Page turning, 2018 Part 1

I read a lot last year. I cleared 41 books in total, surpassing my target by 1. So, did I extend my target for this year? No, I’m going for 40 again – it seems like a good target and I don’t think I’d necessarily find more reading time in my days to get another 10 in.

That being said, I’m already off to a strong start to the year with 7 down and 2 on the go at the moment.

Oddly enough, there’s a bit of a theme that ties three of these four – and at least another four on the TBR for the next couple of months – together that wasn’t necessarily intended but Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park was the first of the year and probably set the ball rolling.

Gorky Park was one of those books I’d often see in bookshops and ponder its contents before moving on but, this time, I read the back and took it home. An absolute 5 Star book – well deserving of the attention and praised it received. A crime thriller set in Soviet Union during the Cold War, Gorky Park reads more like literary fiction than your standard thriller and is so thoroughly engrossing and, in Arkady, powered by a great character – I’m genuinely glad that this one evolved into a series of novels and will  be adding the following instalments (along with everything Ellroy’s) to my longer term reading list.

Trying to vary my reading I thought I’d take a stab at a ‘classic’ early on this year and ended up continuing a theme. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is set in a Soviet labour camp in the early 1950s and follows the single day of one of the prisoners – Ivan Denisovich. Ivan’s deep into a 10 year sentence for ‘spying’ – he’d escaped his German captors during the war, made it back to his lines and was arrested as a spy. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the Gulag system and it adds a sense of weight and truth to this novel (if you’re up for a heavier read his Gulag Archipelago is a game-changer). It’s a short but intense read and noteable as it was one of the first accounts of Stalinist repression to have been published (less than 10 years after Old Whiskers’ death).

Of course, there’s always a need for something lighter and, as my Discworld collection slowly grows toward completion, I’ve usually got a Terry Pratchett novel ready to reread for the first time in at least a decade. I had – again – forgotten just how painfully funny The Last Continent is. First published in 1998, that means it had been two decades since I’d last read it and, as I had the briefest of memories of it and remembered nothing of its plot it was akin to reading it for the first time. Pratchett’s parody of Australian culture and media touch-points – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee all get a warm roasting – easily sits as one of his funniest and most accessible reads. The invention of Vegemite and Australian slang, in particular, had me chuckling into the night.

Back in 2016 I read Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin. It’s a great novel, a cold-war thriller set in Berlin as the divide was going up. Another book-shop spotting, this year’s Defectors again finds Mr Kanon setting his work in the cold war, this time – spotting that them yet? – in Moscow. As the title suggests, Defectors tackles the theme of the defections in the 1950s / 60s and, specifically, what came next. A former CIA agent, Frank Weeks slipped the net and escaped to Moscow and, over a decade later, sends word to his brother, Simon, that he – and the Soviet State – wish to publish his memoirs and wants to use Simon’s publishing house to do so.

Leaving aside the twists of the plot for fear of giving anything away, where Defectors excels is in the depiction of life for those former ‘field agents without a field’ – living in a strange suspended state, a  sort of prison within the larger prison of the Soviet Empire. Technically ‘free’ to be yet only allowed to travel to enclosed dacha complexes, use certain stores and continually monitored. Kanon manages to fill his story with sufficiently realistic and historically accurate details to make it ring true without overdoing it and slowing down the momentum – this is a thriller after all. Kanon clearly an author whose back catalogue now warrants investigation.

Up next: more Russian classics, some World War Two diaries and some new novels from Nordic Noir’s godfathers…

A time of wanting but not really knowing…

My lapsed blogger status seems to have become a reality, it would seem. My new role keeping me at “off my tits” busy level. As such I didn’t find opportunity to do a “Best of” “Looking Back at” post for the last year and now that we’re almost nearing the end of January Part 2 it would be pretty pointless.

But there is one album I want to talk about and it kind of bridges a gap between best last year, this year and 1992. I’ll explain…

There were some great re-releases last year. A lot of hype went to Thommy and his  mates’ magnum opus but one of my favourites flew a little under the radar: Buffalo Tom’s  Let Me Come Over – 25th Anniversary Edition. I’ve written of BT before so won’t go too deep on the history of (one of, at least) Boston’s finest but Let Me Come Over was a breakthrough for them in terms of songwriting, contained some of their best songs and – with Tailllights Fade – almost saw them crack through into the mainstream.

Last year’s re-release didn’t add a great deal – there’s no exhaustive combing of the vaults for versions where the guitar was tuned slightly differently or the inclusion of b-sides. Instead there’s a fantastic 17 song live set on the second disc (well, 10 on the vinyl with the full lot on the digital) that sees the three-piece add more power and guitar tone to album (and career) highlights in concert up at the University of London’s student union.

Already one of my favorite albums, the reissued Let Me Come Over got a lot of plays last year, and would usually be the one album I point to as their career-best. But… but BUT: then along comes something new.

In a couple of weeks Buffalo Tom will drop Quiet and Peace. However, as an early backer on Pledge Music, I’ve been able to have this album playing in my car since December and I don’t think a week has gone by where I haven’t listened to it at least once.

I don’t think – judging by the press reviews that are starting to appear – I’m alone in saying that, 25 years after their previous such effort, Buffalo Tom have made another career highlight in Quiet and Peace.

It’s both rousing and reflective, channeling the maturity and seriousness that set them aside from other college rock bands in the early 90s, into a beautifully warm, almost autumnal feel. Sample lyric: “Now my time behind is greater than my time ahead” from ‘All Be Gone’.

When I first go into Buffalo Tom it was on the back of 2000’s Asides From compilation that marked the commencement of a hiatus for the band. It would be seven years until they got it back together. Quiet and Peace is the third album since they reconvened and, not to bag on Three Easy Peices or Skins, it’s easily the best they’ve done since and easily has had more plays than some of their latter post-hiatus records too. There’s a cohesiveness to it (perhaps down to mixing from John Agnello  – Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady.. and Buffalo Tom – or Dave Minehan’s production) and the songs sound just that little bit more well-brewed. Or maybe it was just an alignment in the cosmos or something, who knows how it happens but the ten new songs on Quiet and Peace – and the closing over of ‘Only Living Boy In New York City – make for one of Buffalo Tom’s finest collections to date, their new best record released just after celebrating the birthday of their previous one.

There’s precious little I can share in terms of songs or videos from it at the moment but keep an eye out for it in early March – Quiet and Peace is a belter of an album.

 

Away Message – Currently Listening

Believe it or not Tony isn’t at home, please leave a message at the beep….

I’m on holiday at the moment but here’s a little of what’s been spinning in my ears of late…

Am fost la munte și mi-a plăcut – Unde Erai In 1995?

Appropriate on two levels as a) I’m in Romania right now and b) I did just go to the mountains and liked it a lot (am fost la munte și mi-a plăcut) but I discovered this post-rock band from București a little before I left. Their album S-A Rezolvat. Nu Se Poate – released this year – is great. There’s something of The Wall era Floyd about that opening guitar line – and other parts of the album – that I love.

Lost in Kiev – Insomnia 

In “it’s a small world”… I saw a picture of this French group’s album Nuit Noir along with the description ‘dark, looming epic post-rockintertwined with a spoken word narrative’ and new it was for me. I’ve barely stopped listening since. Oddly enough only as I put it here do I also hear some Pink Floyd element in the keyboards too.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Empty Arms

You know when you don’t listen to something for ages and then you hear it and kick yourself for having omitted it from your playlist for so long? This came on in a GBK while we having a burger a while back and, yup, I kicked myself and went home and put SRV back into rotation.

The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations

So I’m now up to The Hold Steady’s third and – I think – breakthrough album Boys and Girls in America and it’s fucking awesome. At once it’s a case of kicking myself for not having heard it sooner and feeling like it’s so familiar.

For those about to blog…

So… fellow music blogger Jason Ritchie who runs the The Rockin Chair Blog has a series where he salutes other music bloggers by giving them a quick Q&A. I was more than happy to take part when he asked me and you can read my answers here should you so wish.

The Rockin’ Chair is a place for Jason “to highlight new and old music” with an emphasis on the rock and well worth a follow.

 

Tony Hill pens the excellent ‘Mumbling About’ blog that combines music and books and he has a wide taste in both. Well worth a visit. What inspired you to start writing/blogging about music and books? I’ve been blogging in one way or another for about ten years now. I gave up on the personal stuff […]

via For Those About To Blog…We Salute You: TONY HILL — The Rockin’ Chair

2016 Between Covers

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

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

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

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

Fiction

IMG_7211Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Torpov

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

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

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

For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

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

imageIn Her Wake by Amada Jennings

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

Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov

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

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

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

The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov

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

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

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

Non-Fiction

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

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

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

 

Honourable Mentions…

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

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

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

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

I’ve often said that when it comes to this blog and what I can devote time-wise there’s a line and that real life comes first.

As such, while my family and I come to terms with a recent tragic loss, there’s a pause here.