Reads

The Free

Author: 
Willy Vlautin
It's about: 
An emotionally damaged Vet Leroy returning home from the war in Iraq attempts to take his own life resulting in a prolonged hospital stay. The Free chronicles the relationship between him, his nurse Pauline and Freddie a friend from his care centre who becomes a regular visitor to his bedside. Vlautin is a master at describing the desolation of the human condition and to my mind no other current author portrays the American underclass as well as he does. Think of the characters from Steinbeck or Carver stories or from the songs of Tom Waits. He does heartbreaking and heartwarming equally well and his characterisation of Pauline is absolutely first class and will most likely have you in tears. Indeed for me she was the most impressive character in the book. Interspersed with the narrative of the story are hallucinatory interludes where Leroy heavily sedated is the centre of an appalling chase by post apocalyptic bad guys trying to kill him and his girlfriend.
Length of read: 
Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
Any of his previous novels all of which are excellent. Also anyone taken by Carver, Steinbeck, Bukowski and the songs of Tom Russell or Tom Waits.
One thing you've learned: 
The reason for the title The Free only revealed itself toward the end of the book and left me thinking of the different connotations of being Free. Remarkable novel from someone gaining a reputation as a top rate writer.

Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership

Author: 
Andro Linklater
It's about: 
Land. Private property. Ownership. What it is, what it means. It's absolutely fascinating, written well by a polymath. Part history lesson, part economics lesson, part economical history lesson, part moral history and lesson. I haven't had my thoughts provoked in quite this way for a while. He also wrote the curious "Why Spencer Perceval had to die" which is worth a read too
Length of read: 
Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
I'm not sure I've read another book like it. 1493, maybe?
One thing you've learned: 
Enclosure. More than you were taught at school.
Skirky's picture

Second Chance

Author: 
Dylan S Hearn
It's about: 
Set in the near-future (no, come back....) - you know the sort, where they have psychotropic drugs in nightclubs but you still need a good cup of coffee to get you going in the morning - a small cast of characters gradually becomes entwined when someone mysteriously goes missing, the detective assigned to the case is baffled and politicians seeking poll boosts become involved. So far, so Phillip K Dick, yes? Although Hearn wears his influences very clearly on his sleeve, he also has a conversational tone, keeps the rhythm of the writing brisk and has well-developed characters who are easy to become engaged with, whatever their moral stripe. Cleverly blurring the lines between whether this is ultimately a Utopian or a Dystopian society he's also not afraid to plunge into a bit of casual Nihilism as the mood takes him. Essentially then, a detective story with political intrigue and occasional satire thrown in.
Length of read: 
Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
Blade Runner, Moon, The Killing, 1984.
One thing you've learned: 
If an author thinks it's going to happen in the near-future, it probably already has.

Alamein to Zem Zem

Author: 
Keith Douglas
It's about: 
Robert Graves most would agree produced the best WW1 literary memoir with Goodbye To All That. Is there an equivalent for WW2? Keith Douglas was a young poet who barely out of college escaped admin to command a tank squadron at El Alamein and take part in the push to drive the Axis from North Africa. His account conjures up a completely realised world of brew-ups, fly-ridden corpses, tedium and endless mechanical malfunctions. As a junior officer he instinctively sides with the ordinary ranks against the bureaucracy and incompetence of the higher ups. Driven by the continual desire for sleep and grub he makes it through the entire battle before being wounded, yet again rejoining his regiment for the end of the campaign. The Germans are rarely seen except as POWS, and the general take on the African campaign as being between two honourable sides is sustained. His beautiful prose is enhanced further by his sketches which in my batted penguin classic are as vivid as any photos.
Length of read: 
Short
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
Goodbye To All That, A midnight Clear, The things They Carried.....
One thing you've learned: 
That it is possible to step on a mine and keep both legs - but not advised.

Butcher's Crossing

Author: 
John Williams
It's about: 
William Andrews, a young moneyed Bostonian, feels the urge to head out West during the late 18OO's. He ends up in the bleak, basic and claustrophobic frontier town of Butcher's Crossing, a base for the fluid number of buffalo hunters who roam the outlying prairies and valleys for weeks at a time. Determined to experience this he funds and joins such an expedition. Again, as with his 'Stoner' it's written in the same plain chronological prose. There are no literary fireworks here. It's simple and unadorned and the images that flourish in your imagination are all the brighter for it. Andrew's companions are, possibly, clichéd. The stoic hunter, the moaning cynical skinner and the older and slightly crazed camp hand. Nonetheless what they are obliged to endure over the 9 months (which was meant to have been 6 weeks) is vividly felt. Hard grim lives borne without our modern complaining were the norm and this fact is plainly made from end to end. It was cold out there.
Length of read: 
Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
'Stoner', for exactly the same reasons. And Cormac McCarthy.
One thing you've learned: 
If lives were and continue to be lived in the way described then there is no God. Nature, or the planet, has no idea of us and isn't even aware that we're scuttling around on the surface. It wouldn't care even if it did. We're simply falling through space and time bouncing off outcrops of chance. Some good, some ill. No knob gags in it at all.
dogfacedboy's picture

Morrissey\Marr: The Severed Alliance (20th Anniversary Edition)

Author: 
Johnny Rogan
It's about: 
The original issue of this exhaustive Smiths tome was held up in court by Morrissey as "the definitive history of The Smiths". A U-turn on the fatwa he issued hoping Rogan would die in a motorway pile-up. From Morrissey's birth to the band's messy demise this thorough exhaustive book now has the added perspective of the 1996 court case where drummer Mike Joyce sued for lost earnings. The many strange and downright underhand way that Moz n Marr behaved towards the "lesser Smiths" makes for surprising and uncomfortable reading as is their treatment of managers, producers and others. The contrast between documented fact and the pairs future sworn testimony explains why the judge found them such unreliable witnesses. Yet unlike Mozza's autobiography music is at the heart of the story and how the seemingly dysfunctional unit created some of the most thrilling pop music of their generation. Like all good music books it makes you return to the music while not necessarily liking the creators.
Length of read: 
Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
Mozza's autobiography but felt the need for some balance, a little context and humility. Yes that might have been asking too much but at least Rogan attempts to explain why the band were so loved and how they fell apart. Both casual fans and fans alike can get fresh perspective on the band - some good, some bad but never dull. Even if, like me, you read the original text its well worth revisiting.
One thing you've learned: 
The lengthy preface to the new edition outlines reactions to the book and how one of Morrissey's biggest problems was the suggestion he read comics as a child which he furiously denied. Rogan was given a small bundle of horror comics by a Moz school friend with "Stephen Morrissey Age 9" written on the covers. This pattern of being damned by his own words and deeds is writ large across the history of The Smiths but his erstwhile partner should share much of the guilt.
Burt Kocain's picture

The Spoils Of War

Author: 
Michael Lockwood
It's about: 
a multi-billion dollar heist set in post-reconstruction Iraq. A tautly-written and meticulously researched thriller that is startlingly based on real events (except the ones that were made up), Spoils Of War follows our hero Mitchell Walker from a failed marriage in New Zealand, through the hell-hole of Iraq, to the glittering towers of Dubai, hunting down a shitload of heisted money. There's some relationship stuff in it, but it never gets in the way of somebody getting his face shot off or exploded. The plot's more cleverer than usual - it got rejected by one publisher as being "too well written for the genre" - other rejections were basically variants of "we got books like it" or "we got none books like it". If you like sensitive, issue-based novels examining our failure to commit to a relationship in a world where conventional mores are being overturned, then avoid Spoils Of War. Otherwise, do cough up the risibly few pence asked. Amazon and Endeavour Press dot coms.
Length of read: 
Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
Just about any of the pleasures that life has to offer. If you've enjoyed a fag on top of the bus, a chilled glass of Mateus Rose, or one of Picasso's poems, then this is the book for you. By turns a sublime meditation on loss and a heartfelt crie du coeur for man's inhumanity to man, it also has some fucking fantastic explosions an' guns an' shit what will keep you enthralled as what only fine literature can. I can offhand think of no greater work of art in any medium. But I've run out of spa
One thing you've learned: 
I've never learned anything, obviously.

The dark side of Camelot

Author: 
Seymour Hersh
It's about: 
Built to a large extent around interviews with friends, colleagues and former associates, this remarkable book –first published in 1997- delineates a world that, to the modern eye, seems barely believable. Hersh sets the scene with some illuminating background information on JFK's family, particularly on his ruthless and ambitious father. With rumours constantly linking him to bootlegging, profiteering and organised crime, the bad smell around Joe Kennedy meant that he could never have been president, but he made up his mind that one of his sons would be, whatever it cost. One can’t help but wonder how a family with so many dodgy connections, so many skeletons in so many cupboards, managed to attain a status somewhere between royalty and showbiz demigods. President Kennedy certainly had his flaws, but one of the key arguments of the book is that his 'unusual' lifestyle (particularly his various extra-curricular activities) presented a significant risk to America’s security.
Length of read: 
Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
... reading about political scandals. JFK's activities went far beyond the odd indiscreet affair or dodgy business connection. His 'unofficial' CV is remarkable, containing dalliances with prostitutes, contacts with organised crime, a string of mistresses, bribery, election fraud and links to several assassination attempts on Castro. The book contains several jaw-dropping anecdotes about the extent of the ‘unusual’ lifestyle enjoyed by the president, his brother Bobby and their inner circle.
One thing you've learned: 
I learned that the 1960 election was probably crooked, with even Kennedy's opponent -Richard Nixon- later conceding that, in the realm of 'street-fighting politics' (a euphemism for bribery, cheating and lying), he was out of his depth when he tangled with the Kennedy clan. I also learned that the president’s complicated relationship with drugs may have accounted not only for his unusually high sex drive, but also for his predilection for risk-taking and political brinkmanship.

Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop

Author: 
Bob Stanley
It's about: 
A wonderful book about the history of modern pop and rock music from the very first music chart in 1952, up until around 2002 and the rise of digital music. The book is split into five parts( each part being roughly a decade) and in each part the book looks at all the genres of music which evolved during that time, many overlapping each other. So from the first chart it takes us through the crooners of the early fifties, the birth of rock and roll, skiffle , then into the sixties and the Brill Building era, Merseybeat, Dylan, Tamla Motown, Soul, and on and on through each decade and each new genre of music. The subject range is huge, so each band, group or singer can't be gone into in great detail but nevertheless there is so much interesting information in this book it has to be a music lovers bible. Definitely one to read again and again. Be warned though, it will take you ages to read as you will be stopping after each chapter to listen to the songs previously mentioned.
Length of read: 
Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
Anyone who loves their music and pop history ( this book was surely written with the Afterword in mind) and are interested to find out more about how modern music evolved from the big bands of the late forties,early fifties to Heavy Metal less than twenty years later, and punk fifteen years after that and so on.
One thing you've learned: 
That the fifty years this book covers was indeed a golden era and one sadly that we will probably never see again. When bands had to sell half a million or more to get to number 1 in the charts. Also, the rise of digital media, whilst being a wonderful thing and one which I indeed use myself, meant the death of most record shops in this country which means there is a whole generation growing up who don't know what a thrill it was to buy a record. Not that exciting clicking "Buy Now" is it?
bargepole's picture

Saints of the Shadow Bible

Author: 
Ian Rankin
It's about: 
The return of Rebus from retirement began with last year's Standing In Another Man's Grave. Here Mr Rankin continues the Jackie Leven title theme as Rebus, Clarke and Malcolm Fox all return, now as part of the newly established Police Scotland. Set against the backdrop of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, new investigations are launched into a case from the 1970's when policing methods were - how shall we put it - considerably different to those of today. Without giving too much away, the crux of the novel appears to be does the end always justify the means and can a saint become a sinner - and vice versa!
Length of read: 
Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed: 
This is a good read that will be much enjoyed by Rebus fans,although it's unlikely to convert many new followers to his cause - and with Ian Rankin apparently planning to take 2014 off this may be the last novel for quite a while.
One thing you've learned: 
There's nothing better on a frosty autumn night than settling down with a good book such as this with a glass of fine malt to hand !

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