Blog Tour: The Twins of Auschwitz by Eva Mozes Kor

From the PR: “In the summer of 1944, Eva Mozes Kor and her family arrived at Auschwitz.

Within thirty minutes, they were separated. Her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, while Eva and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man who became known as the Angel of Death: Dr. Josef Mengele. They were 10 years old.

THE NAZIS SPARED THEIR LIVES BECAUSE THEY WERE TWINS.

While twins at Auschwitz were granted the ‘privileges’ of keeping their own clothes and hair, they were also subjected to Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments. They were forced to fight daily for their own survival, and many died as a result of the experiments, or from the disease and hunger rife in the concentration camp.

Publishing for the first time in the UK in the year that marks the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, The Twins of Auschwitz shares the inspirational story of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.”

I’ve touched at various times on this blog on my interest in certain passages of history, specifically the Second World War. As part of this reading I’ve covered some pretty harrowing accounts of what those of Jewish faith endured both in the build up to and during the war – the increase in persecution, the stirring of hatred, the betrayal from friends and their treatment in concentration camps. Eva Mozes Kor’s account of this time is a vital read.

Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1934-1945 gave a revealing insight into the persecution of Romanian Jews at home but Sebastian was an adult, an educated man and writer. What makes The Twins of Auschwitz so startling and vital is that Eva, as a child, was not aware of what was happening as the war and persecution of the Jews progressed and Transylvania was given back to Hungary and she found herself in a classroom presented with maths problems such as “if you have five Jews and you kill three of them how many do you have left?” The Twins of Auschwitz is written in a simple and direct narrative that’s perhaps as much due to Eva’s interrupted education and the fact that she details events as she experienced them at the time – as a child. It’s hugely affecting.

The increasing and constant terrors Eva and her family endured at home are one thing and certainly make for disturbing reading – it’s always shocked me just how easily people turned against their friends and neighbours with a little encouragement – however, the other element of this book is that their torture didn’t end their: like so many millions of over Jewish people in Europe, they were forced out of their homes, into cattle trucks and sent to a concentration camp. For the Mozes family that meant Auschwitz.

Saved by the fact that they were twins, at just ten years old (though Eva later references two year old twins also being in their barracks) Eva and her sister Miriam were taken from their family upon arrival. Their parents and two older sisters were sent to the gas chambers.

Again; I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with what awaited those that were imprisoned at a concentration camp. I’ve read some pretty horrific accounts and I know that given that reading about it can barely tap the surface. Eva and her sister had to endure this as ten year olds. As Eva states: “Being in Auschwitz was like being in a car accident every single day. Every song day something terrifying happened.”

The reason that Eva and Miriam were kept aside is simple: Dr Josef Mengele was a sick bastard. Mengele – or ‘the angel of death’ as he was later known – used prisoners for experimentation. With twins he carried out some truly shocking experiments including unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other, attempting to change twins genders by blood transfusion or genital removal…. he was a sick bastard let loose. At one point he personally killed 14 twins in one night with chloroform. If one twin died as a result of a disease he’d infected them with he’d immediately have the healthy twin killed to allow for post mortem comparison of the organs.

It was into this hell that Eva and Miriam were plunged as ten year olds. While Eva wasn’t aware of the full depth of Mengele’s experiments she was injected with a disease meant to kill her. It was only her determination not to give in and her efforts to reach water that kept her alive. In cheating her own death though, Mengele went to town on her sister, giving her a multitude of injection, one of which would stunt the growth of her kidneys, never letting them develop further.

The Twins of Auschwitz documents the twins’ time at Auschwitz and beyond – the realisation that their family was gone and their desperation to find home and simply be children with a simplicity and directness that is both profound and heartbreaking. Though I think it’s also a case that it’s written in such a manner so that we don’t simply get lost in emotion but that we learn, we remember and we ensure that it never happens again.

What makes this book all the more vital is the additional epilogue on Eva’s recovery and how she came to a point where she publicly forgave the Nazis. Not, as Eva and this book are keen to point out, on behalf of all who suffered, but for herself. Mengele was an unrepentant Nazi. When his son found him in later life in South America (that the bastard died of natural causes is confounding), Mengele refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing and sure as hell would never ask for forgiveness. But what Eva Mozes Kor teaches is that in her forgiving him and the Nazis, she is both taking the power from them and that her letting go isn’t reliant on them: “it made me feel good to have any power over my life as a survivor”. By all accounts it changed her as a person, removed a weight and she became a happier and healthier person free from the bitterness she’d carried since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.

The Twins of Aushwitz is an important and revelatory read. I ran the gamut of emotions across its two hundred or so pages, it’s one I know will stay with me for some time and one I won’t hesitate in recommending to anyone.

My thanks to Monoray / Octopus for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part on this Blog Tour.

Albums of my years – 1995

Wow: 1995. It was like ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, and other things that weren’t actually ironic. Don’t you think?

It was the year that Bjork insisted ‘ It’s Oh, So Quiet’, that Oasis had everyone trying to figure out what the fuck a ‘Wonderwall’ was (everyone except George Harrison), Lenny Kravitz probably looked at Britpop before declaring that ‘Rock and Roll Is Dead’, Supergrass however decided that, actually, everything was ‘Alright’ and Bryan Adams asked us if we’d ever really, really ever loved a woman. But nobody could answer him because we were probably all too busy humming The Connells’ ’74-’75’.

It was the year of Batman Forever – a god awful film (which would only be surpassed in terms of ‘holy shit, Batman, what’s that smell’ when Joel Schumacher decided that Batman & Robin should also be made) with a killer soundtrack that somehow eschewed the expected and threw in great tunes from U2 (‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’), PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, The Offspring, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Sunny Day Real Estate! Oh and a song by Seal about getting hot and steamy in a florists.

It was the year Mel Gibson assured us, in a Scottish accent as good as Sean Connery’s Russian, that his freedom couldn’t be taken, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld sank to the murky depths from which it sprang, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino stalked each other in Heat and Woody met Buzz. Yup; Toy Story was released 25 years ago.

Back in music, Tommy Lee married Pamela Anderson and had a very secret and private honeymoon where they most likely stayed in and read Russian literature to each other.

Bruce Springsteen called the E Street Band for a somewhat awkward and brief reunion to record some new tracks for his Greatest Hits album – captured on the ‘Blood Brothers’ video. The group cut ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and re-recorded earlier tunes ‘This Hard Land’ and ‘Murder Incorporated’ along with ‘High Hopes’ (much better than the version later released) and ‘Without You’ which would appear on the Blood Brothers EP. This isn’t a Bruce post but I’ll also point out that if Bruce is in a studio with a band – not just any band, mind, the E Street Band – then you can bet your arse there’s gonna be more than that recorded. There was also ‘Back In Your Arms’ which would see the light of day on Tracks, ‘Missing’ which would appear on Sean Penn’s ‘The Crossing Guard’ soundtrack, and ‘Waiting on the End of the World’ which has been punting about on YouTube etc for a while. But… there was also an early take on ‘Dry Lightning’ and other tunes which he’d tried with a smaller band in 1994 such as ‘Nothing Man’, ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’, I’m Going Back’, ‘Angelina’ and more thrown in the vaults never to be heard from again… unless there’s a Tracks 2 coming.

Jerry Garcia crashed his car in January but was uninjured. However, having relapsed into drug addiction, he checked himself into rehab later in the year though died in his room in August after suffering a heart attack. He was 53. Also lost to the music world in 1995 was Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon. Hoon was found dead after a night of binging on drugs after what he felt was a disappointing show. He was 28 and left behind a daughter who was only months old. Addiction is a terrible fucking thing. I can’t tell you how angry I get when I see children losing parents to it.

Tired of the vast scale and drama that Dire Straits had become, Mark Knopfler called it a day for his band in 1995. I’m pretty sure that, as good as one last show would be (even if you don’t push it and ask for David Knopfler to take part too), a reunion won’t happen. Sunny Day Real Estate, Slowdive and Kyuss also called it a day in ’95. However, on the flip side of that coin, it was ‘hello’ to Alabama 3, Biffy Clyro, Blonde Redhead, Cursive, Eels, Elliott, Faithless, Idlewild, Mansun, Matchbox 20, Mogwai (fuck YEAH!), Mojave 3 (formed with former Slowdive members), Semisonic, Sleater-Kinney, Slipknot, … and er… Death Vomit, who all formed in 1995. Which kind of makes up for the fact that Nickelback also chose this year to start slowly murdering music.

R.E.M were having a pretty shit time of it on their Monster tour – Michael Stipe suffered a hiatal hernia, Mike Mills needed an appendectomy and Bill Berry left the stage during a concert in Switzerland after he suffered a brain aneurysm. Still, somehow during all these they’d be finding the time to put together the songs that would form their next, and finest, album. But that’ll have to wait until the 1996 post… so what dropped in 1995? Well, sticking in this blog’s wheelhouse, Van Halen released Balance their last album with Sammy Hagar and the last time they’d hit the top spot.

Slowdive also released their final album ahead of their breakup, Pygmalion was a real solid dose of the great stuff and, thankfully, the band would eventually reunite and drop another great new album some decades later. Sunny Day Real Estate’s aforementioned break-up took place during the recording of their second album, so by the time they handed it over to Subpop the label found themselves in the unpleasant situation of having a much-anticipated album but from a band that no longer existed and had no interest in it or promoting in. The lyrics weren’t finished and the “just make it pink” direction for the artwork was taken literally by the label who released it as LP2 in 1995 and yet, somehow, it’s a bloody brilliant album and one that gets a regular play on my turntable.

Sunny Day Real Estate’s tight rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith weren’t idle long, though – a chap called Dave Grohl needed a band and pronto. Grohl’s self-performed Foo Fighters album was released in mid-95 and he needed a group to take it out and play the arse off it. Goldsmith’s tenure would be… troubled at best but Mendel remains in Foo Fighters to this day as does Pat Smear (albeit having left then returned a few years later) and the first album has since shifted a few million units even if Grohl still insists it was never actually meant to be an album. While its composition and recording means it sounds very much unique within the Foo’s catalogue, it’s a great album and one of the year’s best:

No post-breakup blues from Kim Deal in ’95 – following the demise of the Pixies and sister Kelley’s drug bust putting The Breeders on hold, she formed another new band and The Amps released their only album Pacer the same year. She’d also pop up on Sonic Youth’s ‘Little Trouble Girl’ from their album Washing Machine – another corker from the band packed with great tunes like ‘Becuz’ and ‘Junkie’s Promise’ though not quite up to their promise.

Meanwhile, formed out of the ‘remains’ of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco released their debut A.M and Australian teens Silverchair released their debut Frogstomp which was, correctly in this instance, seen as their attempt to sound as identical to those bands they were enamoured by as they could (they’d get better) but was still pretty decent when you consider it’s an album by three 15 year olds.

Having recorded her debut at a similar age, Alanis Morissette released an altogether different album in 1995 to her two previous Canada-only albums; Jagged Little Pill was one of those albums that seemed to define the year with singles like ‘Ironic’, ‘You Oughta Know’, ‘One Hand In My Pocket’ playing from stereos everywhere as their videos seemed just as dominant on MTV (remember – it still played music back then) on their way to becoming part of pop-culture. Reviewed in retrospect it’s still a powerful album dominated both by Alanis’ vocals but by the ‘angst’ of it, Glenn Ballard’s production and the  sheer consistency of it.

Ben Folds Five released their self-title debut in 1995 as did Garbage whose album contains some absolute belters like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. Blind Melon’s second album Soup was released just 8 weeks before singer Shannon Hoon’s death. It’s a real move forward from their debut and was received with a lot more positivity from critics – songs like ‘Galaxie’ and ‘2×4’ are always good to hear. Tindersticks released their second (and second self-titled) album in ’95 and I can never hear songs like ‘My Sister’ or ‘Tiny Tears’ enough.

Neil Young’s Mirror Ball was released in ’95 – recorded in just a couple of weeks toward the start of the year with Pearl Jam as his backing band minus Vedder who was dealing with a stalker issue though still appeared on a couple of tracks. The group – without Eddie – would tour Europe with Neil to promote the album. Bjork’s Post arrived in 1995 and, beyond the annoying ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ included the amazing ‘Hyperballad’ and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their only album with ex-Janes Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro with One Hot Minute and proved that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work. It’s not… terrible.. but the combination of Navarro and RHCP could’ve been a lot more potent than it was.

Jumping back across the Atlantic to make an abrupt change in sound and scene, one of the few positives about Britpop for me was that it – much like ‘grunge’ in the US – allowed over bands who were ‘kinda but not quite’ Britpop to get attention and success. Released at the height of it, Pulp’s Different Class remains – unlike many of that era – highly listenable with ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ absolute classics. Meanwhile, Radiohead were preparing the nails for Britpop’s coffin…  The Bends was released in March 1995 and is a stone-cold fucking classic. The term ‘massive leap forward’ seems to have been invented just for the shift from Pablo Honey to The Bends. Yes it’s the shift in songwriting and approach that would reach perfection on OK Computer but The Bends is pretty damn perfect in its own right – ‘Just’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’… It’s just insanely good.

Popping back State-side for the last push…. Elliott Smith’s second solo album was released in 1995 too. The self-titled album, perhaps best-known for ‘Needle In The Hay’ is another favourite and is too oft-overlooked in his catalogue. Pavement released their third album, the great Wowee Zowee in April 1995 and, despite what the critics said at the time, it’s one of their best.

How do you follow-up an album as amazing as Siamese Dream? Well, if you’re Billy Corgan you go bigger, of course. Bigger and grander by far. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a monster of an album – a whopping 28 tracks covering seemingly every spectrum of the Pumpkins’ sonic sweep from tender, string-laden beauties like the perfect arrangement of ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and the gorgeous ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ to the fiercer, heads-down rippers like ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ via the all-time classic ‘1979’. It could so easily be at the ‘top’ of this list, it’s great album and a real favourite but… it’s just too fucking long, Billy; what the hell man? Talk about ‘cd bloat’…

Former poodle-haired rockers Bon Jovi have come in for a bit of slack on this blog but These Days was not like any other Bon Jovi album – shorn of over-wrought production (albeit far too temporarily) These Days struck a much more mature and cheese-free approach and deserved its surprising presence on many a ‘best of the year’ list at the end of 1995 with many suggesting that, were it recorded by anyone else, the album would’ve been ranked higher still. New Jersey’s more-famous son Bruce Springsteen had another album up his sleeve in the decade’s middle year. Having released Greatest Hits in February, complete with an E Street Band powered video for ‘Murder Incorporated’, Bruce threw a complete left at the end of the year with November’s released of The Ghost of Tom Joad. His second ‘solo’ and mainly acoustic album it’s great but… I’ve already featured The Ghost of Tom Joad so cannot sit it here at the top either…

There was another import self-titled release in 1995, the final album from the Layne Staley fronted version of Alice in Chains. Alice In Chains feels to me like a sonically different beast to AIC’s two previous albums, steering closer to the melodies of Jar of Flies than the heavy-riffing of Dirt and while the subject matter for lyrics is still pretty dark, it makes for an easier listen and is lighter in its sound with ‘Grind’, ‘Brush Away’ and ‘Heaven Beside You’ sitting amongst my favourite Alice In Chains songs.

Which, looking at my shelves, really only leaves…

Mad Season – Above

Sure there were undoubtedly bigger, more important and more well-received albums in this year and I’ve know doubt that any of those mentioned above would happily slot in here but when I think of 1995 in music now it’s Mad Season’s sole album Above that pops up almost instantly.

A ‘grunge supergroup’, Mad Season was formed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders. During early sessions for ’94’s Vitalogy, McCready had entered into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction and had met bass player John Baker Saunders there. The two returned to Seattle and began playing with Barrett Martin. It was McCready who bought in Layne Staley to sing in the hope that being around sober musicians and having a new project would help push Layne to get clean himself.

I remember the first time I heard Above will deep-diving into my then newly discovered love for ‘grunge’ and realising it was nothing like what I was expecting. I don’t know what I thought it would be – like Layne fronting Pearl Jam perhaps…. but it’s something somehow both distinctly different to the sound of those two most famous of its ingredients yet still familiar enough to let you know where its roots lie.

Instead of AIC’s heavy riffage, there’s more of a bluesy sway to a lot of Above thanks to Mike McCready’s awesome playing. Mark Lanegan stopped by to sing on a few songs including ‘Long Gone Day’ and ‘I’m Above’ incase more was needed to apply a ‘supergroup’ tag. It’s not a perfect album but it’s still a favourite. You get a sense that the members are using the opportunity away from their main gig to try a few things out and push in a different direction – always something worth going for – and I think, for the most part it works.

But it’s also important to remember that this is a first album, it wasn’t conceived as a one-off it’s just how fate took it. I can’t help but think that they would’ve gone on to better. I mean, the music for two songs were written before Staley was recruited, the rest within a week and Layne completing his lyrics in just a few more days. All at a time when AIC were preparing their next album, Pearl Jam were coming off the back of Vitalogy… had time allowed the group to get it together again after touring and feeling each other out more as players and the group’s capabilities the next album would’ve soared.

As it was they’d play a good few shows in early ’95 to promote the album but soon their ‘day jobs’ started to call their attention and so Mad Season took a break. By the time they tried to revive the group for another go in 1997, Staley’s addiction had taken such a toll on his health that he was no longer interested or, probably, capable. His last live performance was in July 1996. The remaining members began instead working with Mark Lanegan on some new songs and adopted a new name – Disinformation – to reflect the change in lineup. Conflicting schedules would make it difficult for work to progress and then, in 1999, John Baker Saunders died after a heroin overdose. McCready continued to work with Pearl Jam, Lanegan forged a successful solo career and Martin – after Screaming Trees ended – would tour as REM’s drummer having played on their album Up along with forming Tuatara with Peter Buck. In 2002 Layne Staley would also succumb to his drug addiction.

As such, Above is that single-shot blast of greatness from Mad Season and captures a brief, fleeting moment in time when these great players were able to make it work. It also sounds so very 1995, surely this was the only time when a side-project could get such major label support and promotion.

Blog Tour: Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

From the PR: “It’s a small story. A small town with small lives that you would never have heard about if none of this had happened.

Hinton Hollow. Population 5,120.

Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow. Because something was coming.

Narrated by Evil itself, Hinton Hollow Death Trip recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infected its residents. A visit that made them act in unnatural ways. Prodding at their insecurities. Nudging at their secrets and desires. Coaxing out the malevolence suppressed within them. Showing their true selves.

Making them cheat.

Making them steal.

Making them kill.

Detective Sergeant Pace had returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple. But he was not alone. Evil had a plan.”

Right: Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I’m sat here a good couple of weeks on from finishing Will Carver’s novel and it’s still painted vividly in my mind. This one will stay with you for a while much as Carver’s previous novels did too.

DS Pace is a man on the run from his past and the nightmares he’s picked up via Carver’s previous bloody brilliant books Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today. Both of those books left my mouth on the floor but Hinton Hollow Death Trip fucking floored me like a coup de grâce. Because what Pace is running from is waiting for him… Evil is in town by the time Pace arrives it’s already set in motion – via a series of little nudges and a few hard pushes on the right buttons in a few people – that will devastate both detective and town. Oh, and the reader.

See, Hinton Hollow Death Trip hits hard. Let’s be honest; a story told from the narrative point of view of Evil having a play session wasn’t going to be sunshine and kittens but what unfurls in these five days is brutal. And yet massively addictive, I mean I tore through these 400 or so pages like Dorothy Reilly with a family bucket of chicken.

Because Will Carver has populated Hinton Hollow with a great cast of characters, whether it’s the lesser ‘nudged’, the bystanders or those given a real push by Evil, that are so engrossing and make for a bloody compelling read, it’s impossible to put it down until everything has reached its head for better or worse.

Will Carver is a very talented author. Each of his books has a way of getting into your head and staying in there. He writes with a unique voice and his insights and comments on human nature are at times funny and disturbing. Oh and the final reveal and coming together of two plots was an absolute master stroke, didn’t see that coming at all.

There are a lot of great things going on in Hinton Hollow Death Trip: there’s a brilliantly crafted and multi faceted plot that would make this an essential read in itself but the way in which it is told, both in terms of the narrative view but Carver’s prose style – along with his in-character commentary – make it a serious contender for one of the year’s best reads. It’s a novel that challenges and rewards on multiple levels and stays with you long after.

Very much recommended and my thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of Will Carver’s Hinton Hollow Death Trip and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.

“During the war…” Ten ‘Essential’ WW2 Reads

These days I find myself questioning the teaching methods / teachers I had back in secondary school. I know I always liked to learn about history but back then it was a case of ‘the eight Henrys and two world wars’ and even then it was pretty dry stuff and mostly dates from what I recall.

Cut to a fair few years later and while my wife and I were dating we wanted a little getaway, drove up from Paris to Normandy to a little B&B we booked online only to discover that we were staying in Coleville-sur-Mer, just up the literal track from what had once been code-named Omaha Beach.

Coming face to face with the scene of the bloodiest of landings and standing where those German gun encampments once sat was a pretty strange sensation only matched by the cemetery up the road. It re-awakened my interest in that particularly tragic and yet inspiring periods of our history. Inspiring in terms of what ordinary people are capable of when placed into the most extraordinary of circumstance. It was this element that does and still interests me a lot more than sheer dates and stats ever could and there’s no interest from me in the “guys and glory” style or “we killed all those Jerry bastards from here to Berlin” approach – it’s the personal that counts.

As this part of history takes a good percentage of the non-fiction part of my library, second only to the ‘music’ section and already having done so for that section, I thought I’d list out (this one’s been in the making for a while) those 10 books I’ve found the most essential during my ‘re-education’. After all, if we ignore history and it’s lessons we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Max Hastings – All Hell Let Loose

Finding one book that manages to convey the vast depth and sweep of a global conflict in one volume is never easy but Max Hastings was always gonna be a safe bet and All Hell Let Loose does a great job of while still managing to focus on individual accounts and the impact of the war on the personal levels rather than simply get lost in stats and dates.

Alan Deere – Nine Lives

Alan Deere was a New Zealander who joined the RAF in 1938. He flew Spitfires in both the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain and fought throughout the war – a fighter ace with 22 confirmed victories who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His account of his time, Nine Lives, is written with a real warmth and charm while not flinching from the reality that faced the men – some little more than boys only a year or two out of school – during those dark times.

See also: First Light by Jeff Wellum and Stormbird by Hermann Buchner for a take from the ‘other side’ as it were.

Andrew Williams – D-Day to Berlin

A smaller focus than Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose but nonetheless detailed and with more insight as a result of the tighter arena, Andrew William’s D-Day to Berlin looks, as the title suggests, at the Allied arrival on the beaches, the fight for Normandy, the breakout and fight on to Berlin. It was one of the first I books on the subject I picked up and it remains an oft-referred to one. There was a BBC documentary based around it, though buggered if I can find it all these years later, and it’s written with both an eye to the overall campaign as well as the personal accounts and it’s always those that make these books worth reading to me.

Herbert Werner – Iron Coffins

Without a doubt one of the finest WW2 diaries and a real eye-opener. There weren’t many U-Boat commanders that made it through the war, such were the odds against them in the final half of the war when the tables were turned and the wolf packs became hunted with greater accuracy and techniques. Werner’s account is written with insight and with the use of his own diaries and records for accuracy and is a real eye-opener: in the space of those years Werner went from officer candidate in 1939, to the early victories the U-Boats scored in the Atlantic to fighting for survival and barely escaping the same fate that sent so many other crews to the seabed. Beyond the facts and figures, what makes Iron Coffins such a favourite on my shelves is the personal insights – while Werner is fighting for survival below, the war is destroying his home in Germany and the increasing – its important to remember the German Navy were not all Nazis – frustration in their orders and their direction.

Stephen E Ambrose – Band of Brothers

An obvious choice really but it doesn’t make it any less a great read. Of course I saw the series before reading the book, it was one of the first things I did on my return from France that summer and it spurned me on to find more hence the inclusion of this book and the next couple too. There’s so much more in Ambroses’ book than could ever be captured by HBO’s series (it’s always the way, there’s nothing new here) – such as how, in Bastogne, sat staring at the same tree line day after day, Darrel ‘Shifty’ Powers, was convinced there was a tree – a mile away – that hadn’t been the day before. Turned out it hadn’t – it was camouflage that the Germans had put up for their anti-aircraft battery, which was promptly taken out. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is an essential read for all the obvious reasons – it’s the true story of those ordinary guys thrown into the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Major Dick Winters – Beyond Band of Brothers

Of course, reading or seeing Band of Brothers will leave you wanting more and appreciating what a damn fine leader of men Dick Winters was. His own Beyond of Brothers delivers more insights into both Winters as a man and leader as well as Easy Company’s campaign. A more personal account than Ambrose’s book and his guide to leadership is one I try to incorporate into my own life.

Robert Leckie – Helmet For My Pillow

Watching HBO’s The Pacific was a real eye-opener for me in much the same way as my recent watching of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War was – and identified the next area of history to read up on. The operations in the Pacific theatre were pretty unknown to me but I soon realised that was home to some of the grizzliest and barbaric fighting and conditions. Robert Leckie’s account served as part of the series’ source material and makes for a harrowing but vital and very well-written and detailed read that gives a real look at the impact of some of the most inhumane conditions coupled with the horror of intense fighting has on people.

See also: With The Old Breed by E.B Sledge

Stuart Hills – By Tank Into Normandy

My paternal grandfather served in a tank regiment during the Second World War though spoke precious little about it to me. Aside from the closeness of Stuart Hills’ surname, the fact that he came from just down the road in Tonbridge and found himself in fierce tank combat in European fields that, while geographically close, must have felt like a million miles away from the security of Kent made this a real connection for me. These personal and individual accounts of the war that are printed by smaller publishing houses and take a little finding are all the more interesting to me and reveal so much more than statistics on the number of tanks that “brewed up” ever could and gave me a real eye-opening look at just what my grandfather may have faced when his tank rolled across those fields.

Matthew Cobb – The Resistance

You know these days you’d be forgiven for thinking that every French person has relatives that fought as part of the Resistance movement and were involved in either hiding and ferrying allied airmen to safety or blowing up German trains… the truth is that only a very small percentage of the population were involved in the French Resistance movement and of those even less in such movie-style acts of sabotage. Cobb’s book is not only a great account of the movement but also of life in occupied France which appealed both the historian and Francophile in me.

See also: Americans in Paris by Charles Glass.

Ben Macintyre – Operation Mincemeat

After success in North Africa the allies needed to open a new front in the European theatre and liberate Europe. But where would and could they land first? In April of 1943 a fisherman found a corpse floating in the sea – the body was identified as that of the Royal Marines’Major William Martin and his attached case revealed to the Germans the Allied invasion plans.

Except this was Operation Mincemeat. The body that of a tramp and the documents all perfect fakes with one aim in mind – fooling Hitler and making him believe the Allied landing would take place somewhere other than Sicily.

Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat reads like one of the greatest spy novels but it’s all true – the level of detail involved in planning and carrying out the campaign, the now-available insight into how the Germans swallowed it and how it was handled their side make for real jaw-droppers. There were so many things that needed to work and so many details that could cause it all to fail.

But it worked: Hitler informed Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia and Corsica must be defended “at all costs” and transferred panzer regiments, planes and troops to that affect so that when the allies landed on Sicily it was comparatively unopposed – even hours later Hitler remained convinced it was a rouse. So much so that similar deception methods would be employed to dupe the Führer into believing Calais to be the landing point for D-Day.

See also: Double Cross by Ben Macintyre.

 

Tracks: Camouflage

“And then a big marine, a giant with a pair of friendly eyes
Appeared there at my shoulder and said ‘Wait!’
When he came in close beside me he said ‘Don’t worry, son, I’m here’
‘If Charlie wants to tangle now they’ll have two to dodge'”

After a brief back and forth in a comment section with CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead and ahead of a post on war (what is it good for?) I felt the need to dust off my Tracks format  wherein I spotlight a particular song that stands out in my mental jukebox and sits amongst my favourites – I feel a Spotify playlist coming on…

Stan Ridgway’s ‘Camouflage’ was taken from his 1986 album The Big Heat. It was a hit over here in the UK (hitting number 4 in the chart – I’ve still got a cassette of the Top 40 from some point in the year and it’s on there alongside things like Robert Palmer’s ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On’ and Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’ as a slab of my childhood in the back seat of my parent’s car on family drives) but didn’t chart in Ridgway’s native US where he’d previously found success in Wall of Voodoo.

Sung from the pov of a young, inexperience Private First Class cut off from his patrol in ‘the jungle war of ’65’ and finding himself surrounded… until ‘that big marine named Camouflage’ saves him…  Sure, it’s over-the-top and not exactly realistic, but it’s a cracker in my book:

This song cuts on a personal level. When I was a kid growing up my Dad’s best friend Charlie was a regular presence in our lives. He’d been a ‘weekend soldier’ in the TA and, with my Dad, part of an RAF volunteer service called the ROC. This was one of his favourites, I guess the Vietnam story appealed to him, and so it became lodged in my mind and the connection between the song and him makes it a bit of an emotional one too: he was killed while riding his motorbike in 1992 when a lorry hit him.

Aside from that emotional connection – my father can’t listen to it anymore – I really dig the tune and can see why it was a favourite. The story is like something from Catch 22, the sound has that 80’s New Wave / Alternative vibe and Ridgway’s delivery, like some strange film noir narrative, is unique.

Blog Tour: The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone

From the PR: “Running private investigator and funeral home businesses means trouble is never far away, and the Skelf women take on their most perplexing, chilling cases yet in book two of this darkly funny, devastatingly tense and addictive new series!

Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral that matriarch Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.

While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.

But something even more sinister emerges when a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves sucked into an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves? Following three women as they deal with the dead, help the living and find out who they are in the process, The Big Chill follows A Dark Matter, book one in the Skelfs series, which reboots the classic PI novel while asking the big existential questions, all with a big dose of pitch-black humour.”

I must have slept on A Dark Matter which I’m kicking myself for now because not only were the two previous Doug Johnstone novels I read – Breakers and Fault Lines – seriously good, but The Big Chill is a bloody great read.

Admittedly, I was momentarily thrown off when I realised I was reading a ‘sequel’ but The Big Chill works brilliantly enough at covering the retrospective detail needed without either labouring the point or taking away momentum. I still want to get my hands on A Dark Matter though – even if I now know the end I need to know the rest – because the Skelfs make for massively compelling protagonists and Doug Johnstone’s work is always compelling . There’s a warmth and humanity to Johnstone’s Skelf ladies – even, and especially, when surrounded by the coldness of death and some of the most inhuman events – that it’s impossible not to get on the team and they’re so well written and rounded as characters they practically walk off the pages.

Johnstone has a real ability when it comes to painting his locations in a near cinematic style, whether it’s the grim tower blocks of Breakers or a ‘volcanic’ Edinburgh – and that’s certainly true with The Big Chill. When coupled with the vitality of the novel’s cast, this lends a real gritty grounding to the story and keeps you immersed – though if you find this as addictive as I did you’ll only need a couple of sittings.

Picking up six months from the events of Dark Matter a large part of The Big Chill‘s plot follows directly though also takes time to bring in the mystery of first a missing school girl, then that of her father (I did not see that one coming) and the search for a dead homeless man’s identity while touching on human relationships, the nature of grief and, er, quantum mechanics.

I found these subplots – the search for Abi and her father and that of Hugh and his past – particularly engaging. Dorothy’s PI work and style was brilliantly written and paced while Hannah’s investigations and the revelations of Hugh’s life served to remind that you never really know what goes on in other people’s lives – especially those you’d least suspect.

The Big Chill is a both a gripping page turner and a warm, rewarding read. Very much recommended and I look forward to more from the series. My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

 

 

Spinning Some Newer Things

Stepping out of the mid-90s for a moment, I thought it high time to throw a few things up here to show what else – during this long-arse pause in the ‘norm’ – has been going through my ears lately.

Daughter – Youth

So… anyone else catch Ricky Gervais’ ‘Afterlife’ on Netflix? We powered through both seasons earlier this year. Not what I was expecting – gutting at times… jesus. Hell of a soundtrack though and sent me off exploring a lot of new artists and many I’d heard of but not heard. This particularly stood out and I’ve been enjoying Daughter’s catalogue since.

Eliot Sumner – Information 

Some time back I took a punt on Destroyer’s Kaputt having seen it on sale for £5.99 and found out I really dug it. The same thing happened with Eliot Sumner’s album Information: I saw it in a sale for £6.99 and thought ‘why is a double lp so cheap?’, checked reviews / information, not a lot them about so pinged it up on Spotify and… holy shit! The name didn’t click at first but the voice…. it’s like the same timbre of her father and she’s singing with such confidence and there’s a real power to it… really enjoying this album from Gordon’s daughter even if, or perhaps because, it’s not what would normally be in my wheelhouse.

School Is Cool – Close

Another new discovery – these guys hail from Belgium. Their new album Things That Don’t Go Right is a pretty good mix of the same sun-kissed guitar tones and vibes that The War On Drugs have perfected along with some cool vocal harmonies and those 80’s sci-fi synths that Stranger Things seems to have revived.

Turnover – Cutting My Fingers Off

I’d seen this album so many times on ‘the ‘gram’ and for some reason thought it was something entirely different – I thought it was one of those stone-metal albums like Sleep…. However; took the opportunity afforded by not having to get up for work (only as an acting teacher to my son at least) to listen in on headphones in the evenings and have been hooked on Turnover since.

Gary Clark Jr – This Land

Holy shit did I sleep on this one. I mean, I’ve always dug Gary Clark Jr’s playing – his Live album is a frequent spinner even if I haven’t found his studio albums as rewarding – but this is just something else and, right now, still, essential.

Philp Sayce – Burning Out

Again – new to me, this guy, but I’ve been digging what I’ve heard thus far and, much like Gary Clark Jr, this guy drew a lot of ears playing at one of Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals.

Pearl Jam – Quick Escape

March seems like a decade ago already doesn’t it? Without being able to tour and promote it’s easy to forget Pearl Jam had a new album out this year – which sucks especially when you consider how long we had to wait for it! Still, Gigaton is an absolute beast – one of their most ‘on’, diverse and consistently strong albums in a long time and I enjoy it more with every spin. ‘Quick Escape’ is a thumper! “Crossed the border to Morocco , Kashmir to Marrakesh . The lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet.”

 

Albums of my years – 1994

I want you to go in that bag and find my wallet. Which one is it? It’s the one that says…. Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. 1994, the year of Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption and Natural Born Killers. It’s the year that Jim Carey rubber-faced and over-acted on cinema screens in not one,  not two but 3 hits of his schtick: The MaskAce Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber and Hugh Grant stammered his way into Andie MacDowell’s delicates in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In music it was the year that Lisa Loeb implored us to ‘Stay’ because she missed us, Whigfield was preparing for ‘Saturday Night’ (dee dee nah nah), All-4-One swore about something, Boyz II Men announced they’d make love to us, we were all Maria Carey wanted for Christmas and Big Mountain assured us they loved our way, baby.

It was a big year for Aerosmith – they released their Geffen-era hits album Big Ones having headlined the Saturday night at Woodstock 94 – according to Tyler it “rained like a cow pissing on a flat rock” during their set, opened their own Mama Kin Music Hall in Boston, seen singles ‘Crazy’ and ‘Deuces are Wild’ still manage to do the business in a music scene already rapidly changed since their recent reemergence and become the first major band to premier a new song on the Internet; the Get A Grip cast-off ‘Head First’ was downloaded for free by 10,000 CompuServe (remember them?) subscribers in 8 days.

This side of the Atlantic, the ball-ache of Oasis vs Blur (neither, thanks) was underway with the rise of Britpop as Parklife and Definitely Maybe began being milked for songs to fill the airways. Albarn figured he, and Britpop, were there to kill off grunge. The conceited prick that he was, told NME in 1993 that “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge. People should smarten up a bit, be a bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies, stooped, greasy hair… It irritates me.” Yeah, because Blur,  Oasis and Britpop was all about looking smart and not lolling about the place like twats:

 

In ‘grunge’, though, things went very dark in ’94. On March 3rd, Kurt Cobain overdosed on Rohypnol and champagne in Rome and slipped into a coma. A few weeks later, back in the US, police confiscated four guns and twenty-five boxes of ammo from his house after Courtney Love dialled 911 fearing he was suicidal. An intervention on the 25th March saw Kurt agreeing to enter rehab – he checked in to the  Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles on March 30, 1994. The next evening he went outside for a cigarette, scaled the six-foot-high fence, hailed a cab and flew back to Seattle, sitting near to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Duff McKagan. While he was spotted in various places throughout Seattle over the next couple of days, nobody could pin down his whereabouts – Love hired Tom Grant, a private investigator, on April 3rd to find Cobain. On April 8th, 1994 an electrician called Gary Smith (who had been hired to install a security system) found Kurt Cobain’s body on the floor of the musician’s home – Smith thought Cobain was asleep until he saw the shotgun pointing at his chin. Kurt Donald Cobain was 27 when he c omitted suicide. His daughter hadn’t yet reached her second birthday. Cobain had, an autopsy would reveal, taken his life on April 5th, his blood contained a high concentration of heroin and traces of diazepam.

I think it’s fair to say that while the ‘grunge’ scene was already marked by some pretty horrific incidents – Andrew Woods’ death in ’90 and the brutal rape and murder of The Gits’ Mia Zapata to name but two – Cobain’s suicide marked a real tangible shift. It’s become a sort of time-marker for the scene in a way with everything after being viewed in relation to it. Even with amidst the phenomenon the Seattle scene had become, the members of the musical community were still close and Cobain’s suicide was a blow to all.

Hole’s Live Through This was released a week after Cobain’s death. I guess in ’94 it was a lot harder to stop wheels that were already in motion because, just saying, you’d kinda think you might wanna not release an album with such a title a week after your husband put a shotgun in their mouth… Heroin is a cunt of a drug; shortly after the release of the album and just ahead of a scheduled tour to promote it, on June 16th, Hole’s bass player Kristen Pfaff was found dead in her apartment following a heroin overdose.

Nirvana’s Unplugged album, recorded in November ’93 and released in November in 1994 arrived after plans for a double album called Verse Chorus Verse which would compile the bands live performances on one disc and the full unplugged set on the second, fell through in August (compiling it was too emotionally draining for the surviving Nirvana members). It’s widely held as one of the best unplugged sets released and marked a touching final Nirvana release.

So what was released in 1994? Well, to put it succinctly; a fucking lot.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse released  Sleeps With Angels, the title track written about the death of Kurt – who’d quoted Young in his suicide note, while REM released their much-maligned Monster which was dedicated to River Phoenix with the track ‘Let Me In’ a tribute to Kurt. Monster is a great album let down, in my opinion, by poor mixing – I always thought that a good chunk of the songs felt buried in a mix that, it turned out, producer Scott Litt also regretted after burying the vocals low in the mix and under distortion in an effort to keep up with the ‘grunge’ sound of the time. Thankfully last year’s 25th Anniversary reissue featured Litt’s remix of the album and gave it the sound it should have had in 1994:

Weezer was introduced to the world in 1994 with their self-titled debut (which would become known as the Blue album) which still stands as one of their finest collections – ‘Undone’, ‘Say It Ain’t So’, ‘Only In Dreams’, ‘My Name Is Jonas’, ‘Buddy Holly’…. all on here. While Rivers and co went Blue, The Stone Temple Pilots went Purple with their second album – also a great slab of the alternative-flavoured good stuff that’s stuffed with some of their finest too:

It’s weird to think but 1994 also saw the debut of Jimmy Eat World with their self-titled debut. I’ve a lot of time for early JEW and their first album is worth a listen for the curious but it’s still early days. In terms of debut albums in 1994 it’d be hard to beat Portishead’s Dummy. Popularising trip-hop, winning the 1995 Mercury Music Prize and just gobbling up acclaim, it’s an album that’s pretty much unlike anything else released that year and I think even they have yet to top it.

Voodoo Lounge was definitely not The Rolling Stones’ debut – a pretty decent Stones album (I have a huge amount of time for ‘Thru and Thru’) it’s their 20th and, not to be considered ‘out of touch’ with the musical zeitgeist, they announced the Voodoo Lounge Tour by arriving on JFK’s presidential yacht… meanwhile Pink Floyd released what would be their final studio album, one of my own favourites, The Division Bell. Pink Floyd’s last album didn’t go down as well as it should have at the time but I think it’s aged very well and stands as a much stronger farewell than A Momentary Lapse of Reason and a million times stronger than The Final Cut would have been.

Demonstrating just how much the musical world had shifted since both the Stones and Floyd released their previous albums, both were massively outsold by an independent release from a punk-rock band from California – not that one. The Offspring’s Smash, released on Epitaph, became the best selling independent record of all time with more than 11 million shifted to date – don’t worry, Gilmour and Mick & Keith cleared up BIG time when it came to tours behind The Division Bell and Voodoo Lounge.

Oddly enough, as a lot of older artists found themselves a little out of touch in ’94, Johnny Cash chose this as the year to prove he was still very much a force to be reckoned with. With major labels deciding the sun had set on Cash’s career, he was offered a contract with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Produced by Rubin, and recorded in the producer’s living room and Cash’s own cabin, American Recordings was a stripped-back collection of well-chosen covers and originals that became one of the year’s and Cash’s finest albums and usher in a decade of commercial and critical acclaim for the Man in Black.

Fittingly, Nine Inch Nails also released their second album The Downward Spiral in 1994 featuring ‘March of the Pigs’, ‘Closer’ and ‘Hurt’ which Cash would go on to cover in 2002. Oh, and Rick Rubin would wave his magic wand again in 1994, producing Tom Petty’s superb Wildflowers – the long-awaited reissue of which with a second-disc’s worth of extra material looks a lot closer now.

Still with me? Pretty strong list so far, right? Well what about the Tori Amos’ Under the Pink, also released in 1994? ‘Cornflake Girl’, ‘Pretty Good Year’, ‘God’? No? … or Green Day’s Dookie which arrived at the start of ’94 and went on to shift 20 million copies on the back of songs like ‘Basket Case’ and ‘Longview’.Weight – the Rollins Band’s fourth album which hit hard with ‘Liar’ and Mark Lanegan released his finest album, his second, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost AND Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released the phenomenal Let Love In in 1994 too.

But then there was also the debut from Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary pretty much defined the second-wave of emo and is an absolute classic. ‘Lightning Crashes’ and ‘I Alone’ helped push Live’s Throwing Copper on to massive figures and Built To Spill got the car with their second album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love – already a leap forward their next, in 1997, would be a real genre-definer.

That’s a pretty fucking strong list of albums for a year. But 1994 also heralded Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star – the Butch Vig and band helmed album included ‘Bull In The Heather’, ‘Starfield Road’ and ‘Winner’s Blues’ – and Dinosaur Jr’s Without A Sound is another 1994 album- easily one of their best with ‘Feel The Pain’, ‘I Don’t Think So’ and ‘Get Out of This’ coming to mind as standouts. If you’re not familiar with them how about this:

Yup; Soundgarden’s genre-defining Superunknown was released in 1994 too! I mean… it’s just the best thing they ever did. It’s such a varied and accomplished slab of the great stuff…

The Cranberries released No Need to Argue in 1994 and ‘Zombie’ got stuck in everybody’s head, in their heeaaad…. Elliott Smith released his debut solo album, Roman Candle and The Black Crowes released their sublime third album, Amorica. After scrapping an album (Tall – the sessions for which can and should be checked out on 2006’s Lost Crowes), The Black Crowes re-recorded the material with a different producer but then shot themselves in the foot by releasing what could arguably be one of their greatest albums with a cover that many retailers wouldn’t touch thanks to the clock-springs poking over the top of the US-flag thong.

Oh and Pearl Jam released what I still consider their finest – Vitalogy. But I can’t consider that as a featured album as I’ve already covered that one here. However, as close a call as it would be, for me there’s only one album that stands head and shoulders above the pack for 1994:

Jeff Buckley – Grace

I could talk for pages about Grace. I discovered this album at some point in the late 90’s – one of those cases of reading about it often enough to be inclined to check it out. I remember reading about how Buckley had both the voice of Plant and the guitar sound of Page and remember putting it on and being blown away.

Initially met with poor sales, Grace‘s popularity and reputation seems to have grown with each passing year, with Buckley’s own myth – the son of Tim Buckley whom he met only once (at 8 years old), possessor of an amazing talent who made only one album before his early death….  thing is, with myths the reality is often disappointing. Grace, however, is fucking amazing.

So here are just five things I love about Grace:

1) Mojo Pin

I’m not going to say every track is a reason to love this album. Though that could easily happen.

Mojo Pin is the best kind of opener. An absolute belter of a song that manages to contain every element you’ll find on the album itself: psychedelic leanings giving way to Zeplin-esque blues and hard rock propelled by a surging guitar; lyrics that hint at the spiritual, a love lost; rising and crashing melody and, of course – that voice.

2) The Sound

The Legacy Edition of Grace comes with a Making Of.. DVD. It suggests Jeff was hard to pin down musically and could be compulsive, over-flowing with ideas as he was. When making Grace they had to have three different band set-ups available at any time in order to accommodate his ideas. Not the smoothest of productions by any account and yet the final sound is amazing.

I don’t know enough to say it’s down to the recording equipment, the sound engineer or the production – all I know is that the richness of sound is beautiful and is probably down to Andy Wallace who produced, engineered and mixed the album (adding to a CV that included mixing duty for Sonic Youth’s Dirty,  Nirvana’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, L7…).You can hear every element, perfectly balanced. The plectrum on the strings, the slip of a hand on a neck, you get the sound of real music being played – nothing artificial about it. A warm, enveloping sound.

3) Track 6, 02:18- 03:08

These points are all interlinked it seems for the element that adds to the richness of that sound is the band that Jeff built around himself. Signed as a solo artist – the Live At Sin-e album highlights several points that inform Grace as well as realise that here’s a guy with songs that would really benefit from a band – Jeff didn’t always manage to reign it all in to a concise, well-formed song. Early versions of tracks that would make Grace meander more – both on Live at Sin-e and last year’s RSD release In Transition –  and he pushes his voice a little too much, not yet there with his most unique instrument.

It’s also clear that Jeff needed a full band to truly capture and develop his ideas. One of those musicians bought in, toward the end, was guitarist Michael Tighe. Tighe bought something else to the mix – the song ‘So Real’. Buckley would add a chorus and a few lyrical changes and the song was so strong it pushed off Buckley’s own Forget Her from the final album. From that, between 02:18 and 03:08 is pure chainsaw-guitar magic wrapped up with a near-whispered “I love you, but I’m afraid to love you.”

4) Covers

Not the head shot that graced the cover, but the choice of covers here – that Buckley felt sufficiently strong about to include over his some of his over originals.

The now-famous take on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is easily the definitive version of a much-covered song. A perfect tune to showcase Buckley’s vocal prowess, it’s flawless. Enough has been written about it that I can’t / shouldn’t go into it too much here – but I will say that just when I think I’m bored of it, I’ll here it again and hear something new in his reading of it and suddenly it’s perfect again.

‘Lilac Wine’ is transformed from a cocktail-lounge song into a near mystical experience that just-about manages to keep a lid on Jeff’s voice. Then there’s a take on Britten’s hymn ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, which, in Buckley’s hands, is more of a lullaby.

Jeff’s takes on each of these songs does what any good cover should – transform it into something new.

Even the choice of these songs is notable. This was 1994. The post-Nevermind alternative music scene still on the rise and yet here are tunes plucked from Nina Simone’s repertoire and a hymn first heard in 1504.

Of course, the over, more practical reason for the inclusion of three covers is that Buckley didn’t yet have enough material of his own that was up to inclusion. Though his song writing was moving forward (those tunes written by Buckley alone include’ Last Goodbye’) it wasn’t there yet and, sadly, we’d never get the chance to discover why because….

5) A One-Off

One of those elements that makes Grace so special is frustrating and tragic in equal measure; it’s all we really have in terms of a fully-realised document of his talent.

On the evening of May 29th, 1997, Jeff Buckley went for a swim in the Mississippi. Fully clothed, wearing his boots and singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. He’d been swimming in the channel before. The roadie who was with had stayed on shore, moved a guitar out of the way from a passing tugboat’s wake, looked back out to the water to find Buckley had vanished. It would be five days before his body was found. His death, at the age of 30, was ruled as an accidental drowning.

The album he was working on at the time would never reach fruition. A compilation of those songs he was working on for it would be released a few days shy of a year after his death. Critically well-received, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk showcased a new leaning for Jeff, tighter, harder and at times darker, the songs gathered across the two discs showed a marked evolution in his song writing. It’s a tantalising glimpse, a painful “what if?” that no amount of reissues or vault-digging can ever answer.

As such Grace remains the only final, definitive recording by Jeff Buckley. A true one-off.

Blog Tour: The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith

From the PR: “Decades of spiralling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable, and a scratch from a pet can kill. A sacrifice is required to keep the majority safe: no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics. The elderly are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms’ … hospitals where no one ever gets well.

Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, Kate begins a search for her birth mother, armed only with her name and her age. As Kate unearths disturbing facts about her mother’s past, she puts her family in danger and risks losing everything. Because Kate is not the only secret that her mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too.

Sweeping from an all-too-real modern Britain to a pre-crisis South Africa, The Waiting Rooms is epic in scope, richly populated with unforgettable characters, and a tense, haunting vision of a future that is only a few mutations away.”

Crikey, where to start with this one… talk about timing; Eve Smith’s addictive novel The Waiting Rooms is set in a not too distant future in which antibiotics are no longer effective and everyone is required to take extreme measures to prevent infections and outbreaks. Hitting a little close to home for the start of 2020 however, as prescient as it may seem, I’m sure this this book would have had an impact regardless.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Waiting Rooms, it makes for an engrossing read that delivers on multiple levels. While there’s plenty take in, as it were, in the world Eve Smith presents here it’s all well threaded together and natural – the world post antibiotics seems pretty disorientating but then I’m pretty sure it would / will be and it has the suitable effect of making you feel a bit “what the f.. is going on?” – not wanting to harp on about it but reading this in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, where you can’t go out without eyeing people up from ten feet away and wondering if they’re harbouring an invisible killer, gives it that extra wallop too.

(Caution: whiff of a spoiler ahead) The story of Lily / Mary was a real gripper for me. While the narrative of Kate and the window into the post-crisis world it offers is good stuff too, the exploration of Mary’s being swayed from her intended course by the harsh reality of a TB ward and the far-reaching impact of that one decision is the stuff that kept me hooked – not to mention that the race (albeit it at shuffle speed) for her to find out how this is all catching up to her in what she thought was a safe and secure environment was great. It could be that I’ve been alarmed by the proximity of a post-antibiotic world for some time (don’t get me started on what’s being fed to cows) so it found a pretty primed reader, or that it then sent me off into an eye-opening exploration of the TB epidemic in Africa…  but it’s chiefly down to the fact that Eve Smith crafted a bloody compelling story line with the clout of some hard-edged ‘this is some real shit’ oomph to back it up.

Eve Smith has a real gift for setting her scenes too. Whether it’s a retirement home where the residents fear the slightest scratch, the reserves of South Africa amidst a poaching encroachment, a TB ward as the disease runs rampant or even during the ‘crisis’ itself, The Waiting Rooms’ environs are painted vividly and convincing and make for a book that’s hard to put down. Very much worth a read.

My thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of The Waiting Rooms and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this BlogTour.

Blog Tour: Call Me Joe by Martin Van Es and Andrew Croft

From the PR: “The world is on the brink of disaster.

The environment, society and mankind itself are facing extreme challenges in a world that is both more connected, and yet more divided than ever before. Fear and confusion seep into all parts of everyday life now, more than ever, the world needs one voice, one guide…

One day the Earth is plunged into darkness and when light appears again so does a man – call him Joe – claiming to be the son of God.

Can Joe bring the world’s most creative thinkers and leaders together to tackle the ills of mankind?

Can he convince us all to follow him before it’s too late?

In this compelling and prescient novel, Martin van Es and Andrew Crofts highlight the key concerns of our time and imagines a future where we, at last, all work together to ensure the future of our world and all the life that calls it home.”

There must be something in the water. This isn’t the first time this year I’ve been presented with the question – but what would it be like if Jesus came back? When the year was new, what seems like a lot longer than a couple of months ago now, my wife and I binged our way through Netflix’ Messiah and, now, I’ve just finished reading Call Me Joe by Martin Van Es and Andrew Crofts. TV and Netflix being the medium that it is, Messiah is very much a ‘thriller’ of a take, looking for high-stakes drama and thriller hooks. For Call Me Joe the focus is more on what could be achieved and why.

Let’s face it – the world is in a pretty sorry state at the moment. Aside from what you see when you turn on the news or fire up social media right now, as a long-standing Green voter I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out just how much irrevocable damage we’re doing to the planet we’re lucky to call home.

For the Jesus, or Joe, of Call Me Joe it’s that damage we’re doing to our planet, the levels of greed and inequality of the world that have prompted his return after two thousand years or so. Essentially – keep going as we’re going and mankind will be extinct. Quite what he’s been doing since isn’t really covered though there’s an amusing suggestion that he’s been exploring life on other planets.

But how would the son of the Big Man be met upon arrival these days? I’ve read a few takes on this over the years and, for someone who believes that Jesus was merely a marketing construct (yes, I’m that cynical), Call Me Joe offers a very interesting take. There is, of course, incredulity but if you’re capable of genuine miracles and switching off the sun, even the most sceptical will have to listen to you. Thankfully, Joe’s message isn’t about pushing a religious creed, it’s a more harmonious approach and the actions we need to take to make this world a better place – the flock having lost its way without its number one shepherd, as it were.

One of the interesting elements of Call Me Joe is the multiple view points – from the convinced to the hardened naysayers – and how each arrive at the same conclusion; that this “hippy healer” is the real deal.  In fact, what I enjoyed most about the reaction to Joe’s arrival wasn’t so much the crowds flocking to prostrate themselves at his feet, but the well crafted and extremely convincing response and interplay between the world’s political leaders, especially the nuanced take on the Russian president and team.

Of course, the idea of Jesus returning to the modern world is one thing but what makes a novel and a plot work is characters. Call Me Joe focuses primarily on Joe, of course, and Sophie – an atheist teaching at the school at which Joe first appears. Call Me Joe‘s Jesus is a more ‘human’ take on divinity and his relationship with his first ‘follower’ as well as Sophie’s arc keeps the reader invested. It’s these characters – along with the well thought out and that make Call Me Joe work as a novel as well as in its efforts to get across a few important and how these might be approached. Very much worth a read.

My thanks to Red Door Press for my copy.