Awful Auntie – David Walliams (2014) – A Kid-Lit Review

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It’s been a couple of years since I read David Walliams’ “The Demon Dentist” and in that time his reputation as a writer (and his book sales) have continued to soar.  Just the other week the Duchess Of Cornwall’s Bookshelves Project celebrated her 70th birthday with a list of the UK’s favourite children’s books.  It’s quite a wide-ranging list and Walliams has two titles on it- neither of which I’ve read so I’ve obviously got more treats in store.

I thought “Demon Dentist” was “up there with the best of Dahl” and had everything that a children’s book should have. “Awful Auntie” was his next publication so it might be hoped he’d pushed the quality boundaries further.  He hasn’t really and if “DD” is up with the best of Dahl (that’s “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “The Witches” and “Matilda”) then this is nestling in with the mid-range of “The Twits” and “George’s Marvelous Medicine”.  I feel this are appropriate comparisons as they both share a one-dimensional overly sadistic undertone which stops this feeling as well rounded as its predecessor.

Set in the dilapidated Saxby Hall in 1933 the twelve year old main character Stella awakes to find her life has changed.  Her parents are no longer around and she is being held captive by the monstrous Aunt Alberta, a character without even the slightest drop of humanity who has as a side-kick a giant owl.  Agatha wants to claim the Hall as her own and is prepared to murder all around her to get it.  Stella has to use the Hall’s past to attempt to thwart her Aunt’s plans.  Such misery heaped on Stella becomes disturbing more than funny.  Walliams attempts to lighten the atmosphere by having her step temporarily away from life-threatening situations to make some mundane comments to her captor seems jarring to adult readers but most children will no doubt lap this up.  I think there’s also an over-reliance on lists to bring out the humour (Walliams does do this well as did Dahl) as here it does not add much to the flow of the novel, which highlights that the plot is sparser this time around.  The Tony Ross illustrations are great fun and would add much to the enjoyment, especially the plans and maps.

Children will relish guessing the twists in the plots.  He uses a small cast here and at least one character (Gibbons the ancient butler) is under-used.  There’s actually a complaint letter at the back of the book from recurring character, shop-owner Raj, who is moaning about his non-appearance in the book because of its 1930s setting and I thought that was written with more sparkle than a chunk of the preceding 400 pages.  “Awful Auntie” did fall a little short of my high expectations.  I feel that “Demon Dentist” is a better balanced book and has the feel of a lasting children’s classic whilst this over-emphasised dark slapstick to cover up Aunt Agatha’s evil machinations.  I expect Walliams to be outrageous but I think he over-eggs it here and loses something in the process. Kids, however, are a different breed and the continuing popularity of things like the film “Home Alone” suggest that this kind of slapstick-under-peril is perennially popular and the 1451 (at time of writing) 5 star reviews on Amazon would suggest I might be a little out of touch here but I just think he’s done and will do better.

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Awful Auntie was published by Harper Collins in 2014

The To Be Watched List – A What I Will Be Watching Review

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This week I was geared up to review the opening episode of Series 7 of “Game Of Thrones” which exploded onto Sky Atlantic.  It’s been plugged for what feels like months on Sky and was such a big event that even people who have never watched Sky must have been aware of its return.  I have watched every episode, but saw the review writing as a challenge as there’s so many plot-lines and characters that I take (most) of it in while I’m watching but tend to forget quite a lot soon afterwards.  Visually, it’s stunning and like no other television series ever made and I do always enjoy it, but I’m not a super-fan who knows every little detail and my review could end up just upsetting the super-fans if I get things wrong.

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I prepared myself for this by watching “Game Of Thrones- The Story So Far” on Sky Atlantic, a 90 minute re-cap narrated by Sue Perkins and whilst there were a few things I’d forgotten I actually surprised myself by recalling much of what had gone on.  It’s the unpredictability of the series which can throw you off-kilter.  Seemingly minor characters become important, major characters get killed off, and plot lines develop from all directions which demands attentive viewing.  I felt I was ready to give you my verdict on the opening episode and sat down to watch.

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But I fell asleep.  This had nothing to do with the episode (although it was one of the slightly too dark to totally make out what was going on scenes which did it).  It’s been a busy week at work and although I know Arya got some splendid revenge for the massacre of much of her family, that Ed Sheeran sang a song and Daenerys sailed into somewhere I’m not totally sure where.  I’m going to have to re-watch but as it’s not going to fit in with review deadlines I’ll have to hang my head in shame and feel like an old man.  I know I’m  probably not too far away from being my Dad who used to wake up from armchair TV slumbers after the channel had been changed and we were watching something else, him thinking it was the same programme with increasingly bewilderment as to what had been going on.

It’s actually the second time this week this has happened.  The night before I had rented overnight from the library “Hidden Figures” which I’d really been looking forward to seeing ever since I saw a trailer when I went to see “La La Land”.  Starring Taraji P Henson, who I adore in “Empire”, this based on a true story tale of three African-American women working in the early 60’s at NASA at the Langley base in Hampton Virginia seemed right up my street and I was really enjoying it until Taraji’s math genius character, Katherine Johnson, began writing long sums on a blackboard and it was if I was back in double Maths and, like the perfect sedative that used to be, I fell asleep.

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Which is why I’ve decided to use what’s recorded on my Sky Planner as my To Be Watched list (not to be confused with my To Be Read List- which is massive) to take a look at what I should  be watching over the coming weeks, should I stay awake long enough.

There’s the last episode of ITV’s “The Loch”, which began really well and I was delighted to see Siobhan Finneran in a leading role.  I had high hopes of this as another “Broadchurch” turning the Loch Ness area into a must-see for television watchers in the West Bay location boosted tourism for “Broadchurch” voyeurs.  It looked just as stunning, but the series for me didn’t sustain it’s very good opening couple of episodes.  It’s still good but not the must-see tv event I had initially anticipated.

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There’s three US series shown on Sky that have episodes stacked up on series link.  I’ve nearly worked my way through Series 5 of “Elementary”.  This feels like a good old fashioned detective series, it’s wobbled slightly over the years but its back as strong as it ever was.  Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr Watson in modern day New York are a great combination.  I know I’m in a tiny minority here, but I prefer Miller’s Sherlock to Benedict Cumberbatch’s.  There I’ve said it………. “Quantico” is midway through its second series on the planner.  I didn’t watch all the first but rejoined it for the second because Russell Tovey was joining the cast.  It’s all over the place, seemed to change tack drastically a few episodes ago and it’s really only Tovey (who’s very good in it) and the very attractive cast which is headed by ex Miss World Priyanka Chopra that’s keeping me tuning in as I really don’t know what’s going on.  I also have ten (gulp!) episodes of the re-booted “Hawaii 5-0” to watch.  This is probably past its prime now, it has always has the odd duff episode but there are now fewer quality episodes to make up for that.  The news that the leading Hawaiian actors have decided to leave over pay inequality does not bode well for the future.

When I’ve got a good few hours to spare I may also catch up on the Channel 4 school based drama “Ackley Bridge”.  Watched the first episode, liked the cast more than anything else but haven’t got round to catching up with the rest of the series.  It features Paul Nicholls who has had his own personal drama this week after being trapped under a waterfall for three days with a broken leg in a Thai jungle- a real life story more dramatic and chilling than anything he’s appeared in on TV.  It sounds like a long road to recovery for him.  Those of us that have enjoyed his performances in “Eastenders”, “Clapham Junction”, “Canterbury Tales”, “Goodbye Charlie Bright”, the very under-rated “A Thing Called Love” and even as  a posh doctor with Suranne Jones in the weirdly casted “Harley Street” wish him a speedy return to good health.

Paul Nicholls in “Ackely Bridge” and being rescued in Thailand

There’s another poignant presence on my Sky Planner.  We heard this week that Britain’s Got Talent winner Pudsey has died leaving owner Ashleigh Butler and his legion of fans heartbroken.  I’ve got his full length movie appearance in “Pudsey The Dog- The Movie (2014) which was shown on TV a few weeks ago to watch.  I know reviews were atrocious and that’s there probably as much CGI as real dog.  I’ve got to be home alone to watch it- the other half drawing a line over this one but I’m hoping it will be a tribute to this extraordinary dog who just seemed to love to perform.  I might need to wait a few weeks to watch it though to avoid sniffling through it.

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Ashleigh and Pudsey – a true showbiz trouper

 

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)

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A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.

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The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

A Clubbable Woman – Reginald Hill (1970) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Amazingly, this is my first introduction to Reginald Hill and his Yorkshire set Dalziel and Pascoe series.  An acclaimed BBC1 adaptation ran from 1996 to 2007 and starred Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as the two Police Officers likened in this first novel to Laurel and Hardy but I managed never to see a single episode.  Reginald Hill died in 2012.  He wrote 24 Dalziel and Pascoe novels over a period of 39 years (plus a couple of novellas) as well as his Joe Sixsmith novels and a considerable number of standalones under his own name and as Patrick Ruell, Dick Marland and Charles Underhill.  A prolific British writer and I’ve never read anything by him before. Shame on me.

I’m putting this right with the first of a set I purchased from The Book People at one of their too good to miss prices. It was first published in 1970 and it does feel like it.  Do you think crime novels date as well as other genres?  I’m not convinced and it’s often because of attitudes.  Firstly, the title made me feel as if I was a misogynist just by choosing to read it and I found myself carefully positioning it when reading it on the train to make sure people didn’t see it.  This is because of the implications I take from the title that some women deserve what they get and that there are those who can be deemed “clubbable”.

We are in Northern, male, working-class territory here with its rugby club setting and two rather unenlightened police officers.  The contrast between the two, DS Andrew Dalziel nicknamed “The Bruiser” by other members of the rugby club is very definitively of the “old school” of policing and the university educated Sergeant Peter Pascoe, represents the future as it was seen in 1970, anyway.  It’s not too far into the novel before you can appreciate that the tensions between the two would be ripe with future potential to last for a number of books.

Despite their differences, their views on women aren’t that far apart and that is representative of this part of society in the time the novel was written.  They both seem to see pick-up potential with women in inappropriate situations.  Hill has written a police procedural which flows well.  He does protect us somewhat as readers (we never get to know what was in an “obscene” letter sent to one of the characters.  I can’t imagine that many twenty-first century crime writers sparing our blushes).

The wife of a long-standing member of a rugby club is murdered and everyone becomes a suspect.  I didn’t see the twists coming but didn’t feel totally satisfied by the conclusion.  Characterisation is strong. I felt that even the minor characters felt real which suggests very good things for this series.  I don’t feel that this is going to be the strongest of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels but I can be a stickler for chronological order and despite misgivings when I picked up the book it really was the only place to start.

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A Clubbable Woman was published by Harper Collins in 1970.

100 Essential CDs – Number 51 – Pet Shop Boys – Introspective

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Introspective- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1988) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position -34

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Just over a year after their essential “Actually” Pet Shop Boys released their third studio album.  It featured just six tracks giving them a chance to explore more extended dance-orientated material.  It was a bit of a risk, commercially, with buyers probably looking for value for money and with fans being likely to own at least one of the tracks already released as a single, but it paid off with another double platinum album in the UK, becoming worldwide not just their biggest selling album up to this time but their best.

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“Introspective’s ” concept  was to put out what were in essence 12” mixes on one album.  The tracks that were released as singles were put out in shorter formats.  The title refers to the lyrics as in reality musically, these were certainly not introspective as they were out and out dance tracks.  On paper it might have seem rather hastily put together, and was hot on the heels of “Actually” which was still selling at the time of this follow-up’s release.  Three of the tracks had been recorded by other artists, one had been a B side of a previous PSB single and only two were produced specifically for the album.  It does, however, work magnificently and bringing in Trevor Horn for production duties lead to an over-the-topness which lays beautifully alongside the occasionally quite sombre lyrics.

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Trevor Horn (a little earlier than his work with PSB)

The opening track sets the tempo and feel of the album magnificently.  “Left To My Own Devices is grandiose from its first notes- a violin sweep to a full orchestra with an operatic female voice singing what sounds remarkably like the word “arse” before the club beat kicks in.  This was the first time the PSB worked with a full orchestra. Both musically and lyrically this is superb.  The full-to-the-gills production cuts into Neil’s impassive rap and lyrics such as;

I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy

In a world of my own at the back of the garden

I didn’t want to compete, or play out on the street

For in a secret life I was a Roundhead general.

The song is perhaps best remembered for its mid section when after  a particularly lively orchestral flourish it empties out for Neil’s spoken;

I was faced with a choice at a difficult age

Would I write a book? Or should I take to the stage?

But in the back of my head I heard distant feet

Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat

 These four lines seem to sum up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys to me.  The questioning outsider keeping their options open with the urge to be just fabulous.  For those of us who hear Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, I salute you!

From this point in the track the orchestral arrangement builds further in this stunning Trevor Horn/Stewart Lipson production which sounds all at the same time like classical music, movie theme and a great disco track.  It’s eight minutes and sixteens seconds of unadulterated pleasure.  Harps and handclaps compete before the opera voice returns.  It all builds to a rousing climax and can only be really finished off with a thunderstorm.   This track reputedly took months to produce and listening to it you can tell why.  As an edited single it reached number 4 in the UK charts, but you really need to hear the whole thing.  It did slightly better in Ireland where it reached the top 3 and made the top 10, in amongst other markets, Finland, Germany, Poland and Spain.

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“I Want A Dog” had seen life as the B-side to the single “Rent” but here is extended to six minutes and fifteen seconds in a Frankie Knuckles remix.  It’s a song about someone, who, basically, wants a dog.  There’s a yearning for company throughout which always pulls at the heart-strings perhaps exemplified by the line “When I get back to my small flat/I want to hear somebody bark”. It could be trite if it wasn’t a kicking house track set up by its lengthy instrumental introduction. In fact the first line almost seems like an anti-climax after what has been building up, but you’re soon sucked into the song.  “Don’t want a cat/scratching its claws all over my Habitat”. I’ve always taken that last word to refer to furniture bought at the shop of the same name, hence the capital letter. It’s not my favourite track on the album but it always brings about a poignant smile.

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“Domino Dancing” is the second of the two tracks recorded specifically for the album and was also the second single released prior to the album’s release.  There’s a great Latin flavour in this track from the keyboard work.  Once again this is the longer 7 mins 40 version of the song which as a single reached number 7 in the UK charts.  That Latin flavour got the thumbs up from Spain where it topped the charts as it did in Finland and made the Top 5 in amongst other regions, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland and became their last Top 20 US hit reaching number 18.  An autumn release may explain its slightly muted response in the UK as it feels like a heat of the summer track, released a month or so earlier this could have captured the feel of the holiday season.  Mixed with Wham’s “Club Tropicana” you’d taste the Pina Colada and smell the Ambre Solaire.

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It’s off to the parade for a marching band intro to “I’m Not Scared” which had already done the business earlier in 1988 when the version by Patsy Kensit led Eighth Wonder became their biggest hit reaching number 7 in the UK.  Lyrically, I have no idea. there’s actors on the street and that dog Neil wanted two tracks ago seem to be about to attack. There’s an unreal urban sense of menace to this track which is just a little scary and on the PSB version the sound of jackboots marching in the street is pervasive and a little chilling.

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Eighth Wonder

 Cover version next and it’s a great one.  Released as a single this became the Christmas number one of 1987 released in the midst of the tracks from their previous album and taken from the PSB movie “It Couldn’t Happen Here” which I’ve covered in my review of “Actually”. “Always On My Mind” is a slightly cheesy song which is perfect fare anyway for the boys but here it’s toughened by slipping into “In My House” an extended house workout.  Another track which is really sublime in its full length version- here its comes in just over nine minutes.  The edited single also topped the charts in Canada, Finland, Gemany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.  It is one of the duo’s biggest ever singles worldwide and in 2014 in a BBC poll was voted the best cover version of all time.

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Album closer “It’s Alright” is at nine minutes 24 the PSB’s longest ever album track, and truth be told, it does go on a bit.  It’s another cover version this time of a Chicago House track recorded by Sterling Void which the boys heard on a compilation album.  The original, produced by legendary House producer Marshall Jefferson did become a small hit once “Introspective” was released (#53 teamed as a double A Side with “Runaway Girl”).  The Trevor Horn production on the CD is impressive but by this time this listener is beginning to feel that he has over-indulged slightly on the club sounds (not that bad a thing to happen, but slight rhythm fatigue is setting in by this point).  As a UK single it reached number 5 and made the Top 3 in Germany and Ireland.  It’s an optimistic, reassuring end to what have been some quite sombre moments lyrically on the album but it lacks the magic of some PSB lyrics to put it amongst their greatest tracks.

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I think the reason I love this album so much is its combination of PSB disaffection with a more strident production sense than we had ever heard before.  The group are morphing from a bedroom based recording duo to a pair who can take all musical forms in their stride and give it the Pet Shop Boys feel.  It really is “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”, but it is also a lot more and from this release you can appreciate that these boys would be able to go on to score movies and write operas.  It’s arty, accessible, exhausting and great fun.  This would be their second but not their last essential release.

The chosen video is for the single mix of “Left To My Own Devices”.  You’ll have to dig out the album version to hear the opera woman sing “arse”!

 

Introspective  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99 and used from £0.72. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $16.99 new and used from $1.99 and as a download for $11.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

Man’s World -Rupert Smith (Arcadia 2010) – A Rainbow Read

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This weekend the Isle Of Wight, where I live,  is due to celebrate its first ever Gay Pride event.  These take place now all over the UK and apparently the Isle Of Wight represented the largest population without one so it is undoubtedly time to put that right.  It will also be the first place in the world to have it set mainly on the beach with the hovercraft (Hovertravel being one of the main sponsors of the day) going backwards and forwards ferrying the acts from the mainland. 5000 people have registered to take part in the event which made national news when it saw the rapid departure of the island’s long-standing Conservative MP who made bigoted comments when addressing a group of sixth formers.  One of the pupils, Esther Poucher, posted his remarks on social media and achieved what many islanders and some in his own party had tried to do for years in forcing his resignation.

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The message for this year’s Isle Of Wight Pride is “#Love Wins” and it is perhaps appropriate that I have been reading this novel in the run-up to the event by gay writer and journalist Rupert Smith.

What’s the gender opposite of chick-lit? Dick-Lit inevitably springs to mind and has no doubt already been termed and it is an appropriate tag for this novel which is Smith’s sixth out of the eight books he has written under his own name.  He has also published nine racier novels under the name James Lear and a couple of novels aimed at the commercial female market (Chick-Lit then) as Rupert James. I have read his 2006 “Service Wash” which mixed soap opera with murder.  That was okay, this is better.

The front cover has a recommendation from Sarah Waters, a novelist who I care enough about to get me at least considering a book’s purchase. What we have here is literary fiction, with a gay emphasis and here with a historical element.

There are two narratives, one, a present day tale of London life from gym bunny Robert precariously balancing work, drink, drugs, friends and shopping, the other beginning with conscription to National Service in 1957.  Robert’s account is written as a blog and the second narrator Michael’s as a secret diary as it reveals information that could lead to his ruin at a time when homosexuality was illegal.  With Robert everything is out in the open, with Michael everything is hidden.  Sixty years have made quite a difference.  As one older character tells Robert towards the end;

“You think you invented it, don’t you?  But you didn’t.  You just bought it.  You had it all handed to you on a plate and you never stopped to wonder who put it there.  Your generation seems to have lost the ability to love or to care or to fight for change or to do anything other than fuck each other and shop.”

This is really Smith’s attempt to address this generation.  We’ve come on so far with equality and yet is what has replaced it so great after all?  Robert and his friends have their freedom but are there lives any richer or are they any less lonely?  There’s a new set of problems and issues which are restricting happiness.  I really began this novel enjoying the tale of Robert’s shallow existence.  It was laugh out loud funny in that “Absolutely Fabulous” way.  Smith is actually quite strong with the humour throughout.  I felt quite disappointed when the National Service sequence began but I was soon drawn into Michael’s attraction to cocky muscleman Mervyn Wright.  The two narratives interlink nicely and the whole thing remains enjoyable throughout.  There used to be a lot more of this type of fiction around with independent publishers such as the Gay Men’s Press putting out work of variable quality and the last thirty years or so have given us some great gay themed novels (Alan Hollinghurst, Armistead Maupin, Sarah Waters, Neil Bartlett, Michael Carson, Graeme Aitken are amongst those who can take a bow here) but nowadays, either this market is not reading as much or there is not such a need for this type of fiction it seems much harder to find in the real book world.  (LGBTQIA publishing is still flourishing as E-books).  I think this book would most likely appeal to a gay male audience but Smith’s handling of his range of characters and his recreation of two differing points of time would please a wider readership.

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Man’s World was published by Arcadia in 2010.

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness (2008) – A Running Man Review

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The first book in British author Patrick Ness’ “Chaos Walking” trilogy really does span boundaries.  Aimed at a teen audience it works well for adult readers.  Its Sci-Fi/Fantasy elements are well thought out and do not get in the way of first class storytelling and there’s so much running in it that I’ve classed it amongst my adventure novel/running man thread.

I’ve never read Patrick Ness before but I know he has many fans mainly through this trilogy and “A Monster Calls” which was recently made into a film.  Main character Todd Hewitt is approaching manhood as a settler in a New World.  A battle with aliens living on the planet has wiped out the human female population, made animals talk and all men’s thoughts expressed out loud as “The Noise”.  Todd makes a discovery which challenges all he has been told and the only option open to him is to run.

Patrick Ness has got me eating my words as here he does something I normally gripe about yet here it works.  Much of the novel is written in present tense.  I moaned about this in Andrew Pyper’s “Demonologist” a horror novel made significantly less scary as a lot of the action becomes reported rather than letting us readers experience it.  Ness avoids this largely because of his “The Noise” device.  With all thoughts coming out as a stream Todd’s narrative can be filled with interactions from other characters which enables it to remain in the present.

It makes for action all the way and works here as a narrative style just about as well as it can.  It also makes it quick to read but it can feel a little like it is all on one level.  He maintains a fairly high octane pace throughout which may frustrate readers looking for a little more light and shade.  Being much older than the intended audience I wasn’t sure about the talking animals but I was soon won over by Todd’s dog Manchee who becomes a great character in his own right.  Animals in novels always cause me anxiety in case bad things happen to them.  (I’ve discussed this before on here.  I can read all kinds of things happening to humans without flinching but put an animal in the mix and I become squeamish.  I used to think that odd, but a number of you have agreed with me).  The relationship between Todd and his dog adds much to the novel.

This kind of dystopian future feels right on trend and if this appeals then I’d urge you to seek this book out as it is so well done.  The world in which they live is revealed to us very much as it’s revealed to Todd and that provides a great opening for the trilogy.  We’re left with a cliffhanger and the edition I read had a bonus short story “The New World” (published 2013), which, because I knew by then how it fits into the general narrative proved to be chilling reading.  The whole thing would seem to be of lasting appeal to young adult readers and possesses the qualities to win over a much wider audience.

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The Knife Of Never Letting Go was first published by Walker Books in 2008

My 400th Blog Post – A What You’ve Been Reading Special

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Today reviewsrevues hits the big 400 (thank you wordpress for letting me know, I wasn’t keeping count!).  Since my 300th celebration I’ve moved house and changed jobs but thankfully I’ve still been able to find the time for the reading and reviewing.  I am probably increasingly reading more new books, certainly far more than I was when I started the site.  Thank you to the publishers that have supported me and please keep those book parcels coming! I like to celebrate these big milestones by having a look at what you have been reading.  I did my last retrospective at the end of 2016  and then set the dials back to zero. So, what has been attracting the most attention in the last six months? 400 posts so top 3’s in 4 sections –  Books- Recent publications ;  Books-Back catalogue; CDs and TV. Here goes … (clink on the titles for the full reviews)

Books- Recent Publications

3. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (2016)

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Posted in my 100 Essential Books thread at the end of January, I am delighted to see people want to read about this book as it is still going to be one of the strong challengers for my Book Of The Year.  I’ve been recommending it like mad at the libraries where I work and the feedback from those who have followed my advice has all been positive, both from Jodi Picoult fans and those, like me, who have chosen to start their Picoult experience with this book.  Just yesterday a lady told me it would be a book she would “remember for a long, long time”.  Great praise.

2. When We Rise – Cleve Jones (2017)

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American gay activist’s account of life in San Francisco in the 1970’s/80’s. I posted this review in March.  I was told that Cleve appeared on “Newsnight” this week and had been surprised that his book was attracting a good general readership.  The six part TV series made of this book written by Dustin Lance Black has not yet appeared in the UK.  (I took out a Netflix subscription thinking it was on there but it isn’t.  There are rumours that Channel 4 have bought it).  When that is shown sales of this book will continue to soar.

1.A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (2016)

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Posted in April.  Masters’ non-fiction work is about a discovery of a large number of diaries found dumped in a skip.  Part biography, part detective work, I am going to continue to say nothing about the subject of this book and urge you to read it- a lot of you seem to want to know about it, making it the most read review in the recent publications category.

Books – The Back Catalogue (Older publication dates)

3. The Noel Coward Diaries – Edited by Graham Payn & Sheridan Morley (1982)

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I posted this back in May 2015 and yet it is really only this year that it has been attracting this much attention, showing that perhaps Sir Noel is coming back into vogue.  This is one of my 100 Essential Reads and if you fancy spending close to thirty years in the company of this fascinating man this is a must-read.

2. Motown: The History – Sharon Davis (1988)

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I’d read Sharon Davis’ Motown based column in “Blues and Soul” magazine for years and this book is a thorough study of the label from a British point of view.  I posted this back in November 2015 and once again it has been a slow burner which has taken off this year.  I have Davis’ biography of disco pioneer Sylvester on my To Be Read list.  Seeing the popularity of this makes me think I should get that read.

1.SS-GB- Len Deighton (1978)

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Posted in February this year there has been significantly more interest in my review of this, the book, than the BBC 1 Sunday night adaptation.  To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced by either.  I think the book has dated rather and doesn’t live up to the premise of an alternative history of  London just after the Nazis won the war,  but this is my most read review in the older books category.

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3. Light Years- Kylie Minogue  (2000)

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Posted in May this is Kylie’s finest hour, a culmination of the pop princess, the disco queen and consummate entertainer.  Rated number 34 in my Essential CD list.

2. Very Best Of Kathy Kirby (1997)

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Posted in October 2016 is number 79 in my Essential CDs. I claimed in my review that this was one of my guilty pleasures, but now so many of you have read the review I don’t need to feel guilty about one of the great under-rated artists in 60’s pop.

1.Let’s Groove – The Best Of – Earth Wind & Fire (1996)

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Since it was posted in October 2015 this has consistently been the most read CD review and things have been no different this year.  It just shows how loved this group was around the world.  Number 30 in my 100 Essential CD list.

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3. Roots – BBC4 (2017)

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The high standard was maintained throughout this re-make of the classic TV series.  It feels valid to question why it was re-made but if it brought home the issues raised to a new generation then it was very important that it was.  It lacked the impact of the original which had everybody talking about it when it was first shown but it had good performances, high production values and was equally compulsive viewing. I posted this review in February.

2. Jamestown – Sky 1 (2017)

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I wasn’t sure what to make of the first episode of this (too) glossy historical drama “from the makers of Downton Abbey” when it appeared on Sky 1 in May.  The tale of “maids to make wives” in Seventeenth century Virginia wasn’t without promise.  Here’s a post-review confession, I only ever watched the first episode.  The rest were series-linked in my planner but when it came down to it I didn’t feel the need to watch any more.

1.The Level – ITV1 (2016)

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I posted this review in October after the first episode.  By the third episode this was my most read review ever, something which has continued ever since.  It actually kept me watching the series.  This Brighton-based series had finished before the start of 2017 and yet this year it is over 500 reads ahead of its nearest rival.  In 2016 it finished 1300 away from the number 2 read.  This seems to be the review that is bringing new visitors onto reviewsrevues.com.  Long may it last.

Just writing about these 12 most read out of the 400 reviews has got me recognising that you readers out there like a bit of variety.  There’s quite a range in these twelve reviews alone. It’s part of the fun that keeps me guessing as I’m never sure when I’m posting what will attract the biggest audiences and the continuing readership of “The Level” from countries around the globe has me a little bewildered as the series did not seem to make that much of an impression when it was on TV- but it’s clearly the reviewsrevues readers’ favourite.  Right, it’s heads down now and onwards to the 500.

Many thanks to all of you who take the time to read my ramblings and those of you who feel motivated enough to comment on what you read.  That’s a huge thank-you to my Big 5 commenters who have stimulated thought and conversation on here – that’s Kay Carter, Monika, Fiction Fan, Geoffrey Valentine and Cleopatra Loves Books.  Keep on reading……………..

 

 

 

100 Essential Books – All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2107)

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Chris Whitaker’s debut “Tall Oaks” was highly enjoyable and received considerable critical acclaim.  It also gained him an interview on reviewsrevues.com on my Author Strikes Back thread.  His off-kilter tale set in small town America seemed an audacious beginning for a British writer yet worked well due to Whitaker’s skilful characterisations and humour amidst the dark deeds.  Whitaker’s character Manny made the novel with his mix of bravado and teenage angst.  There’s more of this in his latest novel set in the small town of Grace, Alabama in 1995.  This is the novel Chris referred to as “The Summer Cloud” in our interview.  Now, with a title change, I was looking forward to reading it.

People in Grace are dominated by their back stories and when church-going teenage girls start going missing old grudges and prejudices come to the surface.  The narration is split between events and the words of the missing girl, Summer, the first to be taken from Grace itself.  The people of the town implode with the tension as an unmoving grey cloud gathers over their heads.

I was reminded of the best of Stephen King in Whitaker’s story-telling and of a 1997 American novel “The Church Of Dead Girls” by Stephen Dobyns which I loved and which should be due for a re-read yet I think Chris’ work is even better and this is once again due to his characterisation.   Those missing Manny will warm to wannabe teenage policeman Noah, his sidekick Purv and Summer’s sister Raine who take the search into their hands with black humour and laugh out loud moments as well as real poignancy.  There is a great bond which develops between these three damaged outsiders.  Also damaged and addictive is Police Chief Black who shows the author is great at adult characters too.  The plot is darker than “Tall Oaks” and religion and good and evil have a strong part to play.  I marvel at how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.

“Tall Oaks” showed the potential but this is the real deal…………………….”

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All The Wicked Girls is published by Zaffre on the 24th August 2017.  Make a note of the title for a perfect late summer read.  Many thanks to nudge and the publishers for the advance review copy.

The House Of Birds -Morgan McCarthy (Tinder Press 2016)

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A couple of reviews recently have had me agonising over my star ratings and as this is one of the culprits I thought I’d lay out, for the first time, I believe, the thinking behind those five stars.

A five star novel is one that will stay with me for a very long time. It’s a book I would not want to part with which has made a significant impression. Usually, I would say I read just a very small number of these each year. Examples of five star books recently reviewed here are: “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” by Chris Cleve, “The Golden Age” by Joan London and “Owl Song At Dawn” by Emma Claire Sweeney. I’m not usually alone with my praise in these books. Just these three titles here have gained awards and plaudits. It’s not just me who rate them so highly.

A four star novel is one which I really enjoyed and which I would very much like to remain on my bookshelves. It is one I can certainly see myself enjoying as much on a re-read. It might not be an all-time classic but it certainly gave me considerable pleasure. Examples of four star books reviewed here recently are “Queer City” by Peter Ackroyd, “The Mayfly” by James Hazel and “Crimson & Bone” by Marina Fiorato.

A lot of what I read I would consider three star. This is the “default” rating when I start to read a book. This is the largest category in terms of breadth. It’s a good book that I enjoyed but probably wouldn’t need to keep to read again. These are the books I tend to pass on, often recommending them to their new owner. As I don’t give half star marks (too confusing) this is quite a big category, from books which I didn’t quite feel got into top gear, to perfectly satisfactory genre-type fiction, to books which are really quite good but didn’t blow me away. Examples of three star books reviewed here recently are “Don’t Wake Up” by Liz Lawler, “Next” by Michael Crichton and “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith.

Two star books have disappointed me in some way or I’m a long way from the intended audience and it hasn’t really worked for me. I won’t give up on the author but on this occasion there have been issues. Examples of two star books reviewed here (and they are thinner on the ground are “There Once Lived A Lady Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby” by Ludmilla Petrusheskaya, “The Evenings” by Gerard Reve (and I admit these two might both be translation issues) and “Being Elizabeth Bennet” by Emma Campbell Webster.

One star books don’t usually get to the review stage and it’s unlikely that I will read anything else by the author. I’m better at weeding books out now so I don’t get to read too many of these. The book is just not for me………

Just occasionally I feel these divisions let me down and some books do not fit neatly into the ratings and I end up feeling stingy. This is one of those occasions.

Morgan McCarthy’s fourth novel (the first I’ve read by her) starts off a little slowly but then starts to weave its magic and at times I believed I was reading a book with four or five star potential but on completion it just didn’t end up doing anything which either surprised or thrilled me so much that I would want to keep it to re-read it, so given that and my above criteria, it ends up as a three star novel but if asked did I enjoy it and would I recommend it the answer would be a definite yes to both.

I thought I was being brave choosing to read a book with this title. A simmering ornithophobia (particularly indoors) would leave me going into a cold sweat over a “house of birds”. If just one comes into the house I’m off like a rocket (especially in a cat’s mouth), but no worries, this refers to a bird-embossed wallpaper which I can certainly cope with. Kate inherits a house under contested circumstances and boyfriend Oliver, who has quit his high-pressured London job, moves back to the Oxford of his childhood to project manage renovations. He finds sections of a diary which relates to the house’s past in a dual narrative which moves from the 1920’s to the present day. The most effective relationship in the novel is that between Oliver and the long-dead Sophia who causes the young man to question his life and its lack of direction. His involvement in the legal aspects tying up the house threatens his current relationship.

Morgan McCarthy does absolutely nothing wrong in terms of plot or characterisation. I just felt it was all a little tightly controlled and careful to really get me frothing at the mouth. As in the majority of these dual-narrative different time-zone novels I found myself responding more to the older strand but I did find Oliver a vibrant, worthwhile character who did come alive and whose male perspective to Sophia’s 1920’s quandaries was refreshing. Some of the other characters did not feel as real.

In many ways this is a treasure trail which leads towards the truth and is involving for most of its duration and effectively handled. I will certainly be seeking out this author’s earlier novels.

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The House Of Birds was published by Tinder Press in 2016. Many thanks to Bookbridgr and the publishers for the review copy.