Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

Author, Book review, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sandycove, Sinead O'Connor

‘Rememberings’ by Sinéad O’Connor

Non-fiction – hardcover; Sandycove; 304 pages; 2021.

Like many outspoken people condemned for speaking the truth, Irish singer-songwriter Sineád O’Connor was a woman before her time.

When she ripped up a photograph of the Pope live on American TV in 1992 to protest sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, she was roundly castigated, her records burned and her public appearances cancelled. She became persona non grata virtually overnight. Even Madonna, that bastion of virtue (I jest), attacked her.

At the time, she was a global star thanks to her cover of the Prince song Nothing Compares to U — released in 1990 (YouTube clip here) — but this single act, prescient as it we now know it to be (it was nine years before Pope John II acknowledged the issue), killed her international career. (Interestingly, her story about meeting Prince does not paint him in a good light.)

And yet, in the decades that have followed, she has continued to slog away, creating great music in various different genres including pop, rock, folk, reggae and religious. And she has continued to stand up for what she believes in, often playing out her struggles — mental health issues and relationship breakdowns, for example — in full glare of the public eye.

Long time fan

I’m a long time Sineád O’Connor fan. It began when I bought her debut album The Lion and The Cobra in my late teens, two years after it had been released. At the time, I was just beginning to explore Irish music, both traditional and popular, and this sounded like an intriguing blend of the two.

I wasn’t wrong. This album was powerful. It was melancholy. It was beautiful. It was angry. And her ethereal voice, quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before, was mesmerising as she shifted between singing like a banshee and singing like an angel, sometimes within the space of a line or a verse.

What was astonishing was that she was only 20 years old when she made it. She not only wrote many of the songs herself, but she also produced the record, too. To this day, it remains as one of my “desert island discs” — I could never grow tired of it. (To listen to it in its entirety, visit YouTube.)

A way with words

Fans know that Sineád has a way with words, whether spoken or sung, but it also seems she’s a talented writer if this memoir is anything to go by. Rememberings is a beautifully written book that details a remarkable life and a remarkable career in a voice that is intimate, pragmatic and often wickedly humorous.

It’s a book of two halves: the first, written in episodic style, details experiences from her childhood; and the second, written in a different tone of voice, covers the period of her life after she became famous. This latter section is patchy rather than comprehensive (O’Connor says this is a result of her undergoing a radical hysterectomy that wrecked her memory and had a detrimental psychological impact on her life), but it hardly seems to matter for the tales she tells are often eye-opening, insightful and funny.

The stories from the first half are more nostalgic and often heartbreaking. She was born in Dublin in 1966, the third of five children. (Her older brother Joseph is, of course, the Irish novelist whose work I have reviewed here.) After her parents divorced, she and her younger brother went to live with her mother, her older siblings lived with their father.

Sineád says she was regularly and brutally beaten by her deeply religious mother — “I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well” — and she blames this abuse on the Catholic Church, which had “created” her mother. Later, when her mother died in a car accident in 1986, Sineád, who was 19 at the time, struggled to reconcile her grief with her sense of relief.

Her musical talent came to the fore when she was sent to a Catholic reform school (she used to shoplift regularly), where one of the nuns bought her a guitar, a Bob Dylan songbook and arranged music lessons for her. She began writing songs and after leaving school performed in and around Dublin (because she was too young to tour).

Derailing her career?

Aged 20, she recorded the debut record that was to put her name on the musical map. Two more albums later, just when everything was going exceedingly well for her, with Grammy nominations aplenty and three best-selling albums, she was ripping up the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live.

This example of “bad behaviour” is rather reflective of O’Connor’s life as a whole: she’s always been outspoken and forthright, not afraid of what people might think. She shaved her head very early on in her career when a record executive told her she needed to be “more feminine”. She went ahead with an unplanned pregnancy when she was told she couldn’t possibly be a mother and go on tour. She said she would not perform if the United States national anthem was played before one of her concerts. And she boycotted the 1991 Grammy Awards because she did not want to support, nor profit from, the “false and destructive materialistic values” of the music industry.

She has always defied convention and just done her own thing, regardless of the consequences.

But in this memoir she paints it differently: while the media and the public viewed the Pope photo incident as derailing her career, she sees it as saving her from the pop star’s life she didn’t want.

Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.

Rememberings is a brilliant memoir full of cheeky spirit and forthright honesty, as entertaining as it is enlightening. If they handed out awards for resilience, Sinead O’Connor would have to be the first in the queue. She truly deserves it.

Extra notes

I read this book last year and loved it so much I struggled to pen a review, I just didn’t know how to articulate my thoughts. Then, over the Christmas break, I started putting something together and had it scheduled for early January. I held off publishing it when news broke that Sinead’s 17-year-old son, Jake, had died. Today, I’ve dusted it off and polished a few bits, and had fun digging out some of my favourite clips to share. Forgive the indulgence.

The first is an interview on Arsenio Hall in 1991 demonstrating a very wise head on young shoulders. She talks a lot of sense and her integrity really shines through. (But how the wheels turn because, in 2016, Arsenio Hall tried to sue her for defamation but dropped the case.)

One of my favourite songs from ‘The Lion and The Cobra’:

And, finally, her live performance at the 1989 Grammy Awards.

I’ve seen her in concert once — at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2012 — and more recently in the queue at Dublin Airport, circa 2017. She was almost unrecognisable — apart from the dimples and those extraordinary eyes.

Australia, Author, Book review, Mark Seymour, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors’ by Mark Seymour


Non-fiction – paperback; Viking; 391 pages; 2008.

If you are an Australian of a certain age and are a fan of pub rock, then chances are you have seen Hunters and Collectors perform live. And if you have seen them perform live then you no doubt know that this band is one of the most visceral live acts — second only to Midnight Oil — to ever come out of the Southern Hemisphere.

This book, written by lead singer Mark Seymour (who also happens to be the older brother of Crowded House’s bass player Nick Seymour), provides an inside look at what it was like fronting this powerhouse of a band for 18 years.

Of course, if you haven’t already guessed by now, I am a longtime Hunters and Collectors fan. But funnily enough, I always preferred seeing them live than listening to their records, which never seemed to convey the sheer velocity and passion of the music when performed in concert. In fact, this view of the band is not a unique one: they were critically acclaimed but never quite achieved the commercial success that comes so easily to other bands that do far less hard graft.

The book, which is currently only available in Australia (my sister gave me this copy when she visited me in London a couple of months ago), does help explain why the band was big in Australia but failed to crack the UK or American markets. Set up as an artistic collective, in which every member of the eight-piece band shared songwriting copyright and royalties, the decision-making process did not allow anyone to take the lead, nor did it allow the goal of commercial superstardom to become the over-riding aim. Seymour makes no bones about how frustrating this became, especially when, as lead singer, he was seen as the “face” of the band and its key lyricist.

At times the story reads a bit like a kid who has thrown the toys out of the pram. Seymour clearly thinks the band and, more importantly, himself deserved better. But he is also incredibly candid and so hard on himself that you kind of feel sorry for him.

I particularly liked his account of the band’s early days in London, where they were on the cusp of international success, only to blow it all when one member who’d had too much to drink insulted the record company. This incident — in a curry house in Shepherd’s Bush — would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t for the painful financial repercussions that followed. You get the sense that Hunters and Collectors never quite recovered from this monumental error.

All in all, Thirteen Tonne Theory (the name comes from the weight of equipment the band took on the road when they toured up and down the country) is an intriguing read. Written by a singer that crafted so many Australian anthems — Talking to a Stranger, Say Goodbye, Throw Your Arms Around Me and The Holy Grail — it’s a wonderful, if slightly worthy, warts-and-all account that fans will find fascinating.

Author, Book review, Little, Brown, Mark Oliver Everett, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ by Mark Oliver Everett


Non-fiction – hardcover; Little Brown; 256 pages; 2008.

To survive the tragic deaths of your entire family is one thing, to become a critically acclaimed musician is another, and yet  44-year-old Mark Oliver Everett has done both. Now, with the release of this memoir, he can also added talented author to the list.

Everett, better known as ‘E’ from the Eels, an alternative rock band which is essentially Everett and an ever-changing cast of musicians, seems to be the current flavour of the month here in the UK. He recently starred in a BBC 4 documentary called Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives about his father, the late quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, who was the originator of the many-worlds theory. Then his book was published and just last week he played a special gig at St James’s Church in Piccadilly to promote it.

The beauty of Things the Grandchildren Should Know is its easy-to-read narrative style and Everett’s tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating humour. This is surprising given the largely sad story contained within its pages. Not only does Everett lose a succession of family members under various tragic circumstances — his father of a heart attack aged just 51, his mother of lung cancer, his drug-addicted older sister of suicide and his air stewardess cousin in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 — but many of his friends and colleagues in the music business have also died before their time.

Understandably Everett wrestles with many demons, including depression, but he never loses sight of his goal, which is to make the best music he can make without sacrificing his integrity. Getting the first record deal was tough. Keeping the record company happy was even tougher.

What you gather from reading this book is that Everett has a wonderful ability to roll with the punches. Ever pragmatic, he states that it is only by experiencing terrible lows that he can appreciate the highs, such as his critically acclaimed success. “I can get overwhelmed with situations sometimes,” he writes towards the end of the book. “But it’s not as bad or as often as it used to be, and I think living through so much crazy shit really has made me stronger. Just like they say it should.”

Things the Grandchildren Should Know is the kind of thought-provoking memoir that makes you thankful for the good things in life — and you don’t necessarily have to know anything about Mark Oliver Everett or be a fan of the Eels to appreciate its universal message.

Author, Book review, memoir, Music, Neil McCormick, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

‘I was Bono’s Doppelganger’ by Neil McCormick


Non fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2005.

I was Bono’s Doppelgänger is about one man’s struggle to achieve his ambition of being a rock star. The only problem was his school friend, Paul Hewson, beat him to it. Paul Hewson, is, of course, Bono of U2 fame.

Neil McCormick takes the reader on a wild ride from his Dublin school days in the 1970s at probably the most famous primary school in the world, Mount Temple, to the dizzy heights as a music journalist for London’s daily broadsheet The Daily Telegraph in the late 1990s. But being a successful writer wasn’t what McCormick had planned. He wanted to be famous for a completely different reason: pop music.

The book charts his attempts to make it in the music industry, falling (depressingly and frustratingly) at almost every turn, while Bono and the lads, otherwise known as U2, take the world by storm, performing record-breaking stadium concerts, selling millions of albums and becoming the most famous people on the planet. U2’s meteoric rise only seems to put McCormick’s so-called failures into deeper shadow.

As much as loved reading this hilarious and heartbreaking story, most of the time I wished I could shake McCormick by the scruff of the neck and shout WAKE UP, IT AIN’T EVER GONNA HAPPEN!  If nothing else, this book is testament to perseverance, of never giving up, of striving and striving against all odds to live a dream.

Unsurprisingly, the writing is candid to the point of being embarrassing. Pain, frustration and repressed anger resonate off the page. McCormick’s envy and resentment of U2’s success is palpable. “You’re living my life!” he once raged at Bono.

But the overall tone of the book is balanced nicely by the use of wince-inducing one-liners, funny anecdotes and layer upon layer of self-deprecating humour. Without this, I was Bono’s Doppelganger may have come off as sounding like a jealous rant.

Instead it paints an engaging portrait of Bono as a genuinely good-hearted man, not the egotistical preacher-like celebrity he sometimes comes across as (I’m allowed to say that because, just in case you didn’t know, I’m a bit of a U2 fan). Alas, the only ego in this book is McCormick’s and even then you can’t help but be charmed by him as well.

Overall, this is a brilliant, funny, honest and ironic book. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Author, Book review, Mark Dodshon, Music, Non-fiction, Penguin Viking, Publisher

‘Beds Are Burning: Midnight Oil: The Journey’ by Mark Dodshon


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin Viking; 408 pages; 2004.

As far as publicity is concerned, Midnight Oil has always been a closed shop. So to find a book that charts the band’s climb from the Australian pub rock circuit to worldwide critical acclaim is a rare treat.

Midnight Oil are an unusual act, not least because they have always played their cards close to their chest, but because they have been synonymous with so many causes — aboriginal land rights and conservation, to name but a few — while achieving commercial and critical success at the same time.

In Australia, their homeland, they have been elevated to iconic status. In fact I know of no other band anywhere that has tapped into the Australian psyche and culture so well. Listen to their ground-breaking 1987 album Diesel and Dust and I swear you can smell the desert, see the heat shimmering in the distance and feel the sand sticking to your skin.

Their lyrics, rich with descriptions of the Australian lifestyle and landscape, were often attributed to the politically outspoken and charismatic lead singer Peter Garrett, but as this book explains, it was the softly spoken Jim Moginie and the “world’s best drummer” (who mirrored himself on The Who’s Keith Moon) Rob Hirst who wrote the bulk of the words.

This book examines the band’s rise from the suburbs of Sydney to their brief but memorable success in the United States and their subsequent slide into obscurity. It looks at the individual members (but not their home lives — this is not an exposé of their life outside of music) and how they worked (or did not work) together to create the songs and the albums of their long and varied career.

I thought it was an enlightening read, although there is quite a bit of repetition in the book (I expect so that each chapter can be read as a stand alone), but on the whole this is an excellent history of my favourite Australian band. There’s also some great photographs in it, particularly some previously unpublished ones of Garrett with long, flowing locks which are worth the cover price alone!

Interestingly the epilogue entitled As Big as U2 is a thought-provoking analysis of why the band never hit the same dizzy heights as the Irish rockstars, despite the fact Midnight Oil were often compared to them. In light of U2’s current “commercialisation” I know whose shoes I’d rather be standing in right now. Integrity and passion were always Midnight Oil’s stronger points, although not many people “got” that at the time.