What We Like

This here’s an archive of the stuff we decide to put in the monthly sidebars. We update the sidebars on the first of each month, or close to it, so what appears in December, we were actually into in November etc. etc.

August 2008 – July 2009

August 2009 – July 2010

August 2010 – July 2011

August 2011 – July 2012

August 2012 – July 2013

August 2013 – July 2014

February 2015

theilluminations The Illuminations, by Andrew O’Hagan
This is a beautifully, delicately, humanely written novel about the manner in which time passes, memories are made, and knowledge acquired. Its protagonists are an elderly woman who was once a famous photographer, now confined to sheltered housing, and her grandson, a solider just returned from a disastrous tour in Afghanistan which has robbed him of his idealism. O’Hagan – he is, despite it all, only human – struggles, perhaps, quite to make these two disparate strands appear to be part of the same novel, and his best writing does not occur in those moments when the two dovetail, but in the separate evocation of each milieu. If anything, his retirement home rings truer than his under-siege platoon, but that may only be because those scenes are quieter and contrast so clearly with the high drama of the action in Afghanistan. Does it all quite cohere? Perhaps not. Is it all wonderful to read? Very much.
absentfathers Absent Fathers, Justin Townes Earle
Where his own father this year releases a blue albums to go with his rock albums, bluegrass albums, political albums and bereavement albums, Justin Townes Earle here produces another angular, rockabilly-ish country record that revolves around questions of abandonment and features himself on the cover with his arm around the latest in a line of sadly nameless women. It’s not that Justin’s records offer diminishing returns – each has a character all its own (though this is a companion piece to last year’s Single Mothers -but it does feel that he hasn’t quite found the means of expressing his progress on record (live videos attest to a different story on stage). There are some fine songs here – ‘Call Ya Momma’ and ‘Day and Night’, for example – but whether this circling around is enough to power another album is anyone’s guess.

December 2014

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
It’s often difficult to come to lauded works of contemporary fiction when they’ve had chance to bed down, but not quite perhaps to have a ‘classics’ cover slapped on them. In the event, I admired this novel more than I loved it. It is gloriously written in almost balletic prose, and its structure is tricksy and expertly paced, even when it feels a little slow. The novel always reveals itself to you in time. On the other hand, it felt a little studied, and even – right down to that central incestuous relationship – a little pat, a little convenient. Perhaps that’s a function of Roy’s thematic reliance on coincidence, or perhaps it’s something else, something totalising about the text which may or may not be linked to Roy’s stubbornness over writing another novel in the years since. Hm.
Popular Problems, Leonard Cohen
You don’t have any right to expect an album this good to come out of an octogenarian only making music again because his manager stole all his money. Nevertheless, Popular Problems is that which modern Bob Dylan albums aren’t: a genuine entry in the story people tell about Cohen-the-songwriter. Where Dylan has transformed into something different-but-worthy, Cohen continues to write songs in the way, and of the quality, he always has: no craggy blues blow-outs here (instead, we have the incantatory ‘Almost Like The Blues’). Here’s the key question: is ‘Samson in New Orleans’ one of Cohen’s best songs, right here in 2014? Maybe. ‘Nuff said.


October 2014

Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz
How to review this one? Set immediately post-Reichenbach, this novel follows the witless detective of <em>The Sign of Four</em>, Inspector Athleney Jones, and a Pinkerton detective known as Frederick Chase, who are investigating an attempt by an American gangster to fill the vacuum left by Holmes and his nemesis. It’s hard for the reader to understand the purpose of the novel – although cliffhangers, rather more violence than appeared in <em>The House of Silk</em>, and some Holmesian cameos (John Clay! Tobias Gregson!) keep you going … until things get interesting. It’s an odd experience. One wonders, ultimately, if Horowitz has a grand plan, or if he’s just having a ball.
Shovel & Rope, Swimmin’ Time
This record, more muscular and melodic than the band’s previous effort, O’ Be Joyful, also makes good on the duo’s now long-standing claim to be at the smart centre of the current new roots scene. This works both ways, of course, since it also means there remains something faintly generic about the album. Compare it with Samantha Crain’s Kidface – also an album featuring acoustic instruments and folk influences – and the lack of a defining quirk is plain. Nevertheless, quirkiness is over-valued, and these are songs solider than most you’ll hear this year.


August 2014

Lost for Words, by Edward St Aubyn
St Aubyn’s first novel since closing – for now – the Melrose sequence receive luke-warm reviews, most of which focused on its spite. Listening, in a vanishingly rare public appeartance at Cheltenham Literature Festival, to St Aubyn read from this wittily constructed comic novel did not make it sound bitter , however: droll, yes, but also affectionate and thoughtful. St Aubyn is sceptical of literary awards, and the deliberations of a fictional one form the plot of this Wodehouse-winning jeu d’esprit. It ends with the word ‘incomparably’, and if Lost For Words is St Aubyn’s ‘fun’ novel, it is not some form of tantrum that he has yet to win the Booker for one of his more serious: it is itself a whip-smart pastiche of literary flaps.
Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
I write this capsule review perhaps more out of a sense of completeness than anything else. I’m a long-term follower of Adams, although my enthusiasm has been cool now for some time. Though 2011’s Ashes and Fire bore some promise, Adams hasn’t written at his best for many years. This record feels like an attempt to recapture past glories by rewriting them – Wrecking Ball as ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ c. 2014, perhaps. This is an easy (tiger) record, but did we maybe want something more than that from our erstwhile enfant terrible? Maybe next time.


August 2014

The Incarnations, by Susan Barker
The story of a Beijing taxi driver plagued by letters from an unknown div who insists they have shared many past lives together, The Incarnations reads a little like China-for-Westerners, despite Barker’s own long-standing residence in the country – there’s kow-towing and Cultural Revolutions, bound feet and decadence. In this I found it a little less … unpredictable? … than I’d hoped. But it also sprints across milennia of Chinese history with an assured sense of pace and a very carefully-packaged plot. Satisfying twist aside, there’s a lot of violence and degradation in these colourful pasts,which give way to the dull safety of a grey and uneventful modern-day Beijing – leaving the reader wondering what The Incarnations wants for its characters. Nevertheless, episodes from this novel, if not its whole fabric, will stay with you.
Songs, John Fullbright
The unassuming simplicity of this album’s title is matched by the purity of its production. The sense of soil and snarl that adorned Fullbright’s arresting debut is gone here, replaced by winsomely magisterial pianos and stately tempos. The effect is pretty and often affecting, but doesn’t grab the listener by the shoulders and shake as before. What is wonderful, however, is the quiet evidence this second effort provides that Fullbright is a complete and changeable talent, one whose songs can and will mesmerise in different ways.


2 thoughts on “What We Like

  1. What an eclectic mix of thoughts. Very interesting. I wonder if you might like the harsh poetry of “Cold Fact” by Sixto Rodriguez?

    I don’t know if my work might tempt you but it will be easy enough for you to find out and decide for yourselves, simply visit http://cgayling.com/malmaxa/samples/ and start reading. A true description might be, “Philosophy couched as Fantasy”.

    If you’re tempted to review it drop me a line at CGAyling at gmail.com – I’d love to hear from you.

  2. I read the short story version of The Dig a while back and thought it was brilliant. Will have to check out the novel. Ditto on George Saunders’ 10th of December. Utterly transfixing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s