Thursday, 19 July 2018

An Unwanted Guest

Shari Lapena returns with her third novel, An Unwanted Guest, following the unprecedented success of The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House.

Lapena has taken an Agatha Christie template and weaved a fast paced thriller that this reader read in less than two days when on holiday.

On a cold wintry weekend in upstate New York, strangers from varying backgrounds all descend upon the Mitchell's Inn - a remote lodge where there is not great phone signal nor wi-fi.  The blizzard like conditions have led to an understaffed hotel being manned by the father and son team of James and Bradley.

From the get go, it seems a lot of people are keeping cards very close to their chest; the Christie like method of taking six to ten strangers put them in an uncomfortable situation and then let murder commence leads to the thriller taking shape before our eyes as one body appears after another in the polite atmosphere.

Lapena has crafted a winning formula perfect for these times; a thriller centred upon a mad cap 48 hours in the wilderness with the harsh reality of nature having a debilitating effect on proceedings leaving people reliant upon their wits and survival streak.  Characters are dependent upon being able to connect with the outside world, yet they have tried to escape the rat race for various reasons.

These same characters are knee-jerk in their reactions and behaviour, jumping to conclusions from the defence attorney David who was arrested for murdering his wife to Candice who may or may not be writing a real fiction novel on crime.

Lapena writes with such relish the scenes of people talking in confined spaces that once the body counts starts to add up, other writers may have got lost amongst her character's own hysteria, yet Lapena never deviates from the narrative rounding things of with a denouement that is both satisfying and startling.

Some critics may suggest that the ending comes too soon, yet in these hysterical times of constant moral panics; Lapena has been deliberate in treating the characters with respect instead of mere cadavers.

An Unwanted Guest is out in Hardback from 26th July from Bantam Press.
My thanks to Transworld Publishers for the review copy.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Kevin Krauter 'Toss Up'

Debut album release from Kevin Krauter, Toss Up is released from Bayonet Records

Indiana native Kevin Krauter has built up a loyal following in his home state, and whilst the music has slowly gathered a wave of momentum; Krauter is releasing his debut album and the result is Toss Up.

Toss Up proudly wears a wide range of influences from 60s flower pop, 80s yacht rock and upto the modern day indie rock.  There is a shimmer to the music that is both transcendent and illuminating; full of good will and a smoothness that is rarely heard in music recently.

From the ear worm radio friendly 'Suddenly' to the chilled out 'Keep Falling in Love' there is a confidence in the music that permeates from the earphones and yet there is a richness in the complexity of the production; a mixture of rhythmic intricacies and bold melodic artistry.

Krauter has composed an album that is full of lushness and beauty, one that should be shared by all at poolsides, equally aspirational and ambitious it is one of the better albums to come from America in recent times one that is easy on the ear that slowly penetrates your memory and consciousness.

Toss Up is released from Bayonet Records on 13th July.
My thanks to One Beat PR for the opportunity to review.

Rayland Baxter 'Wide Awake'

Out on 13th July from ATO Records, the new album from Rayland Baxter Wide Awake

Following on from the positive word of mouth of recent video and radio hits, 'Casanova' and 'Strange American Dream', Baxter has realised a dream in the production of his third studio album.

The roving rock and roll philosopher has dreamed of produced an album very much of the space in which it has its genesis. The hard-touring led the musician to slow down and find a quiet place for his work, he found in an abandoned rubber band factory in Franklin, Kentucky where he covered the windows, threw a mattress on the floor and with just a guitar and a piano he spent three months writing in the wilderness so to speak.

At night, Baxter would listen to the sounds of America from howling coyotes and the harsh wind with only the endless cycle of TV news for comfort.

The result is a collection of songs that speaks on the isolation of the individual in the vast United States but yet celebrates the best of humanity despite the worst being spoken of at length in the media.

Following in the footsteps of contemporaries, Ezra Furman and Jim James, who have capitalised on the traumatic presidency of a Trump administration where the needs of big business are being heard above those of the masses; Baxter explains, 'This is an album about decision making. It's about being a human at a crossroads. All of these emotions are things I see in myself, and they're the same things I see in everyone else no matter where I go'.

Wide Awake was produced by Butch Walker and features Walker himself on bass; and the production on this album is first rate elevating what must have been scratchy demos and ideas that Baxter had during his weeks of loneliness to raise them up to greater American staples of rock and Americana; songs that speak to the uniqueness of the American experience - one man can make a difference for sure, but one man perhaps has to make himself heard firstly.

Baxter is going the right way about it, creating music that is both accessible and pleasing despite its angry subtext brimming below the sometimes shiny exterior.

Wide Awake is out from ATO Records on 13th July.

My thanks to One Beat PR for the review opportunity.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Zero - Marc Elsberg

For fans of Black Mirror and conspiracy thrillers with a technological spin

This thrilling novel by Marc Elsberg is one of the more prescient novels of recent memory, due the knowledge of recent data swiping by Facebook and how do you know how safe and secure your online personality is from people who track your data and what you like and do not like.

Elsberg has crafted a paranoid conspiracy thriller in the vein of the man done wrong such as the 1970s American cinematic thriller like The Parallex View and The Days of the Condor, the only change of tone is the use of a female protagonist as the person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Cynthia Bonsant, is a journalist, who starts to uncover the truth of a new Freemee App which infiltrates people's live through immediate gratification. Bonsant is on the lead of an anonymous activist called Zero who promises to uncover the truth of how big business is after your data.

As Cynthia gets closer to the truth and people around her become targets also, her safety is threatened by those she trusted.

Elsberg although crafting a decent thriller, has also written a glossary of how apps and online resources infiltrate our lives through our human need to gain instant satisfaction with a combination of chemical releases.  The data businesses garner from our usage rates and likes, tells them a lot about people and how possibly we could all become drones and cogs of a bigger operation.

While the thriller is a very good in places and goes along at a break-neck pace the stops for exposition sometimes drags down a good thriller to a chamber piece; which is unfortunate as caught between the devil and the blue sea Elsberg requires the exposition to create the paranoia in Cynthia for us to embrace her conspiracy.

Tellingly, the last word of the novel is left to the anonymous bloggers and hackers, who are still out there watching keeping an eye on those who are watching us.

Zero is out from Doubleday Press on Thursday 12th July

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Eyes Turned Skywards

New novel by Ken Lussey, focuses on rumours surrounding a number of real-life events including the death of the Duke of Kent in the summer of 1942 during the Second World War.

Wing Commander Robert (Bob) Sutherland used to be a detective before the War began, he thought those days were behind him, he was wrong.

On 25th August 1942, the Duke of Kent, brother to King George VI is killed in Northern Scotland in an unexplained air crash. A second crash soon after suggests sinister details may be afoot. Sutherland is tasked with visiting the base in Oban and the first crash site in Caithness to gather clues and rule out the threat of sabotage.

Reflecting on a country that is not as united as Winston Churchill nor history would have us believe, and with the kingdom recovering from the bombardment of the blitz, we follow Bob as he unravels lies and deceit from corners of the nation he did not expect.

There is a lovely economy to the writing of Lussey in the growth of Sutherland as a character and how the narrative progresses as he attempts to uncover the truth of the Duke's crash.  Lussey weaves a winning formula of transplanting a detective storyline into the wartime narrative, Sutherland is smart enough to be one step ahead of people and yet stay cool under pressure of which there is many.

Lussey writes with a real efficiency and the dialogue is indicative of putting fictional stories into a historical narrative; a lot of dialogue is exposition so we learn about various medals awarded to Sutherland and the different type of aircraft but it serves as important in the grander scheme of things.

Sutherland has an everyman quality that resonates throughout the book and makes you want to know what is going to happen to him during the remainder of the war time years as well as beyond once he returns to Edinburgh - the possibility of stories from Sutherland's pre-war days in the police force is both enticing.

As an introduction to a new charming character, Eyes Turned Skywards is enlightening and full of enterprise both gripping in its thriller form and wartime context.

Eyes Turned Skywards is released from Fledgling Press on Thursday 28th June

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Jim James - Uniform Distortion

Jim James, the angelic voice of My Morning Jacket, has ventured into areas his band would not have been renowned for when together. Following on from the politically conscious 'Eternally Even' from 2016; James returns with the new album Uniform Distortion.

Whereas, the previous album was a comment within an election year, the new album is more of a reaction to the Trump presidency - an album of anger and looking back.  In the press release for the album, James has mentioned how in the world today 'my head feels like it is exploding with the amount of information we are forced to consume on a daily basis and how that information is so DISTORTED'

Having listened to other American albums from such luminaries as Ezra Furman, there is a general anger simmering in American musicians about how their lives are being governed by a man who distorts his own way of thinking on a regular basis changing the narrative to suit his needs and wants; and thrusting it upon his people.

Whilst James' first album was one of meditation closer to that of MMJ releases, the further he goes down a solo career the more relevant to today's world he is becoming. Whereas MMJ albums would play like psychedelic work from another dimension full of hipster bohemia; James is certainly more of a rock and roll performer currently - in the same vein as Neil Young.

From title opener with its scratching hook 'Just A Fool' to the vitriolic 'Yes to Everything'; James is trying to make sense of the world and of his own place in the world - the latter track being more about regret and remorse than anything else.

There are still moments of lushness such as 'Throwback' a sonic blast of euphoria reminiscent of the best moments of MMJ with soaring backing vocals embracing the hook line, 'When we were young' before rocking out akin to Neil Young at his most bombastic.

Because of Trump, perhaps this is where rock music has to be on this permanent Eddie Vedder type show of angst. A reflective strain of songwriting in reaction to the nature of the world with a slight resignation to the belief that MAGA can happen in this first term of a loose cannon presidency.

From the rock out nature of 'Out of Time' and 'You Get To Rome', there remains an energy throughout the album that rivals many the qualities of a band of four or five. James wants to be heard on this record and heard loud and clear.

However, you cannot discount the voice of James one of those rare instruments in today's music scene that deserves the praise showered upon him, a voice that is full of soul, gravitas and power.

Uniform Distortion is out from ATO Records on 29th June.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Corrupted by Simon Michael

Published by Urbane Publications on Paperback on 21st June, Corrupted is the fourth book in the Charles Holborne series

Having never known of the Charles Holborne series you fear that you may be late to the party, much like the swinging dance parties and afternoon teas that take place at the Ritz in 1964, the year in which the latest Simon Michael novel is set.

There is no fear of that though, Michael has been lucky enough to create a central protagonist in the same vein as Jack Reacher; a likeable everyman who is one step ahead of most people, but one who is not afraid to throw punches (literally) nor get his hands dirty in the eternal pursuit of justice and truth.

Charles Holborne (or Horowitz - to show his birth name, and the still relevant anti-Semitism taking place in London), is 39 a Barrister working in Chambers at the Temple and the Old Bailey, he presides over a variety of cases - yet he himself has a criminal past which will not let go of him. He is well liked by his peers, colleagues and his unwillingness to fall in line with the old boy network does ruffle feathers, he nevertheless gets results.

The book is set in a hot summer of 1964, a year where the Beatles are returning home from conquering America, Sonny Liston just lost to Cassius Clay and the beginnings of the sexual revolution are slowly fermenting around the swinging London scene.  We first encounter Charles at home with his partner Sally, having recently moved in to a new house in North London; even Charles moans about the commute to work.

Upon his desk though comes a case involving his old nemesis, the Krays twins; the legendary Ronnie and Reggie whose criminal underworld dealings were known and held a vice like grip over London's night life.  The Krays are at war with the Mafiosa, and this leads to a footsoldier Mo Drake being murdered at his home supposedly by the Italians in revenge; yet there is more to the case than meets the eye.

It had long been rumoured for some time that Reggie Kray was homosexual and he was played as such by Tom Hardy in Legend as such; and yet the narrative revolves around a scandalous sex party that takes place at one of Reggie's residencies in Walthamstow, where all manner of high profile dignatries and cabinet members including Lord Robert Boothby attended indulging in fornication and sexual conquests.  In the narrative, a runaway boy Teddy is taken in by Mo and attends the party leading to Mo's death later that same night.

Charles takes on the case to clear the boy whom has been arrested for Mo's murder; yet Charles also has problems at home with Sally (who sadly vacates the scene somewhat abruptly) as Charles will not relent on his dream of fighting in the boxing ring one last time before his fortieth birthday, following a successful amateur career.   Charles goes for long runs on Saturday mornings and sometime evenings, which allows the author to write fondly of London before overpopulation took hold.

Even the premise of placing historical figures such as the Kray twins and all the mythos and legend they carry with them does not restrict nor overawe the character development of Charles Holborne, our protagonist remains front and center and the heart and soul of the book; you never feel your allegiance being swayed by the celebrity gangsters who themselves are written with great clarity and care by Michael, not becoming these overbearing larger than life figures, merely important people doing their job like anyone else.

Author Simon Michael

That is the beauty of this book, for all the gripping thriller elements and the page-turning quality of the narrative that rips along as quickly as that of Child or Grisham; Michael has gone to great lengths to paint a vivid picture of London at that time, as if it was the centre of the world - the glamour of the Ritz, to the stuffy tradition of the Old Bailey.

There is a vibrancy in the writing from the back and forth dialogue from each colourful character Charles meets to the vigour of the scene-setting of nightclubs and bagel shops, you feel a part of the story - something that this reader has not felt for quite sometime.

And with the protagonist Charles, Michael has created an anti-hero who is very much of his time - a chameleon like individual who is changing with the times much like his own city and world is in flux itself in terms of the rise of sexual freedom, feminism with Charles embodying the new breed of outsider and non-public schoolboy combating prejudices daily in his professional career; something the author had to confront during his career as a barrister.

As mentioned, the books 420 pages rips along at quite a clip that you will would be wanting more and with there still six years left in the 1960s for Charles to indulge in, it promises for more yarns for Michael to tell.  This reader for one will be looking back at the three previous installments of the series and looks forward with relish to the rest.

Corrupted by Simon Michael is released by Urbane Publications on 21st June.