread.  By the end we are left feeling empowered, knowledge and small actions have restored a harmony to the street.  It’s a story where we believe in what can happen next.
That’s a feeling made explicit in the next story, ‘One Odd Shoe’ is a moral tale of male privilege being turned about.  It references Coyote, acknowledging but querying his external role in our lives.
Coyote is a force for entropy. But Coyote is also a force for good (though whose good is always open to question).
As with many of these stories there’s a layer of telling involved, the narrator is a woman, the agent of the story is a woman. Who is up to no good? Clearly the latter, except that, perhaps the former in her telling is the subversive?
‘On the Dark Side of the Station Where the Train Never Stops’ talks of her heroine the fireborn fey bag-lady Lucy as a different person yet with knowledge that suggests something shared.  In the middle of a charming love story are conversations about seeing ‘past one kind of truth to another kind’ and the need of the world to have teeth and pain. It might be my favourite here.

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Kari Sperring in her Strange Horizons review of Sisters of the Revolution laments an aspect of community in much feminist SF.
Western feminism, like much of Western culture, has tended to prioritise individualism over community, and again, most of the stories in this collection reflect that. We have women fleeing, women resisting, women fighting back, but all too often they are alone, marked by their special status.”
Pat Murphy, (represented in that anthology by ‘Love & Sex Amongst the Invertebrates’) is an exception.  Repeatedly in this collection Murphy finds ways to stress the strengths of community. Joan Egypt may be an individual with her lawn flamingos, but it is the community that responds, and the baton is handed down.  Lucy the firecatcher goes on her star run, but the community shares her story.  In ‘A Cartographic Analysis of the Dream State’ a four woman team undertakes a Martian Trans-Polar Expedition.  A community of seven old women in the woods looks after a princess in ‘A True Story’ Her stepmother has hidden her away from the paedophile King. 
That reimagined Snow White ends with Queen and Princess reunited and the narrator saying “Sometimes, I tell them of Snow White, the true story rather than the storytellers’ lies. I think the true story should be known.” 
But the next story, ‘Dragon’s Gate’ “is unruly and difficult. It refuses to conform to any of the traditional forms.” This is often Murphy’s way, knowingly, and openly telling her readers she is subverting their expectations, she then subverts the new, revised version too.  ‘Dragon’s Gate’ is one of several stories reminding us that we are told how the world is by authorities and begin to believe it, but if we remember then the truth is revealed. The lost colours sought by ‘Iris versus the Black Knight’ are easily seen as the forgotten women of SF, of Science, of History that were there though we are told they weren’t. 

The truth is that Pat Murphy’s Women Up to No Good are in fact up to a lot of good, restoring balance, and supporting each other for the betterment of the world.  Murphy’s women are retelling the world their way. They do this in self aware stories of wit, and humour, and charm, but with shadows too.  You will hope Joan Egypt moves next door, you will wonder which star is Lucy, smile knowingly at that shoe by the road. and you will start to question the stories we are always told. Joan Egypt, who I keep returning to as touchstone here, and Pat Murphy are akin in setting ripples on ponds. Hopefully you will also seek out more of Pat Murphy’s brilliant SFF.

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Gypsy

Throughout his 40 year career Carter Scholz has always had what he calls a ‘characteristic, class-traitor response’ to genre.”
In his short novel Gypsy he approaches one of SFs enduring conceits with unprecedented rigour.
The early years of genre SF tended towards a near manifest destiny of human conquest of space.  Even in a universe with Velantians or Ferengi it is Earthmen who lead; when systems fail human ingenuity triumphs.  Gradually with the New Wave came stories which recognised the changes humans might have to make to survive and traverse space. Think Delany, McCaffery, Spinrad, etc. Questions of identity may have been raised but generally some humanity remained and mankind continued to the stars. 

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The 2016 Reading Challenge

Ok, I don’t read or blog enough or at least haven’t recently. So the plan for this year is both attainable targets and some focus and structure.
So in 2016 I aim to read 6 books in each of the following categories:
Classics (pre-1940)
Poetry
Translations
Writers of Colour
Biography/Criticism
Recommended by a Friend
Published this year.
An award winner

So 8 categories, potentially 48 books, but there will be overlaps, that should work.

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The Books of 2015 (Fiction)

About this time last year I posted on Facebook that I hoped to see new books from about 10 of my favourite authors. Four made it, and one at least is due this year.
Meanwhile which books were my favourites in 2015? Honourable mention first of all to The Loney which slipped out in a smaller press edition in 2014 but which I only discovered recently.  Aside from being deliciously creepy, the Catholic retreat personal politics are acutely, but never nastily, observed.  On the TBR pile are a couple of highly praised 2015 novels I expect to enjoy when I reach them, Aurora of course, as a longstanding Kim Stanley Robinson fan, and Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings.  I’m also very much enjoying Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time for, amongst other qualities, a rich depth of place and meaning of place. But for the Top Ten, I had to exclude the unfinished, despite its claims. 

10 Malcolm Pryce – The Case of The ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste.
A departure from Pryce’s wonderful Aberystwyth Noir series of gentle absurdity, but still recognisable as his unique style.  This time our hero is a ‘Gosling’ one of the semi-legendary railway detectives of the 1930s imprinted on steam trains at birth and brought up as orphans. Pryce uses this surreal start to tell a charming, melodramatic hard boiled thriller with a touch of idiosyncratic secret history and a delicate romance.

9 Lisa Goldstein – Weighing Shadows
A time travel novel, ostensibly Goldstein’s first SF novel proper. The genre of her The Dream Years is ambiguous, but the majority of her subsequent work makes Goldstein consistently one of the finest fantasy writers of the past 30 years. 
Weighing Shadows therefore was one of those hoped for titles a year ago, and almost a disappointment at first.  Only when patterns coalesced through the seemingly naive plot did this Fantasy of History take on meaning beyond its surface.  One to ponder I think.

8 Attica Locke – Pleasantville
Sequel, that stands alone, set some years later, to Locke’s impressive debut Black Water Rising.  Another crime novel where the crime isn’t the point, it’s a stage for a deep, historical political depiction.  Locke has a way of putting her readers into a milieu to show it in historical context without labouring hindsight.

7 Kit Reed – Where
Reed has, in a way, been doing the same thing for 57 years so far. The white rooms she uses as settings are incongruously realistic though. The simple premise of Where, a town vanishing, its people finding themselves mysteriously transported elsewhere, is brought to life by a detailed sense of place previously, and by the domestic details and relationships Reed is still using to imaginatively explore our sense of self and of place.  One of the best novels by one of SFs best.
6 Silvia Moreno Garcia – Signal To Noise
It’s no secret that I like my Urban Fantasy to be properly urban, ie for the city to play a part rather than be wallpaper.  Signal To Noise, set in Mexico City now and the 1980s, does that magnificently.  Three misfit teens bond over music and the magic of music until, of course, something goes wrong. Garcia’s musical references avoid cliches, are diverse, real and feel right. A rare book that had me reading with YouTube open. Oh and in Meche a sympathetic, sometimes unlikable heroine to live alongside.
5 Ian Sales – All That Outer Space Allows
The fourth Apollo Quartet novella turned out to be a novel, and better for it. Sales typical NASA details combined with rich knowledge of 60s women SF writers make for an interesting alternative history. Then Sales breaks the fourth wall to discuss his aims and devices within the novel. I think at one point he even breaks through that to explain that approach as well. 

4 Sunny Singh – Hotel Arcadia
As reviewed here a powerful, moving thriller set entirely (apart from flashbacks) in a luxury hotel occupied by terrorists.  There’s so much to enjoy in Singh’s third novel, both in her wonderful characters, the well-paced unfolding of traumatic events, and in the parallels she creates so skilfully. 

3 Elizabeth Hand – Wylding Hall
Too often the use of music and musicians in SFF feels self-indulgent, with a tendency to Mary Sue. Not so with Hand, especially in this haunting ghost mystery.  The story is of a folk rock band retreating to a remote country house to write and record, told as oral history by the various protagonists.  Suitably obscure references to the hunting of the wren, a mysterious barrow, and hints about the death of the band’s previous singer all combine in classic gothic style.
2 Carter Scholz – Gypsy
The return of contemporary SF’s great modernist with a starship hard SF short novel unlike any other I’ve read or heard of.  A bold assertion, but Scholz has regularly questioned genre’s treasured shibboleths.  At first Gypsy echoes Scholz’ good friend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge, no spoilers but this is a bleaker tale on the surface. So finely is it written though that its sheer inevitability is the only option, and utterly rational.

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Sarah Hall photo by me

1 Sarah Hall – The Wolf Border
Ok I’ll say this here. Reviews of this novel of rewilding wolves into a private Lake District estate have all talked about the wolves (and the sex, but I’ll come to that.)  What they missed, and I raised with Hall at Hay, is the other word: Border.  Set alongside a successful vote for Scottish independence, I’ll argue that makes this alternative history.  Absolutely every scene and every relationship in The Wolf Border occurs across a threshold (doorways, fences, seasons, town/country,) or emphasises such by viewing across or transition (class, culture, gender, pregnancy/motherhood etc).  Sex, too, in this intimate but not openly eroticised novel, is an interface, a transition, a border crossing. Hall is one of our finest writers, The Wolf Border both fits perfectly with her previous novels and surpasses them. From first reading through second and third readings Hall’s clarity illuminates fascinating depths.

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The Top Albums of 2015 part 2 the Top 10

Part one Albums 20-11 appeared a couple of days ago. Now the Top ten.

A couple more near misses though. Tamikrest put out an excellent live album for Record Store Day but in the absence of new material it didn’t quite fit the Top 20.  From the same part of the world many lists have included Africa Express presents In C Mali but the digital version was out in 2014 and was high up last year’s ranking for me.
So…

10 Drenge – Undertow
Muscular new wave now with added bass on another second album to make this list.  At times sounding like heavier Joy Division with dark pop melodies I even think I heard a momentary echo (sic) of Martha & The Muffins.

9 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I’m not a hip hop fan in the sense of following it closely, but every so often something catches my ear. Lamar’s lyrics are diverse but consistent in passion & intelligence. Add a rich organic tapestry of jazz & funk classicism and you get a great album.

8 Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space
It isn’t much remarked on but there’s a jazz tinge and some classical structure to PSB’s electronic arrangements. It’s the deft use of transmission recordings from 60s & 70s space missions that bring the emotion & drama though. Most years there’s an album that sounds like very little or nothing else around. PSB are that band this year.

7 Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe
In a year of great female auteurs (see also Björk, Joanna Newsom, Grimes and others) there was a point where Weaver might have been even higher ranked.

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Jane Weaver at Cloudspotting (photo by me)

6 Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
Ignore the backstory about Bruce’s cancer, for 10 tracks this is the best Maiden album in an years. There were great songs on previous albums but less coherence. I said 10 tracks, because it gets better on track 11 is the 18 minute epic piano led Empire of The Clouds about the R101 that is among the finest things Maiden have done (yet!)

5 Bathymetry
As reviewed previously Bathymetry’s debut is sweetly deceptive, chiming guitars and intricate basslines, harmonies concealing dark lyrics and a fine-tuned indie pop sensibility.

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Ariel Bathymetry at The Joiner’s Arms, Lazonby (photo by me)

4 Lianne LaHavas – Blood
Ok whodathunk it?  Me, the arch obscurist putting a genuine pop hit artist in the Top 5? Discovered Lahavas by chance at Hay, was impressed, bought the album when it hit #2 in the charts. Catchy, soul folk tunes, a glorious warm voice a standard template but a well above standard usage. Saw her again in Manchester’s Albert Hall and was even more blown away.

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Lianne Lahavas at The Albert Hall, Manchester (photo by me)

3 Kamasi Washington – The Epic
A triple album. The man responsible for much of the gorgeous arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s album above also put out his own magnificent, up to date yet classic post-Coltrane jazz album.  It soars.

2 Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – Ba Power
Rock album of the year made by four guys playing proto-banjos that look like homemade cricket bats with strings.  Kouyate and his family have taken the Ngoni to multiple new levels though, and just like Chicago blues begat rock’n’roll they’ve taken desert blues to new places too.  And Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko stands comparison with any and all the great singers already noted.

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Amy Sacko & Bassekou Kouyate at Electrowerz, London (photo by me)

And at number 1 Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
If there’s a theme running through this list it’s a nuanced multi genre eclecticism about most of the artists here.  Julia Holter’s been compared to Kate Bush but I also hear In A Silent Way era Miles. Keyboards harmonizing with a powerful voice, instrumental passages taking off in directions you don’t expect but make perfect sense.  Complex but totally accessible tunes like nobody else achieves.

Turns out 2015 was a pretty good year.  Some great voices and amazing musicianship and for me a blend of classic and modern that goes somewhere.

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The Top Albums of 2015 part 2 the Top 10

Part one Albums 20-11 appeared a couple of days ago. Now the Top ten.

A couple more near misses though. Tamikrest put out an excellent live album for Record Store Day but in the absence of new material it didn’t quite fit the Top 20.  From the same part of the world many lists have included Africa Express presents In C Mali but the digital version was out in 2014 and was high up last year’s ranking for me.

10 Drenge – Undertow
Muscular new wave now with added bass on another second album to make this list.  At times sounding like heavier Joy Division with dark pop melodies I even think I heard a momentary echo (sic) of Martha & The Muffins.

9 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I’m not a hip hop fan in the sense of following it closely, but every so often something catches my ear. Lamar’s lyrics are diverse but consistent in passion & intelligence. Add a rich organic tapestry of jazz & funk classicism and you get a great album.

8 Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space
It isn’t much remarked on but there’s a jazz tinge and some classical structure to PSB’s electronic arrangements. It’s the deft use of transmission recordings from 60s & 70s space missions that bring the emotion & drama though. Most years there’s an album that sounds like very little or nothing else around. PSB are that band this year.

7 Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe
In a year of great female auteurs (see also Björk, Joanna Newsom, Grimes and others) there was a point where Weaver might have been even higher ranked. 

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Jane Weaver at Cloudspotting (photo by me)

6 Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
Ignore the backstory about Bruce’s cancer, for 10 tracks this is the best Maiden album in an years. There were great songs on previous albums but less coherence. I said 10 tracks, because it gets better on track 11 is the 18 minute epic piano led Empire of The Clouds about the R101 that is among the finest things Maiden have done (yet!)

5 Bathymetry
As reviewed previously Bathymetry’s debut is sweetly deceptive, chiming guitars and intricate basslines, harmonies concealing dark lyrics and a fine-tuned indie pop sensibility.

image

Ariel Bathymetry at The Joiner’s Arms, Lazonby (photo by me)

4 Lianne LaHavas – Blood
Ok whodathunk it?  Me, the arch obscurist putting a genuine pop hit artist in the Top 5? Discovered Lahavas by chance at Hay, was impressed, bought the album when it hit #2 in the charts. Catchy, soul folk tunes, a glorious warm voice a standard template but a well above standard usage. Saw her again in Manchester’s Albert Hall and was even more blown away.

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Lianne Lahavas at The Albert Hall, Manchester (photo by me)

3 Kamasi Washington – The Epic
A triple album. The man responsible for much of the gorgeous arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s album above also put out his own magnificent, up to date yet classic post-Coltrane jazz album.  It soars.

2 Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – Ba Power
Rock album of the year made by four guys playing proto-banjos that look like homemade cricket bats with strings.  Kouyate and his family have taken the Ngoni to multiple new levels though, and just like Chicago blues begat rock’n’roll they’ve taken desert blues to new places too.  And Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko stands comparison with any and all the great singers already noted. 

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Amy Sacko & Bassekou Kouyate at Electrowerz, London (photo by me)

And at number 1 Julia Holter
If there’s a theme running through this list it’s a nuanced multi genre eclecticism about most of the artists here.  Julia Holter’s been compared to Kate Bush but I also here In A Silent Way era Miles. Keyboards harmonizing with a powerful voice, instrumental passages taking off in directions you don’t expect but make perfect sense.  Complex but totally accessible tunes like nobody else achieves.

Turns out 2015 was a pretty good year.  Some great voices and amazing musicianship and for me a blend of classic and modern that goes somewhere. 

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The Top Albums of 2015 part 1 (20-11)

I’ve been to a fair few great gigs this year, seen some of my favourite artists and some great new ones too. I wasn’t so sure how much I’d kept up with new albums though. Then I made a list, seems I did have a lot of great albums to consider.  There were a few I almost missed too. I just discovered that Rachel Grimes had a new solo album out, I’ve heard some of it and it’s as austerely brilliant as ever but too late to make the list.  Despite dancing to their live set two weekends running at different festivals I didn’t really listen to The Wave Pictures record enough to place it higher. Then there’s the raw intense hit of Sleaford Mods on a single track basis that didn’t quite vary enough over a fuller length for me.  And despite all the acclaim I felt the same about Courtney Barnett.

So what did I rank in the Top 20 Albums of 2015 ?

20= Songhoy Blues – s/t
20= Samba Touré – Gandadiko
I really couldn’t choose between these two great examples of contemporary Malian blues rock. Songhoy Blues got the airplay and the acclaim, but Touré’s fourth album was powerful and atmospheric too.

19 Grimes – Art Angel
I’m late to the Grimes (no relation to the aforementioned Rachel) party but this is growing on me.  Big beats, grandiose layers of multitracked vocals, glorious pop with a dark twist.

18 Fever Dream – Moyamoya
Saw this trio at Fell Foot Sound and really liked their big but subtle heavy shoegaze sound. 

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Fever Dream at Fell Foot Sound (photo by me)

17 Chantal Acda – The Sparkle In Our Flaws
Acda’s fragile, spare folk voice is pastel where Grimes is day-glo, and her arrangements minimal. But listening at night, in the dark, her melancholy is impressively nuanced.

16 Benjamin Clementine
Talking of nuanced, the first time I heard Clementine I puzzled over whether it was Nick Cave covering Rufus Wainwright or vice versa. Neither are really accurate comparison other than to imply some of the range & tone of his soul-drenched voice.

15 Haiku Salut – Etch & Etch Deep
I don’t know where to start with this. Multi instrument post-rock folktronica something from Derbyshire? Best use of ukulele and glockenspiel on this list for sure.

14 Bixiga 70 – III
Brazilian cumbia afrobeat jams ok? One of the most upbeat and uplifting albums around.

13 2:54 – The Other I
Chiming, shimmering goth-pop guitars, harmonising voice and keyboard melodies and driving, occasionally blunt drums are they hallmark of 2:54’s dark but not as introspective as it first seems second album. 

12 Shopping – Why Choose
“Consumerist critiques you can dance to” according to one review. A syncopated, updated The Slits, Gang of Four with three part vocals contrasted with staccato riffs and judicious use of cowbell. 

11 Rozi Plain – Friends
Bought off Rozi after her set in the sunshine at Cloudspotting.  This is another gentle-seeming album that rocks emotionally rather than in terms of riff.  Folk psychedelia glows through this with Rozi’s voice being both a layer of that and above it.

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Rozi Plain at Cloudspotting


Rozi Plain at Cloudspotting (photo by me)

That’s 20-11 I’ll run down the Top 10 soon. 

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