…a discovery and not judging records by their covers

I’m someone who’ll happily admit to being wrong*…. though I’m not sure this falls into that category. More an instance of learning to give something a try before passing judgement.

Throughout the tail-end of last year (and some month’s prior when  it came out) I kept seeing mention of an album in those best-of lists. I didn’t read the reviews I didn’t want to know. Why? Well the cover was a big WTF. You can see it here. See, told ya. Nope, not joking; that really is the cover. The band, The Hotelier, decided that’s the best way to package their album Goodness.

So why would I listen to something that’s wrapped like that? Turns out because it’s fucking good is why.

I was reading a feature on Spin’s website on Wednesday – 30 Best Emo Revival Albums Ranked. Now, please, don’t think I’m about to start putting on eyeliner and listening to (shudder) bands like My Chemical Romance or other such atrocities. For me that genre refers to the music of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate or Cap’n Jazz. As such I’d recommend giving the feature a read.

Anywho. It lead to a lot of Spotify listening and discoveries – I’m still wrapped up in The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die’s Harmlessness too – so many great songs and discoveries that it’s genuinely exciting me. It’s also meant that my Your Daily Mix on said streaming platform has rapidly changed.

One of the albums in the upper echelon of that list – number 4- is just that bizarrely covered album. And I thought ‘ok let’s see what the hubbubs all about, bub.” I mean, afterall, the reviews were pretty ecstatic –  “Goodness feels like that very rare sophomore achievement where a fresh, already pretty great band becomes somehow cosmically greater” or “Goodness does more than remind of existence, it makes the promise of a new day, and even the everyday, feel more alluring.”

So… are they right?

Fuck, yeah.

There’s a rush, urgency to the guitars and vocals. A real pain apparent and never a let up from the percussion. There’s so much in the mix here that I’m discovering more with every listen – and I’ve had a good three of those since yesterday, like being keen to know every moment of these songs as soon as possible. There’s no way to refer to this band as ’emo’ – that would be wrong. They’ve very quickly (I’ve checked out previous albums by now too) evolved beyond that and can very much be considered a shit-hot alternative** band.

I’m still discovering this band and album so may well write more so will leave just a couple of tunes here but, lesson learned; as with books, never judge a record by it’s cover.

 

 

 

 

*Not really because I never am.

**Whatever that means now.

2016 On The Spin

So as I slip what is likely the last 2016 addition (the tortoiseshell edition of Chapter & Verse I received for Christmas) into place in my collection it’s time to chew over those other new albums that crossed my turntable over last year.

This isn’t a Top Ten such list nor does it include those I’ve streamed as I tend not to do whole-album listens in such a way, just a look at those I’ve purchased and spun.

I think this is the first year in which I’ve not bought any new album on CD. If I’ve parted with cash for it it’s been on vinyl. I’m clearly not alone in this habit as 2016 saw sales on this format reach a 25 year high at 3.2 million units in the UK. But then I also read that at least half of vinyl purchases never have a needle dropped on them…. people are just buying them for decoration and using the digital download code instead. I find this somewhat discouraging. For me, digital purchase alone has never been as satisfying as I like the feel of actually owning something and if I buy a record it gets played before I download and burn to CD for car use and played again (and again). Even the most attractive and (apparently) valuable item in my collection gets a regular play. Why own it otherwise?

Anyway, I’ve digressed. The new music buying started in earnest in January with some pre-orders and the discovery of Milk Teeth who’s début Vile Child got a lot of plays, was something my wife got into too and felt like a real blast from the past with a vital, punky, 90’s feel. A lot of fun to listen to and they’re only bloody kids (in comparison, that is).

Two of those pre-orders dropped through my post box on the same day – albums from two of post-rock’s finest. The Atomic soundtrack / album from Mogwai comprises material reworked from their contributions to a BBC4 documentary “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise” about the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and its legacy. More textures and soundscapes than ‘rock’ it’s a wonderful album. Explosions In The Sky spent the four years since Take Care, Take Care, Take Care working on soundtracks (all well worth a listen) and this year’s The Wilderness was a triumphant return for EITS. Understated and beautiful, the album’s tracks are their most concise and direct to date, there are no ten or fifteen minute epics here – the longest track just tips over the seven minute mark – instead they’ve found a way to distil down to the purest, most urgent elements and create a great album. The artwork / packaging was stunning too.

Atomic recording and touring duties not enough, Mogwai‘s Stuart Braithwaite joined up with members of Slowdive and Editors to form the brilliant (don’t say supergroup) Minor Victories and their self-titled album is a fantastic one that crackles with a taut electricity and energy and I hope there’s more to come from the group.

“‘Alt-rock’ legends with new album” was probably slapped on reviews for at least a handful of bands this year, begging the question as to how many legends there are. Of the two I got my hands on that I’d apply such an honorific to I’d say Dinosaur Jr fared better than the PixiesHead Carrier – their first with Paz Lenchantin as a legit replacement for Kim Deal – is a strong effort, don’t get me wrong and certainly recalls more of the earlier quirkiness of their heyday. It’s always a mistake to try and judge a band by their work of twenty years earlier and if you leave your expectations and baggage at the door it’s a good effort. However, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, the band’s eleventh album, found Dinosaur Jr offering up a tight, focused slab of what makes them great.

In a similar vein Weezer‘s self-titled ‘White’ album is easily the best thing they’ve done in at least a decade. Without the self-conscious apologetic hues of 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End,  this one represents a genuine return-to-form that had been long hoped for and given up on at least a few times, I’m still finding new things to enjoy some eight months after it first dropped.

Oh, on the subject of legends offering up new albums there was a new offering from that little outfit from Oxford… A Moon Shaped Pool was everything you could have hoped for from a new Radiohead album and more. Atmospheric, beautiful and compelling. At once their most direct and least-angular, this album certainly deserves the plaudits and places atop year-end polls its received.

Available digitally in 2015 but unheard by me until the physical EP arrived in February,  Foo Fighters‘ Saint Cecilia was a lot more enjoyable and blast-of-fun than their previous studio album and seemed like  – without Butch Vig at the helm – a more varied and energetic collection of songs than they’ve made with any producer thus far with the title track being one of the best things they’ve dropped for a while.

It’s always a pleasure to listen to the Twin Peaks OST and I was lucky enough to be given this year’s re-release of Angelo Badalamenti‘s score on vinyl which is just gorgeous to behold. Not always the case with coloured vinyl, it’s a great pressing and the sound is crisp – it’s done by Death Waltz / Mondo who are also responsible for the Jurassic Park OST in my collection that’s equally beautiful and high in quality. Shame they’re so sodding expensive really.

Perhaps the new album most played in 2016 was Heaven Adores You by Elliott Smith. I was still listening to it this morning. I’d held out for the vinyl of this one, the accompanying music to 2014’s film of the same name about Elliott’s life and music (I’ve still yet to watch) and resisted urges to stream until I could give it the proper attention. Not necessarily an entry point for those new to Mr Smith’s music, for those already converted it’s an essential – there’s tracks you love, twists on existing tracks and tracks previously unknown. I’m very much looking forward to 2017’s release of an expanded and remastered Either/Or.

2016 releases I missed and still plan on getting round to:

Regina Spektor – Remember Us To Life

Band of Horses – Why Are You OK?

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Swans – The Glowing Man

 

2016 Between Covers

Here we are once again amongst the closing days of another year. This is certainly one year I’ll be glad to see the back off. I won’t go off-topic here or cross that line into putting too much of the personal up here but I will say 2016 was an utter bloody farce of a year.

However, as the days before the fat man with a beard drops down the chimney diminish, it’s also that time to share what I think were the best things I read during 2016.

Once again – save for a few weeks where I simply couldn’t read / take anything in – I read a lot this year – some amazing fiction new and old and plenty of fascinating non-fiction. There are some I’ve started but not finished (I do aim to finish Life and Fate in 2017) and some that still sit on the To Be Read pile.

This list, then, is my take on the best written word I consumed during 2016 and is in no particular order with the obvious exception…

Fiction

IMG_7211Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Torpov

One of the first books I read this year and one that’s stayed with me throughout. Echoes of great writers can be found throughout but it’s truly marked by the unique voice of Yusuf Toropov who here has written an important novel of our time. In my review I said that  its a rare thing to find “a book that is so unarguably great that you find yourself telling everyone they should read it regardless of their usual choice of paperback writer. Jihadi; A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is just such a book.” I stand by that.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

A spy thriller set at the very start of the Cold War, as divisions and sides are drawn in a country still beset by the scars of war and trying to rebuild itself amongst the rubble. As much as I was fascinated by the historical element the plot equally gripped my attention and has sent me off down another path of reading with a couple of Cold War thrillers already en route to my letter box. Original review.

For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

For completely personal reasons this book would already make the top ten. It was purchased while spending ten hours waiting for a plane at Gatwick airport ahead of a family holiday where it was hungrily consumed. I’d been searching for Sebastian’s work in English and this, published this year, did not dissapoint. Beautifully written and deeplu insightful and evokative. The knowledge of the tragedies that lay in store for Mihail Sebastian only make it all the more poignant. Original review.

imageIn Her Wake by Amada Jennings

This book absolutely broke my heart. This book was so far from what I was expecting and so gripping that I honestly can’t see how it wouldn’t make this list. If everything you knew about yourself turned out to be a lie, that your whole life was built around a crime so devestating that lives have been ruined, what would you do? In Her Wake, is a real story of hope and courage. And, yes, the final revelation about Bella still guts me many months down the road.

Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov

Finding this book last year, and finally reading it in this, was such a joyous experience. I thought I’d read all that was available so to discover the stories in Notes on a Cuff was like stumbling upon gold dust. These stories, written in the early 1920s, show a real master finding his voice and revelling in the art and joy of writing. There are elements here that he’d perfect later in his career but it’s amazing to see just how brilliantly formed his work already was.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

On each occasion (and it’s always an ‘occasion’) that a Franzen book is published I can’t help but think it won’t be as good as his previous novel. On each occasion I’m proven wrong. Easily his most accessible and equally amongst his finest work.

The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov

I’ve written before on just how much I love Kurkov’s work. Something of a cross between Bulgakov and a Ukranian Vonnegut, he weaves near-absurdist, satirical novels of the highest calibre. The Bickford Fuse from what I can tell, is an earlier book than any he’s yet published and was written in the final days of communism. A look at ‘Soviet Man’ told through a series of somewhat connected stories and characters that, while clearly written by the same author, is completely unique amongst his work printed thus far. Ambitious, multi-layered and hugely rewarding to read.

IMG_9197Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen Favourite Fiction of 2016.

I read this in circumstances almost as perfect as possible yet I’m sure that had I read it in the middle of a cesspit as I sank down to the bottom I would have loved it just as much. Hugely gripping, deeply evokative and written without a spare word, Gunnar Staalesen is like the samauri of Nordic Noir – every masterful, well-practiced and skilful word strikes home hard. Staalesen is the master of his craft and it’s a big credit to the translation that there’s never any question of this when translated into English from the native Norwegian. Original review.

Non-Fiction

A book about the intelligence war was never not going to be my cup of coffee and when you factor in that it’s written by Max Hastings, The Secret War couldn’t get much better. Some real shockers in here and written in such a way as to ensure it never gets dull. It’s strange as it never caught my attention in school (more down to the education system at the time) but the Second World War has become the subject I’ve probably delved into most in terms of personal education. While I always enjoy a personal account – my interest being how normal people find themselves in extraordinary circumstance that I can’t comprehend rather than the ‘guns and glory’ stuff – the intelligence and spy / espionage war really fascinates me and this book is packed with detail.

In theory that should mean this would be the best NF book I picked up in a year but, then, this was the year that Bruce Springsteen published his autobiography.

Born To Run is the memoir every Bruce fan could have hoped for. He could’ve phoned it in. He could have gotten a ghost-writer to assisst and turn it into pristine prose. He didn’t. A deeply personal book, there’s more insight here than any such auto-bio I’ve read and all told in Bruce’s own voice. Revelations, inspiration and the salvation of music is all in here like one of his greatest songs. Original review.

 

Honourable Mentions…

The Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jónasson is one of the most compelling and rewarding additions to the thriller genre and this year’s Black Out and Night Blind were both excellent – but impossible to choose a favourite.

I delved deeper into the Jack Reacher series this year with a good five books under my belt including the new (in paperback) Make Me which was a real strong contender and shake up of the character.

Yann Martell’s books are always going to suffer in comparisons to his famous book with the tiger but The High Mountains of Portugal was a good effort, if a little wayward at times, with a beautiful, heartbreaking evocation of absolute grief.

Epithany Jones by Michael Grothaus and The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto really should be on this list too…

Blog Tour: The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto

Is there a Finish expression for busman’s holiday?

From the PR:
“Murder. Corruption. Dark secrets. A titanic wave of refugees. Can Anna solve a terrifying case that’s become personal?  
Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?”

41mxo4kt01l-_sx322_bo1204203200_I really need to get my hands on a copy of The Hummingbird, the first installment in Kati Hiekkapelto’s Anna Fekete series. Last year the second book The Defencless was one of my best reads of 2015  and, having just finished The Exiled it’s safe to say this is fast becomming one of my favourite series and Anna Fekete makes for a compelling lead character.

A fish out of water in Finland, Anna finds herself just as out of place back in her ‘home’ country – she’s lived abroad for so long now that the mannerisms, and even the language, are alien to her and Kati Hiekkapelto perfectly captures that strange sense of disconnect felt by those returning home from a different culture – specifically a ‘western’ one – and the seeming frustration at the change in how even the most straight-forward of things function differntly. It’s not obvious to all who haven’t witnessed or experienced it but there is a real change in the pace of life and priorities compared to more latin countries and it’s clear the author has done more than her homework here.

Kati does a wonderful job of evoking Serbia – the people, the mannerisms, the climate, the pastimes, even the social necessities and the odd (to Western eyes) importance placed on just those, along with Anna’s confused emotions on returning to her homeland – even if what she finds isn’t always to her liking there are certain sensations and memories that cannot be tainted and here come across beautifully. Ms Hiekkapelto’s skill, though, is in combining these rich evokations with a gripping and superbly paced plot. It’s one thing to paint a picture so vivid as to have the ready longing for another glass of homemade plum brandy, it’s another to write a genuinely engaging and taut mystery but it’s an art to get the two to work together seamlessly. That’s an art where Kati Hiekkapelto is most definitely skilled.

As much as I enjoy tearing though a fast-paced thriller, I love a good slow-burner and The Exiled more than delights; the writing is calm and effective – it draws you in with deceptive ease until you’re fully immersed in both place and plot with a great level of detail and characters and as determined to get to the bottom of the mystery as Anna Fekete herself.

One of the elements I enjoyed most about The Defenceless was Kati Hiekkapelto’s handling of important social themes and the same is true with The Exiled. Never more timely, the handling of the dehumanisation of refugees – even the nastily subtle manner in which the media decides they’re ‘immigrants’ rather than people fleeing absolutle terror – plays a central role in this novel; a pertinent message for our times as the Right seems to barrel it’s way through truth and humanity.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Exiled and can’t recommend it enough. Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the other stops on the blogtour:

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Book Review: The Mountain In My Shoe by Louise Beech

“A book is missing.

A black gap parts the row of paperbacks, like a breath between thoughts.”

love that opening.

Last year saw publication of Louise Beech’s How To Be Brave on Orenda Books. A thoroughly moving book that made my reads of the year list. What impressed me most was how its writer was unafraid to tackle emotional areas from which others might blanch while combining such insightful writing with a compelling story. She’s done it again.

I was more than happy and eager to read The Mountain In My Shoe when it was so kindly sent to me by Karen at Orenda. Life and this year being the utter shit that it has been, though, means I couldn’t do so straight away. My stop on the blogtour for this one was kindly populated by the author herself with a piece on adversity that’s well worth a read, here.

Now, though, I’ve not long turned the final page on this one and it’s time to get down my thoughts and I’ll try to do so without giving away too much. If I can…

From The PR: “A missing boy. A missing book. A missing husband. A woman who must find them all to find herself …

the-mountain-in-my-shoe-copy-275x423On the night Bernadette finally has the courage to tell her domineering husband that she’s leaving, he doesn’t come home. Neither does Conor, the little boy she’s befriended for the past five years. Also missing is his lifebook, the only thing that holds the answers. With the help of Conor’s foster mum, Bernadette must face her own past, her husband’s secrets and a future she never dared imagine in order to find them all.

Exquisitely written and deeply touching, The Mountain in My Shoe is both a gripping psychological thriller and a powerful and emotive examination of the meaning of family … and just how far we’re willing to go for the people we love.”

I seem to recall Louise Beech saying that in The Mountain In My Shoe she’d ‘accidentally’ written a thriller. If this is an accident then I’d be first in line to see what happens were she to set out to do so. I was thoroughly gripped and found myself turning through the pages with a speed that ought to have worried the binding. Contained within is a book that encompasses psychological thriller, emotional drama and gripping mystery.

As with How To Be Brave, there’s more than one voice telling a story in The Mountain In My Shoe: Bernadette, an abused housewife on the verge of leaving her controlling husband; Connor, a young boy who’s spent his life in the care system and The Book – Connor’s ‘life book’. The Life Book is Connor’s story updated by those that care for him – foster parents, social workers, teachers. I found this exceptionally moving – having just rediscovered my young son’s ‘My Story’ type book after moving and realising that, for Connor (and so many like him) life can deal some pretty harsh cards. A masterful touch from Mrs Beech.

The changing narratives and perspectives add a great depth to the story and each are handled convincingly and ring true. The Book is especially moving, upping the empathy for Connor and the suspense. It makes for painful reading at times but I’ve said this before and I’ll no doubt say it again; woe betide the author that goes for comfortable.

How To Be Brave and The Mountain In My Shoe are very different books and while there’s a few similarities (a diary and lifebook as narrative devices), there’s one undeniable thing they have in common; Louise Beech writes with an emotional honesty and bravery that elevates her work from the crowd. She writes in a way that just manages to cut to the core – especially as a parent – every single time. Brilliant.

Worth the wait, very highly recommended and thanks again to Karen at Orenda for another great book. Seriously, though, Karen; every time I think I’ve got my ‘Top Reads of the Year’ list sorted I open another book with the Orenda logo on its spine.

 

Book Review: Dark Side of the Moon by Les Wood

41binrfmxkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Boddice, a crime lord looking over his shoulder for good reason, has assembled an unlikely band of misfit crooks. Their job is to steal a famous diamond worth millions, known as The Dark Side of the Moon. Despite the odds, the crew is self-serving squabbles and natural incompetence, the plan progresses. As events build to an explosive climax no one really knows who is playing who. Full of twists and turns and laugh-out-loud moments, this is a hugely enjoyable romp entirely from the criminal’s point-of-view, with not a single cop in sight.

An odd one, this; Dark Side of the Moon  by Les Wood is essentially a crime story with not a whisper of the police.  Instead what we get is a crime lord falling down the pecking order of Glasgow’s underbelly, desperate to pull off a big job and secure his place at the top of the table. A gang of petty criminals and hard men all under his thumb / at his mercy. The world’s most valuable diamond and a plot to steal it against tough security and odds with no experience and no real clue what the hell is going on.

Gritty, at times uproariously funny and populated by some truly memorable characters Dark Side of the Moon is more than a madcap heist story – for one thing there’s an undercurrent of sadness throughout. It’s a grim, blighted reality that these characters live in and it’s pulling them all down. Strangely, though, this meant I ended up having genuine sympathy for some of them despite the fact that these are some pretty nasty people. It’s a mark of real talent that Les Wood manages to draw out compassion for someone as brutal and hardened as Prentice – even after Kyle’s dog story.

Like the hard-men it portrays, this book gets its punches in early and doesn’t relent. Maybe it’s the continual influx of bad news that this year has heralded but I’m finding myself increasingly immune to shock, yet there are parts of Dark Side of the Moon that caused me to swear and put the book down for a moment or three (though never for long as I was hooked) so powerful are parts of it. I’ve not been able to look at a can of emulsion paint the same way since.

But don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a bleak book that’s hard to read. Noooo… far from it. I love a book that challenges and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dark Side of the Moon. Les Wood finds the perfect balance between vividly portraying the dark underworld, humour and thrill with pacing that keeps the book surging along, building up to a terrifyingly gripping and bloody crescendo of a climatic scene that both quashed expectations and left my mouth agape.

Deliciously dark and hugely entertaining, The Dark Side of the Moon is a great novel and I’m very surprised that this is Les Wood’s first. Very grateful to Freight Books for sending this one my way and wholeheartedly recommended.

Blog Tour – Antti Tuomainen; The Mine

A hitman. A journalist. A family torn apart. Can he uncover the truth before it’s too late?

Caution: a tiny, tiny (revealed early anyway so not that huge) spoiler could be found in this review.

From the PR: “In the dead of winter, investigative reporter Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mining company, whose illegal activities have created an environmental disaster in a small town in Northern Finland. When the company’s executives begin to die in a string of mysterious accidents, and Janne’s personal life starts to unravel, past meets present in a catastrophic series of events that could cost him his life.

A traumatic story of family, a study in corruption, and a shocking reminder that secrets from the past can return to haunt us, with deadly results … The Mine is a gripping, beautifully written, terrifying and explosive thriller by the King of Helsinki Noir.”

the-mine-copy-275x423I’m writing this review as closely to finishing the book as possible; I’ve not long turned the final page on Antti Tuomainen’s fantastic The Mine and relished every second of reading it. The pacing and style are brilliantly effective; calmly drawing you in until you realise you’re practically up to your knees in Finnish snow and up to your neck in a complex mystery and there’s no way you’re gonna want to leave this story even after the last page is turned.

Antti Tuomainen does a crackingc job of evoking a sense of place and the remote setting of most of the action – the isolated mine sits in Northern Finland, snowbound, dangerously cold and practically deserted – adds to both the sense of dread and the intensity.

I love a good, complex conspiracy in a book and The Mine delivers this in spades. Taking on some heavy and important themes, this is, indeed, an intelligent thriller, hugely gripping and immensely rewarding.

While I might not have liked Janne as a character – perhaps because his own work-first, family-second approach is so at odds to my own – his determination to get to the bottom of the story is contagious and this is another of Orenda’s recent publications that was ripped through at a pace.

The sub-plot surrounding Janne’s hitman father Emil is perhaps my favourite part of this book. Here is a man who takes life for a living –  in manners described in some darkly delicious scenes – yet his own calm, pedestrian manner are so counter-intuitive as to the preconceived, literary portrayals of such characters as to be utterly fascinating. Here he is calmly throwing a man off a balcony to his death, here he is just as calmly and routinely browsing through books in a bookshop, here calmly snapping someone’s neck mid-run. It’s  handled so fantastically and as though run-of-the-mill that he might just as well be – as he initially tells his son – working in HR.

That Emil’s calm, mild-mannered and thorough manner of carrying through his own occupation contrasts with Janne’s investigative urgency is a great device, especially as the older-man, now so-removed from such concern for taking life, is returning to his son almost as he himself is on the precipice of throwing away his family – giving Janne a much a warning not to repeat mistakes, that it’s the people that matter in life –  just adds to the overall richness of this multi-faceted book.

A huge thanks to Karen at Orenda for sending me yet another ripper of a read, encouragement to check out the other spots on this Finnish Invasion blog tour and a wholehearted recommendation to go and get your hands on Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine.

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