A Death In The Family

There’s no easy way to say this, Kubu. Your father’s dead. I’m afraid he’s been murdered.

Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu of the Botswana CID is back. His father, only recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, has been violently murdered. Who would murder a frail old man? Why was his father out alone? Who was he meeting?

A Death In The Family is the welcome return of Detective Kubu and this mystery from the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (writing as Michael Stanley) is another gripping instalment set beneath the hot African sun.

img_9790While the murder of his father leaves only questions, Kubu is not the policeman to find the answers – to his abject frustrations he is forbidden from investigating the case. Instead, Kubu is assigned to the apparent suicide of a government official. But, as he digs deeper, questions are raised over the involvement of Chinese mine-owners and foreign governments and it becomes clear that there is a lot more going on – as tensions over mine expansion in Shoshong (a town near Kubu’s ancestral home) explode into riots and violence, connections between the cases begin to appear.

What unfolds is a fantastically complex and artfully crafted plot that brings together political corruption, the incursion of foreign powers and companies in search of Botswana’s mineral wealth and the chilling, dangerous paths taken to satisfy greed.

Detective Kubu, in a genre stuffed to the bindings with great characters, is a real stand-out and fast becoming a firm favourite. In my review of Deadly Harvest I pointed out that it’s great to read such a warm character driven by a love of family (and biscuits). As such, Kubu’s grief and frustrations at not being involved in the case are compelling and thoroughly affecting; the authors create a vivid portrait of a genuinely loving family man wracked by the darkness of his father’s murder.

A Death In The Family is a great read that’s full of intrigue and delivers plenty of shock too. Thoroughly well-written and packed with convincing characters and settings. Not to mention it’s also a solid little introduction to rare earth mining.

I, personally, feel I’m somewhat on the back foot as this is already the fifth in the Detective Kubu series (the second to be published by Orenda). That’s more down to my hunger for more than anything else, though, as Messrs Sears and Trollip ensure that each of these instalments work brilliantly in their own right and there’s no need to have read its predecessors to enjoy A Death In The Family as I so thoroughly did.

A highly recommended book and one that rewards on every page.

Thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out other stops on the blog tour.



When the leaves burn, summer ends

Despite the record breaking temperatures we’re getting for this time of year, there’s an unmistakeable hint of autumn in the air.

It’s at this time of year that two songs which somehow (to my ears) manage to capture the sensation that summer has just slipped away come to mind and they’re both by the same guy – Bill Janovitz.

Summer is from Buffalo Tom’s fifth album Sleepy Eyed and they’d tried to move away from the polished sound of the previous album to something a little more live, in-the-studio feeling:

Best Route comes from Bill Janovitz’ most recent solo outing – a somewhat concept album about his hometown which had “got trapped in amber of nostalgia” . Whether it’s the timing signature, that electric guitar line, the undeniable warmth of that nostalgia when applied to the end of summer… I don’t know, but Best Route is the stand-out for me.

For Two Thousand Years

I will speak of a land that is mine, and for her I will risk appearing ridiculous, and I will love that which I am not allowed to love.

Mihail Sebastian is a very important writer, one of Romania’s finest and yet, possibly, lesser-known.

Born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 to a Jewish family living in the town of Brăila on the Danube, Sebastian studied law in Bucharest before being attracted to literary circles and the ideas of intellectual groups (which included Mircea Eliade). He had a number of novels and stories published – including For Two Thousand Years – yet his timing was tragic; a Jew at the time when Europe, and Romania, saw an increase in anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism. Even amongst his friends Sebastian was seen as an outsider. Even more so when Eliade became a supporter of the Iron Guard.

urlFrom 1935-1944, undoubtedly one of the worst time periods to be of the Jewish faith in Europe, Eliade kept a journal – it detailed the growing and horrifying persecution he faced both from strangers and former friends and the anti-Semitism that was rife in Romania at the time. It caused uproar when it was eventually published in 1996 (having been previously been smuggled out of the country by his brother in the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy in Bucharest and kept safe until Romania was no longer under Communist rule)  as it shone a light on many a crime that had been quietly hidden and gained Sebastian a larger audience in the West thanks to its unflinching honesty.

I happened to find it, in English, one day some years ago in a bookshop in Bucharest – a few hours before my flight out. Thinking it might be more of a ‘war diary’ and with my interest in that field, I picked it up and was instantly hooked. For, alongside the fascinating accounts of how the writer pieced together the novel and plays he worked on during the period, the fact that a gentle, intelligent man who loved his country and it’s culture, was ruthlessly targeted, harassed and humiliated from all sides because of his faith left me aghast. It meant I stopped reading Eliade quite so keenly, too. In many a way it has drawn comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary.

urlIt left me with a thirst for more of Sebastian’s writing but I couldn’t find any of his work translated into English (there is a huge amount of literature from Romania that I’d love to see published in the UK). That was until, in bizarrely similar circumstances, I found this new (2016) translation of For Two Thousand Years during a long wait for a flight at Gatwick Airport.

It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Written in a journal-like manner (though with more focus, of course, than a genuine journal), Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years is, essentially, a story of what it means to be a Jew in Romania. A story in three parts, focusing first on the narrator’s tumultuous time at University in 1923 (when the constitution awarded citizenship to ethnic and religious minorities) where intimidation and violence was a daily part of simply trying to attend classes before moving ahead some six years to find the narrator moving ahead in his career then on to Paris before heading back to Romania.

At first the style is a little bewildering but, when framed in the context in which it is set, this becomes only more apt and well realised – a young man confronted with violence and setbacks struggling to understand and find his own way. As the narrator becomes more at ease with life with age and experience so too does the narrative change.

For Two Thousand Years is not only a brilliantly written story, framing some exceedingly important questions into its prose, but it’s disturbingly prescient with it’s dread of the future (it was published in 1934), predicting Vienna and the Anschluss as the tipping point. In this respect it’s also deeply moving for, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we know that the narrator’s fears that his work and dreams may amount to nothing and will likely be crushed by the changing socio-political landscape are more than accurate.

It – like Sebastian’s own journal – is an eye opener in terms of the treatment of Jews at the time. The narrator – as the author – remains proud of his fatherland, loves the Danube he grew up with and yet knows that he can never be truly considered Romanian. I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn from my mother-in-law that the novel had been banned in Romania for a long time.

Recalling how, for example, during military service, he is not permitted to take a shift of guard duty “since I might betray [the country] in the course of a night on guard duty.”

The resigned-to-fate manner of its conclusion becomes all the more evocative when viewed through today’s eyes and the knowledge of the trials and horrors that awaited those of his faith.

It’s hard, today and in my own privileged position and disregard for the petty ways in which we define people by the speck of dirt chance happened to place their birth, to imagine the world in which Sebastian lived; persecuted and prevented from being considered ‘of’ a country because of his faith. A such  For Two Thousand Years insightful and compellingly searching novel and was well worth the wait to finally read.

Having survived the Second World War, during which time he was refused permission to work and was kicked out of his home and forced to live in a slum, Mihail Sebastian got a job as a lecturer at Bucharest University. Unfortunately, on the way to give his first lecture (on Balzac) on May 29th, 1945 he was hit by an army truck and died. My hope is that there was a lightness and optimism in his heart at the time at least.

Yet, I won’t end there, after all in both For Two Thousand Years and his own journal Sebastian refused to give in to melancholy and sadness. I’ll pick up the quote I started this entry with:

“I will speak of the Bărăgan and the Danube as belonging to me not in a legal or abstract sense, under constitutions, treaties and laws, but bodily, through memory, through joys and sorrows. I will speak of the spirit of this place, of its particular genius, of the lucidity I have distinguished here under the white light of the sun on the plain and the melancholy I perceive in the landscape of the Danube, drowsing to the right of the town, in the watery marshes.”

Tracks: 5.15am

He thought the man was fast asleep
Silent, still and deep
Both dead and cold
Shot through
With bullet holes

This is an odd one and probably the least ‘cool’ track on this list which is strange and mumble-worthy in itself… Of all those bands revisited and touted as influences, given the remaster treatment and dusted off in the wake of nostalgia revivals, Dire Straits remained immune. Perhaps it was down to Knoplfer’s unfortunate headband / hair combo during the Money For Nothing era or that Harry Enfield sketch, or the over-presence of Sultans of Swing on the radio but, for a band that shifted over 100 million records (30 million shifted by Brothers In Arms alone), Dire Straits are still one of those bands that are sneered at though I’m sure there’s an awful lot of guitarists and bands influenced by Knopfler’s playing.

I’m willing to bet, though, that Knopfler himself couldn’t give a rat’s arse about it. Likely contributing to that lack of attention is the fact that, having quietly dissolved the group in 1995 having become uncomfortable with the scale of the tours and productions, Mark Knopfler has resisted any and every urge (if he even has them) to revisit the group having forged ahead with his solo career and no calls for the ‘Legend’ spot at Glastonbury are likely to change that.

I grew up with the sound of Dire Straits thanks to my Dad and the same is true of Knopfler’s solo material – it’s one of those common tastes we share. While I’m not a big enough fan to own anything beyond a Best Of comp I do know the songs and will keep an ear out when I hear them, if only for sentimental reasons. That and the fact that Knopfler’s guitar phrasing and tone is an absorbing an beautiful thing all by itself, especially on his solo albums. Shrangri La – Knopfler’s fourth solo record – is a different story though.

Recorded after a seven-month break from the guitar imposed by recovering from a motorcycle accident, I’d state this is my favourite thing Knopfler has put to tape and certainly his most-consistent. The slow-burn, blues tone is dominant, gone are the celtic/folk leanings of his earlier efforts and his laid back phrasing and story telling is leant to a much wider range of subjects including Elvis (Back To Tupelo), the founding of McDonalds (Boom Like That) and those uniquely British tales like the plight of the modern fisherman in The Trawlerman Song and the One-Armed Bandit Murder in what has to be my favourite Knopfler composition; 5.15am.

It’s an atmospheric tune that begins with a gentle strum that builds into a real bluesy tone as it tells both the story of the discovery of “one armed bandit man (who) came north to fill his boots”‘ body and its impact on the local coal-mining community where “generations toiled and hacked, for a pittance and black lung”.

Drifting Back

The odd thing about blogging is that when you leave a gap and slip out of the habit it’s not immediately obvious how to get back in. It’s not like reading a book, say, where there’s a bookmark holding your place or Netflix to remind you which episode of House of Cards you’re on (I’ve just finished Season 2 and am hooked).

Once you lose the rhythm, it can be tricky to find the point / manner in which to re-engage. Or at least  it is for me.

It’s not that I lost interest, I’ve just been away on holiday and disconnecting from it all.

So I’ll pop back in with a Currently Spinning job while wishing I was still enjoying the Spanish sun rather than the murk and drizzle of Kent.

I’m trying – and, I hope, achieving to some extent – to get a bit mellower / less uptight with certain things as I get older. I’m pretty sure that’s happening with music, at least. Otherwise I doubt I’d be currently listening to Ryan Adams’ 1989.  I cannot say that I have ever knowingly listened to a Taylor Swift song nor that I would. As much as I do try to be less of a musical snob the manufactured, substance-less fluff of that world can still not find my ears open. I can say, though, that I love a lot of Ryan Adams’ work. Accordingly it’s been some time between release and – this week – my listening to his song-for-song remake/recasting of her most recent album.

Given my unfamiliarity with the source material I cannot compare. It’s a strange concept of an album; by all accounts Adams listened to the original during the breakdown of his own marriage and decided to recast it in a way that sheds new light on the song-writing (perhaps to appeal to grumpy old sods like me) and while he’s always had a way with a cover it’s odd to enjoy his genuinely emotive and distinctive take on these songs despite their having been written by writers-for-hire that have also penned tracks for Britney Spears, Lopez et al. Oddly, Adams himself has said that “the goal was to find a middle ground between the sound on Springsteen’s 1978 album “Darkness at the Edge of Town” and the Smiths’ 1985 album “Meat is Murder.””

On the one hand you could say it’s what happens when a prolific artist has his own studio and a lot of time on his hands. On the other it’s also what happens when one artist finds the work of another so compelling that they have to pay a tribute. It seems to have been quite polarizing in terms of reviews – from 5 star in The Telegraph to a 4/10 from Pitchfork – and thanks to Swift’s own following it’s odd that this will likely be his most exposed release.

Still, his voice and playing are continuing along the same quality evolution that was present on his last album and I can’t help but enjoy a lot of this album. Probably why the vinyl has just arrived on my desk as it graduates from a Spotify-only listen.