Review: The Gradual (2016) by Christopher Priest

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The Gradual is a book with some good ideas that doesn’t really live up to its potential. It also has one of the best hooks I’ve read this year – with the first chapter teasing a time travel element to the story that doesn’t really surface until halfway through the book.

I’m a sucker for fantasy/science fiction, and so the anticipation of the time travel twist – and exactly how it would work in Christopher Priest’s world –  is part of what fuelled me through the first half of the book. So it kinda surprised me when the time travel element of the book ended up being dull and unsatisfying. It slowed the pace of the novel down to a crawl (ironic?), and hindered the second half of the book from resolving the events of the first half very well.

In fact, the lacklustre second half just made me realise how strong the first half of the novel really was. For me, this was the first time that the introduction of a fantastical element has been a novel’s turning point for the worse rather than the better.

The Gradual focuses on the life of Alesandro Sussken, a famed musician who lives in the fictional country of Glaund. Throughout his musical career he finds himself repeatedly drawn to a set of islands that reside off the coast of Glaund that are forbidden to residents of his country. However, one day, a life changing opportunity comes along and Sussken is given the chance to take part in a musical tour of the islands.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that though – tons of different story threads and an impressive number of characters. This description only skims the surface of the novel’s first half, but trust me when I say it’s engaging. Things move at a slow pace in the first half (not quite as slow as the second), but Priest manages to keep things interesting. He builds up a series of mysteries that keep the reader engaged – craving to find out where they’ll lead to. By jumping between the different mysteries regularly, Priest keeps the book engaging while not actually having to move along any of the storylines too much. It’s a style that works for the most part.

But again, the second half… It isn’t as awful as I might be making it out to be (and the final twenty or so pages are pretty moving), but Priest just seems to squander all the anticipation he builds up. More storylines are introduced, making the book feel overstuffed, and none of them really seem to go anywhere. Mysteries are stacked on top of mysteries, and in the end only a few of them are really resolved.

I’ve got nothing against ambiguity, but the way Priest uses it in The Gradual just rubs me up the wrong way. It seems like he leaves many of his storylines’ endings ambiguous because he knows that the solutions to his mysteries have no way of being half as interesting as the mysteries themselves.

There’s definitely a fantastic book in here, and it’s worth reading just for the parts where it really shines.

Review: Starboy (2016) by The Weeknd

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I hadn’t really listened to much of The Weeknd before this album – well, only ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ really. R&B music has never been my sort of thing (not that I have anything against it) and so apart from the aforementioned very poppy single, he hasn’t really been on my radar.

Though he really did grab me with the lead single from this album, ‘Starboy’. With the popping Daft Punk synths and undeniably badass lyrics (you can’t hate ‘I’m a motherfucking Starboy’), it really got stuck in my head. The next single, ‘False Alarm’, while not as solid was still pretty good (though I seem to be alone in this opinion) and the last one, ‘I Feel It Coming’, pretty much sealed the deal on my interest.

So where to start with this one? How about, ‘No pop album needs to be 18 songs long?’ Though Starboy has many problems, perhaps the biggest is its length. Like the Bastille album I reviewed earlier this year, this album has no reason to be as long as it is. In fact, I can only think of a few albums that need to be over an hour long (This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem for example), and Starboy is not one of them… Especially because it talks about the same subjects over and over. Every song is pretty much about the same thing (Abel moans about his fame, has sex with some woman, rinse and repeat) and the quality with which the songs explore this idea varies.

So, the highlights… ‘Reminder’ is a solid chilled-out number with some great lyrics (especially Abel talking about winning the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award with a song about cocaine. ‘A Lonely Night’ has some mega-cheesy lyrics, but the undeniable grooviness of the track makes it forgivable. ‘True Colors’ stands out through being one of the quietest songs on the album – and also one of the few ones that can be described as ‘kinda romantic’. Other highlights include ‘Secrets’, ‘Party Monster’ and the ‘Stargirl – Interlude’, which acts as a nice change up from Abel’s vocals.

The two Daft Punk collabs that bookend the album are far and away the best tracks. I’ve said what I like about ‘Starboy’ already, and ‘I Feel It Coming’ won me over by being one of the most dancey (and dare I say sexy?) tracks on the album, also managing to weave in some pretty good lyrics. It’s one of those songs that just makes you want to dance, even if you’re horrible at dancing like me.

So now the bad. And this is where the album’s length comes in again – if Starboy was only 11 tracks long, it would be much easier to put up with the weaker tracks. But it isn’t. As a result, it’s easy to get fatigued by all the sub-par songs before you even reach the halfway point of the album.

The first downright bad song on Starboy is ‘Rockin’’ which has some of the cringiest lyrics on the album. Take the chorus for example: ‘I just want your body next to me / Because it brings me so much ecstasy / We can just be rockin’’. Jeez. The instrumentation on the song is pretty fun, if uninspiring, but it doesn’t save the song from coming across as a flimsy attempt at The Weeknd trying to recreate the success of ‘Can’t Feel My Face’.

‘Love to Lay’ suffers from similar problems, ‘Nothing Without You’ is a bland and unconvincing love song and ‘All I Know’ feels unnecessarily long and dragged out. Another one of the album’s weakest tracks is ‘Ordinary Life’, where Abel, once again, moans about his fame. In addition to this, the cringy and unnecessary opening just seem to make the album’s more romantic songs (like ‘Die For You’) incredibly unconvincing: ‘Heaven in a mouth, got a hell of a tongue / I can feel her teeth when I drive on a bump.’ Despite this album having plenty of good songs, it has more bad ones.

If you want an easy going, mostly fun, album to listen to in the car or to stick on for a party, Starboy is a pretty solid choice. Its bright spots save it from being completely terrible, though you might be better off listening to the highlights rather than the whole thing.

Essential Songs: ‘Starboy’, ‘Reminder’, ‘I Feel It Coming’.

Review: This Census-Taker (2016) by China Miéville

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As I’ve noted before, I normally either love or hate a China Miéville book.  They either suck me up like few other authors’ books do, or I find them overstuffed and dull. This Census-Taker, Miéville’s new novella, falls somewhere in the middle (leaning more towards the love side). It doesn’t reach the heights of his greatest books (like The Scar and The City and the City) but it definitely isn’t a slog. In fact, if anything, I wish it was longer.

Focusing on a boy who lives with his parents on a remote hilltop, This Census-Taker tells a story of loss with a magical realism edge to it. The boy’s mother and father both have mysterious pasts and mysterious talents – his father, for example, is able to craft magical keys that do much more than open doors… But when a traumatic incident tears his home apart, the boy is forced to reach into the wider world for help.

It’s difficult to say too much about this book without giving too much of it away. Miéville is an author I normally associate with huge lengthy novels, and This Census-Taker is easily one of his shortest works (it is a novella, after all). It’s short enough that even describing the opening of the book feels like a spoiler… So I’ll keep things vague. Though the book is fantasy based, it is so on a smaller scale than most of Miéville’s stories. It’s packed with a bunch of weird ideas – such as a mysterious hole where the boy’s family throw their rubbish – enough to probably fill a novel.

There’s a lot of characters as well, but most of them don’t get a lot of page time – such as the titular census taker. This is something that works to the book’s advantage in some ways… Because of the short length, Miéville is able to keep things vague and mysterious. Just as we’re getting to know the world it’s snatched away from us, creating a need to savour the few details that we’re given. Because each idea and character is addressed fairly briefly, none of them stick around long enough to become tedious or dull. (In this sense it’s the complete opposite of Kraken.)

But… while this may be one of the novel’s strengths, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was its biggest weakness as well. The story feels like its only getting started when it draws to a close. Though I’m sure the author envisioned This Census-Taker as a novella, it certainly has an abrupt feel to it. It feels as though, I dunno, the author gets bored of the world before the reader does. Some parts of the novella feel well rounded and finished, but others do not. There’s just too many loose ends for my liking – too many things set up that don’t go anywhere.

But like I said, what’s here is solid – though perhaps not worth the price of admission. Maybe he wrote the story as a novella simply to ensure that the reader is left wanting more…? But then again, I was left wanting more with Perdido Street Station and that was over 800 pages long.

Another One of My Stories Has Been Published!

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Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about my writing, hasn’t it? I’ve been working on some stuff, don’t worry, but it’s just taking a long time to get right (plus, I have a full-time job now – funfunfun.)

Though I haven’t finished anything new in the past couple of months, I do have a have a new story out in the world! It’s called ‘What You Find’, and I’m pretty proud of it. It’s probably the shortest piece I’ve had published (just under a thousand words) but I think it packs a punch. It’s also a little bit on the experimental side.

One of the reasons I’m particularly happy to have this short story published is that I’ve had the idea for it for SO LONG. I’ve written so many versions of this story (I even published a really early version – to the extent that it’s pretty much unrecognisable – on this blog a couple of years ago). The story only really started to work a year ago in my creative writing class when I cut it down to its bare essentials. I cut out all of the slog and tried to make a story that’s short, sweet and weird.

If you’re interested in reading it, you should pick up a copy of the latest edition of the Artificium Journal (or #4, in case you’re reading this a couple months/years later…) You can either get it physically or digitally, depending on which you prefer!

 

 

Review: Pumarosa – EP (2016) by Pumarosa

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There are few releases from 2016 that I have loved more than Pumarosa’s debut EP. Though only made up of four tracks, it really packs a punch. I talked about how much I like the band a few weeks ago when I reviewed their show at The Louisiana in Bristol, but I feel like it’s worth talking about their first non-single release as well…

The EP doesn’t do much more than collect together all of the band’s current singles (plus a B-side), but the songs are good enough that it doesn’t really matter. ‘Priestess’ for example, the opener, is about as good as debut singles get. It’s a psychedelic-tinged jam that manages to go on for eight minutes without getting even the slightest bit boring. That’s mainly thanks to Isabel Munoz-Newsome’s vocals, which are just completely hypnotic. Her chanting delivery of the song’s chorus (‘Priestess, you dance, you dance, you dance’) is just unlike anything else. The instrumentation, as busy as it is at times, is also great – with the band swapping in and out instruments to keep things interesting.

Following up ‘Priestess’ is ‘Honey’. This one is a more straight-forward rock tune with a political edge, but still carries the band’s unique vibe. ‘Honey’ doesn’t really get going until it reaches its chorus, where Munoz-Newsome’s delivery really sells the track (‘Events comes and go / Like waves of a fever). If the vocals on the first track sounded like a chanting shaman, here they come across as haunting. The song overall carries a very melancholy vibe and acts as a strong contrast to the opener.

Despite its intense drumroll of an opening, ‘Cecile’ is a pretty laid back track. It feels really chilled and spaced out, with the instrumentation and vocals being pretty sparse. Other than Munoz-Newsome’s vocals, there isn’t much more to the track than a simple drumbeat and some sparse synth notes. Just like ‘Priestess’, the vocals really make this track (not that the instruments aren’t fantastic – because they are, especially the sax at the end). There’s no other way to describe her delivery on this track than just straight-up sexy. (On the line, ‘I wanna lay your ass’, especially). The song is about sex, I suppose.

The EP closes out with a demo track, ‘Sinking Heart’ – the B-side to ‘Honey’. While it’s definitely the weakest track on the album, it’s still fantastic. It has an even more mellow vibe than ‘Cecile’, and the instrumentation has a stripped back feel to it. The song works well as a closer, with it really winding the EP down.

Though Pumarosa only comes in at about 20 minutes, the band really packs a lot into that time. I’d lying if I said it didn’t make me incredibly excited for their debut album next year. Man, it’s gonna be good.

Essential Songs: ‘Priestess’, ‘Honey’, ‘Cecile’.

Review: No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy

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Cormac McCarthy… Man, does the guy know how to tell a story. I was pretty impressed with his bleak representation of the apocalypse in The Road, but I think No Country for Old Men might be even better. It’s similarly bleak and similarly difficult to read to begin with – who needs speech marks? – but once you get into it, it’s difficult to get out.

At its core, the plot of No Country for Old Men is pretty simple; Llewelyn Moss, a mostly normal guy, decides to take some money that belongs to some very dangerous people, and, as a result, gets an incredibly ruthless murderer on his tail. A game of cat and Moss (ha!) plays out across the country while Ed Bell, a sheriff close to retirement, tries to find Llewelyn before anyone else does.

McCarthy rarely strays from the cat and mouse plot, and the novel is mainly impressive due to how well he tells it. No Country for Old Men demonstrates that a great story doesn’t need a big complicated plot, and in fact a simple one told well is frequently more powerful. The characters are fleshed out through small moments, and McCarthy avoids exposition whenever necessary.

For example, Chigurh, the man hunting down Llewelyn, has no past as far as the novel is concerned. McCarthy doesn’t try to explain the monster he’s created by giving him a traumatic backstory or anything – he’s just a ruthless killer. While this may suggest that he’s a pretty two-dimensional character, he really isn’t… Chigurh remains a mystery throughout the novel, following his own codes – sometimes flipping a coin to decide whether he should kill someone or not – but that’s what makes him so compelling. The same with Llewelyn. Why he becomes so committed to getting away with the money is left up to the reader. McCarthy understands that some things we do, and some of the ways we act, can’t really be explained. Too many stories are afraid to leave the reader in the dark a little bit.

And as the characters feel real, so does the way that the plot plays out. I won’t spoil anything, but No Country for Old Men is fantastic in the way that it just shuns narrative conventions. It doesn’t really have a three-act structure as such, and at times there’s not really a clear protagonist. These characters feel like real people reacting to things in the same way that real people would, and as a result it rarely feels like the author is manipulating them to create a particular situation or moment. Everything plays out realistically and still manages to remain interesting.

A common complaint about McCarthy is his minimalistic writing style, and I’ll admit that I had some trouble getting along with it at the beginning. With there being no speech marks, it was difficult to tell when someone was speaking at times… though only at first. After a few pages the story quickly sucked me in, and I found the lack of speech marks did nothing more than break down the barrier between the reader and the story. They’re just another signifier that you’re reading a book, and by McCarthy ditching them, it makes it easier to really be consumed by the story.

No Country for Old Men is just one of those books that reaffirms why I love novels so much. It’s the sort of book that can be enjoyed on two levels. You can just read it and enjoy it for the terrific story, or, if you want to, you can dig deeply into the characters and explore the novel’s themes. It’s both incredibly simplistic and incredibly complicated at the same time. And unlike most clever books (like a few of the ones I’ve reviewed recently) it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be clever – it doesn’t rub its cleverness in the reader’s face. It just reads as being effortlessly damn good.

Review: Catfish & The Bottlemen at Plymouth Pavilions (7/11/2016)

CATFISH + THE BOTTLEMEN by Jill Furmanovsky April 2016
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I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of Catfish & The Bottlemen. I’ve tried to get into them – mainly because I know loads of people that love them – but I just find them a bit bland and dull. To put it bluntly, all their songs sound the same, and the sound they share isn’t one I really like that much. It’s all just dreary and moany. They have a few songs I kinda like – ‘Homesick’, ‘Kathleen’, ‘Glasgow’ – but none of them wow me. The most positive attitude I can really have towards a Catfish song is ‘I suppose it’s okay.’

So why the hell am I reviewing one of their gigs? Mainly because they were playing in town. And despite the fact that I’m not the hugest fan, seeing a big band at a big venue is always going to be a fun experience. Even though I was one of the few people who didn’t know every word to every song – I’d say the lead singer handed at least 25% of the gig over to the audience – I still had a fun time.

I saw Bastille at the same venue a couple of weeks ago (even though my review of their latest album wasn’t overly positive) and I thought they were fun too. I’m not saying that the Catfish gig came close to being as good as Pumarosa (who I saw a few weeks ago), but it was kinda like dumb fun. Catfish & The Bottlemen songs often have cheesy choruses that you want to sing along to, especially in a live environment. (‘Oxygen is overrated’ – I mean, come on?) And the songs I did kind of like already sounded even better live. The band even opened with two of my ‘favourites’, ‘Homesick’ and ‘Kathleen’.

Though there were a lot of dreary and dull songs in the middle of the set, some I didn’t care for before did sound pretty good live. The closers to their two albums for example, ‘Tyrants’ and ‘Outside’ have a great climactic feel to them that sounds massive live. (Meanwhile both studio versions of these songs annoy the hell out of me with how they abruptly cut out…)

So while I wouldn’t call myself a convert to the Catfish fanbase, I see the appeal of them a little bit more. I can kind of understand why people love their songs so much – seriously, the crowd were so loud – after hearing them played live. Though to me Catfish are still a pretty average band, and unless they dramatically change up their sound, I don’t think my opinion will ever change. But live – they’re all right.