Adversity and inspiration…. Louise Beech – Guest Post

Something a little different today. I’m delighted to host a guest post by the wonderful author Louise Beech as part of the blog tour for her latest novel The Mountain In My Shoe – published by Orenda Books.  Louise’s novel How To Be Brave was one of the best books I read last year and The Mountain In My Shoe promises to be a contender for this year’s list too.

Without further ado..

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Adversity and inspiration….

During the Hull launch of my second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, writer Russ Litten asked about what it was like writing a first novel compared with later ones. It’s a fantastic question, one I’ve been thinking about a lot since, and one I perhaps didn’t fully address in the excitement of a public interview, and with my mum heckling on the front row. What I think the question is referring to, is that writing without having been published (that is without acceptance, that magical YES) is different to writing with the safety net of a deal. Or is it?

The first book I penned (Maria in the Moon which is ‘pencilled in’ for publication next year) and my new one, The Mountain in my Shoe, were both initially written under the shadow of uncertainty. When I wrote Maria we had just endured the worst floods in UK history, those that hit Hull and other cities in 2007. We lost our home, belongings and car in hours. Worse still, my daughter became ill and I gave up my job in travel to care for her. As she got a little better, and while she was at school, I began writing. And writing and writing and writing. At a rickety metal desk that my husband had fashioned for me, with workmen banging away, rebuilding the town, I typed away. At that point I wasn’t thinking of publication; only getting the words out.

Adversity is a great place for inspiration. It’s not a great place to permanently live, but without it we don’t grow, survive, or scream to be heard.

When I wrote The Mountain in my Shoe a few years later I’d had thousands of rejections for my first two manuscripts. In many ways, I was changed. I was tougher. On both myself and on my work. I was hungry. I use this word not in a Scarlett O’Hara way, as she quite literally digs for food in the ground at Tara, but in an ‘I must make this happen’ way. And being hungry, I feel, is good. Wanting something makes you work. It makes you perfect your craft. It makes you rewrite and edit harshly. It teaches you.

So yes, I think there’s a difference in writing before publication and after. When editing The Mountain in my Shoe recently I was able to see it more clearly. The hunger is great for driving you, but having been accepted gives you clarity. You can breathe, you can calmly assess what works and what doesn’t. You can take on the edits suggested by your publisher, you can really see it.

In currently writing my fourth novel, I’m in a better place. I’m lucky enough to see the success of my debut, How to be Brave, continuing; lucky enough to see great reviews for The Mountain in my Shoe coming in; and lucky enough to be doing this writing stuff for real. To be writing for actual readers.

But no matter what happens, how many books I write, how much success I do or don’t have, I’ll never forget that hunger. That rickety desk, the tears of frustration and sadness, the loneliness, while hearing my world getting rebuilt. Because I created something I’ll never quite create again.

 

Do check out the other stops on The Mountain In My Shoe blog tour.

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For Two Thousand Years

I will speak of a land that is mine, and for her I will risk appearing ridiculous, and I will love that which I am not allowed to love.

Mihail Sebastian is a very important writer, one of Romania’s finest and yet, possibly, lesser-known.

Born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 to a Jewish family living in the town of Brăila on the Danube, Sebastian studied law in Bucharest before being attracted to literary circles and the ideas of intellectual groups (which included Mircea Eliade). He had a number of novels and stories published – including For Two Thousand Years – yet his timing was tragic; a Jew at the time when Europe, and Romania, saw an increase in anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism. Even amongst his friends Sebastian was seen as an outsider. Even more so when Eliade became a supporter of the Iron Guard.

urlFrom 1935-1944, undoubtedly one of the worst time periods to be of the Jewish faith in Europe, Eliade kept a journal – it detailed the growing and horrifying persecution he faced both from strangers and former friends and the anti-Semitism that was rife in Romania at the time. It caused uproar when it was eventually published in 1996 (having been previously been smuggled out of the country by his brother in the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy in Bucharest and kept safe until Romania was no longer under Communist rule)  as it shone a light on many a crime that had been quietly hidden and gained Sebastian a larger audience in the West thanks to its unflinching honesty.

I happened to find it, in English, one day some years ago in a bookshop in Bucharest – a few hours before my flight out. Thinking it might be more of a ‘war diary’ and with my interest in that field, I picked it up and was instantly hooked. For, alongside the fascinating accounts of how the writer pieced together the novel and plays he worked on during the period, the fact that a gentle, intelligent man who loved his country and it’s culture, was ruthlessly targeted, harassed and humiliated from all sides because of his faith left me aghast. It meant I stopped reading Eliade quite so keenly, too. In many a way it has drawn comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary.

urlIt left me with a thirst for more of Sebastian’s writing but I couldn’t find any of his work translated into English (there is a huge amount of literature from Romania that I’d love to see published in the UK). That was until, in bizarrely similar circumstances, I found this new (2016) translation of For Two Thousand Years during a long wait for a flight at Gatwick Airport.

It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Written in a journal-like manner (though with more focus, of course, than a genuine journal), Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years is, essentially, a story of what it means to be a Jew in Romania. A story in three parts, focusing first on the narrator’s tumultuous time at University in 1923 (when the constitution awarded citizenship to ethnic and religious minorities) where intimidation and violence was a daily part of simply trying to attend classes before moving ahead some six years to find the narrator moving ahead in his career then on to Paris before heading back to Romania.

At first the style is a little bewildering but, when framed in the context in which it is set, this becomes only more apt and well realised – a young man confronted with violence and setbacks struggling to understand and find his own way. As the narrator becomes more at ease with life with age and experience so too does the narrative change.

For Two Thousand Years is not only a brilliantly written story, framing some exceedingly important questions into its prose, but it’s disturbingly prescient with it’s dread of the future (it was published in 1934), predicting Vienna and the Anschluss as the tipping point. In this respect it’s also deeply moving for, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we know that the narrator’s fears that his work and dreams may amount to nothing and will likely be crushed by the changing socio-political landscape are more than accurate.

It – like Sebastian’s own journal – is an eye opener in terms of the treatment of Jews at the time. The narrator – as the author – remains proud of his fatherland, loves the Danube he grew up with and yet knows that he can never be truly considered Romanian. I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn from my mother-in-law that the novel had been banned in Romania for a long time.

Recalling how, for example, during military service, he is not permitted to take a shift of guard duty “since I might betray [the country] in the course of a night on guard duty.”

The resigned-to-fate manner of its conclusion becomes all the more evocative when viewed through today’s eyes and the knowledge of the trials and horrors that awaited those of his faith.

It’s hard, today and in my own privileged position and disregard for the petty ways in which we define people by the speck of dirt chance happened to place their birth, to imagine the world in which Sebastian lived; persecuted and prevented from being considered ‘of’ a country because of his faith. A such  For Two Thousand Years insightful and compellingly searching novel and was well worth the wait to finally read.

Having survived the Second World War, during which time he was refused permission to work and was kicked out of his home and forced to live in a slum, Mihail Sebastian got a job as a lecturer at Bucharest University. Unfortunately, on the way to give his first lecture (on Balzac) on May 29th, 1945 he was hit by an army truck and died. My hope is that there was a lightness and optimism in his heart at the time at least.

Yet, I won’t end there, after all in both For Two Thousand Years and his own journal Sebastian refused to give in to melancholy and sadness. I’ll pick up the quote I started this entry with:

“I will speak of the Bărăgan and the Danube as belonging to me not in a legal or abstract sense, under constitutions, treaties and laws, but bodily, through memory, through joys and sorrows. I will speak of the spirit of this place, of its particular genius, of the lucidity I have distinguished here under the white light of the sun on the plain and the melancholy I perceive in the landscape of the Danube, drowsing to the right of the town, in the watery marshes.”

Drifting Back

The odd thing about blogging is that when you leave a gap and slip out of the habit it’s not immediately obvious how to get back in. It’s not like reading a book, say, where there’s a bookmark holding your place or Netflix to remind you which episode of House of Cards you’re on (I’ve just finished Season 2 and am hooked).

Once you lose the rhythm, it can be tricky to find the point / manner in which to re-engage. Or at least  it is for me.

It’s not that I lost interest, I’ve just been away on holiday and disconnecting from it all.

So I’ll pop back in with a Currently Spinning job while wishing I was still enjoying the Spanish sun rather than the murk and drizzle of Kent.

I’m trying – and, I hope, achieving to some extent – to get a bit mellower / less uptight with certain things as I get older. I’m pretty sure that’s happening with music, at least. Otherwise I doubt I’d be currently listening to Ryan Adams’ 1989.  I cannot say that I have ever knowingly listened to a Taylor Swift song nor that I would. As much as I do try to be less of a musical snob the manufactured, substance-less fluff of that world can still not find my ears open. I can say, though, that I love a lot of Ryan Adams’ work. Accordingly it’s been some time between release and – this week – my listening to his song-for-song remake/recasting of her most recent album.

Given my unfamiliarity with the source material I cannot compare. It’s a strange concept of an album; by all accounts Adams listened to the original during the breakdown of his own marriage and decided to recast it in a way that sheds new light on the song-writing (perhaps to appeal to grumpy old sods like me) and while he’s always had a way with a cover it’s odd to enjoy his genuinely emotive and distinctive take on these songs despite their having been written by writers-for-hire that have also penned tracks for Britney Spears, Lopez et al. Oddly, Adams himself has said that “the goal was to find a middle ground between the sound on Springsteen’s 1978 album “Darkness at the Edge of Town” and the Smiths’ 1985 album “Meat is Murder.””

On the one hand you could say it’s what happens when a prolific artist has his own studio and a lot of time on his hands. On the other it’s also what happens when one artist finds the work of another so compelling that they have to pay a tribute. It seems to have been quite polarizing in terms of reviews – from 5 star in The Telegraph to a 4/10 from Pitchfork – and thanks to Swift’s own following it’s odd that this will likely be his most exposed release.

Still, his voice and playing are continuing along the same quality evolution that was present on his last album and I can’t help but enjoy a lot of this album. Probably why the vinyl has just arrived on my desk as it graduates from a Spotify-only listen.

Make Me

..he ducked his own hand under his own coat, grabbing at nothing but air, but the two guys didn’t know that, and like the good range-trained shooters they were they went for their guns and dropped into solid shooting stances all at once, which braced their feet a yard apart for stability, so Reacher stepped in and kicked the lefthand guy full in the groin.

I was late getting to the Jack Reacher party. Perhaps because I took a long break from reading books that could be slotted into the ‘thriller’ genre or perhaps because I’m sometimes wary / sceptical of such one-character driven series. Of course that changed when I did pick up Killing Floor. I also admit I got into it the wrong way round having watched the Jack Reacher film first.

There’s been a lot said about Lee Childs’ character and a pretty good article that also covers why, perhaps, I was hesitant in picking up my first Reacher books (is it ‘low taste’?) but I am now hooked. I’ve since cleared seven and there’s an eighth sat on my bookshelves lined up as my next-but-one read.

I’ve got a couple of weeks holiday rapidly approaching so went on the hunt for some holiday reading and there isn’t really much better for that than Lee Childs’ work. So I grabbed Make Me and Nothing To Lose – I’m not reading them in order, really – but ended up making the mistake of scanning the first page of the latest. It’s a mistake as you really only need to scan the first paragraph and Child will have your attention and interest piqued. I hadn’t picked it up sooner as I’d thought it may be better to read the earlier books first and, honestly, wasn’t hugely taken with the prior effort, Personal.  Either way, a couple of days later and I’d finished Make Me – number 20 in the Jack Reacher series.

Having not read even half of the series I can’t really pull the “best of the lot” or really cite favourites (though Persuader would take some beating) but I will say that Make Me is a bloody decent instalment and really does improve on Personal. It feels like a good solid Reacher novel and adds a lot more to the character than I was expecting and moves the character on in ways that have previously been missing.

Make Me starts off in what is now standard routine – Reacher finding himself, by chance, in the middle of a situation to which his sense of justice and skills and experience lend themselves. In this instance he’s climbed off the train at a town called Mother’s Rest out of idle curiosity over the town’s name. From here he’s pulled into another mystery, aided by another (in a long line) of women that he also takes a romantic interest in.

To be honest, though, that’s where the ‘norm’ finishes. The mystery in Make Me is a genuinely intriguing one and ends up going down some very, very dark roads. The humour is also a lot sharper and it did give me a good chuckle to find the one-man-army that is Reacher trying to get to grips with modern technology.

But, and here’s the thing, the Reacher of Make Me is a lot more human than previous entries have shown. There’s hints of, perhaps, a long-lasting relationship with Chang that perhaps even the author hasn’t decided where to take (given that Child writes without knowing exactly where the story is going and that the next Reacher novel is a step back in time) and we learn that Reacher can be injured in a fight by a single adversary.

Perhaps Child is aware that an audience can only see Reacher deliver the same lines (how often has Reacher had to explain his lack of permanent abode) and moves (there are, realistically, only so many ways to describer a head butt)  so many times before losing interest. Perhaps he too wants to add more to the character and give him something other than an endless road and line of adversaries to smack about. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed Make Me and am looking forward to see where Child takes his character next. I’ll have to wait for the follow up to Night School to find out, I guess. Still with a new Reacher-per-year timetable, the wait won’t be too long after all.

 

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not

In 1989 after touring behind Bug, escalating tensions and frustrations lead to Lou Barlow being booted out of Dinosaur Jr. He should have seen it coming; when the group first played together they were called Mogo and the seemingly shy and reticent guitar-shredder Mascis wasn’t upfront, the frontman was Charlie Nakajima who lasted precisely one show after using that stage as a platform for a lengthy anti-police tirade. Appalled by Nakajima’s actions but “too wimpy to kick him out” (J’s words not mine), Mascis instead asked drummer Murph and bassist Barlow to form a new band without Nakajima.

dinosaur-jr-new-song-goin-down-give-a-glimpse-of-what-yer-not-jools-holland-640x640Despite his slacker vocals and aforementioned demeanour, Mascis was something of a control-freak with whom communication was a continual burr. By the time of Barlow’s dismissal they’d created a trilogy of legend-forming and hugely influential albums and had begun to scratch at commercial success with songs like Freak Scene and their cover of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven. What followed for Dinosaur Jr was a major-label deal, the subsequent change in mix/production dynamics with lyrics and vocals being pushed higher in the sound, getting caught up and buoyed forward by the changed landscape formed by Nirvana’s Nevermind, the departure of drummer Murph, their most commercially successful album and song in Without A Sound and Feel The Pain before the seemingly inevitable drop-off in sales, major-label disinterest and J’s retiring of the band name in 1997.

After a few solo Mascis records (under the name J Mascis and The Fog) and Barlow taking swipes at J in numerous Sebadoh songs, the unexpected happened; the “classic” line-up reformed in 2005 for a tour promoting the reissue of their first three albums. Even more unexpectedly; the reunion held all the way to the studio for release of the first album of Dinosaur Jr’s Third Act; Beyond. Whether it be down to the mellowing out that time, age and even parenthood bring, better communications or just the ease in pressure that comes from realising they’re not expected to make a “Smash Hit Album” but they’ve now outlived both their first ‘classic’ run of ’84-’89 and the band’s major label period of ’90-’97 and are still going strong.

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not – as with the three albums that have preceded it – makes a formidable mix of the band’s early heaviness and the tighter, song-oriented structure that came with the major label sound to create a perfect balance off fuzz-heavy riffs and deft melodies all underpinned by J’s trademark soloing and softly-spoken, stoner-like vocals.

Stripping back a touch on the spread of sound featured on 2012’s I Bet On Sky, Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not is a much taughter and fiercer sounding affair. Opener Goin’ Down tears through at break-neck pace and the following Tiny rips along at a cracking pace and clocks in at just 3:12 of precise intent – cramming in heavy riffs, rolling bass lines, thundering drums and J’s solo without an inch to spare.

Those Mascis solos do take the spotlight throughout but with due cause and never sounding too heavy-handed in their placing. When I mumbled about I Bet On Sky I mentioned that albums of Dinosaur Jr Act 3 are of a formula, with anticipation for the inevitable guitar break but that “his guitar tone is beatific. His phrasing and fluidity mean that when each song breaks it’s more like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.” This still holds; Mascis’ guitar is still the star attraction on Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not, especially on I Walk For Miles and I Told Everyone.

In the interests of democracy or as proof as to how far they’ve come in terms of dissipating tensions – Barlow gets a couple of his tracks on each of the band’s latest albums. Here Love Is… stands out as the strongest, it’s structure calling to mind Led Zep’s III era folkiness before giving way to Mascis’ guitar while it and the album closer Left/Right are both stronger, more comfortable-sounding tunes than any of his which have graced albums since Beyond. Whereas on previous albums they’ve been something of a sore thumb and almost halted the flow, here they slip in gel more cohesively than every before.

The band are clearly getting on well and working together better than ever before and while the ‘if it ain’t broke’ adage can certainly apply to many of the tracks here, songs such as Lost All Day and, particularly, the changing dynamics of Knocked Around show that Dinosaur Jr remains a band willing to stretch its sound and try new ground rather than generate a few more tracks to drop in between Forget The Swan and Lung during the payolah tours.

I’ve yet to catch them live – I wondered recently how they tackle the subject of playing those songs recorded during Barlow and Murph’s absence from the band. Do they include them or do they go the Van Halen route of pretending a huge part of the band’s history and it’s most commercially successful and wider-known tracks don’t exist (in my mind and a little off-topic I’d call this route as stupid a decision as getting Roth back in the fold in the first place was but then the idea of Diamond Dave trying Right Now is as farcical as any part of his hammy vaudeville act) or do they let bygones be bygones and go for the crowd-pleasers? I was very glad then, to see, thanks to SetListFM, that their set lists from recent tours include a good mix of old, mid and new era tracks. I suppose it’s further testament to just how well they’re getting on.

I digress…

I’ve had this album for just a couple of days now but it hasn’t left my CD player since then (I’ll have to wait a little longer for the vinyl) and cannot see a way this doesn’t make the Best Of 2016 list.

 

 

Black Out

Think of Iceland and you’ll no doubt think of geysers, calm, tranquil fjords… perhaps even volcanic eruptions. Crime and murder will probably not be one of those connections that springs to mind. The same is certainly true for Evan Fein, an American tourist, as he searches for Grettir’s Pool, an ancient stone-flagged hot bath, down narrow roads and scanning country lanes and farm gates. What awaits Evan, though, isn’t a relaxing dip in steaming water, it’s a dead body, a man brutally beaten to the point that he is “practically unrecognisable,” “where there had been an eye, there was now an empty socket.”

CnGralHXgAA9a6pThis is the start of Black Out, the latest instalment in Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series to be translated into English and published by Orenda Books and it’s bloody good to be back in Siglufjörður once again. Black Out sits second in the Dark Iceland series and picks up after the events of Snow Blind; Ari Thór, while now more at peace in the town, is dealing with the fallout of his confession of infidelity to his girlfriend, Kristín who herself is now living a short distance away in the neighbouring Akureyri. The Inpector, Tómas, is debating his own future in the town after his wife’s move south to Reykjavik and Hlynur is dealing with the chilling consequences of his past.

It’s into this state of distraction that the news of the murder is dropped and Ari Thór and Tómas set about investigating the victim’s connections to the town – the only real starting point is that the victim, Elías, was part of a crew working on the new tunnel. Tómas is far from thrilled at the opening of the tunnel, worrying what it will bring into the town. Strangely enough, the more that Ari Thór digs into the storied past of some of the residents it’s clear that even without infrastructure upgrades, Siglufjörður holds many a disturbing secret. Some people know exactly what Elías was involved in but nobody is talking and so much remains hidden despite the 24-hour light of the Arctic summer that the police are in the dark.

That contrast of tones – darkness in the shadows of an otherwise idyllic scene – is what makes that creeping sense of dread so much more powerful and chilling as, piece-by-piece, the clues come together and the quiet town of Siglufjörður becomes the epicentre of a taught, methodically plotted story involving money laundering, sex-trafficking, child abuse, rape and murder. Be warned – Black Out gets very dark.

This time around it’s not just the Siglufjörður police that are trying to crack the case; Isrun, a news reporter is also chasing down and finding her own leads as she races for an exclusive. The introduction of Isrun means that Jónasson is able to add further elements to the story and take the reader further afield to Reykjavik (shrouded in a volcanic ash cloud) and the politics and rivalries of the newsroom. I’ll avoid going further in terms of Isrun’s involvement in the investigations or her own motivations to avoid spoilers but I will say that it was a genuine surprise and a welcome change up, further evidencing that Ragnar Jónasson’s writing is anything but formulaic. She’s also another thoroughly great and compelling character.

Jónasson has a gift when it comes to crafting memorable characters. Ari Thór, while not always likeable, is given increasing depth and dimension with every instalment and his relationship with Kristín gives greater insight as well as further developing her own character. Somewhat sadly, of all the threads surrounding the main narrative, it’s the sub-plot surrounding Hlynur that is perhaps the most gripping and while having already read Night Blind means I knew where it would lead, was nonetheless genuinely affecting and moving.

Weaving together all the sub-plots of such a multifaceted story could prove challenging yet Ragnar Jónasson makes it seem effortless – while his history of translating Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic means he’s no stranger to mystery writing, it’s his own voice and skill that makes Black Out and the Dark Iceland series one of the most compelling and rewarding additions to the thriller genre. Each instalment delivers more and leaves the reader in eager anticipation for the next. The first snippet of the next instalment (included at the end of Black Out) had me checking the door was properly locked and bolted. Not something I’ve done since I read The Snowman. A series and author well deserving of the highest praise. Very much looking forward to more.

Huge thanks once again to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and I do wholeheartedly recommend Black Out.

Current Spins

While my head’s been spinning over recent political events, it doesn’t mean my turntable hasn’t been.

So as part of my continued effort to break the habit of being lured into depressing and nerve ruining news stories I’m gonna drop down a few thoughts on those albums that have been getting the most of my ears lately.

Mogwai – Atomic

I’ve said this a few times and I’ll keep saying it; I fucking love Mogwai. Their soundtrack work often has a habit of being some of their best (see Zidane and Les Revenants). Atomic is technically but not totally a soundtrack as it comprises material reworked from their contributions to a BBC4 documentary “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise” about the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and its legacy. As with their previous soundtracks I’ve not seen that which this music scores – nor do I feel up to it right now to be honest – but, again in common with those, it’s not a requirement as Atomic functions as a wonderful, often ethereal and continually beautiful and surprising Mogwai album in its own right. There’s less ‘rock’ on here, instead it’s an album of poignant textures and a blend of hope and fear, death and life.

Here’s Ether from it:

Minor Victories – Minor Victories

Keeping with the Mogwai love as Stuart Braithwaite here steps away from those Glaswegian post-rock legends to join Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, The Editors’ Justin Lockey and his brother James in a new project, Minor Victories. I’d had this on pre-order since the album and lead track were revealed and was not disappointed by the album. The oddest thing about this album is that at no point did all members record together yet they sound like a new band, not “a bit like Slowdive, a bit like Mogwai” but a new, brilliant sound that crackles with a taut electricity and energy that belies the distance between members during its construction. It’s alive with brooding drama and cinematic sweeps with Goswell’s vocals floating above in the mix with the only odd step coming with “For You Always” which features Goswell duetting with Mark Kozelek. How you feel about it will depend on how whether you like his current “steam of consciousness, verbal diarrhoea” approach to lyrics. Or his continued examples of douchebaggery. That aside, this album is one of the year’s best for me and has barely left the car cd player.

Here’s Folk Arp:

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

The grammatically questionable title aside, I love this album. I didn’t like King of Limbs; maybe listened to it in full just the once. Yet this…. from the opening rococo strings and paranoid urgency of ‘Burn The Witch’ to the echo-dripping reverb combo of piano and voice on closer ‘True Love Waits’ (a much stronger and far more powerful take than that which appeared years before) with Thom Yorke’s evocative “Just don’t leave, don’t leave” plea, this album is their best for some time. It’s more personal (Yorke having recently separated from his partner of 23 years and mother to his children), delicate piece which gives the sense of the band rediscovering beauty over the angles that have been dominant in more recent work.

Gary Clark Jr – Live

Still, given recent events, I had to make a change up and give the likes of Radiohead and Mogwai a little rest and find something more upbeat to try and get moving that way.

As such I returned to this. I’ve already spoken as to how I came to find Gary Clark Jr’s music so won’t repeat myself. This album though is still a go-to. On record I don’t think Gary has yet to find either the right producer or set-up to do his intensity and playing justice. Blak and Blu was a strong start and last year’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim had some genuine highlight’s but wandered a little too all-over and lacked the potency he can get across with his guitar on a stage. Obviously that’s not an issue with this 2014 double wallop of great playing. The first time I heard it I was unable to sit still. I’m still not able to sit still when hearing it and nor can my two-year-old son, it’s a guaranteed way to get some bad dad-dancing going. There’s not many that can touch him when it comes to blues guitar and tracks like ‘Numb‘ and ‘Don’t Owe You A Thang’ show he’s got a shed load more in him than standards and Hendrix covers.

Where Roses Never Die

I’m going to come right out and say this at the start; Gunnar Staalesen is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers and this is based purely on only the two Varg Veum books of his I’ve read – We Shall Inherit The Wind and, now, Where Roses Never Die.

With that in mind it was an absolute, relished delight to sit down at the start of May while away on holiday, overlooking a lake and armed with a fresh cup of coffee and no distractions (napping toddler), delve into Where Roses Never Die and another lesson in Nordic-Noir from the master.

IMG_9197In September 1977 a three-year-old girl, Mette Misvær is playing in the sandpit outside her home. When her mother, having been distracted, looks out the window to check on her daughter, Mette has disappeared. The tiny community – a model suburb – of Nordas is devastated. The police search everywhere but their enquiries produce nothing. Mette is never found.

Fast-forward almost 25 years and, as the statute of limitations approach, Mette’s mother approaches PI Varg Veum. She’s never been able to believe that her daughter is gone, the loss has haunted her and she’s desperate for answers. Veum is in no real shape to take a case, he’s still reeling from the aftermath of We Shall Inherit The Wind. But he takes the case – if only to rebuild his depleted bank balance – and begins to unravel a web of secrets and lies that lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly tranquil, idyllic little community.

As a parent the subject matter is a bit of an emotional punch as it plays directly into your worst fears (not the only book in Orenda’s stable to do so, I might add) but, having been writing Varg Veum novels since 1977, Staalesen knows how to navigate these waters and not let the reader drown and the energy and pull of Varg keeps it moving. It’s a haunting story and Staalesen plots it brilliantly, expertly bringing together seemingly unrelated events and characters into a revelation that’s an absolute shocker. That final revelation is a pretty dark one to say the least so I’m going to avoid going into plot for risk of giving anything away but, in the same way as the previous novel, the reveal here left me reeling. I can’t think of a more satisfying thing to get from a book than to be so genuinely floored by it.

Where Roses Never Die is superbly paced and with a story so intricately weaved together and with so many dark secrets pulled into the light you find yourself wondering what’s going on behind every drawn curtain. Characters are pulled from all shades of society and the moral spectrum and all believable – there are some for whose fate the reader can’t help but become invested in.

But these novels are more than gripping mysteries waiting to be unravelled, they’re glimpses into the life of one of Nordic-Noir’s greatest character’s; Varg Veum. If the ending of We Shall Inherit The Wind left the reader feeling battered then it sure as hell knocked Varg for six – he’s spent the years between “on the longest and darkest marathon” of his life . Veum is an immensely human and likeable character – he’s not always popular and very few are happy to see him twice but he’s driven by a sense of justice and finding out the truth, regardless of who’s feathers are ruffled. He, too, is, flawed – marked by a past and haunted his own mistakes. But even here, Staalesen’s mastery means that while there have been detectives nursing a battle with alcohol before it’s rarely so wonderfully evoked as within these pages:

Then I lifted the aquavit glass and drank deeply. For a second or two I had to close my eyes. I was sailing into a harbour I had left much too long ago, and on the quay stood people I hadn’t seen for years, who received me with cheering so quite that I could hear my pulse throbbing in my ears.

Staalesen’s prose is a master-class in efficiency, with minimal strokes he paints a complex plot that draws you into Veum’s world. Varg isn’t an all-action thriller detective, there’s no Reacher-style arms-behind-back fights here. No, Veum piece-by-piece pulls apart the web of lies, misdirection and secrets in his quest to discover what happened to Mette and as he slowly and methodically stalks the truth, so too does Staalesen’s prose until you’re immersed in a wonderful, enveloping narrative that holds you firmly in its grip until the final revelation – and long beyond finishing the last page too. More than just a personal favourite, Gunnar Staalesen is the absolute master of this genre and reading his work is a delight.

Translation is a tricky beast. It can make or break a book and Staalesen’s words are in very safe hands with Don Bartlett. With translations for Nesbo and Knausgaard to his name, Bartlett remains the translator of choice for Norwegian masters and his deft hand here ensures that Staalesen’s narrative and tone flows naturally.

There’s no question that if I were to put stars here there’d be five of them for Where Roses Never Die and, while we’re only just at the halfway mark for the year, it’s easily one of – if not the – best books of 2016.

I’m itching for more Varg Veum and will now (tbr pile allowing) make my way back through those available in English. Do get a hold of Where Roses Never Die – a big thank you to Karen at Orenda for mine – and check out the other stops on the blog tour.

Roses Never Die Blog tour

Deadly Harvest

Last month I found myself engrossed in an article about an albino who was forced to flee his home in Cameroon because his albinism made him a target – a target for those who believe they have special powers. It means that across Africa, in countries like Cameroon, Tanzania, Malawi and others, Albinos are killed and mutilated for the parts of their body. It’s an eye-opening article, not least because, from my sheltered seat and lifestyle, I found it so shocking to believe that, in other parts of the world, people still genuinely believe in the power of the Witch Doctors and that people run the risk of being abducted and killed for muti.

IMG_9187Then Karen at Orenda Books sent me a new novel to read- Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley. Set in Botwsana, it tackles just that subject.

A young girl on her way home gets into a car with a mysterious man – she’s never seen again. Months later Samantha Khama – a new recruit to Botwsana’s Criminal Investigation Department – picks up the ‘cold case’, suspecting the girl was killed for muti. Then another girl disappears in similar circumstances. Witness, her devastated father, is just getting over the loss of his wife and the loss of his daughter, too, proves too much and pushes him down a dark path in search for revenge – it’s a path that leads him to accidentally and unknowingly blowing open a much larger case which brings corruption, politics and the plight of AIDS into the novel’s scope . When the investigation gets personal, Samantha enlists opera-loving wine connoisseur Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu to help her dig into the past. As they begin to discover a pattern to the disappearances, there is another victim – an albino man – and Kubu and Samantha are thrust into a harrowing race to uncover the true identity of the man behind the killings and bring the murders to an end.

Don’t let me mislead – I’m eager to point out here that muti in itself is not such an evil thing. It, more often than not, is nothing more than traditional herbal medicines (and, occasionally, the odd animal product) which is likely no more offensive than something you might pick up in Holland & Barrett (perhaps even less so). Sometimes though, it does get darker and can contain human elements. That darkness runs through Deadly Harvest like a potent undercurrent. Botswana is a modern country yet here amongst those living their daily lives are many who are still in thrall to Witch Doctors, the old ways and superstition – serving as a shackle as the country tries to progress and issuing a genuine, palpable threat to so many. Without repeating myself, it’s hard to conceive of such a world from the sheltered seat of the reader yet Deadly Harvest does a great job of bringing that terror, that monster in the dark, to life. Make sure your door is locked before reading this one at night.

It is a fantastic book. That it’s rooted in a disturbing reality makes it all the more powerful and important. Events unfold at a relatively leisurely pace but are interspersed with moments of palpable tension and a sense of foreboding as the Witch Doctor tightens his grip on those in his thrall as the police begin closing in. There’s plenty of humour in here too and events in Kubu’s own family life make for a great read.

I like Detective Kubu (not just because there’s usually a pack of cookies in my desk too, which reminds me….) – he’s a genuinely warm character with a stable, loving family life that’s almost an oddity in the world of crime novels. It’s nice to see a character who is fighting a battle with his waist line rather than one with alcohol / self-destructive habits and makes him an immediately more relatable character and one I very look forward to reading more of. In fact, all characters in Deadly Harvest are well written and convincing, many of which have back stories and character arcs that you know are going to make for intriguing stories as the Detective Kubu series continues (Deadly Harvest is the fourth and the fifth – A Death In The Family – is due soon).

The writer, Michael Stanley is, in fact, the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both Sears and Trollip were born in South Africa and on a flying trip to Botswana, they watched a pack of hyenas hunt, kill, and devour a wildebeest, eating both flesh and bones. That gave them the premise for their first mystery, A Carrion Death, which introduced Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. I’ve read books set in many a location but never one set in Botswana. It meant that this was one of those books that sent me off to that search engine beginning with G to discover more – always a good thing. Messrs Sears and Trollip write of Botswana with an authority that places the reader firmly in the location. They do a great job of weaving in genuine social concerns both in terms of the country’s political climate, the divide between wealthy and poor and the growing threat of AIDS and its devastating impact on families. The writers have a clear gift both for story-telling and hooking a reader – I was asking myself throughout as to just how the killer had lured the girls into his car so easily and the final reveal left me going back through wondering how I’d missed those clues that Kubu had put together. A genuinely intriguing and rewarding read.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for continuing to send me such high-quality novels and inviting me to be a part of this blog tour for Deadly Harvest. Do get a hold of the book if my review has any sway and check out the other stops below:

Deadly Harvest Blog tour

 

Epiphany Jones

Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s breasts are different from the last time we fucked; they’re bigger, not as a firm. There’s a hint of a stretch mark on the left one. The leading lady is bent over, gripping the bedpost.”

….and so begins one of the most impressive and original books I’ve read to date. Michael Grothaus’ Epiphany Jones is a blisteringly sharp and biting novel that will drop jaws with every revelation.

A precis from the jacket / pr:

IMG_9108Jerry has a traumatic past that leaves him subject to psychotic hallucinations and depressive episodes. When he stands accused of stealing a priceless Van Gogh painting, he goes underground, where he develops an unwilling relationship with a woman who believes that the voices she hears are from God. Involuntarily entangled in the illicit world of sex-trafficking amongst the Hollywood elite, and on a mission to find redemption for a haunting series of events from the past, Jerry is thrust into a genuinely shocking and outrageously funny quest to uncover the truth and atone for historical sins.

Yep; one hell of a premise. Michael Grothaus expertly treads the line between outright hilarity and darkly disturbing, maintaining sufficiently steady a balance to keep readers gripped without . That’s not to say it doesn’t shock and appal – indeed, despite the sputter-your-coffee opening this novel is definitely not one for the light-hearted. Without wanting to give too much away, Epiphany Jones runs the gamut – from celebrity-porn addiction (which if you’ve read Grothaus’ journalism you’ll know isn’t all that fictional), the vacuity of Hollywood and the obsession with celebrity culture to moments which touch upon the very worst of humanity and some that are genuinely shocking in their brutality.

It takes a very brave writer to take his audience down those roads and a very gifted one to do so in such a way as to keep them with him. From the opening chapter it’s clear that Grothaus is just such a writer. He knows how to get a reader hooked and hooked in such a manner as to hold them, no matter how dark the road is going to get. The plot leads in gently – Jerry, king of the asides, is a celebrity-porn obsessed guy who also happens to suffer from psychotic hallucinations who goes from a mundane life working behind the scenes at Chicago’s Art Institute (when he’s not taking me-time breaks with Variety) to a violent life on the run that leads him to blowing open an international child sex-trafficking ring. Humour helps (if my First Aid training didn’t teach me not to put fingers down a choking person’s throat then this book did), as does the brilliant pace and the fact that the characters are brilliantly realised and intriguing enough to get you fully invested in them. As the plot unfolds there is so much to take in that it’s impossible to not want to see it through, Grothaus baits the narrative with enough mystery and intrigue to keep you desperate for more with each jaw-dropping revelation leading to another.

Back when I took my Literature degree I took what many considered an odd choice and wrote my dissertation on the use of humour in the works of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Yeah because books like The Grapes of Wrath and A Farewell To Arms are known fodder for stand-up routines. But, you see, we need to laugh when dealing with heavy stuff. How many times do you need to hear “laughter is the best medicine” or see examples of gallows humour when we’re trying to cope with darkness? Just as Papa mixes his comedy with vulgarity or Steinbeck peppers his dialogue with left hands covered with Vasoline, in Epiphany Jones, too, the humour is key – from the dry observations to the occasional slapstick, it’s how Grothaus manages to pull you through and keep you with him. It’s how he helps lure you down into darker waters – by the time it gets real dark over the Mexico border, for example, you know you’re already in good hands –  and yet it never threatens to take away from the seriousness of just what is being exposed. It even manages to ensure that while he’s not top of the likeable list at the start of the book, the reader develops an increasing soft-spot for Jerry and will share in his devastation at the end. Indeed, don’t be fooled; when the jokes stop Grothaus can hit you with an emotional and dramatic punch like the best of them. Here, too, are occasions when you may need to put the book down to truly process what you’ve just witnessed.

Everything is in here – from gripping pace to outright shock, from murder to birth, abuse to revenge and from comedy to tragedy. Epiphany Jones is a very, very clever, tightly-knit book that delivers more depth, pacing and reading pleasure than most and an ending that leaves you with just as many questions and “now what?”s as it does conclusions. I can’t recommend it enough.

My thanks, again, to Karen at Orenda who’s selection of genre-defining novels ensures that my bookshelves and To Read pile contain brilliant books – for sending me Epiphany Jones and do check out the rest of the blogtour.

Epiphany Jones Blog tour