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Best of the half-year, 2016

A lot of people do best of the year posts, but I also like doing these best of the half-year ones, as I find it interesting to see how they change as the year progresses. The two sets of lists are rarely the same, of course – new works make each top five that I hadn’t read, watched or listened to in the first half of the year. But sometimes, works from the honourable mentions get promoted to the top five as my opinion changes of them.

books
Every time I write one of these best of posts, I seem to start them with: it’s been an odd year for reading but I’m not sure why… Which I guess means they haven’t really been odd since they’ve pretty much been the same. It could mean, I suppose, that the last few years have felt like my reading lacks shape or direction because it’s not in step with the genre commentary I see online. After all, while science fiction still forms the bulk of my reading at forty percent, with mainstream fiction a distant second at 26%, I don’t generally read the genre books which are getting the buzz… And when I do, as I did with this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, then I have no idea why those books are receiving so much praise… Which is no doubt why only one category sf novel makes my top five – and only two genre titles appear in my honourable mentions… And yes, the one sf novel in my top five is on the Clarke Award shortlist (because it’s an exception to my earlier comments, of course).

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012). I knew the moment I finished this book it would make my top five for the half-year, and I’ve not read anything since (I read it back in March) that has impressed me as much. I plan to read more by Erpenbeck – although not all of her books have been translated into English. Although not published as genre, either here or in Germany, its central conceit is certainly genre – a young woman, who is born in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives out her life during the turbulent years of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, she dies; other times, she survives. It’s a similar premise to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; it’s also beautifully written and feels like a much more substantial read. The historical side is handled with skill, and the view it gives on elements of European history during the period in question is fascinating. I wrote about it here.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990). Sebald is in a class of his own, so his presence in this list is probably no surprise. Vertigo is a collection of stories which have no overt link, but because of Sebald’s voice they read as a seamless whole. I’ve no idea how much of the novel is fact or fiction – it is, like Austerlitz, very autobiographical I suspect, but I’m not familiar enough with Sebald’s life and career to determine if parts of this novel – especially the section in which the narrator returns to his childhood village of W., notes the changes and reminisces about his time living in the village – although does not lessen my admiration of the book in the slightest (and learning the truth may well increase it). I’ve only read two Sebald books so far, and both made my best of the year lists. I still have one more, The Rings of Saturn, on the TBR. I think I should save it until next year. Anyway, I covered Vertigo in a blog post here.

europe3 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). It’s been a good year for this book, with appearances on various award shortlists. And rightly so. It’s not quite a sequel to the earlier Europe in Autumn, but it’s better for not being one. And thanks to the rank irresponsibility of our government in calling this stupid referendum, Europe at Midnight has become unfortunately topical. I say “unfortunately” because it’s obviously not the book’s fault, and although its creation of a pocket universe England might map onto the wishes of assorted Brexit fuckwits, I know the author’s sympathies don’t lie there and the novel’s Gedankenexperiment is in no way an endorsement of them. Of course, no one ever accused Le Carré of being pro-Soviet but then his novels presented the USSR as the enemy… And I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here as Hutchinson’s Community is also presented as the enemy. But never mind. I wrote about this book here.

agodinruins4 A Gods in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). Like the Hutchinson, this is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novel, Life After Life, although it neither continues the plot, nor uses the same cast, as its predecessor. I thought Life After Life good – an immensely readable novel – and even nominated for the Hugo (of course, it didn’t make the shortlist). A God in Ruins is, I think, slightly better. Its central conceit is dialled back more in the narrative, but it’s just as hugely readable as Life After Life. A God in Ruins is the story of the life of a man who fought during WWII and so tries to live a blameless live afterwards. It is, sort of, a variation on A Matter of Life and Death; but in a way that is neither obvious nor intrusive. For much of its length, it’s a lovely piece of historical writing, of personal history stretching much of the length of the twentieth century; but there’s an added dimension which is only hinted at. I wrote about it here.

abandoned5 Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016). It’s all very well celebrating the achievements of past years, but often all we have as evidence are words in books. True, there is evidence aplenty on the surface of the Moon to prove that twelve men once walked there (assorted fuckwits who insist it was all faked aside), but in order to view that evidence we would have to, er, visit the surface of the Moon. There is, however, a lot of evidence remaining on Earth that something involving trips to the Moon took place – launch platforms, rocket test stands, etc – and it’s hard to imagine anything with such concrete (in both senses of the word) physicality being part of a great confidence trick. Is there a word which means the opposite of “paleo-archaeology”? Hunting through the abandoned remains of great engineering projects from last century, which either failed or have long since run their course? Neo-archaeology? This book celebrates one particular engineering project that ended over forty years ago – and it’s one that’s fascinated me for years. I wrote about Abandoned in Place in a post here.

Honourable mentions: Sisters of the Revolution, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (2015), an excellent reprint anthology of feminist sf, containing a couple of old favourites, and much that was new to me – some of which became new favourites; Soviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014), another photographic essay, this time of abandoned buildings and plants in what was the USSR and its satellites; Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015), strange goings-on when a 1970s UK folk band record at a haunted manor, handled with a lovely elegiac tone; Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015), a new collection by a favourite writer, so of course it gets a mention; In Ballast to the White Sea: A Scholarly Edition, Malcolm Lowry (2014), a “lost” novel and never before published, it’s certainly not among his best but the copious annotations make for a fascinating read; Women in Love, DH Lawrence (1920), his best-known novel after Lady Chatterley’s Lover and just as notorious back in the day for its rumpy-pumpy, but I love Lawrence’s prose… and if the philosophy and politics in this are somewhat dubious, I still have that; and The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993), not since Alias Grace have I read an Atwood novel I enjoyed so much on a prose level, so for me this is currently her “second-best” book.

films
My project to watch all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is now in its second year and has continued to introduce me to new directors I might otherwise never have discovered. Two films in my top five certainly qualify as such, and a third I’d long been aware of but would probably never bothered watching if it hadn’t been on the list. Of the remaining two, one was on the list but I’d seen at least one film by the director before; and the other movie was on a version of the list different to the one I’ve been using…

autumn_avo1 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). My introduction to Ozu’s work was Tokyo Story which, at the time, I didn’t really take to. But he has been repeatedly recommended to me, and Floating Weeds was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I rented it… and liked it quite a lot. But the (I think) Criterion edition DVD cover art of An Autumn Afternoon reminded me a great deal of Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Red Desert, a film I love, so I wanted to watch that. And after a false start, buying Late Autumn by mistake, but loving it all the same, I eventually got myself a copy of An Autumn Afternoon… And that convoluted route to it totally worked in its favour. Late Autumn I thought really good, but An Autumn Afternoon struck me as a somewhat satirical take on similar subject matter – and so perversely reminded me of my favourite Douglas Sirk movies – but it also seemed a distillation of all those elements of Ozu’s cinema I had noted in Tokyo Story and loved so much in Late Autumn. I have now added the rest of the BFI editions of Ozu’s films to my wants list.

entranced_earth2 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). This wasn’t quite a “Benning moment”, where I loved a film so much I immediately went and bought everything I could find by the director… although I did indeed love this film and immediately went and bought everything I could find by Rocha. But, I must confess, wine was involved in the Rocha purchase, whereas it wasn’t in the Benning one. Not that I regret buying Black God White Devil, Entranced Earth or Antonio das Mortes, as all three are fascinating films – but Entranced Earth remains my favourite of the three. Not only is the Brazilian landscape unfamiliar enough I find it strangely compelling, but the film also features scene of political declamatory dialogue, which I love. The film is part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which seems to be like France’s Nouvelle Vague in parts but Italy’s Neorealism in others. There’s a crudity in production which, perversely, seems a consequence of, as well as an enabler for, a film closer to the director’s vision than might otherwise have been the case. And I really like that, I really like that movies like this are closer to the creative process than is typical in our commodified homogenised product-placement Hollywoodised cinema world. There are those directors who muster sufficient clout in their nation’s cinema industry they can make whatever they like, but there are also those who make great films because of their total lack of influence… and it’s the latter who often produce the more lasting work. Like this one.

qatsi3 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA). I’ve no idea how many years I’ve known about this film, but I’d never actually bothered watching it. Something about what I’d heard about it persuaded me I wouldn’t enjoy it – and while that may have been true twenty years ago, it could hardly be true now given my love of Benning’s work. But it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I stuck it on the rental list, it duly arrived… and I was capitivated. The score and cinematography worked perfectly together – and while it’s a more obvious approach to its material than anything by Benning, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautifully-shot piece of work. I ended up buying the Criterion Blu-ray edition of all three Qatsi films, which, in hindsight, was a mistake, as the transfers of the first two don’t really do the format justice. The sequel, Powaqqatsi, is very good, although not as good as Koyyanisqatsi; but the third film, Naqoyqatsi, sadly suffers because its use of CGI (in 2002) makes it appear a little dated. All three are worth getting. But not on Blu-ray.

nostalgia4 Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). The problem – if that’s the right word – with documentary films, is that no matter how beautifully-shot they might be, if the subject does not appeal then you’re not going to like the film. But then it’s not really fair to say the subject of Nostalgia for the Light “appeals”, because it’s an unpleasant subject and no one’s world is a better place for knowing about it. Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the hunt for stars by astronomers at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the search for the remains of the Disappeared, the thousands of victims Pinochet’s brutal regime massacred for… whatever feeble-minded self-serving reasons such fascist regimes use. It’s a heart-breaking film, all the more so because it interviews those who survived the regime; but Guzmán’s intelligent commentary also gives context and commentary to the interviews. I now want to see more films by Guzmán – and oh look, there’s a boxed set of his documentaries available on…

pyaasa5 Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). There are a couple of Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and so I rented them and enjoyed them; and while they may be superior examples of the genre (if “Bollywood” could be called a genre) and great fun to watch, to be honest they struck me as no more worthy of inclusion than a great many of the US films on the same list. But then I stumbled across a list of Bollywood classic films, and decided to try a few more than the two or three on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… Which is how I discovered Guru Dutt. He’s been described as “India’s Orson Welles”, which I think is a somewhat unfair label as it suggests he’s an imitator; but while Dutt’s films certainly follow the forms of Bollywood movies, they’re also well-constructed, cleverly-written dramas. After seeing Pyaasa, I bought a copy of his Kagaaz Ke Phool, which I also thought very good; and I have his Aar Paar on the To Be Watched pile (as well as the 1985 film of the same title, because the seller buggered up my order). I think Dutt would be a perfect candidate for the BFI to release on DVD/Blu-ray.

Honourable mentions: Yeelen, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali), an old Malian fantasy tale told in a straightforward way that only highlights its strangeness; Come and See, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia), the banal title hides a quite brutal look at WWII in Russia; Shock Corridor, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA), a low budget thriller that rises above its production values, but then Fuller was good at that; Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles (1966, Spain), a mishmash of Shakespeare’s various depictions of the title character, but it works really well and after watching it my admiration of Welles moved up a notch; Story of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France), a heart-breaking story of France’s mistreatment of its women during WWII, played strongly by the ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert; Osama, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan), an even more heart-breaking film about the mistreatment of women by the Taliban; A Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia), a stark and beautifully-shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’; Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22, Hideaki Anno (2007/2009, Japan), giant mecha piloted by high school kids battle giant alien “angels”, which as a précis does very little to describe these bonkers animes; Storm over Asia, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia), a beautifully-shot silent film set in Mongolia; Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK), firemen during the Blitz by one of Britain’s best directors, but I probably need to rewatch his films to decide if this is his best; London, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK), it reminds me a little of Benning, but the arch commentary by Paul Scofield is hugely appealing; and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France), a mostly-silent, almost entirely unadorned depiction of three days in the life of the title character, which makes for fascinating viewing despite its lack of action or, er, plot.

albums
You’d think that given the amount of music I listen to that this would be the easiest category to fill in each year. But, perversely, it usually proves the hardest. Probably because I don’t document my music purchases and I rarely write about music. I also don’t purchase albums in anything like the number of films I watch or even books I read. Having said all that, I managed to pick five albums I first listened to in the first half of 2016, and they are…

no_summer 1 A Year With No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016). I saw this band perform at Bloodstock in 2014 and thought them so good I bought their album as soon as I got home. And now, after four years, a second album finally appears. In some respects, Obsidian Kingdom remind me of fellow countrymates NahemaH and Apocynthion, although they’re not as heavy as those two bands. They’re progressive metal, of a sort, and they build up a wall of sound with guitars and drums, not to mention the odd electronic effect, that’s extremely effective. The songs are complex, often very melodic, and move from dreamy to aggressive and back again very cleverly.

afterglow 2 Afterglow, In Mourning (2016). I’ve been a fan of In Mourning since first hearing the monumental The Weight of Oceans, which remains one of the best progressive death metal albums of recent years. Afterglow doesn’t start as strongly as that earlier albums, but a couple of tracks in it turns more progessive and the melodic hooks which characterise the band begin to appear. By the time the last song fades away, you know it’s another excellent album.

rooms 3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016). The name of a band isn’t always a clue to its origin, but yes, Todtgelichter are German. And they play a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal that works really well. Most post-black bands – I’m thinking of Solefald as much as I am Arcturus – tend to incorporate all sorts of musical influences; but Todtgelichter keep it simple and heavy and hard-hitting, and it works extremely well.

eidos 4 Eidos, Kingcrow (2015). It’s an entirely international line-up this top five, with Spain, Sweden, Germany, and now Italy. Kingcrow play progressive metal, although this is no Dream Theatre. They sound in parts very like Porcupine Tree – which is a perfectly good band to sound like – and on one track, ‘Adrift’, the main guitar part is almost pure Opeth. As influences go, you can’t really do better than that.

changing_tides 5 Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016). I stumbled across Trauma Field a year or two ago when I found their 2013 album Harvest on bandcamp. It seem to me there were bits of fellow Finns Sentenced in there – although Sentenced never used a female vocalist that I can recall – but also a more progressive element than that band had ever incorporated. This new album feels a little lighter in tone, much more atmospheric, and is definitely less Sentenced-like… which is, of course, good.

Unfortunately, there are no honourable mentions so far this year. I’ve just not been listening to enough new music. I do most of my listening at work, and I’ve been so busy there I’ve not had a chance.


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Acquisitions

… and unlike a company which specialises in student accommodation which “aquired” some land locally a few years ago, I know there’s a “c” before”the “q”. Yes, I can hold spelling grudges for years. I can also keep books for years on my shelves… before either reading them or giving them away because I’m never going to read them and whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place has long since evaporated… But some of the following may well become members of the Ian Sales Permanent Book Collection – which does not necessarily result in an eventual state of “having been read”. I really need to get the TBR down to manageable levels. I think my current record is eleven years between buying a book and actually reading it – and, perversely, it turned out to be my favourite book of that year…

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Flesh & Wires, Elysium, Necessary Ill, The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze were all ordered from Aqueduct Press. The second and third I’d heard good things about, and that prompted the order – the rest were thrown in to make it worthwhile… and Shapter’s novella I immediately nominated for the BSFA Award. I wrote about Flesh & Wires here.

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Europe at Midnight was sent to me by the author, who is a good friend, and excellent it is too – see here. It was on my BSFA Award ballot. I hung on for the signed limited hardback of Slow Bullets, only to discover WSFA had given it the same ISBN as one of their previous books. You would not believe how many things that fucks up. Argh. I wrote about it here. And Mike Cobley is a friend of many decades, so I only buy his books out of a sense of duty – hence Ancestral Machines. (Only kidding, Mike’s space operas are smart twenty-first century examples of the subgenre, and worth reading.) Other Stories is a long-awaited collection from a favourite writer – and it’s another lovely job from PS Publishing.

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Borderliners is by one of those authors whose books I pick up when I see them in charity shops. I’ve been a big fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years, so a new collection by her – which is what Cockfosters is – is worth celebrating. And I’ve always been meaning to complete my Radix Tetrad by picking up a copy of Attanasio’s Arc of the Dream, but completely failed to do so until now – but I’d sooner have one in better condition than this one.

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Spin Control, The End of Days, The Adjacent and The Last Pilot were all Christmas presents. My family obviously know my tastes in books – or have access to my Amazon wishlist… So far I have read only The Last Pilot – see here.

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Caliban and Lady Killer are a pair of graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen over Christmas, and wrote about here.

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Atoms Afloat I’ve been after for a while. I think the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear-powered ship, is a beautiful vessel. DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage came from my mother, who found it in a charity shop, I think. And I love me some photographs of Soviet/East European modernist architecture (second only to Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia), so Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism was a must-purchase.

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Gypsy was recommended to me by a number of people, and the title novella is indeed very good – sadly it wasn’t longlisted for the BSFA Award, although I think it was eligible. Happily, Wylding Hall, also recommended to me by, er, the same people, was longlisted, is very good, and it took one of my nominations. The Buried Giant didn’t make it to the longlist, but A God in Ruins did… so I read it, thought it very good indeed , and promptly nominated it for the BSFA Award. Gypsy and Wylding Hall I wrote about here.


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My BSFA ballot

I’ve now posted my votes for the BSFA Award – the deadline is midnight 31 January. And only works on the longlists here can be nominated.

In previous years, members of the BSFA simply nominated works in each of the categories they felt deserving of an award – initially as many as they wanted, but then restricted to four choices – and the final shortlist comprised those works with the most nominations. This year, a first round of nominations (again, four per person per category) produced the longlists linked to above, and now the second round of nominations will lead to the shortlists. Which will then be voted on at the Eastercon at the end of March. It’ll be interesting to see what effect this new process has on the award. Certainly, anyone that didn’t get their act together in December last year, and so didn’t get their chosen works onto the longlists, has now missed their chance. I suspect a few works that might have proven popular with the BSFA membership have missed out as a result. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Carter Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ – the novella, not the collection – was eligible, but no one nominated it for a longlist (I didn’t read it until after the longlists were published, or I might have done).

Anyway, there are longlists. And I have selected my four choices for each category which I think deserve to be on the shortlist. The novel category wasn’t too difficult, although I was determined to avoid easy picks. I suspect, for example, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora might make the final cut, although I didn’t think it his best. The longlist certainly helped when it came to the art category – instead of trawling across the internet for suitable works, I had only to look at the longlist (and yes, I did nominate four pieces for it myself, so it’s not like I didn’t do some trawling across the internet). My non-fiction candidates are exactly those I nominated for the longlist. The short fiction category… Well, I worked my way through all those that were available to me, and even went so far as to buy a copy of Wylding Hall from PS Publishing – which was certainly worth it as it has made my ballot.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my nominations from the longlists for the BSFA Award shortlists (in alphabetical order):

novel
1 A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
2 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
3 Glorious Angels, Justina Robson (Gollancz)
4 Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

I expect the Hutchinson to make the shortlist as there’s been a bit of buzz about it – and deservedly so. The Robson might make it on name recognition – she’s been shortlised four times before – and I think Glorious Angels is less polarising than her Quantum Gravity quintet might have been. The Tchaikvosky will, I think, lose out to KSR, which would be a shame. The Atkinson is a long shot – a few people have recommended it, but despite Life After Life I don’t think she has much traction among BSFA members.

short fiction
1 Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
2 ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978’, David Herter (tor.com)
3 ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space’,’ Sammy Kriss (The New Inquiry)
4 A Day in Deep Freeze, Lisa Shapter (Aqueduct Press)

The Hand was recommended and proved a good call – but it’s a PS novella, so not free to read. That might count against it. The Shapter is my own nomination for the longlist – but again, it’s from a small press and can’t be read for free online. A shame as it’s really very good (so is the Hand too, of course). Both the Herter and the Kriss are free to read online. I’ve been a fan of Herter’s fiction for many years, and only wish he were more prolific. The Kriss is… a beautifully judged piece of trolling, and award-worthy for that reason.

non-fiction
1 ‘What Price, Your Critical Agency?’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
2 Rave and Let Die, Adam Roberts (Steel Quill Press)
3 ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews’, Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)
4 My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (Rutgers University Press)

Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jonathan McCalmont are some of the best fan-writers we have in the UK (even if both would dispute the label). (And I see no good reason to nominate a piece of US fan-writing for this UK-based award.) The two pieces above are important elements in a conversation which I think deserves to be read by more people in genre. Adam Roberts is one of our best genre critics, and I don’t want him to pack it in. The Wosk caught my fancy on a certain very large online retailer one day, and it’s a fascinating piece of work, if focused more on media sf rather than written sf.

art
1 cover of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction, Luis Lasahido (Tachyon)
2 cover of Wolfhound Century (2015 edition), Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)
3 cover of All That Outer Space Allows, Kay Sales (Whippleshield Books)
4 illustration for ‘Songbird’, Vincent Sammy (Interzone # 257)

Four lovely pieces of design, covering a variety of styles. If the cover of a certain self-published novel appears in my list of four, it’s because I think all four quartet covers are excellent but it’s only this last which is eligible – and all four covers are brilliantly done, relevant to each book, and yet each one a simple but highly effective design. But then I do like that sort of stuff a lot – as does my sister, of course – and was fascinated by a visit at Christmas to Finn Juhl’s House at the Ordrupgaard Museum.


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Reading diary, #21

The first batch of 2016’s reading, which, er, seems to be entirely works from last year. I don’t normally read a great deal of recent fiction, and especially books that are less than twelve months old – although, to be fair, I need to get my choices in for the BSFA Award before the end of the month… And some of them feature below. It’ll be interesting to see if the longlist approach has made much of a difference to the shortlist. (I note that ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of the PM Press collection, see below, was actually eligible but no one appears to have nominated it for the long list. Which is a shame.)

fleshandwiresFlesh & Wires, Jackie Hatton (2015). So I went on the Aqueduct Press website with the intention of buying both Elysium and Necessary Ill, both books I’d been planning to pick up for a while… and I saw mention of Flesh & Wires, as well as a pair of novellas, A Day in the Deep Freeze (which I’ve nominated for the BSFA Award) and The XY Conspiracy, bunged them into my basket and bought them… And the first of the three novels I read was Flesh & Wires. To be honest, the blurb made the novel sound more interesting than it proved to be. Which is not to say it wasn’t good. The set-up worked, the plot worked, the characters were well-drawn, there were just some elements of the background which read as confused and a little, well, clichéd. The Earth was invaded by aliens, who killed off most of the population, but kept some women, and turned them into sort of cyborgs by means of “wires”. But then the aliens died of an Earthly disease, and a new set of aliens, Orbiters, turned up, and sort of helped the surviving women – and handful of men – to rebuild. The novel is set in a small town just south of New York, and told chiefly from the point-of-view of a powerful “wired” woman who is the de facto leader of the town. When her brother, long thought dead, turns up and proves to be representing the Orbiters – and is not not at all honest about his intentions; and then a group of Orbiters exiled to Earth also appear, casting doubt on what the protagonist had believed of the current state of affairs… The end result is a solidly feminist sf novel that perhaps relies over much on somewhat dodgy tropes but manages to put a fresh spin on its plot. I’d also like to go on record as stating that Aqueduct Press publish some bloody good sf, and it’s always a pleasure to place orders with them.

my_fair_ladiesMy Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015). Subtitled “Female robots, androids and other artifical eves”, which pretty much describes its topic to a tee. The author was inspired by the discovery of a mannequin’s head in a street fair, and from that starting point goes on to cover historical representations of artificial women in Greek mythology, by Shaw and other late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century writers, before moving into films, television, robots occupying the uncanny valley, and finally artists, such as Cindy Sherman (although no mention of Gillian Wearing or Lenae Day), who explore the concept of “perfect manmade” women through their art. While the book goes into detail on early literary artificial women, later literature – particularly science fiction – is mentioned only in relation to film or television adaptations. So, no Susan Calvin, Asimov’s robot psychologist who behaved like a robot herself; nor the women of EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Masters of Space, who are all too eager to be uploaded into replacement robot bodies because it means “their tits won’t sag”; nor even Helen O’Loy. The list of fictional female robots and cyborgs on Wikipedia gives remarkably few examples from sf stories or novels, so perhaps it’s a topic written sf hasn’t tackled that much… although it feels like it has done; too prudish, perhaps, or maybe it required more self-examination than male writers of two-fisted space adventures were capable of; and female writers had more than enough material writing about real women. Anyway, fascinating stuff. One for the non-fiction BSFA Award.

large_737_gypsyGypsy, Carter Scholz (2015). I’d never heard of Scholz, although apparently he is held in high regard. Looking at some of the comments on this book, it’s clear he has plenty of genre friends in San Francisco/Oakland, where he lives – including Kim Stanley Robinson – and where PM Press is based. None of which is a reflection on Scholz’s ability, more on the requirement of connections and patronage in genre in order for good fiction to get noticed. And ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of this collection, is very good indeed. It’s 2015’s third generation starship story, and probably the best of the three as a generation starship story. Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time scores well because of its spider civilisation, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora has some good bits about narratology… but Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ goes for real science and engineering and paints a bleak picture – one not helped by the driving force behind the flight being the immanent collapse of Earth’s biosphere. Not that the flight itself provides any answers. The remainder of the collection comprises a somewhat tired epistolary short story, an essay about US economic shenanigans, a story presented as house committee testimony, and an interview with Scholz. I have a lot of time for Scholz’s approach to genre, as given in his interview, but only the title novella seems a good expression of it.

europeEurope at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). I thought Europe in Autumn a very good, if a little confused, novel – a superior near-future spy novel, it took an unexpected swerve around two-thirds in, which unsettled the plot but managed not to upset it. And now the sequel, Europe at Midnight, follows that swerve further around the curve and results in a very different novel of a type of science fiction that likely occupies a small place all its own in the genre’s corpus. In the nineteenth century, a wealthy family invented a new English county, which somehow came into being in a reality sideways from ours, and then subsequently expanded into Europe to form a Little England writ large: the Community. Which, it seems, has teeth. The novel opens in the Campus, a pocket universe 200 miles across which comprises one huge university, now having difficulty recovering after a bloody coup. The new Professor of Intelligence is suspicious of the Faculty of Science, but his investigations result in the termination of his position and a take-over by the Science people, who have suspiciously modern weapons. Fortunately, he escapes to our Europe… where he comes under the control of the UK intelligence services. Despite that disconcerting start, we’re now back in future spy novel territory… but even then, Europe at Midnight seems to slip across hidden borders into parallel fictions – much as some of its cast do – as it tells a story about Europe, the Campus and the Community which is only actually revealed in the final chapter. This is good stuff – a novel that cleverly runs our future alongside our memories of our past, and sets the scene for a war between the two. I’ll be nominating this for the BSFA Award.

wylding_hallWylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015). This appeared on the BSFA Award short fiction longlist, and was recommended by several people whose opinions I trust – and, it had to be said, the précis did sound interesting… so I bought it, read it, and I’m giving it one of my four slots on my BSFA Award ballot. An acid folk group in the very early seventies hires the eponymous country manor to rehearse and record their second album (following the suicide of the group’s original singer; she was also the girlfriend of the band’s main creative force). Wylding Hall is a strange place, but this novella doesn’t go for in-your-face ghosts and apparitions but a much more effective general atmosphere of uncertainty. Windhollow Faire come across as a believable band, and the links to the darker side of English folklore are well-handled. The story is told as the decades-later reminiscences of the band members, a technique which is especially effective as it gives it the authority of a Sky Arts documentary. I have only a couple of minor niggles – back then, a grammar school would have been more posh than a comprehensive, and Radio 3 – not BBC 3 – was always more into classical and jazz, not folk; and John Peel was on Radio 1, which was the station mostly likely to play electric folk at that time.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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BSFA and Kitschies – the shortlists

Two genre shortlists announced in one day, UK ones too. First, the BSFA Awards, for which I nominated works (see here), and usually vote. The four shortlists look like this:

Best novel
The Race, Nina Allan (NewCon Press)
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge, (Macmillan)
Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Wolves, Simon Ings (Gollancz)
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (Orbit)
Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)
The Moon King, Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)

Well, three of my nominations made it – Hutchinson, North and Williamson. The Allan and and Leckie are no surprise – the first because it’s probably the most talked-about UK sf novel of 2014 among the people who nominate for the BSFA, and the Leckie because of Ancillary Justice‘s huge success. Also, is this the first time the BSFA Award has more women than men on the novel shortlist? I think it might well be. The large shortlist does, however, suggest that the actual number of nominations to make it through were somewhat low. Which, if true, is in one respect slightly worrying, but also heartening in that it demonstrates last year was pretty damn good for UK sf novels.

Best short fiction
‘The Honey Trap’, Ruth EJ Booth (La Femme, Newcon Press)
‘The Mussel Eater’, Octavia Cade (The Book Smugglers)
Scale Bright, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion Press)

None were nominated by myself. In fact, I’ve read none of them. An all-female list, too. The less said about Sriduangkaew’s presence, the better.

Best non-fiction
Call and Response, Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications)
‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War website, Edward James, ed.
‘The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium’, Strange Horizons
Greg Egan, Karen Burnham (University of Illinois Press)

Surprisingly, two of my nominations made it through – Kincaid and Strange Horizons – and while I nominated another blog post from Ruthless Culture, it’s good to see McCalmont getting some recognition.

Best artwork
Cover of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, Richard Anderson (Angry Robot Books)
Cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, Blacksheep (Gollancz)
The Wasp Factory sculpture, Tessa Farmer
Cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, Jeffery Alan Love (Gollancz)
Cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, Andy Potts (Egmont)

Another surprise: two of my choices made it onto the shortlist. I didn’t attend Loncon3, so I didn’t see the Wasp Factory sculpture. Blacksheep won the BSFA in 2013, for the cover of… an Adam Roberts novel (and this is Blacksheep’s third time on the shortlist with a Roberts cover). The Mirror Empire has been much discussed since its publication, although I admit I can’t see the appeal of its cover art. And I see there’s now a hardback edition of Mars Evacuees (US, perhaps?), with much inferior cover art.

Congratulations to all the nominees, and I know who I hope will win each category.

The other UK genre award announced today is the Kitschies, a juried award, which also has four categories: Red Tentacle (novel), Golden Tentacle (debut novel), Inky Tentacle (cover art) and, new this year, Invisible Tentacle (“natively digital” fiction). The shortlists look like this:

The Red Tentacle
Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith (Egmont)
The Peripheral, William Gibson (Viking)
The Way Inn, Will Wiles (4th Estate)
The Race, Nina Allan (NewCon Press)

I’ve read only the Allan and I didn’t think it quite gelled as a novel – which was why I didn’t nominate it for the BSFA.

The Golden Tentacle
Viper Wine, Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta (Voyager)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (self-published)
The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

I’ve heard of the Byrne and Itäranta, but the others didn’t even ping on my radar. The Guardian is making a big thing of a self-published novel being shortlisted for the award, conveniently forgetting that a self-published novel won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel in Australia last year and a self-published novella won the BSFA in 2013. Oh well, yesterday’s news and all that.

The Inky Tentacle
Cover of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin, X (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Cover of A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Ben Summers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Cover of Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
Cover of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
Cover of Tigerman by Nick Harkaway, Glenn O’Neill (William Heinemann)

The only one of these I own is the Tidhar, and  didn’t really like the cover (I liked the book, though). The Faber and Harkaway I’ve seen.

The Invisible Tentacle
@echovirus12 (Twitter fiction), created/curated by Jeff Noon (@jeffnoon), Ed (@3dgriffiths), James Knight (@badbadpoet), violet sprite (@gadgetgreen), Richard Biddle (@littledeaths68), Mina Polen (@polen), Uel Aramchek (@ThePatanoiac), Graham Walsh (@t_i_s_u), Vapour Vox (@Wrong_Triangle)
Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, Cardboard Computer
80 Days, Inkle Studios
Sailor’s Dream, Simogo

Again. congratulations to all the nominees.


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My BSFA nominations

I’m not really a big fan of popular vote awards, but having been a member of the British Science Fiction Association for over twenty years, and having attended, on and off, the annual Eastecon for around the same period, I’ve usually voted in the BSFA Award. I’ve also found that the shortlists frequently align quite well with my own tastes in the genre – something, obviously, that isn’t all that surprising when you’re a member of the core constituency.

Recent years have seen several changes to the awards. While the categories have finally settled at four – novel, short fiction (ie, any length shorter than novel), non-fiction and art – rules on eligibility have been affected by the advent of the internet and ebooks. Novels have to be published in the UK in the previous calendar year, which is pretty straightforward. Unless – and this is a fairly recent change – they’re ebook-only, in which case, as long as they’re available to UK residents (except the new EU VAT rules on digital products may scupper that from 2015 onwards). Back in the 1990s, short fiction also had to be UK-published, but now there is no such restriction. Likewise for non-fiction and art.

This year, however, a couple of more fundamental changes have been put in place. First, voters can now only nominate four works in each category. Previously, they could nominate as many as they wanted. And novels don’t have to be published in the UK, providing the author is British. The BSFA has also begun crowdsourcing a list of eligible works – although the list could do with some serious curating as there’s a lot of ineligible and duplicated entries on it.

This is all a long-winded way of presenting my own four choices in each category. Which are these:

novel
1 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
2 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (TJoy Books UK)
3 The Moon King, Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
4 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (Orbit)

The first two were easy picks. I’ve spent this month completing my 2014 reading, but still failed to get to some possible contenders, such as Bête, Station Eleven*, Ancillary Sword, The Girl in the Road, The Echo, Wolves, Annihilation or The Bone Clocks – all of which sounded like the sort of novels which would appeal to me and might have made the cut. Novels that didn’t make it onto my ballot, though it was a close-run thing, include The Race, A Man Lies Dreaming, The Mirror Empire and Descent.

* Having said that, I find most literary post-apocalypse novels, no matter how beautifully written, extremely banal.

short fiction
1 ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, July 2014)
2 ‘Four Days of Christmas’, Tim Maughan (Motherboard, 24 December 2014)
3 ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Val Nolan (Interzone #252, May-Jun 2014)
4

I really went off short fiction in 2014. Everywhere I looked, the same sort of genre short stories were being published, and it wasn’t a sort I much cared for. As a result, I had to do some last minute reading, which meant some skim-reading of various magazines (I only read one anthology published in 2014 and it was poor; I didn’t buy any published during the year), some clicking through of links on posts of recommendations… and even then I couldn’t actually find four pieces of short fiction I felt were any good. The three listed above were ones that stood out for me during my headlong reading. It’s not the best way to pick something for an award, but then is there a best way?

non-fiction
1 Call and Response, Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications)
2 ‘The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium’ (Strange Horizons, 28 July 2014)
3 ‘Short Fiction and the Feels’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture, 6 October 2014)
4 Nina Allan’s “live blogging” of her read of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (The Spider’s House, November 2014)

Paul Kincaid has been an insightful genre critic for a long time, so a collection of his essays gets my first pick, especially since the book contains pieces on many of my favourite genre writers. The Strange Horizons Symposium I thought particularly well done, and I’m surprised it didn’t generate more comment. McCalmont has been writing some really interesting stuff about genre fandom for a while now, but I thought his piece on current short fiction was especially good. Allan is one of my favourite online genre critics, and her extended review, over some twenty posts, of The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women was a text-book example of the right way to review a large anthology.

art
1 Cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, Andy Potts (Egmont)
2 Hyperluminal, Jim Burns (Titan Books)
3 Cover of The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris, Andreas Preis (Gollancz)
4 Cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)

mars_evacuees hyperluminal The-Gospel-of-Loki ings-wolves

My first choice was an easy pick. That really is a striking piece of cover art. I wasn’t sure whether Hyperluminal counted as art or non-fiction, but it’s a book about art, and I’ve always loved Jim Burns’s art, so I’m putting it here. I then spent one evening last weekend trawling through SF Signal’s forthcoming books posts for inspiration… and both The Gospel of Loki and Wolves jumped out at me. So to speak.

ETA: Apparently, the art award is for “single image” only, which means Hyperluminal is ineligible. So I need to find something else to nominate instead. I’ll update this post when I’ve found something, but for now I’ll Hyperluminal in place even though I’m not nominating it.


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2014, the best of the year

It’s that time of year again, when everyone is doing their best of the year lists. For some people, it’s the best of what was released during the year in question, for others it’s the best of what they consumed. For me, it’s the latter. While I’ve done better this year reading, watching and listening to new stuff, the bulk of the books, films and albums I’ve enjoyed are from previous years, decades and, er, even centuries.

For a change, this year I’ve included the positions of items from my best of the half-year (see here). That’s the number in square brackets after some of them.

books
I did some reading for the Hugo in the early part of the year, and a couple of those books make it into this post – although they didn’t make it onto the Hugo shortlist. But then the Hugo didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with its fiction categories this year. My top five includes three favourite authors, one new to me, and another who I’d read before.

1 Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). Lowry came first last year as well, with Under the Volcano, so clearly my love for the man’s prose remains undiminished. This one, however, is a meta-fictional novel, and I do like me some meta-fiction. I wrote about it here.

all-those-vanished-engines-paul-park-base-art-co2 All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). And this is another meta-fictional novel, but constructed from three separate novellas. One of those novellas, Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, made my best of the half year list. I wrote about it here.

3 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) [1]. I read this for my Hugo nominations, and was surprised at how effortlessly good it was (it’s the first Atkinson I’ve ever read).

europe_in_autumn4 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) [5]. I fully expect this to be on a couple of award shortlists in 2015. I’m also very much looking forward to the sequel.

5 Home, Marilynne Robinson (2008). Just lovely writing. And, for me, a more believable character-study than Gilead.

Honourable mentions: Daughters of Earth, Justine Larbalestier, ed. (2006), excellent anthology of historical sf, with critical articles; Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), Ice Age adventures from a writer I’ve long admired who seems to be entering something of a golden period; The Machine, James Smythe (2013) [3], Ballardian near-future, bleak but lovely writing; Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) [4], excellent collection and the author’s only book, which I reviewed for SF Mistressworks here; HHhH, Lauren Binet (2013) [HM], meta-fictional treatment of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942; Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986) [HM], very good but not quite categorisable novel, I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here; The Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971), the third part of the Raj Quartet and featuring the brilliantly-drawn Barbie Bachelor.

films
It was a good year for films. Not only did I see many films but I also saw many good ones. Hence the somewhat large number of honourable mentions.

beau-travail1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) [1]. This was my No. 1 back in June, and it still is in December. A beautifully-shot film whose final scene lifts it from excellent to superb.

2 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland). This became an immediate favourite the moment I watched it. A history of Poland under communism told by an amateur cast using meat products as illustration? With dance interludes? What’s not to love?

3 Man of Marble, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland). I’d seen the sequel to this, Man of Iron, earlier in the year and thought it good, but this film is so much better.

4 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) [2]. Beautiful and enigmatic, by far the best science fiction film to appear in cinemas in 2014. And a great improvement on the novel too.

violentsaturday5 Violent Saturday, Richard Fleischer (1955, USA). I like 1950s melodramas, I like noir thrillers. So how could I not like a film that combines the two? In glorious Technicolour too.

Honourable mentions: Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) [3]; Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) [4]; The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) [5]; Upstream Colour, Shane Carruth (2013, USA) [HM]; Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century), Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) [HM]; Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan); The Great White Silence, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK); Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog (2010, Canada/UK); The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012, UK); Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia); Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran). Not to mention some rewatches of Michael Haneke films, at least two rewatches of my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows (I bought the Criterion Blu-ray but it proved to be region-locked. Argh), the same for another favourite, Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Second Circle, and a rewatch of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s excellent Gertrud.

Worst films: The Philadelphia Experiment, Paul Ziller (2012), dreadful remake with the crappiest CGI ever; Dr. Alien, David DeCouteau (1989), horribly unfunny straight-to-video comedy; Stranded, Roger Christian (2013), really bad cross between Alien and The Thing set at a base on the Moon, Christian Slater’s career has really gone downhill; Starship Troopers: Invasion, Shinji Aramaki (2012), CGI shoot-em-up with as much subtlety as an arcade game and a gratuitous female nude scene… in CGI; huh?

albums
During the summer, I started exploring bandcamp.com. I was aware of it, of course, and had even bought a couple of albums from it in previous years… but I’d never really made an effort to see what was on there. Lots of really good metal bands, it seems. That’s how I stumbled across In Vain, who quickly became a favourite. Toward the end of summer, I had to upgrade the Debian distro on my work PC, and afterwards the soundcard started working properly – which meant I could stream music at work, rather than just listen to my iPod. And that led to even further explorations of bandcamp.com. All of which means my top five for the end of the year bears no resemblance to the one from my best of the half-year. And of the five bands listed, four of them I discovered on bandcamp.com.

aenigma1 Ænigma, In Vain (2013, Norway). I discovered this band in back in July and immediately bought all three of their albums. I wish I could nominate all their albums, but that would be unfair, so I’ll limit myself to this, their latest.

2 Mantiis, Obsidian Kingdom (2014, Spain). The only band on this list I didn’t discover through exploring bandcamp.com. Because I saw them perform at Bloodstock. And they were excellent. So I bought the album as soon as I got home.

3 Kentucky, Panopticon (2012, USA). Black metal and blue grass… who knew it would actually work? And it does, more so on this album than Panopticon’s others. The subject matter is also unusual – not the usual black metal occult nonsense, but the exploitation of miners in the titular US state.

hreow4 Hrēow, Ashes (2014, UK). Does for Scotland what Winterfylleth does for England. ETA: Er no, they don’t. I seem to have got confused with Falloch, who are Scottish. Ashes are actually an English atmospheric black metal (from Devon, in fact), and a very good English atmospheric black metal too.

5 Citadel, Ne Obliviscaris (2014, Australia). The last thing you expect a progressive metal band to do is go all Rondo Veneziano on you, but that’s what this album does in places. And it works really well.

Honourable mentions: Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014, Finland) [1], the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom turn out another polished piece; From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012, USA) [3], neofolk/black metal not unlike Agalloch, but a little more metal; Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014, USA) [5], epic metal that refuses to confine itself to a single genre, and that’s in each song; The Cavern, Inter Arma (2014, USA), a 45-minute track of metal epicness; Kindly Bent to Free Us, Cynic (2014, USA), seminal death metal band go all prog/jazz fusion, but their roots are still showing;  The Divination of Antiquity, Winterfylleth (2014, UK), more atmospheric black metal from the English masters of the genre; Comfort in Silence, Dryad’s Tree (2007, Germany), prog metal, the vocals need a little work but the music is excellent; Treelogia (The Album As It Is Not), The Morningside (2011, Russia), prog/black metal band, this EP is perhaps their best work so far.

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