China Miéville – This Census Taker

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.

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Pumarosa – Self-Titled

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’.

Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men

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.

Catfish & The Bottlemen (07/11/16)

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.

Kei Miller – Augustown

Though Kei Miller’s Augustown is described as a novel, it really only is in the loosest sense. Really, it’s a collection of vignettes tied together by one location – Augustown – focusing on everyone from the poorest of beggars to the upper-class elite. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if you’re hoping for a book with a propulsive plot, and twists and turns, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Despite the novel’s fractured style, everything connects to a central character: Ma Taffy. Living in the slums of Augustown – an infamous Jamaican town – Ma Taffy is seen as a pillar of the community by those around her. Everyone respects her, despite her being a blind elderly woman. However, something big is on the verge of happening in Augustown; a local gang member is hiding guns under Taffy’s house, Taffy’s niece has plans to rise from her low station and a school teacher is about to make the biggest mistake of his life… Everything is about to change.

Kei Miller’s novel is heavily invested in Jamaican culture in a way that someone with a Jamaican heritage could only write. It’s one of those books that educates as much as it tells a story – delving into the actual history of Augustown and the events that define it. One of the most interesting parts of Augustown focuses on a real prophet named Alexander Bedward who believed he could fly. It’s the perspective through which the author tells this story that makes it unique. It doesn’t read like a piece of non-fiction.

Like I said, Augustown is mainly a collection of vignettes – even if it is presented as and almost structured as a novel. Most people are likely to find the novel’s structure difficult… It jumps all over the place. While there is an overarching story, Miller’s detours make up most of the book. Just when you think the story is getting close to its climax, the author dives into an extended flashback or has a character tell a long story. It’s a difficult style of writing that’s frustrating to read at times. And while I don’t think this was the best way for Miller to structure the story he was trying to tell, it doesn’t stop they actual content of the book – the flashbacks and stories – from being powerful. There is one character in particular that the author does a great job of making the reader despise and pity at the same time.

Though Augustown really wasn’t what I expected it to be, I can’t deny that it’s a great book. It’s one of those novel’s that has a real heart and soul to it – it feels genuine in a way that’s rare.

Review: Pumarosa the Louisiana, Bristol (27/10/2016)

Though they’ve only released a few songs, Pumarosa is a band that feels fullyl formed. Over their three singles, from the epic ‘Priestess’ to the politically driven ‘Honey’, they’ve covered a range of styles, but they all feature the band’s unique voice. I can’t think of an album I’m more excited about at the moment than their upcoming debut.

I’ve never been to the Louisiana before, and I was kind of surprised by how small and humble the place was. The music venue part of it is pretty much just an attic room. It was a change from the big name venues I’ve been to in Bristol – like the O2, the Marble Factory and Colston Hall – but not in a bad way. Though the performance room could only hold a small fraction of the people the O2 could, it made the gig feel so much more intimate. It felt like the line between the audience and the band was more blurred than it would be in a big venue (heck, some of Pumarosa’s members were even stood next to me during the support act.)

And man, were the support act great. I’d never listened to or heard of Peluché before the gig, and I ended up being pretty blown away by their performance. It’s hard to really describe their style of music – their songs have a sort of dreamy feel to them, and often go off on long jazzy instrumental tangents. Though I normally find myself itching to see the headliner when I go to gigs, I did find myself wishing that Peluché’s set could have been just a few songs longer…

When Pumarosa finally took the stage, they didn’t go for a big flashy entrance – they just set up their instruments and started playing. All emphasis was put on the music, which was pretty refreshing.

Lead singer Isabel quickly grabbed the audience’s attention, as the band kicked off their set with ‘Dragonfly’. The combination of her powerful voice and very Kate Bush-esque dance moves made for a pretty fantastic performance. The opening song was followed up by two tunes very familiar to Pumarosa fans – the band’s two latest singles: ‘Cecile’ and ‘Honey’. Both songs sounded fantastic live, ‘Honey’ especially.

The bulk of the set after this was made up of less familiar songs, with ‘Lion’s Den’ being another highlight. Almost all focus was put on Isabel’s voice until the last few moments, when the band exploded into sound. Isabel even took to playing her guitar like a violin by using a drumstick (yes, you read that right.)

The best moment of the set was saved till towards the end. ‘Priestess’, arguably the band’s best song, sounded absolutely amazing live. The eight-minute-long song felt like a journey, and the dancing from the audience – as well as the band – showed that nobody really wanted it to end. As great as the rest of the set was, ‘Priestess’ was just Pumarosa at their peak. Though there have been many gigs I’ve enjoyed this year, I wouldn’t say any of them reached the same heights as the performance of that song.

If you get the chance to see Pumarosa live, do it. I’m pretty certain the band is going to get huge soon, and it’d be silly not to go see them at an intimate venue like the Louisiana while you still can.

David Means – Hystopia

Some of the best war novels are the weird ones; the ones that try to expose war for just how ridiculous and pointless it truly is. Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 are prime examples of this – the first easily being one of my favourite books – portraying war in an absurd manner rather than a serious one. David Means’ debut novel Hystopia tries to do this as well – just with much less success than those two books.

It’s hard to know where to start with the plot of this novel. Being presented as the work of a fictitious Vietnam veteran – supported by a lengthy ‘fake’ introduction – Hystopia focuses on a series of veterans who have managed to blank out their traumatic war experiences through a form of treatment known as enfoldment.

However, the treatment does not work on all subjects. A man that goes by the name Rake, one of the failed subjects, kidnaps an innocent woman and goes on a killing rampage across the country, leaving ‘the Corps’ – the group responsible for the enfoldment treatment – to clean up after his mess. Soon two officers of the Corps, Wendy and Singleton, the latter a recipient of the enfoldment treatment himself, are forced to go and capture him.

Really, this is only scratching the surface of Hystopia. There are a lot of ideas going on in this novel, such as it being presented as the work of a fictional author (and having its own fictional history) and it taking place in an alternate history America where Kennedy was not assassinated. And this links to my main issue with the book: it is unnecessarily complicated. I tried to keep my above synopsis brief, but it ended up being pretty much impossible. This book is bursting with ideas – many of them not fitting together well – and at times they cause it to feel like a mess.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of clever stuff in this book and David Means is obviously a talented writer, but it just seems as though he’s overlooked the basic need for a novel to tell a good story in favour of being clever. The alternate timeline the novel takes place in, for example, feels very unnecessary. It doesn’t play into the story nearly enough, and as a result it feels like Means chucked it in there just because. Slaughterhouse-Five had a lot of weirdness and cleverness in it, sure, but it never felt like weirdness and cleverness for the sake of it.

Ultimately Hystopia is best when it goes back to basics. War and war veterans are always going to make great subjects for novels, and when Means just focuses on the effect war has on people, the book is at its best. Despite him leaning a bit too much towards stereotypical psychopath, Means manages to make Rake a fascinating character. Many of the best moments in the novel are just those that give us glimpses into his personality. Other veteran characters are great too, such as tree tracker Hank. The author does a good job of making each character unique – each of them affected by war in a different way.

It’s kind of hard for me to recommend this book. While it features some excellent writing and some great moments, most of the time it just feels like it’s trying too hard – like it’s trying to be the next Slaughterhouse-Five or Catch-22 when it really isn’t.