Hazel O’Connor trending on Twitter. Mainly because of people saying ‘I saw Hazel O’Connor was trending and feared the worst, but it’s fine.’

Looks like someone asked for ’80s songs with the best sax', and ‘Will You’ fits. Thought Gerry Rafferty should be there, but ‘Baker Street’ was 1978.

Canal Dreams by Iain Banks (Books 2023, 18) 📚

I’ve always considered this the least of Iain Banks’s novels. As, I think, did he. If I remember correctly, this was the one about which he said he wrote it without a plan, and he’d never do that again.

So it’s strange, coming back to The Great Banksie Reread, and reading this for the first time in many years, to find that I liked it far more than I expected to. (Funny to note that my only other reference to it here was saying it was better than I remembered.)

It’s not that bad at all. It doesn’t meander the way you might expect the ‘no plan’ thing to imply. What is striking is how apt the title is. A significant proportion of the narrative is taken up with the main character’s dreams. All of which either illuminate her past or tie in to other events in the plot, so they make sense.

But whichever novelist it was that I remember saying, ‘Never have a dream sequence’ — Chris Priest, I think — must hate it.

Tried Siri’s new slightly more conversational mode in iOS 17. Said ‘Siri, pause’ while a podcast was playing out loud, and it did. Said ‘Thank you,’ and it said, ‘You’re welcome,’ which is nice.

Still no Scottish voice, though.

This is a good piece about the different ways we communicate:

Are you a writer or a talker?

That is, when you need to think about something, do you generally reach for something to write with, or look for someone to talk to?

– Mandy Brown, Writers and talkers and leaders, oh my!

I’m definitely a writer, and I know how it feels to explain something in careful detail, in a document, and email, or just an instant message, and have someone reply with, ‘Maybe a quick call to talk about it?’

This helps me to realise that I shouldn’t get infuriated at them. They just have a different communication style.

H/T to Colin Devroe.

A Star Is Born, 1954 - ★★½

The 1954 version of A Star is Born has in it the bones of a great film. It is not, however, the great film it’s reputed to be.

I should start by noting that our enjoyment of this was marred by the fact that the sound was out of sync. We rented it from Apple TV on our Roku box, and it was out from the start. I tried all the suggestions I could find online to fix it, short of a factory reset. Thing is, all of those were about the sound being out of sync on the Roku.

But the Roku was fine, in every other app, and in other things in the Apple TV app (great to have The Morning Show back). No, the problem here was that particular file, it seemed like.

Maybe there was a way we could have forced a redownload of it, and got a different version. If so, it wasn’t to be found.

But you adjust, you put up with things. We were startled half an hour or so in (to a three hour film, I note) when the video stopped and was replaced with a sepia-toned still image. Clearly a production still. The audio, and the story, carried on. The picture changed to another still. Visuals came back, to a long shot. Then another still.

This was strange enough that it deserved duckducking. Turns out we were seeing the result of studio meddling. It seems a producer, believing it was too long, made the decision to cut it. Without the director.

And later the studio, in a BBC-Doctor Who-video-wiping level of stupidity, melted the offcuts down to reclaim the silver.

Thing is, the producer may have been wrong at the time — according to that story, the shortened version was less popular — and he was certainly wrong in what he cut; but he wasn’t wrong about the film being overlong.

That may be unfair. Three-hour films can work perfectly well, after all. No, the edits should have been made at the scrip stage.

Or maybe at directing.Because this film is incoherent at times. A sudden cut and it’s months or years later with no sense of what went on in between. That can be fine, it can work well. Except here it felt like they had a series of scenes that they wanted to show, and they just bashed them together without a thought for how the story would flow.

There are some great moments. Judy Garland has a fantastic voice, of course, and is a perfectly fine actor, and a very good physical actor, it turns out.

A great voice, rubbish songs, unfortunately. Getting her to sing a song that includes the word ‘somewhere’ does not make it as good as the song she’s most famous for.

Honestly, that and the song-within-a-film-within-the-film (‘Born in a Trunk’, I think it was called) are as much as I remember about the music.

I’m sort of keen to see if the seventies or twenty-tens versions are better. I’ve got to imagine they must be.

Shorter, anyway

Fatal Revenant: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 2 by Stephen Donaldson (Books 2023, 17) 📚

Wordy, as I mentioned before. Long. Unnecessarily repetitive.

But I enjoyed it nonetheless.

I’m quite glad, though, I don’t have the other books yet. I feel it’s best to take a break after a story like this. Let it sink in. Prepare yourself, maybe, for the next one.

Anyway, more of the same: The Land is in danger, Linden Avery’s son is in Lord Foul’s clutches, and she’s prepared to do just about anything to save it, and him. But especially him. I expect we’re going to see a situation where she puts the whole Land — the whole of Earth, indeed — in danger, by trying to save Jeremiah.

Maybe she already has.

Oh: people have far too many different names in this. I mean, names by which various people refer to them. In the very last chapter someone refers to ‘The Timewarden’. I was like, ‘That sounds like The Doctor; what the hell is going on?’ But they just meant Thomas Covenant.

In the Heat of the Night, 1967 - ★★★

A Black cop helps a white police chief investigate a murder in a southern (US) town. After first being arrested on suspicion of the murder, of course.

Compared to how things appear today in the US, this feels very gentle. Even when Sidney Poitier's Mr Tibbs is threatened by racist thugs, there's no real sense of menace.

But it's a good story, sending positive messages, and well worth a watch.

Speaking of ChatGPT, I like Cory Doctorow’s explanation of it and its cousins from his latest piece:

AI chatbots are mirrors of experts, only instead of giving you informed opinions, they plagiarize sentence-fragments into statistically plausible paragraphs.

Dave Winer (I think he’s still @dave on Micro.blog) talks about using ChatGPT to

make calls about a user’s WordPress account. I want to know what sites the user is following in their reader app.

ChatGPT notwithstanding, I’m mildly horrified that a) WordPress makes that info publicly available, and b) Dave wants to use it.

Straight to Hell, 1987 - ★★

Alex Cox made a spaghetti western, with Joe Strummer, the Pogues, Elis Costello, Courtney Love 'acting' in it. Plus some proper actors.

The plot is completely incoherent, but I'm glad it's there.

Still, the best bit is the closing credits. Not because it's over, but because The Pogues' 'Rake at the Gates of Hell' plays over them.

Frances Ha, 2012 - ★★★½

It’s as if a French New Wave film had been made in New York in the early 2000s (with a quick visit to Paris thrown in for maximum effect). 

Written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Bauerbach, starring the former and directed by the latter. Frances is a would-be dancer/choreographer with friend, relationship, money, and apartment troubles. 

We’ll worth a watch.

Well, it’s obvious that no one reads this, or they’d have drawn my attention to the ridiculous typo in the title of the last but one post. And of the book it was naming. My apologies to Becky Chambers.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Books 2023, 16) 📚

Normally speaking I’d claim a novel written in the 1930s and set in the late 40s for science fiction. But this doesn’t quite reach the threshold. There are around three obvious things that are futuristic: a reference to the Anglo-Nicaraguan war of 1946; ‘air mail’, where a package sent from London is dropped into a field in Sussex; and the astonishing combination of phone and television, allowing the callers to see as well as hear each other! Or rather, one caller to see the other, since phone boxes don’t have ‘television dials’ (but must at least have cameras).

Oh, and the train service has become rubbish, not because of the car or Beeching, but because (wealthy) people mostly fly.

But all that is nothing compared to how funny and overall good this novel is. Stella Gibbons wrote many other novels, but all of them are out of print but this, which is a great shame.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Books 2023, 15) 📚

I started readingthis a few years back, and stopped after the first chapter or so, because it seemed too similar to the thing I was trying to write at the time. I didn’t want to be overly influenced, or worse, unconsciously plagiarise it.

But it’s always been in the back of my mind. And recently I’ve been trying to get back into that novel I was working on then, and finding it difficult. So I thought maybe reading the space opera I backed away from because it was too similar to my own nascent space opera would be just what I needed to get me kickstarted.

That hasn’t quite happened yet (maybe because I read it on holiday), but I loved the hell out of this.

Great characters you enjoy spending time with. A plot that’s just believable enough, with stakes that are high for the characters and then get higher. An interesting, believable galactic political background, with Earth as very much the minor player.

None of the nonhuman characters feel really alien, except from in their physical descriptions, but that’s OK.

I’d say, if you liked Firefly, you’ll like this.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Books 2023, 14) 📚

I’ve been meaning to read this since I read a review of it back when it came out, in 2017. So, six years on, I finally did.

It’s surprisingly slight, given all the fuss and praise. I wasn’t familiar with Saunders before reading that review, but he is famous for his short stories. I’ve read a few of those since — at least one during my MA — and they’re fine, but to my mind tend to suffer from the problem that many short stories have.

I’ve mentioned this here before, though seemingly only once. Often, when I read a short story — even, or perhaps especially, by one of the supposed greats of of the form: Carver, Hemingway, even Chekhov — I’m left thinking, ‘So what? What was the point of writing that, and why did you leave it where you did?’

However, I recognise the skill that it takes to conjure a life, a character, in few words. And Saunders makes good use of that ability here. Because the story is not very much about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not even that much about his son, Willie, who is the one who is actually in the ‘bardo’, a place where souls wait after death in some schools of Buddhism. Rather, it’s about some of the other souls that are trapped in the same Washington graveyard. We get a whole host of compressed backstories.

And we get altogether too many quotes from books and articles about Lincoln and the death of his son. I haven’t investigated to see whether these are from actual Lincoln biographies, histories of the American Civil War, and so on, or they are cleverly invented by Saunders. (This Wikipedia article suggests it’s a mixture.) But I found them much less interesting than the stories of the dead souls. A few would have been fine, for background, but it feels like they make up about half the book.

More stories about the dead, please.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Books 2023, 13) 📚

Piranesi has always lived in the house; even if that’s not his name, which it may not be.

A fantastic and fantastical, strange book, this; much simpler and shorter than Susanna Clarke’s previous, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I loved. I kind of love this, too.

I don’t have a lot to say about it, though, as to say much would be to spoil it.

I’m not sure who the New York Times folks are trolling with today’s Connections, but it’s a good one.

The Runes of the Earth: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 1 by Stephen Donaldson (Books 2023, 12) 📚

Forty years ago it was: towards the end of school, Watty — he of the Number 6 badge, celebrating The Prisoner — turned me on to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

‘What does he not believe in?’ I asked.

‘Everything!’ said Watty with relish.

It took me a while to get into the first book. There was an early section where I ground to a halt. But I went back to it, and ripped through the five books of the two trilogies that were out yet.

Then I had to wait. This is largely why I try not to start a series before its author has finished writing it. Those weeks and months through the first year of uni were interminable. (Only in that one regard, though, to be fair.)

There was a guy on my corridor in the halls of residence who was similarly waiting, and when White Gold Wielder came out, he bought it at once.

In hardback. I was shocked by the profligacy, and didn’t emulate him. Besides, it wouldn’t have matched my paperbacks.

But after he’d read it, he lent it to me. I wish I could remember his name.

So it should be clear that I liked the books a lot. However, I was thereafter corrupted by the general consensus that these were not well-written books, not a good example of the genre.

And yes, sure, they’re not particularly well-written. Donaldson can be over-wordy and repetitive at times. But he knew how to weave a tale that gripped me.

And now, forty years hence, after my son had borrowed my old copies and read them (including my paperback of White Gold Wielder, which I bought to complete the set, but have never read, since I never reread the series) he discovered (something which I vaguely knew) that Donaldson had written a ‘final’ trilogy. Which has since turned into a tetralogy. I don’t know when that happened. This volume that I read — my son’s — says it’s three volumes.

So how is it? Pretty damn good, actually. A copious ‘What Has Gone Before’ leads off, and reminds me how much I don’t remember about the original six books. And then — well, I don’t want to get into spoilers, but after the first hundred or so pages, it’s a real page-turner for the next four hundred or so, and leaves me keen to know how it all ends.

So expect more of this stuff here, in due course. This time, it’s all finished, and there will be no need for me to wait for a final volume.

The City & the City by China Mieville (Books 2023, 11) 📚

It’s like China wanted to write a police procedural, a detective story. But being China, there was no way it could be set in the quotidian world of today.

Which is great.. The setup here is that there are two cities, Besźel an Ul Qoma, somewhere in Eastern Europe; but they both occupy the same space. People in on can’t interact with those in the other.

That’s about as much as I knew about it before I started.

In another way it feels it’s kind of an extended metaphor for how we don’t notice things that are right under our noses. Or, as my beloved said, just for how we can live in a city like London alongside people from other cultures, people who look and dress differently, who even move differently; and never interact with them

This is both good and bad, of course. Or can be both or either depending on the circumstances. Because we’re ignoring other people, whole swathes of them. The live their lives, full, rich, desperate, happy, sad; and we know nothing of them. They know nothing of us. Yet we don’t get in their way. We don’t interfere with them. We let them get on with their lives, and they us with ours, not causing them problems, as they cause us none.

Or only the most minor of inconveniences as we avoid each other on the street.

But is there even a third city, co-terminal with the two we know about? Some believe there is. Does Orciny exist?

You’ll have to read it to find out.

The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952 - ★★★½

Watched on Monday August 14, 2023.

Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962 - ★★★½

Watched on Friday August 11, 2023.

I think I’ve seen more rain this summer than in all the years I’ve lived in London.

Oh no, we’ve lost touch with Voyager 2. I feel weirdly sad about this. It’s the furthest-away thing humans have ever made.

This Scottish MP who’s been ousted by the people for breaking Covid rules: I think this is the first time we’ve had a recall in the UK.

Now, what we need is to have the policy extended to the whole of parliament. Could we get 10% of the electorate to vote to recall the current parliament? Yes. Yes, we could.

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Books 2023, 10) 📚

To tide me over until the new Strike book comes out (in just under two months) I suddenly decided to reread JK’s single non-pseudonymous, non-magical book. It’s over a decade old now, which is kind of hard to believe.

And it’s still bloody heartbreaking. How she can make us feel so much for so many flawed characters (but especially one or two) in so few words, never stops amazing me.

It’s a slice of small-town England, in which a parish council member dies, leaving the titular vacancy. And all that proceeds from that. It shouldn’t be as compelling as it is, based on that description. But there you go.