How it all began by Penelope Lively – A Half Way Through Review

I’ve read a couple of Penelope Lively books before, one by force at school and the other on the recommendation of a friend. They were very good indeed. So having stumbled upon her 2011 novel How it all began in the sale section I thought I was in luck. Earlier this year I read the 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, and I was floored by it. Such was its impact that if I’d discovered it aged fifteen then my life would have taken a very different path. I purchased How it all began with high expectations.

The first warning bell sounded with the cover. Many books get mis-packaged, that’s not unusual but this was an author of literary fiction bound up in a chick lit wrapping. In the rather prosaic photograph on the front there are piled paperbacks on view and almost all are Lively’s. It’s just an odd cover.

But I didn’t buy it for the cover.

The plot follows the butterfly effect of the mugging of an elderly lady resulting in a broken hip. Her subsequent hospitalisation and rehabilitation in her daughter’s home forces events into motion, upsetting a half dozen strangers’ lives in the process. A third person narrative sees each of the ensemble cast having to deal with the chain of consequences, some merely inconvenient and others more destructive. It flits back and forth between contemporary domestic settings giving acutely observed character portraits. I can’t fault the writing.

There’s something missing though.

The story moves too sluggishly from one cosily upholstered location to another. It has none of the harshness of Moon Tiger, there are no sharp edges to cut oneself on and no dirt and grit. Whether you loved or hated Claudia Hampton, she was an interesting character and bold enough to hang a whole novel on. I’m not emotionally invested in the people who populate How it all began. They are likeable but there’s a lack of passion in them and without that there’s little to hold interest.

Conceptually, How it all began is a great idea, a single event setting off a domino rally of domestic upheaval. If the concept was executed with the same brilliance as Moon Tiger then this would be a superb novel. It may, of course, be a slow burner and build to a dramatically fulfilling climax. I will have to keep reading to find out, sadly, so far it seems unlikely to reach that conclusion.

Soundtracking #16 – Santigold

Santigold is a rediscovery. First heard a few, maybe five, years ago and re-entering my life via an unusual medium; the Gossip Girl soundtrack. It seems I have a weakness, not just for quality tunes, lagers and ladies, but also for trashy teen TV. (I WAS ILL OK! I was one step from Jeremy Fucking Kyle!)

Regardless, my earholes are grateful for the return of Santi and her shimmering electro-ness. She remains above genre, not quite hip hop, not quite dance, not quite pop. Santigold is on the edge of punk influenced electronic music, the kind that sits comfortably in any playlist which doesn’t include Mumford & Sons or Rumer. By that I mean, my mother would hate it. I love it. There’s hard edged half-rap vocals which manage remaining melodic and a slightly sleazy rhythm guitar. It’s kinda sexy.

So here is your opening Santigold number, “L.E.S. Artistes”.  I would have included “Disparate Youth” but I don’t want you all running out to buy insurance you don’t need. Yeah, thanks for ruining that track Direct Line.

 

 

Soundtracking #15 – Hiatus feat. Shura

It was one of those, “How the hell did I miss this one?”, moments.

After several hours of internet-based musical perambulation, hopping  from one YouTube channel to another Soundcloud profile via the wonders of The Quietus and CoS, I tripped over Shura’s new track, Touch. A chilled electronic track with a mainstream appeal; it’s fringing on pop with very well placed Janet Jackson-esque production elements. Love the lyrics, love the video.

Following further perambulation, I found Shura had been doing the vocal duties on a few DJ Hiatus tracks too.
They are beautiful together.

Hiatus’ tracks deliver an emotionally dark tone contrasting perfectly with Shura’s breathy, delicate voice. The beats aren’t heavy and there’s enough piano, guitar and strings to counteract any potential synth fatigue. Hiatus’ album Parkland is quite lovely. It has a movie soundtrack quality to it in the same way that Massive Attack do. And like them, listening to an entire album might be OD-ing on a good thing but a few select tracks really stand out, single-worthy. One of them is River and another is Fortune’s Fool both featuring vocals by Shura. Both cut through with a seam of achingly bittersweet lyrics, like a layer of 80% cocoa dark chocolate. Both delicious. Here they are:


 

Soundtracking #14 – Death from Above 1979

Death from Above first assaulted my ears back in 2005 with Romantic Rights. Dirty distorted bass suited the mood, which was decidedly unromantic. Many happy times were spent jumping around to that track and screaming the lyrics. This was of course prior to their hiatus from my playlists and prior to a reformation and slight name change. I’m not sure that adding your year of birth on the end of the band name really qualifies as a name change but hey…Who cares they are back and this sweet sweet sound was released last month.

It’s throbbing with dirty bass and rough hewn vocals backed with sugary oooo-ing at the chorus. It was never going to be profoundly poetic and it’s not meant to be – uncomplicated works best. The track barrels along like a fucking freight train, taking out everything that strays into its path.

Yes, Sebastien, I want it all, I can’t get enough…

And I’m jealous of the impressive button badge collection displayed in the video, obviously.

Soundtracking #13 – S

I like a clever band name as much as the next music addict but I have my limits.

One of those limits is when a band decides on a title so prosaic and prolific in the English language that they become un-Googleable. Oh the frustration! Fine examples of this are Real Estate and Traveller. Their hope, clearly, to become bigger than the original meaning and sometimes this happens. Search for Prince or Pulp and you will quickly find their musical web presence.

Jenn Ghetto has, however, taken the biscuit. The former member of Carissa’s Wierd goes by the name of  “S”. These are trying  times for tinterweb music lovers…

That said, I still have a tiny crush and her latest offerings are rather enjoyable. Take the song Vampires from her new album Cool Choices (out September 2014 on Hardly Art). It still has the same Ghetto light, breathy vocals, the quietness contrasting with the solidness of the rhythms that underpin every track. Vampires does have a echo of something else which perhaps invites comparisons to Tegan and Sara’s 2007 album The Con. That something else is Chris Walla,  from Death Cab for Cutie, who produced that album and this song. Despite the alt-pop injection making it decidedly more cheery than usual, it is definitely Ghetto behind the sad lyrics. She skillfully treads the path between pensively miserable and damn catchy, and I love it.

Soundtracking #12 The Struts

I confess I’m not sure why I love this track.

Perhaps it’s the retro feel to the chord sequences and the backing vocals; even the lyrics are bordering on late 90’s pastiche. Or perhaps it is because for some bizarre reason the lead singer reminds me of Justin Hawkins from The Darkness, except without the nuts-in-a-mangle high notes and the rehab. If their forthcoming album has a song about STDs then it will definitely make my summer…

Regardless, The Struts don’t seem to take themselves too seriously and that can only be a good thing. Come on…I dare you not to sing along to that ‘Oh yeah!’.

Soundtracking #11 – Eyes for Gertrude

Chantelle Pike and Hannah Dean, AKA Eyes for Gertrude,  use folky vocal harmonies, waltzing piano and accordian to deliver their particular brand of songwriting. It could indeed be classified as folk pop. The duo from South West England craft catchy hooks and verse laced with humour to illuminate the everyday. And it just sounds good.
They are due  to release a full length album this year and if you can catch them live, I’d highly recommend it. This is their most recent single, Messing Around.