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.

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.

Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 2

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace

When touring the split-personality In Your Honor Foo Fighters would play two shows in each town / city – one big rock show in an arena and another in a smaller venue showcasing the quieter acoustic side of that album along with some re-readings of their back catalogue with an expanded line-up including a violinist, a pianist and former-Foo Pat Smear. The latter format would be captured in the lacklustre Skin and Bones and, at some point after the tour – as Dave Grohl tells it in ‘Back And Forth’ – the chief Foo was chatting with Clive Davis, boss of RCA (with whom the Foo Fighters have been since 1999) and expressed how great it would be if the Foos could be the band that did these different shows to demonstrate the different sides of their music and people could go to whichever appealed most and wouldn’t necessarily have to go to both. In what Grohl seems to have taken as a Svengeli comment (as opposed to, say, simply stating the bloody obvious), Davis replied “you can do both together” and the ‘Gimmick’ behind Foo Fighers Album 5 took root.

Taking In Your Honor‘s half-electric, half-acoustic approach and deciding to do it all on one album, often one song, meant that Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace saw the Foo Fighters incorporating more instrumentation and styling detours than before and scoring plenty of scorchers along the way. Lead single and opener ‘The Pretender‘ is top-drawer Foos and still ranks as one of their best. ‘Let It Die’ – acoustics giving way to screaming power chords and Grohl at full wail – is the perfect meld of the two Foo dynamics and shows the formula working at its best and ‘Erase/Replace’ is another and holds up well ten years later. ‘Long Road To Ruin’ is standard Foo Fighter mid-pace that was killed by over-play, ‘Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up Is Running)’ (a working title that stuck) is a good, fun blast. Thing is, even with Gil Norton at the helm, it’s when the band stretches that the cracks show – ‘Summers End’, ‘Statues, ‘Home, ‘But, Honestly’…. they’re ‘ok’ but not quite the finished article they should be and there’s nothing about them to lodge in memory and the lack of power house riffs apparent in the first half of the album makes the closing third drag just a bit too long.

Still, I’d be the last person to fault a band or artist for trying to stretch themselves – to stand still is to go backwards and all that – and the efforts would yield fruit soon enough….

Highlights: ‘The Pretender’, ‘Let It Die’, ‘Come Alive’, ‘Erase/Replace’,’Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up Is Running).’

There Is Nothing Left To Lose

This is where I, and I’m sure plenty of others, came in. ‘Learn To Fly‘, it’s video and There Is Nothing Left To Lose broke the Foo Fighters to a lot of people and deservedly so though I can’t help but feel that, in the passage of time and the band’s continual evolution into STADIUM ROCK BAND, it’s often forgotten.

Just before the band would head out on tour for The Colour and the Shape, Pat Smear announced he wanted to leave. He hung around and continued to tour while the band found a replacement in Grohl’s former Scream bandmate Franz Stahl but, after that tour, Stahl too was fired. It’s clearly still a sore point for those involved but it would appear that writing for Foo Fighters Album 3 wasn’t working with Stahl. Feeling that the previous album’s recording sessions with Gil Norton were too arduous, Grohl decided to record the next one in his basement with the band as a three-piece – once Nate Mendel had quit for a day*.

Grohl has said of the sessions that “At that point it was me, Taylor and Nate and we were best friends. It was one of the most relaxing times of my whole life. All we did was eat chilli, drink beer and whiskey and record whenever we felt like it.” There Is Nothing Left To Lose feels like it was a blast to make. It’s got the energy and drive that would inform their later work but also retains the quirky charm of their earliest recordings. If I recall correctly there was an interview around the time where Grohl said he was focused more and more on melody too and there are times – ‘Aurora’, ‘Generator’, ‘Live-in Skin’ and the Police-like ‘Headwires’ when There Is Nothing Left To Lose is a great power-pop record. ‘Next Year’ and ‘Ain’t It The Life’ are great showcases for the band’s developing mellow side while ‘Stacked Actors’ and ‘Breakout’ are the obligatory harder edged cuts which, oddly, do nothing for me and seem positively out of place overall on this album.

Highlights: ‘Learn To Fly’, ‘Headwires’, ‘Aurora’, ‘Next Year’,’Generator’

Concrete and Gold

I gave my first impressions on this one only recently and I still think it ranks up there as one of the band’s finest. Free of the gimmicks the band headed to a big studio, hired a producer and the only focus was on creating a shit load of good songs. They succeeded. When talking of Gil Norton’s involvement on Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Taylor Hawkins said it had been the first time “Dave had to deal with someone in the room questioning all his ideas”. Between these two albums it would seem that nobody really questions Dave’s ideas when they needed to because Concrete and Gold is the Foo Fighters album they’d been trying to make for a long time – a heavy mother with plenty of diversity and reach but, more than on any other attempt, consistency and quality.

In the build up to its release, the PR machine latched on to Dave Grohl’s description of it being Motorhead taking on Sgt Pepper. Ryan Adams has called it their Revolver. Concrete and Gold doesn’t quite achieve the premise of its PR – though it does feature Paul McCartney – and is, at the end of the day, a Foo Fighers ROCK album. To quote my initial review “It does, however, stand apart in the Foo Fighters cannon and is the sound of the band playing to those highs and strengths its achieved during its ascent to stadium rock act while also stretching out enough sonically to both refresh its sound and offer a welcome hand to those fans like me that had begun to wonder if Dave Grohl had anything interesting left up his sleeves. Turns out he does.”

Highlights: ‘Run’, ‘Make It Right’, ‘The Sky Is A Neighbourhood’, ‘Dirty Water’,’Arrows,’ ‘Concrete and Gold’.

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.

Blog Tour: Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

From the PR:‘Long ago my beloved Nanny Eve chose my name. Then one day she stopped calling me it. I try now to remember why, but I just can’t.’

Thirty-two-year-old Catherine Hope has a great memory. But she can’t remember everything. She can’t remember her ninth year. She can’t remember when her insomnia started. And she can’t remember why everyone stopped calling her Catherine-Maria.
With a promiscuous past, and licking her wounds after a painful breakup, Catherine wonders why she resists anything approaching real love. But when she loses her home to the devastating deluge of 2007 and volunteers at Flood Crisis, a devastating memory emerges … and changes everything.

Dark, poignant and deeply moving, Maria in the Moon is an examination of the nature of memory and truth, and the defences we build to protect ourselves, when we can no longer hide…”

Ok, I’m starting to think the best way to approach Louise Beech’s novels is with the same level of trepidation with which I watch a Pixar film; just when you’re settled in with the characters and plot she manages to completely sucker punch you emotionally. This is certainly true of last year’s The Mountain In My Shoe and it’s most definitely true of Maria In The Moon, Louise Beech’s latest novel and one which – on the strength of her previous two efforts (well, published efforts as this was written first) – I’d looked forward too with eager anticipation. Of course she managed to completely wreck me again.

Hang on, that sounds almost like a conclusion – let’s back up a bit. How does Louise Beech manage to leave me – and, from what I’ve seen of other reviews for this book – her readers feeling like they’ve been watching the opening ten minutes of Up? Well, first she creates characters that live and breath within the pages of her novels. This isn’t a crime thriller or one waiting to be turned into a Tom Cruise movie – Louise Beech deals in real people battling against circumstance and struggle that few should have to face (I say this because each of her three novels to date has done so so brilliantly). This means that Catherine Hope (great surname choice, considering) becomes an immediately relatable and human figure for whom we as readers almost immediately begin to feel empathy. She’s funny, kind and plagued with doubt and has a gaping hole in her life thanks to her father’s early death. Yeah, it’s impossible not to let your heart go out to Catherine – especially as a parent – when Louise so effectively portrays the grief and turmoil that entered Catherine’s life at a young age.

But Catherine has another gap in her life. There’s a vast period of her life that she can’t remember that becomes apparent – because how do you know you’ve forgotten something if you’ve forgotten it? – when she’s asked to recall what happened when she was nine. Of course, nobody puts up a mental block because something amazing happened and we need to forget just how happy we were so we know that there’s a trauma at the centre of Catherine’s memory block but, given that her father had died before that period, we too are at a loss for a) what it could be and b) just how bad it has to be that the death of her father remains in her memory but this doesn’t.

Of course, Louise Beech knows how to write a story so we’re not about to get the answer immediately – besides, suppressed memories don’t just return to you because you file a reveal request with yourself. Catherine’s journey to discovery takes us on one hell of a ride and by the time the reveal comes slamming home like a wrecking ball, I doubt any reader will not be desperate for both answers and for Catherine to catch a break.

And, yes, that reveal is a wrecking ball. It was hard to read and will alter your breathing, this isn’t a bad thing; I’ve said before that a writer that’s scared to challenge shouldn’t be writing and Louise Beech is not scared to do so. Yes, it’s something that’s been dealt with in fiction before and no doubt will gain but few writers manage to handle this subject and its impact as well as this. I’m not going to give a spoiler here but I will say that it did leave me feeling gutted and bare and that’s because of both the subject matter and Louise’s skill at both leading the way to the reveal and unfolding it at exactly the right moment – she doesn’t go overboard, there’s no hacky dramatics or cheap-movie moments, just genuine honest and true emotion and deftness of hand, allowing events and characters to play out. This – as I’ve said before – is where Louise Beech stands apart, writing with an emotional bravery and honesty that few others can or do and delivers something that, because you’re so caught up in the character and because it’s written so honestly, hits fucking hard.

Again; don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a book that’s all emotional wreckage. Maria In The Moon is also very funny, immensely charming, engrossing and bloody well written and will stay with you for some time. So, yes, in a way, my opening summary still holds and, in the same way I still check out a Pixar film I’ll do the same with the next novel to be penned by Louise Beech and recommend doing the same.

Thanks again to Karen and Orenda Books for my copy, no-thanks to “sorry not sorry” Louise Beech for wrecking me again and do check out the previous stops on the BlogTour.

Blog Tour: House of Spines by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he
discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who it seems has been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up.

Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman…

A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the Gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly…”

So, here we are with the latest novel from Michael J Malone and, I’ll be honest, after getting into House of Spines I did have to double check that this is the same Michael J Malone who wrote last year’s A Suitable Lie for Malone – as one glance at the man’s ‘cv’ will attest – is a very talented chameleonic writer clearly with “over 200 published poems, two poetry collections, six novels, countless articles and one work of non-fiction” to his name.

Whereas A Suitable Lie was something of a domestic-noir thriller with a twist on spousal abuse, House of Spines is very much a psychological thriller with heavy horror overtones and mystery that brings to mind the likes of Rebecca. Its setting in an old, practically empty and isolated manor really upping the opportunity to give Ran and the reader a real sense of the willies with the jarring jolts between Ran’s seclusion in the house and visits back to the modern world in the local village lending a further sense of disconnect between the ‘real world’ and the events back at Newtown Hall.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and well played mystery by Malone too, so thoroughly absorbing that’s impossible not to get caught up in and it’s impossible to express how so without given away a tiny bit of the plot so I’m gonna have to say that the next paragraph contains a SPOILER ALERT.

They say that if you’re only exposed to one narrative for so long you’ll eventually try and find ways to identify with it and find a sort of kinship (a sort of literary Stockholm perhaps) and this is true of House of Spines and Ranald. You get completely caught up in his viewpoint (even though it’s not told first-person) and, thus, in his struggles between distinguishing reality from fantasy and feeling completely in the dark on so many key points. For in the same way that his cousin has lead him a merry dance and played on Ran’s mental state so, too, is the reader left uncertain as to what is reality and what is the effect of Ran’s own mental state with so many puzzle pieces kept from view or merely hinted at with other characters holding on to key facts or leaving me exasperatingly frustrated at their seeming vow of silence on them. I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to take a character and shake em by the lapels and scream “just sodding well tell him what the hell you know!”

I didn’t seen the final reveal coming, any of them for this is a mystery of many facets, and that’s always a good thing and the final sentence – in true horror style, managed to give me a chill. But then there’s so much going on for such a relatively novel it’s a wonder that it does all get resolved. From Ran’s own parental background, Newtown Hall and his Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick’s history to the current cousin-related concerns and it’s to Malone’s credit that the novel never feels over-stretched and these story lines are not only given all the space and to breath and come to fruition but are so ably wrapped up within the novel’s pages without feeling in the least bit rushed.

House of Spines is a cracking read that combines a real mystery with a genuinely touching and emotionally affecting story that, at times, makes you really feel for Ranald (and others without wanting to give anything else away) and one that I thoroughly recommend.

My thanks again to Orenda Books for my copy and inviting me to take part in this blogtour.