2015 Between Covers

I’m never able to do these things at the expected time. There’s the whole ‘being busy’ thing (working, writing my own fiction and fitting that around living etc) and the fact that I like to think about these lists a bit. That and whittling it down this year was tough.

I read a lot in 2015. Old, new, fiction and non, printed and, upon occasion, kindle. I bought a lot of books and I was fortunate enough to be sent some wonderful, eye-opening fiction (and non) to review as well.

As such the list includes two non-new titles as they were still among the best books I read last year, they were new to me and, well, it’s my blog.

So, in no particular order; my 10 Best Reads of 2015.

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New

It’s always a good year for literature when Louis de Bernières drops a ‘big’ novel. The The Dust That Falls From Dreams is set in a locale all the more local than his previous such tomes yet contains so much warmth, humour, emotion and dazzling prose as to render its authorship and excellence unquestioned. That this is the start of another trilogy from Louis de Bernières can only be great news.

Not the start of a trilogy but the start of a series, Snowblind is the first Dark Iceland novel to be translated into English and published by Orenda Books. With Nordic-Noir fast becoming a genre of choice for me, this gripping thriller delivered on every page and, as mentioned in my review, is remarkably confident and powerful for a début. A genuine hook of a plot, superbly evoked setting and a real shake-up of the ‘locked-room’ approach.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes may well have been picked up out of amusement at the “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious” tagline but once I picked it up and glanced over the blurb I was already hooked. Yes, it’s never going to be as 100% funny as it could have been thanks to the ever-lasting horror that the central-figure’s real-life counterpart committed but it does have a lot of genuinely funny moments, realises that the initial joke could become old fast and develops into a biting and dark satire that does leave you wondering just how far-fetched the “it wasn’t all bad” belief actually is. Having met some people since and heard them use just that line in relation to the likes of Mussolini, perhaps not that far after all.

Another book with some well-timed questions this year was The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto. The second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete (I still need to read the first), this is a great novel with a real slow-burning plot that builds momentum as its many sub-plots weave together in a masterful manner. Everything about The Defenceless – from its characters and narration and its brilliant reveal – is top-tier stuff but it’s the central story of Sammi, the Pakistani refugee who resorts to increasingly desperate measures to avoid deportation that will linger long after the final page has been turned.

It’s known that I’m a sucker for historical fiction (and even non-fiction) that deals with World War 2. The first of two on this list that deals with such an era is James Ellroy’s Perfidia. Again, lifted off the bookshop table out of curiosity at the cover and promptly taken to the till following the blurb, this was my introduction to Ellroy (I was unaware of his authorship of LA Confidential and the Black Dahlia) and it’s one hell of a place to start. A huge novel in terms of both scope and intricacy and detail. It’s an intense and all-consuming read and I genuinely felt immersed Ellroy’s 1940’s Los Angeles. In theory this is the start of a trilogy, that will link to his previous novels to form a sort of ‘history of America’ and I can’t wait for the next, though I may jump forward and read them in published, rather than intended chronological, order.

I suppose, technically, there’s three books that deal with this era of history…. Part of How To Be Brave by Louise Beech is the story of Colin – lost at sea after his merchant navy ship was sunk by a torpedo. The other ‘part’ deals with the diagnosis of nine-year-old Rose with Type 1 diabetes and how her and her mother come to terms with the changes this will have on their lives while – as Colin fights to stay alive – they fight to save their relationship as mother and daughter. The story lines intertwine in a wonderful and poetic manner, the characters are all genuine and warm and – I’ve said it before and I’ve said it to others since; Louise Beech  vividly evokes the sensations of panic and dread that accompany being a parent when a child falls ill and perfectly captures the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world that occurs at such times, wrapped in an all-consuming love for your child. As a parent of a young child with a voracious appetite for books that already rivals mine, so much of this book stayed with me that it had to round out the new fiction element of the list.

Less-New

I still cannot believe I took so long to get to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (the third WW2 book of the year’s list). Annoyed that I’d missed out on this undeniable classic yet at the same time so glad that I’m now familiar with the hilarity of Yossarian (the moaning epidemic at the briefing before the Avignon mission cost me a mouthful of coffee) and this bitingly funny satirical swipe at the futility and ridiculous bureaucracy of a bloated army-at-war.

Strangely enough the other non-new book that sits in this list ticks the same boxes as above but is set in the First World War. An extremely important and well-regarded (though tragically unfinished) book, The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek is an immense read in terms of both size, scope and enjoyment. Again, mixing both slapstick and satire to deliver both a swipe at the pointless futility of conflict and war, the discipline of the Austrian army and the Austro-Hungarian empire itself. With Josef Švejk, Hašek created an iconic character and I can only wonder – were the book to have reached completion before illness took its author – whether the imbicility of Švejk would’ve reached ever-new heights or be denounced as feigned (though where’s the fun in that). A quick glance at the already cracked and well-read spine of my copy (an inspired birthdaygift from my wife) will show just how devoured The Good Soldier Švejk was at the tail of last year.

Non-Fiction

Given that I touched on it plenty in fiction, I don’t think I touched the Second World War in non-fiction during 2015.

I’ve long been fascinated by Russia. That mysterious country that’s had such an impact on my life via the Cold War (I won’t go into that here) and has delivered some of my favourite writers (nobody can touch The Master and Margarita). I’ve been looking for a way in to understanding more of the country and this year found just that with A Journey Into Russia by Jens Mühling. A compelling account of Mühling’s journey from Moscow into the depths of Siberia in search of the last Old Believer living in reclusion, this book delivers many fascinating explorations of stories that are almost too strange to be true (from the new Jesus preaching to his believers in their private paradise to the priest who still preaches in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and via the surreal supremacists-as-Slavs encounter)  in its attempt to discover and understand the soul of Russia.

There’s no way that, as a Sonic Youth fan, my list wouldn’t include Kim Gordan’s Girl In A Band. Yes; there are times when the full-disclosure element of the break down of indie’s golden couple makes for unpleasant reading (perhaps even more so as a fan as it makes you start to question the substance of recent songs) but the telling of Kim’s journey from art student to alt-rock pioneer and back to art (not that she ever left) makes for a revealing and fascinating read and the insights into Sonic Youth songs make for essential reading.

As for 2016… there’s already a few contenders and definite entries (keep an eye out for my entry on the Jihadi; A Love Story blogtour)  and when you throw in the fact that Bruce Springsteen has revealed his auto-biography is to be published at the tail-end of the year… it’s been a great start to what’s undoubtedly going to be a good year of reading ahead for sure.

Turning Pages

Another month plus slips by without finding time to put anything on here. You know; life.

However – lots of reading and listening did happen. I’m charging through books at a pace that I hadn’t achieved for some time prior thanks to a late-summer / early autumn break and less-interrupted nights affording greater page time.

A relatively recent trip to Cambridge meant a stop in Heffers there (Oxford wasn’t on the route) and a quick trio of books were added to the shelves at home that might not otherwise have been considered. The first of which was The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue. A very original premise set amongst one of the most horrific backgrounds you could probably imagine for fiction as a master chess player is forced to play chess against guards, SAS offices and Gestapo members at Auschwitz with some very high stakes; the lives of fellow prisoners. It’s a startling read – while perhaps too heavy on the technicalities of chess, it’s no doubt useful in terms of offsetting the brutality at the novels core as the protagonist struggles to come to terms with events decades later and the novel becomes an exploration of guilt and forgiveness. I burned through this one pretty quickly, the pace is quick and the plot gripping but – as with any written word on this subject matter – at times harrowing and thoroughly devastating. Nonetheless; a clever and compelling read that – while not looking beyond the horror as such – tackles the emotions of those involved on both sides.IMG_6233

Given how heavy a subject matter and setting anyone could be forgiven for seeking something lighter. So I turned to an old favourite: Small Gods. I could – and probably will – write a whole lot more on the importance of Terry Pratchett in my library and literary explorations but it cannot be underestimated. I had, prior, to his sad passing earlier this year, been slowly putting together a Discworld collection of my own over the last few years. In a somewhat trivial – but important to me – element this has been somewhat slowed as I a) will only buy if I’m about to read and b) am not all that fond of the new range of paperback covers. Of his work there are three particular novels that stand out in my mind as “must read next”s – what I consider the best three, one a year from 1992, 1993 and 1994; Interesting Times, Men At Arms and Small Gods. It’s for these three in a good edition that I’ve been searching and at Heffers I found Small Gods as part of the newer hardback collection. It had been years since I read this first – perhaps as many as twenty – and it felt just as fresh, original and funny. Less ‘fantasy’ perhaps than some of his work (there’s no trolls, vampires or dwarves of indeterminate gender) and more of a biting satire and swipe at religion – Small Gods is, to my mind, one of Pratchett’s best and, yet, often overlooked works. With the question of religion and fundamentalism still causing more questions around the world it’s always a good time to pick this one up.

This somewhat out of order as prior to both of these I’d spent a week or so devouring Catch-22. I can’t believe that it took me this long to read this book. I don’t know why I’d ignored it before – I seem to have had the impression it was something different and far less accessible and funny. I ended up grabbing Joseph Heller’s masterpiece (and it certainly deserves that title) for just £2 in HMV not long before going away for a week and wanting something I could page-flick while relaxing. There’s a site – gobookyourself which I thoroughly recommend but can easily get lost in- that linked it to three other books I’d loved so I figured it was worth a punt for such a small sum. Out-and-out hilarious – there were times when I had to put the book down I was laughing so hard. There is a kind-of sequel that I’m not sure I want to read; I need to keep this one as singularly perfect as it is. A deliciously funny and wicked and scathingly satirical read that’s equal parts farce and slapstick of which far too much has been written by other reviewers for me to able to add much except to perhaps say that I wholeheartedly agree with Heller’s response in the below:

hell

I seem to be going in reverse order here. For before churning through so many books so promptly I spent a fair few weeks lost in Perfidia. Again; bought on something of a whim on the premise of it having had countless strong reviews and being set in World War 2. I wasn’t really prepared for this one because Holy Shit this book is good.

I’d not read anything of Ellroy before and I was some pages in before I connected the dots to the fact that he’s behind LA Confidential and the Black Dahlia et al. This is the first in a planned quartet of books set before the events of those previously mentioned – in 1941, in the days surrounding the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. Nobody else writes like Ellroy. This is a huge novel in terms of intricacy and detail. The writing is intense and all-consuming – I genuinely felt like I’d been immersed in another world when I finally turned the last page and left itching for more. Time permitting I’m pretty sure I’ll be heading back to Ellroy’s LA.

I started reading a lot of Nordic crime / noir / thriller type stuff this year and thoroughly loved a couple of books by Jo Nesbø – The Snowman (my introduction to Harry Hole) and The Son. As such it kinda galls me to write this as I don’t think (hope) it’s indicative of his work but…  Headhunters is a ‘no thank-you’ from me. I didn’t find the first person narrative so convincing, found the plot so-so, the pacing lacklustre, the characters flimsy and the main character such a general twat that it’s hard to find any interest in reading ‘his’ story. So much so that – and this is indeed a rarity – I simply couldn’t find any reason to push further than 100 pages into this one. This being said I seem to be far from the majority in this view and so I may try and give it another go when time permits but, with so many strong contenders lined up on the To Read pile, it might be some time.

 

How To Be Brave

imageThis has probably been said a million times or more and will no doubt continue to be stated while simultaneously irritating those who have yet to realise just how true it is due to lack of personal experience, but; everything changes when you become a parent.

So much so that I couldn’t possibly attempt to describe it here. Nor would it be relevant to do so. So why do I start this post, a review of the fantastic How To Be Brave by Louise Beech with this?

Well one big shift when becoming a parent is that of self-concern giving way to an all-consuming focus and worry your child’s well-being; what if something were to go wrong? What if they were to become ill?

It’s very hard to put this into words in a manner that truly captures the feeling let alone one that does so in a way that others might want to read. Louise Beech, however, does just that. In How To Be Brave she vividly evokes the sensations of panic and dread that accompany being a parent when a child falls ill and perfectly captures the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world that occurs at such times. Not that it’s a ‘dark’ book, far, far from it.

Natalie’s nine-year-old daughter Rose collapses in the kitchen one Halloween. Following an ambulance trip to the hospital and a little diagnostic testing, Rose is confirmed as having Type 1 diabetes and will require finger-prick tests and insulin injections for the rest of her life. An extremely daunting concept to cope with.

What follows is a great story of a mother and daughter coming to terms with the illness and its ramifications. Louise Beech does a cracking job of portraying the “shut out the world”, “nation of us” feelings that pervade at times of crisis in a family with a tight bond.

It’s also the story of Natalie coming to terms with her daughter’s growing independence and realising that – as much as she or any parent would like to – she doesn’t have to hold her child’s hand all the time anymore.

But that’s not all. For within this story another two are interwoven with Natalie’s attempts to reconnect with her daughter and keep alive her love of books which, in the resultant, insulin-driven emotional fall-out of her diabetes diagnosis had threatened to vanish completely.

First is the mystical presence / visitation of Natalie’s grandfather who appears to both Natalie and Rose and how it leads them to finding another story and a way to connect by leading them to his diary and, in it, his tale of being lost at sea for fifty days following the torpedoing of his merchant ship in World War Two.

(Grandad) Colin’s story is told – via Natalie – in exchange for finger-prick test and insulin injection cooperation from Rose. Through this storytelling we travel to a small boat adrift on the Atlantic Ocean where Colin and the remaining survivors fight to stay alive in their wait to sight land or rescue.

The story of Colin and his plight is told brilliantly and the reader is kept on tenterhooks between instalments and there are times you feel as much eagerness to get back to the men on the boat as Rose does.

Beech artfully weaves the two narratives together with times of crisis for Natalie and Rose mirrored by those times of peril on the lifeboat. As Colin and the survivors are literally cut off from the world and their loved ones Natalie is cut off by the changes in her life, distanced from her daughter by the changes diabetes has on Rose’s personality and seperated from her husband, Jake, by his unit’s tour in Afghanistan. Indeed as Colin’s salvation arrives it’s clear that Natalie and Rose, too, have turned a chapter and have navigated the worst. Rose is now back to her old self and both mother and daughter are at peace with her diabetes, their relationship is restored just as Jake returns, belatedly, home (quietly matching the time at sea spreading beyond the previously calculated 30 days from land).

How To Brave is two wonderful stories wrapped into one compelling read. Louise Beech is adept at both narratives and styles and writes with a confidence and trueness of voice that can only come from experience and yet manages to turn what must have been a truly testing time in her life into a great, gripping and thoroughly rewarding read for all. She’s clearly an author to keep an eye on.

My thanks again to the wonderful Karen at Orenda Books for sending me How To Be Brave and asking me to be part of its Blog Tour. Check out Live Many Lives for yesterday’s and Welsh Librarian Blogspot for tomorrow’s stop and get a hold of the book today, you won’t be disappointed.

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The Defenceless

There’s a statement on the cover of The Defenceless, Kati Hiekkapelto’s second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete: “Best Finnish Crime Novel 2014”. I’ve not read a Finnish crime novel before nor have I yet read this book’s predecessor, The Hummingbird, but, and let’s get straight to the point here: The Defenceless is one hell of a good book. Great, in fact.

CMd78rFWgAEcd-vAt the centre of The Defenceless lies a mystery – an old man (Vilho Karppinen) dies, presumably, at the hands of a drug dealer, only for his death to be pinned on an Hungarian au-pair. Two girls stumble onto an alarmingly fresh crime scene in a forest – snow soaked in human blood, tyre tracks leading from the trees and a knife found at the scene – but missing the vital ingredient; a body. Then, one of Karppinen’s neighbours, goes missing. Is there a connection? Is it her who’s body is missing from the murder scene? Is a killer prowling the streets of this Finnish town?

Given that we’re witness to Karppinen’s demise you may be forgiven for wondering where the police investigation into his death is going at first, chiefly because it looks as though, to all intents and purposes, he died at the hands of a drug dealer in an argument over noise. It’s almost a case of waiting to see how long it takes for the Hungarian au-pair to be cleared. Yet as the story develops, Hiekkapelto skilfully weaves in more mystery and plot twists, adding intertwining sub-plots involving gangs, corruption, drugs and social commentary into an addictive, compelling novel with more questions building with each page turn; are the killings related to the violent gang that’s trying to establish itself in Finland that Fekete’s partner, Esko, is trying to snuff out? How is that gang related to the drug dealer? Are they behind the murder scene? How are the Hell’s Angels involved? Is the au-pair all that she seems?

There is a lot going on in The Defenceless, a world of story lines packed into less than 300 pages. Rubbing ink with the main case and Esko’s investigations (not to mention the ticking-clock of his health) is Anna’s own sense of isolation and removal from a homeland that no longer exists, her brother’s battle with alcohol, family illness and, of course, Sammi.

Sammi is a refugee from Pakistan, now in hiding and living rough following the rejection of his asylum claim and facing deportation to a country in which he faces persecution and death for his beliefs. Desperation leads him to increasingly extreme measures in his attempts to remain in Finland. There’s no heavy hand here, no resorting to the didactic in telling Sammi’s side of the story and the futility of his fight against blind bureaucracy, just a talented author using her art form to affectively shine light on an increasingly absurd system (one not unique to Finland) that differentiates between people and their rights to basic human existence according to the particular piece of this Earth that chance happened to place their birth. The message couldn’t be more pertinent given the humanitarian crisis facing the world today and it’s the conclusion (or non-conclusion) of that story which will stay with you beyond the final page.

With The Defenceless you’re so caught up in the characters, the sub plots and the hunt for what appears to be a brutal killer that when the killer’s identity and motive are revealed it comes like a bolt from the blue. It brings to (my) mind the reveal in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. I do hope that doesn’t serve as a spoiler, more as a nod to another gripping Scandi-noir detective series.

There’s a growing number of crime novels with a conscience out there and this ranks up there with the best, leading the charge with a heady blend of mystery, suspense and social drama that hooks from the off and doesn’t let go even when the last page is turned.

A sign of a good novelist is not seeing them in the text, if you follow me. A writer needs to disappear, to allow their characters to take centre stage, become real and express themselves rather than parroting the views and sensibilities of the author. It’s not the easiest of tasks but it’s one which Kati Hiekkapelto pulls off nicely.  The Defenceless is populated by characters who are not only engrossing and fully realised but, when the narrative shifts to them, tell the story in their own way without filter – especially so in the case of the oh-so-politically-correct Esko who’s passages are so vociferous with their racial hate as to be at polar-like odds with those of the empathetic Fekete.

The translation – by David Hackston – should also receive the strongest nod of approval; at no point in reading The Defenceless was there any indication that this was anything other than the language the novel was written in and the deft translation ensures that the novel’s momentum and feel flows uninterpreted across the language transition.

While The Defenceless is the second Anna Fekete I’ve not yet read  The Hummingbird and I don’t believe it’s essential to have done so to enjoy this novel – another plus – which manages to stand brilliantly on its own. That being said, it does mean that, for me, The Hummingbird is an essential ‘to read’ and I’ll now go about getting my hands on it while eagerly awaiting the next instalment from Kati Hiekkapelto – clearly an author to watch.

I was, again, delighted to be sent this book by Karen at Orenda Books (a publisher who’s first year has certainly cemented it as a purveyor of quality, original fiction) and be asked to take part in the Blog Tour. Check out the other stops and keep an eye on Crime Thriller Girl for tomorrow’s stop and – of course – read The Defenceless.

Defenceless Blog Tour

The Dust That Falls from Dreams

91e3i+vVdTLI go back a bit with Louis de Bernières. Well, I say that – like most I started reading him thanks to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – the first few lines of which were used as discussion point in an A-level English class in – I’d guess – ’97. The perfectly self-contained opening chapter, a beautifully written piece of charming prose, a (what I know now to be) typical de Bernières style light-hearted slice-of-life scene setter with a fantastic description of an inner ear as “an aural orifice more dank, be-lichened, and stalagmitic even than the Drogarati cave”.

I took the print outs containing that first chapter (Dr Iannis Commences his History and is Frustrated) home, passed it to my father and the book was soon in our home and passed into my hands following his. It’s a novel well-known, commented upon, discussed and dissected. As such I won’t here.

There followed the discovery of and lapping up of de Bernières’ South American Trilogy, earlier novellas and plays, the stop-gap Red Dog and, my personal favourite Birds Without Wings. 

Birds Without Wings arrived some ten years after the publication of de Bernières’ previous novel. But he isn’t a writer of small books; his novels are of epic proportion and scope.

It’s not too surprising, then, that The Dust That Falls From Dreams arrived another ten years after the publication of Birds... Not that he was idle. Between times there was A Partisan’s Daughter a (somewhat smaller though nonetheless impressive) novel set in more contemporary times and familiar locales and, in 2009, Notwithstanding – a charming, if non-consequential collection of semi-linked short stories all set in an English village of a certain southern England type and charm, populated by characters of a particular eccentricity.

Perhaps, in hindsight, those stories within Notwithstanding were perhaps something of an exercise. I’m inclined to see them as de Bernières – known for novels set in Greece, Latin America and Turkey – setting out his stall in ‘middle England’, gaining confidence in the styles and character types that would populate his next saga for, as we’re now aware, The Dust That Falls From Dreams is the first of a planned trilogy.

And so, to it.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is every bit the opus I’ve been waiting for as a fan of de Bernières. Yes, some will complain that he’s switched a setting like Cephalonia or Cochadebajo de los Gatos for Kent, but arseholes to them. This is a novel of epic proportions and every bit as “de Bernières” as his previous five “big” novels.

Kicking off with death of Queen Victoria and the commencement of the Edwardian era, we’re introduced to the McCosh family as they hold a belated coronation party with their neighbours. With a sudden time-jump we’re off to the Georgian era and slap bang on the doorstep of the First World War.

Of all the writers to task themselves with chronicling this most heinous of periods, the upheaval and destruction it wrought, there are few who could do so as well as de Bernières (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is, of course, another exemplary example) – bringing all too real the events both home and abroad that bought an end to an era and threw individuals into a torrid world where the sense of the individual was lost.

CJAjyIFWcAEeatZIn The Dust That Falls From Dreams de Bernières is at his best. The plot and author play with our fears and guesses and – as those familiar with the author will expect – deliver both uproariously funny and uplifting moments with one chapter before just as skilfully delivering gut-wrenching emotional blows to the heart in the next (this is the Great War, after all). I won’t dwell and deliver spoilers as to who de Bernières casts asunder but will say I felt the final one, unrelated to any ‘cast’ member was a little uneccessary and particularly crushing, especially after the soul hitting account of the Folkestone bombings. Though, in hindsight, this too shows the author’s mastery at engaging a reader and rendering you completely spellbound.

The McCosh girls’ visit to a local medium and the scenes that unfold add a welcome touch of the fantastical, hearkening back to the author’s Latin American Trilogy, and well-chosen historical references help set a thoroughly well realised setting in both time and place, home and abroad.

At times the characters could perhaps be considered a little two-dimensional (though I don’t recall too many layers being attributed to Don Emmanuel) but this is the start of a trilogy and I have little doubt that as the whole saga of the McCosh family unfolds in de Bernières’ magnificent style, all will become fully rounded and developed.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is a saga that encompasses three families at one of the most dramatic times the World faced. It deals with a vast array of subjects beyond the core of love and death, picking up the politics of class and gender, religion and industrialisation as it goes.

While not quite up there with Birds Without Wings this may well be the start of something amazing as the saga continues and should well be considered a fantastic novel in its own right. I await the next instalment with high expectations.

On a side note; why do we get lumped with such a cack cover image in the UK compared to the more attractive cover design they get in US?

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On A Sea of Clouds

Ah, Last Days of April; now here’s a band that should be known to a much wider audience.

How and when I first came across this band I cannot entirely recall – I recall the name being one of those that were bartered about by a few of those friends of mine back a decade or so ago (before the internet was what it now is) amongst which music tip-offs were traded continually and all were keen to turn another on to a great band – Deep Elm / Bad Taste Records’ rosters supplying plenty of fruit…. think Appleseed Cast, American Football etc.

I can recall sitting in on a friend’s band practice when the guitar player hit the opening chords of Aspirins and Alchohol (of which I shall write more in another post) and getting hooked.

CJYR7RyWcAA6ImZThis Swedish band – which has now evolved into a somewhat rotating cast of musicians around core singer/songwriter/guitarist Karl Larsson – has been steadily releasing music since 1997 and evolving with each addition to the catalogue. Having been along for the ride since If You Lose It (and having caught a couple of shows in intimate venues), I’ve relished the band’s continued progress.

Arriving three years after their last effort Sea of Clouds marks a continuation of their sound’s evolution and Larsson’s maturity as a singer and songwriter.

Since Might As Well Live – the album which I think marks the end of the original LDOA sound – Larsson appears to have become an artist of second halves. Both Gooey (see the extremely catchy ‘Forget About It’ and ‘Why So Hasty’) and 79 (‘Lily’ and ‘Feel the Sun Again’) have reserved their best moments for Side B. That’s not to say these albums are only worth playing on one side, more that Larsson appears to stretch out and push beyond the simple pop structure. It’s then that the real fun is to be had.

The same is most definitely true of Sea of Clouds; it’s on those songs where Larsson is pushing beyond the sounds of his earlier records that the best songs are found. ‘The Artist’, ‘The Way Things Were’ are charming and straight-forward, ‘Oh Well’ a little more contemplative than LDOA of old and then we get to ‘The Thunder and the Storm’ – a stately tune underpinned by some superb playing that finally lets loose and propels the song into something else altogether. ‘Someone For Everyone’ is probably the most LDOA sounding song on the album but it’s the title track that holds it altogether.

‘Sea of Clouds’ is likely to become one of the songs I listen to most this year. A real slow-burning bruiser of a song, the title track is the best thing on here. A huge leap in songwriting from his earlier material, Larsson’s voice here is both wiser and more assured than ever as it’s given room to lament over a rolling-dark-cloud like backing with some sublime guitar flashes.

There’s a line in ‘America’ from Gooey: “I can’t go back to you, America” which has proven strangely prophetic as it seems that, starting with 79 and continuing here, Larsson has very much been under the thrall of America – specifically Americana. Where once LDOA albums tore past in a frenzied rush of fiercely strummed electric guitars, drums and songs about everyone’s love life, here the songs are of a calmer, more mature nature, embellished instead with delicate acoustic guitar layered with lapsteel – even a bit of honky-tonk on ‘Get You’.

A much more sedate and contemplative record than I was expecting but a strong and compelling collection of songs that’s not only impressive on first listening but suggestive of a real grower in Sea of Clouds. Hopefully it won’t be another three year wait until the next instalment.

 

Pirate Hunters

I can’t stand Johnny Depp. Thoroughly disliked the part of Pirates of the Caribbean film I saw and found no inclination to watch any more. I grew up with numerous pirate films on tv in the background, Errol Flynn prancing around with his skinny sword flailing in another “swashbuckling” adventure, enough to get bored with what Hollywood told us “pirates” were.

Now, though, now I find myself browsing for more information on pirates, particularly on one pirate – Joseph Bannister, captain of the Golden Fleece.

Why? Because I just read Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson – the story of two men’s fight to find just that ship and it’s told with such a contagious delight and reverence for the period that it’s impossible not to be caught up in the thrill of the hunt and the enthusiasm. Pirates, real Pirates, have, like so many, been done a massive disservice by technicolor.

IMG_4893Let’s rewind, a little, to the late seventeenth century – the Golden Age of Piracy. Pirates operating out of Port Royal in Jamaica are in their prime – silver pieces of eight are bank rolling a city that would give Sodom and Gomarrah a run for their money. A time populated by those pirates whose names now echo down through the years. Enter into this one of history’s all-but forgotten Pirate greats – Joseph Bannister.

During an age where Pirates such as Henry Morgan, William Kidd and “Black Sam” Bellamy and even Blackbeard himself roved the seas, plundering the English and Spanish galleons for all their worth, you’d have to do something pretty balls-out brave and audacious to stand out. How about stealing the very-well-armed merchant ship you’d captained for years, recruiting a crew of pirates and embarking on a new career of piracy? How about robbing Spanish ships, getting caught, convincing the jury (made up of locals that benefited profusely from the local Pirates) to find you not-guilty and, while awaiting re-trail, get your ship re-sailed and sneak it out of Port Royal under the noses and huge gun batteries of the governor and go straight back into piracy? How about then being cornered by two massive Royal Navy frigates tasked with destroying you and, instead of surrendering, careen your ship, mount your guns on the land and engage them in a massive two-day battle that leaves them with many dead, out of ammunition and, in an event never-heard of, force the Royal Navy to slink away in retreat?

Well that’s what Bannister did. All that an more. While Bannister survived the encounter and made his getaway The Golden Fleece was essentially destroyed in the battle and sunk, never to be found.

Never, that is, until a pair of modern-day treasure hunters John Chatterton and John Mattera took on the task of locating the wreck and, in so doing, discover only the second pirate ship ever found and positively identified.

Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters is the story of that quest. It’s a story of two men consumed by one goal, pretty much at the cost (financial and otherwise) of all else.

I’d given little thought to such adventures. Never watched any Discovery Channel-style documentary on it, never really realised just how much was involved – how much dedication, expertise and strength both physical and mental was needed to prise relics from their resting places. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think you’d pull up a 17th Century ship by paddling off the beach with a scuba mask on, but the events portrayed in Pirate Hunters are intense. Along with what must be mind-numbing and frustrating days of combing the depths with a sonar and diving on every blip, there’s painstaking research in Spanish historical vaults, consultations with legendary modern-day treasure hunters and risking it all on hunches and gut-feelings. At one point Mattera finds himself ambushed by opportunistic robbers while driving down the wrong dirt-road and, later, both he and Chatterton are pursued by yet-another would-be-robber on a motorbike. There’s also the competition from other treasure hunters looking to get in first, fraying personal relationships and a ticking clock as political changes threaten to scupper Chatterton and Mattera’s pursuit for the wreck.

Kurson relays the events that lead to the discovery of The Golden Fleece as though they’re that of a thriller novel – there’s no reason the quote on the cover comes from Lee Child. The pace maintains a driving momentum and avoids lingering on the slower elements of the chase. It doesn’t hurt that Johns Chatterton and Mattera are practically the stuff of legend in their own rights – both of whose biographies would provide a gripping read – and Joseph Bannister and his history provide a thrilling back story. There’s a whopping of amount of insight into the world of pirates and discoveries of more than just shipwrecks – the motivation behind Bannister turning Pirate is a revelation into a world that Hollywood has practically rendered dull.

In Pirate Hunters, Kurson not only injects excitement and enthusiasm into the pursuit of The Golden Fleece but re-injects a sense of passion and true adventure into a period of history so easily nullified by over-exposure. As is so often the case, reality can be so much more interesting than fiction and no amount of Hollywood script writers can do justice to the era in such a way as Kurson has done in just a few hundred pages. As an account of a search for sunken wonder, Pirate Hunters is both compelling and factual – a well balanced mix of fact and gripping narrative. As a taster, an introduction to the fascinations of the Golden Age of Piracy… it’s even better.

Oh, and a big thanks to Elliott and Thompson for sending this my way to read.