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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……………….

100 Essential CDs – Number 93 –Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (Sony 2014)

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It was back in 1954 that Philadelphian Harold Melvin formed a doo-wop group.  They had a good reputation, were a popular live band and recorded on a number of small record labels.  Commercial success eluded them.  The best of the early tracks is a song called “Get Out (And Let Me Cry)” which became popular in the UK Northern Soul Scene.  (It reached number 35 in the UK Pop Charts in 1975 when re-released on the Route label).  Fifteen years into their existence a drummer joined their touring band.  His name was Teddy Pendergrass and when lead singer John Atkins left in the early 70’s Teddy took over the role of lead vocalist.

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In 1971, 17 years after their formation, this struggling group got a break and were signed by the very up and coming Philadelphia International Records by the two men behind the label Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who saw the raspiness of the Pendergrass voice as an excellent foil to the lush orchestration which was to become the selling point of this new Philadelphia sound.

At long last success came, but they are still very much an under-rated group and should have been bigger commercially.  The hit single tally is 4 US Pop Top 2o hits and five UK Top 40 hits for the Philadelphia International label, all of which are included on this seventeen track album.

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When fame came there was always going to be an issue and that was the group’s name.  By the early 70’s we were used to performers in groups being pushed to the front – Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles the list goes on.  But here the problem was Harold Melvin was not the lead singer, even though the casual listener would have assumed he was.  Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes featuring Theodore Pendergrass was tried but just didn’t exactly slip off the tongue.  It was going to cause tensions.  There were four albums before the group were faced with Pendergrass’ departure.  Even within these Melvin was experimenting with other voices on the tracks, including female singer Sharon Paige. The record label, seeing where the unique selling point of this group was kept Pendergrass on as a solo artist, where he became an R&B legend.  The group found a new lead singer in David Ebo and moved to ABC records and a return to relative obscurity.

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These seventeen tracks are taken from the golden four year period and have stood the test of time.  They are a combination of classic soul ballads and uptempo numbers which due to the lushness of the Philly orchestration are early disco classics.  For a long time this group was not best served by compilations.  I favoured the ten track “Super Hits” (Epic Legacy 2000) but there are obvious omissions and a couple of the tracks in their full-length version are a little over-realised.   This compilation adds seven more tracks, generally in their single length or Part 1 versions and is therefore my choice as an Essential CD.

 

Some of the other hits compilations that have been available over the years

The album kicks off with a bang and one of those early disco classics which is here presented in its full-length six and a half-minute form.  “Bad Luck” became the group’s third US hit in 1975 when it reached number 15 but never became a UK hit.  The opening funky bass-line would have perhaps been more recognisable to us Brits as it was used by The Ritchie Family in their hit disco-medley “The Best Disco In Town”.  From this it explodes into a sing-a-long stormer from the group- not their best uptempo track but close to it.  The standard is maintained for the O-Jays-ish “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back) which is archetypal uptempo Philly Soul and reached number 32 in the UK when issued as a single in 1974.  This track is inexplicably absent on the “Super Hits” compilation so it is great to hear it here.  It was one of the stand-out tracks on their second “Black And Blue” album.  It features one of the great in-intro grunts on record, sounding  like a bear being awoken from its slumbers.

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“Wake Up Everybody” was very much a swan-song for the group, their last US Pop hit reaching number 12 and number 23 in the UK in 1976.  Philadelphia were quite hot on political message songs with songs such as “Love Train”, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, and “Let Em In” doing well for the label.  In fact, the output of the label was very much either love songs, message songs or have a good time dance tunes.  “Wake Up Everybody” is the Blue Notes’ most significant message song, intended to stir us out of our mid 70’s lethargy and self-centeredness.  (Things haven’t really changed).  Headed off by a lovely piece of piano glissando this is a great tune.  Message songs can come across as naive but there’s something about Teddy’s call to get motivated to help out the community which I’ve always found appealing.

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The big hit is next which really kick-started the Philadelphia International career for them.  “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a true soul classic and one of Gamble & Huff’s best songs and productions.  It seems like Teddy, in a ten year relationship, is not going to change so it’s a bit of a like it or lump it situation.  In late 72/early 73 this reached #3 in the US and #9 in the UK.  The chart honours for this particular track, however, go to Mick Hucknell of Simply Red who took it to the very top of the US charts and number 2 in the UK in 1989.  I’m sure even he would admit that the original version is the best.

There’s still a couple of disco anthems to be enjoyed beginning with “The Love I Lost” (US#7, UK#21 in 1974).  This benefits from being shortened from the album version where the “I lost you, sorry I lost you” refrain goes on too long.  As a three and a half minute single it is perfection. This song also had a new lease of life in 1993 when West End featuring Sybil took it to number 3 in the UK.  And talking of a song with an extended lease of life…

“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a Gamble and Huff song written with Cary Gilbert began life as an album track on the “Wake Up Everybody” album.  A slow moody start, with tom-tom intro it ripples into an impassioned disco track.  Over at Motown they decided to give it a Hal Davis “Love Hangover” treatment for Thelma Houston which just exploded causing the Blue Notes version to race up the charts in the UK alongside Thelma.  In the US it gave Thelma her only US number 1 single, the biggest hit of her career.  In the UK it became Harold Melvin’s biggest chart success peaking at number 5 where Thelma had to make do with a number 13 placing.  I love both versions of this song.  To complex matters there was a third even bigger excellent version nine years later when The Communards topped the UK charts in 1987.  I’d be hard pushed to pick my favourite of the three versions of this song.  By 1977 when the group were in the UK Top 5 there was no chance of them capitalising with new material as by this time they were Teddy Pendergrass-less and recording for ABC.  The impetus caused by this re-release did see their ABC debut “Reaching For The World” getting a limited amount of UK action, reaching 48, but that is beyond the scope of this album.

Don’t Leave Them This Way – The Blue Notes, Thelma Houston & Communards

The writing on the wall can be heard on the track “To Be True” which comes from their 1975 album of the same name as the vocalist here is none other than Harold Melvin himself.  It’s a nice enough track but I find myself willing Teddy to make an appearance.  It is certainly still Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes but it’s not Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes as we knew them and that shows why this group was unlikely to do that much after Pendergrass’ departure.  To a certain extent I feel this way about the two tracks which feature Sharon Paige, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” is very much a Paige/Pendergrass duet and did in fact top the US R&B charts.  Sharon is given a bigger bite of the cherry with “You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good” and my reservations here apply.  It looks like I’m pushing Teddy into his solo career here, but I’m actually not.  What I really like is the juxtaposition between the group’s vocals and the lead.  You can tell their roots are in doowop and really like Gladys Knight and The Pips it is this interplay which make this group great.  This works so well on the bluesy “Yesterday I Had The Blues” and in the magnificent disco treat of “Tell The World How I Feel About Cha Baby”.  Here they are certainly not relegated to backing singers as they have the song’s hooks  but the group sound and the Teddy lead just work really so well.

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Elsewhere on the CD, away from the hits, you get the excellent “Where Are All My Friends” a time-old tale of friends vanishing when you hit on bad times, “Be For Real” which is a musical lecture from Theodore to his lady who looks down on people and “I Miss You” one of the great soul songs about loss which is almost animalistic in its howling passion, which can make it a little difficult to listen to.

The song that really feels out of place is the one minute 45 section snatch of the show-tune “Cabaret” sung in harmony very much in the same style as Motown would occasionally employ with The Four Tops (with “Mame”) and The Temptations (with “That’s Life” and “Hello Young Lovers”).  Was this an attempt at broadening the appeal of the group?  Berry Gordy over at Motown would at one point deliberately record tracks like these for his acts in order to chase the lucrative older white album-buying market which would lead to lucrative supper-club bookings but it feels a little late in the day (1973) to be doing this.  Was it just a way to show that this group were every bit as good singers of more traditional fare as the Tops and the Temps?  I’m not sure but it is less than two minutes out of an hour-plus of super-soulful sounds.

Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass

Harold Melvin continued to plug away with various incarnations of The Blue Notes and died in 1997.  Teddy recorded two of the best singles of all time in his long solo career, his debut release “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” which promised so much and even better than that is “Can’t We Try?” which contains one of the most heart-felt male R&B vocals ever.  I preferred him more as a loser of love than the Barry White-esque Love God he was sometimes made out to be in tracks such as “Turn Off The Lights” and “Close The Door”.  In his homeland he recorded a run of big selling albums and was an essential live performer.  In 1982 things changed overnight when a horrific car accident left him paraplegic.  There were years of health issues over the years with musical comebacks and much charity work.  He died in 2010 at the age of 59.

These are the glory days of these Philadelphia International’s superstars career.  Listening to this album shows what a great ballad group and also what a great group of uptempo material they were.

The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72. It can be downloaded for £6.99. In the US this CD is harder to come by but other compilations are available.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

It’s Book Bingo Time Again!

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Those of you who have been visiting reviewsrevues.com since last year may remember that I set up a Book Bingo fund-raiser at my local library.  It was very successful and I posted  a monthly update on here to let you know how I was getting on with the challenge.  It finished back in August and I managed to complete my card two days before the closing date.  That momentous post can be found here.

Well, we have just started it again, with a couple of rejigs and rewordings in the categories and a few new challenges.  We are running it from now until the beginning of August.  As that is a bit less time than we gave it last year I sneaked in some more Bonus Squares into the random mix (although I don’t have any of these on my card).  We’ve also put in some Question squares so that when people bring in a book they have read they can be asked a book related question, which if they get right, will give them a sticker to cover the square.  I have three of these Question squares on my card- which shouldn’t be too difficult for me as I set the questions!  ( I think someone is coming up with some dastardly book posers for me).  As before there is a prize for a line, and the completed cards will be put into a hat to find a random cash prize winner after the closing date.  The cost of these cards is £3 and last year it raised a pleasing amount of money for the Friends Of Shanklin Community Library- but on this occasion, fund-raising is not the whole intention.

I want to give people the opportunity in the library (which is staffed largely by a group of volunteers) to be discussing, recommending and sharing books.  This was my ploy in setting the whole thing up and I’m pleased that it made money but I’m also pleased that it got people really talking about books and trying out new things.  Over the past year I’ve heard numerous times about new enthusiasms for authors and genres kicked off by last year’s Book Bingo.  There were plans that we would do it only every other year but the demand has been to bring it back for this year and so here it is.

So looking at my card I can see that I have 21 books to read before August 1st.  The categories were randomly selected from around 70 possibilities.  Inevitably there is going to be some overlap from my last year’s card and  surprisingly there are 7 repeats.  Last year I also had lent to you by someone; poetry; young adult/teenage novel; with an animal in the title; published in the last three years;bought from the library “For Sale” shelves and first in a series.  The book  I was reading up until the last minute was from the published before 1900 category but I do not have that one this year. I’m very pleased  that I’ve got Book published in the last three years as now most of my reading for review fits into this.   I’m looking forward to getting my first stickers (the book I am currently reading will fit nicely into the set in another country category) and I’ll give you a monthly update to let you know how things are proceeding.

 

The Waking Lions- Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Pushkin Press 2016)

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This is Israeli author Gundar-Goshen’s second novel translated from its original Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.  Her first  “One Night, Markovitch” (2012) was also published by Pushkin Prwss and won awards in her homeland.  “The Waking Lions” is a philosophical work which deals with deep moral issues yet also works well as a thriller.

Main character Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon whose life transforms one night when he hits an Eritrean immigrant with his SUV and decides to leave him for dead.  His wallet is discovered at the scene by the dead man’s wife and in order to make amends and save himself from professional ruin and prison Eitan is coerced into treating illegal immigrants at night in a disused garage.  The potential plot-worthiness of this is cranked up a notch as Eitan’s wife, Liat, is a policewoman involved in investigating the hit and run case.

Eitan is dragged into a situation he cannot get out of and becomes obsessed with the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, who is very much in control of his fate.  Much is made of how one moment can change lives and how changes of behaviour stem from one decision.  Liat knows her marriage is falling apart but cannot link it to a dead road accident victim.  There’s guilt, atonement and much analysis yet the predicament Eitan finds himself in also lends itself to some gripping writing.  The moral significance of the story transcends its Israeli setting and really could work located anywhere.  Admittedly, there were times when the philosophising and navel-gazing of the main characters (the author has a Masters degree in psychology) slowed things down unduly but then a twist of the knife was never that far away to make Eitan’s problems even more complex.

I found it enjoyable and thought-provoking.  It would seem to be a good choice for reading groups who might not find themselves all warming to the characters but it would certainly provide fruitful discussion of the issues raised.

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The Waking Lions was published by Pushkin Press in  March 2016  .  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

This Is Us (Channel Four- 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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For the last fifteen weeks tucked away in the shifting transmission time-zone of  Tuesday late evening Channel Four has been this real gem of a series.  “This Is Us” has been feted in its homeland where the American Film Institute has awarded it as a Top Television Programme and has been nominated for Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice and Screen Actor’s Guild Awards whereas here (because of its scheduling?) it has largely slipped under the radar.

“This Is Us” is the story of the Pearson family.  Kate and Kevin are two thirds of triplets and when the third was still-born their parents adopted an African-American baby, Randall, who had been found abandoned at the hospital.  The story is shared between modern day with the siblings in their thirties and at various times in their childhood and in their parents’ lives.

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In the present Randall is a high-achieving businessman with wife, two daughters and a rediscovered birth father, who has terminal cancer.  Jack was a successful TV sitcom actor until he jacked in his lead role as eye-candy male au-pair “The Manny” in an attempt to be seen as a serious stage actor and Kate, his former assistant, is attempting to deal with weight issues and a new romance as well as trying to establish her own identity and position within the family.  Their father is dead and their mother is now with his best friend.  In the flashback sections Dad is very much a central character as the couple cope with the dynamics between the three children and their relationship with one another.

It is very much an ensemble piece with a collection of executive producers (the show was actually created by Dan Fogelman) and writing teams (common enough in US TV) but also with an ensemble cast, not terribly familiar to British viewers who inhabit their roles with great style and intelligence.

Inevitably, awards committees will single out performers from ensembles and so far it has been singer and actress Mandy Moore (who became an international music star back in 2000 with hit single “I Wanna Be With You) who plays the triplet’s mum Rebecca in both time frames, Chrissy Metz (best known her role in “American Horror: Freak Show) who plays Kate and Sterling K Brown (who plays adopted brother Randall) who have received the acting nominations.

The two faces of Mandy Moore in “This Is Us”

Chrissy Metz and Sterling K Brown

Probably the most familiar cast member is Dad Jack, played by Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli in international hit “Heroes”) and there have been some lovely performances from Justin Hartley as the third sibling Ryan; Susan Kelechi Watson as Randall’s wife, Beth and Chris Sullivan as Kate’s boyfriend Toby.  Because of the time lapses in the narrative structure these actors are all pretty much the same age.  The gravitas performance is an excellent turn by Ron Cephas Jones as William, Randall’s biological father who is dealing with his failing health, coming to terms with a whole new family and a male partner.

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Mandy Moore with Milo Ventimiglia

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 Ron Cephas Jones

The whole thing is character led and beautifully written and the flashback sections work just as well as the present day narrative, with the two linking together, often subtly but always convincingly.

In the latest episode shown this week on Channel 4, Valentine’s Day and an impending band tour caused tension between Jack and Rebecca; Ryan’s “serious” play was due its opening night and the strain of work and family were getting to Randall leading to a conclusion which was both heart-warming and eye-misting.  If character led drama with the natural comedy of families interacting with one another appeals this is a prime example.

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This Is Us is currently being shown by Channel 4 in the UK on Tuesdays at  around 10.30pm.  The last few episodes can be found on the All-4 catch up TV service.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 77 –Madonna – The Immaculate Collection

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The Immaculate Collection – Madonna  (Sire/Warner Bros 1990) 

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 2

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As far as I was concerned, 1990 was a great year for Madonna.  She put out her best album “I’m Breathless” with music taken from and inspired by her hit movie “Dick Tracy” and at the end of the year she was back again with this 17 track album.  Not exactly a Greatest Hits package as it had two new songs this did have the effect of getting people to buy all over again tracks that they would probably have already owned.  But, as is often the case with Madonna, her timing was right.  1990 was still a time when people would have been replacing what they had on vinyl with CDs (we’ve turned full circle again on that).  A lot of Madonna’s early stuff would have been purchased on vinyl.  I certainly had a vinyl copy of her “Like A Virgin” album.  Up to this point, Madonna’s albums were not exactly essential- the best tracks were the hit singles taken from them, so here was a chance to get those hit singles without album filler on one Immaculate CD.  We certainly went with it as “The Immaculate Conception” is Madonna’s biggest selling album of all time, to date over 30 million copies.  It is the best-selling greatest hits package ever by a solo artist.  Its nine week stint at number 1 in the UK singles chart was  a record for a female artist for 21 years until Adele’s appropriately titled “21” came along.  It is the fourth biggest selling greatest hits package (behind the two Queen Greatest Hits volumes and Abba Gold) and to date has been in the charts for 338 weeks.  In July 2016 to celebrate the 60 years of the UK chart , the Official Albums Chart published a list of the biggest selling UK albums of all time.  This was at number 12.

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In the US it sold ten million copies and stayed 141 weeks on the chart although it peaked at number 2.  It topped the album charts in many countries including Canada, Finland and Australia, where it was also one of the biggest albums of the year.

By 1990 Madonna had been scoring single hits for six years and had so many chart records that the compilers could pick and choose.  It certainly is not the definitive catalogue of hits as it even omits UK number 1 singles such as “True Blue” and “Who’s That Girl?”.  Its 17 tracks comprises 5 UK number 1’s and 11 UK Top 5 hits.  In the US the tally is 8 number 1’s and 6 Top 5’s.  (In case you are wondering the ones that missed the Top 5 but still made the album are Lucky Star (UK#14) and in the US Holiday (US#16) Borderline (US#10) and Rescue Me (US#9).  Statistically, it is an important album and it still sounds very good too.

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For most of us Brits our first sight of Madonna was on “Top Of The Pops”on 26th January 1984 when her debut single had entered the charts at 29.  Traditionally a quiet time in the music business after the Christmas festivities “Holiday” had moved up 11 places to number 29 so was an obvious choice for the chart-linked show.  Her performance was very memorable.  She was sandwiched between two dancers, one being her brother Chris wearing fishnet vests with a dance routine which was curious, but mesmerising.  It was atypical Madonna in a way, because the size of the stage and the emphasis given to the dancers would have left some viewers unsure if Madonna was the name of the female in the middle or a three piece group.  Making her UK chart debut in exactly the same week as Madonna was another squeaky-voiced New York resident who was zooming up the listings with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”.  I would think that, at the time, if people were asked who would have the biggest career, Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, a sizeable number would choose the latter.  There was a greater buzz about her.  The week after that first Madonna British TV appearance Cyndi had climbed eight places to her chart peak at number 2 and Madonna 16 places to number 13 with her song that would eventually peak at number 6 on this chart run.  “Holiday” was a party song that would have lifted the spirits of the gloomy start to 1984 but would have fared better as a summertime track. Re-released in August the next year it climbed to number 2. In the US it reached number 16.  The “holiday/celebrate” refrain is certainly an earworm which will go through my head on probably every day off I have.

Two new stars of early 84- Madonna and Cyndi

Second hit “Lucky Star” is more of a club groove and became her lowest charting UK single for the next 10 years when it reached 14.  In the US it was saved as the third single where the ever-increasing buzz about this new face of 1984 took it to number 4.  It is her third UK single which for me is her first great track, and one that certainly still stands the best of time.  “Borderline” was written and composed by Reggie Lucas, remixed by her then boyfriend Jellybean.  On re-release like “Holiday” this would go to number 2 in the UK but the initial response was lukewarm.  In the US as a second single it would reach number 10.  Despite its tale of unfulfilled love it is a very warm track, and has echoes of Motown and Philadelphia International tracks of a decade earlier.  It has appeared in various all-time great track lists and just shows what Madonna is all about.

Things became more showy and more pop with her next couple of singles “Like A Virgin” (her first US number 1) and “Material Girl” which both went a great way in establishing the brand of Madonna and both were supported by all-time classic videos which ensured the visual imagery would always be strong in the rest of thirty-plus year career.  Both were also produced by legendary producer Nile Rodgers who by this time had abandoned his distinctive Chic-like sound and came up with something more pop influenced.

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Ballads “Crazy For You” and “Live To Tell” rang the changes but did not make a great deal of impression on me (although the former sounds better now than it did then).  Sandwiched between these was a convincing return to the dance floors with “Into The Groove” taken from the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” which bizarrely was released as a B-Side to “Angel” in the US but became in the UK her first number one single.  If Madonna had lingered in the decidedly pop side of dance music this felt more authentic at the time.  It was written and produced by Madonna with then boy-friend Stephen Bray.  A run of great tracks follow on  with the Illegitimacy-to–a-dance-beat of “Papa Don’t Preach” with its great use of strings, the cool latin summer of “La Isla Bonita” and  the gospelesque fervour of “Like A Prayer”, all of which were UK chart-toppers.  Her 1989 hits included the powerhouse of “Express Yourself” and the cutesie retro-pop of “Cherish”, which both reached number 2 in the US (UK#5 and 3 respectively).

This brings us to 1990 and the release of the Dick Tracy movie and the return to the top spot worldwide with “Vogue”.  The two new tracks which follow this are to a good extent, inspired by “Vogue” and mark another shift in the musical sounds of Madonna.  The rap in “Vogue” gave Madonna the confidence to explore this a little further, we have the spoken sensitive sultriness of “Justify My Love” produced by Lenny Kravitz and the combination of this new Madonna and the old dance diva with the Madonna and Shep Pettibone produced “Rescue Me”.  Both presented here as new tracks with the lyrics printed in the CD booklet.  “Justify…” would be released as the first single from this collection at the end of 1990 topping the US charts and missing out on the UK top spot because of Vanilla Ice.  In the UK “Rescue Me” would follow up another very successful re-release of “Crazy For You” (UK #2- 1991) and would reach #3.  In the US it reached number 9.

“Erotica” the album and “Sex” the book – thank goodness she dedicated “Immaculate Collection” to the Pope!

Madonna’s next album in 1992 “Erotica” would explore the same area as “Justify My Love” but would push the boundaries further into sex, bondage and a coffee-table book which would make this vision explicit, showing us perhaps more Madonna than we wanted to see.  Detractors held their hands up in horror, citing Madonna as a reason behind the fall of the human race but we all knew it was Madonna ensuring that we were still talking about her and taking notice of what she was doing.  Twenty years at the top for female pop recording artists was still pretty rare then.

From this release onwards I was with Madonna all the way up until 2012’s “MDNA”.  However, this would be the last release that I would consider essential although I had most time for 2008’s “Hard Candy”.  “The Immaculate Collection” features an important outline of the first 6 years.  For my YouTube pick I’ve gone for my first introduction to Madonna and her debut performance on “Top Of The Pops”.  I wonder, whilst she’s cocking her leg in that strange way whether she can see the next thirty odd years of  an amazing career stretched out in front of her?

The Immaculate Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.12, and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £9.09. In the US it is currently $10.00 new and used from $0.01.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail 2016)

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There’s something lurking in the waters of Aldwinter, near Colchester, towards the end of the nineteenth century and recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a keen fossil hunter is determined to find out what it is.  Could it be the Essex Serpent rumoured to have terrorised villagers over 200 years ago?

This is a very good quality Victorian-set novel which features, unsurprisingly, the themes of superstition versus rational thought , Darwinism against established religious beliefs and the fear that despite the growth of scientific understanding and medical advances there may just be primitive, natural, environmental things lurking that no-one can comprehend.

Sarah Perry’s critically acclaimed second novel has already scooped the Waterstone’s Book Of The Year award.  It’s cover by Peter Dyer based upon a William Morris design certainly looks stunning in book shop windows and the whole look and structure of the book with its quotes from the actual seventeenth century pamphlet warning of the dangers of the serpent, the use of correspondence in the text and its chronological structure through the months of 1893 are all impressive and shout out quality fiction.

Perry creates a convincing set of characters.  Cora, released from an abusive marriage receives attention from the doctor who attended her husband but finds stronger attraction to the village’s vicar, a family man with a consumptive wife.  The threat of the serpent looms throughout giving the book a rich edginess, which together with its warm humour works very well.

I think in all aspects this is a strong work but for me it didn’t quite have the extra something which would put it up amongst the very best of the Victorian historical literary novel.  I’m thinking John Fowles “French Lieutenant’s Woman” , Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”  and  particularly Michael Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  These authors developed upon the Victorian cliff-hanger technique to bring us real surprises in the plot which is what makes them so memorable but I didn’t feel that happened here, and I was expecting it to. Perhaps I was just looking forward to reading it too much.  It is, however, a very welcome addition to my bookshelves of another very good 21st century evocation of the nineteenth century novel.

fourstars

The Essex Serpent was published (appropriately) by Serpent’s Tail in May 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and to newbooks for the review copy.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A lot of people read this novel on publication assuming Galbraith was a debut novelist and word of mouth about this exciting new talent grew, ensuring it sold well.  Then, it was revealed that Galbraith was none other than JK Rowling dipping a toe into the murky waters of adult crime fiction and sales exploded.  With hindsight, there is in its focus on the relationship between characters and its awareness of popular culture and celebrity enough to suggest a female author at work, but then the main character is so well drawn with an awareness of the foibles and shortcomings of the male species that it feels like he must have been created by another man, so the subterfuge was convincing.

Cormoran Strike is certainly a larger than life character whose vitality is central to the success of this novel.  He is the result of a rock star’s fling with a supergroupie.  Following army service in Afghanistan, where he lost a leg he has given up his military career and become a fairly unsuccessful private detective.  He’s physically large, known to his acquaintances by a range of nicknames, is failing in a relationship with a woman better looking than he thinks appropriate and is struggling to cope with the ramifications of that relationship’s demise.  Into this comes a temporary secretary, Robin, and a case concerning the death of a model which just might enable Strike to make his mark.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a rich, highly entertaining novel which given its crime tag has more than its fair share of humour and warmth.  The relationship between Cormoran and Robin, the employer whose life is in tatters and the employee who steadfastly attempts to ignore her boss’ shortcomings whilst finding herself drawn into his investigation is very strong and demands further adventures.  The case is well-thought out and keeps the reader guessing.  Rowling has spent many years now in the privileged realm of the multi-millionaire world renowned author yet her down at heel detective and the world he inhabits feels plausible and very real.  True, there is a lot of wealth in the case with paparazzi, fashion designers and the super-rich all playing their part but throughout I was rooting for the so likeable but so often unappealing Cormoran Strike.

fourstars

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling was published by Sphere in 2013

The Bookman’s Tale – Charlie Lovett (2013)- A Running Man Review

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Here is a debut novel that I missed out on when it was first published in 2013 and I’m delighted to put that right as it is a thoroughly entertaining read.  Combining the adventure and puzzle-solving of a superior example of the “Da Vinci Code” genre with old books certainly gives it an original slant.  I’ve never read a novel with so much information on book binding and preservation and which has got across so well the appeal of old books.

Author Charlie Lovett is also a playwright, and significantly, for the authenticity of this work, a former antiquarian bookseller and this love for the quest of a miraculous find which is surely present in all those who deal with old and precious books certainly permeates this novel.

American Peter Byerly is drawn into the world of books when he is working at his University’s library and finds his way into Special Collections.  He’s also drawn, for the first time, into connecting with another human being when he meets Amanda, another student, in the library.  Lovett’s tale switches from their courtship to Peter adapting to the early death of his wife some years later and a much older tale of a book which would provide ultimate proof that Shakespeare wrote his plays.  A discovery of a portrait inside a book in a shop on Hay-on-Wye provides the link for these strands.

It works well as an adventure tale but it is more than this as it also works as a love story and an account of obsession, in this case towards book collecting.  It features (and Dan Brown and some others of his ilk need to take note here) well rounded characters.  There’s a clear motive behind every action and we’re not hurtled around the world in wearying globe-trotting fashion.  True, the use of coincidence does begin to pile up, but then the author’s following a time-honoured tradition headed by Hardy and Dickens who were both masters of coincidence to further the plot.  Some of the love scenes are also a little clunky but the two young people have never really related that well to anyone before so perhaps its applicable for the characters if the early days of their relationship seem a little stilted.  I was won over by the obvious devotion for all-things-book-related and by the skill in which this perhaps rather unsexy passion has been incorporated into what is rather a thrilling read.

fourstars

The Bookman’s Tale was published by Alma Books in 2013.

100 Essential Books-Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016)

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In one (hyphenated) word I’ll sum up this debut novel – heart-warming.  Now this is not an easy accolade to achieve, especially from a cold, cynical, middle-aged man like myself.  Get this slighty wrong and the end result can be mawkish, sentimental, whimsical- all things which do not grab me as a reader.  Emma Claire Sweeney has got this just right and the result is a first-class novel that is a joy to read.

Main character Maeve Maloney is approaching 8o having lived most of her life in a Morecambe Guest House, inherited from her parents.  In recent years it has become a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Maeve has very much given her whole adult life to Sea View Lodge (as a former guest house owner I can appreciate how necessary this total devotion is to make your place successful) but this hides a great sadness from her past.

The story alternates between the present with Maeve as honorary grandmother to two of her staff members with Downs Syndrome who have fallen in love. This opens a whole can of worms for families, social workers etc and running alongside this is  a narrative strand from the mid 1950’s when her family’s life was centred on the care of her severely disabled twin sister at a time when institutionalisation was the recommended option.  Maeve’s life pretty much grinds to a halt in her mid 20’s when a chain of events sees her planned future pulled away from her.  The past and present combine when old friend Vince seeks  her out.

This book is rich in detail and characterisation and the past and present switch without much sign-posting and with very little of the jarring this technique can engender.  There’s also official correspondence and snatches of twin sister’s Edie’s sayings and phrases.  I know how readers can complain when time-frames switch around yet this has been done so intelligently and so well that it is a smooth, highly-involving read throughout.  It does show how the attitudes towards disability have improved in the last sixty or so years yet acknowledges the tremendous uphill challenges still faced.  First and foremost this is a tale about love and friendship, of making the best of what you’ve got and how regretting the past can stop you moving on.  It’s a bittersweet lesson as Maeve learns to cope with past incidents that have set the pattern of her life.

At no point is it sentimental, however.  It focuses on the small details of life that realistically searches for humour in difficult situations.  I actually really did not want to leave these people and their Morecambe home.  I believed in them totally (although the relentless grind of working in such an establishment, the cooking, cleaning and dealing with the public was a little glossed over perhaps).

The author’s inspiration for her book is her autistic sister. In an interview in newbooks magazine she states;

“I have chosen to celebrate the kind of families who fought – sometimes against the odds- to bring up their disabled and non-disabled children together – the kind of families who sought to care for each other with tenderness, humour and love.”

Goal achieved! I don’t know exactly what’s coming over me.  I’m notoriously stingy with my five star ratings.  I would expect to read only a couple of five star books a year but this is my third maximum award so far in 2017 and it’s still only February.  Testament to the number of great books out there.  I hope you seek this one out.

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Owl Song At Dawn was published in paperback by Legend in 2016.

SS-GB – BBC1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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For the next five weeks BBC1’s Sunday prime-time series is the first television adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1978 novel.  It feels like there have been trailers for some time now and they all made it look very polished.  I’ve recently read the book and although the premise of an alternative history whereby Britain was occupied by the Nazis following defeat at the Battle of Britain is fascinating (and meticulously planned by the author) the plot felt a little lacklustre, characterisation dated and the relationships between the main characters somewhat stilted.  However, I did get some enjoyment from the book and thought this visual interpretation would help me at moments if my attention wandered from the story.  I do think, however if I had the job at looking at what to adapt for television I might have given this a miss in favour of the similarly themed but more satisfying novels by Tony Schumacher.

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My assumption about the visuals felt correct from the opening moments as a spitfire looped a loop in the countryside before flying into London and landing on the Mall with a bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace in the background.  A truly impressive set of pre-credit visuals to get the series off and running.  A radio news broadcast announces the relaxation of a curfew to celebrate German/Soviet Friendship Week, which we feel might suddenly become less friendly as a member of the British Resistance guns down a German Officer.

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It is November 1941 and we soon meet (post-coitally) Douglas Archer from Scotland Yard who is now solving crimes alongside the Nazis.  He is played with disappointing throatiness by Sam Riley, an actor, model and musician best known for playing Joy Division’s troubled front-man Ian Curtis in “Control” and as Diaval in “Maleficent”.  I’d not seen him before this and do not know if he naturally speaks in low, hushed clipped tones or whether he feels this is part of the film-noirish elements of the piece which didn’t appeal to me when I read the book.  Before I’d seen any of this I’d written about Deighton’s novel; “it feels like it should be read out of the corner of the mouth with a cigarette on”.  I might have suspected Riley of taking my note literally, that is if it hadn’t been filmed what seems like an inordinately long time ago at the end of 2015.

About ten minutes in, you realise what is going to happen and it has nothing to do with the plot.  This series is going to be most remembered for that bugbear of the BBC Drama – mumbling.  Like “Happy Valley” which wasn’t spoilt by the much complained about mumbling and the much-maligned “Jamaica Inn” which certainly was it is the mumbling grumbling which is going to dominate.  Indeed by the day after broadcast there had been complaints to the BBC (apparently less than 100 by Monday afternoon from a 4 million viewing audience, but the press always like a good BBC-baiting news story) and it is fairly evident that there’s little that can be done about it because the lead actor has chosen to play it that way.  Is this the reason behind the length of time between production finishing and transmission?

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On Friday’s “Gogglebox” we watched the viewers straining to decipher what was being said, which was funny, but which also means that from here on we will be watching this differently.  I had put the subtitles on very early on and it did not especially mar my enjoyment.  It was good to see James Cosmo (since the filming of this becoming much better known because of his likeable stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house earlier this year) co-starring as Harry Woods.  I also understood every word he said.

The rest of the cast wasn’t particularly familiar to me (apart from Aneurin Barnard who had been so good as “Our Bobby” in “Cilla”) and it is interestingly by a German, Philipp Kadelbach and has been written and adapted for television by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who may address some of the shortcomings of the novel.

Once we’d risen above the audibility issues the first episode felt reasonably close to the book and so I share the same reservations I had for the novel.  I am going to stick with it, however.  I am especially looking forward to a Highgate Cemetery scene which given the high production values in the visuals promises to be a series highspot.

threestars

SS-GB is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The first episode is still available on the BBC I-Player.