Leonard Cohen, RIP

Woke today to the news that, on the 7th November, Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82. The Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist had a long and and varied career that saw him pen some of the most revered songs ever put to tape. Taking his colours from the darker end of the palette his were songs that were often better known when sung by others but, in my own opinion, that merely highlighted the quality of his writing. It took a lot to make an arse of such great source material.

While not a huge fan, there’s perhaps just a couple of his albums in my collection (when you factor in that he released  14 studio albums that’s hardly representative), but few could argue that Mr Cohen was an excellent songwriter. Thanks to “Hallelujah” (on which I see Jim at Music Enthusiast has just posted) he’s probably one of the most covered / heard songwriters there is and yet it’s likely few have heard his own version of the song.

Some time ago on a blog almost now forgot I dropped a post citing Songs of Love and Hate as one of my 100 Essential Albums. I’ll share that post here, now, as it seems somewhat fitting:

I know it’s been said before and there’s no way it won’t be said again, and I also know that I’m likely to incur the odd spiteful comment or grimace from those true musos and aficionados that like to put things up on pedestals when I say that I concur with the sentiment that Leonard Cohen writes great songs, for other people to sing.

It sounds awfully popularist to say that Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is the better (if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s not my favourite JB song) and somewhat cliché to say I’d take Concrete Blonde’s version of “Everybody Knows (and I, surely cannot be alone in that) and that “Tower of Song” is better served by Nick Cave’s vocals. That’s not to say I don’t like Mr Cohen, far from it – nobody can question the man’s ability. It’s just that sometimes his voice doesn’t give the songs the life which that of another artist can breath into it.

That being said, there isn’t, however, a single song on Songs Of Love And Hate that I think is better suited to anyone but Leonard. From the moment his voice pours over the tumbling strings of “Avalanche” to the final “la” of “Joan of Arc”, this album, to my mind (and, hey, what’s this blog all about anyway?) is the perfect match for his voice.

Even “Diamonds In The Mine”, which often gets held up as a ‘what the hell is he doing with his voice?’ works for me – it brings to mind one of Bob’s bitter, angst-ridden, rants. While his voice isn’t in it’s natural key there’s no questioning the sincerity of the emotion it bellows.

The fact that he barely touches “Dress Rehearsal Rag” live because he found it so depressing just speaks volumes. The album itself is pretty damn far from cheerful, his voice aches with regret and despair throughout and for someone so seemingly at home with the bleak to come up with something that he himself finds depressing… I have to take my hat off to it.

For me thought there are two songs that define this album and warrant it’s inclusion on this list – “Avalanche” and, of course, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. The number of times I’ve found myself singing ‘New York is cold but I like where I’m living’ or ‘it’s 4 in the morning, the end of December’ and left them hanging in the air because, frankly, that song is damn near perfect in both it’s lyrics, the way it delivers such power from such relatively straightforward wordplay and a nagging melody. Which is why I love “Avalanche” too. A tumbling, cascade of guitar strung notes plunging you straight away into Cohen’s voice.

While it doesn’t contain his best songs, Songs Of Love And Hate does contain the best songs for himself.

To add a little more to this post I’ll include a couple of other favourites from Mr Cohen’s tower of song:

 

The Bird Tribunal

From the PR: “Two people in exile. Two secrets. As the past tightens its grip, there may be no escape… TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44- year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough…”

the-bird-tribunal-a_w-v4When I think of short books there’s many a favourite read that springs to mind – Pereira Maintains, Mother Night, Of Mice And Men… These are novels that manage to deliver  a cracker of a plot, great characterisation and plenty of punch without ever feeling rushed. There’s not a wasted full stop. And now I’m going to add The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn to that list.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but I’d been eagerly anticipating this book since its cover was revealed back in April – there’s something mesmerising about that boat, empty and adrift on the fjord that’s not only intriguing but most certainly helps set the tone – after all, we all know what lurks beneath such still waters.

I wasn’t disappointed – I hungrily devoured this book in two sittings. It’s an intensely captivating read.  The Bird Tribunal is an intense, beautifully written book which pulls you in with its chilling atmosphere, weighted with an undertone of menace and barely-concealed dread as the initial calm and tranquillity is soon consumed by the darkness in the shadows, leaving you absolutely gripped as it builds to its thrilling conclusion. 

The pacing is superb, the characters and their motivation captivating, the plot gripping and original and the atmosphere – making full use of the stark, imposing nature of its remote Norwegian setting – is chillingly beautiful and spell-binding.

If there were stars at the bottom of these reviews this one is an easy five.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for sending this to me and do check out the other stops on the The Bird Tribunal blogtour:

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A Suitable Lie

I saw her curled up in a chair. Fast asleep. Even in the weak light I could make out the silted lines of mascara that ran from her eyes and down the pale expanse of her cheeks, almost past her nose.

She had obviously fallen asleep waiting for me.

And that was the first time I thought about murder.

 

From the PR: “Andy Boyd thinks he is the luckiest man alive. Widowed with a young child, after his wife dies in childbirth, he is certain that he will never again experience true love. Then he meets Anna. Feisty, fun and beautiful, she’s his perfect match … and she loves his son like he is her own.  When Andy ends up in the hospital on his wedding night, he receives his first clue that Anna is not all that she seems. Desperate for that happy-ever-after, he ignores it. A dangerous mistake that could cost him everything.

A brave, deeply moving, page-turning psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie marks a stunning departure for one of Scotland’s finest crime writers, exploring the lengths people will go to hide their deepest secrets, even if it kills them…”

A Suitable Lie AW.inddI’ll put my hands up; after the initial hook, most certainly an attention grabber, I started to wonder where this one was going… the courtship of Andy and Anna makes for a pleasant and often humorous read but not one that I was expecting after the opening quoted above.

But then… well, then I realised just how crafty Michael Malone is. All the gentle domesticity, all the loved-up courtship and redemption for Andy -the average guy trying to raise his son after the devastating loss (and here Mr Malone writes with a convincing and affecting sense of emotion) of his wife…. it’s just the lure to get you on the hook because this book.. this book is a sneaky bugger; lulling you into a false sense of security before delivering a read stuffed with a palpable sense of dread and tension and one which is, more frequently than not, a disconcerting and terrifying read.

Sitting at the core of this novel is the theme of domestic abuse and here Michael Malone takes a familiar trope and flips it on its head in a way that many have tried before but few have done with such startling and genuinely harrowing results. Malone deals with a very difficult topic with both sensitivity and boldness, delivering scenes of raw emotion and – frankly – horror which manage to skilfully tread the line between exploitation and being shocking realistic. There are scenes in this novel that make for an uncomfortable read but a story that doesn’t challenge the reader isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and A Suitable Lie both challenges and rewards.

I don’t want to give anything resembling a spoiler away here as I’d rather recommend all to go out and read but I will say that there are parts of this story that left my mouth open. The conclusion is both heartbreaking and gripping in its intensity and twist – to use an oft-overused phrase – a real roller-coaster.

Michael Malone has a clear and unarguable talent when it comes to prose and story and A Suitable Lie is an engaging read  that will remain with you long after the final page has been turned – it went very quickly from being a “where’s this going?” to costing me sleep as I simply had to find out.

Huge thanks once again to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me yet another great read and do check out the other stops on the BlogTour:

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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.