Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The giddy carousel of pop

Rock Stars Stole My Life!Oh, the "Giddy Carousel of Pop"! Mark Ellen's amusing and nostalgic memoir brought back many happy music-based memories: Dad making annoying comments during Top of the Pops; sniggering with a chum over copies of Smash Hits; being in a band.

More seriously, the book traces the changing face of music journalism and the consumption of music since The Beatles. It also touches on what the life of a pop/rock star might be like.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Sorry Mr Orwell ...

Fifty Orwell Essays [linked table of contents]Perhaps it's a little unfair to award Orwell's collection of 50 essays a mere three out of five stars. Some of the essays are brilliant, but there are plenty that, on first reading, are just ok. For instance, it was difficult to properly enjoy his discussion of the merits of Helen's Babies, or James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution, since they mean nothing to me. I would have got more from the essay on Gulliver's Travels if I had actually read Swift's work, and my knowledge of Shakespeare's King Lear was found wanting in the reading of the essay about Tolstoy.

There are, however, absolute gems in this collection:

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Don't blame the victims

The TruantsThe Truants begins on a park bench. As dawn approaches, a vampire who has been alive since pre-history, is waiting to end his life. A teenager approaches, demands money, pulls out a knife and stabs him. In the immediate aftermath, the knife infects two children with the old-one's blood, thwarting his suicide attempt and allowing him to intermittently control the victims: Peter, an infant who has been abused since birth; Danny, a beloved son who enjoys Harry Potter.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The original psycho-biddy

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?Henry Farrell's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opens in 1908 with the famous child star having a tantrum in public. "What's ever to become of a child like that?" comments the matron of one of Baby Jane Hudson's fidgeting fans. "It's the others I pity, the ones who'll have to live with her," is the ominous reply.

Fast forward to 1959, and we find Jane living with her sister Blanche,

Saturday, 10 November 2018

American market, American methods

England Made Me"She might have been waiting for her lover." So opens Graham Greene's book, England Made Me, in a railway station cafe, where Kate Ferrant is expecting to meet her twin brother Anthony. She intends to persuade her boss, Swedish industrialist Erik Krogh, to give a job to the feckless twin, who is unable to "open his mouth without lying."

Saturday, 3 November 2018

He who loves money never has enough

The Ballad of a Small PlayerI used to imagine Hell as a Sisyphean search for friends in a packed, Covent Garden Piano & Pitcher bar on a Friday night. In The Ballad of a Small Player, Lawrence Osborne describes a different version of purgatory, that of the impossible task of making money in the garish interiors and themed decors of casinos. Anyone who has wandered through Las Vegas gaming palaces will recognize the oppressive setting of Osborne's story, where addicts are oblivious to the passing of time. He conjures up a seedy world where logic, reason and causality are replaced by a belief in coincidence and luck.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Inventing a universe is tough work

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories"Inventing a universe is tough work," confesses Ursula Le Guin in the Foreword to this collection of short stories. Reading about it can be quite tough too, as I found out the first time I started the book. I failed to get past page four, such was my inability to get to grips with Sov Thade Tage em Ereb's explanation about Sedern Geger, the Harges, and Argaven. The visual bombardment of strange words of unknown pronunciation put me off and served to increase my belief that sci-fi stories of weird planets, aliens and space ships were not for me.

But I like short stories and I enjoy speculative fiction, especially by female writers, so I tried again.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

General Elektriks: back in Europe

It was hot on Friday night. The temperature didn't drop much below 27 degrees, even once the sun had dipped behind the hotels overlooking Jardin Albert Premier. A guy walked past wearing a black t-shirt that said "Johnny Fucking Marr", and I thought, "Me too, mate." (1)

But hotter still was the music. French band General Elektriks walked onto Massena Stage at 21:15 and didn't stop for 75 minutes. Led by Herve "RV" Salters, the five-star, five-man, multi-instrumentalist lineup was at Nice Jazz Festival to promote Carry No Ghosts, released in February this year. RV writes and records his funk-based music alone in the studio, but when he tours, he's surrounded by talent.

The band looked cool, everyone dressed in white, the only colour being provided by RV's red striped tie and the title of the opening number, Different Blue. Bassist Jessie Chaton channels the 70s with his wild affro and white silk scarf. Jordan Dalrymple, aka Antonionian, adds a touch of 80s with his white framed shades. Touski's Mohican punks up the vibraphone and drums, and Eric Starczan's virtuosity on the guitar needs absolutely nothing else.

The music ranged from the slow and easy Au Tir A La Carabine, through the catchy Raid the Radio to the early-80s-electronic sounding I Can't Relate, all underpinned by a driving, infectious funk beat. RV invited the audience to "sautez avec nous" in David Lynch Moments, and the jumping continued through a gritty-guitar cover of Soft Cell's Tainted Love. During Tu M'Intrigues, RV's torso was in danger of disconnecting entirely from his hips and legs, as he jumped, shuffled and swung whilst his hands slapped at the keys of his Hohner Clavinet. The set ended with Amour Uber Alles, its multi-lingual lyrics reflecting RV's French nationality, his lengthy sojourn in San Francisco, and his current home, Berlin.

General Elektriks is touring France until the end of 2018, with one gig in Belgium. Check out the dates on the band's website here: General Elektriks concerts. It would be cool to see them more often now they're back in Europe.

(1) The French phrase "J'en ai marre" means "I'm fed up".

Monday, 2 July 2018

Like looking through someone's holiday photos

The Innocents AbroadThe purpose of Mark Twain's 19th century travel guide is "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him."

Reading the book was a little like looking through the photographs of a friend who has recently returned from holiday. There are lots of boring descriptions of works of art and landscapes, interspersed with very entertaining adventures.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Being fine is not enough

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Eleanor Oliphant is odd. People don't understand her and she finds it difficult to make friends. We very quickly learn that she's had at least one abusive experience, since she turned up for a job interview "with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm." But there are little clues in the text that lead us to suspect that Eleanor has suffered something much more dreadful, and this has probably influenced her behaviour and self-imposed loneliness. Things start to change when Eleanor finds the love of her life wearing "the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened", and when she develops a friendship with the office IT guy, Raymond, who wears "a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog, lying on top of its kennel".

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Bally foolishness

Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1) There were four of them --- George, and William Samuel Harris, and J., and Montmorency the dog. They were sitting in J.'s lodgings, comparing their ailments, and reached the conclusion that they needed rest, a "change of scene, and absence of the necessity for thought." Two weeks in a hired rowing boat on the River Thames was chosen as the best remedy, although Montmorency thought "the whole thing bally foolishness". The three friends packed their bags and set off to enjoy themselves.

Monday, 23 April 2018

The injustice of man's justice

It's a Battlefield "Do you believe in the way the country is organized?" asks Caroline Bury in It's a Battlefield. She's a woman who's connected, who "had chosen to exercise her passion for charity" in the territory of politics. The story follows Caroline and others as they try to prevent a London bus driver named Jim Drover from hanging.

Graham Greene described the book as his 'first overtly political novel'. It was published in 1934, when Britain was experiencing the effects of the Great Depression.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bunkum and claptrap

Veronika Decides to Die I'd already made up my mind about Paolo Coelho's book by the end of the first chapter, well before we learn that "Veronika [-] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian." This is not the sort of thing that endears an ex-librarian to a narrator.

Veronika Decides To Die is about a young Slovenian woman who tries to commit suicide but fails. She wakes up in La Villete mental institution in Ljubljana, where the action is mainly set, and is told she has only a few days to live. The story then deals with how Veronika's prognosis affects her and the other inmates.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Strange noises and messages written on walls

The Haunting of Hill House On the surface, The Haunting of Hill House is a straightforward ghost story, where four strangers meet in an isolated gothic mansion and experience supernatural phenomena. Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, has rented the haunted house for three months. He hopes to make his fame and fortune "upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances." His search for suitable assistants unearths Eleanor Vance, who had dutifully cared for her mother for eleven years, leading a life of "small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair." Two others agree to join the Doctor, Theodora, for whom duty and conscience are "attributes which belonged properly to Girl Scouts", and Luke Sanderson, who will inherit Hill House, and who "was a liar" and "also a thief."

Monday, 19 March 2018

But nothing happens!

Mrs. Dalloway I imagine that many youths have developed a loathing for Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway because they have been forced to study it. The story begins with Clarissa Dalloway setting out to buy flowers for a party she is throwing later at her home in London. Its narrative weaves in and out of the minds of several characters, follows them as they wander through streets and parks, and accompanies them to appointments. "But nothing happens!" I can hear the teens cry. Having been exposed to Proust's reflections on tea and cake at school, I understand their anguish.

Friday, 9 March 2018

A proud mummy's boy

Barry Lyndon 'I have always found that if a man does not give himself a good word, his friends will not do it for him.' Barry Lyndon is not shy of praising himself in the book that bears his name. The subject of Thackeray's The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. is self-explanatory. Redmond Barry is brought up by his mother, who fills his head with heroic tales of his ancestry. He is a belligerent boy, proud and naive, and grows into a wild teenager, who, in one of my favourite episodes of the book, becomes involved in a duel for the love of a local Irish girl.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

It's not just about revenge

The Life and Loves of a She Devil Ruth Patchett has a good life, her husband Bobbo tells her so. Ruth is lucky to have such a good-looking husband, the neighbours often remark on it. With so little self confidence, it's no surprise that Ruth falls apart when Bobbo begins an affair with the romantic fiction writer Mary Fisher.

Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She Devil follows Ruth Patchett's journey in the aftermath of her husband's desertion. It's Bobbo who calls Ruth a she devil, and her acceptance of his accusation sets her free from the downtrodden life she has led up to then. Ruth sets about transforming herself and her life, appropriating power, and in so doing, she exacts revenge on the lovers.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Ever feel like murdering somebody?

Strangers on a Train "Ever feel like murdering somebody?" Like many people I'm sure I've felt like it, but only in the heat of the moment, never in reality. But Charles Bruno in Patricia Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, isn't like most people. He's an alcoholic, desperately bored, rich man whose father keeps him short of money.

Whilst traveling by train to Santa Fe to spend time with his mother, Bruno meets Guy, an ambitious architect held back by his wife Miriam who refuses him a divorce. The two men get drunk and talk about their troubles, and Bruno comes up with a plan to murder Miriam in return for Guy murdering his father. In spite of his inebriation, Guy firmly rejects the idea.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Have you a stout heart?

Northanger Abbey "Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" If so, then you'll enjoy Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's gothic parody.

The story is about Catherine Morland, a naive, seventeen-year-old girl who longs to be the sort of heroine she has read about in the 1794 gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Catherine joins family friends Mr and Mrs Allen when they spend a few weeks in Bath. There she meets Isabella and John Thorpe, and the mysterious Henry Tilney, with whom she falls head-over-heels in love. After being introduced to Henry's father and sister, Catherine is invited to spend some time at their home, Northanger Abbey. It is here that Catherine's overactive imagination leads her to invent farfetched mysteries and villainous situations.