Sweet on the vine

22 11 2015

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon


Vineland, a zone of blessed anarchy in northern California, is the last refuge of hippiedom, a culture devastated by the sobriety epidemic, Reaganomics, and the Tube. Here, in an Orwellian 1984, Zoyd Wheeler and his daughter Prairie search for Prairie’s long-lost mother, a Sixties radical who ran off with a narc. Vineland is vintage Pynchon, full of quasi-allegorical characters, elaborate unresolved subplots, corny songs (“Floozy with an Uzi”), movie spoofs (Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story), and illicit sex (including a macho variation on the infamous sportscar scene in V.).

Utterly bonkers and very, very Pynchon. Funny, anarchic and genuinely weird it isn’t an entirely straightforward read but well worth it.

four stars

All Smiles

14 11 2015

Smiley’s People by John Le Carre



Into a shadowy, violent and intricate world steeped in moral ambivalences steps George Smiley – tubby, perceptive and morally perplexed as ever – sometime acting Chief of the Circus, as the Secret Service is known.
A Russian émigré woman is accosted in Paris in broad daylight by a Soviet intelligence officer. A scared Estonian boy plays courier in Hamburg. In London at the dead of night, George Smiley is summoned from his lonely bed by news of the murder of an ex-agent. His brief is to bury the crime, not solve it. His dilemma is the number of ghosts from the past who clamour to him from the shadows.
Through scenes of mounting revelation, and a cast of superbly drawn characters, through Switzerland, Hamburg, Paris and the fens of Schleswig-Holstein, le Carré rallies us irresistibly to the chase, till we find ourselves at Smiley’s very side on the Berlin border, where Smiley’s people – the ‘no-men of no-man’s land’ – conduct their grimy commerce.

Follow up to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy  this classic Cold War novel is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy. Having come late to these I nevertheless found them really quite compelling and enjoyable. They do seem to hold up pretty well.

four stars


Shiny shiny

7 11 2015

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy


From the Guardian review

The novel’s first-person narrator, known simply as U (we don’t find out Y), is a consultant ethnographer retained by an influential organisation to gather data in the furtherance of a multi-tentacled project to gain some strategic, unbreakable stranglehold on the world. The how or why of this isn’t entirely clear, not even to U, as he jets off to international conferences or busies himself in his basement office identifying memes and overarching rhetorical behaviours, casting his anthropologist’s eye over breakfast cereals, rollerblading, oil spills, the mysterious deaths of skydivers.

There follows dense babble from the narratives of cultural theory, technology, tribal lores and so on, from which U must compile a Great Report that will unlock the underlying codes that govern our age. No wellspring of learning is left unfathomed, while the commonest observation – a shoe buckle, the buffering circle on a computer screen – is liable to trigger a poststructural disquisition on time and memory, or a lesson on how iodine or ventilation systems work.

Unfortunately this all makes for a really rather dull read. It’s clever but ultimately unsatisfying and leaves you with an empty feeling at the end. Despite its Booker shortlist status this really is one to avoid.

2 star

The quarry man

1 11 2015

The Quarry by Iain Banks




Kit doesn’t know who his mother is. What he does know, however, is that his father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends – or at least the friends with the most to lose by his death. Paul – the rising star in the Labour party who dreads the day a tape they all made at university might come to light; Alison and Robbie, corporate bunnies whose relationship is daily more fractious; Pris and Haze, once an item, now estranged, and finally Hol – friend, mentor, former lover and the only one who seemed to care.

But what will happen to Kit when Guy is gone? And why isn’t Kit’s mother in the picture? As the friends reunite for Guy’s last days, old jealousies, affairs and lies come to light as Kit watches on.

Actually read this a while ago. It is a classic Iain Banks and so sad that it was to be his last. It has all the hallmarks of his previous work and this, of course, makes it a compelling read. Great stuff.


Really not the Alan Bennett of pop

24 10 2015

Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn


‘I was only sixteen when I bought an electric guitar and joined a band. A year later, I formed an all-girl band called the Marine Girls and played gigs, and signed to an indie label, and started releasing records.

‘Then, for eighteen years, between 1982 and 2000, I was one half of the group Everything But the Girl. In that time, we released nine albums and sold nine million records. We went on countless tours, had hit singles and flop singles, were reviewed and interviewed to within an inch of our lives. I’ve been in the charts, out of them, back in. I’ve seen myself described as an indie darling, a middle-of-the-road nobody and a disco diva. I haven’t always fitted in, you see, and that’s made me face up to the realities of a pop career – there are thrills and wonders to be experienced, yes, but also moments of doubt, mistakes, violent lifestyle changes from luxury to squalor and back again, sometimes within minutes.’

From post-punk teen-band rivalry in suburban Hertfordshire to international chart-topping success via a shared bedsit in Hull, three decades of touring and making music, and collaborations with Paul Weller, Massive Attack and dance legend Todd Terry – this is the funny, perceptive and candid true story of how Tracey Thorn grew up and tried to be a pop star.

I feel like I’ve grown up with Tracey Thorn. Her first solo album and the early EBTG recordings were pretty much the soundtrack to my late school and university years. As a result I found this memoir absolutely fascinating. Genuinely frank and funny it is a really easy read and offers real insight into the music business. Comparisons with any northern playwright, writer and diarist are very wide of the mark though (no matter what Caitlin Moran says).
4 star

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn



Part memoir, part wide-ranging exploration of the art, mechanics and spellbinding power of singing, Naked at the Albert Hall takes in Dusty Springfield, Dennis Potter and George Eliot; Auto-tune, the microphone and stage presence; The Streets and The X Factor. Including interviews with fellow artists such as Alison Moyet, Romy Madley-Croft and Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, and portraits of singers in fiction as well as Tracey’s real-life experiences, it offers a unique, witty and sharply observed insider’s perspective on the exhilarating joy and occasional heartache of singing.

A natural sequel to Bedsit Disco Queen in this book Tracey Thorn covers the realities of being a singer together with lots of insights into the music industry. Full of rich anecdotes and frank commentary as well as observations from her peers, Thorn does a great job in covering singing in a fresh and entertaining way.

4 star

It’s a WASTE land

17 10 2015

The Crying of Lot 49


The Crying of Lot 49 is Thomas Pynchon’s classic satire of modern America, about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in what would appear to be an international conspiracy.

When her ex-lover, wealthy real-estate tycoon Pierce Inverarity, dies and designates her the coexecutor of his estate, California housewife Oedipa Maas is thrust into a paranoid mystery of metaphors, symbols, and the United States Postal Service. Traveling across Southern California, she meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self-knowledge.



Brilliant, sharp, funny and utterly bonkers. Can’t really attempt to describe it other than to say it is highly recommended and, if you like this sort of thing, you will like this.



four stars

New plague times

10 10 2015

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh


It doesn’t look like murder in a city full of death.

A pandemic called ‘The Sweats’ is sweeping the globe. London is a city in crisis. Hospitals begin to fill with the dead and dying, but Stevie Flint is convinced that the sudden death of her boyfriend Dr Simon Sharkey was not from natural causes. As roads out of London become gridlocked with people fleeing infection, Stevie’s search for Simon’s killers takes her in the opposite direction, into the depths of the dying city and a race with death.

It’s the first instalment of Welsh’s plague trilogy and something of a departure for her. A pretty engaging yarn with plenty of death but lots to keep things moving too. All quite scarily believable too.



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