The Affirmation by Christopher Priest (Books 2023, 24) πŸ“š

I’ve had this book for years, and I thought I had read it. Took a look at it a week or two back and realised I hadn’t. So I did.

What I also didn’t realise was that it’s a Dream Archipelago story. Which is surprising, since it starts in present-day (1980s) London. In fact it’s the first novel (though not, I think, the first story) to use the Dream Archipelago as a setting, or state of mind.

Peter Sinclair suffers various crises in his personal life, and decides to write an autobiography to better understand himself. Through various revisions his writing becomes more fictionalised, until he’s writing about the islands. Or living in them. Is it alternative world or madness? Portal fantasy or mental breakdown?

Or maybe both, or neither. You could argue that as a story it doesn’t entirely make sense, but I don’t think I’d go there. I mean, I’d go there, to the Archipelago, for sure (it feels a lot like Greece to me, and indeed Sinclair and his ex/not-ex girlfriend met there, we are told).

It’s a novel that leaves you questioning its realities, and maybe your own. And that seems like a good thing to me.

… And Took the Road for Heaven in the Morning

In a way it was surprising that Shane MacGowan survived this long, considering his noted and dramatic habits. But it’s still sad that he’s died.

I count The Pogues as one of the bands I’ve seen live most of all. The only other one that comes close would be The Fall, and either could be the winner. Goes back to 1985, either way.

The Pogues were vey much a band of supremely talented musicians and songwriters. But Shane was the driving force. What they did was to meld punk with Irish folk music. The former, of course had helped me through my adolescent years and would remain a lifelong love. The latter: well, I came from a Scottish Catholic background, so it was pretty familiar, between Scottish folk and Irish songs sung at Celtic matches.

So on the instant that I first heard them β€” certainly on Peel, and probably ‘Sally MacLennane’, I’d say β€” they clicked. There was no learning curve, no adjustment to this new sound. It was just there, it belonged, as if it had always existed.

So The Pogues may have been inevitable, but Shane was a genius. And his songs, as I wrote when Phil Chevron died were steeped in death imagery.

I’ll leave you with a couple of excellent screen grabs from Twitter (where, just to note, as I write, ‘Sodomy and the Lash’ is trending under a ‘food’ heading, which is just beyond weird.

First, this excellent mashups of the day’s deaths of noted figures:

A tweet saying 'i'll remember Shane MacGowan for his staid, unflashy fiscal stewardship during the late New Labour years, Henry Kissinger for his wildcat drinking and visionary balladeering, and Alastair Darling for his crimes against the people of Cambodia and Laos'

And this typically topical ‘Fairytale’ reference (even if it does misspell his surname):

A tweet saying 'fair play to shane macgowen for tapping out exactly one day before the fairy tale of new york discourse starts  RIP'

So it goes.

8Β½, 1963 - β˜…β˜…β˜…

Fellini's 8Β½ is a weird, fragmentary, confusing, semi-autobiographical piece about a filmmaker who's trying to make a movie and is creatively blocked.

People come and go, scenes change almost at random, none of it really makes sense. And yet, in a weird and surprisingly charming kind of way it all does.

And it's one of those classics where you can see hints of the things or people it inspired. Most notably for me, David Lynch. I feel like he must have mainlined this.

Wordle 890 2/6*


Extreme rarity of Wordle in 2!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Books 2023, 23)πŸ“š

Why did nobody ever tell me that this book is funny? I had it in my head as a slightly worthy, if much-loved, courtroom drama. But the trial is only part of it, and quite small part at that. Though its ramifications play out to the end, and echo back to near the start.

Scout is an endearing narrator, wise beyond her years, tough, smart. Lee conjures a believable, well-formed picture of life in small-town Alabama in the thirties. A place of community and friendship, gossip and criticism, poverty and hard work. And a few people, notably Atticus, of course, willing to do the right thing in the face of dangerous racist neighbours.

It’s intriguing, from a writer’s perspective, how the narrative voice changes in the courtroom scenes when they do come.

And Boo Radley gave the band their name. I don’t think I knew that, or if I did I’d forgotten.

You don’t need me to tell you it’s a classic, and it turns out, for good reason.

All About Eve, 1950 - β˜…β˜…β˜…Β½

Not dissimilar in themes to the various A Star is Born instances we've been watching, in that it's partly about fame and performance.

A successful stage actor is not-quite-stalked by a fan, the titular Eve, who then becomes her personal assistant, and gradually moves almost to replace her.

Which makes Eve sounds more sinister than she comes across in the film.

And despite the title, it's really more about Margo than it is about Eve.

BBC 6 Music DJ: ‘We’ve set up a deck in the studio so we can play you some vinyl directly, instead of having to digitise it.’ Then he has to run across the room to where the turntable is.

The sound you hear is not the turntable spinning, but John Peel doing so in his grave.

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (Books 2023, 22) πŸ“š

There is no evidence in the text of this book that it is SF. Yet here I have a copy, published in the SF Masterworks series.

Graham Sleight addresses this in his introduction, but doesn’t try to give a conclusive reading either. There is no definitive answer, as the work is deliberately ambiguous.

The titular Sarah is a woman described as β€˜ugly’ who turns up in the camp of some Chinese men who are working on railroads in the USA of the 1870s. She speaks no known human language, though she does make sounds. She gains her name later because, a character says, β€˜she sings like an angel’. One of the men, a young man called Chin, is volunteered to try to find where she belongs, or failing that, at least get rid of her, so she stops distracting them.

So begins a trek across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Along the ways we meet various characters with various good and bad qualities.

The ending is, as I say, ambiguous. We never find out who or what Sarah Canary is. But the journey is quite enjoyable.

A Star Is Born, 1976 - β˜…β˜…β˜…

Three stars because this is a bit better than the fifties version that we watched a couple of months ago.

It's the same story, with tighter telling, slightly better songs, and seventies fashions.

Here, both the fading male star and rising woman are singers. not actors, but that doesn't make much difference. The ending is more ambiguous, but not much more.

And it does a good job of showing the negative side of fame. I quite enjoyed it.


Hell of a record. It’s like immersing yourself in a haunting. Depression, anxiety and ghosts – which, to me, are probably all the same thing anyway. The Halloween release was clever, but I suspect that if you played this loud at midnight you’d clear a room pretty fast.

Experimental post using the β€œPublish Quote” Shortcut from @jarrod. As to the music, it’s OK, but I’ll need to give it another listen.

GoodFellas, 1990 - β˜…β˜…β˜…Β½

I somehow wasn't interested in this when it came out in 1990. Gangsters didn't really appeal at that time, I guess? Maybe the idea of a based-on-a-true-story gangster film? Although I don't think I knew that about it back then. I think I only learned it when we decided to watch it now.

In the intervening decades, of course, it has come to be considered a classic, on peoples' greatest of all time lists, all that kind of thing.

Turns out past-me might have been right. It's well told, reasonably interesting once it gets going, but it didn't do a lot for me. I'm glad I've finally seen it, but it won't be going on any of my favourite lists.

White Riot by Joe Thomas (Books 2023, 21) πŸ“š

I picked this up because of the title, taken as it obviously is from an early song by my favourite band. I bought it because it is set in and around the famous anti-Nazi festival in Victoria Park in London. Or at least it starts there.

Though that’s not quite true. It starts even closer to home for me: my kids' primary school is mentioned early on, and many other streets, pubs, takeaways and landmarks that still exist are visited.

Joe Thomas was born in 1977, so he’s doing this from research, not memory, but it captures the area very well, and the time β€” well, from what I know of those times in London, I think he’s done a great job.

It’s not mainly about the music scene, though. Thomas is a crime writer, and this is, kind of, a crime novel. And becomes more so as it goes on, and jumps to 1983. As you might imagine, given the notoriety of Stoke Newington Police Station of the time, it’s about bent coppers. And one more-or-less decent cop who is β€” we think β€” trying to bring them down.

I say ‘We think’, because it’s not finished. It turns out it’s the start of a trilogy, with Red Menace and True Blue to follow. This one was only published this year, so I guess it’ll be a while before we see the followups.

It’s all pretty good. It uses a slightly odd, cut-up sort of style: half sentences, fragments ending in dashes. But it’s very readable. As I say, I was drawn to it by the music and the locations, but I enjoyed spending time with the characters, and the situation is compelling. Real life events are stitched into fictional ones (or vice-versa).

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s a very political book. And surprisingly Thatcher turns up as a character. I’m not sure why Thomas choose to do that. Maybe since most of the characters are on the left, it was to provide some sort of balance. Why not go as far up and right as possible, I suppose. I don’t mean Thatcher is the furthest-right person in it, to be fair: the National Front are heavily involved, too.

The main police character is running ‘spycops’, and has operatives inside both the NF and the loose coalition of groups that oppose them (the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism, the Socialist Workers' Party). I expect as the series goes on we’ll see some version of the scandals around that whole business, too.

Velvet Goldmine, 1998 - β˜…β˜…

This is a kind of fake story of some of the singers who inspired and were part of glam rock. There's a central character who's obviously based on Bowie, another who's mostly Iggy Pop. Various others take elements of Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, and so on.

The music is a mixture of actual music from the time and specially-written tracks. The performers in the bands appearing on-stage and on the soundtrack are impressive: Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwod, Thurston Moore, Bernard Buttler, Ron Asheton, and more.

But the story is thin, and overall it's kind of boring. Apart from the songs, the main interest for me was in looking for parallels to the real people. Which is not really enough to sustain a film.

The Exorcist, 1973 - β˜…β˜…Β½

It’s slightly surprising, perhaps, that I’ve never seen this horror classic, given my sometime, occasional, interest in the genre. But then, it wasn’t available or was hard to get in the UK for the core years when I might have seen it.

Turns out it’s on iPlayer just now, so I rectified the situation.

Except I almost didn’t get past the first ten minutes. Honestly, I was so bored with the slow, tedious Iraq-set grave-robbing scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story!

And the film as a whole is weirdly fragmentary, disjointed after that, at least for the first half.

Then the last third is just one big advert for the Catholic church. Though I would note that the exorcism fails, the old exorcist is killed offscreen (and weirdly, he turns out to be the archaeologist/grave robber from the start).

It’s the self-sacrifice of the doubting Jesuit Father Karras, that gets the demon out of the girl. His ending is one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen in a film. And those steps were the scariest thing in this film.

Presumably the necklace/coin-like artefact that somehow made its way from Iraq was supposed to have had something to do with allowing the demon into the girl, but no use or sense of that was made in the story.

Decent effects. good makeup, and a great performance from Linda Blair (if slightly wooden performances from most of the rest of the cast) leave this as just OK, and far from the classic of its repute.

In my humble opinion, of course.

Tenet, 2020 - β˜…β˜…β˜…Β½

It's not Nolan's best, and I'm not sure it entirely makes sense. But it was better, and easier to understand, than I'd been led to believe. Of course, I was watching it at home, with subtitles on, so that always helps with making out mumblecore actors.

But the time-flipping: I realise it's well thought-out, but I'm not sure it's quite well thought out enough. A second watch might give me clarity on that, but unlike say Interstellar or <Inception, I don't think I'd particularly want to watch this again any time soon.

Which, since I'm realising that as I write it, surely means half a star off?

A screenshot of an email asking for 'a Python' for a role

Think I might refer this recruitment company to London Zoo, given their requirements.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Books 2023, 20) πŸ“š

This isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally think of reading, but I’ve joined a book club at work, and this was the latest book. The China MΓ­eville I read recently was the first.

This one is a historical novel based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters, three women from the Dominican Republic who were assassinated for political activism by the regime of the dictator Trujillo, in 1960. Among the history of Latin American dictatorships, that was one I had never heard of.

A fictionalised story, bringing the characters to the fore. There’s relatively little about what they actually did regarding revolutionary activities, but lots about them as daughters, as mothers. It’s told from four points of view: each of the murdered sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Mate; and that of their surviving sister, DedΓ©.

It’s a beautifully written novel, heartbreaking because you know how it’s going to end, and because the characters are so well-realised, so brought to life.

The day they were murdered, the 25th of November 1960, is memorialised by the UN as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith (Books 2023, 19) πŸ“š

It’s only a few days since I finished β€” just over a week since the year-long wait was over β€” and it seems like ages. Now we’re back into another wait β€” hopefully not more than a year β€” till we find out what’s next for Strike and Robin.

Here, Robin has to go undercover to investigate a cult. By which I mean, she has to sign up as if she were a believer, and go deep, deep undercover. It gets very tense.

Minor spoilers follow.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as the previous one or two, I think. Certainly at first I was a bit disappointed because of the time-jump. We’re eight months after the end of The Ink Black Heart, when I had expected it to continue straight on, the way Troubled Blood flowed right into IBH.

But I think the main problem was that the two main characters are separated for much of it, precisely because she’s undercover, so can’t really communicate with him.

Of course, once it all kicked into gear, the pages kept turning like they always do. But, while it was great to see them bring down an appalling cult, it just wasn’t as emotionally resonant for me as, especially, the previous two.

The Net, 1995 - β˜…β˜…Β½

I know I’ve heard comments about this over the years, but I can’t remember whether people say it's surprisingly good, or so bad it's good.

It's somewhere in between, of course. It's very much of its time, which was 1995 β€” the same year as The Matrix, if I’m remembering correctly. And while it comes from a place not that far from The Matrix β€” it’s about hackers and how our lives are tied up with computer systems, after all β€” it’s very different.

Not least because it’s far more a realist piece, compared to the SF/fantasy stylings of the Wachowskis' film. Here, Sandra Bullock is a freelance computer expert of loosely defined skills, who gets caught in the backwash from the corruption of a sometime client’s security software.

Something like that, anyway. It starts very slowly, despite a dramatic prelude incident, but she’s soon on the run, wooed and threatened by a glamorous hacker/gangster.

Out on her own with no one she can trust, she has to trust herself.

It's not bad. Probably not so-bad-it’s-good, either. Just OK.

Ceremonial Doom Bar with the new Strike & Ellacott novel. πŸ“š