Isle Of Wight Literary Festival 2019 – Part One

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I did something new last weekend and attended my first Literary Festival. I did go to the London Book Fair a few years ago but that was a much larger more impersonal commercial event which lacked the cosy meet-the-authors feel of the smaller festivals. This is the 8th year of the Isle Of Wight Literary Festival which takes place in Cowes, centred around Northwood House. This year spread over three days there were a diverse range of speakers including Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Morpurgo, Jo Brand, Jack Straw, Elly Griffiths, Sir Tim Waterstone, Dan Snow and Kate Adie. These were obviously the big crowd-pullers. Their talks took place in a marquee where the audience were herded around corrals and crammed in to listen to their heroes.
I, very sensibly I think, opted to attend two smaller events to hear authors who this year have thrilled me with their writing. The first of these was Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott whose fictional account of the later years of Truman Capote is certainly in contention for my Book of The Year and listening to Kelleigh talk about her work in the Ballroom of Northwood House on a very wet October Saturday has certainly made its challenge stronger.

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Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Swan Song” is a book which seems to have slipped a little under the radar, as when I read it I expected it to be one of the big publishing sensations of the year. It did get longlisted for the The Women’s Prize in Fiction but missed out on the shortlist and probably was never going to join the Booker longlist because it is so readable. Of the 24 or so people who attended her presentation it did seem only a handful had read it. I felt an urge throughout to let her know how much I had loved the book but kept quiet. When it came to question time I couldn’t frame my response to it as a question and what usually tends to happen is that people who haven’t read the book ask questions which is a little irritating for those who have made the effort, but then that is part and parcel of these sort of occasions as the author is there, in least in part, to shift and sign books and probably doesn’t want a roomful of people who already own a copy.

Kelleigh described her fascination with Capote beginning as a twelve year old when she read “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”. She fell in love with his raconteur style and his ability to use words as weapons. With a background in screenwriting she might have been expected to focus in on a more filmic aspect of Capote’s life but it was the story of a literary crime which kept drawing her attention, not the murder of the Clutter family which cemented Capote’s reputation as a leading American writer with his true crime classic “In Cold Blood” but his betrayal in 1975 of a group of women who he loved and who loved him. He did this by publishing thinly-veiled secrets they had told him over the years and mocked them mercilessly in an extract in “Esquire” of his unfinished novel. A crime, because it destroyed him and a number of them indirectly and was almost certainly the cause of a suicide of one woman he dished the dirt on.

As much of her love for the work of Capote triggered this novel Kelleigh found the pull of these society women irresistible and over time came up with the ingenious third person collective voices- the chorus of Capote’s “swans”.

I was fascinated by a bit of back-story of his ambitious mother who almost reached the social standing she believed was her due until her husband’s arrest for fraud led to her suicide. Could this have been an underlying motive for Capote’s literary mauling of these high society women? The six “swans” were pretty much hand-picked by Capote probably because of their potential as characters. If this was a calculated move he certainly played the long game, there was a 20 year delay during which he became very close to all of these women before spilling the beans and devastating their own (and also his own) lives.

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I’m sure I will be talking about this book again at the end of the year which will give you a chance in the meantime to seek it out and become as seduced by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s writing as I have been.

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The Council Of Justice – Edgar Wallace (1908) – A Running Man Review

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The second novel in the “Complete Four Just Men” collection was published three years after the first and in this time Wallace had rethought his anti-heroes.  In the opening work they were pitched against the establishment in actions that looks, especially to modern eyes, like terrorism.  In a bid to keep readers’ sympathies to the characters in this longer novel they are pitched against a group of anarchists, known as the Red Hundred, who begin their own campaign of terror in London.  Significant amongst these is the first female character in this series.  Known only as the Woman of Gretz she has established herself strongly amongst the anarchic group.  She is a very welcome addition to the cast of characters but Wallace is not sure what to do with her- rabble-rouser, heartless bitch or displaying humanity, she’s all a bit of a mish-mash which doesn’t come off.

The Four Just Men on this their second outing still seem underdrawn, merging into one another but given their need for anonymity this might have been intentional.  One of them, George Manfred, is established more strongly as a separate character this time around.  As in the first book in the series what works best of all here is the build-up to the climax.  In that book it was the projected assassination of a British minister and here it is a potential jail break which ramps up the tension extremely effectively.

I must admit that I am not yet gripped by these books from their start to finish but there is certainly enough in the first two instalments to keep me wanting to read on.

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The Council Of Justice was originally published in 1908.  I am reading the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”.

 

Unicorn – Amrou Al-Kadhi (4th Estate 2019) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “The Memoir Of A Muslim Drag Queen” this book will be unlike anything that you’ve read before. It’s an extraordinarily unflinching account of a search for acceptance from an individual hunting for answers at odds with practically all aspects of life and the crushing need to find a place to fit in.

The title refers to a tattoo Amrou Al-Kadhi had inked because “ they are the ultimate outsiders, destined to gallop alone. They share the body of a horse and are similar in form, but are of a different nature, almost able to belong in an equine herd, but utterly conspicuous and irrefutably other.” This fits in with the author’s self- perceptions exactly as well as the unicorn being “also a symbol of pride, of a creative flaunting its difference without shame.” I’d be hard put to think of a more fitting image in any book this year.

I’ve read a lot of coming out tales and accounts of individuals feeling out of sync with society. Amrou Al-Kadhi has battled with issues of sexuality, gender (preferring to be referred to as “they”), family, religion, drugs, mental health issues and OCD and I’ve probably not covered all of them. If this sounds depressing, wrong, the result is an uplifting extraordinary read.

As a young boy in Dubai and then Bahrain Amrou was totally obsessed with his mother and would do literally anything to keep her attention, which provides the first of the book’s many jaw-dropping moments. His behaviour, perceived as feminine, damaged the relationship with his father and an early declaration of his sexuality cemented that sense of rejection as it was so at odds with the family’s view of Islam. A move to the UK saw Amrou obsessively adopting the new Western culture and a determination to succeed in a manner which could only reinforce his sense of isolation.

This desperate striving for academic achievement led to time at Eton (which was equally miserable) and Cambridge University where the formation of a drag night and then a troupe of performers provided both a reason for being as well as bringing all the underlying tensions up to the surface.

This is Amrou’s first book but there is a background in writing and direction in film work, unsurprisingly, as Amrou is a born story-teller who can vividly recreate events that are often painfully honest in every muscle-clenching detail. It’s a journey towards accepting the self and also beginning to acknowledge situations from other’s points of view. At one point this is likened to quantum physics and parallel events which is a little over my head but allows the author to make some sense from the life story. As a writer, there is definite talent and the emotional intelligence with which difficult issues are conveyed shows great potential for future work. It’s touching, very powerful, outrageous, laugh out loud funny and extremely sad. As a read it both shocked and entertained. Whatever Amrou might have felt at the time the life experiences are almost certainly not unique but they have never been aired in this way before. The search for love, especially within the family and the potential catastrophic pitfalls when this is not forthcoming are expertly expressed. The subtitle, appropriate as it is, might suggest something different but this is a thoughtful, learned, literary work.

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Unicorn was published by 4th Estate on 3rd October 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Catherine The Great (Sky Atlantic 2019) & Rupaul’s Drag Race UK (BBC3 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Two series began this week which have attracted considerable pre-transmission publicity.  I watched them both and one was exactly what I was expecting and one certainly wasn’t.

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Sky seems to have been pushing Catherine The Great for ages.  With Dame Helen Mirren as its star and its executive producer this is no surprise.  This wasn’t quite enough to get me tuning in but add to that the presence of Gina McKee and Rory Kinnear in the cast and an interview with the Dame on Graham Norton’s TV show last week and I decided that this was probably going to be a must.  I admit to knowing very little about Catherine The Great, Mirren was keen to point out that most of what people have heard is false anyway, outrageous stories perpetrated by rivals.  These stories tended to have been based upon her reputed sexual voracity and tales of her being crushed to death whilst attempting to have sex with a horse!  I had prepared myself for a very different telling of her tale from Sky Atlantic – this was not “The Borgias” after all!

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Towards the end of the first episode I was aware that there was something not quite right with it but couldn’t exactly put me finger on what it was but I was surprisingly a little bored.  This means that I am probably not going to watch the other three episodes.  It is big budget but it doesn’t look it and that might be part of the problem.  Much of it seemed to be filmed in a kind of greasy half-light which created a kind of soft-focus on the main actors and, true, that type of lighting may have been authentic for a Russian palace, but as we’ve all been pressurised into purchasing TVs with high quality picture definition it all looked somewhat flat.  It was if that flatness rubbed off on other aspects of it.  It certainly did not give me the costume drama lift that I’m getting on a Sunday night with “Sanditon”.  It may be redressing the balance on stories about Catherine The Great but I fear I might not be sticking around to find out.

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There were also royal frocks in the much anticipated “Rupaul’s Drag Race UK” A multi Emmy award-winning institution in the US this show has not to date being served terribly well by UK mainstream TV.  The first series were tucked away on a channel I don’t even now remember.  Most of us have caught up to date binge-watching on Netflix (I don’t think there are as many past series on here as there were) and catching the All-Stars spin-off version when it snuck out here on Comedy Central.  It has a strong cult following over here who are very loyal to the show which has led to events like Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio bringing her one-woman show over to Wembley and Australian drag queen runner Courtney Act from the same season winning “Celebrity Big Brother”.  Rupaul has been around to do publicity (including a stint on the sofa with Graham Norton alongside Dame Helen Mirren) and the show’s main judge Michelle Visage is currently wowing millions each week on “Strictly Come Dancing“.  So far, so good, but why is the show being aired on BBC3, the internet and I-Player platform probably depriving itself o the big mainstream audience it gets in the US?

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Michelle Visage and Rupaul

Drag has a very strong culture in the UK, but that culture is different from the US.  Over here we have had a tradition of drag acts who have become part of the mainstream- Lily Savage, Dame Edna, Hinge and Brackett for example, but these were primarily character-based.  Only with Danny La Rue did we have a household name where the image and dresses were more important than what the act did.  In the US there is a strong tradition of the Pageant Queen where the look is everything.  This has now evolved into boys on Instagram gaining big followings putting together various looks with the emphasis switching away from the character and comedy of drag which has existed since over here since Music Hall days and more loosely back to Shakespeare and further to creating looks and putting together costumes.

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Now in the US comedy will often win out with previous winners having a strong established act like Bianco Del Rio and Bob The Drag Queen and one of my favourites not to win, Ben De La Crème.  When Drag Race was announced for the UK I thought it would be a chance to provide a platform for those performing flat out nightly entertaining in bars and clubs across the country often working tirelessly for raising funds for charities to be given a nudge into the mainstream.  (Years ago Anne Robinson did helm a Weakest Link Drag Queen Special which did celebrate these) but that hasn’t really happened here with this selection of participants.

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Still, we’ve got weeks to get to know them (episodes are being dropped onto the I-Player weekly) and the format, as expected, works perfectly well with a UK twist.  The big prizes of the American version have gone (it is the BBC after all) and there’s still the hit and miss aspect of the challenges (being photographed on green screen as a beheaded queen – MISS, dressing up for the runway in looks inspired by our present actual Queen – HIT) and this show is likely to be a talking point throughout its run.  Much of the heart of the US version comes away from the contest, when we find out about the lives of the participants facing challenges from families, religion and the geographical location.  How this will translate to the British version remains to be seen but I suspect it will not be such a strong feature of the show.

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Such was the attention this premiere got that I found myself doing something I never do if I’m intending to write my own review and read a couple on the morning after transmission from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian who awarded it 3 and 4 stars respectively.  The Telegraph felt it overly crude but The Guardian reviewer was certainly along for the ride and lapped it all up.  I’m going along with The Guardian, it’s not the five star review I gave to the opener of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 3 but I’m confident it will continue to win me over and bring a big blast of glam and glitter into this autumn/winter.

Ratings – Catherine The Great –   threestars

Rupaul’s Drag Race UK – 4*fourstars

Catherine The Great is on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays at 9pm.  The first episode can be found on Sky catch-up services.  Rupaul’s Drag Race UK can be found on the I-Player where new episodes will appear on Thursdays at 8pm.

The Four Just Men – Edgar Wallace (1905) – A Running Man Review

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Edgar Wallace was one of the authors featured in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors” who I fancied discovering. I’d heard of this prolific and popular English writer (1875-1932) and also of his most famous work “The Four Just Men” but had never read anything by him.

To put this right I purchased a Wordsworth edition of “The Complete Four Just Men” at a bargain price, a weighty tome which features not only his 1905 publication but the other five works about his creations which he continued to revisit sporadically until 1928’s “Again The Three”.

Looking at this sizeable volume I have decided probably the only way I would get through it at this time is to fit in a Wallace novel between other books I want to read, so I’m starting here with the title work, which is actually more of a novella coming in at just over 100 (although in quite dense print) pages.

I fully expected an action tale full of valiant deeds and derring-dos but the Four Just Men of the title can best be described nowadays as terrorists, a quartet of men who take the law into their own hands and operate their system of justice internationally dispatching those they consider to have done wrong. When I started this novel it did remind me in terms of style of G K Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, a novel I really didn’t get on with at all. I think that this was because it also dates from the first decade of the twentieth century (1907) and that was how popular fiction was written in those days. This is a much more entertaining work.

There’s far less going on in terms of sub-plot than I would have imagined. The British Foreign Secretay is on the verge of bringing in a law (the details of which I’m rather vague on and which probably don’t matter) which The Four Just Men, originally in their hideout in Spain do not agree with and the politician’s life is threatened if he does not drop the issue. The location shifts to London and becomes a how-will-they-do it type novel.

Edgar Wallace got much publicity for this by offering a £500 reward for readers who could work out what was going on when it was serialised in The Daily Mail for whom Wallace worked at the time. A slip up in the small print meant that everyone who guessed correctly would get the money and people began to guess correctly in larger numbers than anticipated. This meant Wallace had to borrow money to save face with his employers and had to sell a lot of copies to break even. I’ve read the whole book and I’m not really sure if I got the “how will they do it?” part at all.

I did, however, very much enjoy the tension of the police pitted against the inscrutable Four and the sense of time running out for the Foreign Secretary. You get the feeling that The Four Just Men would soon sort out Brexit! As they made their escape at the end of the novel (not a plot spoiler as I’ve already told you there are five more in the series) I found myself looking forward to what they will get up to next. In the style of the best Edwardian serialisations this is….To Be Continued…

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The Four Just Men was originally published in 1905. I read the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”

100 Essential CDs – Number 20- Rhythm Divine 2

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Rhythm Divine 2 (Dino 1991)

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I did own this CD compilation’s predecessor, the unsurprisingly named Rhythm Divine on vinyl.  There were quite a lot of tracks squeezed on over four sides and that compression and the fact that it was in the latter days of vinyl when the industry wanted everyone to purchase CDs meant that the sound was a little flat compared to the original singles and it wasn’t an album I played too often.  The follow-up I purchased on CD and because it was the second in the series the selections were less obvious, the sound was beefed up for the CD format and it became an album I played a lot.  We are back again on the dance floor with tracks dating from 1968-84 with the emphasis on the funkier, more soulful side of disco.  There are tracks which overlap with other of my Essential CDs compilation choices, eight of the 34 on show here spread out between Disco Classics, Funk Soul Anthems and Native New Yorker but there is plenty new here to provide a joyful couple of hours revisiting tracks from my youth.  With these essential compilation 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 and once again I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD 1

1.Dance To The Music – Sly & The Family Stone (1968) (UK#7, US#8) (also on “Disco Classics”)

2. Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – The Jacksons (1979) (UK#4, US#7)

3. That Lady – Isley Brothers (1973) (UK#14, US#6)

4. Best Of My Love – Emotions (1977) (UK#4, US#1) (also on “Disco Classics)

5. Backstabbers – The O’ Jays (1972) (UK#14, US#3)

This features one of the greatest introductions in soul music, a melodic swirling, menacing yet absolutely lovely example of the Philadelphia International house orchestra MFSB before the O’Jays make their entrance with their emphatic “what’re they saying”.  This was the first hit for soul trio Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell and as far as I am concerned  it was never bettered, a musical warning about those who will talk about you behind your back.  This year Levert, Williams and Eric Nolan Grant released what they say will be their final recording entitled “The Last Word” which was a great way to round-up the group after 61 years together for the two originals and which felt like a tribute to the quality of the music of the past with enough of a contemporary feel to make it a relevant soul music release.

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6. Rock Your Baby – George McRae (1974) (UK#1, US#2) (also on “Disco Classics)

7. That’s The Way I Like It – KC & The Sunshine Band (1975) (UK#4, US#1)

8. Boogie Oogie Oogie – A Taste Of Honey (1978) (UK#3, US#1)

I had a friend who worked in the record department of WH Smith and in those days they used to put out the Top 20 charts on a peg board using plastic letters.  There were obviously a lot of “o’s” both in this song title and in the charts one week and she found that they had run out so had to put this up on the board as “Bogie Ogie Ogie” which she got her a telling off from the shop manager (bogie being an unacceptable word for WH Smith to have on display in the 70’s) but it is how I have always thought of this song since.  A Taste Of Honey featured a unique double of female vocalists and guitarists Carlita Dorhan and bass player Janice Marie-Johnson.  In 1978 it was still unusual to see female artists playing and performing which made A Taste Of Honey seem like the sound of the future and this first single release was a huge seller and gained the group a Grammy.  Sadly, they struggled with follow-up material and the group dwindled down to a duo.  In the UK they are officially one-hit wonders but Dorhan and Johnson managed three years later to get back into the US Top 3 with a ballad cover of the Kyu Sakamoto hit “Sukiyaki”.  They will always be remembered for this hook laden, funky slab of disco which had the feel of Chic with the girls emulating the guitar-rich sound of Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards.

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9. Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976) (UK#9, US#1) (also on “Funk Soul Anthems”)

10. I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor (1979) (UK#1, US#1)

11. When Will I See You Again – Three Degrees (1974) (UK#1, US#2)

12. Contact – Edwin Starr (1979) (UK#6)

Ex Motown artist Edwin Starr re-emerged in the late 70’s on the 20th Century label and scored a big European hit.    His US hits had dried up not long after his chart-topping “War” in 1970 and within a couple of years he decided to relocate to the UK, where he would stay until his death in 2003.  Amazingly, this did not cross over to the pop charts in any big way in his homeland despite topping Billboard’s US Disco chart.  It’s a big, chunky production which suits the stridency of the great Starr’s vocals.  His Motown hits were great but I have always loved this reinvention of his sound on this track.

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13. This Is It- Melba Moore (1976) (UK#9)

Songwriter/producer Van McCoy’s work always really succeeded when there was a strong voice which could cut through the natural sweetness of his productions.  There was no way his string laden orchestra could dominate Melba Moore (nor David Ruffin who he also worked with around the same time).  Melba’s voice had the experience of both gospel and Broadway and fitted perfectly into this joyous number.  Music was in Melba’s genes, her mother was R&B singer Bonnie Davis who had topped the R&B charts and her father sax player and band leader Teddy Hill. The always critically acclaimed Moore has never had a pop hit in the US.  In the UK chart success continued in the early 80’s when she scored another couple of Top 40 hits “Love’s Coming At Ya” (#15 in 1982) and “Mind Up Tonight” (#22 in 1983) and became one of the leading lights in the “Quiet Storm” soul ballad revival in the early/mid 80’s which saw a duet with Freddie Jackson top the R&B charts.  Melba is still going strong today but there is no doubting this is her finest moment.  Dannii Minogue’s 1993 revival of the track introduced the joyfulness of this to a new generation and saw the song back in the UK Top 10.

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14. More More More – Andrea True Connection (1976) (UK#5, US# 4)

By the mid 70’s in the US porn had gone mainstream and its stars, especially Linda Lovelace had become household names.  The overlap between sex and disco which found success in tracks such as Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” tempted some adult movie actresses into the recording studio.  The most successful of these was Andrea True.  The story goes that Andrea found herself in Jamaica after an attempted coup which meant that money could not be taken out of the country.  True had to spend her earnings and decided to fly in producer Gregg Diamond to make a record with her.  Remixed by Tom Moulton and sporting an unforgettable “pop pop” sound “More More More” became a huge hit worldwide.  It’s lyrics “keep the action going/keep the cameras rolling” reference her alternative career in a way which would not cause offence and would see the song covered successfully in later years by Rachel Stevens (#3 2004) and Bananarama (#24 1993).  Andrea True was not a great singer but she did have some great songs in the early years of her career and is very under-rated as a music artist.  I love the almost relentless latin flavours of “NY, You Got Me Dancing” and the disco pick-up of “What’s Your Name What’s Your Number” which gave her a second UK Top 40 hit two years later.  Also tracks such as “Keep It Up Longer” and “Party Line” are certainly worth seeking out.  Of her former film career I know nothing!

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15. Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel – Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#15) (also on “Disco Classics)

16. Rock The Boat – Hues Corporation (1974) (UK#6, US#1) (also on “Native New Yorker”)

17. Hang On In There Baby – Johnny Bristol (1974) (UK# 3, US#8)

Here’s a man who should have become a household name.  A Motown songwriter and producer (often with Harvey Fuqua) Bristol worked on all time classic tracks by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Edwin Starr, David Ruffin and Jnr Walker and the All Stars and as a vocalist is the male voice featured on Diana Ross and The Supremes’ swansong “Someday We’ll Be Together” which he also produced and co-wrote.  By 1974 he had signed a solo contract with MGM and the success of bedroom based songs by male R&B stars such as Marvin Gaye and Barry White led to this recording which combines some fairly cheesy lyrics which turns love-making into a life or death situation with thunder roaring and lightning striking as Bristol gets it on with his “sweet virgin of the world” with a great production and a real hook laden song which is just irresistible.  UK cool boys Curiosity Killed The Cat dropped most of their name for a comeback single in 1992 (as “Curiosity”) and matched their highest ever chart placing (as well as the UK chart position of Bristol’s original) with a cover of this.  Bristol, maybe because of difficulties at the MGM label struggled to get his follow-up compositions  to chart, although one of these “Love Me For A Reason” became a UK#1 when covered by The Osmonds.  There were glimmers of potential success, a duet with Amii Stewart in 1980, a stint working with Ian Levine in the UK in the late 80’s but he just couldn’t follow up his classic hit.  He  passed away in 2004.

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18. Right Back Where We Started From – Maxine Nightingale (1975) (UK#8, US#2)

 

CD 2

 

1.Celebration – Kool & The Gang (1980) (UK#7, US#1)

2. Don’t Stop The Music – Yarborough & Peoples (1980) (UK#7, US#19) 

Although they sound like a firm of solicitors Texans Cavin Yarborough and Alisa Peoples were childhood sweethearts who signed with the Total Experience label and this was their debut hit which is both funky and wacky with speeded up voices for which they would often use puppets when performing “You don’t really want to stop! No!“.  Maybe this shifted them into the novelty act category in their homeland where this was their only Top 40  hit.  In the UK they had another three singles which made  the Top 75 over the next 6  years, one of which (“Don’t Waste Your Time”) reached 48 in the US coming closest to giving them a follow-up hit in 1983.  They eventually tied the knot in 1987 after which they set up their own music production company.

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3. Use It Up And Wear It Out – Odyssey (1980) (UK#1)

4. Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1978) (UK#39, US#9) (also on “Native New Yorker”)

5. Don’t Take Away The Music – Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#34)

Two of the very best Tavares track on these CDs.  This was another Freddie Perren production which closed their most successful album “Sky High” which had also featured “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel.” and “The Mighty Power Of Love”.  This is their Tavares at their most singalong, which is no way a criticism, as anyone who has heard me belting this in the shower would be able to testify.  Great track which matched the success of “Heaven” in the UK but which fell a bit short in their homeland.

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6. Swing Your Daddy – Jim Gilstrap (1975) (UK#4)

7. Be Thankful For What You’ve Got – William De Vaughan (1974) (UK#31, US#4)

8. Respect Yourself – The Staple Singers (1971) (US#12)

9. And The Beat Goes On – The Whispers (1980) (UK#2, US#19)

10. Love Town – Booker Newbury III (1983) (UK#6)

11. Somebody Else’s Guy- Jocelyn Brown (1984) (UK#13) (also on “Funk Soul Anthems”)

12. Change Of Heart – Change (1984) (UK#17)

13. Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me) – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#22)

14. You Gave Me Love – Crown Heights Affair (1980) (UK#10)

A veteran group by the time they notched up this UK Top 10 hit Brooklyn based group Crown Heights Affair had been around since the late 60’s and were one of the early leading lights of Disco  in the mid 70’s with tracks such as “Dreaming A Dream” and “Dancin'” lengthy workouts which became club classics without making the commercial breakthrough the band would have hoped for.  This came in 1978 with their excellent space-flight track “Galaxy Of Love” (UK#24). Their 1980 commercial peak was with this track which was not as good but does have a very memorable driving vocal hook “do doo doo doo doo doo” which lifted them into the Top 10 for the only time in their career.

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15. The Message – Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (1982) (UK#8)

Look at the chart placings.  This seminal slab of hip-hop which took the to this point recent phenomenon of rap music to a new level was not even a US hit.  The US charts have been full of rappers for years and Grandmaster Flash is arguably the Grandaddy of them all.  Up until this point rap music had the hint of novelty about it stemming from labelmates The Sugarhill Gang and “Rapper’s Delight” with its one-upmanship which sounded fresh but a little trivial but here in the charts and on the radio was as the title rightly termed a “Message”.  What we were being told about here was injustice and prejudice and  R&B music shifted from this point onwards things would never be the same again.  It’s up there with my favourite hip-hop records joined near that pole position by a track a year later when Grandmaster Flash joined forces with Melle Mel for the anti-drug epic “White Lines” which got to number 7 and hung around the UK charts for almost a year, although the power of this track was diluted by a pointless 1995 cover by Duran Duran.

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16. I Found Lovin’ – The Fatback Band (1984) (UK#7)

Rhythm Divine 2 can currently be purchased on Amazon in the UK for £4.07 new and used from £1.54.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No One’s Home – D M Pulley (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Every month Amazon Prime subscribers are offered a free “First Read” of an e-publication. I generally take them up on the offer but until now haven’t actually read any of them. I chose this from the August selection.

It’s American author D M Pulley’s 4th novel. Her debut “The Dead Key” won an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2014.  Her latest is a creepy house novel with an acknowledged nod towards Shirley Jackson’s horror classic “The Haunting Of Hill House” and there’s references also to the movie “Poltergeist” within the text. It also brought to mind the first season of “American Horror Story” known as “Murder House”, the residence within Pulley’s novel also very much fits this description.

Everything we would expect from a haunted house tale is here, beginning with the house being for sale and being purchased by a not particularly likeable family before the odd things start to happen. In this case there’s a lot of individual members of the Spielman family spooking themselves by wandering around the house when alone. Obviously, to begin with this new family to the house, Myron, Margot and awkward teenager Hunter know little about the history of the place other than it was a bargain buy. We get to know about previous owners through parallel narratives and for most, things do not end up well. The house has been built on the remains of a Shaker community and from the Rawlings family who lived there in the late 1920’s lives have been steeped in tragedy. In many cases the presence of ghosts are fuelled by characters’ inability to communicate with one another, making it a tale of outsiders haunted by their pasts which influences how they deal with the present.

These parallel narratives make this novel seem less formulaic with echoes of one generation touching others. I can’t say I was particularly chilled at any point but I was intrigued by the interweaving of the past with the present. At times plausibility is strained which is not uncommon with tales dealing with the supernatural. Anyone looking for a creepy (ish) read in the run up to Halloween might wish to consider this.

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I read a Kindle edition of No One’s Home which was published in 2019 by Thomas and Mercer.

Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Do we need “Strictly Come Dancing” more than ever in the UK this year?  The whole country is bewildered every time they pick up a newspaper or watch the news, it’s a disorientating time,  nobody is trusting anyone in charge and even the weather seems to have abandoned the seasons.  Perhaps we really need the unchanging format of “Strictly” starting in the late summer and occupying our Saturday nights up until Christmas.  With the first episode coming in last night at 140 minutes maybe it is just opiate for the masses, that is if an opiate can be delivered with such sparkle and razzmatazz!

It is a largely unchanging format, with just a few tweaks here and there which amps up the ante so slightly that we don’t really notice it until we see a clip of an episode from some years ago.  It’s revved up to fever-pitch level now, yet unlike the too brash X Factor, it still feels welcoming and homely.  The launch night of Strictly is probably the biggest night for entertainment in UK TV and whereas in the past I might have felt not too bothered if I watched it (although I always have) I found that yesterday I had an air of anticipation about me all day, almost counting down the hours to the first spin of the glitterball.

The major change this year is the introduction of a new judge,  a decision which has caused controversy as Motsi Mabuse is sister of one of the professional dancers, Oti.  Let’s get this out of the way first.  Motsi is good, one episode in and she is an asset to the show.  I never totally warmed to Darcy Bussell’s confirmations of what other judges have said, “the boys are right”, her odd tangled sentences and obsession with a strong core.  Motsi gave some good advice throughout, looked as if she was loving the whole experience and I never actually noticed the bit when she was judging her sister.

 

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We now know that it doesn’t matter that we do not know who the celebrities are, or in the case of vlogger Saffron Barker what they do, other than her saying “I create so much content” in a way that made her sound as if she was saving lives in Africa.  We are going to get to know them very well over the next few months (especially if you watch daily sister programme “It Takes Two”, something I’ve never done consistently but I can feel myself wilting already).  Last year I livened  up the 140 minutes further by scoring the contestants myself and comparing them to the judges scores.  It wasn’t possible for me or the judges to pick the winner early on last year, I noticed from last year’s blog that I had the winner, Stacy Dooley, fairly in the middle of the table, as did the judges.  Looking back at those 2018 scores this was a stronger night, dance-wise, with some really surprising early performances and because it was so unpredictable it made it essential TV.  So, like last year here is my Strictly Scorecard in ascending order.

James Cracknell & Luba – In a night of the unpredictable you really could see this coming.  Olympic Gold medallist James looked almost rigid with fear each time you saw him and his tango looked really stilted with wrong posture and too much standing still.  Has any Week 1 Strictly Dancer looked like they enjoyed it less? (maybe Judy Murray).  Motsi gave him some very good advice, but you can’t help feeling like other tall sportsmen in the past (Mark Foster) springs to mind, he isn’t really going to get it.  The judges also had him at the bottom of the table.  My score – 2  Judges score -11.

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Anneke Rice & Kevin – Anneke claims never to even have had a go at dancing before, which seems a little surprising that she has got to the age of 60 with decades in the entertainment business without having to shake a tail feather but if that’s so she deserves some credit for her cha cha cha to the Laura Brannigan song “Gloria” with the name changed, rather cringily, to “Anneke”.  Kevin did his trick of doing a lot so it didn’t appear that Anneke was doing not so much.  My score – 3 Judges score- 14

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Mike Bushell & Katya – It’s a brave move to do a jive on the first week and I don’t think I am ever going to bond with Mike as a contestant.  He fits nicely into the “Breakfast Time” category of people who last longer on this show than they perhaps should, buoyed by the votes of Breakfast Time viewers up past their bedtimes.  They went for a comedy feel, which was all a little frantic, and I’m not sure that the comedy was necessary as some of the movements were really not too bad and there was a surprising amount of content for a week 1 jive, but I didn’t really like it that much.  My score – 4.  Judges score -22

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Saffron Barker & AJ – I think the judges saw something different to me here.  It wasn’t bad but they were very enthusiastic about Saffron’s tango.  Maybe I was distracted by her Ariana Grande style high ponytail which flicked around so much that it lost the sharp staccato which is the trademark of the tango.    My score -4. Judges score -27

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Chris Ramsey & Karen – Performed a cha cha cha which had arms thrown all around the place and was stilted, but there was some hip movement and he looked like he was really enjoying it.  I think Chris will score highly for likeability and hope he will be around for enough week to build on these early glimmers of potential.  My score – 5 . Judges score -13

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David James & Nadiya– Ex- England goalkeeper David did a foxtrot to football anthem “Three Lions” and is going to face the problems all of tall sportsmen.  He did, and I don’t think the judges picked up on this, present his partner very nicely throughout the dance.  My score- 5.  Judges score -17

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Viscountess Emma Weymouth & Aljaz– Loved the pre-dance clip of them feeding giraffes at Longleat and giving rhinos a mud bath, this celebrity who I had never heard of had won me over quite a bit before she started dancing her cha cha cha.  There was real evidence of being able to dance here but it was all a little uptight, which given that it was week 1 is really what we should expect.  You can tell that she is going to get better and that’s one thing that Strictly viewers like (don’t be too good in the first couple of weeks).  My score – 5.  Judges score- 19

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Will Bayley & Janette – Paralympian table tennis player really threw himself into his quickstep from the off.  Head judge Shirley said his musicality was “off the charts”, although according to Shirley there were quite a few things that were “off the charts” in this season opener.  My score- 5 Judges score- 26

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Emma Barton & Anton – People are already saying that EastEnders actress Emma is Anton’s best chance to win this competition for the first time, hopefully he will not overdo the “comedy” which has kept him in even when his dancers haven not been up to much.  There’s certainly potential although their jive looked a little sedate compared to some of the other dance routines tonight.  Was this Anton getting the jive over and done with on a week when it doesn’t count as much?  My score -6.  Judges score- 23

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Catherine Tyldesley & Johannes – Pro dancer Johannes’ first dance with a celebrity was a very solid Viennese Waltz to “I Got You Babe”.  It was a bit skippy in places and there was the odd moment of disorientation after all that twirling.  My score – 6.  Judges score -20

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Alex Scott & Neil – Ex Arsenal/England footballer and now TV pundit Alex had the job of opening the show with a  pacy quickstep to “I Get A Kick Out Of You” (see what they did there?) in a costume which was pretty stunning.  Loads of personality if a little light on content.  Partnered with Neil Jones who has also not mentored a celebrity before and until tonight was best known as one of the victims in last year’s headline-grabbing “love rat scandal” and who inexplicably responded to the media attention by posting pictures of himself naked and draped over rocks.  My score- 6.  Judges score -21

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Dev Griffin & Dianne – I was really pleasantly taken aback by Radio 1 DJ’s foxtrot to “Build Me Up Buttercup”.  A real easy style to the dance that they always say is the most technically difficult of the ballroom dances performed with a surprising amount of lightness and grace.  My score -6.  Judges score -30

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Karim Zeroual & Amy – Hyperactive CBBC presenter Karim was always going to sell his dance and his cha cha cha was very strong with elements of other street-based styles which made it edgier and very impressive.  My score -7 Judges score -31.

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Michelle Visage & Giovanni – I love Michelle Visage.  I love her as a judge of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” I loved her on “Celebrity Big Brother” and I love her campaigning on behalf of gay rights over the years.  A 51 year old American mother of two needs to get round the voters early on as there is history of Americans and older women going out earlier than perhaps they should have done on this show and boy did she do it with a sassy cha cha cha full of attitude and great body movements.  I know that my heart is going to be willing Michelle and Chris Ramsey on week after week and that I’ll feel a little despondent when they both leave the show.  My score – 7 . Judges score -30

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Kelvin Fletcher & Oti– This is the big story of launch night.  Kelvin stood in after biscuit heir Jamie Laing injured his foot on the pairing up show.  So with less time to rehearse maybe we weren’t expecting that much from this ex-Emmerdale actor other than he looked good in his tight fitting costume.  But wow!  He and Oti pulled out a samba (a dance which so often goes belly up, especially for male celebrities) out of the bag which was the best dance we have ever seen on Week 1 in Strictly.  This took everyone by surprise and would have instantly silenced anyone saying that Oti stands an unfair advantage with her sister on the judging panel.  This made for terrific TV, and because he stood in at the last minute and because he seemed equally astounded by his performance the public are really going to get behind Kelvin who will not suffer from the “too good too soon” fate of some past celebrities.  On this showing and with this little rehearsal they might as well hand him the glitterball now and we can all find something else to do on Saturday nights before Christmas.  My score – 8 Judges score -32.

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My score for the first night show:

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(it didn’t even feel as long as usual)

Strictly Come Dancing began on Saturday 21st September at 7.00.  It is currently available on the BBC I-Player.

 

Company Of Liars – Karen Maitland (2008)

 

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Karen Maitland is an author I’ve been meaning to get round to for some time.  I have a few of her books unread on my shelves, I’ve been tempted into buying them by the darkness suggested by their titles and cover design.  This, her second of her to date nine fictional works is subtitled “a novel of the plague” which with its mid 14th Century setting suggests a read rich in atmosphere and gloom, perfect for these unseasonal Indian Summer days!

 I like the premise of a group of individuals with varying backgrounds and dark secrets in their pasts bonding together to escape the plague.  The disease stalking and occasionally overtaking them is superbly done and adds to the atmosphere and tension of the novel.  I realised midway through that I’m never as much of a fan of the “road” novel as I think I am.  For some reason I like characters to get to their destinations rather than just travel there, books which focus purely on a journey such as “Lord Of The Rings” as well as countless others have not appealed to me as much as I would have liked.  (Already I’m thinking of exceptions to that statement, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath” immediately springing to mind).  I think this is a personal quirk which can affect my enjoyment but is not a slight on the quality of the story-telling.

 It is narrated by a character referred to by the others as “Camelot”, a peddler in ancient relics of dubious provenance.  Amongst the group fleeing to safety is a couple of musicians, a couple approaching parenthood, a magician and a very strange child with a talent for interpreting runes.  A couple of my favourite characters get bumped off before their time which I found a little disappointing.

 Long medieval travels inevitably means story-telling and there are a number along the way which gives the work a Chaucerian feel.  There’s a mystical element appropriate for the beliefs of the time where even the Church acknowledged the presence of werewolves and vampires. 

 It is a heady mix of history, crime with a touch of fantasy and horror but the elements do not quite come together in the way I was hoping they would.  It’s been a valuable introduction to the work of Karen Maitland and I am sure I will enjoy other of her novels even more than this.  “Company Of Liars” just misses out on a 4* rating because I save that for those books I would be keen to read again and this is one that I’ve read, enjoyed and am ready to move on from.

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 Company Of Liars was published by Michael Joseph in 2008.  I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition.

Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On – Nik A Ramli (2012) – A Real Life Review

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What is the right thing to do when just as your biography is going to press the subject dies? Do you hold back publication and revise its contents? I think I would probably say yes to this. Do you carry on and publish anyway after all, knowing that not many readers will know when a book actually came out, that’s a possibility. What Nik A Ramli does in his first piece of biographical non-fiction is acknowledge the passing in an author’s note at the start of the book, use the dates of the life (1948-2012) prominently on the cover but does not change the main text one iota. I’m not sure whether that’s appropriate.

That decision leads to a slightly off taste as Ramli focuses on the legendary disco star’s past, present and future in later chapters such as “Still Going Strong: A New Departure” and “Into The Future” when he makes it clear elsewhere that he knows that there isn’t going to be any future.

Now I, like Ramli, who is better known as a Malaysian Interior Designer who specialises in “laid back glamour” am a big Donna Summer fan. I have included four of her albums in my Essential CD listings. I feel that up to now she has not been served well by the printed word. I read an early 80’s unauthorised biography which said little and even “Ordinary Girl” her 2003 autobiography written with Marc Eliot was a disappointment which just skimmed the surface. There is room for a definitive examination of the life and career of one of the most successful female artists of all time whose record sales reputedly exceed 130 million. I’d always hoped that someone like J. Randy Taraborrelli would apply his thorough, analytical eye to her and produce something very entertaining but this hasn’t happened.

Ramli has produced what is very much a fan’s viewpoint which borders on hagiography. I have no problems with that, the whole work comes across as a labour of love and I always admire these. He’s done tons of research and seemingly watched and read everything and has carried out interviews with people qualified to comment on Donna’s career including DJ Paul Gambaccini, fellow disco-diva Gloria Gaynor and her one-time producer and great supporter Pete Waterman. Unfortunately, what he hasn’t done is put this research all together very well. This is a first-time writer in need of support to structure a convincing narrative and that support (and editing) obviously wasn’t there. The style is breathless throughout, which becomes a little overwhelming, there is so much repetition, an over-reliance on listing the same statistics and song titles to illustrate laboured points, a cheesy use of song titles within the text of the she certainly “works hard for the money” type, factual errors even I’ve spotted, non-sequiturs a-plenty and a tendency to go off on odd tangents, but mainly it’s the repetition that wearies.

He rattles through her whole career in the first few chapters and with a considerable amount of the book to go a clearer structure would have helped matters. He’s read Taraborrelli’s superior music biogs according to the bibliography, it is disappointing that from these he didn’t get a clearer idea of how to put together his work.

What Ramili does well, however, is to get a global perspective. He’s more obsessed about listing chart positions than I am, we get to know how Donna Summer’s work performed in many markets together with listings of weeks spent in both US and UK charts. I also like how he has got contributions from Malaysian performers about the influence of this American girl from Boston who found fame initially in Germany.

The issue that affected the performer was how much “Donna Summer” was a creation of her producers and then her record label. She was created to fit in with the hedonism of mid 70’s disco, with an aura of soft-porn chic which captured the zeitgeist of the time. This image was different to how Donna Summer wanted to be seen both in terms of her beliefs and her need not to be pigeonholed as an act of a moment. Her disco days were glorious with some superb tracks, brilliantly performed, but she wanted to see and she had the talent to see beyond that, sensing that disco might not last forever. When it did end in the US with that notorious record burning in a Chicago sportsfield which I’ve mentioned a number of times before (see “Turn The Beat Around” by Peter Shapiro), Donna was ready to move on and embrace rock, new wave and more mainstream pop. Over time chart positions dwindled and an alleged comment about AIDS alienated a large gay fanbase. That disco ball would never entirely go away, however, and the demand for the back catalogue of the Disco Donna Summer, like the Disco Gloria Gaynor, would keep re-appearing over the decades. In latter years Donna began once again to fully embrace this and saw a career revival and a demand for new material in the years up to her sudden and shocking death from lung cancer aged 64.

She should be seen as one of the greatest performers of her era, alongside Barbra Streisand (with whom she famously vocally duelled with on “No More Tears”), Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. The fact that she does not always share a pedestal with these artists critically means she is still due for reappraisal. Ramli’s work provided a welcome opportunity for this but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

twostarsDonna Summer; The Thrill Goes On was published by Book Guild Publishing in 2012.