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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Charmed Life- Diana Wynne Jones (1977) A Kid Lit Review

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I’ve come to the conclusion with children’s literature that the books you read at just the right time in your development as a reader are the ones that really stay with you.  I recently saw an article in the Telegraph ( I think) on children’s fiction where the writer (not sure who… sorry) had picked out 10 Books every child should read.  I had heard of Diana Wynne Jones but not of this book which was claimed to be a novel suffused with magic and superior to Harry Potter.  My interest was piqued, especially as this is a book which dates from the mid 70’s and so I sought out a copy.  (My library service had it available as an E-book).  I think the author or the article (which could have been Lucy Mangan who has just produced a book on children’s fiction which Netgalley have just approved me for review, so if it is I’ll let you know) must have read this book at an impressionable age as given the build-up this was all a little disappointing for me.

 This is the first of seven volumes in the Chrestomanci series.  In this book Chrestomanci is an enigmatic Willie Wonka type character, who may be an enchanter of great power and who certainly has the habit of turning up as soon as his name is said.  He takes on the upbringing of two charges, Gwendolen and Cat, after their parents are killed and the children go to live at Chrestomanci Castle with his own two offspring.  Gwendolen has precocious powers of witchcraft and thinks very highly of herself; her younger brother Cat struggles with self-doubt and is the endearing central character.  It is a tale of magic and parallel worlds as the children come to terms with their new lives in the Castle.

 Books for children of this vintage and older do not seem as plot-driven as modern fiction and once the children are in ensconced in their new home the pace gets a little slow and there are quite a few scenes which ramble a little and are not especially eventful, particularly meal times between the four children, who do not see eye to eye.  It is, however, quite entertaining throughout and may appeal to those who have got through the first couple of Harry Potter novels and are not yet ready for the demands the later instalments of the series place on the reader, but I do feel that many Potter fans will find Jones’ style dated.

 Diana Wynne Jones was a prolific writer who died in 2011.  She is most revered for her Chrestomanci novels (I still don’t know why I have not heard of these before) and “Howl’s Moving Castle”.  “Charmed Life” was the winner of the 1978 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  She is held in great esteem by many fantasy writers for both her children’s and adult novels.  She did suggest that the 4th book of the series, the Carnegie Medal commended “The Lives Of Christopher Chant” (1988) be read as the follow-up to this.  I would be interested to see where she goes with the characters she introduces in this series opener.  This book alone does not attain the status of children’s classic as far as I am concerned, but as a whole the series may still have potential.

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Charmed Life was originally published by Macmillan in 1977.  I read the Harper Collins edition which was republished in 2007.

David Bowie Made Me Gay – Darryl W Bullock (2017) – A Rainbow Read

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Subtitled “100 Years Of LGBT Music” Darryl W Bullock does a thorough job with his overview of popular music and the role played by LGBT artists.  If there is a central character then that is David Bowie whose “otherness” struck a chord with a whole generation who felt they didn’t fit in.  I was a little too young to comprehend the seismic shift which occurred in popular culture when Bowie appeared on the scene. Viewers who saw him put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson on early evening “Top Of The Pops” (we obviously were not used to men touching then) were instantly divided into those who “got Bowie” and those (largely but far from exclusively split along generational lines) who most certainly didn’t. 

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In 1972 Bowie interviewed in “Melody Maker” said “I’m gay and always have been even when I was David Jones”.  How much of this was the fame-hungry Bowie looking for headlines?  This statement was revised over the years and we know enough about him to understand that his sexuality was not as defined as he suggested at the start of his career but these words ensured the music world would never be the same again.

 But the questioning of sexuality did not begin in 1972 and Bullock provides a largely chronological study. He begins in early twentieth century New Orleans with its ethnic mix, red-light districts, poverty and party atmosphere which saw blues, ragtime and jazz emerging from the dives and honky-tonks.  Gay pianist Tony Jackson was a leading light and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith led the way in hitting the big-time often with female lovers in tow.

 As the music business got more profitable and big fortunes were to be made record label executives did not want to do anything to rock the boat and so closet doors shut firmly on artists such as Liberace, Johnny Ray and Johnny Mathis and in the UK, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.

 By the 60’s and 70’s the sexuality of big stars became a tabloid newspaper obsession and artists such as Dusty Springfield, Elton John and Freddie Mercury were hounded waiting for them to be caught out.  Closet doors creaked open a little and then shut.  Dusty left the UK, Elton married a woman and Freddie died of AIDS.  By the late 90’s another much-hounded performer George Michael was able to turn the whole thing on its head when he was outed following a “lewd act” arrest (something which had more or less killed the career of Johnny Ray in the US decades earlier) and he came out unapologetically with the celebratory, joyous “Outside” single and video.

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Bullock does not just focus on the stars who made it and is perhaps even more illuminating on those who were unable to find success because of their sexuality.  Some forms of music opened doors (Disco, British 80’s pop, Folk music, New Romantics and Punk) and some did what they could to ensure LGBT artists would not succeed (Country, Hip hop, Reggae, Christian Rock).  Bullock examine these artists who have tried to change attitudes but it is a slow process in some areas.  In 2016 Trey Pearson of Christian Rock band Everyday Sunday’s coming out led to immediate axing from festivals and with the US veering more towards conservatism things might not change that quickly. 

In the UK more positive attitudes have ensured that an artist’s sexuality is not a kiss of death career-wise and this has ensured that LGBT artists are now amongst our best loved stars – Elton, Freddie and George Michael have been joined as household names by Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey, Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond, Andy Bell of Erasure, Tom Robinson, Will Young, Sia, Sam Smith etc.  That etc. suggests that we are hopefully fast approaching the point where sexuality does not matter. Since the 1980’s the British pop charts have been fuelled by the sound of gay and gay-friendly acts (Stock Aitken and Waterman had a significant part to play in this) but in other parts of the world this is not the case.  I like very much the scope of Bullock’s work and his ability to document the past and project into the future.  This made “David Bowie Made Me Gay” both a celebration and highly thought-provoking.

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“David Bowie Made Me Gay” was published in 2017 by Duckworth Overlook

Collateral (BBC2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Award-winning playwright David Hare’s first foray into a television drama series began this week with an impressive cast.  Sir David was knighted in 1998 for services to the theatre, namely a string of West End and Broadway successes.  He has received Oscar nominations for his work in films (including his adaptation for the excellent 2002 movie “The Hours”) and enjoyed a lengthy career in television  with films and plays which began back in 1978.  His “breakthrough” play “Slag” was first performed at The Royal Court in 1970.  What we have here is a heavyweight, influential writer but would these skills transfer to a modern-day police drama shown over a period of four weeks?  I think those members of the audience who knew of Hare’s work would have viewed this with extremely high expectations.  Those who knew he is married to French fashion designer might have expected something rather stylish along the lines of “The Night Manager” or “McMafia” but probably the majority who found themselves watching at 9pm on Monday evening were just after their dose of police procedural drama.  I’m not sure who would have ended up at the end of the first episode the most satisfied.

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Central character DI Kip Glaspie is played by Carey Mulligan, who I recently watched doing impressive work in “Mudbound” (2017) and whose 2015 turn in “Suffragette” is currently languishing on my Sky Planner.  We find out that Glaspie was once a champion pole vaulter for reasons which are not clear but any potential vaulting through a suspect’s open window seems unlikely as she is also pregnant.  (I don’t think it’s that kind of production anyway, but it did suggest some thrilling action sequences in my head when another character mentioned it!)

A pizza delivery man is gunned down on the streets of London just after delivering a pizza to harassed mum (Billie Piper) who, inexplicably, ends up throwing the uneaten pizza into a corner of a room.  Piper’s character is edgy and distracted and is the ex-wife of local MP played by John Simm (who was also in equally high profile ITV drama “Trauma” this week, which I chose not to watch).  Simm’s character was fleshed out in a bedroom scene with recent girlfriend played by Kim Medcalf (a former Sam Mitchell on “Eastenders”) in  a scene which oddly seemed to suffer from some really heavy-handed dialogue in what I believe had the intention of illustrating him as a man who puts politics above people.  Also in the mix is the always value for money, Nicola Walker, fast becoming a staple of all television drama, who is playing a lesbian vicar with a secret which suggest Simm’s character is not as exactly above board as he would like to make out.

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Billie Piper and John Simm

The dead pizza delivery man turns out to be an illegal immigrant living with family members in a lock-up garage which instantly adds political weight to the drama.  By the end of the episode the killer but not the motive is revealed.  With Ben Miles and Saskia Reeves also in the cast I don’t doubt that we will be seeing strong performances but on the evidence of this first episode I’m not sure if the writing feels natural enough for this kind of production.  I found the superbly written “Happy Valley” and “Scott and Bailey” coming to mind.  Here there were a few times I felt the lines jarring on me.  It might be Hare’s deliberate intention to unsettle us as this is obviously going to be much more than a tale of a killing on a South London street but it is not clear exactly where it is going yet.

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Sir David Hare

I suspect that like BBC 1’s “McMafia” which shed a lot of viewers (although I stuck with it without being totally sure why) a number who watched the first episode may not be back for more despite the cast and obviously high production values.  I’ll give Episode 2 a go but most confess there was nothing in this episode which really lodged in my mind.  Often when I sit down to write a review I can get writing with what has stayed with me.  Here I had to flick through the programme again just to remind me what had gone on – and I’m not sure if that is a positive sign.

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Collateral is on BBC2 on Monday’s at 9.00.  The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player.  Internationally, it has been picked up for inclusion on Netflix.

Dead Man’s Grip- Peter James (2011) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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peterjamesI’m up to Book Seven of what has become my favourite crime series.  Peter James’ novels featuring DS Roy Grace have appeared on my end of year Top 10 lists on three occasions and up to his point I would have struggled to say whether the chilling debut “Dead Simple”(2005)  or novel number five “Dead Tomorrow”(2009) with its organ trafficking theme was the strongest but I think here the standard has just upped a notch and in “Dead Man’s Grip” we have a classic crime novel.

 A couple of the earlier novels I felt had slight issues with pace but the three since “Dead Man’s Footsteps” (2008) have put this right and there are certainly no issues on this score here.  The book hits the floor running and is gripping throughout.

 It has been about 18 months since my last James novel but his characters are so well established by this stage in the series that I don’t need much in the way of memory jogging to recall who is who.  I would urge newbies to read them in order, especially as there is an ongoing subplot regarding Grace’s missing wife, Sandy, which James keeps lightly simmering on the back burner here.  I don’t think I would have got as much from this novel if I had read it out of sequence.

 Roy Grace is here an expectant father but has only a small amount of time to fret over pregnancy complications before another set of Brighton-based crimes take over.  They all stem form a tensely written road traffic accident which leads to involvement of a New York Mafia family. 

 Sometimes it is a set piece which sticks in the mind in James’ novels and I have felt that the book has been built around this.  That’s not exactly a criticism as many crime novelists choose to do this but this instalment is so full of memorable pieces, to the extent that I wondered if it could be built to a gripping climax, but we are certainly not deprived of that here.

 This really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.  The research seems first-class.  In his acknowledgements it seems as if James has used every member of the Sussex Police Force for help and advice.  (He has also used a few real names and job titles throughout the novel).  If there is a better British crime writer out there at the moment I haven’t found them (yet!).  And I still have got 6 books to got to catch up on this series.  The 14th “Dead If You Don’t” is due out in hardback in May 2018.

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Dead Man’s Grip was published by Macmillan in 2011

100 Essential CDs – Number 15 – Stylistics – Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together

Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together- Stylistics  (Phonogram 1992)

UK Chart Position – 34

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Now I will admit that a sweet tooth is needed here.  The Stylistics led the way in a brand of soul music which combined romance, lushness, a distinctive falsetto lead and a tight vocal group performance sound which was a progression from the Doowop sounds of a decade earlier.  Others in this soul subsection who shone most brightly in the mid 1970s included The Moments, The Chi-Lites, The Delfonics, Blue Magic, all of whom had been around some time when they found fame but the sweetest of all the sweet soulers were The Stylistics.

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 This was, without doubt, because of the lead vocal of Russell Tompkins Junior,  a beautifully rounded soft, nasal sound which always avoided becoming the whine it could so easily have been.  Not strictly falsetto his voice is often described as high tenor.  In some of the group’s strongest recordings this was paired with the rich baritone voice of Airron Love.  Also, providing sterling back-up were James Smith, James Dunn and Herbie Murrell.  They had been in various groups since the mid 60’s in the Philadelphia area but joined forces in 1968.  By 1975 their first hits compilation “Best Of The Stylistics” was the UK’s biggest selling album of the year and at that point the biggest ever selling by an African-American act.   

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 The hit singles continued after 1975 leading to another chart-topping Volume 2 compilation just over a year later.  The best compilations combine these two volumes and as consistent sellers there have been a number over the years.  I have chosen as my Essential Stylistics recording an eighteen tracker from 1992 which achieved a moderate chart position but is a great indication of what was both good and frustrating about their success.  It contains all sixteen of their UK Top 40 hits and nine out of the 10 US hits. 

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 The CD opens with their only UK number 1 hit single from the summer of 1975. For “I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love” record label Avco’s hot disco producer Van McCoy was drafted in as arranger to add a little extra something for the group.  Chart-wise it was the most successful track for both the group and the arranger but is not representative of the very best of either of their work.  It does have a lovely languid trumpet introduction which captures the attention and it heads off into a shuffling track which is a little faster than we would expect from the group and a nod to Disco.  It does sound at times as if Van McCoy’s signature hit “The Hustle” is playing in the background.  Van’s best productions were when he used gospel based singers to add bite to the lushness of his Soul City Symphony Sounds, most successfully in his work with Melba Moore, David Ruffin and his gospel based backing singers Faith, Hope and Charity with whom he cut a couple of albums.  With Russell Tompkins Jnr’s already sweet falsetto it’s a little bit too much of a sugar rush to be their very best work.  It was, however, their biggest UK hit and gave them a gold single.  It was not a US chart hit.

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 And here we have the dichotomy of the Stylistics hit career.  It is in two distinct phases, the first, which saw them as a Philadelphian soul act which captivated the US and gave them a solid reputation in the UK and the second where veteran songwriters and producers Hugo and Luigi took over which gave them bigger UK success but their increasingly middle of the road sound did not work so well with their traditional US audience.  By the time the group returned to their more soulful Philadelphian roots in the late 70’s/early 80’s their chart career was over on both sides of the Atlantic.   

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The second track on the album is the one that most clearly marks the end of the first era and is the track most associated with the group as well as being their biggest US hit and marked the first time they scored a UK Top 5 hit.  1974’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New” was both a UK and US number 2 as well as being a Top 3 hit in Australia and Canada, amongst other markets.  It is also their best track.  It marked the culmination of the group’s association with producer Thom Bell, who, with songwriter Linda Creed worked a string of gems not just for this group but for other sweet-soul stalwarts The Detroit Spinners and The Delfonics.  It employed the under-used rich voice of Airron Love as a counterpoint to Tompkins.  At the time it foxed quite a lot of people, who thought it was a male-female duet, even at this point in the career not everyone had cottoned on the fact that what they were listening to when they heard the Stylistics was a male voice.  The intimacy of the track is undeniable and it feels like they are singing to each other.  This was a little too much to contemplate in 1974 and may be why the group concentrated on one lead singer rather than using much interplay between the two.  Other groups got away without anyone asking questions but it is the sheer honesty of the voices and of the songs lyrics that can make it feel like a love song between two men.  (I don’t think that’s just me!)

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 The CD is not chronological so both periods of their career are interspersed.  I might have implied that the later tracks were not without merit, but this is far from the case.  Not every one of the Bell/Creed songs hits home and some of the Hugo and Luigi/George David Weiss tracks are real guilty pleasures.  Like The Drifters who had an extended UK career after their American hits dried up there’s a lot of enjoyment from their later tracks, but unlike the Drifters, who had enjoyed a long chart career, these two phases were condensed into a period of just six years from their first US hit “Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart (US#39) (better known in the UK as a Diana Ross/Marvin Gaye duet three years later (UK#25) to their cheesy chart career end of “$7000 Dollars And You” which got to number 24 in the UK in 1977.

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 Phase 1 really kicked off with another hit which was later more associated with Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye with the Bell and Creed song “You Are Everything”.  There’s  a calm confidence in this, their first US Top 10 pop placing (#9 in 1971) and a much richer sound than the version which became a UK #5 three years later for Diana & Marvin.  Motown here appropriated the Philadelphia sound and turned out an inferior track.  What Bell and Creed were producing here at this time were standards, good quality songs with great orchestration to which was added the Tompkins voice.  Hugo and Luigi put the voice first, maybe over-egged the orchestration and the songs were more throwaway.  In phase 1 you get the beautiful love song that is “Betcha By Golly Wow” (US#3, UK13- 1972) a good enough song to have two great cover versions by Prince (UK#11 1996) and the under-rated Phyllis Hyman together with “I’m Stone In Love With You (US#10,UK#9 1972) which also became a comeback hit (after a twelve year chart absence) for Johnny Mathis (UK#10 – 1975).  There’s also a lovely version of the Bacharach/David song “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) (US#23 -1973) which had to wait until it was re-released as the led track of an EP to chart in the UK (#24 1976). 

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 The track which hasn’t dated so well from the first phase is the uptempo “Rockin’ Roll Baby”.  As a child when this was released I got this completely wrong and thought, despite its joyous take of a father’s love for a young son, that it was a sad song.  The line that did this for me was “He’s got a funky walk/In his little orthopaedic shoes”.  This to me conjured up a disabled child being forced to dance, thrust on the stage to perform.  I thought it was a song about neglect with a theatrical setting “One night stands weren’t easy for little Joe” and was chilled by it.   I haven’t quite ever forgiven the song and the “Na Na Na” repetitions are a little annoying. 

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 Phase two of their career opened strongly as “Let’s Put It All Together” is actually really quite a beautiful song and the highpoint of the Hugo and Luigi productions.  It became their final US hit reaching number 18 in 1974 as well as number 9 in the UK.  I’ve also got a sneaking affection to the “Stone In Love With You” feel of “Star On A TV Show” UK#12) and the real guilty pleasure that is “Sing Baby Sing” (UK#3).  I used to spend all my pocket money on 7 inch singles  around this time and “Sing Baby Sing” was actually the last Stylistics single I bought.   Things started to slip downhill a bit from here. “Funky Weekend” was a nod to the disco market but was just too empty a song.  There was no reason why The Stylistics could not have made a stronger transition to disco, other Philadelphian male vocal groups such as The Trammps, The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes produced great hard-hitting disco gems in this era but The Stylistics were not going to get too far with “Funky Weekend” despite its number 10 UK chart placing.  Their version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was also uptempo and both likeable and popular (UK#4).

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 The track I find it hardest to forgive is “Na Na Is The Saddest Word”.  What does that even mean?  Musically it’s an attractive song but lyrically, please!  The group were hot after their number 1 single and this was chosen as the follow-up.  There was enough interest in them to make this a UK #5 but this was not a chart position based on the song’s merit.  “I wrote a love song in 16 bars” is not The Stylistics taking to alcoholism and once again is not strong lyrically.  It reached number 7 in 1976.  It did seem, at this point that the cash registers were ringing happily so it did not matter a great deal if the songs were a little throwaway.  What happened to The Stylistics is far from unique in the history of pop.  Another massive group from the 70’s Boney M finished the decade with real disposable tracks (Painter Man/ Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi-Holiday etc.) that suggested those around them wanted to just take the money and run.

 It’s money that marks the end of the Stylistics chart career.  “$7,000 Dollars And You” has a cheesy Tijuana feel but the song shows the boys had their price.  Up to a million and they would choose the girl, but after that they’d take the cash!  It actually puts a smile on my face this track! It’s actually a shame record-buyers tired of them from this point as in the 1980’s they returned to their home-town and recorded again with Thom Bell under the Philadelphia International umbrella, churning good quality. less commercial pop-soul tunes.  The group, with changes in personnel, continues to tour to this day.   

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 The Stylistics – still touring!

The 18 tracks here give perhaps the best overview of the hits of The Stylistics.  If the Hugo and Luigi tracks are too much then you might wish to consider a compilation which focuses on the early years.  (One of their all-time best tracks “Only For The Children” which appeared as the B-Side of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” can be found on other compilations) but I’ve always got pleasure from the bitter-sweet soul of the Thom Bell stuff and the sugar overdose of the later tracks so this selection is the one I end up listening to most of all.

The video is intended for Karaoke purposes but seems to be the best version of the guys singing this song.  Just ignore the highlighted lyrics unless you want to sing along!

 

Greatest Hits; Let’s Put It All Together  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.24 and used from £2.19.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $13.07 and used for $1.68.   Other promising compilations available include 5 Classic Albums (48 tracks) and the 36 track Double CD “Ultimate Collection”.

The Various Haunts Of Men – Susan Hill (2009) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s very unusual for me to read two unrelated books in succession by the same author.  Susan Hill has benefited by producing the short “Printer’s Devil Court” which I chose as a successful reintroduction to the world of audio books- a format I’d struggled with on previous attempts and there’s also a story behind my selection of this book. 

At Sandown Library, one of the libraries I work at on the Isle Of Wight there is a year long initiative going on.  It’s the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge which involves pulling from a hat a reading theme or suggestion.  It is running throughout 2018 (new participants welcome) and will culminate in a prize draw for those open-minded and determined towards their reading choices who manage to complete 20 of these challenges.  It’s a little like the Book Bingo which I set up and which is still running at Shanklin Library, but without the bingo card and the route to success cannot be planned in quite the same way, adding a randomness which has led to the Russian Roulette title.  My initial challenge was to read a book which is first in a series.  I’d heard good things about Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler crime series and this instantly sprung to mind, with the first book being conveniently on the shelves.

 The most surprising thing about this series starter is the rather low- key presence of the Chief Inspector of Lafferton Police, Simon Serrailler.  He does not play much of a role in the solving of the crime here.  That falls more to members of his team, namely recent arrival from the Metropolitan Police, DS Freya Graffham and the man described as having a face only a mother could love, the enthusiastic DC Nathan Coates.  Serrailler is an in-charge role to play.  He is good-looking and known as a heart-breaker due to his playing hot and cold with female emotions.  It is intriguing that he is the character the series is built around because on this showing I found him to be one of the least interesting characters.  Probably the author is allowing him to develop over the ten more novels to date rather than having him shine too brightly in the opener with us losing interest in him.

 Also, unusually for a twenty-first century crime novel this takes quite a while to get going.  There’s a disappearance quite early on and then we are drawn into a series of characters who are using alternative medical practitioners as well as us finding out how newbie to Lafferton, Freya, is establishing herself socially in the town whilst getting the hots for her new Chief Inspector.  At one point I was concerned that the novel might be a little too pedestrian for me.

 But then, events began happening and the groundwork had been so cleverly laid by the author that it really drew me in, and, perfect reaction for a crime novel, I sped up as the book progressed.  There were twists I didn’t see coming and it ends up as a highly satisfactory read and a great introduction to a series.  I’m still not sure of the relevance of such an evocative title though.

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The Various Haunts Of Men was published in 2004 by Chatto and Windus.  I read the 2009 paperback edition.

Mudbound (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Times have changed. Nowadays you don’t even have to go to the cinema to see a film just nominated for this year’s Oscars. On the day that “Mudbound” got a UK theatrical release it also appeared for streaming on Netflix and even in I watch nothing else this February then this will be worth the monthly subscription.

mudbound5Mary J Blige

“Mudbound” has been nominated in four categories: Best Adapted Screenplay (it is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan which I have not read), Best Supporting Actress for Mary J Blige, Best Original Song (performed during the end credits by Mary J Blige) and Best Cinematography for Rachel Morrison. Of the four the last was the one I was unsure about. It all starts off very dark, a storm is brewing at dusk and a hole needs to be dug. For the first five or ten minutes it is not always easy to see what is going on. Personally, that drives me more nuts than mumbled dialogue, as usually if you can’t hear there’s a subtitle option. I wasn’t happy about not being able to see, but I do recognise that this, on this occasion, is largely for dramatic value, rather than someone not paying the electricity bill, and the general air of gloom does lift.

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The film’s main setting is a farm in Marietta on the Mississippi Delta, an area, unsurprisingly, given the title, with more than its fair share of mud. It is the tale of a black and white family who both have men who have gone to fight in the Second World War. In the Jackson family it is Ronsel, who becomes a sergeant and drives a tank for the 761st Battalion. Jamie McAllan is a fighter pilot. A tough farming life continues for those left at home but when the soldiers return the racial inequalities of thee American South seem more ludicrous.

mudbound3Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund

The narrative is framed by the characters’ words. At one point Laura, wife of Jamie’s brother and mother of two uprooted from a very different life in Memphis to this mud-drenched rural environment says;
“Violence is part and parcel of country life. You’re forever being assailed by dead things.”
We know that the plot is building up, there’s a tragic inevitability about the whole thing because of what we learn in the first few minutes of the film but this does not make it any less suspenseful or appalling when things do begin to play out.

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There are some great performances. Mary J Blige is getting the recognition for her excellent world-weary portrayal of Ronsel’s mother, Florence, but there are a number of other strong contenders, namely Garret Hedlund and Jason Mitchell as Jamie and Ronsel, British actress Carey Mulligan as Laura and Rob Morgan as Ronsel’s father who had me really wincing when he tries to speed up the healing of an injury so that his family do not suffer for him being out of action on the farm.

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Rob Morgan with Jason Mitchell

I think that films that deal with issues of race are still very important, especially with the current US administration and this film tells a history lesson which is always worth repeating. The fact that it is getting official praise in the form of healthy Oscar nominations and is easily available in our own homes should ensure a sizeable audience. It deserves this as it is impressive in all areas and hopefully this will turn into some awards on Oscar night.

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Mudbound is available to view on Netflix in the UK.

 

Printer’s Devil Court- Susan Hill (2014) – A What I’ve Been Listening To Review

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I tend to steer clear of short novels.  They often feel a little sketchy for my taste, lacking in the depth of characterisation and plot which are probably the two things I seek out the most in my book choices.  I have though, often found myself attracted by the slim volumes by Susan Hill, most famous for her short novel “The Woman In Black” boosted by a long-running West End adaptation and a so-so 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe.  Up to now I hadn’t read any of Hill’s books.

 That changed because the Isle Of Wight Library Service where I live and for whom I work have recently moved their platform of E-Books and Audio Books to Borrowbox, run by Bolinda, a major audio books publisher.  After training to show how much easier it was than our previous system I thought I’d do something I’d never done before and borrow an audio book.  As I know that my listening skills are fairly rudimentary I looked for something that would both appeal to me and be short and at 1 hour 40 this seemed to perfectly fit the bill.

 The joy of this new system is you can stop mid-track, easily rewind and set a sleep timer for it to switch off.  I have listened to most of this in bed in 15 minute chunks over the last few nights, long enough to stay awake and short enough to keep me following the story.  And it has worked.  I have listened to it all and have actually slept better once I’ve switched off the light.

This all may seem rather obvious to the audio book listener but my experience with this format up to now has not been great.  I did have concerns.  If I’m just listening can I actually class “Printer Devil’s Court” as a book I have read?  If I can then what about my compulsion to review everything I read?  Would I even be able to produce a review without having the book to consult?  This one was more of a problem (I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember characters’ names without seeing them written down) so I borrowed a copy off the library shelves.  This I’ve done before with my only other experience of a spoken word novel when I took out a bulky set of CD’s of Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” in addition to the book.  On first listen, I fell asleep, woke with no idea as to what was going on, checked the book to discover it was only a few pages in, which seemed such a ludicrously slow pace that I abandoned the CDs and read the book instead.  This time I told myself I couldn’t even open the book until I finished listening and I did manage to do this.

 As an audiobook it kept me entertained, it didn’t get too bogged down in detail and I wanted to know what was going to happen.  I actually feel that on this occasion I would have been less drawn in had I just read the book, as the tale is slight.  It’s a ghost story of a group of young medics who experiment with bringing a woman back from the dead.  It is rich in atmosphere but not much happens and it’s not at all scary. The horror is largely psychological as main character Hugh Meredith (thanks, book!) comes to terms over his lifetime with what he witnessed one evening.  Listening to it I was misled as to time setting.  I was in Victorian London mode until a mention of Blitz-damaged buildings made me think again.  Looking at the book I would have been even more misled by the attractive yet distinctly nineteenth-century illustrations.  I suppose it is part of the skill of the suspense writer to unsettle the reader.

stevenpaceyPrinter’s Devil Court is read by Steven Pacey

 The audiobook is narrated by Steven Pacey, whose rich tones lends it the authority and gravitas the story needs and has enough of an Alan Bennett feel to his voice to keep me listening.  I know how important the choice of voice artist is and this works well here.  All in all “Printer’s Devil Court” provided an experience I would certainly repeat and even thought I wasn’t blown away by Susan Hill’s tale I was motivated enough by it to pick up her first in her crime series featuring Simon Serrailler, a far more substantial novel, which I am currently reading.

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Printer’s Devil Court was published by Profile Books in 2014.

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan (1998)

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It’s twenty years since this, Ian McEwan’s sixth novel was published.  I read it back in 1998 and loved it and it’s been sitting on my shelves awaiting a re-read since then.  I had considered it his finest work until a re-read of “Atonement” two years ago brought home to me how really good that book is.  That’s the funny thing with re-reads, you can’t always tell whether they will really sparkle more the second time around (as “Atonement” did for me) or whether they will end up being not quite as good as you remember, and this is the case for “Enduring Love”.

It starts superbly, with one of the great opening sections of modern literature.  A hot air balloon gets out of control with a young boy in the basket.  This has seared into my brain and haunted me for the past two decades.  The fear factor of this was probably intensified because the first time I read this I was sat on a plane, which was not really the best idea!

Five men rush to assist the stricken balloon and as possibly a response to the sudden traumatic and tragic event, a young man, Jed Parry, become obsessed with the narrator Joe.  A campaign of letters, phone calls and stalking follow as Jed cannot comprehend that his love is not reciprocal and he believes that he can bring Joe closer to God if he will only succumb to his attentions.  Joe is a scientific journalist who recognises in Jed a form of De Clerambault’s syndrome, a homo-erotic obsession with religious overtones, but is the whole thing in Joe’s mind, his own response to a sudden life-changing traumatic experience?

The novel is at its strongest with its depiction of the dark relationship between the two men but what we have here is far more than a stalking-based thriller.  The scientific bias of the narrator explores rationality as he tries to put the ways his life changes following his actions into perspective.  On re-reading I found this aspect to be drier than I remembered and the whole novel did not seem as tightly plotted as my memory had it.  A number of set pieces, however, throughout the novel ensure that this is a high quality, memorable read although none of these conjure up the suspense of the opening.  As a novel it lacks the scope and greater depth of characterisation of “Atonement” which appeared three years later but it is still a great example of writing from one of our finest living British writers.

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I read the paperback version of “Atonement” which was published by Vintage in 1998.

100 Essential CDs – Number 43 – Steps – Gold : The Greatest Hits

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Gold: The Greatest Hits (Jive 2001)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Sometimes you just need to rise above the gloom.  Pop music is going through one of those cyclical stages where it’s taking itself all a little too seriously and is all a little worthy.  In the history of pop this has led to explosions of new music forms – rock n roll, punk, disco, the New Romantics all came about to just shake things up a bit.  Is it then, any wonder in this time of tension and uncertainty that one of the big albums of last year marked the return of Steps?  The timing must have been just right.  A previous comeback had been spurred by the reality show “Steps; The Reunion” which saw the group having to come to terms with their break-up with tears and silences worthy of Harold Pinter. This led to “Light Up The World”, an attempt to cash in to the 2012 Xmas market which didn’t either light up the world or particularly cash in with its number 32 chart place.  Five years later we were properly ready for the return. 

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Steps provides an excellent example of how the music business has changed.  Back in the mid 90’s they would be guaranteed a good chart placing with their singles bought by legions of loyal fans but now with vast numbers of streaming required they don’t really get a look in.  It would have seemed incredible then that an original number 2 album by a pop band would only spawn one number 37 chart single, but that is how things have changed.  2017’s “Tears On The Dancefloor” was probably their strongest studio album as it departed from the pattern of an album built around potential hit singles with a number of largely throwaway album tracks. The best, most essential way to listen to this group remains through a Greatest Hits Collection and in 2001 a lot of record buyers agreed with me as it became the second of their three number one albums (with another hits package “The Ultimate Collection” doing the same ten years later with just a couple of track changes.)

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 On “Gold” we have twenty tracks representing the best of Steps, from their Abba pastiche ballads to tracks that went down a storm in nightclubs.  Here they are in non-chronological order and feature their two number 1 UK singles (one of which was a double A side which has both sides represented) and their string of Top 10 hits.  They are great fun, non-threatening and accomplished- really the perfect pop band for our times.  They are also manufactured, put together in an attempt to give the world a choreography- based pop band – hence the name.  Following a magazine advert and auditions the line-up became Claire Richards (who incidentally went to the same secondary school as I did- not at the same time, I hasten to add), Faye Tozer, Lisa Scott-Lee, Ian “H” Watkins, and Lee Latchford-Evans.  The criticism that is often levied at the group is that the boys do not add a great deal.  True, their vocals may not always be totally distinguishable on the songs, particularly in the early days, but they helped so much with promoting the brand image of the band, Lee’s good looks and H’s manic likeability ensured TV appearance and magazine covers geared towards a younger audience.  Anyone doubting their value (and Lisa, who probably got less lead vocals than the other two girls, can get dragged into this) just needed to see them perform live to bring home how hard they all work and what a strong unit they could be.

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 It all started off for them with a track which didn’t exactly shout out career longevity.  “5,6,7,8” is largely a novelty, line dance of a track with the rap by Lee Latchford-Evans being one of his most significant contributions to the Steps oeuvre.  It fitted in with Europop one-offs like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and other tracks too ghastly to recall, but what set “5,6,7,8” apart was a video which showed these five shiny pop stars for the first time.  Lee, Claire, Faye, H, Lisa.  We were already beginning to pick our favourites in a tactic which had worked very well for the Spice Girls.  The single got a respectable mid chart #14 placing.  Based on the track alone this might have been all we heard from Steps but the image and concept were stronger. There were also the international markets to consider as the group scored a worldwide hit from the off, reaching number 1 in Australia and number 2 in Belgium and New Zealand. 

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Producer Pete Waterman, in putting together their debut album knew he had more than a singing dance troupe on his hands as this group could sing and with the girls he had three voices which could add much texture to a song.  In coming up with a follow-up hit he recalled a track which he had previously recorded. Bananarama never had the vocal quality of Steps (sorry girls) and a track “Last Thing On My Mind” had been an album track on their 1993 post-glory days album “Please Yourself” when they were recording as a duo.  Waterman realised there was life in this track and boosting it with additional Steps energy worked a treat and made me  think for the first time that this was a group who were going somewhere.  Released in May 1998 it reached number 6, was a Top 5 hit in Australia and topped the charts in Belgium.    It opened the floodgates and for the next three years we were never more than a couple of months from a big Steps track.

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 “One For Sorrow” (UK#2) added another dimension as here was a song which had an authentic Abba-esque feel in its verse, a cut-price “Winner Takes It All” in effect.  The Abba influence is also evident in a number of the other tracks.  The group scored a #4 hit in 1999 with an Abba tribute taken from the Brits Ceremony for that year performed with lesser pop acts B*Witched, Billie Piper, Cleopatra and Tina Cousins and the group just seemed to slot into the whole Abba revival thing created by “Mamma Mia”, the show and the film which became beloved of hen parties everywhere. “Thank Abba For The Music” does not actually appear on “Gold”.  This connection was most fully realised, however, after the Steps implosion when H and Claire put out their fans’ loyalty-splitting album recorded as a duo, the title track of which “Another You Another Me” was written for them by Bjorn and Benny. 

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 The fourth single was a perfectly timed double A side which gave them their first chart-topper and featured the song most associated with them.  The Bee Gees had already had a number 1 hit with “Tragedy” in 1979 and nineteen years later all it needed was an ear-cupping dance move and a wedding themed video and that ensured that this would be the hit of Xmas office parties for years to come. The better track of the two is the attractive sing-along ballad “Heartbeat” with its trademark stomach-rumbling sound touches and a Steps -at- Christmas cockle-warming video.  The original Bee Gees version of “Tragedy” is now less remembered than the Steps cover.  With such a successful cover version under their belt it’s not surprising that it was a method tried on further occasions.  “Chain Reaction” (another Bee Gees penned song) gave a slightly different interpretation to the Diana Ross chart-topper and reached #2 in 2001.  Pete Waterman raided his old song-book again for “Better The Devil You Know” which added absolutely nothing to the Kylie version (1999 #4) and a track left off this album was paired with the “new material” “Words Are Not Enough” for a number 5 single in 2001, but I don’t think we really needed another version of “I Know Him So Well”.

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 The golden years were 1999 and 2000 as the group then put out a string of tracks which perfectly summed up what Steps were all about and were rewarded with big sales “Better Best Forgotten” (UK#2), “Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart” (UK#2), and “After The Love Has Gone” (UK #5) are a trio of little pop gems, danceable sing-alongs which, even when the lyrics were melancholy lifted the spirits.  In 2000 a slightly harder dancer edge was used to great effect in the sublime “Deeper Shade Of Blue” (UK#4) and the latin-tinged fiesta of “Summer Of Love” (UK#5).

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By the time of the third album “Buzz”, which just a couple of years after did seem to be a regular feature in the CD collections of charity shops, the group were striving for a cooler sound than the Hit Factory artists they had become and were using Swedish producers and saw the group writing themselves and employing Cyndi Lauper to help out.  It certainly paid dividends with the track released just before the album as “Stomp” with its Chic influenced “Everybody Dance” groove, felt like a song by one of the cooler boy bands of the time more than the sound we had associated with Steps and it showed the public was behind this (slight) change of direction when it became their second UK #1 single after so many near misses.

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 At least part of Step’s continued success could be put down to them being a highly bankable live act.  I did see them perform at The Brighton Centre at the height of their career and the audience split equally between kids, parents and grandparents, hen and office parties and gay men absolutely lapped it up.  They worked so hard onstage and this was publicly recognised in 2000 when they were given a special Brits award for being the Best Selling Live Act for that year.  Working so hard, however, recording, touring continually and being in demand for television appearances was bound to take its toll.

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On Boxing Day 2001 it publicly fell apart.  There had been rumours circulating from the release of the “Gold” package that the group’s days were numbered.  When the announcement came there was considerable backlash concerning poor timing, ruining Christmas for fans and criticism that the band had cashed in to make the most of the Christmas market.  Claire and H had been through enough, fans could see how hard the band had worked and knew they would be in need of a rest.  It was perhaps not the best of news for H and Claire to sign a reputed big value recording deal with Warner to continue as what would really be Steps minus three.

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This partnership scored three Top 10 singles which suggested good things for them, but the album release was fairly disastrous, reaching number 58 in a one week chart stay.  I picked up a copy in Poundland just a couple of months after its release and the duo were dropped, causing bitterness and recriminations which permeated throughout the five members of the group which were only partly resolved during the reality series “Steps- The Reunion.” Faye moved fairly effortlessly into musical theatre (with earnings obviously drastically reduced), Lee concentrated on personal training and choreography with occasional forays back into shows and pantomime and Lisa, eventually got a reality TV series “Totally Scott-Lee” in 2005 which focused on Lisa and family members in which she made the rash statement that if a solo single did not reach the Top 10 she would give up on the music business completely.  With the twist of fate that such pronouncements encouraged it reached number 11.

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And now Steps are back, issues resolved and now in their 40’s and able to recreate their happy pop sound for a different album-buying era.  I hope this revival isn’t just a flash in the pan, but even if this turns out to be so, we do have compilations including my essential CD “Gold” to relive those finest moments.

 

Gold  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.31 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $12.99 and used for $0.01.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.