Book Bingo – A Monthly Update

It’s month number 2 of my local community library’s Book Bingo fund-raiser (something I initiated last year).  If you want the whole story behind it just track back through the posts using “Book Bingo” as the search item -but for those of you keeping up with me here is how my card was looking last month……………..

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And here we are this month…………….

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That’s another three stickers added.  It looks like I’m doing this systematically but I’m not, it’s just how the books I have been reading have been stacking up.  And, as I am sure you will have noticed I’ve got a line! (It took me three months to do this last year).   For my “line prize” I had a choice of a Roald Dahl Character pencil and rubber or a free  DVD or Spoken Word Audio CD set rental.  I thought I’d push my boundaries a bit and went for the audio CDs.  This is not a medium that I’ve ever got to grips with in the past- I’ll let you know how I got on with that in due course.

So three new stickers and these are the books I read to achieve this.  My “Good Job” sticker was for a book not originally written in English and for that I read my first Inspector Montalbano novel, “The Shape Of Water” by Andrea Camilleri which was translated by Stephen Saratelli.

The corner square was occupied by Any non-fiction book and now you know why I ploughed my way through The Young Oxford History Of Britain and Ireland which looked a little out of place on my review stream.  Finally for this month, I needed a book with “and” in the title and good old Marina Fiorato came to the rescue with her newly published “Crimson & Bone“.  All these books have been reviewed on the blog (further proof that I’m actually reading the books and not just cheating to get the pretty stickers!).  To find the review just click on the highlighted title.   Incidentally, it was a bit of a pain to source the stickers before we started this year.  Last year we had balloons which looked lovely but worked out a little pricey with the number needed.  This year I had almost given up hope of finding anything until I found these flowers and animal stickers at WH Smith for a bargain price.  I bought almost their whole stock so hopefully we won’t run out.

The book I am currently reading will fit into the animal in the title category and is the follow-up to a book I have read and reviewed this year.  Any guesses?

Crimson & Bone- Marina Fiorato (Hodder & Stoughton 2017)

CRIMSON AND BONE

I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service.  Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking for her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.

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Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse.  There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.

The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration.  His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene.  There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.

When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.

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Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller.  She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become.  Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.

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Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

The Shape Of Water – Andrea Camilleri (2003) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Although I’ve watched every episode of both “Inspector Montalbano” and “Young Montalbano” shown over here on BBC4 I’ve never read any of the books on which they are based.  This is the first in the sequence published in the UK in 2003.  Those of you who want to be strictly chronological may wish to start with Camilleri’s 2013 collection “Montalbano’s First Case & Other Stories” but I’m going with the order by publication date.

So far Camilleri has produced twenty of these Italian bestsellers up to 2016’s “A Voice In The Night”with the next two scheduled (“A Nest Of Vipers” is due to be published in August 2017) so I have a fair bit of catching up to do.  I did find myself remembering the TV adaptation quite well as I was reading this (I’m usually a bit of a stickler for reading the book first) and I couldn’t get Luca Zingaretti’s portrayal of the Inspector out of my head.

Plotwise, a local notable is found dead in his car at a known cruising ground, partially clad and having recently had a good time.  It’s believed to be a fairly scandalous natural causes heart attack but Montalbano thinks differently.  On the same site a valuable necklace is found by two waste disposal men and there is obviously some link between the jewellery and the dead man.  Despite some rather tortuous long sentences at the beginning of the novel this settles into a quick and relatively easy read.  The glory of Sicily does not come across, obviously, as well as it does on the television but here, in this translation by, Stephen Saratelli you don’t need to read the subtitles.  Once you’re drawn into the Italian way of complex local political manoeuvrings and a different kind of logic and Camilleri writing more than you’d expect with tongue firmly in cheek this provides a very satisfactory introduction to these quirky crime capers.  At times I could feel the influence of prolific French author Georges Simenon (Camilleri worked on a TV production of “Maigret” before embarking on his writing career) and that’s certainly no bad thing.

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The Shape Of Water was published by Picador in 2003

100 Essential CDs – Number 49 – Kylie Minogue- Let’s Get To It

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Let’s Get To It- Kylie Minogue  (PWL 1991) 

      UK Chart Position – 15

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Kylie Minogue’s 4th studio album was the last for the PWL label which had transported her from Aussie soap actress to international singing star.  It was very much a parting of the ways.  Kylie would go on to leave the label to join Deconstruction for her next release.  The PWL label masterminds were already down to two thirds strength as  life at the” Hit Factory” which had spawned close to 100 UK Top 40 chart placings by this time was beginning to waver.  The UK chart of 13th October 1990 was the first for over two years that had no Stock, Aitken and Waterman produced songs in it.  A burnt out, stressed Matt Aitken left the team leaving Mike Stock and Pete Waterman to work with their number one artist.

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The men from The Hit Factory – Stock, Aitken and Waterman

“Let’s Get To It” ended up as Kylie’s least successful studio album .  The number 15 placing is lower than anything apart from compilations and mix albums.  All this is rather bizarre, as it is one of her best and is certainly superior to the three she had put out with the SAW team in the previous three years.

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One of the most watched TV weddings of all time

Kylie Minogue joined the Australian soap “Neighbours” as garage mechanic Charlene in 1986.  At this time the show, broadcast at teatime in the UK, was gaining huge audiences and the romance between her and character Scott, played by Jason Donovan, captured the British public’s attention in a very big way and ensured that both actors were well on their way to becoming household names over here.  A recording deal for both was inevitable.  Kylie signed to the Australian label, Mushroom records and her first recording, a cover of Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” became Australia’s biggest selling single of the 80’s and number 1 over there for seven weeks.  Sensing international success, the label sent her over to work with Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  The story goes that they forgot she was waiting to see them, had very little to offer her and quickly wrote a song “I Should Be So Lucky” which became a massive hit single in many countries and began the reign of the new pop princess.  The trio remixed the first Australian hit and released it as “The Loco-Motion” which gave her another worldwide smash.  The first two albums “Kylie” (1988) “Enjoy Yourself” (1989) were both huge number 1 albums in the UK, but were pretty light pop confections, centred around the hit singles, of which there were becoming many.  The third album “Rhythm Of Love” saw Kylie beefing up the image somewhat.  It contained probably her two best ever singles “Step Back In Time” and the phenonomenal “Better The Devil You Know” and it was probably around this time that  I joined the Kylie party.  As an album it is still a little patchy apart from these tracks.

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The first three albums

Album number 4 seems to carry on with what “Rhythm of Love” had attempted in making Kylie a credible artist who could achieve commercial pop success and also extend the fan base from those who would put up her poster on their bedroom wall.  This album, in its range of more mature styles, together with Kylie’s consummate stage performances help pave the way towards the longevity which has really been extraordinary in the pop arena.  That people didn’t buy into it in this occasion has always been puzzling.  It might just have been by 1991 people had tired of the whole domination of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman sound in the UK charts and that the backlash was beginning to set in.  The trio had scored their last number one production the year before in 1990 with Kylie’s rather pedestrian cover of “Tears On My Pillow”.  It might have been a wise move for Kylie to move on to the more street-cred label Deconstruction, but this was actually a stronger album than the two released on that label.

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The first of the ten tracks on display was lead single “The Word Is Out” which saw Stock and Waterman experimenting with New Jack Swing.  It was the  jury that was out with this one as well as the word, as with its number 16 UK Chart placing it became her first ever single to miss out on the UK Top 10.  It’s a chunky little opener and I have always liked it.  It almost has a group feel to it as it features an uncredited male vocalist taking a bit of the lead just before the end.  It’s a great opener, rather than classic Kylie.  I think it shows that the producers were not stuck in a groove, the criticism being levied towards them at this time was that their songs were beginning to sound the same.  This is a definite attempt to keep up with the sounds that were current in 1992- I just think that New Jack Swing was not always dated that well.  The single did make the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland.

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Cover version time up next and Kylie’s version of the great song by Chairmen Of The Board “Give Me Just A Little More Time” became the big success off the album when it was released as the third single becoming her sixth track to reach number 2 in the UK.  This an affectionate cover version with a nod towards the original artists as Kylie includes lead singer General Johnson’s trademark “Brrrr”. Like other Kylie covers, the chart-topping “Tears On My Pillow”, and “Celebration” they do not challenge the originals in terms of quality.  This, however, is the most successful of the three by far. (I think “The Loco-Motion,” which let’s face it, is going to be a fluffy novelty track whoever sings it does actually challenge Little Eva’s as a fun track for a generation who did not know the original)

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“Too Much Of A Good Thing” has a Madonna feel to it and a nod towards House Music.  It is the first on the CD where Kylie also takes writing credits alongside Mike Stock and Pete Waterman.  “Finer Feelings” was the fourth hit single taken from the album.  Four hit singles show that this album was certainly no slouch quality wise.  It shows a mature Kylie, some distance away from “The Locomotion” and “Hand On My Heart”.  Kylie references sex on here, for goodness sake!  The whole thing comes across as really quite sophisticated and was perhaps a precursor to the type of tracks which appeared on the first Deconstruction album.  Although the UK bought enough copies to take her to number 11, her native Australia were not so sure as it became her first single to miss out on the Top 50 over there.

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There’s a definite nod towards the American market with the slightly Disney sounding ballad duet “If You Were With Me Now”.  To this point in the US Kylie’s SAW debut had reached number 28, but “The Loco-Motion” had passed expectations and reached number 3.  From then on things had been a bit of a struggle (the non UK single “It’s No Secret” crept into the US Top 40 at number 37) but there was enough kudos to persuade an artist who looked like he was on the way to become a big US Soul star, Keith Washington, to record with her.  Her first duet, with Jason Donovan “Especially For You” had charmed and topped charts but it was one heck of a cheesy track.  This, still a little schmaltzy felt like a much more mature track and took the pairing to number 4 in the UK Singles chart.  It became the first hit single to credit Kylie for her songwriting.  The duo, in what was then common in pop music, did not record their vocals together and only met for the filming of the video (where oddly, they also do not appear together – somewhat like the Patti Labelle/Michael McDonald track “On My Own”).  Here once again the song’s lyrics have been interpreted literally.  Washington, incidentally, had topped the US R&B charts with his debut single “Kissing You” and won a Soul Train Award but lasting success eluded him.  He puts in a good vocal on this track and is well matched by Kylie’s.  If it was an experiment to garner American sales, however, it did not work.  Kylie would have to wait another ten years for her next US hit.

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Title track “Let’s Get To It”is a rare thing.  It was perhaps the first great Kylie track not put out as a single.  It’s a real earworm of a song and probably my favourite on the album.  It’s mid-tempo classic Kylie, builds well and stays in my head long after each listen.  Both “Right Here, Right Now” and “Live And Learn” are good quality album tracks and good examples of dance-floor Kylie.  “No World Without You” shows a different side of Ms. Minogue.  It is a nicely-performed, melancholy, sparsely accompanied ballad.

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At the time eyebrows were raised by closing track “I Guess I Like It Like That” which boasted a harder dance sound than Kylie fans were used to.  It sounds like a track that might have had a big gospel disco diva such as Martha Wash or Jocelyn Brown on it.  At six minutes in length, it’s almost twice the length of most of the other tracks on the album.  It’s club music rather than commercial dance and this was somewhat of a departure.  It contains samples of 2-Unlimited, Salt N’Pepa and the Freestyle Orchestra and yet the whole thing blends well as a cohesive, contemporary track and shows that , in case there were still any doubters out there that Kylie was no pop puppet and that there was considerable diversity there.  And that is one of the reason why this ex-Australian soap star has had a music career now pushing thirty years.

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Kylie with Pete Waterman

Despite the disappointing sales this is a Kylie album that has stood the test of time and was a glorious final hurrah for the team who made her famous.  It was a brave move to leave this nest, but the time was right and there would be even better for her to come.

Let’s Get To It  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £10.88 and used from £1.44. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $24.95 new and used from $21.06 and downloaded for $9.49.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

 

The Young Oxford History Of Britain & Ireland (OUP 1996)- A Real Life Review

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I have gaps in my historical knowledge.  It’s likely that most of us educated in England would admit that.  At school I studied certain periods of history (some more than once).  I went on to study History at college but the eras largely overlapped with what I had done at school, leaving gaps of time about which I knew very little.  And I’ll admit that my knowledge of Scottish, Welsh and Irish history is even sparser.  This 500 page book is written for a young audience (although not that young, given the demands it makes on the reader, so probably early/mid-teens).  It seemed to offer an ideal overview of British and Irish history.  The general editor is Professor Kenneth O Morgan and it has been put together by five authors with distinguished historical backgrounds.  It spans from the time when the land mass which became Britain and Ireland was still joined to looking ahead what the new Millennium might bring.  The text is generously broken up with pictures, photos, maps and diagrams.

On reading it I can confirm that it provided me with a good overview and showed me how our history fits together.  Obviously, given its scope and audience it’s all rather fleeting.  I can’t claim to be that more knowledgeable about the periods I knew less about (Medieval and The Georgians, for example), but what is impressive is the range of subjects covered both within the text and through the illustrations.  Photos, portraits, diagrams and maps are used very effectively and they do enrich the text and can often give little snippets of information not included elsewhere.  At the back there is a list of the English Royal Line Of Succession and Scottish Kings  & Queens (I was largely unfamiliar with this particular list) and UK ministers up to, because of the publication of the book, John Major.  Obviously, this type of book dates easily but twenty-one years on it does not seem jarring.  Here, the vast scope and range of the book is to its benefit.

The index looks pretty comprehensive and this would most likely provide most readers’ introduction to the text.  I’ve read it from cover to cover, but probably most would dip in and out.  This is going to last me a little while, until once again I start chiding myself about how little I know about the country in which I live and then I’ll no doubt seek out something similar.

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The Young Oxford History Of Britain and Ireland was published by the Oxford University Press in  1996.

Babs (BBC1 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Extra

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I’m deviating from my usual timetable of reviews to sneak in this extra one-off programme which aired this Sunday on BBC1.  On paper this was a dream for me.  From a small child I’ve loved Dame Barbara Windsor.  One of my greatest childhood treats would be to watch a “Carry On” film even when I was only getting a small proportion of the jokes.  Even now, if I’m feeling a bit off colour an hour and a half spent in the company of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Dame Babs herself is always a worthwhile remedy.  (By the way, before you ask, “Camping” is my favourite with its so memorable Babs bikini-busting scene- perhaps one of the most iconic moments in British film!).

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Carry On Camping – Look out for the string!

There wasn’t a great deal of “Carry On” in Babs, just the much anecdoted first meeting with “difficult” Kenneth Williams on “Spying” which forged a life-long friendship and a fleeting nod towards “Doctor”.  Sid James, an important person in Babs’ life was just a laugh in the background (it can’t be easy to cast an actor to play Sid James).  This 90 minute production focused on Windsor’s pre-Carry On days.  The whole Sid James thing having been covered before in the excellent, revelatory stage play “Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick” which was adapted for television as “Cor Blimey!” (2000).

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Cor Blimey! It’s Babs!

This was quite a theatrical piece written by top television writer and ex-Eastenders head man Tony Jordan and focused very much on ghosts.  Using a pre-Peggy Mitchell Babs, sleeping on pier-end dressing room floors between shows as the central character she reflected on and observed various Babs’ and her past, most prominently the relationship with her father.

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The narrative moved back and forwards chronologically.  It was a fascinating structure but it did slow things down considerably and that is why it will not, despite its appealing subject matter, be getting the full five stars.                                                                                              . londonspyspiro

Samantha Spiro – Born To Be Babs

Certainly it was five star in terms of performance.  Samantha Spiro as the 90’s Babs was magnificent.  She’s been equally magnificent in the same role before.  Her performance in “Cor Blimey!” was so spot on that when the real Windsor takes over at the end it took a second or two to register.  Every time I’ve seen Samantha Spiro since I think of that portrayal.  Likewise here, Dame Babs was on hand, playing herself with just the odd aside and comment as she observed some of her life’s proceedings and, grand old trouper that she is, getting our eyes moist with an in-the-spotlight rendition of “Sunny Side Of The Street”, very much a significant song for the Windsor career and used quite heavily throughout.  This moment could have been as cheesy as anything, but as was stressed in the early part of the proceedings Barbara always had a certain something and aged 79 she still has it.

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A pair of Babs’ –  Samantha Spiro and Jaime Winstone promoting the show

The Barbara of the Swinging Sixties was played very well by Jaime Winstone who’d got the giggle and the wiggle down to a tee, but was always strong in conveying a more vulnerable Babs behind the (formidable) front.  This section focused on her relationship with bad boy husband Ronnie Knight, a man who made those in her working life distinctly nervous and whose appeal to Babs never really got across here.  Barbara’s early theatrical career and the support given to her by Joan Littlewood at The Theatre Workshop (played by Zoe Wanamaker) was also very well handled.

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Perhaps the most affecting Babs ghost on display was the determined pre-teen, turning cartwheels in auditions much to her mother’s chagrin and having to give evidence against her beloved father in court proceedings.  Played by twelve year old Honor Kneafsey (so good in BBC1 Series “Our Zoo”) who painfully brought home each snub received by the man she idolised whilst taking on board that “the show must go on”

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The young Babs, happy with both parents

So, wonderful performances and a good feel of the time but really I think there’s a series load of material in the extremely readable Windsor autobiography “All Of Me” so Jordan had to be selective when putting this together.  If it had flowed a little better, I would have no compunction in awarding five stars as it is it was very memorable Sunday night viewing.

In checking the odd fact for this review a few minutes ago I’ve discovered that there has been what the Daily Mail likes to regard as a “ TV Storm” about this and that is was “Slammed by viewers”.  Not having seen any other reviews and not (thankfully) reading the Daily Mail I knew nothing of this whilst writing the above.  I’ve just taken a little look and it seems like the structure and flow which I aired reservations about caused people to find it unwatchable and not know what was going on, although with usual tabloid overstatement there seemed to be a considerable number of viewers and reviewers who praised the production.  So, a mixed reaction but it was great to see a true British National Treasure getting ninety minutes of primetime on a Sunday evening.

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Dame Barbara Windsor

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“Babs” was shown on Sunday 7th May and is currently available on the BBC I-Player.  The DVD will be released on the 15th May

Jamestown – Sky 1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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A big old ship sailed into Sky 1 on Friday night.  It was the launch of their big new eight part drama series with the much promoted tagline “By the makers of “Downton Abbey””.  I don’t watch a great deal on Sky 1.  Since football comedy “The Rovers” which I enjoyed it’s just the rebooted “Hawaii 5-0” that makes it into my planner, but I thought I would give this a go.

It’s 1619 and the men sent to colonise Virginia have been there for twelve years.  Now the ship is bringing them in women, known as “maids to make wives”.  With one exception, the men and women have never met, yet deals have been struck and they have already been paired off.  It’s a good premise.  It had the slight feel of the Jimmy McGovern penned  Australian-convicts- on- the beach BBC2 series “Banished” from last year, but this doesn’t star Russell Tovey and is probably going to be less edgy and grim.

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The Women Of Jamestown – Jocelyn, Verity and Alice

“Jamestown” seems as if it will focus on three of the betrothed women who have survived the journey to meet their men.  Alice (Sophie Rundle) thinks she has lucked out when she sees the man waiting for her, only to discover that it is the brother of the man and that she is really betrothed to a churlish Henry (Max Beesley) who wants a quick return on his investment and rapes her whilst she is out walking on the first night.  We can all tell that his brother Silas (Stuart Martin) is a much better bet.  Alice’s good friend Verity (Niamh Walsh) has a bit of trouble finding her man until she discovers he is the one with his ear nailed to the stocks for blasphemy (watch out Stephen Fry!).  Meredith (played by Dean Lennox-Kelly) is a drunk and is soon gambling using Verity as stake.  Perhaps the most interesting of the female characters is the one with the back-story, a woman who tells Alice before they dock that she had to leave England as a man had been killed and who has already met her beau, the company recorder, Samuel.  This is Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick) who in the first episode looks like she is being set up as the Alexis Carrington of the piece as she schemes and manipulates to get her own way and to ensure her survival and that the man she has been paired with will prosper in this new community.

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Jamestown itself was the first permanent English colony in America with its existence pre-dating the Pilgrim Fathers.  The programme makers have chosen to relocate this in Hungary as the series has been filmed near Budapest.  It is written and created by Bill Gallagher, who has previously worked on those comforting historical dramas “Lark Rise To Candleford” and “The Paradise”.  The first episode was directed by John Alexander, a man with historical pieces “Indian Summers” and “Sense And Sensibility” among his many television credits.

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Jamestown Colony

The most striking thing about the series was how lovely it looked.  Colours are quite vivid, making the sea (when calm) a vivid shade of blue. True, there is no doubt going to be a lot of mud, but this New World has a clearness and lushness which just might keep a few viewers along for the ride just to wallow in the scenery.  Also in the cast there are some good old reliables such as Burn Gorman (“Torchwood”/”The Hour”) Jason Flemyng (“Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels”/”Primeval”) and Shaun Dooley (“Broadchurch/”Cuffs”).  In this first episode they were all rather upstaged by the dim but devoted domestic help, Mercy (Patsy Ferran), who judging by her non-appearance on the IMDB cast list might not play much of a future role in the series.  (Surely IMDB cannot make a mistake?) If this is so, then this is a shame because it was played with the making-the-most-of-a-minor domestic role which spans way back to Ruby from the original “Upstairs Downstairs” and includes Daisy from “Downton Abbey” (By the makers of Jamestown).  I couldn’t help but wonder, as Mercy was already there when the boatload of women arrived why she wasn’t the most popular girl in the town and already shacked up with one of the better looking men.  But then, that’s seventeenth century class differences, I suppose.

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The jury is still out if I’m going to last the distance with “Jamestown”.  I’ve already got one historical drama on the go, the cup-runneth-over “Harlots”, which is a mass of tightly contained heaving bosoms in a series which is actually beginning to win me over with its tale of eighteenth century London rival brothels, shunted for some reason onto ITV Encore ( a channel I don’t think I’ve ever watched before). To keep the Downton connection going to the very end this features the ill-fated Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) as the highly-esteemed Charlotte the harlot, currently making out with a much more downmarket Irishman than the chauffeur she elevated from downstairs in “Downton”.  All in all, I’ve decided I’m going to be paying a visit to Jamestown for the next episode at least.  There’s plenty of dramatic potential in the characters and the scenery is gorgeous.  Whether the makers have another Downton on their hands I’m less convinced.

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Jamestown is on Friday nights at 9pm on Sky 1.  The first episode is available to watch on Sky catch-up platforms.

100 Essential Books – The Golden Age- Joan London (Europa 2016)

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London’s third novel has already won several  prestigious awards in her native Australia and it’s very easy to see why.  It is a tale which begins with short chapters and beautifully drawn characterisation which draws the reader in right from the start.  The title is the name of (an actual) convalescent hospital for children with polio, giving them the chance to relearn how to walk.  It is set in the early 50’s in an Australia fascinated by their new Queen.

Main character, 13 year old Frank Gold, the oldest child at the hospital, is struck down with polio after emigrating from a difficult war as a Hungarian Jew.  Both parents are with him but their attempts at a new life are interrupted by this sudden and cruel illness.  It is a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.  Frank has aspirations to become a poet and in Elsa, another patient, he has found his muse.  The care for the children, their struggles and triumphs and the effects this stigmatizing disease has on their families is superbly handled.  At times it reminded me of the critically acclaimed TB hospital set “Dark Circle” by Linda Grant but here I found myself caring more making “The Golden Age” an even more satisfactory novel.

Written with a real flair for language it picks up on the perceptiveness of adolescents unable to move on with their own lives but absorbing everything around them.  This is a real treat- a poetic, warm, involving, even elegant novel based upon a hideous disease.

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An Australian multi-award winning novel

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The Golden Age was published in 2016 by Europa.  Many thanks to the publishers and Nudge-books for the review copy.

 

 

Nudge-Book issue 92- Now Available

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The latest edition of the magazine I am delighted to be a contributor for has its latest issue available now.  And it has had a name change!  It’s still nb but that now stands for nudge-book to tie it in with its associated website (www.nudge-book.com) where I am the “Community Voice” for the Book Hugger section.

You may think, oh here he goes, pushing a magazine he is writing for and okay, I hold my hands up, but I was reading nb long before I was a contributor and it is the only UK magazine out there for readers and reading groups so it is well worth supporting.  In this issue we say goodbyes to our editor and publisher, Guy Pringle, who has done a fantastic job in ensuring such a magazine can survive in this digital age and after 17 years at the helm has decided to start his well-earned retirement.  We are all sure that it will continue to go from strength to strength under Mel Mitchell who has also worked tirelessly on the publication for a number of years.

If you head over to the nudge bookshop you can purchase a copy (or take out a subscription).  This edition has features a Crime Fiction Supplement and much else besides.  There’s an interview with Graeme Macrae Burnet whose Man Booker shortlisted “His Bloody Project” I so loved.  There’s an interview with Clare Mackintosh who became the fastest selling new crime writer in 2015 with “I Let You Go”.  Her latest, “I See You” is available as a Recommended Read and is available free for nb readers from the nudge website (you just pay p&p).

There’s a couple of exclusives from me as well.  You can find my interview with Charlie Lovett whose “Lost Book Of The Grail” and “The Bookman’s Tale” both delighted me this year and there is a feature on TV adaptations.  You can also find out the NB books of the year as voted for by readers.  Just one spoiler here as I am so delighted that my five star rated “Owl Song At Dawn” by Emma Claire Sweeney was voted the Book Hugger Book of The Year.

There does seem to be more content in each edition of nb, so if you haven’t seen it for a while give it a go.  The directory at the back of the magazine features reviews of a whole range of books which might have escaped your notice.  If your “To Be Read” list is looking a little lacklustre and out of date then let nudge books give you a nudge…………….

100 Essential CDs – Number 47 – Liza Minnelli – Results

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Results- Liza Minnelli (Epic 1989) 

UK Chart Position – 6

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By 1989 Pet Shop Boys had been at the top of their game for four years.  During this time they had scored three UK and one US number 1 singles, three big selling studio albums and one remix album.  Significantly, they had also revitalised the career of 60’s singing legend Dusty Springfield with their UK & US number 2 collaboration “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”  In 1989 Dusty was riding high again with their “Nothing Has Been Proved” a song about the very British sex and politics Profumo scandal which was taken from the movie “Scandal”.  The whole Dusty project had been a fascinating one for Neil and Chris, from the painstaking way she liked to record to their bringing to a new generation one of the greatest British voices of all time.  The experience had left them open to consider new collaborations.

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PSB with Dusty Springfield

In 1989 showbiz legend Liza Minnelli was telling her record company that she wanted to move away from the live Broadway -style albums and standards that had been her lifeblood and record something more contemporary.  This came to the attention of  the duo’s manager Tom Watkins.  Minnelli was a big fan of their song “Rent” and so the deal was struck.  Neil Tennant, a huge Minnelli fan, straight away began writing songs that would be suitable for a woman in her 40’s keen to re-enter the youthful pop market and “Results” was the fabulous result.

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Performing with her mother Judy Garland

Liza Minnelli was born a showbusiness legend.  With her parentage it was inevitable.  Superb in her 1972 Oscar winning performance “Cabaret”, she became an unstoppable force, huge Broadway star and a household name somewhat outside of the commercial pop mainstream.  Recording-wise she had never been as successful as one might think.  The soundtrack to the movie had made it to number 25 in her homeland (#13-UK) and a recording of her television special “Liza With A Z” which had also gone a long way to cement her into public consciousness had reached US#19, UK#9).  Her highest placed studio album in the US was 1973’s “The Singer” (which reached #38, #45 in the UK).  With the exception of the last album, chart-wise she had performed better in the UK, so perhaps a collaboration with a top UK band would seem a shrewd move.

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The whole concept seems very British- a pairing of the Queen of Cheese with the Kings Of Cool, the emotional Yank with the detached Brits.  In the UK we got it, Liza did a lot of television to promote the album and received  a gold album and her highest ever chart placing.  It was also a big hit in Spain.  In the US the mixture of showbiz glitz meets electro left them cold and it was considered to be a flop.  The whole project appealed to the British sense of camp and to be honest, still sounds very good over twenty-seven years on.  It is an album which is technically accomplished, superbly produced and can have you up and dancing and can both bring a smile at moments of kitsch as well as be genuinely touching and affecting in places.

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The album produced by Julian Mendelsohn and Pet Shop Boys contains ten tracks- three covers of songs associated with other artists, two tracks which had been previously released by the duo and five originals that Neil and Chris wrote especially for Liza.

Opening track “I Want You Now” is one of the new Tennant and Lowe compositions and from the introduction you can tell we are in Pet Shop Boys territory  with a strong electro feel.  There is, however, an epic orchestral sweep which accompanies Liza’s sterling performance.  The song is bold and dramatic and it sets out what is going to follow superbly.  A great opener.

“Losing My Mind” is the hit single from the album, reaching number 6 in the UK charts.  A Stephen Sondheim song from “Follies” would feel like familiar ground for Liza but Pet Shop Boys magic turns it alongside “Always On My Mind” (of which it has a slight feel) and “Go West” as one of their great covers.  It is also gloriously kitsch, probably one of the kitsch pop lover’s finest moments, probably until KLF got Tammy Wynette to sing “I’m justified and I’m ancient and I drive an ice cream van”.  I remember Liza heavily promoting the single at the time and on (I think) an episode  of “Wogan” she explained how she, the showbiz trouper, had learnt singing tips from Neil and that to get the proper ending to the word “Mind” she should sing it as if it ended with a “t” and it would sound as if it ended with a “d”.  She said she had taken this on board but, listening to the track, there are a few occasions when she sings “Mind-t” ending in a t and it sounds like it ends with a “t”.  There’s something about that whole story and its result that I love.  If that is a singing technique here is evidence that it doesn’t always work, with glorious results.  It was a number 2 hit in Ireland and got to number 7 in Spain and amongst other chart placings made the Top 20 in Austria, Belgium and Germany.  It also saw Liza performing on “Top Of The Pops” and has been a staple for drag acts to mime to for nearly thirty years.

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“If There Is Love” has a dramatic start and yet for me is the weakest track on the album.  It does feature a “Minnelli rap” and what might we expect from her?  Well, I wouldn’t have counted on Shakespeare as she gets here, Sonnet 94 “They that have the power to hurt….”It’ a good track but does not reach the heights of others on the album.  It has a false ending before Minnelli-does-Shakespeare kicks in over programming and Courtney Pine on Sax .  Another Tennant-Lowe original “So Sorry I Said” is probably the closest on the album as to what we might have expected from Liza, a slightly over-blown ballad lyrically yet her performance is subtle and really very strong and probably in a lower register than she is used to.  The whole thing comes across as quality.

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It’s certainly back to the dance floor with “Don’t Drop Bombs”, with a big electronic sound and scratching.  Who knows what is going on here but it has always been one of my favourite tracks on the album with Neil coming in to warn us “Don’t Drop Bombs!”  The off- the- wall feel continues with an inspired cover of Tanita Tikarim’s #22 UK hit from the year before, the very odd “Twist In My Sobriety”.  This kicks off with a rap from Donald Johnson who intones the memorable lines from the song Kander and Ebb wrote for her the name-checking “It’s Liza with A Z, not Lisa with an S, because Lisa with an S goes ss not zz”. The song is fairly bonkers but its given an epic feel which works sublimely.  There’s strong background choral work, whistling, considerable scratching and Liza singing if it’s the most important message she ever wants to get across.  I love this.

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The song that Liza attracted to the project is up next.  “Rent” with its tongue in cheeks lyrics with its definite nod towards male prostitution would not seem likely material for Minnelli but here it is transformed into a song that could have stopped a Broadway show.  There is certainly a dramatic full orchestral sweep, the song is slowed down which suits Liza’s deliberate diction.  The whole song sounds very different from Pet Shop Boys version.  It’s really a precursor to the sort of things that took Paul Anka back into the charts with his 2005 “Rock Swings” album when he famously turned Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a cheesy swing classic.

“Love Pains” was originally a disco hit for Yvonne Elliman.  Minnelli’s version is good but I actually prefer the version that was also released in 1989 by Hazell Dean.  It’s a song that has underachieved for all artists who have recorded it which also includes Kelly Marie, Obsession and the great Viola Wills,  .  “Tonight Is Forever” is another song associated with PSB as it appeared on their debut album “Please”.  It’s given the “Rent” feel, but doesn’t work quite as well.

A veritable epidemic of Love Pains

The final track on the CD, written for Liza by the Boys is “I Can’t Say Goodnight”, which is as strong a closer as “I Want You Now” is an opener.

Disappointingly “Results”  was Liza’s final dabbling with the contemporary pop market and is the only CD in my collection by her.  She did do a good duet with Donna Summer “Does He Love You?” in 1996.  It does seem fitting though, that someone associated with places like Studio 54 and those big 1970’s discos had her own moment on the dance floors around the world with some of the tracks of this album.  Personally I would have loved the PSB-Minelli collaborations to continue for at least another album but I’m certainly thankful for these ten tracks.

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One of the crowd at Studio 54

You won’t escape the intensity of Liza’s eyes in this Top Of The Pops performance of “Losing My Mind” (here shown on taken from a TOTP2 re-run).

 

 

Results  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.97 and used from £0.24. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is currently $27.24 new and used from $1.14 and downloaded for $8.99.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.