Book review – Joe Country

I reviewed Mick Herron’s London Rules (the fifth book in his Jackson Lamb series) in January. I was quick off the mark in reading the sixth installment, Joe Country, which hit the shelves in June. The Jackson Lamb series has thus far avoided the law of diminishing returns, and I was obviously hoping for this to continue.

As ever there’s at least a couple of plots on the go. Louisa Guy is visited by Min Harper’s widow who wants the (secret) service to find her missing son. Guy, being Harper’s former lover, acquiesces and heads off in pursuit, unaware that said son is being hunted by a gang of ruthless killers. At the same time River Cartwright and other Slough House and Regent’s Park residents are attending the funeral of Cartwright’s grandfather, a service legend. Observing the funeral at a distance is Cartwright’s estranged father (and estranged spook) Frank Harkness, which doesn’t go unnoticed by attendees, not least as Harkness was responsible for the death of one of Lamb’s ‘slow horses’. The slow horses also head off in pursuit of Harkness, unbeknownst that they’re in collision course with Guy. ‘Joe Country’, in Herron’s world, is the place where spies go to die. And this is where our spies end up and not all will make the return visit to the dank, dilapidated environs of Slough House.

The interesting thing about the Lamb series is that it has strength in depth. Herron’s not reliant on any particular character to tell the story, which allows us to get to know each of the slow horses a little better as we go through the series. I found the plot somewhat less believable than on previous outings (despite some of those previous outings being rather far fetched). Nevertheless, that’s a minor quibble as is the fact that ‘Lady’ Di Taverner, now running the show at Regent’s Park, doesn’t feature as much as I would like, meaning a smaller portion of skullduggery. Herron plays things nicely, keeping you on your toes as he holds off bringing our two pursuit teams together. His description of our wintry Joe Country is similarly evinced; you can imagine the whole thing on the big screen, which hopefully isn’t as far fetched as some of the plot lines!

I’d be lying if I said that I enjoyed Joe Country as much as I enjoyed London Rules but it’s all relative; having loved LR, Joe comes highly recommended also.

Songs from the Vault – “lockdown” special

My last SFTV was in October so there’s been plenty of time to think about what tunes I should include in this edition.  Often the tunes I include don’t represent what I’m listening to at the time of going to press.  This time round, however, it ticks both boxes:  SFTV and tunes that I’ve been appreciating in the so-called “lockdown”…

First up is Martha from Tom Wait’s 1973 debut album, Closing Time.  The song is a phone call from ‘old Tom Frost’ to Martha.  It’s been forty years since they last spoke and old Tom is in reflective mood, perhaps pining for a past that never came to be.  The song is a perfect combination of prose and music.  Waits started his career playing in bars in San Diego and one can imagine him in the corner hunkered over the old reverberating piano.  Tunes like this are few and far between.

We’re going to jump to 1990 to another debut album, Ride’s Nowhere.  The last track, Vapour Trail, is probably their most known tune.  Back in 1990 I didn’t pay much attention to Ride though the album cover always intrigued me.  It more than passes the test of time and belongs in any ‘shoegazing’ playlist.

Total change of gear and genre.  I didn’t know the next tune – I Wish I Knew – until a few months ago, having covered it in a piano lesson; it’s a well known (though not to me!) jazz standard, featuring for example on John Coltrane’s Ballads album.  When learning a new tune I try and listen to numerous versions of it, this time coming across Jimmy Scott’s version. I’ll admit to being a bit confused when I first heard it; is Jimmy Scott the producer rather than the singer?  My confusion arose from the fact that Scott suffered from a rare genetic disorder that prevented him from reaching puberty and limited his growth.  While he grew taller when he hit his forties his voice remained in the contralto range.  Regardless, it’s a wonderful performance of a wonderful song, and Scott has some serious heavyweight backing in the band, which features greats including Ron Carter and Eric Gale.

I’ve never included any Nick Drake in SFTV.  Shame on me.  To put that wrong right our next tune is From the Morning, a personal favourite, which features on Drake’s third and final album from 1972, Pink Moon.  It’s very likely that you’ve heard it before; I’m sure it’s featured in various adverts over the years.  It’s just Drake and his guitar, for 150 seconds.  Magical.

I’m going to call it a day there.  I hope you’ll enjoy these tunes as much as I do.

 

 

Book review – A Prayer for Owen Meany

I knew I’d been rather tardy of late, at least with my blog, but I hadn’t realised that the last I’d posted something was in 2019.  Time to remedy that with a good old book review…

I don’t know why I’ve never read any John Irving books. I suspect that it was for the simple and shallow reason that the covers put me off. I can’t remember either what turned me onto A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). I suspect that it was for the similarly shallow reason that the publisher had changed the cover artwork, and the fact that it was a change from some of the lighter stuff I’d been reading.

We come into contact with Owen Meany at the tender age of eleven; a tiny boy (compared to his peers) with a shrill, unnerving voice, which he suspects is down to the granite dust, the provenance of which is the quarry where he lives and is the bedrock of his family’s existence. Meany also suspects that he is God’s instrument, which makes life particularly complicated when you accidentally kill your best friend’s mother, the best friend in question being our narrator John Wheelwright. It’s also complicated when you see a vision of your gravestone during the town’s production of A Christmas Carol. The gravestone in question, indicates the path that Meany will and should follow in life.

We follow Meany through his school years, through college and beyond, traversing the events of 1950’s and 1960’s America, leading us to the point where we are faced with the truth about Meany’s purpose in life.

At 628 pages, APFOM isn’t a quick read. It took me a while to get into it but investing more time paid dividends. Irving builds the novel and its inherent tension nicely, as we get closer and closer to the day when Meany is fated to die. From what I’ve written you’d think that it’s a pretty serious work of literature dealing with themes such as religion and the concept of fate. Well it is but there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way. For example, Meany has a regular column – The Voice – in his college newsletter. The articles, all in capitals (echoing Meany’s shrill voice), give Meany a platform to share his irreverent views on his college’s policies, staff, and life in general. We’re treated to heady topics such as whether it was right for the college to expel a boy for killing cats; and whether it’s right for Meany and others to be ‘FORCED TO EAT CATHOLIC FOOD?’

I shouldn’t forget about our narrator and Meany’s partner in crime, John Wheelwright. Ironically, given his role as narrator, it was sometimes easy to forget about Wheelwright given the focus on Meany, but Irving subtly builds a deep and complex friendship between the two, each of whom are on a spiritual journey of sorts.

I’m glad I picked up this John Irving book.  If you want something to distract you during the present circumstances, Owen Meany’s your man.

Book review – Porterhouse Blue

Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue (1974) isn’t my usual type of go-to novel; social satire, in this case a satirical take on the traditions of our elite colleges, those who teach and study in them, and the perennial battle between traditional values and modernity. My only other encounter with Sharpe was the 1985 TV series Blott on the Landscape, which, if memory serves, was quirky and quintessentially English. I wasn’t a huge fan, so on being recommended Porterhouse Blue I was slightly sceptical.

Our novel finds us in the fictitious Porterhouse college, Cambridge, where Sir Godber Evans, an alumni of the college and a former Government minister, has been appointed (by the Prime Minister) to become master of the college. Evans’ appointment is unprecedented – unlike his predecessors, he wasn’t appointed on the previous master’s deathbed. Moreover, Evans as a reformer within parliament, and eager to remedy the stuffy old ways that he was immersed in while a student at the college, is on a collision course with the college’s senior tutors, fellows, porter, etc.

What follows is a running battle between Evans and the staff over proposals such as the introduction of a contraceptive machine in the men’s toilets, women students, a canteen, and even accepting students on academic merit rather than the size of their family’s cheque book. Meanwhile, Zipser, a research student, is fixated by his landlady, and an investigative journalist, also an alumni of the college, is on the prowl.

First things first, it’s well written and the characters are nicely drawn, especially Skullion, who’s been porter at the college for nigh on forty years, and isn’t looking for change any time soon. However, while heavy on the satire, it was light on the humour. I just didn’t think it was very funny. Perhaps, if I’d read it on its appearance in 1974 I might have found more delight in inflated contraceptives floating about the college, much to the consternation of Skullion. The thought occurred to me while reading Porterhouse was how good the novel would have been were it to be written more in the vein of literary fiction. However, it wasn’t.

Looking at the cover of the book, I think it nicely summarises the content. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

Songs from the Vault

It’s been about a couple of months since the last SFTV so it’s time for another. And none too soon, as I’ve got some great tunes for you…

First up is Slowdive with the first track off their 1993 album Souvlaki, Alison. It’s got that massive dreamy, shoe-gazing sound that I’ve a soft spot for. Souvlaki only made it to #17 in the album charts, receiving a mixed reception. It’s had a re-appraisal in recent years, which is good to know, especially as it passed me by in ’93.

In contrast to Souvlaki, 69 Love Songs (1999), by The Magnetic Fields, didn’t pass me by. Moreover, unlike Souvlaki, it received widespread critical acclaim. While, regrettably, I didn’t pay it an awful lot of attention at the time, I’m glad it’s since come to my attention. One of the album’s highlights is The Book of Love, a song as stripped back as the lyrics are poignant.

Sticking with the subject of love, I first heard the next tune via a cover version by Beck, totally unaware of its provenance. True Love will find you in the end, is a track off 1990, an album by the recently deceased Daniel Johnston. If it’s stripped back you want, it doesn’t come any more stripped back than this. Johnston recorded most of the album in his own home; ongoing mental health issues preventing him from recording in a studio. It’s a heartfelt tune that, like The Book of Love, is powerful in its simplicity.

This blog seems to be developing, albeit unintentionally, a theme or certain shape. Leaving the Table is one of my favourite tracks off of Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want it Darker, which was released three weeks before his death on 7 November 2016. The song is supposedly about the death of a ladies’ man but it’s hard not to read more into it as Cohen’s affecting swan song.

I normally do five songs for SFTV but that seems like the perfect place to end things. I hope you’ve enjoyed these selections.