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May's book reviews


The pick of the latest hardbacks and paperbacks, reviewed by Simon Evans

Bowie_odyssey_74 book coverBowie Odyssey 74, by Simon Goddard

Just as the Sixties belonged to the Beatles, so the Seventies were dominated by David Bowie, and Simon Goddard’s excellent series of Odyssey books, published annually, build up a year-by-year chronicle of this pop chameleon’s decade, from the introspective folksiness of Space Oddity to the austere electronic pop of Low, Heroes and Lodger.

Having now reached 1974, Goddard locates what was not a vintage year for Bowie in the context of the times, both historically – power cuts, the three-day week and the fall of the Heath government – and musically – the rise of two more teen idol Davids, Essex and Cassidy, whose progress through the year, a mixture of triumph and tragedy, is woven into Bowie’s own story.

The main focus however is on Bowie’s music, and 1974 saw him capturing the zeitgeist, as always, with the suitably dystopian Diamond Dogs album before embarking on a lavishly mounted US tour. It was in between those US dates that Bowie was interviewed for the revealing BBC documentary Cracked Actor, his appearance unrecognisable from the exotic space-age Ziggy Stardust persona of just a year before.

His gaunt features and severe blonde hair cut, not to mention a suspiciously nagging sniff, was a shock to many fans, suggesting all was not well with this enigmatic star. And it wasn’t, for before the year was out Bowie would break with his management and release a patchy live LP that nevertheless hinted at the ‘plastic soul’ of his next album, Young Americans, mostly recorded in Philadelphia during the summer of 1974.

The musical chameleon was shedding another layer of skin and, as usual, the pop world would race to catch up. But that’s a story for another year.

Published by Omnibus Press Price £16.99 Pages 192 ISBN 9781915841032

They_Thought_I_Was_Dead_book_coverThey Thought I Was Dead, by Peter James

The disappearance of detective Roy Grace’s wife Sandy has been woven through the excellent series of novels featuring the Brighton-based copper, but this is the first time the mystery has been fully explained. Frankly, there has always seemed to be something rather self-satisfied about Grace, a feeling only exacerbated by the ITV series based on the books, so you can perhaps understand why Sandy would want to escape his immaculately arranged rows of shoes and midlife crisis taste in records. The truth behind her disappearance, however, is altogether more intriguing and this stand-alone is every bit as compelling as the Grace novels.

Published by Macmillan Price £22 Pages 480 ISBN 9781529031430


Ten_Years_to_save_the_West_book_coverTen Years To Save The West, by Liz Truss

Liz Truss was no ordinary Prime Minister, and her supporters claim her greatest misfortune was that, at a time when our politics is dominated by unprincipled, self-serving technocrats, she actually believed in something.

Throughout the book she details how her earnest desire to push back at what she perceived as a self-interested, complacent liberal-leaning elite was thwarted at nearly every turn. So it was no great surprise that when she finally became Prime Minister those same forces would also be ranged against her.

Her book has some lovely details; Dominic Raab leaving behind protein drinks with ‘Raab’ written on them in the fridge when he vacated the grace and favour home Chevening, and how, in Downing Street, Truss was kept awake by the changing of the guard in nearby Horseguards Parade every quarter of an hour throughout the night, an occupational hazard for all Prime Ministers it appears (couldn’t they just get better double glazing?).

But it’s the later sections, when Truss is brought down by a coup d’état in all but name, that are the most compelling. She was clearly a leader in a hurry, too much of a hurry perhaps, as she acknowledges, but ultimately Truss believes her attempt to lift the country out of its slough of despond was thwarted by the very same authoritarian, unelected forces that represent the biggest threat to Western values of liberty and free speech.

Given that, on the same day Truss’s book was published a controversial smoking ban was approved by Parliament while in Brussels a Conservative conference was broken up by armed police, perhaps ten years is on the generous side.

Published by Biteback Publishing Price £20 Pages 320 ISBN 9781785908576

Close_to_death_book_coverClose to Death, by Anthony Horowitz

The author of the hugely successful Alex Rider series has also turned his hand over the years to accomplished James Bond and Sherlock Holmes stories, but his crime novels are something special. Whether it is playing around with time in Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders or deconstructing the whole process of writing a crime novel as he does here, in the fifth in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, you are always promised a mind-boggling ride.

This time round the fictional Horowitz is playing catch-up with the grizzled Detective Hawthorne, his partner in solving crime over the previous four novels. Faced with an ever-approaching deadline and a demanding agent Horowitz persuades the inspector to relate one of his earliest cases to him, a particularly baffling affair involving a posh gated community and a mystifying murder. There are plenty of suspects but no solution in sight until Detective Hawthorne is called in, with the shocking denouement left until the very last page.

Published by Century Price £22 Pages 432 ISBN 9781529904239

Abba_Through_the_Ages_book_coverMy My! ABBA Through the Ages, by Giles Smith

Until the launch of the ABBA Voyage virtual experience in 2022, the Swedish group’s legacy had remained preserved in aspic ever since their break-up 40 years earlier. Like The Beatles, it seemed, their music would not be tarnished by reunion albums or the kind of mega stadium tours that, as Giles Smith observes in this brilliantly funny book, more closely resemble historical re-enactments than authentic musical experiences.

An ABBA fan since the age of 12, when he saw them win the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Giles recounts that moment of revelation – one shared by many youngsters of a similar age – in some detail, from David Vine’s cheesy commentary to the half-time entertainment supplied by The Wombles.

It is but one of many evocative memories scattered throughout the book, all of them triggered by particular moments in ABBA’s rich musical history, right up to attending the premiere of ABBA Voyage and experiencing an unexpected close encounter with the group themselves.

If anything ABBA Voyage appears to have enhanced the group’s appeal, reaching out to a younger audience who will have most likely discovered the group through the musical Mama Mia! and subsequent films, rather than the traditional route taken by Giles and an earlier generation – Eurovision, ABBA’s Greatest Hits and Dancing Queen.

Although something of a guilty pleasure back then, it’s important to remember just how innovative and influential ABBA were in their heyday. No less a figure than The Who’s Pete Townshend described SOS as the greatest pop song ever written, and former Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock has admitted that same song inspired him to write the punk anthem Pretty Vacant (the Pistols were secret ABBA fans and would constantly play Dancing Queen on their tour bus).

ABBA pioneered both the pop video and the jukebox musical, and, not content with that, now seem to have found a way, through their Voyage avatars, of “being early to the art of living forever,” as one commentator put it. Even their comeback album, released to coincide with Voyage, was better than it had any right to be and contained at least one instant ABBA classic, titled, rather appropriately, I Still have Faith In You.

And while, as a lifetime fan, Giles feels a certain vindication at ABBA’s phoenix-like resurrection he worries that, because whole new generations are discovering ABBA solely through Mama Mia!, that the band and its music is in danger of being trivialised, the essential complexity of ABBA music reduced to what Vogue described as “a campy feelgood experience”. Campy, yes, as anyone who recalls early ABBA appearances on Seaside Special or The Mike Yarwood Show will confirm, but feelgood? Yes and no.

Giles points out that there was often an undertow of Nordic melancholy, even in ABBA’s most superficially upbeat songs – Mama Mia for instance – as well as, more obviously, later tracks like the extraordinary The Winner Takes It All.

So, yes, thank you for the music, but let’s not forget what made ABBA truly great – wonderful songs, often with hidden depths, immaculately produced and performed. More, much more, than just a “campy feelgood experience” – and that’s why their music will live forever.

Published by Simon and Schuster Price £20 Pages 325 ISBN 9781398529700

Dirty_Real_book_cover.Dirty Real, by Peter Stanfield

When cinema started to lose its mass audience to television in the Fifties and Sixties, it opened up a space for a new approach to cinema, one a new generation of producers, directors and actors, who collectively came to be known as the New Hollywood, were eager to explore through films such as Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and Five Easy Pieces.

What these films, and many more besides, had in common was a focus on the anti-hero, inspired in part by the effortless cool of their hero Humphrey Bogart, but also by the rise of rock and roll outlaws like the Rolling Stones and the LA bands that congregated on Sunset Strip in the mid-Sixties.

This wide-ranging, entertaining study focuses on several key films from the early Seventies, including Two-Lane Blacktop, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Sam Peckinpah’s Bob Dylan-starring Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, that typified this new concern with authenticity, realism and the outsider.

As is so often the case, however, the wild ambition of these films eventually gave way to imitation and exploitation, with many of the key players – Dennis Hopper, John Altman and Jack Nicholson – seemingly content to put their careers on cruise control. The rebels became the establishment – ‘twas ever thus.

The more challenging films were now being made on the East Coast, most notably by Martin Scorsese, and it was from New York that the nascent punk rock movement would emerge, taking cinema and rock music back to its roots. And it would be women – who had often been relegated to supporting roles in the films of the New Hollywood, when they weren’t ignored altogether – who would go on to produce some of the most important American films of the next decade.

As Stanfield notes in his concluding chapter, “in the end American art film did not belong to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys of California… but those (women) who had been assiduously ignored.”

Published by Reaktion Price £17.95 Pages 344 ISBN 9781789148626

The_Traitor_of_Arnhem_book_cover.The Traitor of Arnhem, by Robert Verkaik

Following their overwhelming victory at D-Day in 1944 the Allies planned, through Operation Market Garden, to beat the Russians to Berlin and declare victory, but two traitors, one, a Dutch resistance hero and the other, an aristocrat working inside the Allied war effort in London, undermined the operation, with far-reaching consequences for the future of Europe. Using previously unseen records this engrossing history, from the author of The Traitor of Colditz, tells the whole extraordinary story of Operation Market Garden, and considers the reasons for its ultimate failure.

Published by Headline Price £17.95 Pages 399 ISBN 9781802797404


Also recommended

The Curse of Pietro Houdini, by Derek Miller (Doubleday, £20) follows the fortunes of Massimo, a boy orphaned in the 1943 bombing of Rome. He is taken under the wing of a wily art dealer, the eponymous Pietro Houdini, who shares with him a plan to prevent the Nazis from looting valuable treasures from the abbey of Montecassino. But both the main characters are hiding secrets, and face a perilous journey…

A_Mothers_Sorrow_book_coverMargaret Dickinson’s A Mother’s Sorrow (Pan, £8.99) is an absorbing saga that begins in 1892 Sheffield with two girls leaving the family home and their unyielding father to try to forge new lives for themselves. As time goes on, and the girls find new pathways in life, two families are brought together and, united, face the gathering storm of the Great War…

Nick Rennison’s 1974 (Oldcastle Books, £10.99) provides a lively, month-by-month summation of a momentous year, covering everything from the fall of President Nixon and Edward Heath’s Conservative Government to the rise of terrorism and the atrocities of Guildford and Birmingham. Although a lean year for popular culture there was the emergence of a new breed of American film director and, in Brighton, a certain Swedish group exploded onto the pop scene like a breath of fresh, seaside air…

Dont_tell_anybody_the_secrets_I_told_you_book_cover.Now available in paperback, Lucinda Williams’ brilliant autobiography Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You (Simon and Schuster, £10.99) provides many fascinating insights into this country-rock pioneer, from her challenging itinerant childhood, relationships with ‘poets on motorcycles’ to her battles against music industry bigwigs before finally finding acceptance and recognition as one of America’s greatest ever songwriters…

The WAAFs at RAF Fenthorpe are preparing for a wedding, but a figure from the past could scupper the best-laid plans in A Wedding for the Bomber Girls (Canelo, £9.99), the latest in Vicki Beeby’s war-time-set series following the adventures of WAAFs Thea, Pearl and Jenny…

In Bothy: In Search of Simple Shelter (William Collins, £16.99) Kay Hill journeys around the UK exploring the history and world of those huts out in the wilderness that provide a welcome haven for ramblers as well as an escape for those tired of the modern world and all its complexities…

The_Secret_lives_of_Booksellers_and_Librarians_book_Cover.It’s shocking to learn that only 15 per cent of American people read books, something that James Patterson seems eager to address in the delightful The Secret Lives of Booksellers and Librarians (Century, £20). Patterson interviews people who live for books and learns how their work involves playing detective, treasure hunter, matchmaker and listener, with their main reward being able to share the magic of discovery…

In the fascinating Dream Machines (Omnibus Press, £25), Matthew Collin traces the history of British electronic music from its unlikely roots in radio and television incidental music through to the acid house explosion, a story of bedsit innovators and boffin-like experimenters making challenging, beautiful music from the most unlikely sources…

You can learn how to appreciate the world’s masterpieces in ten easy lessons with Susie Hodge’s Elements of Art (Quarto, £15.99), and explore the life and work of the great surrealist artist Eileen Agar through an updated, fully illustrated, edition of her autobiography A Look At My Life (Thames and Hudson, £35), which is every bit as colourful, distinctive and single-minded as her extraordinary body of work…

Endgame_1944_book_coverIn his controversial and thought-provoking new book, Endgame 1944 (Viking, £25), Jonathan Dimbleby argues that it was the war on the Eastern Front rather than D-Day, success as that was, that provided the crucial knockout blow at the end of the Second World War. Dimbleby focuses on the little-known Bagration offensive, launched by the Russians two weeks after D-Day, and suggests that this not only broke the back of the German army but also laid the foundations for the Cold War that was to follow…

Set in a 2037 riven by eco disaster, religious wars and contagion, Greg Mosse’s second novel The Coming Storm (Moonflower, £9.99) sees the return of his anti-hero, the French special agent Alex Lamarque, who, lauded after saving the world from darkness, must deal with his new-found celebrity as well as coping with personal tragedy and facing the continuing threat of terrorism…

The Other Tenant (Bantam Press, £16.99) is the latest twisty thriller from Lesley Kara and it follows photographer Marlow as she takes on a post as a property guardian at an abandoned school, against her better judgment, all too aware of the memories the building holds for her. Her worst fears appear to be confirmed when it emerges her predecessor mysteriously left her post without any explanation or farewell and it soon emerges there may be sinister forces at work…

My_Family_and_other_rock_stars_book_coverIn her charming memoir My Family and Other Rock Stars (Fleet, £22), Tiffany Murray recalls growing up with her mum Joan at the Rockfield recording studios in Wales, where the chances of bumping into rock royalty like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie was a daily possibility, even if young Tiffany was more focussed on finding a dog, and a dad. And in My Mama, Cass (Omnibus Press, £20), Owen Elliot-Kugell, daughter of the great Mamas and Papas singer Mama Cass, challenges full-on many of the myths that have swirled around her late mother, not least the manner of her passing. Her moving memoir also reveals what it was like to live, as a child, in the eye of the mid to late Sixties counter-culture storm…

Alison Weir continues her series of novels based on the Tudor dynasty with Mary I, Queen of Sorrows (Headline Review, £25), telling, with great understanding and empathy, how tragedy and fate shaped the life of the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, and turned her into a fearsome Queen…

The Corfe Castle Murders, by Rachel McLean (Canelo Hera, £8.99) is the first of an excellent new series, Dorset Crime, and it follows DCI Lesley Clarke who, recovering from a bomb attack, heads to rural Dorset to recuperate, only to find herself dragged into investigating a murder. And in Missing (Seven Dials, £10.99), Charlie Hedges, one of the UK’s leading missing person investigators, reveals what is involved in tracking someone down, often in the most traumatic of circumstances…

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