A Sunday selection …

It’s been quite a week!

  • SNB logo tinyShiny Issue 4 has been published. If you haven’t been to have a look yet, please pop over. More on that below.
  • I finally got my laptop back from the repair shop after a fortnight of having to rely on my old Pentium (much to my daughter’s disgruntlement, as it’s hers now). Using a slow laptop has been good for my FB games habit – something to maintain methinks!!!
  • I went to a workshop on Disaster Emergency Planning for Schools in London – which was excellent and included tabletop exercises on fires and minibus crashes. A grim subject, but having good procedures in place helps you to deal with these awful incidents so much better (although naturally one hopes they’ll never happen).
  • The workshop venue was just up the road from Waterstones Piccadilly, and yes I did succumb to a quick visit afterwards, purchasing a handful of novellas for future reading after the TBR dare finishes at the end of March.
  • tbr-dare-2014Talking of the TBR dare, the face of the dare has always been Dakota, James’ beloved Basset Hound. Sadly Dakota died earlier this week. We’ll miss her antics on James’ blog, and send big hugs.
  • I was at my school’s quiznight on Friday evening. Our staff table had a disastrous first half but picked up in the second to finish midway on the league table.
  • We did manage to get the few bookish questions right though, which is a small rehearsal for the 6th Mostly Bookbrains quiznight this coming Friday. For a change this year, I’ve not done the questions, and will be on my Shiny Co-editor Simon’s team. They won last time, so I hope I won’t drag them down!
  • And I read lots – so plenty of reviews to come….

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marianne dreamsLittle White HorseOne interesting thing came out of a comment that Helen left on my review of Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s classic The Little White Horse – click here. Helen said: “I do think that the rule ‘If you didn’t read it as a child, you won’t enjoy it as much as an adult’ is almost universally true but Diana Wynne Jones is, I am finding, an exception to this.”  I can’t comment on the Diana Wynne Jones bit really, only having read one of her books pre-blog, but tend to strongly agree with the first half of Helen’s comment.

I offer the review of my adult re-read of Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr as proving the point. I loved that book all over again. However, I am sure that there are other children’s classics that also break the rule – do let me know, I’d like to read some of them…

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Now for a couple of links to a pair of my Shiny pieces:

Chinaski by Frances Vick

 

chinaskiChinaski by Frances Vick is the story of a rock band that so nearly made it, but were halted in their tracks when charismatic lead singer Carl dies. This happens right at the the start of this gripping novel which spares no punches about the hard work required to make it in those pre-Youtube days. The story of the band and what happened next is told through the eyes of Carl’s friends and colleagues – the band member, the ex-girlfriend and their manager.

For those that enjoy books about rock ‘n’ roll, this is a must, especially with the Marshall amp on the front.

Read my review here.

frances vick (533x800)Incidentally, some of you may twig where the band Chinaski got their name from … I only discovered this when researching for my review – it’s after a recurring character in Charles Bukowski’s novels – another author to add to my to read lists.

This was Frances’ first novel and I also interviewed her for our Shiny New author slot, and she proved to be as fascinating as her book.

Read the interview here.

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That’s it for today. Enjoy your Sundays and I’ll see you with some proper book reviews very soon.

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Chinaski source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Chinaski by Frances Vick, Cillian Press, 2014. Paperback original, 250 pages.
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, pbk.

“We gotta get out of this place…”

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how-to-build-a-girlI’ll start up front by saying that this book is one of the sweariest, wankiest, shaggiest stories I’ve ever read, and it’s narrated by a teenager who is just fourteen at its outset. The first lines set the tone…

I am lying in bed, next to my brother, Lupin.
He is six years old. He is asleep.
I am fourteen. I am not asleep. I am masturbating.

To be fair, it’s a biggish bed, and she does put a ‘little, friendly Berlin Wall’ of a pillow between them – but still! So, if you can’t bear swearing, wanking and shagging in a novel, this might not be the book for you.

… But you would miss the point, for underneath all its bravado is a story about a girl’s coming of age. A teenager in a large working-class family that lives on benefits in a part of the world where most people are in the same boat, told in Moran’s typical earthy style.

… However, although Moran insists that her heroine is not her, despite coming from a similar background, if you’ve read her part rant, part memoir How to be a Woman, you’ll be familiar with her own lifestory and you will find this novel repetitive. Luckily, although I love her journalism, I’m one of the few who hasn’t read that book, so this novel was sort of new for me.

It’s 1990, and Johanna Morrigan (Johanna with an ‘h’ as in Dylan’s song – never acknowledged, but surely chosen specifically), wants to escape the poverty she’s stuck in, she wants to be someone – in London not Wolverhampton. Her ageing hippy dad wants to be famous too, he’s never let his vision of being a rock star vanish – he’ll force his audition tape onto anyone, but no-one listens. Her older brother Krissi is at that shutting himself away stage of adolescence, her mum is worn out with looking after the twins and is clearly suffering from post-natal depression. They live on the breadline, buoyed by her dad’s disability benefit.  Johanna dreams of a future…

… I don’t want to be noble and committed like most women in history were – which invariably seems to involve being burned at the stake, dying of sadness or being bricked up in a tower by an earl. I don’t want to sacrifice myself for something. I don’t want to die for something I don’t even want to walk in the rain up a hill in a skirt that’s sticking to my thighs for something. I want to live for something, instead – as men do. I want to have fun. The most fun ever. I want to start parting like it’s 1999 – nine years early. I want a rapturous quest. I want to sacrifice myself to glee. I want to make the world better, in some way.

To cut a long story short, she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a Goth-inspired ‘lady sex-adventurer’. As soon as she can, she leaves school, starts writing record reviews for a London rock newspaper and sets out to conquer the world through the media of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll. She undoubtedly has a good time – but does she like what she’s become?

You do want to like Johanna, however precocious she is. You may be a little envious of some of the things she gets up to as a teenager – just some! (Getting on the guest list as an 18 yr-old at the Marquee Club when my boyfriend agreed to do a roadie stint for a (Christian) prog-rock band back in 1978 is my claim to fame in the rock’n’roll department only – none of the other!).

The book, although a bit meandering, was easy to read but very rude of course. I particularly enjoyed the parts featuring Johanna and Welsh rocker and pissante John Kite, with whom she strikes up a true friendship. The problem is that Moran’s own story is always in the back of your mind, and I think I’d have preferred to read that. They say write about what you know, but we already know that in Moran’s case, so let’s hope her next fictional outing is less transparent – I’ll happily read it.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Jul 2014, Ebury, Hardback 345 pages.
How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, paperback.

P.S. Lyric quote from ‘We gotta get out of this place’ by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, performed by The Animals in 1965.

 

Anderson & Zweig; Thorn and Morrissey

I know – it’s too long since you had a proper book post – they will come soon, promise. Life is so busy at the moment, and for the next couple of weeks it’ll be the same – as I have the Abingdon Science Festival to go to/help at, several trips to the Oxford Literary Festival planned (Natalie Haynes, Celia Rees and friends talking about women in history in YA novels, and Ian McEwan. I plan to write about them all in due course. Plus there is that big project I mentioned before that I can’t tell you about quite yet (what a tease!)

All of these are taking up too much of my time, (but in a good way!).

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterMeanwhile, I’ve given myself the night off from reading and am going to see The Grand Budapest Hotel at the movies this evening.

There is a bookish link, as director Wes Anderson has based the film on stories by Stefan Zweig, and Pushkin Press has brought out a book of selected writings, introduced by Anderson … The Society of the Crossed Keys (affiliate link) to link with the film.

I’ve never read Zweig, but have ordered the book above so I can get started after seeing the film tonight, and I may well put down my thoughts about the film tomorrow.

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bedsit disco queenI’ve read a lot of good books lately, but the one I’ve been enjoying the most over the past couple of weeks is Tracey Thorn’s volume of memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. Forget the purple prose and bitter rants of Morrissey, reviewed here, Tracey’s book is just brilliant all the way through.

She tells her story from her punky schooldays, through forming The Marine Girls, then English at Hull university and meeting Ben Watt, through all the ups and downs of Everything But the Girl, eventual big stardom thanks to that remix of Missing into semi-retirement and motherhood.

That she’s managed it all and stayed totally sane, never becoming a diva – remaining the extrovert introvert she is – and obviously a nice person, made this the best memoir about pop music that I’ve ever read.  One bit that really tickled me though was in a chapter called ‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side‘ where she talks about Morrissey and the Smiths – here’s a taster …

I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before, and which I now blush to recall. It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well, no, I did actually, but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another). It was more that I wanted to BE him. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this, though I suspect most of the others who felt this way were probably boys. For an androgynous girl like me, Morrissey was an intoxicating new kind of role model – camp in many ways, but also surprisingly butch. He reminded me more of a male version of the female singers I liked – Patti Smith or Siouxsie  – than any previous male rock star. His onstage performance style inspired mine for a good couple of years – a Melody Maker review from 1985 reads: ‘Tonight Tracey might have played it like the girl with Morrissey at her side’, while this one is from Sounds: ‘Thorn continues to stifle her desire to impersonate Morrissey, arms threatening to lose control of themselves.’

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Harry choosing

 

And finally, the winner of the Giveaway of a copy of Mark Miodownik’s new book (reviewed here, as picked by Harry is …

K E V I N

I’ll be emailing you for your address very soon.  Well done, and thanks to all who entered.

‘November spawned a monster’?

Autobiography by Morrissey

autobiographymorrissey_lrgSorry – couldn’t resist the title of this post.  I wrote about my initial reaction to the opening pages of Moz’s memoir here.  There, I questioned whether I could stand to read a whole 457 pages of his purple prose.

Well, reader – I finished it. Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed a good amount of it too, but, if ever there was a book to which the term ‘curate’s egg’ could apply – this is it! Famously unedited, it is at least one hundred pages too long.  This is primarily because, (as I at once surmised), he uses double the amount of words that he needs to.

I suspect that, as his sense of humour is entirely on a different plane to that of the general public,  he didn’t set out to make anyone laugh – but laugh I did in quite a few places. Let me share some of those with you before getting serious:

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, …  (p5)

England calls with an offer of a role on Eastenders, as the son (so far unmentioned) of the character Dot Cotton. I would arrive unexpectedly in Albert Square and cause births, deaths and factory fires every time I opened my mouth – numb to shame throughout. (p353)

The cast (of Friends) is friendly, and I am immediately taken aside by the scriptwriters and asked if I’d jump in on a newly jumbled plot-line where I appear with the character Phoebe in the Central Perk diner, where I am requested to sing in ‘a really depressing voice.’ Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it’s goodbye to Hollywood yet again. (p368)

A Manc-accented Nick Cotton in Eastenders – I don’t think so.  At least he has the sense to recognise that he probably can’t act, but it would have been wonderful to see him send himself up in Friends, but ever Narcissus, he can’t.

Morrissey is famous for being vegetarian; later walking out of many restaurant meetings when someone at his table orders meat.  This was even so in his childhood, and his description of school dinners could turn you off most food for life.

Putrid smells reduce me to a pitiful pile, and none are more vomitarian than school dinners. All foods of miasmic fragrance disturb me, and the mere hint of garlic induces the shakes, as fish cooked or uncooked causes gut-wrenching panic. This boy of 1971 has an abnormally limited palate – a working-class host of relentless toast, and the inability to expand beyond the spartan.

What was nice was that although he hated school, outside, he developed a love for poetry, starting off with the wit of Hillaire Belloc, and Wilde, then Dorothy Parker before moving on to Stevie Smith, WH Auden, Herrick and Housman.

It is page 141 before he meets Johnny Marr, shortly after discovering he has “a chest voice of light baritone,” and an initial flirtation with performing in public as The Nosebleeds (not a band name of his choosing).  He and Marr hit it off, and the rest, as they say is history.

The years with The Smiths, before it all fell to pieces are fascinating. Like all tyro bands faced with their first record contract, they gaily sign.  They have hit records but never reach the number one spot, something that really irks Morrissey. All the way through his memoir, whether with The Smiths or solo, he is obsessed with chart positions, seeing the inability to get a single to the top spot as a failure of the record company.  It is hard to see how a song called ‘Shoplifters of the world unite‘ could have got the airplay he thinks it deserves.  The albums chart higher though, and live audiences bear out their popularity, but you sense he is really aggrieved at never having had a No 1 single.

On p175, he talks about why he calls himself Morrissey…

My own name has now become synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johhny putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at misery mozzery, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. I had originally decided to use only my surname because I couldn’t think of anyone else in the music that had done so – although, or course, many had been known by just one name, but it hadn’t been their surname.  Only classical composers were known by just their surnames, and that suited my mudlark temperament quite nicely.

Comparing himself to a classical composer – he’s having a laugh, isn’t he?

Where I got bogged down with this memoir was the section post-Smiths when Morrissey was sued by the Smiths’ bassist and drummer, whom Morrissey insists had been signed on for 10% (himself and Marr as the songwriters getting 40% each), asking for their full 25% – years after the event. Morrissey is full of vitriol at them, and as it goes on and on for about fifty pages, I got more and more bored.

Things get a little more interesting again when Morrissey moves to LA, meets various celebs and has strange conversations. He also has relationships which are still kept very private. They get boring again when he goes on tour – and we get night after night of a new city and audience sizes.

So – a mixed bag of too much information, too little information. Occasions of too much purple prose – “even though his expressionist jargon often swamped logic in far too much existentialism” – I can’t even begin to assimilate that phrase. I have no idea of the veracity of his writing – Stuart Maconie and Julie Burchill give different accounts of meetings for instance, but it is his own (narcissistic) account. Morrissey shouldn’t have been allowed to become the first living author to be published in Penguin Classics – but it was a great marketing coup.

To sum it up, when talking about family, friends, poetry, The Smiths’ creative peak, Morrissey was happy – and I was happy reading about it too; when whining about record companies, court cases, the NME, never getting to no 1, endless gigs, being a Misery Moz – I thought ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’. (7/10)

So I shall leave you with a promo video for Girlfriend in a Coma, and links to Morrissey’s appearance on Desert Island Discs which was fascinating plus a couple of press reviews of his book – one funny, one more balanced: Craig Brown in the Daily Mail; and Stuart Maconie in the Guardian.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Autobiography by Morrissey, Penguin Classics, October 2013, 457 pages

Old heads on young shoulders, and yet …

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

absolute beginners

Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …

Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.

Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!

The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.

Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.

The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…

‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’

As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.

If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to.  The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader.  He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.

… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.

Good chap!  But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to.  In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…

…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door.

absolute beginners penguin first edition

Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.

Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.

Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses.  No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.

What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen.  I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later!  Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.

absolute beginners film tie-in editionSome of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.

Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!

absolute beginners single david bowie

I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough.  I bought the 12″ single though…

I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era.  Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy.  The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics), paperback, 350 pages.
City of Spades, Mr Love And Justice

The power of a descending bassline …

I don’t usually do ‘Song for Sunday’ type posts, but felt inspired today.

I was listening to Broadcasting House, the Sunday morning magazine programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning, and there was a feature on why Baby by Justin Bieber is a classic pop song. It has all the hallmarks – being written in E flat major – a classic key, and featuring the The Doo-Wop chord progression as used in Ben E King’s sublime Stand by me and also by Mozart in La Clemenza di Tito. That descending bassline is great; Baby may be a well-crafted pop-song, but it doesn’t do it for me, and I don’t believe it’ll have any longevity beyond being the Beibster’s first big hit.

I could offer you Procul Harum’s wonderful A Whiter Shade of Pale (based on Bach of course), which goes down the whole octave in its chord progressions – a ground bass.  Instead, I offer one of my favourite pop songs of all time, which shares the same bassline, but has wonderful over the top orchestration and the wonderfully ironic dead-pan delivery of Neil Tennant’s singing.  I love this song so much, it might even make my fantasy Desert Island Discs.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you It’s a sin

One for the new year …

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice

tara juppTake one big happy family; add some horses, a big country manor in Cornwall, plus doses of first love which doesn’t go easily. Shake it up and relocate to London; mix with rock’n’roll and serve with love again. This is the essential recipe for Eva Rice’s new novel, a thick and satisfying feel-good read.

It’s the story of Lucy and Tara, third and sixth of eight children in the Jupp family. Pa is a country vicar, Ma died some years ago. Lucy is a beauty who loves old buildings (Pevsner is her bible), whereas Tara can sing beautifully but prefers horses. Sneaking a ride on their neighbour’s steeds and becoming friends with poor little rich girl Matilda, the daughter of the Manor, will change Tara and Lucy’s lives forever, ending up with Tara becoming a pop star (the new Alma Cogan) at seventeen in the ready-to-swing London of the early 1960s.

Lucy and Tara are strong young women who want to experience life in full. Lucy’s relationship with her husband may be troubled, but Tara’s coming of age and first real romance with photographer Digby, (obviously based on David Bailey) is fun. Matilda continues to feature too, having married a record producer, who discovers Tara, and she remains a mainstay in their lives.

I’ve hardly delved into the plot so far. There are many episodes full of angst between friends and family, and Lucy and Matilda fall out big time over a young man. The girls’ embracing of ’60s London is particularly fun – they may come from the country, but being daughters of a vicar, they have a confidence that stands them in good stead in the city.

This is a big-hearted novel about achieving your dreams, and while it may not spring any big surprises, the characters are rounded and compelling to read about.  Rice is well-placed to write about the fledgling pop industry in London – her father is Tim Rice after all.   It was an entertaining comfort read that I thoroughly enjoyed; somehow though it made me think of reading Jilly Cooper as if she’d written a more innocent novel – as bizarre as that may be, it’s not a bad thing at all.

My only quibble was that it ended just as the 60s were about to really take off – the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band put in a brief appearance – and then it finished.  I’d have loved to read more. (8/10)

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I received an ARC to review for Lovereading. You can also click through to Amazon UK below:
The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice will be published on Jan 17 by Heron Books (Quercus), Hardback 320 pages.

Sibling Rivalry, Love and Betrayal

The Heart Broke in by James Meek

Meek, a former journalist at the Guardian, came to my attention with his strange but wonderful Russian novel, The People’s Act of Love which he started writing in the mid 1990s but wasn’t published until 2005, and subsequently longlisted for the Booker prize. The People’s Act was set in 1919 Siberia and featured a strange religious cult and a sociopathic escaped prisoner – I loved it. I’ve not read his other novels, which are totally different in settings, but jumped at a chance to read his new one, hoping for more enigmatic writing…

The Heart Broke In tackles the subject of sibling rivalry, primarily seen through the eyes of Ritchie Shepherd, a rock star turned TV producer, and his sister Bec a malaria researcher. Sibling rivalry might sound a small theme, but this is a big novel, and Meek takes an expansive as well as microscopic examination of the lives of Ritchie and Bec by looking through the lens of love and betrayal…

Ritchie used to be guitarist in a rock’n’roll band, Lazygods, together with his wife Karin. Now, they live in a big house with their two lovely children, and Ritchie the successful producer of an X-Factor for teens style show.

Ritchie was at the Rika Films studios before eight next day. By mid-morning shivers of panic were rippling through the building. One of the acts, a band of fourteen-year-olds from Rotherham called The What, had shown such rapid improvement from the original audition that the team was convinced it had been swindled. As it stood the kids sounded too professional to be put on the show and they’d been brought into the studio early to get them to recapture their previous, possibly fake, hopelessness.

I wonder how true that is?  Apart from production troubles, there’s a hotly denied rumour going around that Ritchie has been seeing a fifteen year old. Well, he was, but he finished it – it cost him around £30k.  Very sad, very rock’n’roll, very of the zeitgeist. You just know that it will come back to bite him eventually.

Whilst Ritchie’s life is constrained by family and job, his younger sister Bec has no such ties now.  She was going out with Val, the Editor of a red-top newspaper, but when he got too serious she called it off. A medical researcher, she’s a free spirit, going where her work takes her. Then she makes a discovery that is going to curb her freedom a little. In Africa, She finds a microscopic parasite that gives partial immunity to malaria. She infects herself – only trouble is that uncontrolled, the parasite causes spells of temporary blindness.

Bec compounds her medical success by falling in love with Alex – a medical researcher making breakthroughs in stem cell treatments for cancer. Alex just happens to have been the drummer in Ritchie’s first band – he still drums his fingers all the time, ‘as an elaborate form of fidgeting, it helped him think.’

Science’s golden couple make big news, eclipsing Ritchie, who’s also taken aback by finding out that it was Karin the fans worshipped in the Lazygods.  Alex has family problems of his own, he works for his Uncle Harry who is dying of cancer, and Harry is leaving everything to Alex, rather than his own son Matt who is too God-fearing for him, and this is complicated by the arrival of his layabout brother Dougie down from Glasgow on the scene. Meanwhile, Alex is desperate for a baby with Bec, and it’s just not happening. It builds up so there are just too many secrets, lies and barriers to communication in Ritchie and Bec’s families. The dam is going to break and they are forced to choose between love and betrayal.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Bec – she was mesmerising as a character, serene, slightly aloof in a good way, independent, and then there was the whole self-experimentation thing – foolhardy or brave? A bit of both, I’d wager. The science could have got quite difficult, but Meek has a light touch with it and although I’m not a biologist, it all felt very authentic and well-researched.

The personality of Ritchie too, despite all his faults, is sympathetically drawn. He is on the verge of a mid-life crisis at the beginning of the book, and you do want to find out what’s going to happen. Schadefreude, yes, but also hope that he can pull himself together.

There is a huge amount more to the brother and sister relationship – what happened to their father in particular, and Alex’s family too, that I’ve not mentioned above. The dynamics are complicated – and reminded me somewhat of The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale, which also has a science and TV background and explores complex emotions.  Both books are solid and totally gripping, full of moral dilemmas. I really enjoyed this novel. It’s a big read in all senses. (9/10)

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further, please click below:
The Heart Broke in by James Meek, pub Aug 2012 by Canongate. Hardback, 550 pages.
The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale

The Demise of “The Word”

I’ve written several times before about my reading habits of magazines and comics, most notably here. I used to be a real mag junkie, subscribing to around twenty monthlies at the height of my addiction. These days, apart from a couple of literary quarterlies, the only one I still subscribe to is The Word.

I’ve read Word, as it was first called, from issue one (left), subscribed from issue 3, and looked forward each month to it plopping onto the doormat.

I was really shocked when the announcement came at the end of June, that the mag was folding, and that issue 114 (below) of The Word, as it became, would be the last.

Always more than just a music mag, Word also included all areas of popular culture – films, TV, and even gave pages of space to books each month.  Longer in depth articles combine with short ones, reviews, regular columns, and the always hilarious Worst … and Best pages each month.

The Word’s demographic was essentially anyone who grew up with Q magazine, graduated to Mojo, and then started looking for something else, away from the big corporate publications.  That something was The Word – an independent magazine developed by the team who started Q and Mojo – David Hepworth (who blogs here), and edited by Mark Ellen, whom many of you will know from The Old Grey Whistle Test.  The calibre of the writing has always been wonderful and Hepworth, Ellen and co with their long experience in the music industry have wonderful contacts.  Regular columns from Andrew Collins (who blogs here), Rob Fitzpatrick et al have always been a joy to read.  The free CD which was brought in several years ago has always delighted too – concentrating on less well-known artists.

The last issue arrived while I was on holiday, and I’ve devoured since. It is as wonderfully eclectic as usual – what other magazine would juxtapose an in-depth interview with Robert Smith of the Cure, with a shorter piece on book cover designing with David Pearson (who designed the Penguin Great Ideas series amongst others).

I shall miss The Word.  I loved its mix of subject matter; I don’t feel the need to read dedicated music and film mags any more these days – The Word fitted the bill perfectly for me.

If you’ve never read it – Get it while you still can! 

Hot Rats, it’s Zappa …

The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa.

Not so much a memoir as an appealing opportunity to “say stuff in print about tangential subjects” this book is an absolute hoot.  Forthright,  and by turns and hilarious and serious, Zappa is a brilliant host as he intersperses anecdotes from his life with his views on music, musicians, politics, life in general and rock’n’roll. While I only own one Zappa album (Hot Rats), I have encountered lots over the years, being partial to his jazzy infusions.  What always comes over is that for someone obsessed with sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock’n’roll in his song lyrics, he’s deadly serious about his craft.  I wanted to share a couple of contrasting extracts with you to show the measure of the man (bad language alert!)…

On Conducting an Orchestra:
“From the podium (if the orchestra is playing well), the music sounds so good that if you listen to it, you’ll fuck up. When I’m conducting, I have to force myself not to listen, and think about what I’m doing with my hand and where the cues go.”

In 1975, Zappa ended up in court in London over a thwarted plan to get round the musician’s union rules on pay-scales for recordings with an orchestra, by hiring the Albert Hall for a rehearsal for a concert which was permitted. When one of the orchestra members apparently complained that the lyrics they were playing to were obscene, the concert was cancelled a trial ensued at the Old Bailey. The following excerpt is hilarious (well to me anyway)…

“Q: Then “She painted up her face,” to which objection has been taken. What do you say about that?
A: (Zappa) Well, I think that this is an important piece of material, lyrically.
Q: What is the concept about it?
A: To my knowledge, it is the only song in the repertoire that deals with the subject of a girl who is a groupie.
Q: What is a “groupie“?
A: A “groupie” is a girl who likes people in a rock-and-roll band. She likes them very much.
JUDGE: She likes what very much?
A: She likes “the members” of the band very much.
Q: A sort of fan, like a football fan?
A: Only of “the members.”
Q: Like film stars have fan mails?
A: Yes
JUDGE: I did not gather that. I thought you said that this delt with a girl who was in fact a member of a rock-and-roll band.
Q: No, my Lord.
A: I am sorry: girls who “follow members“.
JUDGE: I.e. a follower?
A: Yes.
Q: A sort of fan.
A: Shall I continue with an analysis of this song?
Q: Please do do.
A: It is the only piece of material that deals with a look of the motivations of the girl. Many groups have done songs about groupies, but coverage of that subject has been superficial and the lyrics to this song represent some kind of landmark in the way in which the subject has been dealt with.
Q: Is it intended as a serious song?
A: Well, I would say it is as serious as anything else I do.”

This was one of those books that had sat in my bookcase for several years, and I only picked it out initially to decide whether to put it in the charity pile. But I started reading and got engrossed. This book’s a keeper! (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa (with Peter Occhiogrosso). Picador pbk, 1989, 352 pages.
Hot Rats CD – 1969