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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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100 Essential CDs – Number 31 – Phil Spector/Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You

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A Christmas Gift For You (Phil Spector Records 2002)

UK Chart Position – 19 (in 1983)

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Now, I know this is going to be a controversial choice.  I am in no way condoning the actions of Phil Spector that currently finds him a convicted killer in the American prison system.  The man is undeniably a disturbed individual whose drive for perfection has pushed him over the edge to paranoia and madness.  He is the mastermind behind this recording but to ignore what is undoubtedly the best Christmas album of all time and the role of the artists who take part in this recording also doesn’t feel right.

philspector2Phil and Ronnie Spector

In the UK these songs can be heard on the radio at Xmas time and appear on many compilations.  It’s not like convicted paedophile Gary Glitter who was at one time another voice of Christmas who is never played publicly.  There’s also precedence here in someone who was known as the British Phil Spector, Joe Meek, who shot his landlady  and then himself in a murder-suicide in 1967.  This also horrific act has not prevented play of his biggest hit “Telstar” by the Tornados (once oddly cited as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop song!).  The writing was on the wall early on for Spector, a man who is often described as a meglomaniac, who as a young artist and songwriter macabrely used his father’s graveyard epitaph “To Know Him Is To Love Him” as the inspiration for his first number one hit for his group The Teddy Bears and virtually imprisoned wife Ronnie which she recounted in her chilling autobiography “Be My Baby” (1990) and was rumoured to bring guns to the recording studio.  There was a horrific car accident in the mid 70’s and years of recluse before the fateful shooting in 2003 and subsequent incarceration for murder in the second degree.

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But, I’ve decided to put the history of Spector behind me in this celebration of a joyful Christmas album, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.  Just as the John Lewis or Coca-Cola ads signify the start of Christmas nowadays in Christmas pasts for me the festive season never really got going until I heard The Ronettes sing “Frosty The Snowman” on the radio (although Christmas started much later when I was young!) 

This album was originally released in 1963.  This is the digitally remastered CD which appeared on Phil Spector records in 2002.  It has been released countless times over the years. At one time it was re-released on the Beatles’ Apple Records.  It has appeared regularly in Billboard’s Christmas Music chart listings and its UK chart peak was 19 in 1983 when it was teamed up with a greatest hits album.  I would have played this many times over that festive period.  It has appeared on Rolling Stone magazines list of the greatest album of all time, appears in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and is apparently the all-time favourite album of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose layered vocal harmonies of their hits is a direct nod towards Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”.  It hasn’t sounded quite the same since Spector’s incarceration but a Christmas has never gone by without me listening to it. The All Music Guide To Soul publication rates it five stars and describes it as “This is the Christmas album by which all later holiday releases had to be judged, and it has inspired a host of imitators.”

philspector4Darlene Love

It is part of my own little Yuletide tradition that every December 24th I have to hear Darlene Love perform her version of “White Christmas” which opens this CD. The reason for this is that little spoken bit when she says – “It’s December 24th”, I like to say “it is” before she carries on with “I’m longing to go up north.”.  Opening with that fabulous echoey sound and taken at a faster pace than Bing’s version.  This is the LA version of “White Christmas” as the sunny weather is making Darlene nostalgic for a bit of snow.  This is my favourite version of the song, I’ve always found Bing’s version to be a bit depressing but this is full of anticipation, snow and, amazingly, sunshine.  It’s not all about the production here as Darlene’s vocal performances on all her tracks are a treat.

philspector5The Ronettes out looking for Frosty The Snowman

Next up is that Christmas song I have always looked out for from a child, the tale of “Frosty The Snowman” by the Ronettes.  Great use of pizzicato strings gives the feeling of ice, the great split second pause after Ronnie Spector sings “Stop!” and those delightfully naïve lyrics makes this a gem of a Christmas tune.  “The Bells Of St. Mary’s”, a less familiar song which dates from 1917 has lyrics which I really don’t know what’s going on but I know that lyrically it has no connection with Christmas.  That apparently came when it was linked with a festive scene in the Bing Crosby film of the same name and with Bings’ close connection with Hollywood Christmases, this song found itself being associated with the season despite lyrics such as the bells calling “the young loves/the true loves/who come from the sea”. It always makes me think of mermaids and the falling red leaves puts it very much in the autumn time zone.  Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans are given a massive production here and at times it’s a bit of a battle but the lead singer Bobby Sheen, with Darlene Love and Fanita James on back-up just about avoids being swamped.

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The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” begins with a spoken intro about Santa’s workshop and kicks off a storming version which has inspired most other versions since then, especially the arguably more famous version by Bruce Springsteen. There’s a  greathonking sax solo.  The lasting influence of this album is also evidenced in the next track The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” which opens with woodblocks and a neighing horse into a “Ring-a-ring- a- ring -dong-ding” backing vocals.  This song is a certain inspiration for what must know be the biggest Xmas song of all time, Mariah Carey’s pension-fund “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.  23 years on from it’s original release Mariah’s song is currently sitting at number 5 in the UK Top 40 charts where it makes an appearance every year, as it races up charts all around the world.  It has actually never topped the UK Christmas charts and has never made the Top 10 in her homeland but this is now the most recognisable Yultetide song, eclipsing the Slades and Wizzards of my youth.  The Ronettes who provide this track with its inspiration do a glorious version of this song written by Leroy Anderson who was also responsible for the lovely instrumental track “The Typewriter”. It has the real feel of the warmth returning to all your regions after some time out in the snow!

philspector7The Ronettes had a fabulous, fierce image

There’s some neo-classical string work to open up another one of the gems of the album the relentless “It’s A Marshmallow World” by Darlene Love.  This song was once again originally a hit for Bing Crosby but I cannot imagine his version has anywhere near the gusto that Darlene puts into it.  An absolute treat of a track. 

There’s footsteps and a smacker of a kiss to introduce the return of The Ronettes for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.  Here’s another song which has inspired other versions including the Jackson Five where Michael is unusually irritating as the tell-tale who’s going to tell Daddy what he’s seen Mommy doing!   The Crystals’ version of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is reminiscent of “Frosty The Snowman” but not quite as good.  Darlene Love is back as the voice of Christmas with “Winter Wonderland” and it is hard not to sing along she frolics and plays “ the eskimo way”. 

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The Crystals

My favourite of the Crystals tracks on display is “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers”.  This song was originally a march for the piano written at the end of the nineteenth century with its English lyrics dating from the early 1920’s.  I love this tale of a toy shop coming alive and amongst wood blocks and chimes the girls put in a great vocal performance.  There’s a fabulous sense of kitsch to the whole thing.  I love it and it is another of the joys of Christmas.

The one original song written for this album has become a Christmas standard.  Spector alongside Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich gave “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” to Darlene although it was originally written for Ronnie Spector. It’s a big song which requires big emotions and is probably better suited for Darlene’s voice.  In 2010 this was named Rolling Stone magazine’s best Rock N Roll Christmas song and there is no doubt the sense of yearning Darlene puts across in her vocals has made this of lasting importance. It builds to a thundering climax and is a great example of that Wall of Sound in action.  Other notable versions of the song have been recorded by Michael Buble, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis and it’s often featured in Christmas movies.

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Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans are back for a song written and made famous by Hollywood’s Singing Cowboy, Gene Autrey and “Here Comes Santa Claus” which has some great trumpet work amongst the wood blocks, chimes and bells.  The whole thing is rounded up by Phil Spector himself who hovers between the pretentious and creepy with his spoken voice-over of “Silent Night” as he explains his reasoning behind the album.  There’s something always morbidly fascinating about this track and when he finishes his bit it does have a real surge of angelic voices.  As this has been playing as I write this my partner has come in to the room to sit and listen and say “Why do I have to stop to listen to this every year and why do my eyes fill with tears when Spector thanks Darlene Love”?.  I’m not sure either but I know what he means. 

Phil Spector believed that he was making an album which would be revolutionary in the music industry and that it was something nobody had done before, doing something special for the music of Christmas.  Fifty-four years on suggests that this was successful.  Away from the holiday season Spector produced so many amazing records, my favourite of which being “He’s A Rebel” for the Crystals but also all-time classics for The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, The Ramones and The Beatles both as a group and on solo projects.  If only the rest of his personal life had brought as much joy.

There are many versions of Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on YouTube as it was an annual event on the David Letterman Show.  Here is Darlene back in 1998.

 

A Christmas Gift For You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72.  It can be downloaded for £4.99 . In the US it is available  from $3.26 and $5.99 as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify,

Stronger (2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Special

 

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The good folks over at Nudge-book.com in conjunction with publicists Thinkjam contacted me regarding a book to film adaptation.  Due to unforeseen circumstances the book has not yet arrived but I have had the opportunity, thanks to Liongate to view the film which opens this week.

Stronger is the real-life story of Jeff Bauman who, in an attempt to win over his ex-girlfriend decided to stand at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 with a congratulatory poster praising her achievement.  This meant he was at the wrong place at the wrong time as a terrorist bomb explosion shattered his life and led to a double above-knee amputation.  “Stronger” is the tale of Jeff’s attempts to fight back and get his life back on track.

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To be honest, this is not the sort of film I would normally seek out.  It makes for tough viewing and there is little in the way of light relief but it is undeniably very well done.  The film is directed by David Gordon Green, a screenwriter and producer, who has worked in different film genres and also in television since his critically acclaimed 2000 debut “George Washington” (not about the President) which he wrote, directed and produced.  It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman and Miranda Richardson as his mother, Patti.  Both performances deserve to be given consideration at Oscar nomination time.

We first meet Jeff in the middle of a losing streak.  His relationship with Erin has ended, he is botching things up in his job as a chicken roaster for Cost Co, he’s living with his mother who has a drink problem and socialises with a group of boorish macho sports fans.  His relationship has ended because “he never shows up”, the irony being when he does show up to cheer Erin on he gets blown up. 

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I do think that this is a film which will resonate more with an American audience.  There’s an entrenched Americanness which is inescapable.  It’s rooted in American working- class culture, depicting Jeff as an ordinary guy, which here comes across via sport, beer and macho male banter.  I did initially feel quite distanced.  There’s also the American sense of “Gung-ho” and flag-waving patriotism which we British viewers find a little strange.  In many ways the film does challenge this.  In a very unsettling scene Jeff has become a beacon of hope for the Boston community and the embodiment of the “Boston Stronger” campaign.  He is asked to come on to the rink with a flag at an ice-hockey game far too early in his rehabilitation and is unable to accept the title of “hero” which is bestowed upon him.  His family find this difficult to comprehend leading to a showdown with his mother when she invites Oprah Winfrey to interview him.

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The whole thing is extremely sobering and powerfully brings home the long- lasting repercussions for Jeff and those around him.  A couple want their photo taken with him because they seem him as an example of “don’t let the terrorists win”.  Jeff’s response is that the terrorists have won- they have taken his legs from him.  It’s not possible to watch without sensing that taste of bitterness in the mouth.  A scene of reckless behaviour whilst drunk and high and the official response to it would have seemed too much if it was not obviously rooted in truth.  None of this makes for easy viewing.

We can tell from the title and the existence of an autobiography that at some point Jeff has to begin to put his life back together, but it does seem a long time coming.  A long-delayed meeting with the man who saved his life begins that process and we are left, inevitably and thankfully, with a feeling of hope for this extraordinary survivor.

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Jake Gylennhaal is a fair chunk older than Bauman who was 28 at the time of the bombing but he gives the part the right sense of experience and gravitas to make the painful scenes plausible yet watchable as it is hard to keep your eyes off him.  Moments where I felt an urge to close my eyes (there’s removal of bandages) I found myself fixed on Gylennhaal’s reactions.  Tatiana Maslay as Erin is so often the voice of reason and Miranda Richardson as his mother plays a significant part in the success of the film.

DSCF7354_RJake Gylenhaal with Jeff Bauman

It’s not an easy film to watch and would certainly not be first choice for a festive night out but one man’s determination to succeed should entice audiences.  I did emerge from it feeling like I had been pulled through the wringer but Jeff Bauman’s fight-back deserves to be told and this production has done his real-life story justice.

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Stronger is released in cinemas nationwide in the UK on December 8th.  View the trailer here. Many thanks to Nudge for the opportunity to do this.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous – Dawn French (2010)

dawnfrench1Now, before I start, I consider Dawn French to be a National Treasure.  She has kept me laughing for more years than I care to remember. I’ve watched every episode of “French & Saunders”, and some many times over and there is no doubt that their peak as a comedy partnership came quite a few years ago.  There has been a tendency from both Dawn and Jennifer to try too hard to get us to laugh and not all the projects that they have worked on, both separately and together have always been successful as far as I am concerned.  For Dawn, there can be both a darkness and a lack of subtlety which can creep in to the detriment of her work.

This was her first novel published in 2010 and which has just been sat on my shelves for the last few years waiting to be read.  I found her 2008 memoir “Dear Fatty” to be impressively written but her chosen style felt slightly alienating for this reader.  It was really a selection of letters aimed for those she cared about, reminiscing along the way.  I thought this device held the reader away at some distance, her offerings of wise words and advice felt like I was reading something I had no real business to read.  There were jokey letters to the likes of Madonna and David Cassidy which felt they were there just for a laugh and didn’t work well, but central to the piece were two recipients, Jennifer Saunders (the “Fatty” of the title) and, very powerfully, Dawn’s father who committed suicide when she was in her late teens.  Reading these letters in particular showed a writer who can work with emotions and humour which boded well for her as a novelist.

The buzz she got from writing this inspired her to have a go at fiction and this book is the result.  Structurally, she’s gone along similar lines to the letters by using the journals of members of a family to tell her tale. 

Let’s just say she didn’t win me over immediately.  Dora is approaching eighteen in a fug of rage against her mother, Mo, a child psychologist who is struggling with her own teenagers, also including Peter who has adopted a fey Oscar Wilde young dandy persona.  It is largely these three who provide their accounts of the weeks leading to Dora’s 18th and Mo’s 50th birthdays.

To start with the vitriol in this family took me aback and I found it quite difficult to read.  In my job at the library I’m aware of a number of people who have borrowed this book with great anticipation and returned it with the feedback that they gave up on it quite early on.  I’m made of sterner stuff and persevered even when the characters were at their most unlikeable. I found myself waiting for laugh out loud moments which were just not coming.  In fact, once I began to appreciate that I wasn’t going to do this I found myself getting more into the plot and finding that this is all rather effectively done.  There’s actually a great deal of control being operated in what I found initially unsubtle and as the tale develops the characters did begin to win me over.  So much so that I felt a little bereft of their company when I finished the book.  Dawn has even included the cake recipes cooked for the family members by grandma, Pamela, who is the voice of reason throughout the turmoils of family life.  We all know that most problems can be alleviated somewhat by cake and here is the author illustrating this very nicely.

Once again, as with “Dear Fatty”, this was not totally what I was expecting and it took a while to draw me in but I found this a strong fictional debut which deserved the healthy sales it attracted.

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A Tiny Bit Marvellous was published in the UK in 2010 by Michael Joseph.

Joe Orton Laid Bare (BBC2 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The summer I left school I discovered Joe Orton.  I was about to embark on a Drama course and was encouraged to read as many playwrights as possible.  I don’t remember if Joe Orton was actually on any recommended reading lists but it was his work that I became side-tracked by.

My eighteen year old self appreciated the rebel, the working class boy made good, his love at taking swipes at the establishment and most of all his use of language, rooted in what people actually say, which has always been for me one of the things I find most funny and has led to my love of Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood even right along to “Gogglebox” which just last the other night had me crying with laughter at an observation made by one of the regular viewers  (Izzi from Leeds actually).

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The more I read by and about Joe Orton the more obsessed I became.  His violent end appealed to my sense of the macabre and I devoured his diaries, probably not the most suitable reading material for an impressionable teenager.  When I eventually went to college I spent a good chunk of my first term producing an essay on, if I remember rightly, a quote of his about his work being from “the gutter”.  I don’t think I ever researched anything with such enthusiasm and it was probably my academic peak as I remember the assignment being awarded with an “A”.

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His work has never entirely left me. I read his plays, the diaries, and John Lahr’s masterful biography regularly and all three would appear on my lists of my favourite books.  The 1987 film, based on Lahr’s work, “Prick Up Your Eyes” with its screenplay by the perfect choice, Alan Bennett, is one of my all time favourite films and features career best performances from Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.  Over the years I’ve seen a number of productions of his plays.  They are not always easy to get right.  Probably the best I’ve seen live was a touring version of “Loot” with Letitia Dean.  That was certainly better than the 1970 film version starring Richard Attenborough and Lee Remick in the part of the nurse played by Letitia Dean.  I do, however, rate the film version of “Entertaining Mr Sloane, also from 1970, mainly because of the delightfully grotesque performance by Beryl Reid.

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Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina from “Prick Up Your Ears”

Joe Orton Laid Bare was an 80 minute documentary on BBC2 which marked 50 years since the death of the playwright at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and then took his own life.  It featured a range of talking heads and extracts of Orton’s work- none of which fully conveyed the full flavour his work.   Orton specialised in farcical comedy which needs layers to be built as the play proceeds so to see a section out of context is probably not the best way of viewing his work.  The repertory company including Antony Sher, Jaime Winstone, Ben Miles and Freddie Fox who portrayed these segments with great gusto but they were perhaps the least successful aspect of the programme.  Orton was a writer who was perhaps just finding his peak at the time of his death, his last play “What The Butler Saw” is acclaimed his best.  There was a dramatization that I hadn’t seen before of a piece submitted for “Oh Calcutta!” which was embarrassing in its crass crudity which I think if I was producing this documentary I would have cut.

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There were sections taken from the diaries brought to life by actors portraying a young and older Joe Orton which worked well.  There’s a recognition generally that the British Prison Service made Orton the playwright.  It took him away from the influence of the older Halliwell whose belief in his own literary skills was stultifying Orton’s writing and gave him the chance to find his own voice.  Both Orton and Halliwell were imprisoned (and this sounds incredible now) for defacing library books.  As someone who works within libraries I would have to take a dim view of this but there is something about the enthusiasm and care over the period of time that they did this and the outrageousness in what they came up with that always makes me laugh (against my better nature of course!)

joeorton6One of the many defaced library books which ended up in a prison sentence

There was a shining light in this programme which made it memorable to me who wasn’t expecting to find out a great deal of new things about Orton and that was the participation of his sister, Leonie as consultant and talking head.  Leonie, I believe manages the Orton Estate and is memorably portrayed in “Prick Up Your Eyes” by the fabulous Frances Barber.  Leonie in real life was more Julie Walters, (who played Orton’s mother in the film and who had the immortal line, and I may be paraphrasing a little, “I bet Dirk Bogarde never distempered his mother’s tablecloth!”) and her contributions to this programme were an absolute joy.  

joeorton7Joe’s sister, Leonie

For fifty years she has lived with the memories of her brother, from a working class Leicestershire background, who absorbed his parents into his characters (the weak men were his father, the surreally outrageous often coming from his mother).  She told a story about Joe returning home and hiding a microphone behind a loaf of bread to record his mother’s utterances which were then used in his work.  There were the few months of the golden era when Joe became the feted star of the West End – a radical new voice who won awards, appeared on the telly, was asked to write a screenplay for the Beatles and began to aspire to an existence completely baffling to the family.  And then, all of a sudden it was all over.  Leonie had to live with the repercussions of such a violent, horrible death, the discovery of the diaries and her inheritance of the whole of the Orton output, including unpublished works which she says pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, and yet, she says with a twinkle in her eye, are still funny. Fifty years may have gone past but you can tell from Leonie that the presence of that naughty older brother, 11 years her senior, is still very much with her and a very real love for him shone through. 

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Other talking heads included biographer John Lahr and those that appeared in the original productions of his plays including Kenneth Cranham, Patricia Routledge and Dudley Sutton and those who knew him and Kenneth Halliwell in their professional capacity and even a casual pick-up of Joe’s .  I felt Kenneth was moved further back than usual, certainly more so than in the film, which focuses on his mental deterioration to the point of murder of suicide and which elicits a fair amount of sympathy in Alfred Molina’s portrayal.  There was less sympathy in this documentary, nobody really had anything good to say about Halliwell.  What was interesting was the willingness to apportion some blame into a direction I had not heard before.  Peter Wills was the head of Rediffusion Television Drama who seemed to be guilty of continually undermining Kenneth publicly when he was obviously suffering from serious mental health issues, he interfered with treatment and seems to have exacerbated Halliwell’s paranoia.  Kenneth Cranham said “Almost certainly I think that Peter Wills brought about the murder…I think there was something Machiavellian going on….I think Peter Wills is a nasty piece of work.”  This view was echoed by other talking heads.  There was a tape-recording from the doctor who treated Hallilwell who showed how far we have thankfully come in the treatment of mental health patients.

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The documentary built up towards the grisly killing in the small claustrophobic flat they shared as Halliwell began to fear separation from Joe, because of both what he had read from the diaries and from what Joe and others had been saying.  An air of continuing mystery is maintained by the latter days of the diaries going missing, taken by Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s agent when she arrived to identify the bodies. 

These 80 minutes fed my continuing fascination with Joe Orton.  I think the balance of the programme was right.  I’m not sure how well Orton actually benefits from academic research on his output.  I’ve read some over the years and it doesn’t ever come off.  It was important to let those like John Lahr, who has spent decades examining the man and his work, those who worked with him and especially sister Leonie to have their say to commemorate this extraordinary individual who burnt brightly and whose influence on comic writing still can be felt today.

fourstarsJoe Orton Laid Bare was first shown on BBC2 on Saturday 25th November at 9pm.  It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player

100 Essential Books – The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018

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“If I have learnt one thing from my life in London, it is that sometimes it is necessary to descend to deceit, and that those who survive have the wit to know that.”

This novel is not due to be published until February 2018 but I’m giving you plenty of warning as you should be adding it to your to-be-read-lists for it is an absolute gem of a novel.  Regular readers will know that I have a huge soft spot for big, Dickensian style Victorian-set novels like Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” and Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  I’ve been a little disappointed by some offerings in this area over the last year so (particularly the much-acclaimed “The Essex Serpent”) and others including Australian author M J Tjia’s crime series debut “She Be Damned”(2017) and Canadian Steven Price’s doorstep sized “By Gaslight” (2016) showed promise but neither quite pulled off the authentic feel of London in the nineteenth century.  If they did not live up to my expectations this debut from Derbyshire resident Laura Carlin certainly does.  I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.

Young people have been going missing from the London streets for some time and eighteen year old Hester, the narrator of the novel, has fallen on hard times.  An incident in Smithfield Market leads her to an association with a family who could provide her with a future or who may bring about further downfall.  The story builds beautifully, and although the situations and characters may feel familiar for Dickens fans Carlin puts it all together in a way which is inventive, thrilling and feels new.  It is rich in atmosphere throughout.

At the heart is a relationship between Hester and the daughter of the family, Rebekah Brock, who has been persuaded Pygmalion-like to educate Hester in a plan arranged by her brother Calder, a leading light of The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity and it is this connection between the two women which will attract all Sarah Waters fans to this novel. 

Like Dickens, secrets are revealed gradually by characters brought in to move the plot along and Hester’s account turns into a quite extraordinary tale of grim London existences underneath the cloak of the respectable and socially acceptable. The last third sees the plot move up a gear considerably as revelations follow one after another and the danger Hester puts herself into had me holding my breath.  The plot twists keep coming giving the real feel of a Dickens serialisation

This novel is proof alone that Carlin is a major new talent and her brand of literary historical fiction should provide her with big sales.  I absolutely loved it. 

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The Wicked Cometh is due to be published by Hodder and Stoughton on 1st February 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 62 – Jimmy Somerville – The Singles Collection 1984-90

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The Singles Collection 1984-1990 (London 1990)

UK Chart Position – 4

 

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This 17 track album was released six years into the hit making career of Jimmy Somerville by which time he had scored hits as lead singer in two groups, Bronski Beat and The Communards and had success as a solo singer.  It brought Jimmy’s single releases up to date from 1984’s “Smalltown Boy” to his version of “To Love Somebody” which climbed the charts alongside this album.  Sales of this release were strong across Europe and it also stalled at the number 4 position in Germany, France (where it was awarded a Platinum Disc) and Switzerland and hovered just outside the Top 5 in the Netherlands. 

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Jimmy is a unique performer.  Blessed with an angelic falsetto and a no-nonsene attitude which sometimes set him apart in the music industry.  He’s been quick to move onto new ventures in the past which could have been of some detriment to his career.  He’s an under-rated artist, who got a lot of stick from the media, not ready to embrace an out-gay man with a scorching falsetto voice.  Now thirty-three years on from that first hit Britain’s biggest selling artist world- wide is an out gay man with a falsetto voice.  It’s been a long journey from Somerville to Sam Smith and this album shows how good this inspirational performer, Jimmy Somerville is.

From Somerville to Smith – a natural progression?

The debut hit kicks off this CD and although back in 1984 it sounded on the surface very much like typical electro-disco a listen to the lyrics told a very different story.  “Smalltown Boy”, written by the band,  told the largely autobiographical tale of Jimmy’s escape from Scotland to London because he wasn’t able to live the life he wanted, the “run away/turn away” hook of the chorus got under the skin but it was the verses that packed the most punch.  “Mother will never understand/why you had to leave/for the love that you need”.  The whole thing is tinged with sadness and loneliness as although the only option has been to escape you are left with the feeling that issues raised have not been resolved. 

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The video which showed a “queerbashing” (as it would have been termed then) at a swimming pool further hit the message home.  This was all quite revolutionary back in 1984, we had never heard such sentiments in a hit song (the closest being perhaps Rod Stewart’s “The Killing Of Georgie” which was from a third person point of view and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”, with its short stories of those who needed to escape).  Here was a first-person account from an openly gay group at the time when homosexuality remained very much in the closet in the music business.  Just a few months before we had Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s brashly sexual “Relax”, a song which most listeners would have not had much of an idea as to what was being implied (before the BBC ban which gave it endless publicity), which had been pretty much an evolution of the sexual freedom which the Village People had suggested but were never really able to deliver upon.  Both these acts might have veered towards being cartoonish to the average listener yet Bronksi Beat’s first offering felt very real and more than a little chilling. 

Paul Flynn’s recent impressive survey of gay Britain “Good As You” took as its starting point an episode of “Top Of The Pops” where Frankie and Bronksi both appeared which changed the direction of the twelve year old viewers life as he was sat in front of the television in his living room in Wythenshawe.  “Smalltown Boy” is perhaps one of the most significant songs of the 80’s.  It certainly caught the public attention reaching number 3 in the UK, it topped the charts in Netherlands, and Belgium, was a Top 10 hit in amongst other territories Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland and even made the US Top 50. 

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Any doubts that Bronski Beat were a novelty act were dispelled by the big selling album “The Age Of Consent” and three further hits with Somerville as lead singer, all of which are included on this album.  “Why?” got to number 6 in the UK which also aired the injustice of inequality in gay relationships and the impossibility of being able to show affection in public.  This was a stridently political song at a time when AIDS was causing widespread panic and vilification of gay men.  The song builds to an almost hysterical vocal which chills the blood.

jimmy7Bronski Beat – Larry Steinbachek, Jimmy, Steve Bronski

“It Ain’t Necessarily So” was a much calmer track, a cover of a fifty year old Gershwin song from “Porgy and Bess”.  Cover versions would feature quite frequently in Somerville’s career in all its incarnations and this early example shows him off as a real song stylist.  The song itself is a lesson in not believing everything that we are taught.  It reached number 16 in the charts and the video featured young Londoners who I was familiar with at the time, a couple who I knew quite well.  I completely lost touch and I have always wondered if they escaped the decimation of London’s gay youth during the early days of the AIDS crisis.  Because of this I’ve always found this song overly melancholy. 

jimmy8Jimmy with Marc Almond

The fourth hit saw Bronski Beat paired up with Soft Cell’ s Marc Almond for the odd idea of putting two Donna Summer songs “Love To Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love”, two of the greatest disco numbers of all time with the old John Leyton hit “Johnny Remember Me”.  I’m sure they know what’s going on here, but I was never sure.  This dynamic pairing became a Top 3 UK hit in 1985 and came from Bronski Beat’s second album “Hundreds And Thousands”.  This might sound like a criticism, but the vast majority of Somerville’s hit covers do not live up to the originals but really that’s because he chose to cover such iconic songs which are peerless in their own right.  In a number of cases these covers did better than the original versions.

goodasyou2Richard and Jimmy – The Communards

In 1985 Jimmy Somerville quit Bronski Beat over what was no doubt musical differences and teamed up with classically trained Richard Coles to form The Communards.  His original group had another very good Top 3 hit without him with “Hit That Perfect Beat” and should have made the Top 3 at least when they paired up with Eartha Kitt for “Cha Cha Heels”, perhaps one of the gayest Top 40 hits of all time (#32 in 1989)  which would only have made any sense to those who had seen John Waters’ cult movie “Female Trouble” which starred Divine. 

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It was the pairing with Coles which saw Somerville reach his creative peak, even though they are best known for cover versions.  “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was the third Communards hit and is the second track on this CD after “Smalltown Boy”.  The song had been part of a chart battle in the UK nine years earlier when the original Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes track did battle with a blistering disco version by Thelma Houston, which had topped the US charts.  Both versions are great and the song is an absolute classic which had seen Thelma’s version adopted as an unofficial theme song for the AIDS epidemic in the US. The Communards version takes the best of both versions and teams Jimmy up vocally with Sarah Jane Morris, whose rich jazzy voice proved an effective blend with the male falsetto.  They looked an unlikely pairing on TV performances but the British public took this new version to heart and it reached number 1 for four weeks in September 1986, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.  It also topped the charts in the Netherlands and became Jimmy’s first and only US Top 40 hit, scraping in at number 40. 

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The following year the Communards were raiding the golden oldie box again with another song which had already had at least two superb versions.  Originally written for the Supremes by Motown writer Clifton Davis it was handed over to the big money-makers the Jackson Five and took them to number 2 in the US Billboard charts.  The UK had a more muted response to this track but within three years it became one of the early classics of the disco era with the glorious version by Gloria Gaynor who reached number 2 in the UK and 9 in her homeland.  The Communards version is very much in the spirit of Gloria’s with its hi-hat drum beats and reached number 4 in 1987.

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The Communards were far more than a covers band, however.  When their debut album was released I bought it on vinyl and felt it was one of the greatest UK albums of all time (although it was recorded in the legendary Sigma Studios in Philadelphia).  The timing pretty much matched with my own personal coming out and this seemed like a soundtrack to my new life and provided hope, reassurance as well as an understanding that things would be challenging.  The sublimely joyous love song “You Are My World” (showing off Coles’ classical credentials) became a hit twice (#30 in 1985 and #21 as a remix in 1987). “Disenchanted” got one place higher than the Communards debut and the excellent “So Cold The Night” combines a feel of real eastern promise with one of the only hit songs about voyeurism.  The album also contained a couple of non-single gems in “Reprise” and the Billie Holliday standard “Loverman” sung as a duet with Sarah-Jane Morris.

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The second Communards studio album “Red” was almost as good.  The biggest hit was “Never Can Say Goodbye” but hit singles were scored with “Tomorrow” (UK#23) and the elegiac beautiful “For A Friend” (UK#28), with its lovely piano work,  a personal response to the AIDS crisis written in tribute to Richard and Jimmy’s friend Mark who had another marvellous tribute in 2014 when he became the central character of the movie “Pride”.

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The Communards final top 20 hit “There’s More To Love” was released at the time when Margaret Thatcher’s Clause 28 of the Local Government Act had been enshrined by law.  This clause made it illegal to for local authorities to “promote homosexuality” a ridiculous piece of legislation that had the effect of bringing together gay and lesbians as a community and a force to be reckoned with for the first time.  “Lovers And Friends” and “C Minor” were two great tracks from “Red” which do not appear on this CD as they were not released as singles.

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The Communards split up in 1988 with Richard going on to become the Reverend Richard Coles, a well known face on British television as a presenter of programmes both religious and non-religious.  He most recently made a short-lived attempt to lift the glitterball prize on “Strictly Come Dancing”.

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Jimmy the solo artist actually kicked things off in 1989 with a duet with June Miles-Kingston.  Not sure what the thinking was behind “Comment Te Dire Adieu” but it is was one of the few French language hits by British artists.  The song had previously been recorded by Francoise Hardy and had started off life as a song in English which had been released by Vera Lynn! Somerville’s version got to number 14 in the UK charts and, unsurprisingly became a Top 3 hit in France. 

jimmy16Sylvester – originally (Mighty Real)

It was back to the cover versions again to pay tribute once again to an out-gay man with an incredible falsetto voice from earlier years.  Sylvester had lost his own battle against AIDS in 1988 and in early 1990 Jimmy was back in the UK Top 5 with his biggest solo hit to date.  “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is another cover which didn’t eclipse the original but it was great to have this tribute to another great under-rated star.  “Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)” (UK#26) is  a great Disco-orientated track with a message about funding for AIDS treatments.  His version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” reached number 8 in the UK and saw him back in the Top 5 in Austria, New Zealand and the Netherlands and was released alongside this album.  The other new track “Run From Love” was less successful as a single.

These seventeen tracks are joyous, thought-provoking and moving, pretty much in equal measures.  Jimmy has continued to periodically put out solid albums over the years.  His last “Homage” released in 2015 was a gem of a disco recording and should have seen him back in the upper reaches of the charts.  His peak, commercially and creatively may have been with his association with Richard Coles in the Communards but this album proves there is a lot more to enjoy.

The Single Collection 1984-90 is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £19.99 and used from £1.00.  In the US it is available  from $0.82.  Other Jimmy Somerville/Communards/Bronski Beat compilations are available to buy and stram on Spotify in the UK. 

 

 

Where I’m Reading From – Tim Parks (2014) – A Book About Books Review

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Tim Parks is a Booker shortlisted British novelist who has developed a global following.  This has come about from a lengthy career of 16 novels, for his non-fiction work, from journalistic pieces in Italy where he has lived for many years, for his translations from Italian to English and as a contributor and columnist for the New York Review Of Books where these essays first saw the light of day.

His emphasis here is on reading and writing and he posits many thought-provoking ideas on these subjects.  How we behave as readers and how writers behave as writers are both examined.  I couldn’t help but notice that Parks differs from me very early on.  He’s a one for not finishing the books he is reading and I can follow the reasoning behind “if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start”.  I personally find it very difficult to give up on a book, I’m not sure when I would have last done this but it would have been, quite frankly, years ago.  Parks attributes my particular reading behaviour to some throwback to my childhood when finishing a book felt like such an achievement that it was to be celebrated and that I’m still in that mindset many years on.   Okay, maybe that could be the case but I also feel that finishing a book I haven’t enjoyed helps me clarify exactly what I like/don’t like about books.  Maybe, also my Magnus “I’ve started so I’ll finish” Magnusson approach is because of the respect I hold for the achievement of the writer of getting the book to the finished and published stage, whatever the quality.  

But wait a minute! Parks also advocates that it is permissible to give up on a book you are enjoying if you feel that you have reached a natural place to finish, even if it is not the end.  What?  This sounds to me like eating a piece of cake and thinking “I’m really loving this but I’ll think I’ll leave it there and not eat the rest”. That’s not going to happen with me but I suspect Tim Parks would do so.  He’s going to be much slimmer than me too isn’t he?

An area I found interesting was his views on the globalisation of the novel.  As worldwide markets grow authors are writing books without the local colour and themes which might restrict their sales markets.  This is happening both in English speaking markets and also translations where too much region-specific writing and ideas may prove problematic for translators and lessen the author’s chances in selling worldwide.  I know that one of my regular contributors to this blog, Monika, would find Parks’ views on translations interesting as they reflect ideas which she has aired herself on here in the past.  To be honest, I’ve never really given that much thought about the art of translation and I was interested by the author’s viewpoints.  As an aside to this book what Parks mentions is happening in the world of literature is also now prevalent in popular music where streaming has led to a globalised market.  Watching a chart rundown recently it was impossible to tell where artists come from as (and I don’t think it’s my age here) it was all sounding pretty much the same.

I’ve never read any of Tim Parks’ novels but reading this book I feel that I should and it is hard not to be mentally adding works by other authors he references onto the to-be-read list.  I found this an interesting set of insights about reading behaviours and attitudes and just what book writing and publishing will be looking like in the future.

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Where I’m Reading From was published by Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Books in 2014

Wildest Of All – P K Lynch (Legend Press 2017)

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Scottish author PK Lynch has followed up an award-winning debut “Armadillos” (2016) with this thoughtful, family novel.  It commences with the death of family lynchpin Peter Donnelly and the effects this has on those left behind.

Main character Sissy is 17 and adores her Dad.  The suddenness of his demise has deprived her of the chance to say goodbye and her attempts to do this her own way are thwarted by her staunch Catholic grandmother, Anne.  Sissy’s mother Jude is crumbling without her partner and the rest of the family seem not to know what to do about this.

The first half of this novel carefully and precisely examines the effects of bereavement on the family and it is grandmother Anne, befuddled by the death of the son she idolised, with her own secrets about her marriage and frustration at Jude’s inability to function as well as her need to control potentially wayward teenager Sissy, who comes across as the strongest drawn and most rounded character.  The dynamics between the three are strong, felt authentic and kept me involved.

Circumstances take Sissy away from Glasgow and the novel shifts to become a young-girl-surviving-in- London tale which loses some of the depths of the novel as the characters here are not so well-drawn.  Sissy, herself, is not terribly likeable and becomes less so once she moves down South.  Anne and Jude take more of a back seat and this change of emphasis alters the balance of the novel from something potentially excellent to following along more predictable lines.

Those interested in novels which focus on family and friendship at times of duress would find much to become involved with but I felt a little disappointed that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening chapters.

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Wildest Of All was published in September 2017 by Legend Press.  Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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

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Before seeing this 10 part crime caper advertised I’d never even heard of the AMC channel let alone watched anything on it.  It’s a BT channel and I am a Sky Customer so never expected to find it but there it was well tucked away on Sky Channel 192. I was interested enough in the premise of this to add the double bill of the first two episodes to my planner.

Snatch is loosely based on the 2000 crime comedy directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Brad Pitt and Jason Statham. I’ve actually never seen that film but I think the association comes more in the setting and style of the piece than any actual characters or storylines.  It has the Guy Ritchie coolness which made “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” a hit.

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The TV series provides the first dabbling in production for Rupert Grint, now 29, who spent a large chunk of his childhood as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise and may very well be looking now for ways to invest his millions. He is also starring in “Snatch”.  I was interested by his presence but this was not enough to get me going further than I would normally go with the remote control and the Sky Guide.  It hasn’t for example been enough for me to record his Sky 1 comedy “Sick Note” which started this week.  It was actually the supporting cast that got me interested enough to press record.

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I’ve also recently been watching the DVD box set of the BBC1 series “The Musketeers” which I’ve had recommended to me from a number of sources but which completely passed me by when it was on TV.  It’s been a lot of fun and of course features Tom Burke, who I highly praised for his turn as Cormoran Strike in another J R Rowling adaptation as well as Luke Pasqualino, who makes a dashing D’Artagnan.  Luke here plays Albert, whose father is in prison after a botched gold bullion robbery when Albert was a youngster.  He is big pals with Grint’s Charlie, a bow-tie bedecked posh boy whose family has fallen on hard times.  This dynamic duo become a trio with boxer Billy.  He is played by the fabulously named Lucien Laviscount who had a stint as a teenager on “Coronation Street”, went into the Celebrity Big Brother house a few years ago and flirted with Kerry Katona andwho I last saw in the one episode I watched of American TV series “Scream Queens”, a Ryan Murphy creation which slots directly in between teen series “Glee” and adult gore-fest “American Horror Story” by being a teen horror series.  It didn’t work for me and gave up early on, I was fully aware that I was the wrong audience for this but it was great to see Brit Laviscount in the cast which also featured Lea Michele from “Glee”, Jamie Lee Curtis and teen heartthrobs Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas.  Since then there’s been considerable hours in the gym as he has an extraordinarily toned torso with something looking like it amounts to a 23-pack.

 Luke Pasqualino and Lucien Laviscount

Interesting casting combination for a group of three lads who will in the weeks to come get themselves in deeper and deeper waters which will test the bonds of friendship.  It’s a young, slightly flashy stylish series.  By the end of the first episode the three who had indulged in small time crime suddenly found themselves in the big league when they unwittingly end up with a van of gold bullion.  In the support cast we get the fragile charms of Phoebe Dynevor (“Coronation Street” connection again, is the real-life daughter of Sally), and the always bankable Marc Warren as a beleaguered cop  and Dougray Scott as Albert’s jailbird dad.

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Both of the two episodes I watched were good fun, well-paced, a little flashy but certainly I would not have given up on them at this point.  You can tell there is still a lot of mileage in the plot.  I recorded the third but when came to watch it was informed by Sky that this channel is not part of my package.  I could add it as a BT Sports package (don’t bother phoning me to try and persuade me to do this Sky, it’s not going to happen).  Obviously the first two episodes were being shown as part of a “Showcase” to lure me in, which it did, but I’ll get over it.  

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The boys with Phoebe Dynevor

There is still the feeling, held over from the years of two/three/four channel television that anything that does not appear on the main listings is somehow inferior.  I think in the first years of multi-channel TV in the UK, this was often the case.  The first years I had Sky I mainly watched repeats of things I’d missed out when first shown on terrestrial as well as the odd off-the-wall series.  Things now have certainly changed, not only because of shows like “Game Of Thrones” which has probably more than any other show altered people’s perceptions of Sky’s programming but also Amazon Prime and, especially, Netflix, who seem to be making shows that are too ambitious and expensive for the main networks to produce (“The Crown, anyone?  I watched this open-mouthed at the sheer quality of this production).  Perhaps just as recent as a year ago I would have been sniffy about an original series appearing on a channel like “AMC” (what does that even stand for?) assuming that it couldn’t be good enough for “proper telly” I now know better and this is one of the reasons why searching the schedules for buried treasure has become another joy of TV watching.  Hopefully, another channel will pick this series up in the future (like Fox has done with the very likeable Amazon hit “Lucifer”) and I will be able to see it to its conclusion.

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The Book Of Forgotten Authors – Christopher Fowler (2017) – A Book About Books Review

 

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Now, this is just the sort of book to throw out my reading schedule. Novelist Christopher Fowler briefly examines the careers of 99 authors, who either used to be big but have faded from prominence or who deserved to be more popular than they were. It’s a fascinating, highly readable book which is both illuminating and nostalgic. The author has always been a voracious reader and book purchaser and he’s certainly done the groundwork for us here.

Christopher Fowler need not have any real fears of being forgotten, certainly not by me. You wouldn’t know it from this blog as this is probably his first mention in over 400 posts but since I’ve been keeping my own meticulous records of what I’ve been reading (I’ve always done this but lost a book which went back quite a few years), so we’re talking the last 23 years here, he is the author whom I’ve read the largest number of books by.

This book puts the Fowler total up to 15 (+ 1 I’ve read twice in this time) which pushes him further ahead from his nearest competitors , Charles Dickens (12) and Peter Ackroyd (11 + 2 re-reads). I’ve still got plenty of Fowler to discover, a quick tot-up of his books listed inside the front cover suggest 43 publications in total. I did gobble up a number of his horror novels in a short space of time in the mid to late 90’s after discovering “Spanky” (1994), a Faustian tale of a pact with the devil, which I still consider to be his best. In recent years he has concentrated on the Bryant & May detective series. I realise, with a fair amount of shock, that the last of his books I read was the third in this sequence “77 Clocks” and that was 10 years ago now! I haven’t forgotten you, Mr Fowler, honest! (I did last re-read “Spanky” in 2013).

Here the author tackles his findings alphabetically with considerably more than 99 names actually being thrown into the mix as in addition to the potted biographies and commentaries on individuals there’s also sections of forgotten authors linked to themes and genres.

It wasn’t long before I found myself making lists of those I’ve already read (not many and those a long time ago), those whose books I have unread on my shelves (5), those I can get from the library (36), those I can get on Kindle for free (4), for under £1 (8), or at a higher price (8) and those I can buy from Amazon (32). This left just those whose books do not seem readily available (4) or just too collectable for my budget (2). So thanks for all this, Mr Fowler, I’m supposed to be reviewing, not spending my time making lists!
And now I’ve got said lists I’m going to have to use them! So starting with what I have on my shelves already I hope over the coming months to unforget as many authors as possible. So this would include Margery Allingham, (a Golden Age of Crime Fiction writer who appears time and time again on recommended lists), I have a copy of her “Police At The Funeral” to start me off. There’s also Edmund Crispin (I bought a set of his Gervaise Fen novels from “The Book People”), Patrick Dennis (I bought his “Auntie Mame” because I love the Rosalind Russell film version and it’s pretty pricey on DVD), Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women” (Book People purchase set again) and Edgar Wallace (a mammoth Wordsworth publication of “The Complete Four Just Men” taking up considerable shelf space). I’m adding these to the reading mix over the coming months and will of course be letting you know what I think and then I’ll move onto the others. Christopher Fowler has whetted my appetite so much I want to read them all!

This book would make a great present for bibliophiles – even those who claim to have “read everything” may find some hidden gems. A number of them are names that you’d remember from bookshop visits from your past, but may have never read. It could be time to put this right.

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The Book Of Forgotten Authors was published by Riverrun in October 2017.