Everything Happens for a Reason by Katie Allen

From the PR: “Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong.

Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.

When a misguided well-wisher tells her that ‘everything happens for a reason’, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.

Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…

Both a heart-wrenching portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life-affirming and, quite simply, unforgettable read.”

I’ve gone back and forth a few times on how to tackle reviewing Everything Happens for a Reason, it’s not an easy one for me to review – simply because I haven’t read a book this emotionally powerful in some time.

The blurb gets straight to the point: Rachel’s son Luke was stillborn. The events of Everything Happens for a Reason are relayed through a series of emails from Rachel to her unborn son. It’s a brilliant concept that makes for a modern take on a diary-like nature of story by ‘instalments’ while both immersing the reader in Rachel’s world and never getting away from the heart of the story – that Rachel is writing to someone she’ll never get to really speak to.

Grief is a multifaceted, complex and uniquely personal process – while it’s inevitable that people will share common elements in their experience of loss I don’t think the world stops turning for everyone in the same way. Rachel’s loss of a baby is one that I know I’d find insurmountable and Katie Allen writes with an emotional honesty and forthright nature that’s both arresting and inviting in its openness. This book broke my heart on multiple occasions yet I could not put it down.

But then that’s probably because it also made me laugh on multiple occasions too and had me gripped throughout.

Katie Allen has written a novel that’s not only a deeply moving reflection on loss and grief but is also bloody funny at times, that’s chock full of brilliant characters and happens to be wrapped around a thoroughly compelling and clever plot that takes more than a few turns for the massively unexpected.

Everything Happens for a Reason doesn’t cover an easy subject and there are times when it’s a real heart wrench but it’s also a warm, bittersweet, hugely rewarding and brilliantly written novel.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Everything Happens for a Reason and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl

From the PR: “The award-winning Godfather of Nordic Noir returns with a fascinating and richly authentic portrait of Oslo’s interwar years, featuring Nazis operating secretly on Norwegian soil and militant socialists readying workers for war…

Oslo, 1938. War is in the air and Europe is in turmoil. Hitler ’s Germany has occupied Austria and is threatening Czechoslovakia; civil war rages in Spain and Mussolini reigns in Italy.

When a woman turns up at the office of police-turned-private investigator Ludvig Paaske, he and his assistant – his one-time nemesis and former drug-smuggler, Jack Rivers – begin a seemingly straightforward investigation into marital infidelity.

But all is not what it seems. Soon, Jack is accused of murder, sending them on a trail which leads back to the 1920s, to prohibition-era Norway, to the smugglers, sex workers and hoodlums of his criminal past … and an extraordinary secret.”

There are few genres I enjoy more than a good slab of historical fiction. Of course, setting a novel in the past is no guarantee of a good entry into the genre and trying too hard to wedge a story in a time and place for no other reason than a writer’s fancy will result in a novel stifled by too many era-cliches and historical tropes, something too many authors who should know better have fallen prey to. What this means is that in a crowded genre, it’s easier to come across pyrite than the real thing.

However, having already given us the magnificent The Courier in 2019, Kjell Ola Dahl has once again given us a masterclass in historical fiction with The Assistant: a wonderfully plotted, sophisticated slow-burning thriller that makes for a highly addictive and rewarding read.

The problem with a book this good is reviewing it in a way that does it any justice. Having already been familiar with Kjell Ola Dahl via his Oslo Detective’s series, The Courier blew me away and here he’s done it again. The Assistant is an absolute belter of a read, it hooked me in from the outset and delivers a wonderfully complex story line that’s set in two distinct and different time periods – a Norway under the shadow of a looming global conflict and the prohibition-era of the 1920’s. There’s never a sensation that the story could have taken place at any other time and yet nor is there a sense that the author is using history as a crutch to prop up the narrative. It’s absolutely delicious in this.

Whether we’re talking about an Oslo Detective novel or a stand alone such as The Assistant, Dahl has a real gift for creating intricate and meticulously plotted story lines that are a real joy to behold as they come together – especially when elements span across two decades. Not rushed, but to be savoured like a good brew. He’s another of those writers you feel you wouldn’t want to play chess, so complete is his mastery of the long game.

The characters are both timeless and very much of their time. They’re also bloody brilliantly portrayed of course but that goes without saying with Dahl – he’s a master of the written word and getting to read these novels is always a real pleasure.

A superb story that lives and breathes in its historical setting without exploiting it, compelling characters and a genuine mystery all told with Kjell Ola Dahl’s glorious narrative style – no fool’s gold here: The Assistant is definitely one of Dahl, and the genre’s, finest.

Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of The Assistant and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review and take part in the blog tour.

The Source by Sarah Sultoon

From the PR: “1996. Essex. Thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Carly lives in a disenfranchised town dominated by a military base, struggling to care for her baby sister while her mum sleeps off another binge. When her squaddie brother brings food and treats, and offers an exclusive invitation to army parties, things start to look a little less bleak…

2006. London. Junior TV newsroom journalist Marie has spent six months exposing a gang of sex traffickers, but everything is derailed when New Scotland Yard announces the re-opening of Operation Andromeda, the notorious investigation into allegations of sex abuse at an army base a decade earlier. As the lives of these two characters intertwine around a single, defining event, a series of utterly chilling experiences is revealed, sparking a nail-biting race to find the truth… and justice. A tense, startling and unforgettable thriller, The Source is a story about survival, about hopes and dreams, about power, abuse and resilience.”

Where to start when talking about The Source? I think it’s safe to start with just how different a novel this turned out to be compared to what I was expecting after the first chapter.

The Source gets off to one hell of a beginning with an investigative news team getting the inside line on the child sex trade (it’s not a novel for the faint at heart), a dramatic game of cat and mouse and escape that had me thinking I knew where this was going.

And then it changed tact and, I’ll be honest I was starting to wonder where the novel was going to take us but then… then there’s a precise moment – and I don’t want to give away what that is for risk of spoiling the story – at which the penny drops on where the Carly story line is going which just so happens to coincide with the tempo in the Marie narrative switching up a gear, and then this book doesn’t let go. It’s a massively compelling read and it really is a case of not wanting to miss a moment and see how the two narratives collide.

Sarah Sultoon has written an intricately plotted and unflinching novel that manages the not so mean feat of tackling hugely sensitive and shocking subject matter (grooming, abuse of power and neglect) and still delivering a novel that’s addictive and full of heart. A bloody fine read.

You know this is fiction and yet you also know that there are far too many instances in which it mirrors events that happened and the author is able to carefully portray these without going to far, expertly walking that thin line of leading us to it without actually showing us the events – skilfully pulling emotions from the reader without exploitation. it makes it unbelievably affecting and powerful.

The characters are what will make or break a story that tackles such a barrel of gunpowder like subject and with The Source Sarah Sultoon has given us a great set of characters – each with their own set of revelations and watching as they navigate the perilous turns of The Source is what makes it so compelling as it throws them and the reader through the emotional wringer. And it is a real gamut run of emotions, from frustrated anger to gut-punch ‘oh no’ moments, set against a plot line that’s equally edge of seat reading.

A stunning debut that pulls no punches and succeeds on my levels, The Source is a great read. My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of The Source and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Bad Day in Minsk by Jonathan Pinnock

From the PR: “Tom Winscombe is having a bad day. Trapped at the top of the tallest building in Minsk while a lethal battle between several mafia factions plays out beneath him, he contemplates the sequence of events that brought him here, starting with the botched raid on a secretive think tank and ending up in the middle of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

More importantly, he wonders how he’s going to get out of this alive when the oneperson who can help is currently not speaking to him. Join Tom and a cast of disreputable and downright dangerous characters in this witty
thriller set in a murky world of murder, mystery and complex equations.”

I’ll be honest, reading that description alone felt like a case of ‘this book is bang up your alley’ so it was an immediate ‘yes please.’

Turns out that Bad Day In Minsk is in fact the fourth of Jonathan Pinnock’s ‘mathematical mystery’ series featuring Tom Winscombe but, as the author points out – ‘being a reasonably conscientious sort of person, Tom does his best to paraphrase what has happened in the previous books.’ While I do now want to go back and read the previous three books that’s not down to needing details filling in more down to the fact it more than works as a stand alone novel and that I enjoyed Bad Day in Minsk so much.

That’s because Bad Day in Minsk is indeed right up my alley – a ridiculously madcap and superbly plotted story that zips along at a cracking pace, taking in an escape from a prison camp in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, kidnapping, murder, home-made vodka, a massive battle between Belarus’ mafia factions, an escape from the top of a burning building, plenty of twists, turns and – fittingly – chaos theory.

There are some brilliantly surreal and, frankly, hilarious moments throughout Bad Day In Minsk as Tom tries to make sense of it all and stumbles into increasingly bizarre and perilous situations. The pairing of such outlandish circumstance with the Tom’s character – the absurdity of a PR exec tearing through Belarus in a violent pursuit of dangerous mathematical papers is never lost on our protagonist – make for a hugely compelling romp.

An engaging and addictive read full of great characters and wit, I barrelled through Bad Day in Minsk and enjoyed every moment.

My thanks to Farrago / Duckworth Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review and take part in this blog tour.

Facets of Death by Michael Stanley

From the PR: “Recruited straight from university to Botswana’s CID, David ‘Kubu’
Bengu has raised his colleagues’ suspicions with his meteoric rise within the department, and he has a lot to prove.

When the richest diamond mine in the world is robbed of 100,000 carats worth of gems, and the thieves are found, executed, Kubu leaps at the chance to prove himself. First he must find the diamonds – and it seems that a witch doctor and his son have a part to play.

Does this young detective have the skill and integrity to engineer an international trap? Or could it cost him everything?”

It feels like it’s been way too long since a new Detective Kubu novel arrived on my shelves. Whenever one does I know for a fact that I’m going to love every second of it and Facets of Death delighted on every page.

Reading the work of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (writing as Michael Stanley) is always a genuine delight and, as much as I enjoyed Dead of the Night, Detective Kubu is one of my favourite characters – I’m sure I’ve said it before but in David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Sears and Trollip have created a character I could read all day every day and never get bored.

Facets of Death takes us back in time to 1998 and Kubu’s first week on the job, it’s a strange sensation – seeing our old friend starting out, finding his way and putting his foot in it. We know where Kubu will end up down the road but it’s great fun watching him get started – whether it’s learning the kind of questions to ask, the importance of biting your tongue or forming new relationships.

Thankfully there’s none of that dreaded false jeopardy that often plague ‘prequel’ novels as, for one thing, this seems more about showing the experiences that informed the detective Kubu would become rather than using a younger model to punch in a more lively manner and, for another, Messrs Sears and Trollip are too busy laying out a ridiculously good plot and mystery.

Facets of Death kicks off with a taught and gripping heist then gradually unfolds into a brilliantly crafted and complex mystery that left me guessing to the end. From the initial heist, violent murders, setups and, of course, the influence of witch doctors, there are so many facets to the story that it’s a real joy as all the elements are expertly lined up and pieced together.

Once again populated with convincing characters, evocatively detailed and deliciously rooted in Botswana and its traditions, Facets of Death is a joyously rewarding read and another rich addition to Detective Kubu series.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Facets of Death and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blog tour.

Albums of my years – 2002

It’s time for a little less conversation, a little more action, please. Steak knife! We were makin’ our way downtown, walkin’ fast, faces pass and we’re homebound, boot cut!, while Las Ketchup treated us to the Ketchup Song and Eminem asked us what we’d do if we had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything we ever wanted. Dope dick! Avril Lavigne tried to reinvent how to wear ties AND the way we write ‘sk8er’ and ‘boi’ (the latter, oddly, seems to have stuck), pawn shop!, and Enrique Iglesias wanted to be our hero, baby. Con job! That’s right; it’s 2002! Oh, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers tried to say they’d be there, waiting for…

It was a strange year. I think that that the events and aftermath of 9/11 still cast a shadow. I dunno, it feels like it was a subdued year looking back at the music world. Plenty still happened – I mean, Nickleback left the stage at a festival in Portugal midway after their second song as a unimpressed audience sent a few rocks their way, Graham Coxon left Blur, Paul McCartney married his second wife Heather Mills (that would work out well – met her once, can’t say she was even slightly pleasant, in contrast to the ever-charming Paul), and Coachella returned to its two-day format. Normally not noteworthy in itself but 2002’s is: Dave Grohl played both days, the second with his Foo Fighters having already played the first with Queens of the Stone Age having drummed on their 2002 release Songs for the Deaf and toured behind the album. However, there was a lot of animosity amongst the Foos and the band were on the verge of splitting up (One by One languishing in an unfinished / unreleasable state and Dave enjoying being a drummer not a front-man again) – however, the band felt suitably delighted and bolstered by their Coachella set and decided to give both band and the album another go.

There were some pretty heavy farewells in 2002.  Feeder’s drummer Jon Lee committed suicide, Dudley Moore died after years with a debilitatingly degenerative brain disorder, Dee Dee Ramon died from a heroin overdose, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes was killed in a car accident, The Who’s John Entwistle died after a heart attack and, December 22nd, Joe Strummer suddenly died due to an an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. He was 50. 

On April 19th, after years of drug addiction and seemingly deliberate chasing to its logical conclusion, Layne Staley was found dead in his apartment. He weighed just 39kg and his partially decomposed body required identification by dental records. He’d kept away from people gradually isolating himself from everyone he knew over a period of years, emaciated, lost most of his teeth and several fingers. He’d died on April 5th – the same days Kurt Cobain 8 years previous – aged just 34.

It’s hard to think of music from the year that stands out. My obvious first ‘go to’ is Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising which was both a comeback of great proportions and Springsteen’s response to 9/11. I’ve covered it before as part of my Least to Most on the Boss but it’s still worth highlighting as one of the best of 2002’s albums. 

Damien Rice’s O was released in 2002 as was Regina Spektor’s Songs and Alanis Moriessette’s Under Rug Swept – none of which were too shabby at all really. Paul Westerberg – free of major label input and big-name producers – turned in one of his strongest solo albums to date, Stereo (and released a counterpart Mono as his Grandpaboy alias which was just as bloody good). 

Wilco released their epic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on Nonesuch after Warner Bros. had refused to release it. It would be widely acclaimed and cited as one of the decade’s finest. Up yours Warner Bros., I guess. Following the enthusiastic reception to 2001’s ‘Green’ album, Weezer released Maladroit – the first to feature Scott Shriner on bass – a harder edged and absolutely belting album. Jerry Cantrell released his second solo album Degradation Trip, Sonic Youth the brilliant Murray Street which harkened back to longer, more experimental songs while feeling tighter and more structured, Red Hot Chili Peppers released By The Way and The Flaming Lips dropped Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.  

Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground arrived from Bright Eyes in August and Interpol released their debut Turn On The Bright Lights. There was also new albums from Nada Surf with Let Go and Iron & Wine with the sublime The Creek Drank the Cradle. Foo Fighters’ One by One arrived via the thumping lead single ‘All My Life’ in October and the Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf was released in August. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released the lacklustre The Last DJ and Audioslave – which featured Chris Cornell members of Rage Against the Machine – released their powerful selt-titled debut Audioslave.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor released another genre-classic with Yanqui U.X.O. which did away with the field recordings and replaced them with pure, raw-sounding angry and epic post-rock. They’d go on hiatus shortly after its release and wouldn’t release another album for ten years.

Not calling it a day after taking a year-long break following the events of Roskilde and touring in support of Binaural, Pearl Jam returned in 2002 with Riot Act – an all-too-often overlooked album which gets stronger with each repeated listen. But, I’ve covered both that album and Pearl Jam’s ‘lost’ period pretty extensively already on this blog.

So… a bit of a quiet year on the release front from my wheelhouse but there’s one from 2002 that I continually put on and lose myself in: 

Sigur Rós – ()

How to talk about an album like ()… an album with no real title other than ‘brackets’ and with no official track titles? 

Sigur Rós’ third album was a real surprise for many who were probably expecting a direct continuation of the work on Ágætis byrjun. In a way, it is. But it’s also perhaps the most left-field in their main catalogue. Now, of course, some seven years down the road from their last proper studio album as they busy themselves with releases of projects built around loops and programmed fractions of music it doesn’t seem so.

However, the reason I love () so much is the feel of this album. Back in 2002 I’d just caught on to the band on the strength of their previous album and remember getting hold of this new, I loved everything about it from it’s wonderfully minimal packaging and artwork to the click of distortion that opens and ends the album.

It’s split into two distinct halves – the first four tracks more ‘light and optimistic’ and I still get a sense of ‘aaahhh’ when ‘Untitled 1’ – or ‘Vaka’ as it would become known – kicks in all these years later. 

Sigur Rós didn’t make any massive changes to their sound for () – those more dramatic shifts would come later – but the subtle adjustments, the gentle smoothing and make it seem like a more ethereal (and I hate using that word especially as so many use it when describing this band) sound than previously achieved or since as Takk would feel like it was a more logical follow up to Ágætis byrjun in a way. The success of that album, driven thanks to the success of ‘Hoppípolla’ means that () is often forgotten.

I kind of see Sigur Rós work like that of Pink Floyd’s – you know it was made by a group of people using traditional instruments and yet, somehow, it seems untouchable and slightly removed from the ordinary and it’s never been more apparent than on ().

Albums of my years – 2001

Now that we’re back in the atmosphere with drops of Jupiter in our hair we can reflect on the year in which Travis wanted us to ‘sing, sing sing sing sing sing sing’, we got our freak on with Missy Elliott, Pink got the party started while Lifehouse were hanging by a moment (whatever the hell that means), we discovered that heaven is a halfpipe and Nelly wanted us to ride wit him. Yup; it’s 2001.

It’s that year the world got knocked off its axis in September and we’re still dealing with the fall out, the “War on Terror” began, an earthquake of massive proportions in India killed 20,000 people and Apple released iTunes. 

At the Drive-In, Cast, Catatonia, L7, Elastica, Ride, Sunny Day Real Estate (again),  and Anal Cunt all called it quits in 2001. Arcade Fire, Audioslave, The Dresden Dolls, Fall Out Boy, The Fire Theft, Jet, My Chemical Romance, M83, The Mars Volta and The Postal Service were amongst those bands forming this year. We also said goodbye to George Harrison in 2001. After fighting lung cancer, which had spread to his brain, George Harrison died at Paul McCartney’s house in LA on 29 November 2001. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in keeping with Hindu tradition. A concert – the Concert for George – would be held on the one year anniversary of his death as a celebration as his life and work.

So who released what? Any good albums arriving in 2001? Well, this was the year Jack Johnson released his first album, Brushfire Fairytales, John Frusciante revealed what it’s like To Record Only Water for 10 Days, Spoon released Girls Can Tell and Aerosmith released a bit of a stinker in Just Push Play

Semisonic released their brilliant third, Dashboard Confessional pushed emo twee to new lengths with The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (and, currently, final) album All About Chemisty, Ben Harper and Bruce Springsteen both released decent live albums (which don’t count on this list), Red House Painters released their last album Old Ramon and Neil Finn released his second solo album One Nil.

Colin Hay released his sixth solo album, Going Somewhere, Mogwai released the brilliant (there’s not a Mogwai album I don’t like) Rock Action and, sticking with post-rock, Explosions In The Sky released their second album Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever. Released on September 4th the album’s artwork became a bit of an issue very quickly and picked up media attention as the liner notes of contain a picture of an airplane and the text “This Plane Will Crash Tomorrow”. Oh, and The Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band may not have settled on the wording of their band’s name yet but released their second: Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward.

Mercury Rev released the superb All Is Dream, Bob Dylan continued his late-career comeback with Love and Theft, Ben Folds’s first solo album Rockin’ The Suberbs arrived in 2001 as did Tori Amos’ concept album Strange Little Girls, Eels’ Souljacker, Radiohead gave us the amazing Amnesiac, My Morning Jacket’s second At Dawn, Death Cab for Cutie’s The Photo Album, Bush’s lacklustre The Golden State and Incubus’ Morning View which contains the great lyric “the garbage truck beeps as it backs up and I start my day thinking about what I’ve thrown away”. 

The Shins released Oh, Inverted World, The White Stripes kicked into a new gear with White Blood Cells and Tool gave us the beast that is Laterlus. We got a couple of slabs of the good ‘pop-rock’ from Weezer with their green Weezer and Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American (which would soon be retitled).REM’s Reveal, the first point at which I went ‘meh’ with their studio albums, arrived in 2001 and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gave us the gorgeious No More Shall We Part and Sparklehorse the wonderful It’s a Wonderful Life.

When it comes to the albums released in 2001 that sit on my shelves, the one that’s probably been played the most and I think of as being of that year, it’s:

Ryan Adams – Gold

I know, I know; it’s both a pretty obvious choice and his name is somewhat… contentious these days, but Gold was an album that instantly made good on the promise of Heartbreaker and took him up a gear. It also contains a huge amount of cracking tunes. 

The thing about Gold… I wouldn’t even say it’s Adams’ finest but it’s easily his most unabashedly open and accessible (and best selling) set of tunes that just goes down so easy but there’s so much more at work behind what initially sound like a simple set of tunes: take ‘New York, New York’ (the timing of its release and video was pretty fateful) with it’s gorgeous organ fills and horn section that kicks in at the end:

It’s such a warm and lush sounding album, the production perfectly suiting Adams’ then writing style that moves away from the stripped back sound of his solo debut Heartbreaker and makes use of major-label clout and carte blanche to make an album rich in arrangements that nods to some of those most hallowed of his influences, predominantly of the 70’s rock variety, while remaining distinctly contemporary and keeping such flourishes in-check so they don’t over-power. I listen to ‘Rescue Blues’ (which was featured, oddly, in the Owen Wilson film ‘Behind Enemy Lines’) and hear those gorgeous ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ background singers:

Then there’s great songs like ‘La Cienega Just Smile’ which I’ve already highlighed, or ‘Firecracker’ or ‘Stars Go Blue’… it’s chock full of them.

There’s an argument that it suffers from CD bloat at 16 tracks but that in itself is down to the start of what would be a long, drawn-out bone of contention between Adams and his new label Lost Highway: Gold was envisioned as a double but the label weren’t having that. For all the freedom they allowed him in making the album and its sound that was too much for them. They took some of the tracks intended for ‘LP2’ and made a single disc, with the remainder put on a limited ‘bonus disc’ edition. A move Ryan would describe as “Fucking my fans over and making them pay extra for a record I wanted to be a double album. They counted that as one record.”

It was the start of a strange relationship – when they heard his intended follow up Love Is Hell they rejected it as being too uncommercial. The result was that Adams would record Rock ‘n’ Roll in two weeks (it showed) and Love Is Hell would be split into two separate EPs. When these proved successful, Lost Highway stuck em back together into a single album. When his deal with Lost Highway was complete – no doubt sped up by Ryan Adams releasing three albums within a seven-month period in 2005 – he’d form his own and point out that despite an already heavy back catalogue, there were more still that the label had said no to releasing. 

However, all that (and a whole lot more) lay ahead. In 2001 Gold was the album that propelled Ryan Adams forward in his craft and into a lot more peoples’ record collection. It’s a great bunch of tunes that I still slip into the CD player nearly 20 years later and while its production soaks up cues from influences of decades prior and its lyrics remain universal, it has a very distinct 2001 feel to me.

Blog Tour: Containment by Vanda Symon

From the PR: “Chaos reigns in the sleepy village of Aramoana on the New Zealand coast, when a series of shipping containers wash up on the beach and looting begins.

Detective Constable Sam Shephard experiences the desperation of the scavengers first-hand, and ends up in an ambulance, nursing her wounds and puzzling over an assault that left her assailant for dead. What appears to be a clear-cut case of a cargo ship running aground soon takes a more sinister turn when a skull is found in the sand, and the body of a diver is pulled from the sea … a diver who didn’t die of drowning…

As first officer at the scene, Sam is handed the case, much to the displeasure of her superiors, and she must put together an increasingly confusing series of clues to get to the bottom of a mystery that may still
have more victims…”

I’m not sure you could find a more fitting title for a book to review in light of current events… but this is not a virus-related story 😀

Let’s start by saying this: Vanda Symon really knows how to hook a reader. 2018’s Overkill had one of the most gripping and devastatingly affective cold openers I’ve ever read. Last year’s The Ringmaster barrelled along at an addictive pace and Containment, the third in the Sam Shepard series, throws in enough twists and layers of intrigue to keep your fingers glued to the cover. It’s one of those “just one more chapter” books that can cost you sleep.

The notion of a grounded container ship is one that’s always fascinated me – Symon does a great job of summing up just how bloody weird and wrong the thing looks – and makes for a great kick off and centre point for the plot. Nothing good comes from looting, folks. Everything – from international drug trafficking, murder and a very unexpected motive – starts here with this unlikely of scenes and combining it with Shephard’s physical and emotional disorientation makes for a great read.

Containment is a brilliantly paced novel with plenty of unexpected plot curves and bags of humour too. I think what I enjoy most about this series is the manner in which all the seemingly unrelated threads gradually come together and you realise – a few cracking red herrings aside – you’re building to something special by way of a reveal – and as for the ending? I’m not gonna give away any spoilers but: holy shit what a punch in the gut. Vanda Symon just keeps ratcheting up the ante with every chapter. Can’t wait to see what’s next in this series because there’s no way that’s an ending as much as a ‘to be continued…’

I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend Containment – my thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and to Anne for inviting to take part in this blog tour (I think this might be my first since June) check out the other stops as below.

50 Great Films to Mumble About

Ok, so back at the end of 2018 I put together a list of 50 Great Reads having been inspired by A Thousand Mistakes’ own list. I also pointed out that I doubted I’d be able to put together a list of 50 Great Films as he had done.

Turns out I could. Once again; this isn’t my saying ‘these are the best’ – it’s more ‘these are my favourites’ and ‘I could watch these time and time again’.  Looking at it laid out after compiling I’m not-really surprised by how many De Niro outings there are on here. There was a time he was untouchable. A couple of directors that don’t have MS as their initials get a few multiple listings but I reckon it’s a fairly rounded list that crosses genres and spans 70 years from 1946 – 2016.

So, in no order, except alphabetical:

Almost Famous (2000) Director: Cameron Crowe Starring: Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup
Amelie (2001) Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet Starring: Audrey Tautou, Matthieu Kassovitz, Jamel Debbouze
Back to the Future (1985) Director: Robert Zemeckis Starring: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
The Big Lebowski(1998) Directors: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008) Director: Danny Boon Starring: Danny Boon, Kad Merad
Black Cat, White Cat (1998) Director: Emir Kusturica Starring: Bajram Severdzan, Srdjan ‘Zika’ Todorovic, Branka Katic
Blade Runner (1982) Director: Ridley Scott Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Director: George Roy Hill Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford
Casino (1995) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon
Cool Hand Luke (1967) Director: Stuart Rosenberg Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Director: Wes Anderson Starring: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman
Das Boot (1981) Director: Wolfgang Peterson Starring,Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer
The Deer Hunter(1978) Director: Michael Cimino Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
Dr Strangelove (1964) Director: Stanley Kubrick Starring: Peter Sellers, George C Scott
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Director: Michel Gondry Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Carey
For A Few Dollars More (1965) Director: Sergio Leone Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef
Forest Gump (1994) Director: Robert Zemeckis Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise
Ghost In The Shell (1995) Director: Mamoru Oshii Starring (Voice Cast): Atsuko Tanaka,
Akio Ōtsuka
The Godfather Pt 2 (1974) Director: Francis Ford Coppola Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1965) Director: Sergio Leone Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Goodfellas (1990) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
The Great Beauty (2013) Director: Paolo Sorrentino Starring: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Director: Wes Anderson Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
Groundhog Day (1993) Director: Harold Ramis Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell
High Fidelity (2000) Director: Stephen Frears Starring: John Cussack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black
Hot Fuzz (2007) Director: Edgar Wright Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
How to Steal a Million (1966) Director: William Wyler Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Peter O’Toole
The Intouchables (2011) Directors: Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano Starring: François Cluzet
Omar Sy
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Director: Frank Capra Starring: James Steward, Donna Reed
LA Confidential (1997) Director: Curtis Hanson Starring: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger
The Last Emperor (1987) Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole
Life is a Miracle (2004) Director:Emir Kusturica Starring: Slavko Štimac, Nataša Šolak
Life of Brian (1979) Director: Terry Jones Starring: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gillam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones
The Long Good Friday (1981) Director: John Mackenzie Starring: Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren,
Miller’s Crossing (1990) Directors: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro
Mona Lisa (1986) Director: Neil Jordan Starring: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane
Once Upon a Time in America (1984) Director: Sergio Leone Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci
The Pianist (2002) Director: Roman Polanski Starring: Adrian Brody
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) Director: John Hughes Starring: John Candy, Steve Martin
Ponyo (2008) Director: Hayao Miyazaki Starring (Voice Cast): Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi
Raging Bull (1981) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
Rain Man (1988) Director: Barry Levinson Starring: Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon
Shaun of the Dead (2004) Director: Edgar Wright Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Subway (1985) Director: Luc Besson Starring: Christopher Lambert, Isabelle Adjani
Tales from the Golden Age (2009) Directors: Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Constantin Popescu Starring: Diana Cavallioti, Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potocean
Taxi Driver (1976) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shephard, Harvey Keitel
Torn Curtain (1966) Director: Alfred Hitchcock Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews
Your Name  (2016) Director: Makoto Shinkai Starring (Voice Cast): Ryunosuke Kamiki
Mone Kamishiraishi, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yūki

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – No Code

“It’s a record that is semi-unprofessional. We were just kind of winging it and trying stuff that maybe didn’t quite work… But you listen to it ten years later and go, ‘Fuck! That’s jamming!'”
Stone Gossard

July 12th 1995, in the middle of a heatwave in Chicago (one that accounted for 739 heat-related deaths in five days), Pearl Jam were feeling the itch. The night before they had played a massive 31-song set to 47,000 fans at the city’s Soldier Field and wanted to make the most of the energy from the show (and Vitalogy tour), they entered a studio at Chicago Recording Company to lay down some songs for their next album. No rest for the wicked. Jeff Ament would later admit that “I don’t think we’d quite figured out how to schedule ourselves at that point.” They were there for a week with songs like ‘Off He Goes’ and ‘In My Tree’ coming from those sessions.

Recording proper for No Code picked up in the start of 1996 and marked the start of a tense period for the band. For one thing, Jeff Ament didn’t know that work was underway until three days into sessions and “wasn’t super involved with that record on any level.” Meanwhile there were persistent rumours of a power-struggle within Pearl Jam – that Eddie was taking control of the band over Stone and Jeff with Ament even walking out of sessions on several occasions on what he perceived as Vedder’s stifling of his own writing. Whereas the bass player now says that “really what was happening was that Ed was bringing in complete songs and nobody else was. The cream was floating to the top.”

Vedder was hitting new pay dirt as a songwriter – writing increasingly personal and reflective songs as well as making jumps in his melody and hook writing. ‘Off He Goes’ is actually a song as an apology for his being a shit friend.

A look at the songwriting credits shows that a large chunk of No Code‘s songs are all-Vedder and the singer was behind every lyric with the exception of Stone Gossard’s ‘Mankind’.

Meanwhile the band were still playing shows. Jack Irons pointed out that “It was difficult to tour and play these shows that were two or three hours long and then force ourselves to produce something in a studio,” while Brendan O’Brien (behind the desk for his third Pearl Jam album) would also add that “Ed’s typically the guy who finishes off the songs…But by the end of No Code, he was so burnt, it was so much work for him.”

Why were the band so tired? It could be down to the strain of the Vitalogy tour – this was their first without playing Ticketmaster venues which meant a huge amount of work went into organising every show, something that Gossard stated took the fun out of being in the band. It could be the fact that in 1995 the band, minus Vedder, had backed Neil Young on his Mirror Ball album and European tour. It could also be the fact that this was the band’s fourth album in just five years – No Code and Ten were both released five years apart to the day – and they simply hadn’t stopped since.

BUT. But but but…. No Code is, despite all this, a fucking awesome album and one that is bristling with their finest songs. It’s not a first-listen album. It was the third Pearl Jam album I bought as I’d love ‘Red Mosquito’ so much after hearing it on Live on Two Legs – this was pre-Amazon and when you could only really get what the music shop had in on a given day or order specific titles – and it took me a while to grow to love this album as much as I do but every time I do I hear more and more that blows me away.

The only reason I don’t say out-and-out that this is their finest is that I genuinely feel the sound-quality detracts from these songs. It could be the fact they were deliberately trying to take the commercial edge off (Kurt Cobain and In Utero have a lot to answer for) or – as Brendan O’Brien would point out – the issues and technical hiccups from working at Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho. But the songs sound restrained, even tired – no real surprise. Mike McCready would later say “I think we kind of rushed it a little bit” as the songs were more jam-session than finished but his and Vedder’s ‘Present Tense’ is easily in my Pearl Jam Top Five and always elicits a suitable rapturous response when played live:

Oddly enough, when the band almost re-made No Code with Yield  a couple of years later with a deliberately accessible sound and more sharing of the songwriting, the sound was perfect but the songs weren’t quite as strong.

Speaking of strong, No Code isn’t all experimentation. There’s a volley of some of Pearl Jam’s fiercest rockers on amongst its thirteen tracks with Hail Hail’, ‘Lukin’ and ‘Habit’.

From it’s hushed opener ‘Sometimes’ – compared to the forceful openings of the three previous albums – to the roaring ‘Habit’ and ‘Lukin’ via the tribal rhythms of ‘In My Tree’ and up to the sedate closer ‘Around The Bend’, No Code is Pearl Jam’s most diverse record and one of their strongest collection of songs. If only the sound / mix were as clear as it deserved to be this would be top of this list every day for me.