Review: Blossoms (2016) by Blossoms

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It’s pretty hard to dislike Blossoms’s debut album. Apart from a few duds, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall solid songs – almost all of them could be singles (and, from a brief glance at the band’s Wikipedia page, eight out of twelve of the album’s tracks are). They’re the sort of songs you can put on a party playlist with the safe knowledge that no one’s going to ask you to skip them.

But I suppose the main problem I have with Blossoms is that, I guess, it’s a little bit too safe. The band don’t really do anything you haven’t heard before with any of these tracks. A lot of their songs harken back to older bands – they say Oasis and The Stone Roses are their biggest influences – and so there’s not really much that feels challenging about this album. With this album they’ve simply tried to create a collection of catchy pop songs – and that’s something they’ve done really well.

The album kicks off with its best song, ‘Charlemagne’. The song doesn’t waste any time getting started, and just hits you immediately; it’s just the sort of song you want to dance to. Like most great songs, it’s got a great bass riff and the lyrics are pretty catchy: ‘My eyes tried, hide, cried, died’. It’s also pretty concise, finishing before it goes on for too long, making it easy to listen to several times – and a perfect fit for radio.

The three songs that follow are, if not quite as solid as the opener, still great songs. ‘At Most a Kiss’ continues the fast/short/catchy vibe of ‘Charlemagne’, while ‘Getaway’ and ‘Honey Sweet’ slow the pace down a little bit. The synth in the latter track is used to create a warm and gentle vibe, and it’s another clear stand-out on the album for me. One of my other favourite songs on Blossoms – one of the few that isn’t a single – is ‘Smashed Pianos’. The twanginess of the instruments in the second half of the song creates a great off-kilter/wonky vibe that generates the image of a smashed piano pretty well.

Many of the other songs on the album are strong – ‘Texia’, ‘Blown Rose’, ‘Deep Grass’ – but like I said, there are a few duds. ‘Cut Me and I’ll Bleed’ doesn’t really do much for me – it’s not awful, just kind of eh – and ‘Onto Her Bed’ and ‘My Favourite Room’ definitely feel like filler tracks. ‘Onto Her Bed’ in particular feels like it’s just trying to fill up the album’s runtime, kind of just meandering for a few minutes before abruptly fading out. Its lyrics are pretty cheesy as well: ‘My tears down the windy alley drain’.

Like I said, it’s pretty hard to dislike this album. Like many debut albums, it feels like the band is simply trying to collect all their best songs into one place – so it’ll be interesting to see where they go with their next one. Will they deliver another collection of singles or instead try to go for something more cohesive?

Key Songs: ‘Charlemagne’, ‘Honey Sweet’, ‘Smashed Pianos’.

Review: Ways to Disappear (2016) by Idra Novey

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Ways to Disappear has a lot going for it from my perspective: it’s got a good story, it’s characters are complex, it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome and it’s pretty weird. Though I wouldn’t call it a favourite novel, it almost feels like someone wrote it specifically for me, it ticks so many boxes. Idra Novey understands what a good novel needs, and she demonstrates this knowledge incredibly well with Ways to Disappear.

The story kicks off when Beatriz Yagoda, a celebrated Brazilian author, goes missing after climbing up into a tree. When her American translator, and sort-of-friend, finds out, she travels to Brazil to help locate Beatriz with the help of her son and daughter. The three of them soon discover the reason for the author’s disappearance: a gigantic gambling debt. In her absence, Beatriz’s creditors push down on those hunting her, making finding her all the more paramount.

One of the aspects of Ways to Disappear that impressed me most – as odd as it may sound – is the chapter lengths. Although there are many long and bloated novels out there that I adore, this one demonstrated to me the importance of keeping things brief. Few chapters go on longer than two pages, which makes it an incredibly addictive read, helping feed that ‘one more chapter’ feeling. Why not read one more chapter when it’ll only take you a couple of minutes? In many of my old novel attempts, I focused really hard on making sure the chapters reached a certain number of words. Ways to Disappear showed me that short chapters can be just as powerful as long ones, and, in most cases, more powerful.

In other aspects of the novel, brevity is also key. Idra Novey creates a fully developed story without padding it out, and pieces together believable characters through giving us a few key details about each of them. On top of this, there’s also a sense of weirdness – that almost makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut – that stops the book from seeming too by the numbers. For aspiring writers, Ways to Disappear is a solid modern novel to study.

However, despite my admiration for this novel, I don’t think I can describe it as being anything more than ‘great’. It does its job well, it entertained me while I read it, but it’s not really good enough to be called a classic or anything; I don’t know how well I’ll remember it in a couple of years. But don’t let that detract from the fact that this is a good book. It tells an interesting story in an interesting way, and that something that too many novels simply fail to do.

Review: Boy King (2016) by Wild Beasts

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From Limbo, Panto to Present Tense, there’s been a really clear progression in Wild Beasts’ work. Since the school boyish style of their debut – where cheesy chips may have been sung of – each subsequent album has been less brash and more introspective. 2014’s Present Tense was filled with beautiful love songs, such as ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ and ‘Mecca’, with album closer ‘Palace’ feeling almost like a perfect end point to the four-album story their discography told.

So it’s best to see Boy King as something new. Rather than simply making Present Tense 2, the band have almost hit the reset button, returning to the loudness and in-your-faceness of their earlier days. Of course, the album definitely isn’t Limbo, Panto 2 either; there is more emphasis on electronic, the lyrics are simpler – think ‘Tough Guy’ rather than ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ – and it is definitely their most accessible album rather than their least accessible one.

But both albums are obsessed with the same thing: sex. Boy King opens with ‘Big Cat’, where themes of sexual dominance show clearly through the song’s chorus – ‘Big Cat top of the food chain’ – and the song generally sets the tone for the rest of the album. As a whole, Boy King reads as a statement from Wild Beasts saying that they’re done being ‘touchy feely’… They just want to fuck.

Though is the album any good? In my opinion, yes. While I don’t think I could ever love any song on this album as much as say, ‘Hooting & Howling’, there aren’t any truly bad songs on Boy King. From beginning to end, it’s just relentless and menacing. In dialling their masculinity up to 11, the band have produced some explosive songs – the sort that could easily fit into any party playlist. It’s easy to see Boy King as them attempting to appeal to a wider audience – I don’t think Radio 1 would ever play a song called ‘She Purred, While I Grrred’ – but even if this is so, at least it has led to them producing something fresh.

In terms of the ultra-masculine persona the band sport through most of the album, ‘Tough Guy’ demonstrates it best. Though the lyrics mostly sound nothing like classic Wild Beasts, ‘Now I’m all fucked up and I can’t stand up / So I better suck it up like a tough guy would’, there’s just something about the song that makes me want to bash my head. ‘2BU’ is another highlight, with Tom Fleming discussing his desire to steal the life of another. Things get increasingly creepy as it progresses, and the moaning synths compliment the dark lyrics well: ‘I want your face, I want your skin / I want your name, I want to live’.

But even though I enjoyed these songs greatly, the best parts of the album are still the fleeting moments when the band show their vulnerable side. While ‘Celestial Creatures’ is mostly a loud and roaring song, there is an underlying vulnerability present throughout it. And, in the last minute, the heavily layered song is stripped down and a piano is introduced, while Thorpe almost whimpers the song’s lyrics: ‘These are blessed times that we’re living in / Down here on Earth all is forgiven’. Album closer, ‘Dreamliner’, is great for similar reasons. After nine songs of almost constant sexual lust, we are given another peek under the masculine persona. It’s a beautiful song, and one that wouldn’t have felt out of place on the band’s last album, Present Tense.

Boy King may be Wild Beasts’ weakest album, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great. I respect the band for trying something new, even at the risk of alienating old fans. And if you haven’t listened to them before, then this might be a good place to start.

Key Songs: ‘Tough Guy’, ‘Celestial Creatures’, ‘Dreamliner’.

Twists

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I have a love/hate relationship with twists. When they work, they really work, but when they fail, most of the time they fail spectacularly… Often putting me off that novel/short story/movie completely. When you put a twist in your story you’re taking a gamble, and if you don’t do it right you could lose the reader completely. So here are some tips on what to do and what not to with regards to twists. Obviously, as with all writing rules, there are always exceptions to these rules – and besides, they only reflect my own personal opinion. Though if you want me to buy your next novel, it’d probably be wise to give them a read…

Don’t make a big deal out of it: To put it simply, don’t keep foreshadowing your twist to the audience. Don’t keep winking at them and nudging them in the ribs, being like, ‘Oh man, when this twist comes, you’re gonna love it…’ They probably won’t. I’ve seen a fair few novels try to do this, and it rarely works. They build up to a big moment, the big moment doesn’t deliver and the whole novel deflates like a sad balloon. Twists should be surprises, so what’s the point of telling the reader that something big is coming up?

If it’s important, make sure it’s big enough: If your novel revolves around one twist, then make sure it’s a big one; if you spend page after page building up to a big reveal, make sure it’s going to knock the reader’s socks off. So many novels are guilty of having underwhelming twists, my favourite example being The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. There’s one moment in the novel – one reveal – that I waited for so eagerly, that the author built up so perfectly… But the book simply didn’t deliver. The author’s answer to the novel’s big question was incredibly lazy, and it just ended up ruining the whole thing. For an example of a good twist, read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Yes, yes, you probably already know what the twist is, but doesn’t that just show how memorable and iconic it is?

Twists and short stories go perfectly together: They really do. The stakes are lower in a short story in every sense, which makes them the perfect environment to experiment with twists. If nobody likes the twist in your short story, then who cares? At least you (probably) didn’t spend years on it like you would with a novel. With short stories you can afford to take risks and do things you’re too afraid to do in a novel.

Small twists are good too: Up to this point, I’ve really only talked about the big type of twist, the one that often dominates a novel/short story/film and defines it – think From Dusk Till Dawn. However, pretty much any story that’s worth reading is made of tons of small twists, with the frequency of them ramping up towards the end. It’s just how storytelling works – there has to be change. These small twists, I think, are even more important than the big ones. If you just focus on one big moment in your novel – the god-twist – then you’re going to ignore the rest of it. Sure, your novel might hinge on one five-thousand-word scene – where it is revealed that the protagonist was a turnip all along – but what about the other eighty thousand or so words that surround it? They need to be interesting too.

It has to be believable: If you’re going to put a twist in your story, make sure it’s believable… At least to a certain extent. The weirder and less-grounded your story is, the more you can get away with a crazy twist – hello again Fight Club – but if your novel is sensible and no-nonsense, you can’t really introduce an alien invasion halfway through. Though there are obvious exceptions to this rule – hello again From Dusk Till Dawn – and it really depends on what you want your story to be. Ultimately, just do what you think is right; tell your story the way you think it needs to be told. At the end of the day, it’s best to trust your gut over some blogger on the internet.

 

Review: The Fair Fight (2014) by Anna Freeman

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I’ve read a fair few novels set during the eighteenth century – Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, the works of Jane Austen – but The Fair Fight is the first one that wasn’t actually published during that period as well. And strangely, because of that, it feels a lot more realistic. Anna Freeman isn’t trapped by the same conventions of respectability as those authors, and because of this she is able to create a grittier and more realistic representation of eighteenth-century England.

The novel starts off in a brothel, where its main protagonist Ruth is born. She is described by others as looking grotesque, and because of this she is unable to follow in her sister’s footsteps in becoming a prostitute. Ruth spends her time taking care of the brothel’s residents, until one day she catches the attention of the wealthy Mr Dryer, who becomes determined to turn her into an accomplished boxer – or a pugilist. She soon finds herself fighting in the backs of pubs and in fields for her new master, with each match being more dangerous than the last.

It’s the sort of topic that an eighteenth-century author wouldn’t have dreamed of touching – and one that contemporary readers probably wouldn’t have cared about. Instead it was stuff like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – I can’t think of a novel that I despise more – that really caught the public’s imagination. And now things have swapped. The Fair Fight’s synopsis is something I couldn’t help but get excited about, and everyone I’ve told about it has been equally interested. Nineteenth-century female boxers – it’s just the sort of idea you can’t help but want to read about.

The novel juggles three different protagonists, but its Ruth who gets the most attention. Her story is gritty and brutal – Freeman even litters in a few swear words from the period – and is set in a world that I’ve never read about before. I also found her exciting in the way that she differs from other female leads from this era, using violence to get herself out of situations. Charlotte, the other major protagonist, is also great, though offers a more conventional perspective on the period, being from a wealthier middle-class background. However, Freeman uses the contrast between these two characters to the novel’s advantage. Both of them are trapped by the same man in different ways. Though one is poor and one is wealthy, they are both equally unhappy with their situations.

However, The Fair Fight’s third protagonist, George, does feel pretty expendable throughout the majority of the book. He doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose other than acting as an initial link between Ruth and Charlotte, and seems to get shunted to the side in the novel’s second half. With the other storylines examining women who are trapped by the men around them, George’s story can’t help but feel just a little irrelevant. I can understand why Freeman included him in the novel, but part of me feels that it would’ve been stronger without him.

If you think a novel about an eighteenth century female boxer sounds interesting, then get this book. The Fair Fight delivers on the excitement its premise promises, while also giving the reader so much more.

Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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The Road is my first encounter with Cormac McCarthy – I’ve watched the film adaption of No Country for Old Men, but that doesn’t really count – and I must say that I’m impressed. I’ve read a lot of novels, but none of them have been quite like The Road. Is it even right to call it a novel? In all honesty, it’s more like a feverish, apocalyptic nightmare – and I mean that in the most positive way possible.

The novel feels both personal and impersonal at the same time. We spend a lot of time with the two main characters, a man and his son, as they walk along the wasteland that was once America, listening to their intimate conversations and watching as they struggle to survive. Even the novel’s structure supports this closeness: the fact that it refuses to follow a natural beginning, middle and end structure (for the most part) makes it feel as though we’re just sticking around with them for a chunk of their lives. The novel is littered throughout with small vignettes, where the two of them do something fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of the ‘plot’, like the boy trying cola for the first time. They aren’t big moments, but help make the characters feel incredibly human.

And yet… there is also a sense of anonymity to the characters, demonstrated most clearly by the fact that the two protagonists don’t receive any names beyond ‘man’ and ‘boy’. While at first I found this to be a strange move on the author’s part, the further I got into the book the more I understood why he’d done it. It creates the sense that this man and his son – as well as the other unnamed characters in the novel – could be anyone. They could be the reader and his son. It also makes them feel insignificant. Despite the many hardships these characters face, the amount of times they escape death, in the world that McCarthy has painted, they are nothing spectacular; many other people live similar lives. The man and the boy are not special – they’re just people.

To me, this felt pretty refreshing. I’ve read a lot of novels with post-apocalyptic settings, and they always attempt to make everything seem – apologies for using this word – ‘epic’. The Hunger Games and The Stand, for example, both boil down to a traditional battle between good and evil. And in addition to this, both feature protagonists that almost come across as ‘the chosen ones’, with it being up to them to defeat the evil forces that threaten the good guys.

Not in The Road. While there are definitely ‘bad guys’ – the main characters even refer to them as such – they are also victims. They have been driven to act detestably by the events that precede the novel, just like the man, at times, does things that the reader might disagree with. The stakes are also low compared to The Hunger Games and The Stand. The protagonists are not on a quest to save the world, to return it to its former glory, no. In this world that’s impossible. The two of them are simply trying to survive, and because of that, The Road is easily one of the most realistic and powerful novels with a post-apocalyptic setting that I’ve read.

Novel to Film

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I recently read James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity – which I can only describe as an incredibly fine novel. It’s one of those books that you have to read in one sitting, with it moving at a barrelling pace, not offering the reader one second of breathing time. For a crime novel, its plot is refreshingly simple – focusing on a single incident, the events leading up to it and the consequences following it. Like many of the best books out there, it doesn’t bother with filler.

Which makes it all the more baffling that more people haven’t read it. Double Indemnity seems to be another one of those books that suffered from being turned into a film – with its adaption almost overwriting the novel’s identity completely. Admittedly, I watched the film way before I read the book, but the latter stuck in my mind significantly more. The fact that the adaption comes up first when you Google ‘Double Indemnity’ just seems like a bit of a crime.

But this seems to be true with pretty much every book that’s been adapted into a successful film. There are so many fantastic novels out there that people don’t bother to read – or even know exist – simply because they’ve been made into films (heck, a friend of mine once jokingly said that all copies of a book should be destroyed as soon as an adaption is made – a horrible thought). L.A. Confidential, Stardust, The Silence of the Lambs are all examples of this. I’m sure that everyone I know has watched at least one of these films, but I don’t think I can name one that has read any of the books that inspired them. And Stardust is only 200 pages long. 200 pages. Are people’s attention spans really that poor these days? Because you can’t look on your phone when reading a book – while you can when watching a movie – does that make novels not worth bothering with?

And don’t get me wrong – I love films. I understand that, as a medium, it has plenty of advantages over novels, and they can do many things that books cannot. But the film industry isn’t exactly suffering at the moment, is it? It wouldn’t be an over-statement to say that almost every conversation I have with a friend leads to talk of a film even if it’s in the most slightest of ways. But hardly anyone I know ever seems to want to talk about books. I can say, ‘What have you been watching lately?’ and they’ll easily rattle off a list of films and TV shows, but if I ask what they’ve been reading the answer will almost certainly be nothing.

Perhaps some people see novels as snobbish compared to films these days, but even this argument that doesn’t make any sense. Books were a luxury two-hundred years ago, sure, but these days they cost almost nothing (and if you have an e-reader some classics do cost nothing). It’s probably cheaper to get hold of a good book than it is a good film. I think, in the end, the reason people watch the film adaption over the novel is simply because it’s easier – it’s less effort. A book is a commitment – it might take you a few weeks to finish – but a film will only last you a few hours. But just because something’s easier doesn’t mean it’s better. As I have frequently found, reading a novel is often more rewarding than watching a film. I just wish more people I know would give it a go.

 

[Just a quick note to say that updates should be more regular now that I’m pretty much finished with university. Hoorah!]