Book Review: Greatest Hits

“Larry knows what it is to lose oneself for hours – days, even – in the act of creation; and to only understand, when the mind and body are finally calm once more, what it is that has been created. What, in that act, the artist is trying to make sense of, even though no sense can ever truly be made of this dizzying, maddening, impossible, beautiful life; and, of course, of its culmination, its crescendo and its inevitable loss.”

Greatest Hits, by Laura Barnett, tells the story of fictional singer-songwriter, Cass Wheeler, from her childhood growing up the only child of a London vicar and his depressed wife, through her rise to the heady heights of international fame, and then to her retirement from the music scene following personal tragedy. Along the way are exhausting months on the road, abandoned friends, broken marriages, and the apparently requisite over-indulgence in drugs of all kinds.

The structure of the story is wrapped around a series of sixteen songs representing Wheeler’s life. The lyrics – written by the author and real life singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams – have been put to music and will be released as a studio album to coincide with the publication of the book. This is not the first time publishers have collaborated to create associated music – I am aware of singles from Fahrenheit Press and Orenda Books. It is still, however, an interesting idea.

The story is set over the course of a day as Wheeler decides on the tracks to be released from her back catalogue in a new album being planned to enable her to emerge from retirement. As each song is selected the timeline moves to describe the events that provided their inspiration. Hints are dropped in the contemporary setting and then explained in these flashbacks. With a cast of characters spanning more than six decades it took concentration to remember who was who between the time periods.

Although polished and fluid I was not fully engaged until near the end. The contemporary sections felt like interruptions in what was an otherwise compelling tale. I did question why anyone would want fame, something that Wheeler herself noted when she saw the life an old friend was leading. Much is made of how artistic creatives cannot stifle their urges, even those that carry risk of self-destruction.

There is a poignancy to any life story as, over time, family and friends will inevitably be lost to abandonment, disagreement, and death. Words will be spoken that cannot then be forgotten, resentments form that damage all involved. Wheeler makes choices, repeats mistakes, holds grudges and must live with the consequences. The depiction of her as a daughter – to both the women charged with her care – and then as a mother, made for interesting reading. There was little new in this but it was perceptively portrayed.

Wheeler’s life with its hurts and privileges is rendered to demonstrate that success happens moment by moment and can be measured in many ways. Even if not convinced by the construction, this tale is well written. I will listen out for the album when it too is released.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.


Book Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark


The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, by Anna North, tells the story of the eponymous, fictional, film maker. It is told in the form of a series of personal vignettes written by people she was once close to. These are interspersed with increasingly polished reviews of her films written by a critic whose career developed alongside her own. It is a beguiling approach although with dark undertones, demonstrating as it does how little any individual can understand another, even those they may claim to love.

The book opens with the making of Sophie’s second film, as told by Allison on whose life the script is based. Allison becomes Sophie’s lover and, thanks to her part in this low budget film, an actress. Sophie recognised in her traits and skills that others could not see. It was this perceptiveness that gave Sophie’s films the art house edge for which she became known.

The second vignette is written from the point of view of Robbie, Sophie’s brother. From this we learn more of Sophie’s background, how and why she started to make her films. As an outsider in life Sophie used her art to express thoughts and feelings. Her first creation, a documentary about a college basketball player, was stuttered and amateurish yet showed flashes of the talent that would later disturb, enchant and enthrall.

Sophie’s third, more polished, film was also based on a story from a lover’s past, an approach which drew down the ire of her subjects. Sophie accepted the anger and hurt she generated as a necessary sacrifice for her art, despite the fact that it was others who had to pay. As her fame grew so too did her confidence, although much of this turned out to be as big an act as those which she captured on screen.

From the title of the book it is obvious how Sophie’s story will end. By the time the reader gets to this, past further music videos and another full length film, the cause comes as no surprise. The denouement provides a satisfying explanation for the form and layout of the tale.

The writing is thought provoking and poignant offering an unflinching critique of the conceits of the world. The desire to be noticed and admired affects all. Even Sophie, as removed as she was from most everyday experiences, could not avoid the damage she wrought in her quest to be recognised as an artistic success.

An intriguing yet always entertaining read this is a book to be pondered as well as enjoyed. Amongst the food for thought, it tells a cracking story.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.