One man and his dog (and an octopus)

Professional dog walker. Is that a thing? Are most dog walkers maintaining their amateur status to compete in the Dog Walking Olympics.

Lily and the Octopus
Steven Rowley

Simon & Schuster
Pub Date: Jun 7, 2016 

Given that it is still five months until this book comes out, it is odd that I was hearing about this book almost a year ago. By the end of the year it was already garnering ‘book of the year’ type plaudits from those who had read galley copies, including Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking trilogy ) in the Guardian’s author’s books of the year round up back in December    who said “I also read what might be my favourite book of next year: Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus (Simon & Schuster), about a man whose dog’s cancer takes the form of an evil talking octopus. Yep. Weird, hilarious, and you’ll cry all over everything.”

Sounded like my kind of thing, so I searched on NetGalley and there is was.  I was also fascinated by it for an even simpler reason. My best friend for the first 10 year of my life was a guy called Stephen Rowley. Born one day apart, lived in the same street. That simple reminder of long ago also drew me to this novel. And … well, let’s come to that; first what’s the book about.

As Ness said, at its heart it is the simple tale of a man whose dog gets a tumour, and how that impacts his life. The man, Ted, not only talks to his dog – a dachshund called Lily – but images full conversations and shared activities with her: Pizza nights, monopoly nights – “Do you want me to roll for you?” “Does it look like I’ve suddenly grown hands?” and also just has set days for doing things: “Thursdays are the days my dog Lily and I set aside to talk about boys we think are cute.”

But one morning Ted notices Lily has an octopus on her head. What follows is a look back on how Lily came into Ted’s life, Ted’s past relationships, his current emotional state and a story of love and companionship. I don’t really want to say much more than that really, as the book does go off at some interesting tangents, that are best experienced through reading the book.

What the book does well is to get across just how decapacitating loss can be, and how we use things to withdraw from real life, into a seemingly real alternate existence often without realising it. It also addresses the often connected issue of how we hold onto anger: ” I am so very small. Physically small, but also petty. Why am I driven more by revenge than by forgiveness?”, and how that can anchor us to the past instead of freeing us to live in the present and future.  This is not to say this is a depressing book, as despite its central subject matter and inevitable ending, this is a surprisingly funny book (the octopus get’s some great dialogue).

There is no doubt that the book will strike a chord both with those of us who have lost beloved pets down the years – I have – but also other (human) loved ones, especially to cancers. There is a genuine warmth to Rowley’s writing. In his author’s note he says his aim when writing the story was ‘to strive for emotional truth’ no matter where that took the story. Given some of the places the book goes, you can’t say he doesn’t keep to his aim. And, you do need to be a pretty cold fish not to be moved by at least some of the book. I will admit some tears were shed in the latter parts of this book.

Despite that I’m not sure I have felt the love for the book other pre-publication readers clearly have. I liked it, yes; loved it? Not really.  Am I glad I read it? Absolutely.

If you’re on Netgalley it’s worth checking it out and making up your own mind, for everyone else, expect to be hearing a lot about this book in the second half of this year. Maybe an outside bet for the Booker longlist too.


Review copy provided by Simon & Schuster/NetGalley


Book on musical rip off artists provides lots of fun

Sounds Like Teen Spirit (2016 Edition)
Stolen Melodies, Ripped-Off Riffs, and The Secret History of Rock and Roll
Tim English
Pub Date: Jan 11, 2016

If you listen to a lot of music, you do find yourself regularly thinking ‘that sounds like …’ This book looks at those songs and artists who have been *cough* ‘inspired’ by other songs.

There are chapters devoted to serial ‘borrowers’ such as The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Brice Springsteen and Bob Dylan (who doesn’t stop at music for his plagiarism), as well as more recent proponents of the skill – Oasis and Green Day, Robin Thicke, Sam Smith and Coldplay. And a lot of fun it is too.

• Did you ever listen to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Outlaw Pete’ and think, hang on this is ‘I was Made for Lovin’ You’ by Kiss? or hear the guitar riff in Gun’s and Roses’ ‘Paradise City’ and immediately think ‘Macarena’! ? or maybe listen to Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ and wonder why he starts to sing the melody from “The Banana Splits Theme!” ?
• Do you know John Denver has a writing credit on a New Order song?
• Or know the Green Day ‘song’ that manages to rip off four different tracks?

This is the book that will have you checking out Jorge Ben’s – Taj Mahal (Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy rips it off), and Jimi Hendrix’s Third Stone from the Sun (a song I’m very familiar with but until this book had never linked to Right Said Fred’s ‘I’m So Sexy!’ – but, it’s TRUE!)

Great Fun for music geeks everywhere.

Here be dragons … mini dragons

There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!
Tom Nicoll
Little Tiger Group/Stripes Publishing
Pub Date: Feb 11, 2016  

“So they managed to smuggle me into a box of beansprouts and that’s how I ended up here in Mexico.”
There was an awkward silence as I stared at Pan.
“Did you say Mexico?”

Having reached the grand old age of six, my daughter is now open to listening to the occasional ‘chapter book’ for bedtime story and not just  our more traditional picture book options (a post on some of those Coming soon-ish). Anyway, after reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a great pre-cursor to her watching the film – Gene Wilder version OBVIOUSLY) it was time to try something that was new to both of us. Enter Tom Nicoll and There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!

This is the first in planned series of books about a nine year old boy, Eric (well, nine by the end of the book anyway), who finds a Mini-Dragon (Pan) in a box of bean sprouts included in the families Chinese take-away order. As you do.

Clearly, at first, Eric doesn’t believe it.

Where is he from? Can he help him to get back? What do you do with mini-dragon?  Will doing anything result in a ‘strike’ against him as his birthday get’s ever closer and his prize Scooter awaits? Who opens a Chinese restaurant in Antarctica? And most importantly, how does Eric keep Pan out of the hands of his friend Toby, who wants this ‘toy’ for himself and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get his own way.

This first helping of lightly comedic dragonica is highly enjoyable.  According to the author the books are aimed at 6-8 year olds, and I think that’s about right. My daughter’s 6 year old attention was held; her love of picture books sated by the nice accompanying illustrations from Sarah Horne, and we both ended the book in the mood for more adventures with Eric and Pan.


Review copy supplied by Little Tiger Group / NetGalley


Shostakovich’s russian adventures

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Jonathan Cape
Pub Date: Jan 28, 2016   

” A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways; by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself”

I really enjoyed Julian Barnes’ last novel, his  2011’s Man Booker prize-winning ‘The Sense of an Ending’. Whilst it was short, it was also one of his best – a lovely book of memory and regret.

His latest, ‘The Noise of Time’ is also quite short, and one might argue also about memory and regret. It tells the story of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer both feted and condemned by the Soviet state during his lifetime. It starts with the expectation from Shostakovich – in 1936 – that he is going to die. He has been questioned by the NKVD about his relationship with a some people who have plotted against Stalin. He says he knows nothing but is given the weekend to  get his story straight. So he waits each day by the lift, suitcase in hand, for them to come and take him to the Big House “‘Many who went to the Big House on Liteiny Prospekt never emerged again”.

But his fears fail to materialise, partly because his accuser becomes the accused in typical totalitarian state style.

What follows is an interesting looks at who Shostakovich might have been – as Barnes himself notes: “Shostakovich was a multiple narrator of his own life,”  added to which several revisionist versions of his life designed to paint him in a better light  also muddy or clear the waters depending on your point of view. Did he believe in the Soviet ‘project’ ? did he merely go along with anything that allowed himself to survive? As Barnes’ Shostakovich  says he had paid Caesar and Caesar had not been ungrateful ” he swam in honours like a shrimp in shrip-conktail sauce”. But similarly Barnes has him muse “When you chop wood, the chips fly: that’s what the builders of socialism liked to say. Yet what if you found, when you laid down your axe, that you had reduced the whole timberyard to nothing but chips”

We inhabit Shostakovich’s consciousness in the book, fearing for him as his star ebbs and flows with his country’s leaders, laughing as he gets digs in about TS Eliot,  Picasso, Satre. Pitying him as he has to be a good citizen whilst representing his country at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace and over his resentment at never getting foreign car , whilst other seemingly less rewarded composers did.

It manages to say a lot about music, art and politics –  “Art belongs to everybody and nobody” – and about fear and survival and the deals we make with our own conscious to get through life – “the bad luck 1972 intended for him was not his dying, rather his continued living”, and yet still a fairly light read. This is due purely to Barnes’ skill at writing beautifully clean and flowing prose.

It may even lead you to check out some Shostakovich.

Review copy provided by Random House/ NetGalley



Less than full Marx

Groucho Marx: The Comedy Of Existence
Lee Siegel
Yale University Press, London
Pub Date: Feb 25 2016

Lee Siegel’s Groucho Marx: The Comedy Of Existence is a change from the usual books about either Groucho or the Marx Brothers in that it seeks to analyse just what lay behind the comedy, the performance. In some ways it is like that moment at school where you are forced to answer the question of why this or that poet used x word at the end of Y sentence in a poem. You know that the poet never revealed why, but someone is about tell you the answer you’re about to give is wrong, because a couple of experts have written a thesis and decided they know better.

So we discuss whether of not Groucho and indeed the Marx Bros were misogynists , bullies (their upbringing created brother who had a natural contempt for both power and the powerless) , and nihilistic performers extraordinaire: “It is a nihilism constructed out of countless fragments of mutually contradicting truths that amount to no stable meaning”

Seigel is interesting on the misogyny question. He writes: “There is another dimension to Groucho’s misogyny. He makes certain that it is an expression of male weakness, not male strength.” But surely misogyny is already , in its essence, an expression of male weakness?

We discuss how much the characters we saw up on the big screen were essentially exactly who Groucho, Harpo and Chico were off-screen.

There are many elements to like in the book. His passages on the letter exchanges and meetings with TS Eliot , are the most revealing and well observed yet written on that topic, and there are a few more such delights. However, the book is bogged down by a ‘I’m an expert’ tone that eventual left me glad the book was not longer.  I know Seigel won’t mind me saying this, as in his note on sources he is fairly dismissive with his comments on others’ work, describing one ‘refreshing attempt’ biog as failed because, ‘it too succumbs to its subjects’ larger-than-life aura, as well as floundering in a sea of irrelevant facts and dubious connections’

In the end this is an interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying read, which will appeal and/or annoy Marx aficionados, and probably bore all others.

Fantastic Voyage

“ I’m looking for backing for an unauthorized auto-biography that I am writing. Hopefully, this will sell in such huge numbers that I will be able to sue myself for an extraordinary amount of money and finance the film version in which I play everybody”  – David Bowie

My relationship with the music of David Bowie began in 1975 with the re-release of Space Odity. I was seven. I’d been vaguely aware of his existence before then, but this was the moment when I said: I like this song, play it again. NOW. What a song.

The next few years gave me other little gems: Golden Years, Sound and Vision, Heroes, Boys keep Swinging. But as the seventies drew to a close I still don’t think I’d actually bought a Bowie record. My brother had a few and I’d listened to his, but I’d not bought anything myself. That changed with Ashes to Ashes (1980).  Major Tom was back and he coincided with a big single buying year for me. I’d buy the brilliant Scary Monsters single too.

But it was the move from Trench (Telford) to Glasgow at the end of 1982 and the access to a brilliant second hand record shop (Lost Chord) when my real love affair with Bowie began. It allowed me to pick up the Bowie back catalogue quite cheaply and really start a minor obsession with his music. In particular I took the albums Diamond Dogs and Lodger to my heart. They seemed less loved than say, Ziggy, Hunky, or Heroes. To me they were genius (a view any re-listen merely confirms).

I remember winning a prize at School (Hillhead High School) – this would have been around 1985/6. I’m not totally sure what it was for now, but I got to pick a book to have/buy as a prize and I choose a biography of David Bowie. I think I was supposed to chose something a little more ‘literary’ but  this was where my mind was at, at the time. I wanted to read about Bowie. How did he end up with two different colour eyes? Was he really gay? Bi? Alien?

Of course by this stage he’d once again become a mega-star. Let’s Dance and Tonight albums in particular providing a collection of global smash hits.

I remember going to tape fairs and buying bootleg gig tapes – I had Milton Keynes 1983 gig, Cleveland 1978, Melbourne 1978, and one from the 1987 Glass Spider tour too. I no longer have any of them now. The Milton Keynes and Cleveland ones were the two that got played to death though. Both great gigs that even the sound of the people recording them chatting and singing along couldn’t spoil for me at the time.

In 1998 came Tin Machine. Oh how these years have been pilloried. This was Bowie reacting against what he had felt himself becoming in the mid eighties – almost a parody of himself lost in pop megastardom and at risk of becoming little more than a greatest hits package. He admitted he felt unfulfilled by the whole thing. Suddenly it was like he was chasing commercial success rather than just being Bowie and making records regardless of commercial success. It wasn’t that he was making bad records – Never Let me Down, which was the record the Glass Spider Tour supported, has some great stuff on it, but it was still clear he needed to press the reset button.

I loved Tin Machine.

I loved that he’d formed a band, fought to not have his name in the band title, and just seemed to be relaxed and having fun. The first Tin Machine album is a great record. I will repeat that: A GREAT RECORD. I’ve had to defend it many times over the years, but it is worth it. In truth the same cannot be said for either the follow up album or the subsequent live record – I’ll happily concede that those are pretty rubbish. But Bowie himself always said he looked back on the Tin Machine experience with great fondness and that it was the spark to make him be adventurous again.  And it did. What followed was: Black Tie, White Noise; 1:Outside; Earthling; Hours; Heathen; Reality; The Next Day; and Blackstar.

This run of albums shows just why news of his death is so sad. If you listen to these albums you discover that unlike many of his contemporaries his forays into different music styles: Industrial, Jazz, Drum and Bass etc never seemed like a calculated attempt to be ‘current’ but more a reflection on his unabashed and genuine love of music. He was a big music fan who regularly sought out and championed new music and artists he liked. He was an enthusiastic music fan. He was, essentially, one of us.

David Bowie released his first album on 1 June 1967. I was born the following year. He has, quite literally, been the soundtrack to my life. He leaves us with almost 50 years of music. But it is more than that. For many artists it is a case of law of diminishing returns and, despite protestations, the case where clearly their best years are long gone and the spark of genius gone. Not so with Bowie. 2013’s The Next Day, and 2016’s Blackstar are not ‘let’s just re-record my old classics and/or roll out a duets album’. These are albums that showed an artist still fresh and full of ideas. These albums can stand proud next to the classics from the 1970s. They’re not just albums you listen to once and never revisit again, they are records to listen to today … And the next day/And the next/And another day.
David Bowie: 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016

Hello Rebeca – Book reviewer

It’s not often that I take time out to draw attention to other blogs/websites but a ‘Like’ on a recent review drew my attention to: –


This is a book review blog/website from a young lady called Rebeca (with one C).

“I read pretty much anywhere and anytime, I am capable of talking about books nonstop during 3 hours, I write about books, I watch videos about books, I dream about books and I spend an awful lot of money on books when I should be spending it on shelves seeing that I’m already stacking books under my bed due to lack of space.”

A couple of reviews and I was hooked. There is a wonderful honesty and passion that just overflows from Rebeca’s reviews. I was smiling within seconds. Go check her out.

I spy Dunmore’s best novel in ages

Helen Dunmore
Random House UK, Cornerstone
Pub Date: Jan 28, 2016  

I quite enjoyed Helen Dunmore’s first couple of novels.  Good characters, interesting stories. Then we parted ways a bit, before I returned for ‘The Greycoat’ in 2012. It was utter tosh, and I wished I hadn’t have bothered. BUT, I’ve always remember her at her best, and  just how well she writes post world war two 1940s/50s.

Exposure drops us at the end of this period (just scrapping in the 1960s). We are in London and the story revolves around a secret file that has been removed from the Admiralty by Giles Holloway. No one is supposed to know the file has been removed, as Giles plans to merely take it for the evening and return it unnoticed the following day. However, an accident means this is impossible to accomplish without help. So Giles turns to colleague Simon Callington, and asks him to retrieve and return the file. But something stops Simon from handing the file back. He thinks he knows why Giles wanted it returned so quickly. Soon Simon is arrested and charged with a breach of Official Secrets Act. But he doesn’t know the briefcase containing the file  is now buried deep in the earth at the bottom of his back garden.

Exposure is set against the backdrop of actual events – most notably the Portland Spy Ring – where five people were  arrested for breach of Official Secrets Act and plotting to self secrets about Britain’s first nuclear submarine to Russia. Although their story is separate from the fictional events of this novel – their existence is mentioned in passing. [The official report into the spy ring pointed finger at lax security at the Admiralty for the leaked information].

A spy story then? A cold war thriller? Yes, and no. The book does have an emotional and traditional spy thriller tension, but this book, like all of Dunmore’s previous work, is primarily about relationships, love, and the secrets in our pasts. We are drawn into the lives and thoughts of Giles and Simon, and of Simon’s wife – Lily (the true star of the book) and their children, Paul,  Sally and Bridget. All do what they must to protect themselves and/or the ones that they love and to avoid the consequences of their own exposure.

There is a genuine humanity to Dunmore’s characters, which lifts the book above what might otherwise be a stock cold war thriller . These are multi-layered, real, flawed individuals. You feel their inner torment. There is a believability to their actions and to their words. You care.

Exposure marks a return to the exciting and engaging prose that made Dunmore originally worth reading. It is her best novel in years.


Review copy supplied by Random House/Netgalley

Ebner’s cineliterate tale of loss could almost be a movie

Movie Game
Michael Ebner
Pen and Picture
Pub Date: Jan 25, 2016 

“I don’t think you understand. There’s an epidemic of young males in this country, who don’t read or follow the news or anything to acknowledge their reality”

The second novel by Micheal Ebner (All The Talk Is Dead) is an amusing cineliterate tale of dealing with loss, cinema, and terrorism.

Our protagonist Joe is 17. He lives at home with his Sister Loren. Their Dad, who works for  National marine fisheries,  went missing a while ago and their Mom moved out to live with architect. But they still pretend that their mom still lives with them – hanging out laundry, getting the daily newspaper delivered, just to keep social services at bay.  Joe used to be a swimmer, but three years ago his girlfriend, Alice, died and he lost interest in everything , except Cinema. Now he and his three friends: Brad, Toby and Dan get together to play ‘The Movie’ game (a version of six degrees of separation). His life pretty much revolves around going to the cinema, stalking those who talk in the cinema, this game and taking nigh-time swims in other people’s pools.

Whilst this is going on he seems unaware that his sister is suicidal and that he is being followed by the FBI.

What follows is an often very funny, sometimes touching, tale of how we deal with loss, how we all use deception to hide our true selves – indeed play roles, and how we can become so immersed in things that real life starts to pass us by. The most interesting parts of the book are probably the flashbacks to Joe as a 14 year old in the immediate aftermath of Alice’s death (the cause of which we don’t discover until the book’s end). There is a real sense of sadness in these sections that is mostly blotted out by the film humour in the ‘present’ – perhaps intentionally so, as blotting out is arguable what Joe and Loren have been doing.

Ebner clearly has a love for cinema, and as this is a love I share, it made this an easy and rapid read. His prose style is easy going and there are hints of Carl Hiaasen in the bleakness of the humour. A good holiday read.

Review copy via Pen and Picture/Netgalley



Anthropology laid bare on Satin Island

Satin Island
Tom McCarthy
Jonathan Cape

“The City and the state are fictional conditions; a business is a fictional entity. Even if it’s real, it’s still a construct. Lots of company’s projects have been fictions that became real”

I’m not sure I’ve ever quite forgiven Tom McCarthy for his 2010 novel, C.  It was booker nominated, so of course I read it. I loved the ideas in it, but found it ultimately annoying and full of itself. I finished it certain that if I looked up ‘Self-satisfied’ in any kind of reference book, the entry would be accompanied by a picture of Tom McCarthy. His ability to show off as a writer totally eclipsed that story and was little more that literary masturbation. It annoyed me so much it almost made me want to re-read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh again … ok, so it wasn’t that tedious, but it (as you can tell) let a lasting impression.

My non fandom continued when he managed to annoy me even more a couple of years later with a mere introduction to someone else’s novel – Deborah Levy – Swimming Home.

As a result, I think it was fair to say, I wasn’t really looking forward to reading McCarthy’s latest when the Booker’s came around again.

But … come on, you knew there was going to be a but … I have to admit that I really enjoyed Satin Island.

Once again, we have a novel that is more about ideas than it is storytelling, but that’s ok this time around, because at least here we are not pretending there is meant to be a story.

Our protagonist is U (ha ha very funny) a talented ‘corporate anthropologist’ who hires himself out to organisations and governments to help them some up with plans to, well, rule the world essentially. He is currently employed as in-house ethnographer for ‘the Company’ . He is there to help narrate an epoch-defining project : Koob-Sassen. “The project was supra-governmental, supra-national, supra-everything – and infra-too”. But this doesn’t concern him – at least not at first.

He spends most his time awaiting instruction – waiting to be told what he should write. In the meantime he procrastinates – thinking about oil spills; parachute deaths/murders; customs in Vanuatu; why his girlfriend stopped off once at an Italian airport; a friend with cancer, and also  dreams of his own personal end goal: the realisation of ‘Present-Tense Anthropology”. But the more he thinks and the more he procrastinates the more he starts to believe the report is unwritable and the goals of the project are perhaps less harmless that he might have thought. There are moments when he feels is about to grasp “the plan, formula, solution” but in the end it is unquantifiable and indescribable and he wakes with a jolt, and watches  “it all evaporate, like salt in a quiet breeze”.

McCarthy himself says Satin Island contains hundreds of borrowings, echoes, re-mixes and straight repetitions. That seems a fair description. On the face of it could have been as self satisfied as ‘C’, but, not this time. There seems more fun here. There is  a knowing humour at the literariness of the book, and a real playfulness – the scene of the minster undoing and re-doing her shoe is classic. U, himself is a darkly comic character. This is a playful novel of ideas, a novel about modern anthropology, a novel about looking for meaning. It’s about everything and nothing; and it is one of the best books about everything and nothing I’ve read in a while. Tom McCarthy’s rehabilitation starts here.