Book review: A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh (fiction, ***)

Atmospheric and richly detailed, A Lovely Way To Burn starts out as an immersive thriller set in the beginning days of a sickness epidemic called “the sweats” that’s wiping out thousands of London’s population. Our protagonist, however, is more than a little distracted from what’s going on – by the fact that her boyfriend’s just been murdered and no one seems to care.

Louise Welsh beautifully evokes London in the height of summertime as a petri dish of squirming humanity. Her eye for scenery and detail is excellent: the little moments that pass us by in life are, here, elegantly captured and examined for meaning. The protagonist, Stevie, who works as a TV shopping host, also makes for a promising centre point to the novel: by far my favourite scenes are the descriptions of Stevie selling toasters on TV at 6 a.m. with softcore porn abandon.

However, I found the resulting novel disappointing. It’s somehow simultaneously too ambitious and yet too narrow in scope. The mystery of who murdered Stevie’s boyfriend feels too rote, too obviously constructed. The best parts of Welsh’s writing are the organic details, but they end up buried beneath a paint-by-numbers whodunit.

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Music review: Manchester Orchestra @ the Fleece, Bristol

When I first started listening to Manchester Orchestra*, I remember thinking: this song sounds like losing your mind – but in a good way.

*Not from Manchester. Not an Orchestra.

After seeing the band perform live at Bristol’s Fleece, I still can’t articulate a better description of their music. There’s a little of Brand New in their intensity, a lot of Modest Mouse in their oddness, but it’s really the schizophrenic-break-in-3-minutes vibe that sets the band apart.

When the band announced they’d be playing the title track from their new album, ‘Cope’, a guy near me murmured – half-fearful, half-awed – ‘this song is loud.’ And, yes, it was, loud. Emo rock is often characterized by alternating lulls and loudness, with soft song openings that plunge into screaming intensity at the chorus. But Manchester Orchestra take this to an extreme – especially in their live show.

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Book review: Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control – Dominic Streatfeild (non-fiction, ****)

This was one of those meaty, satisfying non-fiction reads that it’s nonetheless hard to say too much about. It was… good? I… enjoyed it? I… will probably have forgotten it by next month?

Brainwash explores various avenues of mind control from the past century: from state-sponsored experimentation with ‘truth drugs’ to academic explorations of sensory deprivation tanks that cause participants to begin hallucinating within hours.

Inevitably, some chapters are better than others (the ‘messages hidden in rock records’ chapter is mostly bobbins), but Dominic Streatfeild keeps a good handle on his material, always taking things back to personal stories. (This is basically a masterclass on how to structure a non-fiction book. Lesser authors should take note.)

Although it’s a genuinely engaging read, I do think Brainwash is over-long and there’s still a little bit of fat that could have been trimmed from the book. Plus, the publisher pulls the classic bait-and-switch, sneakily reducing the font size to make this look like 100,000 words when it’s actually much longer. But I can’t complain too much.

One to read on a long journey. Preferably on an e-reader with the font size jacked up.