100 Unhip Albums That We Should Learn To Love – Ian Moss (2019)

I was seduced by the cover.  Taken in by the 70’s glamour girl posturing which adorned many a budget sound-alike album bearing titles such as “Top Of The Pops” and “Hot Hits” which provided a cheap facsimile of a hit record collection for the cash strapped youngster.  I was both fascinated and appalled by these albums and owned quite a few which got binned quickly once I started to get into record buying.

These albums, although featuring talented session musicians and singers, were the ultimate in unhip and I must admit to feeling slightly misled by Ian Moss’ publishers using this format for the albums on show here which tend to be more undervalued than unhip.  Musical tastes very much align with age, as anyone who can remember watching BBC TV’s “Top Of The Pops” with parents will testify and Moss is a few years older than me and so naturally our tastes differ with him having a bit of a penchant for blues influenced British rockers which have never done anything for me.  However, he is certainly eclectic with his choices here taking in both the obscure and the mainstream and encompassing many musical styles (Rock n’ Roll, Jazz, Soul, Punk, Disco, Northern Soul, Reggae, Folk are amongst the genres represented here).  It’s all written with a great deal of respect (although he really doesn’t like Oasis) as each of the 110 albums (where did the 100 in the title come from?) are valued and re-assessed.

Ian Moss is a Manchester man who says his Top 5 Manchester acts are Roy Harper, 10CC, Buzzcocks, The Fall and The Prick Jaggers (me neither on the last one but Moss is a huge fan) with a collection as described in the foreword  as being in a home which is “a living museum to the music of the last 75 years.” The driving force  behind this book “celebrates musical diversity and encourages wider listening.” Our musical purchases as represented here only match a handful of times (great to see him describe the much under-rated Imagination’s debut as “a near flawless album that owed nothing to the rule book and all to inspiration and imagination.” I wore my vinyl copy of that album out.) One of the joys of reading this sort of book nowadays is (and I know I’ve said this before) that you can instantly go to Spotify and start listening.  Not everything here is available, some is just too obscure but I have highlighted three of his recommendations (David Essex, ELO and Bim Sherman, the last of whom I have never heard of) for future listening.  I enjoyed being allowed a glimpse into Ian Moss’ record collection even though this was not the cheese-fest I imagined (and hoped for) when I saw the book’s cover.

100 Unhip Albums was published by Empire Publications in 2019. I read the Kindle edition.

Real Life – Brandon Taylor (2020) – A Booker Shortlist Novel

Arguably the most significant sentence in this American author’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut is:

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty.”

This does seem to be the driving force behind this novel.  Wallace is a black gay student who has achieved against the odds stacked against him and is in the fourth year of a biochemistry degree at a Midwestern University.  He has only one friend within the lab where he works all day with microscopic worms, the rest either question his place on the course or set out to sabotage him.

I’m not really sure what work is going on in the lab or why.  Taylor is unafraid of technical detail and the scientific writing is actually very involving but the main focus of the novel is set over a weekend where Wallace questions his own future and has some leisure time to spend with a set of friends who mostly study on similar courses.

Wallace’s father had died some weeks before, a fact which he has neglected to tell anyone and over the course of this weekend his revelation leads him to grow intimate with a straight white boy in a relationship which seems toxic from the off.  Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.  It is superbly written and I was involved throughout but the knife edge these individuals live on where spite and aggression is never too far away occasionally felt tiresome and it was this which stopped me giving the book 5 stars.  I know the author was probably intending to show how these kinds of micro-aggressions can build up and overwhelm but I think a little more lightness and humour would have been appreciated and made this impressive debut superb.  If the college days are the best of their lives I would be fascinated to see how the characters were coping fifteen years on.  The other two Booker longlisted novels I have read this year (also debuts) “Who They Was” and “How Much Of These Hills Is Gold” have not made it onto the shortlist so the author is to be congratulated on achieving this in a very unpredictable awards year.

Real Life was published in 2020 in the UK by Daunt Books.

Never Anyone But You – Rupert Thomson (2018)

I have read one Rupert Thomson novel before, his 2007 publication, the Costa nominated “Death Of A Murderer”, a novelised account featuring an unnamed central character who is Moors Murderer Myra Hindley which to be honest did not do a great deal for me.  This is a much better novel which once again has true life characters as the central protagonists. 

He is helped here by his subject matter.  Two extraordinary women Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe who are true soul mates and adopt the names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore and in the inter-war years become notable in the literary and artistic worlds of Paris aligning themselves perhaps most closely to the Surrealist movement.  Before war is declared they move to their favourite holiday destination Jersey where, once occupied by Nazis, they begin their own acts of resistance not dissimilar to that in Hans Fallada’s marvellous novel “Alone In Berlin.”

The plot really does come alive in the war years with the continual threat of discovery adding much to the tension but the real strength here is the depiction of the relationship between the two women.  Suzanne narrates a tale which starts off in 1940 where a German attack disrupts her evening swim and then moves back to chronologically depict their lives together in a manner not too far off from established facts about the pair.

Their relationship is beautifully written.  Claude is not always easy to love and has a self-destructive streak which dismays her lover.  Throughout all the drama the tone is one of calm which works extremely well. 

I was seduced by on-cover recommendations from Sarah Waters “…an astonishing accomplishment” and Philip Pullman “..It’s a long time since I read a love story quite as convincing or truthful”, both writers I much admire but it was Thomson’s weaving of the tale and vibrant assured prose which really drew me in.

Never Anyone But You was published in 2018 by Corsair.

Bluebird Bluebird- Attica Locke (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Attica Locke is an American author I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I chose to start with the 4th of her 5 novels, the first in her so far two novel series “Highway 59” which features black Texan Ranger Darren Matthews.

In this novel Darren uses a temporary suspension from duties to visit the small East Texan town of Lark where two bodies have been fished out of the Bayou in rapid succession; a black man visiting the area followed a few days later by a young mother who lived locally.  This is not the usual order for murder victims in a location where the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas still operates, historically, too often a black man has been killed in retaliation for a white woman killing so the Ranger’s interest and his local knowledge of both the black and white local communities leads him to risk his fragile marriage and stay to unravel the case, meeting up with the dead man’s widow in the process.

Tensions simmer and occasionally bubble to the surface in this oppressive atmosphere which the author very effectively conveys.  Her main character is flawed but driven by a background brought up by two uncles, one himself a Texan Ranger, the other a lawyer, and a strong sense to do the right thing.  The story behind his suspension adds another layer to the plot and feels like it will carry over to the next in the series.  Richly written, strong characterisation and subtle plot twists made this very enjoyable and I would certainly want to catch up with this author’s other novels.

Bluebird Bluebird was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017.

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams (2019)

One of the most hotly anticipated titles of 2019 and a debut which certainly lived up to commercial and critical expectations.  It has been a strong seller since publication and has been highlighted by awards committees picking up the coveted Book Of The Year at The British Book Awards.

I’m certainly not the niche market for this book.  When I applied for a pre-publication review copy the publishers turned me down.  (I’m hoping that this was because I didn’t fit their “profile” of desired reviewers for this title) which does mean that I felt a little disgruntled towards this book and didn’t rush to read it, but I always knew I would succumb and now I have.

The reason this remained on my radar is because I’ve been enjoying Candice Carty-Williams’ columns in the Saturday Guardian Review and was keen to see if the honest warmth of her writing would come across in her debut novel.

Queenie is 25, working in London at a newspaper on the listings sections.  When her boyfriend thinks a trial separation is necessary Queenie struggles to navigate her life without him.  Her work becomes unfocused, her sexual relationships casual and plentiful and her friends set up an online group, The Corgis, to support their Queen,  It’s very modern and feels relevant and contemporary, even more so with Black Lives Matter gaining greater prominence in the light of recent events.

Queenie’s response to her white boyfriend wanting to take a break is the catalyst which forces her life to go into freefall.  I think where this novel really comes into its own is when she hits rock bottom and begins to work herself back up dealing with mental health issues and the problems faced by a young black girl in modern society.  Queenie is full of hang-ups and anxieties, will only date white men because she’s scared she doesn’t fit into what a black girl is expected to be, telling her younger cousin at one point; “We’re different and they need to accept our difference….People are going to try and put you in a mould, they’re going to tell you who you should be and how you should act.  You’re going to have to work hard to carve out your own identity, but you can do it.”

The book is Queenie’s attempt to establish that identity, she will frustrate as a character and a lot of her actions are questionable (and often funny) but she will win most readers over and it is certainly within her character that the heart of this book lies.  This is a strong debut which deserved to do well.  Candice Carty-Williams has a great talent of speaking directly to her audience through her character.  If it resonates with a white, middle-aged male like me those with more in common with Queenie should absolutely love it.

Queenie was published by Trapeze in April 2019

Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020)

I haven’t read Kia Abdullah’s debut “Take It Back” but I will certainly be on the look-out for it after reading her first-class second novel.  I feel like I have been on a real journey with the author with what is ostensibly a legal thriller- but it is so much more.

I’m not going to say much about the plot other than not one of the twists did I see coming.  Thematically, it is rich.  It’s mainly a tale about consent, but also cultural pressures and entitlement.  We meet 17 year old Kamran, educated at boarding school (which seems alarmingly close to his house I always assume children board some distance from home but here not so)  who one night has too much to drink and changes his life forever and Zara, an ex-lawyer, now working in counselling and support who is coming to terms with an act of violence perpetrated against her.

This was a novel I found difficult to put down.  I was using my finger to cover up the bottom of the page at times as I was reading it, not wanting my eyes to slide down and pick up on events too soon.  I savoured every word and it is well written.  I admittedly had a slight issue with a group of male protesters who do not seem as well thought out as characters and whose presence in part of the narrative caused its only few clunky moments.  I socially distanced myself at work one lunchtime even more than necessary by seeking out a space alone so I could read the court case section of the novel.

I’m not even a huge fan of legal thrillers.  The only one (not including “To Kill A Mockingbird” which is loosely a legal thriller) which has really impressed me is Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things” (2016) and this is every bit as thought-provoking and good.

Truth Be Told will be published on September 3rd by HQ Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2020)

When I read Donal Ryan’s debut “The Spinning Heart” in 2013 I was so impressed.  I completed it very early on in the year and it still managed to make the runner up spot in my Books Of The Year (behind Robert Lohr’s 2007 “Secrets Of The Chess Machine”. What an under-rated book that was).  I felt like I was really at the start of something when I was sent Ryan’s debut to review.  My thoughts about it featured alongside an interview with the author in Newbooks (NB) magazine and the novel won the Guardian First Book Award, The Book Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards amongst other accolades and was later voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  I made my own claim to the lasting power of this book in 2015 when I put the title forward in the winter edition of NB/Newbooks as my choice for the Best Book Of The 21st Century So Far.

Here’s the strange thing- despite my great love for this title I have not got around to reading anything else by this author who has since published  a short-story collection and three novels (his last “From A Low And Quiet Sea” making the 2018 Costa Novel Shortlist).  I was delighted to be offered a chance to advance review this, his fifth novel, by his publishers to put my previous oversights right.

The thing I have to get over first of all is that it didn’t blow me away like the debut did, so there’s unfortunately already a trickle of disappointment creeping in.  This was added to slightly by the narrative structure chosen, the debut drew the reader in with 21 people telling their tale creating a community with wonderful, economic writing which really brought these characters alive. Here we have a very factual narrative, written like a fable or fairy tale, which makes obviously for good story-telling but holds the reader at arm’s length and delays an emotional attachment with the characters developing.  This is obviously a popular style at the moment as Edmund White has surprisingly utilised something similar in his latest “A Saint From Texas”.

We begin in the early 1970s in Tipperary and the novel focuses on three generations of the Gladney family.  Paddy, a postman who also works on the land of the Jackman family where his cottage is situated and his wife, Kit, are reeling from the disappearance of their daughter Moll.  This can be seen as a novel about returning home and being satisfied with one’s lot as characters seem happiest when they have returned home to live a simpler life in the Tipperary countryside.

For the first half of the novel I was impressed by the quality of the writing but not totally involved but perhaps by two-thirds of the way through the undeniable genius of Donal Ryan had worked its magic and despite writing in a style which was keeping me at a distance I discovered  I really cared for some of these characters (I adored Alexander) and ended up feeling quite misty-eyed by the end.  I’m not sure how the author did this to me.  Once again it is a deceptively simple work which is much richer in characterisation and symbolism than it first appears- perhaps working in that subliminal way in which we as children relate to fantasy and traditional stories which the structure of this ultimately satisfying work echoes.

Strange Flowers was published in hardback by Doubleday on  20th August 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers for selecting me to review an advance copy and to Netgalley for making that available.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (1969)

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If you had asked me 30 years ago to list my favourite books this would have featured prominently.  I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was one of the first novels I read when I went away to college and an essay on works by John Fowles (of which this was my favourite) scored me a rare A-Grade.  I’ve read it a couple of times since but not for many years.  Last summer I went for a day trip to Lyme Regis and walked along The Cobb which has a prominent part to play in the novel as well as in the 1981 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and whilst doing this felt once again that I wanted to be immersed in Fowles’ 19th Century world.  My copy was ancient and yellowed so I treated myself to a new one at Serendip, one of Lyme’s healthy smattering of book shops and have spent the last week or so discovering whether time has been good to this novel.

What remains impressive is how Fowles has condensed the foibles of Victorian society  in a way which makes it seem authentic.  This has been done many times since, most splendidly in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” and in other titles which tend to feature highly in my end of year lists.  What I hadn’t experienced before reading this the first time was Fowles the modern author stepping back from the Victorian novel to comment and digress using a modern perspective.  Once again this is a common trick now but when I first experienced it (and perhaps even more so when it was published a good decade before I got round to it) it seemed radical.    It’s enough of a feature of the novel for them to attempt to convey something of this in the film (not wholly successfully) by having a modern strand which stepped back showing the making of the film and depicting actors playing Fowles’ characters, so Meryl Streep was both playing Sarah Woodruff and the actress chosen to play her.

Charles Smithson, a keen fossil-hunter and fan of Darwin spends the summer of 1867 in Lyme Regis where his betrothed, the somewhat vapid Ernestina is holidaying with her aunt.  There, on The Cobb, which stretches out to the sea they encounter a swathed, mysterious figure known locally as Tragedy, reputedly waiting for her French lover to return.  Charles becomes obsessed with this woman which challenges Victorian beliefs in decency, class and duty with the double standards we now expect from this period.

I love the plot.  Fowles, however, does like to move away from it and remind us of the artifice of his fiction.  At one point he inserts himself into the action observing Charles in the midst of his dilemmas.  It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.  This accusation could be levied at other of Fowles’ work which may explain why his reputation has faded in the years since his death in 2005.  There were a couple of titles I can remember abandoning (and this from someone who has done this very rarely) due to this inaccessibility, although I do have a copy of “The Collector” (1963) which I also loved and should get round to re-reading to see how that holds up.

This is an impressive novel of great richness and worthy of a five star rating yet it still has flaws which seem a little more  obvious this time round.  I’ve never fully got my head around the multiple endings which makes the last third of the novel less satisfying.  I could tell from my trip to Lyme that the townsfolk are still proud of this novel (as they are of Jane Austen who features it in “Persuasion”) and actually it is only when it moves away from Lyme that it slightly falters.  I still feel very attached to it, however.

fivestars

The French Lieutenant’s Woman was first published in 1969.  I read the Vintage paperback edition.

The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein – Peter Ackroyd (2008)

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This book pushes Peter Ackroyd above Charles Dickens to become my second most read author of the last 25 years. (Christopher Fowler is a few books ahead of these). Ackroyd’s work spans both fiction and non-fiction.  His best as far as I am concerned is his mammoth, superbly researched “London: A Biography” (2000) (My Book Of The Year in 2002) with other titles “Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem” (1994), “The House Of Doctor Dee” (1993) and non-fiction works such as “The Life Of Thomas More” (1998) and “Albion” (2004) all featuring strongly in my end of year Top 10’s in the year I read them.  I do tend to favour him as a non-fiction writer as some of his novels haven’t really blown me away.  In fact the one I liked the least was the work which made his name “Hawksmoor” which I was disappointed in when I read it in 1998.

“The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein” is a reimagining of the classic horror story.  The titular narrator is Swiss who comes to Oxford to study and there meets Percy Bysshe Shelley whom he follows to London.  It’s a time of scientific study and intellectual debate and Frankenstein becomes obsessed by the possibility of reanimating a corpse.  This mixture of a fictional character amongst real lives feels a little odd on this occasion.  At one point Frankenstein is staying with Lord Byron, and both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley (his actual creator) at the time when they decide to tell each other ghost stories from which the seeds of Mary Shelley’s novel were sown.

Basically what we have here is a fairly straightforward horror-tinged thriller which will seem familiar to readers because of its strong place in our popular culture.  I’ve never actually got round to reading “Frankenstein” so I’m not sure how close to the source material this goes but all of us will know about the experimentation and that if a corpse is actually brought back to life it is not going to be happy and it is not going to end well.

I think it’s the concept of this novel rather than its actual story-telling which stopped me being totally captivated by it.  Frankenstein’s account is well written and it’s a pacy narrative.  The sense of dread is conveyed well and London, as in a number of Ackroyd’s works, is a fairly vibrant character in itself.  It has whetted my appetite to wanting to find out more about Mr & Mrs Shelley and when I get round to the original novel (this is something I have always planned to do) this may be worth re-reading to compare the two.  On this reading it just misses out on being something special.

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The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein was published by Chatto & Windus in 2008.  I read the 2009 Vintage paperback edition.

Elizabeth – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2006) – A Real Life Review

realives

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This is the fifth showbiz biography I have read by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Around this time last year I was enjoying his 2015 publication “Becoming Beyonce” knowing that I had this earlier work on my shelves.

Taraborrelli’s study of the life and work of Elizabeth Taylor was published five years before her death at the age of 79 in 2011. Reading this confirmed something I’d always felt about her- it was amazing that she lasted as long as she did. There were so many health scares throughout her life, so many times it was reported that she was teetering on the edge, the first time fifty years before her demise when in London she collapsed from pneumonia and according to the author “thousands gathered in the streets in front of the hospital to hold vigil for her.” She bounced back (until the next major health crisis), a true survivor.

I realised when I started this book that I didn’t know a huge amount about Elizabeth Taylor, I just thought I did because of the amount of publicity she stirred up in her lifetime. Born in England (which was why in 2000 she could be made a Dame) I never knew her American heritage, that both of her parents were American and who returned home with their young daughter as war was breaking out. I have seen a number of her films over the years. I of course knew about her relationship with Richard Burton (recently re-watching the involving “Burton & Taylor” TV dramatization with Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West piqued my interest enough to pick up this book). I also knew about her AIDS work, her jewellery, her perfumes all of which gave her greater celebrity at an age when most actresses would be finding leading roles harder to come by, but to me she was always one of those larger-than-life people who do not seem to function in the real world. I needed Taraborrelli’s work to give me a grounding of her reality, what it really meant to be Elizabeth Taylor.

I never fully appreciated how devoted her fans were towards her, especially in America. In a lengthy film career her movies nearly always made money, no matter how patchy they were (even if it took years to turn a profit like the expensive “Cleopatra”). She was forgiven for breaking up the marriage of sweetheart showbiz couple Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher despite this being a huge scandal at the time. Taylor was still reeling from husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash turning to Eddie, his best friend, with him too rapidly becoming husband number 4 (and the one she had so little positive to say about in subsequent years).

The relationship with Richard Burton was central to Taylor’s life and career in the public eye. Everyone knew of their passion, their turmoil and manipulations of one another during their two marriages. He was the man Taylor could not let go. The section in the book which focuses on their marriage is perhaps the least absorbing. It was the time before, in-between and after the marriages which makes for a far more fascinating depiction of two people who just couldn’t stay away from each other and for whom the other person was both essential and toxic. Taraborrelli is too awe-struck by his subject to really join in with the tabloid frenzy some of Elizabeth’s actions stirred up, her friendship with Michael Jackson is played down as two kindred spirits with troubled childhoods and husband #8 (I’m counting Burton twice) Larry Fortensky, a younger construction worker she met in rehab which provoked an avalanche of sneering is handled sensitively and Fortensky (who died aged 64 in 2016) certainly does not get the ridicule he got at the time.

In fact, Taylor crammed in so much into her life that it’s hard to keep up and this book could easily have been twice its length. There’s a whole section on references and acknowledgements which goes on for 40 pages where Taraborrelli cites his sources. Elizabeth Taylor certainly generated a phenomenal amount of copy in her lifetime and we will never see anyone quite like this unique woman again.

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“Elizabeth” was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in the UK in 2006.