38, 39, 40…. 41! Pages Turned

I thought it was going to come down to the wire but I managed to hit my, strictly self-imposed, challenge of reading 40 books in 2017 and even managed to squeeze in an extra for added bonus points.

Oddly, aware of the looming ‘deadline’ I still pulled the hefty Phantom by Jo Nesbo from the the TBR pile to kick off the final stretch. Continuing the Harry Hole saga in chronological progression from The Snowman  I’m enjoying every instalment more than the last and Phantom was a real gripper for every one of its 550 or so pages, taking every element of the Hole saga to date and turning them up to 11. As he develops as a writer, Nesbo manages to take an almost literary-fiction style approach to the thriller genre, layering in so many different sub-plots and factors as to really mark his work out as a leader in the field.

Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Girl Who Wasn’t There is very much a book of two halves, so very distinctly different in terms of narrative style that I had to double check it was still the same story. It had been on the shelves for a year or so after my wife read it with my occasionally eyeballing it and I’m very much glad I decided to read it, if only based on the thinking that it’s slightness would enable me to reach my goal. Instead I discovered that it’s one of those deceptive short-novels, with so much packed in as to feel like a larger read. A beguiling an beautiful slow-burn of a first half coupled to a completely bat-shit crazy, what the fuck is going on, fast paced thriller of a conclusion.

With two weeks remaining in the year I thought I’d round out the 40 with the only non-fiction of the year (something of a rarity in itself) – Robert Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow. As a big fan of HBO’s Band of Brothers and having read the material that informed that show too, I thought I’d do the same with 2010’s The Pacific. While not as absorbing, to me at least, as Band of Brothers there was an intensity about The Pacific which meant I quickly bought the books that had informed it…. and let them sit on my shelf as I never got round to them. Having been left aghast at the perception of his war by South Pacific – Robert Leckie put pen to paper to give an unflinchingly honest and occasionally harrowing description of his experience as a Marine during the Second World War. What I look for in such a book isn’t the “guts and glory” – that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to my near-pacifist mentality – it’s the accounts of normal people who find themselves in an extraordinary situations unimaginable to those of us who live in a sheltered, comfortable world (due, thinking about it, to their actions).

Helmet For My Pillow, clearly the work of a literary man, makes for a shocking read at times but I found it compelling throughout and deeply human. It certainly ranks up high in the list of those memoirs of this era I’ve read*. Leckie manages to find the humanity in what were deeply dehumanising circumstances. Particularly striking for me was this passage:

But, with the festive break from work affording more reading time I managed to clear Leckie’s book with time to spare and got started on book 41 of 2017, a gift from my wife, The Book of Mirrors by EO Chirovici, a Romanian author. Turns out this one was something of a big deal in the publishing world back in 2015 – this is Chirovici’s first novel in English and was snapped up by publishers in 23 countries, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals ahead of its actual publication in 2017. After all that hype is it any good? Yes, in short. I thoroughly enjoyed it even if, for the first session or two with it I was still feverish and ended up with it going round in circles in my head. It’s a simple enough whodunit that explores the reliability of memory but Chirovici delivers it with a lot of narrative play, a lot of psychological twisting and turning and a nice leaning on good old mystery and thrill.

I’ve hedged my bets for 2018 and not extended my aim beyond trying for 40 again.

 

*Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner ranks as my favourite and Alan Deere’s Nine Lives probably rubs shoulders with the U-Boat commander’s account.

I have legalised robbery, called it belief

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a strange thing that I reckon probably means more in the States than it does here. I think it’s a lot of backslapping really but seems like excuse enough for a good bout of entertainment each year as those acts inducted – depending on which member is still not speaking to another for perceived slights / lawsuits / wife fondling or other – blast through a couple of their most well-known numbers.

While I’m sure many a musical press headline will be given over to whether an estranged guitarist will rejoin his former New Jersey bandmates and plug in his talkbox, the really interesting one for me is the induction of Dire Straits.

Aside from seeing a very British band being pulled into a distinctly American ritual, the big question is whether or not Mark Knopfler will decide this is reason enough to play with those other members that are being inducted.

Given that one of those members being inducted is his brother David, who left the band all the way back in 1980 and the two have barely spoken since – it makes for quite the plot twist. While original drummer Pick Withers left in 1983 his departure was an amicable one so I doubt any issue would arise there. Of course there’s no doubt bass player, and the only other member to have been a constant, John Illsley is up for it: he’s said as much to press since the announcement and, to me, seems like the Nick Mason of the band – always up for the reunion that isn’t in his power to call.

It’s odd that Dire Straits are being inducted at all, in a way. It’s probably evidence that the “fan ballot” is now being considered, I suppose (and who would’ve pinned Dire Straits as getting that many votes?), but while there’s no denying their talent and popularity (how many people have a cd with a shimmering National Resonator on the cover? Thirty odd million?) they never seemed likely contenders for such a… recognition.

In a way they were never cool. My wife recently said – while not faulting them – they were a bit “boring.” It’s certainly true that they were never really innovators or swore on national tv or that Knopfler’s image was permanently removed from any possibility of cool thanks to those sweatbands, but I find it odd they don’t get much recognition in the same way so many other bands of that era have been offered in the urgency to bestow “legendary” status on those bands music writers remember from childhood. Rolling Stone put it succinctly “it might be a stretch to expect [millennials] to understand how band frontman Mark Knopfler, a balding thirtysomething given to wearing headbands and wristbands, used to  fill arenas full of young people. Pop stars don’t really look like dads as much as they used to. ”

I guess they’re just not ‘cool’ enough to be mentioned as influences or remembered beyond ‘Money for Nothing’ or ‘Sultans of Swing’ as far as radio programmers go.

Which is a real shame. I grew up with a grey TDK mixtape of their first four albums on heavy rotation in my Dad’s car so they form an important part of my musical education and, as I’ve said before – they’re all too often sneered at though I’m sure there’s an awful lot of guitarists and bands influenced by Knopfler’s playing. If it wouldn’t be counter-productive I’d give my right hand to play some of those licks and master that tone (I remember spending a huge amount of time learning ‘Private Investigations’).

They weren’t just four (or five or six depending on the time you caught them) blokes that looked like your geography teacher playing in a pub band. They lasted as long as they did – going against the flow of punk, new romantics and synthpop and fucking Duran Duran – and sold as many records as they did because behind the deceptively laid back phrasing and style there’s a master songwriter and formidable guitar player at work in Dire Straits’ back catalogue and to refute that is just plain ignorant. So – regardless of whether some format of the band gets up and plays ‘Romeo and Juliet’ one more time – I’m glad to see them being inducted. Well deserved.

That being said I am rooting for Knopfler, Illsley and Withers to at least play together one more time and put the thing to bed properly.

In the spirit of trying to get away from the obvious, here’s a playlist of a baker’s dozen ‘non-regulation’ tracks that you won’t find spun on radio but really should.

 

 

Pages turned

I seem to have become a lapsed blogger again. It’s what happens when life gets busy and spare time either shrinks or becomes more important. In this instance a new role has kept me busier and lunchtimes have not lent themselves to composing updates.

However – I’m now done for the year so let’s catch up, shall we?

I’m pretty much on-track to hit my self-imposed target of 40 books this year with the last one well underway with a week and change left of 2017. I managed quite a bit of progress this last month or two though with a book like The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy there’s no way to read it quickly.

Ellroy’s writing has been praised by many before and better than I’m sure I could. I will say that his is a unique and powerful voice that envelops a reader and sucks you into the seedy underbelly of 1950’s LA with a knack for the ‘big’ storylines that cross and weave into something huge. If I’m forced to I’d rate The Big Nowhere over The Black Dahlia – a much wider ranging story – and am anxious to move on to LA Confidential in the New Year.

I’ve yet to write that post I keep meaning to on Terry Pratchett. In the meantime my rebuilding of my Pratchett collection is going well. I’d say that of the 41 Discworld novels there’s what I consider a ‘golden’ period where Sir Terry hit his stride and get his style on the nose. For my money it’s from 1989’s Pyramids through to Monstrous Regiment in 2003. That’s a hell of a time frame for quality output  that recent re-reads Reaper Man and Feet of Clay both fall within. It had easily been 15 years since I’d read Reaper Man and I’d remembered nothing of it aside from ‘Death takes a holiday’ so I loved every page. The same could also be said of Feet of Clay though my memory of that one was clearer so I knew almost exactly where it was going – that being said it was still a pleasure to re-read. The Dark Side of the Sun, that being said, is pre-Discworld Pratchett and his voice was not yet found. It’s a very heavy-sci-fi book and feels, for the most part, as though Pratchett is trying too hard to force himself into a style that’s not his. There’s a brief section where the humour and narrative that would make him one of the UK’s biggest-selling authors makes an appearance but, for the most part, the 158 pages of The Dark Side of the Sun felt like a slog through three times as many.

Thinking of my need to clear a few more books by the end of the year I played a ‘cheat’ card and read 61 Hours by Lee Child – because reading a Reacher book never takes more than a couple of sittings. After being disappointed by the recent Night School I was very surprised by 61 Hours and would say it ranks up the top of those ten or so Reacher novels I’ve read to date. A great concept and plot setup and the countdown really pushes you on. The fact that Lee Child took Reacher out of his comfort zone and stuck him in an inhospitable location that often handicapped him really helped and I get the feeling Child himself was trying to shake the format up too – especially as he left Reacher’s fate unknown at the end.

Blog Tour: Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson

WhiteoutFrom the PR: “Two days before Christmas, a young woman is found dead beneath the cliffs of the deserted village of Kalfshamarvik. Did she jump, or did something more sinister take place beneath the lighthouse and the abandoned old house on the remote rocky outcrop?

With winter closing in and the snow falling relentlessly, Ari Thór Arason discovers that the victim’s mother and young sister also lost their lives in this same spot, twenty-five years earlier. As the dark history and the secrets of the village are unveiled, and the death toll begins to rise, the Siglufjörður detectives must race against the clock to find the killer, before another tragedy takes place.”

With Whiteout, the fifth of his Dark Iceland novels published into English by Orenda Books (though, I think, the fourth chronologically?), Ragnar Jónasson seems to have set himself a challenge – a remote and isolated location, a small (and dwindling) number of witnesses / suspects and a limited time window for the investigation. Throw in the possibility that there was foul play afoot in the deaths of the victims mother and sister years previously in the same location and Mr Jónasson has created a belter of a read.

Taking  characters and events out of Siglufjörður removes both the characters and the reader from the relative comfort zone of the former instalments of the series and adds a real edge to proceedings, heightened further by both the remoteness of Kalfshamavík and the chilling nature of all three deaths under investigation. Setting such a chilling (and, come the reveal, thoroughly disturbing) series of events against the backdrop of the build up to Christmas and its festivities doesn’t hurt either: in place of festive cheer and celebrations there’s deaths and secrets being dragged up.

As this is part of a series – though would certainly work just as brilliantly as a stand alone – I’ll restrain myself from dropping any spoilers.

Having translated some fourteen Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic before embarking on his own writing career, Ragnar Jónasson was no stranger to the genre but while I’m sure there will be comparisons drawn (I’ve never read a Christie novel but am familiar enough with the style, certainly thanks to the numerous television adaptations), it’s Jónasson’s skill as a writer that makes the Dark Iceland series so addictive. With Whiteout he expertly weaves a deep and intricatly plotted mystery  that’s genuinely compelling with calm and deliberate pacing that slowly builds to a dramatic reveal. That he does this against the challenges of both the closed setting and ticking clock without making it feel rushed is even more impressive.

One of the other compelling aspects of the Dark Iceland series has been the life and development of Ari Thór. While the pacing and time pressure of the main narrative of Whiteout don’t necessarily allow for too much insight into Ari, what there is still enough to ensure the reader remains plenty interested in this Icelandic copper and most certainly lays the groundwork for some revelations to come.

In a way, the location and focus of Whiteout make it an unusual instalment in the Dark Iceland series though Ragnar Jónasson’s skill as a writer ensures it remains an essential one.

Thanks to  Orenda Books and Anne Cater for my copy and inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

Currently Listening

Here we are again. Another ‘series’ down and a couple brewing in the pot and time for a look at what (alongside continual listens to Lost In Kiev’s Nuit Noire) my auditory ossicles have been pinging on down the line of late.

The Mono Jacks – 1,000 De Da

This one was sent to my wife last week via our friend in Romania who gave me some ammo for my Out of Europe on that country and I’ve been listening to it and their new album pretty solidly since. My Romanian isn’t strong enough to offer a translation but I’m told it deals with a certain kind of… parental method that a lot of Romanians today can identify with and “represents our inner children yelling for freedom as we each carve our own paths in life”. The Mono Jacks describe themselves as sounding “between alternative rock and post-punk touches”. As the review on the band’s site says: “I’ve seen most of the British bands ploughing this particular furrow, and The Mono Jacks have better songs than pretty much all of them.”

Destroyer – Chinatown

Another example of strange ways to discover music…. I was looking at an album on Amazon a week or two back and down in the “recommended” type carousel I saw Destroyer’s Kapputt at £5 for a double lp. Out of nothing more than curiosity and intrigue after scanning the glowing reviews (numerous album of the year accolades and reviews like “an astonishing world in just nine songs” and “an open love letter to a vanished pop era: it’s unique and warm and beautiful” ) I checked it out on Spotify and was hooked and hit ‘buy’. Why it was so cheap I have no idea, but, to quote another review “a brilliant and accessible album that draws from the lush sounds of the early 1980s but never forgets the importance of songwriting”.

Band of Susans – Elizabeth Stride 1843-1888

Again – different ways of discovering music. I saw a book (I think on Instagram) that I thought might be interesting called ‘Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981–1996.’ I downloaded a sample chapter and while it’s more a case of “author’s favourite 500..” the description of Band of Susan’s Here Comes Success got me intrigued and I’ve had this opening track on a lot since. There’s a really obvious late-80’s Sonic Youth element to it along with *that* guitar sound. This one actually sent me down one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes that lead to the Saucy Jacky postcard (“you’re a saucy one, Jack”). Apparently Leo Fender was a rabid fan – of Band of Susans not Jack the Ripper.

Pearl Jam – Release, 1994 Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA

Because Jim at Music Enthusiast has got me seriously considering delving deeper into a Pearl Jam series and because I need no excuse to listen to Pearl Jam I’ve been spinning the live disc that came with the Vs/Vitalogy box. In terms of Pearl Jam live albums it’s probably the finest ‘official’ release out there.

Bruce Springsteen – I’ll Stand By You Always

Again in preparation for a possible series / longer post… (my notebook is starting to fill up with these and I haven’t even touched on the 100 Essential Albums thing..) back when Springsteen was doing the promo rounds for his book he confirmed the existence of this one as having been written for, and turned down by the producers of that film about kids and magic. At the time he said that it was “very uncharacteristic of something I’d sing myself.” “It was something that I thought would have fit lovely.” Well, despite being locked down for over a decade it emerged this year on a bootleg set called Odds and Sods. Perhaps not suited for a kids movie as such it’s certainly a different take for Bruce and would probably rank quite highly on his ‘movie songs’ list. It comes from the start of a very prolific song-writing period for Bruce and while he currently squats on Broadway in another activity that keeps him from releasing any new material it’s worth a listen for fans.

In terms of where this sits with sessions and musicians…. It’s listed as “copyright June 13, 2001” so my guess is that it could be from the E Street sessions at Thrill Hill East of that spring – between the end of the Reunion Tour and the start of The Rising sessions later that year in Atlanta – that Springsteen considered fruitless but there’s so little on it in terms of ‘band’ sound that it could just as easily be a solo recording.

Current Spins

Oops, been a while, again.

There’s been a few slabs of wax that have slipped into the racks of late and have been in fairly regular rotation so, along with those, here’s a little gander at what’s going in the old earbuds of late…

Pearl Jam – Let’s Play Two

This one I’d forgotten pre-ordering so was quite surprised when it arrived.Let’s Play Two is the ‘soundtrack’ to the upcoming concert film / basebell love-in of the same name. I’m not one for sports in general and baseball is a uniquely American currency I think so I’m not too excited about the film. While neither the best soundtrack to a PJ film (that’d be Pearl Jam Twenty) or a great Pearl Jam live album, Let’s Play Two is still a worthy listen given that Pearl Jam are one of the best live acts still giving it their all and while the song selection is slight – the band played over thirty songs each night – and not in true concert order, you can’t argue with a great rendering of ‘Given To Fly’, ‘Release’ and one of my own favourites, ‘Inside Job’.

Various – Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)

While I still don’t really know what to make of either the majority of the series or the finale to the revival of Twin Peaks – aside from it being Lynch’s take on not wanting things to get old / pass – the soundtrack is a great thing. This one – as opposed to the score – is made up from songs played at the Big Bang Bar at the end of the episode along with a couple of those that featured elsewhere including the stellar Live From Monterey Pop recording I’ve Been Loving You Too Long by Otis Redding. Of course, there’s a couple – particularly the ridiculous inclusion of ‘Just You’ – that aren’t what I’d call top drawer but with tracks like Eddie Vedder’s exclusive ‘Out of Sand’, Rebekah Del Rio’s outstanding ‘No Stars’ there’s a lot of strong songs on here that have ensured this has received a few rotations.

The Replacements – For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986

“THE REPLACEMENTS TO RELEASE FIRST OFFICIAL LIVE ALBUM (RECORDED IN FRONT OF MORE THAN 30 PEOPLE)” said the sticker on the front of this one. This live recording – forgotten about / lost until earlier this year captured the band at a turning point; their first major label album just out, just ahead of the firing of original guitarist Bob Stinson. A 29 song setlist that captures, as one review puts is succinctly, the “moment when the tug-of-war between the Replacements’ split personalities—the perma-blotto garage band vs. the refined rock craftsmen—had escalated into a bloody battle.”

Tom Petty – You Wreck Me

For reasons sadly obvious

Blog Tour: The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen

From the PR: “A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists.

With a nod to Fargo and the best elements of the Scandinavian noir tradition, The Man Who Died is a page-turning thriller brimming with the blackest comedy surrounding life and death, and love and betrayal, marking a stunning new departure for the King of Helsinki Noir.”

I was not expecting this book to be the book it is, if that makes sense. See, last year I read The Mine – a complex and intelligent thriller that was at times very dark and dealt with some pretty heavy issues. As such I was kind of expecting a read of a similar nature, not that that would be a bad thing. That’s certainly not what The Man Who Died is. The best way to explain this is quote from the Acknowledgements: “After writing five very dark books… I started to feel that I needed to change things up a bit. More than a bit, to be honest. I told my agent this. I think I also told him I needed a laugh a bit.”

The Man Who Died reads like a Finnish Kurkov novel. It’s ridiculously good; brilliantly conceived and plotted, fantastically treads the line between laugh out loud and wickedly dark, surreal humour and has so much going that it’s pretty much impossible to put down. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

From the moment Jaakko receives his diagnosis and starts ‘waking up’ it’s an absolute ripper of a story as he discovers just how much has been going on around him while he’s been blissfully unaware. It would be impossible to point out exact specifics without giving away any plot – and I really don’t want to do that because I sincerely urge all to read this book – but there are so many moments that are so deliciously absurd that I found myself laughing aloud.

Every word in this book is vital and well placed, it takes real skill to get the pacing just right – especially when told first-person narrative – and Antti Tuomainen has it spades. It cracks along at a sizzling pace and it’s hard to believe that so much takes place in such a short space of time sorry wise yet there’s not a moment of bloat as the story builds to its er… explosive finale. A really gifted writer at work here.

The Man Who Died is easily one of my favourite reads of the year. A real treat and one can only hope Antti Tuomainen feels the need to laugh in his writing again.

My thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and inviting me to review and take part in the blogtour.