Welcome to reviewsrevues

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Welcome to reviewsrevues.com.  If this is your first visit – where have you been?  I’ve been here since January 2015.  If you like what you read please consider clicking on the “Follow” button and then you will be notified whenever there is something new on here.   I live on the Isle Of Wight off the south coast of the UK (lovely place if you have never been).  I have been producing book reviews for websites and magazines for some time and now want a place where these can be gathered together.  I really will have a go at reading anything.  I love variation and will skip from genre to genre.   This is what you should find on the site:

  • Reviews of recently read books and pieces about books
  • Murder They Wrote – Crime book reviews
  • Female Fiction – (from a male point of view)
  • Kid-Lit (I was a Primary School teacher for many years and the habit of reading children’s books is hard to break!)
  • The Running Man (Adventure/Thriller reviews- so called because my local library, where I volunteer, uses a symbol of a running man for this fiction category.)
  • Real Life – Biographies, autobiographies, biographical fiction fits in here
  • 100 Essentials – Books and Music – Those that will have a permanent place on my shelves and hopefully in yours too!
  •  What I have been watching – TV, Films
  •  Music Now – What I have been listening to – the future Essential CD’s?

Use the indexes to find out what you may have missed.  There’s also a very good search option in the side-bar if you are looking for something specific.  Thank you for visiting reviewsrevues.com.  I hope you like what you find and that you come back soon.  Feel free to comment on any of the specific posts (you should find a Comment link underneath each post which will bring up the Comment box.)  I always reply……………….

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Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On – Nik A Ramli (2012) – A Real Life Review

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What is the right thing to do when just as your biography is going to press the subject dies? Do you hold back publication and revise its contents? I think I would probably say yes to this. Do you carry on and publish anyway after all, knowing that not many readers will know when a book actually came out, that’s a possibility. What Nik A Ramli does in his first piece of biographical non-fiction is acknowledge the passing in an author’s note at the start of the book, use the dates of the life (1948-2012) prominently on the cover but does not change the main text one iota. I’m not sure whether that’s appropriate.

That decision leads to a slightly off taste as Ramli focuses on the legendary disco star’s past, present and future in later chapters such as “Still Going Strong: A New Departure” and “Into The Future” when he makes it clear elsewhere that he knows that there isn’t going to be any future.

Now I, like Ramli, who is better known as a Malaysian Interior Designer who specialises in “laid back glamour” am a big Donna Summer fan. I have included four of her albums in my Essential CD listings. I feel that up to now she has not been served well by the printed word. I read an early 80’s unauthorised biography which said little and even “Ordinary Girl” her 2003 autobiography written with Marc Eliot was a disappointment which just skimmed the surface. There is room for a definitive examination of the life and career of one of the most successful female artists of all time whose record sales reputedly exceed 130 million. I’d always hoped that someone like J. Randy Taraborrelli would apply his thorough, analytical eye to her and produce something very entertaining but this hasn’t happened.

Ramli has produced what is very much a fan’s viewpoint which borders on hagiography. I have no problems with that, the whole work comes across as a labour of love and I always admire these. He’s done tons of research and seemingly watched and read everything and has carried out interviews with people qualified to comment on Donna’s career including DJ Paul Gambaccini, fellow disco-diva Gloria Gaynor and her one-time producer and great supporter Pete Waterman. Unfortunately, what he hasn’t done is put this research all together very well. This is a first-time writer in need of support to structure a convincing narrative and that support (and editing) obviously wasn’t there. The style is breathless throughout, which becomes a little overwhelming, there is so much repetition, an over-reliance on listing the same statistics and song titles to illustrate laboured points, a cheesy use of song titles within the text of the she certainly “works hard for the money” type, factual errors even I’ve spotted, non-sequiturs a-plenty and a tendency to go off on odd tangents, but mainly it’s the repetition that wearies.

He rattles through her whole career in the first few chapters and with a considerable amount of the book to go a clearer structure would have helped matters. He’s read Taraborrelli’s superior music biogs according to the bibliography, it is disappointing that from these he didn’t get a clearer idea of how to put together his work.

What Ramili does well, however, is to get a global perspective. He’s more obsessed about listing chart positions than I am, we get to know how Donna Summer’s work performed in many markets together with listings of weeks spent in both US and UK charts. I also like how he has got contributions from Malaysian performers about the influence of this American girl from Boston who found fame initially in Germany.

The issue that affected the performer was how much “Donna Summer” was a creation of her producers and then her record label. She was created to fit in with the hedonism of mid 70’s disco, with an aura of soft-porn chic which captured the zeitgeist of the time. This image was different to how Donna Summer wanted to be seen both in terms of her beliefs and her need not to pigeonholed as an act of a moment. Her disco days were glorious with some superb tracks, brilliantly performed but she wanted to see and she had the talent to see beyond that, sensing that disco might not last forever. When it did end in the US with that notorious record burning in a Chicago sportsfield which I’ve mentioned a number of times before (see “Turn The Beat Around” by Peter Shapiro), Donna was ready to move on and embrace rock, new wave and more mainstream pop. Over time chart positions dwindled and an alleged comment about AIDS alienated a large gay fanbase. That disco ball would never entirely go away, however, and the demand for the back catalogue of the Disco Donna Summer, like the Disco Gloria Gaynor, would keep re-appearing over the decades. In latter years Donna began once again to fully embrace this and saw a career revival and a demand for new material in the years up to her sudden and shocking death from lung cancer aged 64.

She should be seen as one of the greatest performers of her era, alongside Barbra Streisand (who she famously vocally duelled with on “No More Tears”, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. The fact that she does not always share a pedestal with these artists critically means she is still due for reappraisal. Ramli’s work provided a welcome opportunity for this but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

twostarsDonna Summer; The Thrill Goes On was published by Book Guild Publishing in 2012.

100 Essential CDs – Number 25- Native New Yorker: Disco Classics

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Native New Yorker: Disco Classics (Camden 1997)

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This twenty track CD appeared on the budget Camden label in 1997 and according to the sleeve notes written by one Michael Dunnington references a time “when Jason King ruled the TV air-waves and men’s trousers “flared” like no tomorrow.”  For a one disc collection of 70’s music it is spot on and there is no overlap with any of the tracks featured on the other compilation CDs I have so far considered to be essential.  What it isn’t really, despite its subtitle, is an album of “disco classics” unless we are counting a school disco where tracks by artists such as Sweet and Barry Blue would have got played.  That disco would have also had to have a closing “slow dance” section to incorporate ballad tracks from the Delfonics and the country-tinged soul of the Pointer Sisters doing Bruce Springsteen, but okay, I’ll let it go because this is a CD which gets the memories flowing and brings me a lot of pleasure.  True, some of that pleasure might be guilty as the majority of the tracks are from the more poppy side of dance than those that appear on the “Disco Classics”, “Chilled Disco” and “Funk Soul Anthems” sets with its mix of American tracks, Eurodisco and British pop soul.  There are three UK number 1s and 1 US chart-topper and 13 out of the 20 tracks performed better in the UK and Europe than they did in the USA.

 With these essential compilation CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD 1

1.Native New Yorker – Odyssey (1977) (UK#5, US#21)

What a track to open with, important enough to give the whole compilation its name and one of my all time favourites.  Odyssey’s later UK chart-topper featured on “Funk Soul Anthems” but this is their debut hit which was their only success in the US.  It’s a beautifully performed song by the Lopez sisters with Tony Reynolds which drips with sophistication and a classy glamour which makes it stand out as a song compared to so much repetitive disco. It sounds like something from the Great American Songbook (it for me is reminiscent of the Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan” as made famous by Ella Fitzgerald).  The writers of this 70’s gem are Sandy Linzer and Denny Randall who wrote it as a track for a Frankie Valli solo album.  These two had been responsible for some classy pop songs prior to this such as “A Lover’s Concerto”, “Opus 17” and “Working My Way Back To You” for the Four Seasons .  Linzer  has made a previous significant appearance on my Essential CD listings for his production work on the innovative first album from “Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” one of the great disco albums of all time.  Esther Phillips also did a great version of this song but this is definitely the definitive version.

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2. Yes Sir I Can Boogie – Baccara (1977) (UK#1)

The ultimate guilty pleasure?  This surprise UK chart-topper still delights me every time I hear it. I’m not sure whether it’s the Eurodisco production with its out-of-place heavy-breathing intro giving it a touch of the Donna Summers, the English as a second language phrasing, the “boogie-voogie” or the song which turns back in on itself and contains lines such as “I  already told you in the first verse/ and in the chorus”.  Spanish female duo Baccara were certainly one of a kind.  I saw them perform at “G-A-Y” in the 1990s and they still had the audience eating out of the palm of their hands by swirling scarves as they eased through their repertoire which also contained their equally bizarrely lyrics of “Sorry I’m A Lady” and their 1978 Eurovision entry “Parlez Vous  Francais (strangely enough representing Luxembourg) where they were robbed finishing in a lowly 7th  place losing to Israel’s nonsensical “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” which lyrically made the Baccara song seem more like Bacharach.  Sophie Ellis-Bextor had a go at making this song her own but that just isn’t possible it just has to be Mayte Mateos and Maria Mendiola in their quizzical Spanglish.

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3. Disco Nights (Rock Freak) – G.Q (1979) (UK#42, US#12)

4. Ms. Grace – Tymes (1974) (UK#1)

5. Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1978) (UK#39, US#9)

6. Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely – The Main Ingredient (1974) (UK#27, US#10)

7. Sunny- Boney M (1977) (UK#3)

Euro-disco’s biggest stars actually heralded from the West Indies but with this their second UK hit cemented their association with Germany’s Frank Farian on what is head and shoulders their best track.  The song is a cover version of a 1966 hit by Bobby Hebb, having much of its warmth stripped out to produce an almost icy slab of Munich  disco-funk.  It’s a near-perfect reconstruction of a song.  That said, I’m not sure what we are listening to here because the vocal arrangement sounds a tad different from my old 7 inch single.  I’m wondering whether it is a different mix or the album version.  I’m pretty sure its not a re-recording (a peril of the budget CD) as I’m sure this would have been highlighted in the info.  It’s in no way bad, just ever so slightly different and if I hadn’t listened to this song so many times over the years I probably would never have noticed.  What I have noticed also, however, is that this song is given the wrong title on the inner sleeve of the CD.  Doesn’t anybody proof read these things before they are printed?

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8. I Can’t Stand The Rain – Eruption (1978) (UK#5)

9. Jack And Jill – Raydio (1978) (UK#11, US#8)

The late 70’s group Raydio could not for long contain Ray Parker Jnr who for a time in the next decade looked like he could be one of the biggest solo acts.  A gifted guitarist, vocalist, song writer and producer with a great pop sensibility, Parker’s career was both made by his theme song to the movie “Ghostbusters” and hampered by it, as the spectre of the term “novelty artist” hung over him.  He was no novelty he just had an excellent sense of what was commercial.  This was evident on his debut hit which is one of two nursery themed tunes on this album, but this tale of the couple who went up the hill is nowhere as twee as the Moments’ “Jack In The Box” which appears later.  In fact, nursery rhyme referencing was not as out of place as it may seem in 70’s R&B, think The Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head” and even Earth Wind and Fire did it on “Saturday Night” . This is a good piece of pop-flavoured mid-tempo funk made memorable by the echoing vocals of the names of the two main characters.  I’ve always had a soft spot for both this and their UK hit follow-up “Is This A Love Thing?”  Back in 1978 I won a copy of “Jack And Jill” in a competition in “Blues And Soul” magazine which for someone who relied on saving up pocket money for music purchases was quite a big thing!

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10. Givin’ Up Givin’ In – Three Degrees (1978) (UK#12)

11. Rock The Boat – Hues Corporation (1974) (UK#6, US#1)

12. La La Means I Love You – Delfonics (1971) (UK#19, US#4)

13. There Goes My First Love – Drifters (1973) (UK#3)

14. Blockbuster – Sweet (1973) (UK#1)

15. It’s In His Kiss – Linda Lewis (1975) (UK#6)

I can’t miss an opportunity to herald this singer, not until she is recognised as one of the great British female artists.  A singer who may have been too versatile for her own good is here on her biggest hit which like its follow-up “Baby I’m Yours” which I highlighted on the “After The Dance” CD is a cover version of 60’s girl pop.  (I was young enough not to know this when this first came out). Here the pace is ramped up to fever pitch and it sounds like Linda has had a blast of helium before letting rip into this song which is just brilliant in giving the innocence of girl-group pop a 70’s glam makeover.  Notes are hit that zoom off into the stratosphere.  If you want to hear a vocalist putting 100% into a recording this is a prime example .  It certainly, for me, puts Cher’s 1991 chart-topping version into the shade.  It’s not even Lewis’ best recording.  That would be a stunning version of a song based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” from “The Mikado”, “The Moon and I” which I love so much I had it played at my wedding ensuring there would not be a dry eye in the house!

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16. Fire – Pointer Sisters (1979) (UK#34, US#2)

17. Can’t Get By Without You – The Real Thing (1976) (UK#2)

18. Dancing On A Saturday Night – Barry Blue (1973) (UK#2)

19. Jack In The Box – The Moments (1977) (UK#7)

20. Get Dancin’ – Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes (1974) (UK#8, US#10)

Native New Yorker: Disco Classics is currently available to buy from Amazon in the UK for £14.98 and used from £0.90.

The Murder Bag – Tony Parsons (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I’ve never before read any Tony Parsons (other than journalistic pieces for the New Musical Express and the many other publications he has contributed to over the years). Best known for his “Man and Boy” trilogy of novels, in 2014 his writing took a very different approach when he began his first crime series featuring DC Max Wolfe.

To date there have been six novels (the latest “#Taken” published this year) and three shorter works. I was tempted to start at the beginning by a recent special offer on Amazon Kindle which focuses on first of series (I was obviously in a crime novel mood at the time  and also purchased Craig Russell’s “Lennox” and Don Winslow’s “The Power Of The Dog, neither of which I’ve read yet).

“The Murder Bag” certainly begins with a punch with a prologue set in 1988 which provides the historic framework for the events in what is clearly going to be a revenge novel. This prologue makes for uncomfortable reading and is continued with a high-octane first chapter which is how I imagine a Lee Child novel would read (I haven’t read one) and which also reminded me of the explosive show-piece openings of the BBC TV series “Line Of Duty”. The purpose of all this action is to give Max Wolfe a back story which explains his transfer to the Homicide and Serious Crime Division.

Wolfe is a newcomer in his post and a single parent with a 5 year old daughter Scout and a young King Charles Spaniel he is trying to settle into the family. There’s a lot of dog references in Wolfe’s first-person narrative, this is a man who notices dogs in his everyday life and investigations, they are a central part of his life, which gives him a little individual quirk compared to all the other fictional DCs out there.

When men of the same age meet a violent death with the same M.O a connection is made to their privileged past and after the sheer intensity of the first two sections this settles into a police procedural.

As a crime novel I’m not totally convinced that Parsons on this initial outing has got everything spot on. It feels a little inconsistent. You know with a Peter James what you will be getting and there’s few better at the police procedural novel which, when on his best form,  is so carefully executed that it is totally convincing. I know I’m comparing Parsons with one of the very best but I wasn’t always convinced here and felt that for a first-person narrative that the style wasn’t consistent, which made it unpredictable, true, but also a little jarring. I appreciate that it’s early days for DC Max Wolfe but I feel as a character he does not feel as assured as I would have expected. I know Parsons is trying to show different facets of personality with sentimental scenes involving his daughter and the dog, macho boxing scenes and within his professional life where as a newcomer he is bound to make mistakes but I don’t think all the pieces here come together. It seems as if the author is trying to play to his existing readers as well as those like myself, discovering him primarily as a crime writer and this is causing a slight struggle with style. But I think he will get there and I’m looking forward to reading more to confirm this.

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The Murder Bag was published by Arrow in 2014. I read the Kindle edition.

The Language Of Birds – Jill Dawson (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is not exactly a crime novel, although a murder is very much at its centre and it focuses on a case most readers would have some sense of familiarity with, that of children’s nanny Sandra Rivett killed by absconding aristocrat Lord Lucan in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity (Lucan had intended to kill his estranged wife).

The real life events from 1974 are here turned into fiction with changed names, Dawson’s reasons for this are stated in an Afterword; “The life of a victim is a hard story to tell when there are living descendants (of the Lucan family too) and others who might still be hurt. My solution was to invent new characters whose story you have just read.” I think we as readers will respect the author’s decision here. Since reading this I haven’t gone into what was known about this grubby case other than what Dawson has told us in the Afterword and my vague recollections but she does seem to have followed the framework of events closely.

The narrative switches between a third person retelling and the first-person views of Rosemary, a friend of the doomed nanny. The two meet as voluntary patients in a psychiatric hospital and when a recovered Rosemary finds work as a nanny in London, Mandy follows and finds herself in charge of the two children from the fractured Morven family assisting the fragile and not-coping Lady Katherine who is trying to break free from the enigmatic but charismatic Dickie, wrapped in underhand tactics in a custody case. The two girls waver as to who should get their sympathies.

I think what Jill Dawson does very well here is to get the feel of the mid 1970’s just right not only in its many references but particularly in the attitudes. Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974. There’s a lot of anger in the novel, rightly so, in a case in which time has tended to lionise the disappearing perpetrator. In many ways just as Hallie Rubenhold aimed to reclaim the victims from the hype of Jack The Ripper in her non-fiction work “The Five” Dawson here has managed to move the focus back to the real-life victim Sandra Rivett perhaps even more effectively, especially as the character of Mandy is so vibrant and well-drawn.

There’s an element of imagery going on in the title and on occasions within the text based upon bird communication. At one point it takes the form of auditory hallucinations by swans and pigeons which caused Rosemary’s mental health episode but I’m not sure that this fits into the feel of the novel or understand why it is there. The relevance of this and of the title of the novel has passed me by.  It is not what I will remember this book for which is the great feel for the period, strong characterisation and the build up of dread as to how what we know is inevitable will pan out and the ramifications for those caught up in the grisly events.

fourstars

The Language Of Birds was published in hardback by Sceptre in April 2019.

Brassic (Sky 1 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

 

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I rarely watch Sky 1. There was a point sometime this year when I realised I was never going to get round to watching the almost 30 episodes of the series-recorded now past-its-prime reboot of “Hawaii 5-0” that I had stacked up in my Sky Planner and deleted them. The only things that have tempted me over to Sky 1 in recent years (apart from the one episode of “Jamestown” I watched) has been comedy, specifically the early series of the supermarket set “Trollied” and the one series of under-rated football club comedy “Rovers”.

In the last half decade or so I feel that television and film comedy and me have moved further apart. I’m far more likely to laugh out loud at “Coronation Street”, “Gogglebox” (and strangely I’m finding Season 2 of “Dynasty” on Netflix funny and not just because of the ludicrous plot-lines but because of sharp script and assured performances) than at most productions designed specifically for laughs. I’ve tried quite a few series (and not fancied watching considerably more) which really haven’t done it for me. I struggle with the comedy of embarrassment, the self-deprecating bitter edge of comedies such as the critically acclaimed “Fleabag” leave me cold.

Maybe the tide is turning again. There was real warmth and genuine laughs in Channel 4’s “Derry Girls” and it could very well be that Sky 1 have come up trumps with “Brassic”.

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On first glance it looks like a programme for those who miss “Shameless” (like me), a sweary, raucous tale of scoundrels living on the edge and finding crime an alternative option to getting by but this time with Michelle Keegan in it. Written and executively produced by lead actor Joe Gilgun who those with long memories may recall as a child actor in “Coronation Street” when he played 10 year old Jamie Armstrong but adult credits include a stint as a Dingle on “Emmerdale”, “Misfits” and “This Is England”. Whilst working on the movie “Pride” (excellent) Gilgun would regale big name co-star Dominic West with tales of growing up in Lancashire and was told by West that if he ever wrote it and filmed it he would appear in it and West is as good as his word and appears here, relishing every moment of screen time as an indifferent doctor.

 

Joe Gilgun and with Dominic West

Gilgun plays Vinnie, who lives in a shack in the woods, is bipolar (like Gilgun himself) and finds himself dragged into situations with his hapless group of friends including Damien Moloney as cardsharp Dylan and Michelle Keegan as Dylan’s girlfriend Erin determined to make life better for her young son; sex dungeon entrepreneur Tommo (Ryan Sampson) and inept junk food obsessive Cardi (Tom Hanson) who is usually in the frame when grand schemes go wrong. And they do. Two episodes in and there’s been attempts to kidnap a Shetland pony and an incident in the sewers with a fatberg that have caused prolonged laughter in our house. Comedy needs more than situations to be memorable and these first two episodes have built up character to an extent that this should go the distance and is a real breath of fresh air in Sky’s schedules.

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Joe Gilgun, Michelle Keegan and Damien Moloney

But talking about schedules….I’m not a fan of this getting a series over as soon as possible. Isn’t anticipation a great aspect of television watching? Surely we can all recall what it feels like to to realise during a day that a show we love is on that evening. That anticipation for me is what makes a 5 star show -something I’m really looking forward to seeing. Sky 1’s approach was to start off with two hour long episodes back to back and dump the rest of the series onto On Demand as soon as the first two were aired. For me, and I know I’m out of step here with my views on how we all now watch TV, this is not treating this with the respect it deserves. Some people will have already watched the whole series whereas I see good TV as something to be savoured. However you watch it I think you probably should make the effort (perhaps not if swearing offends). It is going to be the making of Joe Gilgun, both for his character Vinnie, for his script work in conjunction with Danny Brocklehurst (“Shameless”, “Clocking Off”) and in putting together this new series as an obvious labour of love which has attracted such a vibrant and talented cast and which has high entertainment value and so much potential for the future.

fourstars (although I suspect after a few more episodes this score could go up)

Brassic is shown on Thursday nights at 10.00 on Sky 1. The whole series is available from Sky On-Demand.

The Art Of Dying – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Ambrose Parry’s “The Way Of All Flesh” was one of my crime novel highlights of 2018. I found its Victorian Edinburgh setting refreshing and the combination of an unpredictable crime set-up and a seamlessly incorporated history of medicine at the time was extremely effective. Two strong lead characters also helped, implying a lot of potential for this series.

This was Ambrose Parry’s debut novel but writing under that name is highly established crime writer Chris Brookmyre in collaboration with his anaesthesia expert wife Marisa Haetzman. This follow-up moves things on around a year with Dr Will Raven coming to the end of a tour of Europe and a violent incident in an alleyway before returning him back to the more familiar ground of Edinburgh where he has accepted the job of being his mentor Dr Simpson’s assistant. Here, he meets up again with another of Simpson’s employees, Sarah, but this time her circumstances have changed and it seems the authors are committed to keeping this couple who seem destined for one another apart.

The character of Simpson is based upon a real-life doctor noted for his discoveries with chloroform, which featured largely in the first book. Here, there is still experimentation with its usage, at one point it is served up as an alcoholic beverage but medically, anaesthetics have become more established and the issue now seems to be how to keep a patient alive after work has been done on them internally. Infection is the new priority.

The crime aspect comes via a woman not so keen on keeping the patients she is nursing alive and her narrative is interspersed throughout the text. I felt initially that the crime was taking a back seat compared to the medical history side of things but this is just Parry setting things up very nicely for us. Once again there were unpredictable twists and the novel builds just the way I always hope a crime novel will do.

Once again this is good quality fiction which is very readable, characters are developed (although Dr Simpson himself is more in the background) and I really want to know what is next for Will and Sarah. This series, in the space of two novels has established itself very well indeed.

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The Art of Dying is published in hardback by Canongate on 29th August 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 28- Funk Soul Anthems

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Funk Soul Anthems (Sony/BMG 2005)

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To be honest, this 44 track 2005 double CD set from the mighty Sony/BMG conglomerate is sloppily put together with errors in spelling, partial song titles, no sleeve notes, incorrect running order and one track which appears which is not even listed on the back cover. I’m not sure if they got round to putting it right on later pressings but I think it might have been the reason why I picked this up cheaply not long after its first issue and when it comes down to it it’s what in the grooves that count and here things are very impressive indeed with some real funk and soul classics. Most of the tracks date from the 80’s, five of the mainly earlier tracks do overlap with another of my essential recommendations “Disco Classics” but there’s plenty here which still sounds fresh 30+ years on. Spanning from 1972 to 1986 it contains four US chart-toppers, an impressive 25 UK Top 10 singles as well as some which have become funk/soul standards without breaking through commercially at the time.
With these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.
Track Listings

CD 1

1.One Nation Under A Groove – Funkadelic (1978) (UK#9, US#28)
“So high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it” is one of the many hooks in this sole hit from George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Clinton’s main group was Parliament, which went from being soul/doowop journeymen The Parliaments and by dropping that  “S” became the prime exponents of 1970’s space-age funk. They produced some great tracks (and some bonkers ones too) and were apparently incredible memorable live. There were US successes but over here they did not make the commercial breakthrough. Clinton was the mastermind behind other acts such as Parlet, The Brides Of Funkenstein and one of his proteges Bootsy Collins is also featured on this CD with a track which has become a funk classic without charting, Funkadelic were a more rock orientated, less commercial outfit than Parliament yet they were the act that made the showing in the UK Top 10 with this track. Albums such as “Maggot Brain”, “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow” and “America Eats Its Young” would not have screamed radio airplay in the 1970’s but this track proved irresistible and was the title track of an album many claim is the best all-time funk album. However, it is no surprise that album track “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo Doo Chasers)” did not follow it to the upper reaches of the pop charts. I always felt that if George Clinton, a maverick if ever there was one was able to rein in slightly the more hallucinogenic, cartoon and scatological elements in his output that Parliament and Funkadelic could have become absolutely massive.

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2. Can You Feel It – The Jacksons (1981) (UK#6)
3. Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976) (UK#9, US#1)

Perhaps the best use of handclaps ever in this song. The introduction made it instantly familiar and it’s no surprise that this debut hit made it to the top of the US pop charts in 1976 and began a great career for Rose Royce (a group, not a person). The title track of a small but charming film ex Motown producer Norman Whitfield proved there was life after The Temptations with his work with this group. I loved also the aching ballads which appeared on the “Carwash” soundtrack “I Wanna Get Next To You” and “I’m Goin’ Down” and although primarily a funk group Rose Royce did become known for their ballads with tracks like “Wishing On A Star” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” but that was because not many funk bands at the time were blessed with a vocalist as pure as Gwen Dickey.

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4. Rockit- Herbie Hancock (1983) (UK#8)
5. Let The Music Play – Shannon (1983) (UK#14, US#8)

“He tried pretending a dance is just a dance but I see/He’s dancing his way back to me”.  Brenda Shannon Greene’s electro track, an early example of what came to be called freestyle,  sounded like a breath of fresh air in 1983 with its sinuating groove and lyrically it’s a cracker of a track.  There’s a really effective personification of love here who is resorted to for advice in a manner which would not have been out of place in a Shakespearean comedy.  Universal themes over a cooking arrangement and a good enough vocal performance looked like Shannon would be here to stay.  This was her only US hit but it did begin a run of three more UK hits in the 80’s which were not a patch on this and she had a revival in the 90’s when DJ’s looked for diva voices to front their tracks and scored chart hits with both Todd Terry and Sash!

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6. I Can Make You Feel Good – Shalamar (1982) (UK#7) – Also on “Disco Classics
7. Word Up – Cameo (1986) (UK#3, US#6)

Cameo had been around some time before they made the commercial breakthrough which had been expected from them.  Larry Blackmon was the codpiece wearing mastermind behind this group which formed in the mid 70’s with 14 members.  Obviously, it was going to prove difficult to pay the bills., there was a lot of coming and going over the years, Wikipedia lists 33 members.  They should have made their big impression with “Find My Way” a great dance track which was included on the 1978 “Thank God It’s Friday” soundtrack.  By 1986 they had shrunk down to a trio and found themselves with UK chart success with “She’s Strange”.  “Word Up” with its spaghetti western funk feel and Blackmon’s snarling vocal performance gave them their first US hit and is probably their best ever track, certainly their most successful.  Bizarrely, in 1999 Mel B covered this song and got to number 14 in the charts without matching the joyfulness in the original’s performance and production.

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8. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life – Indeep (1983) (UK#13)
9. Going Back To My Roots – Odyssey (1981) (UK#4)

In 1981 Odyssey decided to zip up their boots and score their fourth UK Top 10 hit.  This song which was written and originally recorded by Motown legend Lamont Dozier tapped into the fascination in black ancestry triggered by Alex Haley’s book and TV series “Roots” and this combined a thrilling disco track with African chants.  In the US at this time Disco had been officially declared dead which meant that many missed out on great tracks like this.  The trio which consisted of two sisters from the Virgin Islands Lillian and Louise Lopez (Lillian having a great distinct lead voice) and by this time Bill McEachern were one hit wonders in the US (but what a one hit, the sublime “Native New Yorker) but we certainly took to them in the UK.  A version of Odyssey still exists today based in the UK and led by the deceased Lillian’s son Steven Collazo and I’m sure this track would still go down a storm.

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10. T.S.O.P – MFSB ft The Three Degrees (1974) (UK #22, US#1) – Also on “Disco Classics”
11. It’s Just Begun – Jimmy Castor Bunch (1972)
12. Oops Upside Your Head – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#6) – Also on “Disco Classics”
13. Stretchin’ Out (In A Rubber Band) – Bootsy Collins (1976)
14. Walking In Rhythm – Blackbyrds (1975) (UK#20, US#6)
15. Hi, How Ya Doin’ ? – Kenny G ft Kashif (1983)
16. Lowdown – Boz Scaggs (1976) (UK#28, US#3)
17. The Groove Line – Heatwave (1978) (UK#12, US#7)
18. Zoom – Fat Larry’s Band (1982) (UK#2)
19. Let’s Groove – Earth Wind & Fire (1981) (UK#3, US#3)
20. I Found Lovin’- The Fatback Band (1984) (UK#7)
21. Get Down On It – Kool & The Gang (1981) (UK#3, US#10)
22. Theme From “Shaft”- Isaac Hayes (1971) (UK#4, US#1) – Also on “Disco Classics”

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1.Love Train – O’ Jays (1973) (UK#9,US#1)
2. Somebody Else’s Guy- Jocelyn Brown (1984) (UK#13)
3. Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn (1979) (US#12) – Also on “Disco Classics”
4. All Night Long – Mary Jane Girls (1983)(UK#13)
5. Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye (1982) (UK#4, US#3)
6.Give Me The Reason – Luther Vandross (1986) (UK#24)

It always seemed to me that Luther Vandross never really in life or music moved too far out of his comfort zone.  There was a tendency to play it safe unlike the great male R&B singers of the past who were prepared to take risks.  But there was no denying that what Luther did he was amongst the very best at.  He knew the right formula for the big soul ballads, the party jams and the uptempo dance numbers.  He was an acknowledged soul legend before he broke through in any consistent way commercially and it was really his 1986 album from which this was the title track which pushed him into the superstar bracket.  This was the track the Epic label did not want to give up on and it was issued three times before it made #24 in the UK.  There were bigger hits from this album but I’ve always had a fondness for this song.  My ultimate favourite of his tracks is from his time as lead vocalist for the group Change with a song which was lyrically and musically edgier than much of his material “Searching”  but it is always good to hear this one.

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7. Hold Me Tighter In The Rain – Billy Griffin (1983) (UK#17)

Billy came to prominence aged 20 when he took over lead vocals after Smokey Robinson left The Miracles and was the voice on one of their biggest hits “Love Machine”.  By 1983 he was going it alone and this was his only Top 40 hit.  It’s a great piece of pop disco with a great vocal performance.  Billy struggled to make much headway with his solo career after this, he relocated to the UK and became the first artist to be released on the Motorcity label which began a long-lasting connection with producer and songwriter Ian Levine who was instrumental in bringing ex-Motown stars back into the studio.  Griffin worked with Levine on early hits for The Pasadenas and Bad Boys Inc and was a co-producer on the first album by Take That.

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8. Running Away – Roy Ayers (1977)
9. Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent – Gwen Guthrie (1986) (UK#5)
10. Twilight- Maze (1985)
11.I.O.U- Freeez (1982) (UK#2)
12. Lessons In Love – Level 42 (1986) (UK#3,US#12)
13. Make My Dreams A Reality– GQ (1979)
14. Expansions – Lonnie Liston Smith (1975)
15. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Sylvester (1978) (UK#8,US#36)*

This is the track which is not even listed on the back of the CD and it is always a surprise when Sylvester makes his flamboyant entrance.  US vocalist Sylvester James was probably a decade before his time.  An openly gay, gospel-voiced, high octane diva who was a real one off and this relentless tour-de-force of an electro track was arguably his best and his biggest UK hit.  In the US they preferred the almost equally excellent “Dance (Disco Heat) which was more of an ensemble piece with his back-up duo Two Tons O’Fun who went on to become The Weather Girls.  Sylvester made another couple of visits to the UK Top 40 and was the vocalist of choice for pioneer electro/Hi NRG producer Patrick Cowley.  There hasn’t been a definitive career retrospective of Sylvester’s music which shows his ease as a gospel-drenched disco performer and a great vocal artist on less frenetic material.  He did a great version of the pop standard “I (Who Have Nothing)”

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16.Harvest For The World – Isley Brothers (1976) (UK#10)

Seventeen years after their first hit “Shout” the Isleys were back in the UK Top 10 with this message track which deals with global hunger the title track of their 4th studio album.  This is such a cool track with great vocals and real chunky use of percussion which gives this track a depth.  A higher chart placing was scored by The Christians with their cover version twelve years later but the Isleys’ original is certainly the one to seek out.

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17. Somebody’s Watching Me – Rockwell (1984)(UK#6, US#2)

If you’re the son of Motown supremo Berry Gordy surely chart success would seem inevitable, especially if you sign to your father’s record label.  But how about if you do this without your father even knowing, changing your name from Kenneth to Rockwell.  At least there would be no charges of nepotism there but how are you going to get a hit?  Well, Rockwell’s answer was to enlist Michael Jackson to help out with the vocals on this tale of 80’s paranoia, the lyrics of which seem very appropriate coming out of Jackson’s mouth.  That way you can score a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and much publicity when the ruse is uncovered.  But can you get a long-lasting career out of that? In Rockwell’s answer it was no.  He obviously liked dark themes as his only further Top 40 appearance in his homeland was with the #36 follow-up “Obscene Phone Caller” which I can say I’ve never heard.  This debut was made memorable by Jackson’s contribution as it his hook-lines which stay in the mind.
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18. Solid- Ashford & Simpson (1985) (UK#3, US#12)
19. Mama Used To Say – Junior (1982) (UK#7, US#30)
20. Love Come Down – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1982) (UK#7, US#17)
21. Forget Me Nots – Patrice Rushen (1982) (UK#8, US#23)
22. What A Fool Believes – Aretha Franklin (1980) (UK#46)

The majority of these tracks certainly do deserve the anthemic status given to them by this release.  25 of them were bigger hits in the UK than in the US, which is unusual for an album which features predominantly American artists.  The UK never had that backlash against club music which happened in the US following the much publicised Death of Disco (Peter Shapiro is good on this) but by the early 80’s there were so many great radio-friendly club orientated tracks being produced that the US could no longer ignore its artists who were recording them.  Even British R&B influenced acts like Junior, Heatwave and Level 42 were making waves on the US charts.  This double CD is always a joy to listen to and even within the field of Soul and Funk showed what great variety of sounds was available to the listener.

Funk Soul Anthems is currently available from Amazon in the UK used from £2.72

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (2019) – A Real-Life Review

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Here’s a non-fiction work I highlighted as one of the books I wanted to read in 2019 in January’s “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post. Susan Orleans is a writer for New Yorker magazine and has now published five books on disparate subjects, her most celebrated to date being “The Orchid Thief” about those obsessed with the acquisition of the delicate and often very valuable flowers. Here she turns her attention to the Los Angeles Public Library service and in doing so broadens her scope to explore the worldwide importance of libraries, in the past, present and future.

Her main location is the Los Angeles Central Library which, Orlean discovers early on in her research, suffered a devastating fire in 1986 which destroyed much of the building and over a million books not to mention stacks of non-book materials such as photos and microfilm. Orlean, a keen bibliophile, was astounded that an event of such magnitude passed her by and deviates from her plan to celebrate libraries by exploring this in detail and focusing on the young man believed to have deliberately started the fire. This gives the book an element of true crime running throughout it which alongside the more sedate world of the public library works really quite well.

It’s all interspersed in the text, the current administration of the library, the history of libraries in LA with its cast of very memorable characters and this strange and disturbing case of arson which almost definitely got out of hand within a building which was basically a tinderbox. Throughout is the emphasis on how important libraries are to people, past and present and this all (especially budget-cutting politicians) should take note of. A decade or so ago people worldwide were keen to predict the total demise of libraries in the wake of the e-book but this is no longer so as across the globe things are on the up. What might surprise the British reader is how well funded the American service is compared to the UK. There are more public libraries in the USA than there are branches of McDonalds (I wonder if the same applies over here where so many have been closed due to budgetary restrictions) and there are double the number of libraries to retail bookshops. These are just two of the facts I learnt from this book.

All of this celebratory pot-pourri is introduced within short chapters by lists of relevant books titles and their Dewey references which I initially felt gimmicky from a gifted writer but actually won me over as a nice touch which gives some idea where the author is going in each section. The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work. And as I am employed within public libraries I couldn’t agree more with the author as to their continued importance in the 21st Century.

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The Library Book was published as a hardback by Atlantic Books in 2019.

Incendiary – Chris Cleave (2005)

 

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When I read Chris Cleave’s 4th novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” (#5 on my Books Of The Year 2017 and one of my 100 Essential Reads) I said “I can tell that this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way” and it has taken me this long to find out whether this is true as I have just read his debut novel. Back in 2005 he was being heralded as a major new voice as this picked up a Somerset Maugham Award for writers under 30.

I’m not surprised this made an impression as it certainly feels original and I can say I’ve not really read anything like it before. The whole thing is written as a letter in a chatty, self-deprecating style from a young mum which would certainly not be out of place in a chick-lit novel. The narrator (whose name we never know) is a highly memorable vibrant character, but, here’s the twist, the letter is being written to Osama Bin Laden and the woman has lost her policeman husband and four year old son in a terrorist attack.

Immediately there is a tension between the style and the content which adds much to the power of the piece. The fictional atrocity obviously both changes the woman’s life and everyday life in London as barrage balloons take to the skies and curfews are set up. Written over a year she addresses this to Bin Laden in order to get the victim’s point across in an extraordinary fashion that manages to be chilling and at times laugh out loud funny. Within this Cleave has much to say about guilt, class, our society and treachery. Unsurprisingly, the humour is very often black and the novel does take on an increasingly nightmarish quality which inevitably bubbles over to another situation fuelled by fear and panic. At this point I did feel temporarily distanced by the action but the author did draw me back in to an extent for the concluding section.

I was impressed with this easy style to express such darkness and at times felt guilty about how much I was enjoying it. The dark subject matter does lead to a disturbed, unsettled feel. You never quite know in what direction the narrator will pull the story. “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is a much more straightforward work with an excellent creation of wartime London based on the author’s personal history and has great richness and depth in plot, style and characterisation showing how the writer matured over the years between that and this but there is no denying the power and audacity of Cleave’s debut.

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Incendiary was published by Chatto and Windus in 2005. In the UK its publication date was 7th July, disturbingly and coincidentally the same day as the London bombings which killed 52 and injured over 700 which certainly would have affected responses to this book from those who came to it soon after publication.  I read a 2009 Sceptre paperback edition.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2019)

 

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Here’s a book I’ve been looking forward to. I highlighted it as one of my must-reads for 2019 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post in January. At that point August seemed a long time away but here it is and I have managed to get my hands on an advance copy.

Last time around Colson Whitehead ended up as #3 in my 2017 Books Of The Year list with the very impressive “The Underground Railroad” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the US and was a big seller over here. I said at the time “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read”. This is why expectations were so high for this.

“The Nickel Boys” focuses on a boys’ reform school, The Nickel Academy, which the author based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.

“The Underground Railroad” focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements. As I was reading it, however, I was expecting it to which did affect the way I approached this novel. I was a little wary in case Colson Whitehead took it off into another direction and left me behind.

It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. The ridiculousness of such viewpoints can be seen here in the character of Jaimie, a mixed-race Mexican boy who “ping pongs” between the two sections of the school. As soon as he becomes tanned by working outside in the sun he is sent to the “coloured” half until he is deemed too light-skinned to be there and sent back. Most of the examples of prejudice are, however, far more chilling than this.

In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.

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The Nickel Boys was published on August 1 2019 by Fleet. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.