Britannia – Sky Atlantic (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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So, how to describe “Britannia” the first episode of which appeared on Sky Atlantic this week?  It’s aimed towards the “Game Of Thrones” fans (which reminds me I still have the last series unwatched on my Sky Planner – for some reason I can’t get round to start watching it) and the box set binge viewers (Sky have taken the now increasingly more common tactic of releasing the whole series on catch-up to lure in the Netflix crowd).  This is no swords and sorcery epic however, being rooted in early British history (or at least with a slight nod towards it).

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It starts in 43AD with the Romans return to the British Isles after Julius Caesar’s previous attempt to conquer some ninety years before.  This time the Celtic residents are largely caught unawares.  The first Romans we see are four unfortunate individuals hanging by their arms who have decided Britannia was not for them and have made a run for it only to be interrogated by David Morrissey’s General Aulus Plautius.  One gives as his excuse for desertion “Britannia is a cursed land, ruled by the dead”. First pause for “not much has changed laughter”.  Over the intervening years legends have sprung up around giant squids and demons residing in the forests feasting on human flesh.  In reality it’s the challenging weather and the Celtic tribes that will be causing all the problems.  David Morrissey plays a good baddie, even if I did give up on “The Walking Dead” not long after he joined the cast.  The flesh eating zombies and dystopian nightmare of everyday survival was one thing but Morrissey’s “Governor” proved a little too much for this viewer.  Here he’s soon coming up with a plan where one deserter will cut the throats of the others in order to survive.

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Over on Britannia we’ve already met the drug-raddled The Outcast (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) running amok in a frenzy of portents and omens and have seen the preparations for a female initiation Solstice ceremony to womanhood in the Cantii Tribe, which is destined to go horribly wrong.  Right from the off we are seeing society portrayed with women as equals, strong fighting women, which makes this feel different from ancient history tales we’ve seen before and will satisfy Game Of Thrones fan used to strong women in Arya, Cersei, Daenerys and the excellent Brienne Of Tarth will see echoes in characters such as Kerra (Kelly Reilly) and young Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) whose entry into womanhood was so abruptly disrupted.

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Kelly Reilly as Kerra

Filmed largely in Prague and Wales, the scenery was often breath-taking which added much to this ninety-minute opener.  High production values are evident throughout. Violent and resplendently unapologetic in its bad language, the flesh-creeping aspects were upped by some particularly unappealing Druids of which Mackenzie Crook is largely unrecognisable as the leader, Veren.  I’m not sure where it’s all going but I’m going to be happy enough to go along with the ride over the next 8 episodes of series 1.

Britannia, SkyEleanor Worthington Cox with Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Britannia is created by notable playwright and screen play writer Jez Butterworth who has credits ranging from his first Royal Court Theatre award-winner “Mojo” to the latest in the James Bond Franchise “Spectre”.  He often writes with family members and here script and production honours are shared with brother Tom and James Richardson.  Someone’s been doing the research effectively.  In our household we took to Google after a scene involving a cat as we didn’t think they were in Britain at that time only to discover that Julius Caesar had introduced them to the country on his first trip over.  Viewers don’t always expect historical accuracy when there’ s action-packed over the top drama so it’s nice we’re getting a bit of both here.

The one thing it seems to be missing at this stage is a great piece of music to kick things off.  “Game Of Thrones” is blessed with a great opening score which really gets under your skin.  Here, for some reason we have Donovan’s trippy “Hurdy Gurdy Man” but with the Brits indulging in natural highs and the Smoke Spirit turning the solstice into an acid rave until disrupted by the brutal arrival of the Romans, perhaps it’s not such an inappropriate choice after all.

Britannia’s first episode has given Sky it’s best viewing figures for an original programme for three years.  The last time as many tuned in was for “Fortitude”, (I was one of those but I didn’t last too many episodes on that occasion).  Hopefully, here I will stay the course.  It seems that in this dark germ-ridden January we want to see Ancient Brits go the distance with Roman armies, a bit of magic and strong warrior women.  Bring it on!

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Britannia is shown on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Thursdays at 9.00.  In the US it has been purchased to be shown on Amazon.

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The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen (2017) – A Real Life Review

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I love Channel 4’s “Googlebox” and always enjoy the contributions of Giles and Mary (or Nutty and Nutty as they call each other) from their thatched Wiltshire cottage. I wasn’t absolutely convinced I needed to read a book written by them, fearing that it might be a cash-in for the Christmas market with little merit which would vanish after the present-buying was over, but someone whose opinion I valued recommended it and I thought I’d give it a go. I was pleased I did.

gilesandmary2Giles and Mary have become recognisable enough for French and Saunders to parody them in undoubtedly the most successful sections of their most recent show with Dawn playing Giles with the right level of Alan Bennett-ness and Jennifer as Mary becoming gradually absorbed by the fabric of her armchair.

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We’ve taken to this couple because they seem to know each other so well. We can sense the long-suffering of Mary towards Giles’ ability to wind her up, often with a twinkle in his eye with her keen to put him back on the right track. In a preamble they say that Gogglebox has saved their 30 year marriage as all that TV watching has got them to sit down together and communicate as well as giving us all a chance to see how frustrating Giles can be! Both having a background in writing and creating they agreed to the diary format of this book as it offered the chance to produce (in Giles’ words “anecdotal accounts of the various hurdles life and marriage throws up at a couple in a bid to try and see what, in the dread words of the politicians lessons can be learned”. For Mary, someone who admits to recording their disagreements and typing up a transcript, this format would also seem to be ideal.

Much of this is based on the problems of Giles – a procrastinating artist “stranded in the Seventies”, a fledgling eco-warrior and keen gardener who relishes opportunities to be annoying and Mary’s constant busyness, rooting around to locate lost objects and attempting to fit too much into each day whose ideal times of her married life have been when she has had a live-in assistant to act as buffer between her and her husband.

It is these differences between them that work so well. It’s consistently amusing, occasionally laugh-out loud funny and interspersed with illustrations from Giles which adds to the text. I’m hoping and believing here that we are getting the real Giles and Mary and not some representation dreamt up in a marketing office. Much of the joy is in recognising our own traits in this couple’s interactions with one another. I think most of us would come off as a combination of Giles and Mary and would certainly appreciate each of their frustrations with one another. It provides a good, plausible picture of a long-term relationship in action. I don’t think you even need to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as the whole thing feels like we have been invited into their world and it is fun spending time with them.

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The Diary Of Two Nobodies was published by Virgin in 2017

 

Stronger – Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter (Blink 2017) – A Real Life Review

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“Stronger” is the story of Jeff Bauman, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time- the finishing line of the Boston Marathon 2013 when a terrorist bomb exploded.  Jeff lost both legs in the blast and became the figurehead for “Boston Strong”, the city’s defiant response to the atrocity.

The film version is dominated by a mesmerising Oscar-worthy performance by Gyllenhaal.  I was less comfortable with the depiction of those around him.  The working-class American culture of sport, beer and banter I found quite distancing and I was concerned this might be amplified in the book.

It actually isn’t.  I found the book less sobering and more hopeful.  In the film Jeff seems quite isolated from those around him trying to do his best of him.  I felt the support more appropriate in the book with him existing less as a vacuum.  He is involved with others injured in the blast right from the start, he is actually with a couple of his girlfriend’s friends at the Marathon and not alone as shown in the film and their recovery does influence his.

The narrative arc of the film puts Jeff into a downward spiral which levels out only when he eventually agrees to meet Carlos, the man who saved his life at the scene, whereas Carlos was actually a vital part in Jeff’s recovery right from the start.

Of course, real life is more complex than movie adaptations and I got a lot from the book about the stages Jeff went through, both physically and mentally and he comes across more rounded than the film’s depiction. There he is portrayed as the man who “never shows up”, the irony being when he did he ended up losing his legs.  In real life he seems more reliable and supportive.  Smaller events have been combined and ramped up to add dramatic value to the movie, inevitably.  The film should be seen for its tour-de-force lead performance and strong back-up from Miranda Richardson as well as hitting home one man’s determination to succeed.  The book should be read for its stronger emphasis on hope and support and for a community’s response to a personal tragedy caused by atrocity.

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Stronger was published in 2017 by Blink Publishing.  My review of the film version can be found here

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 6– Dusty Springfield – The Silver Collection

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The Silver Collection – Dusty Springfield (Philips 1988)
UK Chart Position – 14

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Dusty Springfield was the best of the British 60’s singers and her lasting legacy on popular music cannot be over-emphasised. This single CD collection of 24 tracks was put out (originally on vinyl) in 1988 to celebrate Dusty’s 25th year as a solo artist. Its healthy chart position marked the first time she gained a Top 20 album in 22 years when another hits compilation had reached number 2. At the time of “The Silver Collection’s” release Dusty had received a boost in her career thanks to her association with the Pet Shop Boys and their “What Have I Done To Deserve This” which had been a number 2 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987. There was no new material on this compilation, the tracks chosen were her sixties hits and contains her only UK number 1, her twelve UK Top 20 and five US Top 20 hits from this decade. It is the perfect one disc introduction and her most essential release.

dusty2The Lana Sisters, Dusty (pre-beehive) on the left

Mary O’Brien began her music career as a Lana Sister, a late 50’s girl group which followed an established pattern of girls posing as or as real sisters performing light pop tunes in a style which picked up on the continuing popularity of the Andrews Sisters. These acts were perfect for variety shows and summer seasons and for the early days of television where was a demand for attractive girls, dressed in similar clothes, performing inoffensive ditties. Some, including The Beverley Sisters (real siblings) achieved a good level of success. The Lana Sisters, however, despite recording a few singles and appearing on stage with some of the top acts of light entertainment of the time were not so fortunate and Mary decided to move on to join her folk singer brother’s band The Springfields. Here was another fake family outing in a way, Mary became Dusty Springfield and her brother Dion, Tom Springfield. They were joined by Tim Feild who never adopted The Springfield moniker but did later become a spiritual leader and expert on Sufism, and father of actor JJ Feild (best known for playing a younger version of a character played by Michael Caine in “Last Orders” and for an excellent turn as 60’s pop singer Heinz in “Telstar” the bio-pic of producer Joe Meek). The trio became regular television guests and scored a couple of UK Top 5 hits in 1962/63. If you see clips of them performing it was really difficult to take your eyes of Dusty, so perhaps inevitable that she would decide to embark on a solo career.

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The Springfields: Tim, Dusty and Tom

There was one of those seismic movements in popular music when Dusty recorded her first single. Known primarily as a folk singer and probably by a younger audience as slightly old fashioned she exploded with a delightful slab of pop-soul inspired by both Motown and Phil Spector and became instantly Britain’s coolest solo singer with an instantly recognisable image. “I Only Want To Be With You” entered the charts in November 1963. Throughout that year a four piece band from Liverpool had been rewriting British pop and Dusty wanted to be part of it in a song which seemed to perfectly straddle the new and old eras. Producer Johnny Franz had that big orchestral feel given a “wall of sound” in a rock and roll number which combined with Dusty’s smokey tones felt different.

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Reputedly there had been a number of recordings made in a hunt for the song which would really establish Dusty as a singer. These were not released as Franz held back for the perfect match and he found it in this. His patience was rewarded. It became a number 4 hit in the UK and Dusty found herself in the wave of British artists who were making it big in the US with this, her very first release which reached number 12 in the Billboard charts and also made the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland. The song has lasting appeal and also established the chart career of another great British talent, Annie Lennox, when as lead singer of The Tourists it reached the same position Dusty posted in 1979, which weirdly was also the position it reached three years earlier in a paler version by The Bay City Rollers. Samantha Fox broke the pattern when she took it to number 16 in 1989 (the Rollers also uncannily peaked at the same chart position as Dusty in the US#12, with Sam Fox getting to #31).

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Dusty’s follow-up single “Stay Awhile” was almost as good. It had a similar feel but ramped up the Phil Spector vibe to the point where it almost sounds like a Ronettes track. Sales were not as buoyant as it reached #13 in the UK and #38 in the US but her hit status on both sides of the Atlantic were confirmed. What comes next on the CD is perhaps her greatest single and the track which marked her out as a real soul singer and one able to drive up the dramatic potential of a song to the max. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” had already been recorded by Soul men Jerry Butler and Tommy Hunt both men with great voices but giving the female viewpoint on this Bacharach/David song worked magnificently. Dusty apparently was given the song to record by Burt Bacharach when they met in New York. From its gentle horn start it seems like a great soul number and then builds with the Johnny Franz production. Dusty’s voice beautifully sums up the ennui at the end of the relationship. The vocal and the whole feel of the song set the template for the rest of Springfield’s career. It became her biggest UK hit to that point reaching number 3.

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In the US they went for the next track another Bacharach and David composition “Wishin’ And Hopin” which had been previously recorded by Dionne Warwick which was turned into a UK #13 hit by The Merseybeats. This track gave Dusty her biggest US hit to date reaching number 6. It was also her biggest hit to this point in Australia where it got to number 2. Another Bacharach and David song “The Look Of Love” which became a standard was given to Dusty to record the first vocal version and also gained an Oscar nomination in 1968 when it was used in the soundtrack of the first version of “Casino Royale”.

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From 1964 we get the great swinging ballad “Losing You” which was a UK number 9 and which also benefits from an exemplary vocal. “Give Me Time” is a sultry number and was an example of Dusty’s management hunting out songs that had been European hits, being an English language version of L’Amore Se Ne Va” an Italian hit single. Released in 1967 it became a number 24 hit but didn’t quite pay the dividends raiding the Italian songbook had done the previous year. “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” began life as “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” by Pino Donaggio, an Italian chart-topper which was entered in a European Song Festival (not the Eurovision) which took place at San Remo and at which Dusty was also entered. She loved the song and the English language lyrics were written by two prominent music managers of the time Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell. Dusty was determined to get the emotional power of this huge ballad right. Always a perfectionist this one apparently took 47 takes and was recorded with her standing on the stairs outside the studio. Frustration with her performance was a common bugbear. Neil Tennant has spoken how when he worked with her she would record her vocals in very small sections and that he had never encountered anyone who worked in this way before. The repeated takes were worth it as this song became Dusty’s biggest hit, a UK number one and number 4 in the US. The song is a standard recorded by many artists over the year but few could give it the conviction of Dusty.

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I love Dusty when she metaphorically lets that famous beehive down and relaxes into uptempo numbers. “In The Middle Of Nowhere” (UK#8 1965) and “Little By Little” (UK#17 1966) are great examples of peak-era Springfield. Both songs were written by Buddy Kea and Bea Verdi. Kaye was a veteran song-writer who had written songs such as “A (You’re Adorable)” and hits for Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and “Speedy Gonzales” for Pat Boone. These tracks for Dusty show that he was still going strong in the mid 60’s.

Dusty was a great song stylist and her version of a song often challenged the original. I prefer Bacharach and David’s “24 Hours From Tulsa” from Gene Pitney’s more histrionic guilt-ridden male standpoint but her version of Belgian Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” is the best version of this song I have heard. Her version of “How Can I Be Sure?” is magnificent. Also on this CD Dusty doesn’t really challenge the hit versions of Dionne Warwick/Cilla Black’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart” nor Barbara Acklin/Swing Out Sister’s “Am I The Same Girl”.

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In 1968 Dusty released my second favourite track of hers. “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten” has the drama of the big ballads combined with a neo-classical feel through great piano work and is just an excellent song. Written by Clive Westlake who had previously given Dusty two hit songs in “Losing You” (written with her brother Tom) and “All I See Is You”. Both had reached number 9 in the UK with “All I See Is You” getting to number 20 in the US in 1966. Amazingly, “I Close My Eyes” did not chart in the US. It was caught up in Dusty’s changing of labels from Phillips to Atlantic and probably was not promoted with the gusto of her earlier hits.

dusty10Dusty with Martha and The Vandellas

By 1969 Dusty’s soul credentials were renowned. She had been instrumental in promoting the Motown label four years earlier in the UK putting together a now legendary episode of TV show “Ready Steady Go” which had her introducing Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Miracles and Martha & The Vandellas in one extraordinary episode demonstrating Dusty’s love for black American music and beginning a life-long friendship with Martha Reeves. Sometimes this role is a little overstated, the Motown stars were well-known over here with The Supremes having scored a UK number 1 with “Baby Love” and the other acts (with the exception of Stevie at this point) notching up their own hits. She didn’t actually introduce Motown to the Brits but ensured we saw some of its biggest stars on our black and white TV sets on a Friday tea-time. By the late 60’s Aretha Franklin’s star was in the ascendancy and the sounds of American Southern Soul were making inroads in the charts and Atlantic and Stax records were moving music on from the pop/soul of Motown. Dusty wanted a part of this and went to Memphis to record her 5th studio album with heavyweight soul producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd and backed by Aretha’s backing singers The Sweet Inspirations which included Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum as a member.

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“Dusty In Memphis” was critically acclaimed and saw Dusty heralded as new blue-eyed soul royalty. It is an album which regularly features in lists of the greatest album ever made. It was a very strong studio album but I think I would give her debut “A Girl Called Dusty” the slight edge. “Memphis” just misses out on being an essential album for me because I find it a little intense, the song choices are not all great and I think Memphis took out some of the verve of the British recordings which I loved. Perhaps buyers at the time agreed with me as it never charted in the UK and barely scraped the charts in the US. Perhaps some saw it as Dusty deserting her homeland or the whole concept might have been too cool for the mainstream. It is an important album and really from this you can track influences along to many female singers of today, especially Adele. From this album you get two stand-out tracks Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile” and another of Dusty’s signature songs and the big hit single “Son Of A Preacher Man”.

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“Preacher Man” was originally intended for Aretha Franklin, but neither her nor her management were initially sure about the song. Once Aretha heard Dusty’s version she was convinced and she covered it on her 1970 album “This Girl’s In Love With You”. There’s no doubt about it this is a real soul song and reached number 9 in the UK and 10 in the US.

For her next album Dusty relocated to Philadephia to record. “A Brand New Me” was an early example of the sweet soul sound which emanated largely from the city over the next few years and here she was working with the masters, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who would go on to have major success with their Philadelphia International Label. The title track written with their leading songwriter Thom Bell sounds like a perfect match between all these talents but was not a hit. The album was titled “From Dusty With Love” in the UK and was a small hit, performing better in the charts than “Dusty In Memphis” had done.

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Also on this CD you get the extended metaphor of a lost love in “My Colouring Book” a Kander and Ebb song which Dusty performs sublimely and the wistful “Goin’ Back” a Jerry Goffin and Carole King song.

Throughout the 70’s Dusty spent more time in the US, preferring the anonymity a large country could offer. She felt hounded by the press in the UK as they seemed obsessed  with her sexuality which she struggled herself to come to terms with. Her recording career became more erratic. For a while she became fascinated by women’s tennis and followed the ATP tour around the US. There were often short-lived comebacks but it was not until the Pet Shop Boys worked with her that her commercial credentials were re-established. Following the release of this album Dusty celebrated a run of hits of great singles “Nothing Has Been Proved”, “In Private” and “Reputation”. She died of breast cancer in 1999.

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The influence of Dusty Springfield lives on and she has certainly influenced my music choices for the whole of my lifetime. From her groundbreaking performances and career you can see the evidence of other of my Essential CD choices with Madeline Bell, Duffy, Martha Reeves, The Carpenters, The Exciters and Gloria Estefan springing immediately to mind. Her “Silver Collection” is chock-full of gems and is always my starting point when I want a blast of Britain’s best female star. I know I’ve written a long review here but I find it impossible to pass any of these great tracks by without some comment.

The Silver Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $10.00 and used for $1.02.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

Past Caring – Robert Goddard (1986) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is the 5th novel by British author Robert Goddard I’ve read over the years.  He now has some thirty works to his name yet this was his debut first published in 1986.  So far the two of his novels I have enjoyed the most have been “Set In Stone” (1999) and “Play To The End” (2004) yet admittedly I haven’t really been completely bowled over by what I have read.

 The title does seem to be asking for trouble her and in what is quite some intense plotting there were times when I felt I myself was approaching the “past caring” stage but there was always just a little twist to get my interest back when I could feel it fading.

 Martin Radford, unemployed historian, is invited to Madeira where a job opportunity arises.  A wealthy South African has found a journal left by the previous owner of his villa, an ex-Cabinet minister who shone in the Asquith administration but who resigned suddenly and ended up in self-exile in Madeira.  Radford is asked to research and comes across regret, secrets, political feuds, Suffragettes and a closer family connection than he had anticipated.  We get to read the memoir in full and the mystery of Edwin Stafford’s departure from the political scene drives Radford to ever desperate measures.

 It brings the historian into contact with three generations of the Couchman family.  I did at times struggle to distinguish between them which might suggest that Goddard hadn’t quite fully realised his skills with characterisation at this stage of his writing career.  There’s also a love interest for Radford which never rings true (but that could very well be intentional).

 I was drawn into the plot and really enjoyed the memoir aspect of it.  I like the way Goddard locks events into history in his novels and the focus on unravelling these mysteries.  As such, the older characters seemed to resonate with me more than the modern.  (The “present” in this novel being the mid 1970s).

 All in all I would put this on a par with the stronger Goddard novels I have read (so better than Days Without Number” (2003) and “Name To A Face” (2007).  He is an author who explores themes which draw me in but sometimes there is a density of plotting and issues with pace which prevent a whole-hearted recommendation.  I am convinced, however, that there will be some real gems in the twenty-five or so works of his that I still am to encounter.

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I read a Corgi paperback reprint of “Past Caring”, a novel which was first published in 1986.

 

 

Hollywood Babylon– It’s Back! – Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince (Blood Moon 2008) – A Real Life Review

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The original version of “Hollywood Babylon” first appeared in France in 1959.  An incredibly scandalous reveal of Tinsel town that had to wait until 1965 for a US publisher brave enough to put it out.  Within ten days it was banned and did not appear again until a decade later.  Written by American film-maker Kenneth Anger ,who claimed to be in the know concerning scandals, the first volume had an emphasis on the stars of early Hollywood and the silent era.  A second volume appeared in 1984.  Many of Anger’s claims have been strongly denied if not always completely unproven so they have hung around as rumour and urban legend.  The books are sleazy and compelling in equal measures, I’ve read both over the years. 

So enthused by the format were Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince that in 2008 they claimed “it’s back” with another volume of scandal, rumour and sleaze ranging from the Hollywood in its hey-day to modern Tinseltown. (Tom Cruise certainly does not get off lightly here).  Anger was decidedly angered by Porter and Prince muscling in on a direct copy of style, format and general grubbiness.

Truman Capote (a source of a number of the scurrilous titbits in this book) reputedly said that gossip will become the literature of the twenty-first century (and he should have known being a tremendous gossip himself) so maybe what we have here is literature in its purest form.  Movie heart-throb Rock Hudson (another gossip) said “In Hollywood you can keep a mistress, or a boyfriend, maybe both.  You can go gay, bi or pan-sexual.  Just don’t tell anybody and don’t get caught.  What do you expect when you bring the world’s most beautiful people together in the same town?”  This quote does seem to be the raison d’etre for this book.

It’s not an easy read.  By adopting the style of the original and of classic scandal magazines from “Confidential” of the 1950s to the National Enquirer it has ended up as vague, repetitive writing, keen to go off on tangents, with grainy black and white photography which may or not provide proof to their claims.

It will rouse strong emotions.  I read a (withdrawn) library copy and there’s a chunk of pages which have been roughly ripped out (hence the withdrawal and not by me I hasten to add).  I know where there’s another copy (hopefully undefiled) and will be keen to see what has been so forcefully extracted (oddly enough it from the contents it seems to be the end of a section concerning Lucille Ball!)

The lips are pursed and the dirt is dished throughout.  Some may be familiar stories and there’s a great deal of emphasis on who slept with who, who was secretly gay, and what was the size of the equipment they were doing all this sleeping around with.  Thus Ivor Novello is linked with Winston Churchill, Mick Jagger with Eric Clapton and James Dean and Marilyn Monroe with just about everybody.  Does any of it matter?  Of course not, but there is still something compelling in this catalogue of stories with dubious provenance that kept me reading even when I felt quite grubby doing so.

I recently watched on Netflix the documentary film “Tab Hunter Confidential” in which the 50’s heart-throb movie star and singer puts into context his hiding of his sexuality in a calm, admirable way.  It is the weird attitude of Hollywood and its hypocrisy (recently brought into focus with all those accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey) which has brought about all this net curtain-twitching from Porter and Prince.

This book is one of a sizeable output from Blood Moon Productions who on their website claim to be “applying the standards of today to the Hollywood scandals of yesterday” and they do this in volumes dedicated to performers such as Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Peter O’ Toole, The Gabor sisters – the list goes on, including even politicians (Donald Trump: The Man Who Would Be King is a recent Porter and Prince work).  Scanning down this back catalogue on bloodmoonproductionscom I couldn’t help but think “Ooh, I’d like to read that” on quite a few occasions.  I know it’s all a far cry from the literary blogger I strive to be (Ha Ha!) but sometimes I just can’t help looking to the gutter for inspiration!

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Hollywood Babylon It’s Back!” was published by Blood Moon in 2008

Looking Back, Looking Forward…..

Well, that’s another year of reading and blogging behind us.  At the end of the year I’m always tempted to have a look back and see which of the 459 posts now on reviewsrevues.com have been attracting the most attention. It never fails to surprise me.  The counters were turned back to zero at the start of the year yet it does seem that those posts that got the highest traffic in 2017 were also those who attracted readers in 2016 – so indulge me in  a quick look back towards the most read posts before looking ahead to what 2018 might have in store.  Here are the category winners! (Click on the titles to find the full reviews)

Books – Recent PublicationsDon’t Wake Up – Liz Lawler (TwentySeven 2017)

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I posted this in June 2017.  I actually read it in instalments from Pigeonhole who send you a daily section to read before publication and this hospital-based thriller was the ideal book to read in this format .  If this book doesn’t grab you in the first few pages, it never will. A debut novel from an ex-nurse which might not be the best choice if you have an operation pending but certainly a lot of people were interested in reading about it.

Books – The Back CatalogueMotown – The History – Sharon Davis (Guinness Books 1988)

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First posted way back in November 2015, this is the real slow burner of the reviews.  I’ve had this book on my shelves for nearly thirty years so it’s good that my enthusiasm for it has been matched by people wanting to seek this review out.  A British journalist’s view of the incredible Motown story adds a fascinating perspective and there’s a rigorous obsession at work here in the author’s comprehensive discography of all releases of Singles and Albums which sorts out the output of  founder Berry Gordy’s different labels in the US as well as a list of all British releases to the mid 80’s.

CD Reviews- Let’s Groove: The Best Of – Earth Wind & Fire (Columbia 1996)

Posted even earlier in October 2015, this review started off slowly but took off following the passing of EWF mastermind Maurice White in February 2016.  Since then it continues to be the most read of the CD reviews on the site.  Thing is, it’s not even my favourite Earth Wind & Fire album (that would be the 1977 studio album “All N’ All).  Proof that people are still looking to find their “Boogie Wonderland” !

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TV ReviewsThe Level (ITV 2016)

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And here we go again…..! I wrote about this at the start of October 2016 after watching the first episode of this six parter that really hooked me because of its casting and its Brighton location.  It felt like it arrived and disappeared on ITV without a great deal of fanfare but even though the counters went back to 0 on Jan 1st 2106 this is without doubt once again the most read review on here by some distance, as it has been from within a couple of months of it appearing on the site.  Perhaps it’s worth ITV contemplating another series, the interest in certainly there! Will it still be at the top at the end of 2018? Proof that we are not only using the internet to search for the very latest thing!

So looking forward….Yesterday The Guardian published it’s Literary Calendar as a taster for what we can expect book-wise in 2018.  I think it provides a good starting point for the year, obviously a bit sketchy as the year goes on, for the last couple of years I’ve been noting down what appeals.  I actually forgot all about last year’s list until recently and I noticed that out of the ten I’d highlighted as being books I wanted to look out for I had read four.  The titles that had piqued my interest and ended up being read were The Good People- Hannah Kent, White Tears – Hari Kunzru, Queer City – Peter Ackroyd and The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst.  In fact, what is interesting is that a couple of the titles predicted to be big hitters in 2017 came out without much fanfare.  I actually had to look on Amazon for a couple on my list to see if they had even been published.  Armistead Maupin had a memoir out in October which had completely passed me by and I had also missed completely satirist Armando Iannuci’s introduction to classical music “Hear Me Out”.  I was also miffed by publishers  turning me down for a preview copy of Sara Baume’s “A Line Made Walking”  on Netgalley as I felt I’d done a good job promoting her debut novel so consciously haven’t got round to reading that yet.  (Don’t cross me, ha ha!)

So from this year’s list here are nine titles that appeal.  I’ll see how many I’ll get round to during the year.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes (Cape) – Due in February – A look back at an ill-fated relationship which according to the Guardian “darkens into the tragedy of a destroyed life.”

Bookwork: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg) – Due in March

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Collins – Due in May) – Recently discovered non-fiction account of the last survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  I loved Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) , a novel which is still growing in reputation in the UK where it is emerging from the status of a lost classic.  Hurston died in 1960, hopefully the first publication of this work will put her further into the spotlight.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Cape) – Due in June – London after the Blitz tale of two abandoned children seems right up my street . Canadian writer  Ondaatje’s seventh adult novel.

My Year of Rest And Relaxation- Ottessa Moshfegh (Cape)- Enjoyed Moshfegh’s 2016 Man Booker shortlisted “Eileen” enough to look forward to this novel appearing in July.

Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Cape) – Due in August.  Hopefully I will read more poetry in 2018.  This collection reputedly focuses on what it is like to feel different as a child.

The Lost Magician -Piers Torday (Quercus) – Due in August.  Pick of the bunch of children fiction is set in 1945 and concerns a magical world entered through a library door.  Shades of a modern Narnia?

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – Due in September which will give me a chance to catch up with this author’s output since being so impressed with her 5 star rated Costa winning “Life After Life“.

Melmoth — Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – Due in October.  I was slightly guilty of putting too high expectations on the Waterstones Book Of The Year “Essex Serpent” and when it did not quite live up to the hype as far as I was concerned I felt more disappointed than I should otherwise have been.  So I won’t build this time-travelling gothic tale up too much in my mind so as to get the maximum enjoyment from it.

This is just a smattering of titles expected to appear in 2018.  The great thing about the publishing world is that no-one can be absolutely sure what is going to generate the most interest.  I mentioned the four titles on the Guardian list that I was really looking forward to this time last year and got around to reading and yet none of those four made it onto my End of Year list.  It’s that unpredictability that makes our book choices exciting! I wonder if we will be talking about any of these books in twelve months time.

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year- Part 2 (The Top 5)

I’m continuing my count-down of the best books I read in 2017.

5. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (Sceptre 2016) (Read and reviewed in April)

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It’s been a good year for writers called Chris, as there are two of them in my Top 10. This British novelist’s fourth novel spanned the years 1939-1942 and centred on war-torn London and Malta, gripped by a blockade which threatens starvation for civilians and soldiers. I said “this is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 10,968 in Books (has been much higher!)

4. The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018) (Read and reviewed in November)

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Feel like I’m cheating a bit here as this hasn’t even been published yet (according to latest info the hardback is due on 1st Feb.) I was really drawn into the world of this debut novel set in Victorian London.  I said “I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.” Still expecting this to achieve very healthy sales in 2018.

Current Amazon sales rating: 68,464 in Books (based on pre-orders).

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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I read this when it appeared on the Man Booker longlist and felt it had to be in with a great chance of scooping the Prize.  In the US it had taken both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Here, it shockingly failed to make the shortlist, probably overshadowed by British author Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” which touched on similar themes.  It was the best American novel I read this year.  I  felt “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 81 in Books (this has been a big seller)

2. Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016) (Read and reviewed in February)

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Pipped at the post by the very last book I read in 2017 this came very close to being the first British novel to be my book of the year since 2012 (also incidentally the last time a female author was at the top).  The fact that this is a debut novel makes it all the more outstanding.  I first heard of this when it was shortlisted by Nudge and newbooks for the BookHugger book of the year.  It went on to win beating a set of books from a very good list which also included my year end Top 10ers by Jodi Picoult and Helen Dunmore.  Dull February days were enlivened by this heartwarming novel.  An unsentimental, humorous tale of a Morecambe guest house which is being used as a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Great central character, Maeve who is pushing 80 and has to come to terms with regrets in her past.  It wasn’t a typical read for me but it works so well on so many levels.

Current Amazon sales rating: 328, 095 in Books

And the reviewsrevues Book of The Year is………….

1.The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017) (Read and Reviewed in December)

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It just had to be this book.  It is Irish author John Boyne’s 10th adult novel (and there are 5 for younger readers). I haven’t read him before but I was blown away by the whole thing right from the first few pages.  I wrote a lengthy review (click on the title to read it) just to justify why it impressed me so much.  “I said It may very well be my favourite books of this decade.” I think this is a book which has a reputation which will grow and grow. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by is the front cover of the paperback edition, but that’s probably nothing to do with the author.

Current Amazon sales rating: 743 in Books

John Boyne joins a select bunch of authors.  Here are my favourites from the last ten years, which probably tells you a considerable amount about me as a reader.

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2018!

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2017- Part 1 (10-6)

In 2017 I managed to read 67 books which is thirteen down on my record breaking score last year but exactly the same number as I read in 2015.  Everything I’ve read has been reviewed on this site and this year I’ve awarded 10 books the maximum five stars, 31 four stars and 26 three stars, which seems to be to be a good spread.  I’ve not read anything which disappointed me enough to get a two star or one star read. I’ve read a lot more books as they are published or  soon after and looking at my Top 10 it is the first year ever where all the books have either been published in 2016 (with the paperback appearing this year), 2017 and in one not-yet-published case 2018.  I think that shows how good writing is at the moment.  I’ve not narrowed the list down to only those which appeared this year.  If I read it this year, then it’s eligible.  (The earliest dated book I read this year was 1931 and Margery Allingham’s “Police At The Funeral” but she hasn’t made the list).

What I haven’t done this year at all is re-read any books (I used to re-read about 10 books a year).  With publishers sending me books and with Netgalley pressures the re-reads have been pushed out, which is a shame as I love re-reading favourites and this is something I’ll need to rebalance in 2018.  Choosing the books for my Top 10 has actually been easier this year because of those 10 five star reads, so all I needed to do was allocate positions for my annual review of my year in books .  Anything that doesn’t make the top 10 gets culled from the bookshelves or off the Kindle, which means this year I’m losing a lot of very good books (but you can’t keep them all, I know I’ve tried in the past!)

Although I’ve read books before by two authors on my Top 10 list for all of them it is their first appearance on the list, so as far as I am concerned, these are likely to be the authors’ best books.  Those also a couple of debut novelists there.  The books are all fiction for the second year running and last year I had a fifty-fifty gender split this year the women have the edge with a 60/40 domination.  All of the titles have been  reviewed on this site- click on the titles to link to the full review.

10. Exposure- Helen Dunmore ( Windmill 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

exposureThis was the second of Helen Dunmore’s novels I have read but her first appearance on my Best Of The Year list.  Set in 1960 in an England paranoid about the Cold War and high profile spy cases this is a thrillingly written thriller which focuses on this paranoia affecting a family when a secret file goes missing.  Helen Dunmore sadly passed away in June this year, aged 64, not long after the publication of her last book “Birdcage Walk” which I am yet to read.  She has left a legacy of 15 novels which demand to be discovered.

Current Amazon sales rating: #4592 in Books

9. The Golden Age – Joan London ( Europa 2016)  (Read in March, reviewed here in May)

goldenageAustralian author Joan London won awards in her homeland with her third novel and here was longlisted for the Wellcome Prize which focuses on books having an emphasis on health.  This was set in a polio hospital in the early 1950’s.  I described it as  “a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 202,593 in Books.

8. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

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The first of this American author’s 23 novels I have read.  Her fans have told me it’s not quite like her other books but there seems to be a general consensus that this is her best.  Picoult is a superb storyteller and I thought this “feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 136 in Books (probably the biggest commercial hit on my list- this was a big seller when it arrived in hardback and then again in paperback).

7. All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2017) (Read in June, reviewed in July)

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Chris Whitaker is great and you should all be buying his books.  He just missed out on my Top 10 last year with his debut “Tall Oaks” and when his latest American set crime novel arrived I was convinced he would be topping best-seller lists.  He impressed me here with “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.”  Chris is a great friend to us bloggers.  I have interviewed him twice and he is the only author this year to make a comment on my review.  I have been told by other bloggers how enthusiastic he is about us all when appearing at book talks.  Oh, and his comment to me, just in case you haven’t seen it : “I love you, Phil. (I worry I don’t tell you that enough)”.  It wasn’t his flattery I succumbed to but the quality of his novel!The best crime novel I read this year.

Current Amazon sales rating: 61,735 in Books (it’s great commercial fiction which should be in Amazon’s best sellers).

6. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017)  (Read and reviewed in September)

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Honestly, it is unlikely that I would have read Kamila Shamsie’s modern retelling of the Antigone myth had it not been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.  I was amazed it did not make the shortlist as I ask everyone who returns a library book copy whether they have enjoyed it and it universally gets the thumbs up.  The author, in this, her seventh novel has recast the ancient Greek characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. I said of this “Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.” A bag of M&Ms has a lot to answer for in this book.

Current Amazon sales rating: 2,197 in books

Next post – My Top 5 reads from 2017

100 Essential Books – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017)

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2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last.  The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog.  It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.

I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it.  Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages.  This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.

The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before.  I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but  I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation.  My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall.  “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated.  I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t.  It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author.  So why has this worked so well for me?  Why is there such a match?

It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it.  As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors.  In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including  Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton.  I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.

Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland.  Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites.  This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.

I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling.  I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently.  Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.

I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day.  There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on.  The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section.  This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels.  Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better.  At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.

Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival.  Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life.  I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure.  I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy.  I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more.  Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.

Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much.  Just get over it!  It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for.  If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017.  Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.