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January 30, 2007

Ys - Joanna Newsom

This is dense music; challenging, intricate, and confusing. After one listen, you might be forgiven for thinking it's all just one long stream of consciousness. Newsom's vocal never seems to stop, and seldom repeats anything resembling a chorus. She shouts like Bjork, she croaks like Billie Holiday, and shifts octaves like Joni Mitchell, yet is completely unique. Her instrument of choice is a harp, which also never stops, but disappointingly plays mostly a background role and doesn't really get as much prominence as .

After my second listen, the melodies started to permeate my subconscious, and made me want to listen again. I'm on listen five now and I'm only just starting to come to grips with the differences between the five tracks, but am increasingly interested in the stories being told. Snippets of songs are stuck in my head, and I need to hear them more.

The songs are about, well, I'm not much closer to discovering that yet than when I began. There is so much to assimilate it's a bit overwhelming, but I'm going to find out.

If you're tired of the run-of-the-mill ten standard songs per CD, all having simple structures, and want something a bit different, you could do worse than this. It's not easy though - you'll have to work at it.

Update: So now I've been listening to Ys for several weeks, and I can't get it out of my head, and I still only understand a small fraction of it. It's definitely the best album I've heard in a long time.

Posted by se71 at 01:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

No, don't get too excited, despite the title this is just another post about my book/film/TV/music interests.

I'm currently reading a book by Dean Koontz called "The Husband". Koontz is a phenominally prolific and successful author, but he's unlikely to win many literary prizes. I feel kind of guilty reading the books, a bit like eating McDonalds food, but now and then I can't help myself and purchase one or the other and devour them greedily. I literally (sic) can't wait to get a break from whatever else I'm doing to find out what happens next.

See also my review of "Odd Thomas", which I notice now has two sequels I will have to read.

This is a placeholder post where I might add other guilty pleasures - what are yours?

Posted by se71 at 03:50 PM | Comments (0)


Just a brief thought. I was testing an iPod shuffle yesterday, and filled it with a random selection of tracks from my iTunes library. This brought home to me the real reason why I just don't like compilation CDs that much. I have a pathological need to know the name of the artist of every piece of music I listen to.

I was listening to the shuffle, and occasionally it challenged me with some electronic dance track that could have been Aphex Twin, or Squarepusher, or even Plone or Plaid, or anything from the Warp 10 six CD compilation or a host of other artists. Other times an album track I didn't know that well also caused me pause for thought as the artist's name sat on the tip of my tongue, but wouldn't go any further north into my brain. The computer with the iTunes source tracks on it was happily in the next room, so every time this happened I HAD to go there and satisfy my curiosity by checking through the playlist on screen.

So I'm sticking to album tracks in their proper order as normal from no on, and single artist CDs too. And an iPod Nano too with artist and track names displayed on screen, just in case.

Posted by se71 at 12:13 PM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2007

Winter Warriors - David Gemmell

Winter Warriors - David Gemmell

I am a real sucker for these epic fantasy stories from David Gemmell, as I think I may have mentioned before. They all follow a familiar formula with noble heroes, vile villains, and seemingly impossible quests that somehow get completed.

This one is no different and is set in the by now familiar Drenai universe. A race of demons threaten to cross over from a spirit kingdom to enter our realm. They just need the sacrifice of an unborn king to complete the spell. It is left to a group of old soldiers (the winter warriors of the title) to protect this unborn child and his pregnant mother, and save the world.

The technology available is medieval, and there is a lot of information about how to treat horses as they are a very important element to fighting in those times. Magic is a strong presence on both sides, but never strong enough to ensure speedy victories.

Gemmell is a very gifted writer who can easily play with your emotions. You find yourself rooting for the heroes, and laughing at their bawdy jokes. You are sad when inevitably some of them don't make it through alive, but they always die hero's deaths. They all talk of their lives as prefessional soldiers, and the old men discuss pat battles, but how they are not needed now that they are old; an interesting theme I've only encountered a little in fantasy. The characters are well rounded, one of the warriors, Bison, is dim witted and not even that likable, yet he is brave and essential in a crisis.

This is a great addition to the sequence, but can easily be read stand-alone too as it takes place about 300 years after some of the previous stories. It's not http://www.amazon.co.uk/Legend-David-Gemmell/dp/1857236815/se71-21, but what could be.

Posted by se71 at 11:45 AM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2007

Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively

I've made pretty good progress through the Booker prize winners recently, and have just finished this winner from 1987.

I really liked the book, though it was lucky no razor blades were handy when I finished it as it has possibly one of the most depressing and downbeat endings I've ever encountered.

It tells the story of a woman called Claudia, and the narrative jumps about through various stages in her life. It begins as she is lying in a hospital, dying from cancer. She tells us she is going to give us a history of the world, and she proceeeds to tell us about the major events in her life.

As a young woman, Claudia was clever, beautiful, confident. She was irrestible to men, and we find out about the relationships she has had, some shocking, some sad, none really fulfilling. In her prime she went to Egypt during the Second World War as a journalist, one of the few women to be allowed this kind of posting. There is quite a lot of history lesson, so I learnt a bit about the North African campaign that I didn't know before.

During these flashbacks to her previous life, people from her life come and visit Claudia in her hospital room. Her daughter, her brother's wife, her adopted refugee friend. They all think they know her, they think she has gone senile. But she is still a lucid and intelligent person, it's just that her body isn't working properly any more. She drifts in and out of consciousness, and occasionally forgets the names of common household objects. And they don't really know her, they have no idea about the biggest secret of her life.

A few literary tricks are used, sometimes to better effect than others. When an incident is described by Claudia, sometimes the other people involved also get a go to explain what they were thinking, and why they reacted in a particular way. This reveals useful insights sometimes, but at other times adds very little. And rather than just finding out about what Claudia knows, we also discover in first person narrative from her daughter that there are secrets here too.

The sadness of the end is inevitable, and is only tempered a little by a new discovery revealed in a stack of old diary entries from a former lover.

It's a dense book, short and profound, thoughtful and philosophical. What is a life all about anyway? Who are we but a collection of memories in other peoples heads? How different is the person I was yesterday to the one I am today? Why do we have to get old? Oh, can someone pass the Wilkinson Swords please.

Posted by se71 at 12:40 PM | Comments (0)

Amazon Wish List

It has been brought to my attention that just about everything on my Amazon Wish List isn't available in normal terrestrial retail outlets (shops).

If you have a look, you'll see that I'm rapidly trying to rectify this. As it was my birthday this week, it's still not too late to get me something!!

Posted by se71 at 12:37 PM | Comments (0)

Parental Advisory CDs

Rant time.

It seems that popular music can't make up it's mind whether to be inclusive to children or not. We have some very popular female artists - like Madonna and Pink and Gwen Stefani, who make songs that are played on the radio incessantly. These women are strong role models, and the songs are about empowerment and independence and other good things, and are catchy and excellently produced. Young girls love listening to them, and this is a good thing. And then what do the record companies do? - they put the adult versions of the songs on their albums, so that I can't buy them to give to my children. This is annoying, and I'm sure the artists are missing out on a huge amount of revenue. I can't even buy the singles as the album version is quite often also included. I'm currently listening to Pink's "I'm not Dead" Album - and so far I think four songs are totally inappropriate for anyone under 16. Other than that it's a really good collection of songs.

It's particularly bad for rap and hip-hop too. Eminem is a huge artist, and has many popular songs that my nine year old could probably sing along to. That's just the radio version of course. The albums I've bought are kept on the shelf, and seldom taken out unless I'm alone in the house. In fact, I'm reluctant to buy them any more for just this reason - I do not get any time to listen to them. And if I try and find a compilation album of recent hip-hop/rap/R&B radio hits, I cannot get one that has the single versions on it - just the Parental Advisory ones full of swearing. It's a real shame because these songs are definine a generation's childhood memories.

Maybe other parents don't mind so much. Maybe the recording artists think that being edgy and controversial with their lyrics keep them more popular, and maybe they are right. If they had any integrity though they'd insist on not having their work edited to allow radio airplay to be possible - oh, but then they wouldn't get as much money would they? So they entice children in with the sugar coated version, and then give them the full aural assault when they get the CD for christmas from some dotty aunt who doesn't realise the difference.

I would have bought dozens of CDs over the years if they had had clean versions. And my kids have had much less exposure to this kind of music than they might have had - come to think of it though, maybe that's a good thing.

Posted by se71 at 11:36 AM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2007

Rogue Moon - Algis Budrys

Rogue Moon - Algis Budrys

Sadly out of print it seems, this is a great science fiction book I read when I was still at school. I am a bit disillusioned with new fiction, and science fiction/fantasy has problems too I think. Every book in this genre seems to be at least 400 pages, and many are more like 700-1000. Sometimes I'd like an author to try and condense what he/she wants to say into a smaller and more managable chunk. At 178 pages, 'Rogue Moon' can be read in just a few short sittings, or even all at once.

This isn't really the book I remembered from over 20 years ago though, it's much more intense, much more people orientated than the hard science that I'd expected. I think I was mixing it up a bit in my head with another blast from the past I have just finished "The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester (also published under the title "Tiger, Tiger"). Both were first published in the early 1960s, though Rogue Moon is showing it's age a bit more.

The central premise of the story is gradually revealed, so explaining too much would spoil it. It involves a matter transmitter that can send a man to the moon, where a mysterious obelisk has been discovered. The big science idea that I rememembered was that if you transmitted a person, and actually ended up with two identical humans, how would their new experiences affect the way their minds developed. This isn't explored in quite as much depth as I hoped, but is considered enough to really get you thinking.

The thing that dates the book is the way the women are handled. One is just a beautiful parasite, living off her rich husband, and tormenting him by flirting with other men. The other is a pliant artist, who sits and waits by the phone for her man to maybe call when he gets a few minutes free from his busy, important life. There are Pinteresque scenes between these protagonists, some very long, but all seem to be trying to describe what it is to be a man. What makes a man strive to be the best? Why are successful men the way they are? How can some men face death doing dangerous tasks again and again? It's very intense, and never boring, though you do not quite feel that people like this could ever actually exist.

It's a very philosophical book about the nature of being, and the science fiction part, though really interesting, is a backdrop to this discussion between the two main strong-willed men. Well worth reading if you can get your hands on a copy, it shows that some science fiction really does tackle difficult problems.

[as an aside, I think Alistair Reynolds might well have read this - there are some distinct similarities to his short story Diamond Dogs)

Posted by se71 at 06:14 PM | Comments (0)

That Life

I watched the reunion episode of This Life with some pleasant anticipation, and being really disappointed with the result, started thinking of what I would say about it.

Then I went through my blogroll and found a review by Andrew Collins that says everything I wanted to say, and says it much better than I could have done.

So here it is, my review, written by someone else!

Posted by se71 at 09:03 AM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2007

Happy Feet

I finally made it to the cinema again, and it's so long since the last time I can't quite remember what I saw - probably a kids film though. And it was a kids film I saw this time too, Happy Feet.

This is a story of a little penguin called Mumble, who struggles to be accepted by his community. On the Antarctic ice shelf where he lives, penguins use singing from birth in order to find their true love. They have singing lessons, and all have a natural ability. As with the musical Moulin Rouge, we get to hear a lot of familiar songs, mixed together and remixed to sound very different sometimes from their originals.

But Mumble cannot sing, in fact, his singing is so bad it's painful to listen to. This makes him an embarassment to his family, and gives him no chance of being with Gloria, who he believes is is true soul mate. However, even though he cannot sing, can can tap dance, and loves doing it, losing himself in the beat. He believes that this will once day lead to acceptance by Gloria and the rest of the penguins.

So there is a love story, and some fantastic singing, what else would the movie need? How about some moral lessons on global warming, pollution, cruelty to zoo animals, and over-fishing of the oceans? Yes, we get all that too. Surprisingly though, it's handles quite sensitively, and resists too much sermonising.

Being a modern computer generated animated movie, we have come to expect high standards, and we are not disappointed here. The penguins look real; the flying through space to zoom in on the ice is amazing; the young penguins doing synchronised swimming in the ocean is mesmerising, and the avalanche fall is quite possibly the most exciting cinematic sequence I've ever witnessed.

Add this all together, with a heart warming ending which has masses of tap dancing, and what you get is a movie that is really very good indeed.

Posted by se71 at 05:03 PM | Comments (0)