A Rant on Veracity

Yesterday, 23/04/23, was the centenary of the birth of Avram Davidson, one of SFF’s most idiosyncratic voices. His short fiction, at its best, is as good as it gets. So, to commemorate his centenary, I reread a few memorable stories.

One in particular, from the posthumous collection The Other Nineteenth Century, is a fun story in a way, though perhaps dated in other ways. It also serves as a useful exemplar for a tendency in historical and alternate historical SFF that I dislike.

‘Traveller from an Antique Land” is a very thinly disguised tale of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1822. Davidson changes names but they are mostly easily identified even without his appended note. Gerald, Lord Gryphon the poet and de facto head of the expat literati community; Archie Shadwell, poet and would be sailor, married to Amelia, author of the novel Koenigsmark; their friends the Wilsons; and rogue adventurer Tregareth. Well, it makes a change from that night in Villa Diodati, I suppose.

It is this latter who leads the plot, such as it is, firstly seeking Gryphon’s aid, then comforting the worried wives, before ultimately arranging the beach funeral. And he who identifies the crucial, novel element in this story. Shadwell has been murdered! His boat was sabotaged and in the final lines there’s detail that makes sense of a couple of earlier odd scenes to imply who the killer was: the mother grieving her dead baby, resentful of her womanising husband gone off on a jaunt, Amelia.

It’s nonsense, of course, this blaming a woman rather than accept that the real Shadwell, Bysshe Shelley was headstrong and thoughtless, refusing advice both on his boat’s design (I’ll come back to this,) and on the weather conditions. Equally nonsense is the conversation Amelia/Mary has with Jane Wilson/Williams about her husband.

“Everyone knows of Shadwell and Clara Claybourne,” she continued. “First she bore Gryphon’s illegitimate child, then she bore Shadwell’s — everyone knows.”

So Clara Claybourne is Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister and suspected by some to be the mother of the child Bysshe registered in Naples. There’s more likelihood that it was the Shelleys maid Elise Duvillard, but that’s an aside. What feels wrong is the use by Amelia of Clara’s full name. They were stepsisters, grew up together, travelled together, and were living in the same house at the time of this supposed conversation. There was no other Clara to be confused with; and she was present. As a device to build our sympathy for Amelia, the wronged wife, it’s clunky at best and unnecessary.

This is where my frustration with historical fiction comes in. Obviously, conversations are invented, details created to fill out scenes and characters. Linking passages between the bits we do know are essential in fiction. But, if you make changes to the actual historical record, they need to serve a dramatic purpose and not just suggest poor research.

For a short, lighter story like “Traveller from an Antique Land” it might be unreasonable to expect the same attention to detail as something like Wolf Hall. It is not fair, though, to expect the reader to gloss over the glaring changes for no apparent purpose.

To digress to two other recent works involving the same characters. Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2017 biopic Mary Shelley is riddled with inaccuracies. Some are the exigencies of fitting a life into two hours, some a means of applying a 3 act structure and character development to that life. And then there are moments like a credits card stating that Allegra Byron died aged 10. No, no, no. She was five years old. What does this add to the film other than a sense of shoddy research and carelessness?

On the other hand, Tim Powers uses Trelawny (Tregareth in Davidson’s story) in several works, including the novel Hide Me Among the Graves (2012). Having read both the Trelawny biographies Powers acknowledged and five others, I can confidently say I believe Powers gets him right. All bar one scene where Trelawny fights off a vampiric assailant with the spirits from his flask and a lit match. Famously, Tre did not touch spirits, it was the reason he so strongly objected to Millais’ portrayal of him with a glass to hand. But it’s a dramatic scene that works. It’s a change to history with a purpose. And it’s the sort of tiny detail only a Trelawny nerd like me might spot.

The North West Passage by John Everett Millais, 1874

Davidson’s portrayal of Tregareth/Trelawny isn’t bad, but Gryphon’s attitude to him is. Davidson has the poet Lord mock Tregareth, sneering at his alleged past adventures. The real Trelawny, storyteller, and rogue though he was, wouldn’t have stood for that. And Byron, unpleasant though he could undoubtedly be, had no need to sneer. Unlike most, he saw through Trelawny, but rather than mock as Gryphon does, he didn’t care because he was entertained. (Arguably, Trelawny felt the same about Byron too. They were well matched.) And it does make story sense that it would be Tregareth who uncovers the sabotage and that he does nothing. Davidson has Tregareth muse on Shadwell doubting him too, though there is no suggestion anywhere that the real Trelawny was not believed at the time. The first extant challenge to Trelawny’s stories came in the 1890s a decade after his death, but again this is detail I wouldn’t expect in such a short story. I do though wonder what these invented scenes add to the story, and what they steal from it.

A slight story then, and flawed, but with a clever idea at heart.

Then there’s an afterword by editor Henry Wessels praising Davidson for accuracy. Now we have a big problem.

Perhaps the most accurate portrait is that of the unsavory Trelawney (sic) who is notorious as the designer of Shelley’s sailboat and the man who found Byron a doctor in his final illness. Few men have had the distinction of causing the death of two poets of such stature.

So wrong. Trelawny mythologised his past, exaggerated his role in real events and told stories that people believed. It’s not unfair to challenge his personal account but these are claims that are not based on Trelawny’s books but invented later. These are allegations that other sources immediately disprove.

Byron was attended to in Missolonghi by his personal physician Francesco Bruno, who he employed some months before ever meeting Trelawny on the recommendation of Andrea Vacca Berlinghieri, and by Julius Michael Millingen sent by the London Hellenic Committee. Trelawny was elsewhere in Greece at this time working with Mavrocordato.

Trelawny and his friend Captain Daniel Roberts designed Byron’s boat The Bolivar, though his Lordship died without paying his bill. Bysshe Shelley wanted the same but lacking money asked for it to be smaller. Despite advice that this would be less stable and seaworthy from the two experienced sailors, he insisted.

Davidson may have been approximately accurate in his description of Trelawny, mostly by being sufficiently vague, but for an editorial note to get so much wrong is a discredit to the story. A sneer that would have been unnecessary if true, by being so blatantly false raises questions about the remainder of the book. And that is unfair to Trelawny, deeply unfair to Avram Davidson, and cheats the informed reader.

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The Book of Gaheris – Kari Sperring (Newcon Press 2023)

Stories lose their meaning once the heroes move on.

Five, or four and a half, brothers from Orkney serve as knights to Arthur. Gawain is most famous, then the half, Medraut, teased by the elder sons as ‘Mouse’, and Agrivaine and Gareth. Less renowned, and he prefers it that way, is Gaheris.

Kari Sperring, as she notes in her afterword to this lovely new Newcon Press volume, loves the underdog. So, of course, she chooses to write his story.  The Book of Gaheris comprises two previously published novellas (Serpent Rose, 2019 and Rose Knot from 2021) and two new slightly shorter tales.

Arthur and his court have been explored so many times, of course. With works that might best be described as purely Malory fan fic common. No judgement on fan fic implied but it is clear that certain works are entirely taken from this one source. And there are the Tourist Fantasies, based not on Malory or Geoffrey of Monmouth or Chretien de Troyes etc, but on that shallow, tourist guide, perceived Arthur absorbed by osmosis from films and TV rather than research.

Kari Sperring is not one of those writers. As a medieval historian she has read her sources, and the alternative sources, and more. She understands her material. This gives her stories a veracity and depth I enjoyed immensely. It also gives her the background knowledge that these stories are far from immutable, characters are not sacrosanct, and she can mould them.

One of the things I find important in historical fiction is not pedantic accuracy. It is that major changes must serve a purpose, and should flow with the factual. The dialogue between characters is invented but that creates the characters which in turn shapes the voices in that dialogue. Here, as far as I can tell, changes are seamless.  Oh the names are tweaked, Lionis here is other versions Lyoness, Marcus is Mark and the famous Sir Gawain is Gavin to his friends and brothers (who aren’t the same thing.) Nothing else is obvious beyond the needs of modern fiction storying.

It is in storing the well-known or slightly known at least, that Sperring succeeds. Her characters feud, and play, and love with such wit that a sense of family dynamics is built. This is near invisible world building.

Kari Sperring is not a comic writer in the sense of writing for laughs, but there are frequent asides, moments of warm banter, ironic touches that raise laughter throughout these stories and which deceive the reader from what we ought to recall: the essential tragedy of these legends. And thus the deaths, when they come, are more brutal and heartbreaking. I shed a tear at the last of these, such is the way these foolish, arrogant, violent, emotionally clumsy men have ingrained themselves.

The Book of Gaheris is the title, yet, in fitting with his preference for the background, Gaheris is not the overt focus of any of these stories. We begin, in Serpent Rose, quite deliberately with Lamorak de Galis the younger knight besotted with Gaheris despite family history condemning this to disaster. It is Lamorak who utilises agency that forces the novella’s dramatic climax, and only then does Gaheris act.

In Rose Knot it is the women, the Orkney wives, Luned and Lionis, and bored, careless Essylt who gossip, scheme and find consequences beyond their anticipation and wit to resolve.  A chastity test for the men reveals unanticipated secrets. Including whose faithfulness is as disturbing as his fellows disloyalty. Gaheris now is less sympathetic from their viewpoint. Broken pieces are only partially restored.

Knotted Thorn, the third story, is more magical. Set across two timelines, “Now” and “Then” it is the story of Thorn of the White Lands, alone in her ruined castle until a mysterious visitor reminds her of past tragedy. “Then” is told in high romantic epic style which is at odds with the more straightforward telling of “Now” but appropriately so, as it tells of a supposed hero and his squire encountering enchantment and, years later a return in penance. It’s a story which seems to hesitate at the point of instauration. Stories lose their meaning once the heroes move on. (p.165) And when they return?

Gawain it is who tells the final piece, Thorned Serpent where we also see a more complex Medraut, and perhaps a redeemed Safere, the closest friend of betrayed Lamorak. On the one hand this is the mystery of the suspected murder of the Queen’s maid and Agrivaine’s innocent wife Laurel. Already the bitterest of the Orkneys, he is driven to rage and seeming madness. It is a classic depiction of the guilt-tinged stage of grief, but in the shocking, violent outcome there is worse to come for reader and for Orkney. As I said, tears were shed.  The sons of Lot and Margawse, once divided by desire for peace and for vengeance, came together roughly, only to be torn apart again by the lingering, generational consequences of half told histories.

The Book of Gaheris is light, in places, full of the glamour (in its magical sense,) of court. It charms the reader with Lamorak’s puppy-like persistence, Kay’s bluntness, the humorously contrasting brothers and their equally contrasting mismatched wives, the passing jibes at other knights such as dull Sir Bors, the mysterious Safere and the largely offstage presences of Lancelot, Guenever and Arthur. It relaxes us with casual, demotic names, Heris, Gavin, Gari, Agri and, though he objects mildly, Mouse. But barely beneath this is a serious note; grudges are held, not over who actually killed Lot or Pellinore but who is suspected. Blame, and vows of revenge, is apportioned on suspicion and assumption. The consequences, repeatedly, in all four stories are disastrous. Here lies meaning after the hero is gone.

Read individually, each novella is an interesting, enjoyable read. Individually Gaheris is present but, as is his wont, not centred. As a collection though, as Gawain says Gaheris was always there. It sounds foolish, stated so badly. But it’s the truth. (p.207) The diffident hero. In that way The Book of Gaheris is a tribute to Gaheris, acknowledging that the most obvious, most visible, loudest, is not the most significant. Stories lose their meaning once the heroes move on. But the hero is not always who you think.

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Beginning (Royal Exchange Theatre)

Written by David Eldridge, directed by Bryony Shanahan. Starring Erin Shanagher and Gerard Kearns.

I don’t go to the theatre as often as I intend to.  Tonight’s trip to Manchester’s beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre may change that.


And caution also to West Disbury residents, you may feel seen at points in this play.*

Laura, played by Erin Shanagher, has just had a flatwarming party.  Gerard Kearns as Danny is the last lingering guest, a friend of one of Laura’s guests rather than someone she actually knows.  Over the next two hours they explore possibilities and begin to admit things to themselves and each other.

Beginning is billed as a romantic comedy, and I must admit I laughed a lot. But it plays with the conventions of the unlikely couple who we assume will get together at the end. They always do, right? (Unless, as Erin jokes in one of the teaser clips online, “he dies at the end.” ) That’s not where the drama is in Beginning.

Danny has come to the party with a friend of Laura’s, but it transpires that the crass, laddish Keith who has just left before the play starts, is actually only a business contact who invited himself. Danny is already in an awkward place, and when Laura flirts openly with him his discomfort increases. As he says, “I don’t have a radar” for these things, and “No, no, you don’t” Laura replies.

Being staged in the round at the Royal Exchange creates an intimacy. A significant amount of Beginning is conveyed in facial expressions, body language, and the physicality of theatrical performance. At one point, Shanagher’s movements are almost exaggerated, stylised as though she’s stalking her prey, then as she dances round the kitchen singing into an empty wine bottle, is she even ‘acting’? (We’ve all been there, right?) Kearns meanwhile transmits his tension as he deals with conflicting urges so well that I felt for his shoulders.

There are long speeches, but equally long sections of no words. Both actors use these silences impressively, engaging with their partner to advance the momentum of the tentative relationship. The metaphorical two steps forward one back, will they won’t they, build up is matched by a literal version as they move around the flat. David Eldridge’s dialogue is full of abrupt changes of direction. Laura asks a personal question, Danny jumps back to an earlier scotch egg discussion. He asks her a question that is both innocent and a challenge.

Initially, we are very much on Laura’s side. “Don’t be a dick, Danny!” She says several times. She’s confident and modern in outlook. When he tells her she’s a nice lady, she replies “Woman, Danny, woman.” but without belittling him. He’s not a **** like Keith (“Don’t use that word please.” she says), but he plays the role at times. Gradually, we warm to him, he knows he is being a dick but tries not to. He opens up. She opens up. And suddenly, we see his side. No spoilers. This is a risk for him emotionally. Earlier, he’s bragged that if a woman told him she had low self-esteem, he’d run a mile, so when Laura, pushing at him, asks if he has low esteem, it feels like taunting. The laughter of the early flirting and banter vanishes to be replaced temporarily by something darker and deeper. The possibility of casual or maybe not at all casual sex reveals vulnerabilities. Both are playing a part.

And then he reveals something deeply personal in such an obtuse way that it becomes hilarious again. The progress of their dance of discovery is suddenly halted by something outwith their actions. As Eldridge explores the facades of modern life I for one, laughed deeply with these characters, not at them. When Laura, near indignantly, demands, “Shut up and kiss me, Danny!” it feels right. I’ve been that Danny. Twice. In response to a throwaway sexist description of Keith’s encounters, Laura manages the delicate balance of condemning the language whilst simultaneously seeking validation of her own attractiveness. These moments of identification tie us into the play throughout. A recognition of how we navigate expectations as men and women. There, but for that extra bottle of Chablis, go I, perhaps.

Beginning is, basically, a choreographed dance towards fish finger butties, avoiding Sunday alone, and something that might be something. In Bryony Shanahan’s direction, it is nuanced and clever without often showing how clever. I’m half convinced there’s even a subtle metaphor in Erin Shanagher’s gorgeous outfit, but to explain would be a spoiler too far. In the two performances, there is the depth and chemistry that the words deserve. As a two hour, two-hander, both actors do a great job. In the end, it is a thoughtful, reflective, funny wonder.

Beginning is on at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre until March 11th. Tickets here

* in the original 2017 National Theatre production it was Crouch End but the North can have good things too. The regional detail changes felt to me like they may even have added something to the characters.

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The books of 2022.

I know I’m not alone in finding my reading habits and capacity have changed in this ongoing pandemic world. I start books, really enjoy them even, but if I pause for trivial reasons like eating, sleep or work, I can’t always regain momentum. I have a host of unfinished books that I really want to get on with if only I could find my way back in.

So this list of favourites from 2022 includes a few titles ready in portions over the year. Books where I did eventually restart and complete them.

First, a handful I’m still working through.

Re-Sisters – Cosey Fanni Tutti The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti.

Trouble the Waters – Ed Sheree Renee Thomas, Pan Morigan & Troy L Wiggins. An anthology of SFF stories evoking myths and legends of water and its occupants.

Now to the Top 20 part 1 20-11 in no particular order

Female Fortune – Jill Liddington a significantly updated volume of Anne Lister’s diaries subtitled ‘Land, Gender & Authority.’ Liddington’s commentary show an Anne Lister focused on establishing her business presence, through her deals and political battles, as much as the intimate and sometimes explicit sexuality she’s now renowned for. (An interesting aside, Liddington identifies the earliest written use of the sobriquet Gentleman Jack as over a century after Lister’s death.)

Nightwalking – John Lewis-Stempel. I’ve walked a lot at night and recognised much described in these short pieces, if not with naturalist Lewis-Stempel’s keen eye/ear and knowledge. Being four pieces leads to minor repetition but it’s worth it.

After Sappho – Selby Wynn Schwarz suitably fragmentary for our age despite its aim of historical feminist unity. I kept wishing I knew the real people Schwarz impersonates in her book.

The Trials of Lotta Rae Siobhan MacGowan in London in 1906, young Lotta is attacked by a rich gentleman. Subsequently betrayed by the barrister she trusted her life is in ruins. A few years later as war looms and the suffragettes rise Lotta meets her barrister again. Siobhan MacGowan leads her readers to an ominous, intense climax.

Sea of Tranquillity – Emily St. John Mandel Even when doing nothing spectacularly new, Mandel does it beautifully. Disparate characters in time and space are linked and layered to create a mysterious plot but it’s her observations that work most here.

Valleyesque – Fernando A. Flores Mexican-American Flores’ second collection of short, often psychedelic or fantastic, short stories set in the borderlands. Not often quite so overtly SF as his wonderful day-glo novel Tears of the Trufflepig, but very much in that liminal zone between cultures where one person’s fantasy is daily reality for another.

The Queen of Clouds – Neil Williamson a prequel to The Moon King (which sits unread on my shelf currently). Within this charming, evocative fairytale cum steampunk fantasy are complex social politics and romance. I will get to the next book soon!

Jane Johnson – The White Hare. In this case I want so much to visit the remote 1950s Cornwall Jane evokes in this folk tale tinged haunted novel.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau – Silvia Moreno-Garcia As the title implies, a retelling of Wells, but going to areas the latter wouldn’t have considered. Themes of Racism, Feminism, Colonialism build on the original’s questions of morality and science. As ever Moreno-Garcia tells a great story too.

The Happiness Factory – Jo McMillan Mo inherits the eponymous sex aid factory from her long- estranged father and goes to a remote village in China to learn more. Despite some dark scenes, as Mo recalls her father’s mistreatment of her and her late mother, The Happiness Factory is a funny, moving novel of restoration and the small triumphs of people who care for each other.

Hmmmm a mixed bag there. And in the Top 10? More of the same but different.

The Green Man’s Gift – Juliet E McKenna Fifth of Daniel Mackmain’s adventures fighting legendary foes with the help of his dryad, naiad and similar friends. McKenna knows her mythology and uses it well as always, and her characters are warm and likeable. I rarely follow series this keenly but these books are both charming and thoughtful.

The Instant – Amy Liptrot I heard Amy read from early drafts of this second book at a Caught By the River event in Hebden Bridge. As she talked about traffic islands I was hooked. (I once slept on a traffic island in Central Glasgow in the absence of anywhere else.) The finished volume did not disappoint. She describes aspects of her life, sober, without sensationalism or saccharine, creating resonance even for those with very different stories.

Babel: An Arcane History – RF Kuang the presence of magic in 19th century England has been widely used in recent years to great effect. Kuang’s Babel is an Oxford institute devoted to translation and magical properties. A young orphan is brought from China to study as part of his patron’s exploitation. There, his predecessor brings him into a plot to overturn colonial power. A rich, detailed story with footnotes, Babel is also a powerful challenge to how languages control and shape society, and an indictment of the way English has been a tool of empire.

Ravished – Anna Vaught A second collection of short stories from Vaught, this time subtitled A Series of Reflections on Age, Sex, Death and Judgement. So that’s most of literature covered. These stories range from nuanced Gothic, to overtly Fantastika, and to literary observations. Most are potent enough to make you want more yet need to let them settle before tasting the next.

Story Matrices  – Gillian Polack A fascinating personal analysis of the way fictional world building uses cultural blocks and how shared traditions are illuminated in speculative fiction. Polack manages the rare trick of academic rigour and warm conversational style brilliantly. An important contribution to SFF discourse that I expect to be referenced frequently in the future.

Stone Blind – Natalie Haynes as in her previous works, Haynes digs deep into Greek myths to present the female perspectives we have rarely seen. In this case the Gorgons, happily living in peaceful isolation  until… men, basically. Brilliantly entertaining and thought provoking throughout and as with A Thousand Ships one stylistically daring chapter you won’t forget.

The Memory Librarian – Janelle Monáe and others Eagerly awaited and in no way disappointing, Monáe’s first SF book is linked to the world of her album and film Dirty Computer but explores aspects in the background previously. Each story is a world in itself but sheds light on the rest.

Spear – Nicola Griffith as she did with Hild, Griffith brings history to bear on legend. This time Arthur but from a new, queer perspective outside the ‘Companions’ of Caer Leon rather than the usual suspects. Frequently approaching the poetic prose of old legends but equally shifting through comic set pieces and dramatic action scenes, Spear is a short novel of huge size.

Ghost Signs – Stu Hennigan I wrote about this here. Hennigan’s diary of the Covid Lockdown is harrowing. His account of poverty and deprivation across Leeds is a searing indictment of discredited austerity policies, social neglect and government indifference (and malice.) Not the most enjoyable book of 2022, maybe not the finest prose, absolutely one of the most important books of our times. Buy your MP or Councillor a copy.*

*I want to add something like sit on their chest and read it to them, every agonising word, so they feel what they have created. I’m probably not allowed to do that though, so just post the book to them.

The Way the Light Bends – Lorraine Wilson After just two novels Wilson has gone straight onto that short list of writers I’ll buy immediately.  This intense study of grief and loss is a gripping emotional thriller that straddles boundaries of the fantastic and the imagined. And as with all grief it offers comfort but not easy answers.

Now to start reading for next year’s list… 😉 A year in which I’m eagerly awaiting new novels from Andrea Hairston and Mary Gentle and hopeful of books by oh loads of great writers.

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The Best Albums of 2022

Another cracking year across every genre. I drew up a longlist of close to 150 titles! There were obvious contenders from the start of the year and a couple of last minute discoveries.

Eventually I narrowed 150 down to 149! No, I managed a Top 60 (yes Sixty) in the end, of which the Top 30 will be listed in good old countdown fashion.

(* means I also saw them live in 2022. ¤ means seen live in a previous year.)

Near misses first:

Ethel Cain – Preacher’s Daughter

*Emily Francis Trio – Luma

*Héloïse Werner – Phrases

Honorary mention here for the brilliant compilation Refabricated from Cue Dot Records. Each of the original Cue Dot artists remixed or reworked one of the others plus a bonus Graham Massey remix of Scissorgun’s ‘Tangie Biscotti’. A super collection of evocative, eclectic, electronic exploration.

And now the moment you’ve not been waiting for. The Top 30. This was as always a hard choice in so many cases. No 27 could have been No 19 which could have been No 13 on another day.

30. Angeline Morrison – The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience. The subtitle says it all.

29 Saul Williams – Unanimous Goldmine effectively the soundtrack to afrofuturist film Neptune Frost. Like the film, it is challenging, bold and powerful.

28 Leyla McCalla – Breaking the Thermometer linked to McCalla’s longer stage piece, Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, this concept piece focuses on Radio Haiti and her creole heritage. There are harrowing stories amongst this, leavened by McCalla’s warm cello and sensitive arrangements. Ì

27. Taylor Swift – Midnights on which our heroine gets introspective but with typical self depreciation and generosity to others.

25 *Hinako Omori – A Journey… a ten track album of beautiful ambient electronics and field recordings that needs to be listened to as a whole, in situ.

24 Breanna Barbara – Nothin’ But Time psych tinged indie guitar rock songs that frequently feel like they’re hesitant on the edge of spaceflight. Barbara makes me imagine Kendra Smith if she let rip vocally on some of those early Opal records but she’s her own voice too.

23 *Kojey Radical – Reason to Smile Took me a bit to appreciate this as a whole compared to his earlier albums. Got there in the end though. The links to his Ghanaian heritage tie and strengthen the songs here. Family is key so often.

22. WarringtonRuncorn New Town Development Plan – Districts, Roads, Open Space there is beauty in bleakness, a crisp starkness. Here we have post-rock electronica in paean to localised brutalised without the cliché claustrophobia.

21 ¤Fiona Soe Paing – Sand, Silt, Flint long awaited second album from Scottish-Burmese electronic composer Fiona Soe Paing is surprisingly a collection of avant garde folk.

20. Holodrum S/T If Tom Tom Club came from the North of England and grew up on Gang of Four records. Joyful stuff from members of Cowtown, Yard Act, Hookworms and others.

19 *Björk – Fossora I wish Björk had thrown a couple of these organic, fractured songs into her Bluedot set to mix the dynamics up a bit.

18 Kinbrae & Clare Alexander – Birl of Unmap The most interesting UK electronic non-dance music frequently seems focused on landscape. Albums by Spaceship and Craven Faults almost made the longlist. Nothing is quite so specific and yet mysterious as Clare Alexander’s exploration of an abandoned Scottish mining village turned failed art project.

17 *Sarathy Korwar – Kalak Percussionist Korwar’s mission to explore colonialism and migration through reclaimed jazz continues brilliantly.

16 Terry Lee Hale – The Gristle and Bone Affair I somehow lost track of what this great American songwriter was doing for a while. Mistake rectified. The heft in his voice entwined with his emotional realism perfectly.

15 Veryan – Here/Now what I said above re landscape electronica applies to this collection of new tracks and reworked pieces from last year’s lovely Here.

14 Hammered Hulls – Careening DC stalwarts ‘super’ group sounds like all your favourite HarDCore from the past 40 years and purely themselves. Impassioned vocals, great riffs and oh those bass lines from Mary Timony.

13  Zeal & Ardor – S/T for a project that began as a challenge to mix incongruous genres Marcel Gagnaux’s Gospel Black Metal keeps building and growing. This third album is full of soul and huge riffs.

12 Kae Tempest – The Line Is A Curve As a poet Tempest brings calm through a sometimes urgent delivery. As musician they don’t do anything radical but it all fits in place.

11 Sonja – Loud Arriver Melissa Moore was fired by her previous band for coming out as a trans woman. Their loss because this a great mix of classic hard rock. Moore is an excellent guitarist and her songs are far more than just vehicles for ego axe play.

10 A Far Cry & Shara Nova – The Blue Hour Chamber orchestra A Far Cry and singer Shara Nova perform a cycle by various hands including Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón and Caroline Shaw setting poet Carolyn Forché’s ‘On Earth’ to music.

9 Venom Prison – Erebos Wales’ finest feminist death metal band add just a hint more melody on this future classic. Larissa Stupar uses classical references to rage against very real contemporary issues. ‘Gorgon Sisters’ for example takes on forced sterilisation of immigrants. Not easy listening. But great.

8 *Katy J Pearson – Sound of the Morning on the one hand this is simply effortlessly charming indie pop, on the other there’s mature lyrical edges and experimental musical digressions that threaten/promise more. To be honest it took seeing Pearson live to really make these songs glow for me but once she lit the fire…

7 Al’Tarba – La Fin des Contes as with its predecessor Cabinet des Curiosités, there’s a rich gothic theatricality to this North African/French hip hop/dance concept album.

6 Voivod – Synchro Anarchy 15 albums in and Canadian Sci fi Prog thrashers Voivod have found their comfort zone: quirky, experimental but tight and controlled. Comfort for these guys is wild and risky for most of their supposed peers.

5 The Lord & Petra Haden – Devotional I’ve spent a fair chunk of the year obsessed with Petra Haden’s a capella covers of classic rock and pop songs then a week or so before Christmas I find this. Sunn 0))) guitarist Greg Anderson provides heavy drone sounds, Haden wordless vocals and some violin. The result is hypnotic, spiritual epic noise of the most beautiful kind.

4 *Mavis Staples & Levon Helm – Carry Me Home recorded in 2012 when Helm was already in very poor health, but still playing for his old friend. Mavis generosity shines in every note, even the angry ones railing at racists.

3 Moor Mother – Jazz Codes Camae Ayewa can currently do no wrong musically. Jazz, avant garde, hip hop, history telling.

2 *Keeley Forsyth – Limbs I tried but I can’t pin this down. Forsyth’s incredibly emotive voice is quasi operatic, there’s a theatricality not just to her intensely physical stage shows but to the recorded voice. At a recent gig I saw author Sarah Hall in the audience and realised there’s a similarity in their portrayal of muscular, visceral, northern female power. Limbs is elegiacal and celebratory, cold yet erotic and utterly absorbing. Only 26 minutes or so long, more would be not simply greedy but overwhelming.

1 *Hannah Peel & Paraorchestra – The Unfolding I saw this performed twice in 2022 both times it brought me to tears. A tapestry of orchestration and electronics full of emotional space and density. I think I knew this was going to be very near the top from the moment I heard the title track in late January. The preexisting eclecticism of both Peel (who also released two excellent soundtracks in 2022.) and Paraorchestra could have led to chaos or to something so tightly bound it can’t breathe. Instead they combine and recombine, using momentary clashes and spaces to evolve as much as moments of intimacy.

And there you have it. A small selection of 2022’s brilliant new music. Jazz, Metal, Folk, Hip Hop, Punk, Gospel, Pop and beyond.

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Few, if any, subgenres can be traced so precisely to a single place and time as bebop. 118th Street in Harlem was where former bandleader Henry Minton opened Minton’s Playhouse in 1938, and where he appointed Teddy Wilson manager in 1940. The band that Wilson put together invented bebop that autumn.

Minton’s offered free food for musicians on a Monday night, their usual night off if they played in the Big Bands down town around 52nd St. But the house band wouldn’t

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“Love In Vain” – Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner’s novelette “Love In Vain” first appeared in a 1988 anthology called Ripper! edited by Susan Casper & Gardner Dozois. That’s where I read it. It was the final story in that book and almost the only one I remember.

A few years later, increasingly familiar with Shiner’s fiction, I recognised a trend in some of his stories. Regularly, it appeared to me, Shiner was trying to portray and highlight aspects of male characters’ attitudes to women. It’s not all he does, but it seems significant in several stories. “Love In Vain” when I went back to it, was a prime example.

Dave McKenna is an assistant DA in Dallas, returning to his old town to interview a murderer who wants to confess to a few more crimes. Charlie opens up to a lot, admitting a string of murders of young women and details of his crimes. The thing is, he’s admitting to fake murders the authorities invented to test his confessions. The twist comes when he leads police to where he buried one of these non existent murder victims and they dig up her corpse. 

Subterranean Press 1st edition 2001

What makes this story differ from other serial killer stories is the look it takes at men  viewing women. The first thing we learn about Dave is that he has a 7 year old son Jeffrey who watches MTV. Dave admires the latest Heart video for the camera’s lingering shots on the guitarist’s cleavage.

Every time she moved her magnificent breasts seemed to hesitate before they went along, like they were proud, willful animals, just barely under her control.

In the next paragraph Dave notes that he and his wife “hadn’t made love in six weeks. And counting.” Things about Alice that bug him flow into macho driving attitudes and back to Charlie’s murder spree.

From Shiner’s website.

Then Dave’s law school friend Jack takes him out at night to a strip bar, where one of the dancers is Dave’s high school ex- Kristi. “It had been an ugly day and there was something in me that was comforted by the sight of young, good looking women with their clothes off.”  But “I could hear Charlie’s voice telling me about her titties.” as he admires the waitress.

Charlie tells Dave all the details of his crimes, though Dave says “I don’t want to hear it.” Later after Dave and Kristi make love he thinks about Charlie earnestly confessing “It was just to have sex, that’s all.” Jack though crudely wants details of Kristi.

Throughout “Love In Vain” Shiner repeatedly correlates Charlie’s literal violence against women with Dave’s and Jack’s view of them purely physically. Charlie’s ability to create real victims of imagined crimes links the two, thingifying the lawyers’ leering into his own actual assaults. As the prison guard tells Dave about Charlie: “he figures out what you want him to be, and he tries to be that for you.”

Recent Subterranean Press edition

In the final paragraphs Dave says he needs to teach his son “I don’t want him growing up screwed up like the rest of us.” Jack isn’t listening though, he’s watching the same Heart video 7 year old Jeffrey was watching.

“Look at that,” Jack said. “Sweet suffering Jesus. Couldn’t you just fuck that to death?”

In that final line Shiner makes his stand. Charlie and Jack at least, are linked in their misogyny. Violent acts are directly related to violent language. Generations of men pass on their attitudes to their sons, unless, as Dave finally asserts, they do something. 

“He’s going to need help. All of us are.”

* * *

“Love In Vain” can be read at Shiner’s Fiction Liberation Front website along with most of his other fiction.

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Ghost Signs – Stu Hennigan (Bluemoose Books)

Stu Hennigan works for Leeds City Libraries. When lockdown began he answered the Council’s call for volunteers delivering food parcels, medicines and other essentials around Leeds. GHOST SIGNS is his account of the first couple of months.

At first he is delivering to those affected by the pandemic, unable to get to shops etc. Quickly it becomes obvious that he’s delivering to some of society’s most impoverished, deprived, neglected families and individuals.
He sees the most desperate cases, people trapped in the consequences not just of Covid 19 but of the vicious, brutal, dehumanising austerity policies of the previous decade.
He sees open substance abuse, faces violence listens to the lonely and the angry and the confused.

Hennigan tells this with an open heart: how he is reluctant to deliver to the street he was threatened on the previous week; about his guilt coming home drained and struggling to give his wife enough help with the kids; about breaking the rules just to ensure something gets to people. He doesn’t hide frustration at services not linking up such as when he goes to collect a prescription only to find a charity volunteer has been there earlier.

These are the tragic details behind the figures, the horrific accounts that hide beneath reports of foodbank use, etc.

GHOST SIGNS is a hard book to recommend. It will make you very angry, make you cry too. You may need to read it in small doses, as I did.

But it might just be one of the most vital, important documents of our times, in bringing the intensely human horrors of our time to light in a personal, individual and very much not victim blaming manner.

And the worst bit? Hennigan writes about his city, a place he clearly loves, Leeds, but others could write similar stories around almost every town and city.

If I could, if it would make any difference at all, I’d buy a copy for every Tory MP in the country.

Order Ghost Signs here https://bluemoosebooks.com/books/ghost-signs

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Keeley Forsyth – live at St.Michael’s, Ancoats 05/03/22

That person you see on the stage is often not that person you speak to after the gig, at the merch stall. Keeley Forsyth exemplifies this more dramatically than most singers I’ve seen over the last 4 decades.

As the band open she’s not visible, only gradually do we realise she is shuffling, staccato, silent, zombie-esque, down the aisle. Dressed in a black, masculine suit, black boots, her black hair obscures her face as she processes, hunched, bowed, to the chancel.

Against black drapes, minimally lit in purple she is almost invisible as she begins to sing. In a sculpted operatic manner her voice fills the church space, fills your head, supported by delicate, elegiacal drones of piano, synth, cello and harmonium. Her music is a minimal, even liminal, landscape in which her voice stands. A timeless menhir uncovered and weathered and rooted.

If it were just that, simply the voice, Keeley Forsyth would be a remarkable artist, an operatic Nico, a primeval Scott Walker circa Tilt, a glorious Sandy Dillon in flight. As she moves from shadow to shadow to patches of light there is something different. She is beyond singing, to performance.

At one point she lies face down, monstrous breathing, disturbing laughter and singing. Her face is still covered by her hair, and will remain so throughout. The suit, almost David Byrne-like, seems to change shape as she moves. Rising from prostrate she manipulates her body as though lifted like a marionette, perched en pointe boot toes, hulking, disjointed. At times only hands are clear in the dark light. At times the voice and the physicality come together with a unique intensity. She inhabits her songs.

This is a performance, there is no audience engagement breaking the fourth wall, but it is a deeply intimate thing. The trauma implied, and revealed, in Forsyth’s lyrics could be many of us in post-pandemic 2022. Her ability to create whole cloth from what seem like incomplete fragments is uncanny. Quotidian concerns anchor her songs but their loose ends flow freely. Her use of the whole space, of stage, of music, of body, of voice whilst having pure folk echoes also seems jazz like in dynamic. Like a gothic Mary Margaret O’Hara perhaps.

And then, with an arm stretched out, open handed, beckoning or grasping, she leaves the stage.

When she returns, it is with hair tied back, loose limbed again, to thank us. This is not who we were transfixed by for an hour. And yet…it is.

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Books of 2021 – a list

As ever I’m not up to date with a lot of 2021 published books. Just this week I acquired a couple of new titles I’d normally expect to be contenders. (The new Helen Oyeyemi novel Peaces, and Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, if you’re wondering.)

Before getting on to the new though, a belated 2020 title was possibly the most remarkable book I read all year A Ghost In The Throat

Ryka Aoki – Light from Uncommon Stars Demonic bargains, violin prodigies, alien refugees, doughnuts, tender, funny lesbian dating, trans teen trauma. Is that enough? There’s goldfish too.

Jenn Ashworth – Ghosted A Love Story a vanished partner and a woman’s unnerving traumatised response are the core, the flesh is how we negotiate relationships in the strangest of times.

Jeffrey Boakye – Musical Truth a YA targeted series of snapshots of records that shaped Black Britain.

P. Djéli Clark – A Master of Djinn anything Clark wants to write in this wondrous Djinn-inhabited steam punk adjacent detective series just take my money, OK.

Bernardine Evaristo – Manifesto Autobiographical essay sequence casting light on life as a mixed race woman in 60s London on.

Harry Josephine Giles – Deep Wheel Orcadia the prose poem space opera told in Orcadian dialect nobody knew we needed until it was there.

Selena Godden – Mrs Death Misses Death I’ve been pondering how to describe Godden’s debut novel. If you have heard her perform her poetry over the years you will hear this novel in that voice as you read. The most rhythmically brilliant book on here.

Sarah Hall – Burntcoat the post-pandemic nightmare novel only Sarah could write. As ever she tells us much more than we realise in less words. In my opinion the UK’s best author.

Philippa Harrison – Mountain Republic forcing its way onto the list despite not finishing it yet. An epic history of one Lske District parish that somehow stands for more. History, poetry, landscape, politics and a unique democracy combine in a densely referenced, but lightly readable volume.

Rónán Hession – Panenka NOVEL OF THE YEAR one man’s personal identification with his small town’s decline told with affection and resolve.

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson – My Monticello another debut, another near future dystopia setting, but mainly a story of family memory, and survival in the aftermath of a resurgence of White Supremacy.

Juliet McKenna – The Green Man’s Challenge Book 4 in one of the most charming, fun fantasy series around. More please.

Kim Moore – All The Men I Never Married Full disclosure, I’ve known Kim about 15 years maybe? I heard her read some of these poems at different times. Detailing the different ways men have treated her (or in one case her twin) this is a vital (full of life) vital (important) collection.

Pat Nevin – The Accidental Footballer I loved this guy from the first time I saw him shimmy past two Newcastle defenders who are probably still wondering how 37 years later. I love this autobiography.

Gillian Polack – The Green Children Help Out one to reread. In a different universe Jews have settled after fleeing the Holocaust. In this universe their help is needed as superheroes. This too is a love story, by the way.

Olga Ravn – The Employees (trans. Martin Aiken) A workplace novel of the 22nd century, told in series of interviews as things fall apart aboard a generation ship. Darkly comic, and never quite revealing what is behind the curtain.

Richard Powers – Bewilderment to say this isn’t as good as The Overstory is like saying K2 isn’t as high as Everest. It’s Powers so it’s great.

Tade Thompson – Far From the Light of Heaven in which Thompson unfolds a classic locked room mystery but on a ship full of sleeping passengers jumping through hyperspace. Juggling multiple SF tropes with his own spin seems to be Tade Thompson’s forte.

Alan Warner – Kitchenly 434 Warner is an underrated author, perhaps because his debut was so spectacular. Lately he’s left the Highland Ballardian communities behind, and this time he offers an uncomfortable rock star hanger on/roadie tale that comes to a shocking conclusion.

Lorraine Wilson – This Is Our Undoing this gripping near future political SF thriller is a great debut combining the break up of nation states, ecological radicalism, family secrets with a tense plot about how we protect our loved ones.

There’s 20 of my favourites. Not a bad year. Several favourites didn’t have a book out, but some did. Several debuts stood ought, but authors continued to impress 10 books in.

Who can predict it.

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