Blog Tour: A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

From the PR: “When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for
themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history.

A bittersweet novel of regret, relationships and rare psychological insights, A Modern Family encourages us to look at the people closest to
us a little more carefully, and ultimately reveals that it’s never too late for change…”

This post is late. A lesson in writing down passwords before you change computers, not a reflection on my enjoyment of this novel.

A literary exploration of family and personal relationships in a style and narrative that brings to mind Jonathan Franzen’s mighty The Corrections, with a unique and charming Norwegian flavour, Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family is a real accomplishment of a novel.

Unassuming and quietly powerful, Flatand’s prose is very much of the to-be-savoured type, a real delight. Take the opening paragraph as an example: “The Alpine peaks resemble shark’s teeth, jutting upwards through the dense layer of cloud that enshrouds Central Europe as if the creature’s jaws are eternally prepared to clamp down. The mountaintops force the wind in various directions, pulling at the plane from all angles, and we’re so small here, all in a row, the backs of heads in front of me shuddering in unison.”

Praise too should go to Rosie Hedger for her translation work here and capturing the poetry in Flatland’s prose.

There’s a real power in this poetry, though, as A Modern Family tackles some heavy subject matter – our own sense of identity in a relationship, the importance of family and connection, the nature and importance of commitment  and how we cope when our perspective of the world is changed by means outside of our own control.

On a personal level, I was nearing the end of my teens when my parents divorced and, even when viewed some two decades on,  I found a real sense of truth in Liv’s narratives as she struggles to find her place in a world where the reliable and fixed is no longer – has everything to this point been a lie?

As the eldest of my siblings, I also very much appreciated the split-narrative approach employed by Helga Flatland – extremely effective in highlighting both the complexities of family relationships and just how easy it is to get lost in your own point of view own a matter given how one event can be seen and felt in several different ways. And, of course, the warm humour that runs throughout.

Yet I’m pretty sure that you don’t need to have any personal frame of reference to appreciate A Modern Family – Helga Flatland’s novel is a compelling and nuanced peek into modern family life and drama that manages to focus on some important questions without ever feeling like it’s trying to push an agenda. A snapshot that could be of any family – much like Ibsen’s doll house, the clue is very much in the indefinite article – this novel serves as a peak at a modern family tackling some universal dilemmas and is most definitely worth a read or two.

My thanks, and apologies for lateness, to Karen at Orenda for my copy of A Modern Family and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this BlogTour.

Blog Tour: Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR:“One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault … crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing.

While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play … and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large.

Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark … they are at his door. And they want vengeance.”

How do I begin to review the latest novel from one of my favourite authors? It’s not easy – I’ve been staring at the screen wondering how to kick this off for a while now. It’s tricky to find a way to sum up just how bloody good a writer Gunnar Staalesen is while at the same time pointing out that Wolves At The Door finds him still at the top of his game. I can’t pour further superlatives on Staalesen than I already have, and I really don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this one – it needs to be read and savoured.

I’ve often compared reading Staalesen to enjoying a good coffee. You don’t throw it back like an espresso and get all hopped-up like an airport-thriller. You savour it, enjoy it and let it ease into your system in an enveloping warmth before you realise you’re hooked and something has got your heart moving a little faster.

I suppose that’s a pretty good way to get going, right? It’s true: Gunnar Staalesen is among the top-tier of writers and the latest Varg Veum novel continues a hot streak that’s about forty years long now.

One of the many joys of reading Staalesen’s work is the precision and warmth of his prose. While there’s not an excess word there’s never a sense of rush; the plot unfolds with expert precision and timing rather than bounding along at a thrill-a-minute pace, even when Varg is both hunter and prey. There’s something deeply satisfying and rewarding in the way the plot of Staalesen’s novels, Wolves At The Door included, comes together, piece by piece as Veum slowly pulls at threads and finds links between the past and present and makes his discoveries by putting in the hard work rather than kicking in doors and heads – not to mention the fact that Veum is, almost despite himself, an endearing character.

Speaking of threads – Wolves At The Door picks up the thread from Wolves In The Dark – with a few vital character developments from Big Sister touched upon too – and it’s a heavy subject matter: the horrendous offences Varg was accused of in that novel and several others were guilty of don’t make for light reading. Yet Staalesen handles the subject matter with care and without exploitation. There are too many third-rate writers out there that would use child abuse and pornography for shock value and handle it like turd in a pool. Staalesen is a writer who knows how to find the heart in a story rather than the shock and that’s infinitely more affective.

I’m now seven novels in to my discovery of the Varg Veuem series. Prior to Wolves At The Door I’d not long finished Yours Until Death, Staalesen’s second from 1979. There’s a steadfastness about Veum that runs through the entire series – he’s an honest, yet flawed character driven by all the right motivations no matter the cost. Yet, forty-plus years in, Staalesen is still able to make his detective a compelling character with enough mystery and development (there’s a big one right at the end of Wolves at the Door) to keep readers wanting more, all the while delivering original and heavy-hitting stories – I don’t think there’s many writers that make that claim, regardless of genre.

If there’s a standard for Nordic Noir then it’s Staalesen who sets it and he sets it bloody high.

My thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda for both introducing me to Staalesen’s work and keeping my addiction fed, and to Anne Cater for invtiting me to take part in this blogtour.

Spinning some new

In between working, reading the Pink Floyd biog, composing posts about Springsteen (2 in the works) and Dylan, pricing up a Jag and reading / writing fiction I also manage to listen to new music and notice that I’ve forgotten to post on here again.

So, in an attempt to fix the latter – here’s the new that’s been getting a lot of rotation of late:

The Pixies – On Graveyard Hill

Despite the fact that I love pretty much every Pixies album, for reasons various it was only a month or so back that I finally got round to listening to their 2016 album Head Carrier. Then, a few evenings back an email pings into my inbox and announces that they have a new one ready for later in the year and this beaut is available to hear now. It’s a sodding belter of a song.

Jambinai – Sawtooth

I picked up my copy of the new Jambinai album, Onda, yesterday from the same record store I discovered them in, it was only out on Friday but I’ve been enjoying this lead track for a bit now. Mixing  traditional Korean instruments with heavy, noisy guitars and a Nirvana-like rattly bass punch. I fucking love this band.

Big Thief – Cattails

I did something I hadn’t done in years last month and bought a physical copy of a music magazine – complete with a CD of music new and almost-new, hand-picked by The National as part of the press barrage surrounding their, inmho, naff new album. This one… isn’t the Big Thief song that was on their but it lead me to their new album U.F.O.F which has my hypnotised… it’s impossible to pin it down genre-wise but there’s something so… it’s a blissful thing with so much going on that’s perfect for sunny evening to spin, drift away listening  and remembering getting small to.

Sam Fender – Hypersonic Missiles

See… Sam Fender has been cropping up a lot on the one radio station I can stomach listening to these days. I’m gonna say this knowing how old it makes me sound – but this kid is only just 25. There’s a real power to his voice and he’s got some guitar and song-writing chops on him too, bit of Springsteen influence on this one (especially around the two minute mark)- amongst a bucket load of others – but this still fashions a sound of its own that I quite dig.

Gang of Youths – What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?

I listen to the radio in both an effort to wake myself up on the commute and not get stuck in a rut with music by discovering something new. I’ve discovered a fair few additions to my record collection that way and I’m enjoying these guys lately. There’s some dark stuff to their lyrics but they manage to get it into a beat and tune that makes for a good listen. I think ‘Let Me Down Easy’ was the one that broke Gang of Youths on radio both here and at home – they folks come from that land Down Under – and this one is another getting turned up in the car etc and, again, wears a Springsteen influence on its sleeve.

Bruce Springsteen – Tucson Train

Speaking of the Boss. There’s a new album due to hit my shelves a little later this month… ‘Tuscon Train’ is the third song released (do they do singles anymore?) ahead of Western Stars‘ release in a week or two (it’s already getting cracking reviews) and is easily my favourite thus far. Really looking forward to this one…

Albums of my Years – 1981

Argh, I’m already slipping on my fairly loose schedule.

I don’t remember anything of 1981. Given that I’d only been about a couple of months when it started that’s no real surprise.

Apparently though a fair old bit happened in 1981:

Steven Tyler – no doubt off his tits on several things at once – took a spill on his motorbike in January and had to spend a couple of months in hospital. Aerosmith itself was in pretty rough shape in 1981 anyway – Brad Whitford left the group a few months later after recording ‘Lightning Strikes’.

All-round butt of jokes and general butthead Phil Collins released his first solo album in February and proceeded  to somehow combine peddling beige musical tosh and raking in cash for years to come – glad I don’t remember that.

On March 27th, a dove was happily minding its own business and wondering why it hadn’t yet been released when some drunk bloke with his own name tattooed on his knuckles bit its head off.

Turns out those four blokes from Ireland did make a trip abroad – who knew?: U2 made their first (probably last too)US TV appearance on the ‘Tomorrow’ show in June, 1981. I wonder what happened to them?

The Buzzcocks, The Knack, Rockpile, Sam & Dave, Steely Dan and Paul McCartney and Wings all called it day in 1981 but the year also saw the ‘birth’ of 10,000 Maniacs, The U-Men, Talk Talk, Sonic Youth,  Metallica, and Hunters & Collectors.

There were also a lot of albums dropped during that year… Van Halen’s Fair Warning arrived in April but it’s a Roth album so doesn’t feature in my wheelhouse. The Cure’s third album Faith also dropped in April and there’s some cracking tunes on there. The Replacements’ first album Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash is a 1981 album that’s far from shabby….

As if to prove a point, The Joe Perry Project released its second album which featured the awesome ‘South Station Blues’:

The Rolling Stones heated up some left-overs and ended up with Tattoo You being received as one of their strongest in some time and the ubiquitous ‘Start Me Up.’ The Police were at it again and dropped the first-class Ghost in the Machine which features ‘Invisible Sun’, ‘Spirits In The Material World’ and the unimpeachable ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’:

Oh, and that little group from Ireland actually made another album! I guess a few people must have watched them on TV in America as they released what must have been their final album, October in, well, October. I guess it’s that lack of imagination that stopped them catching on.

Thing is none of these necessarily jump up at me as being the obvious choice for my selection for 1981.

It would be  a tricky one to call, except an absolute classic was released in 1981:

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises

There’s a precious handful of albums to which the phrase ‘all killer, no filler’ can be applied. Hard Promises is easily one of them. I mean ‘A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me), ‘Something Big’, ‘Insider’, ‘Nightwatchman’, ‘You Can Still Change Your Mind’?! Oh, and then there’s the first song on the album:

Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers’ fourth album, Hard Promises is easily one of their finest and when you factor in that it was written under the pressure of the stardom that had been ‘gifted’ them after Damn The Torpedoes… it’s faultless really.

Petty didn’t mess much with the formula that had yielded gold on that album – he retained Jimmy Iovine (I’ve just realised this is the second album on this list he’s produced and we’re only two in) and he still had a shit load of great tunes in the tank too. Oh, and he went to war with his record label before he’d let them release it too – they wanted to  sell it for $9.98, a full dollar more than the usual price, and Petty was having none of it.

I came to this album far later than ’81 of course. A good couple of decades on, in fact, after I started blowing open Petty’s discography on the back of loving every track on Anthology: Through The Years – especially ‘The Waiting’ and, having picked up the six-disc Playback boxset, ‘Something Big’:

But when I did get to it, I spent a lot of time with Hard Promises.

It’s been a while since I was really able to sit and listen to Tom Petty after his untimely death in 2017. Listening to an album as varied and rich as Hard Promises – from the grooves of ‘The Nightwatchman’ to the fantastically jangly ‘Thing About You’ and the Stevie Nicks collab ‘The Insider’, it’s all the clearer just what the music world last when Mr Petty departed. Every song on this album is enthused with his unique craft and plainly obvious love of it all.

Blog Tour: Breakers by Doug Johnstone

From the PR: “Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Whilst trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addicted mother, he’s also coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings. One night whilst on a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead. And that ’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because they soon discover the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.

With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in terrible danger, Tyler is running out of options, until he meets posh girl Flick in another stranger ’s house. Could she be his salvation? Or will he end up dragging her down with him? ”

Breakers is the second Doug Johnstone novel I’ve read this year and it’s another belter. I reckon I must have torn through this book in two or three frenzied ‘sittings’ – it  rips along at a cracking pace and packs a huge amount in to its 230 addictive pages.

Johnstone has created that rare thing – a novel that’s punchy and gritty yet also full of heart and capable of being deeply moving, grim and yet optimistic. Tyler’s life is portrayed in dark, harrowing detail and yet his character’s soul and light mean it’s impossible not to root for him – this diamond managing to shine in the very roughest of environs.

Breakers gets dark, unflinchingly so at times – that Tyler is only 17 and exposed to a life of such violence, crime and narcotics makes it all the more so. Johnstone is unflinching in his film-like description of Edinburgh’s roughest of parts and the lives of Tyler and his family. Tyler’s brother, Barry, is one of the most objectionable and hateful characters I’ve read in a while- that’s a compliment to Johnstone’s writing, by the way, as he writes such vivid and convincing characters – and there are some shocking moments before Breakers reaches its bloody conclusion. I mean, for ffs, the description of Barry and his dogs forever barking and probing with their noses and the constant threat of his casual and unpredictable violence and willingness to nearly kill to ensure obedience had me on edge on Tyler’s behalf.

But it’s not all dark – that’s the thing: Breakers is shot through with a sense of optimism and hope in Tyler as he tries desperately to find a way to protect and keep his little sister, Bean, safe and find a way out of the mess. His relationship with Flick is both charming and amusing and serves well as a counterpoint to the hell that awaits back in the squalid family flat. The hope that, even if it’s just once and despite the fact that terror is closing in from all angles, something good will happen to the kid that deserves it (it’s not like he voluntarily become a house breaker) will keep you hanging on to the end – and it’s worth doing so.

I very much enjoyed Breakers and highly recommend getting your hands on a copy. I’ve moved my pruning shears from my shed into the my more secure garage as a result, too.

Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of the book and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this Blogtour.

Blog Tour: Turbulent Wake by Paul E. Hardisty

From the PR: “A bewitching, powerful and deeply moving story of love, loss and grief. This extraordinary departure from the critically acclaimed thriller writer Paul E Hardisty explores the indelible damage we can do to those closest to us, the tragedy of history repeating itself and ultimately, the power of redemption in a time of change. Paul drew on his own experiences of travelling around
the world as an engineer, from the dangerous deserts of Yemen, the oil rigs of Texas, the wild rivers of Africa, to the stunning coral cays of the Caribbean.

Ethan Scofield returns to the place of his birth to bury his father, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Whilst clearing out the old man’s house, he finds a strange manuscript, a collection of vignettes and stories that cover the whole of his father ’s turbulent and restless life.

As his own life unravels before him, Ethan works his way through the manuscript, searching for answers to the mysteries that have plagued him since he was a child. What happened to his little brother? Why was his mother taken from him? And why, in the end, when there was no one left for him, did his own father push him away? ”

I’m in at the start here… first on the BlogTour for Paul E. Hardisty’s new novel Turbulent Wake. This means I’m gonna be the first to dish out the superlatives for this astoudingly affective and brilliantly written story. Let’s get to it then…

Taking a step away from the Clay Straker series, Paul E. Hardisty has delivered a richly detailed, evocative journey of a novel that was an absolute joy to read.

In my review for Hardisty’s The Evolution of Fear I stated that  what “elevates Hardisty above the pack is the sheer quality of his writing, the intelligence and complexity of the plot” along with his ability to draw on his own experiences and historical knowledge and render them as important elements in his stories, more than just setting. That still holds true: Hardisty finds the poetry in fact and transforms it into compelling and moving prose, finding its home in literary fiction with Turbulent Wake.

Hardisty has drawn on many elements of his life and knowledge to deliver a  masterpiece. Turbulent Wake threads a compelling, multi-layered story that’s enthused by vivid evocations of both time and place and told with a rich prose and narrative. As much as the world-tour of locations are masterfully detailed and bought to life and add to the story, it’s the characters that really make Turbulent Wake such a great read – their personal journeys as much as their geographical. It’s impossible not to be caught up in the life of ‘the engineer’ or his son,  to feel for their losses and root for their ‘happy’ ending as Ethan begins to understand more about his father’s life and what made him and, as a result, Ethan, end up as he did. We’re talking about a real talent here.

I really don’t want to drop any spoilers here so I’ll try and talk in broad brush strokes… but there were moments of quiet devastation in Turbulent Wake that cut me as much as those of, say Juame Cabré’s Confesssions or even recent de Bernières novels; such is the quiet grace and unassuming power that enthuses Hardisty’s prose.

Other people on this BlogTour (do check out those other stops) will, without a shadow of doubt, pour further much-deserved praise on this book and tell you that you really should read it. So let me take the position afforded to me as the first on those stops to say: Turbulent Wake is a serious contender for book of the year, it’s a novel of intense power and soul and is definitely worth getting your hands on.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the BlogTour.

Hello Sunshine

Well, it happened. I thought it wasn’t going to, certainly not so soon after his ‘Vegas residency’ period but I woke this morning to the news that Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars will drop in June.

Given that I was reading the news while dropping the kids off at the pool* it meant I’d pre-ordered before I stood up.

Recorded predominantly at his home studio in New Jersey, this – the first album of new material in five years (seven if you don’t count those heated up left overs of High Hopes), Western Stars, to cite Springsteen’s website: takes his music to a new place, drawing inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

Cover art (the first not to feature Bruce’s mug on it since The Ghost of Tom Joad) and track listing have dropped and the first ‘single’ has also been released (not that these things really exist anymore, do they?) too:

Good things:

It’s a return to story-telling Bruce
Album themes encompass a “sweeping range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope”
David Sancious
No Tom Morello
It’s been a long time coming – this could go either way: Human Touch was laboured but rushed-releases could use better quality control
The song title ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ seems promising on its own to me
“Sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements”

 

Bad things:

Ron Aniello
No E Street Band

So… Am I excited? Fuck yeah, I’ve just finished another Bruce series that’s reminded me that there’s always a reason to tune in, even if there are warning signs production-wise.

*curious to see if that reference is known across the various blog-oceans