Sunday, December 27, 2009

Song for Sunday

Portishead – Chase the Tear

Fantastic new track from Portishead, being sold to raise funds for Amnesty International, but can you buy it in Australia? No chance. Oh well, at least the video works anywhere ...

And as special Christmas bonus here is the trailer for the new Tindersticks' album Falling Down a Mountain:

Band/artist of the week: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Song of the week: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Hysteric

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

1 Little Birdy – Confetti
I stumbled across the song Brother about mid-way through the year, but it took me a few months to realise how fantastic it was. Then pootly1 kept asking – who sings that who's going to love you now baaaaybeee song? Then offspring1 started telling us that it was his favourite song and could we play it again? Eventually I did a bit of research and found out that not only were they an Australian band, but they were currently based in our home city and that the backing vocals were Australian living legend Paul Kelly.

The album was only purchased about three weeks ago, but already it has carved a secure place into our hearts as one of those albums that you can't really imagine living without. Opening with Brother the album moves through the pure pop of Summarize past the sublime Stay Wild through to finish with the raw and ragged title track. All the while Katy Steele's magnificent voice soars over a wonderfully timeless but contemporary backing. Whatever sorts of music you think you like, buy this. I guarantee you'll love it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Album of the year?

So, there you have it, numbers ten to two. Almost over now. But what is going to win the Geography of Hope Best Album of 2009? Anyone that guesses correctly gets a copy of their choice from the top ten. Just put your guess in the comments below before 9pm (Australian Eastern Summer time) tomorrow night and you might be in line for an extra Christmas present ...

Top 10 Albums of 2009

2 The XX – XX
Lots of reviews have mentioned the word minimalist, but I would argue it's perfectly formed with nothing superfluous – a bit like the musical equivalent of one of these. Minimalist always seems to imply that the band are cold or stand-offish and that the music is unemotional, but that isn't the case here. The music is slinky and sly, with emotions running high even if they aren't always overt. For a bunch of youngsters (and they are young – average age is 20, hence the XX) let loose in the studio for the first time it is remarkably restrained, however I think it is the sort of restraint that comes from unrequited or uncertain feelings.

It is a late night sound, that has only recently been matched by the genius that is fellow Londoner Burial. Not the sound of pubs and clubs, but loners and couples walking the streets, sitting on park benches and looking out from the back of buses.

The interplay between the voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim is amazing and it sounds like there's plenty of history behind their tales of love and desire. It all adds up to one of those albums that sounds unique and timeless, an immediate classic that sounds like nothing else around.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

3 Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
I thought The Modern Leper was rubbish when I first heard it. I still can't really be arsed with it, but once you get past it the album gradually picks up. And by the time you get to the fourth track – Fast Blood – I defy anyone not to be tapping their foot, nodding their head or more likely doing some kind of awkward indie-kid shuffle around the floor. It starts out fantastic:
Good night/ Its Showtime/ Lets get paralysed/ Down both sides/ Snake Hips ...
and then just gets better. By the time you get to Heads Roll Off:
Jesus/ Is just a Spanish boys name ...
you will be convinced that the Midnight Organ Fight is one of the most original and thrilling records in recent years and that they all deserve to be bigger stars than Robbie Williams. I do anyway.

Song for Sunday

Saint Etienne – I Was Born on Christmas Day

Band/artist of the week: The Very Best
Song of the week: The XX – Islands

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

4 Fulton Lights – Healing Waters EP
We ran the numbers/ and checked it all twice/ gathered all the experts/ and took all their advice/ we had it/ we had the technology/ and the science was flawless/ we had the wise men and world leaders and religions behind it/ we had it/ we thought we had it/ let's just admit it/ let's just call it what it is/ we built a monster ...
Only six songs, but for me this record captures the end of the noughties zeitgeist better than anything else.

According to Fulton Lights is a Brooklyn-based* musician Andrew Spencer Goldman accompanied by an eclectic variety of musicians – among them players who have worked with the Walkmen, Wilco, Dälek, Ida, the Beauty Pill, and Grenadine. I have heard of Ida and Wilco, but none of the others and I am not sure that it would make much difference if I had.

Healing Waters is ghostly and sparse, with distant beats and slabs of distorted guitars. Sort of like listening to My Bloody Valentine on your iPod while walking past Girls Aloud playing a concert in an empty church. Like on Loveless there are moments of tender beauty and catchy hooks amongst the glorious racket, but on a first listen this sounds more raw and ragged than the My Bloody Valentine's classic. It is only later, when you listen closely, that you can hear how precisely and artfully it has been put together.

*UPDATE: Apparently he doesn't live in Brooklyn anymore – according to the A.V. Club he moved back to Washington D.C. a few months ago to go to law school!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Xmas party

Day off from the top 10 albums of 2009. Work Christmas party this evening, so you will have to wait another day to find out who made number 4 in the list ...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

5 Girls – Album
'Who is this miserable git?', Pootly1 asked first time I played Hellhole Ratrace in the car. And, although I hadn't really thought about it before then, he does sound like a bit of a sad case. Then there is the name: calling themselves Girls and calling the album Album should automatically mean that all the songs are rubbish, but in actual fact it's total genius.

At times it sounds like early Jesus and Mary Chain jamming with the Kinks and one (the catchy one) of the Beach Boys. Other times it reminds me of Pavement and Blur having a bust-up in the pub. And occasionally he sounds like Jarvis Cocker out on the pull. As you may have gathered it's not the easiest album to describe, however, trust me, people are going to be talking about this record for a long time and I would suggest that you get a copy soon so that you can look smug in about six months time when everyone starts asking – 'Have you heard the Girls? He's a bit of a miserable git, but they are going to be huge!'

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

6 The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa
Three guys: one Swedish, one French and one Malawian by way of a junk shop in Clapton, East London. Globalisation can be good for something after all.

Esau Mwamwaya is the Malawian part of the equation and it is his voice that infuses these songs with a wonderful sense of fun and energy. The other two are responsible for the music, and already have a bit of name and following as the DJ duo Radioclit. The title Warm Heart of Africa captures perfectly the happy, poppy sound and you would have be half-dead for this not to put a smile on your face.

The title track is insanely catchy and you'll be singing along to the half intelligible lyrics and wondering if that really is cow bell after about thirty seconds. From the cheesy synth pop intro of Chalo to the beautiful slow-building Yalira this album just makes you happy to forget about everything else for forty-five minutes and lose yourself in its visceral thrills.

They are also responsible for the best version of M.I.A.s Paper Planes that I've heard. I'd recommend that you find a download of their mix-tape (which is still knocking around the interweb for free) and it is disguised as track number three – Tengazako.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

7 Emiliana Torrini – Me and Armini
I enjoyed Emilíana's first album Love in the Time of Science, but thought it was a bit bland in places. Her second – Fisherman's Wife – was too twee and so I wasn't expecting too much from Me and Armini.

How wrong could I be? It's totally brilliant. From the dub groove of the title track to the sprightly acoustic pop of Big Jumps to the trip-hoppy Dead Duck to the PJ Harvey-esque Gun to the sublime Birds it's inventive and interesting without feeling like it's all over the place. I can't be sure, but I think a lot of it is down to her producer, Mr Dan (Dan Carey), who seems to have been responsible for most of the instrumentation. If I remember correctly he also worked with Dot Allison on the excellent Mo' Pop 12" and in a weird six-degrees-of-separation thing I have friends who know both Ms Allison and Mr Carey. Spooky or what?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

8 Fennesz – Black Sea
The distant sound of seagulls, is soon replaced by squelching electronic thumps and interference which takes some minutes to resolve into a beautiful chiming guitar line that ebbs and flows, almost fading to nothing at times.

Over the years I had read a bit about Christian Fennesz and heard lots of people rave about Endless Summer, but I never got around to listening to it and, before I did, I started to hear similar things about a new album – Black Sea. I guess this would be called an ambient album, but to me it feels like a soundtrack to some unmade, dark sci-fi dystopia and mostly the scene that keeps popping into my head is the bit at the end of Blade Runner with Harrison Ford in the pouring rain. I thought it would be good inoffensive background music for listening to on the crappy speakers I have at work, but in actual fact you really need to listen to it on the headphones late at night when everyone else in the house has gone to sleep and nothing else can distract you ...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

9 Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu – Gurrumul
Gurrumul is mostly just Geoffrey and his acoustic guitar. Left-handed he plays a right-handed guitar Jimmy Hendrix style. Almost all the lyrics are sung in Gälpu, Gumatj or Djambarrpuyŋu (languages of the Indigenous people of north-east Arnhemland which are part of the Yolŋu Matha group of languages) with occasional fragments in English. Born into the Gumatj clan on Elcho Island, and blind since birth he is renowned for being intensely shy.

I can't remember exactly where, but I first heard him sing on a TV show sometime in late 2008. He seemed utterly out of place in the phony atmosphere of a day-time TV studio, but his remarkable voice cut through everything around him and you had the feeling that everyone was holding their breath as he sang. It sounds ridiculous, but it is one of those voices that sounds completely outwith normal time and space, ancient and modern, as if all his ancestors, family and history have manifested themselves in the vocal chords of this one diminutive, unassuming body. Listening to him sing never fails to calm and lift my spirits, inspirational music in its true sense.

Song for Sunday

Airborne Toxic Event – Sometime Around Midnight

Band/artist of the week: The Very Best
Song of the week: Efterklang – Modern Drift

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

So, like a sadly anti-climactic advent calender that only runs for ten days instead of the requisite twenty-four here is the first of my top 10 albums of 2009:

10 The Airborne Toxic Event – The Airborne Toxic Event
Number 10 was going to be Idlewild's Post Electric Blues, but in a late change of heart they dropped off and these guys snuck-in. I almost dismissed them without listening, due to the terrible name, and initially I had them pegged as competent indie-pop magpies (Papillon is Arcade Fire-lite, Does This Mean You're Moving On? could be an outtake from Is This It and the arch Happiness is Overrated could almost be My Life Story or The Divine Comedy).

But after a few listens I found myself untroubled by their blatant plagiarism and increasingly charmed by the energy, enthusiasm and sheer fun of it all. Sure it is polished, professional and a bit portentous in places (like well-made American TV drama – West Wing and ER I am looking at you), but you can't deny that its great for what it is. If only the White Lies album had been half as good as this. The nine songs flash by in just over thirty minutes and I guarantee that you will find it hard not just to go straight back to the beginning before the bouncy Missy has completely faded out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A golf course is not green

There isn't much cycling, or a lot about bikes, in David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, but luckily the places he and his bike visit provide plenty of other opportunities for rambling on about stuff that he finds interesting and entertaining.

If you are interested in the same sort of stuff – music, art, food and urban living – then this will be a pleasant, thought-provoking few hours in the company of an erudite and genial guide to early twenty-first century life. If you aren't you will probably think that he is a pretentious, self-important wanker who only gets his witterings published between hardcovers because he once sang Psychokiller.

I thought it was mostly great, but then again I would probably also score quite highly on the pretentious wanker index.

He starts out with a quick and fairly simplistic history lesson about American cities and how many developed into inhuman car-centric, planning disasters with desolate centres and soulless, endless tracts of suburbia. As he acknowledges though, not all American cities are like this and many may still be rescued, helped by the recent economic downturn, peak oil and climate change:
Cities as a rule use less energy per capita than do suburban communities where people are living spread out [Thanks for explaining that David!], so as the cost of energy spirals up, those grimy urban streets start to look like they might have possibilities. The economy has tanked, the United States can lose its place as number one world power, but that doesn't mean that many of these cities can't still become more livable. Life can still be good – not only good, it can be better than most of us can imagine. A working class neighborhood can be full of life. A neighborhood that has many different kinds of people and business in it is usually a good place to live. If there were some legislation that ensured a mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhood would emerge when developers move in, it would be wise, because those are the liveliest and healthiest kinds of communities.
Then he heads off round the world to demonstrate what he means. Berlin – Istanbul – Buenos Aries – Manila – Sydney – London – San Francisco and back to his hometown New York. Although he seems to forget what it was that he set out to do and gets distracted by all the interesting people, music and art that he meets on the way. Which is fine, and I suspect makes for a much less dull book than if he had spent all his time trying to force his experiences to prove the point.

And to be fair he does get back to the point in the epilogue, The Future of Getting Around, which talks about how we can make our cities more attractive, livable and safer places. He highlights the work and thoughts of the wonderful Enrique Peñalosa, who was mayor of Bogotá from 1998 to 2001. During his tenure as mayor he created an efficient and inexpensive public transport network, closed streets to cars at weekends and made many streets pedestrian (and bike) only. Although initially met with resistance, his ideas have gradually been accepted in Bogotá and put into practice in other cities around the world. Not only has the city become a more pleasant place to live, but many other indicators like crime rates, school attendance and health have improved.

As Peñalosa himself explains:
When I got to city hall, I was a handed a transportation study that said the most important thing the city could do was to build an elevated highway at a cost of $600 million. Instead, we installed a bus system that carries 700,000 people a day at a cost of $300 million. We created hundreds of pedestrian-only streets, parks, plazas, and bike paths, planted trees, and got rid of cluttering commercial signs. We constructed the longest pedestrian-only street in the world. It may seem crazy, because this street goes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogotá, and many of the surrounding streets aren't even paved. But we chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians. All this pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We're telling people, 'You are important--not because you're rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human.' If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society.
Now, if only Robert Doyle and all the anti-clearway numpties would start thinking seriously about ideas like these, and how they could be used to improve Melbourne, then maybe we really would have a chance to live up to our billing as one of the world's most livable cities ...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Song for Sunday

And so this week in honour of winning Geography of Hope's album of the decade ...

The National – Apartment Story

Band/artist of the week: Little Birdy
Song of the week: Little Birdy – Stay Wild

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Song for Sunday

To celebrate Original Pirate Material being named album of the decade by Observer Music Monthly ...

The Streets – Weak Become Heroes

Band/artist of the week: Little Birdy
Song of the week: Wild Nothing – Summer Holiday

Albums of the Decade

Getting the lists for 2009 started early the Observer Music Monthly has one with their top 50 albums of the decade. Here's the top 10:

10 Burial – Untrue
9 Salif Keita – Moffou
8 Jay-Z – The Black Album
7 The White Stripes – Elephant
6 Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
5 Arcade Fire – Funeral
4 The Strokes – Is This It
3 Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
2 Radiohead – Kid A
1 The Streets – Original Pirate Material

As Mike Skinner would say, fair play to them: it's pretty much spot on. I would argue about Kid A and Back to Black but apart from those two, most of the others would be on or near my list.

Kid A is the album where Radiohead and I parted company, only making-up again with 2007's In Rainbows. Sure it has some moments of 'profound beauty and deep emotion' as the reviewer says, it is just that there aren't very many and most of the rest of the album is pretty much unlistenable. Sure it is ambitious and managed to sidestep the massive expectations that had built up for a fourth Radiohead album, but it really is the sort of album that only a music journalist could love. Music for beard stroking, not listening or enjoying. Whenever I take a batch of CDs in to the second-hand record shop I always try to slip this one in, but the staff always spot it and hand it back wearily – 'sorry mate, we don't need any more of that one.'

Back to Black passed me by when it came out, but the Amy Winehouse tracks I have heard don't exactly make me worried that I am missing out on anything. And then the soap-opera of her life further obscured what talent she surely has and left me without any motivation to give her music a fair listening.

I also have to confess that I haven't heard the Salif Keita album (and suspect it got artificially nudged a bit higher so that there was at least one 'world music' title in the 10, although I was sure that honour would go to Amadou and Mariam's Dimanche à Bamako), but given its illustrious company I may have to investigate further.

And so for your reference here's my top 20 list:

20 The Delgados – The Great Eastern
19 Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
18 Lucinda Williams – West
17 Maxïmo Park – A Certain Trigger
16 Low – Trust
15 AC Acoustics – O
14 Idlewild – The Remote Part
13 Bruce Springsteen – The Rising
12 M.I.A. – Arular
11 Mogwai – The Hawk is Howling
10 Miss Dynamite – A Little Deeper
9 Malcolm Middleton – Into the Woods
8 Glasvegas – Glasvegas
7 Burial – Untrue
6 Portishead - Third
5 Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights
4 Arcade Fire – Funeral
3 The Streets – Original Pirate Material
2 Sigur Rós – Ágætis byrjun
1 The National – Boxer

I can't believe that Boxer or Ágætis byrjun didn't make the OMM list (not even the top 50!), but anyway please add your thoughts about either list, your lists or anything else that takes your fancy in the comments. Possibly I will write a bit more about the top 5 over the next few days, but I am not promising anything.

Coming up in December – the top 10 albums of 2009, my mix-tape of the year and possibly my top 20 songs of the decade ...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Age of Kali

It seems strange reading The Age of Kali now. Written as contemporary reportage in the mid- to late-1990s many of the events and personalities he covers have moved to centre stage while others have faded into obscurity.

Dalrymple is a brilliant writer and he has clearly immersed himself in India and all its chaotic glory. He seeks out fascinating stories; and by talking to people from all levels of this intensely stratified society he creates vivid pictures of events, issues and personalities that have shaped its recent history.

The best chapters illuminate and anticipate the momentous changes still underway in Indian society, which most other commentators are only now beginning to notice and come to terms with. However, the book doesn't feel cohesive or complete. I found myself wanting to know more of the history and background; and yearned for him to fill in the gaps between these individual stories.

The problem is that all the material had already been published in various newspapers and magazines and while many of the pieces have been reworked or expanded for the book, they still display off-putting variations in tone and style which make it far more disjointed than I felt it should be. The pieces for Tatler and Condé Naste Traveller sit uneasily alongside the more in-depth and interesting work for Granta and The Observer.

Rabbit Wisdom

Ronald Reagan reminding him of God: 'you never knew how much he knew, nothing or everything'.

On Judaism: 'must be a great religion, once you get past the circumcision'.

From John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy, as noted by Julian Barnes in the Guardian a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


It's supposed to be a book review of Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River but like some sort of demented secant to London Orbital Iain Sinclair turns it into a walking pilgrimage to the London Stone near the village of Grain.

London Stone photograph copyright © Roger W Haworth and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I get the feeling I wouldn't like Ackroyd's book, but in the best tradition of LRB reviews Sinclair hardly mentions the work he is purportedly reviewing and, abusing his editor's good nature, wanders off into another variation on the many exhaustive explorations he has spent most of his life making from his base in Hackney. As on all good quests he encounters many obstacles on the journey and despite all his best efforts it looks like he will be thwarted at the last, only for a courageous sidekick to help save the day.

Like Sinclair I have always had a fascination for the marginal, (sub)liminal areas of civilisation and the landscape downriver of London, around the mouth of the Thames has always seemed particularly interesting because of its closeness but complete dislocation to the capital. Kingsnorth, Sheerness, Canvey Island, the empty stretches of Isle of Sheppey exert a peculiar attraction and I wish I had taken the time to explore when I had the chance ...

If you haven't crossed paths with him before then I can heartily recommend it as an excellent introduction to Sinclair's obsessions and writings. London Orbital is one of my favourite books of the year so far (longer review to come soon) and if your interest is piqued by the
LRB article you should give the epic version a try.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Something Amis(s) in the world of publishing

I will pretty-much read anything that puts the boot into Martin Amis, but this short post is spot on. Not just about Amis and the other literary appendixes, but also on celebrity culture and what matters in the world of letters:
When writers like Amis, or Philip Roth – who declared this week that novel-reading would be a fringe activity in 25 years – make their apocalyptic proclamations about the state of publishing, it seems apparent that their pessimism may in fact be rather strongly influenced by anxiety that their new work no longer carries the kind of cultural clout they have grown used to, not because people aren't reading novels, but because people aren't reading their novels.
Continuing this theme I've got plans for posts on what is currently wrong with publishing and the future of reading for pleasure, but like 90% of my 'planned posts' they will probably languish with all the other drafts until they get outdated or I get bored and delete them ...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Song for Sunday

JJ72 – Long Way South

It has been over a year since the last JJ72 song, so it must be time for another one ...

Band/artist of the week: Fulton Lights
Song of the week: Fulton Lights – Healing Waters

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Mix CDs made? Check.
New Lego toys for plane? Check.
Suitcase packed? Checkish.
Sun cream packed? Check.
Twelve different types of healthy snack for plane? Check.
Reading matter finalised? Check.
Internet access? Nope.
Blog posts written and primed for publication in my absence? Sort of.

Off to the beach. See you in a couple of weeks ...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Song for Sunday

Little Birdy – Brother

Band/artist of the week: Low/Radiohead/Suede
Song of the week: Low – Back Home Again

Friday, September 18, 2009

Chronicler of the Winds

It is a long way from Ystad in southern Sweden to an unnamed coastal city in Africa, from a middle-aged detective to a 10-year-old street orphan, but it is a leap that Henning Mankell makes more adeptly than you might anticipate in (the horribly titled) Chronicler of the Winds.

Over nine nights, as the orphan Nelio slowly dies from gunshot wounds, he relates his life story to the baker José Antonio Maria Vaz and we gradually find out how his short life reached this point. The earlier years of Nelio's short life are horribly familiar from news stories and other accounts of children caught up in Africa's many conflicts, but once he makes his way to the unnamed city – which knowing Mankell's background as the director of that city's Teatro Avenida can only be Maputo in Mozambique – the story takes some interesting and intriguing turns.

The way Nelio's life is recounted in segments, while José and the rest of the city continue on with their struggle to survive, works well; providing a grounding for some of the more fantastical elements of the story. However, some of it just doesn't ring true and I couldn't understand why José would quit his job to become a (wholly ineffectual) teller of Nelio's story.

It is interesting that this book was written midway through the Wallander series (although not translated until much later) and I can only imagine what some of Kurt's devotees would make of it. Not surprisingly the publishers went for a much softer, more feminine cover design – presumably hoping to avoid getting too many complaints from the disgruntled single genre readers.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

MBV Music

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. Everyone at GoH mansions has been laid low by various bugs, viruses and poxes for the last few weeks. It also hasn't helped that any spare time on-line always seems to disappear into the black hole that is my current favourite website – mbvmusic.

If I told you it was a music site that had free mp3s, videos, cover art, news, links and reviews you probably wouldn't be that impressed. And probably quite rightly point out that there are already many very fine publications who already meet all or some of these needs.

It is hard to say what is so brilliant about it, but the six superhero music nerds who run it have been almost solely responsible for all the new music that I have heard this year. And, even more impressively, I have heard a lot of new music this year. Outstanding finds so far include Son Volt, Wild Light, The xx, Fulton Lights, Young Galaxy, The Raveonettes and The Very Best.

Song for Sunday

Young Galaxy – Come and See

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Song for Sunday

U2 – BAD (Live)

Recently I've been listening to an amazing bootleg of U2 live at the Hammersmith Palais from December 6, 1982. This song came a year or two later but both take me back over twenty years to my early teenage years. Although I have to admit that I pretended I didn't actually like U2 until even later, when The Joshua Tree came out and they were already past their peak. Up until then they were always my younger sister's band and it wouldn't have been cool to admit that we liked any of the same music!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

1000 novels

Another list. This time of 1000 novels that everyone must read. As Mrs Armitage would say 'who needs it?' Well, no-one really, but it did keep me occupied for a few evenings going through the list and ticking off the ones I have read.

The list is split into seven slightly contrived categories with about 140 titles in each one, designed I presume to fill up a dead news week in The Guardian. My top category turned out to be crime, which just edged out science fiction and fantasy (even more impressive when you consider that I have never knowingly read a fantasy novel) and then followed up by war and travel. My least read category was state of the nation, marginally behind love, with family and self and comedy not much higher up.

The precise numbers are as follows and, for anyone who is interested, here is the complete list as a spreadsheet, handily colour coded to show books I've read, am planning to read and planning to avoid.

Comedy - 21 out of 150 (14.0%)
Crime - 31 out of 148 (20.9%)
Family and self - 19 out of 146 (13.0%)
Love - 17 out of 141 (12.1%)
Science fiction and fantasy - 30 out of 149 (20.1%)
State of the nation - 16 out of 134 (11.9%)
War and travel - 25 out of 132 (18.9%)

A not-too-bad total of 159 out of the 1000, or almost 16%, and with another 111 books that I plan to read at some point. Feel free to add your own totals in the comments.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Forgotten bookmarks

Following the recent demise of Aloof from Inspiration (and the mysterious disappearance* of its previous incarnation at fangrrrl) I needed a substitute for the Places to Visit sidebar.

So, here it is: Forgotten Bookmarks. Stuff people have left in books. Brilliant!

* - Hello, is that the FBI? I would like to report a blog vanishing in suspicious circumstances.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Beautiful Machine

Bikes and music. Sometimes the patterns of a life are set from early on. And it can be quite a shock to find others who you have never met with the same obsessions. He is also the only other person I have ever heard of who has suffered from sarcoidosis.

I enjoyed the early chapters a lot – he is great on growing up and the escape a bicycle offers. The years at university and just after are also fascinating, but from then on it becomes a bit hit-and-miss.

He is an opinionated and spirited writer, and you know he would be good company on a long ride, but the endless stories about rides he has done and coffee shops he has frequented lose their charm for the reader long before the author tires of them.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tour round-up

So, farewell Tommo, Paul and Phil, late nights, Matt and Ned and Chris in the ITV podcast on the train to work and managing my own tour team.

All that remains is to check the predictions and see how we did this year. Pretty good I have to say. Certainly much better than last year ...

Top two on GC correct and only one place out for Lance. Bradley Wiggins surprised me to equal Robert Millar's fourth place from 25 years ago, but then again I don't know of anyone who predicted that! Evans and Sastre were big disappointments and Sastre couldn't even blame his team. I think that both are probably already past the peak of their careers, although it would be good if Cadel could prove me wrong.

Not bad on the green jersey either – if the commisars had stayed out of it and I had been a bit more optimistic about Thor. Boonen was completely invisible and if you had asked me I would have been hard pushed to even say when he abandoned. Quick Step would have been better with Alan Davies after all!

The mountain jersey wasn't quite so good – Sastre was 43rd and didn't do anything whatsoever in the mountains. Still, I was right about Contador in 3rd and Andy Schleck was close with his 4th place.

And finally, my fantasy team ended up 1556th with 1389 points. I could possibly have done even better if I had read the rules. Just wait for next year ...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Song for Sunday

Malcolm Middleton – Waxing Gibbous

Not really a song this week, more a little docu-video-thingy about Malkie's new album. But it is great. And so is the album. I would recommend that you go and buy it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tour de France 09

In theory Alberto Contador has to be the favourite for this year's race – climber's course, strongest team, blistering form and almost perfect preparation.

Will it all go according to plan though? I have my doubts. The team is riven into two clear camps by the presence of Armstrong, Bruyneel seems unsure of what he is doing and where his loyalties lie, the financial problems, the intriguing political maneuvering and the reappearance of our old friend Vinokourov all point to a team more likely to implode in shower of overheated egos than put riders on to the podium. One thing's for sure though: it should be fun to watch.

Could all this play into the hands of our local hero Cadel? I would like to hope so, but I suspect there is too much climbing, not enough time trialling and that his team won't be strong enough to either support him in the mountains or not lose time in the team time trial.

Astana's problems are more likely to benefit the other strong teams like Saxo Bank, Columbia and possibly even Garmin, playing into the hands of a canny operator like Bjarne Riis.

Sastre doesn't have the team to back him up this year and I suspect the best we will see from him are a couple of solo mountain wins in the Alps when he is already out of overall contention. He'll probably pick up the maillot à pois rouges for his efforts though.

And what about Menchov? He could well end up on the podium, but I have a feeling that he won't have totally recovered from his Giro efforts and will end up losing time somewhere on one of the big mountain stages.

Mark Cavendish should make it to Paris this year and I would be surprised if he doesn't have the green jersey on when he takes his first win on the Champs-Élysées. The last minute reinstatement of Tom Boonen should make things more interesting, but I can't see anyone challenging Cavendish in a straight-up sprint. His team is too well organised and he is just too fast. The margins won't be as big this year, but they will still be more than enough.

So here they are, my predictions for all three jerseys. Feel free to add your own in the comments or just tell me where I've got it wrong. And if anyone fancies a shot at picking their own team try the SBS Fantasy Tour and see if you can beat CDMC Racing ...

1 Alberto Contador
2 Andy Schleck
3 Cadel Evans
4 Lance Armstrong
5 Carlos Sastre

1 Mark Cavendish
2 Tom Boonen
3 Thor Hushovd

1 Carlos Sastre
2 Andy Schleck
3 Alberto Contador

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Song for Sunday

Broken Records – Until the Earth Begins to Part (Live at the Bedlam Theatre)

Kind-of like a Scottish Sigur Rós. And that can only be a good thing. Hope the album is as good.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Slap

Melbourne needs more writers like Christos Tsiolkas.

It has taken me a few weeks to work out what I really think about The Slap. While I was reading it I felt mainly disgust and exasperation, but this had nothing to do with the writing.

I found the novel discomfiting and relentless in its depiction of people leading unhappy, trapped lives and for me the characters are without exception unattractive and awful. There are small episodes of joy and a few examples of people being nice to each other, but for the most part the tone is irredeemably depressing.

Much of my reaction may be due to the way he raises uncomfortable truths about Australian society in the context of a compelling and hugely readable narrative. Maybe I just recognise too much of what he is talking about. Maybe I should remember it is just a story ...

What is clear to me is that Tsiolkas is a great writer. The way he gets inside eight disparate characters, from teenage schoolgirl to immigrant Greek pensioner, creating wonderfully vivid and complete inner lives for them is brilliant. The other aspect of the narrative I loved is the way that Melbourne and it's sprawling suburbs are present as a vital and key element in the story, the perfectly observed details of location and inhabitants. He is also spot on with the cultural references and minutiae that suffuse most peoples lives, but which are usually bizarrely absent from novels.

The Slap is bound to provoke strong reactions (many stronger than mine), and it is only a matter of time before the self-appointed guardians of our morals are up in arms about all the shagging, but the more writers of this ability who are willing to raise and deal with difficult questions of race, identity and society the better. It might be an uncomfortable read, but it is great to have some intelligence and depth brought to the debate for once.

For more about The Slap, there is an interesting interview in Meanjin, discussion on Lateline and a great review by Literary Minded.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Song for Sunday

Arcade Fire – Wake Up

In anticipation of Glastonbury next weekend, a treat from 2007. Also take a look at the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are complete with a new version of the same song. Looks promising ...

Friday, June 19, 2009


My friend Norman gets married next month and this weekend he is having his stag-do at the British Grand Prix. Naturally I am sad that I can't make it (hope you all have a great time!), but if I did have unlimited resources and could fly to the UK twice in two months it would have been a tough call between whether I was more excited by that event or the opportunity to see Bruce Springsteen play the following Saturday night at Glastonbury.

Last Sunday The Observer had a story about the lengths Michael Eavis went to persuading Springsteen to play the festival, accompanied by the following fax from Joe Strummer.

The fax actually has nothing to do with the eight-page document Eavis put together, although apparently some key quotes from Strummer about the festival swung the deal, but I love Strummer's endorsement of Springsteen's talents. Especially the bit about him crawling under the chords and whacking the starter motor with a spanner ...

And while we are on the subject, The Guardian had an interview last Friday with Gaslight Anthem which goes into their Springsteen influences, but reveals that their true hero was Joe Strummer.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Talking about running

According to Haruki Murakami there are two types of people – runners and non-runners. As a runner (albeit at this point in time a lapsed one) I tend to agree.

He isn't talking about people who go jogging either. Murakami runs one marathon a year and supplements this by doing ultra-marathons and triathlons in-between.

It is a short book and he interweaves biography, travelogue and notes about his writing with the stuff about running, creating a work that is delightfully personal and surprisingly affecting in places.

'Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional', he is told early on in his running career and this aphorism will be familiar to any devotee of endurance sport. The book is full of little gems and insights like this and at the end you feel like you've been listening to a particularly entertaining old friend talk about their view of life.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter where he recounts running a 62 mile ultra-marathon at Lake Saroma.
I don't know what sort of general significance running sixty-two miles by yourself has, but as an action that deviates from the ordinary but doesn't violate basic values, you'd expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result, your view of your life, its colors and shape should be transformed. More or less, for better or for worse, this happened to me, and I was transformed.
He then goes on to describe what happens after he passes through the 47 mile mark:
I'm me, and at the same time not me. That's what it felt like. A very still, quiet feeling. The mind wasn't so important.
Usually when I approach the end of a marathon, all I want to do is get it over with, and finish the race as soon as possible. That's all I can think of. But as I drew near the end of this ultramarathon, I wasn't really thinking about this. The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It's the same with our lives. Just because there's an end doesn't mean existence has a meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Song for Sunday

Wild Light – Red House

And thanks to the wonders of the interhoobly if you enjoy the clip you can actually download an mp3 of the whole song for free here! Marvelous.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

New Day Rising

Depending on what mood I am in when you ask me what my favourite band is, it is quite possible that I'll say Hüsker Dü. This photo from 1985 just reminds me of some of the many reasons why. Click here to see what I mean.

Giro d'Italia final reckoning

Zero jerseys out of three, but two of my predicted top five did make it into the top five and if you extend it to the top 6 then I managed to predict 50%. Even so, not a very impressive result – I promise to do better in July.

It was a fascinating race – with lots of very close racing – and both Menchov and di Luca have gone up in my estimation. Interesting to see if Menchov can carry the form over to the Tour. I doubt it, but we'll see ...

Great to see Cavendish take three stages and looking good for the green jersey in the Tour. Nice anecdote in The Observer recently about his win in Milan–San Remo:
Before the race he promised himself that if he won he would buy an Audi R8. After the race he started shopping around, but ultimately lost interest and decided to buy gifts for his team mates instead. 'I said to myself: "There's an 80 per cent chance that I will stay the same person, I will just have a nice car" but there was a small chance that it would change me,' he told the BBC's Inside Sport. 'I'm not willing to take that chance, so I don't have the car.'

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Song for Sunday

Patti Smith – Because the Night

1 Get a copy of Easter (look it's only £4.37!)
2 Get some good headphones
3 Turn the volume to just-about-too-loud-to-be-bearable
4 Hit play on track 3 (why are all the best songs on an album always track 3?)
5 Sit back and wait for the drums to kick in
6 Go to number 4 and repeat until the kids start complaining of starvation

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Song for Sunday

Gala – Faraway

Not enough Europop. As complaints about a country go it isn't really up there with military rule, corruption or bad coffee, but it is still a flaw. More or less serious depending on your point of view admittedly, but occasionally it does get to me. So, in a personal attempt to redress this lack in Australia's cultural landscape here is one of the finest exponents of the genre with a great example of what we are all missing. Just don't watch the video at work, unless you have a very understanding boss ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Japanese ghost stories. Not a genre that I have much knowledge of.

The quote by Brett Easton Ellis on the cover almost made me put it back on the shelf, but the review on the back cover promising a cross between 'Paul Auster at his best' and 'a very Japanese ghost story' swung it.

Yamada's fictional Tokyo has many similarities with Paul Auster's New York – the eery surreality of the setting and the self-contained absorption and focus of the central character could have come straight out of one of his early novels.

The ghostly elements of the story aren't particularly scary or shocking or surprising, but the grief and longing of the characters is beautifully rendered and there is a psychological depth to them that is surprisingly moving.

The American translation can be a bit annoying in places, but for the most part it is unobtrusive and the spooky detachment of the writing is allowed to take hold. I found myself swept along by the story, enjoying the weirdness and content to follow wherever it took me.

It reminded me of The Sixth Sense in some ways, and anyone looking for a bit of left-field fiction that keeps challenging you all the way through should find plenty to enjoy here.

My Revolutions

Born in the early fifties Chris Carver escapes his Ruislip roots to a place at the LSE where he progresses from student politics to full-blown radical.

Weaving back and forth between London in the late sixties/seventies and small town southern-England early in the twenty-first century we gradually discover why Chris has taken on the identity of Mike Frame (using the classic method outlined in Frederick Forysth's Day of the Jackal) and settled into a comfortable but tenuous middle-class existence.

The further back in time events and characters are, the more vivid and engrossing they are. The present day proceedings seem very flat and less engaging. This may be deliberate – the narrative is presented as the recollections of a man whose 50th birthday has arrived, and often sections begin in the present and travel backwards as memories are sparked.

These recollections are brilliantly constructed and the writing is wonderful, but there are too many holes in the plot and the core incident, on which so much of the action rests, turns out to be a complete anti-climax. Also the central character Miles doesn't ring true and the sub-plot about smearing a New Labour MP with ambitions for the position of Home Secretary seems plausible, but the details don't add up.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed this a lot, in fact an awful lot, but it is a pretty flawed novel. And just look at the cover. The mass-market paperback is very different – always a sure sign that the original design didn't hit the mark.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Song for Sunday

Bob Mould – See a Little Light

Bob Mould has a new album out, but this isn't on it. This song is from his first solo album Workbook. If you want a song from the new album here's one performed on acoustic.

It is always interesting watching your heroes grow older. Bob seems to have done a pretty good job. And if you think it looks like he's mellowed now that he's approaching 50 try having a look at any of the videos from his 2009 Coachella appearance ...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mobius Dick

Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia was one of my favourite books from 2008, so I was looking forward to this one. Billed as 'the only novel about quantum mechanics you could imagine reading while lying on the beach' and a 'blend of techno-thriller, historical fantasy, philosophy and farce' it seemed to have potential.

It was an interesting read and much of the narrative (the techno-thriller parts) is great, but the parallel universes and the tricksy connections across time and space put me off. Its not that the quantum mechanics gets in the way of the story, but it also doesn't actually add much. In the end you find yourself yearning for a bit of clarity and a character who keeps their own name and sticks around in his own universe for more than five minutes. I also found all the mental derangement and 'am I mad or is it everyone else?' schtick a bit hard to take.

The most interesting aspect for me was how some of this novel is like a precursor to Sputnik Caledonia and how Crumey's ideas and writing have developed from this book to the latest one. Not sure I need to go back any further into his backlist, but Mr Mee does look like it might be worth a go ...

Giro d'Italia 2009

First Grand Tour of the year and the build-up to July starts in earnest. As we did last year here are some semi-informed predictions about who might be on the podium in Rome ...

Maglia Rosa
1 Levi Leipheimer
2 Ivan Basso
3 Mauricio Soler
With Franco Pellizotti and Tom Danielson just behind.

Maglia Verde
Maricio Soler. Definitely this year.

Maglia Ciclamino
If Mark Cavendish gets to Rome he has a good chance, but I am going to go for a revitalised Alessandro Petacchi for the final sprinter's prize.

So, an American for the maglia rosa? The tifosi may not like it, but I think that Leipheimer is in amazing form and Astana certainly have the strength and the knowledge to take the top place. The time trial on the final Sunday in Rome will also play to his strengths. Basso is going to be disappointed I think, but he has prepared well and there are plenty of mountain top finishes so he may still delight the home crowd. I tipped him last year, and he crashed out, but hopefully Maricio Soler will have a bit more luck this year and pick up third and the climber's jersey.

And the other American? I think Lance might make the top ten, but probably not much higher than ninth or tenth ...