Monday, 6 April 2020

Alrightreads: C

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

1953 / Audiobook / 214 pages / UK

****

'Guardian Angel' was a nice slice of heavy-handed colonial allegory and this is a very worthwhile expansion. Clarke hadn't yet learned to stretch out the revelations across a lucrative tetralogy, and while I normally prefer to leave some mysteries to mull over, getting full disclosure was satisfying, capped off with an emotionally confounding climax.


Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Comet

1985 (updated 1997) / Ebook / 432 pages / USA

****

As eloquent as everything in the most consistently rewarding bibliography out there, this has always seemed like an outlier for its narrow focus on just some rocks. This would've been remedied if Carl had ever got around to writing NebulaPulsar and the rest. Why couldn't he live forever?


Kevin Courrier, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica

2007 / Ebook / 148 pages / Canada

**

Rather than getting into the spirit and writing an avant-garde treatise, this is a disappointingly earnest appreciation and background to a boring album. The sincere comparison with the moon landing made me chuckle.


Kris Straub and Sarah Pharris, Candle Cove and Other Stories

2008-14 (collected 2015) / Ebook / 84 pages / USA

****

Rightly dominated by the eponymous creepypasta hit, this is a solid assortment of flash horror and epic several-pagers. The best are expertly unsettling; the worst don't deserve posterity, but then it'd be even shorter than it is already. I'd be more critical of the length if he wasn't being prolific with web comics, web series and other things.

Faves: 'Lemon Blossom Girl,' 'Curious Little Thing,' 'Candle Cove.'


Lukas Resheske, The Copywriting Business Formula: How to Build a $250,000/year Freelance Copywriting Business from Scratch, Volume One

2018 / Ebook / 38 pages / USA

**

In a freelance business, time you don't spend earning is time you're spending. Don't I know it. There are lots of valid points here about taking control, focusing on your strengths and going niche that I've worked out over my decade as a freelance writer, but I prefer my laid-back, low-budget approach over aggressively pursuing the big bucks. It's a shame this guy's so dedicated to efficiency that he didn't bother to turn these transcribed chapter summaries into a proper book.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Alrightreads: Five Senses

Robert Sheckley, Untouched by Human Hands

1952-53 (collected 1954) / Audiobook / 169 pages / USA

***

The best stories adopt an alien perspective. The worst are about demons.

Faves: 'The Monsters,' 'Keep Your Shape,' 'Seventh Victim.'

Worsties: 'The King's Wishes,' 'Warm,' 'The Demons.'


Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones

1977 / Audiobook / 192 pages / UK

***

The monastic double-act prefigures The Name of the Rose, but this mystery is less compelling. Like all good historical fiction, you laugh at the characters' zany obsessions, then realise it's just a variation on more familiar nonsense. It was mainly worth sitting through for Stephen Thorne's narration, the comforting voice of childhood audiobooks.


Rhys Hughes, The Smell of Telescopes

2000 / Ebook / 280 pages / UK

*****

Setting myself moronic reading themes pays off every now and then, I probably never would have come across this obscure oddity from a new favourite writer without it. These twenty-six tales of Weird Wales share the occasional irrepressible character, but they're mainly linked by recurring preoccupations and a consistent tone that can't help itself from regularly deflating the unnerving atmosphere with exquisite puns and convoluted twists. Too many faves to bother listing.


China Miéville, Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer, Looking for Jake and Other Stories

1998-2005 (collected 2005) / Audiobook / 303 pages / UK

****

Not as many stand-outs as his next collection, but still an engaging mix of moderately weird tales and successful and failed experiments.

Faves: 'Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopaedia,' 'Different Skies,' The Tain.

Worsties: 'An End to Hunger,' ''Tis the Season,' 'On The Way to the Front.'


James Acaster, Perfect Sound Whatever

2019 / Audiobook / 304 pages / UK

***

A strange mix of a comedian's 2017 diary and eclectic album reviews. I didn't feel like bursting my synthwave bubble and checking out as many  of the recommendations as I normally would, apart from the irresistibly bizarre ones like gospel black metal and the Flanders band. It never stopped being distracting that he pronounces "record" like an American.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Top 10 childhood TV theme tunes


Becoming a parent has been a more valid excuse to indulge in childhood nostalgia. She can have her own roaring '20s nostalgia, but I'd be neglectful if I didn't sprinkle some glorious '80s in there.

Here are my favourite TV themes enjoyed in childhood that have also stood the test of time, with no regard for the accompanying visuals (however skill) or the actual quality of the show (when I even watched it). They're not all from kids' shows.

Featuring embedded video links that I'll allow to deteriorate over time like our memories.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Alrightreads: B

Iain Banks, The Business

1999 / Audiobook / 390 pages / UK

*

If you read the blurb hoping for a conspiracy thriller, or had forgotten that Banks' "mainstream" novels had any traces of the fanciful stripped out of them by the '90s, you'd probably be disappointed by this tediously humdrum romcom take on Chris Carter's Millennium.


Steve Matteo, The Beatles' Let It Be

2004 / Audiobook / 141 pages / USA

**

I've never got the Beatles obsession, but I like their later albums well enough and could do with knowing them better. This wasn't very illuminating, focusing more on the artists' personal lives and the context than digging into the music like I like. Maybe there's not that much to it.


John Medina, Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five

2010 / Ebook / 300 pages / USA

****

Smarter than the average baby book, this is the usual 21st-century advice backed up by reliable studies and evolutionary biology. We'll see how things turn out.


David Garfinkel, Breakthrough Copywriting: How to Generate Quick Cash With the Written Word

2014 / Ebook / 113 pages / USA

**

Some timeless tips and old-school cheese packaged with the dubious USP of urgency. I didn't sign up to the course he kept pushing, so he can't be that good.


David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

2014 / Audiobook / 609 pages / UK

***

I'd been disappointed that Mitchell's novels post Cloud Atlas weren't the lesser retreads of that style I'd been expecting, but he got there in the end. Omitting the pastiche aspect, and taking place over a less impressive timeline with more explicit connections, this ends up being the more coherent novel. Never mind.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Alrightreads: Islands

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

1881-82 (collected 1883) / Audiobook / 282 pages / UK

***

Nicely paced until they get to the island and it shifts from wide-eyed adventure to depressing action and the tedious fallout. It wasn't as fun as I'd always assumed, the Muppet version's better.


John W. Campbell, Islands of Space

1931 (revised 1957) / Audiobook / 224 pages / USA

***

I don't know if these vintage sci-fi writers were following received wisdom that you had to focus on either plot or character at the expense of the other, or if that's just how it tended to come out. In its lengthy descriptions of future tech and exploration of slightly-differentiated new worlds and inferior civilisations, this is squarely in the former camp, with occasional moments of wonder. Sometimes travel's about the places, not the people.


Mo Hayder, Pig Island

2006 / Audiobook / 352 pages / UK

****

Starting out as your basic but morbidly fun marauding monster investigation/debunking, this becomes more interesting when the mystery's seemingly solved before the halfway point and the horror gives way to sympathetic drama. For long enough that you let your guard down.


Nikki Stafford, Finding Lost: Season Five – The Unofficial Guide

2009 / Ebook / 279 pages / USA

****

As exhaustive a guide as the show's most self-absorbed year requires, also going satisfyingly extracurricular to cover the promotional games, fan theories of the time and the significance of books and other works name-dropped. Bursting with enthusiasm, but not to the point of overlooking distracting continuity errors and bad wigs.


Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island

2015 / Audiobook / 400 pages / USA

**

Twenty years on, the veteran travel writer tours Britain again, but mainly moans about the internet, the young people today and other random targets and gets into pointless arguments with proprietors and other locals. Maybe this is what reading my travel blog was like.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Alrightreads: Four Seasons

Geoffrey Himes, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.

2005 / Ebook / 144 pages / USA

***

I've never paid much attention to lyrics outside of Nick Cave, so it's gratifying when these books cover the laboured songwriting process and get inside the writer's head rather than just recounting humdrum studio anecdotes. If that's too deep for rock 'n' roll journalism, he ends with a ranked discography, good man.


Robert A. Heinlein, The Door into Summer

1956 (collected 1957) / Audiobook / 188 pages / USA

***

Less piss-takingly complex than my favourite Heinlein time travel stories, but still satisfyingly tidy and I was still left with that familiar unpleasant aftertaste by the end, the dirty get. Pete the cat was the best character.


David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

2010 / Audiobook / 480 pages / UK

**

David Mitchell (Not That One) has certainly done his research into Japan and the Dutch East India Company at the turn of the 19th century. Well done. I'll stick to his supernatural works over his grim realist horrors.


James Goss, Doctor Who: Dead of Winter

2011 / Ebook / 255 pages / UK

***

Goss can be relied on to shake things up, and this epistolary tale told in multiple unreliable voices mucks around in ways that wouldn't work on TV or audio, which is more than I expect. A minimalist historical horror, it fits well thematically with the parallel sixth series.


Nikki Stafford, Finding Lost: Season Four – The Unofficial Guide

2009 / Ebook / 205 pages / USA

****

Journeying down a specific nostalgic avenue, this comprehensive guide to my favourite year of the irresistibly annoying TV series considerately avoids spoilers for those reading along episode by episode (you wouldn't get that with a fan wiki), while still being adorably time-bound in its more delirious fan theories and excitement for the future. A knowitall retrospective would be boring, it was all about the journey.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

I made this


Do you remember that short-lived Children's BBC 'Genie' ident from 1995, with the generic Aladdin bloke whose head was bigger than his body, as if he'd been drawn by a child who was still in single digits and had no knowledge of anatomy, but knew how to flatter competition judges by unsubtly implying that their channel was magic? I did that.

My unimaginative winning entry to the CBBC ident competition (I think the stop-motion bees one was the other winner) has never showed up in ident compilations on YouTube, when I've been feeling self-indulgent enough to check, and it's still classified as lost media by people who think that information is valuable enough to include on a wiki, but who clearly aren't obsessive enough to skim through random continuity uploads from early 1995 to see if it's there.

Found it! (4:06)



That was 25 years ago. I should probably get some new achievements.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

At Last the 1948 Show At Last


I'd listened to the best-of album, seen the "film" and loved what I didn't realise were reappropriated sketches in other contexts, but it took me much too long to check out this primordial Python programme (Cleese–Chapman lineage; Idle–Jones–Palin–Gilliam's Do Not Adjust Your Set is proving a disappointment so far, especially the racist singalongs for children).

My laziness is excused, since most of the episodes didn't exist until they were recovered/restored fairly recently. It is quite good.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Alrightreads: Retro

Various, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology

1986 / Audiobook / 239 pages / USA

***

A vintage exhibition from inside the wave, this is more diverse and interesting than a modern retrospective would likely be, making time for Renaissance time travel and Gothic fantasies rather than being preoccupied with repetitive iconography. Bruce Sterling's commitment to showcasing more obscure works not widely anthologised elsewhere was considerate to ravenous readers of the time, but makes for a weaker legacy.

Faves: William Gibson's 'The Gernsback Continuum,' Greg Bear's 'Petra,' Paul Di Filippo's 'Stone Lives.'

Worsties: Tom Maddox's 'Snake-Eyes,' Rudy Rucker's 'Tales of Houdini,' John Shirley's 'Freezone.'


David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

2006 / Audiobook / 294 pages / UK

***

"Books are gay."

While neon American teenagers were getting up to Stranger Things-style sci-fi adventures, their English counterparts were watching telly and failing to get off with girls. I don't know how much of this is fiction or memoir. I can't even remember which are my own memories any more.


Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (いちきゅうはちよん)

2009–10 (collected 2011) / Audiobook / 928 pages / Japan

****

The magic realism plot could be wrapped up in a short story or Twilight Zone, but Murakami decides we should really get to know these characters. He provides regular 'previously-on' reminders in dialogue, in case this boxset's taking you a while.


Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

2011 / Audiobook / 385 pages / USA

****

My own false nostalgia for the 1980s doesn't share most of the touchstones that the 2010s revival was tapping, but it usually does the trick anyway. I found this laughable at first – the ultimate nerd fantasy of being rewarded for all those years spent playing games and watching movies, drowning in superficial references and paradoxically targeting the nostalgia of people too old to be reading it. It took about half the book before I realised those are the points he's making and that I didn't seem to be putting it down. He could've written a dry history of pop culture and tried to explain the appeal of crap graphics to kids, but he decided to show them instead.


Anne H. Zachry, Retro Baby: Cut Back on All the Gear and Boost Your Baby's Development with More Than 100 Time-Tested Activities

2013 / Ebook / 212 pages / USA

***

This common-sense advocation of traditional parenting over unnecessary gadgets wasn't especially eye-opening, but there were some good reminders and I took some notes. You'll save money, help your child's development and avoid cluttering your house with shit they don't need. The catch is that you have to actually give them your time and attention, what a bummer.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Top 10 synthwave albums


"This is an oldie... well, it's an oldie where I come from" – Marty "Calvin" McFly, Sr.

From Vangelis to Fear Factory, I've been a fan of gaudy sci-fi synthesisers for a long time, but only recently discovered this new retro wave of amateur bedroom producers pretending it's still 1985. Bo selecta!

YouTube mixes of relaxing, upbeat, vaguely nostalgic, incredibly repetitive instrumentals like these perfectly suited my mood as a new parent and have been helping me deal with unrelated stresses in life. The solo albums they're sourced from aren't always so rewarding, but since I'm traditional in my false nostalgia, here are some premature favourites before the afterglow fades.