Britannia – Sky Atlantic (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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So, how to describe “Britannia” the first episode of which appeared on Sky Atlantic this week?  It’s aimed towards the “Game Of Thrones” fans (which reminds me I still have the last series unwatched on my Sky Planner – for some reason I can’t get round to start watching it) and the box set binge viewers (Sky have taken the now increasingly more common tactic of releasing the whole series on catch-up to lure in the Netflix crowd).  This is no swords and sorcery epic however, being rooted in early British history (or at least with a slight nod towards it).

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It starts in 43AD with the Romans return to the British Isles after Julius Caesar’s previous attempt to conquer some ninety years before.  This time the Celtic residents are largely caught unawares.  The first Romans we see are four unfortunate individuals hanging by their arms who have decided Britannia was not for them and have made a run for it only to be interrogated by David Morrissey’s General Aulus Plautius.  One gives as his excuse for desertion “Britannia is a cursed land, ruled by the dead”. First pause for “not much has changed laughter”.  Over the intervening years legends have sprung up around giant squids and demons residing in the forests feasting on human flesh.  In reality it’s the challenging weather and the Celtic tribes that will be causing all the problems.  David Morrissey plays a good baddie, even if I did give up on “The Walking Dead” not long after he joined the cast.  The flesh eating zombies and dystopian nightmare of everyday survival was one thing but Morrissey’s “Governor” proved a little too much for this viewer.  Here he’s soon coming up with a plan where one deserter will cut the throats of the others in order to survive.

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Over on Britannia we’ve already met the drug-raddled The Outcast (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) running amok in a frenzy of portents and omens and have seen the preparations for a female initiation Solstice ceremony to womanhood in the Cantii Tribe, which is destined to go horribly wrong.  Right from the off we are seeing society portrayed with women as equals, strong fighting women, which makes this feel different from ancient history tales we’ve seen before and will satisfy Game Of Thrones fan used to strong women in Arya, Cersei, Daenerys and the excellent Brienne Of Tarth will see echoes in characters such as Kerra (Kelly Reilly) and young Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) whose entry into womanhood was so abruptly disrupted.

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Kelly Reilly as Kerra

Filmed largely in Prague and Wales, the scenery was often breath-taking which added much to this ninety-minute opener.  High production values are evident throughout. Violent and resplendently unapologetic in its bad language, the flesh-creeping aspects were upped by some particularly unappealing Druids of which Mackenzie Crook is largely unrecognisable as the leader, Veren.  I’m not sure where it’s all going but I’m going to be happy enough to go along with the ride over the next 8 episodes of series 1.

Britannia, SkyEleanor Worthington Cox with Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Britannia is created by notable playwright and screen play writer Jez Butterworth who has credits ranging from his first Royal Court Theatre award-winner “Mojo” to the latest in the James Bond Franchise “Spectre”.  He often writes with family members and here script and production honours are shared with brother Tom and James Richardson.  Someone’s been doing the research effectively.  In our household we took to Google after a scene involving a cat as we didn’t think they were in Britain at that time only to discover that Julius Caesar had introduced them to the country on his first trip over.  Viewers don’t always expect historical accuracy when there’ s action-packed over the top drama so it’s nice we’re getting a bit of both here.

The one thing it seems to be missing at this stage is a great piece of music to kick things off.  “Game Of Thrones” is blessed with a great opening score which really gets under your skin.  Here, for some reason we have Donovan’s trippy “Hurdy Gurdy Man” but with the Brits indulging in natural highs and the Smoke Spirit turning the solstice into an acid rave until disrupted by the brutal arrival of the Romans, perhaps it’s not such an inappropriate choice after all.

Britannia’s first episode has given Sky it’s best viewing figures for an original programme for three years.  The last time as many tuned in was for “Fortitude”, (I was one of those but I didn’t last too many episodes on that occasion).  Hopefully, here I will stay the course.  It seems that in this dark germ-ridden January we want to see Ancient Brits go the distance with Roman armies, a bit of magic and strong warrior women.  Bring it on!

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Britannia is shown on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Thursdays at 9.00.  In the US it has been purchased to be shown on Amazon.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 6– Dusty Springfield – The Silver Collection

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The Silver Collection – Dusty Springfield (Philips 1988)
UK Chart Position – 14

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Dusty Springfield was the best of the British 60’s singers and her lasting legacy on popular music cannot be over-emphasised. This single CD collection of 24 tracks was put out (originally on vinyl) in 1988 to celebrate Dusty’s 25th year as a solo artist. Its healthy chart position marked the first time she gained a Top 20 album in 22 years when another hits compilation had reached number 2. At the time of “The Silver Collection’s” release Dusty had received a boost in her career thanks to her association with the Pet Shop Boys and their “What Have I Done To Deserve This” which had been a number 2 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987. There was no new material on this compilation, the tracks chosen were her sixties hits and contains her only UK number 1, her twelve UK Top 20 and five US Top 20 hits from this decade. It is the perfect one disc introduction and her most essential release.

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Mary O’Brien began her music career as a Lana Sister, a late 50’s girl group which followed an established pattern of girls posing as or as real sisters performing light pop tunes in a style which picked up on the continuing popularity of the Andrews Sisters. These acts were perfect for variety shows and summer seasons and for the early days of television where was a demand for attractive girls, dressed in similar clothes, performing inoffensive ditties. Some, including The Beverley Sisters (real siblings) achieved a good level of success. The Lana Sisters, however, despite recording a few singles and appearing on stage with some of the top acts of light entertainment of the time were not so fortunate and Mary decided to move on to join her folk singer brother’s band The Springfields. Here was another fake family outing in a way, Mary became Dusty Springfield and her brother Dion, Tom Springfield. They were joined by Tim Feild who never adopted The Springfield moniker but did later become a spiritual leader and expert on Sufism, and father of actor JJ Feild (best known for playing a younger version of a character played by Michael Caine in “Last Orders” and for an excellent turn as 60’s pop singer Heinz in “Telstar” the bio-pic of producer Joe Meek). The trio became regular television guests and scored a couple of UK Top 5 hits in 1962/63. If you see clips of them performing it was really difficult to take your eyes of Dusty, so perhaps inevitable that she would decide to embark on a solo career.

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The Springfields: Tim, Dusty and Tom

There was one of those seismic movements in popular music when Dusty recorded her first single. Known primarily as a folk singer and probably by a younger audience as slightly old fashioned she exploded with a delightful slab of pop-soul inspired by both Motown and Phil Spector and became instantly Britain’s coolest solo singer with an instantly recognisable image. “I Only Want To Be With You” entered the charts in November 1963. Throughout that year a four piece band from Liverpool had been rewriting British pop and Dusty wanted to be part of it in a song which seemed to perfectly straddle the new and old eras. Producer Johnny Franz had that big orchestral feel given a “wall of sound” in a rock and roll number which combined with Dusty’s smokey tones felt different.

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Reputedly there had been a number of recordings made in a hunt for the song which would really establish Dusty as a singer. These were not released as Franz held back for the perfect match and he found it in this. His patience was rewarded. It became a number 4 hit in the UK and Dusty found herself in the wave of British artists who were making it big in the US with this, her very first release which reached number 12 in the Billboard charts and also made the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland. The song has lasting appeal and also established the chart career of another great British talent, Annie Lennox, when as lead singer of The Tourists it reached the same position Dusty posted in 1979, which weirdly was also the position it reached three years earlier in a paler version by The Bay City Rollers. Samantha Fox broke the pattern when she took it to number 16 in 1989 (the Rollers also uncannily peaked at the same chart position as Dusty in the US#12, with Sam Fox getting to #31).

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Dusty’s follow-up single “Stay Awhile” was almost as good. It had a similar feel but ramped up the Phil Spector vibe to the point where it almost sounds like a Ronettes track. Sales were not as buoyant as it reached #13 in the UK and #38 in the US but her hit status on both sides of the Atlantic were confirmed. What comes next on the CD is perhaps her greatest single and the track which marked her out as a real soul singer and one able to drive up the dramatic potential of a song to the max. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” had already been recorded by Soul men Jerry Butler and Tommy Hunt both men with great voices but giving the female viewpoint on this Bacharach/David song worked magnificently. Dusty apparently was given the song to record by Burt Bacharach when they met in New York. From its gentle horn start it seems like a great soul number and then builds with the Johnny Franz production. Dusty’s voice beautifully sums up the ennui at the end of the relationship. The vocal and the whole feel of the song set the template for the rest of Springfield’s career. It became her biggest UK hit to that point reaching number 3.

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In the US they went for the next track another Bacharach and David composition “Wishin’ And Hopin” which had been previously recorded by Dionne Warwick which was turned into a UK #13 hit by The Merseybeats. This track gave Dusty her biggest US hit to date reaching number 6. It was also her biggest hit to this point in Australia where it got to number 2. Another Bacharach and David song “The Look Of Love” which became a standard was given to Dusty to record the first vocal version and also gained an Oscar nomination in 1968 when it was used in the soundtrack of the first version of “Casino Royale”.

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From 1964 we get the great swinging ballad “Losing You” which was a UK number 9 and which also benefits from an exemplary vocal. “Give Me Time” is a sultry number and was an example of Dusty’s management hunting out songs that had been European hits, being an English language version of L’Amore Se Ne Va” an Italian hit single. Released in 1967 it became a number 24 hit but didn’t quite pay the dividends raiding the Italian songbook had done the previous year. “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” began life as “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” by Pino Donaggio, an Italian chart-topper which was entered in a European Song Festival (not the Eurovision) which took place at San Remo and at which Dusty was also entered. She loved the song and the English language lyrics were written by two prominent music managers of the time Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell. Dusty was determined to get the emotional power of this huge ballad right. Always a perfectionist this one apparently took 47 takes and was recorded with her standing on the stairs outside the studio. Frustration with her performance was a common bugbear. Neil Tennant has spoken how when he worked with her she would record her vocals in very small sections and that he had never encountered anyone who worked in this way before. The repeated takes were worth it as this song became Dusty’s biggest hit, a UK number one and number 4 in the US. The song is a standard recorded by many artists over the year but few could give it the conviction of Dusty.

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I love Dusty when she metaphorically lets that famous beehive down and relaxes into uptempo numbers. “In The Middle Of Nowhere” (UK#8 1965) and “Little By Little” (UK#17 1966) are great examples of peak-era Springfield. Both songs were written by Buddy Kea and Bea Verdi. Kaye was a veteran song-writer who had written songs such as “A (You’re Adorable)” and hits for Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and “Speedy Gonzales” for Pat Boone. These tracks for Dusty show that he was still going strong in the mid 60’s.

Dusty was a great song stylist and her version of a song often challenged the original. I prefer Bacharach and David’s “24 Hours From Tulsa” from Gene Pitney’s more histrionic guilt-ridden male standpoint but her version of Belgian Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” is the best version of this song I have heard. Her version of “How Can I Be Sure?” is magnificent. Also on this CD Dusty doesn’t really challenge the hit versions of Dionne Warwick/Cilla Black’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart” nor Barbara Acklin/Swing Out Sister’s “Am I The Same Girl”.

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In 1968 Dusty released my second favourite track of hers. “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten” has the drama of the big ballads combined with a neo-classical feel through great piano work and is just an excellent song. Written by Clive Westlake who had previously given Dusty two hit songs in “Losing You” (written with her brother Tom) and “All I See Is You”. Both had reached number 9 in the UK with “All I See Is You” getting to number 20 in the US in 1966. Amazingly, “I Close My Eyes” did not chart in the US. It was caught up in Dusty’s changing of labels from Phillips to Atlantic and probably was not promoted with the gusto of her earlier hits.

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By 1969 Dusty’s soul credentials were renowned. She had been instrumental in promoting the Motown label four years earlier in the UK putting together a now legendary episode of TV show “Ready Steady Go” which had her introducing Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Miracles and Martha & The Vandellas in one extraordinary episode demonstrating Dusty’s love for black American music and beginning a life-long friendship with Martha Reeves. Sometimes this role is a little overstated, the Motown stars were well-known over here with The Supremes having scored a UK number 1 with “Baby Love” and the other acts (with the exception of Stevie at this point) notching up their own hits. She didn’t actually introduce Motown to the Brits but ensured we saw some of its biggest stars on our black and white TV sets on a Friday tea-time. By the late 60’s Aretha Franklin’s star was in the ascendancy and the sounds of American Southern Soul were making inroads in the charts and Atlantic and Stax records were moving music on from the pop/soul of Motown. Dusty wanted a part of this and went to Memphis to record her 5th studio album with heavyweight soul producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd and backed by Aretha’s backing singers The Sweet Inspirations which included Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum as a member.

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“Dusty In Memphis” was critically acclaimed and saw Dusty heralded as new blue-eyed soul royalty. It is an album which regularly features in lists of the greatest album ever made. It was a very strong studio album but I think I would give her debut “A Girl Called Dusty” the slight edge. “Memphis” just misses out on being an essential album for me because I find it a little intense, the song choices are not all great and I think Memphis took out some of the verve of the British recordings which I loved. Perhaps buyers at the time agreed with me as it never charted in the UK and barely scraped the charts in the US. Perhaps some saw it as Dusty deserting her homeland or the whole concept might have been too cool for the mainstream. It is an important album and really from this you can track influences along to many female singers of today, especially Adele. From this album you get two stand-out tracks Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile” and another of Dusty’s signature songs and the big hit single “Son Of A Preacher Man”.

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“Preacher Man” was originally intended for Aretha Franklin, but neither her nor her management were initially sure about the song. Once Aretha heard Dusty’s version she was convinced and she covered it on her 1970 album “This Girl’s In Love With You”. There’s no doubt about it this is a real soul song and reached number 9 in the UK and 10 in the US.

For her next album Dusty relocated to Philadephia to record. “A Brand New Me” was an early example of the sweet soul sound which emanated largely from the city over the next few years and here she was working with the masters, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who would go on to have major success with their Philadelphia International Label. The title track written with their leading songwriter Thom Bell sounds like a perfect match between all these talents but was not a hit. The album was titled “From Dusty With Love” in the UK and was a small hit, performing better in the charts than “Dusty In Memphis” had done.

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Also on this CD you get the extended metaphor of a lost love in “My Colouring Book” a Kander and Ebb song which Dusty performs sublimely and the wistful “Goin’ Back” a Jerry Goffin and Carole King song.

Throughout the 70’s Dusty spent more time in the US, preferring the anonymity a large country could offer. She felt hounded by the press in the UK as they seemed obsessed  with her sexuality which she struggled herself to come to terms with. Her recording career became more erratic. For a while she became fascinated by women’s tennis and followed the ATP tour around the US. There were often short-lived comebacks but it was not until the Pet Shop Boys worked with her that her commercial credentials were re-established. Following the release of this album Dusty celebrated a run of hits of great singles “Nothing Has Been Proved”, “In Private” and “Reputation”. She died of breast cancer in 1999.

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The influence of Dusty Springfield lives on and she has certainly influenced my music choices for the whole of my lifetime. From her groundbreaking performances and career you can see the evidence of other of my Essential CD choices with Madeline Bell, Duffy, Martha Reeves, The Carpenters, The Exciters and Gloria Estefan springing immediately to mind. Her “Silver Collection” is chock-full of gems and is always my starting point when I want a blast of Britain’s best female star. I know I’ve written a long review here but I find it impossible to pass any of these great tracks by without some comment.

The Silver Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $10.00 and used for $1.02.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

Past Caring – Robert Goddard (1986) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is the 5th novel by British author Robert Goddard I’ve read over the years.  He now has some thirty works to his name yet this was his debut first published in 1986.  So far the two of his novels I have enjoyed the most have been “Set In Stone” (1999) and “Play To The End” (2004) yet admittedly I haven’t really been completely bowled over by what I have read.

 The title does seem to be asking for trouble her and in what is quite some intense plotting there were times when I felt I myself was approaching the “past caring” stage but there was always just a little twist to get my interest back when I could feel it fading.

 Martin Radford, unemployed historian, is invited to Madeira where a job opportunity arises.  A wealthy South African has found a journal left by the previous owner of his villa, an ex-Cabinet minister who shone in the Asquith administration but who resigned suddenly and ended up in self-exile in Madeira.  Radford is asked to research and comes across regret, secrets, political feuds, Suffragettes and a closer family connection than he had anticipated.  We get to read the memoir in full and the mystery of Edwin Stafford’s departure from the political scene drives Radford to ever desperate measures.

 It brings the historian into contact with three generations of the Couchman family.  I did at times struggle to distinguish between them which might suggest that Goddard hadn’t quite fully realised his skills with characterisation at this stage of his writing career.  There’s also a love interest for Radford which never rings true (but that could very well be intentional).

 I was drawn into the plot and really enjoyed the memoir aspect of it.  I like the way Goddard locks events into history in his novels and the focus on unravelling these mysteries.  As such, the older characters seemed to resonate with me more than the modern.  (The “present” in this novel being the mid 1970s).

 All in all I would put this on a par with the stronger Goddard novels I have read (so better than Days Without Number” (2003) and “Name To A Face” (2007).  He is an author who explores themes which draw me in but sometimes there is a density of plotting and issues with pace which prevent a whole-hearted recommendation.  I am convinced, however, that there will be some real gems in the twenty-five or so works of his that I still am to encounter.

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I read a Corgi paperback reprint of “Past Caring”, a novel which was first published in 1986.

 

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year- Part 2 (The Top 5)

I’m continuing my count-down of the best books I read in 2017.

5. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (Sceptre 2016) (Read and reviewed in April)

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It’s been a good year for writers called Chris, as there are two of them in my Top 10. This British novelist’s fourth novel spanned the years 1939-1942 and centred on war-torn London and Malta, gripped by a blockade which threatens starvation for civilians and soldiers. I said “this is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 10,968 in Books (has been much higher!)

4. The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018) (Read and reviewed in November)

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Feel like I’m cheating a bit here as this hasn’t even been published yet (according to latest info the hardback is due on 1st Feb.) I was really drawn into the world of this debut novel set in Victorian London.  I said “I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.” Still expecting this to achieve very healthy sales in 2018.

Current Amazon sales rating: 68,464 in Books (based on pre-orders).

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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I read this when it appeared on the Man Booker longlist and felt it had to be in with a great chance of scooping the Prize.  In the US it had taken both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Here, it shockingly failed to make the shortlist, probably overshadowed by British author Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” which touched on similar themes.  It was the best American novel I read this year.  I  felt “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 81 in Books (this has been a big seller)

2. Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016) (Read and reviewed in February)

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Pipped at the post by the very last book I read in 2017 this came very close to being the first British novel to be my book of the year since 2012 (also incidentally the last time a female author was at the top).  The fact that this is a debut novel makes it all the more outstanding.  I first heard of this when it was shortlisted by Nudge and newbooks for the BookHugger book of the year.  It went on to win beating a set of books from a very good list which also included my year end Top 10ers by Jodi Picoult and Helen Dunmore.  Dull February days were enlivened by this heartwarming novel.  An unsentimental, humorous tale of a Morecambe guest house which is being used as a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Great central character, Maeve who is pushing 80 and has to come to terms with regrets in her past.  It wasn’t a typical read for me but it works so well on so many levels.

Current Amazon sales rating: 328, 095 in Books

And the reviewsrevues Book of The Year is………….

1.The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017) (Read and Reviewed in December)

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It just had to be this book.  It is Irish author John Boyne’s 10th adult novel (and there are 5 for younger readers). I haven’t read him before but I was blown away by the whole thing right from the first few pages.  I wrote a lengthy review (click on the title to read it) just to justify why it impressed me so much.  “I said It may very well be my favourite books of this decade.” I think this is a book which has a reputation which will grow and grow. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by is the front cover of the paperback edition, but that’s probably nothing to do with the author.

Current Amazon sales rating: 743 in Books

John Boyne joins a select bunch of authors.  Here are my favourites from the last ten years, which probably tells you a considerable amount about me as a reader.

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 2018!

 

 

 

 

100 Essential Books – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017)

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2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last.  The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog.  It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.

I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it.  Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages.  This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.

The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before.  I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but  I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation.  My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall.  “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated.  I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t.  It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author.  So why has this worked so well for me?  Why is there such a match?

It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it.  As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors.  In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including  Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton.  I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.

Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland.  Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites.  This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.

I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling.  I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently.  Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.

I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day.  There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on.  The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section.  This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels.  Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better.  At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.

Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival.  Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life.  I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure.  I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy.  I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more.  Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.

Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much.  Just get over it!  It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for.  If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017.  Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.

 

Police At The Funeral – Margery Allingham (1931) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Margery Allingham is the first of the novelists celebrated in Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2107).  I have never read her before but I know that she is an acclaimed golden age of crime doyenne but is arguably less known (and according to Fowler less read) than her contemporaries Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf from some time.  I’d bought it from a charity shop because hers is a name often mentioned in “Best Crime Writers” lists and apparently once discovered she inspires devotion in her readers.  I was also very attracted by the lovely green Penguin cover in this reprint of a Classic Crimes edition.

“Police At The Funeral” was Allingham’s fifth novel, which in itself is an unusual starting point for such a chronological reader as myself and by this time her sleuth Albert Campion is well established.  He operates more as a private eye/police consultant, although in common with many of the early crime writers, not in any real official capacity.  It seems that he is working under a pseudonym as some of the characters know of him under a different name and also know members of his family, suggesting a well-heeled background.  Allingham is not particularly kind to Campion, he is regularly described in terms such as “vacuous”, “bland” and “vague”, so we get the impression he’s certainly no James Bond.  Maybe it is that blandness that allows him to work his way into crime scenes, as he certainly does in this novel.

After a kind of coincidental prelude where we meet some of the main characters Campion is drawn into a case where an intense family dominated by a fearsome matriarch lose one of their members when a disappearance turns into a murder investigation when a bound body is discovered in a river.  As other members of the family begin to make quick exits Campion helps the police.

 It starts very well, drifts a little in the middle and reaches a satisfactory conclusion.  I did think Allingham had dug a hole too deep to get out of without a very contrived ending but she manages to extricate things nicely.  There’s a bit more verve than the typical Christie novel, but it does not seem to be as meticulously plotted, based on this novel alone.  It has made me want to go back to her first book “The White Cottage Mystery” to find out more about his gentle mild-mannered yet perceptive  detective.

 Margery Allingham, who died in 1966, did receive a surge in sales of her books in 1989-90 when the BBC series starring Peter Davison was shown but according to Christopher Fowler since then she has been under-appreciated.  Although this particular novel  hasn’t turned me into a devotee I would suggest she is certainly worth seeking out.

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 Police At The Funeral was first published by Heinemann in 1931.  I read a Penguin Classic Crime paperback edition.

Hell Bay- Kate Rhodes (Simon & Schuster 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I’ve not read any Kate Rhodes before but do know that she is both a celebrated poet and that her five crime novels featuring psychologist Alice Quentin are highly thought of and I get good feedback about her from readers returning library books.

With “Hell Bay” Rhodes is launching a new series featuring Detective Inspector Benesek Kitto and will be setting them in the Scilly Isles.  The exact location of “Hell Bay” is Bryher, an island just to the west of the better known Tresco.  Bryher is actually the smallest inhabited island with, we are told, 98 permanent residents and measures 1.5 miles with a width of half a mile at its widest point.  As someone who lives on a bigger island I know exactly what that means in terms of people knowing everything that is going on and Rhodes is able to put this across brilliantly.  I’m not sure how far she is intending to go with this series- the second novel is scheduled for 2019 but plausibly Bryher and the whole of the Scilly Isles are not going to have much mileage as a hot-bed of crime.  In this novel alone Kate Rhodes has reduced the number of residents!

Ben Kitto was born and grew up on Bryher and returns as a retreat from difficult situations in London, which has caused him to question his future in the police force. His parents are both dead but family remains with his boat-building Uncle and his godmother who runs the pub.  He knows virtually everyone on the island from his formative years there.  In fact, the one person he doesn’t know draws him like a magnet.

A time of retreat and reflection with his inherited Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, Shadow, (a good canine character) is shattered by the suspicious death of a teenage girl.  As Kitto is on the island already he is given the green light to investigate.

The size of the island ensures an intensity of emotions and the decision to stop people leaving without permission whilst the investigation is ongoing turns this who-dunnit into a variation of the classic country-house mystery set-up, substituting the small isolated island for the large isolated house.  This works extremely well, it is always engrossing and builds nicely.  I didn’t work out who the killer was (I actually rarely do) so that’s also satisfying.  I really enjoyed reading this and it has confirmed  what I already suspected that Kate Rhodes is a highly promising crime writer whose back catalogue I really need to discover.

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Hell Bay is published by Simon & Schuster in the UK in May 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 31 – Phil Spector/Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You

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A Christmas Gift For You (Phil Spector Records 2002)

UK Chart Position – 19 (in 1983)

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Now, I know this is going to be a controversial choice.  I am in no way condoning the actions of Phil Spector that currently finds him a convicted killer in the American prison system.  The man is undeniably a disturbed individual whose drive for perfection has pushed him over the edge to paranoia and madness.  He is the mastermind behind this recording but to ignore what is undoubtedly the best Christmas album of all time and the role of the artists who take part in this recording also doesn’t feel right.

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In the UK these songs can be heard on the radio at Xmas time and appear on many compilations.  It’s not like convicted paedophile Gary Glitter who was at one time another voice of Christmas who is never played publicly.  There’s also precedence here in someone who was known as the British Phil Spector, Joe Meek, who shot his landlady  and then himself in a murder-suicide in 1967.  This also horrific act has not prevented play of his biggest hit “Telstar” by the Tornados (once oddly cited as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop song!).  The writing was on the wall early on for Spector, a man who is often described as a meglomaniac, who as a young artist and songwriter macabrely used his father’s graveyard epitaph “To Know Him Is To Love Him” as the inspiration for his first number one hit for his group The Teddy Bears and virtually imprisoned wife Ronnie which she recounted in her chilling autobiography “Be My Baby” (1990) and was rumoured to bring guns to the recording studio.  There was a horrific car accident in the mid 70’s and years of recluse before the fateful shooting in 2003 and subsequent incarceration for murder in the second degree.

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But, I’ve decided to put the history of Spector behind me in this celebration of a joyful Christmas album, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.  Just as the John Lewis or Coca-Cola ads signify the start of Christmas nowadays in Christmas pasts for me the festive season never really got going until I heard The Ronettes sing “Frosty The Snowman” on the radio (although Christmas started much later when I was young!) 

This album was originally released in 1963.  This is the digitally remastered CD which appeared on Phil Spector records in 2002.  It has been released countless times over the years. At one time it was re-released on the Beatles’ Apple Records.  It has appeared regularly in Billboard’s Christmas Music chart listings and its UK chart peak was 19 in 1983 when it was teamed up with a greatest hits album.  I would have played this many times over that festive period.  It has appeared on Rolling Stone magazines list of the greatest album of all time, appears in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and is apparently the all-time favourite album of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose layered vocal harmonies of their hits is a direct nod towards Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”.  It hasn’t sounded quite the same since Spector’s incarceration but a Christmas has never gone by without me listening to it. The All Music Guide To Soul publication rates it five stars and describes it as “This is the Christmas album by which all later holiday releases had to be judged, and it has inspired a host of imitators.”

philspector4Darlene Love

It is part of my own little Yuletide tradition that every December 24th I have to hear Darlene Love perform her version of “White Christmas” which opens this CD. The reason for this is that little spoken bit when she says – “It’s December 24th”, I like to say “it is” before she carries on with “I’m longing to go up north.”.  Opening with that fabulous echoey sound and taken at a faster pace than Bing’s version.  This is the LA version of “White Christmas” as the sunny weather is making Darlene nostalgic for a bit of snow.  This is my favourite version of the song, I’ve always found Bing’s version to be a bit depressing but this is full of anticipation, snow and, amazingly, sunshine.  It’s not all about the production here as Darlene’s vocal performances on all her tracks are a treat.

philspector5The Ronettes out looking for Frosty The Snowman

Next up is that Christmas song I have always looked out for from a child, the tale of “Frosty The Snowman” by the Ronettes.  Great use of pizzicato strings gives the feeling of ice, the great split second pause after Ronnie Spector sings “Stop!” and those delightfully naïve lyrics makes this a gem of a Christmas tune.  “The Bells Of St. Mary’s”, a less familiar song which dates from 1917 has lyrics which I really don’t know what’s going on but I know that lyrically it has no connection with Christmas.  That apparently came when it was linked with a festive scene in the Bing Crosby film of the same name and with Bings’ close connection with Hollywood Christmases, this song found itself being associated with the season despite lyrics such as the bells calling “the young loves/the true loves/who come from the sea”. It always makes me think of mermaids and the falling red leaves puts it very much in the autumn time zone.  Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans are given a massive production here and at times it’s a bit of a battle but the lead singer Bobby Sheen, with Darlene Love and Fanita James on back-up just about avoids being swamped.

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The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” begins with a spoken intro about Santa’s workshop and kicks off a storming version which has inspired most other versions since then, especially the arguably more famous version by Bruce Springsteen. There’s a  greathonking sax solo.  The lasting influence of this album is also evidenced in the next track The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” which opens with woodblocks and a neighing horse into a “Ring-a-ring- a- ring -dong-ding” backing vocals.  This song is a certain inspiration for what must know be the biggest Xmas song of all time, Mariah Carey’s pension-fund “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.  23 years on from it’s original release Mariah’s song is currently sitting at number 5 in the UK Top 40 charts where it makes an appearance every year, as it races up charts all around the world.  It has actually never topped the UK Christmas charts and has never made the Top 10 in her homeland but this is now the most recognisable Yultetide song, eclipsing the Slades and Wizzards of my youth.  The Ronettes who provide this track with its inspiration do a glorious version of this song written by Leroy Anderson who was also responsible for the lovely instrumental track “The Typewriter”. It has the real feel of the warmth returning to all your regions after some time out in the snow!

philspector7The Ronettes had a fabulous, fierce image

There’s some neo-classical string work to open up another one of the gems of the album the relentless “It’s A Marshmallow World” by Darlene Love.  This song was once again originally a hit for Bing Crosby but I cannot imagine his version has anywhere near the gusto that Darlene puts into it.  An absolute treat of a track. 

There’s footsteps and a smacker of a kiss to introduce the return of The Ronettes for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.  Here’s another song which has inspired other versions including the Jackson Five where Michael is unusually irritating as the tell-tale who’s going to tell Daddy what he’s seen Mommy doing!   The Crystals’ version of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is reminiscent of “Frosty The Snowman” but not quite as good.  Darlene Love is back as the voice of Christmas with “Winter Wonderland” and it is hard not to sing along she frolics and plays “ the eskimo way”. 

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The Crystals

My favourite of the Crystals tracks on display is “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers”.  This song was originally a march for the piano written at the end of the nineteenth century with its English lyrics dating from the early 1920’s.  I love this tale of a toy shop coming alive and amongst wood blocks and chimes the girls put in a great vocal performance.  There’s a fabulous sense of kitsch to the whole thing.  I love it and it is another of the joys of Christmas.

The one original song written for this album has become a Christmas standard.  Spector alongside Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich gave “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” to Darlene although it was originally written for Ronnie Spector. It’s a big song which requires big emotions and is probably better suited for Darlene’s voice.  In 2010 this was named Rolling Stone magazine’s best Rock N Roll Christmas song and there is no doubt the sense of yearning Darlene puts across in her vocals has made this of lasting importance. It builds to a thundering climax and is a great example of that Wall of Sound in action.  Other notable versions of the song have been recorded by Michael Buble, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis and it’s often featured in Christmas movies.

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Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans are back for a song written and made famous by Hollywood’s Singing Cowboy, Gene Autrey and “Here Comes Santa Claus” which has some great trumpet work amongst the wood blocks, chimes and bells.  The whole thing is rounded up by Phil Spector himself who hovers between the pretentious and creepy with his spoken voice-over of “Silent Night” as he explains his reasoning behind the album.  There’s something always morbidly fascinating about this track and when he finishes his bit it does have a real surge of angelic voices.  As this has been playing as I write this my partner has come in to the room to sit and listen and say “Why do I have to stop to listen to this every year and why do my eyes fill with tears when Spector thanks Darlene Love”?.  I’m not sure either but I know what he means. 

Phil Spector believed that he was making an album which would be revolutionary in the music industry and that it was something nobody had done before, doing something special for the music of Christmas.  Fifty-four years on suggests that this was successful.  Away from the holiday season Spector produced so many amazing records, my favourite of which being “He’s A Rebel” for the Crystals but also all-time classics for The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, The Ramones and The Beatles both as a group and on solo projects.  If only the rest of his personal life had brought as much joy.

There are many versions of Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on YouTube as it was an annual event on the David Letterman Show and latterly on “The View” which I think is the US Version of “Loose Women”.  Here Darlene is joined by R&B star Fantasia.

 

A Christmas Gift For You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72.  It can be downloaded for £4.99 . In the US it is available  from $3.26 and $5.99 as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify,

Stronger (2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Special

 

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The good folks over at Nudge-book.com in conjunction with publicists Thinkjam contacted me regarding a book to film adaptation.  Due to unforeseen circumstances the book has not yet arrived but I have had the opportunity, thanks to Liongate to view the film which opens this week.

Stronger is the real-life story of Jeff Bauman who, in an attempt to win over his ex-girlfriend decided to stand at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 with a congratulatory poster praising her achievement.  This meant he was at the wrong place at the wrong time as a terrorist bomb explosion shattered his life and led to a double above-knee amputation.  “Stronger” is the tale of Jeff’s attempts to fight back and get his life back on track.

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To be honest, this is not the sort of film I would normally seek out.  It makes for tough viewing and there is little in the way of light relief but it is undeniably very well done.  The film is directed by David Gordon Green, a screenwriter and producer, who has worked in different film genres and also in television since his critically acclaimed 2000 debut “George Washington” (not about the President) which he wrote, directed and produced.  It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman and Miranda Richardson as his mother, Patti.  Both performances deserve to be given consideration at Oscar nomination time.

We first meet Jeff in the middle of a losing streak.  His relationship with Erin has ended, he is botching things up in his job as a chicken roaster for Cost Co, he’s living with his mother who has a drink problem and socialises with a group of boorish macho sports fans.  His relationship has ended because “he never shows up”, the irony being when he does show up to cheer Erin on he gets blown up. 

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I do think that this is a film which will resonate more with an American audience.  There’s an entrenched Americanness which is inescapable.  It’s rooted in American working- class culture, depicting Jeff as an ordinary guy, which here comes across via sport, beer and macho male banter.  I did initially feel quite distanced.  There’s also the American sense of “Gung-ho” and flag-waving patriotism which we British viewers find a little strange.  In many ways the film does challenge this.  In a very unsettling scene Jeff has become a beacon of hope for the Boston community and the embodiment of the “Boston Stronger” campaign.  He is asked to come on to the rink with a flag at an ice-hockey game far too early in his rehabilitation and is unable to accept the title of “hero” which is bestowed upon him.  His family find this difficult to comprehend leading to a showdown with his mother when she invites Oprah Winfrey to interview him.

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The whole thing is extremely sobering and powerfully brings home the long- lasting repercussions for Jeff and those around him.  A couple want their photo taken with him because they seem him as an example of “don’t let the terrorists win”.  Jeff’s response is that the terrorists have won- they have taken his legs from him.  It’s not possible to watch without sensing that taste of bitterness in the mouth.  A scene of reckless behaviour whilst drunk and high and the official response to it would have seemed too much if it was not obviously rooted in truth.  None of this makes for easy viewing.

We can tell from the title and the existence of an autobiography that at some point Jeff has to begin to put his life back together, but it does seem a long time coming.  A long-delayed meeting with the man who saved his life begins that process and we are left, inevitably and thankfully, with a feeling of hope for this extraordinary survivor.

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Jake Gylennhaal is a fair chunk older than Bauman who was 28 at the time of the bombing but he gives the part the right sense of experience and gravitas to make the painful scenes plausible yet watchable as it is hard to keep your eyes off him.  Moments where I felt an urge to close my eyes (there’s removal of bandages) I found myself fixed on Gylennhaal’s reactions.  Tatiana Maslay as Erin is so often the voice of reason and Miranda Richardson as his mother plays a significant part in the success of the film.

DSCF7354_RJake Gylenhaal with Jeff Bauman

It’s not an easy film to watch and would certainly not be first choice for a festive night out but one man’s determination to succeed should entice audiences.  I did emerge from it feeling like I had been pulled through the wringer but Jeff Bauman’s fight-back deserves to be told and this production has done his real-life story justice.

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Stronger is released in cinemas nationwide in the UK on December 8th.  View the trailer here. Many thanks to Nudge for the opportunity to do this.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous – Dawn French (2010)

dawnfrench1Now, before I start, I consider Dawn French to be a National Treasure.  She has kept me laughing for more years than I care to remember. I’ve watched every episode of “French & Saunders”, and some many times over and there is no doubt that their peak as a comedy partnership came quite a few years ago.  There has been a tendency from both Dawn and Jennifer to try too hard to get us to laugh and not all the projects that they have worked on, both separately and together have always been successful as far as I am concerned.  For Dawn, there can be both a darkness and a lack of subtlety which can creep in to the detriment of her work.

This was her first novel published in 2010 and which has just been sat on my shelves for the last few years waiting to be read.  I found her 2008 memoir “Dear Fatty” to be impressively written but her chosen style felt slightly alienating for this reader.  It was really a selection of letters aimed for those she cared about, reminiscing along the way.  I thought this device held the reader away at some distance, her offerings of wise words and advice felt like I was reading something I had no real business to read.  There were jokey letters to the likes of Madonna and David Cassidy which felt they were there just for a laugh and didn’t work well, but central to the piece were two recipients, Jennifer Saunders (the “Fatty” of the title) and, very powerfully, Dawn’s father who committed suicide when she was in her late teens.  Reading these letters in particular showed a writer who can work with emotions and humour which boded well for her as a novelist.

The buzz she got from writing this inspired her to have a go at fiction and this book is the result.  Structurally, she’s gone along similar lines to the letters by using the journals of members of a family to tell her tale. 

Let’s just say she didn’t win me over immediately.  Dora is approaching eighteen in a fug of rage against her mother, Mo, a child psychologist who is struggling with her own teenagers, also including Peter who has adopted a fey Oscar Wilde young dandy persona.  It is largely these three who provide their accounts of the weeks leading to Dora’s 18th and Mo’s 50th birthdays.

To start with the vitriol in this family took me aback and I found it quite difficult to read.  In my job at the library I’m aware of a number of people who have borrowed this book with great anticipation and returned it with the feedback that they gave up on it quite early on.  I’m made of sterner stuff and persevered even when the characters were at their most unlikeable. I found myself waiting for laugh out loud moments which were just not coming.  In fact, once I began to appreciate that I wasn’t going to do this I found myself getting more into the plot and finding that this is all rather effectively done.  There’s actually a great deal of control being operated in what I found initially unsubtle and as the tale develops the characters did begin to win me over.  So much so that I felt a little bereft of their company when I finished the book.  Dawn has even included the cake recipes cooked for the family members by grandma, Pamela, who is the voice of reason throughout the turmoils of family life.  We all know that most problems can be alleviated somewhat by cake and here is the author illustrating this very nicely.

Once again, as with “Dear Fatty”, this was not totally what I was expecting and it took a while to draw me in but I found this a strong fictional debut which deserved the healthy sales it attracted.

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A Tiny Bit Marvellous was published in the UK in 2010 by Michael Joseph.