Book Review: Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek & Dave Philpott

From the PR: “For more than a decade, Derek Philpott and his son, Dave, have been writing deliberately deranged letters to pop stars from the 1960s to the 90s to take issue with the lyrics of some of their best-known songs. They miss the point as often as they hit it.

But then, to their great surprise, the pop stars started writing back…

Dear Mr Pop Star contains 100 of Derek and Dave’s greatest hits, including correspondence with Katrina and the Waves, Tears for Fears, Squeeze, The Housemartins, Suzi Quatro, Devo, Deep Purple, Nik Kershaw, T’Pau, Human League, Eurythmics, Wang Chung, EMF, Mott the Hoople, Heaven 17, Jesus Jones, Johnny Hates Jazz, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Chesney Hawkes and many, many more.”

Derek Philpott – and his son Dave – have clearly got too much time on their hands. Let’s face it: who hasn’t listened to a song with a questionable lyric or message and wanted to ask, say, just how much of Summer of ’69 was feasible given that Mr Adams would only have been 9 years old at the time. But it’s not like any of us have actually taken the time to take any pop stars to task on the matter.

Well, Derek and Dave Philpott have taken the time to do so. Obviously not all of them have responded but many did.

In amongst the sarcastic “thank you for your observation” openers – like Carol Decker’s “I recently found your letter. It had got lost in the substantial
fan mail I still receive along with requests for my underwear” –  there are some exceedingly funny and genuinely interesting responses from the artists ‘Mr Philpott’ writes too. Take the fact the response from Mott the Hoople’s Verden Allen as an example in which he responds to the request to “clarify how, oh, man, you may question the need for TV when you got T.Rex.” – its nothing to do with Marc Bolan.

Of course, it’s not just the letters back from the musicians that make for great reading but – questions surrounding the lyrics and songs aside – the letters from Messrs Philpott are bloody funny too with many an obscure and surreal story causing a good coffee splutter. And, in that way, Dear Mr Pop Star makes for an ideal coffee table book for anyone who loves either a good laugh or music and especially both.

My thanks to the authors – whoever they may really be – for taking the time out from questioning Del Amitri to ask me to read their book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Book Review: The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

From the PR: “Be careful what you wish for…  Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he wishes he hadn’t… Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve.

When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined… Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems to be guided by fate. Or is it? What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?

A dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart…”

Hmmm… once again I find myself sitting here wondering how to review a book and how to review one as enjoyable and brilliantly written as The Lion Tamer Who Lost without giving away any spoilers.

I think I’ll start by saying that Louise Beech is a sod. I’ve used the analogy before but reading one of Louise’s novels is akin to watching a Pixar film: you know (or you bloody well should by now) that there’s gonna be an emotional punch to the gut coming up and you start with your guard up but she’s so good at pulling you into the story and the characters that you’re so immersed in it that you forget and then it really flaws you. Only this time she does it twice!!

This is not a bad thing. In fact, there is not a single bad thing about The Lion Tamer Who Lost. I thoroughly enjoyed every page and, once again, Louise Beech refuses to shy away from subject matters that other writers may fear to touch.

For a non-thriller (I have no idea what ‘genre’ most novels are these days nor do I care to) there’s a huge amount of mystery and suspense in The Lion Tamer Who Lost and it really keeps you gripped  – from the moment it’s hinted at – “He came here for the now. For this. He surveys again the new and beautiful land. Every day, every moment, he tries to hard not to think about…” – in the opening pages it’s a case of “what? what is it???” and a real desire to find out exactly what Ben escaped in England even as you’re drawn into the ongoing drama unfolding in Zimbabwe.

As to how Louise Beech reveals ‘it’… it’s clear she’s really hit her stride as a writer now. The narrative ducks and dives between moments of drama and revelation in the past and present and across different character voices as fragments become whole and viewpoints become fully rounded and the whole story is woven masterfully together.

Oh and it’s bloody funny too and charming and warm throughout, written with real attention to character detail and little nuances that make these more than just entries on a page (or Kindle or whatever you substitute print, binding and bookshops for 😉 ) and really helps you get pulled in to the story and root for a positive outcome for them – lookout: here comes that Pixar Punch from Mrs Beach!

Put simply, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is a bloody brilliant, absorbing and compelling read that will knock you sideways with its emotional honesty and power. I genuinely look forward to the next novel from Louise.

My thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda Books – a purveyor  of nothing but the finest fiction – for my copy.

Blog Tour: Dead of Night by Michael Stanley

From the PR: “When freelance journalist, Crystal Nguyen, heads to South Africa, she thinks she’ll be researching an article on rhino-horn smuggling for National Geographic, but within a week she’s been hunting poachers, hunted by their bosses, and then arrested in connection with a murder. And everyone is after a briefcase full of money that she doesn’t want, but can’t get rid of…

Fleeing South Africa, she goes undercover in Vietnam, trying to discover the truth before she’s exposed by the local mafia. Discovering the plot behind the money is only half the battle. Now she must convince the South African authorities to take action before it’s too late, both for the rhinos and for her. She has a powerful story to tell, if she survives long enough to tell it…

Fast-paced, relevant and chilling, Dead of Night is a stunning new thriller from Michael Stanley, author of the award-winning Detective Kubu series, introducing an intriguing new protagonist, while exposing one of the most vicious conflicts on the African continent…”

This is not the novel I was expecting when I ripped open the padded envelope and found the new Michael Stanley (writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) book inside. For, you see, Michael Stanley are the authors behind Detective Kubu – one of my favourite characters – and I was honestly expecting another in that series.

In a recent guest post on Have Books Will Read as part of this blogtour, the authors explained that the “features that make a series rich – the history and backstory of the main character – also constrain what one can do and where one can go…. We wanted to try something different – a different style of book with a completely different protagonist.”

So, what about Dead of Night? Well, put simply, it’s fucking awesome. It’s a hard-hitting, thoroughly engrossing thriller that rips along at a pace and rhythm completely different to the aforementioned Kubu series and demonstrates just how talented a writing team and adept at different writing styles messers Sears and Trollip are.

The novel’s protagonist, Crystal Nguyen – or Crys – makes for a compelling lead – tough and determined yet vulnerable and relatable. The story is one of my favourite of the year so far – what starts of as a search for a missing journalist and a story on rhino poaching soon becomes a fast paced thriller that delves into political corruption, social issues in South Africa and human morality with a volley of fast-paced and occasionally brutal action scenes.

The levels of complexity and connections in the plot and the fact that such a strong story is rooted in a very real and believable situation make for a real page turner. For me, it’s that combination of fact – rhino hunting and the fight against the poachers is a very violent and deadly fight – and, strong, engrossing fiction that ensures that Dead of Night is compelling and lends it some real clout.

I thoroughly recommend Dead of Night – thanks again to Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour, check out the other stops below.

 

Blog Tour: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “PI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.

Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark actions are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Big Sister reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

When it comes to reading there is no greater pleasure than getting stuck into a new Gunnar Staalesen book.

The problem, mind, is how to review a book like Big Sister without a) simply repeating ‘amazing’ emphatically and b) giving anything away. So I’ll talk, in general terms, about just how much I loved this book.

There is something just so fantastically absorbing about Staalesen’s work that I’m always longing to read more. To me it’s like enjoying a good mug full of coffee, you have to take your time with it and savour every moment before you get the kick. It’s not a fast-paced thriller; Staalesen’s prose is a much calmer affair that lures you in and immerses you in its mystery. A real slow-build but with not a single spare word – it’s the writing of a master at play, really. Richly detailed yet concise, tightly-plotted fiction that effortlessly packs more punch and weight than novels three times its page count.

One of the things I really enjoy about Staalesen’s narrative style is the way in which he – and Veum – casts a wide net out at the start of the story and slowly hauls it in, revealing little ideas and avenues of intrigue, some which lead nowhere but others which lead off into some fascinating places before Veum discovers the particular line of investigation which brings them together and solves the case. As Veum himself says: “when I stumble over some peripheral information during a case, an investigation I’m doing, my experience is that it might well end up having some significance.”

Big Sister is no exception to this – some of the leads he follows reveal some really dark stuff this time round, mind (though anyone familiar with the last three novels would argue that that’s nothing new), but it all slowly and deliberately creates a huge web of connections between the lives of the characters that manages to show just how far-reaching and devastating events that were thought long-since buried can become. It means that when the truth is realised it hits you like a tonne of bricks.

Reading a new Staalesen novel is like catching up with an old friend, getting a glimpse into Varg’s life for a few weeks at a time to see how life is treating Bergen’s almost-only PI. Veum is a refreshingly human character in the genre, flawed (though I don’t think he touched a drop of aquavit in this one) and – particularly as his age advances – vulnerable. It’s impossible not to root for him. It’s great that Big Sister really managed – as the 18th novel in the series – to reveal something new about such an established character and his past and I thoroughly look forward to seeing if that particular thread is picked up on in the next book.

It’s impossible to do a novel like Big Sister justice in a review. I fucking loved it but, then, I’ve loved every novel I’ve read thus far by Staalesen and I really need to get my hands on those novels pre We Shall Inherit The Wind that have been translated into English too. Every time I think I’ve read the best book I will in a year, Orenda drops a new Gunnar Staalesen that jumps straight to the top of the list. As such, my thanks to Karen at Orenda both for my copy and continuing to publish such wonderful fiction and to Anne for inviting me to take part in this blogtour. Always a pleasure, never a chore 😀

 

 

 

Blog Tour: The Louisiana Republic by Maxim Jakubowski

From the PR: “New York, and the world, have been transformed by an unexplained global catastrophe now known as ‘the Dark’.

Once a modest researcher, (don’t recall if I gave character an actual name; if so, please insert) has now become an involuntary detective.

When he is recruited by her elder sister to find the missing daughter of a local gangster in a city in chaos where anarchy and violence are just a step away, he soon discovers the case is anything but straightforward and compellingly close to home.

Compromising photographs and the ambiguous assistance of a young woman with ties to the criminal gangs lead him to New Orleans, which has seceded from the rest of America in the wake of the Dark.

A perilous journey down the Mississippi river, murderous hit women and sidekicks, and the magic and dangerous glamour of the French Quarter become a perilous road to nowhere and to madness in his quest for the amoral daughter, his own lost love and his sanity.

Will he find the missing women or lose himself?”

Crikey. Where to start with a review on this one.. perhaps I should proffer up the ‘warning’ that accompanied the description of The Louisiana Republic when I was invited to read and review it:

“Please be aware! The novel is quite ‘harsh’ and should be avoided if you are more into the ‘cozy’ area. If you enjoyed Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus, this may be for you! There are strong erotic elements”

Now initially I only got as far as ‘if you enjoyed Epiphany Jones‘ before replying in the positive. I loved that book and I love a book that challenges and takes me out of my comfort zone so I was, of course, interested – it wasn’t the ‘erotic elements’ that got me. Especially when I read the note from the author that he “published 10 novels under a pen name in another genre during the last five years, many of which ended up on the Sunday Times Top 10, but under a female pseudonym (as imposed on the publishers by supermarkets and chains!), so this book is quite important to me, and have a lot to say about it.”

So: does The Louisiana Republic deliver such an intriguing sell? In short: yes, very much so.

In not so short: oh, fuck yes! The Louisiana Republic is a massively addictive book which delivers on so many levels. While there is certainly some heavy and strong stuff in here that would warrant a ‘not for the weak of knee’ it’s not there for shock factor alone and  serves to add both punch and horror in all the right places.

The story itself is set to a familiar narrative – a PI on the search for an elusive truth if only for self-satisfaction – yet Jakubowski throws in plenty of twists and counters to keep you glued as it becomes increasingly complex and multifaceted. There are so many different elements at play that it’s a real delight as things start to come together. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the ploy of using a familiar trope is a very clever sleight of hand on the writer’s part, for what really sets The Louisiana Republic apart and makes it so compelling is setting just that trope against a backdrop as jarring as that created by ‘the Dark’.

Jakubowski’s portrayal of a dystopian near-future, a decade after  the world had been deprived of technology, the internet and electronic data is fantastic. There’s no didactic, heavy-handed or soap-opera style explanations, The Louisiana Republic pulls you into its world and gradually reveals a very realistic, convincing and shocking world where, post-technology, society has nearly (that’s what makes it so believable, I think – the blending of the retained ‘norms’ with the dystopian) broken down – cities divided into different fiefdoms, violence and primitive, base urges satisfied at whim.

It would be impossible to pigeonhole The Louisiana Republic into one genre – it’s got elements of noir, there’s some hard-boiled Chandler-esque grit, deliciously dark humour, plenty of and some mysticism that made me think of Eliade and then there’s the dystopian future element thrown in to add more to the mi along with plenty of boxes ticked in the ‘thriller’ category…. so; shocking thriller? urban noir? dark comedy? dystopian road trip novel?  Brutal gut-punch commentary? It’s all of these and it’s very very bloody good.

My thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me take part in this blogtour and for my copy of The Louisiana Republic – published by Caffeine Nights.

Blog Tour: Blue Night by Simone Buchholz

From the PR: “After convicting a superior for corruption and shooting off a gangster’s crown jewels, the career of Hamburg’s most hard-bitten state prosecutor, Chastity Riley, has taken a nose dive: she has been transferred to the tedium of witness protection to prevent her making any more trouble. However, when she is assigned to the case of an anonymous man lying under police guard in hospital, Chastity’s instinct for the big, exciting case kicks in.

Using all her powers of persuasion, she soon gains her charge’s confidence, and finds herself on the trail to Leipzig, a new ally, and a whole heap of lethal synthetic drugs. When she discovers that a friend and former colleague is trying to bring down Hamburg’s Albanian mafia kingpin single-handedly, it looks like Chas Riley’s dull lifeon witness protection really has been short-lived…”

Aside from a tiny bit of wear on the cover, my copy of Blue Night is pretty much pristine. There are no pages with creased corners from place marking and no cracks in the spine. Why? Because this book did not spend long in my hands. I tore through Simone Buchholz’ novel so fast as to not to leave a mark on a book that left plenty of impression on its reader. So hungrily did I rip through these 180 pages or so of tightly packed, immensely well plotted fiction that I found myself carried forward by such momentum as to be disappointed when it finished.  Not disappointed by the contents in any way whatsoever! No: disappointed that there wasn’t immediately more, more and more!

Blue Night is also deceptive – it might be a short read and require fewer trees than many but it packs in way more into its pages than many a pulp-and-ink-hungrier book manages. Between the covers (another tip of the hat to Orenda – has anyone mentioned just how many great covers come out of this publisher?) is a rich, tightly woven plot that’s brimming with intrigue and with plenty of back story woven in, compelling characters and a great approach to narrative… oh, and it all rips along at one hell of a pace.

As I’m a) an early stop on this tour and b) pretty out of touch with social media of late I haven’t seen all too many reviews for Blue Night just yet (I’m fortunate enough to have been sent a proof copy) but aside from expecting to see unanimous praise for Simone Buchholz I imagine there’ll be plenty of comparisons to other authors as time progresses so I’ll get in there early and say that I won’t draw any: Buchholz’ writing style is original and she delivers a fantastic story in a unique voice that’s a welcome blast of fresh air and a great start to the year’s reading.

I thoroughly recommend Blue Night – thanks, again, to Karen for my copy and do check out the other stops on the blogtour.

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.