So long then, 2016. In the end, there were no teary farewells. Just a sigh of relief, like the moment a ghastly uncle finally decides he should start heading home now and you try not to rush to get his coat for him. It ended, as years so often do, with red wine, fireworks and Jools Holland. The latter threw in my favourite moment – a pleasant surprise that shook me out of the expected for a few moments. Imelda May – a truly wonderful singer, but hitherto the queen of contemporary rockabilly – sang a sultry blues in a long black dress, her 50s quiff consigned to the past. She stepped from pose to composure, and stole the show.
Maybe 2017 could be a year of re-invention and renewal after all. (And of buying more CDs, inevitably. Plus ça change and all that.) Eyes right, lad, and get marching…
For me, it’s starting with a flurry of promising things. A new jazz band is emerging, and made its debut a few days ago. Following a Polish heavy metal band, knowing your set is full of Brazilian saudades and jazzy sophistication, is an interesting experience, and thank you to the audience for carrying us through. The second anthology Holdfast magazine will arrive from the printers early in February, and in the meantime I’m delighted that In The Gut – which I think may be my best story (which is both horribly immodest, and a little like answering ‘which is your favourite child?’ – will appear in the next issue of Shooter, published next Friday. So now to rehearse, as I’ll be reading an extract at Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, on 27 January (more details here).
A book that came to me via one of those interminable online lists of ‘Books you might have missed in 2016’ (most of them – I’m a man, not a warehouse), but I’m very grateful for the recommendation. A collection of short speculative fiction stories, this shouldn’t really be my bag, but this caught that sweet spot (halfway between William Gibson and Charlie Brooker – anyone else who wants to rub it, please go ahead) where the predominant flavour is human and social observation rather than sci-fi. There are robots here (in the opening story, where I have to assume Weinstein isn’t familiar with the TV series, Humans, but where he poses similar emotional conundrums for human beings), but these stories are essentially about life, its impact on us, and how we attempt to adjust. The narrators are recognisbly ‘us’: people struggling with situations, most particularly what increasingly feels like a Cold War between humanity and technology. And, of course, the way we compound the follies we create with technology with our own behaviour, our deluded desires and our sometimes disastrous ability to believe.
Another story that brushes on small-town LGBT life, this time in The Netherlands (although the author is Canadian) and with major characters whose sexuality is better described as ‘ambiguous’, not least to themselves. Teenage Jan is smitten, nee obsessed, by new school colleague, Dirk, who is everything he is not – extrovert, courageous and unafraid of being unconventional. A burgeoning bromance – seen from Jan’s perspective but seemingly led by Dirk – escalates to consumation, and then abruptly terminates on graduation. We follow Jan through his developing, yet faltering career, as a concert pianist, pining to see Dirk again while battling auditory hallucinations that bedevil his career.
This is potentially interesting territory, but for me it didn’t quote hang together. In a fairly short novel, there is quite a lot of classical piano playing to work through for a non-musician (or even for players). And Jan’s wife seems more a cipher or a plot device than a character, though the marriage seems/feels genuine: Jan’s besottedness is rendered psycho-emotionally, despite the sexual element that had been introduced earlier. (Jan certainly reads as a heterosexual man, even if the intention might have been to create a bisexual character.) And there are technically clumsy moments too: Jan’s realisation as to who holds the real psychological power in the central relationship is conveyed in conversation by a third party, and the ending feels awkward – the book changes voice and tense to underline the suggestion of a narrative death (something William Golding did rather better in Pincher Martin). An interesting failure, perhaps, but a reader wanting to explore the intense friendship of male teenagers would be better served by Fred Uhlman’s Reunion – a much more subtle and more skilfully achieved text.
A debut story collection from a writer previously known for novels, and the literary equivalent of a box of chocolates – mostly with the darkest chocolate and the sourest, bitterest fillings.These are stories where things turn out badly, where histories seep up through the floorboards, where past events fester like boils. Impeccable craftmanship too: these are skilfully turned tales that will enchant those with dark tastes. My admiration has only two minor caveats. Firstly, that the stories that build on a setting that is immediately eye-catching (a group of swingers, for example) read, in comparison with the others, slightly as if the attention-grabbing context is too knowing – and perhaps uneccessary with writing this good. (I suspect the issue here may be with the effect of an ttention economy on editors?) And secondly. I would read it one piece at a time: each plot turn and twist is delightfully unexpected, but read from end to end and the expectation of the twist begins to detract from the very real enjoyment. They’re short stories: read them that way.
Mike Neer – Steelonious: as the title might suggest, the works of Thelonious Monk, played by a superb steel guitar player. The skill transcends the threat of novelty: a great record that rises above the risk of oddball charm.
Marek Napiorkowski & Artur Lesicki – Celuloid: two Polish jazz guitarists, more known as fusioneers and jazzers, go back to their acoustics and play a selection of film theme music. Dexterous arranging as well as playing, and a well-chosen and sequencing set, this isn’t as tranquil or ambient as the description might suggest. Acoustic guitars can still do menace.
Karim Baggili – Kali City: an album of mostly oud-led music by a Belgian guitarist of Belgian Jordanian-Yugoslav origins, with the Trio Joubran featured on the first few tracks. A jazzier take on Arabic music, it’s beguiling music, although the track the captivates most at present is Arabic Circus, which is almost Arabic instrumental pop. But beautifully so.