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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Murmuration- Robert Lock (Legend Press 2018)

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I have a thing about piers. As soon as I step onto one with all that planking where the sea is visible through the slat I always get a rush of the sense of history of the place far more than I would with a building. I remember very clearly standing on the beach whilst Brighton Pier blazed in an incredibly sombre recollection. I spent many late afternoons in Brighton watching the swallows swoop and swirl around the ruins of the structure. The pier in Shanklin where I now live was destroyed in the big storm of 1987, washed into the sea taking with it generations of history and memories. All this, the sense of history and the growth and decline Robert Lock has incorporated into this debut novel. And the swooping of the swallows has given this book its title and its starting point. This is why I was delighted that Legend Press sent me a review copy.

The swallows’ movements recall a number of historical points of the life of the pier and its inhabitants at an unspecified seaside resort. We begin magnificently in 1863 with the recent erection (pun intended) becoming the home of bawdy music hall comic Georgie Parr, an evocative characterisation and a life more than tinged with tragedy. We move to 1941 where the pier is used as an observational outpost and the swallows become involved in a wartime miracle. There’s a less successful mid-60’s section with the pier coming to the end of its golden era and onwards to the 1980’s where local archivist Colin Draper seeks to solve a pier-based mystery whilst coping with the declining health of his mother in a painfully sensitive, touching section and then on again to present day where loose ends are tied (perhaps a little too tightly).

The undeniable quality of this book lies in its great sense of time with the pier standing as a central focus to these very human lives. The writing is of a high quality and Robert Lock shows he has what it takes to become a significant writer of historical fiction. Plot-wise the combination of detective story with the odd touch of magical realism doesn’t quite flow quite as masterfully as other elements in the book but this is a strong debut and would be a thought-provoking quality holiday read. I polished off a chunk of it on the seafront in front of Ryde Pier and it felt very fitting to Robert Lock’s vision of the British seaside, past and present.

fourstars

Murmuration was published by Legend Press on 12th July 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Picnic At Hanging Rock (BBC 2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I’m still not totally sure what to make of this Australian six parter which began this week on BBC2. Based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay “Picnic At Hanging Rock” found more fame in the UK via the 1971 film version directed by Peter Weir with its out-of-kilter slightly trippy feel which is considered a significant moment in the development of Australian cinema.

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Lindsay’s book has grown in reputation especially in her homeland where it has become pretty much a standard text in the school curriculum. On its publication the author was keen to fudge the lines between fiction and fact implying it was based upon a real-life incident. This has added to the reputation and mystique of the work. I saw the film many years ago on television, probably when I was about the age of the schoolgirls in the tale. I remember it being odder than I was expecting it to be and that I enjoyed it. I’ve never read the book and am not sure whether Lindsay herself incorporated this almost hallucinogenic feel into her writing (published in 1967 so possible as this would fit into the feel of the times, although the author herself was 71 by then so maybe not). The trippy feel is certainly incorporated into the TV adaptation.

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The reason I chose to watch this was for its lead, Natalie Dormer, who has excelled in the past in history-based series. I will always remember her as Anne Boleyn in the delightfully demented “The Tudors” but she was also very strong as Lady Worsley in the BBC one-off “The Scandalous Lady W” (2015). She made her mark world-wide in “Game Of Thrones” as Margaery Tyrell who had a memorably short-lived marriage to the noxious young King Joffrey and she’s also been very good in contemporary pieces such as “Elementary” and “Silks”. There’s always great strength in her characters who often do not suffer fools gladly and there’s sometimes an ambiguous darker edge so she is a perfect choice to play the enigmatic British headmistress Hester Appleyard.

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The plot hinges on an event on February 14th 1900 when a number of schoolgirls from Appleyard’s school disappear on a picnic at Mount Diogenes. School trip risk assessments did not exist in turn of the century Australia as evidenced by the choice of location for a day out amongst venomous snakes, poisonous ants and a brooding, precarious rock formation. On this opener we begin with Natalie Dormer’s character viewing the property she intends to convert into the school in a scene which clearly indicates she is not who she is attempting to convey. We move in time to the school which has been set up, in Hester’s words, in “the arse end of the world” and onto preparations for the picnic culminating in this episode with the disappearance. It actually all moved faster than I was expecting it to in this first episode. The oddness of the piece was perpetuated by some jerky filming, tilted angles and odd viewpoints which took a few seconds to right themselves. This gave it, at best a slightly feverish feel but there were occasions when it felt like an 80’s pop promo.

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What was effective was the soundtrack composed by Cezary Skubiszewski which was anachronistic for turn of the twentieth century but atmospheric particularly in a scene when Miss Appleyard is handed some evidence of her hidden past by one of the girls amidst a pulsing, tense rhythm track.

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There’s undoubtedly going to be a significant focus on the development of the girl’s sexuality. We saw this is in a scene where one of the girls (and the headmistress) got the better of a lusty young chap; a naïve girl unaware of the changes of puberty and a frenzied exchange of Valentine cards amongst the pupils and staff members which showed the school to be a hotbed of emotions on the morn of the picnic, a scene whose change of pace felt unusual amongst the distanced, cool feel of the piece which largely emanates from Natalie Dormer’s performance. Miss Appleyard tells one of the girls; “The dark gets in you. You can’t just say I’ve had enough now. It gets everywhere”. I think this darkness will continue to infiltrate over the next five episodes. She also said “Infection spreads” which might very well be a theme for the piece.

Produced by the Australian Fremantle company using a mainly female team led by director Larysa Kondracki it feels like a piece with high production values which certainly looks good but I’m not sure whether the source material will have enough to sustain me in this six hour treatment. I’m going to stick with it for the time being though.

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The Picnic At Hanging Rock is shown on Wednesday nights at 9.00pm on BBC2. The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player.

The Outcast – Sadie Jones (2007)

 

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From the hat of the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge I pulled out “Ask a member of library staff their favourite book” and with there being only two of us working that day, my only option was to ask my friend and colleague Louise for a recommendation. I knew full well it would be “Count Of Monte Cristo” (just too long for now but I will get round to it one day) but as an alternative she asked me if I’d read “The Outcast”. Yes, was my initial response but then I began to doubt and checking my records it seems as if I hadn’t. Nor had I seen the 2015 BBCTV two part adaptation.  But the book seemed so familiar as if it had been sitting on my shelves at home, but it wasn’t. This gave me a curious initial relationship with this book, a kind of half-baked déjà vu. Its strong familiarity must have been because ten years ago it was everywhere and one that I’d earmarked for reading but for some reason had slipped through the net.

It was just the sort of book that I would seek out and with inside cover comparison to Ian McEwan ( “Atonement” feels the closest match and that is one of my Essential Reads) I was delighted to fit this into my reading schedule.

It is a tale of English repression, a stifling tale, impressively written. At the start of the novel it is the summer of 1957 and Lewis Aldridge, aged 19, is released from prison and returns home to this father and step-mother. Lewis is the Outcast of the title and this is his story. It is an easy gripping read but Sadie Jones’ very accessible style hides the emotional complexity that runs throughout. Lewis’ return to his home in Waterford, Surrey, reopens a wealth of emotions amongst family and neighbours, all keen to put on a public face of conformity whatever dark deeds and mistreatment of others is going on. We discover why Lewis has become the outcast and why his attempt to fit back into this community seems doomed to failure.

I did really like this but it just felt a little relentless on the piling on of the difficulties for Lewis, both within and outside his control and at times I just longed for greater contrast from its pervasive claustrophobia. This sounds a little churlish because it feels so close to being a classic novel but it just doesn’t quite pull it off and I think this was because of the frustration I felt towards the characters.  It is, however, a fairly extraordinary debut and one which took the 2008 Costa Award for best debut. In the ten plus years since this appeared Sadie Jones has certainly slipped under my radar because I wasn’t aware of her other titles- three further novels with a 5th scheduled for 2019. Reading this does feel like I’ve filled a small hole in my literary experiences, however, and I would certainly seek out more by this author.

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The Outcast was first published in 2007. I read the 2008 Vintage paperback version.

 

Blog Tour Post Special – A Necessary Murder – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A Necessary Murder

I came across Australian author’s debut series novel “She Be Damned” in October last year.  It introduced sleuth Heloise Chancey, a well-off courtesan in Victorian London who first time round helped out an aristocratic private detective with a case.  I was very much struck by Heloise’s potential to lead a series.  She is a strong, complex character with the ability, because of her background, to move fairly effortlessly through the strata of Victorian society.  The debut was highly readable and I’ve had good feedback from readers since both from my review and at the library where I work. 

 Legend Press have just published the second novel in the series.  There’s some grisly throat-cutting of a child found in an outhouse of her family home in Stoke Newington and later and much closer to home to Heloise with the weapon likely to have been stolen from her property.  Circumstances suggest that these could be linked to Heloise’s origins and that her maid, Amah Li Leen’s past may hold the key.

 There are two main plot strands here and things for me notched up a gear when Heloise goes undercover on the Lovejoy family estate, with its distinct echoes of the real life 1860 case of the Kent family from Somerset, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008).  I do think, however, that compared to last time round Heloise feels more subdued as a character.  This case does not allow her to sparkle in the same way and there is less of a feel for the times.

 Second novel in and I’m not still not totally convinced by Amah Li Leen, an enigmatic character with much back story.  I think I know why this is and it’s due to the changes in narrative style.  Heloise’s narration is first person yet for Amah’s contribution to the plot M J Tjia chooses to switch to third-person, often mid-chapter, which disrupts the flow.  I found myself having to re-read sections where Amah was central and this was not happening when Heloise was in charge.  In future novels I’d love to see a strengthening of the dynamics between these two characters.  At the end of this novel a trip to Venice is proposed which could forge these bonds away from the restrictions of London society. 

 I thought that whereas the last novel felt quite Dickensian in its influence that here we have more of a Wilkie Collins vibe.  In fact it had more of a different feel to its predecessor than I was expecting.  I still think there is a lot of potential in this series to continue with lots of facets of both lead characters to be explored.  It is establishing itself nicely and those who like a historical feel to their crime should seek it out.

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Thanks to Legend Press who sent me a review copy and have included me into the book’s blog tour.  For other opinions on MJ Tjia and related info, take a look at the other sites in the tour.

 A Necessary Murder blog tour

100 Essential CDs – Number 38– The Three Degrees – A Collection Of Their 20 Greatest Hits

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A Collection Of Their 20 Greatest Hits – (Epic 1979)
UK Chart Position – 8

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This is a 1991 CD re-issue of a twenty track album originally released in 1979 five years after the start of this girl group’s run of hits. By this time they had left the Philadelphia International label which had brought them mainstream success, largely thanks to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff , and signed with the European Ariola label. Their pop chart success in their homeland had ground to a halt but the Ariola signing would give them another string of hits especially in the UK and Europe.

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It had taken a while for Sheila Ferguson, Valerie Holliday and Fayette Pinkney’s careers to get going. There had been personnel changes in the first few years of the group but this trio had settled and scored their first US hit with a Roulette Records track, “Maybe” which reached number 29 in 1970. This was a big, sophisticated take on a girl group standard previously a 1958 #15 hit for The Chantels. Follow-up hits were not forthcoming even when the girls had good exposure in the 1971 Oscar-winning movie and box office smash “The French Connection” where they are featured in a nightclub scene.

 

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In 1973 manager Richard Barrett got the girls a deal with a company that had been notching up an impressive list of R&B and Pop hits and had broken The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and Billy Paul into the mainstream. Philadelphia International was challenging Motown as the leading black music label and this new signing would certainly boost this reputation.

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Their introduction to the label came via backing vocals used to augment the instrumental “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” by the house orchestra MFSB. Being picked up as the theme tune to the classic US TV Show “Soul Train” certainly improved its chances and it became a US Pop number 1 single in April 1974, the third chart-topper for the label. In the UK the response was a little more muted and it reached number 22. It was another track, released almost simultaneously, with “TSOP” which introduced the group to British audiences. “Year Of Decision” was a strong example of a Philadelphia message song, a rallying cry to self-empowerment. The girls made TV appearances to capitalise on the initial warm response to this song and the British were won over by the wigs, the glamour and gowns and thus began a love affair which continues to this day. “Year Of Decision” reached #13 in the UK charts and a song with dubious lyrics “Dirty Ol Man” which hasn’t dated well lyrically but always went down a storm when performed live gave them a big hit across Europe. It was however, the next track which would change things for the girls on both sides of the Atlantic.

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“When Will I See You Again” is a simple, wistful ballad which showed off the girls’ ability to harmonise and the great lead vocal of Sheila Ferguson. Written, as the previous hits had been by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the sophistication was in the arrangement rather than in the lyrics or the sentiment. It became the sound of the summer in 1974, topping the chart in the UK and number 2 in the US. Amazingly, this song just couldn’t be lived up to Stateside as it became their final pop hit.

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The Prince and the Showgirls

In the UK, however, they became the darlings of the popular press and one thing that everyone seemed to know as The Three Degrees turned into household names was that they were cited to be Prince Charles’ favourite group. There were another four Top 40 hits for the girls in this phase of their career and they are all included on this CD. We get the singalong “Take Good Care Of Yourself” (UK#9) (always sounded a little bit like “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers to me), the uptempo, perhaps misguided follow-up to the number 1 single “Get Your Love Back” (UK#34), the pretty “Long Lost Lover” (UK#40) and the rather epic track “Toast Of Love” (UK#36) which saw them thought to the middle of 1976. The Gamble/Huff song-writing magic was present throughout except for the last hit which was written by Sheila Ferguson alongside T. Umegaki

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By this point the girls had recorded two albums on the main Philadelphia International label. Their first eponymous album had the chart-topping hit and, as a result of that, reached #28 in the US and #12 in the UK. Europe decided to retitle the second album, “International” after the hit track “Take Good Care Of Yourself” and this became an even bigger hit in the UK reaching #6. There was also a live album from which we get an insubstantial version of The O’Jays “Love Train” which closes this CD. By 1976 they had parted company with Gamble and Huff and Philadelphia International and moved under the main CBS/Sony/Epic umbrella for a couple of albums from which tracks are included on this CD. Founder member Fayette Pinkney did not last to the move to Ariola. She was replaced by Helen Scott who had been a member of the trio in their pre-hit days and who has remained a third of the Three Degrees ever since, together with Valerie Holiday who now tour and record with Freddi Pool, who had previously recorded with “The Former Ladies Of The Supremes” despite never actually being a Supreme.

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For me this incarnation of the group is all about the harmonising of Fayette and Valerie over the magnificent voice of Sheila Ferguson, a song stylist of the first order. Proof of this can be found on this CD on three different songs, the Broadway standard from “Chorus Line”, “What I Did For Love”, the Boz Scaggs pop classic “We’re All Alone” and the R&B Marvin Gaye smoocher “Distant Lover” all of which get exemplary lead vocals.

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Where this CD shows its age is with some of the lyrics. “Dirty Ol’ Man” is more than a tad disturbing and the girls were hardly advancing the cause of feminism in the mid 70’s when they were recording “I Like Being A Woman” and “A Woman Needs A Good Man (To Be A Good Woman)” . These would not win any equal opportunities awards for writer Bunny Sigler who was involved with both tracks. The debut album did have this slightly off-kilter attitude. It was great that The Three Degrees broke through in such a big way as highly successful African American girl groups in the mid 70’s were a little thin on the ground. The girls were adorned in strong, Afro-centric outfits on the front cover yet open it up and they were in see-through body stockings which was all a little too much to this reviewer who purchased the album pre-puberty. Although I’ve criticised a couple of the Bunny Sigler songs there is one of his tracks, the seven minute epic “If And When” which I think is a sad omission on this CD and is only one of two tracks from “The Three Degrees” album not to make the cut.

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The top half of the infamous body suit shot

I like that this album separates the Philadelphia/Epic output from the Ariola and beyond stuff. This is very much an album of a sophisticated Philly soul group with the lushness of sound which was often the sign of this label’s output but they would become far more pop based later on in their career. If you want a complete career overview the 2009 release “The Best Of” takes music from both phases. The 2017 double CD “When Will I See You Again” has 31 tracks but a number of short and long versions of the same song on the second CD. I have another release from the Camden label in 1997 (which might be difficult to source now) .  This concentrates on the Ariola output and their work with Giorgio Moroder is very good indeed. It brought the girls back with a bang with a harder disco edge which made them feel relevant all over again.  This CD has their four UK top 20 hits from 78-79 but despite this is not what I would consider to be essential. Their final hurrah came in 1985 with a track produced by Stock-Aitken and Waterman “The Heaven I Need” which should have seen them back up near the top of the Pop charts but stalled at #42.

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As an example of Philly soul at its best this album is certainly essential. In 20 tracks you can appreciate the talent of this trio and appreciate the longevity potential. Valerie Holiday is still recording and performing with this group after 50+ years. Sheila Ferguson left in 1986 after her 20 year stint as lead singer but didn’t have the massive solo career she deserved. She is a regular face on TV screens (most recently as one of the “oldies” in the documentary series “The Real Marigold On Tour”) and Fayette Pinkney very sadly passed away in 2009 at the age of 61. But every time I hear the opening bars of “When Will I See You Again” I am transported back to the 1970s.

In 1975 The Three Degrees performed on BBC TV’s “The Les Dawson Show” and performed a medley of tracks available on this CD.  I’m not sure we were used to such sophisticated polish on our TVs in those days.  Enjoy!

 

A Collection Of Their Greatest Hits is currently available from Amazon from £10.18 and used from £0.01.  In the US it only seems to be currently available used from $52.07.  Other compilations of original recordings are available to buy and to stream on Spotify.

 

How To Make Children Laugh – Michael Rosen (2018)

 

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Here’s a quick and diverting lunch hour read. Quercus have produced a series of hardbacks entitled “Little Ways To Live A Big Life”. We may not all aspire to some of the other titles (How To Land A Plane/ How To Count To Infinity) but they’ve enlisted Michael Rosen on an admirable mission to get children laughing and that’s something that’s likely to be appealing to almost all of us.

I’ve always had a huge soft spot for former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. From the early days of my teaching career I discovered his collection of poems “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” and carried it around with me in my bag for as long as I was teaching. It was an invaluable resource, it filled the odd moment, it enriched whole school assemblies, it calmed things down and it livened things up. As a young inexperienced teacher fresh from training I became known as the kind of teacher who liked Michael Rosen and from that children understood I loved playing with words, with humour and reading children’s books. This really did forge my identity as a teacher which lasted throughout my career and for which I will always be extremely grateful. And yes, I did manipulate this, at the end of the summer term when I would meet my new class after the where you put your lunchbox and what days do we have PE I would always introduce them to my favourites (usually the poem “Chocolate Cake” was enough to win them over). For this I will always extremely grateful to this poet.

Later on as a senior teacher and Head Teacher I was delighted to bring Michael Rosen in to meet the whole school on a couple of occasions. This man wins children over right away, he actually looks funny. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I remember using a Schools TV series he was involved in with a class of 7 year olds who didn’t know who he was but laughed as soon as his face appeared on-screen, which I was initially unsettled by, thinking I’d put the wrong videotape in, but it was him winning them over from the word go.

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And as a live performer. Wow! I’ve never seen anyone command a whole school group of Primary children from the wriggling youngest to the too-cool-to-listen oldest with such aplomb and for so long. They would hang on to his every word and the laughter was infectious and totally genuine.

So how does he do this? This book tells us how. He studies and totally understands his audience. He’s done the research, he knows what it is in the wider world that is currently making children laugh and he can pinpoint the rudiments of humour of children, which are, basically, building on anxiety, surprise, absurdity and language-play. If the first one seems a little odd you’ll need to read the book to see how he is able to deconstruct humour to these elements. It’s a convincing argument, used with examples of his and others work.

Nowadays, I don’t personally need to make children laugh but this book has relevance for performers and writers especially, as it is to these it is angled but those who work with children in whatever capacity and even parents would benefit from taking a look. I just enjoyed feeling as if Michael Rosen was talking to me once again- his voice comes through strongly in this. Due to the length this series is really only offering a taster so I don’t feel able to shower it in stars, rating-wise but it does exactly what it says on the cover in an entertaining way.

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How To Make Children Laugh was published by Quercus in 2018

100 Essential Books- A Ladder To The Sky- John Boyne (Doubleday 2018)

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Just occasionally the words I use in these reviews like to come back to bite me. It was only last week when I wrote in a review of Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”; “Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.” I excused Greer from this statement and certainly proving me wrong here is John Boyne, author of my 2017 Book Of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” who has produced another outstanding novel- this time about writers.

Sometimes reading choices turn up these unintentional patterns. Take the last two books I’ve read, “Less” with its gay writer as lead character and Boyne’s excellent children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” with its Nazi Germany setting and then comes along this book which begins with a gay German writer looking back at his youth in Nazi Germany.

It is 1988 and prize-winning author and Cambridge lecturer Erich Ackermann has returned to his Berlin roots for a book event. At the bar of the hotel he meets an ambitious young waiter. Their story spans 30 years to the present day. It is told by a number of different voices and has an enthralling mixture of the purely fictional and real life literary figures (one section is narrated by Gore Vidal whose writing Boyne has certainly re-whetted my appetite for). Running through the narrative are the machinations of a fabulous baddie and I’m not even going to reveal who this is, only to say that John Boyne has created a compelling monster whose antics had me often open-mouthed in horror.

Like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew. I also loved the publishing background even if a week before reading this I was down on it as an idea.

With more literary fiction being spawned from real life and the stories of others this novel raises some thought-provoking points about the creative process and the ownership of ideas in a way which is thoroughly entertaining. When I read “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” back in December 2017 I justified my stinginess (compared with many other reviewers/bloggers) by saying; “If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.” This is the third John Boyne novel I have read and my third 5 star rating for his work. This shows just how highly I think of him as a writer and he’s not even given me the chance to do too much exploring of this back catalogue between his two latest publications. I still think “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is his masterwork (of what I’ve read of his so far) but then it is probably my favourite read of this century but “A Ladder To The Sky” is also very, very good indeed. Be prepared for a real treat of a read and one which I would expect in the upper echelons of my end of year Top 10.

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A Ladder To The Sky will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 9th August 2018. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain – John Boyne (2015) – A Kid-Lit Review

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I’m more than happy to delve into the back catalogue of the writer of my current Book of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”. This book choice was thanks to me drawing from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge: “Read A Book With A Red Cover”. I do have John Boyne’s newest adult title “A Ladder To The Sky” lined up to read next, thanks to Netgalley, but I thought I’d explore his writing for a younger audience first.

I am still to read “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” but I know enough about it (and I’ve seen the film version) to realise that there are parallels here. We begin in Paris in 1936 with 7 year old Pierrot living with his widowed mother. In the first few pages we get shell shock, domestic abuse and suicide all related to his German father unable to adapt to living in post-World War I France. Tragic circumstances pile up forcing Pierrot to leave France for Austria and a home at the top of Obersalzberg.

I actually didn’t know where this book was going (I read nothing about it beforehand) so I’m determined not to give away much plot for there are twists a plenty to satisfy its intended audience.

This is a great novel for an enquiring developing mind. It is a complex book, emotionally speaking.  Perhaps elements of the plot might seem contrived if written for the adult market but it would all make sense for a younger audience and has a moral depth that I’m certainly unused to in Junior Fiction. Pierrot develops from being an extremely likeable character to something of a monster and this feels unusual and chilling. His actions become increasingly difficult to explain away even in a society where the old rules no longer apply. All this would resonate with every reader, child or adult.

There are throughout references to a children’s classic of an earlier generation “Emil And The Detectives” which I certainly loved as a child and Boyne’s novel should have an equally long life for future generations. He has written a powerful, compelling novel which I found difficult to put down and read in a day (which is unusual for me- even for a children’s book) and as in “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” he brought me close to tears on a number of occasions. The characters are memorable and the plot, as in “The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas” would be impossible to forget- and nor should we. It would be a great and lasting purchase for a sophisticated child/young adult.  This is a children’s book now in its third year after publication and its reputation should continue to grow.

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The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain was published by Doubleday in 2015.

 

Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2018)

 

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American author Andrew Sean Greer is no stranger to my end of year Top 10s.  His 2004 “Confessions of Max Tivoli” impressed me much on the two occasions I have read it.  Its clever conceit of a man getting younger as those age around him may have been used before, but by putting a love interest in for main character Max and having their lives intersecting over the years gave it a fascinating dimension.  My only niggle with the book was the fictional world Greer created did not feel to me much like the turn of the twentieth century America he’d intended.

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 He is sticking with the present with this, his 5th novel which was a surprise winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Praised on the cover by writers such as Armistead Maupin and Ann Patchett  this seemed like a must for me to read.  It has scooped perhaps the top literary prize of all and yet it is a fairly straightforward romantic comedy rather than some heavy tome.  It just shows the world is in need of lightness right now.  But does this book actually deliver this?

 It’s just a few months since the judging panel of the Wodehouse Prize for comic novels took the controversial decision of not awarding this year as they did not consider any of the 62 novels submitted to be funny enough.  I think Greer would have missed the publishing deadline for this year as this comic novel with literary plaudits would surely  have given the judges something to think about. 

My only alarm bells were that this is a book about a writer and the publishing industry.  Is there much comedy mileage in this for the general reader?  Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.  They can have a tendency to inflated importance and pretentiousness.  Would a comic novel about writers only be funny to those in the know (ie: those who promote and review books and sit on judging panels).  Would it be full of in-jokes?

 Title character Arthur Less is approaching 50 and faces rejection of his latest novel, his age milestone and his ex inviting him to his wedding by planning a world tour of writing-based activities, from taking part in festivals, teaching, attending award ceremonies and attempting to find space to revise his latest work.  The humour is largely in the character of Arthur Less, who did win this reader over (it took a while) by his vanity and self-absorption which actually becomes surprisingly quite endearing.

 Greer’s writing is infused with humour.  There are some of the pratfalls and misunderstandings which are all too common with lead characters in chick-lit but the humour here runs throughout the narrative and this is what works well.  I did laugh out loud a few times but there is a wit and a warmth which heightens this novel’s appeal.  There’s also the irony of the rejected novel being about a middle-aged gay San Franciscan on a journey, questioning the meaning of his life, when this is what “Less” is all about.

 I did find it very enjoyable but I am still surprised by its Pulitzer achievement as it seems very understated compared to the more showy novels which tend to be up for awards.  It just shows what an impression this must have made on the judging panel to garner the prize but I’m still not convinced I liked it more than “Max Tivoli” even though on paper it seems just like the sort of book I would adore.  For those who tend to steer away from prize-winning novels this might be the time to think again and see if Arthur Less can win you over.

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 Less was published in the UK by Abacus in 2018

A Year To Fall In Love (Channel 4-2018)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With sport dominating the early summer TV schedules those of us who are looking for an alternative are being pushed towards the search for love.  Or that is what it feels like in my house where I’m still needing my nightly fix of Love Island and on Tuesday night Channel 4 unleashed “A Year To Fall In Love”.  This documentary show features the video diaries of 20 people over a year as they attempt to find “the one”.  This appealed because I thought it was going to be pacey – 20 people, one year all in the space of an hour.  I thought this might curb Channel 4’s love of the “recap” as there just wouldn’t be time.  In the TV schedules this programme did look like it was going to be a one-off rather than a series.  At the closing credits (when we’d seen less than 20 people) I discovered this was just a taster for the rest of the series which would be tucked away on the All-4 catch up service rather on Channel 4 itself.  Feeling just a little duped a visit to All-4 revealed 6 online episodes.  I’m not too sure why C4 would shunt this over onto the online platform, other than suggesting that it’s not the social-experiment-for-our-times I’d anticipated but something more along the lines of summer-time filler.

yeartofall2Freddy has a year to fall in love

The most fascinating aspects of this programme were the statistics. Nearly 40% of people now meet their partners online which has changed the whole rationale of the way in which people select and relate to a partner.  Online the choice can be overwhelming bringing the user into contact with people that they would never meet in their everyday social and professional life but this selection process does bring about anxiety, inability to make a decision and commit to it and a fear of being “ghosted”- a term I’d never heard before watching this.  The pitfalls of choosing online were clearly brought home in this.  The most important way to make an impression is therefore the profile photo.  Also, apparently the average relationship lasts for three months so for most it’s not too long before the whole process has to begin again.

yeartofall3Nick has a year to fall in love

On this first episode we met performance artist (?) Freddy who asked out a girl who had known as a friend for some time; husband-hunting Sophie who was on the look-out for a wealthy man who wears a big watch (?!); Nick who was struggling with the etiquette of online dating: Niki, who was keeping her girl/boy options open whose first weeks of recording her quest seemed to show progressively dodgy choices to the point where she was scared to answer her phone and Brighton resident Xander negotiating gay dating apps.  There were considerable ups and downs for all proving once again the road to love is far from smooth.

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Niki has a year to fall in love

However, the format of the programme was such that I found myself not too bothered as to whether their searches would be successful and whereas I might watch further episodes to find out more if it had a weekly time-spot on Channel 4 going onto All-4 for box-set viewing is probably something I will not bother with.  Most of us still have that mind-set that online viewing shows cannot be as good as main channel picks and because this means I am questioning C4’s commitment to this project maybe it’s not for me.  I’ll stick with “Love Island” (and I couldn’t imagine me writing that a couple of months ago!)

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The first episode of “A Year To Fall in Love” was shown at 10pm on Tuesday 19th June and is available like the rest of the series on All-4 catch-up/online service.