Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review

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Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered at a touch of a button may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Park feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.

fourstars

 

Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

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The Palace Of Curiosities – Rosie Garland (2013)

 

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A new author for me, this was recommended by my friend Tanith, who appreciates the weird and wonderful in literature and with its on-cover comment from Sarah Waters and comparisons to Angela Carter this was a very appropriate book choice for me.

This debut passed me by in 2013 and Rosie Garland has produced two more critically acclaimed novels since. I was very much hoping for something along the lines of Waters and Carter both of whom have produced novels I have really loved, with maybe a touch of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” thrown in. I was a little concerned it may be reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus”, a novel I did not really warm to and was disappointed by. I needn’t have worried.

Set in Victorian London it follows the narrative of two characters, Eve, whose heavy body hair has led het towards the freak show where she is billed as “The Lion Faced Girl” and Abel, a man plagued with memory problems which leaves the past a mystery to him and the ability to heal himself, which may suggest immortality. Both are outsiders unable to function normally in society because of their differences and end up as participants in Josiah Arroner’s Palace Of Curiosities. They are drawn to one another yet there is so much keeping them apart.

I did take a little while to be drawn into this novel and it was initially Abel’s account which got me the most interested. Working as a slaughter-man and living with a group of other men in a cellar, his predicament of struggling with the even recent past I found fascinating but once he and Eve, together with a few other memorable characters found their way to the exploitational Arroner I became full involved.

The author would be good at horror writing as she is able to gradually notch up the oddness allowing things to turn very dark for a while. This was done with subtlety and was very effective. She does relieve the pressure in the last sections of the novel to bring matters to a desirable conclusion.

This is a very solid debut. It didn’t grip me as much as the very best of Sarah Waters, Angela Carter nor even Laura Carlin whose 2018 Gothic debut “The Wicked Cometh” was such a delight but I will certainly seek out this author’s other titles and feel that I have found another voice which should continue to bring me much pleasure in her subsequent novels.

fourstars

The Palace Of Curiosities was published by Harper Collins in 2013.

Lux- Elizabeth Cook (Scribe 2019)

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A deft melding of the biblical and the historical, Elizabeth Cook has as her central figure King David in this novel of three sections.  From the boy hero slaying Goliath against the odds to the successful King who becomes morally wayward when he views, from a distance, one of his subjects Bathsheba, washing herself.   Exercising his right to possess he impregnates the previously barren Bathsheba and either has to get her husband Uriah to take responsibility for her condition or get him permanently out of the way.

 This first section “Ark” is the most successful as far as I was concerned, the biblical retelling largely from the Book of Samuel feels both fresh and familiar and with the miraculous powers of the Ark of The Covenant present in the background it gave the writing a feel of a quality fantasy novel.   

 In the second section whilst Bathsheba cares for her new-born a prophecy from Nathan leads David to contemplate and atone for his wrongdoings in a cave.  The third section “Poet” shifts to Thomas Wyatt, who translated the psalms attributed to King David as he watches his old friend Anne Boleyn adjust to her position as Queen and faces his own spells of contemplation in the Tower of London.

 There is no doubt that the author weaves her tale as beautifully as the tapestries Henry VIII purchases which depict the tale of Bathsheba.  The language has a poetic force which impresses.  I felt it a little lacking as a novel as the subject matter just didn’t engage me consistently.  I didn’t feel an emotional response which I would have hoped for in such a novel so there was a bit of a mis-match here for me.  It is quality writing throughout although I would have appreciated a closer tying in of the third section with the first two.  I felt that I read and absorbed the writing and followed the plot-lines yet the novel just wasn’t for me.  I haven’t really felt this way since I read Ali Smith’s “How To Be Both” which ended up a major award winner so Elizabeth Cook is in very good company here.

threestars

Lux was published in hardback  by Scribe in April 2019.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

This Brutal House – Niven Govinden (Dialogue 2019)

 

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I’ve been itching to read this since I first heard about its impending publication in a number of 2019 previews.  This is the fifth novel for British author Govinden, which was a surprise as I read the novel assuming it was an American work.

Set around the time of the New York vogue balls which had their heyday in the late 80’s/early 90’s this book probably has the documentary film “Paris Is Burning” (1990) as its strongest influence.  (If you haven’t seen this catch it on Netflix- it is outstanding).  Since I read of this book in January we have had the UK transmission of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” (BBC2) which was also very strong and touches very similar ground.

 The vogue ball scene, although underground, has had a strong cultural link in the decades which have followed it influencing fashion and music particularly Madonna and “Rupaul’s Drag Race”.  Central to the set up were the “houses” who competed in various dance/drag categories to win trophies and who were dominated by the “mothers” who provided support and often food and accommodation for those lost in NYC in return for their participation in the contests in order to raise their particular house to the desired “legendary” status.

 The balls may have shifted into the background in this novel but those who participate in them are paramount.  A group of “mothers” stage a silent protest on the steps of City Hall because of official incompetence at investigating disappearances of their “children”.  Teddy, one of the few characters to be named in the book, is both one of the children made good by education and a City Hall employee placed into the middle of this situation.  And plot-wise that is largely it.

 It’s written with great energy and is direct and forthright throughout becoming at times almost sermon-like, an intense flow of the perceptions of Teddy and the collective group of mothers.  As well as giving this novel its impetus it does also at times cause it to drag as there is not enough variation in the narrative style.  The vogue-caller (think Pray Tell in “Pose”) has his section but it is merely a list of categories and pages of little more than the word “work” which would normally have me hurling the book across the room but which here due to the rhythmic nature of the piece (and because I find the subject matter fascinating) Govinden gets away with it.  I think I would have welcomed another plot thread perhaps based upon the balls themselves in a more naturalistic style which would add greater potency to the elevated language of the narrative.

 This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste but often if I have high expectations of a book before reading it they can be completely dashed but I found myself more or less involved throughout.  It’s a story about outsiders attempting to conform but seeking their own refuge through their own special kind of family grouping and of throwing shade and shapes on the dancefloor.

fourstars

This Brutal House is published by Dialogue in hardback on 6th June.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 88- Rock N Roll Love Songs

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Rock N Roll Love Songs (Dino 1990)

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The first in the series of what I believe to be two double CD sets was issued a year earlier than the equally essential “More Rock N Roll Love Songs“. Between them with their forty tracks apiece they have pretty much everything I might want to listen to in the world of rock n roll love songs with this one having the edge in terms of quality of the tracks. The follow-up had the odd track by British artists but here it is American all the way. Once again with these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find the tracks listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour for what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings
CD1
1.Blue Velvet – Bobby Vinton (1963) (UK #2- 1990, US#1)
Kicking off this nostalgia-fest of 40 tracks is another artist who like The Righteous Brothers, Ben E King, Jackie Wilson amongst others had to wait decades before exposure on other media gave them a belated huge hit. Teen heartthrob Vinton had to wait twenty-seven years for his US chart-topper to almost do the same again in the UK. This was after being featured in a television advert and its earlier presence in the 1986 David Lynch film of the same name. The song itself heralded from a decade earlier when it was a Top 20 hit for crooner Tony Bennett. There’s a wistful, innocent approach from Vinton which still sounds good today. Vinton due to his family background became known as “The Polish Prince” and was a much bigger star than we remember today scoring 30 US Top 40 hits including three more number ones. His hit career in the US spanned from his first chart-topper “Roses Are Red” in 1962 to a cover of “Beer Barrel Polka” in 1975, having hits throughout the time UK artists were dominating the US charts. UK response to this artist was far more muted with only his first US chart-topper making the UK Top 30 until the re-release of this song.

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2. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow- The Shirelles (1961) (UK#4, US#1)
Another group whose importance in the history of pop has been overshadowed by later acts such as The Supremes. They were highly influential to the myriad of girl groups who came after and this is perhaps the most influential girl-group track of all. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King this gem of a song was the second of the girls’ twelve US Top 40 hits and the first of their two number 1’s (Their second “Soldier Boy” was featured on “More Rock N Roll Love Songs“. This is their finest moment with the insecurity of teen love evident in Shirley Owens’ vocal.

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3. Only The Lonely- Roy Orbison (1960) (UK#1, US#2)
4. All I Have To Do Is Dream – Everly Brothers (1958) (UK#1, US#1)
5. Why Do Fools Fall In Love – Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (1956) (UK#1, US #6)
This early Rock N Roll UK chart-topper was out of place in the company of fellow UK 1956 alumni Ronnie Hilton, Winifred Atwell, Doris Day and Anne Shelton. This was rare proof that music had moved on since the war years and must have been a disturbing listen for many tuning into the wireless as 13 year old Frankie’s rough-at-the-edges voice tore into this song written by himself in tandem with George Goldner. The Teenagers, an early example of a multi-racial group brought to Goldner a song called “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?” which the producer and owner of Gee Records adapted to something he was working on. Singling out Lymon as composer led to later court action from other members of the group but it was not until 1992 after the release of this CD that they were credited, that was until a court order overturned the decision because it had taken too long to get to court. Lymon, himself of course, by this time was long dead (at the age of 25 from a heroin overdose). But back in 1956 this must have looked like a new beginning for music, the hope of a very youthful gifted and talented singer/songwriter leading a group of youngsters of African-American and Puerto Ricans. Their material after this was just not as good, despite the fabulous title of 1957’s “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent”. By the end of 1957 the hits had dried up.

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6. The Great Pretender – The Platters (1956) (UK#5, US#1)

7. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do– Neil Sedaka (1962) (UK#7, US#1)

8. Teenager In Love – Dion & The Belmonts (1959) (UK#28, US#5)

9. He’s So Fine – The Chiffons (1963) (UK#16, US#1)

10.Tears On My Pillow – Little Anthony & The Imperials (1958) (US#4)

11.Love Letters – Ketty Lester (1962) (UK#4, US#5)

This lady had a lovely voice, shame most people only heard it on this track which was a cover of a pop standard dating from the 1940’s.  Lack of subsequent success meant that she gave up singing professionally by the 1970’s and turned to acting, spending six years on “Little House On The Prairie” as Hester-Sue after which there was a gospel album in 1984 and nothing since then.  Still going strong at 84 this artist who was born Revoyda Frierson should have become a much bigger star.  For sophisticated pop at its best check out her 30 track “Greatest Hits” collection available on Spotify.

kettylester

12. Since I Don’t Have You – The Skyliners (1959) (US#12)

13.Raining In My Heart – Buddy Holly (1958) – Amazed to find out this was never an A-side single and so no chart positions.

14.Rhythm Of The Rain – Cascades (1963) – UK#5, US#3)

15.Venus- Frankie Avalon (1959) (UK#16, US#1)

16.It’s In His Kiss – Betty Everett (1964) (US#6, UK#34 -1968)

Also known as “The Shoop Shoop Song” this launched Mississippi born gospel vocalist Betty’s pop career.  It didn’t chart originally in the UK and a later single a duet with Jerry Butler fared one place better for her later on in 1964 in the US.  In 1964 there was little room in the UK charts for US acts and it wasn’t until Betty scored a 1968 Top 30 hit here with “Getting’ Mighty Crowded” that this song was re-released and achieved minimal chart action.  The most famous version of course is by Cher, who recorded it for her movie “Mermaids” and scored a small US Top 40 hit but topped the charts for the first time as a solo artist in the UK in 1991.  The best version remains the 1975  UK#6 hit for the hugely under-rated Linda Lewis who steams through the song with extraordinary energy and gusto and an incredible vocal performance.

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17. Hey Paul – Paul & Paula (1963) (UK#8,US#1)

18. Chapel Of Love – The Dixie Cups (1964) (UK#22, US#1)

19. Duke Of Earl – Gene Chandler (1962) (US#1)

20. Goodnight Sweetheart – The Spaniels (1954)

CD 2

1.Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart – Gene Pitney (1967) (UK#5)

2. Born Too Late – The Poni Tails (1958) (UK#5, US#7)

US one-hit wonders but did make the UK charts a year later with “Early To Bed”, proof that the 1950’s teenager was just growing up too soon drooling over an older boy who wouldn’t even look the way of Ohio trio Toni Cistone, Karen Topinka and Patti McCabe.  This was originally a B-side to a track called “Come On Johnny Dance With Me” which has been long forgotten.  Not this track, which regularly turns up as a perfect illustration of the adolescent experience.  To modern ears there’s something a little creepy about the whole set-up here.

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3. To Know Him Is To Love Him – The Teddy Bears (1958) (UK#2, US#1)

Talking about creepy, this must be one of the only songs based on the epitaph of a headstone in this case the father of song composer and Teddy Bear member Phil Spector, sorry if you didn’t know this because now that you do it will always make this sound a little macabre which might be a fitting opening to the Phil Spector story which has more than its fair share of disturbing moments.  There’s sweetness and darkness in this track, which is a heady combination indeed.

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Phil Spector is on the left

 

4. The Wanderer – Dion (1961) (UK#10, US#2)

By 1961 Dion had lost his Belmonts and was going it alone which gave him his only appearance in the UK Top 10 (and was also a reissued #16 hit in 1976).  In his homeland it stalled at number 2 whereas his previous hit, the inferior “Runaround Sue” had given him his only chart-topper.  An early mention of the tattoo in a pop song I’ve always liked the lines “I tear open my shirt I’ve got Rosie on my chest”.  Well, I’ve always assumed it was a tattoo, I suppose poor old Dion could have been suffering from scarlet fever!

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5. Poetry In Motion – Johnny Tillotson (1960) (UK#1,US#2)

6. Donna- Ritchie Valens (1958) (UK#29, US#2)

7. Singing The Blues – Guy Mitchell (1956) (UK#1, US#1)

8. Oh! Carol – Neil Sedaka (1959) (UK#3, US#9)

Sedaka’s second hit on both sides of the Atlantic (different songs charted for his debut chart appearance), this was really the song which established this New Yorker singer/songwriter on a track composed alongside long time collaborator Howard Greenfield. It launched a chart career in the US which lasted into the 1980’s and led to songs written for many other artists. When there were quiet times he focused on different markets, scoring an Australian number 1 after a lean period at home and for a time made his home in the UK when he signed to Elton John’s Rocket label. In 1972 a reissue of this track saw him back in the UK Top 20. Dedicated to his old high school girlfriend Carole King, this was a result of Sedaka carefully analysing what made a hit record when it looked like he was about to be dropped by his record label for not delivering hits. Now entering his 80’s he is still going strong.

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9. I’m Sorry – Brenda Lee (1960) (UK#12, US#1)

10. Sealed With A Kiss- Bryan Hyland (1962) (UK#3, US#3)

11. True Love Ways – Buddy Holly (1960) (UK#25)

12. Diana – Paul Anka (1957) (UK#1, US#1)

One of the great scene-setting opening couplets in popular music “I’m so young and you’re so old/This my darling I’ve been told”. Anka is here lusting over a cougar in this his debut hit which unsurprisingly livened up staid old 1957 by topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Canadian Anka, like Sedaka, then set off on a chart career which lasted decades and as a songwriter he is versatile and impressive. He must have made a fortune by penning the English lyrics to “My Way” and was still on the charts as late as 2014 as a composition he had penned with Michael Jackson back in the 80’s “Love Never Felt So Good” became a posthumous duet hit with Justin Timberlake. Certainly not afraid to take risks (have you heard his swing version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?) Anka is another of those artists whose importance in the history of popular music has been under-stated and this is the track which started everything off.

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13. The End Of The World – Skeeter Davis (1963) (UK#18, US#2)

14. Just Walking In The Rain – Johnny Ray (1956) (UK#1, US#2)

Ray’s highly emotive drama-laden vocal style led to a raft of nicknames my favourite of which is “The Nabob Of Sob”. Pretty much almost forgotten now but really induced mass hysteria in his early days from adoring fans and was a much bigger star in the UK than in his homeland. He made hearing aids cool decades before Morrissey. This was his first US hit but he had already notched up a massive 14 Top 20 UK hits by the time this, his second UK number 1 was released. By the dawn of the 60’s the chart career was over, rumours about his sexuality undoubtedly damaged his career in the US.

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15. It’s My Party – Lesley Gore (1963) (UK#9, US#1)

Another artist whose career probably suffered because of sexuality, Gore found it hard to live up to the jilted teenager looking for a boy to love as set out in this debut hit. A classic song which even today you can’t listen to without feeling outrage towards Johnny and Judy for doing this at Lesley’s party. There’s a sense of relief when you know that her follow-up US hit was “Judy’s Turn To Cry”- she soon got what she deserved! It started off a string of hits which went on to the mid 60’s although in the UK she only bothered the charts on one more occasion. In the 80’s she got an Oscar nomination for her song-writing work on the “Fame” movie soundtrack and after coming out as a lesbian in 2005 (not a surprise to anyone who knew her as she never hid her sexuality) she became something of an ambassador for LGBTQ issues in the US until her death in 2015 leaving behind her partner Lois who she had been with for 33 years.

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16. Only You- The Platters (1955) (UK#5, US#5) – In the UK this was a double A sided track with “The Great Pretender” also on this CD.

17. It’s All In The Game – Tommy Edwards (1958) (UK#1,US#1)

18. When Will I Be Loved – Everly Brothers (1960) (UK#4, US#8)

19. Baby It’s You – The Shirelles (1962) (US#8)

20. It’s Over – Roy Orbison (1964) (UK#1, US#9)

And as Roy hits that last dramatic note it is indeed over but here are 40 classics of the late 50’s and early 60’s. The tracks tend to be a little earlier than those on the also essential follow-up “More Rock N Roll Love Songs” and as they were the first pick of the bunch maybe just a little more predictable choices, the songs you might expect to hear on such a compilation but then that is also because so many of them are classics that have stood the test of time. A number of these tracks are over 60 years old for goodness sake! I try to put that into context sometimes, when I was a kid growing up in the 70’s it is like listening to music from the 1910’s which nobody did in those days!

Rock N Roll Love Songs is currently available on Amazon in the UK for £4.63 new and from £0.67 used. It can be downloaded for £7.99

My Brother’s Name Is Jessica – John Boyne (2019) – A Kids-Lit Review

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On the strength of the four novels by Irish writer John Boyne that I have read to date (2 for adults and 2 for children) he is one of my very favourite writers, scoring four five star reads and appearing in my 100 Essential Books strand. Both his children’s novels “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” are subtly complex, emotionally charged novels where a child outsider is thrown into extraordinary circumstances and where their lack of communication with the world of adults lead to misunderstandings and confusion which only make things worse for them. In neither of these (nor in the two adult books I’ve read) do you know what you are going to get from the title. Boyne, as a writer, is excellent at leading the reader into a journey which he/she is initially unprepared for. With his latest title for the older children/young teenage market you pretty much know what is in store from the title.

In a contemporary setting Boyne tackles the issue of the transgender child, here facing mid-teens knowing he was born into the wrong body. This seems to be very much an issue for out times which we all should know more about but it is not Jason/Jessica’s path we follow here. Boyne has given the first- person narrative to younger brother Sam. This gives everything a new perspective as the emphasis shifts onto the effects of such a situation on the family.

Issues are compounded by the Wavers being in the public eye. Mum is a senior politician with an eye on the big job, Dad her secretary and there are the views of the electorate, press and colleagues to consider. Jason makes his announcement very early on in the proceedings but the parents want it all suppressed. I can see what Boyne is doing here. Mum has achieved in what is a male dominated field and Dad has the more passive role already challenging traditional gender stereotypes. But they cannot accept this new challenge. Mum seeks to lead the country yet cannot offer support to her own child. This adds dramatic layers to the narrative but it does feel a lot less subtle than his best work.

I very much like the focus on younger brother Sam who reaches his already insecure early teens with his family history uprooted. His brother is the school star football player (nice touch Mr Boyne), Sam has always been the dyslexic not popular younger sibling and discovers that his brother’s announcement turns all that he has had in his past upside down and makes him vulnerable to bullying and tension both at home and at school.

Reading through the bare bones of the story it might seem that the author is box-ticking sensitive areas and producing an issue-laden work (and he certainly would not be the first writer of young adult fiction to do this by any means) were he not so good with character, dialogue and the day-to-day communication situations which feel universal and a step away from a mother angling to be Prime Minister, which is the aspect of the novel I’m not totally convinced by.

So no five stars this time but this is a valuable resource for those questioning identity or anyone who wants to know more about how these kind of issues would pan out. It is a marvellously empathic work and a very involving read.

fourstars

My Brother’s Name Is Jessica was published in hardback by Puffin in April 2019.

Paperbacks From Hell – Grady Hendrix (2017) – A Book About Books Review

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Subtitled “The Twisted History Of 70’s and 80’s Horror Fiction” I could almost feel this book calling to me from the public library shelves. Shockingly lurid cover art and written in a jokey style that had me, on occasions, laughing out loud this was a treat of a read. Grady Hendryx is a horror fan and has written a couple of novels in recent years but even he would admit horror writing is not what was in its heyday.

The genre, largely in the form of gothic romance, along the lines of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” limped along somewhat in the middle years of the twentieth century until three novels which dealt with the darker side of life topped bestseller lists. These were “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin (1967)- an outstanding example and one of my 100 Essential Reads; “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty (1971) which I remember as being badly written even when I read it as a teenager when I was most likely to devour such publications and “The Other” by Thomas Tryon, which I’ve never read.

With the demand for these types of read soaring aided by successful and often notorious film adaptations the floodgates were opened and horror writing took off in a big way. In a flooded market it was important to attract the casual reader and this is where cover art kicked in perhaps like never before. A significant proportion oversold and misrepresented what was between the covers as the horrors suggested by the cover art were not always so effectively conveyed by the text. Whilst quite a bit of the art was astonishing (for various reasons) quite a lot of the authors were not.

Hendrix takes us through various genres that all had their day: Satanic possession, devilish kids and animals, haunted houses and misfiring scientific experiments amongst them and has lavished each section with the often trashy front covers. He looks at the key artists and writers. His text has the right balance between critical appreciation and an awareness of the ludicrousness in the perils these writers put us through.

I realised that during these golden years I could not have read anywhere near as much horror as I suspected I had. In the US hundreds of titles were being published every month with a significant proportion appearing in Britain. I think I was very aware of some of the book covers as many looked familiar but rarely ending up making the purchase. I have, however, noted down some authors who still seem to be in print and require further investigation.

The horror boom ended almost overnight with the huge success of “The Silence Of The Lambs” by Thomas Harris (1988) a book no less creepy than what had gone before but one which was marketed as a “suspense thriller”. When it became a huge seller many horror writers wanted to be marketed in this way and the earlier style of presentation went out of fashion.

This book revisits a recent phenomenon in the publishing world which has been quickly forgotten (although it did shift somewhat into the children’s market with some pretty ghoulish content and cover art in the successful “Goosebumps” series). Those novels that have managed to stay in print have had their cover art toned down since those glory days at least a notch. It’s thanks to Grady Hendryx that we can revisit this tawdry underworld of popular fiction.

fourstars

Paperbacks From Hell was published in 2017 by Quirk Books.

Excellent Women – Barbara Pym (1952)

 

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Barbara Pym was one of the British writers featured in Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors”. I would dispute that she is forgotten. Admittedly, there was a time in the 60s and 70s when she faded from view but she has been reinstated in latter years (she died in 1980) and her gentle, observational novels are held in high esteem and read and re-read by devoted fans. The publishing house Virago have made sure today’s readership would not have to struggle to find her work.

I’d never read her before and had sort of put her in my mind as a missing link between Jane Austen and Victoria Wood. It’s not quite as spot on as that but it’s not too wide of the mark, with the small-scale world she creates pushing her closer towards a more modern-day Austen.

She depicts a fairly drab London “very much the “wrong” side of Victoria Station” in the post-war years which still has a village mentality but with its occupants faded into accepting their shabby environment. Everyone feels slightly down on their luck. It’s a world of stewed tea, washing hung up indoors to dry, shared bathrooms combined with the less urban aspect of jumble sales, knowing everyone’s business and with the vicar as the central figure of the community.

Mildred Lathbury is one of Reverend Julian Malory’s “excellent women”, someone who everyone “respects and esteems” but who is not destined for much excitement, passion or unpredictability. She is deemed such by everyone including her more dynamic new neighbour Rockingham Napier with his military background which seems largely to have been chatting up WRENS in Italy and his wife’s friend and fellow anthropologist Everard Bone (I’m not sure if Pym is being racy with a double entendre here). Mildred seems interested in all of these men but cannot move beyond casual acquaintance or friendship.

That’s largely the plot, but let’s agree it’s unlikely that many readers would read Barbara Pym for her plotlines. It is the close observations which enrich her writing. It’s an understated world which focuses in on small absurdities. Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction states that this is not laugh out loud comic writing but is likely to result in many wry smiles. Like Victoria Wood, who I had imagined Pym to be closer to be than she actually is, the humour is in the ordinariness of everyday life. Being caught up in an emotional scene whilst holding a teapot or having two ping pong bats in one’s grasp or with a baguette and a biography of Cardinal Newman poking out of a shopping bag is as riotous as it gets for these characters.

In a world where so much is brash Barbara Pym is a perfect antidote which should ensure a continued growth in reputation and I did enjoy my first experience of her work. I do think that as a reader I respond better to bigger issues and greater depth than evidenced here. This was her second novel and is usually up there amongst readers’ favourites. She spent almost a couple of decades not being able to find her place in the publishing world but she returned with the Booker shortlisted “Quartet In Autumn” in 1977, since then she has become an inspiration for many other (especially) British writers. I think I might have been expecting a little more as a result of this, the lightness of touch was a little surprising to me. I could almost say she was frothy but it would be a pretty down-at-heel frothiness, whipped tinned evaporated milk rather than whipped double cream would be more fitting for the world Barbara Pym’s characters inhabit.

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Excellent Women was published in 1952. I read a 2013 Virago paperback edition.

100 Essential CDs – Number 89- Various Artists – Chilled Disco

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Chilled Disco – Various Artists (Smart 2002)

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I picked up this 16 track double CD from a bargain bin in my local Asda Supermarket not too long after its release.  It is very sparse in information about the tracks but for me it was a bit of a gem of a find and I have played it so many times over the years.  It’s not been given that many favours, the dearth of information, the anonymous labelling (I can find out nothing about the Smart record label, I’m assuming it was British but I’m not sure) and the title is certainly wrong – subtitled “16 Mellow Disco Classics” is misleading to say the least.  Luckily, at the time I recognised this for what it was, 16 tracks licensed from the Salsoul label coming from the 1970’s and early 80’s and up there amongst the most thrilling disco club hits of all time.

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Salsoul was a New York City label originally releasing Latin Music but when Disco hit big signed on a number of artists.  Central to the label was the house orchestra who provided the musical backing on many of these tracks and who rivalled MFSB from Philadelphia International Records.  In fact, a number of the key players of the Salsoul Orchestra were lifted from MFSB as they had become disillusioned by what was going on over at the Philly label at the time.  Salsoul were there from the early days of disco with the Orchestra producing with their debut album one of the all-time classics of the genre and scoring a 1976 Pop Top 20 hit with a sublime reworking of the standard “Tangerine”.  When disco went underground DJ’s were still heavily featuring tunes from this label and remixing and re-editing and given them a whole new lease of life.  Producers/DJ’s such as Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Tom Moulton extended and revitalised the original songs and when sampling came in, many a Salsoul sample was used on countless club tracks.  It’s not totally clear on this album what you are actually listening to, the original album or single release or a later remixed version.  I don’t think it matters too much and certainly doesn’t mar the enjoyment as far as the music is concerned.  Those of us who like to know exactly what they are listening to might get a little antsy.  In fact, a number of the remixed tracks have become the standard versions of these releases and were re-issued by Salsoul when the label had a resurgence within a couple of years after the release of this particular CD.

As always with these various artists CDs I will  list the tracks together with their highest pop chart position (UK/US) if relevant and l will pick out a handful of songs to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD1

1.Hit And Run – Loleatta Holloway

2. I Got My Mind Made Up- Instant Funk (UK#46, US#20- 1979)

3. Dreaming- Loleatta Holloway

4. Let No Man Put Asunder – First Choice

5. Dr Love – First Choice – This girl group trio made it big in the very early days of disco with “Armed and Extremely Dangerous” and “Smarty Pants” on the Philly Groove Label scoring two UK Top 20 hits in 1973.  They label hopped from Gold Mine and Warner Bros making great tracks on the way before moving to Salsoul Both lead singer Rochelle Fleming and Annette Guest lasted the duration of the group with the third member tending to come an go.  At this point it was Ursula Herring. This and the above track first appeared on their 1977 Gold Mine album “Delusions” produced by Salsoul leading light Norman Harris.  In their original incarnation they lasted 5mins 17 and 4 mins 28 respectively.  These remix versions which have become associated with the Salsoul label clock in at 7min 35 and 8 min 03 so there has been some serious extending going on. I believe these first appeared as Salsoul twelve-inchers around 1983. In this format “Let No Man Put Asunder” (later covered by Mary J Blige and sampled by other artists) does go on too long and becomes annoying but this infectious girl group stormer works very well.  How can you resist a song that begins “He’s got the potions and the motions.”!salsoul2

6. Ten Percent – Double Exposure – If anything proves the title to these CDs is wrong it is this track which is about as far away as chilled disco and mellow music as you can get, a real barnstormer of a track which combines a male group vocal track with some really exhilarating orchestration which really gallops away.  You can’t help think if this was recorded by one of the higher profile male vocal groups such as Trammps, Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes or Tavares that this could have been a huge hit.  This group had been around since the early 60’s with finding much success and their stint at Salsoul should have changed that as they had at least another great track in “Every Man (Should Carry His Own Weight)” which was heavily sampled for M&S Presents The Girl Next Door’s UK#6 hit “Salsoul Nugget” in 2000. Here I’m pretty sure we’ve got the percussion-laden Walter Gibbons remix which comes in at nine minutes and its a great disco track.  And in its “10% of something is better than 100% of nothing at all” hookline there’s maths as well!
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7. This Will Be A Night To Remember – Eddie Holman – Eddie’s falsetto masterclass “Hey There Lonely Girl” reached number 2 in the US in 1970 but had to wait four years until it became a surprise #4 hit in 1974.  The novelty value of his extraordinary vocal ability consigned him to one hit wonder status but this track certainly should have done the trick for him when it was released by Salsoul in 1977.  Eddie’s voice is not the whole focus here, there’s great orchestration and really dramatic piano flourishes throughout which makes the whole thing a thrilling enterprise.

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8.Helplessly – Moment Of Truth – Another epic track with a soulful male vocal reminiscent of David Ruffin over female backing singers, a track which drives along as the lead vocal becomes increasingly anguished.  Surprisingly for such a great soul performance this was also popular as an instrumental, but here you get the 6 min 25 vocal version.

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CD 2

1.Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Inner Life – I’m pretty sure that, despite the lack of information to confirm this what we have as the opener to this second CD is the Larry Levan remix of this song .  I’m basing this on the fact that the original 1981 twelve inch single release was 7 mins 32 in length and this is 10.28.  It starts off very stripped back with some gospel wailing from Jocelyn Brown until some big percussion (is it kettle drums?) cuts through and then its into the Ashford and Simpson song most famous for its version by Diana Ross.  Jocelyn Brown is a phenonomenal singer who became a UK chart regular in the 80’s and (especially) the 90’s when she helped Incognito, Right Said Fred, Kym Mazelle, Todd Terry and Martha Wash have Top 20 hits as well as having a run of hits as a solo artist including this track which she revived in 1998 and got to number 35.  This is an opus of orchestration, synthesizers and great vocals.

salsoul6Jocelyn Brown

 

2.Love Sensation – Loleatta Holloway- Certainly up there as the most sampled voice of all time, this is Loleatta’s third appearance on this album and it is her best.  A huge voice incredibly recognisable as almost every line she sings here was lifted and used elsewhere  in the late 80’s and early 90’s, most prominently in Italo-House classic and UK#1 single “Ride On Time” by Black Box, which I should feel outraged by but I was familiar with the Black Box track before I heard this and what they did with their reinvention of the track was nothing short of genius, one of my favourite singles which surpasses this already impressive original.  The most outrageous thing about Black Box was their passing off that wispy French model Katrin Quinol was the possessor of this incredible voice and for a short time we bought it.  Legal proceedings followed and Loleatta rightfully acknowledged as the singer.  Written and produced by Dan Hartman, this is another of his big disco epics, like “Relight My Fire”, “Countdown/This Is It” and “Instant Replay”.  This man could really do disco on a big scale and he certainly had a big vocal performance in Loleatta.  Despite limited success in the peak of the disco era Loleatta would find belated fame in the dance music revival of the early 90’s where either her, the aforementioned Jocely Brown or Martha Wash would be the go-to girl for big vocals.  She got a credited Top 20 hit with Marky Mark with “Good Vibrations”and with Cevin Fisher in “(You Got Me) Burnin’ Up” and was great on a UK#23 cover of the Style Council’s “Shout To The Top” as part of Fire Island in 1998.  She passed away in 2011 aged 64.

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3.Just As Long As I Got You – Love Committee

4. The Beat Goes On And On – Ripple

5. Jingo – Candido (UK#55- 1981) A cover of this track reached #12 UK in 1987 for Jellybean.

6. Ooh I Love It (Love Break)The Salsoul Orchestra

7. Love Is You – Carol Williams – A delightful track by a vocalist with the warmth of Gloria Gaynor amidst a striking vocal arrangement (at one point there’s a flourish which is reminiscent of the theme from “Wonder Woman”) and enough hooks to keep later samplers happy.  Most noticeably this track was used in the 2000 UK number 1 hit by Spiller “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” which had a lead vocal from Sophie Ellis-Bextor.  Sophie’s latest album “The Song Diaries” (2009) features orchestral reworkings of her greatest hits and she covers this Carol Williams original to good effect.  Carol was the first female singer signed to Salsoul and even though there was only one album she is still apparently performing still.

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8. Nice And Naasty – The Salsoul Orchestra – (US#30- 1976) The mastermind behind the last three tracks and behind the whole Salsoul Orchestra project was Vince Montana Jnr, percussionist and vibraphone player, producer and composer and one of the most important figures of the Disco era.  This was the title track of the Orchestra’s second album and combines the musical sweep of their productions with a funky little bass-line reminiscent of the theme from “Peter Gunn” and sassy unison female vocals which keep it just on the right side of tacky.  There’s a spirited sax solo and although it’s not the best thing that outfit did it’s always a great listen and leaves me with a smile on my face.

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Chilled Disco is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.39 and used from £1.04.  It provides an excellent introduction to the Salsoul label at a bargain price.  There are many other more official, better packaged CDs available.  The thirty track Salsoul 30th Anniversary compilation would be a strong choice (currently £15.82 on Amazon).

The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna – Juliet Grames (Hodder & Stoughton 2019)

 

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Last year’s surprise publishing sensation was the debut novel by American author Stuart Turton “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” which won the Costa First Novel Award and climbed up bestseller lists as well as appearing on a considerable number of “Best Of The Year” lists. I haven’t read it yet but anticipate a time-bending novel along the lines of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” which I loved. We all know that from the very early days of publishing there’s nothing like a surprise success to start off the bandwagon jumping and I couldn’t help but feel that this might be the case when I saw the title of this debut by another American author (even more so when you consider Turton’s US title for his novel is “The Seven and A Half Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle”). This may just all be coincidence but I’m doubtful.

There was, however, something about the description of this novel which appealed and hopefully that potential cash-in of a title will not hinder its chances in the marketplace. Unlike “Life After Life” these are not actual deaths anyway but near-death experiences for the main character, a woman with undoubted survival instincts and these experiences provide the structure of the book. It actually needn’t as this is one of the weakest aspects of the story. Before publication I would have made these near-death encounters less prominent and just titled the novel “Stella Fortuna” allowing it to stand more on its own merit rather than on the coat-tails of another title. It would have also ended up with something which would have felt more self-contained and original.

This novel does not need this hook. It works very well on its own as a tale of the long-living Stella Fortuna and her family from sun-soaked days in a village in Calabria, Italy, to their emigration to the US just before World War II and their experience of life over the decades as an American-Italian immigrant family narrated by her grand-daughter.

The Italian section does feel a little unsure of itself in terms of style. At times it reads almost like a fairy tale with whimsical touches borne out of the superstitions of the simple mountain folk. I quite liked it but I’m a little allergic to anything too whimsical. Once it gets to America it feels more realistic and at times disturbingly hard-hitting, even brutal in its writing. As a result I’m not totally convinced Juliet Grames has found her style consistently with this debut. It did occur to me at one point that it might be a translation into English and that the translator did not quite get the author’s voice quite right, but it’s not.

However, she did keep me reading and that was because of strong characterisation. Stella will undoubtedly frustrate and irritate, she has a stubborn streak and lives her life attempting to avoid what she does not want rather than going after what she actually wants. She is haunted by these near-death experiences and her belief that they are to do with incidents from before she was born. Her parents, her mother taken away from the simple life she loves and her disturbing macho father are equally well drawn as are many of those who come into Stella Fortuna’s life over the generations. As a family story it works very well. I just can’t help thinking that the title might hold it back implying it is something that it’s not and forcing unnecessary comparisons. This is a strong, memorable debut but I do feel with a slightly different emphasis, viewpoint and a more consistent style it could have been first-rate.

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The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna is published by Hodder and Stoughton in hardback on May 7th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.