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My girlfriend looked at the back of Robert Dickinson's "The Schism" and decided that it was just the kind of book I would enjoy. Which was a fair comment, as I'd done the same. A book that promised a man's world "thrown dramatically out of kilter", that was "sharp, compassionate and darkly comic" and which "shows what happens when the lives of those you care about are suddenly, terrifyingly, at risk" would be exactly the kind of thing I would enjoy. If only what was in front of the back cover had been anything like that, this would have been a great book. Patrick Farrell works for a company that reclaims credit cards from those in debt. He doesn't particularly enjoy the work, but it gives him plenty of opportunity to visit his schizophrenic brother, Mike, which he does regularly. Mike used to be a fairly decent boxer, but now his only fight is against the paranoid delusion that there are people watching him all the time. Patrick's life looks to be picking up when he is introduced to Jane, who in turn introduces him to some of her friends. These friends have an interest in the occult which Patrick doesn't agree with, but they seem like decent people, if a little strange. Various groups are seeing the future differently, but the only one who gives Patrick cause for concern is Joshua Painter, who they all seem to have fallen out with and who Patrick has run across a couple of times in the course of his job. "The Schism" does have its moments, but they were few and far between. Patrick Farrell's life was well written is its mundane passage between work and the hospital to visit Mike. His scepticism at the beliefs and activities of Jane's friends comes across clearly and there is one scene at a dinner party where they all argue with each other is particularly realistic and well observed. Patrick's obvious love for his brother, even in difficult circumstances, is nicely presented and contrasts beautifully with the indifference of their parents for both of their sons and particularly their mother's inability to cope with what has happened to Mike. But some decent writing doesn't hide the fact that the book never really seems to get going. When the plot picks up later on in the book, it didn't make me feel involved in any way. The risks that the book's cover spoke of never really came to pass and whilst I could see that Patrick may have cause for concern about his brother, there wasn't the suddenness or the drama that the book had promised. At no point did the book pick up to the point that a descent into any terrifying situations seemed imminent or obvious. Things changed, but not to the extent that the story ever seemed much more than a continuation of the mundane. Perhaps Dickinson's intention was more to imply future events rather than stating them implicitly and I've largely missed the point. But this was a book that seemed to be all scene setting and no progression. I kept waiting for something to happen that would justify many of the phrases that the blurb used, but I kept finding nothing. There was a brief flash towards the end where a few things all came together, but that was all too brief and, by the point it arrived, it would have taken a lot more than was there to encourage me to think I had enjoyed the story. This is certainly one of the most realistic portrayals of boring, everyday life that I've seen in some time. The problem is that many of us like to read to escape that and "The Schism" doesn't allow that. There are some moments of very good writing, particularly the poignancy and compassion of the last few pages, but there was too much to struggle with before that point to lift me up and get me involved in the story in any way and it's all too easy to see why someone would want to sell their copy for 1p plus postage on the Amazon Marketplace. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
I've been a fan of Hard Case Crime almost since their inception in 2005. It helped that one of their early books was a novella from one of my favourite authors, namely Stephen King's "The Colorado Kid", but I also love the hard-boiled style of thriller they specialise in. After just 8 years in existence, Max Allan Collins' "Seduction of the Innocent" already marks their 110th release and with stories like this, it's no wonder they're thriving. Loosely based on real life events from the 1950s, "Seduction of the Innocent" tells a story around a group of comic book publishers, who are being attacked for their product being inappropriate. Here, the "innocent" are a generation of young people being corrupted by that material and the "seduction" is that practised by the comic books themselves. In both a book he has written and in a Congressional hearing, noted psychiatrist Dr. Werner Frederick claims that comic books are leading their audience into the world of violence, crime and sex depicted in their chosen reading material, which can only be having a negative effect on the individuals and on society as a whole. This attack threatens to result in a ban on comic books, which would affect the entire industry. Publishers, artists and distributors with Mob connections would lose out, as well as the audience themselves. This means that when Dr. Frederick is found murdered, there is a long list of potential subjects. Jack Starr, part owner of the Starr publishing house, happens to have a Private Investigator's license, so he is asked by his stepmother and boss, former showgirl Maggie Starr, to look into the murder, as she is aware of the repercussions should someone in the industry be involved. I've always loved the laid back writing style of the hard boiled crime thrillers and Max Allan Collins, on this evidence, is one of the finest proponents of the art. No matter what is happening, be it a fist fight on a staircase or a business meeting in the Starr offices, the style remains consistent. Although it's a laid back writing style that never gets caught up in the excitement itself, this consistency helps keep the book flowing and even when the action might drop off, the style means the pages turn as quickly as when there is plenty happening. The descriptive work is excellent here as well. As befitting a story based around the comic book industry, the writing is very visual. When Jack is taken in by a hood with a hat "on the snazzy side, a light green porkpie with a darker green-and-red feather", you can almost picture the hat and the bulge of his gun, which is also nicely described. Facial features tend to be a little less loosely described, but are vivid enough to give you a decent picture of the characters, especially on a couple of occasions when there is a naked female standing in front of Jack. The humour prevalent in such novels is also present here and works wonderfully well, again in keeping with the basic plot. It's not hard to picture Jack, our narrator, turning to the reader with an eyebrow raised as he comes out with comments like "Can you boil a battle?" or "I said I did some of my best work on couches." The style always reminds me of the voiceovers in TV shows like "The Wonder Years" and, whilst they're not always played for laughs, there is a dry humour ever present. Unusually for a crime thriller, the artwork is worth a mention. There are some excellent comic book style drawings illustrating the chapter pages and one section which drops briefly into comic book style for a couple of pages. It's an extra touch that wouldn't have harmed the book had it been missing, but one which helps remind the reader what the story is based on. It's often the tiny details that can turn a very good book into a great one and here it rounds out the whole package very nicely indeed. If you've ever enjoyed the hard boiled crime thrillers of the likes of Raymond Chandler, even just a little, you're likely to love "Seduction of the Innocent". It's perfectly written, hitting all the right notes in terms of atmosphere, characterisation and plot and I loved it. So well is it written that, even when you know who was guilty, there's still plenty here to make it worthy of a second reading, which makes a lowest price of £2.64 from the Amazon Marketplace pretty reasonable value. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
I know you shouldn't judge a book by the cover, but when the cover has a title like "Vampires in the Lemon Grove", I can't help but be a little intrigued, especially when the author has a recent history like Karen Russell's. This history includes a Guardian award nomination for a previous collection with another great title; "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" and a Pulitzer Prize shortlisting for her novel, "Swamplandia!" The intrigue of the title proves to be fulfilled in the first story. Vampire stories are all the rage, thanks in part to Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" trilogy of books and the four films they became, so there is very little new that can be found in such a story, but Russell has managed to achieve that with a story of vampires attempting to change their diet. "Reeling for the Empire" is an unexpected delight and unlike anything I recall reading and the basic idea behind "The Barn at the End of Our Term" is brilliantly funny. "Proving Up" adds a dark twist to a frontier tale and leaves the ending deliciously up in the air. "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" is a rites of passage tale and "The New Veterans" looks at ways of relieving post-traumatic stress. But neither leaves it there, as in Russell's hands these potentially standard subjects are given new life by adding something a little different. So does sports fandom, thanks to the hilarious "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" and another rites of passage tale sees bullies get a shock in "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis", which also has a wonderfully open ending. I've been intentionally very brief in my descriptions of the stories here. Karen Russell is a writer of rare imagination and these stories need to be discovered by each individual reader. In giving away even a little of the stories, I may take something away from the voyage of discovery. Whilst this means I can't necessarily prove that the stories would appeal, I can be sure that they will delight every reader in large measure, whether the brief outlines here make it sound that way or not. As more words are written, there are fewer original ideas to be found. What Karen Russell has achieved is to locate several truly original ideas at once. Occasionally using older ideas as a starting point, such as in the titular vampire tale, she puts her own stamp on even these and makes them different. Russell's train of thought is frequently a little left of centre and sometimes veers into the territory of the strange, but the range of ideas is incredible and, as a slightly left of centre person myself, I loved every moment of this collection. However, Russell is not just a one trick pony. She backs up great invention with a high quality of writing that would in itself have been enough to keep me reading. The descriptions of Zeiger's tattoo in "The New Veterans" in particular was clear enough that I would recognise it immediately if I saw it. It's not just in the visual that Russell succeeds, as Larry Rubio's emotional turmoil in "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" is presented so well as to be tangible, as it the internal battle with the reelers in "Reeling for the Empire". "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" is a joy of a collection. It's the equivalent of catching a butterfly in your hand and being able to take a close look at the beauty of the creature. Like that butterfly, this collection is beautifully put together and as admirable a sight when examined closely as when it takes wing and flutters away. I've found that you don't just read a Karen Russell story, you discover it and, once discovered, you recognise how precious it is and love it and even at £7.40 from the Amazon Marketplace, this is a great value discovery. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
When the original version of Take That came to an end, it was the solo career of Robbie Williams that really took off. Once the remaining members, older and wiser and with a more mature sound, returned, it was Gary Barlow who really benefitted. Since that comeback he has been awarded an OBE, helped arrange the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations and become a judge on a musical talent show that does more to boost the careers of the judges than of the supposed winners. With the BBC asking Barlow to host New Year and calling him "a bona fide national treasure", it seems strange now to think that his last full solo album, "12 months, 11 days", was actually a bit of a flop way back in 1999 and that he more or less vanished for the best part of a decade. Rumours of Gary Barlow's demise have certainly been exaggerated, and the opening track to "Since I Saw You Last" is an amusing little nod towards this. "Requiem" is told from the point of view of his own funeral and it's a surprisingly upbeat and humorous song considering the basis behind it. It's a big, overblown pop ballad, heavily led by the orchestra in a way that reminds me of some of The Beatles work. Musically, it's well put together and with lyrics like "Why bring me flowers when you know that I can't smell a thing?" it's also worth listening closely to. "Let Me Go" was the lead single from the album and whilst I struggle to hear it now without thinking of him performing it with the meerkats from the Compare the Market adverts, it's a strong track. This is a jauntier and more upbeat and up-tempo pop track, heavily led by a guitar and drum beat and, thanks to the backing vocal harmonies, this wouldn't sound terribly out of place as a Take That song. "Jump" is perhaps a little more akin to Barlow's solo work, being a piano driven pop ballad. Whilst it's a well put together song, it has none of the lyrical interest of the opening track, coming across as a littler twee and saccharine at times. It also missed on the musical interest, plodding along a little in comparison to the preceding track. It's well enough done, but doesn't do anything that grabs my attention or interest. The next track, "Face to Face", however, does both. This track is a duet with Elton John and his influence is clear from the opening bars. It evokes some of his 1990s work and when Elton's vocal opens the track, it could well be one of his solo singles. It's almost a shame when Barlow's vocal kicks in, as it sounds a little weak and reedy in comparison to Elton's incredible voice. Ultimately, this is a great toe-tapping pop song, with a great driving beat and it's a wonderful pop song. This collaboration with Elton John, combined with his recent duet with Agnetha Fältskog of Abba, confirms Barlow's place as one of the biggest names in pop music at the moment. "God" returns to the slower tempo, piano driven pop music of "Jump", but there is more here of interest, especially from a personal point of view. Lyrically, it's an interesting look at how Barlow may view God and it's one I can see being used to advertise an Alpha Course, such is the overall message. As a song, it's a little bland and one-paced, although it is quite nicely put together, but once again it doesn't particularly stand out. "Small Town Girls" opens with a mid-tempo, jaunty little folk influence, driven by the guitar. It's quite a change of direction, although one that fails to work by the disappointment that the lyrics provide, which are once again rather twee and annoying. The drum beat come through enough to make it sound like the kind of song that you'd tap your foot along with if it were performed by a folk band in your local pub whilst supping a pint, but once you can hear it clearly, the lyrical nonsense really takes the edge off it and spoils the song for me. The track listing has been well put together and, perhaps a little predictably, the next track is a piano driven pop ballad. "6th Avenue" once again suffers a little from being lyrically twee, asking questions like "has time taken leave of our senses / Or has sense taken leave of our time" and rhyming "rendezvous" with "avenue", taking the edge off what would otherwise have been a sweetly written and performed pop ballad and dropping it into an area so saccharine it's in danger of giving me aural diabetes. Unusually, given how the track listing has separated the ballads so far, "We Like To Love" is more of the same. This time, however, it does drag itself out of the pop ballad mire, with a soft gentle chorus underscored by an orchestra, after which the song becomes a little more expansive and it changes up a gear again further through the song, which at least makes it interesting. Again, this has the kind of sound that would work quite nicely with the harmonies that Take That provide, especially towards the end when the music comes in a little louder and seems to overpower Barlow's vocal on its own. The title track is buried quite deep in the album, but it's not a bad song for the waiting. "Since I Saw You Last" is darker in mood and feel than much of the album, with quite a heavy beat over an acoustic guitar and a touch of defiance in the lyrics. The track starts quite slowly, but once it kicks in, it's another decent stadium pop song and would work well as a Take That track, although it lacks some of the sunny disposition that group have largely become associated with, but as a decent change of pace, that doesn't harm this track at all. "This House" starts with an upbeat guitar intro and promises to be another jaunty little track. Once again, this is a finely put together pop track, especially once the chorus kicks in and the song expands into something you can see played at a huge stadium gig. However, this song also suffers from being a little too sweet for its own good, with a decent musical base spoiled a touch by weak lyrics. There's a part towards the end of the song where the vocal gets a bit of a rough, gruff edge, but the song never quite matches this feeling as a whole. As the album comes towards its end, "Dying Inside" seems to drag it there. This is a dirge masquerading as a pop song. Barlow's vocal doesn't seem up to the falsetto the song requires of it and the song is a little one-dimensional, plodding along to a monotonous piano background which even the addition of strings doesn't help to elevate. If Barlow is trying to get a depressive edge into a song, it hasn't worked, as it just sounds like he's complaining rather than being emotional enough to take his downbeat mood seriously. Fortunately, the album ends on a more upbeat note. "More Than Life" has a much jauntier note to the piano and once again contains the sorts of harmonies that would have worked quite nicely with the rest of Take That. Sadly, there are a couple of jarring lyrical notes, with the laziness of lines like "a new born yawning, that's new" taking the edge off what is a welcoming positive message compared to the previous song. There is room for improvement and when the song speeds up and turns into a folk influenced song half way through, it gets that improvement, although Barlow's vocal doesn't cope well with a key change late on and seems to be straining a little. This turns out to be one of the stronger tracks from an album that has started and finished well, even if it lost its way a little at some points in the middle. "Since I Saw You Last" sums up Gary Barlow's musical career quite nicely, in that it showcases perfectly how much stronger he is as part of the unit that is Take That, with licence to be a little more expansive in the pop framework they work to and with a slightly weak vocal buried in with four (or sometimes three) others. The best moments here are the ones you could see him performing with the group and the weakest are the ones you couldn't see them touching. It almost feels as if his first love is the group that made him and he saves his best moments for them, feeling a little directionless and lost without them. That said, there are some decent moments here and whilst too many songs fall into the middle of the road area Barlow treads so well, there are more tracks that stand out as being fairly decent than do for being awful. The track listing also helps and there is more thought gone into that than on most albums, with the ballads being interspersed with more upbeat and up-tempo tracks to allow for a decent amount of variation as the album progresses. Barlow may be better at working with others than he is at working for himself, but at £6.99 from Sainsbury's and Amazon or £7 from Asda, this is an album that offers reasonable value on a pounds per minute basis, with 12 tracks and 51 minutes of music. This is by no means a classic album, although it stands up well against Barlow's other solo work, even if it does leave you wishing for a Take That album instead.
Since it was originally published in the 1970s, Shiba Ryotaro's "Clouds Above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War" has become Japan's best selling novel of all time. Upon reading Volume 1, this comes as no surprise as it's an incredible read that left me desperate to see what Volume 2 had in store. If Volume 1 built up the characters of Masaoka Shiki and the Akiyama brothers, Volume 2 is a book more about war than about people, at least as individuals. Very early in this volume, Masaoka Shiki passes away at a very young age and so fades from the story. Shortly afterwards, as the war with Russia becomes more inevitable and Japan's preparations for this really kick into gear, the Akiyama brothers blend a little more into the cast of characters working on the war effort and whilst their names appear fairly regularly, we don't follow their stories as closely as before. The bulk of this volume is taken up with the machinations of the war, looking at it from all possible fronts. The story switches between Japanese and Russian Navies, both with their preparations and their times besieging Port Arthur and fighting in the waters nearby. The Army, meanwhile, is fighting on two fronts, laying siege to Port Arthur by land and fighting further North around Liaoyang. We also get to read about the internal squabbles between Army and Navy at Port Arthur and the political wrangling in both the Japanese and Russian political systems. Where Volume 1 felt like a history book with asides more than it did a historical novel, Volume 2 feels even more like a textbook, especially once the opening chapters which still had the non-combatant Masaoka Shiki featured. Once he has gone and the Akiyama brothers fade into the background and feature only as their actions as part of the Japanese war effort dictate, the main characters are no longer people, but the opposing nations and their armies and even within the Japanese Army and Navy, the Akiyama brothers rarely feature, with the focus more on their superior officers. Assuming historical accuracy, I'm stunned at the sheer level of detail that has gone into this volume in particular. It feels as if every skirmish that occurred on every battlefield, whether on land or on water, every conversation that occurred between commanders in the field or every set of battle orders passed down from high command is mentioned here. It's not just the results of the decisions made and how they ultimately affected the war's outcome that are included, but the discussions that led to those decisions being made and how the people who had to act upon those decisions felt about it. Considering the author is Japanese and not from a neutral nation, he does a spectacular job of following the war from both sides, in all spheres of combat and at all levels in the chain of command, from Emperor and Tsar to common soldier. Admittedly, there is a bias towards the Japanese side in terms of word count, but that's only to be expected, given the writer. With the degree of information here, it would have been easy for the book to get bogged down in minutiae, but this doesn't happen. Part of the reason for this is the constantly shifting focus of the story. With Shiba looking at things from both sides of the war and from both Army and Navy, this gives him lots of different areas to focus on, with both Armies and the Russian Navy split into two parts and the behind the scenes political angles to work from. He switches between stories so skilfully that there isn't time to get bored with one part of it before the focus changes to another. With the war being fought in fairly sharp bursts, this means that the pace of the story is kept very high. Once again, Shiba crosses genres perfectly, with the story having the pace of a thriller, but the detail of a history text. What makes the story even better is that it's not told from one perspective, as it covers the psychological impact of the war on both commanders and soldiers, again on both sides. He doesn't quite give the physical feeling of the battlefield quite as well as someone like Ben Kane, but he writes with enough detail that the impact comes through clearly. I did feel that this book was missing a little of the human aspect that was prevalent in Volume 1, as the people here are part of the Army or Navy more than they are individuals and they are soldiers first and men second. I also found it a little difficult to keep actions in the correct order as the story covered the war in sections determined more by location than by date. But it was still an enthralling and engaging read and the only real disappointments were that, once again, it ended rather abruptly at a point that left this reader hanging, yet desperate for more and that, due to it being a Japanese import, a hardcover copy will set you back nearly £40 including postage from the Amazon Marketplace, meaning that it will be out of reach for most people and will, most likely, remain largely undiscovered in the UK. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
I've long been a lover of Japan, ever since a brief visit to the country more than a decade ago. Whilst I've read several Japanese crime thrillers in translation, I've never really investigated the history of the country. Now available in English for the first time, Shiba Ryotaro's "Clouds Above the Hill: A historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War" provides just that opportunity. This first volume covers the period up to the start of that conflict. It is a story of a Japan which, at the end of the nineteenth century, is going through great changes following the Meiji revolution. These changes eventually allowed Japan to become more outward looking than the country had previously been. This bought them into cooperation and conflict with other nations, resulting in the war between China and Japan which occurred a few years before the conflict with Russia and which forms a major part of this volume. As well as the history of the time, the novel focuses on the lives of the Akiyama brothers, Yoshifuru and Saneyuki, and their friend Masaoaka Shiki. The three men's lives cover differing paths, with Yoshifuru joining the Army at a young age and progressing within the cavalry, whilst Shiki, afflicted with poor health and a creative bent, becomes a writer and poet. Saneyuki straddles both worlds, having early desires to become a writer, but is forced to abandon them due to financial constraints and becomes a senior figure in the swiftly expanding Japanese Navy. The books is incredibly detailed and with the level of information here regarding the history of Japan and the building up of both Army and Navy, it's tough to see the book as a historical novel in the traditional sense. Considering the likes of Ben Kane's "Spartacus: Rebellion" are historical novels which use history as the starting point for a novel, Shiba's detailed retelling of history makes it feel more like a work of history with added asides, rather than what I would normally consider historical fiction. Indeed, rather than being a novel based on history, it feels more as if history itself is a major character in the novel. What also helps give this impression is the writing style. The Japanese use of language tends to be a little more formal than Western readers may be used to, which can take a little adjustment, but here it works perfectly. The slightly stiffer style helps the novel fall somewhere between a history text and a standard war thriller and the compromise between the two makes it feel a little like a biography more than anything else. In a way, this is what it is, given that we're following the major characters through historical events, albeit with a little embellishment on the author's part - something which can sometimes also be said of autobiographies. Much praise for this should go to the translators, Paul McCarthy and Juliet Winters Carpenter. I've read translations of Japanese thrillers that try too hard to Westernise the language and that would have taken a lot away from the historical aspects of this story. I was initially concerned that having two different translators would affect the consistency of the segments, but both parts were equally well done. The second seemed a little easier to read, but this may have been more due to my becoming used to the writing style or the increase in pace of events than any differences in translation style. Quite simply, this is an incredible read that succeeds on all levels. I'm not a huge fan of history, but Shiba's telling of it flows beautifully, such that sometimes I forgot I was reading anything other than a work of fiction. At the same time, the sheer level of detail matches anything Tom Clancy has written, but without getting bogged down in too much technical detail the way Clancy's work often can. It also never loses sight of the human aspect of events, either at home in Japan, or overseas fighting or preparing for war. Those with a greater knowledge of Japanese history than I may baulk at Shiba's additions, but those who enjoy stories of war and politics will find this up there with the best of them. The more formal writing style may seem a little strange at first, but once you've adjusted to that, this is an intricately described, yet still very flowing read. Indeed, the only downside I found was that Shiba builds the story up so well that when this first volume ends at a very pivotal point, I found myself at a loss returning to the real world. This may be a book published in several volumes, but I defy anyone to read just one, assuming it can be found in a library, as at more than £35 for a copy from the Amazon Marketplace, buying more than one will be far more difficult than reading just one. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
The title of Christopher Brookmyre's debut novel, "Quite Ugly One Morning" was enough to make me pick it up, but it was the quality of the content that has kept me reading his work. He writes crime thrillers with a humour that extends beyond the amusing titles. "Bedlam", however, is something a little different, a nod towards the science fiction which, the author biography suggests, people have been nagging him to write. Ross Baker is a wage slave at Neurosphere, writing computer code for a new brain scanning system. His girlfriend, Carol, is not happy about the hours he puts into his job, thinking he's being played for a fool by doing extra work for no recognition. Ross thinks they're about to break up, but soon discovers their relationship is about to move to a level he was too busy to anticipate. After a rough morning, he agrees to have his brain scanned in one of the trial machines. He awakes in a world that he doesn't immediately recognise, but which seems strangely familiar. He soon discovers he has somehow landed in the computer game "Starfire". Among the standard characters he recalls from having played the game, he also runs into people just like him. Searching for a way back home, he moves from one game world to another and finds others who have dropped into this digital world, not all of them unwillingly or with pure motives. I've run into a few books of this nature over the last couple of years, with Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One" and Daniel Suarez's "Daemon" perhaps chief among them. Indeed, the basic set up of someone dropped into a computer game and fighting for an exit as well as for control, is very similar to that of the "Tron" films. What sets "Bedlam" apart from most of these is the humour prevalent in the book. Brookmyre has always been an amusing writer and that doesn't change here, even though one of his jokes was written in a style that took me a moment to figure it out. Brookmyre also writes the unreality of the situation very realistically. Ross' reaction to being dropped into an unrealistic situation is similar to how I would have reacted; confusion accompanied by swearing, followed by a slow dawning of comprehension accompanied by more swearing. As a non-gamer, my comprehension would have dawned slower than Ross' as I have heard of few of the games and played even fewer. I also liked the realistic way that Ross learned, adapting to each new world faster and faster as he went on. There were a couple of aspects of the book I didn't enjoy quite so much, however. Brookmyre often uses his writing to have his say on issues he feels strongly about and the world run by Daily Mail readers seemed a little unnecessary and interrupted the flow, as if he stopped plotting and climbed on his high horse for a moment. He also mixed up the game world and the future real world a little with no sphere of reference, which caused me a little confusion until I adjusted and, to be fair, it did all become clear eventually. As an existing fan of Brookmyre's work, the first of these issues was expected and whilst it did disrupt the flow a little, it wasn't a major problem for this reader. A first timer to his work may find it more of a distraction, although it is only a minor aberration and there is still much to enjoy. For existing fans, although "Bedlam" marks a change of genre, the writing style and sense of humour remain and mark this out as a typical Brookmyre novel, so it fits well amongst his back catalogue. My main issue here is the lack of originality on display. Brookmyre often takes conventional ideas and moves them out of context, like the oil rig school reunion of "Quite Ugly One Morning", but there is little of that here. Describing the book to a colleague, I referred to "Bedlam" as 'like "Tron", but with jokes', which may be a little simplistic, but isn't entirely inaccurate. The idea of how Ross ended up in the game world is a little different and the first person perspective in the games was well presented, but it was too familiar to be entirely original and that is a shame and the disappointment I've felt is perhaps marked by such a recent publication being available for £1.73 plus postage on the Amazon Marketplace. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Apart from having a fantastic name, Goldfrapp have also had a reasonable amount of success since their formation in 1999. They've had 2 Grammy Award nominations and a Mercury Prize shortlisting and their latest album "Tales Of Us" is their 4th Top 10 UK album in a row. Although all of their albums have been characterised by Alison Goldfrapp's soft vocals and the musical arrangements they overlay, their sound has been in a constant states of flux, with very few of their albums sounding much like the ones that have gone before. The album opens with "Jo" which, after a synthesised opening, settles down into something that sounds a little like mediaeval music, with a simple, slightly plodding arrangement. If the musical background was provided by a harp, it would be something you might expect to hear backing up a Shakespeare play. Alison Goldfrapp's vocal is clear and gentle over the top, sounding a little like Kate Bush in places and this is a beautiful, relaxing opening to an album. Next up is "Annabel", which runs a little more along the same theme, with a simple, mediaeval sounding backing, but this time on a stringed instrument rather than a keyboard, although I can't place the instrument used, as it sounds a little like an acoustic guitar, but not quite. The vocals are again smooth, with a breathy feel, but "Annabel" isn't as effective a song as "Jo", as the music is a little stronger relative to the vocal and the lyrics do get a little repetitive. It's still a song that drifts along pleasantly enough, though. From the start, "Drew" is a different song, with the tempo increased a little thanks to the guitar being a little more flowing. The vocal is still gentle and soft and once the orchestration comes in, the song develops an almost cinematic scope and wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a James Bond soundtrack if the vocals were a little stronger, particularly as there is an orchestral break half way through which seems to incorporate some of the James Bond theme. It's still a very well put together song, although I keep expecting Daniel Craig to appear from somewhere whenever I listen to it, so it's not quite as relaxing as the others as it has that film quality that suggests it's marking time for a piece of action. There's an interesting synthesised opening to "Ulla", which is a song title that makes me smile having recently watched the film remake of "The Producers". For all the electronics and orchestration, however, this is another gentle and incredibly relaxing track that reminds me of some of Enya's work in the opening. The song does pick up in tempo and overall sound after a couple of minutes, but the gentle, breathy vocal anchors it to the relaxing feel and it can drift over you wonderfully and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. The Scandinavian song title tour continues with the Swedish sounding "Ulla" followed by the more Finnish "Alvar", although the guitar intro reminds me vaguely of an acoustic version of Christian rock band Petra's song "Beyond Belief". Whilst "Alvar" never becomes a rock song, it is stronger musically than many of the others, underpinned by the soft, breathy vocal of Alison Goldfrapp. The song seems to put most of what Goldfrapp do well all into one 5 ½ minute song, as there are elements of the mediaeval sound from earlier in the album, as well as a musical landscape that supports the vocals and which, once again, have their moments of sounding a lot like Enya and some electronic and synthesised moments that remind me slightly of Portishead in places. It's perhaps a little too busy a track to be as entirely relaxing as some of the others, but still quite enjoyable and despite being the longest track on the album by some margin, it doesn't outstay any welcome extended to it. "Thea" picks up the tempo a little, but continues the Portishead theme with the psychedelic and electronic background, with a heavy drum beat that hasn't appears on the album thus far, making it sounds like something you may hear in a chill out room at a club. This isn't one of my favourites as the falsetto vocal is a little jarring and the music does overpower another breathy vocal and dance music isn't my favourite genre, but it's harmless enough for the most part. The album returns to something a little gentler with "Simone", which has a gentle piano introduction leading into the vocal. Once again, this is a wonderfully gentle song with the soft, breathy vocal helping it drift along almost effortlessly. There's a strange intimacy to some of the lyrics, talking about gently combing hair, and the whispered name in parts. Despite the slow tempo, this is a track that captivates and it seems to be over much faster than the 4 minutes it plays for as it's so easy to get lost in the moment with this one playing. "Stranger" continues the slower tempo and the very relaxed feel of the album, although it breaks with the naming convention of the tracks by being the only one that doesn't have a person's name as the title. Once again, this is a very relaxed track, led by an acoustic guitar and the soft, breathy vocal. As with "Drew", there are moments where the orchestration seems to be playing something from James Bond, but fortunately this time it's a different section of music and doesn't take you out of the moment quite so much. What you're then left with is another relaxing song that drifts over and around you quite beautifully. The piano introduction to "Laurel" makes me think of Lionel Richie's "Hello", which certainly can't be considered a good thing. Fortunately, the song has a darker undertone to it than the one it evokes, but it retains the soft vocal and the slow tempo that has characterised much of the album and once again allows you to drift away on the song, as it's so gentle that the slightly darker feel doesn't impact on the listening pleasure. The album closes with a slight increase in tempo with "Clay", which opens with an acoustic guitar in a similar way to "Drew". The breathy, soft vocal is an ever present and the orchestration is also a little busier and more interesting here. This is a song that feels restrained, as if it contains enough energy to explode into something else, but never gets free rein. It's an excellent piece of positioning in the track listing, as it means the album ends feeling as if there should be more to it, which makes me feel like I should listen to it again, which I mostly do. When I was much younger, I remember lying wrapped up warm and cosy in bed on a weekend morning and my Mum would have the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner running and the white noise would soothe me back to sleep of just make me feel somehow safe. In many places, I get exactly the same feeling from "Tales Of Us". This is not an album that you actively listen to as much as you put it on and let it affect you. You won't want to dance or sing along, but you may well find that, after a long day, many of the cares of the day will smooth away. "Tales Of Us", for me at least, is the aural equivalent of a soothing massage after a long run. There's not an awful lot of variation here, but the album doesn't need it. It's not intended to be an album that will move you, it's intended as an album that will help you stop moving, stop rushing. This isn't just a club chill out album, it's a life chill out album. This is an album that will wrap you in its arms and rock your gently to sleep, unfurrow your brow and ease your mind. For £9.00 from Amazon or your local supermarket or £7.90 for the download from Amazon and £6.49 for a used copy from the Amazon Marketplace, this is great value for 10 tracks and 44 minutes of music that will soothe in a far healthier way than any Valium and in a much cheaper way than any massage.
Around 8 years ago, when James Blunt first came to public attention with the release of his debut album "Back to Bedlam", I was reasonably complimentary about him. This was, however, before his major hit "You're Beautiful" was spoiled by being horribly overplayed and his slightly reedy, slightly whiny voice became more of an annoyance than something slightly different from the norm. Although I didn't mind "1973", the first single from his second album, my interest in him had waned and I paid little attention to what he was doing until links to his new single and video "Bonfire Heart" started appearing in my Facebook feed and it turned out to be not as bad as my memory had made James Blunt out to be. The sound of a motorbike opens the album, which seems strangely out of place when the gentle piano intro to "Face the Sun" kicks in immediately afterwards. It's a very gentle and very slow opening to the album and harks back to his debut, in that there isn't too much variation and Blunt's voice is very much to the fore. I find his voice slightly annoying, so this isn't a good thing for me, but just after half way through, the song adds a guitar and the volume increases and it turns into a very radio-friendly pop track and although the vocal is still a little annoying, it's buried down in the mix. The opening to "Satellites" has a much jauntier beat to it, almost with a pop-R 'n' B feel and the beat over it sounds a little like some of Pharrell William's work on the original "Despicable Me" sound track. The vocal sounds a bit more rounded here and not as grating and Blunt has a touch of Maroon 5 about him on this track, which I definitely wasn't expecting. It's still ultimately a mid-tempo pop track, but this shows a new influence creeping into Blunt's music and it's an influence I quite like. The next track is "Bonfire Heart", quite appropriately for the time of year. There's quite a jaunty little acoustic guitar riff over the top that gives the song a bit of a folk feel, which is retained throughout the track and it's a lot more up-tempo and, once again, Blunt's voice isn't nearly as annoying as I recall it from years previously. I can see why this track was Blunt's first Top 10 hit in a while, as it's good for getting the foot tapping and the pop-folk sound suits his voice. There's a muddy guitar riff that opens "Heart to Heart" which contrasts quite nicely with the clear synthesiser notes. Unfortunately, this continues and it doesn't quite fit with the slightly weak Blunt vocal, although once the song expands a little more and becomes more of a radio-friendly pop hit, the vocal becomes a little more buried and the song improves from it. Once again, this isn't entirely what I expected from Blunt, particularly once it gets going properly and it's all the better for defying my expectations. Apparently "Miss America" is a tribute to Whitney Houston, but it's not one that moves me. Lyrically, you can hear the work that has gone into it, but it's let down a little by the reedy vocal and despite it becoming a little more expansive and radio friendly later on, this is as close to his "Back to Bedlam" days that Blunt has come so far in the opening and I don't mean that in a good way. There are moments that make me think of Elton John's "Rocket Man" early on and that's also one of my least favourite Elton John tracks, so that's a double strike against a song that has good intentions and expresses them reasonably well lyrically speaking, but isn't as good as its parts could have been. "The Only One" again has an opening that wouldn't sound too out of place alongside a Pharrell Williams track, or even on a Calvin Harris album, but the song as a whole doesn't do a lot. It again becomes a radio-friendly mid-tempo pop song, but really doesn't rise above a fairly middle of the road example of the genre and it passes by completely inoffensively without ever really having an impact on the listener, missing even the decent lyrical content of the previous song to make it memorable. The piano introduction makes a return on "Sun on Sunday" and, when you compare this track to "Face the Sun", it seems that James Blunt seems to think that sun is a reason to get out the piano and the reedy vocal for another pop ballad. It's harmless enough and the music makes this a decent song to relax to, although the vocal leads the song and Blunt doesn't really have a strong enough vocal for that. His voice may be distinctive, but I don't mean that entirely as a compliment. This is definitely a "Back to Bedlam" era track, without even having the strength that a song like "You're Beautiful" or "Goodbye Me Lover" had. The opening lyrics to "Bones" always make me smile, with the line "Never liked the sound of my own voice" seeming either to be an admission of guilt or one in the eye for his critics. Having seen some of the comebacks Blunt comes up with on his Twitter feed, I suspect the latter. Ultimately, this is one of the tracks I most enjoy on the album as it's got a bit of a retro-pop feel that would make a decent radio hit and could even make for a club song if a decent remixer got their hands on it. I quite like the beat that opens "Always Hate Me", which has a slight tribal feel to it which drives the song along, but this isn't a song that really goes anywhere. Although Blunt's vocal again gives the track a hint of a Maroon 5 song, it wouldn't be anywhere near one of their better ones, as it's largely inoffensive and is just a bland pop track. "Postcards" opens once again with the reedy, warbly vocal and the piano and gets even more annoying from then. The lyrics are bland and whilst the addition of a ukulele gives the song a bit of a hook to hang the song on, the whole song is something of a noose. Maybe I would enjoy it more had the Barenaked Ladies not produced a far better song about postcards several years ago in 2009's "Another Postcard" and this is, by comparison, as limp as a postcard dropped in a puddle. It's also the longest song on the album by a fair margin and I find myself wishing it would end a good while before it eventually does. The album ends much as it started, with a piano and vocal led ballad in "Blue on Blue". By the time the song steps out above being another piece of down tempo "Back to Bedlam" pop tedium, it's a little too late and the song has bored me to tears. It ends the album on a crescendo, but too many of his songs have started and ended the same way to make the whole thing enjoyable, no matter how well it has ended. There is much more variation here than there was on the last James Blunt album I listened to properly and far more than I expected. I found myself rather enjoying a few of the tracks because of this, and possibly because my expectations weren't that high to start with. His vocal is still a little annoying, but many of the songs here bury it with enough musical backing that it doesn't stand out as much as it has done in the past and I do feel that's a good thing. Ultimately, however, there isn't anything different or distinctive enough to make "Moon Landing" stand out in any major way. It may be largely inoffensive, but you can get that from most "X-Factor" winner's singles these days and in a pop world that contains someone like Bruno Mars, inoffensive radio-friendly bland pop isn't really enough, especially when the album is only 11 tracks and 40 minutes long, but still costs £9.99 from Amazon or your local supermarket. It's not a particularly bad album, but neither is it brilliant, it just is and that just isn't enough to appeal.
There are many authors who wear several hats, but few who wear as many as Graham Masterton. So numerous are his writing hats that the Bibliography section of his website lists his works by genre, ranging from historical sags, through sex instruction books, to his horror novels, of which I have long been a fan. Now, he has turned his hand to writing crime thrillers and so we have "White Bones". Finding a dead body isn't an unusual occurrence for Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire of the Cork Gardai. But finding the bones of eleven bodies in a mass grave, each with marks that suggest the flesh was stripped from them and with evidence that they were used in a voodoo-like ritual is beyond the pale even by her usual standards. There is some respite when it appears that these bones have been dead bodies for more than 80 years, until another fresh set appear in roughly the same spot. As if dealing with a killer isn't enough, Katie Maguire is also having domestic issues. Her husband, Paul, is mixed up in some underhand dealings and has upset some major figures in the Cork underworld, in one case by having an affair with his partner. Whilst Katie tried to avoid bringing Gardai work home with her, Paul's actions means it follows her home on more than one occasion. She is under further pressure by being the first female Detective Superintendent in the Garda and by having most of the men she encounters taking quite a liking to her. From very early in the book, you can see how Masterton's horror leanings are at work here. The reasoning behind the crime is quite dark and, given just a slight twist, this could easily have been written as a horror novel. The depictions of some of the murders are quite graphic and written with a level of detail that may turn a weaker stomach than mine. As a horror writer, Masterton is particularly good at writing the more visceral aspects of events, meaning that the reader gets a far more vivid and disturbing picture of certain things than is usual in a standard crime thriller. The other aspect of the story I particularly enjoyed was the frequent use of Cork dialect and slang. I love the Irish accent and it was difficult not to hear it when some of the characters were speaking, especially when they dropped into local expressions. Even though the story was in many ways a touch too extreme to feel entirely realistic, much of the language used here felt real and somehow warm and comforting amongst the Irish rain and the multitude of dead bodies. Perhaps the one disappointment here was that Masterton conformed to a number of the standard crime thriller clichés. Although it adds flesh to the story, ironically enough given how the victims were found, the sub-plot of Katie Maguire's home life was a bit of a distraction to me and takes something away from the stark horror of much of the story, although this sub-plot did contain one particularly vividly gruesome part. The ultimate ending was also a touch disappointing and took some of the edge off the book and I would have felt more satisfied with the book as a whole if it had ended just a few pages shy of where it did. There was also a little signposting which enabled me to guess the identity of the murderer a fair way from the end, which always disappoints me, as I'm not usually good at spotting such things. There were, however, a couple of decent revelations to add to this which I hadn't expected and which gave the story a couple of slightly cheeky twists which helped lessen my disappointment at seeing at least part of the ending coming. I felt this was a pretty good novel for a writer perhaps, as yet, not entirely used to the genre. In some ways it was fairly standard, which doesn't make it unusual in this particular genre, but the areas in which it did stand out were enjoyable enough to elevate it slightly above average in a very crowded genre. My hope is that future Katie Maguire novels will lose some of the clichés but retain the horror leanings and, if that occurs, they will be very good indeed. In the meantime, those with a Kindle will not be disappointed after spending 1.79 on what is a decent crime thriller, although those without may baulk at spending £6.99 for a paper copy. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Whilst country music has become more mainstream in the last couple of decades with the increase in alternative Country, with the genre crossing over into pop and rock mainstream, folk music hasn't had quite the same success. Mumford and Sons have made a great start with their couple of albums thus far and now, joining the fray, come The Civil Wars. Their debut album, "Barton Hollow", won them Grammy Awards in both folk and country categories at the 2012 Grammy Awards and a collaboration with the aforementioned Taylor Swift won them another in 2013. In addition, their debut album hit the top of Billboard's Folk Albums chart and reached the Top 10 of the main Billboard albums chart, so this second album has a lot to live up to. Given that the pair went on hiatus between albums, essentially having a civil war of their own, the progress towards this second album has been as difficult as the cliché suggests. The album opener is the lead single "The One That Got Away", which isn't a bad start. The yearning edge to Joy Williams' vocals in the early parts fit perfectly into a song about a love that wasn't lost, but should have been. Musically, it's a decent folk-country ballad, sounding a little like Jon Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" in some of the guitar parts, although when the song becomes a little louder and the vocals a little more shouty, it loses some of the yearning and becomes a little less effective. Next up is "I Had Me a Girl", which has a lovely dirty blues sound to the guitar. It's rough and ready musically, which fits John Paul White's vocals, which seemed to crack on some of the notes early on. Unfortunately, some of the lyrical content, with all the "ooh" and "whoa", take the edge off, as it sounds like they've forgotten the words, or forgot to finish the song off and there is a rough musical break that has an unfinished feel to it, as if it had to be rushed to get the album out. This is a track that has a decent base and has some appeal, but just doesn't quite get it together enough. "Same Old Same Old" is the third track and has a gentle country opening that feels quite relaxing after the earlier track. It's a gentle country ballad and works better as a duet than the previous song, but it comes across as slightly lacklustre, although if you know the recent history of the pair, the lyrics do take on a slight added dimension. But ultimately, this is a song about being on the verge of giving up on something performed by two people who sound as if they already have. There's nothing particularly wrong with the song, but there's not a lot about it that stands out, either. The intro to "Dust to Dust" is a little more interesting, but sounds horribly familiar in a way I can't quite place. Once again, it's a gentle start to a song that ultimately sounds a little lacklustre. The song comes across as slightly dirge-like and doesn't do anything to grab the attention. It's not gentle enough to be a ballad and it doesn't pick up enough to be considered anything more and what you end up with here is nearly 4 minutes of nothing to report. There's a deep guitar opening to "Eavesdrop" which, had it been performed on an electric instead of an acoustic guitar, could have been a Nirvana riff. Like the opening track, this is far more effective when Joy Williams is singing, as she puts a little more emotion into the vocal naturally, whereas when John Paul White takes over the vocals, it sounds a little more strained. Musically, however, this is another mid-tempo track with country leanings that does nothing exciting and even the expansion into a louder, slightly more up-tempo sound later on doesn't shake the rack out of its apparent lethargy. "Devil's Backbone" has a little more of a traditional Irish folk sound to it and once again, there's just the right feel to Joy Williams' vocal in the introduction. Later on, it moves more into a fairly standard pop-rock sound, but this is one of the more effective tracks on the album, quite basically done, but seeming all the better for it. The guitar intro to "From This Valley" reminds me a little of the guitar parts on Carrie Underwood's "The More Boys I Meet", although slightly down tempo from that song. This is a lovely, jaunty little country track and works better as a duet than some of the songs, as John Paul White's vocals don't sound quite so strained, as if the style suits him a little better. The overall effect is that of a slightly less effective Lady Antebellum track, particularly their earlier work and, as a fan of that group, this sits well with me. "Tell Mama" is a cover of an Etta James song. It's a lovely ballad with a country-blues twist, but comes across as slightly lacklustre again. The lyrics are quite beautiful, but the song is performed without the necessary feeling behind them, which takes a lot of the edge away from the song. As with much on the album, it's not bad as such, but you can feel the room for improvement. The more upbeat tempo and nature of the following track, "Oh Henry", also sandwiches "Tell Mama" between the two most upbeat songs on the album, which seems a strange choice for the track listing. Much like "From This Valley", this is a jaunty little country- folk track with the dirty blues of the guitar from "I Had Me a Girl" in the background. It's a bit of a mish-mash of sounds and tempos within the song which means it doesn't sit entirely comfortably, but it's not a bad song for all that. "Disarm" is a cover of the Smashing Pumpkins song and John Paul White's vocal early on reminds me of Glenn Hansard. Lyrically, it's a lovely song and musically, it's a beautiful pop ballad. Once again, however, the song suffers from a certain lack of oomph that could have turned it into something special, but it comes across as sounding like a by the numbers cover, performed with no more feeling than a karaoke version of the song. At nearly 5 minutes long, this is the longest track on the album for a while and does nothing spectacular enough to make it worth listening to for that long, even allowing for the overblown ending. There is at least something of interest in the entirely French performed "Sacred Heart". This proves that The Civil Wars can put together a decent country sounding ballad in more than one language but also that, whichever language they're singing in, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of effort involved. It's quite a pretty song, but like many of the ballads on the album, doesn't really stand out in any important way, apart from being in French. The album ends with "D'Arline", which has a rough and ready feel, apparently being recorded through an iPhone. Unfortunately, whilst the recording method adds a different sound, it doesn't allow for sound mixing and the guitar overpowers Williams' vocals for far too much of the song. Ultimately, however, this would have been another country-folk ballad which, with the low quality of the recording is against reminiscent of some of the Glenn Hansard song from "Once", but without quite the same feeling to it. "The Civil Wars" isn't a bad album, but it has a rather lacklustre feeling to it. There are a couple of decent moments, but nothing that really stands out and grabs you. It sounds as if the civil war between the duo has resulted in a distance between them which does show on the album as a whole. There are signs that suggest it could have been a better album with a little more effort, but as it stands, it's 12 tracks and 43 minutes of nothing special. Less than 2 weeks after the release date, there is a copy of the album on eBay for 99p plus postage, which is an indicator of the staying power of the album and it certainly won't be one I'm likely to reach for in the future.
A short while ago, I read Joyce Carol Oates' short story collection, "The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares" and was moved by the sheer emotional impact of the stories it contained. This was especially true of the title story, which looked at the impact on a family torn by the disappearance of their daughter. The synopsis of "Daddy Love" suggested a similar impact, given the nature of the story and what I'd recently discovered about the power of Oates' writing. Dinah and Whit Whitcomb are living happily with their 5 year old son Robbie in Michigan. Until one day at the Mall, Dinah is hit over the head and Robbie is snatched from her. Getting up to chase the van he was bundled into, she is run down by the kidnapper and left for dead. Robbie finds himself first locked in a box and then, when he is released, under the 'care' of Daddy Love. Daddy Love is not a pleasant person, although he gives the impression of being so to the outside world, preaching at churches as Pastor Cash and being polite to everyone he meets. But when he and Robbie, now renamed Gideon, are alone, things are less pleasant. Daddy Love maintains discipline by locking him back in a restrictive coffin-like box and if his brand of 'love' were properly named, our main character would be called Daddy Rape. As with much of Oates' writing, the story touches on human fears and the worst of human nature and it's not always comfortable reading. But, also in common with much of Oates' writing, as disturbing as you may find the content of the story, it's so compellingly told that I could not turn away. This is the written equivalent of a horror film that you watch through your hands, not wanting to see the gore, but unable to stop watching. Oates' writing has two main features that make the reader feel this way. The first is the sheer emotional impact of the writing that makes you feel every situation. The smooth malevolence of Daddy Love seems to ooze from the page and even just reading about someone so disgusting made me feel dirty. The heat of Gideon's rage as he grows older and more rebellious burns from the page like one of his arson attacks and whilst his actions may be understandable in his circumstances, the heat feels feverish as if he were infected by some of the things Daddy Love put him through. The other feature was the sheer style the story is presented in. The opening chapters repeat early events over and over as the kidnapping occurs. Whilst this felt a little confusing at first, I soon realised that they were the events as recounted by Dinah's mind as it was still reeling from the shock of events. This noticed, I couldn't help but admire the quality of both the thinking and the execution in this part of the novel. If there was one down side, I felt it was in the ending. It may well have been realistic in a case such as this and may well mirror a real child abduction case, but it didn't seem to quite fit in with much of what had come before. It was still a well written and emotionally expressed section of the novel, but after all that had come before I struggled a little to adjust to the change of pace and direction that resulted. However, all that has come before was so good that this slightly weaker ending didn't spoil the book, it just took some of the edge away from it. Fans of Joyce Carol Oates' work will certainly enjoy "Daddy Love", as it's well in keeping with her usual style and quality of writing. It may be a little too dark for readers not used to the genre, although those that have read stories of abuse like Anna Paterson's "Anorexic" or the work of Dave Pelzer could be more used to this kind of story and may find this both a realistic and well written example of that story, even as fictional as it is. For those with a Kindle, it's ridiculously cheap for the quality at £1.59, but even at £7.19 for the new release paperback, it's still a decent price for an incredible, if occasionally difficult, read. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
There is a line in Alan Bennett's play ''The History Boys'' that I love. It talks about ''subjunctive history'', imagining things that might have happened. In ''Intermission'', his first book in English as opposed to Welsh, Owen Martell borrows this idea, taking an event a surmising what may have happened afterwards. The event in this case is the death of Scott LaFaro, bass player for jazz group The Bill Evans Trio, who was killed in a car crash shortly after a series of concerts in New York in June 1961. History records that band leader Bill Evans went on hiatus for a spell after LaFaro's death and ''Intermission'' suggests what may have been going on in his life during this period. Bill's story is told in four parts from the perspective of those closest to him; his brother Harry, his parents Mary and Harry Senior and, finally, Bill himself. It charts the time Bill spends with his family as he takes some time and space to deal with the tragedy, firstly with Harry and his family in New York and then with Mary and Harry senior in Florida. We get to see how various members of the family relate to each other and the distances, both emotional and physical, that time has put between them. The story is very well written and the four parts have their distinctive voices and their differing themes. Harry's is told in the dull voice of someone who has watched their younger brother overtake them and you sense his jealousy as Bill's relationship with Harry's daughter Debby threatens to overtake his own. Whereas his story frequently looks backwards, Mary's and Harry Senior's are mostly concerned with the present, wanting to do what they can to help their son. Mary tries to do this by treating him like her little boy, Bill by treating him like a man. Bill's section, as he returns to his old life, is the only one that shows much glimpse of a future and this section is brighter in tone and a little flightier, reflecting the jazz musician that Bill is. The quality of the writing was what kept me reading more than anything else. Harry's opening section had a slightly noir feel to it, reflecting more the times of Raymond Chandler than the 1960s setting of the book. The sections written from the perspectives of Bill's parents had the slower nature of a couple still trying to find ways to spend their time now their children are grown and the only work to be done is on a garden slowly wilting under the high Florida temperatures. Bill's section had all the feel of a musician returning to life and gave a real sense of recovery and rebirth, like he was a butterfly escaping his cocoon of grief and finding out what his wings are for. The only issue I found with the story was that, as it was snapshots of life, it didn't go anywhere much. With a main character being a jazz musician in the 1960s, I expected a little more life than I found. The whole story, up until the very end, takes on a downbeat cast that is more dirge than jazz. Although the writing reflects well on the downbeat nature of the story as a whole, there was nothing in the story I found particularly gripping. That said, for readers who revel in the beauty of great writing, there is much here to enjoy and this is made only more admirable by it being Martell's first novel in the language. For those like me who prefer to read for escapism and entertainment, there may be something a little lacking until the latter stages. There is, however, more than enough here to suggest than Martell's name will grow in time and whilst it may not be spoken with in quite the same reverence Bill Evans is held in jazz circles, there may well be acclaim beyond the Wales Book of the Year award one of his earlier novels has already won, especially if you can pick up a copy from eBay at 99p plus postage. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Take three musical siblings, with a surname starting with H and what do you get? If you're as old as I am, memory may provide the answer "Hanson". Fortunately, however, there is little comparison other that these between Hanson and Haim. Whereas Hanson were teenagers when they burst onto the scene in the mid 90s with their rather annoying "MmmBop" single, Haim have built up their talents playing with and for other artists and only now, when all three sisters are in their 20s and more musically mature, as well as physically mature, than the brothers Hanson were, have they come to prominence as a group. Outselling Justin Timberlake to get a Number 1 album in the UK suggests they may have something going for them. But it's not just the public who are behind Haim, as they were voted the BBC's Sound of 2013, beating another chart topping artist in Tom Odell and following on from the likes of Adele and Jessie J in winning the award. So the expectation is certainly there as their debut album "Days Are Gone" is released. The opening track, "Falling" isn't a bad start at all. There's a combination of influences here that mostly seem to hark back to the 1980s. It's got a very synth pop sound and the vocals remind me of Annie Lennox in places, although the harmonies are a little more girl group. Sometimes it feels part way between Eurythmics and Bananarama, but with some excellent funky bass guitar work that could have come from a Stevie Wonder track. The 1980s synth pop feel continues with "Forever" and the Eurythmics feel is also present here, with perhaps a tough of Fleetwood Mac sneaking in as well. The funky bass line remains, meaning that there isn't an awful lot of variation between this and the opening track, but both are strong enough to provide a decent opening to the album. For me, third track and fourth single is where the album really kicks into gear. This is their highest charting single release so far and I think it deserves to be. There's a country hint to the opening guitar that make me think briefly of Alannah Myles, but there's a great bass and drum beat that drive the song along. For the first time, you can hear all three sisters with their vocals and each are as clear as each other. This is a song with a wonderful pop hook and you can see it doing very well as a live song and it's one that gets the feet tapping every time I hear it, as well as having a perfect beat for running to. This is definitely my favourite track from the album. "If I Could Change Your Mind" does take things back to being slightly generic, with the synth pop hooks and the vocal harmonies returning, just at a slightly slower tempo than the earlier songs. They sound like a very tight knit 1980s vocal group and if this song had been produced by Stock Aitken and Waterman about 25 years ago, Haim would have been headlining stadiums and topping the charts on a regular basis. It's not a bad song, but perhaps a little too reminiscent of someone like Hazell Dean to be considered great. The next track is another favourite of mine. The "The Wire, "Honey & I" offers something a little different, with the guitar a little more prominent giving the song less of a 1980s synth pop influence, although it is still clearly a pop track. I love the gentle build in to the song and vocal delivery on the chorus is distinct and different, but the harmonies still remain perfect on the song. There's perhaps a little hint more towards the 1970s and a touch of Fleetwood Mac here, more so than the 1980s influences on much of the album so far and some of the vocal harmonies could even come from a 1960s girl group. I think it's the differences that make this track stand out from the others, but the quality of it makes it stand above most of them. There's a definite Eurythmics feel to "Don't Save Me", with a heavy synth pop influence, bounding along at a decent pace and with the Annie Lennox sounding vocals prominent again, although the harmonies on the vocal do suggest something of a girl group as well. Once again, the song doesn't really escape the 1980s influence here, suggesting that the sisters have grown up listening to their parents records and that this memory has stayed with them and guided their own musical choices. As with the opening tracks, it's well crafted, but doesn't offer much that hadn't already been heard 3 decades ago. There's an interesting variation in the vocal for the title track "Days Are Gone" and the song is quite different from many so far on the album. There is more of a produced value to the vocals and the song has the feel more of a girl group in many places. Some of the funky bass work suggests a slight Sugababes feel and it is here that you can most strongly sense the Destiny's Child influence that Haim have sighted previously, although there is still a hint towards the 1980s in various parts as well. It's certainly an interesting song, but the influences are so widely spread that it doesn't quite settle into an overly coherent whole. The title of "My Song 5" makes as little sense as Blur's "Song 2" OR Daniel Powter's "Song 6" and the song doesn't make much sense to me, either. After so many smooth, poppy songs, this sticks out in a rather unpleasant way. It's often dark and discordant and whilst there are some fuzzy guitars that Lenny Kravitz may have been proud of, they sit poorly with some decent vocal harmonies and the deep, overly produced snyth sounds give the whole song a dark feel that doesn't fit either with the vocals or with the rest of the album. It smacks of being something different for the sake of being different, rather than because it shows off another side of the group. "Go Slow" is the first time the album really slows down and it does so rather effectively, with a synth pop feel making the track sound a lot like Pat Benatar. It does get a little lyrically repetitive at points, but it harks back perfectly to the stadium rock ballads of the 1980s and it's a very decent version of a song of that type. The vocals are perfectly in keeping with the music and it's a decent synth-pop ballad. "Let Me Go" also has a slightly strange opening, darker in tone than much, although not nearly as dark as "My Song 5". There is a feel of a dark girl group to the opening vocals, a little like Shakespear's Sister, although musically there are some 1970s style Fleetwood Mac influences sneaking through again, particularly in the fuzzy, blues guitar at some points. Musically, it's a very accomplished song, but as a whole it doesn't quite grab me in the way that many on the album have done, perhaps because my own musical tastes were influenced more in the 1980s than in the 1970s. The album ends with "Running If You Call My Name" which isn't the strongest ending the album could have had. It has a decent 1980s stadium ballad feel again and the vocals are well put together, but ending an album like this with a slower tempo song doesn't quite feel right, ending more with a whimper than with the bounce it opened with. Given that the majority of my favourite tracks were quite early on, I'm left with the feeling that "Days Are Gone" is only half a decent album. What is here is certainly musically accomplished, but the vast range of influences suggests that the group haven't quite picked their own sound as yet and are experimenting a little with what sounds right for them. However, this is a fairly decent 11 tracks and 45 minutes of music that suggests that there is the talent within Haim, both musically and especially vocally, for them to be something quite impressive given time. At £10.00 from Amazon and local supermarkets, the album is still perhaps a little expensive to be worth a punt, even if you've enjoyed the singles. But at £4.99 for a download from Amazon, or the potential for picking up a copy for £3.00 or so from eBay, although that price is being raised in bidding at the moment, it's not a bad album to say you've listened to, especially if things do settle and they become huge in the future. This is an album that has more in the potential than it does on the album itself, but it's not a bad listen. When it's good, it's very radio friendly 1980s influenced synth pop and when it's bad, it's either a touch bland or a little bit weird and freaky. There is no middle ground as yet, but when Haim find their middle ground, they have the quality to go far.
Having recently read Charles Fernyhough's "Pieces of Light: the New Science of Memory", I expected something similar, judging only from the title of Theodore Dalrymple's ''The Pleasure of Thinking: a Journey Through the Sideways Leaps of Ideas''. Instead of being a book about how people think laterally, as I thought it might be, it turned out to be something rather different, but ultimately equally interesting. If I believed I was a bibliophile before now, Theodore Dalrymple has taken that line much further than I had ever considered. He has a wide range of interests and enjoys hunting through second hand bookstores for unusual books on subjects which themselves frequently seemed unusual to me. He also seems adept at hunting down and picking up books that have been annotated or dedicated or otherwise marked by previous owners and he seems to enjoy exploring the history of such books as much as he does the books themselves. What follows is a journey through Dalrymple's bibliomania. His interests are wide ranging, although perhaps tending more towards crime and medicine slightly more than other subjects. But his eye roves and you can never be entirely sure what direction his writing is going to take you in next. There is a part of him that seems to enjoy following the next idea that comes to mind for the sheer pleasure of seeing where it will take him, which certainly explains his choice of title. As someone whose mind works on similarly flighty lines, this meant that I also rather enjoyed the flitting nature of the book. The tone is slightly lecturing, which frequently meant that Dalrymple sounded a little more like a tour guide than a writer. The tone made the book feel as if it would have been more at home as an audio tour, like you can get at many tourist attractions these days, to accompany a walkthrough of his bookshelves more than it did as something to read; perhaps ironically for a book about books. Although Dalrymple describes things well and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through very clearly, I felt a little disconnected for not being able to see what he was looking at as he wrote. There were a couple of aspects of the book which I found detracted from the content slightly. I'm not sure how old Dalrymple is, but he seems keenly aware of his own mortality and makes reference to it on a number of occasions. This may be a natural preoccupation given his medical training and his occupation as a witness in murder trials, but it was mentioned frequently enough to be a distraction; seemingly to both reader and to writer. My other issue was that in many ways, the book as a whole felt as if it had been written in instalments. The author biography states that Dalrymple has contributed to a number of newspapers and the segments often feel as if they may have originally been intended as a regular column. Whilst many do seem to follow on from each other, some of the changes of direction remind me a little of Chuck Klosterman's "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs", which was a series of articles published in book form. Indeed, much like that book, I found the highly educated nature of the writer in subjects I know very little about, to be slightly daunting at times. This presentation assisted with the sense of disconnect I felt going through the book as a whole. I'm unsure as to how I feel about the book. The novel reader in me bemoans the lack of an obvious through line, but the quirkier side of my nature enjoyed the way it meandered through Dalrymple's collection. It may not give a reader any insight into the sideways leaps of ideas as I originally hoped it might, but it certainly makes you want to keep following the book through many of them. This is a book that may turn out to only be of niche interest, as many of the books in Dalrymple's collection also are, but it should certainly appeal to those with an abiding interest in books. For those who would be tempted to seek out something like this, it will be of great appeal, although it may sit better as a book to be dipped into occasionally, rather than read in several longer sittings the way I did, although with a cheapest price of £5.27 on Kindle or £6.49 plus postage from the Amazon Marketplace, it's a bit too expensive to be worth a purchase. This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk