Enjoyable telling of the sabbath story

Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe

Mick Wall

St. Martin’s Press

Pub Date : Apr 14 2015

This book seems to have originally come out back in 2013, so I’m not totally sure if this is just a re-issue or just a new version? Not sure. Anyway. Growing up in the midlands during the 1970’s and early 80’s it was impossible not to be aware of Black Sabbath. My first exposure to them was through my brother who owned their first few albums. It was initially a bit too bleak for my then young ears, and it wasn’t until Paranoid that I saw anything to like – WarPigs, Iron Man and NIB would then quickly become favourites. However, if I’m honest my first real ‘love’ in Sabbath terms was when Ronnie James Dio joined the band, and Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules came out. I loved both of these records. It was only later that I really stated to get into the original Ozzy period more earnestly and diligently.

I came to this book knowing some of the story – having read Ioimi’s and Ozzy’s books, but was still impressed with how Wall (who I I originally knew as a writer for Kerrang and Sounds) has managed to craft a tale that tries to tell a tale of the ups and downs of a band without too much bias to any particular version of events. Of course, the fact that Wall worked for the band – he was a PR man for them during the late 70s early 80s, as well as for Dio in the 90s – also means he was around the band when part of his story is taking place and his friendship with the various band members means that he doesn’t just have to rely on previously published material.

It’s an informative and easy read that ticks off all the boxes along the sabbath journey: early years, early success, being dismissed by music press, inner power struggles, outer power struggles, reunions and the role a powerful father and daughter would play in their history.

You certainly get a feeling here was a band who didn’t think they got their due – at least not at the time. I could perhaps have done without Wall’s reviews of the albums as we go along, especially as when he does comment he does so in an authoritative, I’m clearly right manner. At one point, he declares Heaven and Hell one of the greatest HM records of all time. This made me crack out the Vinyl and play a record I hadn’t listen to from start to finish in almost 10 years.  For me, it’s half an excellent record and half ok filler. But, this is a minor gripe. The book, which is also packed with great photos, is a great introduction to the band and it’s various line-ups.

Review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press/ Netgalley

Make no bones about it, Tom Bouman’s debut is the real deal

Dry Bones in the Valley
Tom Bouman
Faber & Faber
Pub Date: Apr 2 2015

“I didn’t trust my eyes. Since Alan had whacked me on the head, my relationship to light had changed. Sometimes I saw too much and it felt like seeing my own pain. Other times, what should have been plain before me was shrounded and confused”

Every now and again a thriller comes along that reminds you just how good the genre can be. This impressive first novel from Tom Bouman is a case in point blending as it does a kind of rural noir with murder mystery.

When a young man’s body is found on old recluse Aub Dunigan’s property, closely followed by another seemingly unrelated murder close by, Henry Farrell, a local policeman in Wild Thyme Township, a small town in rural Pennsylvania, has to call in the state police and the local sheriff to help him piece together what happened.

Henry’s a local boy. He likes to fish, hunt deer, and play bluegrass, whilst gently flirting with the wife of his best friend. He grew up with his main suspects. He may not like them all, nor they he, but he doesn’t believe most of them are potential killers. He particularly doesn’t see Aub as a killer, even when an old grave is the discovered on Aub’s land. But is he right?

What makes this book stand out is the quality of the prose. I was reminded of Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy and strangely Peter Høeg as I read this novel. With some books, especially thrillers, there can be a temptation to skip descriptive passages and just stick with the dialogue, but not here. The world Bouman has created in his Pennsylvania small town – against the backdrop of the encroachment of fracking interests – is a real and believable one. “There were more trailers, and trailers sprouting extra rooms made of garden sheds and fifth wheels, and at the lowest end of the spectrum, dwellings that seemed at once to rot into the land and to be propped up by it, structures with open wounds leaking pink insulation, homes that seemed to draw no definite line between indoors and out”

It presents an almost inevitability about fracking, with families that have long since lost any income from other means accepting the payments from big gas concerns for access to their land. Even Henry who plans to hold out knows he fighting against the tide. And he has extra reason to be suspicious of the frackers. He had moved away from Wild Thyme, and lived in Wyoming until his wife had died from a number of health problems he suspects were related to fracking. But the town is in an area where there are huge shale pockets, the so called Marcellus Shale, found throughout the Allegheny Plateau region of the northern Appalachian Basin of North America.

Yes, there are murders to resolve (which the book does) but these almost become secondary to the picture of rural life Bouman is painting. “Clouds had rolled in and the dark was the kind it’s hard to argue with”. This is a town where the land used to be worked and things were produced. These days the only things produced are shale gas and drugs. It’s a world of ongoing struggles against poverty, of a world that has changed and has seemed to have taken their living with it. But is also a place of secrets and grudges and old family feuds, and these may lay at the heart of the killings. It feels real: when one character, Alan Stiobhard, poses the question, “When did you ever fight someone who didn’t matter to you?” to Henry, you find yourself nodding in agreement at this simple wisdom. At times it made me think of rural conflicts of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens novels, but whilst both Givens and Farrell are law men with military backgrounds, Bouman’s Farrell is a much more quiet and non-confrontational character.

It’s odd that whilst the pacing of the novel seems somewhat sedate at times the story never drags and as a reader you never bore. It’s amusing that Farrell at one point thinks back to something his fiddle teacher said about the “the virtue of slowness.” It is something the author has heeded well. Your attention is held throughout and you want a resolution. What you don’t necessarily end wanting, is this to be the first in a series of Henry Farrell books, and again I think Bouman should be commended for this. It reads like it is supposed to be self contained and not as an ‘introduction’ to a central character.

This will no doubt be described in some quarters as a ‘literary thriller’ . It’s a term that is occasionally bandied around, and is one that I’ve come to dislike more and more over the years (although maybe my rural noir at the start is just as bad?). This is because it immediately denigrates an entire genre – the thriller, all but saying that it is a novelty if one is well written. Or worse still, that it is some lesser form of fiction writing. It’s not. This book proves it.

Destined to be one of the books of 2015. Tom Bouman is one not only to watch, but also to read.

Review copy provided by Faber Books / Netgalley

Latest Nordic thriller marred by muppets and numpties

I’m Travelling Alone
Samuel Bjork
Random House UK, Transworld Publishers
Pub Date: Jul 16 2015

A six year old girl is found hanging from a tree. Around her neck is an airline tag which says ‘I’m travelling alone’.

Thus begins this latest Nordic serial killer thriller. As one dead girl quickly becomes two dead girls out of favour police investigator Holger Munch is called in to lead the investigation. Of course, he’ll only do it if he can re-assemble his crack ‘disbanded’ team, including the brilliant mind of Mia Kruger (who is living the life of a recluse following the shooting of a suspect and is living a day to day existence on prescription drugs and alcohol as she contemplates suicide). Throw in a boss who doesn’t really approve, a Killer leaving cryptic clues, and one who calls the local paper to give a reporter an exclusive of sorts – as is compulsory in these serial killer stories – and you’ve got the basis of this Norwegian thriller.

As the young bodies start to pile up Munch and Kruger start to suspect there maybe some revenge motive to the killings, but targeted at who and what for? Can they put the pieces together before things get too close to home?

This is a decent enough thriller. It twists when it should twist and it does a reasonable job of hiding its killer. But it could have been tighter and less, dare I say it, clunky. I’m not sure whether this is down to Bjork [ Samuel Bjørk is the pen name of Norwegian novelist, playwright and singer/songwriter Frode Sander Øien ] or his translator Charlotte Barslund but in parts it is a bit Dan Brown and the dialogue was painful in places. This was only made more excruciating by the fact that it seemed to have been written to be overly ‘English’ , but not in a good way. This was more like a late 70s, early 80s English. So we have a Norwegian story with characters saying: Get out of the bloody way, you Muppet / every sodding footpath / bugger all / you numpty / bollocking bollocks etc. I’ll be honest, this started to annoy me very early on and continued to do so throughout the novel. Every time I felt pulled in to the story the Danny Dyer dialogue cropped up and broke the connection and made me annoyed again.

This is a shame because what Bjork does write well on is child violence/abuse: ‘Tobias should have been scared, but he wasn’t. He was livid. He was furious with all the adults who hurt children. Children should be free. To Play. To feel safe. Not to stand with their heads bowed in the kitchen. It hurt to be told you were stupid. It hurt to have your arms grabbed. It hurt not to be able to answer back because you didn’t know what would happen to your baby brother if you said the wrong thing’. Throughout the book – mainly through the voice of Tobias, a young boy, but also from a surprise source, he hits the nail on the head about the issue, with anger and passion.

Also on the plus side, Bjork gives Munch and Kruger (as well as computer geek Gabriel Monk) just enough personality – outside of genre cliches -to engage you and probably just enough that you’d seek out a future investigation featuring the pairing. Add to that the fascination we Brits currently have with all things Nordic and have no doubt that this will be a commercial hit when it hits the book stands this summer.

A Librarian’s confessions fail to hit the spot

Confessions of a Librarian: – A Memoir of Loves
Barbara Foster
Riverdale Avenue Books
Pub Date: Feb 3 2015

In the spirit of such classic female erotic adventurers as Anais Nin, Erica Jong and Toni Bentley, Barbara Foster shares the story of four women who meet to tell the lurid details of their worldly romantic encounters in Confessions of a Librarian: A Memoir of Loves. From Istanbul, Buenos Aries, Israel and back to New York, featuring young women to women of a certain age, with threesomes and everything in between, these inter-connected tales of love and lust are sure to keep you rapidly turning the pages.

So says the publisher book description for Barbara Fosters short-ish memoir. I have to admit that the only reason I can envision anyone rapidly turning the pages of this book is for it to be over. But, let’s step back a second.

Why did I read this? Quite simple really, I’m a qualified Librarian, and whilst not my usual reading fare, I don’t mind a good sex story. I was also interested in the author. She had previously co-authored a book called Three in Love: Ménages a Trois from Ancient to Modern Times, with her husband Michael and their own third/partner, Letha Hadady; and also co-authored The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel: A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet: A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet and Its Forbidden Practices, which is mentioned a number of times in the current book. A pioneering Belgian-French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, and feminist, she sounds far more fascinating than anything on offer in Confessions of a Librarian.

The loose framework to hang the stories in this book on is a ‘confessions’ club Foster sets up with a handful of close female friends. These the types of friends who live in stylish apartments, kick off their ‘manolo’s, quote Proust and Mao, and share their sexual exploit stories. It’s a pseudo literary sex in the city (a feeling enhanced by a ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ quote at the start of one chapter), and about as enjoyable as sitting through the film of Sex in the City 2.

So, to the stories: Cliché ahoy: tantric sex in India, tangos under Argentine sheets, sexy arab couplings in Israel, anal sex with a New York Mafioso, may to December relations with spiritual guru/musician, etc. What connect all these (with one exception) is that they are told in the same unengaging prose.

The India story is a particularly interesting one given as it does feature her essentially being raped but then ‘coming round’ to the idea of the sex and then consenting and joining in whole-heartedly. Lucky for her, as from her description of events I doubt her sexual partner had any intention of stopping regardless. “When he jammed in his cock, I lacked the will or energy to resist…he pumped furiously back and forth trying to come. In response my vagina became dry and hurt..” Lovely.

Whilst this is unpleasant, the main problem with the rest of the book is that it is mostly dull and flaccid, though the book does highlight just how difficult it is to write good sex scenes. Foster may well have walked the walk, but as evidenced here she clearly can’t talk, or write, the talk:

“He slowly spread my legs to let his scorching tongue travel along my moist corridor or joy”

“Being his vehicle was so exhilarating that my honey dripped nonstop”

“I opened my lips to receive his juicy tongue kiss. His saliva inundated my mouth, then flowed down my throat. Heated up to boiling, I sweated profusely”

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is great sex writing?, but all it did for me was make me cringe and/or laugh, and the book is full of other examples I could have chosen. Added to this, despite the fact that this is billed as a book about sexual exploits, there isn’t actually that much space given to the actual sex.

Clearly, I’m not the target audience for this book, but I have read Nin and I am a long-time fan of Jong and on this evidence uttering either of their names in the same breath as Foster does both a huge disservice.

This is not to totally dismiss Foster or her writing. When it is focussed and on target, as it is in the section about Danny, the Mafioso, or on the death of one of the ‘club’ it is momentarily engaging and actually quite touching. Sadly the book was mostly bereft of this level engagement for me. Similarly, when it ends and Foster outlines the reasons for these confessions you can identify with the intention, and her honesty if still not totally loving its execution. In the end I wished I had been reading about Alexandra David-Neel instead. Maybe at some point I’ll put my trust in the writer of the Danny chapter and check out her book on the fascinating sounding David-Neel instead.