Monday, 28 June 2010

The Vex Factor

The X-Factor, that terrifying combination of talent contest, freak show and Roman ampitheatre, is gearing up for its next series. According to my dazed and bewildered memory, this will be its eight-hundreth edition, and before long every single person in the country will have participated in at least one episode, if necessary being forcibly bundled into a broom cupboard at ITV and made to sing a cruel and unusual karaoke version of California Dreaming.

However, it turns out that some people actually choose to go on the wretched thing, and one of them is my aunt, a genuine showbiz type whose hands you might recognise if you’ve ever spent a day watching QVC. No, I don’t know why you would have, but you never know. This aunt is decidedly good at making a tuneful racket, and armed with a gaggle of old-school showtunes and a willingness to get stuck in (I quote Dermot O’Leary: ‘I bet she doesn’t lose many arguments’) she managed to sashay through to what I think was the fourth round of the show.

I don’t know how far this is in X-Factor terms, but there was a studio audience (four million sixteen-year-olds, who when not screaming, chanting or cheering spent the evening examining their neighbours to make sure their elaborate outfits hadn’t gone out of fashion since recording started), lots of cameras, and a reasonable degree of havoc.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

AS Byatt: Possession

Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990, and that isn't exactly a surprise. Not only is it brilliant, but it’s so  self-reflectively literary that I'm surprised they even bothered with a shortlist. When I call it a literary book I’m not getting into that silly, puzzling but curiously fascinating debate about what distinguishes ‘literary’ fiction from mainstream or genre work, but simply pointing out that Possession is about literature. It is a book about books - about interpreting, about reading, and about writing.

Also, look - a picture! After many months I have managed to acquire a cable for my mobile and actually use the ruddy camera. Yes, it's a bit of a shabby photo, but I reckon I'll get the hang of it eventually. 

Monday, 21 June 2010

Eating the future

Last Tuesday, with a spot of time on my hands, I popped down to the Dana Centre  to listen to a debate on GM food. I am in no way a scientist, but I do think that clever people mucking about on the boundaries of knowledge is rather amazing, and I do get awfully excited when someone declares that they've created artificial life, have built a massive machine that whangs tiny things together exceedingly fast, or have done anything at all with lasers. I am also a firm believer that 'I wanted to see what would happen' is a perfectly reasonable justification for almost anything involving a lab coat and a research grant. If humanity had been no good at piddling about experimentally we'd never have got beyond fire and wheels.

So I'm fairly partial to the idea of GM foods, and as someone who's never understood the organic food bandwagon (let's return to less efficient farming techniques, only sell the shiniest bits of what we grow, chuck in a massive price hike and some pretty packaging, and somehow convince the Waitrosians that they're saving the planet!), I thought this might be an interesting debate.

It was.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions

This ‘ere is my second Ken Macleod book, the first being the rather snazzy The Sky Road, which left me distinctly interested in checking out some more. While still being full of admiration, I didn't like The Night Sessions quite so much: it's an odd beast, doing some things very well indeed, and others a little blandly. 

What we have is basically a police procedural: bad sort gets up to no good, hero and associates try to track him down while filling in paperwork and faffing about with forensics. Only this one’s set in the future, of the near-and-convincingly-possible variety, and that changes everything.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The nefarious nature of football songs

Okay, so there's some football or other happening at the moment. No, don’t be silly, I’m not going to write about it. I know almost exactly nothing about the blasted sport (see last weekend's Doctor Who: ‘Football’s the one with the sticks, right?’), and there are already so many people writing clever things about formations and angles and positioning that it’s starting to look like a trigonometry exam out there. So instead of rambling on about the tactics, psychology and breeding habits of football teams, I’m going to become violently and wantonly offended by England football songs.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Leonard Cohen: Beautiful Losers

If Leonard Cohen had not been born with a perverse genius for words and a voice like a noir prophet, he would probably be just a dirty old man.

As it is, though, well, he’s Leonard Cohen, and if that doesn’t mean anything to you there are records you must listen to and words you must transcribe until there are corners of your mind full of god, sex, death and sadness, and obscure, melancholy jokes about all of the above. He’s a bit special like that. He writes hymns that are to both gods and bodies, and they resonate with loss and hope. He gets in your head, with all the warmth and darkness of a midnight walk in summer. He’s what Nick Cave wants to be when he grows up. He what we should all want to be when we grow up, only most of us will never grow up that far.

But I’ve never known how to write about music, so I’m going to talk about this novel instead.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Helvetica Black and the Colon Conspiracy

'Meet Helvetica Black, a maverick typeface who doesn’t play by the rules.
In downtown Geneva, glyphs are starting to disappear, and when a courier turns up dead, ligatures slashed, trouble starts brewing at the foundry. Pretty soon, Helvetica’s swamped by myriad problems, with a pangram missing, the monospace sabotaged, old-style heavies roaming the city, and rumours of upheaval in Cambria and Georgia. 
The futura’s looking grim.'

That’s the jacket blurb for the first Helvetica Black mystery, The Colon Conspiracy, a gritty thriller from the pen of Italo Garamond, the bestselling author of Pantone’s Labyrinth. In celebration of a major new player in the font-based detective genre, I’ve got an exclusive extract from near the start of the book, just as things start to get nasty.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

McSweeney's 32: 2024

I hadn't heard of McSweeney's before I found this in my local library (the same one I'm having moral palpitations about), so I picked it up solely because it had a pretty cover (artwork straight on to the hardback seems to be quite hot stuff at the moment, and it does look good. Having said that, my copy of Susanna Clarke's wonderful Ladies of Grace Adieu, from only a few years ago, is already fading, so I'm a bit worried about the long-term shelf life of this style), assuming it was a novel called Thirty-two by a chap called McSweeney who was so famous he didn't need a first name. Still, I'm glad I investigated, and not just because it led me to the McSweeney's website, which is a wonderful mine of ridiculous and amusing bits and pieces that will eat up hours of your life if you let it. No, I'm also pleased because this particular edition is rather good.

Number 32 is called (and set in) 2024, and it’s dedicated to near-future short stories set in various not-quite-on-the-beaten-track spots around the world. This insistence on slightly unusual places is pleasing: it’s good not to be seeing yet another cyber-noir Beijing or New York. As for setting them all in 2024, the aim is to provide a glimpse of a future we might actually be around to see. This tends to be the sort of science fiction I like - Ballardesque visions of the familiar collapsing into pieces that are no longer quite so familiar. The recognisable, reconfigured.
In other words, it's an anthology of things going tits up.