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…

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.