East of Acre Lane – Alex Wheatle

Alex Wheatle’s second novel, from 2001, is a vivid, brooding depiction of Brixton in early 1981 in the weeks leading up to the riots.
The posse at the heart of this novel are a bunch of unemployed black youths just trying to get by and doing the things teens do.  Mainly we follow Biscuit, as he hustles a little weed, frets about his sister, tries to get with his girl Carol and takes in the music and sights and smells of the ghetto. 
Although there is a growing sense of imminent tragedy as East of Acre Lane opens out, this is a warm funny novel.  Wheatle uses authentic dialogue that moves the action rapidly with a natural rhythm.
“Lincoln, go tell dat damn Robson fe stop jumping ‘pin de balloons den or I will jump ‘pon ‘im.”
That’s the sort of writing I often hate, it can be clichéd or worse a  patronising gimmick, a lazy characterisation device, and it can be hard to read.  Wheatle certainly throws in plenty of street vocabulary that isn’t immediately obvious (“rarted”?) but his flow carries it and the reader quickly learns to parse it.
Obviously racial issues run deep here, but there is equally a strong sense that Wheatle is documenting a general poor, unemployed, neglected underclass.  Biscuit’s white Irish  neighbour Frank is a prime example, but scenes where Carol and her friends discuss boyfriends could be from Alan Warner’s smalltown Scotland in The Sopranos. 
Biscuit is central here, a kind-hearted, decent young man hustling for petty cash, but his friends play their part in this ensemble.  Occasional lapses where authorial voice seems to observe things in a way the young, uneducated youth is unlikely to, are quickly overcome by the strengths of this novel.
I know at least one minor character here, Brenton, is central in a couple of other books, but the well-travelled, eccentric rasta mentor Jah Nelson deserves more chapters, and I think every reader will want to know how Biscuit gets on.  East of Acre Lane is the first Alex Wheatle novel I’ve read, it won’t be the last. 

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Post Everything – Luke Haines

Back in the 90s, the britpop wars saw every tabloid and their easily led readers arguing over who was best: Oasis or Blur.  Those who believed themselves cooler than that pointed out the ‘correct’ answer should be Pulp. The truly enlightened knew it was The Auteurs led by Luke Haines.
The story of The Auteurs and other things is told in Bad Vibes subtitled Britpop My Part In Its Downfall.  This is the sequel, covering 1997-2005 with the subtitle Outsider Rock’n’Roll, featuring the end of The Auteurs, the career of Black Box Recorder and solo projects.
As a songwriter Haines best work, of which there is plenty, resembles a southern blend of less pretentious, less narcissistic Jarvis Cocker meets wittier, more self-aware Mark E Smith in a Go-Betweens/70s glam pop tribute band with a thing for serial killers and terrorists.  No songwriter could have been more apt to create the soundtrack to a film of Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. As a writer he is waspish, knowingly misanthropic, bitchy without camp (he digresses at one point to explain the dangers of failed camp) yet occasionally tender or sympathetic.  He also talks to the late Biggie Smalls, and to a Talking Cat previously owned by Chris Blackwell, mostly as a device for self-deprecation and avoiding more disastrous than normal career choices.
Ah yes, disastrous career choices.  Naming a side-project Baader-Meinhof, calling your record company c**** in NME because he was disturbed by his A&R man’s dog, a National Theatre musical based on the life of Nicholas van Hoogstraten, etc. Tales told with relish by Haines who seems to realise his flirtation with success scares him and he sabotages it.  It’s a weird self-reflective schadenfreude.
That’s when record company incompetence doesn’t save him the trouble.  The recording of Black Box Recorder’s second album Facts of Life was funded by 4 different record companies providing money for demos. 
On one level Haines’ story is the typical midlist cycle of demos, promo gigs, poor support, being signed, dropped, re-signed, re-dropped ad nauseum.  On others its a gripping near car crash populated with vicious jibes at Haines’ alleged peers (a band from Manchester disparaged in Bad Vibes as The Rutles are here dismissed as Dumb and Dumber, Richard Ashcroft is deservedly slated, and Primal Scream… oh dear.)  Industry hangers on get the same treatment, and the only remorse is for innocent bystander “‘Philip’ from Rising Damp” who encounters a very drunk Haines in the street.

Funniest moments?  Haines and BBR compatriot John Moore getting drunk on absinthe before gatecrashing the Glenn Hoddle resignation Press conference, where Moore asked the question in everyone’s mind. “Glenn, are you thick?”
Or maybe:
my introduction to a man that all sentient beings could surely only ever think of as a nincompoop has been happily derailed.  I am wrong.  Out of the mists of the VIP area returns The Drummer Out of Supergrass. He has been successful in his quest, and walking behind him is the tiny, yet oddly puffed up figure of the extremely silly singer out of U2.  These situations never play out well.
There’s so much, much more of this.  The best prose encapsulation of Tony Blair, for instance, but read it yourselves. 
Luke Haines’ latest project is 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s was one of my albums of 2011.  Buy it, make him successful, more pissed off, and hopefully generate material for more volumes like Post Everything. 

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2012

I didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions as such, but I’ve been thinking about plans for this blog in coming months.

Firstly, I hope to post more frequently and in more depth.  I am pleased with several reviews already on here for their analysis and their readability, but I think I should and can improve on both those aspects.

As for what I post about, I have tentative plans for more music writing. Not album reviews as such, more personal, polemical or proselytical pieces. I know how much you like those.

I expect it to remain mostly books and related pieces though.  As usual trying to restore attention to neglected women authors of the past and present, particularly SF but never exclusively so.  In addition (and obviously overlapping at times) I want to read and discuss more writing by Authors of Colour or in translation.  I haven’t set a specific schedule as some reading challenges do, but amongst those I’m considering are NK Jemisin, Alex Wheatle, Minister Faust, Bernardine Evaristo, Joanna Sinisalo, Nalo Hopkinson, Tatyana Tolstaya and Ernest Hogan. Recommendations welcome as ever!

So far I haven’t seen announcements for quite so many *must buy immediately* titles in 2012 as last year, but it is early yet.  One I’ve just seen mentioned by the author on twitter is a second novel from Attica Locke whose debut Black Water Rising I loved a couple of years ago.  (Locke also fits that reading challenge.)  There is also a new Kim Stanley Robinson novel due, which is always great, and I’m really looking forward to Lucius Shepard’s Griaule collection too.

Other than that, watch this space.

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The Best Books of 2011

You know when you don’t think you’ve been keeping up to date, then you make a list? That was 2011. The year at least half a dozen of my favourite authors brought out new books I was desperate to read instantly. After a gap of over 20 years in one case, by the way, so that was a real thrill in itself.
It was, of course, a year when the whole women in SF thing blew up (again) and it seems that some men and even some women editors, bloggers and readers still don’t see a problem. My regular reader knows I’ve tried to point a few things out here and there and reviewed a few books I think you might like to know about here and at Sfmistressworks, but I noticed recently that my ideas for Christmas list was again uneven in its gender balance.
The point is that this year I have been looking back, filling in gaps where I had missed reading some of these women SF writers of the past. (Not just women, I spent chunks of 2011 reading or rereading the excellent but neglected short SF of Bob Shaw.) As a result this list might have omissions that surprise you, maybe I didn’t find time, or interest, to read the latest fan fave. Or maybe I did and it just wasn’t good enough.

So what was good enough?
15 Connemara A Little Gaelic Kingdom – Tim Robinson
Third of Robinson’s Connemara trilogy, a remarkable ‘deep map’ (to appropriate William Least-Heat Moon’s term for a work that delves into the social and historical geography alongside its physical detail.) In this volume Robinson intertwines folk tales, gossip and recorded data, taking from the Irish place names clues and guidance, to reveal for me the interdependence of the magical and the mundane in bringing life to a landscape.

14 The Islanders – Christopher Priest
In a way Priest does something similar to Robinson but with an entirely fictitious landscape. The Islanders is a little too aware of its own cleverness to succeed, but Priest is a writer whose failures entertain and frequently surpass lesser writers’ successes. A book perhaps to come back to.

13 Heart Of Iron – Ekaterina Sedia
Rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, Sedia’s alternate Russia where the Decembrists succeeded has many basic aspects that lift it above the herd. Not least is a proper awareness of the history she changes, so her steampunk trappings are rational not gimmicks.

12 Don’t Look Back – Laura Lippman
When she was a teen Eliza survived kidnapping by a serial killer, now 20 years later he writes to her from Death Row. A recurring theme in Lippman’s recent novels has been how we recall past trauma. Don’t Look Back examines not only Eliza and Walter’s versions, but also why they believe them, and why others believe them. Murder is rarely central to Lippman’s crime novels, in this case it is the nature of the punishment and the legacy of the crimes that she carefully examines.

11 City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
A debut novel set in a near future, unexplained Irish city, with its gangs and its lovers. SF fans may balk at Barry’s unwillingness to offer a global backstory, but his sketched city is the more real for its gaps.

10 A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
Another unexplained near future and past, cleverly revealed in a series of linked, overlapping or abutting vignettes, stories, scenes and character sketches.

9 Wind Angels & Other Stories – Leigh Kennedy

A mere 23 years or so after her last book, Kennedy is finally back in print with a varied selection of straight SF, dystopian fictions, fantasy and romance. Mostly understated, deceptively quiet, Kennedy frequently leaves her reader pondering the story, and always wanting more. Personal favourite? ‘Vulture Trucks’ is a fun Texan supernatural tale.

8 Mr. Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
In places Mr.Fox is perhaps the most charmingly romantic novel I read in 2011, the flirtation between Fox and Mary is so softly handled. The vignette structure means these are brief, which would often be frustrating, but between them are other equally effective scenes.
The writer whose fictional muse comes to life is not new, the way Oyeyemi exploits it is very good. Creativity, gender power relationships, and love are explored with wit in a thoughtful novel.

7 Regicide – Nicholas Royle
A slim, dark, brooding menace of true urban fiction reminiscent of M John Harrison’s 80s short fiction. Distorted streetscapes, apparently shifting rules that may actually obey a mysterious other logic and a gripping realist telling of a noir fantasy as his readers have come to expect from Royle. Of the three I’ve read to date his best so far.

6 The Bible Repairman & Other Stories – Tim Powers
Several intriguing, atmospheric tales of mostly Californian Urban Fantasy by the absolute master of that subgenre. And the highlight of this collection, a novella ‘A Time To Cast Away Stones’ which follows Edward Trelawny to Greece after the events of The Stress Of Her Regard. This year I read my fifth Trelawny biography, and as you’d expect, I cast a critical eye on Powers’ version, but his impeccable research won through, and his rich imaginations granted a remarkable man a new light in fantasy.

5 The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall
Reviewed here the third short story collection in this list is a stylistic tour de force and an emotional epic. Geographically varied but often emphatically northern, Hall’s work continues to impress.

4 Dark Tangos – Lewis Shiner

Amongst other things Shiner’s latest novel made me want to dance. In 200 pages he tells us all about Tango, about the death squads in 1970s Argentina, about the reconstruction of recent years and ties in a genuine, moving romance, meditation on the sins of our fathers (a recurrent Shiner theme), and post-breakup reconstruction. Throw in evocative depictions of Tango halls and explicit, brutal torture scenes and you have a powerful, realistic romantic political thriller.

3 God’s War – Kameron Hurley
Strange Horizons’ Niall Harrison made a big thing about this earlier in the year. When I finally got a copy just before Christmas I discovered how right he was.
God’s War hits the ground running and barely pauses from there on in. Fantasy that looks like SF, an immersion into a perpetual war on a curious planet settled by islamic types some of whom have powers, some of whom have weaponry. It’s about gene piracy, bounty hunters, tech magic, and personal history. I’ve read little like it at all.

2 The Uncertain Places – Lisa Goldstein
Reviewed here I make no apology for reasserting my belief that Goldstein deserves as much acclaim as the likes of Crowley, Powers and Gaiman. Re-telling fairytales in fantasy is common, reminding us why we need fairytales less so, and doing that within a clever, charming and joyful story quite rare.

And finally, if you follow me on Twitter or talked to me this year, then no surprise…

1 Redwood and Wildfire – Andrea Hairston

An alternative history of the early twentieth century, of life in the backwoods of Georgia and the growing city of Chicago. Alternative because Hairston’s rich, passionate love story reveals the lives of black Americans in every detail, from the opening scene lynching, to minstrel shows, pioneering black cinema, brothels and exploitative landlords, hoodoo and christianity.
I read Redwood & Wildfire three times in 9 months, each time seeing more in the story to, not bring it more to life so much as enhance the world beyond its pages. The obscure historical references that, once I learned some were true, gave the whole an air of realism on the one hand that supported the gentle, occasionally angry, magic.
On each read I shared the anger, fear, grief, laughter, love and loss that saturates this novel until they were my feelings.
Redwood & Wildfire incorporated so much so easily, in vivid depiction of The World’s Fair (visited by time travel), in powerfully demonstrating the ways black society works and fails alike, in beautifully handled episodes of non-conforming sexuality (not least the eponymous lovers, but also gay and seemingly polygamous characters) and in so much more, that it was unchallenged as the best book of 2011 and perhaps one of the very best of the century so far.

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Oh, Whistle…

Two Ghost Stories by M.R.James performed by R.M.Lloyd Parry.
In an essay on ghost stories in 1931 M.R.James stresses that

Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better.  The other essential is that our ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.

On the stage of Beetham’s cosy intimate Heron Theatre a semblance of a Cambridge don’s room is set.  Bookcase, with bust, stand with topcoat, smoking chair, side-table with candles, papers, a decanter.  Our host, RM Lloyd Parry ambles on, lights his candles and sits, pouring himself a whisky.  His bearing is that avuncular yet detached manner we are accustomed to associate with the professor.  His opening lines are conversational, light, warm as he talks of the old houses of Suffolk and gradually comes around to a tale attached to one such hall.  Thus the audience is drawn in, by James’ prose of course, but also by Parry-as-James’ careful portrayal. A pause here, a slight stammer there, a moment’s thought before continuing, all lead into a feeling of intimacy: this is a fireside tale between acquaintances of places and people known to us, and we are enthralled.
Lit only by his candles Parry nuances his telling, offering laughter, reason and period details until the revelation of ghastly horror that we know is coming but cannot anticipate.
The Ash Tree is a tale of witchcraft, vengeance and history.  The more famous Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad a cautionary tale of scepticism, meddling and nocturnal visitation.
In each case Parry, with little gestures, moving to accentuate the flickering candle shadows, and modulating his voice accordingly, increased the atmosphere of unease, uncertainty, and finally terror to his dreadful climax.
A solo show is always a great achievement, but Parry in this instance produces a tour de force to match his material.  He tours this, and other James tales, around the country, and DVDs of other shows can be found at his website.  I’ll save watching The Mezzotint for a night when I’m sure the wind won’t rattle the windows.

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The Best Albums of 2011

For a while I had the feeling that 2011 was going to be a poor year for new music, then a late rush made it better all of a sudden.
So, from a longlist of 20+ here’s the top 12.
12 Wild Flag – Wild Flag
A riot grrl supergroup ? Yes please. Girl group psychedelia with half-familiar classic rock riffs? Definitely.
11 Tamikrest – Toumastin
Heirs to Tinariwen they may be but I preferred the younger band’s 2011 album for its driving energy and tone. 
10 St.Vincent – Strange Mercy
Eventually 2011 offered up a string of superficially similar albums by distinctive, eclectic gorgeous-voiced solo females. Kate Bush, Zola Jesus, Lykke Li all came close, but it was St.Vincent’s delicate pop moments amongst indie quirks that won me over.
9 Luke Haines – 9 1/2  Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s
Does exactly what it says on the tin. Haines encompasses the best of Mark E Smith and Jarvis Cocker thus surpassing both.  His ex-bandmate Sarah Nixey also released an album this year but she couldn’t match this gem.
8 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
PJ’s albums always initially disappoint because I still want that raw rage of Dry and Sheela-na-gig, but though this is subtler, and more emotionally varied, it grows and may at last match her early impact.
7 Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter -Marble Son
I’ve long been a fan of Sykes voice, on Marble Son she gave it a workout to match Phil Wandscher’s epic psych guitar wigouts.  Loud, layered, nuanced, hypnotic rock.
6 JuJu – In Trance
Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara, one of the tightest, grooviest bands I’ve ever seen live, finally get it on record.  African riffs delta blues-style, haunting layers of melody, extended workouts. Trance is the right word.
5 The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
What I like most about The King Is Dead is not that it sounds like classic REM, as lazy commentators have it, but that it sounds like so much more. The Jayhawks, Neil Young, Dylan, Josh Ritter for a second or two. 
4 Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
Long, dark, brooding brutal & romantic.  The most intense, personal, guilt-stained, but beautiful album you’ll hear in a long time.
3 King’s Daughters And Sons – If Not Then When
The best new discovery of 2011 by a mile.  Another alt-rock supergroup, this one based around Rodan, Slint, Rachel’s etc, guaranteeing sweeping post-rock classicism, but stunning with amazing harmonies and vocal leads. It came out on ChemikalUnderground so maybe no surprise?
2 The Walkabouts – Travels in the Dustland
Six years away, Seattle’s finest drifted back into town on cinematic keyboards, spacious drums, warmly peripatetic  guitars, some of the most truly relevant arrangements in americana, and as ever the rich voices of Chris and Carla. Nominally a concept album, the true concept seems to have grown with this band for over 25 years now.
1 The Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
“Spread your legs insert your alibi” Greg Dulli came back again with 11 big soul rockers. Never afraid of the darkest corners, Dulli comes clean “a kiss, a curse, the law.” and smoulders throughout, never quite a conflagration, dangerously never quite fading out. 

So there you have it, music to rock to, dance to, cry to, travel to, and fuck to.  2011. 

Honourable mentions not already noted Fatoumata Diawara, Sonny Rollins, Bella Hardy, Mary Hampton, Saint Jude, BCC, The Civil Wars, Mastodon, Fleet Foxes, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Cats Eyes.
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The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall

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Many novelists use short fiction as a venue for experimentation in genre, style or voice.  From Sarah Hall whose four novels to date each take a different approach already what can we expect?  Her Romantic-tinged debut Haweswater is very different to the brutal SF of The Carhullan Army, whilst the four strands of How To Paint A Dead Man are notable for the distinctive voices Hall brings to each character through careful choice of style and language.
The seven stories collected in The Beautiful Indifference unsurprisingly follow the trend of the novels in their stylistic variety. 
Be aware however that this is a book you are likely to put down after 40 pages. Not because you are not enjoying it but simply that the opening story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ will force a pause, a breath taking, a thought collecting, lingering pause.  The narrator of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ is a teenage girl, discussing mostly her developing friendship with another teenage girl, but Manda Slessor is a hard girl, from a proud, intense traveller family.  There is violence brewing in every line of this story, a taut, visceral description that when it breaks, breaks where you hadn’t expected, though it is entirely logical that was the point. 
At the other end of the book is ‘Vuotjärvi’ with its unsupressed sexuality, and haunting mystery. It is a superbly crafted story, the nearest this collection comes, perhaps, to unspoken Fantastika in the entwining of landscape, lust and inexplicable loss.
If the eroticism of ‘Vuotjärvi’ and the violence of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ are explicit, each also bears an undercurrent of the other too.  And throughout these stories there is a continual shifting allegiance between concealed violence and concealed eroticism.  The Northern stories in particular are acutely aware and proud of this carnality.
‘The Agency’ positively revels in it, all the way to its delicately bypassed climax.  Housewife Hannah joins the titular Agency for a new experience, and we follow her through the initial interview. 

I took another sip, aware that for all his deference, I was being gently marshalled.  There was something deliberately neutral about the meeting, but the young man standing over me was passively steering things.

That is how Hall operates, whatever her subject, she subtly directs the reader to her point.  Amidst the evocative landscapes of Finland or the rich Cumbrian dialect she weaves a sinuous plotline to draw us as the world she describes holds us.  Cleverly the sequencing of the collection does the same, leading through relationships from the assertive egalitarian Slessors self-confident physicality to the wistful internal sensualisation of the woman watching her lover swim away.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the stories move progressively from solid, unconventional comfortable relationships to formalised casual sex (‘The Beautiful Indifference’) to more normal yet less certain loves, or lost and unreplaced loves (‘Bees’) nor that this is largely countered by the ability to walk away evolving into the need to kill. The gothic ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ seems to address both strands directly until any action by its wounded narrator seems equally transgressive and redemptive.

Within all of this Sarah Hall writes a range of incredible, strong, rich women characters.  In the hills below Penrith Manda trades raw toughness for tempered compassion with Kathleen, but in her mother we see a typical Hall strong woman familiar from her early novels here allowed her full glory.  Hannah gains confidence, ironically, in her recognition and acceptance of manipulation. 
So it goes, the women telling these stories, or being told about, each has a cusp, a point of recognition of their abilities and opportunities.  They all become stronger.  Even the woman of ‘Bees,’ a second-person singular story of a new life post-breakup, develops an affinity with her new environment that marks a renewal.  The exception, perhaps, is my least favourite story here.’The Nightlong River’ tells of a woman making a mink cape for a dying friend.  For all its detail, and poignancy, it remains vague in historical setting, relationship and meaning. 
The Beautiful Indifference is a short, but intense collection.  The 7 stories, though very different, blend well, whilst each showcasing Hall’s remarkable facility with language and her range of means of achieving similar effect: the correlations of landscapes and peoples. 

The Beautiful Indifference is published by Faber & Faber price £12.99

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