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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-p

3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

Zoline-Tree

5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

beau-travail

2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

burmese-harp-blu-ray-cover

Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

Oranssi_Pazuzu-Valonielu

3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

Cormorant-Earth-Diver

Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.


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Best of the year 2011

I was going to leave this until January, but everyone else is doing them now. And, let’s face it, there’s only a handful of days left until the end of the year and they’ll be filled with various consumerist festivities. So…

Books
As of 15 December, I had read 156 books in 2011, which I suspect will mean a total on 31 December of slightly less than last year’s 178 books. But then I probably wrote more this year than I did in 2010. Of my reading, 4% were anthologies, and 12% non-fiction… which means of the remainder that 28% were books by women writers and 56% by male writers. I still need to work on that. Genre-wise, 44% was science fiction, 16% was mainstream, 8% was fantasy, and 16% were graphic novels.

Of those 156 books, I have picked six which were, for me, the best I read during the twelve months. They are:


Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), should come as little surprise as I raved about when I read it back in April. Initially a Crowlesque fantasy, it takes a peculiar turn halfway through which makes it something weird and wonderful all of its own.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), is another work by an author who continues to astonish me with each novel of his I read. This one has the most beautifully-handled non-linear narrative I’ve come across in fiction, not to mention one of the best-drawn female protagonists in science fiction. I honestly don’t know if this book is better than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe or merely just as excellent. I wrote about it here.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), suffers under a somewhat forced title, but who cares. Because it contains loads of photographs of amazing Modernist buildings from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Not all of the buildings still exist, and many of them have weathered the years badly. But there they are, captured in all their glory in this book.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), was published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and of all the books published at that time this one is perhaps the best-looking. Chaikin went through the many thousands of photographs take by, and of, the Apollo astronauts, and picked out ones that had rarely been seen before. And then he married those photographs with the words of the astronauts themselves – taken from interviews, transcriptions, etc.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), was a book I read under a misapprehension. Though it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction, many complained it was partly fictional – inasmuch as it told its story using a cast of real and invented people in a threaded narrative. However, I’d mistakenly understood that Red Plenty not only covered the years of the Soviet Union’s existence but also extrapolated it into an alternate present in which the Soviet system had succeeded. That would the be the “sf” part of the BSFA Award, you see. Not so. But never mind, I still loved it.

Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011), I pre-ordered because I’d thought Gilman’s 1998 novel, Halfway Human, very good, and because a write-up of the plot sounded as though it would appeal. And so it did. A fantasy, but not in the traditional epic/heroic mould. I wrote about it here.

Honorable Mentions:
There are a number of these this year, more so than usual. First, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Infidel, a very strong debut with some very interesting elements, and some that didn’t quite work for me (see here and here). Eric Brown’s Wellsian The Kings of Eternity is his strongest work for a number of years, and he deserves to be read more than he is. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is an excellent anthology that does exactly what it says on the tin and introduced me to several authors I’m determined to read more (see here and here). Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge (see here) and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (see here) were the best two novels from my challenge to read twelve books during the year by female science fiction writers. Stretto was an excellent end to L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, and Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer managed to make fascinating a topic in which I have zero interest, John F Kennedy’s presidency. Finally, a pair of rereads are worthy of mentions: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Films
By 15 December, I had watched 183 films. That’s including seasons of television series watched on DVD. Twenty-seven of them I reviewed for VideoVista.net and The Zone. Only one I saw at the cinema: Apollo 18. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction film or television, though I will happily watch them. This may well explain my choices for my top six of the year:


Moolaadé, Ousmane Sembène (2004), is Senegalese director Sembène’s ninth feature-length film, and the first one by him I’ve seen. It is set in a small village in Burkina Faso, and revolves around the refusal of three girls to undergo the traditional female genital mutilation. They are protected by the wife of one of the village’s important men, who herself refused to let her own daughter undergo the same disgusting procedure. This leads to a revolt by the village’s womenfolk, but it ends badly.

Mammoth, Lukas Moodysson (2009). I very much liked Moodysson’s earlier films Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål), Together (Tillsammans) and Lilya 4-Ever, but thought the experimental Container was pretty much unwatchable. Mammoth, however, is not only a welcome return to form, it is a superb indictment of the West’s exploitation of the East. Judging by some of the comments the film has generated, I may the only person to see it in that light. Ah well. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good in the male lead role – and that’s in a cast that is uniformly excellent.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is a Norwegian spoof. The title may have been a bit of a giveaway there. It posits an alternate 1980s in which Norwegian traitor Arne Treholt was not a spy for the Soviets but the head of a secret royal force of ninjas. As a spoof of late 1970s / early 1980s action films, Norwegian Ninja is pitch-perfect, but it is its use of real-life footage, and the way it neatly twists real history, that turns it in to a work of genius. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), was not a film I expected to appeal to me: a noir-ish thriller set among the hillbillies of the Ozarks. I not only enjoyed it, I thought it very very good indeed. It takes place in a world peopled by some of the scariest people I’ve seen depicted on celluloid. And they’re not scary because they’re psychopaths or sociopaths, they’re scary because they need to be to survive in that culture.

Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), was recommended to me, and it was a good call. A black comedy following the fortunes of a pair of rogues during WWII in Belgrade and the years after under Tito. One rises high in the post-war government, while the other remains hidden in his cellar, convinced the war is still going.

The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), is the most recent film by a favourite director, so its appearance here should not be a surprise. It’s perhaps less comic than Divine Intervention, but neither does go all bizarre and surreal towards the end. A series of autobiographical vignettes, it builds a narrative of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. Some parts of it are a delight.

Honorable Mentions:
No science fiction films, I’m afraid. Instead: Israeli thriller, Ajami, set in the titular district of Jaffa; The Wedding Song, which is set during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia in World War II and follows the friendship of two female friends, one Jewish and one Arabic; the BBC’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from 1984, starring Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay, and the best of the Bard’s plays I watched during the year; The Secret in their Eyes, a clever thriller from Argentina, which beat Ajami to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2010; and finally, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever watched.

Albums
I didn’t think 2011 was shaping up to be a good year for music, but that all changed during the second half of the year. I think that might have happened in previous years too. I bought a reasonable number of new albums and old albums. The best of those are:

Harvest, The Man-Eating Tree (2011), is the band’s second album, and it’s a more commercial and slightly heavier-sounding offering. And Tuomas Tuominen still has one of the best and most distinctive voices in metal. I suspect The Man-Eating Tree are going to be the new Sentenced. Certainly when you think of Finnish metal, it’s The Man-Eating Tree you should be thinking of,  and not Lordi.

The Death of a Rose, Fornost Arnor (2011), is this UK band’s second album and, like their first, was also self-released. Some have said it’s the album Opeth should have made this year. Certainly it borrows the Swedes’ trademark mix of crunching yet intricate death metal and accomplished acoustic parts. It’s very much an album to lose yourself in, and I’m already looking forward to the band’s next offering.

Weaver of Forgotten, Dark Lunacy (2010), was annoyingly expensive as it was also self-released. But in Italy. (And I see now it’s much cheaper. Gah.) It is… epic. There’s no other word for it. It’s melodic death metal, but of a sort to fill vast spaces. I thought Dark Lunacy’s previous album, The Diarist, was excellent, but Weaver of Forgotten is an order of magnitude better.

Brahmavidya : Immortal I, Rudra (2011), is the third of a trilogy of albums, including Brahmavidya : Primordial I and Brahmavidya : Trascendental I. The band are from Singapore, but sing in – I believe – Sanskrit as well as English. It’s three blokes making death metal, but singing about their mythology. Rudra were one of this year’s discoveries, and I now have the T-shirt.

One for Sorrow, Insomnium (2011). Apparently, the only people who don’t like Insomnium are those who’ve never heard them. Each album finds them more polished and technically accomplished than the last, and it continues to astonish me they’re not better known. Insomnium are the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom metal.

The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is one of those albums that blows you away with the first track… but then can never quite scale those heights again. Opener ‘One Door’ is a blinding song, and if the rest can’t compare, that doesn’t mean they’re not good. This is a proggier effort than the band’s first album, and it’s the better for it. Chaos Divine is a band you can tell will improve with each new album.

Honorable Mentions:
I’m sorry, I have to do it: Heritage. I’m giving Opeth’s latest album an honourable mention because, though it took numerous listens before it grew on me, it does contains flashes of brilliance. It’s totally prog, of course, with nary a growl to be heard, and that has to be disappointing… but as a warped vision of old school prog, Heritage is worth its mention. However, Of Death by Byfrost, The Light In Which We All Burn by Laethora and Psychogenocide by Nervecell all get mentions because they’re good albums which are very much in keeping with their bands’ sounds. Byfrost I first heard at Bloodstock, and I enjoyed their set so much I wanted the album. Nervecell are from Dubai and, while I was aware of them before, I saw them this year supporting Morbid Angel and they were excellent. Laethora is just Laethora. Finally, Sowberry Hagan by Ultraphallus deserves a special honourable mention for being a fraction away from sheer noise, yet still remaining powerful and heavy and an excellent listen.

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