Good As You – Paul Flynn (2017) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “From Prejudice To Pride: 30 Years Of Gay Britain” Paul Flynn’s non-fiction publication seems a timely work.  Gay Pride has been particularly visible this year in our streets and through the media celebration of fifty years of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.  The grainy black and white footage of men dancing together at a house party has been used many times in various television documentaries produced recently.  Such is the paucity of images from this era.

Flynn uses a different starting point to show how far we have come in this cultural history of Gay Britain.  As a twelve year old boy growing up in Wythenshawe his life experienced a seismic shift around a TV on a Thursday night watching the perennial British game-changer “Top Of The Pops”.  In our multiplatform digitial age it’s hard to recall just how influential to young Britain this show was.  Two acts with  openly band member appeared in 1984- The Communards and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax” (banned by the BBC) seemed to suggest aspects of life certainly never portrayed on a chart-topping single before.

These highly significant acts challenged the stereotypical depiction of gay men for a generation brought up on John Inman, Danny La Rue and Larry Grayson.  As much as Quentin Crisp’s life portrayed in “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975) had been lauded as ground-breaking television (and it was) it distressed a generation unsure of its sexuality and probably banged as many closet doors shut tight at it opened. 

These men had their own part to play towards acceptance but we needed to open the closet door a little wider to let other representations and role-models out.

From this time forward the whole of British society begins to inch towards a time where equality and gay marriage becomes both possible and stops mattering to objectors so much that they think the world will implode if it happens.  It’s certainly been a one step forward one step back approach and Flynn records with this with clarity and conviction.  There’s the characters of Colin and Barry in “Eastenders” which for a time became “Eastbenders” after a hateful diatribe from the Sun newspaper after Colin gave Barry a peck on the forehead.  Michael Cashman, who played Colin, now sits in the House of Lords, an out gay pillar of establishment with a superb record on gay rights whilst the straight actor who played Barry found himself afterwards being turned down by children’s television because he had played a gay character on TV.  That move from unacceptability to acceptance and recognition is tracked in this book.  Following this ludicrous objection it seems extraordinary that within a short space of time we had “Queer As Folk”, Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will Young winning “Pop Idol.

goodasyou7The kiss that supposedly distressed a nation

There is an examination of the music industry where Stephen Gateley was forced to open the closet door by a tabloid threatening to out him amidst a climate where the whole collapse of Boyzone’s career was anticipated should this information ever come out.  This was evidence that the Britain the media portrayed was different to how things were as his honesty was applauded and his popularity soared.  From here this nervous industry is followed to Olly Alexander from chart-topping Years and Years where his sexuality is just a given and who made a recent personal and brave documentary about the mental health issues of teens coming out.

Along the way there are chapters on the AIDS crisis and the British government response which undoubtedly saved many lives and terrified us all, regardless of sexuality or risk; the development of Manchester into a gay-friendly city; the importance of the pink pound leading to publications such as “Attitude” and the part sport has to play from the shameful treatment of Justin Fashanu, forced to put his head unwillingly above the parapet leading to a hounding which led to his suicide to Tom Daley, whose public coming out and marriage to a man, where the age difference might once have been deemed “predatory” being totally accepted because we all now understand that this national treasure is happy and living his life as he should.  Professional football still have a long way to go with these issues.

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Dustin & Tom – “as good as you”

This is an informative, nostalgic read.  It is very much a personal response from Flynn who went from his Wythenshawe front room to a journalism career, to London, to ending up as a guest at Elton and David’s wedding.  He certainly has the experiences, the authority and involvement in what he records to offer his take on developments.  There were many things I had  forgotten, many things I didn’t know and many things I did not realise the significance of at the time, as to how they fit into this British journey “from prejudice to pride”.  It is a great read for the general reader, for anyone interested in social history and is a highly illuminating book on popular culture.  I really enjoyed it. Once again I find myself hovering towards the five star buttons but on reflection this is a book which feels very much of its time (2017) so might not have the lasting value my all-time classic rating of 5 stars would suggest.  But it’s certainly a very close call.

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Good As You was published by Ebury Press, part of the Penguin Random House group in 2017.

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 44 – Pet Shop Boys – Bilingual

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Bilingual- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1996) 

   UK Chart Position – 4

      US Chart Position –39

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Studio album number 6 from the Pet Shop Boys missed out on a UK Top 3 chart position, something which the other five had achieved.  It’s an extraordinary fact because it was, as far as I was concerned, their fifth essential studio release in a row, and may just very well be my all-time favourite of their albums.

It had been three years since the release of the chart-topping “Very”.  In the meantime we had the second album of club dance remixes of tracks in “Disco 2” which reached number 6 and the fairly splendid if a little patchy double album of B-sides “Alternative” which reached number 2.  A tour of South America after the release of “Very” provided inspiration for this new release as many of the tracks are infused with a heavy measure of Latin flavour which gives them an extra joyfulness which always makes this CD a pleasure to listen to.  In 1996 its early autumn release brought back a little bit of fiesta sunshine into our lives.  Unusually, for the album’s original release all of the songs are written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.  The reinvention of a song not associated with them had been around since they hit chart pay-dirt with “Always On My Mind”.  (A deluxe edition of the CD was released the following year which contained the boys’ take on “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” which had given them a Top 10 hit single. I don’t think Tennant doing battle with Bernstein’s melody and Sondheim’s lyrics really fits into the concept of the album so we will stick with the original twelve tracks).  The album is produced by the Boys with assistance on some of the tracks from Chris Porter, US DJ Danny Tenaglia, and Paul Roberts and Andy Williams who better known as K-Klass had scored a Top 3 hit of their own in 1993 with club classic “Rhythm Is A Mystery.”

Danny Tenaglia & K-Klass

Much of this South-American influence can be found in opening track “Discoteca” in its Spanish chant “Hay una discoteca por aqui?” and complexity of multi-layered rhythms which with its keyboard refrain gives it a real richness of sound.  Neil is in questioning self-analytical mode which comes back to the repeated chant and which makes for a haunting, impressive opener.  The “Hawaii-5-O” type drums thunder their way straight into the next track which is one of the finest of all PSB singles and my favourite track on the album, the exciting “Single” which begins with its “I’m Single/Bilingual” refrain and eases its way into a song about the lone traveller on international business.  A tale of expense accounts, lonely hotel rooms and fax messages waiting at reception – “I come to the community from UK PLC “.  It has a great depth of sound to it, and with its musical references to the previous track provides a kind of flow which is unusual for a PSB album.  As a single the appropriately titled “Single” was the third released from the album and reached number 14 in the UK.  Neil’s still looking for that disco as the track ends and moves into the house-influenced  “Metamorphosis” which features sterling vocal work from Sylvia Mason-James.  It’s feels like an old style track as Neil delivers one of his impassive raps, which echoes tracks from the previous decade such as “Left To My Own Devices”, his “all about love/it’s a metamorphosis” does give me the same feeling of delight I had when he heard the distant feet of Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. This is the track that had production duties shared between Pet Shop Boys and K-Klass.

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“Electricity” is a slinkier track with its sampled female voice “What does it mean/What are you doing in San Francisco”.  It delightfully refers to one of the great neglected acts of the disco era “the greatest show with the best effects since Disco Tex and the Sex O Lettes”.  Flamboyant DJ Monti Rock III became Disco Tex in 1974 and scored with two odd-ball extravaganzas of Top 10 singles “Get Dancin’ “ (UK#8,US#10) and the even campier “I Wanna Dance Wit Choo (Doo Dat Dance) (UK#6, US#23).  The whole enterprise was a knowing nod towards self-aggrandisement, there was a lot of style (of a fashion) and not much real substance to the act.  I can’t imagine they had the greatest show and best effects so I’ve always taken that line ironically, although I’m sure that Disco Tex would have thought that he had the greatest show and best effects.  It’s a great line, but to be honest, like the best of the Sex O Lettes there’s not a great deal behind this track other than that repeated refrain.

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More joy follows and whoever says the Pet Shop Boys are just miserable needs a dose of “Se Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is)” which continues the feel of the first two tracks, a Mardi Gras of a track, yet always more mid-tempo than I remember.  Single wise it was a top 10 hit (UK#8) released in August 1996 a month or so before the album.  It certainly gave us an appropriate taste for the album and who can’t warm to lyrics such as;

“Why do you want to sit alone in gothic gloom surrounded by the ghosts of love that haunt your room? Somewhere there’s a different door to open wide.  You gotta throw those skeletons out of your closet and come outside.”

Pass me those maracas, Neil!  It’s no surprise it was a Top 5 hit in Spain and also got the thumbs up in Finland, where the Boys were used to scoring high chart positions.  Things cool down for “It Always Comes As A Surprise” which starts off a little sounding like early Jamiroquai before turning into a pretty love song.  There’s none of the conflict of relationships in the previous albums.  It’s the sound of contentment in the early days of relationship “You smile and I am rubbing me eyes at a dream come true”.  Reading between the lines this may not be the most balanced of  partnerships.  There’s evidence that the other half is questioning and unwilling to be rushed into “love all night in your bedroom”, but at the moment things are all good for Neil.  Nice cool sax solo and the sophisticated Latin elegance is enhanced by a subtle sample from Brazilian bossa nova legend  Astrud Gilberto’s “Corcovado”.

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“Red Letter Day” is another of the anthemic “Go West” PSB tracks with a drum intro into the male choral voices.  I always like these sort of tracks from the Boys and this is up there with the best of them.  It was released as the fourth single from the album and it caused its own red letter day making chart history.  It probably isn’t the record they would have been hoping to break as it scored the biggest fall of a chart single on its second week in the chart to that date.  It came in at a respectable number 9 but the next week suffered a 33 place drop to fall outside the Top 40.  Bigger drops have been recorded since then but it seems that this single release was perhaps  of real interest to the fans who bought it in the week it came out.  Despite this unfortunate occurrence it is still a great track and fits in well on the album.

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“Up Against It” combines clever lyrics with a danceable tune, with once again the Latin feel percolating underneath.  “The Survivors” feels like it is taking us back to a wintry London in an unshowy ballad.  This leads into the track that was the biggest hit from the album “Before”.  Released over 4 months before the album it was good to hear it again in this new context.  It reached number 7 in the UK charts and made the Top 10 in Finland (again) and Sweden, amongst others.  It also scored the duo a Billboard Number 1 as it topped the US Hot Dance Club Play charts.  Major commercial US hits had eluded the duo for over 8 years since the heady days of “Domino Dancing” (US#18 1988) their last big hit there to date. This is the first of the two tracks that had been worked on alongside Danny Tenaglia, the other being the disco joy of “Saturday Night Forever” which closes the album in magnificent style.  Before this there’s “To Step Aside” which benefits from a sample of what sounds a little like Native American singing, speeded up.  Another track which still sounds good twenty-one years later.

“Bilingual” was the last PSB album I would consider to be essential.  It’s not that they went off the boil from this point but this unprecedented run of five classic albums came to an end for me with their next release “Nightlife” (1999) which despite the storming “New York City Boy” and great titles such as “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore” and “You Only Tell Me  You Love Me When You’re Drunk” didn’t feel quite as relevant as everything that had gone on before.  Albums such as “Fundamental”(2006)  and “Elysium” (2012) were solid rather than inspirational but they did notch up another first-class release with their 2009 CD “Yes”.  Their last album to date has been 2016’s hopefully titled “Super”.  As far as I am concerned any one of the albums I have featured as essential would have cemented the PSB’s place in pop music history but the twelve tracks they put out in 1996 might just inch ahead of  the greater commercial success of “Very” as their best.

Bilingual  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.14 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £4.99. In the US it is currently $10.38 new and used from $3.08 and as a download for $9.49.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

The Man Booker Prize 2017 – From Longlist to Shortlist

manbookerYesterday saw the announcement of the six titles deemed worthy to be on the 2017 Man Booker shortlist.  I’d been attempting to read as many as possible on the longlist in the hope that I would pretty much have the shortlist covered and read before the announcement of the winner on 17th October  just over a month’s time.  I read six of the titles on the longlist.  The reviews can be found be following the links:

Swing Time – Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)    ****

Autumn – Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)   ****

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017) *****

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber 2017) ****

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) *****

History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) ***

With two excellent five star reads discovered I was confident that I had maybe even read the eventual winner.  But good old Booker, unpredictable as ever.  The Whitehead and Shamsie books have failed to make the shortlist.  Of the six I have read only two have made the cut and one of those is the only one I rated as three star.  In case you missed out here is the shortlist.

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Autumn- Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016) –  I described this as “it will repay re-reading” and “it is certainly shortlist-worthy)

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History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) – I said “it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.”

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4321- Paul Auster (Faber & Faber 2017) – Yes, thanks for this Man Booker judges.  I got this from the library where I found it taking up a good chunk of shelf space.  It’s 866 pages of large hardback which probably explains why it hadn’t been borrowed much.  I’ve been saving it until the shortlist announcement, secretly hoping that it might not make it and then I would return it unread.  Now I’m going to have to go for it.  Hope it’s worth it.  It’s presence on the shortlist means that readers will now start requesting it so I better crack on with it asap.  Paul Auster is the only one of the four authors who I have read books by before.

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Elmet – Fiona Mozley (JM Originals 2017) – A debut novel from a British author.  I originally thought it odd that someone would write about those large cans of hairspray you see in hairdressers, but apparently that’s Elnet.  I bought this yesterday from Waterstones and I will be reading it if there is anytime left after I’ve finished 4321.

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Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (Bloomsbury Publishing 2017)- American author.  This is currently not yet available as a paperback.  I bought a Kindle copy as it is much cheaper.  (£4.99 on Amazon yesterday).  According to Ladbrokes this seems to be the early favourite.

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Exit West – Moshin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton 2017) – I saw this at Waterstones (they actually had signed copies in the branch I was in) but thought I’d hold out on this for a bit until I’ve cleared the backlog of reading, which probably means that this will be the winner!

Many congratulations to the six authors that have made the shortlist.  I hope the four I haven’t read are outstanding as they have taken the places of sure-fire contenders Colson Whitehead and Kamila Shamsie.  It’s very unusual for me to back the actual winner but I’m certainly going to get reading in order to voice my opinion.

History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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It’s always great to see debut novelists on the Man Booker lists. It feels like we have been given a privileged opportunity to be there right from the beginning. The work a debut novelist has to do to see their book in print is often tremendous and all too often first novels vanish making barely a ripple. So I welcome American author Fridlund’s book onto the longlist.

We are in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, the home of fourteen year old main character Madeline, known as “Linda” but to some at school as “Freak”. She lives with her parents in the remains of a commune, without a great deal of parental intervention and with mainly the tethered dogs for company.

Two things change for Linda. A new teacher invites her to participate in a Schools Challenge for which she chooses the “history of wolves” and a family move opposite her across the lake with Paul, a young child for who Linda begins to babysit. These events provide Linda’s entry into an adult world as she becomes drawn towards both the teacher and the new family’s life. We learn very early on that this leads to the death of a child.

The tale meanders around different times in Linda’s life but it is the main thread of the teenager’s search for belonging and an end to her aching loneliness that is by far the most involving. The warped values of the world she inhabits also very much motivates the adult Linda. It is a very calm book, perhaps surprisingly with its distressing emotive themes but it lacks a little of the build I would look for in a book of this kind. I felt it petering out before the end. Linda’s existence is evocatively created, however, and a number of scenes will stick in my mind for some time but it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.

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History of Wolves was published by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson in February 2017

 

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Whether American author Colson Whitehead’s novel makes the Man Booker shortlist or not this book is likely to be commercially the biggest seller of the lot, due to its very good word of mouth which is creating an army of devotees and also its raft of American literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Deservedly so? Absolutely!

This is a little gem of a novel which has Barack Obama claiming “terrific” on the cover and was helped up the bestsellers lists by Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm.  If Whitehead wins the Man Booker and he must be up there with a very strong chance, he will be the third man of colour in a row following Jamaican Marlon James and American Paul Beatty.  Whitehead’s book is, as far as I am concerned better than these two winners.

It is the story of Cora, who begins the novel as a slave on a plantation in Georgia.  The first section is involving but nothing that we have not read before, well researched from slave accounts.  I felt that I knew where the novel was going.  All this changed with Cora’s escape on the Underground Railroad, which many will know as a network of supporters and safe places which helped escapees in their bid towards freedom.  Whitehead has made this a physical thing in his book, an actual railroad which operates underground.  One character says of it;

“Most people think it’s a figure of speech…….. The Underground.  I always knew better.  The secret beneath us, the entire time.”

 Operating in the book almost like a primitive Hogwarts Express characters emerge from this surreal journey not knowing where they are into Whitehead’s fictional representation of a Southern American location, as if they are Dorothy in Oz or Gulliver on his travels but here the new locations provides a different aspect of the black American experience.

A word being used frequently about this novel is “dazzling”, appropriate enough for the characters emerging from the darkness of the underground system as well as for the tale Whitehead spins for his readers.  Strong characterisation, a rich and imaginative plot, this is a book I found myself slowing down as I got near the end as I didn’t want the experience to finish.

I knew I was going to like this book and bought it in paperback as soon as the longlist was announced.  It was a novel I had earmarked for reading whether it made the lists or not.  I was worried that because I had built it up in my head it would be disappointing (which is how I felt about “The Essex Serpent”).  I certainly was not disappointed on this occasion.  It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.  Whether the Man Booker judges will, in order to ensure a balance of winners, will favour a female or British author remains to be seen but this would be a deserving winner.

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The Underground Railroad was published in paperback in the UK in June 2017.  It is currently number 53 in Amazon’s Top 100 books and is the number 1 bestseller in their “Metaphysical and Visionary” category.

 

Days Without End- Sebastian Barry (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this.  I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.

 Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage.  With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.”  The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military.  Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.

Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances.  This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly.  There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result.  Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.

It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter.  In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times.  I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.

Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker.  “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?

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Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017.  The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2017) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best Of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today.  Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives.  Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.

I didn’t know the myth beforehand and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t, although it did make me want to seek it out once I’d finished Shamsie’s adaptation.  I went with one of her recommended versions and listened on spoken word CD to another 2017 Man Booker longlisted author Ali Smith who narrates her children’s book “The Story Of Antigone” (2013).  In an interview following the story she says of this source material;

“It’s the kind of story that will always be relevant for all sorts of reasons because some things never change no matter what century we’re in and no matter where we are in history and it is a story about what matters to human beings and how human beings make things meaningful and how we act towards one another and what power is, what it makes us do and how much or how little power human beings really have.”

 I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go.  If you know it, you know it.  If not I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise.  It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities.

Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley.  Isma, the oldest daughter begins the novel by travelling to the US to commence a long-delayed Sociology PHD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family.  Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned.  We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused.  She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy.  On Eamonn’s return to the UK he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events which will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.

I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents.  This is because the issues are extremely complex and involves the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media.  Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on.  The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary.  I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses.  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.  Although I wasn’t aware of the relevance to Antigone as I was  reading, it does give the work resonance and great authority.  So here we have it, my first 5 star Man Booker longlist read.  The battle is on…………..

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Home Fire was published by Bloomsbury Circus in August 2017

 

 

Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling (BBC1 2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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(To be read in the style of  a Craig Charles “Gogglebox”voiceover) “In a week where a Cookery Programme found its own soggy bottom and lost over four million viewers by switching to Channel 4 we watched lots of great telly”.  I was one of those missing four million as I decided not to tune in to the revamped “Great British Bakeoff”, the first time I have ever missed an episode.  Sometimes you have to take a stance!

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I did, however, watch BBC1’s Bank Holiday potential crowd-pleaser, “Strike- The Cuckoo’s Calling”, the first two episodes of a three parter based on the JK Rowling 2013 thriller written as Robert Galbraith.  I was a little late getting to the novel, having only read it earlier this year and my motivation for doing so was because I had heard about the tv adaptation and wanted to experience the book first.  I wanted my own pictures to form in my head.   I really enjoyed the book and in my review focused in on the warmth and humour in the relationship between down-on-his-luck private detective Cormoran Strike and temporary secretary, Robin.

Much hinged I felt on the casting of Strike, an undeniably larger-than-life character. I got the impression of a kind of man-mountain from the book and at six foot Tom Burke doesn’t quite have the bulk that was in my head.  Best known to me as Dolokhov in the BBC1 “War and Peace”extravaganza, he is perhaps generally best known as swashbuckling Athos in “The Three Musketeers” series.  The 36 year old son of noted thespians Anna Calder-Marshall and David Burke has scooped one of the most prestigious TV roles of the year with the other Galbraith novels already having been filmed for later transmission. 

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Within the first half-hour Burke had become Cormoran Strike as the book-derived image in my head faded and he became the perfect fit. Not quite as convinced by Holliday Granger as Robin, but that will come in time.  After her turn as Lucrezia Borgia in “The Borgias” I’m finding it hard to trust her wholesomeness.  In the first two episodes there was a little less Robin than I was expecting- we had less of her putting her mark onto the office than I remembered from the book and a little less of developing the relationship between the two characters although it took only the odd glance from Strike to make us realise how valuable she is making herself to his enterprise.

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Characters nicely established the plot followed along expected lines.  The presence of acting heavyweights, the great Sian Phillips and Martin Shaw in the cast gave the whole thing kudos and showed the BBC’s commitment to the project.  I was a little concerned after the TV adaptation of “SS-GB” which the BBC had sat upon after filming and put it out without a great deal of fanfare where it limped along somewhat in dark scenes and mumbled lines, but this was altogether a very different proposition.  Liked the music, liked the opening credits, which gave it a moodiness and recalled the opening of some of those great ITC Entertainment series like “Man In A Suitcase” and “Danger Man”.  In days of technological glossy thrillers this seemed pleasantly old-fashioned, making it perfect Bank Holiday viewing, when we don’t want anything too demanding.

There was always going to be an issue with Strike’s false leg and there was a “how did they do that?” moment as well as some obvious cut-aways.  The leg almost feels like a character in the novel so I was pleased it was given air-time here.  It was hard to forget that the television Strike had lost a leg, just as it is in the novel.  I wondered if three episodes would cause the plot to rattle along too quickly but it established a good, steady pace.  I wonder if the decision to film “The Silkworm” and “Career of Evil” as two-parters will impact on the overall pace.  I hope they are going to be hour-longs and not “feature length” as the hour long format seems most fitting for this.  I wasn’t as struck on the book of “The Silkworm” which will air on television straight after “Cuckoo’s Calling”- I felt it was overlong, so perhaps two episodes will suffice.  It is a much darker piece and it will be interesting to see how it translates to Sunday evening television.  I’ve yet to read “Career Of Evil” but I am pushing it up the To Be Read list so I can get to it before it is shown.

With two parts down of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and one to go I’m looking forward to the conclusion of this.  To be honest, even though I only read the book six months or so ago some of the plot details have blurred in my mind so I’m getting plenty of enjoyment as the story unfolds. It does seem perfect for television, will push up sales further of the three novels and is likely to give the BBC another big worldwide hit.

fourstars

Strike- The Cuckoo’s Calling is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The final episode is due to air on the 3rd September.  Previous episodes are available on the BBC I-Player.  “The Silkworm” is due to be transmitted from Sunday 10th.

 

Book Bingo – The End!

Well, I did it.  Once again it was right up to the line but I managed to get all of my stickers on my Book Bingo card.  Here is the proof!

IMG_20170828_0001It did mean in the last month I had to make some slightly odd reading choices, which might explain the randomness of some of the last few reviews.  At the end of my last update my card was looking like this;

IMG_20170727_0001 (2)It looked possible, but I wasn’t convinced because the Man Booker longlist had been announced and I was itching to get started on those and couldn’t find any place for those titles in my remaining categories.  I had six books to read and this is how I did it:

On the top line I still had “A book with five words or more in the title”.  I first pulled from the shelf French crime best-seller “Murder On The Eiffel Tower” (2003) by those fascinating Parisian book-seller sisters Lilianne Korb and Laurence LeFevre who write together as Claude Izner with their series about a nineteenth century bookselling sleuth.  I have the first three of these waiting to be read and I thought this would be my chance until I was seduced by a copy of “The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase” by Joan Aiken (1962) which I really wanted to get my teeth into and which I knew would be a quicker read.  Time was at a premium by this point and so Izner has temporarily returned to the great un-read.

From the second row I needed a book that was “Shorter than 200 pages” so I went for the Quick Read “Chickenfeed” (2006) by Minette Walters.  Considering the third row I’d thought about polishing some worthy tome of poetry but went instead for children’s poetry collection (Well, it did suggest children’s poems in the square) “How To Embarrass Teachers” (2006) which, had I still been teaching Junior School Children, I would have added to my Essential Classroom Books list because I think there was a lot of fun to be had with this selection by Paul Cookson.

I needed to buy a book from the “For Sale” shelves at my local library and I was pleased to discover “Eeny Meeny” by M J Arlidge.  I know why the previous reader donated it, because although it looked in very good condition and had only probably been read once it was badly bound and fell apart as I was reading it.  I didn’t let that put me off too much and really got into Arlidge’s dark debut.  (This also happened when I read “The Night Circus” (2012) by Erin Morgenstern a couple of years back which, together with me being in bed with flu whilst reading  most of it and its self-destructing tendency did prejudice me against the book).  Arlidge’s novels have been getting really good reader-feedback in the libraries where I work from a real range of readers.

There were two squares for me to complete on the bottom line of the card and these were probably the two I was least enamoured by.  I don’t often read “Family Sagas” and find the look of those mob-capped mill girls of this genres stalwarts Catherine Cookson, Dilly Court etc all rather depressing.  I did discover something a lot lighter and more recent in Wendy Robertson’s “Sandie Shaw And The Millionth Marvell Cooker” (2008).  To be honest it wasn’t really a family saga at all but I think it had been categorised as such to fit in with a number of Robertson’s other novels which are more obviously family sagas, but it came from the right section, had the right sticker stuck on the spine and so it fitted the bill (and actually I really rather enjoyed it),

A book set before 1700 remained my final  square to cover.  This had caused a bit of panic amongst other Book Bingo participants who had this as some misinterpreted the category to be a book written before 1700, which caused blank looks around the library to find the medieval scripts section.  The correct interpretation opened the reader up to a whole range of highly readable historical and historical crime novels.  I went with the twelfth century and the introductory book to Bernard Knight’s Crowner John series “The Sanctuary Seeker” (1998) which gave me my last “Well Done!” sticker and finished off the card.

Once again the Book Bingo has been popular and successful and people are already talking about next year (maybe starting it earlier in the year).  I very much enjoy setting it up and doing it, but I’m glad I can move onto the pile of books waiting for me that I couldn’t fit in the categories as the squares began filling up.

 

Autumn- Ali Smith (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

manbookerautumn

Ali Smith is attempting to make her 4th appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist with this longlisted title, her first novel since winning the Baileys Prize and the Costa Novel Of The Year with “How To Be Both” (2014).  That was the only novel I have read by her to date and although I applauded its technical expertise I caught a whiff of style over substance and found it ultimately a little disappointing because I lacked a consistent emotional attachment, which is what I’m always on the lookout for when reading.  Smith is a brave writer whose non-linear narratives can lead to a distancing and if slightly off-balance risks becoming a tad pretentious and ending up with a book of segments of writing (in her case often superb) rather than a coherently flowing piece.

 With that in mind, theories based purely on “How To Be Both”, I hasten to add, I was a little bit unsure about beginning my Man Booker longlist reading with this book.  Coincidentally for the last couple of years the first book I’ve read off the list has ended up scooping the prize, (I’m sure the judges are not bearing this in mind!) so I wanted this to be good.

 And it is.  For me, it is considerably better than the award-laden “How To Be Both”.  The reason?  I got that emotional attachment towards the relationship between the two main characters very early on and this relationship is a thread which runs throughout the novel.

 It’s not going to be easy summing this up in a few words.  A young girl befriends an elderly male neighbour who educates and stimulates moulding her into the adult she becomes.  Now a woman, Elisabeth visits him in his care home where he resides as a semi-comatose centenarian.  From the stories he has told her about the Art world she realises he knew Pauline Boty, a 1960’s female pop artist who Elisabeth bases her dissertation upon.  The time of these care home visits coincides with the Brexit vote and the uncertainty and tensions which fills the country comes across superbly.  Meanwhile Elisabeth’s mother has her own life changes ahead of her when she takes part in a TV antiques programme.

 The writing is often sumptuous, occasionally powerfully poetic as in a section about the mood of the country in the days following the vote and incredibly realistic as the characters grapple with the frustrations of modern life.  A section early on in the novel where Elisabeth attempts to use the Post Office Check and Send Service for a passport is a joy to read and is the section which really pulled me into the narrative, where I remained for most of the novel.  It is also highly visual, not least by its encompassing of art and story into the narrative.

 Smith is both a poet and a storyteller and her sheer unpredictability is both impressive and challenging.  The reader needs to yield to her skills as there is no way to ascertain how the novel will pan out.  There are digressions, plot twists, memories and dreams which make it a narcotic experience in more ways than one.  On this occasion I found her writing addictive and read it quite quickly, it will repay re-reading.  There’s the whole “Autumn” theme which I haven’t touched on which is part of the novel’s life-blood.  If this is the standard of the longlist it is going to be a good few weeks for me and a tough choice for the judges.  This is so close to being a five star read (How To Be Both I rated three stars) and is certainly shortlist worthy.

fourstars Autumn was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2016