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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Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Mohsin Hamid made his first appearance on the Booker shortlist ten years ago with “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” in a year when Anne Enright took the prize.

“Exit West” is a slim, sparse novel with big themes which centres on a love affair amidst turmoil and conflict.  Hamid can be precise in his vagueness and we never learn for sure the country of Nadia and Saeed’s birth but it is, like many others, a nation of escalating conflict. 

They meet at an evening class but their freedoms and opportunities become increasingly diminished as militants take over.  Nadia wears dark robes to cover herself fully as a way of distancing male interest but is actually far less religious and traditional as Saeed who prays regularly and cannot contemplate sex before marriage.  The situation in their homeland worsens and they hear of a fantastical means of escape.  Here I could certainly see parallels with “The Underground Railroad” both with its forced migration and the means to achieve this.  Whereas Whitehead is masterful in drawing us into his tale Hamid keeps us purposely at a distance with a detached documentary style which actually makes some of the terrible events seem even more terrible.

Whereas Colson Whitehead’s book really took off from the escape onwards  I felt that this novel reached its peak before the escape and that the attempts to relocate in a London which is becoming increasingly as tense as their homeland and then to the USA didn’t captivate me as much.  Like Whitehead these locations feel highly fictionalised and have a nightmarish quality which is magnified by the pared down nature of Hamid’s writing.

Like a number of the Booker shortlist novels there were moments that were absolutely first class but although I can see its relevance and importance to our modern world I wasn’t totally enraptured throughout.

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Exit West was published as a Hamish Hamilton hardback in March 2017

Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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saundersI’m feeling a little discombobulated.  Firstly, congratulations are due to highly esteemed American author Saunders who comes onto the shortlist much praised for his previous published works which includes essays, short stories and novellas. This is his first full-length novel and its arrival was much anticipated.

I’m disturbed firstly because it is distinctly odd. The whole thing is written as observations, either as quotes from books or character statements. These are often in short sections and in common with first-hand sources can be contradictory so you get different opinions of the same event. This does make it quick to read but the short length of these breaks up any real flow. It does on occasion lead you in almost addictively when there’s a barrage of different views on an event, but generally, although it is undoubtedly cleverly done, it feels a little too much like style over substance to me.
The subject matter also disturbs. It’s very much an account of grief. President Abraham Lincoln’s young son dies of a fever. The “Bardo” is a graveyard-set half-life where spirits who have not yet resolved themselves to their demise drift in a shape-shifting existence and are joined by the spirit of Willie Lincoln. This disparate group of beings from the cemetery and mass graves beyond attempt to reconcile the boy to his death. At times these sections reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book” and what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.

The whole thing just feels a little off-kilter. Anyone actually experiencing grief or recent bereavement would be advised to steer clear. This was the bookies’ early favourite to win the Man Booker Prize. Do I think that this should get the prize for the best work published in English this year? No, I don’t and perhaps I might have enjoyed the whole thing more if I wasn’t aware the whole time if this wasn’t stirring around in my mind and that the judges favoured this over longlisters “The Underground Railroad” and “Home Fire”. I will give it points for cleverness and originality but the style and theme is just too unsettling for me to really get behind this one.

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Lincoln In The Bardo was published in March 2017 by Bloomsbury

Strictly Come Dancing – (BBC1 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I can’t believe that I haven’t written about this ratings dominating titan of Saturday night entertainment before. I’ve certainly been watching it since its arrival on our screens in May 2004.  (Have you seen any clips of that first episode with the judges squashed on a small table with the whole thing looking decidedly low budget compared to what we have become used to now?) When the TV channel Watch screened the US equivalent “Dancing With The Stars” I used to watch that too, despite knowing few of the contestants and it feeling tortuously long.  Because we no longer hear much about that show in the UK I just had a look and have discovered it has been re-commissioned for Season 26.  (It’s aired more often than over there) and that 286 celebrities have taken part so far and that the current cohort includes singer Debbie Gibson and ex child-actor from the lovely “Malcolm In The Middle” Frankie Muniz. There, Len Goodman is still on the judging panel (alongside Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba).  You will also find the new home for UK version ex-dancers Artem Chigvintsev, Gleb Savchenko and Mark Ballas, the son of our new head judge Shirley.  So, there you go, a bit of fact-finding for you!

And onto last night’s Strictly, which was the Movie special, the first of the “big” nights where the BBC pulls out the stops (the others being the Halloween Special and the trip to Blackpool).  We can expect film-themed dances and great things in the costume and make-up departments.  For me, the weak link in last night’s show were some of the costumes.  The Buzz Lightyear outfit didn’t really work and looked like something off the shelf of a backstreet fancy dress shop (not sure how you could do it otherwise, to be honest) and I was trying to work out how the fat mouse fits into “The Jungle Book” until I discovered Aljaz was supposed to be Baloo the Bear.  Nothing was quite right about the Revd. Richard Coles’ Flash Gordon, costume, make-up nor performance.

strictly2But I’m being niggly because I do love Strictly.  The format is great.  It is just incredibly long at the moment.  The first episode seemed to go on forever and was just a conveyor belt of people you either vaguely knew or hadn’t heard of.  I much preferred the second episode last week as you had something to compare the celebrities with and the shortening of the time available to learn the dance for the second week throws an interesting spanner in the works which can shake things up.  I wasn’t that happy over the celebrity who went home, but I didn’t vote so I can’t complain.  At this stage of the series by the time I’ve got through the show the time allocated for voting has long gone.  There’s a too liberal use of the pause button in our house- it was about 10.00 pm by the time we finished it yesterday.

What I do like about Strictly is how many of us customise the show.  I’ve known people who press the fast forward button through all the judges’ comments (well actually it was all the judges apart from Craig), or through all of the training,  or all through all of the links (particularly when dear old Sir Bruce was in charge), or through the professionals’ group dance.  Probably more than any other show we use  our remote controls to turn it into the ideal package for ourselves.  I actually watch the whole thing but on the Sunday night results show I often fast forward the special guest performance and the bit when they’re sat on the sofa after having been saved by the public. 

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Is it possible to pick a winner this early on? Not really.  We need to see the celebrities grow and begin to settle into their dance journey.  The audience often tires of those who are really good early on (so beware Debbie McGee and Aston Merrygold), will support the no-hopers only for a while (although too long in the case of Anne Widdicombe, Judy Murray and Ed Balls) and will eventually favour those who we can see blossoming as the season progresses (as evidenced by the last three winners Ore Oduba, Jay McGuinness and Caroline Flack).  The “biggest names” tend to do well but are unlikely to win.  People who present early-morning television often do better than they should.

They got to hold the glitterball- winner of the last three seasons

It’s Series 15 and surely by now we’ve seen pretty much everything that we would expect to see (we haven’t seen anyone pass actually out at the judge’s bench due to stress and exertion but US viewers will no doubt recall the fainting of Marie Osmond!).  There were some thrilling dances last night including Aston Merrygold’s “Trolls”-based Cha Cha Cha, Alexandra Burke’s American Smooth (not up to the amazing Paso Doble of the week before) and the most heartwarming was Susan Calman’s take on “Wonderwoman”.  I would imagine that Brendan Cole’s partner’s chances would be a bit diminished by him challenging head judge Shirley Ballas (I like her) and getting told off by Bruno, but then Charlotte Hawkins probably should have gone out last week.  TV chef Simon Rimmer, Revd. Richard Coles and Ruth Lansford should all be fearing the dance-off but it’s the early days of Strictly and you just can’t tell………………..

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Still, I’m sure that everyone watching will talk about the show to at least one other person so it recalls the magic of television past when we weren’t all going it alone with box sets, catch-up and things we’ve recorded “so don’t talk about it yet!”.  The juggernaut rumbles on and I love it!

strictly12I couldn’t not have a picture of Brucie. 

Sir Bruce Forsyth 1928-2017

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In case anyone doesn’t know “Strictly Come Dancing” is on Saturday evenings on BBC1.  It is available to watch on the BBC I-Player.

4321 – Paul Auster (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Paul Auster has chosen a numerical title for his contender for the Great American Novel which has been shortlisted by the Man Booker judges.  Here are some other numbers for you:

18– This is Auster’s 18th novel in a fiction career which began in 1982 when his first was published under a pseudonym.  A major American writer with poetry, memoirs, essays, screenplays, translation and collections where he has acted as the editor to his name.

1– This is Auster’s first appearance on the Booker shortlist. (US titles have only been eligible sine 2014 and this is Auster’s first novel for 7 years.

5/1– The odds allocated by Ladbrokes for him to win the prize, putting him in 4th position out of the 6 contenders.

1.5– The books I’ve read by this author.  I’m counting “True Tales of American Life” where he acted as editor and collator as a 0.5.  I actually preferred the novel of his I read 18 years ago, his 1987 publication “New York Trilogy” which cemented his reputation as a writer.  This was a well-written read which just missed out on my end of year Top 10 that year.

16– The number of days it has taken me to read this book.

866– The number of pages in the hardback edition.  It’s not the longest book I’ve read but the quite densely printed pages and the stop-start structure of the narrative made it feel like it.

1– The number of other novels I read whilst reading this.  Now, I never normally do this and it caused great consternation for me to pick up another book, but a long train journey beckoned and I’m a book reviewer and not a weight-lifter so I let Fiona Mozley’s novel sneak in, which I completed on public transport and in breaks at work, with me returning to 4321 when I got home.

1307– The number of grams the hardback weighs which explains why I was not ramming it into my bag to take to work.

It this all sounds rather flippant and as if I’m being negative, I’m not but I do have reservations about this book which Auster himself as referred to as a “sprinting elephant”.

In the closing pages Auster gives a rationale for the novel which is basically four versions of a life;

“he would invent three other versions of himself and tell their stories along with his own story (more or less his own story since he too would become a fictionalized version of himself), and write a book about four identical but different people with the same name: Ferguson.”

It actually took me a while to work this out and there was quite a bit of flipping back in the early pages to check what I sensed were inconsistencies but which were actually different versions of the same story.  I would imagine that this would make this very difficult to read as an e-book.  Once the penny dropped the flipping back diminished.  The actual events ceased to matter so much to me, this narrative structure had distanced me as a reader and although I was enjoying what I was reading I was quite happy to live in the present of the novel with the past and the future not mattering much to me.  This is the main loophole of the novel.

I’m not adverse to these kinds of experiments.  Indeed, I adored Kate Atkinson’s stop again-start again “Life After Life”  (2013) where I was totally involved.  Here, I loved main character Archie Ferguson but the amount of details needed to convey his lives is just too much to take in and can lead to the reader feeling a little cheated by this narrative device and to see the whole thing as artificial.

In one of the narratives Archie doesn’t last that long (which again reminded me of the many deaths of the main character in “Life After Life”) and from that point on that section of Archie’s tale is marked by a blank page.  The sections do diminish- hence the title 4-3-2-1.

The four Fergusons are born in 1948 and follows childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, predominantly in the New York area.  So it becomes a record of American history as perceived by someone who may or may not have been at some college or another during the tumultuous mid to late 60’s when America turned on itself with civil rights, student action, riots and over the horrors of the Vietnam war.  This is why this feels like an important work- a great American novel with an epic sweep and a cast of hundreds spread over the four sections.  In one narrative Auster relates:

“Ferguson understood that the world was made of stories, so many different stories that if they were all gathered together and put into a book, the book would be nine hundred million pages long.”

It does feel like Auster has had a good go at doing this!

I did feel completing this novel was an achievement (small fry compared to the writing of it) but it is far too long and involvement in it fades in and out which is a shame because it contains lots of great writing but just as I felt I was being really drawn in there was a different Ferguson to consider.  This could be considered a “cliffhanger” but really it’s just frustrating in this format.

Maybe there’s an alternative read here, by completing the sections separately things that drifted away from me may pull together, but oh, hold on, don’t ask me to read it again please……………………

One final number:

 939  -The number of words I have taken to try and get over some of the feelings I had about this book.

fourstars

4321 was published in the UK in 2017 by Faber and Faber.  The paperback edition (lighter) is out now.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 95 – Martha Reeves & Vandellas – Compact Command Performances

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Compact Command Performances: 24 Greatest Hits –

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas (Motown 1986)

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The Compact Command Performance series was an early compilation CD series which put out the best of an artist’s back catalogue some for the first time on CD.  The tracks were made from masters from Motown’s studios although this CD claims it was made in Germany.  It is pretty much a no-frills release with nothing in the way of notes and just basic information on the writers and producers on each track.  Others in the series included Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Temptations.  Many of these acts had vinyl “Anthology” releases which had appeared on Double CD’s but this series offered a single CD overview.  I didn’t purchase any of the other releases but this 24 tracker offering the best of the under-rated Martha Reeves gets played regularly.

The tracks here span the years 1963-1971 taking Reeves from Motown secretary who was in the right place at the right time and ready to make an impression when other artists were not available to the star unwilling to make a move from her Detroit home when the label uprooted to Los Angeles and so departing from the label which had given her 12 US Top 40 hits over 4 years and 8 UK Top 40 hits over an eight year period.  Reeves was often in conflict with label bosses, especially Berry Gordy, over what she saw as favouritism towards The Supremes, and particularly Diana Ross as well as unfair treatment over royalties and was prepared to speak out publicly whilst others kept quiet.  In the scheme of things this probably wasn’t the best for her career as it saw her slipping down the pecking order as hits were being dished out and although she made some great music, she felt under-promoted and disgruntled by Motown.  It took a while for her to manage to break free from the label but her post Motown years were without commercial success.

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She’s still going strong.  There have been periods of ill health and a large number of Vandellas as Martha has switched from a solo career to reigniting the group.  She has become a valuable figure in politics in the Detroit home she wouldn’t give up on when Berry Gordy saw bigger fish to fry in Hollywood.  I saw her perform in our local theatre a year or so back in a show which was disarmingly charming.  The voice wasn’t what it was and the heels of her shoes were a little high to make much movement possible but she won an audience over by the strength of the back catalogue and her warm stage personality.  When you consider the career trajectories of Diana Ross and Martha Reeves there’s a huge difference.  At one time the two women were directly challenging one another to be the Queen Of Motown.  Reeves lost that particular power struggle but the battle has left us with some great music.  These 24 tracks provide a great introduction to that music.

martha10Martha Reeves -still performing

Martha had early ambitions to be a solo jazz singer but also was part of a group who became the Del-Phis where she was not the lead singer.  Invited to a Motown audition the group was rejected but Martha found herself with a clerical job as assistant to A&R man and producer Mickey Stevenson.  The communal atmosphere of the early days at the label meant everyone tended to chip in and when backing singers were needed for some Marvin Gaye tracks Martha got her group back and “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” was a hit single taking those backing vocals to a large audience.  When Mary Wells failed to turn up for a recording, Martha, now lead vocalist got the girls Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard back in which led to their first recordings as Martha and The Vandellas (not because they were female vandals as often suggested but because Martha lived in Van Dyke Street and was a big fan of  singer Della Reese).

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There are four words which explain the early success of Motown’s newest signing.  Those words are Holland, Dozier and Holland, the production team which turned  the label into Hitsville USA.  The female vocal trio were the first girl group to work with the male production trio – predating The Supremes who were still looking for that first hit when Martha’s recordings began to ascend up the charts.  This hit was “Come And Get These Memories” a teen-heartbreak song of returning love tokens once the relationship had soured.  In her autobiography (written with Mark Bego) “Dancing In The Street: Confessions Of A Motown Diva” (1994) Martha had this to say about the song:

“According to Berry’s eldest sister, Esther Gordy, when Berry heard our recording of “Come And Get These Memories” he exclaimed, “that’s the sound I’ve been looking for.  That’s ‘the Motown Sound.” The song had a steady beat, great background harmony parts, horns, catchy lyrics, and a story line that everyone could identify with.  I knew instantly that it would be a hit.  I’ve always thought that the song really shows off the great harmonies  that Rosalind and Annette and I had in the very beginning.”

The opening track on this CD is a very catchy tune that worms its way into the subconscious but it is fairly standard girl-group fare and doesn’t sound to me the revolutionary game-changer that Berry Gordy was reputed to acknowledge.  It’s very much in the Shirelles mode but gave the girls a US #29 pop hit in May 1963 and nationwide attention.

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It the early Motown sound was to be defined then it is in their follow-up track the tremendous “Heatwave” which is exciting, driving, a little raw around the edges, ever so slightly off-key and with everything thrown into the production it raced up the charts to number 4, helped by the girls’ hard work in the touring Motown revues which was steadily growing them a fan base.  A big hit single demanded an album which was recorded in one night and despite this hastiness, the covers of other girl group hits and standards and the odd H-D-H original is always worth a listen and one of the most durable of the early Motown album releases.

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Barely contained on that album was the next hit “Quicksand” which could be said to resemble “Heatwave Part 2” but the whole pop industry of the day was built on repeating winning formulas.  This track is far more, however, than a throw-away sound-alike.  The girls “Whoo-hooing” the intro gives it an identity of its own and it deservedly became their second US Pop Top 10 hit in a row reaching number 8.  The frantic pace was kept up for next release “Live Wire” but perhaps that was HDH mining this particular seam a little too much as it missed out on the pop charts.  From its dramatic flourish of an intro this is a real Northern soul stomper and if by a more obscure act would have traded for big sums of money on the British Northern Soul scene.  Amongst the high-energy there are a couple of calmer tracks included from this period. “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday) began life as the B-Side to “Come and Get These Memories”.  Too good to remain a B-Side the song has been covered many times and is considered a soul classic with most notable versions from fellow Motown artist Kim Weston and a 1966 Top 20 UK hit for Ike and Tina Turner.  Also dropping the tempo just a little was the next single the delightful, hand-clap heavy “In My Lonely Room” which sounds like it should have been a massive hit but wasn’t.

They did not have to wait that long for their biggest hit, however and it was a move from the then too busy Holland-Dozier- Holland to Martha’s old boss, Mickey Stevenson who produced and co-wrote with Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter one of the label’s most iconic songs.  “Dancing In The Street” commences with a brassy call to arms into heavy tambourine crashes to get us out and dancing.  Of this song Martha, in her autobiography states that she first heard Marvin Gaye singing it and didn’t really like the song;

“but when I put myself into it and made it my own it became the anthem of the decade.  From the very beginning, no matter where it was played, everyone seemed to get up and dance to it…….I’ve always said that “Dancing In The Street” is Mickey Stevenson’s greatest gift to me.”

This particular gift got to number 2 in the US in 1964 and in the British Beat group dominated UK charts of the time became their first Top 30 hit stalling at a lowly number 28.  Five years later a re-issue climbed to number 4 and reactivated British interest in the group.  A Live-Aid inspired pairing of David Bowie and Mick Jagger gave the song a British number 1 placing in a version which is luke-warm compared to the original.

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The Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter combination was used to produce more singles for the group.  On this CD we get “Wild One” and “Motoring”, neither of which had the magic of the big hit.  There were also personnel changes with Betty Kelly replacing Annette who retired from the music business at this time.  The career cranked up another gear with the return of Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier in production duties with another H-D-H original “Nowhere To Run”.  It sounds like this could have been another big hit for The Supremes but Martha and the girls were given the chance with this.  Martha’s grittier, more gospel-influenced voice gives this a greater edge than Diana would have done.  It feels a chilling, cold song, which HDH proved they could do well, as in tracks like “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” by The Four Tops, a hit a couple of years later for them which has the feel of this particular track. “Nowhere To Run” reached number 8 in the US and 26 in the UK.

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Martha claims that one of her most favourite recordings is the gentle “My Baby Loves Me” which gives her a chance to hark back to her jazz roots over a pretty ballad produced by Stevenson and Hunter. It gave her a US#22 hit.

1966 and 1967 were another two great years for the group as they put out a string of great tracks.  As far as US pop chart success was concerned it was the last hurrah.  “I’m Ready For Love” (1966- US#9, UK#22) is not only up there amongst Motown’s best it is one of my all-time favourite singles.  The whole thing reeks with anticipation from the nervous, jiggly, driving rhythms, the plaintive vocals and great lyrics – The message Martha is conveying is “Bring it on!” She’s ready.  This is followed by the tale of the rogue Jimmy Mack (1967 UK#10, UK#21) who may or may not be coming back.  It’s single release B-Side is also included on this CD as it has always been a favourite in the UK.  “Third Finger Left Hand” is an ideal wedding fodder song, but for its singalong charm and as a mantra to remember what finger to put the ring on.  It’s a song that I felt going through my head on my wedding day!  These are all great Holland-Dozier-Holland productions.

hollanddozierLamont Dozier & the Holland brothers at the piano

From 1967 serious cracks were showing.  The hit production team were in dispute with Motown, Mickey Stevenson had left the label, relations in the group were not good, there were clashes over the label’s promotion of Diana Ross and Martha, driven by a heavy work load and touring schedule, became addicted to prescription drugs.  Around this time original member Rosalind Ashford was sacked  and Sandra Tilley recruited.  Martha’s view at this time was that the Vandellas had became just a support for touring and that other girls could be used on recording sessions.  Motown bowed a little to Reeves’ pressure and added her surname to the group which had largely been known to this point as Martha & The Vandellas.  With new production and songwriting units the hits continued with “Love Bug (Leave Me Heart Alone)” (US#25) and “Honey Chile” (US#11, UK#30) but neither of these threaten their best material.  “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing” did not meet with Martha’s approval and she abandoned it during the recording.  Motown drafted in Syreeta Wright to finish it and released it under Martha’s name, showing the label’s heavy- handed attitude towards the brand rather than the people. A nervous breakdown followed for Martha soon afterwards, the group was disbanded in 1969 and that ended their US hit career.

Martha and the Vandellas

A revitalised Reeve returned with sister Lois and Sandra Tilley and had a couple of UK hits with “Forget Me Not” (UK#11-1971), which for some reason is not included on this CD and “Bless You” (UK#33- 1972) which is a great little track and was written and produced by The Corporation, which was in itself a response to production teams getting too big for the label and also did great work with early Jackson Five, later revealed to be Berry Gordy alongside Motown staffers Frank Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards (the latter also having produced “I Can’t Dance”).

Martha Reeves’ solo career did not amount to much commercial success, which might explain why she is still touring small theatres in the UK in her 70’s singing these Motown hits.  I was certainly pleased about that when I saw her but you cannot help feeling that this under-rated star has good reason to feel a little despondent about the music industry, considering the volume of records she sold in her early career.

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This single CD of 24 tracks seems to me to be the perfect introduction to these Motown legends.  Anyone wanting a little more could look at the 2006 double CD “Gold” and the three disc “50th Anniversary – Singles Collection” from 2013.  There’s also much pleasure to be had from the re-released studio albums. Whatever you choose Martha will soon have you “Dancing In The Street.”

Compact Command Performances is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £2.99 and used from £0.95. In the US it is available used for $3.00.   

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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elmet2The media buzz when the Man Booker shortlist was announced centred around this young British debut novelist.  Portrayed very much as the David amongst the Goliaths this tactic proved to be commercially rewarding last year for Graeme Macrae Burnet (who I felt should have won the award) and this year it may also pay dividends as quality-wise, I would nudge this book ahead of the others I’ve read so far on the shortlist.

The title refers to the Vale Of York setting, the area of the last independent Celtic kingdom which a quote from Ted Hughes at the start of the novel refers to as traditionally “a sanctuary for refugees from the law”.  Mozley places her novel in the modern-day but this is still a tale of outsiders and the immediate association with Hughes feels appropriate as this book shares the nature-based, naturalistic, elemental power of much of his poetry.

I was admittedly initially resistant.  I tend to balk at openings which are in italics and place an unknown character in a first-person narrative walking or running through woodland with in this case “The remains of Elmet lay beneath my feet.” Once the plot kicks in, however, I’m fine with the lyrical narrative style and evocative descriptions.  It’s just that I like to know where I am at the start of a book and the first few hundred words of this opening hovers towards literary novel cliché.

All is redeemed, however, by the three main characters and powerful, memorable characterisation.  Two young teenagers Daniel and Cathy live with their father in a house he has fashioned for them out of the woodland.  “Daddy” is a powerhouse of a man, who fights for money and who has removed his children away from mainstream society to live very much on the land.  The bond between the three is terrific and this main strength is recounted in Daniel’s tale, a youth so unlike his father attempting to find his place in this harsh unsentimental world where those from outside their family unit mainly threaten their existence.  It’s powerful and haunting and as their place in the woods is questioned it becomes increasingly gripping.

It does feel like a book from a different era, perhaps a harsher 1970’s world with main character Daniel as out of place in his world as Barry Hines’ Billy Caspar from “Kestral For A Knave” (1968).  I’ve not really read a book like this for years, the nearest I could conjure up was Sara Baume’s critically acclaimed “Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither” (2015) which ended up in my end of year Top 10 and had the same lyrical, poetic feel which is rooted in the natural world with its depiction of a relationship between a man and his dog.  Here Daniel’s trust is totally in Daddy and Cathy and there are times when you wonder whether this is such a good thing.

I do think that this novel will linger in my mind.  It feels of less relevance to this particular time certainly than Ali Smith’s very contemporary-feeling “Autumn” but with that timelessness could come longevity and it might just seduce those Man Booker judges not distracted by relevance.  It is what I imagine a “literary novel” to be and yet plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull which I was both a little surprised by and highly appreciative of.

fourstars

Elmet was published in 2017 as a John Murray Original.

Liar- ITV (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Someone is telling big fat lies in ITV’s six part drama and, two episodes in, it is not clear who that is going to be. I’ve been fairly resistant to ITV dramas recently (with really only the second series of “Victoria” getting a look-in) but there was something about this one that piqued my fancy. I think it was probably the casting combination of Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd. Joanne may always be associated with being the beleaguered Mrs Bates in “Downton Abbey”, the maid whose road to happiness seemed to be one step forward and three steps back but I also hold her very dearly for having to tell neighbour Joe that his wife’s ashes had gone up the Christmas present Dyson in the best Royle Family Christmas special “Joe’s Crackers” when she joined the family for a Christmas dinner as son Anthony’s girlfriend. Last year ITV kept her in the long frocks for miniseries “Dark Angel” but I gave up on that after the first episode as it was just too depressing. She’s back in the modern-day for “Liar” – a very modern tale.

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Co-starring with Joanne is Ioan Gruffudd whose Hollywood star burned brightly in films such as “The Fantastic Four” and George Bush bio-pic “W” where he played Tony Blair, but who I probably like most in US TV series “Forever” where he played immortal medical examiner Henry Morgan, shown here on Sky 1, a man who couldn’t help dying on a regular basis and each time emerging naked from the Hudson River to pick up again on his life. Here Gruffudd is keeping with the medical profession and has been tempted back from the US to play surgeon Andrew Earlham.

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When teacher Laura (Froggatt) breaks up with her live-in boyfriend her anaesthetist sister persuades her to go on a date with Earlham, whose teenage son Laura teaches. The date appears to go well but when Laura wakes the next morning she believes she has been raped. Having Earlham’s son as a pupil adds another level to the tension as does having her sister work with the accused. Laura’s ex is a policeman who gets dragged into the investigation and it’s not long before we perceive that he is secretly getting on rather well with Laura’s married sister. The lies begin to come thick and fast, nobody is exactly trustworthy and are those seeking revenge right to do so or just adding insult to injury? I’m finding the issues thought-provoking, I’m not sure how it will pan out over another four hours, there certainly will be more lies to come.

liar7liar8Co-Stars Warren Brown and Zoe  Tapper

There’s some good value for money faces in the supporting cast. I’ve always liked Warren Brown who is often at home in a policeman’s outfit (we wondered when watching it whether he just brings his own to his acting job) as we have seen him as part of the force in “Good Cop” “Luther” and “Criminal Justice”. Zoe Tapper playing Laura’s sister has a wealth of quality dramatic roles behind her including the TV adaptation of Sarah Waters’ “Affinity”, the BBC reboot of “Survivors”, “Mr Selfridge” and likeable ITV Saturday night vampire drama “Demons”. Seeing these four lead actors in trailers made me want to watch “Liar” and from the closing moments of the second episode we see that more lies may be embroiled within a character played by ex-Dr Who Peter Davison.

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There’s something else which is lifting this above most one series dramas and that is the stunning location. Just as Brighton looked so good in “The Level”, the makers of “Liar” have employed what I think of as the “Broadchurch” factor to bring beauty into a dark story via the location. Minutes into the first episode I was googling “Where is “Liar” filmed?” alongside, undoubtedly, many others as it was certainly quick to appear in the Google results. We first meet Laura kayaking in an amazing network of marshes which is actually Tollesbury on the Essex Coast. The fictional town where the characters live is a bit of a scissors and paste location with filming also in the town of Deal and along the Kent Coast. Laura’s school is actually situated in Ealing. The date takes part in a swish restaurant on Deal pier, which is actually apparently a bit of a greasy-spoon café tarted up for the assignation.

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“Liar” is directed by James Strong, who also directed “Broadchurch” who said of his new venture that he actually wanted to do something very different with this but then found himself once again looking at small English seaside towns. Some enterprising people could turn Deal into the next TV location to visit, just as West Bay in Dorset has become a significant tourist attraction following Strong’s previous hit. Maybe he should get some sort of commission from the English tourist board. I live in a pretty seaside town which would certainly benefit from such exposure even if it does mean incorporating murderers, liars and rapists within its streets for a short time!

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The six part series written by Harry and Jack Williams was perhaps commissioned as a result of the success of BBC revenge drama and Suranne Jones acting masterclass “Dr Foster”, which coincidentally is mid-way through its second series over on BBC1. Although this also feels like quality it was so good as a stand-alone that I don’t think it needed a subsequent series and I have gone on from egging Dr Foster on in the first series to despairing of her in this. I do have every confidence that the BBC will once again have our jaws dropping and the acting, writing and production will be exemplary but I’m not convinced it was necessary to put these characters through more drama.
“Liar” certainly feels like a stand-alone series, let’s agree that however successful it become that we do not get “Liar 2” please ITV. It certainly has the makings to be a big international hit, especially in the US with its highly recognisable leads and stunning locations.

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fourstars
Liar is shown on Mondays at 9pm on ITV1. The first two episodes are available on ITV catch-up services.

 

 

Good As You – Paul Flynn (2017) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “From Prejudice To Pride: 30 Years Of Gay Britain” Paul Flynn’s non-fiction publication seems a timely work.  Gay Pride has been particularly visible this year in our streets and through the media celebration of fifty years of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.  The grainy black and white footage of men dancing together at a house party has been used many times in various television documentaries produced recently.  Such is the paucity of images from this era.

Flynn uses a different starting point to show how far we have come in this cultural history of Gay Britain.  As a twelve year old boy growing up in Wythenshawe his life experienced a seismic shift around a TV on a Thursday night watching the perennial British game-changer “Top Of The Pops”.  In our multi-platform digital age it’s hard to recall just how influential to young Britain this show was.  Two acts with  openly band members appeared in 1984- The Communards and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax” (banned by the BBC) seemed to suggest aspects of life certainly never portrayed on a chart-topping single before.

These highly significant acts challenged the stereotypical depiction of gay men for a generation brought up on John Inman, Danny La Rue and Larry Grayson.  As much as Quentin Crisp’s life portrayed in “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975) had been lauded as ground-breaking television (and it was) it distressed many unsure of their sexuality and probably banged as many closet doors shut tight at it opened. 

These men had their own part to play towards acceptance but we needed to open the closet door a little wider to let other representations and role-models out.

From this time forward the whole of British society begins to inch towards a time where equality and gay marriage becomes both possible and stops mattering to objectors so much that they think the world will implode if it happens.  It’s certainly been a one step forward one step back approach and Flynn records with this with clarity and conviction.  There’s the characters of Colin and Barry in “Eastenders” which for a time became “Eastbenders” after a hateful diatribe from the Sun newspaper after Colin gave Barry a peck on the forehead.  Michael Cashman, who played Colin, now sits in the House of Lords, an out gay pillar of establishment with a superb record on gay rights whilst the straight actor who played Barry found himself afterwards being turned down by children’s television because he had played a gay character on TV.  That move from unacceptability to acceptance and recognition is tracked in this book.  Following this ludicrous objection it seems extraordinary that within a short space of time we had “Queer As Folk”, Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will Young victorious in “Pop Idol.

goodasyou7The kiss that supposedly distressed a nation

There is an examination of the music industry where Stephen Gateley was forced to open the closet door by a tabloid threatening to out him amidst a climate where the whole collapse of Boyzone’s career was anticipated should this information ever come out.  This was evidence that the Britain the media portrayed was different to how things were as his honesty was applauded and his popularity soared.  From here this nervous industry is followed to Olly Alexander from chart-topping Years and Years where his sexuality is just a given and who made a recent personal and brave documentary about the mental health issues of teens coming out.

Along the way there are chapters on the AIDS crisis and the British government response which undoubtedly saved many lives and terrified us all, regardless of sexuality or risk; the development of Manchester into a gay-friendly city; the importance of the pink pound leading to publications such as “Attitude” and the part sport has to play from the shameful treatment of Justin Fashanu, forced to put his head unwillingly above the parapet leading to a hounding which led to his suicide to Tom Daley, whose public coming out and marriage to a man, where the age difference might once have been deemed “predatory” being totally accepted because we all now understand that this national treasure is happy and living his life as he should.  Professional football still has a long way to go with these issues.

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Dustin & Tom – “as good as you”

This is an informative, nostalgic read.  It is very much a personal response from Flynn who went from his Wythenshawe front room to a journalism career, to London, to ending up as a guest at Elton and David’s wedding.  He certainly has the experiences, the authority and involvement in what he records to offer his take on developments.  There were many things I had  forgotten, many things I didn’t know and many things I did not realise the significance of at the time, as to how they fit into this British journey “from prejudice to pride”.  It is a great read for the general reader, for anyone interested in social history and is a highly illuminating book on popular culture.  I really enjoyed it. Once again I find myself hovering towards the five star buttons but on reflection this is a book which feels very much of its time (2017) so might not have the lasting value my all-time classic rating of 5 stars would suggest.  But it’s certainly a very close call.

 fourstars

Good As You was published by Ebury Press, part of the Penguin Random House group in 2017.

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 44 – Pet Shop Boys – Bilingual

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Bilingual- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1996) 

   UK Chart Position – 4

      US Chart Position –39

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Studio album number 6 from the Pet Shop Boys missed out on a UK Top 3 chart position, something which the other five had achieved.  It’s an extraordinary fact because it was, as far as I was concerned, their fifth essential studio release in a row, and may just very well be my all-time favourite of their albums.

It had been three years since the release of the chart-topping “Very”.  In the meantime we had the second album of club dance remixes of tracks in “Disco 2” which reached number 6 and the fairly splendid if a little patchy double album of B-sides “Alternative” which reached number 2.  A tour of South America after the release of “Very” provided inspiration for this new release as many of the tracks are infused with a heavy measure of Latin flavour which gives them an extra joyfulness which always makes this CD a pleasure to listen to.  In 1996 its early autumn release brought back a little bit of fiesta sunshine into our lives.  Unusually, for the album’s original release all of the songs are written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.  The reinvention of a song not associated with them had been around since they hit chart pay-dirt with “Always On My Mind”.  (A deluxe edition of the CD was released the following year which contained the boys’ take on “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” which had given them a Top 10 hit single. I don’t think Tennant doing battle with Bernstein’s melody and Sondheim’s lyrics really fits into the concept of the album so we will stick with the original twelve tracks).  The album is produced by the Boys with assistance on some of the tracks from Chris Porter, US DJ Danny Tenaglia, and Paul Roberts and Andy Williams who better known as K-Klass had scored a Top 3 hit of their own in 1993 with club classic “Rhythm Is A Mystery.”

Danny Tenaglia & K-Klass

Much of this South-American influence can be found in opening track “Discoteca” in its Spanish chant “Hay una discoteca por aqui?” and complexity of multi-layered rhythms which with its keyboard refrain gives it a real richness of sound.  Neil is in questioning self-analytical mode which comes back to the repeated chant and which makes for a haunting, impressive opener.  The “Hawaii-5-O” type drums thunder their way straight into the next track which is one of the finest of all PSB singles and my favourite track on the album, the exciting “Single” which begins with its “I’m Single/Bilingual” refrain and eases its way into a song about the lone traveller on international business.  A tale of expense accounts, lonely hotel rooms and fax messages waiting at reception – “I come to the community from UK PLC “.  It has a great depth of sound to it, and with its musical references to the previous track provides a kind of flow which is unusual for a PSB album.  As a single the appropriately titled “Single” was the third released from the album and reached number 14 in the UK.  Neil’s still looking for that disco as the track ends and moves into the house-influenced  “Metamorphosis” which features sterling vocal work from Sylvia Mason-James.  It’s feels like an old style track as Neil delivers one of his impassive raps, which echoes tracks from the previous decade such as “Left To My Own Devices”, his “all about love/it’s a metamorphosis” does give me the same feeling of delight I had when he heard the distant feet of Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. This is the track that had production duties shared between Pet Shop Boys and K-Klass.

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“Electricity” is a slinkier track with its sampled female voice “What does it mean/What are you doing in San Francisco”.  It delightfully refers to one of the great neglected acts of the disco era “the greatest show with the best effects since Disco Tex and the Sex O Lettes”.  Flamboyant DJ Monti Rock III became Disco Tex in 1974 and scored with two odd-ball extravaganzas of Top 10 singles “Get Dancin’ “ (UK#8,US#10) and the even campier “I Wanna Dance Wit Choo (Doo Dat Dance) (UK#6, US#23).  The whole enterprise was a knowing nod towards self-aggrandisement, there was a lot of style (of a fashion) and not much real substance to the act.  I can’t imagine they had the greatest show and best effects so I’ve always taken that line ironically, although I’m sure that Disco Tex would have thought that he had the greatest show and best effects.  It’s a great line, but to be honest, like the best of the Sex O Lettes there’s not a great deal behind this track other than that repeated refrain.

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More joy follows and whoever says the Pet Shop Boys are just miserable needs a dose of “Se Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is)” which continues the feel of the first two tracks, a Mardi Gras of a track, yet always more mid-tempo than I remember.  Single wise it was a top 10 hit (UK#8) released in August 1996 a month or so before the album.  It certainly gave us an appropriate taste for the album and who can’t warm to lyrics such as;

“Why do you want to sit alone in gothic gloom surrounded by the ghosts of love that haunt your room? Somewhere there’s a different door to open wide.  You gotta throw those skeletons out of your closet and come outside.”

Pass me those maracas, Neil!  It’s no surprise it was a Top 5 hit in Spain and also got the thumbs up in Finland, where the Boys were used to scoring high chart positions.  Things cool down for “It Always Comes As A Surprise” which starts off a little sounding like early Jamiroquai before turning into a pretty love song.  There’s none of the conflict of relationships in the previous albums.  It’s the sound of contentment in the early days of relationship “You smile and I am rubbing me eyes at a dream come true”.  Reading between the lines this may not be the most balanced of  partnerships.  There’s evidence that the other half is questioning and unwilling to be rushed into “love all night in your bedroom”, but at the moment things are all good for Neil.  Nice cool sax solo and the sophisticated Latin elegance is enhanced by a subtle sample from Brazilian bossa nova legend  Astrud Gilberto’s “Corcovado”.

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“Red Letter Day” is another of the anthemic “Go West” PSB tracks with a drum intro into the male choral voices.  I always like these sort of tracks from the Boys and this is up there with the best of them.  It was released as the fourth single from the album and it caused its own red letter day making chart history.  It probably isn’t the record they would have been hoping to break as it scored the biggest fall of a chart single on its second week in the chart to that date.  It came in at a respectable number 9 but the next week suffered a 33 place drop to fall outside the Top 40.  Bigger drops have been recorded since then but it seems that this single release was perhaps  of real interest to the fans who bought it in the week it came out.  Despite this unfortunate occurrence it is still a great track and fits in well on the album.

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“Up Against It” combines clever lyrics with a danceable tune, with once again the Latin feel percolating underneath.  “The Survivors” feels like it is taking us back to a wintry London in an unshowy ballad.  This leads into the track that was the biggest hit from the album “Before”.  Released over 4 months before the album it was good to hear it again in this new context.  It reached number 7 in the UK charts and made the Top 10 in Finland (again) and Sweden, amongst others.  It also scored the duo a Billboard Number 1 as it topped the US Hot Dance Club Play charts.  Major commercial US hits had eluded the duo for over 8 years since the heady days of “Domino Dancing” (US#18 1988) their last big hit there to date. This is the first of the two tracks that had been worked on alongside Danny Tenaglia, the other being the disco joy of “Saturday Night Forever” which closes the album in magnificent style.  Before this there’s “To Step Aside” which benefits from a sample of what sounds a little like Native American singing, speeded up.  Another track which still sounds good twenty-one years later.

“Bilingual” was the last PSB album I would consider to be essential.  It’s not that they went off the boil from this point but this unprecedented run of five classic albums came to an end for me with their next release “Nightlife” (1999) which despite the storming “New York City Boy” and great titles such as “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore” and “You Only Tell Me  You Love Me When You’re Drunk” didn’t feel quite as relevant as everything that had gone on before.  Albums such as “Fundamental”(2006)  and “Elysium” (2012) were solid rather than inspirational but they did notch up another first-class release with their 2009 CD “Yes”.  Their last album to date has been 2016’s hopefully titled “Super”.  As far as I am concerned any one of the albums I have featured as essential would have cemented the PSB’s place in pop music history but the twelve tracks they put out in 1996 might just inch ahead of  the greater commercial success of “Very” as their best.

Bilingual  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.14 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £4.99. In the US it is currently $10.38 new and used from $3.08 and as a download for $9.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

The Man Booker Prize 2017 – From Longlist to Shortlist

manbookerYesterday saw the announcement of the six titles deemed worthy to be on the 2017 Man Booker shortlist.  I’d been attempting to read as many as possible on the longlist in the hope that I would pretty much have the shortlist covered and read before the announcement of the winner on 17th October  just over a month’s time.  I read six of the titles on the longlist.  The reviews can be found be following the links:

Swing Time – Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)    ****

Autumn – Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)   ****

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017) *****

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber 2017) ****

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) *****

History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) ***

With two excellent five star reads discovered I was confident that I had maybe even read the eventual winner.  But good old Booker, unpredictable as ever.  The Whitehead and Shamsie books have failed to make the shortlist.  Of the six I have read only two have made the cut and one of those is the only one I rated as three star.  In case you missed out here is the shortlist.

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Autumn- Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016) –  I described this as “it will repay re-reading” and “it is certainly shortlist-worthy)

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History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) – I said “it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.”

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4321- Paul Auster (Faber & Faber 2017) – Yes, thanks for this Man Booker judges.  I got this from the library where I found it taking up a good chunk of shelf space.  It’s 866 pages of large hardback which probably explains why it hadn’t been borrowed much.  I’ve been saving it until the shortlist announcement, secretly hoping that it might not make it and then I would return it unread.  Now I’m going to have to go for it.  Hope it’s worth it.  It’s presence on the shortlist means that readers will now start requesting it so I better crack on with it asap.  Paul Auster is the only one of the four authors who I have read books by before.

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Elmet – Fiona Mozley (JM Originals 2017) – A debut novel from a British author.  I originally thought it odd that someone would write about those large cans of hairspray you see in hairdressers, but apparently that’s Elnet.  I bought this yesterday from Waterstones and I will be reading it if there is anytime left after I’ve finished 4321.

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Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (Bloomsbury Publishing 2017)- American author.  This is currently not yet available as a paperback.  I bought a Kindle copy as it is much cheaper.  (£4.99 on Amazon yesterday).  According to Ladbrokes this seems to be the early favourite.

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Exit West – Moshin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton 2017) – I saw this at Waterstones (they actually had signed copies in the branch I was in) but thought I’d hold out on this for a bit until I’ve cleared the backlog of reading, which probably means that this will be the winner!

Many congratulations to the six authors that have made the shortlist.  I hope the four I haven’t read are outstanding as they have taken the places of sure-fire contenders Colson Whitehead and Kamila Shamsie.  It’s very unusual for me to back the actual winner but I’m certainly going to get reading in order to voice my opinion.