The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (2019)

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Yoko Ogawa is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. Written in 1994 this has taken 25 years to arrive in an English translation by Stephen Snyder. The buzz about it has been so positive that I included it in my 2019- Books I Should Have Read post and now I have done so it is my first five star read of the decade.

It’s a fascinating set-up. An unspecified island location where from time to time things completely disappear, the memory of the object, be it a hat, a rose, birds completely goes and the people feel compelled to destroy any left hanging around. If they don’t do this pressure will be exerted by the sinister authoritarian Memory Police who remove all the forgotten objects as well as those people who can still remember. They create an air of menace throughout.

It’s a first-person narrative by an unnamed woman who works as a novelist and extracts of her latest work appears within the text. The other two significant characters are an elderly family friend, good with his hands, and R., the woman’s publisher who is one of those who can still remember what should be forgotten.

It may work very well as a disturbing allegory on power and loss but it is also a compelling read. I’ve never read a Japanese novel before and wondered if I would struggle with the cultural differences but this is a story for Everywhere and has been translated to convey something original and atmospheric. I can find dystopian novels bleak and depressing because usually people are not very nice to one another in their battle to survive but here there is warmth and friendship which makes the underlying terror within their lives hit home more powerfully. And all this is written in a deceptively simple, straight-forward style which makes Ogawa’s extraordinary concepts enthralling.

This is the fifth translation Snyder has completed of Ogawa’s work. I will certainly be seeking out the rest after this.

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The Memory Police was printed in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. A Vintage paperback edition is due in August 2020.

We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – Isabel Waidner (2019)

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Fewer novelists have chosen to set their novels on the Isle Of Wight than might be expected. Perhaps the first that comes to mind is “England, England” by Julian Barnes (1998) where the whole island is transformed into a theme park. Isabel Waidner’s novel is set largely in Ryde with Shanklin and Sandown Zoo getting a mention.

Despite living on the island I did not know anything about this publication until I saw it at #39 in the Daily Telegraph’s Top 50 Books Of The Year. Its description as a “garrulous, magical realist and Brexit-tinged comedy set in a “no star” hotel on the Isle Of Wight” soon got me searching it out on Amazon. Published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, an experimental company, which explores different modes of publishing, Waidner’s book is printed on demand and as it’s getting good critical reviews this demand should be there for it.

Waidner’s Isle Of Wight is not one I actually recognise, in fact, I can identify more with the cut-price Disneyland model of Barnes’ satirical novel but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. I can’t imagine, however, it will feature highly on the island’s tourist promotions and can’t see it being for sale at Sandown Zoo, which is somewhat savaged through a series of Trip Advisor Reviews at the end of the novel.

The author focuses on the higher than average levels of unemployment and the very lowest end of the tourism industry exploiting migrant workers to tell the story of Shae and the narrator, two non-binary workers concerned with life post-Brexit, citizenship, keeping the hotel guests from leaving without paying and gutting squid to use the ink in the kitchens. They are also concerned about polar bears, space travel and literary leopards in paranoid, trippy sequences which lead them to bizarre actions, such as covering the hotel carpet with grey paint.

I wanted Waidner’s forthright prose style to win me over but I do think the reader needs to know what is going on and sadly for much of this I didn’t. Boosted with references from books such as Jasbir Puar’s 2006 work “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism In Queer Times” the whole thing felt like an in-joke which this reader was being excluded from. I did think, when reading the Telegraph thumbs-up that I would be representative of the market for this book, but I’m not. It didn’t leave me cold because Isabel Waidner can write, I found the prose seductive and at just over 100 pages it’s a short, fast read but unfortunately, and surprisingly, given what I expected when I clicked the “Buy It Now” button on Amazon it is not for me.

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We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff was published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe in 2019.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’ Connor (2019)

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One of my selections of books I  highlighted in my  2019 What I Should Have Read post which I just managed to fit in before the end of the year where it ended up in 4th place in my  Books Of The Year.  Short-listed for a Costa Award (losing in the final judgement to Jonathan Coe) but victorious in the Irish Book Awards Eason Novel of the year this is Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s 9th novel. I’ve not read his celebrated work “Star Of The Sea” (nor anything else by him) but I will be looking out for this to read this year as I feel I’ve made a real discovery here.

This is a beautifully written historical work which represents pretty much a love triangle between actor and impresario Sir Henry Irving, founder of the Lyceum Theatre, hugely popular actress Ellen Terry and “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. As well as his using various narrative techniques as in Stoker’s most famous work O’Connor drops seeds of inspiration throughout showing how Stoker came up with his iconic creation. Largely unknown as a writer in his lifetime, Stoker earnt his living as general manager and dogsbody in Irving’s theatre, attempting to find time to write against his employer’s wishes. All three characters are a little obsessed with one another and this proves fascinating reading.

Also fascinating is spotting the allusions to “Dracula”, some obvious (characters called Mina and Harker) and some more subtle and beautifully interwoven into the text.

It is the quality of the writing that makes this book a joy. O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time. The narrative touches in at different parts of their lives and an undercurrent to all are the crimes of Jack The Ripper.

The main narrative thrust ends with the death of Irving but then there is a Coda which I initially didn’t warm to feeling it unnecessary but this change of atmosphere achieved here really drew me in and was so beautifully written that I felt close to tears at the end. For an author to change the pace and mood of the piece feels brave, for it to work so well is a real achievement.

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Shadow Play was published in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. The paperback is due in May 2020.

Looking Around…….

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Something I very much enjoyed doing last year, was, for my final retrospective of the year to take a look at what other bloggers have been choosing as their favourite books so I thought I’d give it another go keeping a look out for similarities and adding a number of titles to my To Be Read list because of their lavish recommendations.

I was delighted, especially with so many books out there, to see some common ground with Lou at Random Book Reviews as indeed there was last year, especially as she, like me does not restrict her list to books published in 2019 but counts any books she reads as eligible.  In her Top 10 list was my Book Of The Year “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott and within her top 10 was another that I really wanted to read this year (also featured on Books On The 7.47’s list) “My Sister, The Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite.  At number 4 she had a book I’ve actually got out now from the library which I’ve had to renew a couple of times because I haven’t got round to it and that is Joyce Carol Oates’ novelisation of the life of Marilyn Monroe “Blonde”.  Lou mentions that this has been made into a film due to be released soon which will increase the demand for this book so I better get on with reading it soon before other library users begin to reserve it.  Incidentally, Random Book Reviews top pick was a non-fiction choice “Chernobyl: History Of A Tragedy” by Serhil Plokhy which might just be a little too traumatic for me.

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Another Lou, who I work with and who has urged me to read so many good books in the past including last year’s Book Of The Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo” and runner-up this year “Sanditon” has decided her top read of 2019 was a non-fiction choice which  combined true crime with a woman’s obsession to find the truth in Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark”.  She has lent me her copy and I’ve added it to my list so hopefully I’ll be able to let you know what I think of this in due course.

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It does seem that 2019 was a great year for non-fiction with Bookish Beck actually highlighting this in her end of year retrospective in which her top choice was “Irreplaceable- The Fight To Save Our Wild Places” by Julian Hoffman with Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Again” as her top fiction pick.

Going back to Jen at Books On The 7.47’s list which she did not place in any order it was great to see another of my Top 10 choices “Things In Jars” by Jess Kidd together with another one I know I’m going to like Laura Purcell’s spooky Victorian set slab of Gothic “The Corset” which Jen feels is her best yet.

Australian blogger Kim at “Reading Matters” placed another of my Top tenners “Shadowplay” by Joseph O’Connor in her top selection together with one of my choices from last year John Boyne’s “Ladder To The Sky“.  “Shadowplay” also made it into the Top 5 Irish books from Cathy at 746 Books who continues to do a great job in highlighting the excellent works coming out of Ireland.  Also on her list was “The Narrow Land” by Christine Dwyer-Hickey which I’d placed in my 2019 “Looking Forward” post but never got round to reading, further evidence that I should.  Also in her selections was joint runner-up to the Booker Prize “Girl, Woman Other” by Bernardine Evaristo which appeared on my 2019 Should Have Read list and it does seem that if the decision was left to us bloggers there would not have been a tie as I saw this recommended quite a few times and didn’t actually come across any mentions of joint winner “The Testaments” by Margaret Attwood.  In fact, the title that should have given Evaristo a run for her money seems to have been “10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World” by Elif Shafek which was a top choice from among others Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews.

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As 2019 turned to 2020 some bloggers took the opportunity to look at their Books of the Decade.  I certainly would not argue with Margaret at Books Please selection of “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson and “The Grapes Of Wrath” by John Steinbeck which would probably both be on my Books Of My Lifetime list.  I also very much appreciate the great variety on some lists, it was great to see Colin at Colingarrow recommend the chilling “Blacklands” by Belinda Bauer which gave me a few disturbed nights sleep when I read it and Nina Bawden’s children’s classic “Carrie’s War”.

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Other titles I’ve added to my to be read list includes “Fleishman Is In Trouble” by Taffy Brodesseser-Akner (top recommendation of Canadian blogger Anne at I’ve Read This who like me used her end of year report to mention the passing of  her muse to her blog, her cat Smokey.  I know exactly how that loss feels (if you don’t know what I’m talking about see here).  Also added is “Dear Mrs Bird” by A J Pearce (the choice of Julie at A Little Book Problem, “Night Theatre” by Vikram Paralkar the choice of Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews and another Canadian choice Fictionphile’s “Where The Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens which is due to be published in the UK next week.

So that’s just a taster of what delighted some of us bookbloggers last year.  Now, let’s get on with 2020!!

 

 

 

Looking Back….Looking Forward

I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, early on in the year I post ten titles that I am looking forward to being published and at the beginning of the next year I see how many I have read.  I’ve discovered that other things take priority and these titles often go on the back burner, my best score for this was in 2017 when I read four of the ten.  Let’s see how I got on this year.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (Atlantic) – Read it and really enjoyed it.  Made it into the Top 10 of my Books Of 2019.

What Hell Is Not – Alessandro D’Avenia (Oneworld) – Some books seem to have a big pre-publication buzz and then you never actually come across them again.  This was certainly the case with this a translation of an Italian best-seller which I didn’t even encounter again during the year.

Out Of The Woods – Luke Turner (W&N) – I know this sounds petty but the publishers turned me down for a review copy of this via Netgalley which immediately puts my hackles up and made me decide not to bother with it.  So beware publishers!  This also happened this year with “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams and I’m still holding out from reading that one too.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) – I keep picking this up in the library but it’s such a big book and I do struggle with fantasy that I’ve never got round to borrowing it, but I could very easily one day get round to reading it.

Zuleikha – Guzel Yahkina (Oneworld) – This is a debut that I think I have probably missed out on by not reading.

Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer-Hickey (Atlantic) – This was shortlisted in the An Post Irish Book Awards Eason novel of the year which was won by another of my Top 10 Book choices “Shadowplay” by Joseph O’ Connor.  I’ll still be looking out for this.

New Daughters Of Africa – Edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad) – I think I should try and read more anthologies in 2020 especially as I missed out on this in 2019.

Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking) – Read it.  I enjoyed it and rated it a four star read.  There was good publicity for this book and I think it would have received very healthy sales for a debut.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – I knew I would be taking on a bit challenge to get to this stage in the Jackson Brodie series having only read one and needing to read books in order.  I do have the first of this series “Case Histories” lined up as my next re-read so maybe I will get round to this one day.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) – Read it and rated it four stars.  Didn’t impress me quite as much as his terrific  “The Underground Railroad” as a novel but it is still a chilling, impressive read we are promised a tale of a 1960’s set novel of two black boys sent to a reform school, based on a hideous real-life institution which operated in Florida for over a century.

Well, three out of ten, that’s 10% better than last year and only 10% behind my all time best.

2019 had its highs and lows.  I’ve been promoted at work which might have a slight influence on how much time I have for reading and reviewsrevues.com.  I started the new job today.   The low certainly came on the very last day of the year when my lovely cat Tara, aged 11, was put to sleep after the vet discovered a large tumour in her intestines.  I feel that Tara has been a part of reviewsrevues as she has so often been by my side when I have been on the computer putting the reviews together and she features sat on my lap whilst I am reading in the photo on the introductory post.  I do have another cat, Archie, who is Tara’s son, who was obsessed with his mum and is just a little bewildered by her absence.  It was not a very nice way to round off 2019.

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But looking forward to 2020.  Here are the titles that I have highlighted that will be out in the coming months which hopefully I will get to read during the year:

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski (Bloomsbury) Due 6th Feb. Written in English by a Polish author described as a major literary debut about the forbidden love between two young men on opposite sides of the political divide receiving much praise from Edmund White and Sebastian Barry.

Here We Are – Graham Swift (Scribner) Due 27th Feb. I’ve not read Booker winner Graham Swift before but I will be very tempted by his latest set in 1959 on Brighton Pier.  I like the idea of books set on piers, I was impressed by “Murmuration” by Robert Lock (2018) which featured a seaside pier in different points of time.  Here we are promised “a masterly piece of literary magicianship which pulls back the curtain on the human condition.”

Actress – Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) Due 20th Feb- Another Booker Prize winner.  I’ve read and really enjoyed  this Irish author’s “The Green Road” (2015).  This, her 10th novel focuses on a mother/daughter relationship where the mother is a famous actress.  The blurb has completely won me over “Brilliantly capturing the glamour of post-war American and the shabbiness of 1970s Dublin, Actress is an intensely moving, disturbing novel about mothers and daughters and the men in the lives.  A scintillating examination of the corrosive nature of celebrity“.  This sounds just the sort of book that makes it into my end of year Top 10.

Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle) Due 5th March.  Another debut which sounds quirky enough to get me interested.  A World War 2 setting in a country house where a museum’s collection of mammals has to be stored for safe-keeping.  This is described as a “gripping and atmospheric tale of family madness, long-buried secrets and hidden desires.”

The Recovery Of Rose Gold – Stephanie Wrobel – (Michael Joseph) Due 5th March.  This is a debut with a big buzz around it from a US born author now living in the UK.  At its centre is Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy.  Some are predicting it will be the year’s biggest thriller and I’m determined to read it early on.

Box Hill – Adam Mars-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Due 18th March.  I’m surprised I’ve never read Adam Mars-Jones before but I feel that this his first novel in a decade will be a good place to start and at only 160 pages may be a good entry point.  In “Box Hill” we are promised “a sizzling, sometimes shocking, and strangely tragic love story between two men, set in the gay biker community of the late 1970s. ”

Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) Due 19th March.  The sequel to Barry’s very impressive “Days Without End” (2006) which won both the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year award.  This puts the focus on the previous novel’s main protagonists’ adopted daughter set in nineteenth century Tennessee.  It is described as “a powerful, moving study of one woman’s journey, of her determination to write her own future, and of the enduring human capacity for love.”

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder) Due 31st March.  I still only have read one Maggie O’Farrell novel and that was “The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox” (2006)which was a five star read included in my 100 Essential Books thread and which ended up in my 2016 end of year Top 10.  Here she delves back to the late sixteenth century with this novel based on Shakespeare’s son.

Everyday Magic – Jess Kidd (Canongate) Due in June.  An author who is getting better with every publication and who found herself in my Top 10 this year for “Things In Jars” has decided to write her first children’s book in which according to The Guardian a young orphan discovers his aunts are witches.  Expect mystery, magic and perhaps the odd touch of the supernatural if her adult novels are anything to go by

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury) Due in September.  Struck big with the stunning “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” but that was sixteen years ago.  I may even have time for a re-read of that modern classic before embarking on what is described as “a new otherworldly fantasy”.

What You Have Been Reading – The Top Posts Of 2019.

The results are in!  Let’s begin the countdown of the ten most visited (and hopefully read) posts of 2019.  There are now 665 posts on this site for your delectation and it does seem you enjoy digging around for older posts as only one of my 2019 Top 10 actually appeared this year, the rest were posted before 2019 started and in a couple of cases didn’t cause that much interest at the time and have become slow burners.  There have been 95 new posts this year which is a little down from my peak numbers but I’m still pretty proud of myself thinking this is pretty good going after nearly 5 years as reviewsrevues.com.

The counters were all zeroed last January 1st so these reflect the most read posts since then.  The figures in brackets relate to when I last has a countdown back in April when I was celebrating the 600th post.  To read the original reviews (and bump up their figures even further) just click on the link to the post.

10 (-) 63 Up– This is the only new post from 2019. This seven yearly update of a group of participants began back in 1964 when they were seven years old.  In June this year we had the latest in what is always a five star experience.  Shown as a three parter with director Michael Apted still at the helm this is an experiment which at the time it commenced was revolutionary and now is just fascinating.

9 (3) Atlantic Ballroom – Waldeck   CD review as part of my rather sparse Music Now Thread (although I may have more time to concentrate on this now that the Essential CD rundown is complete).  Originally posted in November 2018.

8 (8) Mary Portas; Secret Shopper.  Posted in January 2016.  This Channel 4 series saw Mary investigating customer service.

7 (7) Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer.  Posted in March 2018.  This 1977 double album which I placed at #85 on my Essential CD list has this year been the most read of my CD reviews

6 (4) The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen.  Posted in Jan 2018. The “Gogglebox” pair still pulling in people interested in finding out more about them away from their TV viewing chairs.

5 (-) Nutshell – Ian McEwan.  Posted in April 2016.  I will hopefully get round to reading and reviewing author McEwan’s 2019 published “Machines Like Me” (as featured on my 2019- What I Should Have Read post).  In the meantime plenty of you still want to know what I thought about this original crime novel.

4 (2) Scott and Bailey – Also posted in April 2016.  The 5th and final series of this obviously much missed TV series seems to have become established as the most read of my television reviews.

3(-) Past Caring – Robert Goddard.  I was exploring Robert Goddard’s back catalogue in January 2018 when I posted a review of his novel from 1986.  I didn’t love this early work and did feel confident that he has written some real gems in the twenty-five or so novels since this.  He is one of those authors who people when returning his library books are very keen to recommend to me.  I should certainly seek out more by him in 2020.

2(-) The Dark Circle – Linda Grant.  Her 2019 published “A Stranger City” just missed out on my end of year Top 10 but you still seem to be seeking out her 2016 novel the review of which I posted in October of that year.  This was her 7th novel and is set largely in a TB sanatorium in post-war Britain.  This has been the most read fiction review this year.

1(1) This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay– Came in as a new entry in the 600th post and is now looking established at the top of the pile.  His much awaited “T’Was The Nightshift Before Christmas” was a much slimmer tome than hoped for but no doubt found its way into many stockings over the festive period, but this is the book which Kay fans will return to.  The interest in this review is no surprise, despite the book being published in 2017 and not being picked up by me until November 2018 this is (according to the bestseller.co.uk website) the third biggest selling book in Britain in 2019.

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In my next couple of posts I’m intending to look ahead to what should be coming up in 2020 book-wise and also scouting around the blogosphere to see what some of the other bloggers have really enjoyed in 2019 before we knuckle down to the real reviewing business in 2020!

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2019 – The Top 5

Right, let’s crack on with this.  Here is the rest of the countdown.

5. The Meaning Of Night – Michael Cox (2006) (Read and reviewed in July)

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Amazingly the only book I re-read this year, just a couple of years ago I had read enough re-reads to give them their own separate Top 10 but I cannot ignore this book and so my Book Of The Year from 2007 makes it into the Top 5 for this year.  It is a strange one, I read it and totally love it but after I finished it the events in the novel seem to rapidly fade from my memory and I struggle to remember what it was about even when I can remember books I enjoyed much less in greater detail.  This has happened twice which makes me think there is some kind of ethereal quality to this which causes it to dissipate once finished.  It’s a great Victorian revenge novel and I said of it “On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.” Maybe that will happen in 2020.

4. Shadowplay – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read in December not yet reviewed)

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I highlighted this in my earlier 2019- What I Should Have Read post and managed to squeeze it in before the end of the year.  A full review of this will follow but this is a splendid historical novel, shortlisted for Best Novel at the Costas, with Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula the main character and here part of a long-lasting love triangle with actress Ellen Terry and actor and theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving.

3. Sanditon – Jane Austen and Another Lady (Corgi 1975) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to read a novel which has been finished by someone else after the original author had died before completion, particularly one that was completed 150 years later.  This was all changed by the ITV adaptation which was one of this year’s television highlights as far as I was concerned and a recommendation from my friend and colleague Louise who felt I should read how it should have ended (well how “another lady” wanted it to end anyway).  I always thought the joins between the two authors would be obvious but I thought this was done seamlessly and ended up enjoying this more than when I re-read “Pride And Prejudice” a couple of years back.

2. Little – Edward Carey (Gallic 2018) (Read and Reviewed in June)

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Another splendid historical novel with that added bit of quirkiness which I so often find appealing.  This is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud.  Punctuated throughout with little pencil drawings which adds much to the experience.  I said of this “Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.”

1.Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Hutchinson 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)

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This sublime account of the later years of Truman Capote and an act of literary betrayal towards his friends was always going to be in with a strong shot of being at the summit this year.  Debut author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s position was further cemented when I went to see her talk about this book at this year’s Isle Of Wight Literary Festival following its publication in paperback.  I said of it “I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.”  I can’t remember ever falling for a book written in the third person (by a chorus of the betrayed women) but here it worked just brilliantly.

So Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott joins my Hall Of Fame for producing the book which has given me the most pleasure this year.  She becomes the first American author to do since 2014.   Here is my list of my favourite books going back to 2008.

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

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

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2020!

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2019- Part One (10-6)

Even though we’re not quite at the end of the year I now know that I am unlikely to finish the book I am currently reading so it’s time to look back again to the 10 books which made the most impression on me during the year.  These are not necessarily published this year (just 3 out of the 10 were) if I read it this year then it was up for inclusion.  The total number of books I finished in 2019 is 56, which is down on previous years where I usually hit the mid to late 60’s mark, apart from the golden year of 2016 when I read 80.  I’m not sure why this figure is down so this year probably due to a change of commitments.  Out of those 56 nine of them I classed as five star reads which nicely fills up most of my Top 10 places, the spread of the other star ratings is 28 at 4*,15 3* and 4 at 2* (didn’t have any two star reads last year where the spread was (12/32/22)- I must have been feeling a bit stingier this year.

It does seem like quite a bit of my reading has been books which I missed out in 2018, obviously a bit of a vintage year as 50% of the titles were published then.  Gender wise the men have pushed ahead with a 60-40 split putting an end to last year’s perfect balance.  Nobody makes the list more than once this year and there are two authors who are no strangers to my end of year Top 10.  It does seem, however, and perhaps it is no surprise given the state of the world currently, that for much of 2018 I have been rooted in the past as all of the fiction choices are set in earlier times with a significant chunk (4) being set in the Victorian era or earlier.  Right, let’s get on with the list.  The full reviews for each title can be found be clicking on the link.

10. The Library Book -Susan Orlean (Atlantic 2019)  (Read and reviewed in August)

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My non-fiction pick of the year is this extremely memorable book which works both as a love letter towards libraries and their continued importance and as a true crime work where the author explores the fire which destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986.  It wasn’t just because I work in libraries that I found this work so inspirational although it was one of the reasons behind me applying for (and getting) a promotion.  Susan Orlean reinforces everything I believe about libraries although the systems in place in the UK seem decidedly impoverished compared to the USA.  I said “The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work.”

9.Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019) (Read and reviewed in March)

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I’m up to date with Jess Kidd having read all three of her novels and this marks her first time in my end of year Top 10 with her best book yet.  This built on the supernatural elements which have been present in all her works yet with its nineteenth century setting it seemed to work better here than it has in the past.  I said of this “Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more.”

8. Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (Doubleday 2018) (Read and reviewed in July)

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We had to wait years for it to arrive but Australian author Zusak manages to get his follow up publication to my 2008 Book of The Year, “The Book Thief” into my Top 10.  I would have thought that a publication from an author of a modern classic after a lengthy wait would have been a major literary event but it seemed to creep under the radar somewhat when it arrived in hardback last year and this year in paperback.  That made me initially a little anxious but I needn’t have been.  I said “Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.” I read a library copy and then had to go out and buy it to have it readily on hand for a re-read.

7.The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (Oneworld 2018) (Read in July, reviewed in August)

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2018 was the year when the New York Drag Balls of the late 70’s and 80’s went mainstream in the UK thanks to TV series such as “Pose” and “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and at least a couple of novels of which this was the best.  In my review I compared it to what else was out there (as well as the documentary “Paris Is Burning”, available on Netflix, from where Cassara’s characterisations are developed) and concluded “Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter.”

6. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale  (Tinder 2018) (Read in February, reviewed in March)

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This marks British author Patrick Gale’s fourth appearance in my end of year Top 10’s out of the nine books of his I have read which must mean that he has settled into being one of my most favourite authors.  Previous end of year positions have been 4th for “Facts Of Life” (1995) in 1996, 9th for “Rough Music” (2000) in 2001 and 6th for “A Perfectly Good Man” (2012) in 2013.  His latest matches this position and I can’t help but note that the books of his I really like I miss out on at the time and catch up with in the following year.  This has the most modern setting of any of the books on this year’s list with one narrative strand actually being set in the present (gulp!) with the main character contemplating his past whilst receiving treatment for cancer, but it was the past that Gale really drew me into with his story of Eustace, the young gifted cellist.  I said “I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read.”

Find out the Top 5 in my next post.

100 Essential CDs – Number 8 – Motown Chartbusters Volume 10

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Motown Chartbusters Volume 10 (Spectrum 1998)

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The development of the Motown label is one of the most important cultural aspects of the second half of the twentieth century.  I never tire of hearing how Berry Gordy crammed young talented artists into the little Hitsville studio in Detroit and through hard work, determination and drive to succeed turned a significant number of these artists into household names and maintained success throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.  The seventies side of things tends to be overlooked.  Gordy decided to up sticks and move out of Detroit and relocate in LA, a decision which rankled with many fans and was seen as selling out for the glamour of Hollywood and the general feeling was that Motown was never the same again.  Not so, the 16 tracks on this CD which first appeared on vinyl in 1979 are of a quality so high that this is probably my favourite compilation album of all time.  The recordings date over a period of four years which does show that the pace of hits had slowed down from the time when they could put out two of these hits compilations a year and it had been five years since the preceding volume which I also have on my Essential CDs list.   Not everyone who was entitled to have tracks on this album has done so, there’s no Stevie Wonder for the first time ever on a Chartbusters recording and he was probably at his commercial peak at this period, there’s no David Ruffin, who had made a strong comeback with tracks produced by Van McCoy.  Some of the old guard are represented, especially Diana Ross with three tracks, the three track award is also given to newer act The Commodores who had featured on Chartbusters 9 with their debut instrumental hit but had in the intervening years gone on to become a supergroup.  There’s also newer names such as Rick James, Teena Marie and Tata Vega who were paving the way for Motown’s continued success.  Statistically, the tracks look impressive with 9 of the 16 being Top 10 UK hits and six US number 1’s.  There was no way that Motown was a spent force, a great number of these tracks are amongst my all-time favourites.  However, this was the last essential Motown Chartbuster CD as far as I am concerned.  Volume 11 was released just a year later and despite highlighting Diana Ross’ work with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic and having big hits from the likes of Teena Marie, The Commodores and Billy Preston & Syreeta a lot of the magic and creative inspiration which fills Volume 10 had gone.

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

Track Listings

1.Three Times A Lady – The Commodores (1978) (UK#1,US#1)

2. Love Hangover –Diana Ross (1976) (UK#10, US#1)

3. The Night – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (1975) (UK#7)

When I focused on the essential 20 Greatest Hits by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons I lamented the absence of this particular track. In the early 70’s the band signed to Motown with fairly disastrous commercial results. Berry Gordy put them on his subsidiary Mo-West label which was set up to branch out with more rock orientated acts when the band, with their brand of blue-eyed soul could have been very much at home on the main Motown label. Mo-West wasn’t such a great priority and the albums recorded for them (although history has seen them critically well-received) did not sell. “The Night” however found its way to the UK charts via the Northern Soul clubs who pounced on its rarity and forced a commercial release. This is a superb, driving  track which is a great British favourite for the group which almost certainly would not have appeared on any US hits compilations.  The Chartbuster series was an innovation from the UK arm of the label which is why we are treated with gems like this.

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4. Got To Give It Up (Part 1) – Marvin Gaye (1977) (UK#7,US#1)

5. Get It Up For Love – Tata Vega (1979) (UK#52)

6. The Boss – Diana Ross (1979) (UK#40, US#19)

Another track which was left off another of my Essential CD’s which got me moaning when I reviewed it.  On 40 Motown Greats by Diana Ross & The Supremes there was no room for this solo classic from Ross. I’d even specified the track I would have sacrificed for this superb Ashford and Simpson song which behind the disco gloss tells the story of a woman claiming to be totally in control and not prepared to be sideswiped by love.  There’s some lovely touches in the lyrics and a great performance from Ms. Ross.  At the time we might have expected this to be a bigger hit, certainly in the UK, where it just scraped the Top 40 but time has been very good to this track.  I did buy a considerable number of Motown singles at the time this was released but I never bought this and it was only hearing it in a nightclub probably 15 years later and the response it got that I realised I had missed out on how good this sounds.  Its continued popularity tempted girl group (and sisters of Toni) The Braxtons to revisit it which performed nine places better than the original in 1997 and topped the US Dance charts but which isn’t a patch on Ross’ version.  The production and songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson is still under-rated and this is one of their finest efforts.

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7. Theme From “Big Time”- Smokey Robinson (1977)

8. Your Kiss Is Sweet – Syreeta (1975) (UK#12)

9. Theme From “Mahogany” – Diana Ross (1975) (UK#5, US#1)

10. Easy – The Commodores (1977) (UK#9,US#4)

11. I’m A Sucker For Your Love – Teena Marie (1979) (UK#43)

An influential artist who was not as big as she should have been.  When I first heard Madonna I thought she was somebody who wanted to be another Teena Marie.  I’m sure there would not have been a Madonna without Teena Marie to pave the way.  This was her debut hit for the artist born Mary Brockert signed to Motown and recording material that was being left unreleased by them until Rick James, the label’s new hot act, passed on producing Diana Ross and asked to work with Teena instead.  This first single was actually a duet with an uncredited James which would have gained it radio play but the title was open to misinterpretation which might have caused some anxiety to radio programmers.  There was also the difficulty of how to market the artist, it was assumed she was black and she became the first white artist to perform on “Soul Train” showcasing this track.  In the late 70’s with the restrictions from American radio Teena probably suffered but she was largely embraced as a soul act getting more play from R&B radio because of her voice and obvious love of black music.  Her biggest hit in the UK would come a year later with “Behind The Groove” and she put out some excellent material for the label.  Ironically, her biggest US hit would have to wait until 1985’s “Lovergirl” made it into the Top 5 three years after becoming dismayed by the handling of her career by Motown which saw her move to the Epic label.  Incidentally, mentor Rick James’ best track, his debut hit “You And I” is also on this CD.

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12. Love Machine – The Miracles (1976) (UK#3, US#1)

Containing members of the first group to make serious money for Motown with 1960’s “Shop Around”, by 1976 lead singer Smokey had gone solo but by the time this album was released he was struggling to find material.  The track by him here the theme to some long forgotten film was an attempt to make himself relevant in the way Ross and Marvin Gaye had done, by embracing disco, it’s a fair enough result which the label had high hopes for but is the only track on this album not to have pop success on either side of the Atlantic.  His old band-mates The Miracles were having a completely different experience in the mid 70’s with this classic chart-topping track with Smokey’s replacement Billy Griffin as lead vocalist.   It’s a joyful piece of music which combines 70’s disco with a feel of the doowop type song The Miracles would have begun their career with.  It was a great comeback for the group, but unfortunately, the Motown of the 70’s would struggle with consistency and couldn’t come up with the goods for this group to continue this success.  No longer having the cream of song writing and production teams on staff to build on this great commercial sound this was the last time this incarnation of the group would make the charts.

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13. It Should Have Been Me – Yvonne Fair (1976) (UK#5)

The history of Motown is peppered with extremely talented artists that the label did not really know what to do with and Yvonne Fair is another of these.  She’d been around long enough on the label to have had a small part in the game-changing “Lady Sings The Blues” movie and had already proved her musical worth as part of the James Brown Revue before coming to Motown.  Working with Norman Whitfield they came up with the idea to reinvent a song that Whitfield together with Mickey Stevenson had penned for Gladys Knight & The Pips and as in a previous reinvention of a Gladys song “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” which was reworked for Marvin Gaye the end result was extraordinary.  It’s no easy feat to outdo Knight’s vocal but Yvonne turned this into a blistering soul shouter which begins menacingly quiet set in a church where Yvonne’s love is about to get married to somebody else.  Well, not if she has anything to do with it.  Knowing this song it’s impossible to attend a wedding ceremony and get to the bit where the celebrant begins “if any objection to this wedding” without Yvonne’s response coming to mind.  The UK loved this song giving her a Top 5 hit, extraordinary for a raw soul performance but it was seen as somewhat as a novelty which meant that Fair’s continued success was probably doomed. This was a tragedy because follow-up single was even better, there were few emotional tour-de-forces out there as “It’s Bad For Me To See You” which I think is an all-time Classic Motown track which did get radio play but didn’t make any inroads in the pop charts.  It took 34 years for Motown to put Yvonne’s only album “The Bitch Is Black” out on CD which showed someone as at home with raw funk as the deep soul which made her name.  Yvonne Fair was also another of the Motown artists who passed away too soon, of cancer at the age of 51 in 1994.

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14. You And I – Rick James (1978) (UK#46, US#13)

15. Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston (1977) (UK#13, US#1) (also on “Nights In Heaven“)

16. Sail On – The Commodores (1979) (UK#8,US#4)

This review is the final piece of the puzzle of my 100 Essential CDs which is now complete.  It’s taken almost five years to run through these which means my list is now already five years out of date.  Even though there’s been good music over the last five years these 100 CDs are so entrenched in my psyche that it might be hard for me to move one out of the list to put something else in so it’s going to stay exactly as it is.  I  hope you enjoy reading my CD selections and that it might have prompted you to rediscover some of the artists I have written about.  A quick word count suggests something in the region of 187,000 words have been written in this section so many thanks if you have read all, some or any of them.  I’m going to be leaving writing about music for a little while but no doubt a new thread will be back soon.  In the meantime if you have just stumbled across this review there are another 99 to go!

Happy New Year!

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 10- Lady Love: Sweet Love Grooves

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Lady Love: Sweet Love Grooves (Laserlight 1993)

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I bought this German import CD in a set of three not long after it was released.  It was freely available in the UK and also seems to have been available separately if my research is right.  This is by far the strongest of the three which features tracks licensed from the Philadelphia International label.  The other two were also named after Philly hits “Let Em In” which was a hit for Billy Paul and “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, a socially aware track by supergroup Philadelphia International All-Stars.  The other two tend to feature more uptempo tracks but here the emphasis is very much on the love ballad side of the label.  It features a mix of tracks from the glory days of the mid 70’s and a fair selection from the early 80’s when Philadelphia International were still putting out quality tracks by artists such as The Stylistics and Patti Labelle which were scoring big R&B hits but not crossing over to the pop charts.  The highest US chart placing for any of these is #24 for the title track and for the UK three places higher for a 1978 hit from the O’Jays.  None of the tracks managed both a UK and US Top 40 placing and there is no overlap from any of my other Essential  compilation CDs.  This does not in any way reflect the quality of these tracks many of which are Gamble and Huff compositions and productions.  Unfortunately, I’m not able to glean that much information from the sleevenotes as I don’t speak German but I think the info is all a little sparse anyway as might be expected on this kind of budget compilation. 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. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

1.Your Song- Billy Paul (1976) (UK#37)

2. Hurry Up This Way Again – Stylistics (1980)

3. I Just Love The Man – The Jones Girls (1983)

4. Turn Off The Lights – Teddy Pendergrass (1979)

5. The Sweetest Pain – Dexter Wansel (1979)

6. Love, Need And Want You – Patti Labelle (1983)

Three years before her big commercial breakthrough as a solo artist with  the essential  “The Winner In You” album Patti was signed to Philadelphia International and began working with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff which seemed like it would pay huge commercial dividends.  Taken from the album “I’m In Love Again” it was a Top 10 single on the US R&B charts but despite becoming a bit of a “quiet storm” 80’s classic it did not make the pop charts on either side of the Atlantic.  It’s Patti at her vocal best, perhaps more understated and tender than she could be and this together with the other track included here, the more successful R&B chart-topper “If Only You Knew” and a sublime cover of the Dolly Parton song “Here You Come Again” represents the cream of her three albums for the label.  This particular track became very well known in the mid 90’s when it formed the central part of the worldwide chart-topper from Nelly, “Dilemma”, in which Kelly Rowlands sang the chorus and Patti was present in the part of Kelly’s mum in the video which gave Patti welcome exposure and would have hopefully had interested listeners seeking out the original version.

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7. Brandy – The O’Jays (1978) (UK#21)

8. Let Me Be Good To You – Lou Rawls (1978)

9. I Love You Anyway – Dee Dee Sharp Gamble (1983)

Dee Dee Sharp who also has a fabulous real name Dione LaRue began her music career when she was barely in her teens and by the age of 17 had notched up a sequence of four Top 10 US pop hits on the legendary Cameo-Parkway label .  Her biggest was “Mashed Potato Time” which like a number of her hits focused on and attempted to build on a dance craze.  She fits nicely into that Little Eva bracket and by the time Beatlemania of 1964 took hold her pop singles career chart like many artists of this ilk was finished.  Fast forward a couple of decades and Dee Dee, now married to label boss Kenny Gamble had reinvented herself as a sophisticated and convincing soul singer.  Signed to the Philadelphia International label for three albums which took her into the 1980’s.  (In 2010 Demon put out all three albums on a double CD set which demonstrates how under-rated this performer was in this second phase of her career).  This track which comes from the third of these albums “Dee Dee” is just beautiful and about a million miles away from the pop froth of her dance craze days.  A calm, sophisticated love song written by husband Kenny alongside label mate Dexter Wansel  (who has a track on his own on this album) and  Dexter’s  favoured lyricist Cynthia Biggs and produced and arranged by Wansel and Huff this is a real 1980’s Philadelphia highlight.

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10. Toast Of Love – The Three Degrees (1976)(UK#36)

11. Don’t Let It Go To Your Head- Jean Carn (1976)

12. The Best Love I Ever Had – Jerry Butler (1980)

13. Lady Love – Lou Rawls (1978) (US#24)

Jazz crooner Lou Rawls had been recording from the mid 50’s replacing Sam Cooke in an early group the Highway QCs.  In 1958 he was pronounced dead after a horrific car crash when touring with Cooke, but amazingly eventually recovered and like Sam he made the move from gospel to popular music, providing backing vocals on a number of Cooke’s big hits and recording albums which straddled Jazz, Pop and R&B genres.  Vocally we might consider Rawls a crooner who built a reputation through the quality of his life performances and label-hopped recording wise until he hooked up with Philadelphia International when he was in his early 40’s and scored big time with his amalgamation of the classic singer meets disco on “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”  Perhaps the biggest test to his credibility and relevance as a recording artist came with this track which lyrically borders on the cheesy but it’s done with such conviction that Rawls certainly gets away with it.  He also didn’t stick with this route as his output included socially conscious tracks and uptempo recordings which sounded more contemporary but here he kicks off the shoes and snuggles into a smooth love ballad which I loved almost as much as his signature hit back when I was a teenager and which still wins me over all these years later.  It’s always been a guilty pleasure, in the days when we used to take our own singles to parties I would sneak this one out of the record box and leave it home  in favour of the latest and much cooler Blondie or Donna Summer track but at home this was a regular on the hi-fi.

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14. The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me – Teddy Pendergrass (1977) (UK#44) 

When Teddy Pendergrass began his solo career in 1977 many people did not know who he was thinking that the distinctive voice on many Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes soul classics was Harold himself.  Just a few seconds into this outstanding single taken from his debut album was enough to put things right.  A masterful, self-effacing track which brings out the best of Teddy vocally on a really good song written by Sherman Marshall and Ted Wortham.  I really like Teddy in this understated  put- upon role, his very best track is also in this vein, the pleading “Can’t We Try” which incidentally appears on one of the companion CDs to this collection “Let Em In”.  Teddy’s image, however,  became more cemented as full of bravado and swagger, a love god, lampooned by Lenny Henry is his Theophilus P. Wildebeest character, which came from the more seduction based part of his repertoire from songs such as “Turn Off The Lights” but I far prefer him portraying a less confident role and this is certainly the case with this track.

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15. If Only You Knew – Patti Labelle (1984) (US#46)

16. Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby – O’Jays (1977) (UK#24)

Not the biggest O’Jays track on the album, that would be the too schmaltzy for me “Brandy” which recalls the queasiness of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” too much for my liking but this despite lyrics such as “you should have everything/ a queen fit for the throne should have” is a great example of this group in their chugging mid-tempo mode.  A Gamble and Huff composition and production it is just a gentle love song.  O’ Jays tracks such as “I Love Music”, “Backstabbers”, “Message In Our Music” and “Love Train” made more of a statement but there was something about the tender honesty of this track which won us over particularly in the UK which made it their 4th out of 8 Top 40 hits.

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