Books

A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn

A crime novel where the reader is bewildered rather than scheming and conjecturing makes for a lethargic trek.


A Beautiful Place to Die

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781416586203
Author: Malla Nunn
Price: $25.00
Length: 384
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2009-01
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A botched phone call reporting the murder of a white police chief in the rural town of Jacob's Rest brings naive English detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper far from his hometown of Johannesburg and into a territory that is unruly and unfamiliar. The highly unfortunate error casts Cooper into Jacob's Rest battling racism, pornography, and South Africa's Security Branch. And it sends the reader into the poorly constructed, melodramatically conveyed and scattered story that is A Beautiful Place to Die.

Police Chief Willem Pretorious has been found dead by the river, and everyone in the town is desperate to ensure that he remain a hero in death. But in a small town with a decided dearth of viable suspects, it is inevitable that some sort of scandal is afoot. This scandal is tied up in racism, pride, and sexual deviance, all of which run rampant throughout the town and narrative subtext.

Nunn's attempt to accurately create a picture of apartheid era drama is perhaps what might have been this book's greatest feature. Unfortunately, she attempts too much at once. She herself is familiar with the social structure in South Africa, and intrinsic features of the country surely shaped the narrative in her head. Unfortunately, she cannot decide how much background to give, and the resulting narrative vacillates between over explanation and gaping holes. There are glimpses throughout the book where it could be historical fiction and Nunn has made a blood choice by setting the book in 1952 South Africa. But facts and contexts are easily swapped for cheap literary shots of a crime novel and the back and forth leaves us wishing for more consistency.

Her leading man, Emmanuel Cooper, shares the same flaws as the book as a whole. Nunn plans on developing an entire mystery series based on Cooper, of which A Beautiful Place to Die will be the first. She drops numerous hints of Cooper's troubled past and unresolved present; he has come to South Africa after fighting in World War II and as an Englishman is ideologically lonely and suspicious. He also bears with him a preoccupation with some personal shame apart from political cynicism, but Nunn's journeys in the detective's mind frequently fail to be clear, preventing the setup of the cliffhanger.

Jacob's Rest is a quiet town, but her writing is so slow that it takes her 200 pages to create any kind of compelling drama. Cooper's investigation is laborious due to various enemies he encounters from people of all races and classes in the town. Unfortunately, it is so fruitless than Nunn fails to hit us with a single page-turning detail until close to the end. A crime novel where the reader is bewildered rather than scheming and conjecturing makes for a lethargic trek.

The inconsistencies may be due to Nunn's background. She is a screenplay writer making her first transition to book writing and ultimately, and this accounts for the slowness of her narrative. She describes scenes well, but at great length in a way that it is more factual than gripping. She frequently is using too much of her own voice, including ironic asides, and not enough of the characters. Most of her passages on Cooper's inner world and mind read more like character notes rather than anything meant for an audience. Much of her text reads like scene-setting passages meant for set designers, not audiences.

Also, Nunn's efforts to capture a male perspective on sexuality are awkward and overdone. Every female in the book is a sex object, which may be an accurate interpretation. But she tries so hard to cultivate a voice of male sexual preoccupation that her descriptions sound either oddly misogynistic or pre-pubescent. She often sounds like a young boy who has heard about sex but lacks the experience, or even the hormones, to appropriately characterize it. This causes even more a problem for her since one of the main ways she tries to flesh out Cooper's character is his complex relationship with his own libido.

Finally, even by mystery novel standards, Nunn's one-line zingers are weak. How can a reader care about plot when she is busy wondering why Nunn refers to a significant character with a perfectly good name as "the shy brown mouse" three times on one page? Other lines are simply confusing. "If his brothers were rock, Louis was paper." Is Nunn referring to the game rock paper scissors? Is she talking about size or consistency? Or just trying to fill space on a space to meet a word count?

Nunn occasionally interjects a drop of humor that seems to come more from her own head than from Cooper's. These are the only moments of real compelling, clarity in the book. But they are far too few to redeem this mostly lackluster novel.

3

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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