The Library Book – Susan Orlean (2019) – A Real-Life Review

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Here’s a non-fiction work I highlighted as one of the books I wanted to read in 2019 in January’s “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post. Susan Orleans is a writer for New Yorker magazine and has now published five books on disparate subjects, her most celebrated to date being “The Orchid Thief” about those obsessed with the acquisition of the delicate and often very valuable flowers. Here she turns her attention to the Los Angeles Public Library service and in doing so broadens her scope to explore the worldwide importance of libraries, in the past, present and future.

Her main location is the Los Angeles Central Library which, Orlean discovers early on in her research, suffered a devastating fire in 1986 which destroyed much of the building and over a million books not to mention stacks of non-book materials such as photos and microfilm. Orlean, a keen bibliophile, was astounded that an event of such magnitude passed her by and deviates from her plan to celebrate libraries by exploring this in detail and focusing on the young man believed to have deliberately started the fire. This gives the book an element of true crime running throughout it which alongside the more sedate world of the public library works really quite well.

It’s all interspersed in the text, the current administration of the library, the history of libraries in LA with its cast of very memorable characters and this strange and disturbing case of arson which almost definitely got out of hand within a building which was basically a tinderbox. Throughout is the emphasis on how important libraries are to people, past and present and this all (especially budget-cutting politicians) should take note of. A decade or so ago people worldwide were keen to predict the total demise of libraries in the wake of the e-book but this is no longer so as across the globe things are on the up. What might surprise the British reader is how well funded the American service is compared to the UK. There are more public libraries in the USA than there are branches of McDonalds (I wonder if the same applies over here where so many have been closed due to budgetary restrictions) and there are double the number of libraries to retail bookshops. These are just two of the facts I learnt from this book.

All of this celebratory pot-pourri is introduced within short chapters by lists of relevant books titles and their Dewey references which I initially felt gimmicky from a gifted writer but actually won me over as a nice touch which gives some idea where the author is going in each section. The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work. And as I work within public libraries I couldn’t agree more with the author as to their continued importance in the 21st Century.

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The Library Book was published as a hardback by Atlantic Books in 2019.

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Incendiary – Chris Cleave (2005)

 

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When I read Chris Cleave’s 4th novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” (#5 on my Books Of The Year 2017 and one of my 100 Essential Reads) I said “I can tell that this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way” and it has taken me this long to find out whether this is true as I have just read his debut novel. Back in 2005 he was being heralded as a major new voice as this picked up a Somerset Maugham Award for writers under 30.

I’m not surprised this made an impression as it certainly feels original and I can say I’ve not really read anything like it before. The whole thing is written as a letter in a chatty, self-deprecating style from a young mum which would certainly not be out of place in a chick-lit novel. The narrator (whose name we never know) is a highly memorable vibrant character, but, here’s the twist, the letter is being written to Osama Bin Laden and the woman has lost her policeman husband and four year old son in a terrorist attack.

Immediately there is a tension between the style and the content which adds much to the power of the piece. The fictional atrocity obviously both changes the woman’s life and everyday life in London as barrage balloons take to the skies and curfews are set up. Written over a year she addresses this to Bin Laden in order to get the victim’s point across in an extraordinary fashion that manages to be chilling and at times laugh out loud funny. Within this Cleave has much to say about guilt, class, our society and treachery. Unsurprisingly, the humour is very often black and the novel does take on an increasingly nightmarish quality which inevitably bubbles over to another situation fuelled by fear and panic. At this point I did feel temporarily distanced by the action but the author did draw me back in to an extent for the concluding section.

I was impressed with this easy style to express such darkness and at times felt guilty about how much I was enjoying it. The dark subject matter does lead to a disturbed, unsettled feel. You never quite know in what direction the narrator will pull the story. “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is a much more straightforward work with an excellent creation of wartime London based on the author’s personal history and has great richness and depth in plot, style and characterisation showing how the writer matured over the years between that and this but there is no denying the power and audacity of Cleave’s debut.

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Incendiary was published by Chatto and Windus in 2005. In the UK its publication date was 7th July, disturbingly and coincidentally the same day as the London bombings which killed 52 and injured over 700 which certainly would have affected responses to this book from those who came to it soon after publication.  I read a 2009 Sceptre paperback edition.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2019)

 

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Here’s a book I’ve been looking forward to. I highlighted it as one of my must-reads for 2019 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post in January. At that point August seemed a long time away but here it is and I have managed to get my hands on an advance copy.

Last time around Colson Whitehead ended up as #3 in my 2017 Books Of The Year list with the very impressive “The Underground Railroad” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the US and was a big seller over here. I said at the time “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read”. This is why expectations were so high for this.

“The Nickel Boys” focuses on a boys’ reform school, The Nickel Academy, which the author based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.

“The Underground Railroad” focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements. As I was reading it, however, I was expecting it to which did affect the way I approached this novel. I was a little wary in case Colson Whitehead took it off into another direction and left me behind.

It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. The ridiculousness of such viewpoints can be seen here in the character of Jaimie, a mixed-race Mexican boy who “ping pongs” between the two sections of the school. As soon as he becomes tanned by working outside in the sun he is sent to the “coloured” half until he is deemed too light-skinned to be there and sent back. Most of the examples of prejudice are, however, far more chilling than this.

In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.

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The Nickel Boys was published on August 1 2019 by Fleet. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax (BBC4 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I can’t say that, up until recently, I’ve given much thought to Madame Tussaud. I knew she was a real person with obviously a savvy business brain in giving people what they wanted as she established a brand which has lasted for over 150 years. Her Baker Street attraction I associate with long queues of people waiting to get in, my only visit was when I was about 15 which I remember loving although I’ve never been back. What changed things for me was Edward Carey’s excellent 2018 novel about her which I finished a few weeks ago, “Little”, which has got me thinking about her quite a bit recently and so seeing this one hour BBC4 documentary on the schedules seemed a bit of good timing.

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Made by Nina Barbier and narrated by Ben Crystal this used a French cast and subtitles to dramatise important times in her long life. I’m not a huge fan of the dramatised documentary which was here interspersed by talking head experts such as author Kate Berridge, Professor Pamela Milburn from London University and Vanessa Toumlin from Sheffield. There was no involvement from Edward Carey which I was a little disappointed by.

This hour took as its basis Tussaud’s 1838 memoirs as dictated to her friend Francis Herve. In this account truth was twisted as a means of marketing her and her brand, an early and effective example of the “celebrity” biography where events are tweaked somewhat. Marie had altered her birthplace and background from a family of executioners probably because tradition dictated that she would only be able to marry the son of executioners. (Perhaps the most fascinating fact in the programme).
The novel “Little” makes much of her diminutive size, using it as her nickname and for the book’s title. This was not mentioned here.

The most important relationship in her life was the professional association between the young Marie Grosholtz and her mentor Philippe Curtius and it was explored here but  the family dynamics were different from the novel and the fascinating section of the young female waxworker joining the court of Versailles (where she slept in a cupboard) seems to have been total fabrication by Tussaud in her memoirs, but there were enough points of contact between Carey’s fiction, Tussaud’s reworking of her life story and what were the agreed events to make things intriguing.

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What should not be overlooked, and which comes largely after the events of the novel is the great business sense of a woman whose business model was unusually matriarchal, who knew how to use, manipulate and exploit publicity, who knew how important it was to both give people what they paid for and offer them a little bit more if they were prepared and able to pay more and who was able to so successfully and independently assimilate business strategies from other forms of entertainment. (Monsieur Tussaud himself had no significant role in the business, other than spend the proceeds, and was a fairly disastrous match who remained in France when his wife came over to Britain to make her fortune). Like many successful business ventures since she aimed to provide education and wholesome entertainment to those aspiring for improvement as well as recognising our more baser instincts (the “Chamber Of Horrors” set-up was a reason for the waxworks’ lasting success). All in all, Marie Tussaud was a woman who should be remembered for her extraordinary entrepreneurial talent perhaps more so than her abilities with wax.

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Tussauds, London

Truth be told, this drama documentary might have felt a little pedestrian in structure for the casual viewer but it was certainly informative and thought-provoking and because my interest had already been piqued by its subject I was involved throughout.

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Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax was first shown on BBC4 in February 2017 and has been transmitted a few times since then. I caught the showing at 8 pm on Saturday 27th July 2019 which means it is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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I feel like I’m on familiar ground here. Since publication I’ve been aware of this title and was delighted to see it chosen as an end of year pick by Cathy @ 746 Books as featured in my “Looking Around…” post in January. Familiar because this is the third work I have experienced this year that has taken as its source the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, which I have also re-watched this year and which once again blew me away (it’s on Netflix). Actually, it may very well be the 4th because the whole set-up of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is indebted to the 1980’s New York Drag Balls scene which is the subject of this documentary but more explicitly this year we’ve had the Ryan Murphy TV series “Pose” which aired on BBC2 to much acclaim. British author Niven Govinden’s take on this with his 2019 novel “This Brutal House” and now American author Cassara’s debut which was published last year.

Comparisons are inevitable especially as the source material and all of the off-shoots have so far all impressed. Govinden’s novel had as its centre a silent protest against official incompetence in a narrative stream of great energy and rhythm in what was very much a literary take where the plot was less essential than the language and its cast of characters seeking their own family groupings for support and safety. This is also very much the case in “Pose”, character led with great performances and an unprecedented visibility of trans actors but had the Drag Balls themselves more as its focus.

Cassara has focused even closer on the characters, here, the real-life House Of Xtravaganza family, mothered by Angel and comprising of runaways; her lover Hector, transsexual Venus, “banjee boys” Daniel and Juanito and the older observer Dorian, characterisation which will feel familiar to those who have watched “Paris Is Burning” from where their stories are developed.

“The House Of Impossible Beauties” has a wider chronological spread from 1976-1993 which for gay New Yorkers means it has an essentially epic sweep featuring a remarkable period of their history. This encompasses the defining of identity in the hedonistic days of disco, to the forging of their own groupings through the “families” and Drag Balls in the early 80’s leading to a move towards their own self and society’s acceptance and having that shattered through the years of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath.

I think the subjects Cassara deals with are always going to draw me in. This novel is sparky, touching, funny, fiery and yet becomes increasingly tinged with the inevitability of tragedy. Cassara has both followed the plotlines of the Xtravaganzas as featured in “Paris Is Burning” and broadened their existence with his fictional twists. Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter. That is why, like “Pose” this is an important piece of work, which in terms of the journey the author puts the reader through does outshine the slightly later-to-be published “This Brutal House”. For this reason I am awarding it five stars but take note, this is enough now. No more Drag Balls or “Paris Is Burning” inspirations for a while. I am very happy having this novel, “Pose” and “This Brutal House” all representing this era because they are all high quality works, let’s not oversaturate this particular market.

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The House Of Impossible Beauties was published by Oneworld in 2018.

100 Essential CDs – Number 36- After The Dance

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After The Dance (Telstar 1991)

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This 32 track double CD which came out on the TV promoted Telstar label in 1991 puts together a collection of some of the best sweet soul tunes from the 70’s and 80’s.  It is a sophisticated listen with quality performers and a good mixture of the well and lesser known, of hits and tracks that did not make it. There’s a smattering of Motown, Philadelphia International releases alongside Stax and Atlantic with the soul groups who were popular in the early 70’s alongside a few more mid-tempo offerings from artists associated with disco and a few R&B influenced tracks from the 80’s.  The earliest dates from a slab of pure soul from Aretha in 1967  and spans to a debut minor 1987 hit for British soulster Paul Johnson of whom big things would have still been hoped for when this album was released in 1991.  Once you get by the disturbing cover art there are a lot of gems to be found within.

With these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog.  I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD 1

1.Me And Mrs Jones – Billy Paul (1972) (UK#12, US#1)

What a gem of a track to kick things off with.  A song about adultery written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff with Cary Gilbert would not have seemed an obvious pick for a debut number 1 pop hit but Billy Paul’s superb, tender performance won over audiences worldwide and introduced us all to one of the most unique voices in soul music with his jazz style phrasing .  Amazingly, Paul only scored one more US Pop Top 40 hit, the sublime uptempo “Thanks For Saving My Life”.  Like most artists who relied on the songwriting talents of Gamble & Huff his material alternated between out and out romance of tracks such as “When Love Is New” and the mawkish “Let’s Make A Baby” and social commentary such as “Am I Black Enough For You?” and “Bring The Family Back”.  He was also a great song-stylist as his versions of his trio of 1977 UK hits, in particular, Elton John’s “Your Song” (a UK#37 hit), but also Paul McCartney’s “Let Em In” (UK #26) and Jerry Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive” (UK#33) testify.  But it is for tale of a secret rendezvous for which he will always be remembered.  Billy Paul passed away in 2016 aged 81.

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2. Love Won’t Let Me Wait – Major Harris (1975) (UK#37, US#5)

Perhaps one of the all-time tender love songs Major Harris, is here like much of Barry White’s output concentrating on the bedroom in this soft-porn epic with heavy breathing which would have denied it much daytime radio play and might explain its lowly UK chart placing.  The Major had a member of the Delfonics in the early 70’s (but after the hit for the group which appears on this CD) and Atlantic Records had high hopes of him becoming a major solo star but this was his only US chart placing.  He continued to record on various labels until the mid 90’s with only his 1983 London label release “All My Life” attracting any attention in the UK.  Once again this great performance is what he is remembered for.

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3. I’ll Be Good To You- Brothers Johnson (1976) (US#3)
4. Peek-A-Boo- The Stylistics (1973) (UK#35)
5.Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics (1970) (UK#22, US#10)
6. Homely Girl – The Chi-Lites (1974) (UK#5)
7. You Are My Starship – Norman Connors ft Michael Henderson (1976) (US#27)
8. Games People Play – Detroit Spinners (1975) (US#5)
9. Walk Away From Love – David Ruffin (1975) (UK#10, US#9)

Another of the great voices of soul music.  Ruffin’s gravelly voice blistered its way through many Temptations hit and as a solo artist did not reach the heights expected of him, although this was at least in part to his own personal demons.  For me, his greatest association was his mid 70’s teaming up with Van McCoy. This is where McCoy’s work was strongest, the albums he did with Ruffin, with Melba Moore and Faith, Hope & Charity had powerful gospel-drenched voices cutting through his Soul City Symphony lushness in a way that his work with the sweeter voiced Stylistics did not.  This is one of Motown’s great 70’s singles and a welcome comeback for the man whose only US hit had been six years previous and who in the UK was overshadowed by brother Jimmy.

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There was a lot of hat-wearing on 70’s R&B album covers!

10. Loving You, Losing You – Phyllis Hyman (1977)

And whilst we are talking about personal demons, the hugely under-rated Phyllis was plagued with them which led to her taking her own life in 1985.  Album releases on Buddah, Arista and Philadelphia showed huge potential but she may have been too sophisticated for the commercial masses.  There were business disappointments throughout her career, a James Bond theme recording never made it on to the film, collaborations with artists ranging from Barry Manilow, The Four Tops and Michael Henderson (whose “You Are My Starship” also appears here) did not pay the dividends expected  and a dependency on cocaine sealed an inevitable and tragic early demise. It’s inexplicable how this club classic from her debut album failed to make chart headway in 1977.  It opens with an epic sweep, a great introduction before Phyllis performs beautifully on this Thom Bell song.

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11. Risin’ To The Top – Keni Burke (1982)
12. Love Me – Diana Ross (1974) (UK#38) (also on Motown Chartbusters Volume 9)
13.Still Water (Love) – Four Tops (1970) (UK#10, US#11)
14. I’ll Be There – Jackson 5 (1970) (UK#4, US#1)
15. Winter Melody – Donna Summer (1976) (UK#27)

The first indication that Donna Summer would survive the disco boom was this under-stated ballad track from her themed “Four Seasons Of Love” which surprisingly became a hit in the UK over Christmas 1976.  It’s ethereal, whispy Donna and it is always a joy to hear.  Because of it’s non-success in her homeland it often does not appear on Summer compilations, for example, its not on the essential “Anthology” release nor on “Hit Singles & More” nor “I Feel Love: The Collection” but can be found here as well us on the three CD “Ultimate Collection”.  It’s a lovely track which shows a different side of Donna.

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16. Natural High- Bloodstone (1973) (UK#40, US#10)

CD 2

1.Rolling Down A Mountainside – The Main Ingredient (1975)
2.Freedom For The Stallion – The Hues Corporation (1974)
3. Shake You Down – Gregory Abbott (1986) (UK#6, US#1)

What on earth happened here?  The title track from Abbott’s debut self-written and self-produced album leapt to the top of the US charts and was a big hit worldwide introducing us all to a classy, slick piece of mid-tempo sing-along soul.  Record label Columbia must have thought they had the next big thing on their hands.  A gifted good-looking all-rounder the album went platinum and then… well, nothing to bother chart compilers although he has continued to record to the present day.  It’s one of those weird occasions when the world fell in love with a performer and then fell out of love just as quickly with this highly talented singer becoming one of the ultimate one-hit-wonders on both side of the Atlantic.  Obviously, the real strength here must be the song, which Abbott wrote, and it still sounds good.

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4. You Can’t Change That – Ray Parker Jnr (1979)
5. Let Me Make Love To You – The O’Jays (1975)
6. When Love Comes Calling – Paul Johnson (1987) (UK#52)
7. Private Number – William Bell & Judy Clay (1968) (UK#8)
8. I Surrender -Heatwave (1990)
9. Could It Be I’m Falling In Love – Detroit Spinners (1973) (UK#11, US#4)

Or the Spinners as they are known in their homeland but here we need something to differentiate them from the folk group of the same name.  Whilst at Motown they were known as The Motown Spinners and recorded some great tracks but it was after the move to Atlantic where they really came into their own.  There are two of their very best tracks included on these CDs and this is one of their best known although I’ve always been a big fan of the slightly less slick “Games People Play” which was not a UK hit but a Top 5 hit stateside.   The magic kicked in when they began working with songwriter Thom Bell and vocalist Phillippe Wynn joined the group.  Lead vocals were shared between three members which gave them longevity and yet meant their sound was not as instantly recognisable as some of the  R&B groups of the time.  They had two chart-topping singles, in the US it was with a duet with Dionne Warwick in 1974 but they had to wait until 1980 to do it in the UK with their medley of “Working My Way Back To You” and “Forgive Me Girl” which sounded a little pedestrian compared to some of the great tracks that came before.

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10. I’m Doing Fine Now – New York City (1973) (UK#20, US#17)
11. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin (1967) (US#8)
12. Free- Deniece Williams (1977) (UK#1, US#25)

With hindsight there wasn’t a more influential American R&B group in the 1970’s than Earth, Wind & Fire but the only UK number 1 single they were involved with came not from themselves, despite so many classic tracks, nor with The Emotions, who had one of the 70’s biggest hits in the US with “Best Of My Love” but with this subtle, sophisticated performance from Deniece Williams who had moved from working with Stevie Wonder as one of his backing singers to a debut album produced by Maurice White and Charles Stepney. This track doesn’t even feel that commercial even compared to some of the other songs on the album and feels more like a vocal performance highlighting her incredible range than a song yet it topped the charts and Deniece Williams became a much-loved artist in the UK.  Amazingly, Deniece became the first black American female solo singer to top the UK charts since Diana Ross in 1971.  Post the EWF connection she scored two US chart-toppers which were also Top 3 hits in the UK, helping Johnny Mathis to a resounding comeback with the too warbly “Too Much Too Little Too Late” and the crowning glory of the “Footloose” soundtrack “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”, but this is where it all started for her.

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13. Honey Please, Can’t Ya See – Barry White (1975)
14. Superstar/ Until You Come Back To Me – Luther Vandross (1983)
15. Baby I’m Yours – Linda Lewis (1976) (UK#33)

Another huge vocal range and a greatly under-rated performer who should be treated as a British National Treasure.  Too versatile to fit into the constraints of a 1970’s pop career Lewis touched on rock, folk, show tunes, operatics and soul music and was a highly regarded songwriter.  Here she is in disco mode which had earlier in 1976 seen her score one of her biggest UK hits with her phenomenal version of “It’s In His Kiss” where her vocals swooped and soared over a huge production.  Here she covers a Van McCoy penned song first recorded by an inspiration of hers, 60’s US soul singer Barbara Lewis from whom she took her surname.  (Linda’s real name is Fredericks yet even her sisters Shirley and Dee record under the Lewis name).  Once again it’s first class, yet did not get the chart position it deserved.  Everything is thrown into what is perhaps even a bigger production than its predecessor and even if some felt Linda was selling out in conforming to the demands of the commercial market she certainly gives it 100%.

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16. I Want Your Love – Chic (1979) (UK#4, US#7)

A great way to finish this CD is perhaps the classiest thing Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards ever did with Chic.  Best known for more out-there disco tracks everything is reined in a little here with a great build, superb orchestration and that familiar scratchy Chic sound.  Nile of course, is still very much influencing the music business, a favourite at festivals and it is because of tracks like this that his music has transcended the decades.

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After The Dance is currently available on Amazon in the UK for £4.97 and used for £0.62.  I think I would be hard pushed to recommend a finer compilation of 70’s/80’s soul sounds.

The Meaning Of Night- Michael Cox (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Revenge has a long memory”

My first re-read for some time is this historical thriller which was my Book Of The Year back when I read it as a new paperback in 2007. It has sat on my shelves since then and the reason I picked it up for a revisit was although revenge may have a long memory (a dominant theme in the book) I obviously do not as I could remember nothing about it other than I loved it. I wasn’t alone in my admiration as at the time it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award but was beaten by the eventual overall winner Stef Penney for “The Tenderness Of Wolves”.

I can remember feeling that Michael Cox, a writer and academic known for anthologising Victorian short stories was a major new novel writing talent. Sadly, there was only to be one more novel, a sequel “The Glass Of Time” before he succumbed to cancer aged 61 in 2009. His debut was a work in progress for decades before reputedly a prescription for a steroid drug as preparation for treatment for tumours and loss of sight caused a significant burst of energy which resulted in him beginning to put this work together and saw him bring it and the sequel to completion following his temporarily successful treatment. This moving sequence of events of a writer driven to finish his magnum opus seems fitting for this large, intense, dark novel and this truly is a testament to the talents of Michael Cox.

The author’s feel for the Victorian period is evident throughout and it has real authenticity with strong elements of Wilkie Collins and Dickens making it a rich but in no way a quick read. It begins with a random murder carried out on the streets of London in 1854 by the narrator Edward Glyver whose confession we are reading. The reasons for this, the events leading up to and following this crime form the whole narrative. It is a tale of revenge and betrayal with the central location the country estate of Evenwood and the family who live here. The usual suspects of opium, prostitution, class and hypocrisy are all present but none of it feels any way cliched. This is because the author has really assimilated the period and obviously knows so much about it, garnered from years of research and this permeates the text in a natural and convincing way, particularly in the field of book collecting. An “editor’s” footnotes to the text gives the fiction a further air of authenticity as do other documents pertaining to the events in much the same way as Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” (2015).

I will admit there were times when I felt I was ploughing through this somewhat (as indeed I have done with many Victorian novels that I have ended up loving) and throughout I was concerned about how little I had remembered from last time round but like many of the novels from the period it emulates it did pull me right in and any effort in the reading was rewarded. On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.

I haven’t read the sequel from 2008 (this was so far under the radar that I didn’t even know it existed until researching for this but given the circumstances of the author’s health issues at the time this is not surprising) but have just ordered it hopefully to read while this novel is still fresh in my mind and I will not be parting with my (now quite well worn) paperback copy of “The Meaning Of Night” anytime soon.
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The Meaning of Night was published in 2006. I read the 2007 John Murray paperback edition.

Tribute to Ian McKay

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On a comment on my last post I was informed of the passing of author Ian McKay on Sunday 7th July following a battle with lymphatic cancer.  Back in 2015 I reviewed Ian’s debut comic novel “Something Fishy” and he agreed to be interviewed as part of my Author Strikes Back Thread.  This established a connection with Ian’s wife Monika who has since then been one of the main contributors of comments to this site and has initiated many discussions here over the past four years.  My thoughts are with her and with Ian’s family and friends at this sad time.  As way of a tribute I thought I would repost the interview which first appeared here in August 2015.

The Author Strikes Back – Ian McKay Interview

I am absolutely delighted to welcome Ian Mckay to take part in the third interview in my Author Strikes Back category.   Ian has recently published “Something Fishy” – a comic novel centred around a fishing trip and I am very grateful that he has found time to respond to my questions.

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It has taken you quite a time to put out your debut novel.  How did this come about? 

I suppose that the best way to answer your first question would be to say that I’ve been so busy ‘living an  eventful life’ that I haven’t really had much time to sit down and devote the time I needed to actually write my first book.  So, as you can imagine, apart from a few sporadic forays into the worlds of short stories and poetry writing, the economics of paying the bills and putting food on the table for a wife and four children: plus the emotional trauma of an acrimonious divorce 22 years later, left me with very little time to pursue my passion for writing. For anyone who cares to know a little more on the reason why I didn’t publish  my first novel until the age of 76, the ‘About Me’ page on my web site, http://Ian-McKay.com will tell you more.

Ian is certainly an inspiration for all of us who have put the writing on the back burner and is proof that it’s never too late to realise your dreams .

Your Disclaimer at the front of the book states it is based on “some true events”.  Without giving too much away could you reveal one of those true events for us?

In my disclaimer I did, indeed, say parts of my book were based on ‘Some true events’, one of which was the incident that happened on the charter fishing boat. When, much to the amusement of the other fishermen, the character ‘Mara’, sneezed and his false teeth shot out over the side of the boat and into the sea. 

One of the other anglers, who also wore false teeth, covertly took out his     dentures and tied them to the end of his fishing line, to fool Mara into thinking that he had ‘caught’ the set of dentures that Mara had sneezed out over the side. What he hadn’t counted on was that, when Mara popped the dentures into his mouth; and, realised that they didn’t fit, that he would take them out and throw them over the side, back into the sea.  

  The subsequent discovery of the teeth inside a large cod was pure invention on my part; and, believe it or not, the episode, back in Liverpool, when they ‘took Charlie Abbott home’ did also actually happen, however, to protect the guilty, I can’t say any more about that!

What books have made you laugh?

The books that have made me laugh are those written by Tom Sharpe, such as ‘Porterhouse Blue’; and, in particular, the ‘Wilt’ series, absolutely hilarious!

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Who are your comedy heroes?

My comedy heroes are many; however, if I had to make a choice, it would have to be the inspired ensemble of the whole cast of ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

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I think that the writer of the series; who, sadly, died of viral pneumonia in 2011, was a comic genius.   Most people will remember the names of the main characters Del-Boy & Rodney, but how many remember the name of the man, without whom the series would never have been born, John Sullivan, the man who wrote ’Only Fools and Horses’?

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I also have been found, on occasions, collapsed in a heap, laughing at the ‘Allo Allo’ series, a brilliant comedy set during the second world war, in Nazi occupied France; incongruously brilliant.

What’s next for Ian McKay?

Well, as my M A degree is in writing for film and television, I have one or two comedy film scripts to my name that I intend to re-format into books: and, as a point of interest, ‘Something Fishy’ started its life as a feature length comedy film script too.

Paradoxically, I am also writing a factual series called ‘The Nazis’, which covers the period from the end of the 1st World War up until the Nuremburg war crimes trials. The first two books are titled as, ‘From The Kaiser to Weimar’ and ‘From Weimar to Hitler’. The third book in the series, ‘Hitler’s First Year’ is still a work in progress.

I would like to thank Ian for providing me with a copy of “Something Fishy” and for answering my questions and I’d like to remind you that this comic novel is available from Amazon both as a paperback and as a Kindle edition by following this direct link. Ian’s non-fiction titles mentioned above are also available from Amazon or by following the link from his website http://Ian-McKay.com

Buy “Something Fishy” from Amazon.co.uk

My original review of “Something Fishy” can be found here

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape 2019) – A Rainbow Read

 

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ocean vuong

Thirty-one year old Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-born poet who moved to Connecticut with his extended family whilst still a toddler. Dyslexic, gay and agoraphobic his first collection of poems which explored some of these areas together with his experience of being from a background influenced by traumatic experiences was entitled “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” and achieved huge critical acclaim including the TS Eliot Prize in 2017.

Vuong has decided to follow this up with an autobiographical novel focusing on his childhood which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.

Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son it is with the grandmother and grandson where the heart of this novel really lies.

The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and  herding buffalos plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.

This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape in June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (2018)

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It’s been a long wait.  13 years since the publication of one of my all-time favourite novels “The Book Thief” Australian author Markus Zusak is back.  For a writer of an acknowledged modern classic this book snuck out last year and has recently appeared in paperback.  This relative lack of fanfare and the time between the two novels made me a little anxious but when I saw a copy on the library shelves I knew I just had to rejig my reading schedule to fit it in.

 This is actually Zusak’s 6th novel, those before his major breakthrough being aimed at the young adult market, one of which “I Am The Messenger” (2002) has been sitting on my shelves unread for some time but I have not dared to read it in case my admiration for this author is any way diminished.  In fact both “The Book Thief” and this latest novel could be seen as being appropriate for young adults but both demand a wider audience.

 There are elements of the predecessor in “Bridge Of Clay”, especially in the narrative style.  Here, Matthew Dunbar slowly weaves the tale of his family, jumping backwards and forwards in time, half-revealing events that are explored fully later in much the same way as Death does when he narrates “The Book Thief”.  Here, however, the stakes are not so high, the plot is a family tale without the huge issues that makes “The Book Thief” such an important read.  Books are once again important, a well-thumbed biography of Michelangelo spans the generations and there’s a lot of running which reminded me of Rudy and his Jesse Owens obsession.

 Matthew narrates the story of his parents and his four brothers but especially Clay, a gifted runner who is attracted to his neighbour Carey, an apprentice jockey, and who is torn by the loss of both of his parents and determined to build bridges in every sense when a face from the past shows up.  To start with it does feel all over the place, as did “The Book Thief” (I always advise the many people I have recommended the book to stick with it until they are used to the narrative conceit) as initially some of the events are hard to follow but it all makes sense as we are drip-fed the story of the Dunbars.

 Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.  Like “The Book Thief” which improves with each re-read I think the events that washed over me on first reading will have a much deeper significance on a revisit.  This is one of those books that when you finish you will be tempted to start all over again.  I’ve got to hand my library copy back but I will be purchasing this so I can read it again.  True, thematically, it is all on a much smaller scale than “The Book Thief” and lacks the power and perhaps some of the lasting resonance of that work but it is high-quality fiction which did everything to me that a very good book should.  After over a decade of waiting my expectations were shaky but really I couldn’t have asked for more from this book.

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 Bridge Of Clay was published by Doubleday in 2018.  I read the 2019 Black Swan paperback edition.