A Life’s Music by Andrei Makine

Last week I wrote here about Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, a thriller set in Stalin’s USSR, with train tracks on the cover. Well I followed it up with another book set in Stalin’s USSR some years earlier during the war, which also has a railway line on the cover, but that’s where the similarity ends.

A Life’s Music by Andrei Makine is a very different novel. While waiting for a train back to Moscow, the narrator meets an older man playing the piano in a back room and they strike up a friendship and the older man takes over the narration to tell his life’s story.

A promising young pianist, it was the night of his first concert in Moscow, when he was given the message ‘Don’t go home’. He never gets to perform, finding his parents arrested, and has to run away to a relative in the country where he has to remain hidden. Then when war reaches the farm, he assumes the identity of a dead Russian soldier. He ends up as the driver for a Russian General whose life he saves and whose piano-playing daughter he worships.

But he has to find out about his parents, and this raises questions about who he really is … As for the young pianist, he seems to take the loss of his career with a shrug, for he still has his music in his head. With his assumed identity as an unmusical peasant, he sometimes has to struggle not to let his real personality burst out. His life’s music has to play to a different drum for now.

This novella is beautifully melancholic and elegaic and the translation is superb (the author is Russian, but writes in French). At the start of the novel, the first narrator is musing about a term he has heard to describe the Russian spirit – ‘Homo Sovieticus’, and you certainly feel a sense of it here. The author doesn’t dwell on WWII or the Stalinist regime, just the life in question, telling an entire life story in just 106 pages, which left me yearning for more. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Life’s Music by Andrei Makine, Sceptre paperback, 112 pages.

John Martyn R.I.P.

Just heard that one of the greats of jazz-folk John Martyn has died. He was only 60 and was made an OBE in the New Years Honours just recently.

I never got to see him live, and only really discovered his music in 1991 when he released The Apprentice as it featured Dave Gilmour, but that was a good starting point to work back from. Solid Air was perhaps his greatest classic album with its title track written for Nick Drake, and Grace and Danger his most personal, however my personal favourite is Cooltide from 1992 which was really jazzy, and has an absolute classic track in Jack the Lad.


An armchair traveller’s delight

The Travel Book by Lonely Planet

Here’s my full written review…

This is the new smaller format edition of Lonely Planet’s previous coffee table giant, but it’s still a doorstoppingly thick brick of a book! It has to be 900 pages to give even the tiniest snapshot of every country in the world, (plus a few territories etc). However being a Lonely Planet publication, it is done with style and panache which makes this the ultimate inspirational guide for the armchair traveller, and a stepping off point for further research for travellers seeking something different.

Each country is given just four pages and they’re listed alphabetically, which makes for interesting contrasts as you flick through – Denmark is next to Djbouti, Saudi Arabia is followed by Scotland for instance. All the entries follow a similar format with some introductory text, and bullet points under several headings, such as ‘Essential experiences’ and ‘Getting under the skin’, plus some stats on sidebars and a rather tiny map.

The real stars though are the 1140 photographs. They’ve used all of Lonely Planet’s resources to pull together an amazing array, and as the book’s aim is not purely touristic, few of the photographs are traditional postcard shots. Nearly half the photos feature people and their lives, as well as costumes, carnivals, breathtaking landscapes and brilliant architecture (particularly little churches). Seeing all the little island states and lesser known countries in all their glory is what it’s all about. It’s not done without humour though – one of the photos chosen to epitomise England is of the deckchairs on Brighton Beach by the pier.

Where would I go having looked at this book, given that I normally go no further than France or Italy? Well if I could handle the heat it would be Aruba, off Venezuela, which looked a gorgeous mix of cultures. Or perhaps Madagascar which has lemurs and looks lovely and lush, and every time I see a photo of Petra in Jordan, I say I must go there one day. This is a lovely book, it’s not one I would personally have bought for myself, (mine was a review copy), however I am delighted to have it, and it would make a great gift. 7/10

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Source: Review copy from Radio Oxford. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Travel Book Mini (Lonely Planet Travel Book) by Lonely Planet, 2013 edition.

My Radio Oxford Experience!

I’ve just come off the phone to BBC Oxford having done my radio review for them as part of their monthly Book Club feature. Phew! For my part, I felt it went really well – although in reality I probably talked far too much!

Sitting waiting for the phone to ring was nervewracking, especially as the presenter Jo Thoenes gave me a big build up, and the butterflies were well and truly fluttering. But once it rang and I was put through to the studio, Jo put me at my ease, and after a brief chat we moved into the review. A chap from the Book House in Summertown, Oxford called Brian also commented, (the bookshop is next door to BBC Oxford and he does a lot more reviews for them). After a slightly shaky start where I was trying to explain the size and scope of the book, I got quite into it. I didn’t dry, cough, or stumble, although I did butt in on Brian (sorry!) to get my pennyworth in – but I was on the phone so couldn’t see them. I’ll write up a full review of the book soon.

It was brilliant fun, and if you fancy a go in the future click here for details, they’re looking for a local reviewer for next month – the book choices include the new Philippa Gregory which is about Mary Queen of Scots.

It’ll be available on Listen Again by teatime. Dare I listen to myself later? It might be too cringemaking, however enjoyable the experience was!

My first book reviewing gig!!!

I kid you not – I’m so excited! – I’ve managed to get a ‘book reviewing gig’ on Radio Oxford tomorrow afternoon. Actually I’m exaggerating, but after someone said they’d read in Oxfordshire Life magazine that Radio Oxford wanted people to review books. I sent an email and they said OK and gave me a choice of books to talk about – so I’ll get my five minutes of book chat on the Jo Thoenes show tomorrow afternoon (at around 2.30pm). The book I’m reviewing is The Travel Book by Lonely Planet. Wish me luck!

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

This book comes with a bit of baggage. A debut novel, and thriller no less, set in Stalinist Russia. Its publishers gave it a massive publicity campaign, and got it longlisted for the 2008 Booker. Instant controversy – thrillers can’t be literary can they?

Well yes they can, you only have to think of John Le Carre or Graham Greene, but neither of them made the Booker. Actually, upon doing a little research, I found out that Le Carre doesn’t permit his books to be entered. The reviews for Child 44 have been mixed too, with most tending to one extreme or the other. Now the dust’s died down a little, it was time to read it. So what’s it all about? …

Leo Demidev is a war hero, and rising star of the MGB in Moscow. He lives and breathes the party line. While not approving of the extreme practices of some of his colleagues, he is very aware of the privileges the job gives him and his beautiful wife Raisa. Then the child of a colleague is found dead by the railway tracks, obviously murdered by a psychopath, the crime is conveniently put upon a local simpleton who knew the girl rather than be investigated – all acknowledged crimes must be solved – failure is not an option in the regime. Leo is sent to tell his colleague that the culprit has been caught, and finds himself in conflict with the lie.

So he starts to investigate himself and this lands him in trouble, he is told that his wife is suspected as a spy and that he must investigate and denounce her. He refuses, and is demoted and exiled to work in the militia in a remote town, where he finds more child murders with a similar modus operandi have occurred. He has to find the murderer, and thus begins the real contest between Leo and the regime, with more ups and downs than a game of snakes and ladders.

Having finished it this morning, I find myself unable to have any extreme feelings about it. It has many good things – all things Russian have an immediate allure to me and I do love a good thriller. It also had a degree of ultraviolence that was almost entirely directed to bring home the brutality of the Stalinist regime to you. The drawback was that at 470 pages (in hardback), it was far too long, there was too much ruminating and pensiveness and you needed the plot to return and give you a kick to wake you up. I also found the use of dashed sentences in italics to indicate dialogue rather than conventional speech marks a mild irritant. Yet I can see that cut down to bones of the plot, it will make a great movie, (Ridley Scott has optioned it).

What I couldn’t get far from my brain though, the entire time I was reading it, was Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels, and the similarity between Leo’s good cop against the system troubles with parts of Gorky Park, which I hugely enjoyed re-reading a couple of years ago.

My final verdict then – a competent debut and a good but long read for Russian thriller lovers. 6/10

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, S&S paperback, 484 pages

An evening with Joanna Trollope

We had a real treat in Abingdon last night. Around 200 of us spent an evening in the company of best-selling author Joanna Trollope in the superb surroundings of the hall of the School of St Helen & St Katharine. This was the first event organised by our local indie bookshop Mostly Books (link on the sidebar) under the ‘Mostly Booklovers’ banner, and it went brilliantly.

Joanna came on to warm applause, looking very chic-casual, and proceeded to tell us all about the research for her latest book Friday Nights (currently no 1 in the paperback charts). The novel is about a group of six women, of differing ages and situations, but all needing support and friendship which they get from each other on Friday nights. The group dynamic is threatened however when a man is introduced into the mix. Joanna talked about how in modern times, with so many people living alone away from family, that groups of friends tend to take place of family. This was her starting point for the novel.

She also told us about the great fun she had doing the research. One of the women, a 22yr old, wants to be a DJ, so Joanna had to investigate the Club scene. She went to dingy record shops, met a great female DJ, and got an intro into a Club in West London, where the noise inhabits your body and top DJs can keep the dance floor full all night. It was a real eye-opener, and although this glamorous grannie was ostensibly out of place, she said all the young people she met were great and keen to help her understand what it was like. More research was needed for the relationship between the new man, Jackson, and Paula’s eight year old son Toby – they go to a soccer match together. So off Joanna went to Stamford Bridge, and experienced more different noise and emotions, it was good to let go and cheer and shout with the crowd.

She then read a section from the book’s first chapter before taking questions from the audience. These were varied and her answers were illustrated by quotations and comparisons from all over the place, including Trollope himself of course, and his friendship with Tolstoy, as well as many others. She spoke about needing dilemma rather than unhappiness to drive a novel, and how she comes up with ideas – some ferment for years like The Rector’s Wife, and others like Friday Nights are ‘zeitgeisty’ and more immediate. She also spoke about the all the different people she met researching her novel about twins given up for adoption, and the need to know where you come from. This answer showed us the great depth of her understanding and sympathy for them out of which came Brother and Sister.

She was witty, perceptive, erudite and a marvellously entertaining speaker, and happily signed books for ages afterwards for all who queued. She graciously let me take this picture for the blog too – thank you Joanna. Friday Nights has been promoted to the top of my bedside TBR pile. I’m looking forward to reading it immensely.

My Tango with Barbara Strozzi by Russell Hoban

This was my first visit to Hobanville – why it’s taken me so long I don’t know, but I’m keen to go again really soon.

Underlying My Tango with Barbara Strozzi is a traditional boy meets girl romance, cleverly told by the two would-be lovers’ voices alternating chapter by chapter, but on top are layers of quirkiness. Just the thing for me then!

Phil is a novelist and newly single. His wife left him because his writing was boring. Bertha Strunk, a painter of glass eyes, is newly separated and is flatsharing with a friend who worships Cliff Richard. Phil has just developed a little obsession with a 17th century Venetian musician and composer Barbara Strozzi when he saw her portrait in a museum, (I wiki’d her and she’s real). Phil’s astrologist predicts interesting conjunctions in his chart, so he ventures out to a tango class in Clerkenwell. Here he meets Bertha who has an uncanny likeness to Barbara, and thus begins a rather unconventional courtship!

This novel is at once tremendous fun, terribly erudite yet geeky (in a nice way), and you always know exactly where you are geographically! It also has an edge, there’s an undercurrent of violence, that will keep you reading breathlessly to see what this couple’s fate will be. At just 162 pages, it can be read in one sitting. A witty, original and eccentric novel and I long for more.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Tango with Barbara Strozzi by Russell Hoban, Bloomsbury paperback, 176 pages.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Written as an intimate diary in letter form to an unknown addressee, this novel chronicles the first year in High School of Charlie. Charlie has a tendency to be rather passive, introspective, and prone to burst into tears; well – his best friend has recently committed suicide! Though quiet, Charlie is clever which is recognised by Bill, his English teacher who chooses books for him to read, and encourages him to ‘participate’. There’s something in Charlie that’s very likeable and he gets adopted by step-sibling seniors Patrick and Sam(antha), who show him what life is really about.

All the issues surrounding school, growing up and family drama that you can think of are here, from first dates to date-rape, making friends to teen pregnancy, school gangs to masturbation, raging hormones mixed with a good dose of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – but all are seen through the unique filter of Charlie’s eyes and mind. He doesn’t always understand at first, but Charlie cares about everything – so much so that he finds it very hard to let go. When he does his honesty can be overpowering, but luckily Sam and Patrick are nearly always there for him. Then the year ends and he realises that he’s on his own, all his senior friends are going off to college …

I initially picked up this book because of the funky cover. Although it appears to be aimed at young adults, I really enjoyed reading it despite being all grown-up – in fact it’s a great book for adults too. You can’t help loving Charlie, and you live all his ups and downs with him. His insights into being a teenager are heartwarming, poignant yet often naive and when he does have an epiphany of sorts, you can’t help but cross your fingers and cheer for him.

My first five star read of 2009. A lovely book.

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, S&S Paperback

The Pianist’s Hands by Eugenio Fuentes

This is a crime novel with a difference – where the crime itself, or rather the investigation, doesn’t play much of a part. Instead it’s all about getting under the skin of the main characters, finding out all their foibles and weak points, until the murderer’s identity can be divined.

It starts out telling us about the unnamed pianist who, frustrated by his position in a band that plays the same old tunes at weddings, develops a sideline in euthanasing animals. Word of mouth and cash will get you his shady services. Then one day he’s offered a larger amount to get rid of a human, he surprises himself by accepting the contract, but finds he can’t go through with it. Unfortunately for him someone else does, so the pianist is forced to use his down-payment to hire a detective to find the real murderer so that his name never crops up!

The man who was murdered was a third partner in a successful construction firm which had big plans, but lots of conflict between the three partners – the obvious suspects. Add a client whom the firm was suing on defaulting on his house purchase, the foreman with a chip on his shoulder, and the murdered man’s ex-lover, and we have a mystery for Investigator Cupido to solve.

Cupido himself has much on his mind, as his mother has decided to put herself into a home, but manages to pull himself together to ask lots of the right questions at the right time to get close to the suspects in their complex dance, and finally with the help of the Police Inspector they get their killer.

Cupido understood that none of them would say a lot more. He hadn’t obtained much objective information about Martin Ordiales; but he had gleaned a good deal about their personalities, and that was as important for him as checking their alibis.

A very enjoyable psychological crime novel. I hope more will get translated and come our way.

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pianist’s Hands, The by Eugenio Fuentes, Eurocrime paperback.