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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This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay (2017)- a Real Life Review

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….And it very probably will. This book certainly had me squirming (Top Tip: it’s not the best book to read during your lunch break!).  I haven’t read anything before with so much bodily fluids sloshing around (Top Tip 2: you might not want to read this it if you are pregnant).  Adam Kay has written one of the best-selling non-fiction paperbacks of the year and at long last it seems to be dawning on people what being an NHS doctor in a hospital is actually like.

Kay wrote diaries which span over six years (2004-10) from the very first day of his appointment as a House Officer, enthusiastic but terrified, to an incident which eventually led him to hanging up his stethoscope as a Senior Registrar.  It is an extraordinary and ultimately chilling catalogue.  Since giving up the medical profession Kay has turned to comedy and it was obviously his ability to pick out the funny side of his work that kept him (more or less) sane.  Long hours, patient demands, inserted foreign objects, inexplicable IT systems, patient misunderstandings, long hours, fractious home lives caused by long hours, medical misunderstanding, oh, did I mention the long hours are all present here.  Kay’s decision to focus on obstetrics and gynaecology provides many fraught moments, quite a lot of those body fluids, and will make for difficult reading at times for the squeamish.

But apart from this his account serves as a testament to just how bloody marvellous people who choose to work in the NHS are.  In recent years (and remember Kay left 7 or 8 years ago, I don’t things have got any better) the government has seen fit to try and squeeze the NHS into a corset of implausible targets, an over-emphasis on accountability, uninformed choice and poor funding so that it is only through the sheer dedication of its workers that it survives.

The expectations of people to continually deliver their best in life and death situations after incredibly long shifts and with little back-up support or care for them as individuals can only bring about stress, trauma, an exodus out of the service and in alarming statistics suicide in order to escape the never ending responsibility in an increasing litigious society.

Anyone who starts to have a flicker of hesitancy when they hear a government minister or certain sections of the press claim a medic’s life is a cushy one should be forced to read this book.  And did I mention it is also very funny….

fourstars

This Is Going To Hurt was published in the UK by Picador in 2017

 

The Dry- Jane Harper (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a book with extremely good word of mouth from readers returning one of our library copies.  It has people itching to tell others how much they enjoyed it.  Since the paperback edition arrived at the end of last year it has become one of our most borrowed books, so I’ve been patiently waiting for my turn.

 Jane Harper’s debut also gained much critical acclaim from reviewers and from her crime writer peers. (“One of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever read- David Baldacci; “Stunningly atmospheric- Val McDermid; “Enthrals from the very first page – CJ Box).  Writers of great repute were queuing up to say good things about this.  Needless to say, I had extremely high expectations.

 Aaron Falk, a policeman who specialises in financial crime, returns to the small Australian country town where he grew up to attend a funeral.  His closest childhood friend has apparently shot his wife and son and turned the gun on himself.  As the small community are shocked and outraged the dead man’s parents want answers.  Tensions are compounded by a lengthy drought which has brought this rural town to its knees and also by Falk’s return itself.  This is his first visit since a tragic incident which had rocked the community years before.  Everyone has secrets and it may be these which have just triggered the present-day tragedy.

This is a well thought out and carefully handled whodunnit with the additional tensions of a community in crisis.  Harper is a British author who has lived in Australia for the last decade and her sense of location is strong but also with a clear understanding of being an outsider.  In many ways and I’m not sure why the author it brought to mind was another Brit who has set his first two novels in small town America, Chris Whitaker. However, “The Dry” did not win me over as much as Whitaker’s excellent “All The Wicked Girls” (2017).  I have this year read another book which on publication was very much compared to the dry and marketed to the same audience, “Retribution” written by Aussie farmer and ex-miner Richard Anderson.  I think in terms of plot handling and character development “The Dry” is considerably stronger.

 What I would have liked a little more ramped up is the intensity of this lengthy drought (two years without water) and the heat playing a stronger part in the dynamics of these people rather than their present actions being motivated by the events of their past but I’m niggling here.  This is a very readable, strong debut which might not have matched those too high expectations I’d built up over the past year or so but it certainly fooled me with twists, was always involving and so highly satisfactory in the way the plot threads were all so well pulled together.

 fourstars 

The Dry was published by Little, Brown in 2016 in the UK.  I read the 2017 Abacus paperback version.

Atlantic Ballroom – Waldeck (Dope Noir 2018) – A Music Now Review

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Electro Swing seems to have been mooted for some time as being the next big thing but so far hasn’t had the lasting commercial clout that it promised, despite the odd hit which have had the smack of novelty about them.  Acts like Caro Emerald, Caravan Palace and Yolanda Be Cool have been flying the flag for this fusion of jazz and  swing with modern music  The BBC did not help matters by imposing on us in 2015 an Electro Swing track as the UK entry for the Eurovision Song contest which ended up near the bottom of the scoreboard in 24th place and probably put paid to any “cool” factor suggested by the best examples of this musical style.  There are certainly strong elements of Electro Swing in this new album release by Austrian musician Waldeck, his fifth studio album in a career which has spanned 22 years since his first EP release “Northern Lights.”

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 Klaus Waldeck

I had never heard of Waldeck before being contacted regarding the release of “Atlantic Ballroom” on Dope Noir Records last month.  I was asked about the possibility of a review and I thought I’d take a listen to see if it could be the album to revitalise my Music Now Section which I have neglected as the amount of new music I am listening to is diminishing.  It didn’t take long to see that it really does fit into the reviewsrevues brief and to ignore it would be missing out on a good thing.  This is a successful marriage of electronic dance music and trip hop elements with jazz, blues, swing and latin influences.  I’ve actually always been a bit of a sucker for retro music presented in a modern style.  In fact, one of the first singles I ever bought was “Looks Looks Looks” by Sparks which had the feel of forties swing in a quirky rock song and since then Manhattan Transfer, Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Kid Creole, Madonna’s “I’m Breathless” album and , Caro Emerald amongst others have all ensured that this kind of mix is never too far from my music playlists.  It can be cheesy, it can be cool, but the very best combines the two, doesn’t take itself that seriously and would lift the mood of any dance floor.  I can’t help thinking that Waldeck is only one guest appearance on “Strictly” or having music used in a TV ad campaign away from really breaking into the big time.

 The ace up Klaus Waldeck’s sleeve here is the featured singer who appears on half of the twelve tracks, Patrizia Ferrara, half Sicilian, half Austrian chanteuse who drips coolness onto her tracks in vocals recall some great blues and jazz artists.  There’s also three largely instrumental tracks, two songs featuring long-time collaborator vocalist Joy Malcolm (formerly from Incognito) and one featuring fellow Austrian Big John Whitfield.

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On the piano led opener “Rough Landing” Ferrara’s vocals are conveyed with the  cool style and sass not seen since the under-rated Lina’s 2001 track “Playa No More”.  There’s also a feel of The Propellerheads work with Shirley Bassey and their  “History Repeating”.  Good instrumental solos reinforce this track’s  jazz credibility and the whole thing sets out the store for the album, even if not one of the stand-outs.

 I really have come to like the 2 and a half minute instrumental  “Uno Dos.. Heissenberg”.  It holds its sixties credentials high and feels like a forgotten theme tune from a 60’s ITC Entertainment show- “Man In A Suitcase” meets “Austin Powers” with its downright grooviness merged with ethereal voices.  This is a track I would have liked to have gone on longer building to some massive crescendo of Carnaby Street influenced style, as it is it just tends to fizzle out.  The 60s feel continues for “Keep The Fire Burning” with vocalist Joy Malcolm turning out a Stax-type track with stabbing  brass and Hammond organ flourishes.  Although I do like this track it is the one which perhaps feel a little out of step with what else is on the album. 

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Patrizia Ferrara returns with four tracks which contain some of the real highspots of the album, getting under the skin with a Billie Holiday style vocal on a track with a real Cab Calloway feel in “Stay Put”, a slinky Henry Mancini “Pink Pantherish” intro to “Quicksand”which is a classy and well-structured song that again recalls Holiday and also in the phrasing some of the recent Doris Day stuff especially her 2011 track “Heaven Tonight”.  “Illusions” ups the Latin feel and with its distorted electric guitar and bass licks has a feel of 80’s Jazz-Funk over the bossa-nova style rhythms.  Best of all is the almost Charleston feel of “Never Let You Go” which sounds the most like a potential hit single on here.  The lyrics don’t matter but there is a lovely vocal performance which has shades of Peggy Lee at her perkiest.  With “Me No Americano” being such a big hit a couple of years back and also Caro Emerald establishing a world-wide reputation with a similar sound that there is still great commercial potential lurking here.

 The second instrumental is let down by that over-used sound gimmick of the scratched record.  I’m of the age where crackles were always a huge disappointment on a vinyl album and yet we still seem to have to listen to it in a digital format.  There’s not much going on in “Puerto Rico” other than the title repeated but its Latin grooves has more than a touch of Camila Cabello’s recent chart-topper “Havana”.  In this format it doesn’t hold my attention as much as many of the other tracks.  More successful, even if equally familiar in its sound is the Latin swing of “Quando” which has a feel of Rosemary Clooney and is imbued with a great sense of warmth which makes the combination of Latin rhythms and European oompah band seem a valid proposition.

 “Bring My Baby Back Home” seems the most novelty like with its “King of The Swingers” feel merged with Scatman John and his lunatic but highly likeable “Scatman’s World”.  There’s also a touch of LunchMoney Lewis and his recent hit “Bills”.  It won’t be long before you are “dub-dibby-dibby-dub-dub-ing” along and recreating the Charleston and Black Bottom dance at the Office Christmas party.  If this all sounds too cheesy it has an optimistic cheeriness which has won me over.

 The cheesiness is short-lived as “Waltz For Nathalie” is a mature instrumental  which brings to mind Swing Out Sister’s “Kaelidoscope Affair”, which I have always loved.  This has a strikingly mournful ending which feels like a suggestion of darkness looming on the horizon, noticeable on an album with such little darkness and so much optimism, but fear not as it eases into the handclapping uplift of “Freedom” the second of the two Joy Malcolm helmed tracks which feels like a club anthem with effective electro-swing touches.

One of the phrases I feel I’ve used quite often in this review is “brings to mind”.  That would suggest that “Atlantic Ballroom” is not the most original of albums but it is the wealth and variety of these “bring to minds” which makes it a compelling listen.  Waldeck has synthesized a lot of musical history into these twelve tracks and produced an album which feels positive and invigorating.  With so much Top 40 stuff now sounding the same (am I sounding like my father again?) it is good to see releases which challenge the status quo of electronic dance music and tropical vibes to offer something which feels different and fresh and yet reassuringly familiar.   

 

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Atlantic Ballroom is currently available to buy from Amazon in the UK for £16.04 new, used from £9,65 and as a download for £7.99.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

The Madonna Of Bolton – Matt Cain (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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A nine year old boy living in Bolton in the mid 1980s becomes obsessed with Madonna when given a copy of her single “Lucky Star” for his birthday.  This is the story of his next twenty years with the music of Madonna always very much a focus in his life.  Need I say any more, you are going to know already whether this book is for you.

 Madonna provides an opportunity for the young Charlie to escape into himself to avoid the anxieties of knowing he is growing up different, magnified by living in an unsophisticated, football-orientated working-class environment.  Later her talent for reinvention guides him as he makes life choices.

 Matt Cain writes well (this is his third novel and he has considerable journalistic experience) and has produced a very readable, entertaining book.  He has chosen to head each chapter with an appropriate Madonna song title which is a nifty enough idea, although at times can feel a little forced.  Over twenty years Charlie faces situations that every gay man will recognise as will every family member or friend of a gay man.  There’s virtually the whole gamut of experience in these 416 pages and it may very well be this which stops this good book from becoming a great one.

 By covering all bases Cain doesn’t allow himself to write with the depth which will provide a different viewpoint for the reader other than recognition.  Charlie himself can be somewhat shallow as a character but by narrowing the focus down and exploring certain of his issues with a greater depth I think could have proved an even more satisfactory experience.  Getting all those song titles to fit the structure and all of the stages of Charlie’s development has made the book overlong.  There were quite  few places (I read a Kindle version so my reading experience was influenced by this) where I thought it had reached a natural end and turned the page to find it hadn’t.

 I feel like I am being churlish because I would very much like people to read this book, but I can’t help feeling that with this subject matter and with the author’s accessibility and energy that there’s an even better book lurking inside.  Its episodic nature means that chapters build and end and then are followed with something which occurs months afterwards when occasionally it is the parts that fall in the gaps between chapters which would have been the most interesting to read.  This is always the danger with this type of structure and I don’t think Cain fully avoids it.  But then again, I did enjoy it.  My three star rating might seem mean and if I was reviewing this book, say, for Attitude or Gay Times magazine I would award it an extra star because I think that the readership of these titles would get much from it.  But for the more general reader….

 My current Book Of The Year, John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” covered  some of the same ground and also used this risky episodic structure and was hugely successful because as I noted then “but what comes next was just as involving or even better.”  Boyne’s book is far stronger, which in itself justifies the two star difference between them but Matt Cain certainly has a story to tell and does it well.  I will be certainly keen to read his previous novels.

 This book has been published by “Unbound” and has been funded by pledges from potential readers.  This is an idea from centuries ago given an up to date twist by using the internet to develop a fan base for a title.  The names of those who subscribed are listed at the back of the book.  This type of active participation from readers is a fascinating proposition.  I had not heard of “Unbound” before this but a visit to their website provides opportunities to find out about future projects and to sign up for their newsletter, which I have done . 

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 The Madonna Of Bolton was published by Unbound in 2018

100 Essential CDs – Number 41– Amy Winehouse – Back To Black

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Back To Black -Amy Winehouse (Island 2006)

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 2

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 Before the release of this album, I was aware of Amy Winehouse but, probably like most people hadn’t really listened to her a great deal.  I knew that her debut album “Frank” (2003) had been very well received but hadn’t really sought it out  (I did later).  I knew that it had a jazz vibe about it but wasn’t sure whether it was for me.

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There was quite a buzz about this follow-up album before its release.  I’d read a couple of reviews which had seen it as a modern take on the 60s girl group pop of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las.  I think I had seen the video of the lead single “Rehab” on what used to be a Saturday morning staple “The Chart Show” and all of this was enough to convince me to buy this album on the day it was released.  A lot of people did the same as its first week sales were enough for it to enter the UK album charts at number 3 (“Frank” had stalled at 13).  The following week it dropped seven places but word of mouth was so strong that it wasn’t long before it was heading for the top spot which it achieved on its 11th week on the chart.

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According to a recent BBC 4 “Classic Albums” documentary it went on to sell 16 million copies worldwide and was a chart-topper in virtually every country in Europe.  In the US it did not reach the very summit but Amy became the first British woman to win 5 Grammys including “Record Of The Year”.  Amy’s music and look soon ensured she was a household name everywhere.  Fame, was of course, a double-edged sword.  She had never contemplated anything like that level of success for her music and found the trappings of fame very difficult to cope with and the temptations that a healthy bank balance can bring too much to bear.  There was never another studio album and Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27.

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Because of what ended up happening to Amy it’s not as easy to listen to this album as it was when she was going strong.  There is an added level of pathos which is impossible to escape.  As a live performer I had always found her difficult to watch, you were never quite sure what you were going to get and that unpredictability even at the height of her fame would always make me feel quite tense.  Her stage presence could veer from lioness to little girl lost and the live appearances became patchier as time went on until the point that she was trying the patience of her most loyal fans.  For me, the greatness of Amy Winehouse is summed up by listening to these 11 tracks, which ended up both making and breaking her.

 

Producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi

And the music here is great.  It is one of the best studio albums by a British artist.  Her record company sent her to the US to record and six of the tracks were produced by then hot DJ and producer Mark Ronson in New York and five by Salaam Remi in Miami.  Remi had worked with Amy on “Frank”. The Ronson tracks established the feel of the album, incorporating that pain and heartbreak of the 60’s girl groups, Remi’s were going in a slightly different direction building on the jazz credentials of her debut but as soon as the Miami team heard the New York tracks they were able to tweak what they are doing to provide the cohesive sound of this work.  In the BBC 4 documentary Ronson claims he was aiming for “heartbreak on a giant scale” in recreating a mid 60’s teen angst sound.  He acknowledges that it was in the mixing by Tom Elmhirst that a more contemporary sound was added, making it more relevant and less explicitly retro.  This is actually part of what makes “Back To Black” so good.  It takes its influences from over 40 years of great pop, R&B, Reggae and Soul music and turns it into a package which sounded fresh in 2006 when it was released.  Amy had herself largely synthesized these influences and when she came to record knew what she was doing.  Mark Ronson said that these tracks were recorded faster than anything he had done before.  This was also helped by him bringing in the Dap-Kings as musicians, who through their work with Sharon Jones, brought with them their highly professional Daptone sound which recreated the sound of 60’s and 70’s R&B and funk.  Everyone knew what they were doing here and the results are evident.

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The CD kicks off with “Rehab”, which is perhaps the liveliest, most novelty like of the tracks on display but which set out Amy’s store brilliantly.  Her singles from the previous album had only been minor hits but “Rehab” sounded like a big hit from the first hearing.  It reached number 7 in the UK and 9 Stateside.  The President of Island Records could not really believe what he was hearing.  He knew the song was autobiographical and related to a real event but couldn’t imagine that this could be turned into a hit song.  It was, he said on the “Classic Albums” documentary “something that has a dark underbelly, (with which) she could actually make people smile.”  It is true that the defiance which seemed endearing on first listens now give pause to thought.  If only she had said “yes, yes, yes” instead of “no, no, no” the Winehouse story might have had a different outcome.  That sounds crass but it is a relevant point to how we hear her music today.

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However, all that is to ignore what an absolutely stonking start to the CD this track provides.  That chunky drumstick and handclap rhythm, R&B and Ska influences over Amy’s voice works a treat.  It is also hard not to be drawn into the story behind the song and the earworm of the chorus ensured its success.  This was to be the only US single hit from the album and in the UK it also become the highest charting song.  Here it was followed up by the lovely “You Know I’m  No Good” one of the greatest songs concerning infidelity and low self-esteem.  It has a sleazy, sunshiny feel with great brass work.  It also has the obscure “Roger Moore” reference which has always fascinated me although I don’t know what it refers to.  This has made me recently check the lyric sheet.  I’ve always thought Amy sang “you’re ten men down/like Roger Moore” and have always thought it was a reference to a depleted football team in one of his movies.  On that recent BBC4 documentary I had the subtitles on, and I know I should know better than wholly trust BBC subtitling but they printed the “Roger Moore” bit as “I want you more.”  Had I been singing along to this song wrongly for years mistakenly thinking it was Amy’s nod towards the former James Bond? But, thankfully the lyric sheet does reinstate him to former glories, although the correct line is “you tear men down/like Roger Moore” but I’m glad he’s there and not a entry into the pantheon of misheard lyrics.  “You Know I’m No Good” reached number 18 in the UK Charts.

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Single-wise, this was followed up by the title track, one of the highlights of the album.  Despite it not being released a single in the US this tended to perform better than “Rehab” internationally, as Amy became much better known.  Although in the UK it stalled one place lower at number 8, it was a Top 3 hit in Austria (where “Rehab” had got to #19) and became a Top 20 hit in, amongst other territories, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands and Switzerland, where “You Know I’m No Good” had also been a Top 10 hit).  “Back To Black” ladles on the drama and was helped by a moody, black and white promotional video which was Amy at her best.  The song itself is the one that best encapsulates that whole 60’s girl group things with that chilling empty bit in the middle reminiscent of a twenty-first century take on The Shangri-La’s “Remember (Walking In The Sand)”.  It’s a moody, doom-laden piece of the end of a relationship which is a cross between a deep-soul ballad and a Phil Spector production with contemporary drug and sex references.  It is a track of genius and is still striking 12 years on.

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Another highspot comes with “Tears Dry On Their Own” which uses the musical track of Motown and a “chick-a-chick” rhythm similar to what had worked so well on “Rehab”.  Here, it is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s monumental ballad “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which is synthesized into this very modern song of defiance after bad treatment in a relationship.  This became a number 16 single in the UK.

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There was still enough enthusiasm for the album for a 4th UK single release and for this the label chose the aching ballad “Love Is A Losing Game”.  On the “Classic Albums” documentary it was said that Amy was adamant that she did not want strings on this track as it would have made it cheesy.  Mark Ronson persisted despite Amy’s protestations and when she heard the finished track loved it.  This is a beautifully written  and produced song that show’s Amy’s huge potential to become a great lyricist. It revels in its own simplicity.  Releasing a 4th track as a single might have been pushing it a bit as this stalled at a lowly #33 in the UK, which is certainly no reflection on its quality.

Outside of the singles we get the slick R&B of “Me and Mr Jones” with its nod to the great Billy Paul song here transferred to a less than satisfactory relationship. “What kind of fuckery are we/Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me (dick to me)”.  I’ve never got to grips with swearing on music tracks, but on this album, Amy just gets away with it as far as I am concerned and here it actually puts a smile on my face.  It is the Ska feel which is more explicit on “Just Friends”, a good, solid album track with some a lovely little brass refrain.  “Wake Up Alone” sounds like a mid 60’s soul ballad.  Perhaps my least favourite track is “Some Unholy War” although there’s nothing wrong with it other than in this wealth of riches it does not shine out.  Amy puts in a great vocal performance, it may just because it seems to have its influence in neo-Soul rather than the retro feel of much of the rest of the album.  I also feel this a little bit about “He Can Only Hold Her” written alongside Richard and Robert Poindexter but its ska influenced brass refrains brings this back into the feel of the album.

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The album closes with the fifth of the Salaam Remi produced “Addicted”, a love song to drug use, which has a great feel but is another of those tracks where the poignancy of the tragedy of Winehouse dims the response.  This was always one of the tracks I listened the most to before Amy’s early demise, nowadays, much less so.  It’s odd that the two lyrically most charged songs “Rehab” and “Addicted” are musically the most light-hearted, bordering on novelty.  Despite this one being catchy as hell, it was unlikely to get played daytime on Radio 2.

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Amy Winehouse was original, defiant, rebellious and was like a breath of fresh air onto the music scene of the mid-noughties.  She could not, however, cope with fame and there is no doubt that the combined talents that put together this album both made and broke her.  There were no more studio albums after this so it is impossible to know where she would have gone next.  The tracks that were produced after this did not have the opportunity to be formed into something of a coherent whole and this is where this album is so good in that it stands as a complete piece, a testament of lost loves from an inspired and thrilling artist.

Back To Black is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £5.97 new,0.09 used and £8.99 as a download.  In the US it is available new from $8.70 and used from $1.51.  It is available to stream in the UK from Spotify.

Alastair Sim – Mark Simpson (2008) – A Real Life Review

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about this biography of one of Britain’s most loved film stars of the 1950s is that there’s really not an awful lot to know about him. Mark Simpson portrays him as an intensely private man who shunned anything to do with the celebrity trappings of showbiz, spurning all autograph hunters and rarely giving interviews. Nowadays, it would not be possible to become a household name and demand (and get) such privacy but Alastair Sim’s world was a very different place.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 the young Sim was a keen public speaker and became a teacher of elocution, eventually lecturing at the university. He gave this up to set up his own drama school and ended up coming to London performing verse plays and hoping to become a West End director but instead finding more stage and then film work. Part of his reticence towards publicity, Simpson suggests, might have something to do with his wife, who was 14 years younger than him and who he met when she was a young looking 12 and he a very mature looking 26. There was no evidence of impropriety between the two but the budding actor would have been very aware as to how this would have looked to outsiders, and particularly, sections of the press. In fact, Alastair and Naomi Sim were fairly inseparable until the end of his life.

Simpson is keen to play down any salacious suggestion from his subject. Sim was also a strong mentor to the young George Cole, with Cole living with the family and regularly working with Alastair. Simpson airs the rumours that fluttered around this but doesn’t dig too far or feels that there was anything behind it. Anyone looking for scandal isn’t going to find it here.

alastair2Alastair Sim & George Cole from “St Trinians”

Most of us will know Sim from a run of films in the 1950s which have been regularly shown on television ever since. From this it’s possible to think he was on screen more than he actually was. He was actually more prolific  in long-forgotten films from the pre-war years which were being churned out to fulfil quotas for British films in British cinemas. Such were the lasting popularity of his work in his golden years that I realised I had seen virtually all of them, despite them being from before I was born. “St. Trinian’s”, “The Happiest Days Of Your Life,” “Scrooge”, “London Belongs To Me”, “School For Scoundrels” all allowed Sim to play Sim (even in a dress as headmistress Miss Fritton) and this is just what the British public and I loved. In that sense he is very much the male counterpart of another great British eccentric, also famed for playing variations of herself, Margaret Rutherford, and when the two are paired together it is an absolute joy.

Alastair4Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim

I did feel that Simpson’s biography is a little under-stated but sources are inevitably limited for a man who was said to be “uninterviewable”. I’m actually glad that there wasn’t scandal. I wanted my admiration for this unique actor not to be tainted in any way. He was a complex, aloof man whose dogged obstinacy got in the way of his career and yet was one of the great warm-hearted eccentric characters of mid-twentieth century British cinema.

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Alastair Sim was published by The History Press in 2008.

The Mitford Girls – Mary S. Lovell (2001) – A Real Life Review

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Mary S. Lovell’s sixth publication reads like a labour of love.  Her subjects are a biographer’s dream.  She must have been inundated with material for this thoroughly researched work.  The big decision must have been just what to include and what to leave out as the Mitford sisters have generated so much print over the decades.

 It would be a big enough job for a biographer to focus on one of the sisters but Lovell here tackles all six, not entirely forgetting brother Tom, the third of the seven children.  Read any account of British history of the period and at least one Mitford is likely to appear, even if on the sidelines, particularly anything which examines the upper classes of the first half of the twentieth century.  In fiction too, their influence can be felt as inspiration for characters in many novels as well as directly influencing English Literature through Nancy’s highly regarded novels published from the mid 1930s to early 1960s.

 I didn’t know a huge amount about them and was never sure who was who. (I haven’t read any of Nancy’s novels but intend to).  Six attractive high society girls (their father was Baron Redesdale) who between them spanned the whole range of political beliefs.  Nancy (1904-73) became a novelist known for her autobiographically based novels and waspish humour; Pamela (1907-94) was the most sedate of the bunch who lived a more rural-based life; Diana (1910- 2003) who became one of the country’s most notorious women when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists; Unity (1914-48) who arose stronger feelings in the popular press through her friendship with Hitler; Jessica (1917-96) who, at the other end of the spectrum, became a radical Communist and Deborah (1920-2014) who became the Duchess of Devonshire and regenerated Chatsworth House.

mitfordsThe Mitford Sisters

 Admittedly, it does take a while to get the girls sorted out one from another in their younger days but things become certainly clarified in the years leading up to World War II.  It is extraordinary that these six girls came from the same privileged family.  Lovell’s approach is largely non-judgemental which can seem a little odd but is probably the best way to deal with six such disparate characters.  In fact there are seven as we must count their mother Sydney (1840-1963) who manages to keep things together but must have been driven mad by the unpredictable antics of her daughters.

 It has been 17 years since this book’s publication and now none of the sisters are  with us (Diana and Deborah were both alive in 2001) maybe a new updated edition would make this work seem complete.  Since writing this the author has focused upon another major family of the period and relatives of the Mitfords- “The Churchills” (2011).  Her latest work (2017) focuses on the high society who frolicked at Cannes in 1920-60.

 Reading this fascinating biography has given me a taste for the fiction of this period – I must read Nancy Mitford and work my way once again through Evelyn Waugh at the very least.  This, however, is a tale of a family which is stranger than fiction and Mary S. Lovell does a great job at bringing these women to life.

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 The Mitford Girls was published by Abacus in 2001.

Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It has been Man Booker announcement week. After the last couple of years of reading the shortlist, beginning as soon as the long-listed titles were chosen so I got some chance of fitting them in time before the winner’s announcement, I decided this year not to read any of them.

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, last year’s winner “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders proved what a lottery the whole thing is (Julian Barnes has referred to the award as “Posh Bingo”). Secondly, despite reading a good chunk of eligible literary fiction during the year I hadn’t even read one title on the longlist and when the shortlist was announced I wasn’t motivated enough by the choices to put this right. I did think that after the last couple of last summer/autumns getting through the titles that it was going to become a bit of an obsessive feature in my reading year, but I haven’t missed it in the slightest this year.

That is in many ways a shame because it this Literary Prize’s 50th Anniversary and I don’t know whether the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the award, Anna Burns for “Milkman” was the most deserving winner. (I’d read one previous novel by Richard Powers but not his latest, all the rest of the authors were new to me). I didn’t even watch the announcement on TV.

I did, however, tune in to this BBC4 documentary which was shown to mark the Booker’s 50th and which concentrated more upon the Prize night and the intrigue and controversy which has dogged or (more probably) enriched its history. Apparently, “the Booker has always been a magnet for scandal “ and this hour long documentary was prepared to spill the beans.

It was a mildly diverting hour which saw such anecdotes as John Banville recalling how one short-listed year he had got so drunk that had he won the award he wouldn’t have been able to collect it (he didn’t win), Anne Enright not being able to visit the loo, judges falling out over their choices and Selina Scott floundering on a live TV presentation by not recognising the judges. More shocking than all of this was the amount of cigarette smoke wafting in the air in clips from award ceremonies of just a few years back and also the number of times we saw the same bits of footage (Yann Martel jumping to his feet in triumph on quite a few occasions, for example).

Despite it being one of the literary world’s most prestigious prizes it can be a bit of a rod for the winners’ backs. 2103 winner Eleanor Catton, the youngest recipient, confided it has taken her years to get back on track and Dotti Irving, PR for the prize, said; “Quite often writers are in the middle of their next book. They want peace and quiet for that, well, they’re not going to get peace and quiet in the wake of the Man Booker.”

Nevertheless, this is the one that everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants to win. Kingsley Amis famously claimed he didn’t until he did, then it was a different story. Some of the older clips illustrated how media-savvy the modern writer has to be compared to the intellectual ramblings of literary titans of the 70’s and 80’s a time when everything seemed very beige.

I really want the Man Booker to feel more relevant. You can find the odd gem on the shortlist but they do need to ensure that they are getting the balance between quality and readability right and I do think that the Costas, for one, are currently doing this better. However, I certainly would not turn down the opportunity to be a Man Booker judge. This year there was a different feel to the longlist with both a graphic novel and more commercial crime fiction (Belinda Bauer’s “Snap”), which could have shaken things up had it appeared on the shortlist. With Val McDermid on the judging panel I had high hopes but it was not to be.

barneys22018 judges with the shortlisted titles

Judging from the title BBC4 gave this there was an emphasis on the in-fighting in an attempt to make it all seem a little more sexy and watchable than it turned out to be. It did get me looking up how many Booker winners I have read from the last 50 years and I make it 15, which is probably more than the average reader. Will this year’s winner bring my total up to 16…..? You’ll have to watch this space…..

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Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups was shown at 9pm on BBC4 on Monday 15th October. It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

Not Dead Yet – Peter James (2012) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This 8th instalment of the Roy Grace series pushes Peter James upwards in my list of most read authors, now sitting at number 8 just below Patrick Gale. Its predecessor “Dead Man’s Grip” became my first James five star recommendation earlier this year. I felt that it was a classic crime novel which had everything I would look for in a police procedural. This is not as good.

I used to live in Brighton and part of my attachment to this series is to do with its location and very strong grounding in reality. Although here the locations are present James seems to have ramped up the plot to a heightened level which at times hovers too close to the preposterous. Central to this is a type of character I’ve come across before and I’m yet to like. This character, here called Gaia, is a Madonna/Lady GaGa hybrid of the huge international celebrity. She was present, along similar lines in Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time” (2016) where she was called Aimee and was the weak spot in an otherwise impressive work and, here, despite me thinking there’s value in exploring the notion and trappings of celebrity, Gaia also does not ring true in this context.

With a stalker on her trail she returns to her Brighton birthplace to take up a film role as mistress to George IV using the Royal Pavilion as a location. Others are interested in her return closer to home. Meanwhile, a torso is discovered on a chicken farm and Roy Grace inches further towards fatherhood. There’s also significant development in two ongoing plot lines; Grace’s missing wife Sandy and the leaking of sensitive information to the press.

Although Gaia’s presence can make the plot feel far-fetched the groundwork is set so well in this series that it doesn’t really matter. James continues his blurring of fact and fiction with the film co-stars Hugh Bonneville and Joseph Fiennes written in. He also uses the real names and professions of many of those law-enforcers who contribute to his research.

The whole thing is more larger than life than usual but the rooted ongoing characters and their lives feels important and once again this really drew me back in. That is why I think it is so important to read this series in order. It does crank up to a climax which affected me more because James has made me care for the characters. If I had just picked this off the shelf without reading any of the series before I might have thought it just a bit silly. Pace is good and it reads well and all in all, despite my reservations, this is a solid instalment to a great crime series which just falls short of being considered amongst its best.

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Not Dead Yet was published in 2012 by Macmillan.

Turn The Beat Around – Peter Shapiro (2005) – A Real Life Review

realives

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There’s a lot to take in whilst reading American journalist Shapiro’s first book subtitled “The Secret History Of Disco”. I’ve read it before back when it was first published and I’m familiar with the author’s other works “The Rough Guide To Soul and R&B” (2006) and “Soul: 100 Essential CDs” (2000) the latter being a work I consult often and a probable inspiration for my own 100 Essential CD section of the blog.

I saw this book stood looking fairly unloved on the shelves of one of the Isle Of Wight’s larger libraries. It hadn’t been stamped out for three years and yet had survived every unpopular book cull so someone must have been looking out for it. I realised I couldn’t remember anything about it, which for a book which deals in subjects I’m interested in I found surprising. In fact, this and the 1999 publication “Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco” by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are very much the standard texts for this whole period of music history. (The excellent “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti provides very much a contemporary record rather than an analysis of the genre). Jones is British and Kantonen Finnish so American Shapiro’s view has a different slant.

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It is highly appropriate that this book focuses on New York as it is from the clubs of the Big Apple where the disco scene exploded and with which it is most associated through Studio 54 and “Saturday Night Fever”. It was from this bankrupt city, dangerous and corrupt, that people began to gather in sizeable numbers to seek some kind of communal uplift. Shapiro states it was from the rotten apple of New York City that disco music emerged. I’ve trodden on similar ground recently with Edmund White’s “City Boy” and it may have been that which led me back to this book. White was living in New York in this period and visited some of the clubs, although his interests lay more in cruising than the sounds from the speakers. Disco was music for the dispossessed. Black, gay and Latin sounds fused together to make some of the most uplifting music of all time and Shapiro is thorough in picking out its key moments.

He’s strong on the pre-history taking his story back to late 1930’s Hamburg, Germany where the Swing Kids were defying Nazi discipline to meet and dance to DJ chosen sounds wearing fashion and seeking out music that would enrage the authorities. It was Motown who provided the blueprint sound of disco in 72/73 with the Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks making Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson the first disco producers. The 4/4 steady beat and hi-hat rhythms came later in 1973 courtesy of a man who would play on so many disco classics, drummer Earl Young, who first kickstarted this new rhythm pattern on Harold Melvin & Bluenotes’ “The Love I Lost”.

Where I find Shapiro disconcerting is that it is not always clear where his enthusiasms lie. Jones and Kantonen seem to be much more fans and some of the music they profess to like best can be that which Shapiro pours most vitriol on. He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters. He is more likely to bring out negative aspects in highlighting the steps in the music’s demise than to celebrate its high spots and that to me seems unfortunate.

This may have something to do with the difference in the American and Jones’ and Kantonen’s European perspective. In the US disco famously died. Its last hours was at a Chicago baseball stadium where latent racism and homophobia exploded in a staged destruction of hundreds of disco records which ended up in a near riot. From then on disco music disappeared from radio airwaves and US pop charts. Shapiro puts this down to the continued commercialism of the scene with artists from other music worlds and earlier eras jumping on the disco bandwagon. (I have a soft spot for the Ethel Merman Disco Album and whereas Shapiro would gasp in horror at Andy Williams’ almost breathtaking reworking of his “Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” it is a huge favourite of Jones and Kantonen). America also got fed up with what disco was doing to its country with conservatism and family values back on the ascendent. Shapiro, not one to beat around the bush states;

“With its mincing campness, airbrushed superficiality, limp rhythms, flaccid guitars, fey strings and over-produced sterility, disco seemed emblematic of America’s dwindling power; the high falsettos of disco stars like the Bee Gees and Sylvester sounding the death knell for the virility of the American male.”

And with macho rock radio losing audiences there had to be a fight back. The big difference here is that in Europe we were quite happy with virility’s death knell and Disco never went away and from this we’ve largely repackaged  back to the US Electronic Dance Music which is one of the most prevelant musical styles today. Shapiro does acknowledge this.

Despite the author’s thoroughness of research, music lists and detailed bibliography I prefer the more celebratory tone of “Saturday Night Forever” as it feels closer to what this music, which I first heard as an impressionable teenager, means to me.

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Turn The Beat Around was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2005.