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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Tribute to Ian McKay

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On a comment on my last post I was informed of the passing of author Ian McKay on Sunday 7th July following a battle with lymphatic cancer.  Back in 2015 I reviewed Ian’s debut comic novel “Something Fishy” and he agreed to be interviewed as part of my Author Strikes Back Thread.  This established a connection with Ian’s wife Monika who has since then been one of the main contributors of comments to this site and has initiated many discussions here over the past four years.  My thoughts are with her and with Ian’s family and friends at this sad time.  As way of a tribute I thought I would repost the interview which first appeared here in August 2015.

The Author Strikes Back – Ian McKay Interview

I am absolutely delighted to welcome Ian Mckay to take part in the third interview in my Author Strikes Back category.   Ian has recently published “Something Fishy” – a comic novel centred around a fishing trip and I am very grateful that he has found time to respond to my questions.

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It has taken you quite a time to put out your debut novel.  How did this come about? 

I suppose that the best way to answer your first question would be to say that I’ve been so busy ‘living an  eventful life’ that I haven’t really had much time to sit down and devote the time I needed to actually write my first book.  So, as you can imagine, apart from a few sporadic forays into the worlds of short stories and poetry writing, the economics of paying the bills and putting food on the table for a wife and four children: plus the emotional trauma of an acrimonious divorce 22 years later, left me with very little time to pursue my passion for writing. For anyone who cares to know a little more on the reason why I didn’t publish  my first novel until the age of 76, the ‘About Me’ page on my web site, http://Ian-McKay.com will tell you more.

Ian is certainly an inspiration for all of us who have put the writing on the back burner and is proof that it’s never too late to realise your dreams .

Your Disclaimer at the front of the book states it is based on “some true events”.  Without giving too much away could you reveal one of those true events for us?

In my disclaimer I did, indeed, say parts of my book were based on ‘Some true events’, one of which was the incident that happened on the charter fishing boat. When, much to the amusement of the other fishermen, the character ‘Mara’, sneezed and his false teeth shot out over the side of the boat and into the sea. 

One of the other anglers, who also wore false teeth, covertly took out his     dentures and tied them to the end of his fishing line, to fool Mara into thinking that he had ‘caught’ the set of dentures that Mara had sneezed out over the side. What he hadn’t counted on was that, when Mara popped the dentures into his mouth; and, realised that they didn’t fit, that he would take them out and throw them over the side, back into the sea.  

  The subsequent discovery of the teeth inside a large cod was pure invention on my part; and, believe it or not, the episode, back in Liverpool, when they ‘took Charlie Abbott home’ did also actually happen, however, to protect the guilty, I can’t say any more about that!

What books have made you laugh?

The books that have made me laugh are those written by Tom Sharpe, such as ‘Porterhouse Blue’; and, in particular, the ‘Wilt’ series, absolutely hilarious!

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Who are your comedy heroes?

My comedy heroes are many; however, if I had to make a choice, it would have to be the inspired ensemble of the whole cast of ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

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I think that the writer of the series; who, sadly, died of viral pneumonia in 2011, was a comic genius.   Most people will remember the names of the main characters Del-Boy & Rodney, but how many remember the name of the man, without whom the series would never have been born, John Sullivan, the man who wrote ’Only Fools and Horses’?

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I also have been found, on occasions, collapsed in a heap, laughing at the ‘Allo Allo’ series, a brilliant comedy set during the second world war, in Nazi occupied France; incongruously brilliant.

What’s next for Ian McKay?

Well, as my M A degree is in writing for film and television, I have one or two comedy film scripts to my name that I intend to re-format into books: and, as a point of interest, ‘Something Fishy’ started its life as a feature length comedy film script too.

Paradoxically, I am also writing a factual series called ‘The Nazis’, which covers the period from the end of the 1st World War up until the Nuremburg war crimes trials. The first two books are titled as, ‘From The Kaiser to Weimar’ and ‘From Weimar to Hitler’. The third book in the series, ‘Hitler’s First Year’ is still a work in progress.

I would like to thank Ian for providing me with a copy of “Something Fishy” and for answering my questions and I’d like to remind you that this comic novel is available from Amazon both as a paperback and as a Kindle edition by following this direct link. Ian’s non-fiction titles mentioned above are also available from Amazon or by following the link from his website http://Ian-McKay.com

Buy “Something Fishy” from Amazon.co.uk

My original review of “Something Fishy” can be found here

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape 2019) – A Rainbow Read

 

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Thirty-one year old Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-born poet who moved to Connecticut with his extended family whilst still a toddler. Dyslexic, gay and agoraphobic his first collection of poems which explored some of these areas together with his experience of being from a background influenced by traumatic experiences was entitled “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” and achieved huge critical acclaim including the TS Eliot Prize in 2017.

Vuong has decided to follow this up with an autobiographical novel focusing on his childhood which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.

Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son it is with the grandmother and grandson where the heart of this novel really lies.

The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and  herding buffalos plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.

This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape in June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (2018)

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It’s been a long wait.  13 years since the publication of one of my all-time favourite novels “The Book Thief” Australian author Markus Zusak is back.  For a writer of an acknowledged modern classic this book snuck out last year and has recently appeared in paperback.  This relative lack of fanfare and the time between the two novels made me a little anxious but when I saw a copy on the library shelves I knew I just had to rejig my reading schedule to fit it in.

 This is actually Zusak’s 6th novel, those before his major breakthrough being aimed at the young adult market, one of which “I Am The Messenger” (2002) has been sitting on my shelves unread for some time but I have not dared to read it in case my admiration for this author is any way diminished.  In fact both “The Book Thief” and this latest novel could be seen as being appropriate for young adults but both demand a wider audience.

 There are elements of the predecessor in “Bridge Of Clay”, especially in the narrative style.  Here, Matthew Dunbar slowly weaves the tale of his family, jumping backwards and forwards in time, half-revealing events that are explored fully later in much the same way as Death does when he narrates “The Book Thief”.  Here, however, the stakes are not so high, the plot is a family tale without the huge issues that makes “The Book Thief” such an important read.  Books are once again important, a well-thumbed biography of Michelangelo spans the generations and there’s a lot of running which reminded me of Rudy and his Jesse Owens obsession.

 Matthew narrates the story of his parents and his four brothers but especially Clay, a gifted runner who is attracted to his neighbour Carey, an apprentice jockey, and who is torn by the loss of both of his parents and determined to build bridges in every sense when a face from the past shows up.  To start with it does feel all over the place, as did “The Book Thief” (I always advise the many people I have recommended the book to not to stick with it until they are used the narrative conceit) as initially some of the events are hard to follow but it all makes sense as we are drip-fed the story of the Dunbars.

 Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.  Like “The Book Thief” which improves with each re-read I think the events that washed over me on first reading will have a much deeper significance on a revisit.  This is one of those books that when you finish you will be tempted to start all over again.  I’ve got to hand my library copy back but I will be purchasing this so I can read it again.  True, thematically, it is all on a much smaller scale than “The Book Thief” and lacks the power and perhaps some of the lasting resonance of that work but it is high-quality fiction which did everything to me that a very good book should.  After over a decade of waiting my expectations were shaky but really I couldn’t have asked for more from this book.

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 Bridge Of Clay was published by Doubleday in 2018.  I read the 2019 Black Swan paperback edition.

100 Essential CDs – Number 73- Disco Classics

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Disco Classics  (Sony 2005)

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Now, you’ve seen what has come before so it can be no surprise that there is going to be more than a little smattering of disco compilations in my Essential CD List.  The uplift I get from listening to disco music hasn’t dampened any since these tracks featured in the charts.  I’ve gone here for a double CD 34 tracker which has a mixture of the obvious and expected to the more unusual which makes it a great choice as far as I am concerned.  It’s a pretty broad collection featuring four UK and 6 US chart-toppers and chronologically spans from well before the disco era with 1968 uptempo funk by the pioneering Sly & The Family Stone to a Megamix of Earth Wind and Fire’s greatest which dated from 1989 and features a whistle-stop tour through “September”, “Let’s Groove”, “Rock That”, and a twice-featured “Boogie Wonderland” with as much conviction as a late 80’s megamix could have.  Mid 80’s sophisticated uptempo groove “Midas Touch” is hardly disco but would work well in a club setting and The Buggles UK chart-topper is an odd way to round off the selection but there are enough tracks here that fulfil the brief very nicely and can be considered “disco classics”.  This CD was released in Germany and has the look of a Hed Kandi compilation which would have been popular at the time.  I have no idea how I acquired  it but it has been played regularly since I did so.  On Amazon some reviewers have attacked this for being “live re-recordings” but it’s not, it’s the original tracks.

 Once again 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

 CD1

 1.No Doubt About It – Hot Chocolate (1980) (UK#2)

 Throughout the 70’s it seemed like the voice of Errol Brown was always on the radio notching up a string of UK hits.  The RAK label they recorded on wasn’t the coolest around but was one of the most successful UK labels with Mud, Suzi Quatro, Kenny and Smokie all doing very well for label owner Mickie Most.  As a result Hot Chocolate were seen as a more pop band than they actually were and perhaps were not always given the credit they deserved.  1975 hit “Emma” was an anguished soul track about a suicide, “You Sexy Thing” gave them a Top 3 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1975 at the midst of Disco Fever, but best of all is this 1980 track which became their 18th Top 40 hit in 1980 which dealt with UFOs and had a great singalong chorus.

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2. Let The Music Play – Barry White (1975)  (UK#5, US#32)

3. Rock Your Baby – George McCrae (1974) (UK#1, US#1) 

And this arguably, was where the Disco Era began during the summer of 1974 when debut hitmaker George McCrae topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.  It’s rather sparse, almost minimalistic compared to what would come after but it introduced the shuffling Miami sound which would go on to feature in many more hits.  McCrae himself, blessed with a thrilling falsetto only had one more US Top 40 hit but we rather took to him in the UK giving him another 6 Top 40 hits over the next couple of years, my favourite of which “It’s Been So Long” made it to number 4.  George also featured his voice to great effect in 1974 in the debut hit “Queen Of Clubs” the first hit for label-mates KC & The Sunshine Band (who also features on this CD with their late in the day 1983 UK#1) who wrote and produce George’s chart-topper and who themselves would go on to have a more successful career than George.  Now aged 74, George is still going strong and in good voice.  And all this happened because his then wife, Gwen, who “Rock Your Baby” was written for was late for the recording session!

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4. Boogie Wonderland –Earth Wind & Fire with The Emotions (1979) (UK#4,US#6)

5. Pick Up The Pieces – Average White Band (1975) (UK#6, US#1)

6. Play That Funky Music – Wild Cherry (1976) (UK#7, US#1)

7. Vertigo/Relight My Fire – Dan Hartman & Loleatta Holloway (1978)

 One of the few tracks on the album that was not a hit although a cover version in 1993 topped the chart for Take That and Lulu.  This is a real epic of a track presented here, thankfully, in its 9 minute version with it’s brilliant orchestral build-up “Vertigo” into Dan’s light voice singing “Relight My Fire” then bam! it’s only Loleatta Holloway tearing into the track.  Nine minutes and not a second feels wasted (hard to say that about a lot of extended disco tracks).  Dan is also on this compilation with his better known but not as good “Instant Replay”, which with his mammoth “Countdown/This Is It” represented three classic disco tracks.  As a song-writer he penned one of James Browns’ biggest hits “Living In America” and for Loleatta, who features here, “Love Sensation” which became the blueprint for one of the biggest tracks of the 80s, “Ride On Time”.

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8.Last Train To London – Electric Light Orchestra (1979) (UK#8, US#39)

This is a track that I didn’t especially appreciate at the time.  I did quite like ELO, especially “Mr Blue Sky” and “The Diary Of Horace Wimp” which seemed to be pointing back to the 1960’s.  This, however, saw them embracing disco and at the time it felt a little like bandwagon-jumping.  However, the passing of the decades has been very good to this and it sounds like the creative tour-de-force that it is.  There’s a sense of urgency about this last train which is very appealing. 

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9. T.S.O.P (The Sound Of Philadelphia)– MFSB ft The Three Degrees (1974) (UK#22,US#1)

10. Boogie Nights- Heatwave (1977) (UK#2, US#2)

11. Blame It On The Boogie – Jacksons (1978) (UK#8)

12. Midas Touch – Midnight Star (1986) (UK#8)

13. I Can Make You Feel Good – Shalamar (1982) (UK#7)

14. Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn (1979) (US#12)

 Truly a disco classic and I knew it was back in 1979 when it was one of the first twelve-inch singles that I purchased.  It feels like an Earth Wind and Fire/Emotions track with its spiky touches.  This is another track which has stood the test of time, kicks off with a great intro and never lets up.  Cheryl puts in a great vocal here but she was actually an exceptional vocalist with a huge range as tracks like “Star Love”, which became a follow-up single and “Come In From The Rain” from the debut album attested.  In later years the material was not as strong and she faded from view without reaching the Top 40 again. 

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15. Give It Up – KC & The Sunshine Band (1983) (UK#1, US#18)

16. Theme From “Shaft”- Isaac Hayes (1971) (UK#4, US#1)

 

CD2

 1.I Feel Love – Donna Summer (1977) (UK#1, US#6)

2. Nights (Feel Like Getting’ Down) – Billy Ocean (1981)

3. Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel –Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#15)

 The five piece Tavares brothers are up there with the all-time great family groups as far as I am concerned.  They had been making inroads in the US singles chart for three years before this grandiose slab of pop disco including a US Top 10 placing for “It Only Takes A Minute” (later covered by Take That in the UK).  On single release it was split into two parts but the full album version is what is on offer here and it is great.  The lyrics may be cheesy  (but not as cheesy as they would get with “Whodunnit”) but it’s all done with such conviction from producer Freddie Perren that it turns out a gem.  Also on their album “Sky High” produced by Perren was the almost as good “Don’t Take Away The Music”.  The Tavares’ association with disco was permanently cemented by the inclusion of the Bee Gees’ song “More Than A Woman” on “Saturday Night Fever” but their music encompassed slick R&B and commercial soul music. A remixed version by Ben Liebrand took this song back to the UK charts in 1985 when it reached number 12.  

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4. Dance To The Music – Sly & The Family Stone (1968) (UK#7, US#8)

5. Best Of My Love – The Emotions (1977) (UK#4, US#1)

6. Instant Replay – Dan Hartman (1978) (UK#8, US#29)

7. Oops Upside Your Head – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#6)

8. Lady Marmalade – Labelle (1975) (UK#17, US#1)*

In 1975 futuristic space-age funk hit the mainstream.  True it was more in the visuals and image than the sound as girl group Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles made the transition on the advice of Dusty Springfield’s manager Vicki Wickham to don elaborate costumes using what looks now like vast amounts of tin foil.  The music was a kind of dirty gospel with the girls giving absolutely everything (sometimes too much!).  It worked best of all on this tale of a New Orleans prostitute encouraging men to abandon “their grey flannel life” with the song’s hook “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi”.  How our knowledge of French improved overnight in 1975!  The US were impressed as it topped the charts, as it did in Canada and the Netherlands.  The song, written by Bob Crewe (best known for his work with The Four Seasons) and Kenny Nolan has been covered many times, including a version in 2001 from “The Moulin Rogue” Soundtrack which wasn’t a patch on the original but topped both the US and UK charts for Christina Aguliera, Lil Kim, Mya and Pink.

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9. I’m On Fire – 5000 Volts (1975) (UK#4, US#26) *

 Sounding like Los Bravos’ “Black Is Black” this introduced us to the (uncredited) voice of Tina Charles, who would become one of the leading lights of the British Disco Scene with her worldwide hit and UK#1 “I Love To Love”.  Here, she was a session singer brought in to front the track whilst another girl Luan Peters was used promotionally.  Tina’s vocal is appropriately blistering and it unsurprisingly became a UK Top 5 hit and made the US Top 30.  The success of this probably led to the more explicit discofication of “Black Is Black” by French girl group La Belle Epoque which became a huge European hit in 1977 (and a UK#2) and French disco legend Cerrone including a version on his 1976 debut album.  5000 Volts carried on without Tina Charles and scored another very worthwhile hit with the slightly menacing disco track “Dr Kiss Kiss”.

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10. Can You Feel The Force – The Real Thing (1979) (UK#5)

11. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Santa Esmeralda (1977) (UK#41, US#15)

12. One For You One For Me – La Bionda (1979)

13. Megamix – Earth Wind & Fire (1989)

14. Queen Of Chinatown – Amanda Lear (1977) 

 You couldn’t make Amanda Lear up.  Statuesque blonde model of questionable age and heritage (Wikipedia places her date of birth as sometime between 1939 and 1950!), muse to Salvador Dali, girlfriend of Brian Ferry which led to her appearance on iconic Roxy Music album covers.  She ditched Ferry for David Bowie whilst rumours of her emerged that she was a vampire from Transylvania and actually a man called Alain Tap.  She posed naked in “Playboy” to dispel such stories and launched a pop career with her drawling Marlene Dietrich style vocals.  Sounds like a fame-hungry flash-in-the-pan right?  Well, her singing was an acquired taste but Europe lapped it up and to date there have been 27 albums, the last released in 2016, with her not altering her style a great deal.  No Madonna like reinvention for her- she had all the reinvention one could need at the beginning of her career.  Amanda Lear has just drawled her way sales of over 27 million.  Still a big star of European television, in the US and UK we might just wonder why.  A real-one off, in the way that Grace Jones is a one-off who lit up the discos and gossip columns.  Lear’s most critically acclaimed recording was the album “Sweet Revenge” from 1978 which Jussi Kantonen and Alan Jones in their survey of disco “Saturday Night Forever” (1999) describe as “a Faustian fable enlivened by one of the most fabulous orchestral disco productions the entire era had to offer.”  I personally have always preferred her vampire tale “Blood and Honey”.  The track here is some nonsense about a woman running an opium den which was a very big hit in Germany and like all of Amanda Lear tracks need to be heard to be believed.

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15. Love Really Hurts Without You – Billy Ocean (1976) (UK#2, US#22)

 A hugely likeable slab of pop soul which launched Billy’s career becoming his debut hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  There were a run of similar tracks including my favourite of all of his songs “Red Light Spells Danger” and then a commercially lean period of some seven years (the other Ocean track on this CD is from this era and is fairly forgettable) before hitting big and re-emerging as one of the biggest stars of the mid 80’s off the back of his Grammy award winning “Caribbean Queen”.  This track will always be a huge crowd-pleaser every time Ocean performs live.

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16. Video Killed The Radio Star – Buggles (1979) (UK#1, US#40)

Disco Classics is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £9.97 and used from £3.98.  Make sure that it is this version you are purchasing as some reviewers seem confused and seem to be reviewing a different CD.  Most of these tracks can be found on  other disco compilations.

Ten Second Staircase – Christopher Fowler (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Christopher Fowler is the clear leader on my most read authors list. Since first discovering what is still my favourite of his books, the Faustian “Spanky” as a new publication in 1994 I have now read 16 of his works. He is strongest with horror novels with dark comic undertones, both “Soho Black” and “Calabash” have impressed me and last year I was inspired by his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” to make a reading list from which I’ve sampled so far Patrick Dennis, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin and Barbara Pym.

Since 2003 Christopher Fowler has really established himself with a crime series featuring elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May from The Peculiar Crimes Unit. I have read now four of the to-date 18. This is obviously a very successful enterprise for him – I have still to be convinced.

In a number of ways these novels strengths are also their weaknesses. This is written with a playful quirkiness which when it works well explores the puzzle-solving aspect of the crime novel making the author’s role in manipulating and misleading readers more explicit but there is a danger this can make the book seem gimmicky. There’s also an odd use of time which I find disorientating. Nobody knows how old Bryant and May really are but judging from what they say about their past they are very old indeed which makes them feel less plausible as characters in this modern-day setting. But does that matter? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The plots are led by the detectives’ eccentric approaches of dealing with crime with much referencing to their past and sometimes this feels like a distraction to what is going on.

What is done well is London itself, whose history and mythology is incorporated to give a sense of timelessness to the piece. It can at times feel like an alternative reality novel where octogenarians are still putting themselves professionally into precarious positions but it is not as references are regularly made to past events we all know about. It’s clear from the above that I am still struggling to make full sense of the concept and feel of this series.

In this fourth instalment a killer in highwayman garb is killing celebrities which may possibly have links to an unsolved crime Bryant and May were involved with decades before which ended in personal tragedy for them. It begins with their immediate boss contacting the Home Office to get the detectives removed because of their age and competency and Bryant goes on to show how out of touch he is with the modern world when he addresses a group of private school boys where neither his past nor the boys’ present rings true to me. It twists and turns with some memorable characters along the way, yet at this stage, some of the series regulars are still feeling underdeveloped (but admittedly, I do have a lot of the series to go).

Summing up, I very much enjoyed aspects of this book but its unorthodox approach to crime solving did cause my interest to wane. I think it is better than both the first and third of the series neither of which I particularly enjoyed and I do feel that there is so much potential and that seeds are being sown which will elevate this series once I get more of a complete grasp of what is going on.  My befuddled view is reminiscent of what I felt about much of the BBC TV adaptation of “Sherlock” and look how popular that became. I wouldn’t have read 16 books by this author, however, if I didn’t feel in some way committed to his writing (and I do have a few more unread copies of this series on my shelves) so I’m not giving up yet.

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Ten Second Staircase was published by Doubleday in 2006

Little – Edward Carey (2018)

 

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I think I have my ear fairly close to the ground when it comes to new books but I must admit that this one passed me by completely until researching my “Looking Around” post at the beginning of the year and finding Bookish Beck having it at number 3 on her Books Of The Year list.  Her enthusiasm piqued my interest.  I was not disappointed.

 Edward Carey has written a marvellously entertaining original fictionalised take on the life of the diminutive Marie Grosholtz, nicknamed “Little” who would achieve huge and long-lasting recognition following her marriage to a M. Tussaud.

 The tale begins in eighteenth century Switzerland when the orphaned child works for Dr Curtius, a wax-worker involved in medical models.  The two relocate to Paris and together with a tailor’s widow and her son move into an old building formerly used to house and exhibit monkeys.  This is the story of how the business repeatedly flourished and faded amongst the extraordinary backdrop of the French Revolution.  I waited until finishing the book before checking autobiographical details and much of the basis of Carey’s fiction is there.  It does seem that anyone who lived through and emerged from this time in French history would have a sensational story to tell and Marie is certainly no exception.

 Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.  Through this narrative a rich cast of characters is created and anyone looking for an original, gutsy historical novel will find this a delight.  Her account is punctuated throughout by pencil drawings which give the novel an added quirkiness and depth.

 I very much hope that this will be one of those books whose reputation will spread by word of mouth.  It  currently has a 93% 5 star rating on Amazon with just two detractors opting for four stars.  I fully expect to be mentioning it again in my end of year Top 10.

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Little was published in 2018.  I read the Gallic Books paperback edition. 

Wild Bill (ITV1-2019) and Tales Of The City (Netflix -2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Double Review

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We never used to expect that much of shows launched in the summertime, knowing that TV channels would wait to launch their big guns later in the year.  With more of us watching television in different ways nowadays it probably matters less when programmes are released.  These two very different drama series were launched to considerable publicity recently. One is a new British ITV prime-time cop show, the other an American “limited series” revisit to what was a landmark television adaptation.  I was interested to see if both lived up to the hype or whether they were, and I hoped not, summertime season filler.

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Firstly “Wild Bill” which was apparently based on a projected appointment of an American Bill Bratton, nicknamed “Wild Bill”, to run the Metropolitan Police Force.  That didn’t pan out but it sowed the seeds for this six- parter where an American cop becomes the Chief Constable of East Lincolnshire Police. Created by Dudi Appleton, Jim Keeble and David Griffiths,  I’m sure the idea really sprang to life when Hollywood star Rob Lowe agreed to play the central character in this fish- out- of- water tale.  It’s exciting to have Rob Lowe on our screens on a weekly basis over the summer.  It got me thinking about what I’d seen Rob Lowe in before and frankly I drew a blank (apart from the 2015 British/American co-production “You, Me & The Apocalypse” where he stole the show as an off-the-wall Vatican priest).  I kept thinking of films from the 80’s but then realised it was Matt Dillon, Brad Pitt or a Baldwin who had starred in them.  Google to the rescue then to discover Rob Lowe made his name in films such as “The Outsiders” and “St Elmo’s Fire” (remember the theme song not the film) and had his mainstream Hollywood career scuppered by a sex tape scandal.  He has worked fairly consistently in film and especially TV since but this is his first British work.

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I do like the premise behind this, relocating a go-getting American cop to Boston, Lincolnshire with the idea that he will make serious budget cuts while in post, not exactly endearing him to his new colleagues.  My main concern was that it might be a little too “ITV cosy crime”, a mash-up between “Midsummer Murders” and Martin Clunes’ star vehicle “Doc Martin”, neither of which do it for me but the opening sequence of Episode 1 with Lowe engaged in a rural car-chase saying “Shit!” continually put my mind at rest and certainly language wise at-least it seems more out there than much prime-time ITV1 fodder.  I really enjoyed the first episode with its emphasis of the American attempting to adjust to a very different life, although plot-wise it probably did throw too much into the mix for a series opener.  I was less keen on the second episode where alarm bells which were tinkling away subtly to begin with started to resonate more fully. 

willdbill4Bronwyn James with Rob Lowe

My main stumbling block is that the characters just aren’t very nice to one another.  I can’t work out the hierarchy yet but no-one is giving Bill a chance and I totally understand the reasons why.  The antipathy and aggression towards work colleagues might have worked in a 70’s set show like “The Sweeney” or “Life On Mars” yet here in its contemporary Lincolnshire setting it just doesn’t ring true.  “Wild Bill” has not found its identity yet.  I’d like to see the Rob Lowe character getting a little more wild and the rest of the force beginning to toe the line a little more.  The Channel 4 series “No Offence” shows how good a mix of police procedural, character led plots, dark comedy and drama and a clear dollop of camaraderie at its centre can be but here the elements are not as convincing.  The character who is really shining at this point is DC Muriel Yeardsley played by Bronwyn James who is grappling with diligence and thoroughness in her career whilst being obligated to a dodgy Russian moneylender who has bought the debt on her parents’ farm.  This, after two episodes,  looks like where the unexpected heart of this series will be.

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The original TV adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City” really did light up our screens when shown on Channel 4 in 1993 and was significant because it put gay characters centrally into the plot-line with a delicious portrayal of Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, initially by Marcus D’Amico.  This was almost unique at the time, six years before the game-changing “Queer As Folk”.  It also had a big-star presence in Olympia Dukakis who was wonderful as Barbary Lane matriarch Mrs Madrigal and introduced most of us to Laura Linney.

talescity3The originals : Marcus D’Amico, Laura Linney and Chloe Webb – Mouse, Mary Ann & Mona

Set in mid-70’s San Francisco this was a heart-warming adaptation of Maupin’s early books and a love-letter to San Francisco itself which would have been added to many “must visit” lists on the strength of this showing.  Its depiction of a bohemian, carefree 70’s lifestyle proved too much for Middle America who showed “edited versions” and led to its cancellation with further instalments being produced in Montreal with a recasting of some of the major roles.

 

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis -then and now

Eighteen years on from the last visit cast originals Laura Linney and an 88 year old Olympia Dukakis are back in this present-day set revival. I’m having slight difficulties with the time-line here as how the characters fit in and also with how it all fits in with the books (which I’ve read over the years all apart from the most recent, the final instalment, “The Days Of Anna Madrigal”).  I wish that Netflix had made at least the first series available so that we could refresh ourselves with what had happened decades ago as a way into the new series, because I think if I had watched this without the background of the old shows and the books I wouldn’t really know what was going on.  This new re-boot is aiming to be very 21st Century with a range of characters from the LGBTQ+ spectrum very much fitting in with the heterosexual characters as before, which was always its great strength, but here it’s looking a little worthy and there’s something about this whole production and especially the dialogue (and I’m only two episodes in) that makes it all seem a little unreal.  We’ve had so much “realness” in the depiction of LGBTQ+ characters recently in excellent productions of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” and Russell T. Davies’ “Years and Years” that this revival of a trend-setting brand is looking a little middle-aged and bloated.  I’m even a little nervous that I won’t stick with the ten episodes to see if it redeems itself and that it might fall into that familiar Netflix trap of “watch a couple of episodes and nothing more”.  I hope not because the source material for this has been part of my entire adult life and I really want to see it being taken on board in a big way by a new generation.

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Wild Bill in shown on ITV 1 on Thursdays at 9pm with the first two episodes available on the ITV Hub.  The whole series of Tales Of The City is available on Netflix.

Becoming Beyonce – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2015) – A Real Life Review

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J. Randy Taraborrelli is a real guilty pleasure of mine. His biographies seem meticulously researched and are very thorough. There is often a slight tension between his fan worship of his subjects and his need to get as much scandal as he can on them and this tension I enjoy. He tells a story well and I’ve yet to read anything by him which has been approved by his subject- his work tends to be “unauthorised”. He is best known for really changing the public perception of Diana Ross from Motown sweetheart to the Ultimate Diva in his “Call Her Miss Ross” (1989), my favourite of his books although I have enjoyed others on Madonna and Michael Jackson and have a so-far unread one on Elizabeth Taylor on my bookshelves. He also has an interest in powerful American families such as The Kennedys and The Hiltons. The family aspect is also very strong in this book as in the process of “becoming Beyoncé”, the Knowles family were extremely involved.

His works generally focus on larger-than-life characters, those who were no strangers to scandal thus producing a lot of copy Taraborrelli could pore over but here there has to be a slightly different emphasis, as scandal on Beyonce Knowles herself is decidedly limited. What we have instead is the just as fascinating question of how a little girl who participated in talent contests and pageant shows became one of the most celebrated and influential women on the planet. Well, the answer to that, you may be disappointed to know is through sheer determination and hard work. Going from a child in an all- girl musical review, to unsuccessful singing act Girls’ Tyme (which brought family members and investors close to bankruptcy), to stardom with Destiny’s Child, a solo career, marriage to one of the most successful all-time rappers, Jay-Z, to motherhood were all achieved by extraordinary single-minded dedication which meant that there has been really little life outside of the business in her attainment of her goals.

Subtitling this “The Untold Story” might get readers searching for juicy titbits but the perennially image conscious and brand aware Beyonce has rarely ever let her guard down long enough for scandal to occur. Her father, however, is a different matter and Mathew Knowles certainly comes under the microscope. As single-minded as his daughter in pursuance of fame, he gave up a profitable job and sunk a small fortune into drilling the group of young girls, shedding those along the way who couldn’t toe the line, there were extra-marital dalliances and the central event in the book comes from 2009 when Beyonce blows the whole thing apart by having her father audited for potential mismanagement of funds. Another incident which generated much media attention was the extraordinary situation in a lift where her sister attacked Beyonce’s husband behind closed doors and all parties emerged as if nothing had happened. Beyonce’s role in this was strangely detached which stimulated much speculation as to what was going on, the incident suggesting a metaphor for public image versus personal life but under analysis there’s not very much that can be actually deducted from this.

There seems little doubt that the development of a public image has caused difficulties for Beyonce’s own identity. This led to a creation of a dauntless confident alter-ego Sasha Fierce to hide the insecurities. Beyonce’s songs feature “independent women” and “survivors” and even though father Mathew was seen to be positioned at the centre of her existence the book gives attention to a group of very strong women who allowed Beyonce to become Beyonce, including early managers and her mother, Tina and sister Solange.

Compared to some of Taraborrelli’s subjects this is a much more low-key affair but I really enjoyed it. It’s impossible not to be swept up by such professional self-belief, determination and on-stage charisma.

fourstars

Becoming Beyonce was published in 2015. I read the Pan paperback edition. Yes I know there should be an acute accent on Beyonce’s name, but the keyboard is not co-operating with that!

100 Essential CDs – Number 78- Motown Chartbusters Volume 9

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Motown Chartbusters Volume 9 (Spectrum 1998)

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Motown Chartbusters was a brilliant initiative from the UK branch of Motown over at EMI Records. It began in 1967 with the first of two which were entitled “British Motown Chartbusters” giving UK fans the chance to buy an album of their favourite Motown singles which had proved themselves commercially. This was of course some years before the “Now” and “Ministry Of Sounds” compilations, even the budget sound-alike “Top Of The Pops”/”Hot Hits” albums which found their way into so many British homes had not been launched at this point so the concept felt original. They did not seem to have a regular release pattern I think the powers that be waited until there had been enough hits to fill up an album.
By 1974 they had reached Volume 9. (There would go on to be 12 releases lasting until 1982). This edition featured chart hits from 1973-74. The vinyl edition was amongst the first albums I bought and I did so because of the familiarity of so many of the tracks (when you were reliant on saved pocket money purchases you did not want to make any mistakes). This CD came out on 1998 from the budget label Spectrum who re-released the whole series. This is not the best Motown Chartbusters but it is still an essential release.
By the mid 70’s Motown had undergone changes. Most significantly they were no longer based in Detroit but had moved to LA with some rejiggling of artists on their roster. They were very aware of the power of their back catalogue and two of the tracks here were old favourites that scored chart hits the second time around due to public demand. There’s also a significant disparity between the UK and US markets with UK Motown beginning to release different tracks as singles to the US and chart placings for songs released internationally looking very different. In fact out of the 17 tracks on show here only two scored a Top 30 placing in both the UK and US markets.
Despite these changes in how the business was run the label was still very much relying on the stars from its golden sixties days to keep the Motown flag flying. Here really only The Commodores represented what could be seen as names that hadn’t been around since the previous decade. Two lead singers from hit-making groups Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks also had solo tracks for consideration here, Eddie with great success at that time in his homeland but otherwise it was business as usual for artists such as Diana Ross (represented on a hefty six of tracks here), Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
Once again 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

1. Diana Ross – All Of My Life (1974) (UK#9)

1974 was a great year for Diana Ross in the UK with six Top 40 hits thanks to solo tracks from her “Last Time I Saw Him” album, some shrewd marketing in pairing her with Marvin Gaye for an album and a Supremes hit from ten years before rebranded to put her name out in front. This track came from her 1973 album “Touch Me In The Morning” and was not released as a single in the US. This is one of those big sweeping pop ballads for which she became known for at this point in her career before disco kicked in for her she became once again more relevant as an R&B artist.  It’s a good track and we Brits liked it as it became her sixth UK Top 10 hit as a solo artist.

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2. Stevie Wonder – Higher Ground (1973) (UK#29, US#4)

3. Jackson 5 – Dancin’ Machine (1974) (US#2)

4. Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – My Mistake Was To Love You (1974) (US#19)

5. Syreeta – Spinnin’ And Spinnin’ (1974) (UK#49)

An inexplicably low chart placing for this joyous song which just undulates gleefully with a lovely vocal performance.  Syreeta had certainly waited for her moment since joining the label as a receptionist in 1965, progressing to demo recordings for The Supremes and her own unsuccessful solo career as Rita Wright in the late 60s.  She was considered as a replacement for Diana Ross when she left The Supremes and was married to Stevie Wonder between 1970 and 1972.  Her ex re-launched her career in 1974 by producing an album for her and this classy composition was penned by the two of them.  It sounds like a Stevie song down to its almost fairground like ending.  Syreeta would go on to reach the upper sections of the singles chart with “Your Kiss Is Sweet” and the stately duet with Billy Preston “With You I’m Born Again” which was a translatlantic Top 5 hit in 1980.  These are three very different tracks but this is undoubtedly my favourite of hers.

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6. Eddie Kendricks – Keep On Truckin’ (1973) (UK#18, US#1)

Big things were expected when Temptations lead singer Kendricks began working on solo tracks.  Initially, not much happened but his voice was perfect for the developing disco scene and this Frank Wilson track made great use of his falsetto over a driving rhythm with a title which became a catch-phrase as the song ascended to the top of the US chart.  There’s more of the same with his US#2 follow-up “Boogie Down” on this CD but that doesn’t quite hold together as well as this track is which is dominated by that driving trucking beat and recalls some of the ground-breaking work Norman Whitfield had done with The Temptations.

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7. R. Dean Taylor – There’s A Ghost In My House (1974) (UK#3)

I always see this as a companion to The Four Tops’ “Seven Rooms Of Gloom”.  Canadian  R. Dean Taylor was a bit of an all-rounder and was signed to the label as a song-writer, producer and artist although this track recorded in 1967 has the Holland-Dozier-Holland stamp all over it.  Not at all successful on its first release this became a staple of the UK Northern Soul Scene and when re-released in 1974 gave Taylor a huge hit.  He was known to British audiences through his 1968 hit “Gotta See Jane” and three years before “Ghost” he had almost made number 1 (and a #5 US hit) with the country-flavoured “Indiana Wants Me”.  This was a very different sounding track and it has always been a big favourite of mine with a definite Four Tops feel and a theme which makes it an essential track for a Halloween party made creepy with the feel of those footsteps of the departed clumping around the house.

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There’s a ghost in his house!

8. Smokey Robinson – Just My Soul Responding (1974) (UK#35)

Another artist going it alone by 1974 was Smokey Robinson and a track from his debut album as a solo artist.  By this time Vice-President of the company Smokey has always been seen as the poet of the label through his song-writing achievements whereas Stevie Wonder is seen as the social commentator and Marvin Gaye as the visionary but all elements are combined with this odd but effective track for him which didn’t really do the business it could have been expected to do as an early solo track from one of Motown’s greats.  Beginning with a “Happy Birthday” refrain and Native American rhythms (written with Miracles band-mate Marvin Taplin) this focuses on life in the ghetto.  It’s the combination of Smokey’s wistful vocal and Indian style chants which is decidedly curious and lyrics like “too many roaches and not enough heat to keep my babies warm” makes this some distance away from “Tears Of A Clown”.

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9. Diana Ross – Last Time I Saw Him (1974) (UK#35, US#14)

10. Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – You Are Everything (1974) (UK#5)

A fat bonus due to the person in the Motown offices who suggested this as an idea.  Marvin had previously been paired with great success with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell but an album of duets with the Queen of Motown was always going to be a huge commercial proposition.  The songs that made it bigger in the US were a little edgier but over here the big hit was a cover of the song that had been the first US Top 10 hit for the Stylistics three years before but had not charted in the UK but was a well-known song.  From its wheezy intro into Marvin’s spoken opening you just know it is going to go well and the song works perfectly as a duet.  It seems that things in the studio were not always as harmonious as they appear on vinyl and because of commitments and Diana being pregnant some tracks were recorded separately with the vocals being mixed together.  This is common practice with all those “featuring” tracks which litter the pop charts today but it seemed odd in 1974 that one of the all-time classic duet albums was recorded in this way.

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11. Stevie Wonder – He’s Misstra Know It All (1974) (UK#10)
12. Diana Ross & Supremes – Baby Love (1964) (UK#1,US#1) 1974 (UK#12)
13. Jimmy Ruffin – What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (1966) (UK#8,US#7) 1974 (UK#4)

Both this and the preceding Supremes track show how loved the back-catalogue of Motown was in the mid 70’s with this re-release performing even better than it did the first time round.  This is not surprising as it is an all-time classic which fully deserved its Top 5 chart status.  Jimmy, older brother of Temptations lead David was always better received in the UK and this reissue became the 8th of his 11 Top 40 hits (in his homeland he scored four).  This is an exceptional song written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean and Jimmy needed to do a bit of persuading to be allowed to record it as it was intended for The  (Motown/Detroit) Spinners.  Jimmy’s version flows beautifully which builds up the heartbreak.  A song which has survived many cover versions including a US hit for Paul Young and a UK one for Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone  and inexplicably topping the charts for thespian songsters Robson and Jerome this is one of those songs that every artist tackling it should know that they are not going to surpass the original.

motown98Jimmy Ruffin

14. Stevie Wonder – Living For The City (1973) (UK#15, US#8)

15. Diana Ross – Love Me (1974) (UK#38)
16. Eddie Kendricks – Boogie Down (1974) (UK#39, US#2)
17. Commodores – Machine Gun (1974) (UK#20, US#22)

A track to catch them out in pub quizzes up and down the country.  “Who recorded this song?” The debut hit from who would go on to become one of the top funk and soul acts of the 70’s with lead singer Lionel Richie going on to dominate charts in the 80s and well beyond with his brand of sophisticated pop is this zinging instrumental which did well on both sides of the Atlantic and was certainly not typical of the sound they came to be associated with.  It’s the clavinet which gives this its machine-gun feel, hence its title.  Motown were not known for its instrumental hits but rival label Philadelphia International had topped the US charts earlier in 1974 with MFSB and “TSOP” which showed the market was there.  This gave Motown the confidence to get behind the title track from the debut funk-filled album from their new signings, one of its two instrumental tracks.  It paid off as it introduced the group to the world.  In the US they followed it with a steady run of ballads and uptempo tracks although in the UK it would be take three years for them to get another Top 40 hit with “Easy” a classic track which really established the blueprint for what this group and its fledgling superstar lead singer was going to be all about.

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Motown Chartbusters Volume 9 is currently available in the UK from Amazon used from £1.95 and from $10.76 in the US.

Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review

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Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered so easily may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Parks feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.

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Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.