Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review

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Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered at a touch of a button may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Park feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.

fourstars

 

Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

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63 Up (ITV 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Has it really been seven years?  Director Michael Apted’s social experiment trundled back onto our screens this week in what must surely be one of the last updates before the project is laid to rest.  In 1964 twenty-three year old Granada TV researcher Apted had the job of selecting children for a project which would over time look at how their beliefs and circumstances aged 7 would affect them over subsequent years.  I’m not sure many would have predicted that he would still be filming those children 55 years later.

63up2Michael Apted

Apted himself has since gone on to a glittering career in TV and film direction which has taken him to Hollywood and high profile movies such as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the James Bond “The World Is Not Enough” and yet despite his impressive CV, the “Up” series is the one which keeps pulling him back, inevitably, as he has a virtual life-long association with the participants.

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Celebrating at 21

At the time it started it was a revolutionary idea to use TV in this way.  Nowadays we are well used to seeing ordinary lives depicted through a daily myriad of TV documentaries but this would have not been the case back in 1964 , the fly-on-the-wall documentary was non-existent and nobody would have had a clue what “scripted reality” would be all about (truth be told, I still don’t).  With the Aristotelian tenet “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” as its raison d’etre the first programme looked at children from a range of different backgrounds.  1964 was definitely a different place and Britain was a class-obsessed male-centric society.  This did affect the balance of some of the questions which would seem inappropriate today.  The trio of boys from a public school were encouraged to map out their future yet expectations were lowered for the three East End working-class girls and in subsequent catch-ups tended to focus on boys and finding a man to marry leading to the always sparky Jackie to snap at Alsted when aged 21 for gearing his questions to them at a lower level.  As much as the whole thing was an experiment in class differences the question remains did those who started off with the more advantaged backgrounds fare better?  The answer to that would seem to be financially and professionally yes but these individuals would be those we as viewers would be least likely to want to find out about.

63up3From 7 Up

I suppose I would have been with this series since 21 Up, although in the early days an update would be preceded by repeats of the earlier shows so I feel like I know 7 Up very well.  This would take far too long to do now although ITV did show an appetite-whetting talking heads hour “7 Up & Me” which I didn’t bother watching as we see enough of those shows (a mainstay of Channel 5)  where the “celebrities” featured talk about something they’ve just been shown ten minutes before as if they’d known about it all their lives.  I might be misjudging it but I didn’t want to risk it (and I knew it had Eammon Holmes in it!).

63up563 Up-pers Bruce, Sue and Tony with photos of their former selves!

I did watch all three episodes of 63 Up shown on consecutive nights.  Taking the group as a whole there’s not been as much change for them individually in the past seven years, they are more likely to be contemplating retirement, spending more time looking after grandchildren and have health issues (in farmer’s son turned physics professor Nick’s case very serious health issues).

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ITV could have done more to prepare us for the death of one of the participants Lynn “I want to work in Woolworths” who passed away suddenly at the age of 58.  The way in which this was handled made for effective television but built up the shock for those of us who feel like we’ve known these people for our whole lives.  One other participant, Suzy, has decided that 56 was as far down the line as she wanted to go and pulled out of the programme (as others have done along the way).  It was interesting to hear the 63 year olds talking about the emotional upheaval the show causes them every 7 years as the whole media spotlight and the need to reflect back on their pasts kicks in again, but many said how valuable to them the whole experience had been.

 

Tony  and Neil at 7

The highlights?  The long-lasting bond between children’s home pals Symon and Paul here shown in a Christmas holiday together with their wives in Paul’s long-time home Australia and the updates on the two characters we most remember; Neil, who went from a delightfully confident 7 year old to homelessness, mental health issues and a resurgence through politics and religion in what has traditionally become the most traumatic sequences in the updates (and proof that Aristotle wasn’t always right) and East-Ender Tony who the programme makers chose to lead 63 Up, who was incidentally always my Dad’s favourite and who would talk about him as if he was one of our family as Tony progressed from a mischievous 7 year old who wanted to be a jockey or a cab driver to becoming a trainee jockey and then cab driver.  I think the pull of the “Up” series is that it encourages us to take stock and look back on our lives, our pasts, presents and futures alongside the participants.  (I’ve actually been thinking about life beyond retirement this week which I don’t think I’ve ever done before!) and this is why it is such consistently fascinating and important television.
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63 Up was first shown on ITV on Tuesday 4th- Thursday 6th June inclusive at 9pm.  It is currently available on the ITV Hub catch-up services

The Palace Of Curiosities – Rosie Garland (2013)

 

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A new author for me, this was recommended by my friend Tanith, who appreciates the weird and wonderful in literature and with its on-cover comment from Sarah Waters and comparisons to Angela Carter this was a very appropriate book choice for me.

This debut passed me by in 2013 and Rosie Garland has produced two more critically acclaimed novels since. I was very much hoping for something along the lines of Waters and Carter both of whom have produced novels I have really loved, with maybe a touch of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” thrown in. I was a little concerned it may be reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus”, a novel I did not really warm to and was disappointed by. I needn’t have worried.

Set in Victorian London it follows the narrative of two characters, Eve, whose heavy body hair has led het towards the freak show where she is billed as “The Lion Faced Girl” and Abel, a man plagued with memory problems which leaves the past a mystery to him and the ability to heal himself, which may suggest immortality. Both are outsiders unable to function normally in society because of their differences and end up as participants in Josiah Arroner’s Palace Of Curiosities. They are drawn to one another yet there is so much keeping them apart.

I did take a little while to be drawn into this novel and it was initially Abel’s account which got me the most interested. Working as a slaughter-man and living with a group of other men in a cellar, his predicament of struggling with the even recent past I found fascinating but once he and Eve, together with a few other memorable characters found their way to the exploitational Arroner I became full involved.

The author would be good at horror writing as she is able to gradually notch up the oddness allowing things to turn very dark for a while. This was done with subtlety and was very effective. She does relieve the pressure in the last sections of the novel to bring matters to a desirable conclusion.

This is a very solid debut. It didn’t grip me as much as the very best of Sarah Waters, Angela Carter nor even Laura Carlin whose 2018 Gothic debut “The Wicked Cometh” was such a delight but I will certainly seek out this author’s other titles and feel that I have found another voice which should continue to bring me much pleasure in her subsequent novels.

fourstars

The Palace Of Curiosities was published by Harper Collins in 2013.

Lux- Elizabeth Cook (Scribe 2019)

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A deft melding of the biblical and the historical, Elizabeth Cook has as her central figure King David in this novel of three sections.  From the boy hero slaying Goliath against the odds to the successful King who becomes morally wayward when he views, from a distance, one of his subjects Bathsheba, washing herself.   Exercising his right to possess he impregnates the previously barren Bathsheba and either has to get her husband Uriah to take responsibility for her condition or get him permanently out of the way.

 This first section “Ark” is the most successful as far as I was concerned, the biblical retelling largely from the Book of Samuel feels both fresh and familiar and with the miraculous powers of the Ark of The Covenant present in the background it gave the writing a feel of a quality fantasy novel.   

 In the second section whilst Bathsheba cares for her new-born a prophecy from Nathan leads David to contemplate and atone for his wrongdoings in a cave.  The third section “Poet” shifts to Thomas Wyatt, who translated the psalms attributed to King David as he watches his old friend Anne Boleyn adjust to her position as Queen and faces his own spells of contemplation in the Tower of London.

 There is no doubt that the author weaves her tale as beautifully as the tapestries Henry VIII purchases which depict the tale of Bathsheba.  The language has a poetic force which impresses.  I felt it a little lacking as a novel as the subject matter just didn’t engage me consistently.  I didn’t feel an emotional response which I would have hoped for in such a novel so there was a bit of a mis-match here for me.  It is quality writing throughout although I would have appreciated a closer tying in of the third section with the first two.  I felt that I read and absorbed the writing and followed the plot-lines yet the novel just wasn’t for me.  I haven’t really felt this way since I read Ali Smith’s “How To Be Both” which ended up a major award winner so Elizabeth Cook is in very good company here.

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Lux was published in hardback  by Scribe in April 2019.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

This Brutal House – Niven Govinden (Dialogue 2019)

 

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I’ve been itching to read this since I first heard about its impending publication in a number of 2019 previews.  This is the fifth novel for British author Govinden, which was a surprise as I read the novel assuming it was an American work.

Set around the time of the New York vogue balls which had their heyday in the late 80’s/early 90’s this book probably has the documentary film “Paris Is Burning” (1990) as its strongest influence.  (If you haven’t seen this catch it on Netflix- it is outstanding).  Since I read of this book in January we have had the UK transmission of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” (BBC2) which was also very strong and touches very similar ground.

 The vogue ball scene, although underground, has had a strong cultural link in the decades which have followed it influencing fashion and music particularly Madonna and “Rupaul’s Drag Race”.  Central to the set up were the “houses” who competed in various dance/drag categories to win trophies and who were dominated by the “mothers” who provided support and often food and accommodation for those lost in NYC in return for their participation in the contests in order to raise their particular house to the desired “legendary” status.

 The balls may have shifted into the background in this novel but those who participate in them are paramount.  A group of “mothers” stage a silent protest on the steps of City Hall because of official incompetence at investigating disappearances of their “children”.  Teddy, one of the few characters to be named in the book, is both one of the children made good by education and a City Hall employee placed into the middle of this situation.  And plot-wise that is largely it.

 It’s written with great energy and is direct and forthright throughout becoming at times almost sermon-like, an intense flow of the perceptions of Teddy and the collective group of mothers.  As well as giving this novel its impetus it does also at times cause it to drag as there is not enough variation in the narrative style.  The vogue-caller (think Pray Tell in “Pose”) has his section but it is merely a list of categories and pages of little more than the word “work” which would normally have me hurling the book across the room but which here due to the rhythmic nature of the piece (and because I find the subject matter fascinating) Govinden gets away with it.  I think I would have welcomed another plot thread perhaps based upon the balls themselves in a more naturalistic style which would add greater potency to the elevated language of the narrative.

 This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste but often if I have high expectations of a book before reading it they can be completely dashed but I found myself more or less involved throughout.  It’s a story about outsiders attempting to conform but seeking their own refuge through their own special kind of family grouping and of throwing shade and shapes on the dancefloor.

fourstars

This Brutal House is published by Dialogue in hardback on 6th June.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 88- Rock N Roll Love Songs

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Rock N Roll Love Songs (Dino 1990)

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The first in the series of what I believe to be two double CD sets was issued a year earlier than the equally essential “More Rock N Roll Love Songs“. Between them with their forty tracks apiece they have pretty much everything I might want to listen to in the world of rock n roll love songs with this one having the edge in terms of quality of the tracks. The follow-up had the odd track by British artists but here it is American all the way. Once again with these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find the tracks listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour for what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings
CD1
1.Blue Velvet – Bobby Vinton (1963) (UK #2- 1990, US#1)
Kicking off this nostalgia-fest of 40 tracks is another artist who like The Righteous Brothers, Ben E King, Jackie Wilson amongst others had to wait decades before exposure on other media gave them a belated huge hit. Teen heartthrob Vinton had to wait twenty-seven years for his US chart-topper to almost do the same again in the UK. This was after being featured in a television advert and its earlier presence in the 1986 David Lynch film of the same name. The song itself heralded from a decade earlier when it was a Top 20 hit for crooner Tony Bennett. There’s a wistful, innocent approach from Vinton which still sounds good today. Vinton due to his family background became known as “The Polish Prince” and was a much bigger star than we remember today scoring 30 US Top 40 hits including three more number ones. His hit career in the US spanned from his first chart-topper “Roses Are Red” in 1962 to a cover of “Beer Barrel Polka” in 1975, having hits throughout the time UK artists were dominating the US charts. UK response to this artist was far more muted with only his first US chart-topper making the UK Top 30 until the re-release of this song.

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2. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow- The Shirelles (1961) (UK#4, US#1)
Another group whose importance in the history of pop has been overshadowed by later acts such as The Supremes. They were highly influential to the myriad of girl groups who came after and this is perhaps the most influential girl-group track of all. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King this gem of a song was the second of the girls’ twelve US Top 40 hits and the first of their two number 1’s (Their second “Soldier Boy” was featured on “More Rock N Roll Love Songs“. This is their finest moment with the insecurity of teen love evident in Shirley Owens’ vocal.

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3. Only The Lonely- Roy Orbison (1960) (UK#1, US#2)
4. All I Have To Do Is Dream – Everly Brothers (1958) (UK#1, US#1)
5. Why Do Fools Fall In Love – Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (1956) (UK#1, US #6)
This early Rock N Roll UK chart-topper was out of place in the company of fellow UK 1956 alumni Ronnie Hilton, Winifred Atwell, Doris Day and Anne Shelton. This was rare proof that music had moved on since the war years and must have been a disturbing listen for many tuning into the wireless as 13 year old Frankie’s rough-at-the-edges voice tore into this song written by himself in tandem with George Goldner. The Teenagers, an early example of a multi-racial group brought to Goldner a song called “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?” which the producer and owner of Gee Records adapted to something he was working on. Singling out Lymon as composer led to later court action from other members of the group but it was not until 1992 after the release of this CD that they were credited, that was until a court order overturned the decision because it had taken too long to get to court. Lymon, himself of course, by this time was long dead (at the age of 25 from a heroin overdose). But back in 1956 this must have looked like a new beginning for music, the hope of a very youthful gifted and talented singer/songwriter leading a group of youngsters of African-American and Puerto Ricans. Their material after this was just not as good, despite the fabulous title of 1957’s “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent”. By the end of 1957 the hits had dried up.

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6. The Great Pretender – The Platters (1956) (UK#5, US#1)

7. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do– Neil Sedaka (1962) (UK#7, US#1)

8. Teenager In Love – Dion & The Belmonts (1959) (UK#28, US#5)

9. He’s So Fine – The Chiffons (1963) (UK#16, US#1)

10.Tears On My Pillow – Little Anthony & The Imperials (1958) (US#4)

11.Love Letters – Ketty Lester (1962) (UK#4, US#5)

This lady had a lovely voice, shame most people only heard it on this track which was a cover of a pop standard dating from the 1940’s.  Lack of subsequent success meant that she gave up singing professionally by the 1970’s and turned to acting, spending six years on “Little House On The Prairie” as Hester-Sue after which there was a gospel album in 1984 and nothing since then.  Still going strong at 84 this artist who was born Revoyda Frierson should have become a much bigger star.  For sophisticated pop at its best check out her 30 track “Greatest Hits” collection available on Spotify.

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12. Since I Don’t Have You – The Skyliners (1959) (US#12)

13.Raining In My Heart – Buddy Holly (1958) – Amazed to find out this was never an A-side single and so no chart positions.

14.Rhythm Of The Rain – Cascades (1963) – UK#5, US#3)

15.Venus- Frankie Avalon (1959) (UK#16, US#1)

16.It’s In His Kiss – Betty Everett (1964) (US#6, UK#34 -1968)

Also known as “The Shoop Shoop Song” this launched Mississippi born gospel vocalist Betty’s pop career.  It didn’t chart originally in the UK and a later single a duet with Jerry Butler fared one place better for her later on in 1964 in the US.  In 1964 there was little room in the UK charts for US acts and it wasn’t until Betty scored a 1968 Top 30 hit here with “Getting’ Mighty Crowded” that this song was re-released and achieved minimal chart action.  The most famous version of course is by Cher, who recorded it for her movie “Mermaids” and scored a small US Top 40 hit but topped the charts for the first time as a solo artist in the UK in 1991.  The best version remains the 1975  UK#6 hit for the hugely under-rated Linda Lewis who steams through the song with extraordinary energy and gusto and an incredible vocal performance.

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17. Hey Paul – Paul & Paula (1963) (UK#8,US#1)

18. Chapel Of Love – The Dixie Cups (1964) (UK#22, US#1)

19. Duke Of Earl – Gene Chandler (1962) (US#1)

20. Goodnight Sweetheart – The Spaniels (1954)

CD 2

1.Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart – Gene Pitney (1967) (UK#5)

2. Born Too Late – The Poni Tails (1958) (UK#5, US#7)

US one-hit wonders but did make the UK charts a year later with “Early To Bed”, proof that the 1950’s teenager was just growing up too soon drooling over an older boy who wouldn’t even look the way of Ohio trio Toni Cistone, Karen Topinka and Patti McCabe.  This was originally a B-side to a track called “Come On Johnny Dance With Me” which has been long forgotten.  Not this track, which regularly turns up as a perfect illustration of the adolescent experience.  To modern ears there’s something a little creepy about the whole set-up here.

ponitails

 

3. To Know Him Is To Love Him – The Teddy Bears (1958) (UK#2, US#1)

Talking about creepy, this must be one of the only songs based on the epitaph of a headstone in this case the father of song composer and Teddy Bear member Phil Spector, sorry if you didn’t know this because now that you do it will always make this sound a little macabre which might be a fitting opening to the Phil Spector story which has more than its fair share of disturbing moments.  There’s sweetness and darkness in this track, which is a heady combination indeed.

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Phil Spector is on the left

 

4. The Wanderer – Dion (1961) (UK#10, US#2)

By 1961 Dion had lost his Belmonts and was going it alone which gave him his only appearance in the UK Top 10 (and was also a reissued #16 hit in 1976).  In his homeland it stalled at number 2 whereas his previous hit, the inferior “Runaround Sue” had given him his only chart-topper.  An early mention of the tattoo in a pop song I’ve always liked the lines “I tear open my shirt I’ve got Rosie on my chest”.  Well, I’ve always assumed it was a tattoo, I suppose poor old Dion could have been suffering from scarlet fever!

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5. Poetry In Motion – Johnny Tillotson (1960) (UK#1,US#2)

6. Donna- Ritchie Valens (1958) (UK#29, US#2)

7. Singing The Blues – Guy Mitchell (1956) (UK#1, US#1)

8. Oh! Carol – Neil Sedaka (1959) (UK#3, US#9)

Sedaka’s second hit on both sides of the Atlantic (different songs charted for his debut chart appearance), this was really the song which established this New Yorker singer/songwriter on a track composed alongside long time collaborator Howard Greenfield. It launched a chart career in the US which lasted into the 1980’s and led to songs written for many other artists. When there were quiet times he focused on different markets, scoring an Australian number 1 after a lean period at home and for a time made his home in the UK when he signed to Elton John’s Rocket label. In 1972 a reissue of this track saw him back in the UK Top 20. Dedicated to his old high school girlfriend Carole King, this was a result of Sedaka carefully analysing what made a hit record when it looked like he was about to be dropped by his record label for not delivering hits. Now entering his 80’s he is still going strong.

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9. I’m Sorry – Brenda Lee (1960) (UK#12, US#1)

10. Sealed With A Kiss- Bryan Hyland (1962) (UK#3, US#3)

11. True Love Ways – Buddy Holly (1960) (UK#25)

12. Diana – Paul Anka (1957) (UK#1, US#1)

One of the great scene-setting opening couplets in popular music “I’m so young and you’re so old/This my darling I’ve been told”. Anka is here lusting over a cougar in this his debut hit which unsurprisingly livened up staid old 1957 by topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Canadian Anka, like Sedaka, then set off on a chart career which lasted decades and as a songwriter he is versatile and impressive. He must have made a fortune by penning the English lyrics to “My Way” and was still on the charts as late as 2014 as a composition he had penned with Michael Jackson back in the 80’s “Love Never Felt So Good” became a posthumous duet hit with Justin Timberlake. Certainly not afraid to take risks (have you heard his swing version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?) Anka is another of those artists whose importance in the history of popular music has been under-stated and this is the track which started everything off.

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13. The End Of The World – Skeeter Davis (1963) (UK#18, US#2)

14. Just Walking In The Rain – Johnny Ray (1956) (UK#1, US#2)

Ray’s highly emotive drama-laden vocal style led to a raft of nicknames my favourite of which is “The Nabob Of Sob”. Pretty much almost forgotten now but really induced mass hysteria in his early days from adoring fans and was a much bigger star in the UK than in his homeland. He made hearing aids cool decades before Morrissey. This was his first US hit but he had already notched up a massive 14 Top 20 UK hits by the time this, his second UK number 1 was released. By the dawn of the 60’s the chart career was over, rumours about his sexuality undoubtedly damaged his career in the US.

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15. It’s My Party – Lesley Gore (1963) (UK#9, US#1)

Another artist whose career probably suffered because of sexuality, Gore found it hard to live up to the jilted teenager looking for a boy to love as set out in this debut hit. A classic song which even today you can’t listen to without feeling outrage towards Johnny and Judy for doing this at Lesley’s party. There’s a sense of relief when you know that her follow-up US hit was “Judy’s Turn To Cry”- she soon got what she deserved! It started off a string of hits which went on to the mid 60’s although in the UK she only bothered the charts on one more occasion. In the 80’s she got an Oscar nomination for her song-writing work on the “Fame” movie soundtrack and after coming out as a lesbian in 2005 (not a surprise to anyone who knew her as she never hid her sexuality) she became something of an ambassador for LGBTQ issues in the US until her death in 2015 leaving behind her partner Lois who she had been with for 33 years.

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16. Only You- The Platters (1955) (UK#5, US#5) – In the UK this was a double A sided track with “The Great Pretender” also on this CD.

17. It’s All In The Game – Tommy Edwards (1958) (UK#1,US#1)

18. When Will I Be Loved – Everly Brothers (1960) (UK#4, US#8)

19. Baby It’s You – The Shirelles (1962) (US#8)

20. It’s Over – Roy Orbison (1964) (UK#1, US#9)

And as Roy hits that last dramatic note it is indeed over but here are 40 classics of the late 50’s and early 60’s. The tracks tend to be a little earlier than those on the also essential follow-up “More Rock N Roll Love Songs” and as they were the first pick of the bunch maybe just a little more predictable choices, the songs you might expect to hear on such a compilation but then that is also because so many of them are classics that have stood the test of time. A number of these tracks are over 60 years old for goodness sake! I try to put that into context sometimes, when I was a kid growing up in the 70’s it is like listening to music from the 1910’s which nobody did in those days!

Rock N Roll Love Songs is currently available on Amazon in the UK for £4.63 new and from £0.67 used. It can be downloaded for £7.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fourstars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fourstars

Paperbacks From Hell was published in 2017 by Quirk Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fourstars

 

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

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

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

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

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

southbankshowMelvyn Bragg and Jed Mercurio

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

line of duty

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

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

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

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

fourstars

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