It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Firsts

I’m not sure what triggered it, but the day before yesterday I was reminded of the first science fiction novel I can recall reading. And that got me thinking about the first album I remember buying, and the first film I remember seeing in a cinema. So I decided to write a blog post about them.

First book
I remember reading books on Norse mythology and maritime mysteries, and by Joan Aiken, as a kid, but the first sf novel I remember owning was… Doctor Who and the Zarbi. We were living in Dubai, in a villa in Jumeirah, and my parents gave it to me for Christmas. So it must have been 1975. Because the previous Christmas we were in Qatar, and the following September I started at boarding school in the UK. During my first year at boarding school, I was introduced to “proper” science fiction by a kid in my class called Silver who lent me Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. Then a lad in the year below me named Hopkinson lent me an EE ‘Doc’ Smith novel – one of the Lensman series, I think – and I started buying sf novels myself. In fact, several years later I bought all seven of the Lensman books – the Panther paperbacks with the Chris Foss cover art. I still have them.

Doctor_Who_and_the_Zarbi

First film
I know I saw several Disney films in the main hall at Doha English Speaking School – my clearest memory is of The Jungle Book – but the first film I saw in a cinema was Where Eagles Dare, also in Doha. I remember the cinema was open air and that we sat on folding chairs, and I can remember watching the movie on the screen quite clearly. The film was released in 1968, but it was unlikely to have been available in the Gulf until several years later. We left Qatar in 1974, so it was either that year or the previous one. In which case, I’ll have been seven or eight years old. Of course, Where Eagles Dare is now a Sunday afternoon perennial on television, so I’ve no idea how many times I’ve seen it since. The first genre film I can recall seeing is Planet of the Apes. After leaving Qatar, we moved to Oman and  lived in a villa in a small camp outside the Sultan’s palace in Seeb. We would often visit the army barracks at Rusayl, where there was a film club. They’d project films onto the end of a barracks block, in a small area fenced off with barasti and provided with folding chairs.

where-eagles-dare

First album
One of the first bands I can remember owning an album by was Deep Purple. But that was a pirate cassette – you could buy them openly in the Middle East during the 1970s; and, in fact, right up to the mid-1990s. They usually cost less than £1. I remember them being Dh 4/- each during the 1980s when there were about six UAE Dirhams to the Pound Sterling. The first legitimate album I can remember buying was a LP, and I bought it in a record shop on Clumber Street in Nottingham. The shop has long since gone and I no longer remember its name. The album was Cat Stevens’ Foreigner, and I still have it. I don’t listen to it that much, though. The album was released in 1973, and I’m fairly sure I bought it before I started at boarding school in 1976. So I’m guessing it was either summer 1975 or summer 1976 when I purchased it. It might have been the year before.

foreigner

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The best of the half-year: 2012

It’s halfway through 2012, and it must be shaping up to be one of the wettest years on record in the UK. But that’s okay because my hobbies are chiefly indoor ones – reading books, watching films and listening to music. I occasionally do a bit of writing too. But, since we’re in June, with around six months to go until the end of the year, it’s time to look back and determine what was the best of what I read, watched and heard in 2012. And it goes something like this…

Words
I seem to have read a lot of books that were good without being great; and possibly a larger number of books that weren’t good at all. Picking the best five proved harder than expected, though one or two titles were obvious…

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011). Jones has been my favourite writer for many years, so this collection’s appearance on the top five is no surprise. I had, in fact, read most of the stories in The Universe of Things before (I even published one; sort of), but rereading them only cemented my admiration of them. Jones has not written many stories, but there are no clunkers among them. This collection is an excellent introduction to her fiction. I wrote a review of the book for Daughters of Prometheus.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008). I’ve long admired Evans’ fiction, but he seemed to stop writing after 1995′s Mortal Remains… until Omega four years ago. I won’t say it was worth the wait, because it’s never good when a writer whose books you enjoy and admire disappears for more than a decade. But certainly Omega is a good book, a clever alternate history dimension-slip thriller partly set in a world where World War II continued on throughout the twentieth century. I wrote about Omega on my blog here.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987). This year for my reading challenge I decided to read books by non-Anglophone writers I’d never read before. The Door was the second book I read for the challenge, and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the challenge has got a little bogged down of late – I failed to finish March’s book, read April’s book late, and have yet to even start May’s. Anyway, I wrote about The Door on my blog here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963). I read the first book of the Raj Quartet for one of my reading challenges, and thought the book was superb. As a result, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I track down to read. In first edition. The Bender predates the Raj Quartet and is not as weighty as those four books. It’s a very 1960s comedy, but also a beautifully witty one. I wrote about it on my blog here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994). I’m surprised this book isn’t better known. It’s an amazingly-put-together series of stories which form a much greater story. It opens with a series of Victorian travellers, trapped on a train by snow, who tell each other stories… and then proceeds to unravel and then stitch together the stories told by those travellers. There’s a superb take-down of a cult semiotician, a clever spoof of the Scottish detective programme Taggart, and a brilliant pastiche of Jeffrey Archer. Perhaps the links between the stories aren’t quite strong enough to carry the story-arc, but Betrayals is a very clever, very amusing, and excellent novel.

Honourable mentions go to Eastermodern by Herta Hurnaus, Oscar Niemeyer Houses by Alan Weintraub and Building Brasilia by Marcel Gautherot, which are books of photographs of modernist and brutalist buildings. Niemeyer’s work perfectly encapsulates the future we could have had, and all cities should resemble Brasilia. Also worthy of note are How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which every writer and critic should read; Alias Grace, which is probably Margaret Atwood’s best novel; and Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place by Malcolm Lowry, a collection by an author new to me which contains some excellent novellas and some not so interesting short stories.

Pictures
I’ve already visited the cinema twice so far this year, which is something of a record for me. One of the films I saw in IMAX 3D makes it onto my top five; the other one was rubbish, so it doesn’t. The other films I’ve seen were all on DVD – some borrowed, some bought, and some rented.

Red Psalm (Még kér a nép), Miklós Janscó (1972). I bought this after seeing a review of the DVD in Sight & Sound. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t a group of hippie-looking Hungarians wandering around a farm spouting socialist rhetoric and singing folk songs, and then getting shot at by soldiers. I loved it. I wrote about Red Psalm on my blog here.

Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), Michelangelo Antonioni (1964). I’ve admired Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura several years ago. Red Desert was his first film in colour, and it shows – it’s an amazingly painterly film. Unlike in most films, the characters do not over-shadow their world but are very much a part of it. It creates a distance between viewer and cast, but there’s an immersive quality to the mise en scène which renders that of little importance. Films don’t need viewer analogues – that’s just confining the medium to the simplicity of oral storytelling: films use images just like books use words, and that’s where their focus should lie. I wrote about Red Desert on my blog here.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків), Sergei Parajanov (1965). I watched Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates last year. That film is perhaps the zenith of “poetical cinema”, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is definitely a way-station on the climb to it. It is, on the face of it, a simple story of one young man’s trials and tribulations. He is a member of Ukrainian Hutsul culture, and the film is rich with its costumes, music and traditions. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is by no means an easy film to watch, however, as it operates on so many levels – but it at least has a coherent plot, which is more than can be said for The Colour of Pomegranates.

On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie), Andrzej Żuławski (1978/1988). If you can imagine a film that out-Tarkovskys Solaris, then you might have some idea of what On the Silver Globe is like. It’s based on a trilogy of novels published in Poland in 1911 by Jerzy Żuławski, which have apparently never been translated into English. On the strength of this film, they should be. It’s probably evident that I’m not a huge fan of traditional Hollywood-style cinema; it often feels to me like a waste of the medium’s potential. And yet films such as Red Psalm and On the Silver Globe, with their declarative dialogue, often feel like they’re only partway to what film could truly be. I like the painterly mise en scène of poetical cinema, but often find the declarative dialogue as clumsy as science fiction’s crude use of exposition. And so it is in On the Silver Globe – characters run around and gurn at the camera, and then speechify on the meaning of life. However, it’s in the story and the imagery that the film really impresses – enough, in fact, to offset the fact the film was never completed - much like Andrzej Munk’s Passenger. The Polish Ministry of Culture closed down the production of On the Silver Globe when the film was only 80% complete. It was ten years before Żuławski returned to it, and then he could only complete it by using stock footage and voice-over for some parts. It works surprisingly well. I plan to write more about On the Silver Globe on this blog.

John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). John Carter received a mauling at the US box office, so much so it was officially declared a flop by its studio, Disney. Happily, the world outside the US had more discerning taste and went to see the film in sufficient numbers for it to eventually turn a profit. But the profitability of a film is measured solely on its performance at the US box office – which is both dumb and parochial – so it’s unlikely a sequel to John Carter will ever be made. Which is a shame. John Carter was a spectacle, with a clever script that managed to make something twenty-first century of its early twentieth-century source material. It had its flaws – some longeurs, and an inelegant info-dump to explain the plot – but other parts more than made up for it. I wrote more about it on my blog here.

Honourable mentions go to , Frederico Fellini (1962), which after seeing La Dolce Vita many years ago and disliking it, I had expected to hate – I didn’t; I loved it. Troll Hunter, André Øvredal (2010), was another deadpan Norwegian spoof and cleverly done, though not quite as good as Norwegian Ninja. The Third Part of the Night, Andrzej Żuławski (1971), was the first Żuławski I saw, and it’s off-the-wall Hitchcockian style appealed to me greatly (as did Andrzej Korzyñski’s superb soundtrack). Went the Day Well?, Cavalcanti (1942), was a surprisingly brutal piece of wartime propaganda in which a German fifth column try to conquer a small English village. It goes badly. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec, Luc Besson (2010), gets a mention as an entertaining adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s bande dessinée, and though it’s completely silly it was great fun. Finally, some quality telly: Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), which has not dated at all, and is still great entertainment despite being completely bonkers; and Caprica (2010), which promised so much more than it ever got the chance to deliver.

Sounds
I knew from early this year that 2012 was going to be good for music. Perhaps few of my favourite bands are releasing albums, or touring the UK, but I’ve stumbled across some bands new to me that have been on almost constant play on the iPod.

Dwellings, Cormorant (2011). The band self-released this last year and it’s a powerful mélange of half a dozen metal genres. I loved it from the first listen, and even went back and got copies of their earlier two albums.

The Devil’s Resolve, Barren Earth (2012). This is the superband’s second album, and it’s a heavier and yet proggier effort than their first. The riffs are not quite as memorable as they are on The Curse of the Red River, but the lead breaks are much more impressive, and the proggy break-outs even stranger. Opeth’s Heritage proved there was a market for 1970s-inspired weird Scandinavian prog, and Barren Earth have taken that and melded it with Scandinavian death/doom to create a winning combination.

The Weight of Oceans, In Mourning (2012). I saw a review of this and it sounded appealing, so I ordered a copy from a Finnish website. It’s death/doom in that way the Finns do so well, but with added slow modern progginess. It’s not proggy like Barren Earth is proggy, inasmuch its acoustic parts feel more of a piece with the heavy parts. I’ve been playing it constantly since it arrived.

Nostalgia, Gwynbleidd (2009). Another band I came across mention of and who I thought I might like. So I bought the album. And yes, I do like them. Very much. They’re a sort of mix between Opeth and Northern Oak, but also not much like either. There are long sustained death metal parts, interspersed with folky acoustic guitar, and it all hangs together exceedingly well.

Legacy, Hypnos 69 (2010). I’ve been a fan of Hypnos 69 since hearing their The Intrigue of Perception several years ago. I’s taken me a while to get hold of Legacy, chiefly because it was released by a small label in Germany and wasn’t available in the UK. Recently I discovered it was on bandcamp, so I bought it from there. It’s Hypnos 69 doing Hypnos 69-type stuff, and I love it.

Honourable mentions go to Finnish death metallers (Psychoparalysis), who have self-released three excellent EPs; Weather Systems by Anathema (2012), which I much prefer to the previous album; Wood 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light by Woods of Ypres, which is folky black metal that sounds a little like Type O Negative in places  and includes strings and oboe; and finally, All Spawns, a recent compilation of Czech death metal pioneers Apalling Spawn’s two released from the late 1990s (now, if I can only find a copy of the Sparagmos compilation, I’ll be really happy…).


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That was the year that was

I said last year that 2009 was a year to remember for reasons both good and bad, but 2010 proved to be both a little better and in one respect the worst year ever. My father died of cancer in September after two months of illness. I miss him. My writing achievements mean little in the face of that. Especially since my father supported and enjoyed my writing – and yet never saw my story from Catastrophia praised in a national newspaper.

For the record, six of my stories saw print in 2010 – one each in Jupiter, Catastrophia, New Horizons, Alt Hist, and two in M-Brane SF. I also had my first poem published, also in Jupiter (it was actually a quartet of poems).

Books
During 2010 (to date), I read 170 books, 42% of which were science fiction, 18% were literary fiction, and 6% I read to review on my Space Books blog. I reviewed seven books for Interzone, one for Vector, and six for SFF Chronicles. I managed to curtail my book purchases this year, but I then decided to browse local charity shops on a regular basis… As a result, I spent less on books in 2010, but seem to have bought almost as many as I have in previous years. Oh well.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005), I picked as one of my top five books of the first half 2010, and wrote then that I expected it to make it onto my end of the year top five. And so it has. It is a cleverly-plotted historical detective novel, an astonishing piece of literary impersonation, and it is, as you’d expect from Crowley, beautifully written. Admittedly, I’m no expert on Byron – his poetry or his life – but Crowley certainly convinced me. After the disappointment that was The Translator, this is Crowley on top form.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1974). While I’ve read several of Compton’s novels over the years, 2010 was the year I came to really appreciate his fiction and added him to my list of “collectible” authors. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is often considered the best of his novels, and it’s certainly true that it’s very, very good. It’s perhaps a little dated these days but, for me, that was part of its charm – I love its 1970s aesthetic. It’s a book that’s wonderfully sardonic, with a pair of expertly-drawn characters, and prose that’s a joy to read. I wrote about it here. I even wrote about the film adaptation of it, by Bertrand Tavernier, here.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928). My father was a big fan of DH Lawrence and often tried to persuade me to read his books. But it was only this year that I picked one up… and was immediately captivated. I’ve since bought an omnibus of two novels and three novellas, a short story collection and a poetry collection (from charity shops, of course). I plan to read more. There’s little I need to say about Lady Chatterley’s Lover as most people know of the book – although, to be fair, what they think they know of it may not be what the book is actually about. The dialogue has not aged well, but some of the descriptive prose is lovely writing, and the character studies of Constance and Mellors are superbly done. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, incidentally, was another book from my top five for the first half of the year.

Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard and Robert S Dietz (1961). This year, 2010, was the fiftieth anniversary of the only manned descent to the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. And Seven Miles Down is the only book written specifically about that descent. It makes it into my top five because it’s a fascinating subject, and because I think Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh’s achievement should be honoured. I wrote about it here.

Troy, Simon Brown (2006). This is the third book from my halfway through the year list to make it into this final top five. Which, on reflection, doesn’t say much for my choices in reading matter during the latter half of 2010. To be fair, I did read a lot of good books, but none struck me as good enough to make this list. Troy, a collection of genre and non-genre stories based on characters from the Trojan Wars, kept its place because the collection’s theme is cleverly-handled, and the stories are varied and beautifully written. I’d like to read more by Brown.

Honourable mentions: the Bold as Love Cycle, Gwyneth Jones (the first quintet of my summer reading project; see here; more to follow soon); the Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp (the second quintet of my summer reading project; write-up to follow soon-ish); The City & The City, China Miéville (multi-award winner with fascinating premise; my review here); The White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper (thoughtful 1970s sf); The Desert King, David Howarth (a biography of ibn Saud; sort of like Dune without the worms…); One Giant Leap, Piers Bizony (the best of the books celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11; my review here); Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (loved the first half, but not so keen on the second); Surface Detail, Iain M Banks (a new Culture novel; enough said).

Films
Each month, I receive six rental DVDs from LoveFilm and two or three to review for VideoVista, so I’ve not bought as many as I have done in past years. I still managed to watch 210 films or seasons of television series, however, some of which were re-watches. Among the TV series I watched were Fringe, Mad Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Flash Gordon.

Cargo, dir. Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009). I know some people weren’t as impressed with this film as I was, but I thought it the best sf film of the year. It should have been on the Hugo Award shortlist. Okay, so it borrows heavily from other well-known sf films – or, perhaps, more charitably: it deploys tropes originally used in other well-known sf films. But it uses them cleverly, and they are all germane to the plot. The special effects and production design are also notably good. I reviewed Cargo for the Zone here, and loved it so much I went and bought a proper copy of the DVD.

Secret Ballot, dir. Babak Payami (2001), was, I think, the first Iranian film I’d ever watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed its deadpan black humour. It’s similar in many respects to Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, one of my favourite films, so perhaps I was predisposed to like it. It made my halfway through the year list, and confidently remained in place for the end of year top five. In it, a young woman travels around a remote island off the coast of Iran, trying to persuade people to vote in the upcoming election. She’s accompanied by a laconic soldier who has seen it all before. It’s a very funny film.

The Bothersome Man, dir. Jens Lien (2006), is another film that made the halfway through the year list. It’s also funny. A man commits suicide and finds himself in a city in which everything is bland and comfortable and washed-out. Everybody is nice to him, but no one seems to care about anything. While there may be something utopian in this, it’s also clearly hellish. Or, at the very least, purgatorial. So he tries to escape. His first attempt, a re-enactment of his suicide, is hilarious. Eventually, he thinks he may have found a route out. But, of course, films such as this can never end happily. It’s not Hollywood, after all.

For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I watched a number of documentaries about the Apollo programme during 2010, but For All Mankind was the best by quite a margin. And Eureka! have done it proud with their DVD release. Reinert personally chose, and had restored, the NASA footage he used, and he was careful to chose footage that had not been seen before. The end result is a documentary which gives a very real feel for the programme, for its accomplishments and for those involved in it – especially the astronauts. Some of the film taken by the Apollo astronauts while in space is, more by accident than design, quite beautiful. If you watch only one documentary about those mad years during which the US put twelve men on the Moon, make it For All Mankind.

There’s Always Tomorrow, dir. Douglas Sirk (1956). I suppose it’s no surprise to find a Sirk film on this list. He is, after all, one of my favourite directors. Unfortunately, few of his films are available on DVD – and of those, Eureka! have done an excellent job on their releases of There’s Always Tomorrow and A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But the former just pips the latter. Fred MacMurray plays a toy company owner who tries to inject some excitement into his solidly middle-class life when he is visited by ex-employee Barbara Stanwyck, now independent, successful and glamorous . MacMurray’s family has become a prison, and he is desperate for release. But it is not to be. The film’s final scene, after Stanwyck has turned him down, as he leaves for work and his kids wish him well through the banisters of the staircase… That final shot of MacMurray seen through those bars is a perfect illustration of why I rate Sirk’s films so highly.

Honourable mentions: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke remains one of the most interesting directors currently making films), King Lear (with Michael Hordern in the title role; the best of the six BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays I watched during 2010), Mad Men season one (has been praised by many; while good, I often found its heavy-handed 1960s sexism and racism hard to take); Frozen Land (grim, yet gripping and blackly humorous, film from Finland).

Albums
Several of my favourite bands released albums in 2010, and some of them even toured to UK too. I also discovered several new bands. I saw 21 bands perform live, and bought 27 CDs – 4 of them as limited edition CD/T-shirt deals.

Curse of the Red River, Barren Earth (2010), is the debut album by a Finnish metal supergroup side-project, featuring members of Amorphis, Moonsorrow and Kreator. The music is heavy doom/death metal with 1970s proggy bits – sort of like Opeth, but heavier (if that’s possible), and with strange, almost hippy-ish acoustic sections (there’s a flute in there somewhere, for example). It’s also quite brilliant. This one went on the top five the first time I listened to it. It’s about time they toured the UK. (Band website).

Vine, The Man-Eating Tree (2010), is another Finnish supergroup, as it contains the drummer from Sentenced, the guitarist from Poisonblack, the bass player from Reflexion, the keyboards player from Embraze, and the vocalist from Fall of the Leafe. The latter, in fact, Tuomas Tuominen, is the reason I’d been looking forward to this debut album – Fall of the Leafe was one of my favourite bands (they disbanded a couple of years ago), and Tuominen has a very distinctive voice. Vine includes a metal cover of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’, which shouldn’t work, but actually does. Amazingly well, in fact. (Band website).

We Are The Void, Dark Tranquillity (2010), is the latest album by a band that has been a favourite of mine for many years. I’d describe it as a return to form, except they’ve never been off-form. Nonetheless, I was impressed when I heard the first track they released from the album (see here), with its deliciously creepy riff, and the rest of the album is just as good. Definitely one of their best albums of recent years. (Band website).

Escaping The Abyss, Fornost Arnor (2009). I saw an ad for this in Zero Tolerance magazine, and the description intrigued me enough to buy a copy. It’s Fornost Arnor’s debut album and was released on their own label. It’s an atmospheric mixture of black and progress metal, with occasional acoustic parts. It’s exactly the sort of complex, varied and technically-proficient metal that I really like. They’re currently recording their second album. I’m looking forward to hearing it. Incidentally, this is the second year running a self-released album has made it into my top five – last year, it was DesolatioN’s Lexicon V. (Band’s MySpace page).

The Never Ending Way of Orwarrior, Orphaned Land (2010), was a long-awaited album. Orphaned Land’s last release, the excellent Mabool, appeared in 2004, and they’ve been promising this follow-up ever since. It finally arrived this year, and it was worth the wait. I saw Orphaned Land live this year for the first time too, with Amorphis and Ghost Brigade, and they were easily the best act of the night. (Band website).

Honourable mentions: Engines of Armageddon’s self-released debut album; The Light in Which We All Burn, Laethora; Persistence, Crystalic (also self-released); Encounter the Monolith, Martriden.


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Best Sounds of 2010 (the first half)

I’ve done books and films for the first six months of 2010, so now it’s the turn of albums. I don’t seem to have bought that many albums so far this year, and most of those I have bought were remastered CD editions of ones I’ve had on vinyl for a long time. Having said that, a couple of new albums immediately jumped out as best of the year so far – and are likely to remain so for the rest of the year.

We Are The Void, Dark Tranquillity (2010). This definitely counts as a return to form for the Gothenburg masters of melodic death metal. I posted the promo video for the first single from the album here, and the rest of the album is just as good. I can’t wait for them to tour the UK to promote the album. (Band web site)

Curse of the Red River, Barren Earth (2010). I bought this after a positive review in Zero Tolerance magazine, and I’m extremely glad I did. It’s progressive death metal, much like Opeth – but where Opeth incorporate 1970s acoustic guitar into their songs, Barren Earth instead feature weird 1970s hippy rock with flutes. And it works superbly. This is going to be a favourite for a long time. Barren Earth, incidentally, is a Finnish metal supergroup, featuring members of Amorphis, Moonsorrow, Swallow the Sun and Kreator. (Band web site)

The Never Ending Way of Orwarrior, Orphaned Land (2010). A long awaited album. Orphaned Land’s last album, the excellent Mabool, was released in 2004, and a follow-up was promised a couple of years later. And then put back, and back, and back… Until finally it was released this year. Was it worth the wait? It’s more progressive than Mabool, perhaps even a little more commercial. It’s certainly very good, and some of the tracks on it are excellent. Not quite sure yet if it’s better than Mabool, however. (Band web site)

The Engines of Armageddon, The Engines of Armageddon (2009). These are a Nottingham-based band, and currently unsigned – the album is self-released. They describe their music as stoner-thrash-prog-doom-groove metal, and that’s as good a description as any. I’ve seen them live three times now, and they’ve been excellent on all three occasions. I bought the CD and T-shirt the first time I saw them live – any band which performs a song about RFID chips titled ‘Fuck the Chip’ definitely deserved £10 of my money.  (Band web site)

Escaping the Abyss, Fornost Arnor (2009). This is also self-released (although the band formed their own label, Witch-King Records, for the release). It’s a mix of black, death and progressive metal, and works extremely well. I particularly like the acoustic bits, which are not your usual progressive black metal. (Band web site)


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The Year in Question

I used to do this several years ago when I was a member of an APA (a sort of paper-based snail-mail blogosphere with a membership of around 30). I thought it was time to resurrect the practice. Below are my choices for the best five books I read during 2006, the best five films I watched during the year, and the best five albums I purchased. Oh, and just to balance things out, there’s also the three worst books I read in 2006.

Top 5 Books
The Tourmaline, Paul Park (2006, Tor) – the second book in the fantasy trilogy which began with A Princess of Roumania. Miranda has been transported to an alternate world in which magic works, the Balance of Power remains much as it did in the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, and Roumania has an empire. She discovers that the real world (our world) existed only in a book, created by her aunt and in which she hid Miranda from Roumania’s enemies. Fine prose, excellent characterisation (the villainess, Baroness Ceaucescu, is particularly good), and an inventive setting.

The Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1960-1965, Penguin) – a young British couple are living in Bucharest as World War II breaks out, and are forced to flee to Greece. This trilogy is apparently quite autobiographical. Finely written, and an excellent evocation its time and setting. It was made into a television series. I plan to buy the DVD.

Europeana, Patrik Ouřednik (2001, Dalkey Archive) – a somewhat sideways look at the history of Europe during the Twentieth Century. How can you not love a book which has the opening line, “The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers.” Poetic, informative, and just a little bit strange.

The Dark Labyrinth, Lawrence Durrell (1947, Faber & Faber) – Durrell is one of my favourite writers (and The Alexandria Quartet is one of my all-time favourite novels). I treasure his books for the beautiful descriptive writing, rather than the somewhat random plotting: “A white sail boat lay like a breathing butterfly…”

Geodesica: Descent, Sean Williams & Shane Dix (2006, Ace) – um, the only sf novel in my top five. Williams & Dix write cutting-edge hard sf / space opera. The Geodesica diptych (begun with Geodesica: Ascent) is an excellent example of its type. Mind-bending concepts, lots of gosh-wow, and a satisfying conclusion. What more do you need?

Top 5 Films
Syriana, dir. Stephen Gaghan (2005) – having lived out in the Middle East, parts of this film rang horribly true. Perhaps the plot was a little confusing in places, but it was gripping entertainment nonetheless.

The Double Life of Veronique, dir. Krzystof Kieslowski (1991) – there’s not much you can say about this film. It’s generally reckoned to be Kieslowski’s best, and Kieslowski is generally to be the best European director of the late Twentieth Century.

Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon (2005) – so Serenity‘s universe is badly-designed and populated with used furniture and hoary clichés, but Whedon’s witty dialogue, and a likeable cast, make up for its shortcomings. Perhaps the television series would have been great if it had been allowed to continue. We’ll never know. This is all we’ve got.

>Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan (2005) – sigh. Another reinvention of Batman. Hang on, this one is actually good. Batman never really worked for me – he doesn’t live in a superhero world… which makes him something of an anachronism in his setting. But Nolan manages to make the whole thing eminently plausible, helped by a good performance from Christian Bale in the title role.

Crime and Punishment, dir. Aki Kaurismäki (1983) – Kaurismäki’s films can be a bit hit and miss (Juha, anyone?), but there’s something about the po-faced way his cast play their parts that adds a layer of appealing strangeness to his oeuvre. This one is a little more serious than most, which may be why I liked it so much.

Top 5 Albums
Pitch Black Progress, Scar Symmetry (2006) – Scar Symmetry play a mixture of power metal and death metal. And Christian Älvestam has a fine set of pipes. On first listen, I didn’t like this as much as their debut of last year, Symmetric in Design, but it definitely grew on me. I think I now prefer it.

Above the Weeping World, Insomnium (2006) – Insomnium can’t do wrong in my eyes. Er, ears. And they just get better with each new album. They’re bloody good live too.

Worlds Beyond the Veil, Mithras (2004) – I missed the hype when this album was released, and only came to the band this year. But the bizarre mix of ambient music and technical death metal works really well. I’m looking forward to the new album next year.

Red for Fire: An Icelandic Odyssey Part 1 (2005) and Black for Death: An Icelandic Odyssey Part 2 (2006), Solefald – Solefald are post-black metal. Which I like. Black metal, I don’t really like. Too much posturing, silly make-up, and clouds of synths. But there’s none of that in these two connected albums. An odd bricolage of musical styles and genres, featuring vocals in English and Old Norse, and telling the story of a legendary Icelandic bard.

The Intrigue of Perception, Hypnos 69 (2005) – this Belgian band apparently play “space rock”. Whatever that might be. It sounds like ambient Pink-Floyd-esque rock with easy listening thrown into the mix. It works… in a relaxing sort of way.

Worst Books
Hunters of Dune, Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson (2006, Tor) – after the dire Legends of Dune trilogy, my expectations for this continuation of Frank Herbert’s Dune series were low. But this still failed to meet them. Can someone please tell me what “Like a dragon empress…” means?

Majestic, Whitley Streiber (1989, Putnam) – I have no idea why I read this book.

The Plutonium Blonde, John Zakour & Lawrence Ganem (2001, DAW) – it’s very difficult to do humorous science fiction, as Zakour & Ganem amply demonstrate. The idea of spoofing pulp sf tropes has legs, but marrying that with feeble IT jokes and heavy-handed PI wisecracks is a bad move.

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