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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My Brother’s Name Is Jessica – John Boyne (2019) – A Kids-Lit Review

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On the strength of the four novels by Irish writer John Boyne that I have read to date (2 for adults and 2 for children) he is one of my very favourite writers, scoring four five star reads and appearing in my 100 Essential Books strand. Both his children’s novels “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” are subtly complex, emotionally charged novels where a child outsider is thrown into extraordinary circumstances and where their lack of communication with the world of adults lead to misunderstandings and confusion which only make things worse for them. In neither of these (nor in the two adult books I’ve read) do you know what you are going to get from the title. Boyne, as a writer, is excellent at leading the reader into a journey which he/she is initially unprepared for. With his latest title for the older children/young teenage market you pretty much know what is in store from the title.

In a contemporary setting Boyne tackles the issue of the transgender child, here facing mid-teens knowing he was born into the wrong body. This seems to be very much an issue for out times which we all should know more about but it is not Jason/Jessica’s path we follow here. Boyne has given the first- person narrative to younger brother Sam. This gives everything a new perspective as the emphasis shifts onto the effects of such a situation on the family.

Issues are compounded by the Wavers being in the public eye. Mum is a senior politician with an eye on the big job, Dad her secretary and there are the views of the electorate, press and colleagues to consider. Jason makes his announcement very early on in the proceedings but the parents want it all suppressed. I can see what Boyne is doing here. Mum has achieved in what is a male dominated field and Dad has the more passive role already challenging traditional gender stereotypes. But they cannot accept this new challenge. Mum seeks to lead the country yet cannot offer support to her own child. This adds dramatic layers to the narrative but it does feel a lot less subtle than his best work.

I very much like the focus on younger brother Sam who reaches his already insecure early teens with his family history uprooted. His brother is the school star football player (nice touch Mr Boyne), Sam has always been the dyslexic not popular younger sibling and discovers that his brother’s announcement turns all that he has had in his past upside down and makes him vulnerable to bullying and tension both at home and at school.

Reading through the bare bones of the story it might seem that the author is box-ticking sensitive areas and producing an issue-laden work (and he certainly would not be the first writer of young adult fiction to do this by any means) were he not so good with character, dialogue and the day-to-day communication situations which feel universal and a step away from a mother angling to be Prime Minister, which is the aspect of the novel I’m not totally convinced by.

So no five stars this time but this is a valuable resource for those questioning identity or anyone who wants to know more about how these kind of issues would pan out. It is a marvellously empathic work and a very involving read.

fourstars

My Brother’s Name Is Jessica was published in hardback by Puffin in April 2019.

Paperbacks From Hell – Grady Hendrix (2017) – A Book About Books Review

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Subtitled “The Twisted History Of 70’s and 80’s Horror Fiction” I could almost feel this book calling to me from the public library shelves. Shockingly lurid cover art and written in a jokey style that had me, on occasions, laughing out loud this was a treat of a read. Grady Hendryx is a horror fan and has written a couple of novels in recent years but even he would admit horror writing is not what was in its heyday.

The genre, largely in the form of gothic romance, along the lines of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” limped along somewhat in the middle years of the twentieth century until three novels which dealt with the darker side of life topped bestseller lists. These were “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin (1967)- an outstanding example and one of my 100 Essential Reads; “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty (1971) which I remember as being badly written even when I read it as a teenager when I was most likely to devour such publications and “The Other” by Thomas Tryon, which I’ve never read.

With the demand for these types of read soaring aided by successful and often notorious film adaptations the floodgates were opened and horror writing took off in a big way. In a flooded market it was important to attract the casual reader and this is where cover art kicked in perhaps like never before. A significant proportion oversold and misrepresented what was between the covers as the horrors suggested by the cover art were not always so effectively conveyed by the text. Whilst quite a bit of the art was astonishing (for various reasons) quite a lot of the authors were not.

Hendrix takes us through various genres that all had their day: Satanic possession, devilish kids and animals, haunted houses and misfiring scientific experiments amongst them and has lavished each section with the often trashy front covers. He looks at the key artists and writers. His text has the right balance between critical appreciation and an awareness of the ludicrousness in the perils these writers put us through.

I realised that during these golden years I could not have read anywhere near as much horror as I suspected I had. In the US hundreds of titles were being published every month with a significant proportion appearing in Britain. I think I was very aware of some of the book covers as many looked familiar but rarely ending up making the purchase. I have, however, noted down some authors who still seem to be in print and require further investigation.

The horror boom ended almost overnight with the huge success of “The Silence Of The Lambs” by Thomas Harris (1988) a book no less creepy than what had gone before but one which was marketed as a “suspense thriller”. When it became a huge seller many horror writers wanted to be marketed in this way and the earlier style of presentation went out of fashion.

This book revisits a recent phenomenon in the publishing world which has been quickly forgotten (although it did shift somewhat into the children’s market with some pretty ghoulish content and cover art in the successful “Goosebumps” series). Those novels that have managed to stay in print have had their cover art toned down since those glory days at least a notch. It’s thanks to Grady Hendryx that we can revisit this tawdry underworld of popular fiction.

fourstars

Paperbacks From Hell was published in 2017 by Quirk Books.

The Five- Hallie Rubenhold (2019) – A Real Life Review

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I like this author.  A previous work of hers “The Covent Garden Ladies” (2006) a study of Victorian prostitution ended up in my Top 5 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2011.  I very much applaud what she has set out to achieve with this new meticulously researched work but I would give her earlier publication the edge.

 “The Five” attempts to redress a wrong which has existed for 130 years- the public perception of the five women believed to have been killed by “Jack The Ripper”.  From the early press reports, to the way the case was handled, to the coroners’ reports and the development of the whole macabre industry which has built up around the perpetrator these women have been misrepresented.  They have become very much the foils to The Ripper’s dastardly crimes, their whole lives tainted by the sordidness of their demise.  They have been labelled “prostitutes” with an implication that they may have invited or deserved their fate.  Their individuality and humanity has been forgotten in the telling of a lurid tale.

 Through the sifting of contemporary reports, including the patchy coroners’ transcripts, newspapers and journals and the census returns which all provided a deluge of contradictory evidence Hallie Rubenhold has explored each of the five women in turn and tracked their lives to the point where they ended up, completely out of luck, in the Spitalfields area in 1888. 

 The most horrific thing which runs throughout is how the lives of the Victorian working classes were so on edge, one change of circumstance and a downward spiral was begun from which there was no escape.  This was especially true for women where the miseries of lost loves, dead children, loss of reputation etc. could lead to turning to drink and from then on there was little hope.  And, despite the odd bright moments in most of their lives this is what happened to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.

 The author has certainly achieved her aim in giving them a different place in The Ripper story and used the evidence well to bring them back to life.  The nature of the type of evidence she is using after 130 years of them being treated differently means that looking back after finishing the work I felt that individually they blurred into one another.  The author might not have found their voices individually but certainly as a group I very much felt their presence.  Little is actually known about the last victim Mary Jane Kelly, who lived her life enigmatically as many who became lost in Victorian London chose to do.  This is where non-fiction can let us down, lack of information leads to more generic non-specific writing thus affecting the narrative flow which a novelist would enjoy in bringing their work to conclusion.  I think this was why I wilted a little as a reader towards the end.

The character who is kept very firmly in the shadows throughout is Jack The Ripper himself, moving in only in the last few lines of each section.  I understand and applaud this but I don’t know as much about The Ripper Cases as the author assumes I do and by keeping the perpetrator so far in the background I feel I need to know more about what actually happened and how it was dealt with and to do this I’m likely to have to read one of the works Rubenhold is challenging.  But when I do I know I will have this author’s new perspective in mind and will not forget that these women existed and lived a valuable life before perishing in the London streets.

fourstars

 

The Five was published in hardback by Doubleday in February 2019.  It has this week been longlisted for the non-fiction dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association.

The South Bank Show- Jed Mercurio (Sky Arts 2019) A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With fortuitous timing, later on the same evening that BBC1 scored the largest television audience this year when 9.1 million tuned into the Series 5 “Line Of Duty” finale, Sky Arts opened its new series of “The South Bank Show” with a profile of writer Jed Mercurio in conversation with Melvyn Bragg.

I haven’t watched “The South Bank Show” for years, certainly not since it was revitalised on the Sky Arts Channel seven years ago.  Most of us will remember it from its original run from 1978 until it was axed by ITV in 2010.  I tuned in because I wanted to know more about this man who has had us on the edge of our seats with “Line Of Duty” and “Bodyguard“.  I was both heartened and a little depressed that the opening music taken from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Variations” was still intact, even if in a slightly different version from the one I remember and depressed because it brought me back to Sunday nights of my teenage years when it signified bed-time and the end of the weekend and back to school on Monday.

Even though I have been avidly glued to every episode of “Line Of Duty” and to “Bodyguard” I realised I did not know much about the man who has put pen to paper and given us these examples of very high standard writing for television.  I do have an unread copy of one of his novels “American Adultery” (2009), which I recently obtained, sat on my shelves but that was really about it.

southbankshowMelvyn Bragg and Jed Mercurio

We began with a montage of clips from the shows that have elevated him up to the highest category of TV writing and was told by Melvyn Bragg that Mercurio’s work is known for exploring the “dark side of institutions and the morally questionable characters that hold them up.”  This certainly holds true for his two most famous productions as well as two hospital dramas, his debut work for television “Cardiac Arrest” which I don’t remember and “Bodies” which began in 2004, which I do.  What Mercurio wishes to challenge is the “drama of reassurance” which is what most TV  police drama has traditionally been.  Cleverly, with “Line Of Duty” he has achieved this by focusing on the arm of the organisation which is exploring the corruption, if he had shown just the corruption he feels so strongly about there would have been outcry from the police and politicians.  By having AC-12 as the investigating body he certainly does not have to water down any message he wishes to get over about the state of our institutions.

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The hospital dramas which came first were written from an insider’s point of view.  Mercurio was brought up in the West Midlands, the youngest son of Italian immigrants and went into medicine after being inspired by a contestant on TV’s “Blockbusters”(!)  He went to medical school in Birmingham as well as joining the RAF and training as a pilot.   He experienced the difficulties of life in an NHS hospital, which all of us who have read Adam Kay’s “This Is Going To Hurt” will certainly know about and responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal from a TV production company looking for a different story from the one we were used to in hospital soaps (which is largely that “drama of reassurance” again).  The success and recommissioning of “Cardiac Arrest” led him to drop medicine and to come out of the Air Force to be a full time writer.

We were told this was not an easy move “The Grimleys” was a 1970’s West Midlands set comedy which lasted a couple of series and using the name John MacUre he penned the six part BBC science fiction series “Invasion Earth”.  He hit big again by returning to the hospital wards in an examination of negligent practises, “Cardiac Arrest”, which was a success and from what I remember a pretty difficult watch.  “Line Of Duty”, the series which has certainly kept his name to the forefront and generated so many column inches and workplace discussions began its run in 2012 and between this and “Bodyguard” there has been a TV hospital drama for Sky “Critical” which was a little too much for me and a  TV adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.

There were interviews with cast members (was I the only person not to know that Martin Compston who plays Steve Arnott speaks naturally in a Scottish accent? It took me completely by surprise as it did by how young he looked in the first series) who spoke highly of Mercurios’ total involvement in bringing his dramas to the screen, which he himself acknowledges many writers do not get the same opportunity for this level of on-set participation. It fell into place for him when he became Medical Advisor for “Cardiac Arrest” thus giving him a hands-on role which most writers who don’t know what has been done to their work until the production is finished can only dream of.

This was a very interesting hour in the company of Jed Mercurio and Melvyn Bragg shows why he has been at the top of his own personal game for decades by asking the questions that viewers want answered.  I certainly wouldn’t add “The South Bank Show” as a Series Record on the Sky Planner but I am very pleased that it is still going strong and if the subject matter appeals as much as this one did I will certainly watch.

fourstars

The South Bank Show: Jed Mercurio was first shown on Sky Arts on Sunday 5th May.  It is available to watch on Sky Catch-up services.

Excellent Women – Barbara Pym (1952)

 

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Barbara Pym was one of the British writers featured in Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors”. I would dispute that she is forgotten. Admittedly, there was a time in the 60s and 70s when she faded from view but she has been reinstated in latter years (she died in 1980) and her gentle, observational novels are held in high esteem and read and re-read by devoted fans. The publishing house Virago have made sure today’s readership would not have to struggle to find her work.

I’d never read her before and had sort of put her in my mind as a missing link between Jane Austen and Victoria Wood. It’s not quite as spot on as that but it’s not too wide of the mark, with the small-scale word she creates pushing her closer towards a more modern-day Austen.

She depicts a fairly drab London “very much the “wrong” side of Victoria Station” in the post-war years which still has a village mentality but with its occupants faded into accepting their shabby environment. Everyone feels slightly down on their luck. It’s a world of stewed tea, washing hung up indoors to dry, shared bathrooms combined with the less urban aspect of jumble sales, knowing everyone’s business and with the vicar as the central figure of the community.

Mildred Lathbury is one of Reverend Julian Malory’s “excellent women”, someone who everyone “respects and esteems” but who is not destined for much excitement, passion or unpredictability. She is deemed such by everyone including her more dynamic new neighbour Rockingham Napier with his military background which seems largely to have been chatting up WRENS in Italy and his wife’s friend and fellow anthropologist Everard Bone (I’m not sure if Pym is being racy with a double entendre here). Mildred seems interested in all of these men but cannot move beyond casual acquaintance or friendship.

That’s largely the plot, but let’s agree it’s unlikely that many readers would read Barbara Pym for her plotlines. It is the close observations which enrich her writing. It’s an understated world which focuses in on small absurdities. Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction states that this is not laugh out loud comic writing but is likely to result in many wry smiles. Like Victoria Wood, who I had imagined Pym to be closer to be than she actually is, the humour is in the ordinariness of everyday life. Being caught up in an emotional scene whilst holding a teapot or having two ping pong bats in one’s grasp or with a baguette and a biography of Cardinal Newman poking out of a shopping bag is as riotous as it gets for these characters.

In a world where so much is brash Barbara Pym is a perfect antidote which should ensure a continued growth in reputation and I did enjoy my first experience of her work. I do think that as a reader I respond better to bigger issues and greater depth than evidenced here. This was her second novel and is usually up there amongst readers’ favourites. She spent almost a couple of decades not being able to find her place in the publishing world but she returned with the Booker shortlisted “Quartet In Autumn” in 1977, since then she has become an inspiration for many other (especially) British writers. I think I might have been expecting a little more as a result of this, the lightness of touch was a little surprising to me. I could almost say she was frothy but it would be a pretty down-at-heel frothiness, whipped tinned evaporated milk rather than whipped double cream would be more fitting for the world Barbara Pym’s characters inhabit.

threestars

Excellent Women was published in 1952. I read a 2013 Virago paperback edition.

100 Essential CDs – Number 89- Various Artists – Chilled Disco

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Chilled Disco – Various Artists (Smart 2002)

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I picked up this 16 track double CD from a bargain bin in my local Asda Supermarket not too long after its release.  It is very sparse in information about the tracks but for me it was a bit of a gem of a find and I have played it so many times over the years.  It’s not been given that many favours, the dearth of information, the anonymous labelling (I can find out nothing about the Smart record label, I’m assuming it was British but I’m not sure) and the title is certainly wrong – subtitled “16 Mellow Disco Classics” is misleading to say the least.  Luckily, at the time I recognised this for what it was, 16 tracks licensed from the Salsoul label coming from the 1970’s and early 80’s and up there amongst the most thrilling disco club hits of all time.

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Salsoul was a New York City label originally releasing Latin Music but when Disco hit big signed on a number of artists.  Central to the label was the house orchestra who provided the musical backing on many of these tracks and who rivalled MFSB from Philadelphia International Records.  In fact, a number of the key players of the Salsoul Orchestra were lifted from MFSB as they had become disillusioned by what was going on over at the Philly label at the time.  Salsoul were there from the early days of disco with the Orchestra producing with their debut album one of the all-time classics of the genre and scoring a 1976 Pop Top 20 hit with a sublime reworking of the standard “Tangerine”.  When disco went underground DJ’s were still heavily featuring tunes from this label and remixing and re-editing and given them a whole new lease of life.  Producers/DJ’s such as Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Tom Moulton extended and revitalised the original songs and when sampling came in, many a Salsoul sample was used on countless club tracks.  It’s not totally clear on this album what you are actually listening to, the original album or single release or a later remixed version.  I don’t think it matters too much and certainly doesn’t mar the enjoyment as far as the music is concerned.  Those of us who like to know exactly what they are listening to might get a little antsy.  In fact, a number of the remixed tracks have become the standard versions of these releases and were re-issued by Salsoul when the label had a resurgence within a couple of years after the release of this particular CD.

As always with these various artists CDs I will  list the tracks together with their highest pop chart position (UK/US) if relevant and l will pick out a handful of songs to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD1

1.Hit And Run – Loleatta Holloway

2. I Got My Mind Made Up- Instant Funk (UK#46, US#20- 1979)

3. Dreaming- Loleatta Holloway

4. Let No Man Put Asunder – First Choice

5. Dr Love – First Choice – This girl group trio made it big in the very early days of disco with “Armed and Extremely Dangerous” and “Smarty Pants” on the Philly Groove Label scoring two UK Top 20 hits in 1973.  They label hopped from Gold Mine and Warner Bros making great tracks on the way before moving to Salsoul Both lead singer Rochelle Fleming and Annette Guest lasted the duration of the group with the third member tending to come an go.  At this point it was Ursula Herring. This and the above track first appeared on their 1977 Gold Mine album “Delusions” produced by Salsoul leading light Norman Harris.  In their original incarnation they lasted 5mins 17 and 4 mins 28 respectively.  These remix versions which have become associated with the Salsoul label clock in at 7min 35 and 8 min 03 so there has been some serious extending going on. I believe these first appeared as Salsoul twelve-inchers around 1983. In this format “Let No Man Put Asunder” (later covered by Mary J Blige and sampled by other artists) does go on too long and becomes annoying but this infectious girl group stormer works very well.  How can you resist a song that begins “He’s got the potions and the motions.”!salsoul2

6. Ten Percent – Double Exposure – If anything proves the title to these CDs is wrong it is this track which is about as far away as chilled disco and mellow music as you can get, a real barnstormer of a track which combines a male group vocal track with some really exhilarating orchestration which really gallops away.  You can’t help think if this was recorded by one of the higher profile male vocal groups such as Trammps, Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes or Tavares that this could have been a huge hit.  This group had been around since the early 60’s with finding much success and their stint at Salsoul should have changed that as they had at least another great track in “Every Man (Should Carry His Own Weight)” which was heavily sampled for M&S Presents The Girl Next Door’s UK#6 hit “Salsoul Nugget” in 2000. Here I’m pretty sure we’ve got the percussion-laden Walter Gibbons remix which comes in at nine minutes and its a great disco track.  And in its “10% of something is better than 100% of nothing at all” hookline there’s maths as well!
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7. This Will Be A Night To Remember – Eddie Holman – Eddie’s falsetto masterclass “Hey There Lonely Girl” reached number 2 in the US in 1970 but had to wait four years until it became a surprise #4 hit in 1974.  The novelty value of his extraordinary vocal ability consigned him to one hit wonder status but this track certainly should have done the trick for him when it was released by Salsoul in 1977.  Eddie’s voice is not the whole focus here, there’s great orchestration and really dramatic piano flourishes throughout which makes the whole thing a thrilling enterprise.

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8.Helplessly – Moment Of Truth – Another epic track with a soulful male vocal reminiscent of David Ruffin over female backing singers, a track which drives along as the lead vocal becomes increasingly anguished.  Surprisingly for such a great soul performance this was also popular as an instrumental, but here you get the 6 min 25 vocal version.

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CD 2

1.Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Inner Life – I’m pretty sure that, despite the lack of information to confirm this what we have as the opener to this second CD is the Larry Levan remix of this song .  I’m basing this on the fact that the original 1981 twelve inch single release was 7 mins 32 in length and this is 10.28.  It starts off very stripped back with some gospel wailing from Jocelyn Brown until some big percussion (is it kettle drums?) cuts through and then its into the Ashford and Simpson song most famous for its version by Diana Ross.  Jocelyn Brown is a phenonomenal singer who became a UK chart regular in the 80’s and (especially) the 90’s when she helped Incognito, Right Said Fred, Kym Mazelle, Todd Terry and Martha Wash have Top 20 hits as well as having a run of hits as a solo artist including this track which she revived in 1998 and got to number 35.  This is an opus of orchestration, synthesizers and great vocals.

salsoul6Jocelyn Brown

 

2.Love Sensation – Loleatta Holloway- Certainly up there as the most sampled voice of all time, this is Loleatta’s third appearance on this album and it is her best.  A huge voice incredibly recognisable as almost every line she sings here was lifted and used elsewhere  in the late 80’s and early 90’s, most prominently in Italo-House classic and UK#1 single “Ride On Time” by Black Box, which I should feel outraged by but I was familiar with the Black Box track before I heard this and what they did with their reinvention of the track was nothing short of genius, one of my favourite singles which surpasses this already impressive original.  The most outrageous thing about Black Box was their passing off that wispy French model Katrin Quinol was the possessor of this incredible voice and for a short time we bought it.  Legal proceedings followed and Loleatta rightfully acknowledged as the singer.  Written and produced by Dan Hartman, this is another of his big disco epics, like “Relight My Fire”, “Countdown/This Is It” and “Instant Replay”.  This man could really do disco on a big scale and he certainly had a big vocal performance in Loleatta.  Despite limited success in the peak of the disco era Loleatta would find belated fame in the dance music revival of the early 90’s where either her, the aforementioned Jocely Brown or Martha Wash would be the go-to girl for big vocals.  She got a credited Top 20 hit with Marky Mark with “Good Vibrations”and with Cevin Fisher in “(You Got Me) Burnin’ Up” and was great on a UK#23 cover of the Style Council’s “Shout To The Top” as part of Fire Island in 1998.  She passed away in 2011 aged 64.

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3.Just As Long As I Got You – Love Committee

4. The Beat Goes On And On – Ripple

5. Jingo – Candido (UK#55- 1981) A cover of this track reached #12 UK in 1987 for Jellybean.

6. Ooh I Love It (Love Break)The Salsoul Orchestra

7. Love Is You – Carol Williams – A delightful track by a vocalist with the warmth of Gloria Gaynor amidst a striking vocal arrangement (at one point there’s a flourish which is reminiscent of the theme from “Wonder Woman”) and enough hooks to keep later samplers happy.  Most noticeably this track was used in the 2000 UK number 1 hit by Spiller “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” which had a lead vocal from Sophie Ellis-Bextor.  Sophie’s latest album “The Song Diaries” (2009) features orchestral reworkings of her greatest hits and she covers this Carol Williams original to good effect.  Carol was the first female singer signed to Salsoul and even though there was only one album she is still apparently performing still.

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8. Nice And Naasty – The Salsoul Orchestra – (US#30- 1976) The mastermind behind the last three tracks and behind the whole Salsoul Orchestra project was Vince Montana Jnr, percussionist and vibraphone player, producer and composer and one of the most important figures of the Disco era.  This was the title track of the Orchestra’s second album and combines the musical sweep of their productions with a funky little bass-line reminiscent of the theme from “Peter Gunn” and sassy unison female vocals which keep it just on the right side of tacky.  There’s a spirited sax solo and although it’s not the best thing that outfit did it’s always a great listen and leaves me with a smile on my face.

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Chilled Disco is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.39 and used from £1.04.  It provides an excellent introduction to the Salsoul label at a bargain price.  There are many other more official, better packaged CDs available.  The thirty track Salsoul 30th Anniversary compilation would be a strong choice (currently £15.82 on Amazon).

The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna – Juliet Grames (Hodder & Stoughton 2019)

 

stellafortuna

Last year’s surprise publishing sensation was the debut novel by American author Stuart Turton “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” which won the Costa First Novel Award and climbed up bestseller lists as well as appearing on a considerable number of “Best Of The Year” lists. I haven’t read it yet but anticipate a time-bending novel along the lines of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” which I loved. We all know that from the very early days of publishing there’s nothing like a surprise success to start off the bandwagon jumping and I couldn’t help but feel that this might be the case when I saw the title of this debut by another American author (even more so when you consider Turton’s US title for his novel is “The Seven and A Half Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle”). This may just all be coincidence but I’m doubtful.

There was, however, something about the description of this novel which appealed and hopefully that potential cash-in of a title will not hinder its chances in the marketplace. Unlike “Life After Life” these are not actual deaths anyway but near-death experiences for the main character, a woman with undoubted survival instincts and these experiences provide the structure of the book. It actually needn’t as this is one of the weakest aspects of the story. Before publication I would have made these near-death encounters less prominent and just titled the novel “Stella Fortuna” allowing it to stand more on its own merit rather than on the coat-tails of another title. It would have also ended up with something which would have felt more self-contained and original.

This novel does not need this hook. It works very well on its own as a tale of the long-living Stella Fortuna and her family from sun-soaked days in a village in Calabria, Italy, to their emigration to the US just before World War II and their experience of life over the decades as an American-Italian immigrant family narrated by her grand-daughter.

The Italian section does feel a little unsure of itself in terms of style. At times it reads almost like a fairy tale with whimsical touches borne out of the superstitions of the simple mountain folk. I quite liked it but I’m a little allergic to anything too whimsical. Once it gets to America it feels more realistic and at times disturbingly hard-hitting, even brutal in its writing. As a result I’m not totally convinced Juliet Grames has found her style consistently with this debut. It did occur to me at one point that it might be a translation into English and that the translator did not quite get the author’s voice quite right, but it’s not.

However, she did keep me reading and that was because of strong characterisation. Stella will undoubtedly frustrate and irritate, she has a stubborn streak and lives her life attempting to avoid what she does not want rather than going after what she actually wants. She is haunted by these near-death experiences and her belief that they are to do with incidents from before she was born. Her parents, her mother taken away from the simple life she loves and her disturbing macho father are equally well drawn as are many of those who come into Stella Fortuna’s life over the generations. As a family story it works very well. I just can’t help thinking that the title might hold it back implying it is something that it’s not and forcing unnecessary comparisons. This is a strong, memorable debut but I do feel with a slightly different emphasis, viewpoint and a more consistent style it could have been first-rate.

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The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna is published by Hodder and Stoughton in hardback on May 7th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Post Number 600! – A What You Have Been Reading Special

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Well here it is the 600th post! It has taken me since January 2015 to reach this milestone and I’m delighted that reviewsrevues is still going strong and quite a few of you have been with me since the beginning.  Many thanks for your continued support which spurs me on even when I think I’m going to stray off schedule.

At the start of the year the counters of the most visited posts were reset back to zero so I thought I’d celebrate my 600th anniversary (I’m sure it has its own name but I can’t find better than a double tercentenary!) by having a look at what you have been reading since the start of the year, the Top 10 of 2019 so far.  There’s clickable links to the original, just in case you missed it first time round.  The numbers in the brackets refer to their position in my 2018 Review of the Year.  It’s very tight at the top 3 with just a couple of blog visits between them so expect some changes when I have another look at those statistics at the end of the year.

 
10 (New Entry)  You Will Be Safe Here- Damien Barr Posted in Feb 2019.  This writer’s first novel takes in over 100 years of South African history and is a very strong debut

9(New Entry) The Taking Of Annie Thorne – C J Tudor – Posted in April 2019 – I didn’t enjoy it as much as “The Chalk Man” but it is an involving read, showing once again the author’s skill with tension and building up a creepy atmosphere.

8 (Re-entry) Mary Portas’ Secret Shopper  Posted back in January 2016 – A Channel 4 documentary show which saw Mary examining what makes good customer service.

7 (New Entry) Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer – Posted in Mar 2018.  Number 85 on my Essential CD list.  This year the much missed Donna’s 1977 double album has been attracting a lot of attention.

6 (New Entry)- The Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins – Published in February 2019.  Another debut novel, a superior historical crime novel that does live up to pre-publication expectations and should end up selling well.

5(New Entry) Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle – Published in Feb 2019 and currently the most read of the blogs I’ve posted this year.  This BBC 4 one-off documentary told the fascinating story of how Sweden became the biggest exporter of pop music per capita of anywhere in the world.

4 (5) The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen – Published in Jan 2018.  The two from Channel 4’s Googlebox who people really seem to want to know more about.  This book came out for Christmas in 2017 but is still attracting considerable attention.

3 (2) Atlantic Ballroom – Waldeck- Published in November 2018 –  If you fancy listening to some Austrian Electro Swing you probably couldn’t do better than to seek out this five star album.

2 (8) Scott and Bailey – Published in April 2016 – The fifth and final series of this ITV crime drama continues to pull in the readers in significant numbers.  Watch out for Suranne Jones in an adaptation written by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) of “Gentlemen Jack” the biography of Anne Lister a Victorian lesbian who forged a way into male dominated society.

1(New Entry) This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay – Published in November 2018.  One of the best selling non-fiction paperbacks for some time and at long last is seems to be dawning  on people what being an NHS doctor in a hospital is actually like.

Where are you reading from?  The Top 5 locations for reviewsrevues readers.

  1. US
  2. UK
  3. Italy
  4. Australia
  5. Canada

Thanks once again for reading I am off to celebrate my 600th posting!!

 

100 Essential Books – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018)

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This is sublime.  A debut novel from an American writer who has poured ten years of research and four years of writing to produce this critically acclaimed little gem.  You can tell it has been a real labour of love for this author, picking up prizes when still a work in progress and now one of the 16 books selected for consideration for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  

 In 1975 Esquire Magazine produced an extract of an unfinished novel by literary giant Truman Capote which showed a writer past his prime and with a subject matter which shook his circle of friends.  The women in high society with whom Capote spent much of his time with saw themselves mocked and their secrets revealed in an astounding case of literary treachery.  They turned against him and he never got over it.

 I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.   Some may tire of reading of these privileged lifestyles and the manoeuvrings to keep their place in society but I certainly didn’t. Salaciousness as literature – just fabulous!

 Narrated unusually in the third person this is the voice of the wronged chorus, Capote’s women, his swans, as they dip in to various parts of their lives, the times when they left themselves open to betrayal.  Truman Capote is the central figure, absolutely fascinating and repugnant and totally convincing in this portrayal.  His spark of genius faded as he became wrapped up in these swans, the six women whose lives he shattered.  The women themselves would mean more to the American reader but amongst them is Lee, the sister of Jackie Kennedy, one amongst the circuit of society women in an age not too far away but which now seems to us an echo of distant glamour.

 In the supporting cast is everyone whose light shone during this period when showbiz, politics, power and finance combined including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, various Kennedys, Gore Vidal, The Rolling Stones.  I find the whole era fascinating and Capote was at the centre.  We rediscover him at various points in his life from a child playing with a young Harper Lee who would later immortalise him as Dill in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to dancing to his own tune as an alcoholic on the disco floor at Studio 54.  Hanging over him throughout this time is his relationship with his mother, engendering in him a need for revenge which comes across in his dealings with these society women, his belief in his own talent even when the writing dried up and his obsession with the perpetrators of the crime behind his most celebrated non-fiction work “In Cold Blood”.  The complexities of the real man come across so clearly through this re-creation.

 But it is Capote’s dynamics with these women who weave in and out of this beautifully written prose which is this novel’s greatest success.  Its heavily factual basis has left me thirsting for more and to want to find out about these people and their time but I feel as if I can’t rush into doing this because I want this author’s creations and her versions of events to linger before I start exploring the facts behind this astonishing piece of fiction.

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Swan Song was published in hardback by Hutchinson in 2018.  The paperback published by Windmill Books is due on 27th June 2019.

100 Essential CDs- Number 99 – Various Artists – More Rock N Roll Love Songs

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More Rock N Roll Love Songs (Dino 1991)

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With the run down of A-Z artists complete on my 100 Essential CD lists there are still 14 spaces.  These are for the various artists compilations I play the most.  With these it is important to know what tracks can be found on the CD so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog.  I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Sat at 99 is a double CD released in 1991 on the Dino Label with forty tracks largely by American artists.  These are the big names that dominated the charts in the late 50’s and early 60’s before the British Invasion and the Beatles ended most of their careers.  There’s a few that don’t quite fit into the category.  Title-wise its also a tad misleading as its broader than it suggests with my favourite tracks being those who fit more into the doo-wop and girl group categories.  There are some rock n roll classics in there as well.  There are many compilations which focus on this era including the very successful “Dreamboats And Petticoats” series but for me this mini-series which was preceded by Rock N Roll Love Songs has just about everything to give me a blast of nostalgia some dating  from before I was born and where the world seemed a much simpler place.

Track Listings 

CD1

1.Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers (1965) (UK #1- 1990, US#4) – The CD kicks off with one of the most successful chart songs of all time.  Back in 1965 the “Brothers” Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield got to a middling #14 in the UK as the follow-up to their anthemic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”.  The song had previously been a number 2 1955 hit for Al Hibbler (US#3) and had reached the UK Top spot the same year for future mum’s favourite DJ Jimmy Young.  So a familiar song choice which might have explained why it under-achieved first time round.  The quality of the vocal performance here lingered and when Al and Jimmy’s version had been long forgotten the Righteous Brothers were deemed the perfect addition to the 1990 movie “Ghost” which explains its resurgence and the number 1 UK placing 25 years after its release.  The song had originally started off in a long-forgotten movie “Unchained” (hence the title which is not referenced in the lyrics) but after its Swayze/Moore association it has eased itself into the canon of popular music standards and has since topped the UK charts two more times  for musical thespians Robson and Jerome and Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates.  The Righteous Brothers have the definitive version.  It’s one of their best tracks (but not their best as the bombastic “Lovin’ Feeling” and “Ebb Tide” both do more for me.)

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2. Dream Lover – Bobby Darin (1959) (UK#1, US#2)

3. Bye Bye Love – Everly Brothers (1957) (UK#4,US#2)

4. Everyday – Buddy Holly (1957)

5. Then I Kissed Her – Beach Boys (1967) (UK#4)

6. One Fine Day – The Chiffons (1963) (UK#29, US#5)- These girls were good.  Three hit singles in the UK and each one of them was a first-class representation of the girl group sound and yet they are largely forgotten today.  Here on this Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition they are probably at their very best.  There’s also great piano work from Carole King herself in evidence here.   The Chiffons were four girls from The Bronx, Judy Craig, Sylvia Peterson, Patricia Bennett and Barbara Lee and became one of the biggest acts on the Laurie label.  During their hit period the girls were plagued with the financial problems which beset many of the artists of the era.  Probably best known now as being the subject of a court case when George Harrison was found guilty of plagiarizing their US chart-topper “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord” in a bizarre sound-alike scenario (to me there are so many songs that sound far more identical than these two did to one another that got away with it).

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7. Three Steps To Heaven – Eddie Cochran  (1960) (UK#1) If taken literally this is rather a morbid choice for a UK posthumous single released less than a month after his death aged 21 killed in a car crash in a taxi coming back from a show at The Hippodrome Theatre in Bristol.  The heaven Cochran aspires to here in his self-composed song is getting a girl to love him rather than the pearly gates itself.  For someone who grew up with the number 2 1975 version from Showaddywaddy it is surprising to hear just how good the vocal performance on the Cochran original is.  Who knows what he would have gone on to achieve?  In the UK this was his fifth UK Top 30 hit.  His last singles chart appearance was in 1988 with a re-issue of another of his biggest hits “C’mon Everybody”.

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8. Under The BoardwalkThe Drifters (1964) (US#4)

9. Sweet Nothin’s – Brenda Lee (1960) (UK#4, US#4)

10. Stand By Me- Ben E King (1960) (UK#1 (1987), US#4)

11. Blue Moon – The Marcels (1961) (UK#1, US#1) – Certainly not unique in being a young doo-wop group adopting a song from a previous generation, in fact there are a few more examples of this on these CDs.  This Pittsburgh group certainly hit the big time with a version of a Rogers and Hart standard which dated from 1934, but it is impossible to hear subsequent versions without being aware of the Marcels (a group named after the hairstyle The Marcel Wave) and the thrilling doo-wop vocal arrangement from the very first notes of the bass voice Fred Johnson.  There’s a great lead vocal courtesy of Cornelius Harp which helped it top charts on both sides of the Atlantic for Colpix Records.  That familiar introduction was largely lifted from the group’s cover of “Zoom” by The Cadillacs.  In the spring of 1961 it really looked like The Marcels had arrived.  They continued to mine the hits of the past and scored one more US Top 10 hit with another song from the 1930’s “Heartaches”. In the UK only their version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” made any impression but they continued with “That Old Black Magic”, “Over The Rainbow” “My Melancholy Baby” until their original takes began to seem hackneyed and which overshadowed songs especially written for the group.  By the time the Beatles came along the Doo-wop craze had passed by.

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12. Leader Of The Pack – Shangri-Las (1964) (UK#3 (1972) US#1)

13. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – The Platters (1958) (UK#1,US#1) – Another mining of the Great American Songbook The Platters turned Jerome Kern’s 1933 song into an absolute tour-de-force.  This was largely because of lead vocalist Tony William’s outstanding tenor.  A group unusual in its time as it featured both male vocalists and a female Zola Taylor, who was married to lead “Teenager” Frankie Lymon which resulted in court action concerning his estate following his early death.  The Platters were there at the start of the rock n roll boom as they appeared with Bill Haley in the game-changing movie “Rock Around The Clock.”  This track was their only UK and last of their four US number 1’s and perhaps only overshadowed by their “The Great Pretender”.

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14. Little Darlin’ – The Diamonds (1957) (UK#3, US#2)

15. Who’s Sorry Now – Connie Francis (1958) (UK#1, US#4)

16. I’m Gonna Be Strong – Gene Pitney (1964) (UK#2,US#9)

17. It’s Only Make Believe – Conway Twitty (1958) (UK#1,US#1)

18. Dedicated To The One I Love – The Shirelles (1961) (US#3)

19. Come Go With Me – The Del Vikings (1957) (US#4)

20. I Only Have Eyes For You – The Flamingos (1959) (US#11)

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1.That’ll Be The Day – Buddy Holly (1957) (US#1)

2. Runaway – Del Shannon (1961)  (UK#1, US#1)

3. Only Sixteen – Craig Douglas (1959) (UK#1)

4. Blueberry Hill – Fats Domino (1956) (UK#6,US#2)

5. Save The Last Dance For MeThe Drifters (1960) (UK#2, US#1)

6. Crying In The Rain – Everly Brothers (1962) (UK#6, US#6)

7. My Boyfriend’s Back – The Angels (1963) (US#1) – This girl-group classic topped the American charts but only attracted lowly sales in the UK.  The song speaks to the teenager in all of us and seems almost as relevant today in the world of internet trolls.  Somebody’s been scorned and bad-mouthing and when the boyfriend returns there is going to be trouble as he aims to save his girl’s reputation.  It’s fascinating in that it’s only half the story- we are never sure if the girlfriend is completely blameless (I’ve always suspected not).  There’s great handclaps a good lead vocal from Peggy Santiglia  and a hey-la hey-la refrain which always makes this a great listen.  The Angels never bothered the UK charts but this trio from Orange, New Jersey scored four Top 40 hits in total in their homeland and disbanded in 1967.

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8. Sea Of Love – Phil Phillips & The Twilights (1959) (US#2)

9. Come Softly To Me  The Fleetwoods (1959) (UK #6, US#1)

10.When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge (1966) (UK#2 (1987) US#1) Later than most of the tracks on this collection it fits in because it was another track (like the Righteous Brothers and Ben E King) which became revitalised in the mid 80’s UK nostalgia boom.  This had done better the first time round than the other tracks as in the year of its release it topped the US charts and got to number 4 in the UK.  It was a television ad for Levi’s jeans which reignited Percy’s career over 20 years after its release.  He reached the Top 40 four more times in his homeland and once in the UK.  He continued to record and perform live and died in 2015.

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11. Halfway To Paradise – Billy Fury (1961) (UK#3)

12. ‘Til I Kissed You – Everly Brothers (1959)(UK#2, US#4)

13. Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) – The Shangri-Las (1964) (UK#14, US#5) – Both of the Shangri-La’s UK hits are featured on “More Rock N’ Roll Love Songs” and this one is absolutely bonkers.  The emotions are cranked up to breaking point,   the anguish about the death of “The Leader Of The Pack” seems quite tame in comparison to this overblown track which never seems sure which song it wants to settle into.  The Shangri-Las sound had a street toughness which has made their reputation resonate over the decades.  Two sets of sisters The Weiss’ and identical twins The Gansers from Queens New York knew how to do melodrama.  It doesn’t end there.  If you like these two tracks “Past Present And Future” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” are certainly on a par with what we have on show here.

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14. Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa -Gene Pitney (1963) (UK#5,US#17) I grew up with this record.  It was one of a handful of singles we had at home until I started to use up all my pocket-money on seven inch vinyl in the mid 70s and may have even been my introduction to the work of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  I love the story behind this song of the man who can “never go home again” due to a dalliance en-route.  Gene Pitney is never better than he is on this, even a version by the legendary Dusty Springfield which made it onto her essential “Silver Collection” pales by comparison.

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15. The Single Girl – Sandy Posey (1966) (UK#15, US#12)

16. Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart – The Coasters (1958)

17. Stupid Cupid – Connie Francis (1958) (US#14)

18. Johnny Remember Me – John Leyton (1961) (UK#1)- John Leyton was a young British heartthrob actor who someone had the good idea (and it would happen again and again over the decades) to make him a recording star.  A TV acting part as a pop singer helped as it meant that the song could be performed on the show. Mad genius producer Joe Meek was at the helm and it was written by Geoff Goddard, a regular Meek collaborator and this chilling track which combined a galloping rhythm with a haunting disembodied female voice topped the UK charts even though it was banned by the BBC at the time.  Four more Top 30 hits followed and he can be seen cropping up in films in the period.  He kept up with the music and was continuing to perform as he approached his eighties. In one of the more bizarre song combinations of all time Bronski Beat and Marc Almond teamed it with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and “Love To Love You Baby” and got to number 3 in 1985.

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19. Soldier Boy – The Shirelles (1962) (UK#23, US#1)

20. I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) – Aretha Franklin (1967) (US#9) – Far be it for me to question the great Aretha Franklin’s presence on any compilation but this does seem a little out of place here.  1967 seems a long way from 1957 and the tracks by The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.  This blistering soul performance makes it feel very much of the next generation from the one represented here on the other 39 songs.

So forty tracks eleven of which topped the charts in either the UK or the US and even though if not always to my taste there really isn’t a filler track here.  This makes it an essential CD release which I play regularly when I want to sing along to tracks from a more innocent time.

More Rock N Roll Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.49 new and from £0.67 used.