Jul 10, 2022
This colourful, self-deprecating memoir charts the author’s journey from light-fingered record shop employee to editor of Q magazine until it folded in 2020, with guest appearances from Paul Weller, Mark E Smith et al
Those of us who cut our teeth on the weekly music press are, by nature, bullishly nostalgic for the days when NME and Melody Maker sold hundreds of thousands of copies, reputations and heated pub exchanges hinging on their contents. Music and its chronicling seemed like the central whorl around which the universe spun. The tone alternated between bumptious certainty and shit-stirring mischief, in-jokes and crusading.
Then two things happened. Around the time Kurt Cobain died, newspapers decided music was worth covering in more depth. A few years later, the internet banjaxed most things printed in ink, including the unofficial university of the British arts: a febrile hotbed of loudmouths, obsessives and romantics who self-mythologised even as they hymned the acts they loved. A predominantly male and predominantly white hangout full of people posturing like fury, this particular era of the music press prized wit above all; it was often uncomfortably brutal in its pillorying. But it was also intellectually curious and wide-eared; progressive enough in its politics. Its alumni are still keeping gates all over the British cultural sphere. Continue reading...
Jun 26, 2022
This powerful tell-all from the Kinks guitarist puts the spotlight on his own bad behaviour, dalliances with the occult and his recovery from a stroke
Dave Davies, co-founder of the Kinks, has had a life of era-appropriate excess and lived to be contrite about it. This new and updated memoir – a previous account, Kink, was published in 1997 – has its origins in a period of intense rehabilitation and re-evaluation prompted by a stroke the guitarist suffered in 2013. This firebrand once slashed the speaker cone of an amp with a razor blade to get the distorted sound on one of the most electrifying riffs in rock – You Really Got Me. After his stroke, he had to completely relearn how to play guitar. His enthusiasm for neuroplasticity – the way in which the brain lays down new pathways – is one of the book’s more endearing aspects.
If the past is absolutely another country, the rock past seems more foreign still with every passing hour. Where once rock’n’roll was a viable and heroic alternative to square life, the egregious behaviours enabled by fame’s warped power and cartloads of drugs make for increasingly uncomfortable reading now: it was an era of rampaging ids with little accountability. The arc here is redemptive, though; the focus very much on Davies’s own stormy internal weather. Continue reading...
May 31, 2022
Marcus Rashford channels Scooby-Doo, more girls solve mysteries, while two historical young Black Britons join forces in theatreland
The modern plague of celebrity children’s authors has honourable exemplars. Step forward, child poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, who follows his hit of 2021, You Are a Champion (voted book of the year at last week’s Nibbies), and his children’s book club with his middle-grade fiction debut.
The Beast Beyond the Fence (Macmillan, £6.99), the first of The Breakfast Club Adventurers series, was co-written with Alex Falase-Koya and stars a football-mad, 12-year-old kid called Marcus. His touch has deserted him since his most cherished ball disappeared over the school fence. An uncertain alliance forms at the school breakfast club to solve this and other mysteries. But a terrifying, ectoplasm-oozing beast lurks behind the fence. Continue reading...
Apr 03, 2022
The 70s folk singer who re-emerged in the early 00s recounts her extraordinary existence on the road – and the sexism of the hippy era – in this spare, riveting memoir
Vashti Bunyan is a singer whose times have always come slowly, as though in thrall to some kind of cosmic jet lag. Decades after her winsome, haunting debut album Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970 – sinking without trace – Bunyan went online and discovered that her abject failure, as she had understood it, was now a cult artefact changing hands for silly money.
So scarred had Bunyan been by the lack of validation at the time of Diamond Day’s release, she had put music away for an entire lifetime, never even singing to her three children in her otherworldly soprano. Unbeknown to her, she had since become a legend in alternative folk circles. Continue reading...
Mar 27, 2022
Tales of rivalry, love, drugs and difficult births litter the singer-songwriter’s gripping account of life in a dysfunctional music dynasty
“This book has been a thorn in my side for almost seven years,” writes singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright near the close of her engrossing memoir, an account produced through the lonely tumult of a custody battle, in the wake of grief, then galvanised by new hope. “I’ve burned copies and used the backs of pages as scrap paper on which I taught my kids addition and subtraction,” she continues. “An early draft was used as evidence against me in my divorce case.”
Much like her album of last year, Love Will Be Reborn, which processes some of the same material, very little feels off-limits in this slim but jam-packed book, full of very good times in the circus that is a performer’s life as well as very bad times. Wainwright is, of course, a singer-songwriter of great acuity and candour with six solo studio albums under her belt, with a surname that is both gift and bind. She was born into an extended family of artists who have a habit of skewering one another in song and print. Her late mother, the Canadian folk artist Kate McGarrigle’s song Go Leave is about her ex-husband, the US singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, whose When You Leave also ponders the fallout of his departure on their then young children, Martha and her brother, Rufus, also a singer-songwriter. Well before the stars of social media, you could argue the Wainwright-McGarrigles have long provided a much more genteel, bohemian sort of dysfunctional showbiz dynasty to boggle at. Their extended clan forms part of a wider folk and entertainment pantheon that stretches from Montreal to LA via London and New York, so there are also walk-on parts in this book for everyone from Emmylou Harris, friendly with Wainwright’s mother, to Pete Doherty, wasted at Glastonbury, via US TV’s Jimmy Fallon, a long-time pal of Martha’s. Continue reading...
Mar 15, 2022
From out-partying Rod Stewart to sobriety and therapy… the bassist of seminal all-female band the Go-Go’s tells her enthralling story with candour and clarity
The most successful all-female band of all time – according to the US Billboard charts – remains to this day the Go-Go’s, an irreverent and combustible new wave five-piece formed in the crucible of the LA punk scene who went to No 1 in the US in 1982 with their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. This excellent memoir from their bassist, Kathy Valentine, forms part of a charm offensive that includes a much-praised 2020 documentary and dates supporting Billy Idol in the UK in June.
It should not be important, in this day and age, but given Damon Albarn’s recent, since-retracted, comments questioning Taylor Swift’s songwriting, it bears repeating: the Go-Go’s were a girl gang who wrote their own songs. And had female management. And inspired female musicians from the Bangles, their obvious heirs, to Kathleen Hanna, who went on to form Bikini Kill. Sure, there’s a Terry Hall credit on one of their biggest hits, Our Lips Are Sealed, but the song was based on letters Hall exchanged with Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin while the two were an item. Continue reading...
Mar 08, 2022
Norse gods get a fresh incarnation from Louie Stowell and the multiverse offers up a moral dilemma in Ross Welford’s latest
The Marvel takeover of childhood often seems all-encompassing. Really, though, Stan Lee’s stable has long embellished Norse and African myths. Some great new books riff on those riffs – parents might just sell these to a reluctant bookworm on their parallels to Marvel.
Writer-illustrator Louie Stowell’s terrific Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good (Walker Books, £7.99) imagines the Norse god portrayed in the Marvel films by Tom Hiddleston as a mischievous, petulant 11-year-old, banished to naughty-step Earth to atone for his misdemeanours. Often laugh-out-loud funny, this is an irreverent romp through practical moral philosophy, like Netflix’s The Good Place with more snarky cartoon snakes. A talking diary backchats Loki throughout. Continue reading...
Jan 09, 2022
The hard-living musician’s vivid memoir recounts his latest brush with death, this time in the form of the coronavirus
At least superficially, works of medical recovery share much common ground: the bleep of life support, the arduous rebuilding of one’s new normal. But cult US musician Mark Lanegan is no Michael Rosen, the beloved children’s author whose fight with Covid is justly famed as a heroic tale: the unimpeachable battling the unimaginable and emerging a trenchant critic of the government’s failures. Rosen eventually swapped a wheelchair for a stick, one he wrote a children’s book about.
There is no Sticky McStickstick in Devil in a Coma, the slim but powerful volume detailing Lanegan’s own Covid ordeal, just the metaphorical two-by-four with which he beats himself. The author of roughly half a dozen solo albums, plus a healthy body of collaborative works that includes fronting grunge outliers Screaming Trees and time spent in Queens of the Stone Age, Lanegan is an antihero who would be the first to say he is probably undeserving of our sympathy. His celebrated 2020 memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, is one of the bleaker tales of rock’n’roll excess ever committed to print. Continue reading...
Jan 03, 2022
An honest study of the shy young man turned superstar DJ illuminates his rise to fame and the manifold factors that played a part in his death aged 28
Tim Bergling – the Swedish DJ and producer known as Avicii – killed himself in Muscat, Oman, in April 2018 at the age of 28. The very worst happened when things were apparently looking up. The successful but troubled electronic dance music (EDM) star had retired from relentless touring in 2016 to focus on his wellbeing. He had weaned himself off opioids – prescribed by doctors when bouts of alcohol-induced pancreatitis led to debilitating pain and, later, surgery. He was communicating regularly with a therapist, was often surrounded by childhood friends, donated to charities. He meditated.
Having crossed over from pure party music to making tracks alongside established stars such as Coldplay and Nile Rodgers, Bergling was working on new material he was excited about. A documentary about his meteoric rise and his stress levels – Avicii: True Stories – had been broadcast in 2017, seemingly with a happy ending. Continue reading...
Dec 12, 2021
Fiona Noble looks back on the year and, below, our critics pick their favourites in each age group
Children’s books bounced back in buoyant style in 2021. As bookshops reopened in the spring, children’s books enjoyed an 11% boost in sales against the equivalent period in 2019, according to the Bookseller. Michael Rosen’s own journey of recovery from Covid was movingly documented in Sticky McStickstick (Walker), illustrated by Tony Ross.
A move towards greater diversity heralded a rich array of new and emerging talent. Hey, You! by Dapo Adeola (Puffin) took an empowering, celebratory look at growing up black, showcasing the work of 18 black illustrators. Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston (Farshore) is first in an outstanding fantasy series following a young black girl and her adventures in the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Neurodivergent author Elle McNicoll’s debut, A Kind of Spark (Knights Of), winner of the Waterstones and Blue Peter awards, told the story of an autistic girl campaigning for a memorial of witch trials. The Marcus Rashford Book Club was created to give books to children who need them the most; Rashford’s You Are a Champion, written with journalist Carl Anka, is the year’s bestselling children’s nonfiction book. Continue reading...
Nov 30, 2021
The American figureheads and friends discuss their childhoods, their debt to strong women and the illusion of the American dream in a series of candid conversations garlanded with unseen photographs
The season of the coffee table book is upon us. This is a handsome enough example, featuring often startlingly candid conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen recorded for a podcast of the same name. Having struck up a friendship on Obama’s campaign trail in 2008, the bond between the two men deepened with the years. (Partly, we discover, this is because Michelle Obama and Patti Scialfa, Springsteen’s partner, hit it off.)
The title is worth a chuckle. Springsteen might once have been some sort of miscreant, but “renegade” ill befits the 44th president, a man so upstanding you could actually unfurl a flag off him. The subtitle Born in the USA raises a silent eyebrow, too, at the attempt by “birthers” to discredit Obama’s presidency by falsely questioning his citizenship. Continue reading...
Nov 16, 2021
Two outsiders unite to tackle second world war wrongs; the ‘ape engineer’, Sally Jones, returns; and can Ben Okri’s young heroine save her mother?
Once an author has attained a degree of shelf space, it seems fair to direct the oxygen of publicity towards lesser-known peers. But a couple of hit authors merit second fanfares. Onjali Q Rauf made a splash with the timely and compassionate The Boy at the Back of the Class in 2018. Three books later comes The Lion Above the Door (Orion, £7.99), in which intrepid year fours unravel the riddles behind a war memorial in Rochester Cathedral.
Being the two kids who look different in their Kentish village is routine for Leo – whose family hail from Singapore – and Sangeeta (India). But when Leo discovers a plaque to an airman who shares his name, the friends join battle against limited internet access, bullies and the historical downplaying of the roles of people from all over the globe in the second world war. Rauf keeps it light but goes deep, drilling down into how Leo feels about his own father’s seeming appeasement of a tormenter. Continue reading...
Jun 06, 2021
The singer’s jaw‑dropping account of her troubled childhood and rocky fame is patchy but no less truthful for it
Celebrity memoirs often come with a ghost writer. There isn’t one here – there are only ghosts, the ones the young Sinéad O’Connor hears in the piano at her grandmother’s house and the others with which she has wrestled for a lifetime. No matter how public her business, or how much people think they know about the Irish singer’s triumphs and travails, this is an artist who never ceases to surprise.
O’Connor has spent her career, it seems, coping with the after-effects of childhood trauma and then another lifetime coping with more trauma piled atop it – fame, infamy, pariah status, a 2015 hysterectomy, a questionable 2017 US TV interview. You’d be forgiven for thinking that O’Connor might require not just a ghost writer but a nurse and maybe even an imam on call (she converted to Islam in 2018). Continue reading...
Jun 01, 2021
Supernatural forces that enchant a Nigerian village, a life-saving boy called Lonny and a self-help title from Marcus Rashford that hits the spot
One of the handful of truly magical things that have happened in the past year was how one footballer shamed a government into feeding children. Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford MBE is a natural poster boy for staring down tough odds and working the dials on moral compasses. It makes perfect sense that he should have written a motivational self-help book for kids (with Carl Anka).
Conversational enough for the reluctant reader, but actually packed full of top-flight sports psychology and no little depth, You Are a Champion: How to Be the Best You Can Be (Macmillan) also marks the start of a book club aimed at disadvantaged kids – and WH Smith will give away a copy to the National Literacy Trust for each copy sold. Continue reading...
Mar 28, 2021
The Everything But the Girl singer’s account of her friendship with the Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison illuminates rock’s double standards
At 243 pages, in a relatively easygoing font size, Tracey Thorn’s latest book doesn’t look like a particularly subversive tome. Inside, though, is quiet fury, with ramifications well beyond what is, at a glance, a narrow milieu.
Thorn found fame as half of Everything But the Girl in the 80s and has since published a celebrated series of memoirs and nonfiction books. Here, she turns her clear-eyed candour to dissecting her long friendship with Lindy Morrison, an Australian musician, now 69, who played drums in a band called the Go-Betweens. Continue reading...
Mar 15, 2021
This thorough portrait of the artist as an adolescent uncovers the passions and environmental factors that shaped the rock great’s singular style
At 63, the singer-songwriter Nick Cave cuts an urbane, almost sanctified figure. Currently based in Brighton, this erudite career artist’s recurring preoccupation, since the 2015 death of Arthur, one of his teenage sons, has been transmuting profound grief into beauty.
For many decades, though, Cave fronted a series of bands whose confrontational performances dealt in threat, derangement and deeply corporeal concerns. In his 20s, he was a goth poster boy, a heroin addict whose musings on toxic masculinity and God, outlaws and perdition fuelled a succession of swaggering bands and a lasting myth. Continue reading...
Mar 09, 2021
Fearless girls ride to the rescue of mothers, brothers and polar bears in this month’s inspiring adventures
Saving a bear, saving a mother – or others like you, or the world: children’s literature would be bereft without quest narratives. In her middle years fiction debut, journalist Amy Raphael plunges the reader into the fraught mid-17th century, where the soft warmth of horses and the tang of Scottish religious intolerance figure heavily.
Soldiers are rounding up medicine women, accusing them of witchcraft. When Art Flynt’s mother is hauled away, she grabs her herbal recipe book and heads south to free her from the witchfinder general before the executions on midsummer eve. The Forest of Moon and Sword (Orion, £7.99) is a fast-paced and single-minded adventure, featuring plant lore as well as a cast of unexpected allies, human and animal; female bravery is a given. Continue reading...
Feb 14, 2021
This welcome reissue of the poet’s 1997 book about the ‘empress of the blues’ combines fact, personal memory and poetry to create an eloquent ‘herstory’
Blueswoman Bessie Smith was a complex character, a self-made superstar whose biography is often stranger than fiction. Her deeds became the stuff of legend. Smith was formidable, reputedly facing down single-handedly an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to burn down her show tent. But Smith sang of female suffering and lived out the tragedies of her songs, often in reverse order. Jackie Kay, author of this eloquent and emotive biography, underlines how frequently Smith wrote lyrics with terrible prescience.
Originally published in 1997, Kay’s biography was a joyous and formally daring undertaking. Then, it formed part of a series called Outlines, which sought to document “an unofficial, candid and entertaining short history of lesbian and gay art, life and sex”. Now, a Spice Girls reference dates it only momentarily: Bessie Smith remains an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”. Continue reading...
Jan 09, 2021
An excellent study of the country queen reveals a nuanced political intelligence behind the glamour, while Parton’s own coffee-table book reflects on her enduring songs
With a career spanning over half a century, Dolly Parton is an all-American figure who we assume is fixed immutably in the public mind. Wooden shack, Jolene, 9 to 5, breast augmentation, Dollywood, cloned sheep and, now, the Moderna vaccine, to which she contributed $1m: for all those who have a glancing familiarity with Parton as a country singer with a cartoon physique, there are others who grasp her mettle as a businesswoman and philanthropist.
It turns out, though, there is still much to be discussed. Although Parton’s cultural reach has always been unexpectedly broad – her production company created Buffy the Vampire Slayer – recently, this most clearly defined of stars has begun to grow unexpectedly hazy at the edges. Continue reading...
Dec 13, 2020
From Covid-19 to Black Lives Matter, children’s books tackled the world-changing events of 2020. Here, Fiona Noble looks back on the year and, below, our picks in each age group
As Covid-19 tightened its grip in March, forcing schools, bookshops and libraries to close, so the children’s book world responded in characteristically generous style, producing an explosion of free online content to educate, entertain and support children and families. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler created a series of Covid-related cartoons featuring beloved characters (“The Gruffalos stayed in the Gruffalo cave’”) and children’s laureate Cressida Cowell read daily chapters of How to Train Your Dragon. Picture book creator Rob Biddulph became a viral phenomenon thanks to his Draw With Rob videos, culminating in no less than a Guinness world record for the largest online art class when 45,611 people joined him in drawing a whale. A whole new Covid category of children’s books was born, both instructional and inspirational. There was Coronavirus: A Book for Children about Covid-19 (Nosy Crow), While We Can’t Hug by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar (Faber), and a slew of rainbow-hued picture books. Health workers were celebrated in The Hospital Dog by Julia Donaldson and Sara Ogilvie (Macmillan) while Captain Tom Moore’s record-breaking fundraiser for the NHS became the One Hundred Steps picture book (Puffin), illustrated by Adam Larkum. And although not written in response to the pandemic, Maggie O’Farrell weaves resilience and bravery into her elegant debut picture book, Where Snow Angels Go (Walker), an unforgettable winter adventure with illustratrions by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. Continue reading...
Nov 17, 2020
History and the mysteries of the human heart take centre stage in this month’s best tales
Wherever you stand on comedians writing children’s books, some are more worthy than others. Step forward Simon Farnaby, late of the Horrible Histories TV series, screenwriter of Paddington 2 – and a potential heir to Jeremy Strong. Farnaby’s debut children’s novel, The Wizard in My Shed: The Misadventures of Merdyn the Wild (Hodder, £12.99), combines the dark ages with a very modern caper. The yuck factor is strong in this one.
Renegade warlock Merdyn is subject to a miscarriage of magical justice, being exiled from the year 511 to the present day. His spell-casting might just be the solution to young Rose’s problems though, and pratfalls and explosions abound as Merdyn’s desire to avenge his fate entwines with Rose’s agenda. Farnaby’s skill is evident not just in the gags, but in how he ties up loose ends. Consider the audiobook: Farnaby’s delivery will make this hoot of a debut even funnier. Continue reading...
Oct 05, 2020
The pioneering Skunk Anansie frontwoman’s memories offer a very different take on the Britpop era
In 1998, Nelson Mandela celebrated his 80th birthday. Among the guests were Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson – and Skunk Anansie, the British rock band fronted by Brixton-born Deborah Anne Dyer. Known originally as Skin for her gawky teenage limbs, Dyer harmonised with Jackson on Wonder’s Happy Birthday and drank cognac with Simone long into the night.
This international regard might come as a surprise to British readers, for whom the 90s remain forever synonymous with Britpop. Actually, a plurality of sounds proliferated at the time. Continue reading...
Aug 25, 2020
Plucky orphans, baby beasts and a Jamaican Boudicca fighting the British are among this month’s highlights
Having spent an unprecedented amount of time in the company of adults throughout lockdown, kids must surely be fed up of their parents’ overweening company. Everyone knows that for fictional children to thrive, the grownups need to be absent, dead, ill or cruel. Cue the over-representation of runaways and orphans in children’s books – plucky types whose early trauma fosters the risk-taking they need in order to get to where their plot is going.
Hana Tooke’s The Unadoptables (Puffin, £12.99) throws up a skinny Baltic townhouse full of brave souls hellbent on escaping the drudgery at Amsterdam’s Little Tulip Orphanage. The home’s villainous matron, Gassbeek, is in cahoots with a vicious ship’s captain keen to adopt – really to enslave – them. The retro Dutch setting, the web of mysteries that landed them all there and the hairy, scary perils the children find themselves in set this winning series opener – about the families you make – apart. Continue reading...
Jun 29, 2020
This painstaking story of the guitarist’s life doesn’t shy away from the shocking behaviour that often overshadowed his trailblazing music
By the time the mercurial, volatile singer-songwriter John Martyn heard that he had been awarded an OBE for his contribution to British music, he was in a wheelchair, having lost a leg to septicaemia compounded by a lifetime of substance abuse. He died weeks later, before he could accept the honour.
Musicians often embody a garble of contradictions, but the English-born “Scots Belgian Jew” known to his family as Iain McGeachy was a more troubled – and troubling – figure than many from the late-60s. A trailblazing guitarist, he began his artistic life in the crucible of the folk revival that also produced Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Solid Air, one of Martyn’s most magnificent outings, was written about Drake. Continue reading...
Mar 10, 2020
Gripping yarns spring from a submerged city, desperate street life and the jungles of Sri Lanka
Key stage 2 children are routinely taught about the differences between narrative types – legends, or science fiction, or rags-to-riches stories. One might argue, however, that most books in middle-years fiction ultimately boil down to some sort of quest.
Intrepid children are bounced into various adventures this spring, with epic sweeps or humorous bents by turn. Author Jenny Pearson is a primary school teacher in the north-east of England, and if her caper of a debut, The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates (illustrated by Rob Biddulph, Usborne), plays a little fast and loose with a deus ex machina, the clue is in the title: “super miraculous”. Continue reading...