Elizabeth Gaskell – Ruth

This is my first time reading an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, though I have read her biography of Charlotte Brontë (which, to be fair, is presented a lot like a novel). Having read so many of the Victorian literature greats, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to her.

Ruth in some ways is a very typical Victorian novel, and in other ways a very untypical one. For the most part, Ruth is a virtuous and spotless heroine – always acting respectably and doing what is expected of her. In this sense, she can be connected to many of the stereotypical heroines from this period – like, groan, Pamela – however Gaskell marks her as unique through one mistake she makes early on in the novel.

As a poor sweatshop employee, Ruth, by chance, crosses paths with the wealthy aristocrat Henry Bellingham. Still young, only fifteen, she is wooed by him and persuaded to run away with him to Wales. Bellingham’s pleasant exterior soon fades away, and Ruth ends up being abandoned while pregnant with his child. This event – this one mistake that Ruth makes – hangs over her for the rest of the novel, and proves to be something impossible for her to get away from.

Though unmarried pregnant women were not incredibly uncommon in literature up to this point, it’s the way that Gaskell handles Ruth that can be seen as untypical and incredibly progressive for the period. Most authors would have had Ruth commit melodramatic suicide as soon as Bellingham abandoned her – and she attempts to do this in the novel – but Gaskell allows her to live, for a while at least, despite not marrying the father of her child. She starts a new life after Bellingham abandons her, gains the respect of notable families and even manages to overcome the judgement of others when her past is finally revealed to her friends. And even when she eventually dies, her death is only indirectly related to her past ‘crime’, and it does not feel at all like Gaskell is punishing her.

Ruth is much like Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; both novels try to challenge gender conventions in a period where women were far from possessing any freedom. While it’s not always the most interesting novel – the middle part of the book is pretty mundane – it’s a gutsy one. Gaskell does not let her characters’ pasts define them.

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Blossoms – Self-Titled

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?

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

Idra Novey – Ways to Disappear

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.

Wild Beasts – Boy King

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.

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