Jonathan Lethem – The Blot

It’s not often that I come across a novel that squanders its potential so much as The Blot. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. This novel has so many fantastic elements to it – the first two thirds or so had me hooked – and yet some head-scratchingly bad ones too. What should have been a great novel about a professional gambler’s struggle with identity is instead bogged down with under-baked subplots and strange shifts in focus.

Alexander Bruno is a professional gambler with pretty much nothing to his name but a suit and a backgammon board. He meets with wealthy clients all over the world, playing them and trying to take their money. However, his world is torn apart when he discovers that he has a tumour in his brain. In order to have any chance of living, Alexander is forced to get in contact with an old associate who he had no plans of ever seeing again…

This plotline carries the book along quite nicely for the first couple hundred of pages, moving languidly yet remaining compelling. Jonathan Lethem does a great job of developing Alexander as a character, offering the reader fantastic scene after fantastic scene, slowly revealing him to be a broken man who tries to hide behind a suave persona. The drawn-out scene in which Alexander meets a German client for a game of backgammon is particularly fantastic. Credit to Lethem, he does an incredible job of making the reader invested in the backgammon game of a character they’ve only just met.

And the story continues to be great even when it moves past its gambling focus (which is abruptly abandoned) and onto Alexander’s illness. We see him rekindle a relationship with a wealthy old school friend in an attempt to use him to pay for the surgery he needs to save his life. The relationship between these two characters is easily one of my favourite aspects of the novel. The power dynamic between the two of them is an interesting one and something that I wish the author would’ve explored more.

And Lethem’s seeming refusal to explore the story’s most interesting elements more fully ties directly to my issues with The Blot. About halfway through the novel it becomes incredibly clear that he made it up as he went along, causing the whole thing to, well, go off the rails pretty majorly.

There are so many problems with the novel’s second half that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start by getting the novel’s weirdest aspect out of the way: the protagonist has mind reading abilities. Right, okay. That could be interesting, but the way that Lethem explores it is totally baffling, with it conflicting majorly with the overall tone of the novel. We only see Alexander read minds a couple of times in The Blot, it never ties into anything or gets resolved and it always feels like it’s in the background of the story. It feels completely unnecessary, almost existing in its own bubble in the novel, only receiving a few stray mentions. Why bother with it?

The novel’s other major problem is that Lethem just throws too many plotlines at the wall in the last 100 pages or so, clogging the story up with uninteresting details and stealing away time we could be spending with one of the more interesting plotlines. Our protagonist gets a goofy pop-culture-reference dropping sidekick, he’s given a new love interest (a woman who appears previously in the novel for about five pages right at the beginning), he becomes a political activist of sorts, he gets a job at a burger restaurant… All within the last 100 pages. And as you can guess the result is a jumbled mess.

By the end, the novel’s interesting aspects are all but gone and The Blot just becomes a massive chore to read. It’s a real shame, and it makes me wonder why someone didn’t step in and tell Lethem that he was running a potentially incredible novel into the ground for no reason at all.

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Vagabon – Infinite Worlds

Despite its brevity, Vagabon’s debut album has a lot packed into it. Across its eight tracks, Laetitia Tamko touches on a variety of topics – from failing relationships to losing someone’s cat – and does so in a variety of musical styles. ‘Minneapolis’ has a fierce electric guitar driven indie rock sound, ‘Alive and A Well’ features no instruments other than an acoustic guitar, ‘Cold Apartment’ is a stripped back ballad with a pulsating drum beat and ‘Mal à L’aise’ is swirling and synth driven… Also it’s sung in French. There’s a lot of variety here, and yet, somehow, all of the songs feel like they fit together.

If there’s one recurring theme on this album, it’s feeling small. As Tamko sings about in the opening track, the wonderful ‘The Embers’, it’s feeling like a small fish in a world full of sharks. It’s about wanting to escape and wanting to have your voice heard. (I don’t normally bring politics into my reviews, but it’s an album that feels particularly relevant given that you-know-who has recently taken the presidential office in America.)

There are some incredibly powerful moments on this album that are the result of Tamko’s fantastic voice as well as her lyrics. ‘Cold Apartment’, the highlight of the album for me, offers her most powerful performance… Her voice swells with emotion on the song as she reflects on a relationship that she thought would last: ‘And we sit on my cold apartment floor / Where we thought we would stay in love.’ The lyrics are moving as it is, but the vocal delivery is what really powers this song. The instruments surrounding Tamko’s voice are fairly minimal, because it’s only her voice that’s really needed to drive the emotion of the song home.

‘The Embers’ is another song where Tamko’s voice really shines. It builds as the song progresses, tracking the grow in confidence of the protagonist. At first it’s quiet and almost hesitant (‘I feel so small’) eventually building towards an almost shouting finish where she confronts those that make her feel small (‘You’re a shark that hates everything’). Other songs like ‘Fear & Force’ and ‘Alive and A Well’ are driven by the vocals, and while the instruments are solid on most songs, it really does feel like they’re mainly in service to Tamko’s voice.

Infinite Worlds is a really promising debut from a band that still seems to be working out its sound. There’s a lot of different styles on this album and a lot of experimenting – which is definitely not a bad thing. It’ll be really interesting to see where they go next.

Essential Songs: ‘The Embers’, ‘Minneapolis’, ‘Cold Apartment’.

Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon

Big Balloon is an odd album – but odd is what I’ve come expect from Dutch Uncles at this stage. From their self-titled debut to 2015’s O Shudder, the band have done a consistent job of putting out off-kilter yet great albums. (Their last two albums in particular have been really fantastic.)

Their fifth album though feels odd in a different way. In the same way that Wild Beasts’ seemed to aim for a more accessible sound with last year’s Boy King, it feels like Big Balloon is almost Dutch Uncles’ attempt at commercial popularity. The songs are generally more straightforward, there are more soaring guitar riffs (I’m not saying this is a bad thing) and just about every track feels like a single.

Yet as I say this, the band are still cryptically weird in the same way they were on their old albums. The title track ‘Big Balloon’ (which is great) in particular feels like a mash between these two styles. It’s got a great chorus that you want to sing along to (‘Make me swoon like a big balloon’) and the aforementioned awesome guitar riffs, but at the same time the lyrics on the verses are about as bizarre and indecipherable as anything the band has put out. ‘Freeze the ghost, be happy as fat’? ‘Leave it all for potato lands’? What?

I don’t think this is the album that will truly give Dutch Uncles the breakthrough they deserve – it’s too weird even if they’re trying to be more normal – but it’s a solid album from nonetheless. There are only a couple of weak songs on here and a lot of good ones. ‘Baskin’’ has a great nervous energy to it, ‘Oh Yeah’ is delightfully weird and super catchy and ‘Streetlight’, with its wailing vocals and buzzing synths, might be one of the best songs the band has ever put out. The two closing tracks on the album, ‘Sink’ and ‘Overton’, are also highlights for me. They definitely have an ambitious feel to them, showing the band break from the poppy feel that dominates most of the album.

Another great thing about Big Balloon is that there’s a lot of variety on it. ‘Same Plane Dream’ and ‘Achameleon’, both great tracks, in particular do a great job of representing the two different ends of the album’s musical spectrum; ‘Same Plain Dream’ being one of wildest songs Dutch Uncles have produced (vocal-wise at least) and ‘Achameleon’ one of the most restrained, being a touching, string-laden ballad.

The weakest song on the album is easily ‘Combo Box’ which… I don’t know how describe it. It’s definitely the oddest song on the album – lyrically at least – and it doesn’t really work much at all for me. The song’s focus on food metaphors just gave me the sense that the band were trying to be weird for the sake of it. Really, the best songs on the album, like ‘Big Balloon’ are the ones where the band get weird but at the same time feel emotionally anchored.

Big Balloon is another great outing from Dutch Uncles, though I’d say it doesn’t quite reach the same heights of Out of Touch in the Wild and O Shudder. All the songs here are solid fun, but there’s nothing quite as good as say, ‘Fester’ or ‘Be Right Back’ from those releases. Though if you’re looking for a fun pop/rock album with some definite Kate Bush/Talking Heads influence to it, you can’t go wrong with this album. There’s a lot to enjoy here.

Essential Songs: ‘Big Balloon’, ‘Streetlight’, ‘Sink’.

Lisa Carey – The Stolen Child

Like a lot of the books I read these days, I went into The Stolen Child pretty much blind. I’ll admit that I was wooed by the colourful bee-coated cover, which seemed to suggest a book a little bit on the fantastical side. When I opened it up and found out it was about two sisters living in Ireland in the 1950s, I grew a little concerned… I began to worry that I’d picked up some super-dry historical novel rather than a fun and fantastical one.

After reading the book, it’s actually somewhere between the two. The Stolen Child mashes together two different ideas/tones that don’t seem like they would fit together – historical and fantasy – and makes them work.

St. Brigid’s Island is a remote settlement off the coast of Ireland, being home to a small community. There’s no electricity there, no harbour – making it incredibly hard for boats to visit – and no real form of communication with the outside world. One day an American woman named Brigid comes to the island with the intention of living there, much to the suspicion of the island’s inhabitants. They are hesitant to take her in, the wary and lonely Emer especially. It soon becomes clear that she has come to the island to find a deep and magical secret kept hidden by its residents…

The Stolen Child is a slow novel, but it puts a lot of time into building up its characters. It always puts its characters before its magical elements, which is something I really appreciate… In fact, it doesn’t even bother to introduce the more fantastical elements of its story until the main characters are all fully formed. What I’m trying to get at is, basically, with most fantasy novels it feels like it’s the gimmick or the fantastical premise that comes first. With The Stolen Child it definitely feels like Carey came up with the characters first.

And there are a lot of strong characters here, Brigid and Emer in particular; the whole novel hinges on their relationship. Carey does a wonderful job of developing their relationship across the novel – with them flip flopping between friends and enemies a couple of times – always keeping it realistic. For example, when they fall out you can understand the argument from both sides and empathise with both of the characters. When conflict comes up in the novel, it’s rarely because of a clear villainous figure, it’s normally because of generally good people having different views.

I don’t want to spoil how the novel develops, but Carey does take things in a surprising direction that, at the same time, feels true to the characters she’s created. In terms of complaints with this novel, there were only a few things I didn’t like. At times it moves at a snail’s pace, being almost bloated with flashbacks, which can get a little tedious. The beginning in particular is a bit too slow. Secondly, there are a few characters I wish Carey had made a bit more three-dimensional. Though there are some incredibly well developed female characters in The Stolen Child, there aren’t really any male characters who gain much more of a personality than being a ‘drunk and abusive husband’.

This is a historical novel primarily and a fantastical one secondarily. And that’s not a bad thing. Though it does get slightly dull in a couple of places, The Stolen Child has a lot going for it and is definitely worth your time.

Toothless – The Pace of Passing

The Pace of Passing is the first album from Toothless, a project led by Bombay Bicycle Club bassist Ed Nash. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. With so many of Bombay Bicycle Club’s songs having killer basslines – ‘Always Like This’ is the most obvious example – it was kind of easy to have high hopes for an album put together by the band’s bassist. And while Toothless’s debut isn’t awful, some elements of it definitely work significantly better than others.

Let’s start off with The Pace of Passing’s biggest weakness: Ed Nash’s vocals. He really can’t sing that well at all. His voice is about as bland as they get, having no force or emotion to it. There are plenty of frontmen out there who can’t sing very well, but manage to get away with it by putting enough passion into their voice or by having a unique quality. Nash’s vocals just sound kind of whinny at times, and it never really feels like he cares much about what he’s singing about. Whether it’s a romantic song like ‘Palm’s Backside’ or a more sinister one like ‘You Thought I Was Your Friend’, Nash’s vocals just aren’t good enough to get across the feelings you can tell he’s trying to.

And this kind of brings me to the album’s other big weakness, the lyrics. Most of the time they’re okay – never really passing beyond serviceable – but sometimes they make me want to full-on cringe. The chorus of ‘Palm’s Backside’ is particularly bad. And even when the lyrics aren’t awful, Nash’s delivery seems to drag them down. A good example of this is at the beginning of ‘Palm’s Backside’ (back to this song again); the way Nash draws out the opening lines just comes across as forced and slightly embarrassing.

But while these two elements of the album are almost consistently meh, the instrumentation on some of these tracks manages to save them a little bit. The opener ‘Charon’ has a beautiful mood to it, with the string instruments featured really helping it feel grand. The album closer ‘Terra’ similarly has a great mood, with the instrumentation reflecting the subject of the song well. Almost all of the songs on the album deal with mythology as a subject matter – as shown by song titles like ‘Sisyphus’ – and the instruments often sound fittingly grand because of this.

Another good move than Nash made on this album was making use of guest vocalists. While almost all of them are underused, Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming especially, they often manage to provide a certain gravitas that the lead singer can’t muster. ‘The Sirens’ works mainly because of the guest vocals from The Staves – easily being one of the best tracks on the album. There are a lot of times on The Pace of Passing that Toothless try to go for a catchy almost poppy feel, and it only really works on this song.

‘The Sun’s Midlife Crisis’ is another song that I have to give props to. Though it has a few weak lyrics in it, the song has a genuinely interesting focus, being about exactly what its title suggests it is. Like a lot of the songs on the album it has a mythological vibe, almost feeling like a fable. Not every element of the song works, but it’s got a certain uniqueness to it that I felt was worth highlighting.

Overall though, the album’s glimmers of goodness don’t really save it from its weaker aspects. Sadly it’s not one of those mixed albums that’s made up of some great songs and some bad ones… More it’s one of those mixed albums that’s made of good elements and bad elements that feature in every track. While some songs are definitely better than others, my resounding verdict on The Pace of Passing is meh.

Essential Songs: ‘Charon’, ‘The Sun’s Midlife Crisis’, ‘The Sirens’.

Ben Aaronovitch – The Hanging Tree

Man, isn’t the Peter Grant series great? The Hanging Tree is the sixth book in the series (meaning that you have to get through five other books before you can read it) and potentially the best one. Featuring several books’ worth of pay-off, if you’re a fan of Peter Grant then you should definitely give it a read.

The book focuses on the investigation of a young girl’s death, who is believed to have taken some questionable pills at a party. As the case picks up in becomes clear that there are some magical elements involved it… causing Peter Grant to get involved. He soon discovers that this seemingly small incident is tied to an even bigger case, relating to a practitioner/criminal he’s been chasing for a long time: The Faceless Man.

The story picks up pretty much where the fourth book Broken Homes left off (the fifth one, Foxglove Summer, having taken a bit of a breather from the series’ overall story) with Grant slowly closing in on London’s most dangerous practitioner. I can’t talk too much about where the story picks up (in case there are any readers who haven’t read any of the books in the series yet), but trust me when I say that it does a great job of building on the world that Ben Aaronovitch has built. A lot of old characters return, being drawn back into the story, and a few great new ones are introduced.

Probably the main reason why The Hanging Tree works so well is that it acts as a major turning point for the novel. Like I said, it features several books’ worth of pay-off – feeling like a reward for reading some of the series’ lesser books (mainly Broken Homes). As the sort of person who normally reads standalone novels, I have to admit that there’s nothing quite like a series book like this one that really delivers on everything you hoped it would.

And luckily The Hanging Tree also features Aaronovitch’s usual great writing. It’s not the sort of writing that’s beautiful – there aren’t many great bits of imagery or flowery writing – but the kind that inhibits its protagonist’s voice incredibly well. Heck, all of the characters’ voices. By this stage in the series all of the characters feel well-rounded enough that it’s just fun to watch them bounce off each other (Sahra Guuleed the ‘Muslim ninja’ is a particular highlight). Basically, the writing style is consistent with the books that came before it and that’s a very good thing!

If you love the other books in the series, then you’re guaranteed to love this one. Aaronovitch doesn’t skimp out on giving fans what they want, making for a really rewarding read. And if you haven’t read any Peter Grant books a read before, then, well, give Rivers of London a go! Even if urban fantasy isn’t your sort of thing, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in it.

Sundara Karma – Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect

Sundara Karma’s debut album is packed with solid indie rock songs. From the roaring opening track ‘Young Understanding’ to the melancholy closer ‘The Night’, all the songs here are good. Even the more filler-y tracks on the album have things going for them.

But… (You were all waiting for this ‘but’, weren’t you?) But I guess the problem I have with Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is that it doesn’t have anything incredibly distinctive about it. Let’s be honest, there are a hell of a lot of ‘indie rock’ bands out there. While Sundara Karma are very far from being as bland as some of them – like Catfish & The Bottlemen – I still don’t think this album feels quite original enough to be considered great.

As a result, I’d say the best songs on this album are the ones that feel distinctive. ‘Happy Family’ is probably my favourite track, slowly building as it goes, being carried along by a beat that almost sounds like a chugging train. ‘Lose the Feeling’ stands out to me just due to the weird imagery on its chorus: ‘I’ve found the door and I’m kinda hoping / To use my head and crack it open.’ It’s not an incredible bit of writing, but it’s odd… which gives it personality.

Though as I said, even the less unique songs are solid. ‘She Said’ is a fantastically catchy song that’s just bursting with energy. ‘Olympia’ is powered by Oscar Pollock’s vocals, with the hesitant way he delivers the opening lyrics setting the tone for the song: ‘Oh no / Olympia says she loves me’. ‘A Young Understanding’ and ‘Loveblood’ act as a fantastic one-two punch at the beginning of the album, the energy from the first song carrying effortlessly over to the second one. Like I said before, none of the songs here are really that weak. Even the lesser ones, like ‘Watching from Great Heights’, are easy to enjoy.

Sundara Karma have done a great job of pulling together a cohesive and interesting debut album… Though it doesn’t have the same spark as some of my favourite debut albums from the past few years. I dunno, maybe I’m being a little bit overly critical. Sundara Karma, I think, just need to find their voice a little bit more – which they’ll hopefully do by their next album. Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is only a good album rather than a fantastic one – but there are definitely glimmers of greatness in it.

I guess we’ll just have to see what they come out with next.

Essential Songs: ‘Happy Family’, ‘She Said’, ‘Loveblood’.

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