Going Underground

19 08 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

It’s hard to argue with the brief Barack Obama assessment on the front cover here, this really is a terrific book. It’s thrilling, horrific in places and brilliantly imaginative and overall a completely compelling and deep story. Rightly long listed for the 2017 Man Booker and should be a tight battle with the superb Reservoir 13.

four stars





Go between days

12 08 2017

Grant & I by Robert Forster

In early ’77 I asked Grant if he’d form a band with me. `No,’ was his blunt reply.” Grant McLennan didn’t want to be in a band. He couldn’t play an instrument; Charlie Chaplin was his hero du jour. And yet, when Robert Forster wrote Hemingway, Genet, Chandler and Joyce into his lyrics, McLennan couldn’t resist a second invitation to become 80s indie sensation The Go Betweens. The friends would collaborate for three decades, until Grant’s premature death in 2006. Beautifully written – like lyrics, like prose – Grant & I is a rock memoir akin to no other. Part `making of’, part music industry expose, part buddy-book, this is a delicate and perceptive celebration of creative endeavour. With wit and candour, Robert Forster pays tribute to a band who found huge success in the margins, having friendship at its heart.

As a fan since first being introduced to the Go Betweens by an Aussie friend (thank you Andrew Rohl) back in 1983 or thereabouts I couldn’t wait to read this. It’s a lovely but melancholy tale which is a true and heartfelt memoir about love, loss and music and quite like nothing else I’ve read in this genre.

Bit of a fanboy rating therefore but it is genuinely a really good read.





Reservoir logs

29 07 2017

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Rightly long listed for the Man Booker prize this year, this is a terrific book and would be a worthy winner.

 

At its heart this is a mystery in which a teenage girl goes missing in the countryside, sparking a major search and media focus on a quiet village. Everyone joins in the hunt for a while, but life has to carry on and gradually things seem to get back to normal. However, nothing can ever be the same again. Year in, year out, everyone goes about their business, but the disappearance seems to infect every part of village and country life. It’s a beautifully written, deceptively transparent and perfectly paced novel. This is the fourth novel from McGregor, professor of creative writing at the University of Nottingham, and it is undoubtedly his best. Pastoral and poetic, powerful and deep, it is a truly outstanding work and certainly the best novel I’ve read this year.

One of the few copies of the book in which the author included a line from ‘On the Ball City’

 

NB This review previously appeared in THE’s ‘What are you reading?’

 





Are we there yet?

15 07 2017

This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

A reclusive ex-film star living in the wilds of Ireland, Claudette Wells is a woman whose first instinct, when a stranger approaches her home, is to reach for her shotgun. Why is she so fiercely protective of her family, and what made her walk out of her cinematic career when she had the whole world at her feet?

Her husband Daniel, reeling from a discovery about a woman he last saw twenty years ago, is about to make an exit of his own. It is a journey that will send him off-course, far away from the life he and Claudette have made together. Will their love for one another be enough to bring Daniel back home?

I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing and her form in this novel is pretty impressive, demonstrating her customary style and flair. The intentionally disjointed narrative, whilst excellent in places, is though challenging at times and the overall effect is, I have to admit, a bit disappointing. It’s pretty good but, by the high standards of previous outings, not her best.

 

 





Fearful

8 07 2017

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

 

 

Meet Alex Hoffmann: among the secretive inner circle of the ultra-rich, he is something of a legend.

Based in Geneva, he has developed a revolutionary system that has the power to manipulate financial markets. Generating billions of dollars, it is a system that thrives on panic – and feeds on fear.

And then, in the early hours of one morning, while he lies asleep, a sinister intruder breaches the elaborate security of his lakeside home.

So begins a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffmann attempts – with increasing desperation – to discover who is trying to destroy him – before it’s too late …

It’s not one of his best but nevertheless Harris delivers a gripping and pacy thriller. Not really sure how accurate the portrayal of financial market operations is but felt realistic enough to me.





Fusty, musty, dusty

1 07 2017

The Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernieres

 

In the brief golden years of King Edward VII’s reign, Rosie McCosh and her three very different sisters are growing up in an eccentric household in Kent, with their neighbours the Pitt boys on one side and the Pendennis boys on the other. But their days of childhood adventure are shadowed by the approach of war that will engulf them on the cusp of adulthood.

When the boys end up scattered along the Western Front, Rosie faces the challenges of life for those left behind. Confused by her love for two young men – one an infantry soldier and one a flying ace – she has to navigate her way through extraordinary times. Can she, and her sisters, build new lives out of the opportunities and devastations that follow the Great War?

There are some brilliant passages and some outstanding characters. There is some really evocative wartime recreation, emotional highs and lows but really could have done with a strong editorial hand. Just a bit flabby and overlong but nevertheless worth a read.





Red Wedgy

24 06 2017

 

 

Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel

 

Walls Come Tumbling Down charts the pivotal period between 1976 and 1992 that saw politics and pop music come together for the first time in Britain’s musical history; musicians and their fans suddenly became instigators of social change, and ‘the political persuasion of musicians was as important as the songs they sang’. Through the voices of campaigners, musicians, artists and politicians, Daniel Rachel follows the rise and fall of three key movements of the time: Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, and Red Wedge, revealing how they all shaped, and were shaped by, the music of a generation.

Composed of interviews with over a hundred and fifty of the key players at the time, Walls Come Tumbling Down is a fascinating, polyphonic and authoritative account of those crucial sixteen years in Britain’s history.

 

 

Pop, politics and nostalgia collide in this rather unusual book which documents the development and disintegration of three big musical and political movements of the 70s and 80s. Commendably, the author has recorded and combined a series of first person accounts from all those who were there at the time (apart, I think, from Paul Weller who is represented by quotes from back in the day) and through these stories we learn about the remarkable force of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge. Inevitably perhaps participants want to claim these movements genuinely changed society and, while there are some reasonable claims about impact (with the anthemic ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ arguably the strongest), music and politics can’t coexist successfully for long. Did anything really change? Yes and no, but there are some great stories on the way and some great memories too. Slightly disappointed about the limited coverage of the Red Wedge shows in Edinburgh which I can remember distributing leaflets for but you can’t have everything.

 








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