Sunday, January 13, 2019

This Fluid Thrill Awards: best books I read in 2018

Some stats and reflections on my year in reading make up the 2nd part of this post, but lets kick off with:


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (novel, 2015)

What I said about it in February:
...In the wrong hands, Seveneves could go down like the proverbial nickel and iron asteroid/balloon. All that detail. How the International Space Stations works is one thing, but how public transport works across a network of orbit chain-shaped habitats 5,000 years after the moon explodes... that's something else.
So I get that this isn't everyone's cup of tea.
But I like a strong brew...

It was both too long (880 pages or a day and a half of non-stop audio) and not long enough: the second half feels slighter that the first; it's revelations were satisfying but I could have spent another hundred pages each with the Pingers and the Diggers and how they worked.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (novel, 2018)

What I said about it in August:
...Heti's reconstruction of the novel form as something based on thought and deliberation (in this case, whether it's okay not to have kids), rather than drama and conflict, is both appealing and incredibly dangerous. 
For all it's seriousness, I found it incredibly funny. Especially the way the adapted I Ching... gives the novel a feeling of being written in real time. Even though it's random, so many of the responses are so perfectly mischievous and gnomic (like a good piece of AI poetry) that I couldn't help be tickled.

Three Men in  a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (novel, 1889)

What I said about it in December:
Loved it. The funniest book I read all year.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (novel, 2018)

What I said about it in August:
The kind of book you nestle into, not because the content is comforting, but it's clear from page 1 you are in the hands of a master and you can just let yourself go with it. 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (novel, 2017)

What I said about it in October:
It's comic without being silly. Romantic without being gaga. So: like life, but better.
Highly recommended.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Noah Yuval Harari (non-fiction, 2016)

What I said about it in April:
I've recommended this book to three people since I read it, each for different reasons... but each time with the caveat that the book is confusingly structured...
Still, it was the right mix of a secondary explainer of the work of others and more adventurous, more challenging thinking.
Good stuff.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (novel, 2008)

What I said about it in August:
Loved this, too... All those extended sequences that fly the geek flag high (the immersive world of the Three-Body Problem game; the challenge of unfolding a proton into an 11-dimensional shape and then folding it back up again).

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (novel, 2017)

What I said about it in February:
The Idiot is smart. And charming. And funny.
I was expecting something overtly smart (ie not that smart), like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, but The Idiot isn't one of those campus novels. I mean, there is stuff about linguistic theory and Russian literature, but it's not like a hammer on an anvil.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates (non-fiction, 2015)

What I said about it in October:
The audiobook is read by the author, and I can't imagine receiving the content without Coates' delivery, which sounds a little like slam poetry, only tolerable...
While not everything about US race relations can be applied elsewhere, at a little over 3 hours, it's essential reading/listening for anyone.

Vacationland by John Hodgman (non-fiction, 2017)

What I said about it in February:
If you're going to write about yourself as a white dude in 201X, I'd recommend reading Hodgman's book. He walks that tightrope between self-effacement and gratitude, and is funny the whole way through.


In 2018 I got through 42 books, which falls short of my usual target of 1 book a week.

In 2017 I read 66 books. My favourite was Sam Lipsyte's The Ask. (I'm excited about Hark coming out this year in a matter of days!) But I was a full-time writer in 2016 and in 2017 I... wasn't. Though I still had to finish off the manuscript for Nailing Down the Saint and negotiate the editing process.

So I'll take 42 books read, but reckon I can do 52 in 2019.

For a start, I didn't read any poetry collections in 2018. Reading just one collection a month would have got me over the line.

What did I read?

27 novels, 3 short story collections and 12 works of non-fiction.

The 70/30 split between fiction and non-fiction is about the same as last year, though the fact I don't count reading for research, or podcast series, tends to depress the non-fiction figures.

How did I read it?

39 audiobooks (92%), 3 physical books.

Last year, audiobooks made up 71% of my "reading". I noted last year how a heavy reliance on audiobooks naturally limits the scope of what you can read (see: Who did I read? below), though setting targets and rules can help in a lot of ways.

In defence of audiobooks, I think listening to so many has improved my prose and I definitely know it has improved my ability to edit. Words on the page aren't the living object - it's only when they're read by someone (whether in their head or aloud) - and the sound of those words in sequence, the cadence of your message, is just as important as the meaning.

Who did I read?
  • Male: 62%, Female 28%.  Last year: 68% male, so a slight improvement, but still not flash.
  • US authors: 52% (last year 48% - so sadly static here). 
  • Then it was: UK (6 authors), NZ (3),  Australia (2), Canada (2) and a six countries with one author each. Not reading physical books severely limits my NZ reading, but it's a bit chicken and the egg. If I really wanted to read NZ books, I would have. I'm going through a low ebb in my interest in NZ stuff. That will change. Until then, I need to consciously ween myself from the Americans.
  • White authors 73%, non-white 27%. In 2017, only 6% were non-white, so this is a big improvement with room for more growth.
  • Works in translation: 2 (5%) compared to 6 (9%) last year.

Books by publication date
  • A third (14) of the books I read in 2018 were published in 2018. That's insanely high for me. In 2017, I read 13 books that came out that year, but it only made up 20% of my reads due to the higher volume of books read over all (and was my all-time high to that point).
  • In 2018 I also read 10 books published in 2017, so all up 57% of my reading was less than 2 years old.
  • Other years: 2016 (3), 2015 (5), 2010 (2), 2008 (1), 1980s (2), 1960s (2), 1800s (2).
  • Median year: 2017.
  • Oldest: 1818 (Frankenstein).

You may have seen that I previously tweeted my 5 favourite books from 2018... well, only two of those books cracked my top ten (though Rachel Kushner and Leni Zumas would be 11 and 12 on the list if it went that far). 

This is to say that current doesn't equal better. I saw someone on Twitter had a reading resolution to only read things that have been out for more than 2 years. That way, the books that are all hype and no substance should have evaporated and you have a better shot at reading the important stuff. But what's "important"? And if no-one reads (maybe just "buys"?) books the year they come out, contemporary authors will be schnickered.

So my reading resolutions for 2019 are the following:
  • Read great books
  • Read at least 52 books
  • Read at least 10 poetry collections
  • Read more than 40% female authors
  • Read at least a third non-white authors
  • Read less than 40% US authors
  • Read from at least 10 different countries
  • Read at least 5 works in translation
  • Target median age of books read: 2009

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

This Fluid Thrill awards: best songs of 2018

Earlier this week I covered the best albums released in 2018. Now it's time to cover individual tracks, noting that any artist that made it into my top ten albums of 2018 is ineligible here.


This is a tricky one. In previous years there's been a catchy, less-than-cerebral song with a bunch of nonsense syllables that has stood out. Think 'Class Historian' by BRONCHO, or 'Ya Ya Ya' by You Won't. But I went all of 2018 without one of these songs worming their way into my head. Which means I have more than a dozen great songs on my longlist with no clear way to distinguish them.

'Motion Sickness' by Phoebe Bridgers might have come out on top if it hadn't been released in 2017.

Same goes for 'Emotionally Untidy' by Rachel Maria Cox.

There were a bunch of other strong female voices on the list, perhaps none more plainspoken than Camp Cope's 'The Opener'. That song is so strong it kinda dwarfs the rest of the band's sophomore album (and stands head and shoulders above the rest of their live set). At the other extreme there's Lana Del Rey, whose 'Mariners Apartment Complex' is actually kind of autobiographical but it still feels like an act - but that's why I love her. It's like she's aping Shakira singing a ballad in order to speak honestly. And that line: 'I'm your man.' ðŸ‘Œ

Valley Queen and Slothrust were louder but just as grandiose.

Tropical Fuck Storm's 'Lose the Baby' led the pack in terms of loud, bloke-fronted songs, but then is this cover better than the original? And TFS didn't see fit to put it on their album, so...

So in the end I've chosen...

'My Body' by David Bazan from his split LP with Sean Lane, Rare Coins.

The reasons:

1) It's a great song. A slower tempo than your classic earworm but I definitely sung this in the shower multiple times this year.

2) Lyrically, it speaks to me. I mean, the chorus:
But my body doesn't believe what my mind believes
My mind's been wondering what's true
But my body doesn't believe what my mind believes
My body might have some good news
Straight to the pool room*
* Pool room = playlist for my novel, NAILING DOWN THE SAINT, which comes out in August and deals with parascientific phenomena like levitation and premonitions. 

3) Upping Bazan here is a kind of two-for-one, as it saves me writing something separate about my favourite new-to-me (but definitely not new) artist.

I got into Bazan in a big way in 2018, first through Lo Tom (a supergroup including TW Walsh, whose album Terrible Freedom came in at #3 on my 2017 list; Lo Tom's self-titled also came out in 2017 and might have come in at #1 on that year's list if I'd heard it in time...), then Bazan's solo album Care, also from 2017, then all his solo stuff, then Headphones and finally back to Pedro the Lion. With the first Pedro the Lion album in fifteen years coming out later in 2019, my obsession isn't likely to abate any time soon.

I love Bazan's voice. He sounds depressed and beaten down but at the same time there's a strength to it. The vocals are always way up in the mix and his lyrics are so often coming from a pocket of power, or at least insight. The son of a pastor, there's a pulpit quality to many of his songs. Here is how I'm broken - I hope you can take something from my experience.

I was listening to a bunch of Bazan and Bazan-band albums over the weekend as I built some shelves in my garage and I realised how the guitar-based stuff sounds like The Lemonheads - less druggy, less flippant, more professional, but definitely in a similar sonic vein.


My kids love Gene McDaniel's 'Tower of Strength' from 1961 (written by Burt Bacharach) and I play it for them often because it's pretty great.

I also really like 'Sixteen Ways' by Green on Red from 1982.

Image result for Tom Russell Love & Fear
But I've gotta go with my nonsense-syllable-loving ways and honour Tom Russell's Stealing Electricity'. It's from 2006 but it sounds like it could have been recorded any time in the last fifty years. There's a good dollop of Johnny Cash and a whiff of Warren Zevon.

Any song whose chorus goes:
Two hearts go Da la da la da la da la da la na na, Da la da la da la da la da la na na
is going to be a bit daft, but like Cash and Zevon, it's not all nonsense.

I remember as a teen (or pre-teen?) reading about indigenous youth in rural Australia being so depressed that they climbed powerlines to electrocute themselves - and then discovering Soundgarden, particularly their songs 'Fell on Black Days', 'The Day I tried to Live ("The day I tried to win / I dangled from the power lines / and let the martyrs stretch, yeah") and 'Jesus Christ Pose' and it was like Chris Cornell was haunted by the same stuff as I was.

So a tale about "A mexican dead up on a power line..." brings in all those associations for me, all within a honky tonk earworm package. May it find it's way into dozens of playlists over the years to come!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

This Fluid Thrill awards: Best Albums of 2018

Here it is, my entirely personal and unscientific list of the best albums that came out this year. 

(And here are my lists from 20172016201520142013 & 2012).

In a future post I'll cover my favourite individual tracks and those artists I discovered and loved in 2018 but whose best work pre-dates that calendar year

According to my Spotify Wrapped (which covers until early December), I listened to 29,205 minutes this year, which is down from 40,162 minutes in 2017 when I was a full-time novel-writer and music-listener. A 27% drop in listening time is actually less than I'd expected. 

And I certainly had no shortage of contenders for my top ten. So much so that I'm gonna break tradition and list numbers 20 to 11, and an honorary mention, before saying a few words about numbers 10 through 1.

20. American Utopia by David Byrne
19. Surf Music by Paul Williams (funniest album)
18. Wide Awake by Parquet Courts
17. Hope Downs by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
16. Goat Girl by Goat Girl
15. Brushes with Happiness by The Wave Pictures
14. Vide Noir by Lord Huron
13. A Laughing Deat in Meatspace by Tropical Fuck Storm
12. Con Todo el Mudo by Khruangbin
11. We're Not Talking by The Goon Sax (there's a reason they sound like the Go-Betweens; that's not the only reason to love these youngsters)

Image result for low double negative
It pains me that one of my favourite bands of all-time (Low) released an album in 2018 that topped many end-of-year lists, but I can't add to the plaudits. 

Double Negative just doesn't do it for me. I've tried. It's probably in my top three most listened to albums this year. I don't hate it. But I don't enjoy it. I know it's not meant to be fun. I get why critics laud it -- it's a challenging album for challenging times, yadda yadda -- but give me C'mon or The Great Destroyer any day.


Boygenius EP
 (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus)

I'm not counting this in my top 20 albums as it's only an EP (6 songs, 21 mins). But it feels important. As if the Travelling Wilburys formed when their members only had an album or two under each of their belts.

loved Dacus' debut in 2016 (it rocks harder than her very good 2018 album, Historian, and anything on Boygenius) and am very excited about seeing Julien Baker live in February next year. Bridgers was new to me, but turns out she's just as good.


Image result for future me hates me the beths

10. Future Me Hates Me by The Beths

An earworm farm and my second favourite Kiwi album of the year. When I first listened to it, I dug the New Pornographers vibe, and then moved on to other things. Seeing it popping up on a lot of US and UK end of year lists made me return to it. Sometimes you find new depths at moments like this, but it wasn't really depth that struck me but a sense of fun. Of playing around within a groove (guitar music) without being ironic. 

Image result for ten fables st lenox

9.  Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love by St Lenox

This was another grower. Listening to this as I drove solo from Rotorua to Whakatane in November, I was finally free (and able) to sing along, and it was one of the best hours of my year.   

Soul-baring, hyperactive wordplay. Bedroom warrior instrumentation. And sequenced to perfection. 'Vincent Van Gogh' cuts to the quick (or maybe just for the artists with day jobs among us). 'Gold star' pumps you back up. 'Don't ever change me New York City' leaves you wondering where Andrew Choi will go next.

Image result for stef animal top gear

8. Top Gear by Stef Animal

An instrumental album with each song including a retro or gimmicky instrument (from Casio SK-1 to Commodore Amiga 500 to the Cass Creek Electronic Waterfowl Call). If you'd told me such an album would crack my top ten (and be my fave local album), I'd have made my own waterfowl call sound, but Top Gear sounds like my childhood and the futures we were promised (think the stumbling into a pachinko parlour on Mars) without being gimmicky. 

If I ever write a sci-fi novel, this would be the soundtrack.

Image result for idles joy as an act of resistance

7. Joy as an Act of Resistance by IDLES

My loud and angry album of the year. Confronting, articulate ('Don't fight a man with a perm' has to be up there for best song title of 2018) - they're like a British Protomartyr. 

I'm gutted I'll be out of town later this month when IDLES plays Wellington, but I get the feeling this is a band that, like Protomartyr, will release a lot of music in a short amount of time (their debut album, Brutalism, came out in 2017) and hopefully tour these parts again soon.

Image result for escovedo the crossing

6. The Crossing by Alejandro Escovedo

When I saw the track-listing stretched to 17 songs, I feared we were approaching the dreaded double album territory. Rolling Stone described  it (positively) as "a sprawling concept album", but all it's wrapped up within 59 minutes (phew!), and only the closer, 'The Crossing' cracks the 5 minute mark. That song caps a great album that plays off a great, if underrated, career (Escovedo was 67 when it was released). 

The Crossing 
covers similar territory to Drive-By Truckers' fantastic 2016 album, American Band, but given Escovedo's latin heritage (paired with his Texas rocker bona fides) there's a greater intimacy here when telling immigrants stories.

It's not a one-note album, either. 'Sonica USA' is a rocking 2 minutes and change. There are guest appearances from Wayne Kramer (MC5), James Williamson (Stooges) and honky tonk legend Joe Ely. It all hangs together and rewards on every listen.

Image result for ezra furman - transangelic exodus

5. Transangelic Exodus by Ezra Furman

This is another story-based album, but it succeeds not for its concept but the success of its individual tracks. It shreds. It assaults. It soothes. It somersaults. And that's just track 1, 'Suck the blood from my wounds.' 

Dirty electronic beats and glitches are deployed here amid a more eclectic aural bed than the vaccuum on Low's Double Negative, and this seems to me the better reflection of the fuckedness of 2018. We're bored and overstimulated, we're irreligious and drawn to spiritualism, we can't love if we haven't been able to bring something or someone else down first. We're problematic (sigh)This is the album of that.

Related image

4. Earthones by Bahamas

This album is coming back into its own for me with the return of summer. Despite his Caribbean moniker, Toronto-based Afie Jurvanen doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd produce the slickest, funkiest collection of laid back grooves in 2018. And it wasn't an instant thing. You can track the evolution of Bahamas from dangerously-close-to-Jack-Johnson to this kind of folk-funk perfection through his previous albums. 

Earthtones is an album I can put on in any mood and situation and it just works.

Image result for tenkiller marie

3. Tenkiller by Marie/Lepanto

Marie/Lepanto is the union of Will Johnson (Centro-matic) and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster (Water Liars) and something seriously clicks here. There are echoes of My Morning Jacket and David Bazan -- and because I got into Bazan's solo work and his efforts with Lo Tom and Pedro the Lion this year, but he didn't release a full LP in 2018, Marie/Lepanto probably gets boosted by a couple of spots as the next best thing.

Each of the 10 tracks is a gem (though I wouldn't call them all "killers"). 'Inverness' would be a contender for my track of the year if I didn't discount artists who appear in my top 10 albums.

Image result for 13 rivers richard thompson

2. 13 Rivers by Richard Thompson

What an album to release at the age of 69. Holy shit.

Thompson has gone all kinds of directions over his career but in 2018 he sounds like some unholy blend of 
late Dylan, Nick Cave, Midlake and Corrosion of Conformity. 

Image result for iceage beyondless

1. Beyondless by Iceage 

Danish post-punk problem children Iceage discovered the groove with Beyondless. Their very good back catalogue (New BrigadeYou're NothingPlowing the Fields of Love) and frontman Elias Bender Ronnenfelt's equally strong two albums with Marching Church feel suddenly sexless compared to Beyondless. There's even a (kind of) duet with Sky Ferreira -- few would have seen that coming.

The palette is enriched with horns, piano, an even the odd bit of tuneful singing -- without losing the rawness and energy that made Iceage so compelling from the outset. 

The band's battle with controversy has been well documented (my TLDR version: young guys try to mix nihilism with provocativeness, they learn those two don't mix), but here's hoping Beyondless is proof that provocation is beside the point when you can make music like this.


Don't believe me, here's a song from each of these great albums to get you going...

November/December consumption diary


I went to David Byrne's concert at the TSB Arena and it was easily the best "sit down" show I've ever seen. Top five gig period.

As we left, I said to my friend, 'It's like other (non-arena pop) artists aren't even trying.'

Image result for an american marriageBOOKS

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (novel, audiobook)

This book made it onto a bunch of end of year lists. It was okay. It's meant to be sweet and harrowing and it kind of is. But a lot of it felt pat. And the different narrators all sounded like they'd done an MFA.

Reading resolution for 2019: not to read anything with "America" or "American" in the title.

Image result for the mars roomThe Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (novel, audiobook)

This was good. Will it crack my top ten for the year? Not if books published before 2018 count, but among the "new" books, this one was up there.

Kushner does a good job of dealing with gritty subject matter (women's prison, stripping, stalking) without it feeling like disaster tourism or a political football. Like Jones, her narrators did sound similar, but there was enough of a story here to put me in a forgiving mood.

Image result for what's your type merve emreWhat's your type: the strange history of the Myers-Briggs and the birth of personality testing by Merve Emre (non-fiction, audiobook)

Another book I saw popping up on end-of-year lists. Coupled with an introduction that promises to expose some skeletons in the closets of the mother-daughter duo who invented the MBTI and some kind of corporate conspiricacy to conceal the truth -- neither of which amount to much (though it was nice to learn the mother wrote homoerotic fanfic about Carl Jung) -- this one didn't deliver against lofty expectations.

Image result for three men in a boat audiobookThree Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (novel, audiobook)

Loved it. The funniest book I read all year.

There's not a lot 2018 had in common with 1889, when Jerome's book about a boating trip down the Thames was published, and yet the descriptions of slap-up meals, oversleeping and a less-than-heroic dog still rang true.

Whatever Jerome's intentions were with the passages of purple prose describing the beauty of the river or the signing of the Magna Carta, they were fricken hilarious too.

If you get the tone right, man oh man.

Image result for michio kaku future of humanityThe Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku (non-fiction, audiobook)

This forms an interesting bookend to my year of reading with Neal Stephenson's Seveneves.

Kaku references a lot of science fiction in this work of science fact - although it's more accurate to say science speculation. In seeking to describe what humanity will be like (and where we'll colonise next, and how) in centuries to come, he has to traverse a lot of territory and synthesise a lot of other people's work and theories. I learnt a lot but I've already forgotten more.

I think the narrative thread could have been stronger to hold all the disparate topics together, but it still held my interest.

Sophia of Silicon Valley by Anna Yen (novel, audiobook)

Image result for sophia of silicon valleyI downloaded the audiobook without knowing anytihng about it except the cover reminded me of Douglas Coupland and I was in that kind of mood.

There was a slight Coupland vibe to the novel, but in time I began to suspect it was a Roman a clef (there's a Steve Jobs proxy; Elon Musk is called Andre Stark). Turns out Anna Yen worked for both.

In terms of fiction, a lot of it didn't work -- either because there wasn't enough to support the plot points other than that's how it really happened, or there wasn't enough distance between protagonist and author (her diabetes is made out to be like an AIDs diagnosis; her rules for life are freighted like gospel).

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (novel, audiobook)

Image result for oscar and lucinda audiobookI had a dream that a friend of mine was secretly using my Audible account and fessed up by saying he'd stopped now as he'd rather choose his own books -- he found my selections so dull. And he cited this book directly.

Harsh, subconscious!

You know what it probably was? The fact I'd read about the novel years ago and had the image of a glass church being barged down a river in mind - the same image that Carey had when he started working on the book - but the way it all worked out didn't compare to the story, or the feel of the story, I'd built up over the years.

Nobody can compete with the conception of the perfect, off-kilter novel.


Shoot, I'll be darned if I can remember everything (one does tend to watch crap with the rellies over the Xmas break). Let me have a stab...
  • Wakefield - the kind of movie you find yourself describing to other people. Check it out.
  • Nocturnal Animals - a movie about a writer and his ex-wife that doesn't involve a novel being written in the space of a month (it's implied that the novel has taken years!)... thank you Tom Ford.
  • Synecdoche, New York
  • The Grinch (2018)
  • Bullet Head
  • Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Pearl Harbor
  • Mary Poppins
  • Fargo - season 3
  • Bodyguard



Straitjacket Fits
December's concert was also a goodie: a double bill of Dimmer and Straitjacket Fits at Meow. Shayne Carter had some fun with it, saying how excited they were to open for the Fits. I'd never seen Shayne perform with any band live (or solo), though we did bond over our love of the NBA one weekend in Dunedin in 2017. So it was very cool to see sets from both Straitjacket Fits (which I'm just young enough to say I didn't take much note of when they were current) and Dimmer (which I appreciated at the time but "got into" after that moniker had also been retired).

The setlists (no Andrew Brough songs, for obvious reasons*), the commonality of a number of the performers, and the same setting/sound system, meant the two sets sounded more alike that I was expecting. Dimmer had always had a more electronic, less rock sound to me, but live I witnessed a NZ rock god and was left to wonder where Carter could go from here when he returned to play Straitjacket Fits. 

But he did find that extra level. 

The carnage was beautiful.

* Instead of a last supper, if I was on death row I might consider requesting a final concert, and for that I'd consider requesting seeing Bike (the band Brough formed after being in the Fits) open for Dimmer and Straitjacket Fits. For starters, good luck Corrections staff finding Brough and convincing him to perform (stay of execution, baby!) and if they did perform, talk about drama! I could die a happy man.