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…

Wave after wave after wave… Five from The Cure

The Cure have been around a while now… their debut dropped a few days over 42 years ago now.. after forming about twenty miles from where I’m currently sat.

They’ve come a fair old way since the late seventies in West Crawley and undergone the prerequisite lineup changes and issues that come with a band of that vintage, knocking out 13 albums (though nothing for over 12 years), notching up 30 million plus sales of those and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 (and if you haven’t seen Smith’s deadpan response to a very excitable reporter you ought to be popping over to YouTube).

Still often tagged with the ‘goth’ label, their impressive back catalogue swings across a lot of different styles – while you’d be fair for lumping albums like Seventeen Seconds or Faith in the genre, you’d be hard pushed to say the same of songs like ‘The Love Cats’ or ‘The Caterpillar’ in there as they took their manager’s advice to explore different sounds instead of splitting up.

My interest in The Cure is nowhere near as devoted as many of their fans’. I like a good chunk of their stuff but I’m also unfamiliar with vast tracts of it. For me, they’ve made two albums that I think are unimpeachable – Disintegration and Wish – and a shit load of great songs.

So, here are five of my current favourites to get you over that mid-week hump.

All Cats Are Grey

The band’s early goth/post-punk period doesn’t feature much in the listening list for me but there’s something about ‘All Cats Are Grey’ that I always enjoy.

Pictures of You

Disintegration is easily one of the greatest albums The Cure, or anyone else, has made. ‘Pictures of You’ was written after a fire at Smith’s home had him find his wallet – complete with pictures of his wife – while going through the remains.

Plainsong

Is it cheating to have two songs from the same album? I don’t care: Disintegration is brilliant and ‘Plainsong’ is just the perfect album starter.

Bloodflowers

Apparently, Bloodflowers the album was the final instalment of a trilogy that included Pornography and Disintegration. If I’m being cynical I’d say perhaps it was more of an effort from Smith to prop up interest and sales after the reception to Wild Mood Swings wasn’t too favourable. It’s nowhere near as strong as the other members of the ‘trilogy’ but I always enjoy the title track.

From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea

On any day it’s a toss-up between Wish and Disintegration for my favourite Cure album. Wish is just such a strong album and so much more guitar-driven than its predecessor and leans into the alternative-rock sound with real style. ‘Friday I’m in Love’ and even ‘A Letter to Elise’ might be the hits that everyone knows but ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ is the album’s centrepiece.

The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl

From the PR: “The award-winning Godfather of Nordic Noir returns with a fascinating and richly authentic portrait of Oslo’s interwar years, featuring Nazis operating secretly on Norwegian soil and militant socialists readying workers for war…

Oslo, 1938. War is in the air and Europe is in turmoil. Hitler ’s Germany has occupied Austria and is threatening Czechoslovakia; civil war rages in Spain and Mussolini reigns in Italy.

When a woman turns up at the office of police-turned-private investigator Ludvig Paaske, he and his assistant – his one-time nemesis and former drug-smuggler, Jack Rivers – begin a seemingly straightforward investigation into marital infidelity.

But all is not what it seems. Soon, Jack is accused of murder, sending them on a trail which leads back to the 1920s, to prohibition-era Norway, to the smugglers, sex workers and hoodlums of his criminal past … and an extraordinary secret.”

There are few genres I enjoy more than a good slab of historical fiction. Of course, setting a novel in the past is no guarantee of a good entry into the genre and trying too hard to wedge a story in a time and place for no other reason than a writer’s fancy will result in a novel stifled by too many era-cliches and historical tropes, something too many authors who should know better have fallen prey to. What this means is that in a crowded genre, it’s easier to come across pyrite than the real thing.

However, having already given us the magnificent The Courier in 2019, Kjell Ola Dahl has once again given us a masterclass in historical fiction with The Assistant: a wonderfully plotted, sophisticated slow-burning thriller that makes for a highly addictive and rewarding read.

The problem with a book this good is reviewing it in a way that does it any justice. Having already been familiar with Kjell Ola Dahl via his Oslo Detective’s series, The Courier blew me away and here he’s done it again. The Assistant is an absolute belter of a read, it hooked me in from the outset and delivers a wonderfully complex story line that’s set in two distinct and different time periods – a Norway under the shadow of a looming global conflict and the prohibition-era of the 1920’s. There’s never a sensation that the story could have taken place at any other time and yet nor is there a sense that the author is using history as a crutch to prop up the narrative. It’s absolutely delicious in this.

Whether we’re talking about an Oslo Detective novel or a stand alone such as The Assistant, Dahl has a real gift for creating intricate and meticulously plotted story lines that are a real joy to behold as they come together – especially when elements span across two decades. Not rushed, but to be savoured like a good brew. He’s another of those writers you feel you wouldn’t want to play chess, so complete is his mastery of the long game.

The characters are both timeless and very much of their time. They’re also bloody brilliantly portrayed of course but that goes without saying with Dahl – he’s a master of the written word and getting to read these novels is always a real pleasure.

A superb story that lives and breathes in its historical setting without exploiting it, compelling characters and a genuine mystery all told with Kjell Ola Dahl’s glorious narrative style – no fool’s gold here: The Assistant is definitely one of Dahl, and the genre’s, finest.

Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of The Assistant and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review and take part in the blog tour.

The Source by Sarah Sultoon

From the PR: “1996. Essex. Thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Carly lives in a disenfranchised town dominated by a military base, struggling to care for her baby sister while her mum sleeps off another binge. When her squaddie brother brings food and treats, and offers an exclusive invitation to army parties, things start to look a little less bleak…

2006. London. Junior TV newsroom journalist Marie has spent six months exposing a gang of sex traffickers, but everything is derailed when New Scotland Yard announces the re-opening of Operation Andromeda, the notorious investigation into allegations of sex abuse at an army base a decade earlier. As the lives of these two characters intertwine around a single, defining event, a series of utterly chilling experiences is revealed, sparking a nail-biting race to find the truth… and justice. A tense, startling and unforgettable thriller, The Source is a story about survival, about hopes and dreams, about power, abuse and resilience.”

Where to start when talking about The Source? I think it’s safe to start with just how different a novel this turned out to be compared to what I was expecting after the first chapter.

The Source gets off to one hell of a beginning with an investigative news team getting the inside line on the child sex trade (it’s not a novel for the faint at heart), a dramatic game of cat and mouse and escape that had me thinking I knew where this was going.

And then it changed tact and, I’ll be honest I was starting to wonder where the novel was going to take us but then… then there’s a precise moment – and I don’t want to give away what that is for risk of spoiling the story – at which the penny drops on where the Carly story line is going which just so happens to coincide with the tempo in the Marie narrative switching up a gear, and then this book doesn’t let go. It’s a massively compelling read and it really is a case of not wanting to miss a moment and see how the two narratives collide.

Sarah Sultoon has written an intricately plotted and unflinching novel that manages the not so mean feat of tackling hugely sensitive and shocking subject matter (grooming, abuse of power and neglect) and still delivering a novel that’s addictive and full of heart. A bloody fine read.

You know this is fiction and yet you also know that there are far too many instances in which it mirrors events that happened and the author is able to carefully portray these without going to far, expertly walking that thin line of leading us to it without actually showing us the events – skilfully pulling emotions from the reader without exploitation. it makes it unbelievably affecting and powerful.

The characters are what will make or break a story that tackles such a barrel of gunpowder like subject and with The Source Sarah Sultoon has given us a great set of characters – each with their own set of revelations and watching as they navigate the perilous turns of The Source is what makes it so compelling as it throws them and the reader through the emotional wringer. And it is a real gamut run of emotions, from frustrated anger to gut-punch ‘oh no’ moments, set against a plot line that’s equally edge of seat reading.

A stunning debut that pulls no punches and succeeds on my levels, The Source is a great read. My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of The Source and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Bad Day in Minsk by Jonathan Pinnock

From the PR: “Tom Winscombe is having a bad day. Trapped at the top of the tallest building in Minsk while a lethal battle between several mafia factions plays out beneath him, he contemplates the sequence of events that brought him here, starting with the botched raid on a secretive think tank and ending up in the middle of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

More importantly, he wonders how he’s going to get out of this alive when the oneperson who can help is currently not speaking to him. Join Tom and a cast of disreputable and downright dangerous characters in this witty
thriller set in a murky world of murder, mystery and complex equations.”

I’ll be honest, reading that description alone felt like a case of ‘this book is bang up your alley’ so it was an immediate ‘yes please.’

Turns out that Bad Day In Minsk is in fact the fourth of Jonathan Pinnock’s ‘mathematical mystery’ series featuring Tom Winscombe but, as the author points out – ‘being a reasonably conscientious sort of person, Tom does his best to paraphrase what has happened in the previous books.’ While I do now want to go back and read the previous three books that’s not down to needing details filling in more down to the fact it more than works as a stand alone novel and that I enjoyed Bad Day in Minsk so much.

That’s because Bad Day in Minsk is indeed right up my alley – a ridiculously madcap and superbly plotted story that zips along at a cracking pace, taking in an escape from a prison camp in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, kidnapping, murder, home-made vodka, a massive battle between Belarus’ mafia factions, an escape from the top of a burning building, plenty of twists, turns and – fittingly – chaos theory.

There are some brilliantly surreal and, frankly, hilarious moments throughout Bad Day In Minsk as Tom tries to make sense of it all and stumbles into increasingly bizarre and perilous situations. The pairing of such outlandish circumstance with the Tom’s character – the absurdity of a PR exec tearing through Belarus in a violent pursuit of dangerous mathematical papers is never lost on our protagonist – make for a hugely compelling romp.

An engaging and addictive read full of great characters and wit, I barrelled through Bad Day in Minsk and enjoyed every moment.

My thanks to Farrago / Duckworth Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review and take part in this blog tour.

Facets of Death by Michael Stanley

From the PR: “Recruited straight from university to Botswana’s CID, David ‘Kubu’
Bengu has raised his colleagues’ suspicions with his meteoric rise within the department, and he has a lot to prove.

When the richest diamond mine in the world is robbed of 100,000 carats worth of gems, and the thieves are found, executed, Kubu leaps at the chance to prove himself. First he must find the diamonds – and it seems that a witch doctor and his son have a part to play.

Does this young detective have the skill and integrity to engineer an international trap? Or could it cost him everything?”

It feels like it’s been way too long since a new Detective Kubu novel arrived on my shelves. Whenever one does I know for a fact that I’m going to love every second of it and Facets of Death delighted on every page.

Reading the work of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (writing as Michael Stanley) is always a genuine delight and, as much as I enjoyed Dead of the Night, Detective Kubu is one of my favourite characters – I’m sure I’ve said it before but in David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Sears and Trollip have created a character I could read all day every day and never get bored.

Facets of Death takes us back in time to 1998 and Kubu’s first week on the job, it’s a strange sensation – seeing our old friend starting out, finding his way and putting his foot in it. We know where Kubu will end up down the road but it’s great fun watching him get started – whether it’s learning the kind of questions to ask, the importance of biting your tongue or forming new relationships.

Thankfully there’s none of that dreaded false jeopardy that often plague ‘prequel’ novels as, for one thing, this seems more about showing the experiences that informed the detective Kubu would become rather than using a younger model to punch in a more lively manner and, for another, Messrs Sears and Trollip are too busy laying out a ridiculously good plot and mystery.

Facets of Death kicks off with a taught and gripping heist then gradually unfolds into a brilliantly crafted and complex mystery that left me guessing to the end. From the initial heist, violent murders, setups and, of course, the influence of witch doctors, there are so many facets to the story that it’s a real joy as all the elements are expertly lined up and pieced together.

Once again populated with convincing characters, evocatively detailed and deliciously rooted in Botswana and its traditions, Facets of Death is a joyously rewarding read and another rich addition to Detective Kubu series.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Facets of Death and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blog tour.

Bound by Vanda Symon

From the PR: “The passionate, young police officer Sam Shephard returns in a taut, atmospheric and compelling police procedural, which sees her take matters into her own hands when the official investigation into the murder of a local businessman fails to add up…

The New Zealand city of Dunedin is rocked when a wealthy and apparently respectable businessman is murdered in his luxurious home while his wife is bound and gagged, and forced to watch. But when Detective Sam Shephard and her team start investigating the case, they discover that the victim had links with some dubious characters. The case seems cut and dried, but Sam has other ideas.

Weighed down by her dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis, and by complications in her relationship with Paul, she needs a distraction, and launches her own investigation. And when another murder throws the official case into chaos, it ’s up to Sam to prove that the killer is someone no one could ever suspect.”

It’s hard to start a review of a Vanda Symon book chiefly because her cold openers are so astoundingly good – I can’t think of many authors that have such an ability with those immediate hooks. Not just that but the rest of Bound is also bloody good too, delivering on that opening with an addictive and brilliantly written story.

It’s one of those where ‘just one more chapter’ is impossible. It’s no mean feat – to deliver such a powerful opening scene and keep the reader consistently hooked throughout yet Bound does just that.

This is a wonderfully plotted novel with characters that live, breath and walk off the pages so well portrayed are they. There’s a lot going on within Bound‘s 260 or so pages – a brutal execution, drug trafficking and organised crime, a policeman hell bent on revenge and Sam’s own personal and professional turmoil – yet at no point does it feel like there’s too much; Vanda Symon’s prose style one of calm and gentle build that pulls you in deep.

Bound isn’t a “rip along at 100mph and kick down every door to find the truth, damn it” novel (though there is a cracking car chase scene), it’s a more intelligent and slow burn of a plot with a whopper of a reveal that’ll leave you thinking for some time after finishing. Just what would you do in the name of ‘love’? There seems to be a lot of extreme answers in this one. A compelling and hugely satisfying read.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Bound and to Anne Cater for inviting me take part in the blog tour for this cracking book.