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

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

yeartofall2Freddy has a year to fall in love

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

yeartofall3Nick has a year to fall in love

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

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Niki has a year to fall in love

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

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

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

 

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I chose this when “read a book with a female’s name in the title” was pulled out of the hat as part of Sandown Library’s Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  I’ve never read Elizabeth Taylor before but had my eye on her for some time.  She came to mind on a previous challenge when I had to read a book with a main character aged over 60.  This book wasn’t available on the shelves then so I opted for “Elizabeth Is Missing” instead but I was pleased to be able to select “Mrs Palfrey” for this new challenge.

 I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) was an exquisite writer of short stories, a format I choose to read less of than I should, but I always suspected she would be able to win me over.  This is the 11th out of her 12 novels in a career which dated from her 1945 debut “At Mrs Lippincote’s” (which would also have sufficed for this particular challenge). Virago Modern Classics have done a great job in bringing the works of this author to a new generation and I am sure more or less everyone who reads her will turn into at least a bit of a fan.  In his introduction to this book, Paul Bailey states;

 “I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time.  Theirs will be an unexpected pleasure, and they will, if they read her as she wanted to be read, learn much that will surprise them.”

 As one of those to be envied readers I can certainly confirm that I got a lot of pleasure out of this short novel, which I read quickly but which is likely to remain with me for some time.

 

One of these Elizabeth Taylor’s is a giftes British writer and the other is a Hollywood Icon.  Can you work out which is which? !!

Mrs Laura Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel in London at the beginning of the novel.  Widowed and finding her house in Rottingdean has become too much for her she up sticks to this slightly down-at-heel establishment feeing she should still remain at the centre of things.  The hotel is a stop-gap for an elderly group of residents, just tolerated by the management, most likely to end in a final move to a nursing home should nothing turn up.  And nothing much turns up for them, even visitors are thin on the ground.

 This is a delightful bitter-sweet comedy of manners where everyone is keen to say the right thing but which is often delivered barbed with hidden meaning.  The residents range from the arthritic Mrs Arbuthnot whose pain is used to explain her spite; the flirty and fun loving Mrs Burton; the out of his depth solitary man Mr Osmond and Mrs Palfrey herself, described as looking like “a famous general in drag.”  When Mrs Palfrey has a fall on the streets of London she starts a friendship with a young writer who comes to her rescue and in an attempt not to look like the lonely widow she is she passes him off amongst the other residents as her grandson.  Other than that, not a vast amount happens, there are quite a few agonising social situations, indifferent hotel meals, a few fadings away and a proposal of marriage and I lapped it all up. 

 This came so close to being a 5* read but I think it ended too soon and ended up feeling as if it lacked a little of the depth I would look for in my search for the very best.  This is a great introduction to a new author.

 fourstars 

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont was first published in 1971.  The Virago Modern Classics reprint first appeared in 1982.

The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (1959)

 

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This is one of the most celebrated works of Post-War German Literature. Gunter Grass (1927-2015) went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1999 and this is really the novel which is at the centre of his impressive reputation. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this work new translations were commissioned with Grass working very closely with ten translators taking them on location visits to get the flavour of the novel. This English translation by Breon Mitchell is the result and this has very much superseded the translation by Ralph Manheim which served for the book’s first 50 years and which I read as a teenager.

At least I think I did, re-reading it after all these years I’m not totally convinced I ever finished it. Nowadays, I read everything through to its conclusion but I’ve a feeling that the library edition I borrowed back then might have been needed for another reader or that school work got in the way because what seemed very familiar at first, in fact, almost etched into my psyche, got increasingly less familiar as I progressed through this dense, challenging novel. I certainly saw the 1979 film version around the same time and once again images from the film feel exceedingly strong although if pushed I would have no idea how much of the book made it into the film.

tindrumStill from the film

I’d hazard a guess at not much. Grass’ novel is so richly detailed and full of incidents that it would have been overpowering in one cinematic sitting. Originally titled “Die Blechtrommel” this may very well be an allegory for Europe before and after the rise of the Nazis beginning in the beleaguered Free City of Danzig, then under the authority of the League Of Nations shifting to West Germany in the post-war years but for most readers it will be the tale of the boy with the drum.

At the age of three Oskar is given a toy drum by his parents and decides to stop growing. A fall down cellar steps is engineered to explain this. He drums his way through his extended childhood and early adult years as an eternal three year old, who has the power to shatter glass with his high-pitched screams. He drums his way through the growth of the Nazi regime playing under grandstands to disrupt rallies and manipulates situations through his drumming, some so disturbing that by his late twenties he is in a mental institution where this story of his life is being recorded.

I cannot remember a book so dense in detail (perhaps Paul Auster’s 4-3-2-1 comes close but that has a distinctly different structure) which certainly must have been a challenge for the translator who as well as the details has to get the rhythmic feel of the endless banging of the drum. It is a progression of extraordinary tales, told by an unreliable narrator, rich in characters and events, ranging from amusing to extremely disturbing, even spiteful. I did lose my way a little in the post-war years when Oskar decides to grow a little and becomes a percussionist in a jazz trio where his ability to get listeners at The Onion Club (so named because patrons get an onion to peel which enables them to cry- this to me feels like a novel in itself) to revert back to their childhood through his drumming leads to recording and touring fame. Throughout he does remain the three year old who wishes to hide under his grandmother’s skirts and focus on his obsessions which includes nurses, Rasputin and Goethe alongside the beating to smithereens many tin drums. Still with me?

This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at others felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings. Having left it close to 40 years since I last encountered the book or the film it might be too late for countless re-readings but I think elements of it will continue to haunt me forever.

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I read the Vintage paperback 2009 translation by Breon Mitchell.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 100–The Supremes – 70’s Greatest Hits And Rare Classics

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Greatest Hits And Rare Classics (Motown 1991)

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The Post- Diana Ross Supremes years are sometimes merely recorded as a footnote to the illustrious five years of hits where the trio scored an astonishing 12 US#1 pop hits but this 22 track 1991 compilation release would suggest otherwise.  From 1970-76 there were another eight top 40 hits, 7 of which are included here (the exception being the pairing with the Four Tops on “River Deep Mountain High” which can be found on 40 Golden Motown Hits.

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Jean Terrell 

Taking over from Diana Ross must have seemed something of a poisoned chalice.  If the hits stopped coming then there would soon be tension from the other girls, from the record label and fans.  If the hits were too big then this might overshadow the former lead’s solo career and label boss, Berry Gordy, at this point infatuated with Diana would not allow this to happen.  The woman chose initially to fulfil this role was Jean Terrell.  Berry Gordy had discovered Jean singing in Miami in the late 1960’s and was keen to sign her to a solo Motown contract.  Vocally, she resembled Diana Ross and this would probably not have been a diplomatic move on his part and as plans grew to launch Diana solo, Motown began recording the new trio of Terrell, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong whilst the original trio were still doing live performances.  Jean Terrell could be introduced as part of a smooth transition for the group.  There was a bit of wavering and later solo hitmaker and wife of Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright , was also suggested but the remaining Supremes preferred to have Jean in the role.

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It was a time of great anticipation.  In her autobiography “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” Mary Wilson had this to say.

 “People must have asked us how we felt over a million time, and there were a hundred different emotions, but for me the main one was relief….Diane’s status at Motown and her relationship to Berry made it impossible for things to be otherwise, and if she hadn’t left the group something would have had to change.  Working with Jean and Cindy was a joy.  Maybe we weren’t as close as Flo, Diane and I had once been, but we were starting fresh.  After years of hard work, I felt I was embarking on another wonderful adventure”.

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The fresh start began with “Up The Ladder To The Roof” a sophisticated soul track released in 1970 which took the girls to US#10, (Ross’ first solo single out just a few weeks earlier had stalled at number 20).  In the UK this track was given even more of a thumbs up, getting to number 6, the biggest hit for the trio since “Reflections” back in 1967.  The early hits were produced by Frank Wilson who gave things much more of a group feel than there had been in latter years and produced highly polished numbers which had both the glam and glitz we might expect from the group as well as feeling very contemporary.  “Stoned Love” did even better on both sides of the Atlantic becoming the biggest hit of the post Ross years, number 7 in the US and #3 in the UK.  This had the rhythm of the 60’s HDH hits yet still felt hip, with its groovy lyrics of peace and love and more than a fair share of controversy from those who saw the lyrics as drug references.  “Stone” was a term at the time to show total involvement (also present in “Stone In Love With You” by The Stylistics).  There was apparently a mix-up when the record was labelled which saw the extra “d” be added and opened up a whole can of worms (and of course much publicity from those who saw the wholesome Supremes apparently declining into a drugs lifestyle as another step on the road to the end of civilisation). 

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Frank Wilson was also behind “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love” (US#21), which carried on the late 60’s/ early 70’s social consciousness of the label and a good old love song about a man who let the girls down “Nathan Jones” (UK#5, US#16).  This is a good song and unusual that the lead is sung by the three in unison.  17 years later a Bananarama got to number 15 in the UK with a likeable enough version which lacked the production and vocal depth of the original. 

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There were those in the Motown camp who were amazed at how successful the Ross-less Supremes were being, particularly in Europe and the UK where sizeable hits were also being buoyed up with pairings with The Four Tops, which led to a big selling album “The Magnificent Seven”.  Other names were keen to work with this trio.  In the queue were two of Motown’s legendary stars, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.

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In the early days of the group when Motown staff were referring to the group as the “no hit Supremes” Smokey Robinson tried and failed to give them their first hits.  Two of his first class songs and productions can be found on the group’s debut “Where Did Our Love Go?” album.  In 1972 he recorded a whole album on the girls.  It was at this point that Lynda Laurence was brought in, initially to deputise during photoshoots for a pregnant Cindy Birdsong.  This began a bit of to-ing and fro-ing for the group with Birdsong officially leaving the group and returning to deputise when Lynda Laurence was having a baby.  The album with Smokey, “Floy Joy”, had a very lightweight piece of confection as the title track, but with its stomping beat and cooing vocals it harked back to the sounds of yesteryear and became a UK#9, US#16 hit.  A better track was the follow-up “Automatically Sunshine” which certainly brought out the Ross-like qualities in Jean Terrell’s voice and became their last Top 10 UK hit, not doing quite as well in the US (#37). 

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Motown were keen to promote The Supremes as a sophisticated group and to this effect brought in songwriter and arranger Jimmy Webb to emphasise this.  Webb was noted for his complex pop song compositions such as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Macarthur Park” and “Witchita Linesman” which instantly became staples for acts who aimed for the supper club, lucrative Las Vegas market.  He had enough kudos to be in the title with the girls on the album he worked with them “The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb”.  Although a commercial disappointment this sound can be heard to good effect on the dramatic “Paradise” (a Harry Nilsson song) and the big Italian balladry of Il Voce De Silenzo (Silent Voices), both of which I think are great tracks.  There’s also the slightly frantic gospel edge to “Tossin’ And Turnin’” which is certainly different from tracks recorded with Diana Ross as lead.  It’s hard to gauge Motown’s response to this album, especially as the only track released as a single was neither produced nor arranged by Jimmy Webb, it was a plaintive Broadway ballad “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” which came from the show “Pippin” and was very much a showcase for the solo talents of Jean Terrell.

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With Lynda Laurence now the official third member of the group she asked an artist she had worked with, Stevie Wonder, to produce a funkier sound for them and this he certainly achieved with the great “Bad Weather” which sounds like a female-led Wonder track. If Motown had really got behind this track this could have been a new lease of life for the group.  It certainly sounds like a big hit to me yet failed to chart Stateside and just crept in the lower reaches of the chart in the UK.

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The end of the Terrell years are marked on this album by an unsensational version of the O’Jays “Love Train” and an attractive solo track, a version of the Gallagher and Lyle song “I Had To Fall In Love”.

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Scherrie Payne 

Enter Scherrie Payne.  The sister of “Band Of Gold” chart-topper Freda came into the group as it’s third lead singer and the first we heard from here was certainly explosive.  “He’s My Man” was released in June 1975 as the title track from the album “The Supremes”.  This is very possibly, in my opinion, the best thing this group ever did both from the Ross-led years and afterwards.  It’s a powerhouse of a track with great vocals and hooks a plenty and I can remember forking out my pocket money on a 7” vinyl copy (incidentally the only Supremes single I had bought apart from the hit reissue of “Baby Love” and an inherited from my sister copy of “Nathan Jones”).  I can remember on the same day as this I bought my first ever pair of headphones, a pair of monster-sized cans which was perfect for the clip-clop rhythms and thrilling vocal arrangement of this track.  There’s range and power and it sounded like a huge hit, but it wasn’t.  It did, however top the Billboard Disco charts, but crossover success eluded it.  It has always been a bit of an underground classic for the group and this new sound here produced by Greg Wright seemed very promising with great commercial potential.

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It wasn’t long before the revolving door of Cindy Birdsong and Lynda Laurence ground to a halt and they both decided to hang up their wigs.  In came Susaye Green, another real powerhouse of a singer with a great range and vocally this combination of Scherrie, Mary and Susaye was outstanding and a long way from the Ross voice out front and the other two cooing in the background.  These girls could sing anything.  It’s just a pity that by this time Motown seemed to be losing faith in the group.  There was a final hurrah with the album “High Energy” with its stunning title track, a song which should have done for the girls what “Love Hangover” did for Diana Ross and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” for The Temptations -a lengthy workout of a disco track with great orchestration and production.  And that producers?  None other than Brian and Eddie Holland returning to the Motown field to work with the group they had launched into superstars a dozen or so years before.  The track “High Energy” is sorely missed on this compilation (try the 2005 double CD “Motown Disco” to hear it in its full length glory) but here we do have “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” a track which had something of the feel of “He’s My Man” but is slightly more disjointed but which took the trio into the US Top 40 for the first time in four years, scraping in at the anchor position.  This was to be their last US hit single.  The “High Energy” album also had a couple of great ballads which showcased Mary Wilson on lead vocals with great effect.  The voice that HD&H had largely silenced in the 60’s hits was allowed to shine at last.  Only the hit single from “High Energy” is included on this compilation but the whole album is certainly worth checking out. 

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It’s follow-up “Mary, Scherrie and Susaye” seemed like a last-ditch attempt to establish this new line up.  The disco metaphor of “You’re My Driving Wheel” is the track on show here, but it is far from their best.  The Supremes eventually disbanded officially at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in June 1977.  Scherrie and Susaye would continue to record together as a duo for a time and there have been various incarnations of the group over the years.  In the mid 80’s I saw Mary Wilson touring as Mary Wilson and The Supremes and a group entitled The Former Ladies Of The Supremes which has involved at times Scherrie, Jean, Lynda and Cindy, a long-lasting collaboration which has over time involved singers who were never former Supremes.  Some members of the group were also involved in solo and group capacity with recording with Ian Levine at Motor City Records.  The Payne/Green project “Partners” featured a solo track by Scherrie Payne which is this CD’s closer and is another excellent track, the ballad “Another Life From Now”, a song written by Payne and produced by Eugene McDaniels which demands to be heard.

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Scherrie, Susaye and Mary

The hey-day of The Supremes may have very well been in the 1960’s but this 70’s compilation shows how good and varied they can be and the great vocal talent that has been in this group over the years.  All this goes to make this compilation of 22 tracks an essential release. 

Greatest Hits And Rare Classics is available from Amazon in the UK from £23.20 and used from £16.87.  In the US it is only currently available used from $18.90.  Also available from this era is the 42 track 70’s Anthology and all the albums are covered in two volumes 1970-73- The Jean Terrell years and Let Yourself Go – 1974-77.  These three compilations are all available to stream on Spotify in the UK.

 

Love Island (ITV2-2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I have resisted this so far.  Now on its 4th season on ITV2 this became a particularly big talking-point last summer, gained a lot of popularity through word of mouth and won awards including a TV Bafta for best Reality Show.  On second thoughts, I haven’t totally resisted it as the idea behind this programme had a previous lease of life in a celebrity version back in 2005 on the main ITV channel.  I did watch a couple of episodes of this and can recall Brendan Cole and one third of Atomic Kitten participating but it was fairly ghastly.  So this is a programme which bucks the trend with beginning with a celebrity version and evolving into a non-celebrity rather than the industry standard of the other way round.

loveisland2Caroline Flack

This series relaunched in 2015 in a bright, brash non-celebrity format, helmed by Caroline Flack (who isn’t in it much).  Before this series started it was getting headlines due to the involvement of daughter of EastEnders lead and distant descendant of royalty, “hard man” Danny Dyer.  I thought on Monday I’d just watch the first episode to see what the fuss was all about and I have stuck with it each night since.  It is very much a tweaking of the Big Brother format and really after one week of this I cannot see the point in tuning into the non-celebrity Big Brother ever again.  Here the participants seem less in your face and show-offy, there’s considerable more sunshine in the Majorcan villa than on a studio lot in Elstree to brighten up our duller summer days and the focus of this programme is to fall in love rather than just survive the machinations of the Big Brother producers.

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We’ve certainly seen a quest for love umpteen times before from “Blind Date”, “First Dates” to substandard fare like “The Bachelor” (anyone else remember rugby star Gavin Henson having to work his way through a bevy of girls in a similar villa to find out who he fancied most in a TV show that veered from misjudged to completely unwatchable).  The minor TV stations have schedules full of (mainly) imported find-love formats of questionable quality.  So why has this one won awards and become a hit to the extent where it is now a major focus in Summer TV programming and for which, so I’ve been told, more young people applied to compete than applied for Oxford/Cambridge university entrance this year.  Is this the end of civilisation as we know it?

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Largely, I’d say no and I think because these characters need to stay on very good terms with at least one other member of the opposite sex to be in with a stab at the prize and as the aim is to “find love” they are presenting a more likeable face than we see on “Big Brother” and its ilk.  There has been the odd meltdown (he fancies me/I don’t know if he fancies me/ he’s told me he’s no longer interested/I fancy him) but it’s all been a lot less tawdry than I was expecting.  It almost feels like secondary school again (admittedly with more flesh showing) where witnessing a couple kissing could be a major conversation topic for days.  And I was at secondary school in the 1970’s- a far more innocent time!

loveisland5Line ’em up.  Who fancies this one?

Of course, every thing is manipulated to test the bonds of coupledom.  Forced to pair up in a fairly excruciating cattle market type sequence in the first episode, most seemed  happy with their initial choices (a link-up between West End performer Samira and A&E doctor Alex who has looked like a rabbit caught in headlights throughout and who seems so out of his element it is as if he took a wrong turning from Operating Theatre 2 and has gone through some Space and Time portal which has transported him to a sun-soaked villa forced to wear a microphone lead wrapped too high around his midriff seemed questionable) but the show was quick to throw an early spanner into the works and it was this which had me hooked. An extra man was introduced  and in 24 hours had to steal a girl from any other of the couples.

loveisland7Doctor on call Alex

The fact that this man was Adam, a Geordie physical trainer, so handsome and buffed that the other men complained “he did not even look real” and that every girl seemed willing to ditch their first pairing for him was the first indication that this show (is it scripted? Don’t know, don’t really care)  had something deep psychologically going on which would sustain us for the summer.

loveisland6Is this man even real?

By the end of the first week we’d lost one girl, banished from the island due to a sneaky mid-week introduction of two girls which rapidly changed dynamics and it looks like there will be enough twists in the plot to keep this multiple boys meet multiple girls format fresh.  It’s all far less sordid than I was expecting and I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or not.  I think civilisation is safe once again, for the time being and hopefully the participants will not be saddling themselves with the same level of debt as if they’d gone the Oxbridge route.  Here comes Summer!

I’m just torn between threestars and   fourstarsI’ll have to update this after a couple of weeks.

Update:  It’s two weeks on and I’m still watching.  I’m upping the star rating to fourstars

“Love Island” is shown nightly on ITV 2 at 9pm.  Previous episodes are available on ITV catch-up services and for those for whom this is not enough I have noticed that Netflix has recently added earlier series to their output.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green & David Levithan (2010)

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I’m always fascinated when two people write a novel together.  What is the actual process?  Do they write alternate chapters, like the husband and wife who write as Nicci French, with one writer ending in cliffhangers that the other has to get out of or does one do the bulk of the work and uses the name of the writer with the bigger reputation to help sales, as I suspect some of our more prolific writers who are writing in tandem with others must operate.

 I found out how the writers of this 2010 Young Adult novel worked in a conversation between them printed at the back of the book and this partnership and process makes sense.  The novel is about two American teens with the same name who meet up in complex circumstances befitting a YA novel midway through the proceedings.  The boys have alternate narratives throughout the book helmed by one of the authors.

 John Green’s Will Grayson is overshadowed in every sense by his larger than life gay best friend Tiny Cooper.  They have stuck together since Little League with Will’s strong sense of justice proving him always ready to come to the defence of his friend from those who disapprove of him.  This is in spite of Will’s philosophy for life being to keep quiet wherever possible and to try not to care, which just isn’t working, particularly when he gets interested in Jane, one of Tiny’s entourage and another member of the High School Gay-Straight Alliance.

 David Levithan’s Will Grayson is prone to depression, has a simmering anger, knows he is gay and doesn’t yet feel the need to proclaim it.  He writes entirely in lower case, which I initially really didn’t like as it’s hard to follow but I get why the author has done this for what it says about Will’s self-perception.

 This is a brash, very American book.  Tiny decides to mount a musical production of his life story and he is the link between the two Wills.  It took quite a while for me to see Tiny as anything else but cartoonish and implausible but he did manage to win me over.  There’s such great self-assurance in these characters, if only they can tear themselves away from social media, even from those who claim to feel anything but self-assured.  I think if I were a British teenager reading this such confidence would alarm me.  A whole musical gets staged without seemingly that much effort and their put downs to one another seem so resolutely sharp that I longed for more comradeship between them.  This is, after all, a novel about friendship.  The characters seem ready to rush into relationships without having friendship in a way which made me feel, well, just old and out of touch with modern youth.

 I do know that I’m not the target audience here but I think that even as a teen I might have liked the tone pitched a little subtler and a little less casual and I cannot recall a YA novel where a significant location is a porn shop.  However, if you come across this novel at the right age and with the right frame of mind I’m sure it could become a highly valued book with its own particular bespoke message to tell.  It does have a big heart at its centre and it did make me laugh out loud.

 Since the publication of this novel in 2010 John Green has achieved major bestseller success with “The Fault In Our Stars” and David Levithan’s subsequent work has been praised for its strong young gay characters.  I think they probably have both done better work independently but I did largely enjoy this collaboration and see it as a brave attempt to inject some serious sparkle into the Young Adult genre, which can at time take itself a little too seriously.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson was published by Speak books in 2010.

100 Essential CDs – Number 3– Diana Ross & The Supremes – 40 Golden Motown Hits

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40 Golden Motown Hits (Motown/Polygram 1998)

UK Chart Position – 35

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Found languishing in a bargain bin at Asda Supermarket a few years after its release this has probably proved to be my best value CD of all time given the number of times I have played it since purchase.  Back in 1977 Motown had used the same artwork to promote 20 Golden Greats a single album compilation and had scored a UK chart-topper.  In 1993 in a deal reputed to be worth $300 million Polygram purchased Motown and now had the right to their extensive back catalogue.

 

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This and the rise of CDs meaning that more tracks could be fitted on a single disc resulted in a double CD release which was basically the original 20 enriched by a further twenty.  These new tracks incorporated a handful of Ross-less Supremes tracks, the super-group pairings with The Temptations and The Four Tops and a second CD of Diana Ross solo hits (including her duets with Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie).  With these additions the 20 Golden Greats release was redundant.  There was a TV campaign yet this release made only 35 in the UK Charts of 1998.  It is, however a superb release and a great overview of the careers of two legendary acts – both the group and the soloist.

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On the first CD we proceed through the Supremes hit catalogue in largely chronological order.  We get the hit tracks from the Essential CDs I lumped together from “Where Did Our Love Go/”I Hear A Symphony”.  In between those album releases we had one of the girls’ greatest recordings “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (1965 US#1, UK#7) and their 5th US number 1 single in a row “Back In Your Arms Again” (1965) which only scraped the Top 40 in the UK,  There was another run of four consecutive US chart-toppers from 1966-67, “You Can’t Hurry Love” (UK#3, later to become a UK#1 in an inferior version by Phil Collins in 1982), the excellent “You Keep Me Hanging On” (UK#8, later to get to number 2 and to also top the US charts in an inferior version by Kim Wilde in 1986, proving just how long-lasting these Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions were), “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” (UK#17) but the best of all these came last of all.

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“The Happening” (UK#6) was the theme tune for a long-forgotten film and manages to combine a modern sound with a glitzy razzle-dazzle  Broadway type feel which is just so infectious and ingeniously combined what the girls had been up to this point and what Berry Gordy wanted them to become – sophisticated chanteuses who would transcend musical barriers.  Things changed after this release.

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Cindy Birdsong (right) joins Diana Ross and The Supremes

From this point on Diana Ross’ name came before The Supremes.  You can sense the arguments over this one to this day.  Smokey Robinson had been pushed in front of the Miracles, Martha led the Vandellas so it was inevitable that the ambitious Diana Ross would want to formally recognise her dominant position in the group.  Also at this point, Florence Ballard left to be replaced by ex Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong, an act which would further entrench the rivalry between these two groups with Patti Labelle often venting her frustration at the unprecedented success of Ross when she had an inferior voice.  How much of this went on at the time or appeared later  as a result of Mary Wilson speaking out in “Dreamgirls” a book which spawned the idea of a Broadway show, a revival of which is still packing them in at the West End to this day.  In 1967, however there was no denying the commercial appeal of the group.

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The first single under the new billing ended the run of US number 1’s as “Reflections” stalled at number 2 (UK#5).  The label had begun to experiment with a slightly different sound and there is a distinctly trippy introduction to this track, which was the last single to feature Flo on vocals, although TV promotion was done by Cindy.  The reputation slipped a little further with “In And Out Of Love” (US#9, UK#13) and a couple of singles became smaller hits on both sides of the Atlantic and are not featured on this compilation.

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                                  “Love Child” saw a new direction for the group

All was redeemed, however, by the trio’s third hit single of 1968.  The mood was changing in this revolutionary year and Motown responded by injecting a bit more social awareness into their releases shifting away from everyone having a good time and innocent first loves.  1968 was also the year Holland-Dozier-Holland quit Motown and the new hit was to be penned and produced by Berry Gordy alongside others who were here to be known as The Clan.  The response as far as The Supremes were concerned was “Love Child”, a track which has as the first words you hear – “tenement slum”.  A song about illegitimacy and a woman resisting sexual pressure from her boyfriend might not seem a likely chart-topper for the 60’s but this is absolute classic Motown – a real gem of a track. It became their 11th US #1 and reached #15 in the UK. and might have perhaps mistakenly  led to the conclusion that HDH were not essential to the continued success of The Supremes.

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The writing was on the wall for the group anyway as it seems that Cindy and Mary were only being used as the public face of the group.  They did not apparently contribute to the recording of this song or of other later hits.  Motown back-up group The Andantes were doing the honours.  The social awareness continued with the guilt of a woman who had abandoned her roots in “I’m Living In Shame” (1969- US#10, UK14) with a return to the more traditional sounds of the label with the very successful pairings with The Temptations which provided a US#2, UK#3 “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and a raiding of the Miracles’ back catalogue “I Second That Emotion” released in the UK in 1969 where it reached #18.

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The parting of the ways happened after their twelfth chart-topping single, the anthemic “Someday We’ll Be Together”.  This song penned by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua was planned to be the first Ross solo single yet when it came to record it both Ross’ vocal and Bristol’s guide-line vocal were laid down.  The result was approved of and since it was not strictly a solo outing the decision was made to put it out as a Supremes single, although once again, Mary and Cindy do not appear.  The single reached number 13 in the UK.

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In 1968 The Supremes appeared as nuns in the TV series “Tarzan”.  Was it this that pushed Diana Ross into her solo career?

Fleshing out the first CD we have a handful of tracks released by the Supremes once Jean Terrell had come in to take lead vocals, ranging from the good as the glory days “Up The Ladder To The Roof” to the less than thrilling “Floy Joy” and the pairing of this new trio with old hands The Four Tops led to a  #14 US, #11 UK hit cover of “River Deep Mountain High” a fact that must have caused Phil Spector some irritation.  His original version of the song recorded by Ike and Tina Turner he felt was one of the best recordings of all time and his whole life began to freefall when it missed the US charts completely.  (We had a softer spot for it over here.  It reached number 3 for the duo in 1966 and was the track which introduced Tina Turner to a mainstream UK audience ).

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Onto the second disc and we get sixteen of most of the greatest tracks Diana Ross recorded at Motown.  For me, the disco era is a little unrepresented as there is no “The Boss” a brilliant Ashford and Simpson song and the version of the phenomenal “Love Hangover” is in the short 7″ single format which always sounded a little disjointed and lacked the flow of the original album track and 12″ version but I’m niggling here.

Things didn’t exactly go immediately to plan when the Ross career was launched.  “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand” stalled at a surprisingly low number 20 in her homeland and missed out on the Top 30 in the UK.  The social consciousness of the later Supremes recordings had been abandoned for what was felt to be a crowd-pleaser and although it has remained a track long associated with Ms. Ross it didn’t actually set the charts alight on release.  That happened with the follow-up, which like the debut was penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a reworking of an earlier hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  This was Diana Ross setting out her stall, a big, blowsy track with spoken interludes and a big build-up which really paid off.  “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” gave her a first US Pop #1 and got to #4 in the UK.  From this point she had arrived.

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Big hits followed one after another in the early 70’s and by 1975 she had topped the American charts on another two occasions both with disarmingly tender tracks.  “Touch Me In The Morning” from 1973 (UK#9) and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (1975 UK#5) which was the theme from her second film “Mahogany” which is fairly essential viewing in the so- bad- its- good category, where Ross’ performance is distinctly subtle compared to Anthony Perkins.  Her UK #1 came with “I’m Still Waiting” not intended for a single release but heavily pushed by DJ Tony Blackburn until the Tamla Motown UK label relented (Incidentally her post Motown UK#1 “Chain Reaction” was also largely ignored in her homeland).  She also had a UK only hit (#12- 1972) with a song with the most annoying title of all time, I’m dreading typing it, but here goes: “Doobedood’ndobe, Doobedood’ndobe,Doobedood’ndoo” which always sounds like a few songs going on at once and is the track that I would have happily sacrificed for “The Boss”.

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Disco revitalised Diana’s career from her mid 70’s chart-topper “Love Hangover” (UK#10) and when it began to falter again the hottest producers in town, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards transferred the Chic sound to the Motown label with her biggest selling album “Diana” of which really the only good tracks were all released as singles.  But what singles they were.  The biggest was “Upside Down” (US#1,UK#2), The UK went with (#5) and my favourite of the bunch, another truly anthemic Ross recording which acknowledged a large part of her fan base (although not much was made of this at the time) with “I’m Coming Out” (US#5, UK#13).  This association was reputedly stormy but it certainly paid dividends.  Dodgy films with strong soundtracks became a feature of the 1980’s and we end this marathon trawl through the Ross career with two songs which certainly outlived the films, the lovely Michael Masser and Carole Bayer Sager song “It’s My Turn” (US#9,UK#16) and the track which went onto to become Motown’s best selling single to date, her duet with Lionel Richie “Endless Love” from some cinematic drivel featuring Brooke Shields.  It topped the US charts for nine weeks and reached number 7 in the UK.

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Following this release Diana Ross decided to up sticks and move away from her 27 year hit career with the Motown label and strike out on her own at RCA.  A brave, some said foolhardy move but these 40 tracks representing these years are a superb testament to Ms Ross at Motown and there are so many highs amongst these songs.

On a historic TV moment The Supremes made their last appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and whizzed through a medley of their hit career before singing their final number 1 single.

 

40 Golden Greats seems to be quite difficult to find with the cover I have shown but Amazon has a CD with the same title and it looks like the same track listing with a cover which just features a drawing of Diana Ross.  That can be purchased for £8.72 and used from £0.09. There are a number of other Diana Ross and The Supremes compilations available but this one offers the best overview of group and solo careers.  

 

 

The Mermaids Singing – Val McDermid (1995) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I seem to have a thing about mermaids at the moment as they have featured in the titles of the last two books I’ve read. But this is a very different proposition from Mrs Hancock’s mermaid, a gripping and really quite grisly crime thriller from 1995 which introduced McDermid regulars Dr Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. The title is a quote from TS Eliot’s “Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

“I have heard the mermaids singing each to each/I do not think they will sing to me.”

This is the first Val McDermid novel I have read but it certainly will not be the last as it kept me gripped throughout. The tortured bodies of young men have been turning up in gay cruising areas in the fictional northern city of Bradfield. The police are initially slow to make a connection but once it dawns upon them that a serial killer is on the loose they bring in profiler Tony Hill, working on a study of using profiling techniques for the Home Office, to help out and Carol Jordan is appointed as liaison between Hill and the Police, a number of whom need some convincing about his methods.

It has been twenty-three years since this book’s publication which is a long time in the world of crime. The reader has to remember to accept profiling is in its early stages, that people use pagers instead of mobile phones and technology we take for granted today is seen as cutting edge but that shouldn’t mar enjoyment. Also, hopefully, attitudes towards gay lifestyles have also mellowed, the views and assumptions of some of the Police Officers here seem somewhat prehistoric. In the novel there are aspects which veer towards what we might consider unacceptable in our more enlightened times but McDermid is herself a gay writer writing very much of the time.

The novel switches between police procedural and the words of the killer, who is not known to us, outlining plans and it is these sections which make for some difficult reading as this is one sick individual who writes with glee about the selection of victims and the terrible tortures that are inflicted upon them. I had not realised that McDermid’s novels were quite as gritty as this, there is no hiding from the true horrors of crime here.

Tony Hill is a complex character who has fascinated the author enough to feature him in to date ten novels. He finds it difficult to form relationships, cannot act on his attraction to Carol Jordan and resorts to anonymous phone sex. For a man whose background is working around therapy he could certainly do with some. The whole process of his work as a profiler would seem more familiar to us now than at publication (“Silence Of The Lambs” is used as a reference point). Now we are more au fait as profiling has become a staple in crime fiction and movies and in such TV series as “Criminal Minds”, but there is a section where Hill is putting together his views on the serial killer which is absolutely fascinating and so well-written in that we learn so much about Hill as a character. He says to the image of the killer he is attempting to conjure up; “I’m just like you, you see, I’m your mirror image. I’m the poacher turned gamekeeper. It’s only hunting you that keeps me from being you. I’m here waiting for you. Journey’s end.

I’m wondering whether this aspect of Hill is played down more in subsequent novels in the series but it certainly packs a punch in this debut. And it’s not all grisly. For me, McDermid can get away with the gruesome as she writes so well, with a real feel for language and a dark humour and comes across as someone who relishes words and the world of books and wants to communicate this to her readers. Although it is disturbing and chilling there is also a warmth as the author welcomes us into this fictional world of Bradfield. This comes not from the characters, events or locations but from the writing and this feels really unusual.

Plot-wise it is not outstanding and there are elements which feel a little contrived but it is such a strong introduction to a series and I think I am really going to like Val McDermid as a writer.

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The Mermaids Singing was published by Harper Collins in 1995. I read the 20th anniversary edition with a foreword by Lee Child.

A Very English Scandal (BBC1 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Last Sunday BBC1 unveiled what may be its most entertaining and surprising Drama series of the year.  Surprising for a number of reasons, one being that I would imagine (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the background because I do not want to find out too much about what will happen) that a number of the key players in this distinctly squalid tale will still be alive.  Surprising also because it features a tour de force performance from an actor who we might have believed had his best performances behind him.

scandal3The real Jeremy Thorpe

In this truly English tale Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe went to trial in the 1970’s over his involvement in a plot to murder a younger man he had a sexual relationship with some years earlier.  I can remember the trial because my parents would look forward to the News At Ten reports as the salacious events unfolded around this leading MP and a man I remember was referred to as “male model” Norman Scott.  I was not quite of the age to fully understand what was going on but tried to piece it all together from the news reports.  I remember being surprised that someone could earn a living as a “male model” and also that one of the phrases which emerged from the trial “Bite the pillow, Bunny” was used as an insult in the school playground for a while, even if not fully understood.  It all felt a little grubby even then and in the intervening years it feels like something too implausible to be true for those too young to remember and largely forgotten by many people who were around at the time.

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But here it is all on BBC1, starring a career-revitalised Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw (last appearance on this site following his role in “London Spy“).  There’s great credentials here.  The source material is a book with the same title by John Preston and has been adapted by the screen by one of our modern great television writers, Russell T. Davies, a man with challenging, great and highly influential work to his name (“Queer As Folk”, “Cucumber”, “Torchwood”- all of which had a role in changing perceptions away from the repressed closeted world depicted here), although he is probably best known for the reboot of “Dr Who”.  It is directed by Stephen Frears, responsible for some great movies, two of which (“My Beautiful Launderette” and “Prick Up Your Ears”) were also landmark films in representing the lives of gay men on screen.  Here Davies and Frears tackle an earlier era of illegal acts and blackmail and public ruin and they are a perfect choice for the material.

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You might need to get “Paddington 2” out of your mind first as that movie’s baddie Grant here reunites with the voice of the Peruvian bear, Ben Whishaw, in a completely different way!  Both actors are attacking their role with relish, especially Grant, better looking than Thorpe, who is absolutely mesmerising in most scenes he is in.  I’ve never really seen him as a particularly good physical actor before but the moment he virtually skips down staircases in the House Of Commons he gives an excellent example of sheer anticipation of meeting again the young man he’d leered at and given his card to in a barn at a friend’s house over a year before.

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Later, when Thorpe had Norman ensconced in a bedroom at his mother’s house we had a ghastly seduction scene in which Grant was marvellous.  This scene became a central focus of the court case and was perfectly nuanced and fully deserved its revisit on this week’s “Gogglebox” when we saw the viewers open-mouthed at Thorpe’s behaviour. Giles said of Hugh Grant “I think he’s loving being outrageous…..He’s morphed into Jeremy Thorpe“, the always perceptive Basset said “This is how every British politician would be in this situation!”

The first episode built up to Thorpe’s declaration that Norman needed to be bumped off (over a £30 blackmail bid), a jaw-dropping moment for those viewers not familiar with the case and a perfect moment to end this first hour of high quality TV drama.  I would imagine that the tone will shift over the next two episodes as we focus on the conspiracy and the subsequent court case but I am confident that these are likely to contain some of the best writing, acting and direction we will see on our TV screens this year.

fivestarsA Very English Scandal is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The first episode is currently available on the BBC I- Player

 

 

 

The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018)

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The second book I have read to make it onto the shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction.  I was very impressed with Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” with it making number 6 on last year’s Top 10 books.  Expect this one also to be in my end of year best read countdown.

 Here we have a debut novel for ex-Museum worker Imogen Hermes Gowar and with her background of archaeology, anthropology and Art History she has certainly followed the perennial advice to write about what you know and seamlessly incorporated aspects of her experience into a right rollicking novel.

 Set in London of the 1780’s I had slight concerns that it might be overly twee, as perhaps implied by the title.  I actually chose to read it, however, because of this title, as it brought back echoes of “The Ghost And Mrs Muir” a delightful 1947 movie starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.  This, however, is no tale of a transparent salty sea dog and actually feels closer to a modern slant on WM Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”.

 It is no plot spoiler to say that for much of the novel Mrs Hancock is Angelica Neal, a high class prostitute whose protector has died leading her to face re-entry into society in order to find the next potential wealthy man who will support her.  Angelica is fabulous and has to face the realisation that she might not be the attraction she once was and may end up once again in the “nunnery” of another great character, Mrs Chappell.  Meanwhile, merchant Jonah Hancock is presented with a withered object, claimed to be the remains of a mermaid in compensation for a lost ship.  This exhibit becomes, for a short time, the toast of London and draws the attentions of both Mrs Chappell and Angelica.

 This is all done so well and Mr Hancock’s ascendancy because of his mermaid is an absolute joy to read.  What is slightly less successful for me is when a little fantasy element creeps in during the final third.  I know why the author does this but it doesn’t work quite as well when we lose the very real feel of eighteenth century London society with all its hypocrisies and limited attention spans cooing over Mr Hancock’s desiccated piece of exotica.

 This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.  It is an extremely impressive debut.

fivestarsThe Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published by Harvill Secker in 2018