One Last Time by Helga Flatland

From the PR: “Anne’s life is rushing to an unexpected and untimely end. But her diagnosis of terminal cancer isn’t just a shock for her – and for her daughter Sigrid and granddaughter Mia – it shines a spotlight onto their fractured and uncomfortable relationships.

A spur-of-the moment trip to France acts as a catalyst for the three generations of women to reveal harboured secrets, long-held frustrations and suppressed desires – and to learn humbling and heartwarming lessons about how life should be lived when death is so close.

With all of Helga Flatland’s trademark insight, sharp yet warm wit and deep empathy, One Last Time examines the great dramas that can be found in ordinary lives, asks the questions that matter to us all – and ultimately celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. An enchantingly beautiful novel that urges us to treasure what we have and rethink how we live our lives, from one of Norway’s most distinguished literary novelists.”

It seems like only yesterday but almost two years ago to the day I read and loved Helga Flatland’s Modern Family so I was itching to get my hands on her latest. Then let’s get straight to the point here: One Last Time is an astoundingly good novel and Helga Flatland is a writer of tremendous talent. A touching and skilfully written literary examination of family relationships and the fragility of life, this really is a slab of the good stuff.

I recently read an old interview with Jonathan Franzen wherein he pointed out that he was initially “deeply ashamed, cripplingly ashamed” of having, in The Corrections, written a book about family – thinking nobody still cared enough about family. I mention this here for, in a way that brings that novel to mind, Helga Flatland has delivered a brilliant literary exploration of family and the relationships within that’s beyond ‘a novel about family’ – examining the psychological connections and baggage we carry, the dynamics between generations and how these shift in the face of upheaval and, of course, grief and how we cope in the face of approaching death, all within a gloriously packed 240 pages.

This is a wonderfully insightful, moving and engrossing novel and reading it is like reading a master of the written word at play.

Flatland has a narrative style to be savoured, it’s both warm and witty and, in its economy of words, quietly powerful and allows her to tackle heavy subject matter in a way that’s poetic and affecting, the ending moved me beyond words it was rendered so beautifully.

An absorbing and thoroughly rewarding novel, One Last Time deserves a place on as many bookshelves as possible. My thanks as always to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review the novel as part of the blog tour.

Another round for everyone, I’m here for a little while… Angel Dream and revisiting She’s The One OST

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Ed Burns’ She’s The One film – a pretty bland and forgettable flick the anniversary of which would probably go uncommented by most (including me) were it not for one thing: somehow the film ended up with a cracking soundtrack album provided by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

Given the obvious and somewhat lengthy title Songs and Music from the motion picture “She’s The One”, what the film was gifted was the Heartbreakers’ ninth studio album and easily, as a result, one of their most over-looked gems. Produced by Rick Rubin on the back of Tom Petty’s 1994 Wildflowers and containing some songs held over from those sessions after the decision to scale it back to a single album, She’s The One OST contains some of the group’s finest moments and is always worth revisiting, 25th anniversary or not.

Back when I started getting into Tom Petty and building up my collection, this one always felt like a missed opportunity. Petty, still on that prolific songwriting wave that had fuelled what was inarguably one of his greatest albums to date – Wildflowers – and the album contains some absolute gems – take ‘Supernatural Radio’, ‘Angel Dream (No.2)’, ‘Grew Up Fast’ or ‘Zero from Outer Space’ as examples – while songs like ‘Hope You Never’ or ‘California’ gave a hint at what else the Wildflowers sessions yielded – we’d have to wait a long time for the Wildflowers and all the Rest album to show in full.

Then there’s some great choice covers too like Beck’s ‘Asshole’ and Lucinda Williams’ ‘Change the Locks’:

So what’s ‘missed opportunity’ about this? Well as good a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album as I feel is hiding in the mix, it’s the fact that it’s been gifted as a soundtrack to a pretty naff film that stops it reaching full flight. There are two great songs on here – ‘Walls’ and ‘Angel Dream’ but, as it’s a soundtrack and these being its themes, we get them double up with two variants of each. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great tunes but still…

We also get instrumentals in amongst those, the overall effect of which is to throw off the flow and the feeling of consistency. Writing this in 2021 I can honestly say it’s the equivalent of streaming a cracking album only to have in interrupted whenever it gets going by an advert that you can’t skip. Yes, I know, it was the age of CD and you can skip CDs but you get my point… it also means that with the doubling up of tracks and shoehorning in of instrumental bridges that it suffers somewhat from CD bloat. Given the joyous back-to-basics yet still warm and rich sound of Wildflowers the production of She’s The One OST is lacking – it’s a little too direct and simple, almost giving the feeling that there was an element of rushing to finish and release, it doesn’t do it or the songs any favours unfortunately.

Now, don’t get me wrong: for all its faults, the She’s The One OST is still a bloody fine Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album just not the great one it could have been…..

And yet… I am writing this in 2021 and it would seem I’m not the only one (you may say I’m a dreamer) who felt that the songs here deserved revisiting. For, in the wake of Tom Petty’s early passing, his estate has been busy realising his original vision of Wildflowers as a double album and last year it was released – in varying degrees of extravagance – as Wildflowers and All The Rest. This year Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture She’s the One) has emerged as both an anniversary-timed release and as a pretty fitting companion to last year’s archival release.

Now, it’s hitting general release in July but a nice cobalt-coloured vinyl edition was released as part of 2021’s Record Store Day and now sits happily on my record shelves. Well, when it’s not being played that is and it’s played a lot over the last week or so. Why? Because this isn’t just a reissue. As the PR surrounding it is keen to point out, Angel Dream is more of a reimagining of that album. As if reading my mind, gone are the instrumental bridges and duplicates of ‘Angel Dream’ and ‘Walls’. Gone too are the songs that were restored to Wildflowers in last year’s release and, in their place are four new songs – two of which are Petty originals, there’s a cover of JJ Cales’ ‘Thirteen Days’ and, oh, an instrumental (just the one) ‘French Disconnection’ which at least closes the album rather than gets in the way, and an extended version of ‘Supernatural Radio’.

There’s also a subtle reordering of the track listing – running now at a slighter and tighter 12 tracks – but, most importantly is the sound. There’s been a subtle but still vital remix of Rubin’s original production that adds a gorgeous warmth and charm to the songs that was previously missing and makes it feel much more of a piece with both the time and Wildlflowers.

I’ve listened to this album a huge amount over the last week or so and I’m still not bored of it. If I could spin records in my car I’d have been running it constant, instead I’ll have to wait for general release formats as it didn’t come with a download (thanks, Warner Music). I wouldn’t go as far as to say it sounds like a ‘new’ album, more that it finally sounds like the great Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album that was hiding in the original release, it’s not perfect but it’s damn near close. Given that the Heartbreakers’ decade was bookended by the lacklustre Into The Great Wide Open and Echo (another massively overlooked and Rubin-produced album), it’s an important reevaluation of their mid-90s output that’s definitely worth checking out when it hits the streaming and general release in July.

Pictures of records…

So… fellow blogger and instagram user David Oman over at Vinyl Supernova not only runs a cracking blog with his own takes on films and pop culture but creates fine content of his own over on ‘the gram’ (surely it’s about time somebody posed the questions to David at this point) and for the last couple of years has been interviewing members of Instagram’s ‘vinyl community’ about their record collections.

A little while ago, while I was taking a semi-break from here, he pinged some questions my way and it was an absolute pleasure to be involved. You can check it out here if you so wish.

This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech

From the PR: “Sebastian James Murphy is twenty years, six months and two days old. He loves swimming, fried eggs and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic. And lonely. Veronica wants her son Sebastian to be happy, and she wants the world to accept him for who he is. She is also thinking about paying a professional to give him what he desperately wants.

Violetta is a high-class escort, who steps out into the night thinking only of money. Of her nursing degree. Paying for her dad’s care. Getting through the dark.

When these three lives collide, and intertwine in unexpected ways,
everything changes. For everyone.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, This Is How We Are Human is a powerful, moving and thoughtful drama about a mother’s love for her son, about getting it wrong when we think we know what’s best, about the lengths we go to care for family and to survive.”

Louise Beech recently shared Strong Words Magazine’s review of This Is How We Are Human with its three word summary of “Autism / prostitution interface.” That’s gotta be a pretty unique description but then this is a pretty unique – and bloody great – novel.

In fact, This Is How We Are Human might just be Louise Beech’s best novel yet – it’s just so deliciously engrossing and nigh on impossible to put down. The characters are so beautifully rendered and compelling, their voices so vital and genuine. Louise Beech has a way of nailing emotions that puts her work on a different level, it infuses her characters and gets you invested in them real early on.

This is How We Are Human is Louise Beech’s seventh book, and with each of the previous five I’ve had the pleasure to read I’ve ascertained that reading one of Louise’s novels is akin to watching a Pixar film: you know that there’s gonna be an emotional punch to the delicates but you get so lost in the story and characters that you forget and then it really flaws you. This one is no exception. The emotional gamut run through the final few chapters – from edge of seat, ‘holy crap, no!’ to the heart tugging end – is her best yet.

But I’m skipping ahead a bit here… while the novel starts at the almost-end, I’d be remiss to talk about the emotional kick-in-the-pills of the ending without saying that getting there is an absolute sodding joy.

Yes it’s a bloody emotional read, tackles some heavyweight subject matter head on and with genuine skill but, perhaps most importantly, This is How We Are Human has a brilliantly compelling story line with a split narrative style that adds more punch and hook, told as it is through three key character povs, the most masterfully written of course being that of Sebastian. With this narrative Louise has given an authentic and powerful voice to someone who’s voice is often not even considered let alone heard.

There are some shocking moments in This Is How We Are Human, there are some tender moments, some painful emotional reveals and, this being a Louise Beech novel after all, some wickedly sharp and funny moments. But then that, appropriately, is the human experience and, novel after novel, Louise Beech just gets better and better at chronicling it. I’m already looking forward to her next book.

My thanks once again to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy of This is How We Are Human and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Everything Happens for a Reason by Katie Allen

From the PR: “Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong.

Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.

When a misguided well-wisher tells her that ‘everything happens for a reason’, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.

Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…

Both a heart-wrenching portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life-affirming and, quite simply, unforgettable read.”

I’ve gone back and forth a few times on how to tackle reviewing Everything Happens for a Reason, it’s not an easy one for me to review – simply because I haven’t read a book this emotionally powerful in some time.

The blurb gets straight to the point: Rachel’s son Luke was stillborn. The events of Everything Happens for a Reason are relayed through a series of emails from Rachel to her unborn son. It’s a brilliant concept that makes for a modern take on a diary-like nature of story by ‘instalments’ while both immersing the reader in Rachel’s world and never getting away from the heart of the story – that Rachel is writing to someone she’ll never get to really speak to.

Grief is a multifaceted, complex and uniquely personal process – while it’s inevitable that people will share common elements in their experience of loss I don’t think the world stops turning for everyone in the same way. Rachel’s loss of a baby is one that I know I’d find insurmountable and Katie Allen writes with an emotional honesty and forthright nature that’s both arresting and inviting in its openness. This book broke my heart on multiple occasions yet I could not put it down.

But then that’s probably because it also made me laugh on multiple occasions too and had me gripped throughout.

Katie Allen has written a novel that’s not only a deeply moving reflection on loss and grief but is also bloody funny at times, that’s chock full of brilliant characters and happens to be wrapped around a thoroughly compelling and clever plot that takes more than a few turns for the massively unexpected.

Everything Happens for a Reason doesn’t cover an easy subject and there are times when it’s a real heart wrench but it’s also a warm, bittersweet, hugely rewarding and brilliantly written novel.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Everything Happens for a Reason and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Self-compiled; Aerosmith Pt 3

It’s been a little while (5 years almost) since I put together my ‘self compiled’ Aerosmith takes – Part 1 and Part 2 links here should you be inclined.

The idea was simple – inspired by one of Jim’s takes over on Music Enthusiast – I recreated the two Aerosmith compilation tapes I’d had kicking around in my car back in the day.

So why are we back in the Toxic Twins’ territory? Well, having dug out some cassettes from the garage recently I got to thinking that, in all likelihood, I would by now have put together a third parter of post Nine Lives material because it’s the kind of compiler I was. hence Self-compiled; Aerosmith Pt 3.

Since 1997 Aerosmith have released two studio albums of original material and one of blues covers along with some seven additional compilations shuffling the usual suspects in varying order. Perhaps not a lot to choose from then?

Well, yes and no. Just Push Play is still one of their weakest efforts but at least has a good few songs in retrospect and 2012’s Music From Another Dimension has plenty of great tunes on it, meanwhile the last two and a half decades have seen them contribute original songs to a good few soundtracks and put out solo records of varying quality (Joe Perry’s self-titled is well worth a look).

Obviously it’s not a huge wealth of material for such a vast time period but given the sheer strength of their output from the 70’s pretty much through to the end of the 90’s, it’s not too bad and there’s still enough to give a good hour or so of compilation – it’s a shame they appear to have turned into something very strange as a band of late with Vegas residencies and Joey Kramer needing to sue the band to get his spot back on the show… oh well, I’ll see how I behave in my 70s before casting aspersions…