Top Of The Shop With Tom Kerridge (BBC2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

topoftheshop4

I have a limited idea as to who Tom Kerridge is.  Initially, I did think he was on the last series of “Strictly Come Dancing” but that turned out to be another follically-challenged chef, Simon Rimmer. I did watch one episode of his “Lose Weight For Good” which has spawned one of the biggest selling books so far this year but decided as a television format it didn’t have much originality  and there is a limit to the number of new year-new start-new you programmes you can watch whilst dealing with January blues.  I preferred to stick with the diet-testing Channel 4 Show “How To Lose Weight Well” probably because I like Dr Xand Van Tulleken.

 I don’t often watch tv featuring chefs (other than Mary Berry who is more a national institution than chef) but Tom Kerridge is obviously an important enough figure in the world of TV cooking to put his name in the title in this new format which had two of its eight episodes shown on consecutive nights on BBC2 this week.

topoftheshop1

 It wasn’t the named presenter but the format which drew me in.  It is only indirectly a cooking show as the food preparation has largely been all done by the time we meet the contestants but it is about passion.  Artisan food producers (of which there are a growing number) bring their products to a farm shop in the Yorkshire Dales to compete against three others to entice shoppers into buying their products and being in with the chance of being judged the best in terms of sales, taste and business viability by judges artisan expert Alison Swan Parente  and  entrepreneur and founder of Mowgli Street Food restaurants  Nisha Katona (no relation to Kerry).      

topoftheshop3Tom Kerridge with judges

 What I like about this format is that being judged here are people who have already put their lives on the line and are so committed to their project that they are selling on some scale, either locally or on-line and are ready to spread their belief to a much wider audience.  In the first episode we had preserves and the competitors were members of a family who made a runner bean chutney from the beans in their garden, an apple and chilli jelly made from the by-products of cider-making, a handmade peanut butter and a passed down the generations recipe from the Philippines of a papaya pickle.  My mouth was watering throughout.

topoftheshop2Who will buy our runner bean chutney?

 It watered even more in the second episode where the focus was on cheese and there were a couple of goats cheeses (including one from a man who had just one goat with obvious issues of business viability there- a local environment officer who produced the spiced cheese in his shed) an apple-smoked cheddar produced at the weekend initially as a hobby and a Welsh cheddar.  The competitors set up their stalls in the shop and midway through use their produce in a recipe which is sold in the tearoom of the farm shop.  These people are dedicated and so enthusiastic about their product that is hard not to be drawn in and there wasn’t one of the competitors in the first two episodes that didn’t deserve to do well.

topoftheshop5

The cheesemakers with the judges

 The star of the show for me, however, is the farm shop itself.  It looks a lovely place and I would love to have such a venue walking distance from my home.  The people in that Yorkshire Dales village are extremely lucky and I hope they are doing everything they can to ensure that a place like that continues to thrive.  I live in an area which attracts tourists and has a strong farming pedigree but there is nothing anywhere near as good as the farm shop/tea room with its real community feel shown on the programme. 

topoftheshop6Inside the farm shop

 There’s a lot of elements to be considered which makes the programme more fascinating than watching an episode of “Masterchef” (which I have never done).  Pricing for one (there was some very expensive peanut butter which could have potentially restricted sales) and as the winners from each category meet up in a final I’m sure the business elements will become even more of a focus.  In fact, I might have liked a little more idea as to how the judges came to their decisions about the winners, I’m not arguing about the decisions they have made thus far but wonder how much they have taken all their criteria into consideration.

 There’s one thing I’m not happy about.  Why do we have to see scenes from both the episode we about to watch and the rest of the series before the opening credits?  This drives me absolutely nuts, as does the “Next Episode” preview at the end.  Do any viewers actually like these?     I know anyone watching TV with me is likely to become exasperated by me reversing and forwarding to get to the moment where the episode I have chosen to watch actually starts.  I might like the odd reminder as to what happened in the last episode if I am watching a Drama series but I don’t need to know what is coming up.  I think I should make a note about the programme-makers who don’t do this and praise them to the skies rather than continually grumble about the majority that do.

 Anyway, with this series we have a likeable format with devoted competitors with a proven commitment other than just wanting to be on telly.  I’m certainly going to be sticking with it and, even though it’s been pretty unheralded this far (and on consecutive nights – grr!) this actually could be the “Bake Off” replacement hit that the BBC are looking for.

fourstars

 The first two episodes of Top Of The Shop With Tom Kerridge were shown on Tues and Weds 17/18 April on BBC 2 at 8.00pm.  They are currently available to watch on the BBC I-Player.

Advertisements

100 Essential CDs – Number 64– Donna Summer – The Donna Summer Anthology

images

The Donna Summer Anthology (P0lygram 1993)

donna6

With three studio albums in my Essentials list it is no surprise that I am recommending a career retrospective for all the Donna Summer I have so far missed out.  There are quite a number to choose from but I have gone for the double CD Anthology which appeared in 1993 and was the first up- to -that point complete career collection with 34 tracks spanning 17 years.

onceupon5

 Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in 1948 and as a teenager won a part in the German production of “Hair”.  She married Austrian Helmuth Sommer and anglicized his surname to become her stage-name.  The marriage lasted three years, the name much longer.  In Europe she began working with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte leading to her first smash hit “Love To Love You Baby”, one of my all-time favourite Disco tracks which I covered when I reviewed her first essential album “A Love Trilogy” which was released in 1976.  The version on this album is the US single version, which is not actually my favourite.  The British single mix is harder to find but feels more of a complete track.  From “Love Trilogy” we get the single versions of “Could It Be Magic” and “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”, which really demands to be heard in its entirety.  “Spring Affair” is taken from “Four Seasons Of Love” and was the track which attracted the most attention in the discos but in the UK the ballad “Winter Melody” became the hit.

onceupon3

 From 1977’s “I Remember Yesterday” we get the 60’s girl-group pastiche of “Love’s Unkind” and her only UK number one, the phenomenal I Feel Love”, which really was the sound of the future and is probably one of the most significant dance tracks of all time, propelling electronic dance music to the forefront, a position it still occupies today, over forty years later.  There’s three tracks from the essential “Once Upon A Time” album.

donna7

By this time Disco was huge and her Casablanca record label joined forces with Motown to put together a disco movie starring Donna and featuring a double album soundtrack.  The music was at times over-produced and grandiose but the film was actually a rather understated piece which also starred Jeff Goldblum and The Commodores but it was the music that made the most impression with the best , sung by Donna, getting an Oscar , the sublime “Last Dance”, which was written by  her co-star Paul Jabara.  This is a track which has grown in reputation over the years but I have always loved it.  It’s changes of pace were deemed a little confusing at the time which might explain why it did not even make the Top 50 in the UK.  In the US it became her second Top 3 hit.

donna8

 The double album “Live And More” became a huge seller in the US, giving Donna her first number 1 album.  A lot of these sales were fuelled by the “studio” side which comprised three tracks put together in a non-stop close- to- eighteen -minute medley, of which two are included here.  “The MacArthur Park” suite took a distinctly weird Jimmy Webb song which had been a hit when growled by actor Richard Harris and turned it into something fabulous.  It is here in a lengthy six and a half minute promotional single version which gives it a chance to show its epic sweep and once again the changes of pace which were to be a feature for Donna in the latter disco years.  Her first US number 1 single (“I Feel Love” had inexplicably stalled at #6) it got to number 5 in the UK.  This eases into, as it did in the original album, the almost as good “Heaven Knows” in which Donna sings with fellow Casablanca signings Brooklyn Dreams.  This got to number 4 in the US but a lowly 34 in the UK.  This was a significant track in Donna’s life as the following year she was to marry lead singer Bruce Sudano, with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

donna9

 The first CD has really peaked here as far as I am concerned but is rounded off by four tracks from the huge “Bad Girls” album.  Two of the tracks most associated with Donna are the title track (US#1, UK#14) and “Hot Stuff (US#1, UK#11) both here in their full 12” version.  There’s more changes of pace in “Dim All The Lights” (US#2,UK#29).  Of the tracks from this US double platinum #1 album, the biggest seller in her career I have always preferred the more electronic European feel of “The Anthology’s” closing track on the first disc, “Sunset People”.

donna11

 CD 2 opens with a real tour-de-force which topped off Donna’s most commercially successful year with her third US number 1 single of 1979.  More of a singing contest than a track it paired the Disco Queen with the Showtunes Queen- Summer vs Streisand.  It’s incredible to think that at the start of Donna’s hit career many people thought that she could not even sing and here she is matching one of the most celebrated singers note for note.  In the UK this became Donna’s third Top 3 hit.  Her final hurrah to disco came with “On The Radio”, another song which has become more familiar in the UK over the years, at one time it was a regular choice for competitors on TV talent shows and soap star turned pop star Martine McCutcheon significantly bettered Donna’s original number 32 placing when she took it to number 7 in 2001.  In the US it reached number 5, which was her lowest chart placing for a couple of years.  It’s a song with a slightly odd narrative, I never understood how a letter which felt out of a pocket in an old brown overcoat ended up being read out on the radio, but then Donna had been convincing when she left her cake out in the rain.  It’s a great vocal but lyrically just a little strange.

donna12

 And then in the US, disco was over.  The response from Summer, Moroder and Bellotte was to release an album with a distinct rock-chick feel.  Summer had moved away from Casablanca Records with its strong disco emphasis and signed up to Geffen Records.  It was a new start but I, for the first time, didn’t really buy into it.  As someone who had always preferred her more European sounding tracks it was a step too far into the rock arena.  Donna was keen to get away from the sexy disco siren image not least in part because she had become a born-again Christian.  Commercially, her UK fans agreed with me as it became her lowest selling album to date.  The title track reached number 3 in the US but follow up “Cold Love” stalled at 33, although did garner Donna a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal.  Her next album was not even approved for release by her new label.  From it we get the title track “I’m A Rainbow” and her version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” played straight, which became a staple in her live shows.  It was not released until 1986 and it marked the last album in the ten year partnership of the artist with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

donna3

 The next album had more than an element of reinvention about it.  It is unusual for an artist this far on in their career to release an eponymous album- 1982’s “Donna Summer” being set out as a new start.  Producer Quincy Jones did a very good job, the songs have a range of style from jazz standards, to ballads, to rock tinged tracks.  From this we get US#10, UK#18 “Love Is In Control” and the odd but fascinating version of a Jon & Vangelis song “State Of Independence” which put Donna in front of an all-star gospel choir including Michael Jackson and Dionne Warwick.  This became the big hit track in the UK reaching number 14 and giving Donna her highest UK studio album chart placing since “I Remember Yesterday”.

donna4

 There wasn’t too much that was great about the next couple of album releases, “Anthology” cherry-picks the most worthwhile tracks from “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws”.  The very good title track from “All Systems Go” is here.  Her one album dalliance with Stock Aitken and Waterman brought about one of her (and their) best ever recordings.  I consider “Another Time And Place” (from this we get “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt) to be an Essential CD.  The magic didn’t carry on for her next album “Mistaken Identity” but two of the better tracks are here.

donna13

 This CD does end with a good enough reason for the Summer fan to purchase “Anthology” as in 1992 Donna guest vocaled on a track by old friend Giorgio Moroder on a project called “Forever Dancing”.  This track “Carry On” seemed to turn back the years and I  I wish it could have led on to more recordings with the producer and his greatest muse.

donna14

 Post “Anthology” Donna made the occasional single -the best being her number 21 UK hit “Melody Of Love” from 1994 and a fairly breath-taking version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” from 1999 which took the song better known as “Time To Say Goodbye” out of the funeral services, for which it has become a staple and into the dance clubs.  I thought this would be a huge hit for her but it wasn’t.  Her final album “Crayons” released in 2008 after a 14 year gap after her previous very worthwhile Christmas album was a strong attempt at giving Donna a contemporary club edge and healthy sales seemed like it could be the beginning of a new phase in her recording career. 

donna15

 Her death in 2012 came as a complete shock and was one of those passings that makes you feel that a phase in your own life has come to an end.  Her final illness was kept quiet as lung cancer claimed her.  It was Donna’s belief that this was brought on by toxic dust she inhaled by being in the proximity of New York on 9/11.  She was the artist I felt that I had grown up with and even when some of her recordings in the mid 80’s did not inspire me greatly I was always delighted when her music was in the charts and she was in the public eye.

donna16

 I’ve gone for “Anthology” because it does have a number of those tracks on CDs which I never made the transfer from vinyl to.  There are omissions, especially with tracks which hit bigger in the UK (no “Winter Melody”, no “Down Deep Inside” no “Dinner With Gershwin”).  If you are looking for these tracks I suggest you go for “The Journey – The Very Best Of”, which got to number 6 in the UK charts in 2004 (but still no “Winter Melody”) or the three disc “Ultimate Collection” (2016 UK#30) which has all of the above, some of Donna’s German pre-hit recordings as well as tracks that I have never owned and which the completist in me is telling me to purchase.  58 tracks, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time…………………………

 

Donna Summer in a live tribute to David Foster from 2008 bringing the show to a resounding close with “Last Dance”.

 

The Donna Summer Anthology now only seems to be available on Amazon UK as a used import with prices ranging from £1.95 to £700.38 (you make your choice!).  In the US it is more readily available new currently for $29.99 and used from $1.98.  There are many other Donna Summer compilations available.

Night School – Richard Wiseman (2014) – A Real Life Review

realives

nightschool

Subtitled “The Life Changing Science Of Sleep” (and yes, it is unusual for me to read a book with “science” in the title) Richard Wiseman pulls together all the theories and research on sleep to produce an extremely readable book on a fascinating subject.  I chose to read it after having had a few days of my occasional struggles with sleep and I am already doing better.

 Basically, we’re not getting enough of it.  Sleep, that is.  Most of us fall short of the 8 hours required to fully recharge ourselves for the next day and the quality of this sleep has deteriorated rapidly over the last half century due to our lifestyles, stress and our obsession with the blue light of smart-phones, computers and tablets.  As a result we are becoming sleep deprived affecting our abilities to function as individuals and at work, causing many road traffic accidents and putting ourselves at risk of obesity, diabetes and cancer all of which Wiseman is prepared to attribute to the wrong type of sleep.

 We still feel guilty about sleep, as if it is a weakness.  Margaret Thatcher, when Prime Minister, was said to thrive on 3 or 4 hours per night and this was held up as an admirable quality.  Running the country is surely more important than sleep.  She might actually have done a better job if she’d put in those extra hours. (There’s also significant research to suggest that those who claim to be thriving on a modicum of sleep actually do a lot more of it than they realise).

 Wiseman also fascinated me by exploring the other social no-no, the afternoon nap.  Take one of these and you’ll likely end up feeling guilty.  Wrong!  We’re often being told of the virtues of the Mediterranean diet as an explanation for lower instances of heart trouble and stroke in regions which follow this- but what do these nations also support?  The siesta.  Is this why coronary disease is much lower because of the blood-pressure lowering benefits of a nap? There’s a precise science to getting this right and Wiseman points out how long it should be and when and how to get the most out of it.  He’s convinced me, I’m off to buy an eye-shield.

 What sleep is for and what it does, how to do it when you are struggling and how to enrich your learning potential whilst asleep; the role of dreams and how to use them for your benefit and avoiding and curing other sleep related problems are all dealt with this in this book in a highly accessible way with the author as friendly tutor guiding us, rather than blinding us, with science.  I’m really glad I liked the author’s style as I have another of his books “Quirkology” – a book I bought then wondered why I had done so as it is also not the sort of thing I would normally read and which has been sitting on my shelves for some time.

 He also debunks the many myths that have built up with relish.  The connection between eating cheese at night leading to bad dreams, for example, was actually a fictional creation by Charles Dickens as Scrooge ate cheese before his visions.  Experimentation has proved this has no basis in fact.  Yet how many of us still avoid cheese at night because of this?

 If, like most of us you don’t give that much thought to the third of the day when you should be in bed and are not using it to maximise your potential for the other two thirds of the day then this book is a real eye-opener, or yes, go on, I’ll say it a real eye-closer!

 fourstars

Night School was published by Macmillan in 2014

The Pure In Heart- Susan Hill (Vintage 2005) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

susanhill

The third Susan Hill novel I’ve read this year came about when I pulled “Read a Crime or Thriller novel” from the box for my third book in the year long Russian Roulette Reading Challenge that I am taking part in at Sandown Library.  I’d always thought Hill was most celebrated for her sparse, short horror tinged works of which “The Printer’s Devil Court” was an example but I am much preferring her crime series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler of which this is the second out of nine full length works. 

 Here, Hill feels like a very different novelist as she writes at length and allows the plot considerable time to unfold.  “The Various Haunts Of Men” had Serrailler pretty much in the background and I felt he was one of the least interesting characters but he’s pushed centre stage for this follow-up published a year later.

 This is a very readable novel but I can’t help but feel that they author is toying with her readership.  Last time round the crime was a long time coming, here, it happens quicker but is far from the only thing going on, which makes it unusual compared to most other police procedurals where the solving of the crime dominates.  There are momentous events happening in the Serrailler family and Hill is prepared to devote as much time to these as the unfolding of the case, but, and here’s the thing, it doesn’t frustrate, it doesn’t feel purposely slowed down and it all feels relevant.  The odd crime reader may feel a little cheated but I personally think her style has enriched her characterisation and her feel of Lafferton, the small town where these novels are set which has already endured in just two books a serial killer and this time the disappearance of a nine year old boy on his way to school.

 I’m enjoying the family stuff and look forward to seeing how plot seeds sown here will develop in subsequent novels.  However, I’m still not buying into the main character’s love life, his hot and cold emotions are being developed as a flaw but it feels a little tacked  on, as it did in the last novel, and as a result a little unconvincing.

 Susan Hill likes to provide surprises along the way and has once again achieved this.  She takes risks, not so much with characters, as in the debut (if you have read it you will know what I mean) but here with the actual case.  Things may not go exactly the way the reader expects it to and I like that.

 I’m also liking that it feels like a traditional police procedural and yet it’s not a traditional police procedural.  I can see the parallels with her horror writing as it is what is under the surface which most unsettles.  I’m fascinated to see how this series continues.

 fourstars

 The Pure In Heart was published by Vintage in 2005

Last Laugh In Vegas (ITV 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

vegas8

Reality shows provide work for past-their-best celebrities.  Fact.  There’s a whole posse of them (including Debbie McGee, Christopher Biggins, Wayne Sleep etc etc), well known names from 30+ years ago who are happy to go into jungles, sit on boats, travel to retirement places, learn to dance etc etc etc to boost their pensions.  But ITV’s “Last Laugh In Vegas” a five parter which started this week has a slightly different premise.  Here, the celebrities are, for the most part, from an even earlier era of heyday, from 40-50 years ago and they will not be attempting to learn new skills but will be doing what they did then but this time for a new audience.  It’s bringing British variety to a Las Vegas crowd used to megastars and state- of -the- art dazzling technology.  How can it possibly work?

vegas2

 

Well….even though I can find car-crash television as compulsive as the next person I’m hoping here that ITV haven’t set up this group of long-ago-more-famous-than-they-are-now celebrities for a fall.  To prevent this, they have brought in someone who is going to help them with their acts which would be more at home on old re-runs of  “The Good Old Days” than working amongst the razzle dazzle of Vegas.  And at this stage, I’m not convinced by this help.  I was vaguely disturbed that the person chosen looked like a white Michael Jackson tribute act, a Vegas performer by the name of Frank Marino.  We were told that Marino is a top comedian which just in itself reinforces the differences between live US and UK comedy and brings home the vast gulf between him and Bernie Clifton, the man who has pretending to ride an ostrich for his laughs for over half a century.  In fact, a modicum of research reveals Marino is best known as a drag act, something ITV is obviously keeping up their sleeves for a later episode.

vegas3Frank Marino – (I think this was a few years ago………)

 Much obviously depends on the people chosen for this Vegas show.  The obvious headliners would seem to be Cannon and Ball, but their brand of Northern humour and rapid wordplay seems more likely to bemuse an international audience.  There’s Su Pollard (was “Hi Di Hi” as well known worldwide as “Are You Being Served which turned its cast into household names in America?) who has chosen to sing, which wasn’t actually the best idea even in 1986 when she had an inexplicably big British hit (the #2 “Starting Over”).  Also attempting to revitalise their music careers are a frail looking Kenny Lynch (7 Top 40 hits 1960-65), a vulnerable Anita Harris (3 Top 40 hits 1967-68) and the supremely confident Jess Conrad (just 1 Top 40 hit back in 1961).  Admittedly, all three of these were British film and TV regulars throughout the 60’s and 70’s- old troopers who just kept going after their hits dried up.  The baby of this musical bunch is 64 year old Bobby Crush, thrust into stardom as a teenager by Hughie Green’s “Opportunity Knocks” for his piano-playing and his David Cassidy-on-a-budget looks.  Comedy is represented by the aforementioned Messrs. Clifton, Cannon and Ball together with “star of TV’s “The Comedians”” Mick Miller whose “trademark” long hair of his bald patch Marino is keen to cut.

vegas4

 Bernie Clifton and ostrich

The whole thing was tinged with sadness as their big opportunity became shadowed by squabbles over bedrooms, over billing and dawning realisation that they may be getting in over their depth.  There is probably a reason why most of them never played American in their glory days.  And yet, I am willing them to shine.

vegas5This is how I will always remember Anita Harris – from “Carry On Doctor” with Sid James

 Towards the end of this first offering they watched  a show-reel of their acts in their younger days in what was an affecting few minutes of television.  Thus Su Pollard watched herself impersonate Gracie Fields on a Royal Variety Show (how lost this would be on a Vegas audience), Anita Harris performed in her slinky, sophisticated style, the comics were shown being funny and Mr Conrad and Lynch looked dapper and Bernie Clifton rode around faster on his ostrich.  The passage of time and the trials of being in the public eye, to some extent, for decades, showed on their faces but none more than on a tearful Bobby Crush, who was watching once again the unhappy young man, struggling to cope with sudden fame and sexuality, grinning at the camera as the show went on regardless.

 Bobby Crush – then and now

And this show will go on regardless over the next five week and I suspect ITV will be providing us with more tears through the laughter as well as quite a few more moments I’ll be peering through my fingers to watch. 

The whole idea might seem somewhat cruel and heartless but I’d like these unlikely Vegas stars to hit the jackpot so I’m going to continue to watch.

vegas9

fourstars

Last Laugh In Vegas is being shown on Tuesdays at 9.00 pm on ITV1.  The first episode is available on the ITV Player

 

 

The Hoarder – Jess Kidd (2018)

hoarder

Jess Kidd’s 2016 debut “Himself” attracted a lot of attention and was shortlisted for awards.  I was of the opinion that it introduced us to an impressive new voice and I was delighted to interview her and have my review published alongside the interview in NB magazine Issue #90 when “Himself” was one of the featured titles.  I thought the book fizzled with life, with its setting of an Irish village in the mid-1970s where the author introduced us to memorable characters in a mystery tale which seamlessly took in elements of magic and the supernatural.

 With “The Hoarder” she has largely done it again and produced her second strong read.  This time we are in present day West London where main character Maud Drennan has started work as an agency care-worker for Cathal Flood, a difficult elderly man and the hoarder of the title.  It’s not just him thwarting Maud’s plans to put things in order as the supernatural draws the care-worker into a mystery involving a disappearance and a possible murder hidden deep within the secrets of the house.

 As in “Himself” main character Maud is able to see ghosts but here they are a host of Saints who act as her spirit guides and I must admit that this aspect does not work as well for me as it did last time round.  In “Himself” main character Mahoney was also aided and abetted by an unlikely side-kick, the wig-wearing Mrs Causley who memorably sees herself as “Miss Marple.  With balls”.  In this novel this role is taken by another unlikely candidate the wig-wearing, agoraphobic, transsexual Renata, who for me did not sparkle quite as much as her predecessor (but who could also fit Mrs Causley’s description!)

 This time around, however, I did find the mystery element of the novel more satisfying yet I did miss that great sense of the outsider coming into a tight-knit community theme which worked so well in “Himself”.  I suppose there is a danger when an author’s second novel has a similar feel to the first that comparisons will be made.  There is no doubt that if you enjoyed the debut then you will get much out of this and if you enjoy this as the stand-alone novel it is then I urge you to seek out her first book where everything feels just a little fresher and where her imagination gleams just a little more brightly.

 fourstars

The Hoarder was published in hardback by Canongate in February 2018

The Visitors – Catherine Burns (Legend Press 2017)

visitors

There’s something down in brother and sister John and Marion Zetland’s cellar and we get to find out really early on what it is in this gripping, compulsive debut.

 I’m not spoiling things by saying it’s Eastern European girls tricked into the country by John and kept as prisoners and sex slaves.  This novel focuses, however, on Marion, now in her late fifties, dominated by her brother and almost in complete denial as to what is going on in their house.  Marion has done little with her life and looks back on a past filled with regrets whilst not functioning in the horrific reality of the present.  This makes for incredibly tense reading.  It is a tale of loneliness (charity shop toys fill the role of friends) and neglect in an environment where evil lurks down the cellar steps.

 If this sounds a little too sordid the author has a masterful hand with characterisation and her depiction of Marion will remain long in my mind.  There’s dark humour amongst the dark themes which I appreciated and which kept me reading to the point where I found it very difficult to put the book down.  This is a very accomplished debut, a combination of crime and horror with a strong literary fiction feel which should make it appeal to more than those who make their reading choices from the darker areas of genre fiction.  Publishers Legend Press seem to be building up a great reputation with high quality first-time authors.  I will be fascinated to see what the author comes up with next.

vistors2Catherine Burns

 

fourstars 

The Visitors was published in hardback by Legend Press in 2017 and the paperback is due to appear on 1st June 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

The Case Of The Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin (1944) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

fen

I was reminded of Edmund Crispin (1921-78) when I read Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  I’d not read anything by him but I had bought a set of six of his Gervase Fen mystery novels a while back from “The Book People” so I plucked this introductory novel off the shelves.

Crispin published this when he was in his early twenties and went on to write nine detective novels (so I don’t need many more to compete the set) and a couple of short story collections.  He was also a composer and reviewed crime fiction for The Sunday Times.

This novel is set in Oxford of 1940, just a few years before the publication date.  It portrays a city that Crispin (real name Bruce Montgomery) would have known well as he studied Languages at St. John’s College.  Given both its setting and publication date there is no surprise to say that the war is present, although here it simmers along more in the background in terms of blackouts, shortages and longer journeys but the emphasis here would have been to provide a measure of escapism for a contemporary audience.

Compared to some of the crime writers of this vintage Crispin feels fresh and relatively modern.  He pens here a tale of an Oxford repertory group about to put on a new play by a West End playwright who comes to produce.  The opening chapter, depicting a train going down to Oxford with most of the main characters on board, provides a good introductory device which sets the novel up well and had won me over early on.

When one of the actors is murdered on College grounds it falls to the Professor of English Language and Literature, Gervase Fen to put the pieces together.  I’m not sure about Fen yet.  As a character he feels significantly less rounded than some of the more minor players here but as a sleuth he certainly seems to have been around.  Despite this being his first published outing a number of characters refer to his solving of murders in the past, suggesting darker goings on in Academic Oxford than this book would suggest.  Fen is a scholar who wants to be a detective and he’s nicely paired alongside Sir Richard Freeman, the Chief Constable whose main interest is English Literature.  This is a relationship I would be happy to see develop in later books in the series.

As often happens with crime novels of this age the denouement does not feel entirely satisfactory to the modern reader.  I understood it but was not totally convinced by it but this would not stop me encountering more Gervase Fen mysteries as I did find the whole thing entertaining.

threestars

The Case Of The Gilded Fly was first published in 1944. I read a reprinted 2009 Vintage paperback edition.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 68– Donna Summer – Another Place And Time

images

Another Place And Time – Donna Summer (WEA 1989)

UK Chart Position – 17

donna1

 

It had been nearly twelve years since Donna Summer’s previous essential album “Once Upon A Time”.  In the meantime her career had reached stratospheric levels with US number 1 pop albums (“Live And More” and “Bad Girls”) and had also hit the doldrums.  Disco had been and gone and in the US there had been a backlash against Disco artists so Donna  found herself needing to diversify, not always with great results.  Her career was also further complicated by her becoming a born-again Christian causing her to play down some of the raunchier hits in her back catalogue and then there was a comment she was reported to have made about AIDS which seriously affected her standing with the gay record buying market, who had been amongst her strongest supporters since day one.  Donna Summer always denied making such statements but it did have a significantly detrimental effect on her career.

donna3

 

Throughout the 80’s Donna continued to record with some success but the career lacked consistency and the quality of albums was patchy.  She did come very close to being essential with her 1982 release “Donna Summer” produced by Quincy Jones.  Donna was pregnant at the time of recording and claimed not to have responded well to Jones’ methods of working.  There were some great tracks on this album and a lot of musical styles which showed the versatility of the artist on big gospelesque numbers like the Vangelis penned hit single “State Of Independence”, on Bruce Springsteen rock and with a jazz standard “Lush Life”, in which, whatever Donna herself thought, she turned out one of her greatest vocal performances.  This album also marked her move away from Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte for the first time.

donna2 

Later 80’s albums (here I’m including “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws” )just didn’t do it for me.  Her “All Systems Go” album from 1987 was the first in her hit career not to make any impression on the US and UK album charts.  It wasn’t even a bad album, her star had just waned.  Around this time I saw her perform live for the first of two times at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where there were protests outside against her reported comments.  She was excellent that night, as she was when I saw her again some years later but it did seem like the hits might have dried up.

donna4

 

Like both other veteran female performers Tina Turner and Liza Minelli it was the British who saved the day.  Turner had become a global star again following her association with Heaven 17 and Minelli found herself making pop charts for the first time ever when she worked with the Pet Shop Boys a bit later on  in the same year that Donna made her comeback.  And it was a comeback,  scoring in the UK her highest charting album for 11 years and three Top 20 singles. In the US it gave her a first Top 10 single for 6 years.  In 1989 Donna was back and it was thanks  to Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

kyliem2 

This song-writing and production team, known as the Hit Factory by the time they began working with Donna had scored number 1 singles for Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Dead Or Alive, Sonia and Mel and Kim amongst others with a high-energy sound which was spawned in the gay discos and taken into the pop charts in the UK and Europe with alarming frequency.  Working with one of the original disco legends seemed a sensible move for all concerned.

donna5

“Another Place And Time” has ten tracks written and produced by the team with two tracks penned alongside the artist.  Why it works so well as an album is that for the first time since her peak of her work with Moroder and Bellotte it gave her a clear identity as a performer, the songs feel cohesive.  True, they fitted perfectly into the pop-dance pocket which Stock, Aitken and Waterman had found for themselves and the songs could have worked easily as well for Kylie or even Hazell Dean but the Summer Legend gave the whole thing a little extra sparkle and the end result was something really very special.  Stock, Aitken and Waterman were reputed to say that this was their favourite of the albums they worked on, and it is easy to see why.

donna6

 

The album’s star turn comes in at track three and is certainly indicative of both the best of Summer and SAW’s work.  “This Time I Know It’s For Real” is an absolute gem of a single.  Released a month or so before the album it soared up to number 3 in the UK, a position she had last attained ten years before with her vocal battle-to-the-death duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”.  It got to number 7 in the US, where there had been a certain amount of record label scurrying around before it appeared on Atlantic Records.  It saw her back at the top of the Billboard US Dance charts and was a big hit, in amongst other markets, Norway (#3). Ireland (#4), France (#6), Netherlands (#5) and Canada (#7).  It’s a joyous song which celebrates love and wants to proclaim it anyway possible.

donna7 

The CD opener “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt” followed its predecessor up the charts reaching number 7 in the UK.  It was a smaller hit in Europe (although got to number 3 in Ireland) and was not released as a single in the US.  It might have been tempting to put out a whole album of tracks aimed at the dance floor but there is variety here, with slower tracks such as the title track and “Breakaway” which was the track on the album which refused to die as it was released as a single not far off two years after the release of the album and made the UK Top 50. 

 donna9

Donna also made the UK Top 20 with the closer “Love’s About To Change My Heart”.  On the album this has a great instrumental coda which rounds things off perfectly which was not present on the single mix.  The album version was much better.  The slow start kicking into an uptempo track brought to mind what felt like a bit of a trademark from Donna’s golden era, present on some of her biggest hits from her golden era (“Last Dance”, “No More Tears”, “On The Radio”, “Dim All The Lights” and, especially, “Macarthur Park”).  This felt like a touch of genius from the production team who were showing their ability to update the sound and still please the fans of long-standing.

 donna8

They certainly got mileage from the denim jacket photoshoot!

Donna Summer and Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  It all seemed to fit together so perfectly as I had expected it to do right when I heard about the collaboration.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about it was the front cover art which saw Summer in Japanese Geisha make-up.  One gets the feeling that this was Summer’s idea and this is confirmed by credits which state she came up with the concept with photographer Lawrence Lawry.  Donna Summer was also a painter and the image has the feel of some of her artwork.

donna10

 Driven By The Music by Donna Summer

In the US label issues meant that sales were damaged by high levels of import purchases and by the time the album appeared on the Atlantic label a high chart placing seemed out of the question.  Having said that it still performed better than its predecessor.  Back in 1989 this seemed just like a taster for more good stuff to come.  Donna fitted into the Hit Factory set-up so well that I was ready for a long association with the producers.  A second album was proposed but due to difficulties with record label contracts never happened.  What felt like a return to previous chart glories was too short-lived.  This would also be the last essential Donna Summer release.  Her 1991 Atlantic album “Mistaken Identity” was sadly without much identity.  Returning to Mercury she put out a first class Christmas album (there’s only one essential Christmas album) in 1994 and her 2008 swansong “Crayons” was a big success in her homeland and certainly had its moments and could have paved the way for an even bigger career renaissance in her sixties.  Donna Summer sadly died aged 62 in 2012. 

 

Another Place And Time is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.82 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99.  In the US it is available for $16.99 and used for $15.93.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.  

100 Essential Books – Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)

 

images

bookworm

Thank you, Lucy Mangan. This book has brought me so much pleasure. I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops. I found myself yearning for a “snow day” so I could just stay at home and fully immerse myself in the author’s childhood.

Lucy Mangan truly deserves the title “Bookworm”. Reading, as a child, at every opportunity, eschewing social situations and getting through vast numbers of books makes her a true authority on children’s literature from a child’s perspective. I didn’t think I read as much when I was young as I do now but I realised I must have done as a sizeable number of books Lucy devoured I had also read. She is a few years younger than me but the world of juvenile publishing did not move as fast as it does today and many of the books in our libraries and schools in the 70’s had been published a generation before. I didn’t come from a home with a lot of books and whereas Lucy’s Dad provided her with a regular supply from when she was quite young, my Dad tended to do the same for me with comics. I have two older sisters so much of their abandoned reading material became mine, because as Lucy rightly points out as a child the bookworm will read whatever is available, so my knowledge of books involving characters such as “My Naughty Little Sister“, or set in girls boarding schools or about girls with ponies (the last being my sister Val’s staple reading diet) is probably greater than most of the men who will read this book.

Lucy is lucky enough to still possess her childhood books. She obviously didn’t have a mother so keen to donate “treasures” to jumble sales to either be sold for a few paltry pennies or occasionally bought back by myself.

Her memoir reinforces the importance of libraries. I can still remember the very first library book I borrowed, (it was a picture book version of “Peter And The Wolf” with a yellow cover. I took it out many times) so that experience obviously firmly imprinted itself in my West London mind as much as it did for Lucy on the South of the River in Catford.

Some of the titles alone brought back great memories – “Family From One End Street”, “Tom’s Midnight Garden”, “The Saturdays” “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “The Secret Garden”, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “Lion Witch & The Wardrobe”, The “William” novels were all great favourites with both Lucy and myself. (No mention of a couple of others I was obsessed by “Emil & The Detectives” and “Dr Doolittle”, maybe they were moving out of public favour by Lucy’s time).  She shares her strength of feelings against certain things, she had a limited tolerance of talking animals and fantasy (which saw off both “Babar The Elephant” and Tolkien) and does so in a way which is both stimulating and very funny.

Through the books she read we learn much about her family life which brings in a whole new level of richness into the work. I’m also totally with her on the subject of re-reading, which in my teaching days was often a bugbear for some parents who wanted their children to forge ever onwards to “harder” books. She puts this over masterfully;

“The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It’s like being able to ask a teacher or parent to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven’t understood with the absolute security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.”

As well as examining the past she looks to the future and to her own young son, not yet so fussed about reading and announces: “It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person.” I love that!

Expect perceptive insights on all the major players and books from the period – from the still very popular Enid Blyton (“She was national comfort reading at a time when mental and emotional resources were too depleted to deal with anything more complex”), the religious elements (which also completely passed me by as a child) of CS Lewis (“no child ever has or will be converted to Christianity by reading about Cair Paravel, Aslan, naiads, dryads, hamadryads, fauns and all the rest. If they notice it at all, they are far more likely to be narked than anything else. And they probably won’t notice it at all.”), the development of the first person narrative dating from E Nesbit’s “Story Of The Treasure Seekers” to her 80’s obsession with “Sweet Valley High” (that whole publishing phenomenon passed me by as I was no longer a child by then).  Her thoughts on the joys of reading pile up one after another in this book. I cannot imagine enjoying a book about children’s literature more. It is an essential read for all of us who like to look back and who like to feel we are still young at heart!

fivestars

Bookworm was published as a hardback by Square Peg in March 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.