Thursday, 27 December 2018

The Best and Worst of 2018

Well, it's that time of the year when everyone is doing their 'best and worst of' lists, so here is mine. I'm going to list the books and movies I read/watched in 2018 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2018, but what I actually watched and read - some of these items might be very old indeed.


I read the following in 2018:

Mark Mower – The Baker Street Case-Files
The Residents – Never Known Questions
Douglas Thompson – The Brahan Seer
Thomas M Disch – 334
Chris Kelso – Unger House Radicals
Ed McBain – Til Death
Iain Banks – Dead Air
Aliya Whiteley – The Beauty
Jim Thompson – The Transgressors
Robert Greenfield – The Cedar Cage
Mark E Smith – Renegade
John D McDonald – Cape Fear
Brian Howell – Sight Unseen
Eley Williams – Attrib
Nina Allen – The Race
David Mathew – Dreadnought Flex
Tom Robbins – Jitterbug Perfume
Mark Morris (editor) – New Fears
Gudrun Eva Minervudottir – The Creator
Ernest Hemingway – Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises
Francis Durbridge – Dead To The World
Brian Aldiss – The Moment of Eclipse
Simon Avery – The Teardrop Method
John Connolly – he
Neil Williamson – The Moon King
Ernest Tidyman – Shaft
David Lynch and Kristine Mckenna – Room To Dream
John Wyndham – Trouble With Lichen
Nina Allen – Stardust
Nicholas Royle – Regicide
Camilla Grudova – The Doll's Alphabet
Primo Levi – The Wrench
Charles Bobuck – This Is for Readers: The Wax and Wane of Charles Bobuck
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – Roadside Picnic
Robert Edric – The Wrack Line
Andy Cox (editor) – Crimewave: Ghosts
Chris Beckett – America City
Katherine Osborne – Descansos
Douglas Thompson – The Suicide Machine
Sophie Macintosh – The Water Cure
Clive Bloom – Cult Fiction
David Rix – A Suite In Four Windows
Nicholas Royle – A Book Of Two Halves

That's worked out at 43 books this year, up from last year's 37 although my target is probably 50 (which would take me 7 years to get through my backlog without buying any more books). There were a couple of books this year that I struggled through and which I should probably have given up on, which included the Icelandic novel "The Creator" (unremittingly bland) and "334" by Thomas M Disch (a scattershot rendering of disengaging prose). There were also a handful of novels by authors I usually like which disappointed: Nicholas Royle's "Regicide" (a book of two halves, which I would have preferred to remain in the first half), Chris Kelso's "Unger House Radicals (much acclaimed, but it didn't quite engage with me), and Jim Thompson's "The Transgressors" (a floaty chore). An author new to me, Ernest Hemingway, also totally disappointed with "Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises" (Not sure why, the prose is so simple as to be a Janet and John primer, and the plot only subliminally exists so there wasn't anything difficult to follow).

Other than that there were some great books this year: Chris Beckett's near-dystopian future "America City" (narrowly avoids the top three as politics is inevitably a little dry), the Strugatsky brothers "Roadside Picnic" (brilliant premise, well realised), Primo Levi's "The Wrench" (totally engrossing considering the engineering subject matter didn't immediately appeal), "Room to Dream" (a fascinating insight into the workings of film-maker David Lynch), "he" (John Connolly's fictionalised biography of Stan Laurel), Nina Allan's "The Race" (beautifully realised prose), Aliya Whiteley's disturbing "The Beauty", Sophie Macintosh's "The Water Cure" (evoking the strange-logic films of Yorgos Lanthimos) and Ian Shirley's comprehensive biography of the San Francisco avant-garde band, The Residents.

I rarely re-read books, but this year I revisited Tom Robbins' "Jitterbug Perfume" which – it turns out – remains one of my favourite books of all time.

As usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads reviews. Four books received my 5/5 rating, but I'm not including Mark E Smith's "Renegade" as I prefer my final three to be fiction. So, without further ado, here they are:

In reverse order:

"The Doll's Alphabet" by Camilla Grudova

This collection of 'weird' short fiction feels very natural and not forced, as though Grudova is simply writing about the world as she sees it rather than imposing any weirdness upon it. and whilst initially I struggled with wondering what the 'point' of these stories was, eventually I realised that it didn't matter, that – to use a cliché, not that Grudova would – it was the journey rather than the destination which was important. A brilliant skilled prose writer, Grudova's world is a palace for readers and writers alike.

"Cape Fear" by John D MacDonald

This crime novel is a terrific book, faultlessly relentlessly terrific. Tension is sustained throughout the 200 pages: gripping, haunting, formidable, relatable. Dialogue between the Sam Bowden and Cady, his nemesis, is electrically charged, but – a real strength – the dialogue and easy camaraderie between Sam and his wife is also beautifully realised, so the book is a love story and no less realistic and honest for that. The ending is perfect, returning the glaze of normality over a fractured world.

And the winner is:

"Stardust" by Nina Allan

You really can't fault Allan's writing, and in this collection of very loosely linked short stories she excels, the tales richly layered and dense with portent. Characters are immaculately defined and engaging, and the stories themselves are perfectly formed. This is exactly the type of fiction which appeals to me: stories grounded in a world apparently recognisable as our own, which subtly tilts to subvert our expectations, leaving characters breathless in a new scenario where the ramifications affect them deeply. These are stories which resonate with the human condition yet are also recognisably weird. I cannot recommend Nina Allan highly enough. Amongst many strong contenders this year, this is easily the best book I read in 2018.


I watched the following in 2018:

Spotlight On A Murderer
The Wildest Dream
The Summit
That Obscure Object of Desire
Umberto D
The Anderson Tapes
A Serious Man
The Crimson Kimono
Being John Malkovich
Man Bites Dog
Dead Slow Ahead
The Structure of Crystals
The Lost Weekend
An Education
Los Decentes
L’Amant d’un Jour
Train to Busan
Six Shooter
The Challenge
Dr Strangelove, Or How I Leant To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
The Red Turtle
The Florida Project
The Handmaiden
The 400 Blows
Louder Than Bombs
Seven Psychopaths
Morvern Callar
The Neon Demon
Under The Shadow
Green Room
Meshes of the Afternoon
Bottle Rocket
Isle of Dogs
Canyon Passage
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
I Feel Pretty
Café de Flores
A Touch of Evil
Written On The Wind
Husbands and Wives
The Fall
Stand By Me
The Squid and the Whale
The Awful Truth
The Tarnished Angels
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
The Glass Key
Rumble Fish
Les Deux Amis
The Blob
Trouble Every Day
The Homesman
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Harry Smith at the Breslin Hotel
A Branch of a Pine is Tied Up
Un été brûlant
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
A Ghost Story
The Canyons
The Rise And Fall Of A Small Film Company
Cape Fear
Wind River
My Man Godfrey
Twelve Monkeys
Some Like It Hot
Sullivan’s Travels
The Lady Eve
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
White Chicks
Happy End

The Man Who Knew Too Much
Les Garçons Sauvages
No Man Of Her Own
Taste Of Fear
Nocturnal Animals
In The House
Have A Nice Day
Crimes of Passion
The Theory of Obscurity
The Wolf House
The Curse of Frankenstein
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Wanderers
Touch Me Not
9 Fingers
The Man Who Fell To Earth

In The Shadow Of Women
Bird Box

That's 121 movies this year, a rise from the 99 of last year which is good news. Of course, that's a long list to narrow down to my top three, and unlike books I don't have a site equivalent to Goodreads with which to guide my memory.

As usual, however, I'm discounting movies I've previously seen. So this knocks out Buñuel's wonderful "That Obscure Object Of Desire", the better-the-second-time-around "Being John Malkovich", Kubrick's delightful farce "Dr Strangelove", Truffaut's (dare I say it: 'a bit boring on third watch') "The 400 Blows", the sublime "Some Like It Hot", the Oh-That-Ending "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (Doris Day version), and the intriguing "The Man Who Fell To Earth."

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "An Education" which I absolutely hated and found morally repugnant, "Seven Psychopaths" (an absolute overblown mess), "Wind River" (much acclaimed for no apparent reason), and Hitchcock's "Frenzy" which really felt as though it was a homage to the great director from someone much less skilled.

This leaves us with some great movies. My favourite discovery this year has been Norwegian director Joachim Trier. Whilst I saw and enjoyed "Oslo, August 31st" another year, this film pales against a trio of films watched this year: "Reprise" (brilliant study of two men dreaming of becoming successful writers), "Thelma" (an intriguing supernatural fantasy drama, which loses it a little bit towards the end but which remains powerful), and ... actually, the third film will be amongst my top three so I'll leave that for a moment. Other favourites include "Arrival" (SF first contact story with an intelligent heart), "Train To Busan" (the first zombie movie to make me cry), "Dogville" (a masterpiece of experimental film by Lars Von Trier, "The Florida Project" (a trailer-trash film with a solid heart which has lingered in my mind for several months), the joyously insane "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" from the ever-inventive Luc Besson, Orson Welles' "A Touch Of Evil" (what an opening sequence!), Francis Ford Coppola's skewiff coming-of-age film, "Rumble Fish", Von Trier again with "Europa" (which we initially began watching – in error – for twenty minutes – without subtitles believing the dichotomy to be part of the film), the poorly named but brilliantly realised "Trouble Every Day" (by Claire Denis), "A Ghost Story" (which might have made my top three if I hadn't completely misunderstood the repeated 'wallpaper' sequence), "Capote" (for Philip Seymour Hoffman's commanding presence alone), the totally nuts full-out enjoyable "Machete", the detailed biography "The Theory of Obscurity" about avant-garde band The Residents, and "9 Fingers" (kind of existential French noir, confusing and dreamlike).

As usual, I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, but – today – here are my top three movies I saw for the first time in 2018.
Again, in reverse order:

"I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House" (2016) - Oz Perkins

There's a real quiet charm to this ghost story which elevates the film way beyond similar fare. Constantly wrong-stepping the audience – but in a logical, un-horror-like way – the end result is fascination rather than dread, with a beautifully understated performance from lead actor Ruth Wilson. For those attuned to the standard 'jump scenes' these are thankfully few and far between, with the denouement perfectly rendering how the effect of actual sudden fear might result. It's quirky, winsome, and intriguing. I loved it.

"Les Garçons Sauvage" (2017) - Bertrand Mandico

This beautifully beguiling bizarre film is better watched without knowing anything about it. It's an exceptionally inventive piece of work from start to finish and – to me – represents all that cinema should be about. I can't recommend it highly enough: such a welter of imagery. It misses out by a hair's breath on being my favourite film seen this year. I want to enthuse more but spoilers would result. See it. At any cost, see it.

And the winner is...

"Louder Than Bombs" (2015) - Joachim Trier

So as previously mentioned, director Joachim Trier was (almost) a new discovery for me this year, and certainly this movie is my favourite of his and easily the best film watched in 2018. The central family performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert and Devin Druid are exemplarily. As the film ended I turned to my partner to dissect what we had watched as usual and I – literally – couldn't get any words out. I was totally overcome with emotion. And this wasn't a response to some glib sentimentality designed to push certain buttons, but more of a psychological reaction to breathtaking honesty in filmmaking, of how the right kind of art can do the right kind of things, of how even the best relationships are two-dimensional, and about how everything is potential and no more nor less than that. Trier unfolds this simply: allowing us to watch and absorb without judgement. There's no condescension to the audience, so when the film ends you are left bereft and replete simultaneously. And that's without me needing to detail the plot. Astonishing!

So that's it. Looking forward to reading and watching more in 2019!

Friday, 21 December 2018

My Writing Year 2018

As has become annual I thought I'd do a quick blog post as to my literary achievements during 2018.

I've had no books published this year, but at least three - possibly four - new titles should be available next year, so this is more an indication of peaks and troughs rather than sitting on my laurels. More about those later in the post.

Usually I aim to write a short story a month, but a large proportion of the year was spent working on a novella, "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N" (around 35,000 words), so in addition to this I only wrote five short stories in 2018: "The Day The World Turned", "The ______ Of ____ ________", "Always Forever Today", "The Rhythm of Beauty", and "Of Course, A Girl".

I sold only one short story this year: "The Day The World Turned" to an anthology I'm not yet permitted to mention.

The following six stories were published this year: "Memories of Olive" in Ambit #231, "Making Friends With Fold-Out Flaps" in Black Room Manuscripts Vol. 3, "The Al Pacino Appreciation Society" in Crimewave #13: Bad Light, "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City" in the Midnight Street anthology Night Light. "A Pageant of Clouds" in Doppelganger #1 (a magazine which appeared to disappear on the day of its release), and "Sarcoline" reprinted in Norwich: A Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities anthology edited by Sophie Essex. Additionally, an extract from my novel, "People I Know Are Dead", was included in the Volta anthology from Salò Press.

I have sold two books this year. A ten thousand word short story, "The Uneasy", will appear as a standalone chapbook from Eibvonale Press, and a mini short story collection, "The Forest of Dead Children" will appear from a publisher I am at yet not at liberty to announce. These should be published in 2018, alongside a longer short story collection, "Frequencies of Existence", whose details I also am not at yet at liberty to reveal. The possible fourth book publication next year could be "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N", with which I am currently in negotiation.

I have a handful of stories awaiting publication that were originally accepted in previous years, and my next main project may be a novel titled "The Non-Conformists". A few novels are also under consideration by various agents/publishers, as they were last year.

It's been a quieter year on the publication/acceptance front, mostly because I've been working on longer projects and also due to the delay in publisher response times which seems increasingly prevalent. Even so, looking back on this, 2018 has still been a productive year in terms of word count.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Disco DADA

The first Disco DADA night was held on Wednesday 12th December 2018 in Norwich in an upstairs room at the Sir Garnet pub. My partner - Sophie - who runs a regular poetry night in Norwich (Volta) -  and who is also on the committee for CafeWriters - had intended to run a DADA night for some time, but there was always a question of whether Norwich was ready for it and also how she should go about planning it. Eventually, this small room (capacity 30) was offered by our regular Volta hosts and she decided we could make use of it for this purpose. What could go wrong?

I knew I wanted to pay tribute to The Residents, the avant-garde San Francisco band who certainly in their early days - and probably currently - were obvious inheritors of DADA (whether intentioned or otherwise). So I spent a few weeks fashioning a papier-mâché eyeball head with the intention of reading out some song lyrics - together with some audience participation. I also viewed this as a homage to the recently late Hardy Fox and his contributions to the anonymous band. Considering I'm not in anyway practical, I was pleased with the eyeball. Sophie sought poetry/illustration contributions to pin up on the wall, sourced a mic and amp, bought groan tubes, disco lights, and dug out a raygun, in addition to writing some cut-up for the night. All set.

As the audience arrived we rotated a couple of tracks from The Residents "Tale of Two Cities" album, played via a mobile phone into the mic. Mostly this one:

The evening was opened by poet Cai Draper - wearing something resembling a monk's garb - brilliantly setting the scene for what we hoped would come. Each reader 'introduced' by Sophie displaying their name in children's magnetic letters on an oven tray (and of course, Sophie was wearing her latex armadillo mask). First up was much-published poet, Peter Pegnall, who on this occasion confirmed that Peter was no more and that his poetry was currently being channelled through a soft-toy pig found on a North Norfolk pig farm. The pig alternating between poetry personal and political, as pigs are wont to do.

After a couple of more regular readings from poets Iona May and Adam Warne, Sophie read a cut-up poem juxtaposing text from DD/lg erotica and the Conservative Party Manifesto (which I have suggested she titled The Fever Dream of Rees-Mogg), which was perfectly mashed and well-received. The final line being particularly evocative: I want Britain to finger-fuck me again. This was followed by a reading from Anna Cathenka (whose book, they are really molluscs, we had decided to launch at the event). Beginning with an increasingly loud audience chant - DADA means nothing - she read some pieces from the chapbook and another recent publication.

So far, so good. I wore the eyeball throughout the first half, determined to continue doing so even if I collapsed (or, as Peter helpfully suggested, died). We took a short break, giving the following festive song a spin:

Back on: Cai opened the second half with 'a poem not yet written', performing a made-it-up-as-he-went-along cut-up of Anna Cathenka's they are really molluscs, complete with invited interruptions from the groan tubes, thrown objects etc. I thought both his performances during the evening were spot-on excellent.

This was followed by local poet Alex Russell, reading poetry into jars as part of a preserving poetry project:

These poetry jars can be purchased here.

And then me. It wasn't easy to read through the mask, but I think this added to the performance. Partial lyrics were culled from the songs "Moisture", "Margaret Freeman" and "Troubled Man" from The Commercial Album, "Sinister Exaggerator" from Duck Stab, the festive single "Santa Dog", an excerpt from "The Making of a Soul" from Not Available, and part of "Walter Westinghouse" from Fingerprince - which involved audience participation of the lines "eat exuding oinks upon / and bleed decrepit broken bones / at caustic spells of hell" read from a chalkboard and shouted louder and louder until I felt fit to stop. But don't take my word for it, watch some of it here:

My performance was followed by Bristol poet, Sarah Cave, who amongst other pieces read an excellent DADA-ist Moomin poem dealing with Moomimpappa's grief at Moominmamma's death.

And this was followed by Norwich poet Alison Graham who performed brilliantly, bewigged and on her knees.

The stage was set for more nonsense. Local artist Jacob Beaney commandeered a table, chair, a male member of the audience following a request for a female, and Alison's wig. In what has already been referred to as SpamGate or the Spamcident, he proceeded to lovingly craft a sculptured head of man-in-a-wig using the contents of tins of spam and corned beef, together with bacon hair and a sausage for a tongue, whilst Julia Bear wet-shaved his head. For me, this was the highlight of the evening, feeling totally impromptu as Jacob had only decided to buy the items from Tesco whilst waiting for the event to start. It wasn't popular with everyone, which was - of course - even better.

Finally, Anna Cathenka read again from they are really molluscs to the accompaniment of the sound of further head shaving.

My overall impression was that the evening was a success, balancing nonsense with passion and passion with nonsense. And we definitely need to do it again. I already have an idea for a mask replete with a six foot long snout held up by crutches...

(all videos copyright Sophie Essex, all photos copyright Anna Cathenka)