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The Island at the End of the World, by Sam Taylor

The Island at the End of the World, by Sam Taylor

The Island at the End of the World has a very effective PR man. For any book which rests on a twist, the marketing conundrum must be: ‘How do we sell this book without giving away the best thing about it?’ I am about to give away the best thing about Sam Taylor’s third novel, so look away now if you don’t want your enjoyment spoiled as I stick it to The Man.

My review copy of the book came from Strange Horizons, an online magazine specialising in science fiction and fantasy. The book’s blurb sets it in a near future in which the seas have risen and the world as we know it has ended, leaving a father, his three children, and their ark marooned on an isolated blob of dry land. A review in The Independent gave the reason for this turn of events as a ‘total war’. A clear case of mainstream SF, then – Niall Harrison, Strange Horizon’s reviews editor, set me to work.

The only catch was – and here is where I stick to The Man – all of this is nonsense. Taylor’s book, like his first novel, The Republic of Trees, is more an allegory of social government in which he contrives for his characters to be set apart from wider civilisation in some way barely plausible, enabling them to be a bit Roussean and a bit bonkers. In The Island at the End of the World, this crazy takes the form of the father’s increasingly fractured religious mania; there has been no apocalypse, and there has been no flood. In truth, he’s a survivalist who is lying to his children, secreting them on the top of a remote mountain and building – incredibly – a moat around them in order to convince them they are surrounded by an impassable ocean.

Even part way into the novel, it’s not hard to guess this ‘twist’ – very early on, in fact, the father is seen to be a liar. But the careful silence of its publicity on all this did leave Strange Horizons without a book to review – even the war the Indie mentioned demurely is so far from immediate, let alone total, as to render everything about it, bar the name of the President, a thin echo of Iraq or Afghanistan.

So Taylor cheats, employing the setting of an SF story for his convenience, and establishing it without much of a nod towards plausibility. The family drove out to the mountain, rather than rowed out; the children, fortunately, were too young to remember it, and too dull to guess; their mother joined them at first, but eventually left with nary a peep to the kids; the water around them is rainwater which Pa has collected in his little ditch; he has bought along with him clothes, books and a computer, which he uses frequently to look at old photographs. Here, the allegory – the elaboration upon his theme from The Republic of Trees, of how we build societies and upon what we build them (lies and malevolent charisma) – is king, quite lording it over any pretence to credibility. Taylor is interested in how fleeting can be the delights of Nature, how inevitable is the human will to power. As the chaps at Three Guys One Book have noted, this is a direct extrapolation from that first of Taylor’s novels. The Island at the End of the World is an infinitely more mature work, but it still doesn’t bother to be believable in setting.

Distances, by Vandana Singh

Distances, by Vandana Singh

This sort of thing drives SF critics barmy, of course – and with some good reason. As Matt Cheney noted long ago, “One of the appeals of any form of fantasy fiction is its ability to make what would be metaphorical in one context into literal reality within the context of the story.” Allegory can after all be very weak, since it is so gruesomely difficult to craft one which is all encompassing, and is so deadening an interpretative tool; the way in which mainstream authors so often appropriate SF trappings for their shoddy thought experiments does a disservice to some of the hugely thoughtful worldbuilding which goes on inside the genre.

I’ve just finished reading Distances by Vandana Singh, an over-long novella which nevertheless has the not inconsequential strength of resisting the temptation of allegory. The far-future world crafted by Singh has a whole range of relevances, but no one focus. This refusal to reduce is one of the things which makes science fiction compelling: unlike metaphor, it does not pretend to match our experience exactly, to summarise it neatly. In short, at its best it tends not to cheat.

Still, Taylor is both a better writer and a more empathetic presence than Singh. If his tale is absurdly simplistic in many senses, his sense of voice and character invests it with real vitality – Pa in particular is a pungent narrator, veering between Biblical piety and foul obscenity, and his mental degradation is riveting. His son, divorced from civilisation, has developed an odd pidgin dialect which grants his passages a poignant quality, whilst his sister, who has learned language from Shakespeare, is all poetry and pith. Singh, on the other hand, is somewhat bloodless – her complex world falling on the deaf ears of a reader insufficiently engaged by her limp narrator.

Naturally, I’ll resist the temptation to wax allegorical about the relationship between mainstream and genre fiction – there are after all bland literary authors and vibrant genre characters. It does seem to me, however, that Taylor – though ultimately intellectually unsatisfying – crafts a more memorable fiction purely through vivid prose than Singh manages through careful and considered worldbuilding. Taylor is light but purple, and Singh dense but detached; were I to review The Island at the End of the World for a Strange Horizons more amenable to the mainstream fable, I might say that, as unlikely and unconvincing as it is, that trick of character makes for a ‘future’ which feels more immediate than Singh’s, for all the latter’s commendable thoroughness.

It’s a cheat’s trick, but it works every time.

This Is England

This Is England

Cat-sitting for Anna’s parents last night, we settled down for a calm and gentle night in by popping Shane Meadows’s This Is England into the DVD Player. Dan last saw the film a few years ago when it was first released in cinemas, and remembered it for its pungent portrayal of neo nazi ‘politics’ and its simultaneous affectionate depiction of the skinhead youth culture. In short, he remembered it primarily as a hugely successful period piece – all fried egg sweets and Ben Shermans, resentful council estates and spiralling unemployment. As the furious fascist Combo, a superb Stephen Graham was terrifying and pathetic in equal measure, reaching into the darker recesses of the English working class.

For Anna, though, it was impossible to enjoy this first viewing of the film as anything but an experience full of contemporary relevance. Separated by just a few years from its release date, This Is England now seems a little closer to home: the festering distrust of ‘foreigners’ coming to ‘steal our jobs’ cannot but now remind you of the images in the newspapers just a few short weeks ago, of wildcat strikers in the north of England looking wild and angry. The BNP’s involvement in those disputes only emphasizes the parallels. And has anyone noticed how many Ben Sherman shops are springing up? In the same way that Top Shop seems disturbingly stocked with the fashions sported by the women in the film, we doubt mere coincidence.

Anna continued with the 80’s theme today, by deciding to have a bit of a potter around Wolverhampton Art Gallery, where the theme of violence carried on. The Gallery is currently showing ‘The Northern Ireland Collection: Fresh Perspectives’ (November 08-09) to mark ten years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The collection of works is brilliant, and portrays the often very personal reactions of artists to the situation in their country during the thirty years of violence and blood shed on both sides. One work was made from the cell doors of a women’s prison; through the shutters you can glimpse glass tears suspended against a bright red background. Other works included photos of life in Northern Ireland, in which painted colours (orange, or red, blue and white) on banners, flags and walls, separated communities.

The Gallery is a bit of a hidden gem in the Midlands, and often shows some really thought provoking exhibitions. We would recommend it! Currently, the Gallery is also showing a Pop Art exhibition, documenting the theme of 50s and 60s consumer culture. The pieces chart artists’ worship of post-war consumerist America, through to their later skepticism.

Skepticism can lead to disillusionment. With the economy dipping the world over, it’s difficult not to find parallels in the past, even – perhaps especially – in those moments we might hope are passed.

The Lord St. Simon marriage, and its curious termination, have long ceased to be a subject of interest in those exalted circles in which the unfortunate bridegroom moves.

"The gentleman in the pew handed it up to her again..."

"The gentleman in the pew handed it up to her again..."

The Noble Bachelor has a whole raft of glorious Sherlockian moments: Watson’s description of autumnal Baker Street evenings and his reference to the Jezail bullet which is his souvenir of Afghanistan; the revelation that Holmes finds the agony columns of the newspapers instructive and entertaining; and a quintessential scene in which Holmes bests Lestrade with unseemly relish.

It is also one of those stories in which Holmes may leave his rooms in Baker Street, but the reader does not – we settle in with Watson, reading his papers, and await the revelations. In this story, and for the first time in the stories, Holmes gathers together the main players for one of those communal exposition scenes later made a cliché.

In short, it is a classic Holmes tale, rich in Victoriana and Holmes’s particular brand of problem solving. To whit, in a case which sees Holmes working for one of the highest aristocrats in the land, the great detective says: ” I assure you, Watson, without affectation, that the status of my client is a matter of less moment to me than the interest of his case.” We have previously seen Holmes disparage the King of Bohemia and a Covent Garden poultry seller alike, and here he is far from enamoured of his client, Lord St. Simon. (“It is very good of Lord St. Simon to honour my head by putting it on a level with his own,” he barks dryly.)

He is in fine form generally here, clearly having a whale of a time taunting his inferiors. When Lestrade insists he knows the whereabouts of a body on the basis of the location of some discarded clothes, Holmes deadpans, “By the same brilliant reasoning, every man’s body is to be found in the neighbourhood of his wardrobe.”

Stuff like this is why you come back to Holmes stories – not the mysteries themselves, which here as elsewhere tend to turn out in solution less interesting than they originally appeared, but for the central character’s tart wit, the extent to which he is able to lord it over all around him, and get away with it. Aside from the diverting characterisation of the priggish Lord St. Simon, in this story there is only one show in town, and it’s Sherlock’s.

The story is also notable for being yet another which finds its origins in North America (after A Study in Scarlet and The Five Orange Pips; readers will remember too that The Boscombe Valley Mystery had its roots in Australia). Conan Doyle is fairly obviously interested by the USA’s romance, and he gives Holmes a rather dubious line to the effect that, eventually, the world will consist of a single Anglo-Saxon nation.

That oddness aside, this humdrum story of aristocratic marriages and abrupt disappearances is made what it is by Holmes’s mercurial presence. It is a phenomenon his readers know well.

Race For Life

Race For Life

I just wanted to use this blogging space to draw attention to a friend’s blog.  Lisa, all credit to her, is training to run a 10k Race for Life event in Birmingham.  She’s looking to share hints and tips, and any gems of motivational wisdom.  You can find the lovely lady here: http://lisa-10kblogger.blogspot.com

And she’s also motivated me.  I’ve been planning to train for a Race for Life event for a while now.  I’ve dusted off my old trainers, and found out my old jogging bottoms.  I’ll choose to ignore the fact that they’re about two sizes smaller than I am, and get started…

http://www.raceforlife.org/

"Citizens better die postulating than touch indecent ink..."

"Citizens better die postulating than touch indecent ink..."

I’ve recently been rewatching the final season of David Milch’s HBO Western, Deadwood. It’s been some time since I first saw it, and if anything it is better than I remembered. Back then, I wrote in another place that the season “corrects every pretty story we’ve ever heard about the American west.” This is still true: at the close of its 12 episodes, the characters go out not in a blaze of Gunsmoke glory, but with a morally compromised whimper. But, equally, it is about far more – as Milch himself discusses at academic length in this series of videos (there is particular Deadwood content – including a section about its cancellation – in the linked video).

When artworks reach a certain level, choosing between them becomes largely a matter of personal taste, but for this critic Deadwood is easily a competitor with The Wire in the quality stakes. At times, its less deterministic, perhaps more humane, aspect edge out even David Simon’s cop show, which is famously also about far more than its chosen genre.

All of which makes it a pity that two recent pieces about the decade-long renaissance at HBO rather brush Deadwood aside: Sam Delaney in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph gave it barely a mention, whilst a few weeks ago James Bradley in The Australian called Deadwood’s pivotal character, Al Swearengen, “a sort of low-rent Tony Soprano.” Deadwood never garnered the attention of David Chase’s mob drama, of even of Rome or Six Feet Under; critics are committed, it would seem, to continuing that under-appreciation in the show’s afterlife.

Delaney’s piece suggests that Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm was “home to probably the most obscene language ever heard on television.” One begins to suspect that Delaney hasn’t even seen Deadwood, which was infamous for its profanity. This no doubt put off many, and yet perversely the dialogue of Deadwood must be some of the finest written for television, so rich that at times it tends towards verse. This style is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and a very obvious affectation, yet Milch makes language integral to the show’s thematic concerns. In one memorable scene from the show’s first season, the spineless toady EB Farnum waxes Shakespearian whilst scrubbing a bloodstain, the remains of a contract murder, from the floor of a room in his hotel. Farnum’s soliloquy simultaneously burrows to the heart of the character’s sense of self-importance and thwarted superiority, whilst beginning to explore the nexus of power relationships with which the show is ultimately concerned. Deadwood is about the formation of a society, and about the human pull between individual and community. Its vernacular profanity represents the chaos and crime of the unfettered private agent; its dense, complex verbiage the organising, ordering instincts of human society.

It may be that in this manner Deadwood was overly diffuse, lacking the cast iron certainty of purpose of The Wire. Certainly some commentators would argue the show lost its way after its first season. Yet this very diffuseness is to my mind part of its brilliance. It does not seek to pretend that life is a system, even whilst it may contain them. Richard T Kelly, whose own post first drew my attention to Bradley’s piece, and whose sprawling social fiction Crusaders shares some concerns with Deadwood, is worried for the poor old novel; his own, however, leaves laudable gaps of light between its plotlines – like Deadwood, it knows that life does not always fit together easily. The Wire is at times too hung up on its thesis; Deadwood always leaves room for a countervailing breeze.

“Some goddamn point a man’s due to stop arguing with his-self and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is ’cause he can’t be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and fucking it up.” Wild Bill Hickock’s first season lament is at the heart of the show. It is about working towards an unattainable perfection; giving up that effort, rather than failure, is seen as the unconsionable action. Deadwood is undoubtedly a theatrical piece, flying in the face of the prevailing fad for naturalism, but it remains a shame that a show with such a message continues to be overlooked.

Dark Was The Night

Dark Was The Night

We’d completely forgotten about Matt’s heads-up last month over on Colour, but when we saw Dark Was The Night sitting on the shelves at HMV, we dimly recalled that it was something we wanted to buy. Checking the back cover only confirmed that; Arcade Fire, Beirut, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Cat Power, The Decemberists, Iron and Wine, My Morning Jacket, Gillian Welch and countless more have contributed tracks to the compilation. You couldn’t have made up a better selection of artists if you’d tried.

Even better, it’s being released by Red Hot to support AIDS awareness. We’ve spent most of the day listening, and particularly like the atmospheric first disc, which it will come as no surprise to anyone is the folkier of the two. The second, though, also features some fine contributions from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, My Morning Jacket, and Yo La Tengo, among others.

Most compilations like this tend to have the feeling of being thrown together hastily and with off-cuts. Here, almost every act brings a song worth listening to. We confess to being a bit disappointed that Iron and Wine’s song was so short, and not yet being much of a fan of Kronos Quartet’s title track, but this is an album with some very fine stuff indeed (we might single out, for instance, My Brightest Diamond’s cover of Feeling Good, which Muse wish they’d thought of) … and, of course, it’s for a beyond good and hugely important cause.

Buy it.

Maybe I Should Also Poll About Boaters...

This post on The Sartorialist is merely confirmation that the double breasted jacket is back in the youth and trend wardrobe. (We will ignore the fact that the jacket in Sart’s second image is woeful). I recently made a purchase of a grey four button double breasted suit with a glen check, my long-term appreciation of the look vindicated by the fripperies of fashion. (Obviously, in the dustier (if dapperer) classic fashion community, the DB is a mainstay.) A friend recently insisted the DB is not for skinnier men (or indeed anyone under the age of 80 who is not appearing in a period drama): trufax? Tell me in the comments.

But bear in mind the money back guarantee on the suit is long gone.

Priscilla Ahn

Priscilla Ahn

The other week we went to see Ray LaMontagne perform in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. It was so good, just for a change, to sit and listen to music in a relaxed venue, rather than fighting with sweaty bodies and beer spillage in the Academy. We must be getting old!

The support act was Priscilla Ahn, a singer songwriter from Pennsylvania. You can have a look-see at her MySpace here,   or her website here, which includes a blog of her European tour with Ray LaMontagne. Her set was beautiful. She plays the guitar and the harmonica, and sings simple and sweet melodies. Sometimes she plays recordings of her own voice, using a loop pedal, which gives her sound a layered, harmonious feel. Her songs have a human and honest quality. We could imagine her singing best in small, intimate venues, but the quiet and attentive audience at the Symphony Hall did her well.

Each song has a story. A particular favourite was ‘The Boob Song’, where she sings about finding a book of poems on her boyfriend’s bookshelves – inside the cover she finds the words, ‘I hope you like the poems, and that they remind you of my boobs.’ And understandably, she felt a little jealous: “will you think of me, and not some other girl’s boobs!”

The main criticism that can be levelled at Ray LaMontagne, on the other hand, is that his songs and performances lack a sense of humour. Even those few songs in which he allows himself the glimmer of a smile – such as Meg White from his latest LP, ‘Gossip In The Grain‘ – manage in execution to sound deadly serious.

This is, though, a symptom of Ray’s great strength – the depths to which he feels his songs. On record, particularly the two which followed his rip-roaring debut ‘Trouble‘, LaMontagne’s voice is often restrained, but live he lets loose – and, more to the point, the audience is able to see the physical cost each performance of every songs seems to demand of him. Taciturn and unshowy, LaMontagne fully inhabits his songs, most of which have a darkness at their core. Songs like Let It Be Me, Jolene, and Empty came out raw and ragged, bruised but powerful. Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame) practically stormed the auditorium, all strident harmonica and defiance; Winter Birds was whispered out to a reverent hush. Each shared the same awareness of the spirit.

Ray LaMontagne

Ray LaMontagne

This preacher-like quality makes LaMontagne a thoroughly compelling performer, and he is smart enough to maintain his hold on the audience by choosing backing musicians who are magnificent without being obvious. At this show in particular, the pedal steel player was a revelation; but each member of the band formed a fluid, and at times playful, bed on which Ray could not so much lie as writhe. If there’s little room for giggles in LaMontagne’s music, it might be telling that the cheekiest moment of the show was when he and the band took the spiky You Don’t Bring Me Flowers and made into something entirely new, and entirely playful. The form? A honkytonk howdown. Roots Americana informs all that LaMontagne does, and though, particularly on his second album ‘‘Til The Sun Goes Black‘, clever production can reflect those roots oddly, each of his songs lies in folk, country, blues or jazz. Those strange reflections are perhaps where he is most interesting … but not always where he has most fun.

At any rate, even when Ray was sighing and groaning in simulated or actual distress, the Symphony Hall audience had a smile on its face the whole time. Kudos.

And Priscilla Ahn? Her boyfriend threw away the poems, and they have since been happy ever after. :)

Of all the problems which have been submitted to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for solution during the years of our intimacy, there were only two which I was the means of introducing to his notice — that of Mr. Hatherley’s thumb, and that of Colonel Warburton’s madness.

"The ceiling was only a foot or two above my head..."

"The ceiling was only a foot or two above my head..."

The Engineer’s Thumb is singular for how immaterial Holmes is to the plot. His photographic memory is useful in linking the engineer’s strange story to a past crime, and his lateral thinking helpful in locating the site of the crime, but by and large the story is taken up with Watson’s discovery of the engineer and the recitation of his experience. Holmes and Watson travel outside of London, but somehow the story seems less dynamic than many a mystery solved entirely within the confines of 221B.

Inspector Bradstreet, one of the Yard’s more creditable detectives, realises almost as quickly as Holmes which criminal gang is behind the engineer’s curious tale, and yet Conan Doyle still has them escape, rendering the reader’s disappointment two-fold: they are robbed both of an involving deduction and of a satisfying resolution. The Engineer’s Thumb reminds one of The Five Orange Pips: Holmes illustrates his simple solution by pulling a book from a shelf, and the villains remain both anonymous and a little preposterous.

The machine which Victory Hatherley, our dethumbed engineer, is asked to inspect is an absurd McGuffin, designed primarily, it would seem, for the scene, belonging more in a horror story than in detective fiction, in which poor old Hatherley is almost crushed to death, like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in the trash compactor. “Had I the nerve to lie and look up at that deadly black shadow wavering down upon me?” he asks, and yet we are later informed that this press the size of a room was designed for pressing coins.

Still, at least Conan Doyle here shapes his story around an actual substance – fuller’s earth – rather than a fictional type of snake, as in The Speckled Band. Where his stories are often fantastical, they are at least always stronger when they are rooted in something more than Victorian derring do. And this story contains nuggets of moderate interest: the paragraph about Hatherley’s despair as his new small business fails to take off feels as heartfelt as it surely should coming from Doyle, who famously failed to persuade many patients to use his early practice; and likewise Watson’s wry comment that a full and, dare we say it, flowery account of a crime will always tease more from a narrative than a dry newspaper column on the same subject.

The story is not without wit, then, but it is without much in the way of a real mystery. Watson seems to admit this early on – “it gave my friend fewer openings for those deductive mthods of reasoning by which he achieved such remarkable results” – but we are therefore left wondering why Conan Doyle wrote the story in the first place. Perhaps he was in a Poe patch – that central scene in the pressing room recalls The Pit and the Pendulum. If so, the reader is left wishing for a return to Holmes over horror.

It's Not Me, It's You

It's Not Me, It's You

…is the title of Lily Allen’s second album, released on 9 February.  I’ve just read a positive, but slightly scanty review of the album on Jason Von Berg’s Times Music Blog (he got the title wrong, ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me’ has a whole different meaning!) so I thought I’d say a few words…

As I’ve probably mentioned somewhere on here, I’m a fan of British female pop divas.  And although I like to listen to Adele, Duffy or The Nash, I am especially fond of Lily Allen.

This all started in summer 2006, when ‘Smile’, Lily’s first single (happy tune, fittingly sinister lyrics) came on to my car radio, and just struck a chord with me.  Lily dares to say what many girls and young women feel: which is often, quite simply ‘fuck off’.

My interest in such music has not always been plain sailing.  My brother Joe was never the biggest fan.  But alas, at Glastonbury 2007, having spent the day squirming in mud listening to everyone else’s first choices, I managed to persuade him and a friend, Tom, to come and watch Lily perform on the Pyramid Stage.  Maybe it was the pink dress, or the gutsy-ness of a girl who will walk on stage in trainers, with a can of Strongbow and a fag.  Whatever, they were converted.  Lily doesn’t possess the over-mascaraed-I-eat-brown-riceness of many female artists.  Joe listed his favourite acts that particular year as Beirut, Editors, The Arcade Fire…and Lily Allen.  Tom even bought the album.  Result!

Glastonbury Smiles

Glastonbury Smiles

For all these reasons, I have been looking forward to hear the new album.  This time around, Lily’s music seems to have grown up a lot, and has a new found confidence.  Perhaps this fits not only her life, but also the lives of many of her fans.  Again, Allen is not afraid to confront significant topics: drug use, BNP politics, religion, unsatisfying ex-partners.  And it has paid off – both her recent single, ‘The Fear’, and her album have hit top spots in the UK charts.  Good.  It’s a brilliant album, with a new-found quirkiness which once again puts Allen ahead of American would-be-likes.

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