Friday, January 29, 2010

The Steep Approach to Garbadale

I've read all of Iain Banks' books, pretty much in the order he wrote them, starting with The Wasp Factory in 1988. The Bridge is one of my favourite books ever, one that I re-read on a regular basis, and his run of non-SF novels from The Wasp Factory to Complicity is arguably unmatched in British literature. I agree with him on most of his political views, am interested in all the same things and recognise much of what he writes about from my own background and experiences. Listening to him talk it is clear that he is erudite and fantastically entertaining (just listen to him discuss Transition with Ramona Koval on Radio National's The Book Show to see what I mean).

In short, he is a bit of genius and someone I admire greatly.

Unfortunately, and you knew there was a qualifier coming, his last four (non-SF) novels haven't been very good. So over the last 14 years I have gone from keenly awaiting each new release to mild interest whenever the latest title appears. After Dead Air I even sort-of-assumed that I might be finished with his regular fiction and considered starting into his SF works. I read some mildly positive reviews of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, but even then had no inclination to pick up a copy and probably wouldn't have been tempted apart from the fact that the excellent Fullers Bookshop in Hobart was selling the hardback for five dollars.

The characters are almost all caricatures (the poncey business exec with his Mercedes S-class and Zero Halliburton aluminium briefcase anyone?), mouthpieces for Banks' views on society and politics, so unconvincing they would have trouble standing up in a Jackie Collins novel.

Even more annoyingly there are enough flashes of his best writing to remind you what you're missing. The passages recounting the hero's teenage years are beautifully written, with a real feel for the miseries and joy of that age. Sadly, these sections only remind me of similar ones in his earlier and better books.

One of the better characters seems to be speaking directly to the author rather than the protagonist when she asks: 'What are you trying to achieve? What is it you really want?' In Banks' case unfortunately it looks like he has lost track of the former and found the answer to the latter so long ago that he can't really be arsed anymore.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Books of 2009

Complete list is in the sidebar on the right. 49 is quite an improvement on 2008's total of 26, but just short of my unofficial goal of 50 in total. This year I am upping the stakes and going for one a week.

Top ten is below, with statistics underneath. Apparent in the numbers is a heavy bias towards fiction, male authors and books published in the last three years.

Not many other trends in the top 10 apart from a fondness for Scandinavian crime novels (although I cheated by grouping all the Millennium trilogy together at number 2). More to come about that at a later date ...

Most of the list is fiction apart from numbers 1 and 10, both of which would probably be classed as travel literature. One a walk around the M25 and the other a woman's journey to the northern areas of Pakistan.

Fairly international – three Scots, two Icelanders, two Americans, two English and one Swede – and three translations.

Top 10
2 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/The Girl who Played with Fire/The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest – Steig Larsson
3 The Draining Lake – Arnaldur Indridason
4 Ascent – Jed Mercurio
5 The Incredible Adam Spark – Alan Bissett
6 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
7 The Devil's Footprints – John Burnside
8 The Blue Fox – Sjón
9 The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt
10 Among Muslims – Kathleen Jamie

Fiction: 34 titles
Non-fiction: 15 titles
Number of authors: 44

Male authors: 43
Female authors: 6

Books published in 2009: 4
Books published in 2008: 15
Books published in 2007: 13
Books published in 2006: 5
Books published in 2005: 4
Books published 2000-04: 7
Books published 1990-99: 1
Books published 1980-89: 0
Books published before 1980: 0

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Song for Sunday

Efterklang and the Danish National Orchestra – Cutting Ice to Snow

Band/artist of the week: Girls
Song of the week: Girls – Morning Light

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Olivetti Chronicles

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed the little LibraryThing widget about halfway down the column on the right seems to have been stuck, displaying the pensive visage of the legendary John Peel without fail for the last three months as numerous other book covers have come and gone. However, the problem has nothing to do with the irreproachable LibraryThing or even with my lax updating of the data which it requires to accurately provide this essential part of the Geography of Hope experience. No, it has all been down to the fact that I couldn't bear to finish this cobbled together, blatant (dare I say it) cash-in which is all that remains of John's wit and wisdom.

Like listening to John's radio show (which I have to confess I never did as often as I would have liked to pretend I did) you never know what is going to be up next. But it has been wonderfully comforting picking up this collection of articles and hearing in my head that gruff but reassuring accent musing on subjects as varied as Eurovision, Extreme Noise Terror, The Fall (not nearly as much as you would expect), football (lots of football), Cliff Richard, vaginal deodorants and Top of the Pops. Written for a diverse range of publications from Sounds to The Radio Times over a period of about thirty three (and a third) years it is actually the perfect memento of a singular and remarkable man whose love of new music rubbed off on a couple of generations of music fans.
The greatest pleasure in pop music derives, I believe, from the manner in which its very nature resists scholarship ... Pop is a car-boot sale, a parade of trinkets, junk and handicrafts, most worthless, some capable of giving a few moments of pleasure, with a few glorious items made more glorious by their unexpected appearance in this market. Then in an unpredictable double-bluff, the worthless can, within a few years, take on great worth and the glorious become merely laughable.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Istanbul is travel writing at its most pure. The author doesn't travel far, at most a few kilometres from the streets he grew up in and has lived in all his life. Backwards and forwards in time a bit too, but the real travel is done by the reader, transported to a beguiling and intriguing city that is as alien and strange as anything I can imagine.

Orhan Pamuk on why he writes:
I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more then I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of literature. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I want to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go - just as in a dream - I can't quite get there. I write because I never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.
From Other Colours, 2007

And what does Hüzün mean? Well, you will just have to read Istanbul and find out.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Who's Gonna Love You Now Baby? (2009 in mix-tape form)

When I started compiling my best of 2009 mix-tape I thought I might include a second disk made up of completely new bands, but as it turned out that disk was my best of 2009 collection! Apart from Emiliana Torrini and The Twilight Sad all these bands were new to me in 2009. Here's the track listing:

Little Birdy – Brother
Emiliana Torrini – Big Jumps
Phantogram – When I'm Small
Burning Hearts – I Lost My Colour Vision
The XX – Islands
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Hysteric
Day for Night – Badlands
Wild Light – Red House
Young Galaxy – Destroyer
The Twilight Sad – I Became a Prostitute
Eddy Current Suppression Ring – Wrapped Up
The Very Best – Yalira
Efterklang – Modern Drift
Slaraffenland – Away
Girls – Lust For Life
Fulton Lights – Healing Waters
The Airborne Toxic Event – Sometime Around Midnight

National postal services permitting, a limited number should be arriving around now. Let me know if yours hasn't arrived by the end of the week! Alternatively you can make your own by downloading a zip file with all the tracks and the CD label here.