Current Spins

While my head’s been spinning over recent political events, it doesn’t mean my turntable hasn’t been.

So as part of my continued effort to break the habit of being lured into depressing and nerve ruining news stories I’m gonna drop down a few thoughts on those albums that have been getting the most of my ears lately.

Mogwai – Atomic

I’ve said this a few times and I’ll keep saying it; I fucking love Mogwai. Their soundtrack work often has a habit of being some of their best (see Zidane and Les Revenants). Atomic is technically but not totally a soundtrack as it comprises material reworked from their contributions to a BBC4 documentary “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise” about the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and its legacy. As with their previous soundtracks I’ve not seen that which this music scores – nor do I feel up to it right now to be honest – but, again in common with those, it’s not a requirement as Atomic functions as a wonderful, often ethereal and continually beautiful and surprising Mogwai album in its own right. There’s less ‘rock’ on here, instead it’s an album of poignant textures and a blend of hope and fear, death and life.

Here’s Ether from it:

Minor Victories – Minor Victories

Keeping with the Mogwai love as Stuart Braithwaite here steps away from those Glaswegian post-rock legends to join Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, The Editors’ Justin Lockey and his brother James in a new project, Minor Victories. I’d had this on pre-order since the album and lead track were revealed and was not disappointed by the album. The oddest thing about this album is that at no point did all members record together yet they sound like a new band, not “a bit like Slowdive, a bit like Mogwai” but a new, brilliant sound that crackles with a taut electricity and energy that belies the distance between members during its construction. It’s alive with brooding drama and cinematic sweeps with Goswell’s vocals floating above in the mix with the only odd step coming with “For You Always” which features Goswell duetting with Mark Kozelek. How you feel about it will depend on how whether you like his current “steam of consciousness, verbal diarrhoea” approach to lyrics. Or his continued examples of douchebaggery. That aside, this album is one of the year’s best for me and has barely left the car cd player.

Here’s Folk Arp:

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

The grammatically questionable title aside, I love this album. I didn’t like King of Limbs; maybe listened to it in full just the once. Yet this…. from the opening rococo strings and paranoid urgency of ‘Burn The Witch’ to the echo-dripping reverb combo of piano and voice on closer ‘True Love Waits’ (a much stronger and far more powerful take than that which appeared years before) with Thom Yorke’s evocative “Just don’t leave, don’t leave” plea, this album is their best for some time. It’s more personal (Yorke having recently separated from his partner of 23 years and mother to his children), delicate piece which gives the sense of the band rediscovering beauty over the angles that have been dominant in more recent work.

Gary Clark Jr – Live

Still, given recent events, I had to make a change up and give the likes of Radiohead and Mogwai a little rest and find something more upbeat to try and get moving that way.

As such I returned to this. I’ve already spoken as to how I came to find Gary Clark Jr’s music so won’t repeat myself. This album though is still a go-to. On record I don’t think Gary has yet to find either the right producer or set-up to do his intensity and playing justice. Blak and Blu was a strong start and last year’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim had some genuine highlight’s but wandered a little too all-over and lacked the potency he can get across with his guitar on a stage. Obviously that’s not an issue with this 2014 double wallop of great playing. The first time I heard it I was unable to sit still. I’m still not able to sit still when hearing it and nor can my two-year-old son, it’s a guaranteed way to get some bad dad-dancing going. There’s not many that can touch him when it comes to blues guitar and tracks like ‘Numb‘ and ‘Don’t Owe You A Thang’ show he’s got a shed load more in him than standards and Hendrix covers.

Quick List: Out of Europe

What a terrible, terrible result greeted those of sane mind on Friday morning.

I’m still in a state of shock and find myself hoping that somehow this nightmare can be halted, the damage curbed and sensibility prevail. As Bob Pollard says “Everybody’s got a hold on hope, it’s the last thing that’s holding me.”

So I’ve been in a state that I can only liken to a hangover, a walking dream of fuzzy-headed lack of comprehension. Life has had some real positives since but I was locked down by the impact of what Out could mean. I’m starting to shake that off, step away from the bar and get some distance, level-headedness again and so to try and push that along and get back to something resembling normality I pinged a message to a friend: “Out of Euope; Top five songs by European Artists”.

A sort of ‘here’s what we’re gonna lose’ type thing.

This was mine:

Sigur Ros – Starálfur

I could’ve gone with practically anything from this band. At the top of the tree, though, would be either this or #1 Untitled from () which gives me goosebumps each time I hear the start but this one, with it’s palindromic strings, means a whole lot to me.

Refused – New Noise

Can I scream?

Noir Desir – Un Jour En France

There’s a huge amount of controversy about whether it’s still ok to listen to this band. I’m not going to go into it or even dare to pretend I can offer an opinion as it’s one of those that leaves me startled.

For myself, though, Noir Desir represent something of a happy memory. When my now-wife and I were dating and living in Paris I remember being stuck in traffic on the périphérique and then, amidst all the usual dross on the radio that was removed from what I could tune into, hearing a heavier, rocking sound. It was this. I came to hear them after Bertrand Cantat was already in prison so my enjoyment of them (songs like Lost or Le vent nous portera and Tostaky (Le continent)) is more tied to my own time in France and with my wife than anything else.

Girls In Hawaii – Misses

Girls In Hawaii are a Belgian band and another that remind me of my time in France as it was my wife who get me into them while she was still living there and we’d played their first album almost non-stop on our first holiday together while driving around Normandy – you can kind of get the idea as to why the Leave vote is such a hard one to bear. They’re a cracking little band who sadly lost their drummer in a car accident after recording their second album. This track, the first new material they released some years after his death, is undoubtedly connected and all the more affective as a result.

Cardigans – My Favourite Game

Because this was everywhere at the tail end of the 90s and re-introduced the band that everyone was tired of after the overplaying of Lovefool. A great album too.

So that’s my list. It’s not perfect, and it was a spontaneous one. If I’m in an editing / revising one I know already I can saw there’s two Swedish acts there, no Last Days of April, no Air and no Nouveau Western which deserves more than an honourable mention of only for its video. But then I could, and may, just as easily do a Top 5 for some of the EU countries alone.

However, yes, along with Nouveau Western I’ll add some honourable mentions for:

Last Days of April; Feel The Sun Again (see my previous post on Aspirins and Alcohol for more)

Eric Serra / Arthur Simms: It’s Only Mystery (if you’re going to watch Subway don’t get the dubbed version)

Where Roses Never Die

I’m going to come right out and say this at the start; Gunnar Staalesen is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers and this is based purely on only the two Varg Veum books of his I’ve read – We Shall Inherit The Wind and, now, Where Roses Never Die.

With that in mind it was an absolute, relished delight to sit down at the start of May while away on holiday, overlooking a lake and armed with a fresh cup of coffee and no distractions (napping toddler), delve into Where Roses Never Die and another lesson in Nordic-Noir from the master.

IMG_9197In September 1977 a three-year-old girl, Mette Misvær is playing in the sandpit outside her home. When her mother, having been distracted, looks out the window to check on her daughter, Mette has disappeared. The tiny community – a model suburb – of Nordas is devastated. The police search everywhere but their enquiries produce nothing. Mette is never found.

Fast-forward almost 25 years and, as the statute of limitations approach, Mette’s mother approaches PI Varg Veum. She’s never been able to believe that her daughter is gone, the loss has haunted her and she’s desperate for answers. Veum is in no real shape to take a case, he’s still reeling from the aftermath of We Shall Inherit The Wind. But he takes the case – if only to rebuild his depleted bank balance – and begins to unravel a web of secrets and lies that lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly tranquil, idyllic little community.

As a parent the subject matter is a bit of an emotional punch as it plays directly into your worst fears (not the only book in Orenda’s stable to do so, I might add) but, having been writing Varg Veum novels since 1977, Staalesen knows how to navigate these waters and not let the reader drown and the energy and pull of Varg keeps it moving. It’s a haunting story and Staalesen plots it brilliantly, expertly bringing together seemingly unrelated events and characters into a revelation that’s an absolute shocker. That final revelation is a pretty dark one to say the least so I’m going to avoid going into plot for risk of giving anything away but, in the same way as the previous novel, the reveal here left me reeling. I can’t think of a more satisfying thing to get from a book than to be so genuinely floored by it.

Where Roses Never Die is superbly paced and with a story so intricately weaved together and with so many dark secrets pulled into the light you find yourself wondering what’s going on behind every drawn curtain. Characters are pulled from all shades of society and the moral spectrum and all believable – there are some for whose fate the reader can’t help but become invested in.

But these novels are more than gripping mysteries waiting to be unravelled, they’re glimpses into the life of one of Nordic-Noir’s greatest character’s; Varg Veum. If the ending of We Shall Inherit The Wind left the reader feeling battered then it sure as hell knocked Varg for six – he’s spent the years between “on the longest and darkest marathon” of his life . Veum is an immensely human and likeable character – he’s not always popular and very few are happy to see him twice but he’s driven by a sense of justice and finding out the truth, regardless of who’s feathers are ruffled. He, too, is, flawed – marked by a past and haunted his own mistakes. But even here, Staalesen’s mastery means that while there have been detectives nursing a battle with alcohol before it’s rarely so wonderfully evoked as within these pages:

Then I lifted the aquavit glass and drank deeply. For a second or two I had to close my eyes. I was sailing into a harbour I had left much too long ago, and on the quay stood people I hadn’t seen for years, who received me with cheering so quite that I could hear my pulse throbbing in my ears.

Staalesen’s prose is a master-class in efficiency, with minimal strokes he paints a complex plot that draws you into Veum’s world. Varg isn’t an all-action thriller detective, there’s no Reacher-style arms-behind-back fights here. No, Veum piece-by-piece pulls apart the web of lies, misdirection and secrets in his quest to discover what happened to Mette and as he slowly and methodically stalks the truth, so too does Staalesen’s prose until you’re immersed in a wonderful, enveloping narrative that holds you firmly in its grip until the final revelation – and long beyond finishing the last page too. More than just a personal favourite, Gunnar Staalesen is the absolute master of this genre and reading his work is a delight.

Translation is a tricky beast. It can make or break a book and Staalesen’s words are in very safe hands with Don Bartlett. With translations for Nesbo and Knausgaard to his name, Bartlett remains the translator of choice for Norwegian masters and his deft hand here ensures that Staalesen’s narrative and tone flows naturally.

There’s no question that if I were to put stars here there’d be five of them for Where Roses Never Die and, while we’re only just at the halfway mark for the year, it’s easily one of – if not the – best books of 2016.

I’m itching for more Varg Veum and will now (tbr pile allowing) make my way back through those available in English. Do get a hold of Where Roses Never Die – a big thank you to Karen at Orenda for mine – and check out the other stops on the blog tour.

Roses Never Die Blog tour

Deadly Harvest

Last month I found myself engrossed in an article about an albino who was forced to flee his home in Cameroon because his albinism made him a target – a target for those who believe they have special powers. It means that across Africa, in countries like Cameroon, Tanzania, Malawi and others, Albinos are killed and mutilated for the parts of their body. It’s an eye-opening article, not least because, from my sheltered seat and lifestyle, I found it so shocking to believe that, in other parts of the world, people still genuinely believe in the power of the Witch Doctors and that people run the risk of being abducted and killed for muti.

IMG_9187Then Karen at Orenda Books sent me a new novel to read- Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley. Set in Botwsana, it tackles just that subject.

A young girl on her way home gets into a car with a mysterious man – she’s never seen again. Months later Samantha Khama – a new recruit to Botwsana’s Criminal Investigation Department – picks up the ‘cold case’, suspecting the girl was killed for muti. Then another girl disappears in similar circumstances. Witness, her devastated father, is just getting over the loss of his wife and the loss of his daughter, too, proves too much and pushes him down a dark path in search for revenge – it’s a path that leads him to accidentally and unknowingly blowing open a much larger case which brings corruption, politics and the plight of AIDS into the novel’s scope . When the investigation gets personal, Samantha enlists opera-loving wine connoisseur Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu to help her dig into the past. As they begin to discover a pattern to the disappearances, there is another victim – an albino man – and Kubu and Samantha are thrust into a harrowing race to uncover the true identity of the man behind the killings and bring the murders to an end.

Don’t let me mislead – I’m eager to point out here that muti in itself is not such an evil thing. It, more often than not, is nothing more than traditional herbal medicines (and, occasionally, the odd animal product) which is likely no more offensive than something you might pick up in Holland & Barrett (perhaps even less so). Sometimes though, it does get darker and can contain human elements. That darkness runs through Deadly Harvest like a potent undercurrent. Botswana is a modern country yet here amongst those living their daily lives are many who are still in thrall to Witch Doctors, the old ways and superstition – serving as a shackle as the country tries to progress and issuing a genuine, palpable threat to so many. Without repeating myself, it’s hard to conceive of such a world from the sheltered seat of the reader yet Deadly Harvest does a great job of bringing that terror, that monster in the dark, to life. Make sure your door is locked before reading this one at night.

It is a fantastic book. That it’s rooted in a disturbing reality makes it all the more powerful and important. Events unfold at a relatively leisurely pace but are interspersed with moments of palpable tension and a sense of foreboding as the Witch Doctor tightens his grip on those in his thrall as the police begin closing in. There’s plenty of humour in here too and events in Kubu’s own family life make for a great read.

I like Detective Kubu (not just because there’s usually a pack of cookies in my desk too, which reminds me….) – he’s a genuinely warm character with a stable, loving family life that’s almost an oddity in the world of crime novels. It’s nice to see a character who is fighting a battle with his waist line rather than one with alcohol / self-destructive habits and makes him an immediately more relatable character and one I very look forward to reading more of. In fact, all characters in Deadly Harvest are well written and convincing, many of which have back stories and character arcs that you know are going to make for intriguing stories as the Detective Kubu series continues (Deadly Harvest is the fourth and the fifth – A Death In The Family – is due soon).

The writer, Michael Stanley is, in fact, the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both Sears and Trollip were born in South Africa and on a flying trip to Botswana, they watched a pack of hyenas hunt, kill, and devour a wildebeest, eating both flesh and bones. That gave them the premise for their first mystery, A Carrion Death, which introduced Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. I’ve read books set in many a location but never one set in Botswana. It meant that this was one of those books that sent me off to that search engine beginning with G to discover more – always a good thing. Messrs Sears and Trollip write of Botswana with an authority that places the reader firmly in the location. They do a great job of weaving in genuine social concerns both in terms of the country’s political climate, the divide between wealthy and poor and the growing threat of AIDS and its devastating impact on families. The writers have a clear gift both for story-telling and hooking a reader – I was asking myself throughout as to just how the killer had lured the girls into his car so easily and the final reveal left me going back through wondering how I’d missed those clues that Kubu had put together. A genuinely intriguing and rewarding read.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for continuing to send me such high-quality novels and inviting me to be a part of this blog tour for Deadly Harvest. Do get a hold of the book if my review has any sway and check out the other stops below:

Deadly Harvest Blog tour


Epiphany Jones

Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s breasts are different from the last time we fucked; they’re bigger, not as a firm. There’s a hint of a stretch mark on the left one. The leading lady is bent over, gripping the bedpost.”

….and so begins one of the most impressive and original books I’ve read to date. Michael Grothaus’ Epiphany Jones is a blisteringly sharp and biting novel that will drop jaws with every revelation.

A precis from the jacket / pr:

IMG_9108Jerry has a traumatic past that leaves him subject to psychotic hallucinations and depressive episodes. When he stands accused of stealing a priceless Van Gogh painting, he goes underground, where he develops an unwilling relationship with a woman who believes that the voices she hears are from God. Involuntarily entangled in the illicit world of sex-trafficking amongst the Hollywood elite, and on a mission to find redemption for a haunting series of events from the past, Jerry is thrust into a genuinely shocking and outrageously funny quest to uncover the truth and atone for historical sins.

Yep; one hell of a premise. Michael Grothaus expertly treads the line between outright hilarity and darkly disturbing, maintaining sufficiently steady a balance to keep readers gripped without . That’s not to say it doesn’t shock and appal – indeed, despite the sputter-your-coffee opening this novel is definitely not one for the light-hearted. Without wanting to give too much away, Epiphany Jones runs the gamut – from celebrity-porn addiction (which if you’ve read Grothaus’ journalism you’ll know isn’t all that fictional), the vacuity of Hollywood and the obsession with celebrity culture to moments which touch upon the very worst of humanity and some that are genuinely shocking in their brutality.

It takes a very brave writer to take his audience down those roads and a very gifted one to do so in such a way as to keep them with him. From the opening chapter it’s clear that Grothaus is just such a writer. He knows how to get a reader hooked and hooked in such a manner as to hold them, no matter how dark the road is going to get. The plot leads in gently – Jerry, king of the asides, is a celebrity-porn obsessed guy who also happens to suffer from psychotic hallucinations who goes from a mundane life working behind the scenes at Chicago’s Art Institute (when he’s not taking me-time breaks with Variety) to a violent life on the run that leads him to blowing open an international child sex-trafficking ring. Humour helps (if my First Aid training didn’t teach me not to put fingers down a choking person’s throat then this book did), as does the brilliant pace and the fact that the characters are brilliantly realised and intriguing enough to get you fully invested in them. As the plot unfolds there is so much to take in that it’s impossible to not want to see it through, Grothaus baits the narrative with enough mystery and intrigue to keep you desperate for more with each jaw-dropping revelation leading to another.

Back when I took my Literature degree I took what many considered an odd choice and wrote my dissertation on the use of humour in the works of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Yeah because books like The Grapes of Wrath and A Farewell To Arms are known fodder for stand-up routines. But, you see, we need to laugh when dealing with heavy stuff. How many times do you need to hear “laughter is the best medicine” or see examples of gallows humour when we’re trying to cope with darkness? Just as Papa mixes his comedy with vulgarity or Steinbeck peppers his dialogue with left hands covered with Vasoline, in Epiphany Jones, too, the humour is key – from the dry observations to the occasional slapstick, it’s how Grothaus manages to pull you through and keep you with him. It’s how he helps lure you down into darker waters – by the time it gets real dark over the Mexico border, for example, you know you’re already in good hands –  and yet it never threatens to take away from the seriousness of just what is being exposed. It even manages to ensure that while he’s not top of the likeable list at the start of the book, the reader develops an increasing soft-spot for Jerry and will share in his devastation at the end. Indeed, don’t be fooled; when the jokes stop Grothaus can hit you with an emotional and dramatic punch like the best of them. Here, too, are occasions when you may need to put the book down to truly process what you’ve just witnessed.

Everything is in here – from gripping pace to outright shock, from murder to birth, abuse to revenge and from comedy to tragedy. Epiphany Jones is a very, very clever, tightly-knit book that delivers more depth, pacing and reading pleasure than most and an ending that leaves you with just as many questions and “now what?”s as it does conclusions. I can’t recommend it enough.

My thanks, again, to Karen at Orenda who’s selection of genre-defining novels ensures that my bookshelves and To Read pile contain brilliant books – for sending me Epiphany Jones and do check out the rest of the blogtour.

Epiphany Jones Blog tour